INTERVIEW 2: How did you get to Japan?

Hooked on Japan after high school exchange program

For those of you who are considering coming to Japan and are looking for ideas or inspiration from the path others have taken to find work and live here, read on for a short interview with a good friend of mine; Russell, from Australia.

JB: We've know each other a long long time Russell, from well before I ever came to Japan and I know you've lived here on more than one occasion - how long have you been in Japan this time around, and when did you first come here?

R: It's been around 10 years this time, but I've been coming since early high school, 1985 to be exact. My mother suggested that I join a high school exchange - for three weeks at the time - which was interesting since I was at the bottom of the grade for Japanese language in my grade. I stayed in the middle of Tokyo and saw only 2 or 3 Westerners the whole time.

Anyway, I was hooked even back then and had subconsciously been planning to live here since then. It wasn't for work or money, but lifestyle. 'Lifestyle' means a rich living culture and a harmonious society which I respect as much as one can. I follow the 'When in Rome' philosophy as best as I can; and find that my experience here has been richly rewarding and unlike anything in my home country.

JB: So how were you able to come here to Japan, the first and then subsequent time and with what Visas?

R: After my first visit on a tourist visa, I came to study at a Zen temple. As it was an extended stay studying Japanese culture full time, I qualified for a 'Cultural Activities visa'. I understand that if you have some proficiency in say, Karate or Judo or Tea ceremony, this is a good option, but work is restricted to 20 hours a week. A Working holiday is a good gateway to get the foot in the door if you meet the requirements, and if you are a valuable long term prospect for your company you have a good chance of getting a longer term visa. 'Value' is the key word.

JB: What was your first job?

R: I worked for Nova part time, an (in)famous English Conversation school, back in the day. It was an OK experience and I'd even say they actually helped me communicate more clearly in general. For the first year I'd suggest that anything is OK because everything will be new and exciting and you'll have gotten here.

JB: What other jobs have you had here and can you briefly tell us about them?

R: I've stuck to English teaching because I actually love it, but as an employee these days it only pays just enough to get by. So I wouldn't recommend it long term unless you actually like it. I've met a lot of bitter English teachers who were only bitter because they were in the wrong profession.

JB: What advice would you give to people about what to do when you get here to settle in?

R: Your first year should be spent studying the language - it is NOT that hard, and get into the swing of life here. If you have a profession that you can work at here straight away then that is even better.

JB: And so as people progress and do start to settle in?

R: I observe that a lot of long term visitors to Japan miss out on 90% of the real beauty because they want to keep their Western way of life, they often don't learn the language beyond 'pub-Japanese', and don't try to understand what seems to be a very foreign way of thinking to them when they arrive. I can't recommend letting go of that enough.

Get outdoors, travel, experience all of Japan not just the area immediately around where you live.

Business In Japan?

JB: What experiences and opportunities have you pursued or had come to you that have been key to you settling into working in Japan?

R: I'm pretty comfortable with the language, so I often get offers for one-off translation or interpreting jobs, and there are opportunities there if you like that kind of thing. I suggest there are as many opportunities here as you make for yourself. It takes creativity and resourcefulness, actually the same things to 'make it' in your home country. Many Indians come here and make Curry shops, Iranians come and make Carpet shops, what is wrong with that. I have found business fairy straight forward to set up and run, though you will probably need an intelligent local to help you with the regulations and paperwork.

JB: That's right, currently you own your own English School. Can you tell us more about that, how long you have been in business for yourself and what led to you going down that path?

R: I opened my own English school about 4 years ago because the big company I was working in was just not to my liking. I love teaching, so I am able to express my own style in my school and I find business here positively challenging and rewarding. From that perspective, it is the old argument for working for yourself - it's not for everyone.

JB: What advice would you give to someone who is considering working in Japan teaching English? What is the most likely path a potential English teacher could take to secure an Job in Japan?

R: Teaching English usually requires a degree of any kind, but if you choose to teach kids, a degree is usually not required. The conditions will not be that good though, and if you are not a 'kid person', I wouldn't recommend it. It is fairly easy to get a job teaching kids otherwise.

JB: How important is knowing how to speak Japanese - how does someones level of Japanese help them find work?

R: If you get serious about studying Japanese, there is a world of difference as far as opportunities go. You may even get a similar job to what you had in your home country with language proficiency.

Fluency in Japanese makes Japan a real option to settle in permanently. Without a solid language base, there are certainly limitations to life here, and I see those come out as frustrations with many of my non-Japanese speaking Western friends.

I'll say it again, it's really not that hard. Three solid months of study can have you go from zero to intermediate conversation. It is a small price to pay. Without it, you'd better be happy with English teaching, or have a profession that doesn't require Japanese here.

JB: Thanks very much Russell. What is your final advice to foreigners who are looking to come work and live in Japan, or are here already searching for work?

R: Final advice is to practice 'When in Rome'. I suggest visitors take the opportunity to learn a new, non-Western way of living and thinking here, if for no other reason than out of respect for several thousand years of history and culture.

I suggest learning a Japanese art to achieve this, and I suggest we try to export some of the social harmony and mutual respect we experience here rather than forcing our own culture on Japan (unless requested of course). There are rewards in doing so, but they remain invisible without some effort.

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