May 29, 2019

Alternative work to teaching English in Japan: Essential steps to change jobs

Alternative work to teaching English in Japan: Essential steps to change jobs photo

If you’re tired of teaching English in Japan and want to pursue alternative work outside the classroom, we look at the essential steps you need to take to get out of teaching English and into an alternative career in Japan.

The steps detailed in this article:

1) Make the decision to seek alternatives to teaching in Japan, make it your priority

2) Learn Japanese to a high level

3) Don’t rely entirely on Japanese ability, acquire other skills

4) Get active outside of your teaching time

5) Network

6) Adapt your resume

7) Make your own luck, be patient

Maybe you came to Japan to teach English. No, scrap that. You teach English because you wanted to live and work in Japan. Teaching English then was never the dream. Japan was. And maybe it still is, except that now you’re weighing up the balance between how much you hate teaching English in Japan, and how much you want to continue your life in Japan.

It’s no secret by now that many foreigners (particularly of the English-speaking, university-graduate kind) who come to Japan to teach English do so because this is the easiest, or more likely only, way to get a visa that allows for some kind of residency in Japan.

I’m a classic case-in-point -- I met a special Japanese someone while traveling, went all weak at the knees, and decided to move to Japan in order to be with them, did so as an English teacher and I’m still here over a decade later (and, yes, we’re still together, and, no, I no longer teach English).  

Addressing the questions of “why” people might want to seek alternative work in Japan to teaching English and “why” they might feel stuck in the industry will be key to detailing the steps that could potentially lead to alternative jobs and careers in Japan and beyond. 

Why do people want to get out of teaching English in Japan?

We don’t want to get bogged down in the bashing of Japan’s English-teaching industry. That’s a topic for another time which should be balanced with the great things about working in the industry. But in order to provide some context …

Teaching English (or any other subject in Japan or anywhere) was never a career goal

While starting salaries for English teachers in Japan can be reasonable (although they seem to be getting lower every year), opportunities for pay increases / bonuses are few and far between.

A couple of years of teaching in Japan might look good on a resume to take back to one’s home country, more than that though starts to look like time wasted.

The English-teaching industry in Japan has a reputation for cutting corners, light exploitation, and being cheap. And in many cases, this is unfortunately true. 

Why might it be easy to get stuck teaching English in Japan?

I can only reflect on my own experiences here but perhaps the largest factor in feeling like I was stuck in Japan’s English-teaching industry was twofold:  

One -- I got too comfortable. This could be read as, “things were too easy.” Lesson planning could be done at the drop of hat (if it was done at all), work never came home with me (except in the form of moaning about it to the partner and friends), hours and holidays were fixed which meant that I could easily plan trips and things to do outside of work without having to worry about said plans being broken … these comforts and more only served to exacerbate the prospective horrors of job hunting, updating resumes, attending interviews et al.

Two -- Fear. Fear of being under-qualified to do anything else. Fear of taking interviews in Japanese. Fear of having no idea what it would be like to work in other industries in Japan. Fear that was feeling heavier the longer I continued as an English teacher.

So with the background set, what follows are the steps I took in order to pursue alternative jobs to teaching English in Japan. These steps are by no means definitive and are based solely on my own experiences. But they worked for me.

Step 1: Make the decision to seek alternatives to teaching in Japan, make it your priority

Ultimately it was the thought of, “I never wanted to be an English teacher in Japan and I don’t want to leave Japan one day having only experienced work in that industry,” that made the decision to pursue alternative avenues of employment in Japan seem like a definitive one.

And it’s important to make it definitive. Make it your priority. Otherwise, given the potential motivation-sapping comforts and fears that come with being an English teacher in Japan, it can be all too easy to postpone and procrastinate.  

Step 2: Learn Japanese … to a high level

This is probably something that should stand to reason but the emphasis is worth it. There can be few complaints about getting stuck as an English teacher if you can’t speak the language of whatever country you’re teaching English to. 

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) will likely serve as the default indicator to potential employers in Japan about how well-equipped you are to work in a Japanese-speaking environment. If you’re not already, you should get familiar with the test organization, levels (N5 to N1), and examination schedules.

