Teaching

How I Started Working in Japan as an English Teacher

5 February 2016

I recently came across posts of several different people moving to Japan, and reading about them starting on their journey made me reminisce my own experience. Those were such precious memories! I’ve never written them down, but it’s never too late to start, so I’ll be traveling down memory lane as I breath new life into the Flashback Friday series.

This week, I’ll start by sharing the story of how I started working in Japan as an English teacher.

A (not so) long time ago…

I was working in Japan as an English Teacher, or more commonly known as ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) until 2011 when I was forced to leave Japan after the Tohoku earthquake. Although it was 5 years ago, I think my experiences are still highly relevant today since things like these don’t change very much (besides, it’s Japan!) Also, I see that all the companies that are hiring ALTs are still having the exact job ads and descriptions from 5 years ago. Point made.

Looking for a job

It was insanely difficult for me to get an English-teaching job in Japan. All because of two things:

  1. I don’t have a valid visa to work and need the company to sponsor me, and more pertinently,
  2. The fact that I’m considered a non-native speaker of English. If I don’t hold a passport from UK/USA/Canada/Australia/New Zealand (and once, I saw, Africa), I’m therefore not a native speaker. My name is Asian, therefore I’m not a native speaker. My looks can actually freaking pass off as a Japanese, so obviously I’m not a native speaker.

Note: If you have a visa to work in Japan (e.g. working holiday visa), then congratulations. Things are already 90% easier for you. Also, I hate you.

Who cares if English actually IS my native language? Who cares if I can speak and write a hell lot better than these “native” speakers? Some of these “native” speakers I’ve seen make me want to stab my eyeballs out with a toothpick at the horrible injustice. I was passed over for people like that? Because of a bloody passport?

So if you’re a “non-native” speaker hoping to land a job teaching English, take heart. It is possible. It is extremely challenging, immensely frustrating, and you will feel like you’re fighting a battle you can never win, but IT IS POSSIBLE. I did it.

How did I do it?

Fight the good fight

Living in Japan was my dream. One that I truly, deeply, badly wanted to fulfill, and I craved for it with every fiber of my being. Fu was going to Japan for a 2-year exchange (truth is, he only chose Japan because of me, but eh, story for another time) and I went with him. My tourist visa allowed me to stay a maximum of 90 days. I thought it would be easier if I were applying the job from within Japan, but in the end it didn’t really make a difference.

Of all my job applications, I heard back from just one. One! But one is all I need! I was floating with euphoria!

There was a pre-interview call, a written task (10 painful pages long!) and a final interview in which I was told on the spot to also give an impromptu lesson. When the final interview results came back, my world came crashing down. They rejected me.

I don’t know what went wrong, but if I had to chance a guess, it would be that I messed up the lesson part.

For a while, I was entirely deflated. Broken. Inconsolable. I had one chance, and I blew it. There’s nothing left.

While I was wallowing in self-pity, my time in Japan was almost up. At that point I had a job offer from the Ministry of Education waiting for me in Singapore. I held it off as long as I could, but with that chance at a job in Japan lost, I decided to finally take up the job in Singapore. Besides, it’s good for me to gain additional experience teaching, right? And at MOE, no less!

It pained me to leave Fu and Japan behind though :(

When I got back to Singapore, started my teaching stint, and generally got my shit together, I got myself back on the track I wandered off from. I fell into a slump for a while, but that’s ok. It hit that hard only because that’s how much it meant to me. And I’m back to fight for what I want even harder than before. I scrolled through job listings ferociously, hungry for a chance again. Any chance. Anything certainly beats nothing.

Apply everywhere

I applied to jobs everywhere. Yes, I mean EVERYWHERE. A site that has job postings? I’m on it. At that point, it was also battle of mental strength: me against myself.

Instead of automatically thinking: “Sigh, what good is this? I’ll probably get rejected anyway.”

I forced myself to think: “Yes! Another place to send to! Another chance at Japan!”

Thinking positively really helps and gives me the energy to fight, even if just a day longer.

