This is a guest post from James, founder of ALTInsider.com, a website about career success in Japan. We hope his advice helps you transition away from English teaching and into a career that fits you best.
Japan is an amazing place to live, full of history, culture, and cuisine. It's so amazing, in fact, that thousands of people who wouldn't otherwise choose a teaching career become English teachers, simply to get a more complete experience of the country.
I was in this camp myself, teaching English for years, even though I was never really a teacher at heart. However, using the methods outlined in this guide, I found a non-teaching job in japan and now earn an income doing something more in line with my strengths: helping people have more fun working in Japan with ALT Insider and helping people get hired at ALT Insider Resume Review.
The following guide is for those of you in the same boat I was: enjoying your English teaching job to a degree, but only doing it as a means to keep living in Japan. If you see teaching as a stepping stone rather than a career, it may be time to start working on a new path.
- Decide Your Goal
- Step 1: Study Japanese
- Step 2: Networking
- Step 3: Apply for Jobs
- Step 4: Repeat 2–3 Until Mission Accomplished
- Leveling Up to Your Non-Teaching Job in Japan
Decide Your Goal
What seems daunting at first becomes simple if broken down into steps. This works with cooking a new recipe, and it works here too.
The first thing to do on your quest for new employment is to decide what you really want to be doing.
"Anything that's not teaching," works if you're undecided at the moment, but something like "a programming job in the video game industry" is much more motivating. In either case, it is important to decide your goal before you get started. You want it on your mind at all times.
Make a poster with your goal written on it and put it above your bed. Set a daily alarm on your phone that reminds you of your endgame. Anything you can do to keep your objective in front of your face, do it. Everything you do from this day forward should be moving you closer toward your goal.
Setting a goal is one thing, but you need to find out how to achieve it. What at first seems daunting will become simple when broken down into smaller steps. This works with cooking a new recipe, and it works here too. Let's take a look at the process.
Step 1: Study Japanese
If you're serious about finding other forms of work and enjoying Japan to the fullest, you need to get your Japanese language ability in order. Most jobs for foreigners in Japan require Japanese ability at N2 level or above. Lucky for you, this step is simple. All you have to do is put in the time.
Are there jobs in Japan that don't require Japanese? Sure. You can work in IT, do manual labor, or work in an overnight bento factory. But even those jobs will be more rewarding (and easy!) if you speak Japanese. Your ability to speak Japanese is the skill that allows you to "play the game" in the first place. So never stop learning.
"But I don't know how to study Japanese," you might say.
The best methods for studying Japanese is a topic for another article. But here are some quick tips to get you started (after which, check out Tofugu's Learn Japanese page for a more complete roadmap).
Learn Hiragana: Learning to read the Japanese syllabary is your very first step, because it sets the groundwork for everything else. You can learn hiragana in a few hours with Tofugu's hiragana mnemonics guide.
Learn Katakana: Katakana is the other Japanese syllabary, and you'll need to learn it, too. You can also learn this in a few hours with Tofugu's katakana mnemonics guide.
Study Kanji: Kanji is Japan's "alphabet," consisting of around 50,000 characters. You only need to know about 2,000 though (no big deal, right?). Find an app or study method that works for you. Tofugu recommends WaniKani, of course, because it can teach you 2,000+ kanji in a couple years.
Study Grammar from a Textbook: Once you have a comfortable grasp of kanji (about level 10 on WaniKani), it's time to start studying grammar from a textbook. Some might say you should start studying grammar sooner, and that's up to you. But having some kanji under your belt makes reading, and therefore grammar, much easier to soak up.
Study for the JLPT: When it comes to job search, your ultimate goal is to score N2 on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). Almost all employers use the JLPT to judge foreign workers' Japanese language ability. N2 is the second to highest, and your minimum bar for entry to the Japanese workforce. After you've been studying Japanese textbooks for a while, start using JLPT Textbooks to study the Japanese used on that test.
Step 2: Networking
As is the case when job hunting in any country, the more you know about the field you want to be a part of, the better your chances of finding employment. You'll find new openings faster, know more about the trends and opportunities, and have the jump on everyone who doesn't work as hard or have as many contacts as you.
Here are the steps John took to get employed:
- Studied Japanese while teaching English.
- Joined a local sumo club.
- Moved to Ryogoku (also known as "Sumo Town").
- Built connections through online and offline channels.
- Started getting media work.
- Got a job at Daily Yomiuri when a sumo columnist (someone he met through networking!) was departing and recommended him for the job.
- Was approached by NHK who knew of him through a connection (networking again!) and needed a new commentator.
John uprooted himself and moved to the center of the sumo universe to improve his chances of finding employment, all while teaching English and, of course, studying Japanese. That kind of dedication is integral to realizing your goals.
