Working in Japan
Particularly during its "bubble economy" years in the 1980s, Japan used to be an attractive place to work for people from English-speaking countries. The stagnation of the Japanese economy made the country a less popular working location in recent years. The days of meeting a wealthy Japanese person in a bar or on the train who is willing to give you wads of cash just to sit and chat in a coffee shop are a thing of the past. But the obsession with learning English continues and the fact that it's still possible to get a reasonable, or better, working wage simply by virtue of being a native speaker of a foreign language continues to bring new faces to the country every year.
And many people see Japan as a land of future opportunities. Changes to the economic landscape are being wrought by deregulation and the Internet and more foreign companies than ever are expanding into this, the world's second-largest market. Language and cultural barriers have long been embedded in the distinct Japanese style of doing business, but even this is beginning to change. There is hope for a higher English fluency rate in the not-too-distant future but teachers will always be needed.
Long-standing cornerstones of business practice, such as guaranteed lifetime employment and rigid keiretsu corporate affiliations are being undermined. Foreigners have been brought in to make some painful changes, such as the massive cuts at automakers like Nissan, that local managers just can't seem to bring themselves to carry out. So whether you're interested in making some yen to finance a back-packing trip around Southeast Asia or taking over the helm at a future multinational corporation, we hope this article can be of some assistance.
Teaching, and in particular English teaching, is by far the most popular form of employment for westerners in Japan. It can be a short-term or a long-term thing, with a professional or casual basis, and the major eikaiwa (English conversation) schools offer short training periods and don't expect most teachers to stay beyond their one or two-year contract. For those hoping to come to Japan to teach, things took a turn for the worse when the country's biggest chain school Nova went bust in 2007.
Read our guide to teaching in Japan.
While teaching is an ideal job for someone in the country only temporarily, there are several other options available. Visa restrictions make some of them more suitable as a 'moonlighting' option while others provide sponsorship and various benefits.
Bar & restaurant work
The 90's saw a high level of internationalisation in Japan and one obvious result was the increase in the number of western bars and restaurants. The latter half of the decade saw a veritable boom in Irish and British pubs as well as various sports and other theme bars. Most have at least one 'authentic' foreign barman (the job's not popular among foreign women). Italian, Indian and various other world cuisines continue to be popular and some restaurants employ foreign staff. Hourly pay rates (usually around 1,200 yen) are around the lower end of what you could expect to make teaching.
These are two areas that can be very lucrative and surprisingly easy to get into, though the work doesn't usually just fall into your lap and some effort is required to get started. The number of foreigners in Japan is now such that we don't stand out as much as in say the 1980s and you'll have to actually do some legwork to get hired. If you've already been in the business at home, you have a definite head-start in Japan and will most likely find the agencies very welcoming. But there is enough demand for foreign faces on TV shows, commercials, music videos, movies etc that you'll most likely find some work easily enough. The hard part for a new arrival is knowing who to contact. There are a few foreigners with experience in the business who've put together "info packs" with all the details you need to get started.
Hostessing used to have a similar aura to English teaching in terms of the potential to make a lot of money in a short period of time. The main source of this money was also the same - wealthy businessmen getting ever wealthier in the bubble economy. For these nouveau riche, hanging out with a foreigner, whether it was an English teacher or a beautiful woman, was part of the game. The economy took a nosedive in the 90's and with it went extravagant pay rates. Hostessing still pays more on average than teaching but the hours are usually late and the company can be as unsavoury as ever. Sexism is still the norm in Japan and women are often judged on their appearance - this is particularly so in hostessing and is often directly related to one's rate of pay.
These days, fast-changing IT and financial companies compete with each other in a search for the right staff and recruitment companies also advertise regularly for professional and managerial staff. Contract work has become more common, especially in the areas of networks, DTP and multimedia. There are several companies that specialize in finding and placing foreign staff.
Another area open to native speakers is translation/rewriting, and of course the right background and experience go a long way. Qualifications in things like engineering, medicine and law are useful for rewriting work, while Japanese language ability is obviously a major factor in getting translation work. Most companies want someone with experience and having a portfolio and references is a good idea.
The JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program is usually thought of as being for teaching English only. In fact, it also provides positions for SEA's (Sports Exchange Advisors) and CIR's (Coordinators for International Relations) who work at local governments around the country. The latter have been very useful in the creation of official English-language Web sites for various cities and prefectures. They also promote international exchange events and provide translation and interpretation services.