How difficult is it for a family of three to move to Japan?
January 2, 2009 5:49 PM   Subscribe

How difficult is it for a family of three to move to Japan?

My wife and I are considering spending a year in Japan, partially because we love it there and partially because we think it would be great for our daughter. I'm assuming that teaching English is the path of least resistance - it was almost comically easy when I did the NOVA thing back in '02, but I was single then and NOVA was solvent.

What's involved in getting the whole posse over there, especially in this dire economic climate and in the wake of NOVA's collapse? Do we each find our own job, or look for a private place to hire both of us? Will the company sponsor a visa for my daughter? How hard will it be to enroll her in an international school?

If it's relevant, we'll be moving to Osaka. Any advice/links/anecdotes welcome.
posted by Bobby Bittman to Travel & Transportation around Japan (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I know of a couple that came over years ago. The wife got a humanities visa, and the husband was able to get a spouse visa, allowing him to work as well.

How old is your daughter? International schools can be very, very expensive. Putting her in a public school would be quite difficult, and worse, most public schools don't have any kind of facility for non-native learners, and she would likely make no academic progress aside from learning some of the language.

The Nova collapse is still here, the market is flooded with teachers. Furthermore, in the race to the bottom, some companies are hiring non-native teachers, or teachers from countries where English is spoken, but is not the dominant language (Bangladesh and India, for example) at lower wages. Finding a starting salary above 250,000 yen a month will be difficult. As for Osaka, the larger the city, the less likely they'd be to make special exceptions for a family. If you're willing to live in the sticks, they're more likely to need a couple teachers, and be more willing to put up with any extras (like a child) that comes with them.

The other thing you need to think about is would the school want to hire you? You, rather than a young single person? Some schools don't sponsor visas because it's a pain in the butt to do so. Getting the paper work together for a family of 3? If they had the choice between that, or a single person, they're likely to go with the single person. Accomodation-wise, you're looking at either needing to find a place on your own (and needing to fork out up to 6 months deposit/key money), or trying to fit your family into the one room apartment that most companies dole out to their English teachers.

I'm not saying it can't be done, and it could be a great time, but it would be very difficult, and by all means, make sure you have jobs, with signed contracts, before you ever get on a plane.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:13 PM on January 2, 2009

Ghidorah covered my point very well. Japan is not a place to take a family unless you have a skill besides teaching English.

To repeat, middle class foreigners do not send kids to international schools. You'd never be able to afford it. They enroll their kids in Japanese schools, where the instruction is entirely in Japanese. This can be great for a tiny kid with the right disposition. They will learn Japanese! But getting into any public schools is a very tough battle-- as the population has dropped, public schools have closed.

And attending Japanese school is a horrible experience for older children, who are completely lost without any way of learning Japanese in school. It's not like they provide the equivalent of ESL for your kid in Japanese schools. Homeschooling a child over 7 is the way to go. Then put the kid in some activity, like soccer or tea ceremony with Japanese kids. But not school.

If you really want to make a go of living in Osaka, it is less taxing for families to live in dowa chiku 同和地区, burakumin ghettos set side and spruced up for political reasons in the 1970s. These ghettos are in South Osaka, Sakai and the outskirts of Kyoto. You know you've entered a burakumin ghetto because at once the streets are clean and neat, the buildings new and well kept, and 同和地区 signs remind the average Japanese about the stigma born by the area.

So Japanese don't want to live there, and you'd have a better chance of getting your kid into a good school and finding good, clean public housing.

Teaching English is out of the question for Osaka, like Ghidorah said. I'll set aside my conviction that Japan is not a good destination for a year long family adventure. I speak as a former long-term Osaka resident, and near-native fluent speaker and reader of the language.

But if you're really set on pursuing Osaka, here's an interesting angle: Osaka is the big pharma capital of Japan. Bayer has headquarters there, for instance. If I were dead set on returning to Japan with a family, I would hit the pharma companies hard, both Japanese and US and make a strong case for why you'd make a good fit in Osaka for them. Of course, that would be easier to do once you are there. They just might need a couple like you for, well, whatever reason Japanese companies keep foreigners around offices. That's the way to go.

