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February 20, 2007 2:04 PM   Subscribe

Looking for a bit of advice on working (teaching English most likely) in Japan or Korea.

Right now, I am a 23 year old college student prepared to graduate with a B.A. in political science, international studies. I have some ideas about my future career, but it's not quite time yet. I have virtually no commitments right now, relatively low debt from student loans (Roughly 10k), and wanderlust is kicking in. I've decided that teaching English overseas would be a good way to pay the bills, cut away at my debts, and give me some much-needed international experience.

The problem is, where to go? I've never been outside of the United States, so there's no doubt that I'd learn a lot from anywhere I go. Right now, I have a few choices that stand out. Language wise, Japan is appealing. I've learned a little bit of basic Japanese, enough that immersion should be very beneficial. One of my professors who I've taken many courses with has suggested that I go to her home country, Korea. Her reccomendation would probably hold better weight as a foot in the door with a respectable institution.

Of course, there's pros and cons to all of these ideas. My main focus of study has been the northeast Asia area. The first choice was Japan, as I know the teaching programs there are fairly well regulated, safe, and pay well enough to live on reasonably. On the other hand, I know Japan is fairly xenophobic, and I have few contacts to expand my opportunites beyond teaching. My only reservations about Korea are the potential difficulties in learning the language and a few questionable teaching outfits. On the other hand, I've heard the income and cost of living would be best to wipe out my debts, and having contacts can be helpful.

I know there's a number of quality resources on TEFL jobs, so that's not my main concern. Personal experience sharing would be appreciated, whether it's teaching or just living in one of these countries. I would also like any insight on details I may be missing that could influence my decision.

Important details that may help- I have no problem with trying to learn either language, my only reservation about Korean is that I don't know where to find decent resources before going overseas. My personal preference isn't any worry, I know I would enjoy and get a lot out of either path. Money is not a primary concern, I'm used to living a bit frugally and in fairly small quarters. Still, it wouldn't hurt, especially paying off my loan quickly. I also would prefer something that starts in the latter half of this year, which rules out JET. Potential for experiences or contacts that would further a career in international diplomacy or international business would be nice.

Anything to help me make a better informed decision would be appreciated much!
posted by Saydur to Work & Money (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

This may have been covered before.
posted by tylermoody at 2:39 PM on February 20, 2007

Stavrosthewonderchicken will have to tell me if I'm off-base on this, but:

From what I've gathered, Korea is about equal on the xenophobia ladder, or slightly more xenophobic than Japan (that is, in the countryside, both countries are about equal, but in Tokyo, at least, being white foreign is not seen as being automatically equal to being an English teacher, and moving from an English teaching job to a non-English teaching job is not that difficult, while in Korea, even in Seoul, being white foreign means being an English teacher, and moving to a non-English teaching job is quite difficult).
posted by Bugbread at 2:42 PM on February 20, 2007

tylermoody : "eh-hem.

"This may have been covered before."

Yes, it certainly may have, but one certainly wouldn't know from those search results you linked. This question is about whether to choose Korea or Japan. You just linked to a bunch of comments and posts about teaching in Japan in general. Maybe the answer is buried in those results, and maybe not, but from what you've posted, "it may have been covered before" is about as likely as "it may not have been covered before".
posted by Bugbread at 2:46 PM on February 20, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you, bugbread. You put it better than I could, this is just a question about comparison, details in life that are easier to miss, and especially things that long-time residents or those who have lived in both countries would know well.

I'd like to turn this into relevant life experience, not just seeing the world. This is a step to business, diplomacy, or skilled translation work, and I want knowledge that many TEFL types just won't encounter.
posted by Saydur at 3:03 PM on February 20, 2007

My brother just went to South Korea to start teaching. So far, he hasn't had any trouble getting around. It was very easy to find a job, and he just did a lot of research, visited the schools and tried to pick one that seemed to have the best work environment.

He tells me that he now kind-of wishes he went to Japan, because it doesn't seem that there is much of a counterculture in S. Korea.

