Living in Japan: Interview with American Writer Amy Chavez

Writer Amy Chavez, living in Japan, enjoying Starbucks & Mt. Fuji

Writer Amy Chavez, living in Japan, enjoying Starbucks & Mt. Fuji

Amy Chavez moved to Japan 18 years ago to teach English. Since then she has received permanent residency, opened a beach bar with her husband, become fluent in Japanese and has continued to advance her career as a writer. She and her husband are the only Westerners on a small island of 500 people – and she loves it that way.

Here is a bit of her story.

What are some of your favorite differences in cultures between the US and Japan?

The Japanese ask me that all the time. So many things are the opposite of what you learned growing up in America. You have to be really open minded to live here because everything is different but there is usually a good reason for it. In the US we think politeness is about saying “Please,” and “Thank you,” but in Japan that is not what it is about. In Japan if you have two pieces of cake you would always give the slightly bigger piece of cake to the other person whether it is your friend, your father or your enemy. You always put the other person first and yourself last.


Japanese people will also always take the responsibility if something goes wrong. In the US if someone has a car accident you are told not to apologize because you are admitting guilt, but here you would apologize profusely because there has been an inconvenience for the other side.

How does the Japanese visa process work?

I came over on a cultural visa sponsored by my ESL program while I was doing my teaching practicum. Cultural visas are typically six months or a year. As I had my university to sponsor me it was quite easy to get. After I was here I got a job on my own. To get my work visa I had to leave Japan, go to Korea and re-enter on my working visa.

In Japan after you have lived here for 10 years you can then apply for permanent residence which means you do not need a sponsor to work here. After attaining my permanent residence visa that is when doors opened up for me because I could do what I wanted to do and did not need a specific job to sponsor me. I was able to quit teaching then. With a permanent resident visa I can stay as long as I want, but I have to renew it every three years.

It seems like a pretty tough immigration policy.

Well the US is not easy either. In Japan if you are a permanent resident you have all of the benefits of a citizen, with the exception of voting.

How long did you have to leave Japan before you could return on the work visa?

Just 24 hours, but these days if you are on a cultural visa and you are going to get it bumped up to a work visa you do not have to leave.

Do you know if the Japanese visa process has changed over the last 18 years?

I think things are a little easier these days. All work was by one year contracts when I arrived and then every year you would have to get a one year visa again. Nowadays you get a three year visa. Even if you quit your job after one year you have two more years remaining on your visa. I think permanent residency has gotten much easier also.

How did you like teaching English in Japan?

Being as that is what I studied to do I enjoyed it greatly, especially at the university level, which is far different than teaching at public grammar schools especially with all of the freedom you get. At the university level we had six 90 minute classes a week and you did not have to be there if you were not teaching. We only taught four days a week.

I am assuming to teach at the university level in Japan you would need a master’s degree such as you had.

These days you need a PhD. I was lucky and only needed a master’s. In Japan the population is dropping drastically. It is putting a pinch on the education system. They do not need as many teachers as they used to.

Also, English has kind of fallen out of favor. It used to be that everyone wanted to learn English and English teachers could get paid very well for teaching private English classes. I used to make 100 dollars an hour teaching English and that was quite normal for a university teacher. Nowadays you are lucky to make 20 dollars an hour. The Japanese economy has been down for so long that the country is turning inward and they are worrying about their own country rather than worrying about how they appear to the rest of the world in an international context.

How is your Japanese?

One reason I enjoy living where we do and why I moved here was because I really wanted to submerse myself into the Japanese language and culture. The language is no problem for me anymore.

How long was it before you could say that Japanese wasn’t a problem?

[Laughing] I speak Spanish. I think Spanish is quite easy especially for English speakers. With Japanese, although the grammar is not difficult there are a lot of things that are difficult. I started studying every day breakfast, lunch and dinner and it took me three years to learn the writing and speaking. It took me about 3 years to get to the point where I could speak, read and write.

Is there anything additional you need to do as a foreigner to open a business in Japan?

Although I didn’t have to do anything special, others with other kinds of businesses may. Being that the economy is down and has been for about 20 years now they are trying to encourage people to open businesses, so this is in your favor. I think there are a lot of false ideas about Japan, such as foreigners can’t buy land here, etc. But foreigners can do a lot of things that the Japanese can do.

What is the cost of living in Japan?

The average house is about 350,000 dollars. That is high. Transportation is very expensive, but if you have a fulltime job your company pays transportation. Food is quite reasonable. Going out is quite reasonable depending on where you go. It can be as expensive as you want it to be. Tokyo is very expensive, of course.

What would a nice one bedroom apartment cost where you are?

Probably about 500 or 600 dollars a month. There is a lot of variety in Japan though, which increases your options. There are a lot of older places that are cheaper. I have a friend who is paying 450 dollars a month because the apartment is old, but it is still nice. When I came here originally my only goal was to save money. I rented an apartment for 100 dollars a month that was in the city by the train station. It was what we would call a studio apartment, but it did not have a shower. I had to go to the public bath. I saved so much money by doing this. I lived there for three years.

What are the public baths like?

