Since moving to Japan in April 2011, I’ve gotten tons of questions from family, friends, and even strangers about how I managed to get a job here. To many it seems like the process of moving to Japan would be tough, long, and even a bit scary. Although giving up your life in your home country and traveling across the ocean to begin a new one can seem a bit intimidating, it’s not as big of a leap as many think. Moving to Japan was always a dream of mine since studying at university, and I used to think that the people that lived here were very lucky. Now I get messages from people that think I’m the lucky one, but it’s not like that at all! Anyone that really wants to move to Japan can do it, and I’ll show you how without any luck involved!
Do You Need to Speak Japanese?
Probably the most common question people first ask is whether or not you have to be able to speak Japanese to find a job in Japan. The short answer to that question is: no, you don’t, but it’ll make life a lot easier. Here is what I mean by that. For the seven years that I’ve been here, I’ve been working as an English teacher at various places. When I first began it was for the public school system where I taught at one junior high school, and two elementary schools. At each one of the schools there was a teacher assigned to helping me prepare for the lessons that day. Usually these teachers could speak some English, but their skill levels varied greatly. Most will know enough to tell you what your schedule will be like for the day, where the classrooms are located, and where you’ll be eating your lunch. You’re expected to speak in English during all of your lessons, and use as many gestures and materials as you can to help the students understand.
You could get by at work as an English teacher without knowing any Japanese at all, but learning even just a bit would make your life significantly easier. Most of your time will probably be spent with elementary students, and they LOVE to fire off questions. I can’t count how many times I was asked:
- “What’s your favorite color?”
- “How old are you?”
- “When’s your birthday?”
- “Are you married?”
- “Where do you live?”
- “Do you like natto?”
- “What’s your bra size??” (Yes, this does get asked!)
Along with a plethora of other questions. Most of the teachers I’ve come across that don’t speak Japanese just end up smiling and nodding. Imagine if you did so when a student asked an inappropriate question!
Learning a bit of Japanese will also enrich your social life outside of work, because you’ll find that most of the locals don’t remember any of the English they learned during their school days, or they’re too shy to use it and lack confidence. I highly recommend the Genki Textbook Series for self-study to give you the basics on day-to-day Japanese. It’s what I used when I was a student, and it helped me tremendously.
What If You Don’t Want to Be an English Teacher?
I know some people are already reading and thinking, “But I don’t want to be an English teacher! What else can I do?” Well, the truth is that if you can’t speak Japanese and want a career in Japan that doesn’t include teaching English, your options are very limited. Most other fields require that you at least speak conversational Japanese (around N3 level of the JLPT), for even the simplest jobs like sitting at a desk doing paperwork or greeting people. Even if you have certifications and highly valued skills in your home country, most of them will be completely useless if you can’t communicate with your clients or coworkers here.
The only real exceptions to this are jobs related to IT. If you are a programmer, web developer, designer, or something similar, you will be able to find work that requires very minimal to no Japanese. However, the salaries for these jobs are typically much lower than you could make compared with tech industries in the US and other major economies. The bonuses also aren’t as good, and you’ll be expected to work long hours that are often unpaid just like many Japanese employees. This may be a good option to try out for a year or two if you want to explore Japan, but you’ll be hurting yourself financially in the long run, because Japanese companies rarely give raises or any other incentives for you to stay.
Where Should You Look for a Job?
Most jobs in Japan can be found online before you even move here. One of the sites I suggest browsing is GaijinPot. They have jobs listings that are updated daily, and cover just about any field you can think of. Most of the jobs that are posted there are for teaching positions, but you can also find openings in architecture, engineering, the food industry, and more. This is the site I’ve personally used to find the two full-time jobs I’ve had since living here. It’s really convenient, because you can fill out your resume once, write one cover letter, and submit them to as many positions you like. Sometimes you’ll even get contacted by employers you haven’t applied to, because they can search through and find your resume in the database.
Another great place to find work is through the Japan Meetup groups. I attended a few of these to learn coding and UX design on the weekends, and was surprised to see that people were networking and hiring on the spot. There is a huge demand for web and app developers if you live in Tokyo, particularly near Ebisu and Roppongi. You can easily find work if you know how to code, and you can make a higher salary than you would teaching. If working at a startup in Japan seems like something you would be interested in, I also recommend that you check out Justa. It’s also another place where employers post their openings, and is updated daily.
How Do You Interview for a Job in Japan?
Most of the jobs you’ll interview for will be through Skype. This is especially true if you live overseas. Prospective employers want to get a good idea of what you look like, what your personality is like, and how serious you seem to be about wanting to move to Japan. They don’t want to waste time interviewing people and accepting them only to find out that the applicant isn’t coming after all. Make sure to dress appropriately for the position you’re applying for. Wear what you would be expected to wear if you were actually working. They want to see you smile, how friendly you are, and whether or not you’re confident.
