Let’s start things out on the right foot: Your employer is not your friend. They are not looking out for you. They do not have your best interests at heart. There. Now we can begin.
I have worked for companies that do all of these things. Some of the pitfalls can be avoided, and I have avoided them. Some of them can’t. If you’re in Japan teaching just a sort of way to see the world and find yourself in your 20’s, then maybe you don’t mind being taken advantage of. If you’re trying to live a life, these red flags become really disruptive. It’s pretty much impossible to find a job in Japan that doesn’t do at least one of these things. The goal, though, is to opt out of as many as you can. Don’t go blindly into the con and get taken for a ride.
1. They don’t pay for the most basic benefits, making your salary dramatically lower than it appears.
The big three, in order of likelihood, are Transportation, Health Insurance, and Social Insurance.
The idea of a company paying for my transportation cost, as an American, was an alien concept when I got here years ago. But, transportation compensation is a perk that pretty much every real employee in Japan expects. The train costs the same for everyone. And, a real, quality company will set you up with either a transportation compensation form or a train pass good for unlimited transport between your home station and your workplace. If your company pays a modest salary, but doesn’t comp transport costs, your modest salary quickly becomes poverty wages. I fell into this trap in my first job in Japan. I spent so much on train fare that I struggled to pay for food. And I wasn’t the only one. A friend passed out on the bus because he just didn’t have enough cash to make it to work and eat regular meals at the same time.
I was able to work around this hell situation by getting a bicycle and living very near my assigned schools during my second contract. It was still a struggle.
The health and social insurance situation is more sticky. Insurance is sort of an invisible thing in one’s daily life. I have always been on the hook for my own government health insurance payments. After years of doing this I mentioned it to my full time, public school teacher coworkers and they were shocked. Their health insurance basically a box checked as part of their paycheck. Not only do they not pay it themselves, some of them don’t even see it.
The General Union has been fighting battles on all the other insurances for years. Japan has systems equivalent to American Social Security and Unemployment. A lot of the hair splitting in the likely illegal contracts that make up most of the ALT industry is over the threshold each company believes they need to remain under to avoid paying into these systems. Interac recently bent over backwards renaming and dividing its company to weasel out of paying one form of social insurance. Union members have to bully the company and demand another form. If you marry a local, or even if you just want to spend much of your career on Japanese soil, these little omissions can really hurt your bottom line.
2. Your real salary is obscured by a bunch of rules and reductions. Your pay per hour rate is listed with no defined minimum hours, or in a weird unit of measure.
I’m supposed to make the Japanese equivalent of roughly $2,400 a month. That’s the bold number on the application page of the company website. Wow! What a generous offer! Not. Four months out of the year my contract is prorated down to around half that total. In my first contract, I straight up wasn’t paid for months at a time in the summer, spring, and winter. ‘We offer this much yen a month,’ cry the companies! ‘But only for half the year,’ they whisper.
But even if you’re paid by the hour, you can’t avoid this bull. Gaba advertises pay in the neighborhood of $20 and hour, but downplays that a lesson isn’t an entire hour. They hope you assume that you make that hourly rate per lesson. It sounds like a much sweeter deal when you don’t do the math quite right.
3. You are pushed into company housing with rented company furniture and a company car at the company rate and on their terms.
This one is so tempting to just go along with. If you’re moving to Japan from your college dorm, what do you know about the housing market, right? Why not let the company just take over this part? Because, they make bad choices. That’s why. Any idiot can tell you that if you work in the city, and get your train fare comped, the best bet is to live in a cheap suburb and commute. This never seems to be what the corporate housing people choose. All my poor idiot friends who have relied on the company or agency to place them in housing ended up in a down town metropolis with sky high rent and no space. Boo,
There is just no reason for this. Share houses exist for exactly this reason. Get a train map and a list of share houses in your city. Find the cheapest one along the route into your school district. Bam. Move in there first. You’ll have a bed, a kitchen, and an instant network of other new kids all figuring this thing out together. If you’re staying for just a year for the experience? All the better! A share house will have more social interaction than a solo company apartment. Want to stay long term? Even better! Do what I did and stay for a few months in a share house upon arrival. Then, when your finances are in order and you’ve picked out the sort of place you’d actually want to live, get that real apartment and move in when it’s best for you.
Spending time in a guest house before picking out more permanent housing is also just good timing. There’s a mad rush to move in the spring when people start new jobs and new schools. If you bump back your official move in, you can get much better deals and much better customer service than if you try to get it all done during the peak season.
Once you do get a new place, beware of the rental furniture scourge.
Every person I have known who has rented furniture has regretted it. It is never worth it. For the same price, you can usually spend Saturday in an Ikea and Sunday in a recycle shop like Hard Off and get your own, much better items. Even with the rental furniture, there are always massive gaps. One acquaintance of mine rented a bed and wardrobe, only to realize his apartment didn’t come with any lighting and the bed had no mattress. Those were extra. Another rented a microwave and learned only much later that it was the cheapest model available, no toast or oven functions like a regular microwave typically has. Small rental fridges with no separate freezer mean your options on buying bulk at places like Costco or Niku no Hanamasa are extremely limited, costing you even more money in the long run.
Stocking an entire apartment with an oven-microwave, fridge, washer, stove, and bed sounds intimidating, but it really isn’t all that hard. Teachers and military men transfer out of Japan all the time and practically whole apartments are up for ‘sayonara sale’ on Craigslist on the daily. And, you can prioritize items and pay as you go. Get a hanging bulb, floor futon mattress, pillow, blanket, and fridge first. Coin laundry and convenience store food for a week or two. Now, you’re surviving! Get an oven-microwave and washing machine next. Get a skillet, gas stove, or mini stove and some real plates and cutlery to save on food by cooking at home. Put in tables and shelving as needed.
4. They tell you that you’re obligated to stay even when you’re not doing anything that you’re being paid for.
If the company is only going to pay you for 29 hours of work a week, you damn well be able to only work 29 hours a week. I hate this. I have to be at school for recess. I do not get paid to be at school for recess. In my work hours total, it’s skipped over. But, unlike some, I get to go home when I’m done. Teachers look at me funny sometimes. Kids ask why a teacher is booking it at 2PM. Deal with it, guys. My first company demanded that I be in my desk chair from 8AM through around 4PM. Every day. Regardless of the number of lessons I taught. Oh, but rest assured I was only paid for the in-classroom time. All that other stuff was just for show. Which brings me to…
5. Rules and regulations build a web of lies and secrecy around things as basic as how your work day goes.
The vast majority of companies who place teachers in public elementary, junior high, and high schools, operate on the wrong side of the law on the regular. It isn’t just Interac’s bribery, either. If you look closely at most contracts these companies hold with their city school boards, or the contracts that they hold with their employees, very little would hold up to scrutiny. Every time you’re told that a thing is confidential, it’s a splash of water onto the deck of a sinking ship.
So they don’t want you to tell anyone your salary? Probably because they’re paying you way less than they’re supposed to. They make their contracts confidential? Bet you the terms are on shaky ground. Threaten to fire you over sharing work emails with the union? You better believe they know straight up that they’re doing wrong. The one that makes me the most angry are the bans on getting too friendly with your gainfully employed, full time coworkers. When they, and the principals of the schools, hear about what the company is really like and how they really treat you, the company’s house of cards starts to tumble.
If you want to work in Japan, work in Japan. But keep your eyes open.