Teach English in Japan: Living in Japan

Teaching English in Japan: Living in Japan

The 'Land of the Rising Sun' is a welcoming destination for many ESL teachers wanting to find a job teaching English abroad. Teaching in Japan allows for exploring a nation known for being the perfect blend of ancient customs and cutting edge technology.

Living and Teaching in Japan
Japan: At a Glance
Japan: Living in Japan
Japan: Teaching ESL in Japan
Japan: Financial Snapshot


What to Know About Living in Japan
Transportation in Japan
Etiquette in Japan
Language in Japan
Eating in Japan
Climate in Japan
Holidays in Japan


What to Know About Living in Japan


Housing in Japan is generally smaller and very different from homes in Canada. The terms used to describe housing also differ. Japan has its own set of housing terms to distinguish between the different styles of housing units available. The letters LDK are used to identify whether the house has a living room (L), dining area (D), and kitchen (K). For example, 2DK is an apartment with two bedrooms and a dining room with kitchen; whereas 1K is an apartment with one bedroom and a small kitchen. Housing in Japan is typically measured using tatami matting, a traditional style of flooring which still covers the floors of some rooms in modern apartments. A typical bedroom is six tatami mats in area (~100 sq. ft.). While many modern apartments have Western style bathrooms, combining a small bathtub, shower, and sink, ESL teachers should expect older apartments or buildings to have "squatters" (toilets on the ground). Newer apartments tend to have a bath unit, which includes everything in one room. The bath units are covered with tile or plastic inserts, so foreigners should not expect shower curtains or dividers. In addition, bathtubs are not used for washing, but for soaking and relaxing. They are smaller in length but much deeper than Canadian style tubs and they can be compared to miniature hot tubs. Please see the Bathing Etiquette section for the proper use of the bathtub.

ESL teachers should know that some employers provide dorm style apartments with shared bathrooms and kitchens and separate bedrooms. Typical one-room apartments (bachelor suites) often do not contain a separate bedroom. A futon mat rolled out on the floor is still commonly used for sleeping, which is then folded up and stored in a closet during the day to save space, or hung outside using special clips to air. It is important to note that apartments are not usually insulated, so space heaters, electric floor mats, and Kotatsu (small tables with built in electric blankets) are used to keep apartments and houses warm.


Similar to accommodations, some contracts may include paid airfare depending on the employer and length of contract. It is common for employers to reimburse teachers for the cost of their airfare after they have fulfilled the contractual agreement, often in the form of a contract completion bonus. This encourages employees to stay the full duration of their contract and protects employers from losing their new staff members prematurely. Therefore, ESL teachers should plan to pay for airfare, at least initially.


Health Benefits

Since 2007, the majority of ESL teachers are enrolled in the Japanese Employee Health Insurance system, Shakai Hoken. Although this usually provides subsidized health benefits, it could still be worthwhile for an ESL teacher to have additional coverage from their home country. It is essential to establish what coverage a teacher has, before departing from their home country. For further information regarding Japan's health benefit system, visit http://www.mhlw.go.jp/english/org/policy/p34-35.html.

Retirement Age

While Japan's official retirement age is 60 for both men and women it is not enforced for ESL teachers. Therefore, it can be a good option for qualified English teachers over the age of 50 to try and obtain employment.

Technology and Advancement

On the whole, Japan is a technologically advanced country with talking escalators and heated toilet seats. It is the model of efficiency in many ways and so accessing the Internet is fairly easy for ESL teachers. If teachers do not have access at their accommodations, there are a few other options for accessing it, which are listed below:

  • Rent a mobile phone (Keitai) with Internet connection.
  • Visit an Internet café. There are a few common franchises - Yahoo Japan Internet Café, Manga Land, and Kinko's.
  • Use wireless Internet as hot spots are readily available.

ESL teachers should have no problem accessing the Internet or computers in Japan, as most work places will have Internet access; however, setting up the Internet on your home computer can be a fairly drawn out or lengthy process.

Canadian Food

ESL teachers may be surprised to hear that most major cities have Costco and specialty food or import stores that supply Canadian foods. As most teachers will not own a vehicle, it is beneficial that Costco will deliver right to one's home and stores are often conveniently located next to train lines. If teachers are living in smaller, more rural cities, large supermarkets such as Costco may not exist but it is likely that they will still be able to find typical Canadian food. Another food source in Japan is FBC (Foreigners Buyer’s Club), which will also deliver Canadian groceries anywhere in Japan. It should be noted, however, that buying Canadian food will likely cost considerably more than buying Japanese food and so these purchases will be seen by most teachers as luxury items.