Some jobs also opt for interviews over the phone, but not as frequently. It costs Japanese employers more money to make phone calls to overseas applicants, and it’s harder for them to judge your character without seeing your appearance. Doing interviews over Skype or the phone can be difficult depending on your time difference. They will always be scheduled during business hours for the company, but this could mean around 11pm or even later for you! Be careful to keep in mind what time the interview will be for your timezone, and try to appear as awake and alert as possible. It might be dark outside, and everyone you know may already be sleeping, but make sure your face is glowing like sunshine!
The third type of interview is in person, but this is very rare unless you already live in Japan. Very few companies have branches in the US and other countries that they will ask you to travel to for a one-on-one or group interview. A few private English conversation schools have this in states such as California. Usually you’ll have to go through a screening process, one or two interviews, and then a bit of training if you’re hired. There are some requirements you’ll have to meet before coming to Japan in order to get your visa, and we’ll look at some of them below.
How Do You Get a Visa to Work in Japan?
There are several different kinds of visas you can get that will allow you to work in Japan. Some are very strict and can only be used for specific jobs, or for a certain amount of hours per week. I’ll list the few that I’m familiar with, but if you want in-depth information on how to get one, check out the Embassy of Japan website for your country. Unfortunately I can’t give you all of the details here, because every country is different, and some offer special Japanese visas that others don’t. It’s also easier for some countries to get a visa than others, so look at the embassy site and see if you’re one of the lucky ones!
The five most common visas that I’ve seen foreigners get in order to work in Japan are:
- Student Visas
- Tourist Visas
- Working Holiday Visas
- Specialist in Humanities Visas
- Spousal Visas
These are probably the easiest ones to get, and I’ll try to provide a bit of information on how you can go about getting one for yourself.
The first one we’ll look at is the student visa. There are many universities in Japan that will allow you to participate in an exchange program and earn credit that can be transferred back to your university at home. This is something I did when I was a student, and I studied in Tokyo for about three months. During that time we were allowed to work, but only for a few hours each week. It wouldn’t be possible to make a living off this visa, but you can make enough to go shopping or to cover weekend excursions while you’re here. Usually these visas have a very short time limit, and you must leave the country within one or two months after you complete your courses. In order to get a student visa you’ll have to be accepted to a university in Japan, and they will provide you with the documents that are necessary for the application. As far as I know, you can’t apply for the student visa before getting accepted to a Japanese university.
Tourist visas vary greatly from country to country. I’m from the US, so I’m able to receive a 90-day tourist visa the moment I land in Japan. For Americans this visa doesn’t require an application, and can be extended if you wish to stay a few additional months. It’s imperative that you check for any restrictions that may apply to you due to your background (such as a criminal record) before you travel here. Nothing would suck more than coming all the way here, and being turned back by customs because you have a record for robbing a bank! Most people don’t have any trouble getting a tourist visa, but always check the embassy website for the latest requirements in case there are any changes.
Other countries such as Canada and Australia are granted a Working Holiday visa. This will allow people with special skills and careers to come to Japan for around one year even before they’ve found work. Unfortunately, working holiday visas are not an option for US citizens, so if you are one you’ll need a job lined up beforehand, or will have to try to find one within the 90 days of your tourist visa. Some working holidays can be received even if you haven’t completed university or gotten a degree. Some of them also have age restrictions, so please take note of what the conditions are for applicants from your home country.
Specialist in Humanities / International Services visas are usually granted to those that are working full-time as an English teacher. This visa can last anywhere from one year to five. You can use this visa to teach at any kind of institution, and it doesn’t have any restrictions on the amount you can earn, or how many hours you work. The length of the visa you get can depend on how long you’ve been at your current company, how often you’ve moved or changed jobs, and how many additional skills and certifications you have. There is a similar visa, the Instructor visa, that is usually for a much shorter period of stay (around one year), and is probably the one you’ll get your first time applying for one, or if you work in the public school system.
The last visa we’ll look at is the Spousal visa. This one is reserved for those who are married to a Japanese spouse either while they were in their home country, or after coming to Japan. It is one of the few options that will allow you to work without getting a university degree, or having a very long work history in a particular field. Sounds nice, right? The main downside to the spousal visa is that like the student visa, it has limitations to how much you can work. There may even be a limitation to how much you’re allowed to earn. Of course the hardest part about this visa is actually finding a Japanese spouse. I don’t recommend looking for one just for the sake of getting this visa!
Now that you know the basics to getting a job in Japan, I’ll go into more details in another post about what the immigration process is like, and what your first month or so will be like after moving here. If you like what you’ve read so far, please check out my post about Why I Came to Japan, and what my impressions are so far. Until next time!