Besides, what’s the worst that can happen? They’ll just delete my application. Big deal. It won’t hurt me. But I have the world to win! I must have sent out hundreds of applications, and I heard back from just one.

But it’s ok, because this was the one and only one that mattered. I was hired.

HELLO JAPAAAAAAAAN!!!

The end

My search finally ended after more than six months of intensive searching, and what laid ahead was an exciting and eye-opening year in teaching, which you can read more about here.

From this experience, I realize that if I want it badly enough, I can, and will achieve it. The first thing I had to make sure I do is: never give up. It’s ok to feel dejected. It’s ok to take a break. I am on the path to it as long as I never stop. If I give up, it ends right there. Because who else will fight for my dream when even I don’t fight for it myself?

Want it? Do it.

Resources

Here is a list of some sites that I used back in the day. I can’t vouch for their validity since it’s been so long, but hopefully it will be of some use to somebody.

38 Comments

  • Reply Zack 7 February 2016 at 11:27 am

    Hi rin, thanks for sharing your experiences with us! It gives me strength whenever i read your blog, and I started since late 2014 after my own backpack trip to Japan. I was desperate to find a way to stay in Japan,. Unfortunately,duty calls and school and NS dictates that I have to go back to Singapore. May i just ask, were you bonded with NIE/MOE for 4 years? And do you recommend using MOE as a career stepping stone ( to let the Jap authorities know that you’ve taught before ) ?

    • Reply Rin 7 February 2016 at 11:35 pm

      Hi Zack, I’m really glad to hear that my blog is of help to you!
      To answer your questions, I was a contract teacher then and thus was not bonded in any way.
      I think having MOE experience is definitely an advantage, but it is not a guarantee you will definitely land a job just with that. MOE is also a pretty big investment of your time if you take the bond into consideration. So you will have to weigh the pros and cons and decide if you want to take this path. Remember that MOE is an option, but not the only one :)

      ps: You probably know about the JET programme, but just in case, I’m linking it as well. Personally, I think this is actually the best of all the ALT jobs available, and it also pays higher than the rest. But it wasn’t for me because I had to be able to choose where I was posted as Fu was in Japan then too. (One might get posted to rural areas in the JET programme)

  • Reply Zack 8 February 2016 at 1:43 am

    Hi rin, thanks for your prompt reply! Yeah I jave heard about the JET program. I plan to apply for that only after finishing uni (need to have a degree as a requirement ). But we will see how it goes!
    Happy chinese new year btw :) always look forward to your update!

    • Reply Rin 9 February 2016 at 4:20 pm

      Hi Zack, you’re welcome :)
      In general, a degree is one of the prerequisites for the visa application in Japan, so it’s not only JET that requires it. All the best and I hope you will able to realize your dream! Happy CNY! And thank you for always reading :)

  • Reply karen 9 February 2016 at 7:28 am

    this is an amazing feat! I totally can feel your anguish with the statement “want to stab my eyeballs out with a toothpick at the horrible injustice..” Love it! hhahahha

    Totally agree with you at such injustice and I cannot imagine how difficult it is for you to get the position. I have a lot of friends from Australia who went to Japan as an English teacher because these japanese english schools actually came over to recruit them. makes me want to stab THEIR eyeballs out though..not mine. =p

    I have the similar frustration but it’s for my visa. Doesn’t matter english is my 1st language, doesn’t matter I have cambridge english cert, SAT cert, and a PhD. They made me take basic english tests here for my visa because I don’t hold those “native speakers passport”. TWICE! cos this english cert expires every 2 years. as if I’ll forget how to speak after 2 years.

    Anyway, I shall stop complaining like a true blue singaporean today. Because..it’s CNy! happy monkey year!!

    • Reply Rin 9 February 2016 at 4:37 pm

      Ugh. EXACTLY. What is the bloody point of making people take the test every 2 years?! Like you said, it’s not like you will suddenly be rendered incapable of speaking the language and will fail the test flat in your face in the span of 2 years. Utterly ridiculous. And does Singapore’s education system count for nothing? That more than a decade of education with English as the medium of instruction is basically worthless? Our universities rank among the top universities in the world, is that just dirt to them too? UGH RAGE AT STUPID ILLOGICAL BS RULES.

