Naturally there are jobs to be had teaching other languages, but the vast majority of the 5,000 or so language schools in Japan are focused on teaching English. The English-study boom may have lost some steam since it peaked in the late-80's but it's still going. Once the economy picks up again, it's likely to fuel even more growth in the industry.

Teaching English in Japan

English teaching jobs draw thousands of people to Japan every year

Also, the Mombukagakusho (Ministry of Education) has finally realized that the best way to improve English fluency at the high school level is to start early. So they have finally got around to including eikaiwa (English conversation) as part of the elementary school curriculum, which will create even more demand for native speakers. Although the number of young people is on the decline, you can be sure that there will continue to be jobs available for both those who just want to make a bit of money and also people who want to establish a teaching career in Japan.

There are several different options open to people looking for a teaching job: eikaiwa schools, the JET Program and private primary, secondary and third-level schools. Once you've got yourself established with a job and a valid visa status, there is also the possibility of teaching lessons privately.

Unless you're both qualified and experienced, the entry-level salary is pretty much the same as it has been since the English-study boom started in the 1980s - around 250,000 yen per month. With the 90's having been a period of deflation and falling prices, this is enough for a single person to live on, even in Tokyo, but it won't make you a millionaire. Qualified and experienced teachers or those with luck and connections can expect to make two to three times that.

Eikaiwa schools

The late-1980's saw an explosion in the number and size of eikaiwa schools throughout Japan. Internationally established names like Berlitz battled with local companies like NOVA, GEOS, ECC, Aeon and Bilingual in a fiercely competitive industry. Thousands of smaller chains and one-man operations survived on the crumbs left behind.

Some of the big names, like Bilingual, and many of the small fry didn't last more than a few years, especially once the economic bubble burst in the early 90's. Nova grew to be the Big Daddy of them all, with 900 schools across the country and employing as many as 6,000 foreign teachers. So it came as a big blow to the entire eikawa industry when Nova went bust in 2007, months after the government had slapped a penalty on the company for irregular (to say the least) business practises. The company's name and many of its schools were taken over but some serious damage had been done to the industry's reputation.

But the desire to master English or at least have a chance to hang out with foreigners has outlived the usual short lifespan of trends in Japan and the eikawa giants have grown bigger than ever. None of them present a very academic recruitment message to prospective students, relying instead on the use of famous personalities, large-scale advertising or hard-core sales pitches by school 'counsellors'.

One story tells of a young woman who walked into a certain eikawa school thinking it was a travel agency and leaving two hours later, having signed up for English lessons to the tune of 6 month's salary and no longer able to afford the trip she had been planning. The still generally poor level of English ability in Japan is proof that these companies are largely ineffective. They survive by placing pressure on their underpaid school staff to meet quotas by bringing in large numbers of ever-gullible new students.

On the other hand, these schools do provide a service that the people seem to want as well as a foot in the door for many westerners without teaching qualifications or experience.Some hire their teachers abroad and most will provide sponsorship for a working visa. As long as you are a native speaker, have a university degree and are prepared to complete a training course and see out your contract, you should be offered a job with a salary in the 250-300,000 yen range. Higher qualifications and a business background might get you a more lucrative business-teaching position. Other possible benefits include transportation payments, subsidized housing and the cost of a return trip to Korea to change your visa status.

Smaller schools often require job applicants to already have a valid working visa or spouse visa as well as varying standards for qualifications and experience. More and more schools are looking for people to teach young children. Many schools advertise things like their out-of-the-way location, use of a car or free housing as incentives. These schools don't usually pay much more than the big boys but they do offer more flexibility and less of a production-line atmosphere.

The JET Program

The JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program, initiated in 1987, brings thousands of young people to Japan every year. In 1999, some 5,800 people from 37 countries took part in the program. The basic requirements are given below (from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs):

Applicants must:

  • Be interested in Japan, and be ready to deepen their knowledge and appreciation of Japan after arrival.
  • Be both mentally and physically healthy.
  • Have the ability to adapt to living and office conditions that could be significantly different from those experienced in the applicant's home country.
  • Be a citizen of the country where the recruitment and selection procedures take place, on the closing day of recruitment for the year. (Except those holding Japanese nationality in the month of arrival in Japan.)
  • In principle, there is no age limit. It used to be 35, and was later raised to 40 before being abolished altogether. But age may still be "unofficially" a factor in the selection process. The main purpose of the programme is to foster ties between Japanese youth and JET participants composed of young college graduates as described above.
  • Hold at least a Bachelor's degree or obtain one.
  • Have excellent English pronunciation, rhythm, intonation and voice projection skills in addition to other standard language skills. Have good writing skills and grammar usage.
  • Not be a current or former participant of the JET programme.
  • Not have declined, without justifiable reason, a position on the JET programme after accepting an appointment as a participant.
  • Not have lived in Japan for three or more years in total during the last ten years.

In addition to the above, applicants from non-English speaking countries must have a functional command of English or Japanese. Successful applicants are expected to make an effort to learn or continue learning the Japanese language prior to and after arriving in Japan.

As well as positions as ALT's (Assistant Language Teachers) in public schools, the program also offers positions as SEA's (Sports Exchange Advisors) and CIR's (Coordinators for International Relations) who work at local governments around the country. Extra requirements for ALT's (or JET's as they're often called) are that they must:

  • Be interested in the Japanese education system and in the Japanese way of teaching a foreign language.
  • Be interested in working actively with students.
  • Be those who already have qualifications as language teachers or who are motivated to study the teaching of a foreign language.

Applications are made at the Japanese Embassy in your country. Suitable candidates are invited for an interview and the final results are announced by the end of March. Chosen participants arrive in Japan at the end of July. The deal is better than at the eikaiwa schools - as long as you don't hate kids!

Private schools

Jobs at private schools, whether elementary, junior/senior high or third-level, are much sought after and are usually better paid than the other teaching alternatives. Positions are often filled by word of mouth as one person leaves Japan and puts a word in for a friend with his former employers. There are a few companies that act as go-betweens or agencies but they also rarely advertise. University and college positions usually require you to have a relevant Masters Degree, published papers and some teaching experience. In recent years, more foreign professors have been receiving tenured positions.