Two of the most popular destinations for ESL, especially for first time teachers, are Japan and South Korea. And for good reason.
They’re both modern, developed, first world countries.
They both have a strong demand for English teachers.
They both offer a (reasonably) high salary for entry-level teachers with no experience.
So which one should you choose? Honestly, it depends. There’s a lot you need to factor in, and it’s ultimately a decision you need to make for yourself based on your preferences, lifestyle and goals.
With that said…you probably already knew that. That’s why you’re here, to get more information so you can actually make that decision and get started.
Today we’re going to be looking at these two ESL giants, compare them side by side, and look at the pros and cons of each.
I’ve wanted to do this article for quite a long time. I’ve got A LOT of experience with both countries, have taught in both (3 years in Japan, 2 in Korea), and I’ve got a lot to say about the topic. The only issue (and the thing that’s kept me from writing this article for so long) is figuring our the best way to actually present the information to you guys in a way that’s helpful.
After a lot of consideration, I’ve decided that the best way to break this down is by category (both to simplify things and to evaluate each country fairly).
To do this, I’ve chosen the categories that I think are most relevant to someone in your situation- a new ESL teacher who wants to spend a year (or more) working and living abroad.
The categories I’ve come up with are:
1. The Salary And Cost Of Living
2. “Ease Of Use” (Easiness/Difficulty Of Get Started As A Teacher)
3. The Visa
4. The Job Market
5. The Work Culture
6. The Students
7. The Language Barrier
8. Openness To Foreigners
9. The Food
10. The Lifestyle
11. The Environment
12. The Weather
But Isn’t A Lot Of That Subjective?
It sure is.
I’ve spent a grand total of 5 years teaching in these countries. Obviously I’ve got an opinion (and a strong opinion at that).
But there are things we can objectively break down. Take “salary and cost of living” for example. That’s one area where we can look at the data, compare it, and come out with an objective winner.
And even for the categories in which choosing a winner requires a subjective decision, there are certain things I can objectively describe for you to help you make your decision.
So if we take something like “food”, right away we know that it’s going to be a subjective call depending on your tastes and preferences.
But I can still describe the food of each country to you in a way that helps you make a decision.
I can tell you the flavours that tend to make up Korean and Japanese food.
I can also tell you that Korean food is (very) spicy, while Japanese isn’t. And I can tell you that it’s generally easier to find foreign food in Japan than it is in Korea.
As for choosing a “winner” for the categories that are very subjective, I’ll defer to “the general consensus” (i.e. what most people who have experience living in Japan and/or Korea generally prefer).
I’ll still give you personal opinion, but I won’t factor it into my decision.
That said, obviously don’t take my “winner” label as gospel. Evaluate the information and decide for yourself which sounds more appealing to you and your situation.
Sound fair? Good. Let’s get started.
*Do I Need A Degree To Teach In Japan Or Korea?
I just want to get this out of the way before we get started, because it’s a VERY common question- I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you either a.) have a university degree, or b.) are planning on or in the process of getting one.
Because yes, as far as I know, you need a degree to teach English in both countries.
Now, notice how I italicized as far as I know? There may be a loophole around this. I have heard of foreigners on student visa’s who teach English part-time. However, I don’t know any of the details, and I’m not the guy to ask. I taught in both countries on a working visa that required a university degree.
If you don’t have one yet, most of this list will probably still be helpful to you, but keep in mind that your situation may be different, and that’s something you need to explore further.
1. Salary And Cost Of Living
Salary: Let’s have a look at the salaries that MOST new teachers can expect in each country:
South Korea: 2.1-2.3 million won/month (about $1850-$2000 USD/month)
Japan: 230, 000-250, 000 yen/month (about $2050-$2250USD/month)
*If you get accepted to teach with the JET Programme in Japan, your starting salary will be 280, 000 yen/month (with yearly raises), however, those positions are competitive.
On paper, it looks like Japan is the winner here, but there’s a few major factors you need to consider.
