Choosing Japan as a place to live
Many people, once they decide to come to Japan, try to use some of the conventional ways of doing that: for those coming from English speaking countries, that would mean either coming to Japan while in college—as an exchange student—or through the JET program.
In this blog post, I would like to share some other ways in which a successful arrival and survival in Japan could be accomplished. For many, coming to Japan might be a dream: but teaching English as a second language all their life isn’t. So, through this post, I hope to give all my readers a few different approaches on handling Japan to allow it to give you the opportunities needed for you to do what you really want in your stay here. That way, you don’t have to become a long-term eikaiwa teacher by default.
Before moving forward with the writing, I would like to point out that I am not against becoming a full-time English instructor in Japan. I have, obviously, chosen that as my major career path and believe it is a very honorable and rewarding trade. This blog is just to assist those interested in doing something different than teaching get started here in J-land.
A quick look at the challenges facing those foreigners willing to do something different in Japan
The very first barrier foreigners trying to do something different in Japan will find is that of acquiring a VISA. Though there seems to be a movement in Japan toward changing laws to make the entry of newcomers more feasible in the Land of the Rising Sun, it is still one of the toughest countries to acquire the documents needed to do any kind of work. The easiest way to get a VISA—that is, if you are somehow illegible to come here under a Working Holiday VISA scheme (http://www.mofa.go.jp/j_info/visit/w_holiday/index.html click here for details)—is to find sponsorship through work in Japan. For that reason, coming through programs like the JET program, or an eikaiwa school like GABA, become the easiest doorway into Japan.
Having dedicated so many years of my career to full-time teaching, I don’t think coming here through those doors is a bad idea. However, for those interested in doing something unique in Japan (and for those whose first/natural language is not English and are, therefore, unable to come to Japan through the eikaiwa system), having only this pathway becomes quite restrictive: what if you are an Indonesian person with a fantastic skill set and a passion for Japan, but, simply because of VISA related bureaucracy, you must give up on your dreams of living here? That would mean a loss not only to the person who is unable to come but to Japan also who could greatly benefit from your qualifications.
To overcome this barrier, I have developed a set of steps that could help you in your quest to come to Japan. These steps apply, independently of the country you are from and independently of your age/gender (which can be crucial for those of you who are 31 and above and not willing to go back to university, just to become exchange students in Japan).
Please notice that there are many other different approaches than this one—I plan to write some of them in this very same blog in the near future. This is just to serve to give you a way to get things started by providing you guys the basics of finding ways to come to Japan.
STEP 1: Start by studying the language
If you have some money saved, I strongly recommend investing some of that in studying Japanese. Many of the people I have helped settle in Japan acquired both the language and the VISA by applying to a Japanese language program (which grants student VISAs that can be later changed into a work VISA for those who are able to find a job after completing their studies—2 birds with one stone type of deal). Depending on how old you are and of your willingness to put in the hours needed to learn the language, you can most likely master spoken Japanese in about 6 months to a year of full-time study. Here is the breakdown of what to do:
- Apply to study Japanese at a JSL school near the place where you want to live in Japan. If you are coming to Kansai—I recommend living in Kobe and studying in Osaka. ECC Gaikokugo Semongaku in Umeda is a fantastic school—very serious about their language teaching and it is the place responsible for making me fluent in 4 months’ time! Teachers were very professional—the classes were so very difficult—but it was worth every penny invested. It is about $7000 (US) for the year of study and they also provide very affordable housing so, why not check their website and give it a thought? (http://japan.ecc.ac.jp/en/)
- Start studying the lingo and go really hard at it—full-time commitment—no English while in school and with friends and there are plenty of ways of making Japanese friends at the same school. Since ECC is a “Polytech” institution (like a 2-year college in the US), there are many Japanese students there as well. Hangout at their facilities after hours looking for like-minded Japanese people to befriend. This will help you create that very first circle of local allies who will, in turn, assist you in the process of assimilation one must go through in order to become 1 with Japan.
