I Am 40, Not Dead! Why Older Foreigners Struggle to Find English Teaching Work in Japan


There was a great English teaching job listed on an English job-hunting website several years ago. My JET-like contract had just finished. I was newly married with a baby on the way. (Don`t do that, btw.) And, I was looking for fulltime work in the worst way. I saw the advertisement, and it was like manna from heaven.

The private eikaiwa company offered a high salary. The commuting expenses, health insurance, and pension were also part of the compensation package. And, to top it all off, the teaching job was no kids` classes and no weekends. This was the job for me!

I searched frantically for my resume file on my computer. I gave it the once over. I spent three hours tweaking my cover letter, and I added a new photograph of me to the top.

I uploaded my file, and hit send. My computer screen flashed. An ominous message in bright red appeared before my eyes. It read, “The job listed is for people under 35 years-old.” My mouth dropped open, and I cried. (Dude, I did.)

I had years of English teaching experience. I had multiple degrees and diplomas. My Japanese was good, and I had a permanent visa. But, I was also 38. (Ouch!)

My dream job went down the drain faster than my greying hair does each morning. I regretted my decision to become a lifer foreigner in Japan for the first time. But, it would not be my last rodeo with the stigma of age that permeates the English teaching job market in Japan.

Incidentally, the company gave that job to a 25 year-old American foreigner with no experience. He flaked out on the company after two months. “Thanks for the free plane ticket and the three-year visa, suckers.” (Seriously, he really told them that.)

Private Kindergartens are the last bastion of hope for older foreigners.

Sure, there is no age limit for the JET program. And, you should, by all means, apply for the program. This is especially true if you do not plan on staying in Japan long-term. But, if you have dreams of your life setting in the Land of the Rising Sun, you should be thinking about getting a more permanent English teaching job.

Private Japanese kindergartens across Japan are scrambling to provide foreign English teachers for their schools. As you might expect, young children take a tad bit more energy than a group of 50-year-old Japanese housewives.

Well, of course, I assume you aren`t doing other high energy things with the 50-year-old Japanese housewives. But, I digress. Many private kindergartens love the older foreigners almost as much as the Japanese housewives do. (Almost… )

Many older foreigners have visas. They are married with children. And, most importantly, they aren`t going anywhere, anytime soon, if ever. That is not to say if you look like Santa Claus you will get an English teaching job. It means an older foreigner who presents a mature, responsible image is going to get a long, long, long look from a private kindergarten.

What to do if you plan to return to your country?

There exists a paradox for the older foreigner looking to get an English teaching job. Certainly, it is possible to get a good English teaching job. Contrary to the opening of this article, I found a wonderful English teaching job in Japan.

I found it at 38-years-old. And, the company (knock on wood) does not seem in any hurry to get rid of me. In fact, they consider me a valuable employee in the company. And, my salary and twice-yearly bonus matches that value. But, remember, 99% of the foreigners who come here, young and old alike, eventually go home. What about them?

The first thing to consider is the Japanese pension. Japan does allow for a foreigner to take back three years of their pension contributions. If you stay any longer, you will have to say sayonara to the money. The Japanese government thanks you. As do I, you are helping to pay my future pension. (I kid… a little… very little.)

It is wise for the older foreigner to understand the ramifications of staying too long in Japan. There is a lot more to going back to your home country beyond simply buying a plane ticket. It is easy to feel special after several years of life in Japan.

In Japan, a foreigner to varying degrees is, well, in fact, special. But, I say it all the time here to people who ask me, “Why don`t you go back to America?”

“I would be the most popular Walmart greeter ever.”

That is in no way to slight my life, but it is my rather unfortunate employment reality. To be sure, people back home would be (and are) mesmerized by my travel stories. Maybe, a company or two in my hometown area would be impressed by my Japanese skills. But, I would be a grey, grizzled, native speaker in a country full of grey, grizzled, native speakers. That never worked out very well for me in America even as a young man.

I left America years ago for a reason. I could not find a good job. Potential employers would find me no more appealing as a job candidate than I was more than a decade ago. And, I am older with a now more than ten year long gap in American work experience. Older foreigners should fully consider what living in Japan for any length of time will do to their future job prospects in their home countries.

Do you have the health and energy to actually do the job?

I am Superman. I teach a lot… A LOT. I never miss work. I give the company, and my eikaiwa a full effort every time. And, I can also tell you it was much, much, much easier to do at 29 years-old than it is at 41 years-old. (I can still run a sub-5 minute mile.)

Certainly, I am not some old geezer walking around with an oxygen tank. But, it takes a bit more to get out of bed at 4:30 a.m. seven days a week. (What did you think these articles write themselves?) Too, my life is full of other responsibilities including a wife and family that were not there when I first stepped on this island.

Trust me, when I tell you, it takes the Japanese rice right out of you. And, yes, it does take a toll on your health. I have been to the doctor for more annoying maladies in the last two years than I had in the previous four decades combined.

Too, I have picked up more nagging illnesses from the students in the last year than I ever have. I can`t tell you exactly why that is. But, it happens, and there is no doubt in my mind that my advancing age plays a role in that.

Finally, let me be frank, if you choose to spend years teaching English in Japan. It will get old, really, really, really old. You will one day look into a mirror, and you will see a grey, grizzled, (and) gaijin staring right back at you.

You will think, “Is this it?” or my personal favorite “Is this all there is (for me)?” And, your reflection will just shrug and sigh, and say, “Hasta la vista, baby.” And, unlike in the movies, the end credits will not roll. Your life here will go on. The real question is “Can you?”

“Life tends to be an accumulation of a lot of mundane decisions, which often gets ignored.”- David Byrne


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