      Right. It’s new year! Haha, we sure are celebrating it the Singaporean way, huh? Happy CNY and hope the new year brings wonderful things to you and your family :)

  • Reply Lilian Ong 12 February 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Hi Rin,

    This post goes to show how selfless you are in sharing your experiences. These days the first thing I do when switching on my laptop is to read your posts. You are an inspiration in many ways.

    I agree that we should never give up on something that we want badly. No one can help us to achieve our dreams other than ourselves.

    Enjoy Japan & btw…I love your dog, Milk Tea so so much!

    Cheers,
    Lilian

    • Reply Rin 13 February 2016 at 3:22 am

      Hi Lilian,

      Thank you for your deep praise. I’m extremely flattered, although not entirely sure if I’m worthy of it! Still, I’m very happy to know that you like my writing. That means a lot to me :)

      Milk Tea and I thank you for your love! ❤︎

      ps: If you like, you can subscribe to the post alert (on the right), which will send you an email every time there is a new post up! I’d hate to have you come here only to be disappointed that there is no new post :(

      • Reply Lilian Ong 15 February 2016 at 12:49 pm

        Yay! I’m a new subscriber. Why didn’t I think about doing it earlier :-)

        • Reply Rin 16 February 2016 at 12:22 am

          Haha, I just got it set up recently, and at any rate, it’s never too late ;)

  • Reply Ivan Chew 23 March 2016 at 7:28 pm

    Hi Rin,

    I am currently going through what you had been through. I am a Malaysian was raised as a trilingual since I was an infant and acquired three language with English being my main language and now I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language with over 2-3 years teaching in school as English teacher and not to mention I have a JLPT-N2 certificate. Until now I have send over 400 applications and out of every 50+ application, I get a computer generated reply that say I didn’t make the cut. I mean what else do they want? I fulfill all of the other requirement just the fact that I am from a non-native english speaking country, I am dismissed as an unfit English teacher? Totally pisses me off

    • Reply Rin 25 March 2016 at 6:48 pm

      Hi Ivan,
      It is a difficult period to endure, but hang in there and you will be rewarded eventually! If you are not particular about where you get posted to, you should apply to the JET programme. That is one of the best places to work for, and they don’t discriminate against nationality. Good luck!

      • Reply Ivan Chew 25 March 2016 at 9:56 pm

        Actually JET was my first choice but because there is no request for Malaysian participants, JET was not opened for Malaysians. Funny thing is Malaysia had been on the list but there are not Malaysian ALT since 2008. Frustrated, I called the embassy of Japan then the SEA Japan embassy in Singapore then Japan Gaimusho then Japan JET Headquarters and finally back to my embassy, practically begging them to look into this matter. Well needless to say I think you can guess what happen afterwards and over 400+ applications send through company and several other job searching websites and here I am

  • Reply Anthony 25 April 2016 at 2:17 pm

    Hi Rin,

    Great Post. Your story is very inspiring, thanks for sharing! :)

    I am interested to work in Japan , but the bad news is, I am Indonesian.

    So, based on your experience in Japan, what do you think about my chances? Have you meet any Indonesian there teaching English?

    By the way, when you got your first job, what position did you apply for? ALT or eikawa position?

    • Reply Rin 27 April 2016 at 12:13 am

      Hi Anthony,

      Personally, I haven’t met any Indonesians teaching English, but I think if you are able to demonstrate that you speak native-level English (through education, qualification or the like) then not all is lost.

      I applied for any and all English teaching jobs then! But I eventually got the job as an ALT. If you’re interested to read about what working as an ALT is like, you can read some of the posts here.

  • Reply Diana 14 May 2016 at 11:25 am

    Hi Rin,

    I chanced about your blog while researching on Nagoya places to visit. This is a interesting blog, thanks for sharing!