Housing: The standard for 95% of all teaching jobs in Korea is to provide teachers with a fully furnished apartments. Which means not only do you not have to pay any obnoxious fees when you first move into your new place, but you essentially get to live RENT FREE (you will have to cover the cost of utilities though).
While you will occasionally find a few teaching jobs in Japan that provide an apartment, you need to understand that it’s not the norm. You also should expect that there will be some serious upfront costs when you move into your new Japanese apartment (more on that in the next category).
Cost of Living: Since the 1980’s, Japan’s developed a reputation as a country that’s prohibitively expensive.
In my experience of actually living in Japan for 3 years, I can tell you that the cost of living is hugely exaggerated (especially by people who have never set foot in the country).
That said, while it may not be as expensive as everyone says it is, it is still a high cost country (it’s about as expensive to live in Japan as it is to live in Canada).
And it is undoubtably more expensive than South Korea.
The following is a rough price comparison:
Rent: Japan is slightly more expensive than Korea
Food: Japan is slightly more expensive than Korea
Transportation (trains, buses, taxi’s, owning a car): Japan is significantly more expensive than Korea
Utilities (gas, electricity, water, etc.): Japan is more expensive than Korea (thanks Fukushima)
Entertainment (bars, movie theatres, restaurants): Japan is slightly more expensive than Korea
While you can live quite a nice lifestyle in Japan on a first year teaching salary, there’s no question that your money will go WAY FURTHER in Korea.
My first year in Korea, I was able to go out every single weekend, drink like a fish (my liver still hasn’t forgiven me), and travel while still saving a $1000/month every month.
2. Ease Of Use (Getting Started)
One of the things that’s nice about the ESL system in Korea is that it’s quite streamlined. Here’s how it typically goes down:
- Jobs are posted online (most likely through a recruiter). Teachers apply for these jobs from their home country, and interview for them over Skype.
- Once a job offer is made and accepted, the teacher and school then go through the process of applying for a work visa (which takes a few weeks).
- The teacher is then (usually) provided with a plane ticket (or they’re reimbursed for it once they arrive).
- They then move into their (furnished and paid for) apartment.
- Happy times are ahead (hopefully)
In Japan, there’s a lot more roadblocks that stand between you and a job.
For starters, there’s the visa situation, which is significantly longer, costlier and more arduous. Because of this, a lot of Japanese schools prefer hiring teachers who are already in the country with a valid visa (they also prefer interviewing teachers in person, which makes it tough if you’re not already there).
So how do you get a valid working visa in Japan? You get an employer to sponsor it for you…bit of a catch 22, isn’t it?
That’s not to say that you can’t get a school to hire you and sponsor your visa if you’re not already in Japan. It just means that it’s an uphill battle.
There’s also the start up costs to consider. In Korea, as long as you have enough money to cover your living expenses until your first paycheck, you’ll usually be good.
In Japan, a plane ticket is usually not provided by your employer. Not only that, but you’ll have to rent your own apartment. You can expect to pay:
A Security Deposit (1 months rent)
“Key Money”, a non-refundable “gift” to your landlord equalling between 1-3 months rent (sometimes more)
Your First Months Rent (anywhere from 40, 000-90, 000 yen/month)
Oh yeah, and you often won’t get your first paycheck until your second month on the job.
I’m not saying any of this to dissuade you if you have your heart set on teaching in Japan. I’m trying to give you a realistic perspective so you can prepare for it.
Korea is a really great option for new teachers who are short on cash and want to get start right away. Theoretically, you could get all your visa documents together, apply for a job, and working within a month or two.
Japan’s definitely the more complicated option. Not only do you have to find an employer willing to sponsor your visa, you have to go through a longer process with your paperwork, AND you have to pay for your flight to Japan as well as an apartment.
Startup Costs For Korea: $1000 (or less)
Startup Costs For Japan: $3000-$5000
3. The Visa
While both countries visa systems are a complete pain in the ass (lots of paperwork), getting one for Korea takes a lot less time than in Japan…but that doesn’t mean it’s a better visa.
To work in South Korea, you’ll need an “E2” visa to teach English.
In Japan, you’ll either need an “Instructor” or a “Specialist In Humanities” visa. Both countries require an employer to sponsor you.
