Although there’s plenty you can do in America, you may well be thinking about broadening your horizons a little. One of the best ways to do that is to work abroad for a while, and Japan is a country that intrigues many people from the US. It can be a challenging place for Americans to find a job, but the rewards for making it can be tremendous.
There are job opportunities in Japan for people like you. You just have to know what to look for and how to go about your search for Japanese employment. The things you can do are many and varied, and if you have the right skills and mindset, you could be on your way pretty fast.
This article will help you decide whether Japan is the place for you, as well as giving you some tips to give you a head start. Whether it’s the entry requirements for the country, or handy tips for understanding Japanese employment culture, read on and you’ll have a better chance of making it big in Japan.
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Now, back to what you came here to read
As you’d expect, there’s no single magic formula for finding a job in Japan. The best way to go will depend on what type of job you’re looking for, where you want to go, and what you want to get out of your time overseas. What you can do, though, is to give yourself the best chance of making progress. With that in mind, here are a few tips:
Japan is a large and varied country, and there’s a world of difference between the bustle of central Tokyo and the quieter, more traditional environment of rural Japan. Everything from transport links to weather conditions will vary, just as it would in different parts of the US.
All other things being equal, it’s usually a good idea to look at the big cities first. If you’re not already certain of your plans, these are the places where you’ll find the widest variety of job opportunities. They’re also the most likely places to find other Americans, something you may find helpful in a new country.
Later in this article, we’ll look at some of the most popular cities for Americans to find work. It’s not just a case of sticking a pin in a map — there are real differences in the feel of each place. You’ll be off to a good start if you feel comfortable and can settle into your new surroundings as quickly as possible.
Some things about finding work in Japan are similar to what you’ll be used to back home. Just as in the US, Japanese employers are looking for people who can do the right job at the right time. Salaries, working conditions, and so on will vary in much the same way you’d expect.
There are two really major differences, though. You’ll need to speak the language to get anywhere fast in Japan. With a few exceptions, this isn’t a country where you can get by on English alone. More on that soon. You’ll also need to make sure you have the right to work in Japan. You won’t have the same freedom to work as a native Japanese person, so it’s really important you spend some time reading up on what you can — and can’t — do in the country.
Even though learning Japanese is likely to be a must, don’t discount your native language. In some cases, being a native English speaker can be a real asset. You could think about:
- Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). This is one of the easiest ways to find work in Japan. Millions of Japanese people want to learn English, and most of them want to be taught by a native speaker. Make sure you take a training course before you start, so you can show your credentials. Then, think about whether you want to work in a big city, where there’ll be more demand but also more competition — or whether you’d prefer to work in a quieter area, where you could be the only TEFL teacher for miles.
- The digital economy. Japan’s huge tech sector also makes it the most important center in Asia for IT. That means companies like Google and Amazon have major presences, and you may well work in teams where English is the working language. It’s still important to know Japanese, but if you can act as a “bridge” to English-speaking countries such as the US, Australia, or the UK, you could find yourself in demand.
- Tourism. English-speaking countries make up a fair-sized chunk of Japan’s visitors. Although it’s a smaller slice than from other Asian countries, the US alone provided 195,000 visitors in the first two months of 2019 – a rise of over 12% year-on-year.¹ While not all of them are tourists, a lot are, and tourist-oriented companies are always looking for fluent English speakers to help them talk to those arrivals.
Just because you can sometimes get by speaking English, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to neglect your Japanese language skills. You’ll find that a lot of doors will be open to you only if you can communicate with the locals, and being able to speak Japanese will also give you the chance to enjoy a fuller social life!
As an American citizen, you won’t have the same rights applying for a job in Osaka that you would applying for a job in Oregon. You’re not allowed to do any paid work in Japan unless you have a valid visa and unfortunately US citizens aren’t able to apply for Working Holiday visas. You’ll also need a full four-year degree for many posts. That’s just the way it goes, but happily the Japanese visa system is fairly straightforward.