I know nothing of the economies of these places, but you might consider working in Hawaii, Guam, or some other US Pacific holding for a year, perhaps in travel. Your experience dealing with Japanese would be a plus and, my, what a beautiful experience.

Whatever you decide, good luck. And don't go to Japan looking for teaching work, unless you are the kind who is very very lucky.
posted by vincele at 8:06 PM on January 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great answers so far. My daughter is 9, FYI.
posted by Bobby Bittman at 9:08 PM on January 2, 2009

Just as a follow up, my co-worker is a full-time university professor, and works two extra days to boot. He sends his kid to an international school, and even with his salary and extra work, he still has to be pretty careful about money, just because the school is so expensive. To the point that buying a house has been put on hold.

In turn, I need to mention some things vincele said. This is a great place as a single person, especially when you're young. It's great that you had a good time here, but we're still dealing with a country where, while it's technically illegal to discriminate in hiring practices, the further north of 30 you get, it becomes exponentially more difficult to find work.

Oh, and one thing, if you do come over here. You're going to be stuck between two extremes. There's the one extreme that thinks, wait, these folks are only going to be here for a year? And they look at it as an adventure? That extreme would be resistant to employing you, since any training they give you is essentially wasted.

On the other extreme, there would be people wary that you would actually want to stay longer. Gaijin have a ten year shelf life, and all that.

Have you thought about China? Granted, I taught there eight years ago, but the universities provided a living wage, and even family housing. Most of the married couples there were retired, but still, we made more than the city-wide average wage, had free apartments, free utilities. Four days a week, and even a paid bonus for traveling in the Spring Festival/Chinese new year. It's pretty different than Japan, and I have no idea about schooling, but it could be a much more doable situation. Like I said, though, you get a living wage in Chinese terms. At the time, I was able to defer my student loan payments (and interest) for the year I taught there by declaring poverty as my reason.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:50 PM on January 2, 2009

Language school is for singles in their (early) 20's. There's no support there for families, they get a flood of kids in their 20's as it is.

Outside of language school they will want to have at very least a 3 year commitment to be worth going through the trouble of sponsoring a foreigner (+2). A year in Japan is pretty much exactly the wrong amount of time to spend. You'll have just gotten established before you leave (or you'll never get established because you're leaving). A shorter stay would let you soak in the culture without long term commitments, a longer stay would let you be free enough to really join the community.

How good is your Japanese? Does your wife have any language skill? Or maybe nursing? If you only have experience of a year as a NOVA teacher a decade ago you will not have the language chops for much. And in my experience they will be looking for translators or Western-Style Managers. For everyone else they've got locals. Hiring someone without passable Office Japanese Language is only for very large companies who can pay extra for a translator or who have a lot of English staff. And they usually hire them in their home countries.

The Western families I know in Japan have been sent there by their international companies, they didn't move there first, most never planned to move there. However they mostly make craploads of money and can afford the private schools. Which kind of sucks because the few that I met really weren't in Japan at all, they had erected Western Culture walls around themselves.

If it were me and simply about the cultural experience I would wait and send her on an exchange program. (And save up for a three week summer vacation there next summer.)

You will work longer hours and you will spend a lot less time with your family. Foreigners still have to pay more for housing than native Japanese. Sad but true. (And a language school isn't going top put up a family.) I don't know about Canadian tax regulations, but Americans have to pay US tax on what they earn overseas on top of Japan tax. (Usually.)

When you're done, what then? Will your job be waiting for you here a year later? Or will you have to start from scratch? It's going to take us more than 12 months to come out of this recession. On the other hand, you're better off earning JPY than CAD at the moment.

You might look into a cultural exchange visa for one or both of you. It's an often overlooked category of visa that, if one of you can earn enough to live (eep), the other can get a visa by learning a traditional Japanese art such as flower arranging or tea ceremony. However they are hard to get without being in Japan first.

The only other people I know who live long term in Japan (without marrying Japanese) are a few creatives and freelancers who spend every spare yen on immigration, and people who overstay their visas and work as illegals in clubs, bars, etc.

