Question from a reader: teaching in Korea vs. Japan

A reader named M.S. writes:

Hey Chris. Just read your blog. Good stuff. I'm trying to decide between teaching in S. Korea and Japan and can't make up my mind. I know I can save more money in South Korea and have my apt paid for, but I hear that Japan can be a better experience. I'd like to teach in less of an urban area and would prefer to teach high school students or adults. Is this possible in S. Korea or do I have to teach elementary as an assistant? What are the pros and cons of each, you think? Thanks, buddy.
This question actually comes up for most teachers in Korea at one point or another - is the grass greener on the other side of the East Sea / Sea of Japan? Having only been to Japan for a visa run earlier this year, I can only talk about Japan from perceptions and anecdotes. At least one person has taught in both countries and reported about it for all to hear - check out the Midnight Runner for a podcast on Korea vs. Japan to hear about one teacher's experience in Korea and Japan. Listen to that while you read on.

Barring some dramatic change, both countries will have jobs available for native English teachers. Between the hagwon (Korean private English school), the eikaiwa (Japanese private English school) and public schools, the turnover for teachers is quite high. That has a lot to do with advertising / marketing. Korea is often marketed as the 'fun job' or the place to save money; Japan isn't generally marketed the same way. That Korea has accepted more teachers with little or no experience will probably change now that there's a surplus of teachers in the country.

One large difference between the two countries is the visa system - Korea ties your English teaching (E-2) visa to your employer, while expats in Japan 'own' their visa. In other words, your legal ability to stay in the country is not tied to your job, which makes it a lot easier to legitimately switch jobs in Japan than Korea. As a result, the schools can't screw you over in quite the same way - although I'm sure it still happens in Japan in one way or another.

Korea has far more of an English fascination - seeing all the English books available, whether for learning the language or books in that language, Korea seems more English friendly. That doesn't mean that the random Korean will speak English any more than the random Japanese, for what it's worth. It's a cultural thing - it sounds good to say you're studying English, or if you're carrying an English-language book, whether you're actually reading it or not.

Saving money: It's possible in any country you go to - the key is your habits. If you can't save money in your home country, I'm sorry to say you'll find it difficult to save money anywhere else in the world. There will always be things worth buying, electronics to upgrade, more beers to buy with your friends, and the like. The biggest key to saving money is to put it away and refuse to spend it for whatever reason (barring an emergency). The Japanese yen is currently quite strong, which will give you some buying power in your home country. With that said, it's supposedly easier to save in Korea because the cost of living is lower - especially when compared to the larger cities of Japan.

Students: it is possible to teach adults in Korea - especially if you have some experience at teaching adults already. They're usually one-on-one classes or small conversation classes, sometimes taken to enhance their career or personal life. High school jobs are rarer in Korea, primarily because most highschoolers are focused on the suneung, the Korean version of the SAT. By comparison, most English teaching jobs in Korea will be at the kindergarten, elementary or middle school level.

At the risk of providing a third-party perspective, I offer the following website: I found quite a bit of useful information on it, along with honest perspectives on actually teaching English - something a lot of places gloss over for cultural reasons. This page in particular talks about how it's almost required to work illegally in order to get the job in Japan (e.g. enter the country on a tourist visa, then switch it over...eventually...) In both countries, there is a certain sense of xenophobia. It's surprisingly common across the globe - if you stop and think about it, how many stories in the US have been written about 'outsourcing' jobs to India? - and has some long-reaching implications. While most countries will claim to be friendly to foreigners, the reality of the people in a given country is far different.

As for which country you'll have the better 'experience', I submit that you'll have a unique experience whichever country you choose. Korea can't possibly be Japan, and vice versa. Both are first-world economies with good standards of living. Both will have food familiar to you and foreign to you. So many elements combine to life in a foreign country that can't easily be put into words. The factors I would personally consider:
  • What requirements are there to teach? Do I have them?
  • What is the pay? Is it enough to make a living and then some?
  • What are the perks? Every job has them...
  • Do I have to put out a lot of money to get the job (plane ticket, relocation of stuff, etc.)
  • What are the expectations of my students / their parents?
Less of an urban area: Korea isn't entirely a concrete jungle - see this post for more about living away from the masses. Bear in mind that the farther you go from the big cities, the farther you get from other foreigners and most things geared towards them.
Some good websites to research include and on the Korean side of things, and on the Japanese side of things. Whereever you go, be sure you understand what you're getting yourself into - it'll be an adventure either way.

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