Transportation in Japan

Public Transportation


Traveling by taxi is definitely the most expensive mode of transportation, as is the case with most developed countries. Fares are similar in most parts of Japan, and the initial fee is approximately ¥600 - ¥700 for the first 2km. After the initial 2km, it is approximately ¥100 for every 350 metres.

Tips When Traveling By Taxi:

  • Don't whistle for a taxi - waving or holding your hand above your head is acceptable
  • Don't open or shut the door, drivers will be able to control the doors with a remote
  • ESL teachers should have someone write down their destination in Japanese. Don't expect the driver to speak or read English
  • Expect to wait in line for a taxi at most train stations

Train and Subway

The train is certainly the most popular mode of transportation among teachers and Japanese nationals alike. It is fast, frequent, and comfortable but can be expensive depending on the type of train and distance travelled. The types of trains vary from small local companies to the bullet train (shinkansen). The Japanese National Tourist Organization (JNTO) provides English timetable booklets, which include general information regarding the train services in Japan and timetables for all major trains. The costs are measured by distance, so, an average cost is difficult to determine.

Subways are very clean, efficient and affordable but can be extremely crowded during rush hour, with staff in Tokyo employed to push people in to the carriages. Major routes in major cities have a frequency of one train every two minutes making it one of the most efficient transportation services in the world. The subway is also reasonably priced and ESL teachers can purchase monthly passes giving them unlimited access to stops within their specified route. Another useful website to assist in planning your route around Japan is www.hyperdia.com/en/ which is an English only website that allows users to type in two train/subway stations and it will provide the schedule, travelling options and cost to travel between the two stations.


The bus can be the most difficult mode of transportation for foreigners. Unlike the train and subway system, timetables and destinations are usually written only in Chinese characters (Kanji) making it a little harder for teachers to work out how to get to where they need. City buses usually operate on one of two systems; the first, individuals pay a flat fee regardless of distance, and the second option is to take a ticket when boarding the bus and pay the driver upon departure based on distance. When travelling long distances, the bus can be a very cost effective option for teachers when compared to the train.


Other Modes of Transportation

Other popular modes of transportation that are available for ESL teachers include:


The bicycle is a very common mode of transportation among Japanese nationals and foreigners alike, due to convenience, speed and cost. If foreigners choose to purchase or rent a bicycle, it is important to remember that it is illegal and dangerous to perform the following actions:

  • Carry an open umbrella while riding a bike, unless it is securely attached to an umbrella holder
  • Ride at night without lights, although most bikes come equipped with lights
  • Ride double or tandem
  • Ride a bicycle directly behind cars, buses, or street cars
  • Ride a bicycle after consuming alcohol
  • Ride on the sidewalk
  • Ride while speaking on a mobile phone
  • Ride while listening to music through headphones

If you a teacher is seen conducting any of these actions, the police may stop them.

Some other tips for riding a bicycle are:

  • Always lock the bicycle up; bicycle theft is the most common crime in Japan (most bikes have locks built in to them)
  • Register the bicycle for theft prevention
  • Write your name, phone number, and work address on the bicycle in English

These are just some examples of the rules and regulations for bicycle safety. English teachers wanting to travel by bike should ensure that they are familiar with all the regulations and traffic signs.

Motor Vehicles

ESL teachers wanting to operate a motor vehicle must obtain an International Driving Permit from their home country driving association. The International Driving Permit is valid for one year and those staying longer must obtain a Japanese driver's licence. Documentation needed for a Japanese driver's licence includes a resident card, a passport, and a driver's licence from their home country. A fee and eye test will also be required. For a more comprehensive list of information on obtaining a Japanese driver's licence visit, http://www.canadainternational.gc.ca/japan-japon/consular_services_consulaires/license-japan-permis-japon.aspx?lang=eng


Etiquette in Japan

Japan has many unique customs and etiquette; therefore, prior to departing for Japan, English teachers should take note of the following cultural traditions. 

The bow is probably the most commonly known Japanese greeting to those outside of the country. Basic bow etiquette involves men bowing with their hands at their side and women with their hands clasped on their laps. Mastering the bow takes years of practice, but once it is mastered, one may convey a variety of different messages. For example: the longer and deeper the bow, the more respect and dignity is expressed.

General Etiquette

Some other examples of commonly practiced customs and etiquette are:

  • Do not wear shoes on tatami mats; it is recommended to wear socks, although bare feet may be acceptable
  • Always remove shoes when entering a home and place them with the toes facing the door
  • When visiting someone else's house, wear shoes instead of sandals. Those who do choose to wear sandals should bring a pair of white socks so their bare feet do not touch the slippers the host offers
  • The seat of a car directly behind the driver represents the place of honour
  • Do not step on the threshold of temples
  • Do not leave a social function before the guest of honor
  • Most workers will arrive early and start working immediately once working hours begin
  • It is common for workers to apologize for leaving work before their co-workers
  • When seated at a traditional Japanese restaurant, it is customary for men to sit cross-legged when eating, while women sit with their legs folded to the side
  • The guest of honour always sits the farthest away from the door
  • There are separate slippers to be worn in the toilet
  • Japanese nationals do not blow their nose in public

These are some of the more prominent customs and they may vary by region. While teachers should respect their local hosts, foreigners are not expected to be familiar with all of the intricacies of the culture.