In terms of learning the language, I think it's all what you make of it, taking the time to interact with Koreans, take classes etc. If you want to, you'll be able to.
posted by hazyspring at 5:30 PM on February 20, 2007

It is my understanding that you are more likely to get better money teaching English in Korea than here in Japan, although there are certainly exceptions. One factor in this is that Japan is probably a bit more expensive in terms of cost of living.
As bugbread said, your chances are extremely high of moving on to non-teaching work in Tokyo if that is your plan. There are a large number of local resources for foreigners doing/seeking better work.
Lastly, there are way more regular mefites in Japan than in Korea. You've basically just got poor stavros to pester for help/questions. :)
posted by nightchrome at 5:56 PM on February 20, 2007

I've been teaching in Japan for the last three years, and can tell you a lot about it. Never been to Korea, but I've heard some horror stories about Korean language schools. I've heard and read about a recurring scam in Korea in which the owner of a conversation school will one day take all the cash and skip town (usually to America for some reason), leaving both students and teachers screwed. Be very wary of the smaller, private conversation schools in Korea.

A former roommate of mine here in Tokyo, a Brit, lived for a year in Korea and said that a few schools tried to screw him out of his pay, but he fought it somehow and eventually got it.

Of course, that kind of thing can and does happen in Japan, but I think to a lesser extent. Japan has better laws protecting foreign workers to these kinds of scams.

On the other hand, I know Japan is fairly xenophobic,

Depends on who you are and where you go. To be blunt, if you're white, you'll not really be on the negative end of racism, not directly at least. You'll be actually revered for no other reason than being white. This is true especially in small towns. Like bugbread said, if you're in Tokyo no one will look twice at you. In a small town, though, you could be a rock star. It's alternately flattering and annoying. I imagine Korea to be pretty much the same, though perhaps less so. Most Korean men have mandatory military service in which they're put together with American troops, so many are used to Westerners (at least Americans).

My only reservations about Korea are the potential difficulties in learning the language and a few questionable teaching outfits.

Grammar-wise, Japanese and Korean and very, very similar. Writing and pronunciation are totally different. Japanese uses kanji, the bane of every Westerner living here. Takes years to get to even a basic reading level. Korean, on the other hand, is potentially much easier in my mind because they use a phonetic alphabet (syllabary?). You can at least learn to read Korean much much faster than Japanese.

And yes, Japan can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. As in any country in the world, if you live in the countryside or a smaller city you'll save a lot more. And as in any place you live, it's all about not going out for those $6 beers, cooking at home, etc.

Check out the forums on for Japan info, that's THE place for the best info on Japan.
posted by zardoz at 7:56 PM on February 20, 2007

I've lived in Korea for two years now and most of my friends are English teachers. I also have limited experience teaching (two months) so take that as you will. Most recently, I helped a high school friend move here, find a job and get settled.

Korea and Japan pay the best for English teachers. However, Japan will have way more expensive cost-of-living. If you live in Seoul or Busan (2nd largest city in Korea), you'll have access to a lot of Western resources and cheaper goods, such as TGI Fridays and import grocery stores. I live on a small island — there aren't even fast food restaurants in my village — so it's a bit more expensive.

There are several types of English teaching jobs in Korea. You can work for a gov't school (by which I mean a regular grade school or high school, like in the US). You can also work for a hogwan, which is sort of like an after-school English academy. My understanding is that gov't school jobs are safer and pay better, but hogwan jobs are a dime a dozen, and if you aren't happy with one, there are hundreds more you can move to. Only qualifications needed to be a teacher are a degree in something (anything) and being a native English speaker. I spent two months substituting at a hogwan and made $25 an hour.

Two other options include giving private lessons, and working for an International School. Private lessons are a bit risky because it's often done under the table (no tax reporting, and if you don't have a work visa you shouldn't be working, period), so YMMV. My town is the site of the second largest shipyard in the world, which means there are hundreds of families from places like Greece, USA, Scotland, Norway, etc. all here on long-term projects. The same is true for Seoul, where there are many international engineering firms as well as a huge US Army base. All these families' children have to go to school somewhere. You can easily get a job at an international school teaching whatever you want — one of my friends is a PE teacher — without having to have a teaching degree. I've heard the money is pretty good, but you will also have to deal with the expat micro-cosm, which can be stressful. My friends who work for the Int'l school hate going out for cocktails because they always run into their students' parents.

Korean is a very simple language to learn, and I think if you can learn Japanese you'll have no trouble with Korea. The alphabet is phonetic, like English, not pictorial, like Japanese.

Lastly, there are scams, just like anywhere else, and there is a certain *homogeneous-ness* to Korean culture, but I wouldn't call it xenophobia. I am a 5'10" blonde-haired, blue eyed woman, so I definitely stand out here, but I've never felt threatened or discriminated against by anyone here. In fact, Koreans are often so eager to make a good impression of their culture on others they go out of their way to be nice to foreigners, at the expense of other Koreans. As for jobs, Dave's ESL Cafe is the most popular place to find out what schools are good and who is going to rip you off.