Of course, one has to start somewhere with studying Japanese and one is warmly encouraged to do so, but the brutal truth behind having a Japanese-language ability that will open doors for you in Japan is that JLPT N2 is really going to be the bare minimum to find employment that represents career progression.  

And there are other truths that only serve to highlight the importance of being proficient in Japanese to a high level -- an increasing number of large Japanese firms making English their first language (Rakuten, UNIQLO, Shiseido, Honda), and an increasing number of Japanese who are becoming fluent in English, among them.

So, while you’ll likely find that JLPT levels N5 to N3 don’t do a great deal in terms of work in Japan, from N2 doors start to open. With N2 you’ll be able to get something out of browsing job-search platforms that focus on speakers of Japanese, for a start, and you should be able to scrape through job interviews conducted in Japanese.

Step 3: Don’t place all your eggs in the “Japanese” basket, acquire other skills

Perhaps during Japan’s bubble years, when this country was rivaling the U.S. as an economic superpower, the foreigner’s ability to speak Japanese might have been seen as qualification enough to walk the corridors of power in a Japanese firm, here or overseas. And language skills aside, teaching English in Japan would have been lucrative to the point that seeking alternative work would have been silly. If this was true then, though, it isn’t now. Maybe learning Mandarin would be a better shortcut to such riches.  

No, in my experience the excitement of passing JLPT N2 was soon dampened by the realization that I had to find something to back it up -- other skills or specialities that could be communicated and made actionable through my Japanese. In short, fluency in Japanese alone might not be enough.

Step 4: Get your hustle on outside of teaching

This relates to the previous point about not putting all of your stock in an ability to speak Japanese. You need other skills (if you don’t have them already) and you need to be able to demonstrate them or qualify them in some way.

For me, it turned about to be writing. Leaving any comments about my writing ability based on this article to one side, I got busy taking writing courses online and submitting copy to anyone and anywhere that looked like they might be able to make use of it, in Japan and overseas.

This started out as being unpaid -- blogging platforms, no-budget travel sites -- before the money started trickling in at which point I could legitimately tell people that I was a “paid writer,” and even more importantly, I had some new qualifications, a new status, and evidence of a go-get-em attitude to dress up the resume or CV. Plus, the writing thing kind of compliments the language-teaching and language-studying experience -- all good stuff in a Japan that is straining to grab inbound markets and get more international in its approach to doing business.

Writing or otherwise, getting your hustle on as an English teacher in Japan should be easy in the sense that you can take advantage of your steady work schedule, ability to leave work at work, and even make use of time between classes to hone your skills. (Working at an eikaiwa I had hours spare most days to write articles or study … on the sly.)  

Another point to make here is that a potential Japanese employer might not understand the weight of any certified qualifications you may have. So, before anyone turns their nose up at that budget-friendly online course which might be of questionable repute in its country of origin, in Japan it’s more than likely that it will be taken at face value.   

Perhaps the most important takeaway here though, is that if you want alternative work to teaching English in Japan, you need to get active and do something about it.  

Step 5: Understand the importance of networking … and network

Being something of an introvert the idea of networking was always something that I shied away from … potentially to the detriment of my work situation in Japan. 

Having since found work in Japan outside of teaching English, I’ve come to understand the importance of this. As an example, the company I currently work for seldom does its hiring through job advertising and recruitment platforms. Instead, recruitment happens by introduction -- someone with a set of skills is required, word about this spreads, and current employees invariably know someone, or know of someone who knows someone who might be suitable for the position.

Make no mistake, networking is a legitimate and important way of moving forward with work, careers and business in Japan. Why do think there are so many business cards being passed around? As a friend who works in media here in Japan once remarked when contemplating a job change, “The most important thing I’ve gotten after all these years of working at (insert company name) is my list of contacts.”  

The English teacher in Japan who has got their hustle on with study, skill-building and side projects might be pleasantly surprised then, by the opportunities, or at least the sense of “good things can happen,” that are presented by networking.  

In the interests of being honest, I can’t speak to avenues of networking in Japan outside of the Tokyo area, but here in the capital networking opportunities present themselves in a myriad of forms, many of them free or for a minimal fee -- talks, presentations, language-school parties, establishment (bars, hotels, galleries) opening events and promotions, interest groups and more. Searches on FacebooMake the decision to seek alternatives to teaching in Japan, make it your priorityhile networking online via social media might get the ball rolling (may even be a way to ease into things for those of a more hesitant nature), it can be no substitute for the face-to-face, business-card-swapping kind.