Eating Etiquette

Common etiquette involving eating varies tremendously from North America. Chopsticks are the utensil of choice and learning to eat with them will make your meals much easier while living in Japan. Cutlery, such as forks, knives, and spoons are available in most restaurants but ESL teachers may need to request to use them, as they are typically not provided. English Teachers visiting a Japanese home will rarely find cutlery to use during mealtime. Things teachers should know about eating include:

  • It is proper to slurp noodles; it is a sign of enjoyment and satisfaction
  • It is unacceptable to eat while walking
  • If someone offers to pay for a meal, it is polite to attempt to pay for their portion once or twice before allowing them to pay
  • It is unacceptable to fill one's own glass; it may indicate that they are an alcoholic; however, teachers should be sure to fill the glasses of others that are empty 
  • If a teachers doesn't want any more food or drink, they should leave their glass or bowl half full

Even though these are common practices in Japan, locals expect foreigners not to know proper etiquette. However, foreigners should attempt to follow common eating practices as this displays politeness and courtesy.

Chopstick Etiquette

Chopsticks hold a very special place in the minds of Japanese nationals and so foreigners should take care to observe the following rules when using them:

  • Do not stick chopsticks vertically in the food; this is only done at funerals
  • Do not pass food directly to another set of chopsticks
  • Do not lick or suck on chopsticks
  • Chopsticks should not be used to skewer foods
  • It is considered taboo to use mismatched chopsticks
  • Most Japanese nationals use their fingers when items are too large for chopsticks; cutlery may also be provided
  • Do not use chopsticks to move dishes
  • When taking food from a shared dish, follow the lead of your hosts

Bathing Etiquette

Bathtubs are solely used for soaking and relaxing, not for washing. This is especially important to bear in mind when bathing at public baths and hot springs (Onsen). Common bathing practices include:

  • The body must be washed and rinsed of all soap before entering the bathtub
  • Bath water may be shared so washing and rinsing after getting out is also appropriate
  • Only use soap outside the bathtub
  • Tattoos should not be visible when bathing (unless at home) and will need to be covered

These bathing practices are especially important for ESL teachers in shared accommodations or while living with Japanese families.


Language in Japan

The Japanese language is one of the most intriguing and difficult languages to learn because it is written with a combination of three different types of scripts: Kanji (Chinese characters), Hiragana (phonetic script used for writing Japanese), and Katakana (phonetic script used for writing foreign words in Japanese). Some may consider Romaji, the widely used Roman script, to be a fourth script. English teachers should attempt to learn Japanese to help make the transition into daily life a lot easier and to help with the initial culture shock.

Before leaving for Japan, ESL teachers could learn the following Japanese phrases, which will help them during their stay in Japan.

  • My name is______.
    ______ to mooshimasu.
  • How are you?
    Ogenki desu ka?
  • Thank you/You're welcome.
    Arigatou/Dou itashimashite!
  • How much does this cost?
    Ikura desu ka?
  • I can speak English.
    Watashi wa Eigo ga hanasemasu.
  • Can we go there by bus?
    Basu de ikemasu ka?
  • How much is the ticket?
    Kippu wa ikura desu ka?
  • Good Morning!
    Ohayo Gozaimasu
  • Excuse me.

These are just some of the basic phrases English teachers may want to learn in Japanese before arriving in Japan. They should be aware that rural areas tend to have less English traffic signs and maps when compared to tourist locations such as Tokyo and so a phrase book will be useful to pack.


Eating in Japan

Japanese Cuisine

Japanese cuisine is one of the highlights for any teacher living in Japan. There are a variety of food choices from sushi and sashimi to okonomiyaki. Popular Japanese cuisine among foreigners includes:

  • Izakaya- Japanese style pub grilled and fried foods
  • Okonomiyaki - Japanese pizza or pancake
  • Sukiyaki and Shabu-Shabu - Thin slices of beef served with vegetables and tofu
  • Soba and Udon - Soba are thin, buckwheat noodles, while Udon are thick white noodles
  • Ramen - Large bowl of noodles served in a meat broth
  • Japanese sweets - Varies from Yokan (sweet red bean jelly) to Mochi (pounded rice cakes)
  • Takoyaki - Octopus in fried batter balls
  • Onigiri - Triangular rice patties containing a variety of fillings and wrapped in seaweed
  • Kaiten Sushi - Restaurants serving sushi on a conveyer belt
  • Fugu - Raw pufferfish carefully prepared by master chefs
  • Katsudon - A bowl of rice topped with deep-fried pork cutlet, egg and other accompaniments
  • Curry Rice - Japanese style curry served on rice

If teachers decide to try these types of foods before going to Japan, they should be aware that they may vary in taste. Do not worry about trying to understand a Japanese menu; often, there are plastic food displays to help with selecting and ordering food which can be of great assistance when first arriving in country.