They go from basic to very nice. It costs 3 to 3.50 dollars for a bath at the local public bath. It was great because in going to these public baths I got to know my neighborhood and I got to practice Japanese. I got naked with the local ladies. It was a great experience.

How is the job market in Japan for foreigners?

It is very limited and it always has been. They are not necessarily allowed to hire foreigners if they can do the same job that a Japanese person can do, which is why teaching English is a great job for native English speakers. It is one of the few jobs for foreigners. In the white collar jobs there are jobs with companies who have international offices here. There are a lot of financial institutions here that hire foreigners. There are also American companies that transfer people here.

Amy's book, 'Japan Funny Side Up'

Amy’s book, ‘Japan Funny Side Up’

Do you have any ideas of schools in Japan that hire English teachers?

The best way to get a job teaching in Japan is through the JET program (Japan Teacher Exchange). I believe it has an age limit though. They put teachers in public schools with this program. There is [also] Interac. The JET program is a government program.

They are quite easy jobs to get. It used to be that you did not need a degree in teaching, but these days they prefer to hire people who have teaching degrees, but it is not always necessary.

Are there any other qualifications you need to teach English in Japan?

You have to have a college degree. If you have TESL or ESL certification that would also be helpful.

What are the salary ranges for teaching English in Japan?

You will start out making 30 to 35,000 dollars a year and you get some bonuses with that. They pay part of your housing and your transportation.

Is that for a 40 hour a week job?

Yes, but you would not necessarily be teaching 40 hours a week. If you come on the JET program you do team teaching with a Japanese teacher. Other times you’ll be doing some office work or helping students in outside activities.

If you come over with a private language school such as AEON you would probably be teaching 40 hours. A lot of the complaints with the JET program are that there is not a lot to do. But if you are industrious and you can use that time to learn the language or do something else then it works out great. If you need to be entertained then it can be more challenging.

What about differences from a cultural perspective between working in the US and working in Japan?

Amy provides outsiders an insiders guidebook of Japan in 'Guidebook to Japan, What the other guidebooks won't tell you'

Amy provides outsiders an insiders guidebook of Japan in ‘Guidebook to Japan, What the other guidebooks won’t tell you’

They say that the Japanese work the longest hours in the world, but Americans are not far behind. Americans are very productive at work whereas the Japanese are not. In Japan it is more important that you put in the hours than you are productive and that can be hard to get your head around. People will just hang around the office because they do not want to be the first to go home.

How do you communicate with friends and family from home?

Skype, video Skype, email, and airplane tickets! Lots of family come visit.

Are there any books, websites or other resources you would suggest for people considering moving to Japan?

I’d recommend starting to read the local papers such as The Japan Times and Yomiuri Newspaper which are both in English, to get an idea of the local situation in Japan.

Do you feel your life is drastically different than your family or friends in the US?

Yes. I do not have a traditional job. I spend a lot of time traveling. We take the winters off. The island is great, but in the winter there is not a lot to do here. We have four boats. This fall we are going to sail to the Philippines. We spend a few months every year in Bali.

How would a foreigner find a place to live in Japan?

If you come on a program they take care of that for you. If not, you can find a Japanese person at your work place who will help you. Beware, however, that in Japan they have a system where you have to pay the first six months rent up front.

That is how it is still?

Yes. Some of them have gone down to the first and last month’s rent and then you have to pay a deposit which is one month’s rent. Then, you pay another month’s rent as a gift to the landlord.

I should try that with my place in the US.

What do you find most frustrating about living in Japan?

I don’t know if you ever get used to the insanity of Japan when you grew up in the US. If you go to the post office in Japan they have all of these stupid rules about how to write your name in English. If you do not write it the exact way their manual tells you how to write it then you have to write it again. They do not understand that if I write my last name, CHAVEZ or Chavez it is the same thing.

There are a few times I needed to send money home, so I would go to the post office, fill out the form and then they tell me I am going to have to fill it out again because I was sending over $2000 and therefore my last name had to be in all caps, but if I was just sending $1999 I could have written it just as I usually do – Chavez.

Japan is a safe place?

Yes. Safety is implicit.

What would you miss the most if you were to leave Japan?

The absolute respect for the human being sitting next to you. That’s the way it should be. You can still leave your bags out and no one will touch them. At the bar we own on the beach, we get so busy we leave our iPhones out. We have a shop that is right next to the bar. Everything is out in the open. When we are not busy we go back and forth between the shop and bar. At the shop we have a money tin and it will sit there all day long and no one will touch it because you do not take other people’s stuff in Japan. Up until this year we even left all the liquor out in the bar at night when we closed, even though it was unsecured and you could see it sitting there. But no one ever touched it.

In the US that would last for six seconds.

We can lock the shop. We cannot lock the bar. We would take the money tin with us when we closed but then we would just walk away. The only reason we lock the bar now is because of the foreigners. The foreigners will cross the line. You cannot tempt a foreigner because they will take the bait and that is the difference between the Japanese and the rest of the world.

Amy’s books Japan Funny Side Up and Guidebook to Japan, What the other guidebooks won’t tell you are available now. Her newest book Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage, 900 Miles to Enlightenment is now available.

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