*Note 2 - Networking in Japan may turn up job opportunities that aren’t listed on the traditional job-search platforms or other such media. 

*Note 3 - Networking can be especially important for the foreigner seeking alternative work in Japan as it serves as a way for a potential employer to feel closer to you and hopefully then have a greater sense of trust in you, something which they may find harder to come by if limited to a resume and interview only. 

Alternative work to teaching English in Japan: Essential steps to change jobs photo

Step 6: Adapt your English-teacher resume and have it ready in Japanese

First off, while the Japanese resume might look like something an elementary school kid could knock up (still hand-written in many cases) they are not to be approached with derision. Your status as a foreigner is unlikely to exempt you from requiring to submit one, especially outside of English-teaching jobs. Even with JLPT N1 under your belt, it’s likely to take a while to have one ready for submission, so get on it early doors. Japanese resumes tend to have a rigid format with little room for creativity in their presentation. Resume “forms” can be downloaded easily enough. An Internet search in English will suffice, otherwise try, 履歴書 “rirekisho.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your experience of teaching English in Japan is all but redundant when it comes to working in other sectors in Japan. In practical terms, this may be the case but there are surely skills and experiences acquired from teaching that can be adapted on a resume or CV to look like, well, something else. 

At the very least English teachers can dress up their homework-checking and work-sheet-editing experience into terms such as “editing” and “proofreading.” 

The experience of taking those fresh-off-the-boat teachers under your wing to pass on your teaching skills, classroom management savvy, and scheduling support could come under terms such as “training” and “management.” 

Lesson planning, writing reports, maintaining records, and a vast amount of experience of speaking in public are also among the experience and skills acquired from teaching English that could carry utility in alternative sectors of work in Japan.

Step 7: Make your own luck and be patient when it presents itself

While I was sourcing freelance writing jobs here in Japan, I came across a listing on “craigslist tokyo.” I submitted some writing samples (already published), someone the other end liked them and asked me to write more for a web service that was just getting started. I did this for a few months, submitting a handful of articles each month (written between and after English classes). It turns out the web service was being run by a major news organization. 

During the months of freelancing I would meet with people in charge of the service for casual get-togethers which essentially served as informal job interviews -- building trust, testing my Japanese, and basically sussing out whether or not I was a good fit.

It probably took a year of this before I was hired full-time. It was frustrating at times but the opportunity to work in such an industry for such a name was a huge one, so I stuck with it and the rewards came.

The point being that I got lucky, but this luck only presented itself because I got active outside of the English-teaching job to develop skills and scrape around for windows of opportunity. When the sniff of an opportunity presented itself, patience came into play.  

Patience really is a virtue in Japan, especially in certain aspects of doing business. Whether it’s business-to-business, business-to-customer, or potential employer-to-potential employee, it’s often the case that a lot of trust-building needs to be done before firm courses of action can be determined. Plenty of time then to keep building skills, studying Japanese et al. 

Other factors to consider

One could make the case that the easiest way to just get out of teaching English in Japan, rather than seek alternative work, would be to leave Japan altogether. True to a certain extent, but as was touched upon before, the longer you continue to teach in Japan, the harder it will be to leave (and likely even harder when you touch down on home soil).  

Keep one eye on the visa situation. English teachers in Japan generally come under one of the following statuses of residence -- “Instructor,” “Specialist in Humanities and International Services,” or “Spouse or Child of Japanese National.” The status of “Instructor” is limited in scope in terms of being able to work in Japan outside of teaching. A visa change will be required. Will a potential employer be willing to assist you in this? Are both you and they aware of the process and timing? 

Unscrupulous English-language schools in Japan might try to tell you that they are responsible for your visa and that breaking contract in favor of alternative work in Japan will mean losing it. This is emphatically not true. Your visa belongs neither to you nor your employer. It belongs to the state, specifically the Ministry of Justice and only the ministry has the right to revoke it -- highly unlikely unless you break the law or overstay the visa.

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