From Tokyo’s neon-lit alleys to Kyoto’s Imperial architecture and Mount Fuji’s conical ice-capped peak, Japan is an alluring place to explore. With its eclectic blend of high-tech prowess and ancient oriental traditions, the Land of the Rising Sun has been luring intrepid foreigners for eons.

And while most visit on a quick whirlwind sightseeing trip, it takes time to truly understand the complexities of Japan. The best way to fully immerse yourself in the culture—and see its plethora of enticing sites—is to score a gig as an ESL teacher.

But as a highly developed country with strict immigration regulations, you can’t just rock up and start applying for jobs. This guide provides insightful pointers on how to be an English teacher in Japan.

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What are the requirements to teach English in Japan?

While there’s high demand for ESL teachers (especially in private language schools), there’s also stiff competition. As a result, the Japanese can afford to be picky.

Most teachers need a bachelor’s degree and a clean criminal record to start working in Japan. Although it’s not required, a relevant qualification such as a TEFL certificate will help enormously. English teachers in Japan can expect to earn between $1,700 and $5,000 per month.

There are numerous requirements to teach English in Japan, from age restrictions to formal qualifications. If you’re wondering how to become a teacher in Japan, here are the non-negotiables.

University degree

A bachelor’s degree is essential, especially if you’re planning to do the JET Program in Japan (more on that later). But the good news is you don’t need a teaching or English language-related qualification—any old BA will do. Got a bachelor’s degree in the culinary arts? It’s time to put your extensive food preparation expertise to good use.

If you haven’t spent years slaving away at a tertiary institution, there are other avenues to explore. The Working Holiday Visa, for example, lets youngsters live, work, and travel in the country for up to one year. Furthermore, the spouse visa, student visa, and Japanese citizenship offer alternative (albeit challenging) pathways.

Clean background check

Japan is one of the safest countries on earth, and the government doesn’t want that to change. The JET Program, for example, requires a criminal background check from your home country’s national crime prevention organisation (the FBI, if you’re from the US for example). If you’ve been arrested, charged, or convicted for anything other than a minor traffic offence, then you can expect your work visa to be denied. And that includes drug-related offences—you might even be asked to pass a urine test.

Should you obtain a work visa via other means, then a checkered history could still prevent you from becoming an ESL teacher in Japan. Almost all schools and institutes (especially those teaching children) will request a background check. Good thing you’ve kept your nose clean.

Citizenship from an English-speaking country

Your passport is crucial if you want to teach English in Japan. The Japanese government (and most schools) gives preference to applicants from native English-speaking countries. Specifically, the most sought-after nationalities what’s known as the ‘Big 7’: Australia, Canada, the US, the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, and South Africa.

While exceptional TEFL candidates from other English-speaking countries may be considered, most schools prefer to hire nationals of the Big 7. Teachers from non-English speaking countries can theoretically acquire a visa and job, but it’s unlikely to be as straightforward.

TEFL certification for teaching English in Japan

Although a TEFL certificate isn’t one of the official requirements for teaching English in Japan, it’s certainly a good idea. As Japanese salaries are so attractive (and the culture oh-so enchanting), the government receives thousands of work visa applications each year. Immigration can afford to be picky about who they allow in, so it’s crucial you stand out from the pack. If you haven’t gotten around to obtaining a basic TEFL certification, you probably won’t even get a look in.

It’s not only the government who likes formal qualifications: the top private schools and institutions adore TEFL qualifications, too. After all, that coveted piece of paper proves you’ve got the ESL expertise to draft and deliver a killer lesson plan.

And there’s no good reason not to have one. It’s possible to obtain a reputable TEFL certification online that includes 120-hours of study (the industry standard) for a modest financial investment.

Are there age restrictions for TEFL in Japan?

There’s no age limit for obtaining a work visa to teach English. However, older teachers may struggle to score a contract at a local school or institute.

In Japan, most people retire at the spritely young age of 60—much earlier than in the West. Therefore, if you’re a tad older than that, you probably won’t receive a whole heap of job offers, no matter how qualified you may be. In fact, most Japanese schools prefer to hire TEFL teachers in their 20s and 30s due to cultural reasons (and their youthful enthusiasm).

That said, age definitely isn’t one of the official teacher requirements in Japan. If you’re starting to sport a few grey hairs but you’re passionate about starting a new life in Nagasaki, there’s no harm in giving it a go.

Types of TEFL jobs in Japan and their requirements

Now you're up to speed with the essential teaching in Japan requirements, it's time to examine the most popular pathways in more detail.

The JET program (teaching assistant)

Run by the Japanese government since 1987, the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program is perfect for budding young TEFL superstars seeking their first taste of teaching English abroad.

Although it encompasses other fields, the JET program in Japan primarily allows foreigners to live in the country while working as a teaching assistant. As the name implies, you’ll be helping an experienced teacher rather than running a class yourself, which makes it an attractive role for newly-minted ESL educators. Typical everyday duties include preparing materials, participating in extra-curricular activities, and assisting the headteacher with various tasks.

Applicants must:

  • Hold a BA degree
  • Have citizenship with a participating country
  • Demonstrate a genuine interest in Japanese culture
  • Have spent less than 6 years in Japan during the last decade

If approved, you’ll get an extendable one-year contract with the following benefits:

  • An annual salary of 3.6 million yen per year (approx £24,000 / $31,500)
  • Return flights to and from your home country
  • Accommodation assistance
  • 10-20 days of annual leave

While you can request a placement in a specific city, the government will ultimately decide where you live and work. As there’s a shortage of native English-speaking teacher assistants in small towns, there’s a good chance you’ll end up somewhere rural. What’s more, the work itself isn’t as rewarding as a proper teaching job—you’ll constantly parrot certain phrases in your smooth, native-speaking accent.

Applications typically open sometime during October and close in November. If you pass the first round, you’ll be invited to attend an interview at the closest Japanese embassy in January the following year. You’ll find out whether you’ve been successful sometime in March or April—if so, expect to start your exciting new role in July or August.

If you’re in your last year of university, then you’re eligible to apply so long as you plan to graduate before the program commences.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • Q. Can I teach English in Japan without a degree?

    A. While there are some options to teach English in Japan without a degree, a bachelor’s degree is typically required for most positions. If you’re under 30 and from an approved country, your best bet is to apply for a Working Holiday Visa.

  • Q. Do I need a TEFL certification to teach in Japan?

    A. The government doesn’t require a formal TEFL qualification for a work visa, but it’ll bolster your chances. Plus, almost all well-paid positions will insist on a certificate.

  • Q. Do I need citizenship from an English-speaking country to TEFL in Japan?

    A. One of the most crucial requirements for teaching English in Japan is your nationality. While it’s possible to secure a work visa and an employment contract as a non-native speaker, the process is extremely challenging.

  • Q. How easy is it to get a TEFL job in Japan?

    A. So long as you fulfil the main requirements, getting a job is relatively easy. There’s high demand for qualified English teachers, especially those with a bachelor’s degree, TEFL certificate and/or experience.

  • Q. How long does it take to become a TEFL teacher in Japan?

    A. The time it takes to become a TEFL teacher in Japan depends on your qualifications and experience. If you already hold a college degree and TEFL qualification, you can start applying for jobs immediately.

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