    • Reply Rin 14 May 2016 at 1:41 pm

      Hi Diana, thanks for reading and commenting! You’re very kind :)
      I hope you enjoy Nagoya; till this day, I still miss hitsumabushi and the capsule hotel I stayed in!

  • Reply Mitchiko 11 July 2016 at 2:51 pm

    Hi Rin,

    Great blog! From what I read above, is it Gaba that you have interviewed before based on the interview task? I currently finished the 2nd interview and I want to ask you what could have possibly went wrong? I just want to know if I stand a chance in getting the jobas they told me they would get back to me in 10 days! Look forward to your reply :)

    -Mitchiko

    • Reply Rin 12 July 2016 at 1:27 am

      Hi Mitchiko,

      Yep it was. For me, I think it’s simply because I wasn’t a good fit for the company. They’re catered towards adults and professionals whereas I didn’t have any experience teaching adults. The environment is formal; teachers have to wear suits/formal wear, treat their students as clients, etc. whereas I was used to conducting my classes in a more casual and fun environment (plus I teach in jeans and are friends with my students lol).

      Hope this helps; good luck! :)

      • Reply Mitchiko 12 July 2016 at 9:50 am

        Hi Rin,

        Thanks for the prompt reply. Oh I see. Did they get back to you on the spot? Or they emailed you on the rejection?

        • Reply Rin 12 July 2016 at 12:37 pm

          Hi Mitchiko, they emailed me later.

  • Reply Vashini 28 August 2016 at 1:08 am

    Hi Rin,

    Your blog is very informative! I’m moving to Japan with my spouse in June 2017. He is currently attached to a firm in Japan. Could you please advise if I should go to Japan with a spouse visa and then apply for a teaching job? Or get a tourist visa and then apply for job? How long does the process take? Should I start applying for teaching jobs now or when I am actually in Japan? Also, I’m actually looking to settle in Nagoya. Btw, I’m a Malaysian .Please advise. Thank you 🙂

    • Reply Rin 28 August 2016 at 11:31 am

      Hi Vashini,

      It depends on several factors.
      By spouse visa, do you mean that your spouse is a Japanese? Or did you mean dependent’s visa?
      If your spouse is Japanese then you should just go with the spouse visa because that would give you permission to work in Japan.

      If yours is a dependent’s visa, it would allow you to work up to 28 hours per week after you apply for permission. And from there, it depends on what kind of teaching job you’re looking at (full or part-time).

  • Reply Vashini 29 August 2016 at 3:11 pm

    Hey Rin,

    Thank you for your response. My spouse is a Malaysian which means I would need a dependent visa right? Should I start applying for teaching jobs now or when I am actually in Japan next year? Which would you suggest?

    • Reply Rin 29 August 2016 at 8:02 pm

      Hi Vashini,

      Yes, yours would be a dependent visa.

      If you’re planning to work full-time, you would need to convert to a work visa as your dependent visa does not allow you to work full-time. This would mean the company needs to sponsor your work visa. I don’t know what kind of teaching you’re planning to do (English? At what level – elementary? university?), but generally speaking, if I were you, I’d probably start looking early, before coming to Japan.

      If you’re planning to work part-time, it’s safe to start searching after you arrive in Japan.

  • Reply Arden 31 August 2016 at 2:27 am

    Hi Rin,
    I stumble upon your blog while looking for information where people from non-native English speaking countries working as an ALT.
    I know that in order to apply for ALT you have to provide the proof of 12 years of English education.
    Were you asked to provide that by the time you applying ?
    Also, have you met any Malaysians working as ALT before?
    Thank you !

    • Reply Rin 31 August 2016 at 11:50 am

      Hi Arden,

      I had to provide my full education record – schools I attended, etc. I only had to provide university degree for proof (as it’s also a visa requirement).

      Nope, I’ve not met any Malaysian ALTs yet.

