Which Comes First, the Job or the Apartment?

by Celeste Heiter, Apr 7, 2001 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

The triad tasks of finding a place to live, getting yourself hired as an English teacher, and procuring a work visa are so closely intertwined that it's nearly impossible to prioritize them chronologically. Two metaphors spring to mind: the chicken and the egg, and the two locked boxes, each containing the other's key. Therefore, preparing yourself psychologically for the intricacy and frustration of the process can be a valuable coping device.

Here's the conundrum:

How do you decide upon which apartment to rent before you know how much you'll be earning at the job you haven't been hired for yet?

How do you find a job when you don't have a home address to receive mail and phone calls from prospective employers?

How do you get a letter of guarantorship from an employer to show a prospective landlord if you haven't found a job yet?

How do you get a job with a company that requires you to have a work visa, when you're counting on that same employer to act as your guarantor to get the work visa?

The answer: It all sort of comes together simultaneously, provided you have a little faith in yourself, an adequate cash reserve, a sense of humor, a daily game plan, and a willingness to bend the truth a little.

Faith - No matter how daunting the task may seem, you're gonna get hired, you're gonna find a place to live, and you're gonna get your work visa. It'll happen. Just get up every morning, follow every lead you've got, take what's offered even if it's not ideal, and move on from there. The Japanese have an expression: Dan dan. It means step by step, little by little.

Adequate Cash Reserve - By now you've probably heard how expensive it is to live in Japan. $100 watermelons, $70 taxi rides, $18 movie tickets, $6 cups of coffee. Sadly, it's all true. The good news is that there's a way around all that. "When in Rome..........." The secret to making the most of your yen is to eat, sleep, and live Japanese style. Don't drink coffee, don't ride in taxis, don't go to the movies, and don't buy imported commodities. Instead, drink green tea (it packs just as potent a punch as coffee), and take the train or the subway to your appointments. For entertainment, take a stroll in a temple garden at twilight or a walk through Harajuku and Yoyogi Park on Sunday afternoon. And for your meals, eat lots of rice, vegetables, tofu, and fish, just like the natives do. Not only will it cost you a lot less, but you're also sure to get the full effect from your Japan experience. Bottom line: don't go to Japan with anything less than $2500 cash. More if you can manage it. And make it last until you find a way to earn a livable wage.

A Sense of Humor - If you didn't travel to Japan with a companion, find yourself a buddy to swap stories with and have a laugh at day's end. It will help to put the whole crazy circus into perspective, and will provide an outlet for your frustrations, as well as a high-five for your triumphs.

A Daily Game Plan - This is the most important element of your quest. Do your homework, talk to the locals, make your phone calls, buy your newspapers, and follow every single lead, no matter how remote or how small. Do this every day, without fail. Keep detailed notes, make yourself a list of all the possibilities you discovered throughout the day: every job opportunity, every agency, every reference, and every available apartment. At the end of each day, develop a game plan for how you're going to follow up on them all tomorrow. And then get up the next day and do it all over again until you succeed.

A Willingness to Bend the Truth a Little - When navigating the tricky waters of simultaneous job and apartment hunting in Japan, sometimes it's necessary to paint a rosy picture of yourself for potential employers and landlords. Like the old song says, "You've got to accentuate the positive." For example, when speaking to a prospective landlord, you might say that you have a follow up interview with such-and-such a company and hope to sign a job contract tomorrow. And when interviewing with a prospective employer, you might go so far as to say that you've found the perfect apartment in Takadanobaba and hope to hand over the key money tomorrow. Neither of which is a lie exactly, because you do truly hope to do both. It just hasn't happened yet. And when that moment does finally come, hand over that key money and sign that contract. It might not be offered a second time.

What You'll Need to Land a Job Teaching English in Japan:

A University Degree - Although it is possible to find employment in Japan without one, your probabilities increase exponentially with a college degree. A degree of any kind is better than none at all, and the best credential is an ESL certificate, or a BA in English. Lots of individuals without a degree make a perfectly good living providing private English lessons to children, businessmen and housewives. But they are the exception to the rule. If you want to get hired by a reputable English conversation school, a large corporation, a junior high or high school, stay in school yourself and get your diploma before you head for Japan.