However, there’s a MAJOR difference you need to consider. An E2 visa is not only sponsored by an employer, it’s “owned” (so to speak) by that employer. That means that once you start working for them, you’re locked into working for them until your contract expires. In order to change jobs, you need your boss to give you a signed letter releasing you from your contract.
Here’s the problem- under Korean law, your boss is not obligated to give you that letter. Which means that your school owns your ass, and if you don’t like your job, you’re going to have problems.
Basically, E2 visa= slave visa (I’m being dramatic, but you get my point).
The Japanese visa system is much more employee friendly. If you don’t like your job, you’re free to quit (last time I checked you have 3 months to find another job). Your new employer then takes over the visa sponsorship. This is why Japanese employers prefer to hire in country- it’s much easier for them to transfer or renew an existing visa than to apply from scratch.
No contest. The E2 visa is seriously terrible. Not only are you chained to your employer, it’s illegal to engage in private tutoring in Korea outside your workplace. I shit you not, Korean Immigration actually has a hotline that “concerned” citizens can call to rat out foreigners who engage in any form of tutoring.
You’ll have much more control over your situation working in Japan (and to my knowledge, you can still do private tutoring).
*(If you stay in Korea longer than 2 years, there is a better visa you can apply for called an F2-7. It’s a “long-term residency” visa which is self-owned and not under the control of an employer. BUT…it operates under a points system, and requires an enormous amount of time and effort to obtain)
4. The Job Market
Spend time in any expat bar in either country and you’ll hear the “lifers” talk about the “golden years”. Back in the day (apparently) when schools couldn’t hire fast enough, and getting a teaching job was as easy as brushing your teeth.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case anymore. In Japan, this so-called golden era was in the late 80’s and early 90’s (at least, that’s what I’ve been told).
In Korea, it was some time between 2005 and 2012 (the current pound-for-pound ESL king appears to be China).
But just because jobs aren’t falling from the sky, doesn’t mean both countries don’t have a solid demand for English language training. And as a native English speaker, the law of supply and demand is still on your side.
Being able to speak English is a valuable skill that both Japanese and Koreans want to learn. However, between the two of them, it’s more of a valued skill in Korea.
The reasons why are a whole other topic for another article, but generally speaking, more Koreans want to learn English than Japanese. More Koreans are also willing to pay to learn English, either for themselves or their children. This translates to more jobs for you.
You’ll generally find that you’ll have an easier time getting a job in Korea. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of jobs available in Japan. But the problem (other than the economy) is that the Japanese ESL industry is better established, and there’s already a decent number of English teachers already in Japan.
5. The Work Culture
Dealing with culture shock is just the cost of doing business when it comes to living abroad. There are a lot of things you’ll have to get used to, but the most difficult will probably be adjusting to life as a Japanese or Korean employee.
This is an enormous category, and there’s no way we can possibly cover everything in this article, but I’ll give you a few characteristics of working life that are common in both countries:
Long Hours: The Japanese and Koreans undoubtably work the longest hours of any developed country on earth, and employees in both countries use it as a way to show loyalty to their company/institution.
Respect For Hierarchy: Both countries maintain a strict system with superiors/inferiors, and respect for ones boss is of paramount importance.
Socializing With Colleagues: You may have heard of the infamous nomikai in Japan, where coworkers go out for binge-drinking sessions after hours during the week. Koreans do this as well, and both countries consider it a kind “team-building activity”.
Group Harmony and Conflict Avoidance: You’ve probably heard that East Asian cultures are more collectivist, while Western cultures are more individualistic. That’s definitely an oversimplification, but when it comes to the workplace, there’s a lot of truth to it.
One of the big things in both countries is maintaining a sense of harmony in the workplace, and avoiding conflict with coworkers.
The result is that Koreans and Japanese tend to be far more indirect than we are. For example, if you work in a Japanese high school and you ask your supervisor if you can take a vacation day even though you have class, you won’t get a direct “no”. Instead, you’ll usually get something more like “that’s going to be a little….difficult”.
