First off, that’s great! Congratulations on making such a big decision. Moving overseas is a great experience and not for the faint of heart! It took me about four years to go from a passing desire to getting on a plane to the unknown. While I am content with how things are unfolding for me here in the Land of the Rising Sun, there are a few things I wish I thought about it more depth before I decided to leave the United States. Since it’s already too late for me, here are seven questions I wish I thought about before moving to Japan.
1. Do you want to study or work?
It’s common sense, but reading about a place and traveling is entirely different from living somewhere for an extended period. Having never been to Japan before, signing a 1-year contract to a job that could place me anywhere in the country was a little scary. For me, the best course of action was to test the waters by going to a language school for six months. This allowed me to brush up on my Japanese and decide if I liked Japan enough to want to live here for a while. The best benefit of this route was already being in Japan, which is something a lot of jobs will require. Also, doing a change of status for my visa wasn’t very hard.
2. If you’re coming to work, do you have any skills?
Let’s keep things a hunnit (real), unless you have some skill like programming, high-level Japanese, or are mid-career in a field like banking, you’re probably going to end up teaching English in Japan. Is this 100% true? No, but the odds are pretty high as this is the easiest way to get here/path that requires the least from you upfront. These are the jobs that will pretty much take anything with a pulse and a degree. You have to ask yourself, what are you trying to get out of this? Do you just want to travel, just need a foot in the door, maybe you love teaching and want to work at a university?
My suggestion, if you’re still in school or have the time, would be to research the job market and think about your goals and try to pick up a skill that is in demand here. This will allow you to choose from a wider variety of jobs and potentially earn more money.
3. Do you have bills to pay in your home country?
If you’re teaching English, sometimes salaries are not the best. Sometimes your cost of living may be high if you’re in a city. Many factors can affect the amount you see on paper vs. in your bank account. Add this to the fact that you get paid in yen and will be at the mercy of the exchange rate when transferring money into dollars; this can cut into a massive chunk of your earnings. This means you will have less money to ball out and do things like travel or save. This should be taken into consideration when you think about your cost of living, the kinds of things you want to do, and the type of job you’re looking at taking on.
4.Do you have enough money saved even if you intend to work?
If you’re planning to go to school and get a student visa, you must be able to show a certain amount of money in your bank accounts or in financial aid to prove you can support yourself. (For me, this was around 15k). While you can get approval to work on a student visa, be aware that it won’t be for more than 28 hours a week. It probably won’t be enough for you to live comfortably.
If you’re planning to work, you’ll need money to get yourself set up. This means potentially needing cash for a down payment on an apartment, items to get your apartment ready for you to live in, money to hold you over until your first paycheck, etc. I would suggest no less than $3000. If you can swing it, I would aim for $5000 just to have a little cushion. You can get by with less than this amount, but I’m all about making sure you have breathing room.
5. How are your language skills?
A lot of teaching jobs will tell you that Japanese skills are not necessary to do the job. Yes, it is possible to maneuver around Japan without needing any Japanese, but traveling and working are two different things. This will probably be truer if you work in an elementary school or a rural area. Being able to speak some Japanese will be a lifeline. If you intend to make lasting relationships/friendships or handle some business on your own, Japanese is a must. At least learn the bare minimum to get by to make your life easier, make your work environment a bit better, and give you a chance not to end up secluded or only with other foreigner friends.
Also, if you can manage a JLPT N2 certificate, you will have infinitely more job opportunities that you can choose from besides teaching English.
6. I touched on it briefly above, but what do you want to gain from this experience?
Starting with the end goal in mind will keep you from waking up in 2-3 years and wondering where the time went. If you’re here just to be able to knock some countries off your travel list, knowing that will help you get through your not so good days and will keep you from spending too much on things that detract from that. Whatever your goal may be, having something to focus on will encourage you to make the most out of what Japan has to offer.
7. Are you okay with being alone?
Sometimes Japan can be very isolating. If you’re teaching, you might have excellent schools, but there is also the possibility that your school may not work out so well and it will be a quiet/isolated experience. Making meaningful friendships out here can also be tough. Compound that with being away from family and friends with a significant time difference means sometimes things can get rough. Will you be able to handle it? And if so, how? These are important things to think about because not every day is going to be anime, rainbows, and sunshine.
The purpose of this list is to get you to think about how to get the most out of your experience whether you intend to be in Japan for the long term or a short period. While the route I took, school first and then a job after, was great for me, there are other things on this list that I wish I did consider (such as picking up a useful skill or better Japanese) before making the switch/moving. Hopefully, this will help you too!
If you have anything to add to this list or any questions, please feel free to share in the comments below!