Lots of Documentation - When packing your belongings to take to Japan, be sure to include your diplomas, teaching certificates, college transcripts, any awards or honors you've won, your birth certificate, any letters of recommendation you may have, lots of copies of your resume, and an abundant stash of tasteful, passport-quality photos of yourself. In some cases you might be asked to provide a photo, especially with any kind of official government application you may encounter. Another good rule of thumb is: Include a photo of yourself with every resume you submit. In fact, if you have access to a computer and a scanner, you can copy and paste your photo directly into your resume and print out several dozen copies to take with you to Japan. A professional-looking photo of yourself will make you appear especially job-worthy and will help keep you fresh and foremost in the minds of potential employers.

A Proactive Approach - Veterans of the quest for English teaching positions in Japan will strongly advise you to apply in person only. While this is essentially sound advice, another very effective approach is to send your resume a few weeks ahead of time to any schools or companies that appear viable. Let them know when you'll be arriving in Japan, and parlay that initial contact into an appointment for an interview. This tiny bit of effort may help you avoid pounding the pavement altogether.

A Few Tips for a Winning Interview:

Know your prospective employer - Ask around. Find out anything you can about the company ahead of time. Observe the quality of neighborhood and the building when you arrive. If it feels weird, keep your radar sharp and be ready to bow out if you can't picture yourself working there.

Be Punctual - No matter how early you have to get up, or how lost you might get along the way. Japan is a society that demands, nay thrives upon punctuality. So show up on time for your interview.

Make a Good First Impression - As you'll soon discover, Japan is a very conservative culture when it comes to business (and most everything else, too). So be sure to wear tasteful clothing (a suit and tie for the gents, skirt, blouse and jacket for the ladies). Hair should be neatly and modestly styled.

When you arrive at your interview, take a moment to intuit the atmosphere. Is it upscale and Westernized, befitting a firm handshake? Or is it more traditional, where bowing and leaving your shoes at the door would be more appropriate?

Never underestimate the power of a well-timed hajime-mashite (nice to meet you) or a domo arrigato (thank you very much) to make a good impression. Pay close attention to the hierarchy of rank: Who's the boss? And wait until you're invited to be seated.

If business cards are exchanged, treat any you receive with the utmost reverence. Admire it, nod politely and place it respectfully into your valise, not in your pocket or your wallet. Otherwise, hang on to it discreetly, and don't leave it behind on the desk or the table when the interview is over.

Be Confident yet Conservative - Bow, but not too deeply; smile, but not too broadly; laugh, but not too effusively; joke, but not too presumptuously; list your qualifications, but don't brag; and most of all, listen carefully and ask intelligent questions.

Arrive Organized & Well Prepared - Have all your paperwork at hand in a lightweight, stylish valise or portfolio, including resumes, photos, diplomas, transcripts, certificates, awards, and anything else that might enhance your chances of being hired. Brush up on your English terminology. Make sure you know your modal auxiliaries from your plu perfects.

Watch your language - During the interview, sit up straight, speak clearly and confidently, use good diction and grammar, and never, ever use profanity of any kind. Remember, you're being interviewed for the purpose of teaching others how to speak. Rest assured, they'll be hanging on your every word.

Be prepared to make a decision on the spot - Not every interview concludes with a firm job offer. But many do. If they like you, they may just offer you a contract on the spot. So listen carefully to the requirements and benefits of the job throughout the interview. Ask all relevant questions when given the opportunity. And remember....out there on the pavement, it's a jungle, and it's expensive. Few, if any jobs in Japan are perfect. But if one comes even close, go for it and give it your best effort. Good Luck and Ganbatte!

And Lastly..........Immigration Nihon-do (the Japanese Way)

* * * * *