Let's look at another example.
The more you know about the field you want to be a part of, the better your chances of finding employment.
Here are the steps taken by Tom from City-Cost, who went from being an English teacher to website editor:
- Studied Japanese while teaching English.
- Applied for every freelance writing job he could (Craigslist, friend's websites, etc.).
- Went to networking events in Tokyo.
- Started writing for City-Cost, and was eventually invited to creative meetings.
- After extensive freelance work, earned his way to become the site's full-time editor.
As you can see from these timelines, though they pursued very different jobs, both John and Tom put in the extra effort needed to find the non-teaching jobs they really wanted.
Now that we've seen how other people have done it, how can you put these ideas into practice?
Follow people on social media in your preferred field. Start conversations, ask questions, get to know them, and get them to know you. If you live locally, try asking them out to lunch. You might be surprised at who will be willing to give you their time over a yakiniku grill or a plate of sushi. Be nice. Let people know exactly what you can do and how you can help them accomplish their goals, then let them decide if they want your help, or if they know someone else who could use you.
Go to Networking Events
If you're in a big city, there will definitely be networking events with opportunities to meet people in your chosen field. In these circumstances, it's great to create a verbal business card (a self-intro or business jikoshoukai) you can dish out in a few seconds.
Let them know:
- Who you are
- What makes you different
- What you are looking for
Start a Website, YouTube Channel, and/or Blog
The more avenues people have to find and learn about you, the better. For example, if you want to get into the travel industry, having a website with your travel advice and recommended places to visit in Japan would be a great way to introduce your work. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to find out what you're all about.
Want to be a model? Instagram. Want to be a writer? Start a blog. Want to be a ski instructor? Make a YouTube channel that teaches people how to ski.
The more avenues people have to find and learn about you, the better.
In almost any field, you can find a way to produce content that showcases your skills. If a company needs someone with your skills, they are much more likely to find you if you have a slick website showcasing exactly how you can help them accomplish their goals.
Step 3: Apply for Jobs
Once you've determined your goal, you should start scouring the internet for job openings that will get you closer to it (and don't stop).
To automate this process, set up email alerts for job openings in your chosen criteria through big sites like Gaijinpot, Daijob, and Jobs in Japan. For the myriad of smaller sites, stay on top of job openings by taking the 5 minutes to set up a Google alert.
Once you start getting the alerts, apply to anything even remotely related to your field (after personalizing your resume and cover letter for each position). Even if you have zero intention of taking the job, it will provide incredibly valuable interview practice and networking opportunities.
Job boards are a great place to look for potential jobs, but many, many jobs aren't advertised at all. In the cases of John and Tom above, they both got their current jobs because of who they knew more than the number of resumes they sent out. Japan is huge on networking, and "paying your dues" by getting to know as many people in your field as possible will definitely yield dividends.
Once you master networking, you'll discover job openings naturally, and people will come to you.
Step 4: Repeat 2–3 Until Mission Accomplished
I never said this would be easy. It's probably going to take more than a few trips through steps 1–3 before something comes of it. Luck is a huge part of this process too; a big reason for networking is it increases your chances of meeting the right person, at the right place, at the right time, with the right opportunity.
More networking = better luck.
Just remember your goal, keep your nose to the grindstone, and never stop moving forward. You can't control how long it takes to get to your new job, but you can control how intently you pursue it. As long as you're able to live and work in Japan with your teacher's visa (or whatever visa allows you to legally live here), you can continue this job-hunting cycle until you finally level up.
Leveling Up to Your Non-Teaching Job in Japan
It might take three months, it might take three years, but if you keep chipping away at learning Japanese, gaining more contacts, and putting more of your skills out into the world, you will find a non-teaching job in Japan. It might not be your dream job (at first), but once you have that first stepping stone, it will make the next one easier.
Once you do land your first job, treat it as another networking opportunity, and look for other possibilities even closer to the final job you want (while doing your best at your new job, of course).
Once again, I realize there are thousands of people teaching English in Japan who love it, and that's awesome. These people are often the very best teachers, and should absolutely keep doing exactly what they are doing. But, if that's not you, don't think you have to keep doing a job ill-suited to your skills and goals just to stay in Japan. If you're willing to put in a bit of work, you can do exactly what you want to be doing.
If you'd like to learn more ways to have fun in Japan doing exactly what you want, or would like to see more examples of people who have made a successful transition from teaching to something else, head on over to ALT Insider to continue your research before you get started. And if you're in your home country and looking to get started on your quest, ALT Insider Resume Review is ready to help you get your foot in the Japanese door.
Now get to it!