(Disclaimer: My experience is from Tokyo, where I have no children or spouse.)

(On preview, some of this is duplicate information.)
posted by Ookseer at 11:47 PM on January 2, 2009

Ookseer, just so you know, form 2555 in the IRS income book is your friend. If you make less than x (most recently, x was $90000) in foreign income, obtained while living in a foreign country, you do not have to pay taxes. You need to file taxes yearly, and you need to pay taxes on property or bank accounts held in the States, but aside from that, foreign income up to the exception limit is, well, excepted.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:30 AM on January 3, 2009

I don't know anything about this personally, but I wanted to recommend a book, Japanese Lessons, by Gail Benjamin. She is an anthropologist who spent a year in Japan with her husband and enrolled her two (young elementary aged) children in a public school. The book is about their experiences, and if I recall correctly (it's been years) she also discusses her decision to put them in a public school versus an international school.

It was written in 1989, (so possibly out of date?) but it's a very interesting book.
posted by everybody polka at 2:19 AM on January 4, 2009

Japan Forum at Dave's ESL Cafe may have info about this kind of thing, but a lot of the posters are fairly, er ... cranky. Check the FAQs and run several searches.

It's probably indicative, though, that nearly everyone on that board who has a family in Japan does so by virtue of having a Japanese spouse and half-Japanese children.

Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 7:01 PM on January 4, 2009

Best answer: I think the OP (Bobby Bittman) could probably do it, that is, take the family and live in Japan. Judging from the OP's website, he's a talented, motivated guy, just the kind it takes to make it in Japan in these conditions. Bobby Bittman, you seem to have a lot of success in the film industry. Is it possible for you to work remotely while in Japan? You may be able to self-sponsor yourself if you prove that you have income.

Most of the Japan-Canada relationship is based in Toronto (Vancouver is where the big trading houses by pulp and coal and managing shipping operations, while the creative companies + automotive + goods and services are based in Toronto). The Toronto Board of Trade may be able to give you some leads on connecting with Japanese companies that can use your skills.

Gaijinpot is a great resource for Japanese jobs, although, as you can see, most of the jobs are fairly low-paying. However, IT professionals are in demand in Japan, so if you have those skills you may be in luck.

Since you're Canadian, you and your wife can try to get a job right from Canada with GEOS. Your age may be an asset. As well, if you're under 40 you are eligible for the JET Programme.

Interac also hires overseas, although the working conditions are not the greatest. Generally, though, a good, positive attitude and resourcefulness can help you get through lousy situations. Many of the people who complain about working in Japan are often young and inexperienced, and don't have the coping skills (yet). Interac would be a useful way to get into the country, a stepping stone, I guess, and you could then use your skills and resourcefulness (I have full confidence in you, Bobby) to find something better.

I would recommend staying for a couple of years, because it's going to take at least a year to set up, and your family will enjoy it more the second year.

I would also encourage putting your daughter into a Japanese school. My son was born in Japan, and we moved back to Canada in 2004 after I had spent ten years there. We spent about half the year in Japan in 2007/08, and our son went to kindergarten there. The teachers and students were really nice, although it helped that my wife is Japanese, and that I speak Japanese and am familiar with the school system and the way things are done there.

I think the big question is, will your wife and daughter be as enthusiastic as you are? Do they have what it takes to roll with it and enjoy the experience? Will you have an escape hatch if things get too rough and you need to go home? Those are the important questions.

Gaijin have a ten year shelf life, and all that.

I left after ten years, so I suppose this is true, although I really think that your age is actually working in your favour here, as long as you're planning on a short stay or are determined to be self-employed. Anyway, after ten years in Japan I wanted to do something else besides teach (I was self-employed had my own school with four instructors and 70+ students), but, after five years, I would happily drag my family back to live there for the rest of our lives. I really would. Work is really the only obstacle. Since I don't like teaching and I don't like translating, and since I want to live in the countryside where there is no other work, I don't think I would go back. But my mother-in-law has a house and a coffee shop, and if I can scrape $20K together for rennovations, I might go back. Because I love Japan.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:42 PM on January 27, 2009

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