STEP 2: Find some work to get used to Japanese working culture
If you are from an English-speaking country, the easiest work to find will be doing some teaching assistance at the very same school where you study Japanese at. Many of these schools also offer English classes to Japanese people, so teaching there while you learn Japanese can be a way to quickly acquire some capital flow while studying. Many of these part-time positions usually have jobs that you can do with a student VISA (just make sure you acquire the right permits at the Japanese immigration that allow you to work up to 20 hours as a student—once again, immigration laws tend to vary depending on the country you are coming from—but most will still give you some opportunity to work here as a student. The money you make here will probably only be enough to pay utilities and your food–but it’s a start.
Now, I don’t mean to contradict myself here. If you start teaching English, yes, you will begin speaking English during the hours you are working and that goes against what I just said about “Japanese only” while studying. However, making an exception only for work is still acceptable. When I first started, I used to teach English part-time at Berlitz and as soon as my work was finished I was using Japanese, even with students and staff. I was ruthless in my mastering of the language and did not care how “forcing” other to use Japanese with me would make them feel. I didn’t even care if it was some sort of accepted cultural norm to use English with students after teaching hours! That’s how serious I was about the language! Thanks to that tenacity in studying Japanese, many of my students acquired a certain level of respect for my efforts and, believe it or not, would gladly use Japanese with me if we met after class for a dinner or something.
In saying all of this, I do hear of people that get hurt/burned with this kind of mentality—some Japanese people, unfortunately, see most foreigners as incapable of speaking Japanese no matter how good they are at it. For that reason, they will speak English only to you, no matter how fluent you sound. Some want to show off and will use English when they see you out of pride. Some will even reject your friendship and/or complain about you to the school because of your use of Japanese after school hours. For these reasons, you must be really confident and comfortable with this level of boldness in using Japanese before you decide to put this advice into effect—therefore, do take this piece of advice with a grain of salt.
Finally, finding part-time work at a restaurant, bar, internet café among other similar places will not only help you make some money, they will also help you learn how to provide customer service like a hospitable Japanese person. Moreover, this line of work can assist you in the mastering of keigo (or polite Japanese) which you will need in order to work for prominent Japanese companies in the future.
I worked at Kaikatsu Club (http://www.kaikatsu.jp/) internet café for about 8 months after my first 6 months of Japan. In all honesty, it was a really hard job to do because there is so much explanation you have to do to customers who come to the café for the first time—and all must be done in proper keigo. I still have recollections of being scolded by our tencho so many times for not speaking politely to our guests. However, by putting myself under so much pressure, this experience did help me speak Japanese more naturally and at a level of politeness that has granted me praise from many Japanese people—even those in the higher echelons of society—as well as the ability of speaking in hundreds of different occasions in Japanese to a varied audience of academics during University conferences and the like.
STEP 3: Find your dream in Japan! The job hunting process
Once your studies are about to complete, you can ask your school to help you with the job hunting process. If your Japanese is really good (N1 level), companies have recently become more and more keen to hire foreign staff with strong communication ability and fluency in 1 or more languages besides Japanese. Especially trading companies and companies in the IT sector seem to be searching for the globalized human resources they need to tackle overseas markets.
If things don’t work out with the school, there are a few job-seeking Facebook groups that will help in the process as well. Jobs in Kansai/Kanto (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1436901939886293/), are a few good places to get started. If you find it hard to get a job that will provide VISA sponsorship, applying for the eikaiwa jobs first will grant you the VISA extension you need to get the extra time necessary to find your dream job here. I have met foreigners who started with schools like BERLITZ and moved on to work for major corporations like Marubeni and Itochu. Others, eventually, started their own companies here and are currently very successful. Do everything you can to extend your stay until you can get permanent citizenship. Once you have that and the Japanese fluency, the doors will open and you will be able to work in the field of your choice.
I hope this helps—The ideas above are hard to follow and it takes time, sometimes years, to see them blossom. But everything worth doing in life should take time to build so go ahead, start planning and make sure once you come to Japan you come with the drive needed to make your Japanese life come to fruition.