Like many other countries, Japan offers a range of work visas. The choice can look a little scary at first glance, but in fact quite a few visas are unlikely to be relevant for most people. Some of the more common visa types are:²
- Skilled Laborer (eg chef)
- Humanities/International Services Specialist
- Legal or Accounting Services
- Medical Services
- Japan Exchange & Teaching Program (see below)
Visas are generally granted for either one or three years, depending on your employer’s needs and whether there’s a shortage of that type of worker in Japan.
The Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) program is a great option if you want to teach English in Japan; around 3,000 Americans take part each year.³ Most of them work as Assistant Language Teachers, or ALTs. JET covers a range of positions ranging from high school classes to private “conversation schools” where students can hone their English skills.⁴ You get great benefits and plenty of support — but competition is tough. A Bachelor’s Degree in Education will definitely help, though it’s not mandatory.
You’ll need to visit your nearest Japanese Embassy or Consulate General with the following four things:
- Full, valid US passport — make sure it’s valid for the term of your stay plus six months
- Application form for the visa you’ve chosen
- Passport photos; it’s best to take a couple of spares, just in case
- Certificate of Eligibility
This is the trickiest of the above documents to obtain, but don’t panic. In spite of its slightly intimidating name, this certificate is basically just a certified letter from an eligible Japanese person, guaranteeing that you won’t be a burden on the country’s finances. In most cases, your employer will be the eligible person. They’ll be able to apply for this on your behalf before you even set foot in Japan. However, you’ll need to apply for your visa within three months if it being granted, so make sure you’re ready for it when it arrives.
English is “the world language”, right? It’s not quite as simple as that, and that goes double when you’re heading for Japan.⁵ In many countries, especially in Western Europe, you can almost assume that people you meet will speak at least some English. That’s not a safe assumption in Japan. Away from the big cities and large companies, you may really struggle to find other speakers. Learning social Japanese, not just the terms you’ll need in your job, can really help you build contacts and make friendships.
Once you arrive in Japan, you’ll get your Japan Residence Card — usually at the airport. From then on, don’t go anywhere without it. For one thing, your visa details are included on it. But it’s also needed to take out a cellphone plan, to get health insurance, to get a driver’s license… everything, really. It may take some getting used to, but there’s really no alternative. In some ways, it’s even more important than your passport.
You might think that one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies would be fully cashless — but you’d be wrong. Although Visa and Mastercard are now pretty widely accepted in cities, that’s not always the case anywhere else. You may even need to pay your rent in cash until you have a bank account set up. Luckily Japan is among the safest places in the world, so don’t feel too worried.
Unless you’re out in the country, you’ll likely use Japan’s modern, efficient public transportation system a lot. And here’s the thing: your employer has to pay for it! You can buy the passes at train station machines, for validities between one and six months. They’re valid anywhere along the trip, so if you spot somewhere interesting halfway then you can use your pass to go there on your next day off. Though…
Japan isn’t the most generous country when it comes to paid vacation: many full-time workers are entitled to just 10 days of it a year. You may get a little more once you’ve been in a job for a while, or if you’re in certain sectors, but expect to work hard and work long. One handy tip is to try to schedule a few of your paid vacation days in “Golden Week” in late May and early June. Since there are four national holidays during that time, it’ll give you a full week off — a luxury in Japan.
One thing you’re sure to need in Japan is a bank account. Your employers will want you to have one, and it’ll save a lot of hassle if you do. That’s not a huge obstacle as the process isn’t too tricky – but you do need to get it right. For example, you’ll likely need a special seal, known as a hanko. If you’d like to know more, then you can check out our handy guide to opening a bank account in Japan.
As well as the extra convenience of having an account set up for use while you’re in Japan, there’s also the little matter of saving yourself cash. Sometimes quite a bit of it. International transfer fees can really mount up if you aren’t careful, so a little time taken researching your options is likely to be very worthwhile. One option you may want to explore is a TransferWise borderless account. This gives you a way of paying and receiving in yen without the cross-border markups you’ll probably pay if you use a conventional bank account. There’s a single, low, upfront fee, so you know exactly where you stand. In fact, going the TransferWise route could be as much as 8x cheaper than a bank.
