When I first landed in Tokyo, the whole city seemed like one giant adventure playground.
With its bright lights, loud noises and countless bars and clubs, Tokyo is a paradise for party-goers looking to experience one of the most unique cultures in the world.
But when I started my job a week later, I soon realized that life in Japan isn’t all fun and games. With notoriously long hours and high professional standards, working in Japan is serious business.
For outsiders, the professional environment can be hard to navigate. Here’s what I learned from two years working and traveling in Japan.
Do I need a visa?
Residents of most countries can visit Japan without a visa. But you’ll need a visa to work in Japan, which generally requires a university degree. Most people get a visa through their teaching job or recruitment agency before they arrive.
Younger residents of some countries can also apply for a more flexible year-long working holiday visa.
If you’re going to Japan as a student, bear in mind that there will likely be restrictions on the number of hours you can work.
Make It Big in Japan! The Insider’s Guide to Work and Travel
From a cultural perspective, Japan is a fascinating place to work—and likely very different from what you’re used to!
While some people who go to Japan end up staying for good, most foreigners choose to work for a couple of years before seeking new pastures.
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Working in Japan
Work conditions in Japan
On the upside, Japanese workplaces can be very social. Expect a strong community spirit with your team members, and know that most Japanese coworkers are willing to go the extra mile to help you out.
You’ll also be expected to attend a lot of after-hours drinking events. It’s worth finding a tried and tested hangover cure to fall back on—there’s no excuse for arriving to work late in Japan!
Work in Japan, however, can be pretty tough in the beginning.
There are countless customs and codes of conduct that can offend if not followed. And it’s not always easy for foreigners to figure out what they are.
I’ll never forget the look of disappointment on my colleagues’ faces as I got up to leave before the manager one night. Even though I had already worked four hours overtime that day!
You’ll need to prepare for long hours and a hierarchical approach to management. Women will also need to adapt to a system that, while changing slowly, is frustratingly patriarchal.
Finding a job in Japan
Speaking Japanese is a huge advantage when looking for a job in Japan. Language fluency will open up career opportunities that few visitors have access to. Local connections are also invaluable in a society that places great importance on reputation.
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The best part about learning with authentic videos is that you learn about the culture in the process. This will prepare you for the overwhelming move to such a different country!
For those without a good knowledge of the language, the most popular profession by far is teaching English. You can also find opportunities in hospitality, entertainment and journalism if your visa allows. Beyond that, it can be extremely challenging to break into other areas of business.
Like most foreigners moving to Japan, I became an English teacher.
The demand for teachers is high, and most native English speakers should find work fairly easily. It can be harder to find this kind of work if English isn’t your mother tongue. You’ll need a bachelor’s degree to be considered, but you often don’t need an additional teaching qualification.
The hiring process was pretty simple. I filled out an application online and was given a date when school recruiters would be in my city in the United Kingdom. The big Japanese language schools hold regular recruitment events in major cities in the UK, USA and Australia.
At the recruitment event, it’s essential to be well presented. This means groomed and wearing a professional suit. Your presentation and demeanor are a big deal in Japan and will be much more important to recruiters than any teaching experience or other qualifications.
I had a face-to-face interview and was invited back the next day to present a lesson plan. All went well and a few weeks later, I was offered a teaching job in Japan! The company organized my flights, accommodation and teacher training, which made my first weeks in Japan much smoother than if I’d had to search for my own place.
However, make a note that you usually can’t pick where you’ll be placed in Japan. I was lucky enough to be in the suburbs of Tokyo, but some of my friends were placed in the sticks hundreds of miles away.
Finding a school
English teachers in Japan can choose to apply to private languages schools or to work within the public school system.
The main private language schools are Aeon, Interac, Berlitz, Gaba and ECC. Most of them recruit directly via dedicated recruitment events in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
Many of their students are adults who want to take classes outside of work, so you’re likely to be working evenings and weekends with this option.
An alternative is the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, which will place you at a school within the Japanese public school system.
You’ll work with kids, and your hours will be during the daytime. But you’ll need to be organized to snag a teaching spot! Applications are only accepted once per year, in October to late November.
From my experience, you’ll have a better chance of being placed in a big city by following the private school route.
Working in Hospitality
Some foreigners work in the country’s many expat bars, cafes and clubs, where staff are more inclined to speak English. You can find these types of places in all major Japanese cities.
An alternative for women is hostessing, a job where you’re basically paid to talk to Japanese men and pour drinks for them. Some visas, such as the working holiday visa, won’t permit this line of work, though.
If you’re considering hostessing work, be cautious and research recommended venues before you go. You’ll want to make sure they’re actually offering hostess jobs, not sex work!
Working in Entertainment
Westerners are still a novelty in Japan, so there’s a handful of opportunities in the modeling and TV industry.
These jobs aren’t easy to come by and people are normally hired through recruitment agencies like Avocado or friends of friends.
Working in Writing and Journalism
The opportunities in this area are few and far between, but it’s possible to break in by writing freelance for expat publications like Time Out Tokyo, Metropolis and The Japan Times.
You’ll likely be expected to have a good knowledge of Japan for your submissions to be accepted.
Traveling in Japan
Taking vacation time
Japan is full of incredible vacation spots, from sunny beaches to snow-covered ski slopes.
You’ll find that many expats move to Japan alone, so there’s usually someone looking for a vacation buddy to travel with. I always found it really easy to make new friends in Japan!
However, it’s important to know that vacation time is limited, especially for teachers. You’ll have a week off at set times (Golden Week in May, Obon in August and New Year in January). Be aware that prices will be high at these times as the whole country is traveling!
Generally, you’ll be expected to be committed to your work, so vacation outside of these set times is limited. The standard number is five additional personal days. Japanese people are known for their strong work ethic, so you might even see some of your native colleagues returning to work earlier than planned.
Fortunately, there are countless places to enjoy day and weekend trips, which are easily accessible by the country’s unrivaled rail network.
Getting around Japan
Traveling around Japan is easy via public transport. The network is affordable, modern and famously punctual.
Combined with regular national flights, you can get to most destinations quickly. It helps if you speak Japanese, but if you don’t, there are various apps in English to help you navigate.
Working and traveling in Japan is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My time in Tokyo has left me with lifelong friends all over the world and an enviable collection of incredible memories.
It takes some time to adjust to work life, but once you’ve figured out any teething problems, you’ll likely be welcomed with open arms into your professional environment.
And when it comes to travel, limited vacation time doesn’t need to stop you. I became an expert at planning jam-packed day trips and weekend getaways that took me from northern Sapporo, to Kyoto, to Japan’s southern islands.
Emma Brooke is a travel writer and serial expat currently living in Paris.
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