And that’s just a basic example. This sense of operating indirectly to avoid conflict and help everyone “save face” runs deep in both cultures, and in my experience, it’s one of the hardest changes for foreigners to adapt to (especially if you’re blunt like me).
Formality: Over the last 50 years, the Western workplace has gradually become a far more casual place. Business casual dress codes are widespread, communication barriers between management and employees have come down, and in general, everything is just a lot more relaxed than it was in the 50’s and 60’s.
In Asia, however, a lot of that old school formality is still alive and well. Dress codes are still strict, employees are far less likely to speak their minds, and most Koreans or Japanese would never, EVER dream of calling their boss by their first name.
As a Westerner working either Japan or Korea, you’re going to have to adapt quite a bit to your new job. That’s just the way it is.
In terms of differences, however, the two countries vary in the degree to which the workplace exhibits characteristic we talked about.
Japan: Japan’s work culture places more emphasis on formality. If you work in a Japanese school (public or private), get used to wearing a suit and tie to work everyday. Japanese workplaces also place much more emphasis on the “group harmony” aspect, so prepare to never, ever get a straight answer on…well, anything.
Korea: The hierarchy in Korean companies and organizations tends to be more rigid than in Japan. In my experience, it’s more common for Korean supervisors to be heavy handed with the people they manage. Also, you can expect not only more socializing with collueges after work in Korea, but more pressure to participate as well (oh yeah, and they drink a lot more too).
6. The Students
As a teacher, you’ll be spending a whole lot of your day working with students, so its important to know how they stack up. While I’ve never taught adults, I have worked with students from kindergarten to high school in both countries.
In general, I’ve found that Japanese students tend to be very shy, and getting them to speak up in class is like pulling teeth. Japanese culture puts a lot of emphasis on not making mistakes, and many students are extremely reluctant to actually use their English out of fear of embarrassing themselves.
However, in terms of classroom behaviour, Japanese kids are awesome, and extremely respectful of their teachers. I worked in a high school for 3 years, I can count on one hand the amount of times I was shown anything resembling disrespect from my students.
Korean students are a lot less shy and reserved. They’re more likely to speak up in class, and they’re also more likely to actually try to use their English.
Unfortunately, they’re also a lot less respectful. Seriously. They’re not as bad as North Americans, but they’re behaviour is far and away the worst out of any Asian students I’ve come across.
While trying to get a class of 30 Japanese high school students to participate can make you want bang your head against the wall, it’s still a lot better than dealing with a class of 30 Korean kids trying to stab each other with scissors. Most teachers tend to agree.
7. The Language Barrier
Whichever country you choose, one thing is certain- if you’ve never studied Japanese or Korean before, you’re in for an uphill battle.
Both languages are among the hardest for English speakers to learn. In my experience, Japanese is easier than Korean to speak.
The advantage of Korean, however, is that it’s really easy to read and write- with Japanese, you’re stuck having to learn 2000 kanji characters (good luck). Grammar is pretty similar.
So given that you’re looking at a mountain of study time either way, which country is more “English friendly”?
Unfortunately for you (and me), English is not widely spoken in either country. That said, between the two of them, most foreigners find they have an easier time in Korea.
Not only is there a higher number of Koreans who have spent time abroad, but the Korean government has actually made some effort to provide services in English. The country has a tourist hotline (1330) you can call for help, and generally does a pretty good job of providing information in English.
8. Openness To Foreigners (Xenophobia)
The last time I checked the official statistics, the population of Japan was 98% ethnic Japanese, and the population of South Korea was 99% ethnic Korean, which officially makes them two of the most homogeneous countries on earth.
Both share a lot of the same attitudes, with an aversion to immigration, a strong sense of ethnic identity, and an insulation from the outside world.
And with regard to how they treat foreigners though, both Japan and Korea have issues with xenophobia.
There are a few differences though. I would say that between the two, Japan is much more set in its ways. They’ve been doing things the “Japanese way” for a long time, and they’re in no great rush to change things.