Stavros can weigh in if any of my impressions are wrong.
posted by Brittanie at 9:33 PM on February 20, 2007

I'm on the JET program at present. I think, as most JETs will probably tell you, that this is probably the best gig overall in terms of Japan's teaching opportunities. They help you take care of all your visa and tax stuff, they have full time support and counseling staff on hand, they usually help pay for your rent (myself and most in my prefecture average around $150 a month for rent).

And the other big thing with JET is the pretty easy work hours, which leaves evenings and weekends to do community activites, make friends, study japanese, etc.. Most private eikaiwa schools like Aeon or Geos (or NOVA, but I hear they suck) will have you working evenings and weekends, which is somewhat inconvenient because that's everyone else's free time. You could always get a job with a private company and apply to JET this fall to start next year. There's also Interac, which is sort of the private company version of JET, but I don't know much about them.

In terms of using this as a gateway to international business or diplomacy - within JET, if you improve your Japanese and work your way up to a CIR position, that is a bit more of a diplomatic position and possible resume material. You could also look into some of the international universities once you're over here, I hear there is decent financial aid or scholarships for foreign grad students.?..

I'll be here for a couple more years and my email is in my profile if you have more questions.
posted by p3t3 at 10:37 PM on February 20, 2007

One more advantage of JET (I used to be a JET) is that while all teachers know about it, and all ex-pats know about it, and thus all know how easy it is to become one, very few regular Japanese know about it. This means that you make a much, much better impression when job-hunting later on. After all, English teachers are a dime a dozen, but English teachers who worked at nationally accredited public schools, as opposed to English conversation schools? I know that, even now, when I tell people that from 1996 to 1999 I taught English in a public high school, they're somewhat impressed, whereas if I just tell them that I "taught English", without specifying where, they aren't remotely impressed.

p3t3, quick question for you: I know that after the second bubble burst (2000 or 2001 or so), Mombusho was having a hard time finding people who wanted to be JETs. Have they gotten rid of the "3 year max" limit they used to have?
posted by Bugbread at 1:15 AM on February 21, 2007

Japanese uses kanji, the bane of every Westerner living here. Takes years to get to even a basic reading level.

1. Buy the Tuttle Flashcards (~$200)
2. Pound 50/day.
3. 6 weeks to get them into your head as a base.

The useful ones will stick with exposure.

IME, the xenophobia thing only made its presence when letting an apartment. I sidestepped this issue by renting in the gaijin ghetto (Minami Azabu), where the ¥¥¥ greased the skids so to speak.

Kanji is cool and will REALLY help you should you choose to pursue Mandarin. The overlap with traditional Chinese characters is 99%, with the screwed up commie characters about 70%.

Tokyo is a kick-ass place to live for a year or three, and things have gotten significantly more convenient since I was there in the 90s (internet banking etc).
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:22 AM on February 21, 2007

Mombusho was having a hard time finding people who wanted to be JETs

heh, I've always wanted to do the JET thing off at Wakkanai, Awaji-jima or Yakushima-jima (出来るだけ東京離れ). I'm right at the 40 yo cutoff next year, but am clearing the 7-year blackout period.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:25 AM on February 21, 2007

I'll just speak up as someone who taught in Korea for a year: It is fucking awesome. I taught at a public middle school (grades 7-9, on our scale) and it was so good I recommend it to everyone.
a) it's pretty easy: you make your own lesson plan and you have tons of freedom. Show a video that you like, make up a cool game, talk about their weekends... anything that keeps kids engaged and is in English.
b) freetime: I taught 4hours a day, 5 times a week on a very busy week. It would not be unusual to come to school and learn that I didn't have anything that day. On the total year I had about 50 days off (not including weekends). These are all paid
c) monies: the school pays for your apartment, flight, and pays you ~2000$ (US) a month (if you teach elementary, it's a little less). I was able to save more than 1000$ each month and still be able to eat well and travel around
d) culture: it's hard to sum up the culture and everything, but it's good. Yes, you will absolutely stand out if you are white; however, (seconding Brittanie) you don't feel ostracized or prejudiced against. In fact, quite the opposite as people are eager to talk to you and overtly friendly. If you don't like being stared at then it's awkward, but I loved the local celebrity status. The food is simply amazing. The language is easy enough to pick up for simple conversation and reading and writing is a cinch. It's a great alphabetical system.
e) afterwards: I only taught for a year so I don't know about professional career afterwards. I know some people who kept teaching and one or two who went on to different things (English teaching, business side and ambassador stuff) but most of the people teach a bit and get out.
f) vs Japan. I only vacationed a bit in Japan and that was only in Tokyo so I can't really say how it compares. I am biased towards Korea but Japan seems fine enough.
g) school: I would highly recommend public schools over private academies (hagwon): you have more freedom, you're less busy, more time off, and much more stable (I've heard horror stories of people being fired from hagwons for no reason/with little notice).