  • Reply Cheah zhu en 8 December 2016 at 4:04 pm

    Hi Rin,

    I’m a malaysian and I just recently came Japan to study. I’m currently having my lessons in a Japanese language school. Coming to Japan and get married here has always been my dream as I was born in a quite messed up family and I grew up without experiencing love. To add salt into injury ,I got bullied in secondary school and when I asked for help no one was willing to help me, my mom even told me that if I intend to commit suicide , she will not stop me from doing that too. I can still remember vividly how excruciating it was for me when I heard this from the person that I loved the most.

    Basically I stayed at home and decided not go to school , and there is where I started to develop interest in Japan . I had the misconception of if I can speak english in Japan, it will increase the odds of me getting friends and even a girlfriend. I was born in a Chinese family and i went to Chinese school, even though I was 14 years old at the time, I couldn’t differentiate the difference between placing an “S” in a verb and without it. So I worked really hard to brush up my english but as you can tell from my comment, let alone native speaker, I couldn’t even reach the proficiency of non native speaker,but still… I have tried my best and now I have achieved half of my dream . ( Really sorry for the long irrelevant post but i just want to let you know about how desperate I am right now and i have worked my way from square one until my current standard )

    I am currently 18 years old and I came to Japan in October this year almost without my parents help(my dad gave me a packet of milo and 11 protein bars while my mom gave me a packet of Chrysanthemum tea) . I even had to buy the lagguage and the flight ticket myself lol. My biggest problem right now is about money ,I was told that teaching english in japan is really a decent part time job and tbh I have always dreamed of teaching Japanese people English. I have someone i know that is currently working in GABA right now and he told me his colleagues are from China and Philippines and they only have the certificate of eiken level 2 , so he told me to apply eiken level Pre-1 and try to apply for GABA ,but time is a luxurious thing for me right now as I need to get a decent job ASAP. Luckily enough for me my English accent is like Singaporean accent so i guess speaking is not a problem for me.

    My eiken test is in January 2017 and right now I’m working in a restaurant but it is so mentally and physically tiring as I have to wash plates all day under the pressure of the shops owner and my manager. ( once again really sorry for the irrelevant comment T . T ) I just want to ask you that, do you think that I am qualified for this? Should i just go back to Malaysia? I only paid half of my school fee( 6 months fee,450k yen) and I need another 300k by March of 2017 ,so I might choose to garduate early as I couldn’t afford it. My current jobs hourly pay is impossible for me to continue studying in Japan.The only solution I found is teaching english in Japan but I feel like I’m not good enough for it.I feel so pressured right now I don’t know what to do. Thank you for reading until here ;w; I really appreciate it a lot.

    Looking forward towards your reply,
    Cheah

    I have been studying hard to sharpen my english but sometimes i just feel that my english is not proficient enough to teach them as i only got A- in my SPM (National test for all secondary school students) and

    • Reply Cheah zhu en 8 December 2016 at 4:11 pm

      I apologise for the messy comment, I think my phone just went hay wired , the last sentence somehow just appeared out of nowhere.

    • Reply Rin 9 December 2016 at 2:09 pm

      Hi Zhu En,

      It sounds like you have a lot going on right now. As for whether or not you are qualified, if you fulfill the job listing’s requirements, why not just give you a try? That will give you the answer rather than just thinking about whether or not it is possible.

      And regarding your current part-time job, perhaps you should consider changing jobs in the meantime? I don’t know how much your current job pays, but I’m pretty sure there are many comparable jobs that provide a better environment (like conbinis or restaurant staff, etc)

      I only have one question: Do you intend to work full-time teaching English instead of studying?
      As you are 18 years old, I assume you don’t have a university degree yet. As far as I know, one of the requirements to apply for a work visa (that allows you to work full-time) is a university degree, so you may want to take that into consideration.

      I don’t know if what I said helps, but I hope it will be useful in one form or another. You are probably stressed and tired, but I think it might be good to take a short breather and _really_ think about what it is you want. Only you can find the answer and pave the way for yourself.

  • Reply Cheah zhu en 9 December 2016 at 9:41 pm

    Thank you so much for your sincere reply. I not sure what my future awaits but I believe that if there is a will, there is a way. I guess right now what i needed the most is to take some rest. Really thank you so much.

