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Top 10 Popular Questions about Living and Teaching in Japan (Answered with words)

I tend to get asked the same questions every week about life in Japan and teaching / working in Japan (not that I mind speaking to curious individuals about an exciting future overseas) and decided the time had come to make an article covering the top 10 most asked questions once and for all.

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Here’s a summary so you can skip down to find the question you’re interested in:

Why did you go to Japan?
How do I find a teaching job in Japan?
Do I have to become a teacher to move to Japan?
If I decide to teach in Japan, can I go where I want?
Why would you go to Japan without first speaking the language?
Should I learn Japanese?
Is Japanese difficult?
What’s the cost of living like?
What’s the most difficult thing about living in Japan?
Is it easy to find a Japanese girlfriend/boyfriend?

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1. Why did you go to Japan?

I’d always wanted to go to Japan since seeing the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice when I was 6 and wondering what a bizarre place Japan looked.

But over the years I knew a mere holiday there would never cut it, especially at the thought of having to sell my limbs to medical science just to afford the flights.

I realised that to truly appreciate the culture and absorb the language, it would take not just weeks or months, but years of living in Japan.

Fortunately I had a few years to spare.

I also felt that living in Japan would be the adventurous experience I’d long craved, whilst staring out of classroom windows for the first 18 years of my life, daydreaming about a life abroad.

Another key factor was my desire to learn a new language, as I’d failed to pull this off at high school.

I wanted the smug satisfaction of attending future social events and parties, slipping it into conversation that I could speak Japanese and then reveling in the inevitable gasps, praise and applause.

– Which is what will definitely happen.

I had never got into Manga comics or Anime beforehand (except watching Pokemon back in the 90’s) and by no accounts an “Otaku” (Japanese pop culture obsessed individual). I also never wanted to be or feel Japanese like many people I’ve encountered along the way.

In fact, I didn’t even go looking for a job in Japan – it came to me during a flight to France in 2009 when I found myself being recommended the Japanese Exchange Teaching (JET) Program by a couple whose daughter was on it at the time.

For over an hour, crushed between the window and the couple, whilst consuming cheap peanuts and fizzy beverages, they told me tales of their daughter’s adventures in Japan and her fantastic experiences on the JET Program.

Despite having never thought about living or working in Japan, not even once, up until that point, before the plane had even hit the tarmac, I’d decided that I would be willing to take my own life, just for the chance of living in Japan.

The picture they painted got me excited for the first time about my future and for the next few years the day dreams of frolicking through rice fields, drunk on sake and screaming out witty idioms in Japanese, drove me through University and towards the dream of living in Japan.

Finally, in August 2012, my shattered and sleep deprived face emerged through the gates of Tokyo’s Narita Airport and into my new life in Japan.

– Before I was roasted to a thin crisp by the ridiculous temperatures that Japan experiences in summer.

2. How do I find a teaching job in Japan?

Google the JET Program or Interac.

They’re the best ways into Japan (or certainly the easiest) and they’ll take care of everything from flight expenses to sorting out visas and helping you with the paperwork.

Granted the JET program can be competitive but it’s a great way of coming to Japan, seeing here and living in it for up to 5 years before you go home or find another job.

Whilst I can’t speak for INTERAC (as I’m on JET), from the people I know who are on it, it’s more or less the same as JET, but is run privately. It’s said the salary isn’t as high, but don’t let that put you off. Like JET, Interac has a good support network and JET’s and INTERACs working in the same areas often hang out.

3. Do I have to become an English teacher to move to Japan?

No, but it’s the easiest way. Alternatives include coming to Japan as a University student or being used as an upmarket rug.

4. If I decide to teach in Japan, can I go where I want?

If it’s on JET or Interac, then no not really. Case example; I chose Hyogo prefecture around Kobe in the south west Japan.

So they put me 500 kilometers north of Hyogo.

That said, I love where I am (Yamagata Prefecture) and I’d specifically stated I’d be happy anywhere (during the interview I’d stated I’d even be happy living in a cave in Hokkaido, much to the confused expressions of the interviewers).

At the time, I enjoyed being at the mercy of the roll of the dice and suspect wherever I ended up, it would be adventurous and fun.

The dice subsequently landed me a job at the biggest senior high school in all of north Japan (Tohoku region), in a beautiful area surrounded by mountains, a huge extinct volcano and the sea of Japan.