Other popular concepts with foreigners living in Japan that relate to food and drink are nomi houdai and tabe houdai. These translate to all you can drink and all you can eat and can be a very cost effective way to fill up.


Climate in Japan

English teachers travelling to Japan will soon realize that the country has a very complex climate. The type of weather encountered will depend on the location. Similar to many regions in North America, Japan has four distinct seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

  • Spring- Spring is the season of the famous cherry blossoms and probably the most comfortable season for ESL teachers. Temperatures are warm but not too hot, with little rain. Those living along the coastline will experience more precipitation.
  • Summer- During the summer the weather can be extremely hot and humid throughout most of the country. The rainy season starts in the southern part of Japan during the early part of summer (May and June) and eventually moves northward. Typhoons also occur during the summer months, where torrential rains and high winds are formed. During typhoon season, coastal provinces along the Pacific Ocean will endure more intense rainfalls and wind.
  • Autumn- Autumn is similar to spring with relatively warm temperatures and low rainfall. Matching the beauty of the cherry blossoms, Japan's fall foliage is a sight to see.
  • Winter- The Japanese have yet to adopt centralized indoor heating, apart from Hokkaido, and with winter being the coldest season, ESL teachers might have trouble adjusting. In the north and on Japan's seaside, high levels of precipitation and heavy snowfalls occur through the months of December to February. The Pacific side of Japan can be very cold but it experiences less heavy snowfalls. Temperatures rarely get as cold as many other northern countries, in the southern parts of the country.

Natural Disasters

The 'Ring of Fire' is a zone that surrounds the coastal lines of the Pacific Ocean, which causes earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. Both Japan and North America's pacific and west coastline are considered part of this unstable environmental region; therefore, they experience similar plate tectonic activity and a combination of earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. For further information regarding Japan's natural disasters and emergency tips, please visit http://travel.gc.ca/.


Holidays in Japan

One thing Japan does not lack is national holidays. English teachers travelling to Japan should be enticed by the long list provided below.

  • January 1st - New Year (shogatsu): This is the most important Japanese holiday. Most businesses are closed until after January 3rd.
  • Second Monday of January - Coming of Age (seijin no hi): This is a celebration of men and women who are 20 years of age.
  • February 11th - National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinenbi) : The day when the first Japanese emperor was crowned.
  • Around March 21 - Spring Equinox Day (shunbun no hi): During the week of Equinox Day, graves are visited.
  • Golden Week: A short period of time that includes the following holidays.
    • April 29 - Showa Day (showa no hi): Showa Day is part of the Golden Week; it is the birthday of the former Emperor Showa.
    • May 3 - Constitution Day (kenpo kinenbi): A national holiday remembering the new constitution.
    • May 4 - Green Day (midori no hi): Part of the Golden Week, a celebration of nature.
    • May 5 - Children Day (kodomo no hi): Part of Golden Week; on this holiday, and for some time prior, families with boys will fly a windsock in the shape of a koi.
  • Third Monday of July - Ocean Day (umi no hi): This day represents the return of Emperor Meiji from a boat trip to Hokkaido in 1876.
  • Third Monday of September - Respect for the Aged Day (keiro no hi): The elderly are celebrated.
  • Around September 23 - Autumn Equinox Day (shubun no hi): During the week of Equinox Day, graves are visited.
  • Second Monday of October - Health and Sports Day (taiiku no hi in Japanese): This represents the 1964 Olympic games in Tokyo.
  • November 3 - Culture Day (bunka no hi): This day promotes culture.
  • November 23 - Labour Thanksgiving Day (kinro kansha no hi)
  • December 23 - Emperor's Birthday (tenno no tanjobi): The current emperor's birthday is always a national holiday. The holiday has always been celebrated on Emperor Akihito's birthday since he assumed the throne in 1990.


Other East Asia / Southeast Asia Countries:

Cambodia ~ China ~ Hong Kong ~ India ~ Indonesia ~ Japan ~ Korea ~ Kyrgyzstan ~ Laos ~ Malaysia ~ Nepal ~ Taiwan ~ Thailand ~ Vietnam