    • Reply Rin 10 December 2016 at 1:58 pm

      I hope you’ll find your way. You have my best wishes.

  • Reply Afiqah 16 January 2017 at 8:52 am

    Hai Rin, stumble upon your blog and it really gives me a ray of hope of fulfilling one of my biggest dreams that is to able to teach and stay in japan, but the thing is i don’t know how to do it or who should i go to or even which path should i take .. I’m from Malaysia n as you know its hard to find a job that suits the degree. thanks to your blog i finally have someone that knows their way there. Is it okey for me to ask you any questions regarding the matter?

    • Reply Rin 25 January 2017 at 7:24 pm

      Hi Afiqah, if you still have questions after reading my blog post and also comments (and replies), then feel free to ask :)

  • Reply wan nur amalina 19 January 2017 at 9:52 am

    Hi Rin, good day. I was just wondering how do you prove about 12 years of education in English? Being a student in a school we are taught English since like, kindergarten, LOL. I am Malaysian too and currently in progress to get tefl certification. I already have a Bachelor’s Degree but not in English.

    I just wanted to know if ..

    (1)You ever applied under Interac, Gaba, or Amity for teaching jobs in Japan?

    (2) Does working as a receptionist at an English Academy which is owned by an Irish person increase my chances getting hired since I’ve worked with international educators from Canada and USA? (I have quite an Queen’s English accent, that is why he chose me for the job. And others also complimented me on the matter because I sound like a native English speaker.)

    (3) Currently, I’m teaching an adult in English because she personally contacted me as a side job. But it is self-employed type of job, does it count as an experience worth mentioning?

    (4) I am also under a contract with a Home Tuition Center, but alas, still not getting a client because it is new in my area. Can I include that in my professional resume, just to add as reference?

    That is all the questions I have for now, I’m very sorry if I’m bothering you with these many questions. I’m just curious on getting a glimpse of chances that I might have in landing a job as a teacher in Japan

    • Reply Rin 25 January 2017 at 7:19 pm

      Hi Amalina,

      For me, listing my schools was good enough for them to prove the 12 years of English education.
      I think when you attain your TEFL certification, it will count substantially in your favor.

      As for your questions:
      1) Yes, although I didn’t get an interview/offer.

      2) I am inclined to say no. Because it remains that you were a receptionist and not a teacher, and it does not add to your teaching experience.

      3) I would list it (especially if I don’t have other experience)

      4) I would list it only if I have actual clients, because they might call them (although it’s a slim chance they’ll do that) if you are shortlisted and it wouldn’t look too good to realize that you in fact haven’t had any practical experience with clients.

      I answered the questions as if I were in your shoes, so please don’t take them as the “correct” answer, because they really aren’t :) Still, I hope it will be useful in some way to you! Good luck! :)

  • Reply Hayley 19 July 2017 at 2:31 am

    Hi Rin,

    I know that this post was uploaded some time ago, but if you don’t mind I have a few questions, so I hope that you don’t mind me asking ^^”

    I’m from Malaysia and I studied my Sec 4 and 5 in The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), an English language based curriculum in a private school. Then, for foundation, I did MUFY, which is based in Australia (but I did it in KL), and for the final 2 years of Uni, I transferred to Melbourne to complete my course.

    What would I like to know is whether when applying for an English teaching job in Japan, do they emphasize a lot on the grades that you received? I got an A in IGSCE but for MUFY I got a distinction for part I and a C for part II. (I slacked on my projects during part 2)

    And during my degree (Accounts), my average is roughly around 60+ ^^” But I did take IELTS ~

    Also, is it possible to live on an ALT’s salary in Japan?

    Sorry for all the questions >.>

    • Reply Rin 24 July 2017 at 7:44 pm

      Hi Hayley,

      I don’t think they really place a great emphasis on specific grades, so you probably don’t have to worry about that part too much.

      And of course it’s possible to survive on an ALT salary. It’s not luxurious (and you probably can’t save much), but definitely possible. All the ALTs working in Japan are proof of that ;)

    Leave a Reply