Sign up with an open mind about where you’ll be placed and may help your application as Flexibility is a crucial card in the interview rounds for the Japanese teaching programs.

There are other ways to apply for jobs for specific schools in areas you want to work, but I’m afraid I can’t help with regards to how you would go about doing such a thing.

But if you really hate where you live, I’d recommend you start looking for jobs elsewhere and quit your job after the first year.

5. Why would you go to Japan without first speaking the language?

I wanted to move to Japan so I could learn the language. Unfortunately during my time at University, in between studies and two jobs, I had no time.

Perhaps the biggest factor however, was that the job didn’t actually require knowledge of the Japanese language, as teachers on JET or Interac, work closely with Japanese teachers of English in class.

Consequently half of the teachers I know living in Japan came here without knowing a word. The JET Program and Interac hire thousands of people annually who barely know a word of Japanese.

In fact, on either JET or Interac, your title is actually that of an “Assistant Language Teacher” (ALT) and pretty much most of the time you’ll be teaching with a Japanese teacher of English, who can teach the grammar and translate.

This allows the Assistant Language Teachers (ALT) to focus on the more fun stuff, such as facilitating actually conversation with students and getting them to use what they’ve learnt. Having an ALT present can motivate students to learn more as they can see the practical uses of what they’ve learnt.

If you do know Japanese and the students are aware, often there is a reluctance to even bother speaking English at all. If they know they can communicate with you more easily in their native tongue, they will.

That said, I would strongly urge ALT’s to learn Japanese as it will enable you to have a better relationship with students and teacher and truly appreciate your life in Japan.

It also sets a good example for the students, to see the ALT bothered to learn their language and it makes work parties with colleagues infinitely more rewarding.

6. Should I learn Japanese before I sign up to JET or Interac?

Yes, if you can. It’ll give your application an edge, but more importantly you can live a far more awesome life in Japan and feel like more than a mere tourist. Even the smallest amount of Japanese will go a long way to fostering relationships with your students, colleagues and locals.

As soon as I started using my Japanese with strangers around town, I started to make many new Japanese friends, who didn’t feel intimidated hanging around with someone where making basic conversation was going to be a tedious task.

7. Is Japanese difficult?

It’s time consuming. To become truly fluent requires years of study. It’s not just the 2,200 kanji characters with multiple readings, it’s not just the grammar which can seem pretty alien from English, it’s not just the memory required to absorb all the thousands of new words and characters, it’s the whole new way of thinking you have to apply to it all to become truly fluent.

Generally speaking, the hardest Japanese proficiency test N1/JLP1 could be passed in about 3 years if you studied daily and lived in Japan.

But even then that wouldn’t make you a native speaker, unless you were a genius.

Still, you can be having decent conversations after just a few months of study, so don’t be too put off. It’s a challenge that will pay off in the long run and Japanese people are hugely encouraging.

Whenever colleagues see me studying in my free time, they are always delighted and impressed at whatever I’m doing.

8. What’s the best thing about living in Japan?

It’s not a thing or a place, but very much the culmination of many things I love coming together. Namely, sitting on the tatami mats floors at an izakaiya (a Japanese pub), drinking sake, eating fantastic food and speaking in Japanese with friends and just having a good time.

The atmosphere of a good izaikaya is very cosy and comfortable, the food brilliant and the drinks outstanding. To enjoy it all in the company of friends, whilst speaking in Japanese (which is always a rewarding experience within itself) is my idea of a perfect evening and encompasses all the best things about Japan all at once.

9. What’s the most difficult thing about living in Japan?

Losing my independence as a result of the language barrier, bureaucracy and not understanding certain protocols.

Even if you can speak Japanese, there are often notorious amounts of forms to fill out for almost everything. Japanese culture isn’t particular flexible and even the most trivial things can be a big deal.

Also, as foreigners are rare, it can be a bit intimidating at first, wandering through a supermarket and having fellow customers stare at you in awe. It can also lead to some strange encounters in fast food restaurants, as I wrote about previously:

10. Is it easy to find a Japanese girlfriend / boyfriend?

Nearly everyone I know who has a girlfriend met them at a social gathering and were able to speak at the very least basic Japanese.

At the end of the day, it’s true you can use being foreign as a trump card and succeed better than you would back home. This is on account of foreign people being pretty rare and perceived as “cool” for reasons I can’t comprehend.

Speaking Japanese on some level, again, even at the most basic will boost your chances of success.

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