In summary: Teaching for a year in Korea was AMAZING and it was a choice I made after getting my degree that I will always be so happy I did. (wow, bad sentence). For resources on the language, is a good place to start. The semester starts around the first of September and you would fly there around the 20th of August for the program. I wholeheartedly think you should do it! If you want to know more, email's in the profile.
A good place to start for public school teaching: GEPIK . This is the gateway to teaching in GyeonggiDo, the largest state in Korea and the one that surrounds Seoul. HiTeacher also lists a lot of public and private school opportunities.
posted by shokod at 2:21 AM on February 21, 2007

I know that after the second bubble burst (2000 or 2001 or so), Mombusho was having a hard time finding people who wanted to be JETs. Have they gotten rid of the "3 year max" limit they used to have?

Hey bugbread. To answer your question: Yes, sort of; just this past fall they upped it to 5 years max for re-contracting. I know that in the US at least, they were still accepting less than half the applicants last year when I got into the program, so it looks like folks are still interested in working for JET despite the weak yen.
posted by p3t3 at 6:06 AM on February 21, 2007

p3t3: Thanks. One more question (if I may ask): what are they paying now? (I know that there are variances in "true pay", i.e. some people get fully subsidized housing, some people pay full regular rent, etc., but I believe the baseline "this is how much you get in your paycheck" is equal across the board).

Also, just wanted to pipe up again regarding the xenophobia case: I don't know from what you posted if you're white or not, and that makes a big difference in how xenophobic Japan might feel. If you're white, really, it's not xenophobic. You might have a hard time getting into a hot spring in a town in Hokkaido with lots of drunk Russian sailors. You might get turned away from a brothel. That's about it. Finding an apartment might be hard, but that really depends on your Japanese level, more than your ethnicity. I've lived in 3 apartments, never intentionally sought out "gaijin friendly" places or anything, and had no problem whatsoever, because I spoke Japanese well. None of my friends (who also speak Japanese well) have ever had a problem, and they, too, have just done regular apartment hunting, not "gaijin friendly" apartment hunting. The only hassle they gave me (very minor) was needing two guarantors instead of one. And, even then, when I renewed the apartment contract, they only needed one. If your Japanese sucks, finding an apartment may be harder, because they will worry about what happens if there's a contract dispute, or whathaveyou, which requires communication. So it's not so much a xenophobia problem as a communication problem.
posted by Bugbread at 6:22 AM on February 21, 2007

Response by poster: Well, too bad nobody's had significant experience with both, but there's some interesting comparisons here. It sounds as if both routes really offer some good opportunities, as long as I can get something in public schools.

As for details, yes, I am a typical white American male with no tattoos. I know that's about as good as it gets for a foreigner, I've just had friends with some less pleasant experiences. I'm glad to hear that it's mostly fear of language barriers, that's something I can overcome.

Extra thanks for all the info on good experiences in Korea. Knowing that there are some solid and safe choices there makes it a lot more viable.
posted by Saydur at 1:29 PM on February 21, 2007

p3t3: Thanks. One more question (if I may ask): what are they paying now?

bugbread: The JET salary hasn't changed in at least a few years I think, probably longer. It's still ¥3.6 million per year, or ¥300,000 per month.

From that, they take out a bit for health insurance and pension, but you can get the pension money back when you leave Japan. And at least for Americans- you are exempt from income tax back home, and for the first year of your stay, you can also get out of Japanese income tax.
posted by p3t3 at 2:22 PM on February 21, 2007

Ok, that's the exact same as they were paying back in 1996, and the pension payback, income tax exemption stuff is unchanged as well. Thanks for the info.
posted by Bugbread at 4:30 PM on February 21, 2007

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