What all this means in simple terms is that you can hit the ground running in Japan, and receive payments in local currency even before you’ve gotten an account with a Japanese bank. That makes TransferWise a great option for people who are setting off on their working life in Japan.
We won’t avoid the fact: Japan is an expensive place to live. Your costs will depend on where you are, with central city areas generally hitting your pocketbook the hardest, but nowhere much is really cheap. You’ll be looking at a four-figure rent bill — in US dollars — for pretty much anywhere worth living. In expensive areas, like Tokyo, you can easily double that. $2,000 a month equates to around a quarter of a million yen.⁶ Be realistic about your budget.
Don’t expect much space, either. Japanese cities are among the most crowded in the world, and the average apartment is only around 650 square feet. Many are studios, which tend to be considerably smaller, often under 500 square feet. If you want space in Tokyo, you’ll need to head out of town.
Don’t forget about your relocation costs, either. You’ll be moving your home base several thousand miles, and that doesn’t come cheap. The exact price will depend on the size of your house and how much you want to move, as well as whether you pick sea or air. Sea is cheaper, but it’s also much slower, so think about this well in advance. Either way, you’re likely to face a bill of several thousand dollars.⁸
Japan is a big country, and there’s a wealth of options to pick from when it comes to choosing where to base yourself. As you’d expect, the type of work you’re doing will have a bearing on this — but here are a few of the places that Americans most often choose to go, with a few of their pros and cons to help you decide.
- Tokyo. Maybe it’s an obvious choice, but there are plenty of good reasons to base yourself in the capital. It’s the economic and cultural hub of Japan, it’s one of the safest large cities on the planet, and it’s set up for foreigners in a way that few other Japanese cities can match. You’ll find it easy to find other Americans here. On the downside, the massive scale of this high-tech metropolis can be a little overwhelming.
- Kobe. If you want a city that feels a little more laid-back, but is still big enough to have plenty of employment opportunities, check out Kobe. It’s a little like the West Coast of the US in some ways, with sophisticated culture and city life, but also beautiful countryside an easy ride away. Kobe is an easy place to get around, thanks to thoughtful redesign in the wake of an earthquake in 1995 — and the area is packed with international schools, good news if you’re here to teach English.
- Osaka. If you’re looking for a job in an industrial sector, it’s pretty likely you’ll end up here. Osaka can feel a little rough around the edges, and you’ll need to know a decent amount of Japanese to get anywhere much. Don’t let that put you off, though — this city is a fantastic place to let your hair down after work, with a thriving comedy scene and what might just be the best nightlife anywhere in Japan.
- Kyoto. If you like the sound of Tokyo but find the capital just a little too much, then Kyoto could be the place for you. There’s a good mix of traditional culture and ultra-modern stuff and as a major college center you’ve got a better chance of finding other English-speakers than in some other cities. It can get busy in the summer, but it’s easy to head out of town for a little rest and recreation if you need to.
Whatever you decide, there’s a lot to be excited about when you start working in Japan — but don’t let that blind you to the everyday but important stuff, like making sure you can balance your books. A service like TransferWise can be a real help here, making it simpler to manage your finances and letting you concentrate on doing a great job for your new employer.
- https://statistics.jnto.go.jp/en/graph/ 19 April 2019
- https://www.japanvisitor.com/japan-travel/japan-work-visas 19 April 2019
- http://jetprogramme.org/en/countries/ 19 April 2019
- https://www.japanvisitor.com/japanese-culture/language/teaching-english 19 April 2019
- https://japantoday.com/category/national/japan-ranks-26th-of-60-countries-in-global-english-proficiency-index 16 April 2019
- https://www.expatistan.com/cost-of-living/country/japan?currency=USD 19 April 2019
- https://www.rethinktokyo.com/blog/zoe-ward-japan-property-central/99-new-apartment-supply-tokyo-2017-was-under-100sqm/tokyo 19 April 2019
- https://www.reallymoving.com/international-removals/get-quotes 19 April 2019
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