This will affect you as a teacher. While their lack of progress in English ability has forced them to admit that Japanese English education needs an overhaul, you can still expect to face a lot of resistance at your school when it comes to trying out new teaching styles.
Korea, on the other hand, is a little more open to trying new ideas. This is partly by necessity. The Korean economy is less insulated and overprotected (and thus more internationalized). Practical English ability is highly sought after by Korean employers, while insulated Japanese companies consider it far less of a positive attribute.
But the real difference, and the one that will likely have a far greater impact on your life, is the level of xenophobia. And in Korea, the problem is not only worse, but far more out in the open.
If you date a Korean, expect to be openly glared at by total strangers (usually old men).
Expect to have occasional racist slur hurled at you by drunk old men (notice a pattern here?) at least a few times during your stay.
And, if you do decide to stay long-term, expect some Koreans to take great umbrage with the fact that you’re not returning to your country.
Japan certain has its issues with xenophobia, but a.) there’s less of it, and b.) it’s much less out in the open.
Japanese are taught from a very young age to go out of there way to be polite and to not make other people uncomfortable. As a foreigners, you’ll be stared at much, much less (staring is incredibily rude in Japan), and the cases of blatant racism you’ll experience from strangers will be few and far between.
And while the majority of Japanese do have a lot of concerns about immigration, on an individual level, it’s far less of an issue. As long as you’re respectful and make some effort to follow local customs, you should be good.
Japan also has a long standing cultural tradition of omotonashi (hospitality to strangers and guests) that affects their behaviour toward foreigners.
Note: I don’t want to make this sound like most Korean’s are racist, because THEY AREN’T. I’ve found that most of the people I’ve met are pretty tolerant. In many ways, there’s a big generation gap, and most of the true bigotry you experience will be from people over 40.
That said, the minority that ARE bigoted are a.) pretty sizeable, and b.) pretty vocal about their animosity.
This is probably the most subjective category on the list, as everyone has their own taste. But if you haven’t eaten much Japanese or Korean food and you’re wondering what to expect, read on.
The cuisine of Japan and Korea have a lot in common. They tend to rely heavily on fish and vegetables, and rice is the dietary staple in both countries. A few differences to keep in mind are:
- Tends to rely on miso, soy and a wasabi for flavour
- Unlike most Asian cuisine, Japanese food is generally not very spicy (the Japanese in general tend to be averse to spicy food)
- Relies heavily on the spicy red pepper for its flavour, as well as garlic and ginger
- In general, Korean food is very spicy
This was a tough one to judge, and truth be told, I personally prefer Korean food. The reason I gave it to Japan is the fact that people tend to have easier time adjusting to the flavours of Japanese cuisine.
Korean is more of an acquired taste in my opinion, and I’ve heard far more Westerners say they don’t like Korean food than Japanese food.
Japan also has more options that are just easy to like- tempura, Japanese curry, ramen (who doesn’t love a nice big bowl of salty carbs?).
And while everyone likes Korean BBQ, Korean meals like Jjamppong and Kimchi Bokkeumbap take some getting used to.
Part of the issue with Korean food is the reliance on spicy red pepper for flavour. I personally love it, but if you don’t, you’re going to have a hard time adjusting to Korean food, because they put that stuff in everything.
Japan also gets the nod here because it’s easier to find “foreign food”.
10. The Lifestyle
One of the big reasons young people choose to teach English abroad is for the lifestyle it brings- meeting new people, experiencing a new culture, travel- all the reasons you’d want to live abroad to begin with.
Both Korea and Japan are comfortable, first world countries, where you’ll find yourself living in a (relatively) nice apartment. As an English teacher in both countries you’ll most likely work at a (relatively) low stress job, and be paid reasonably well.
In terms of lifestyle differences you can expect the following differences:
- Your money will go further. You’ll be able to travel, go out and save money (without having to sacrifice any of the three). In Japan, you definitely have to budget more carefully.
- You’ll be physically closer to the rest of Asia, which means better travel opportunities.
- If you’re in any of the bigger cities, you’ll have access to awesome nightlife.
- There are a lot of other English teachers already in Korea, so meeting and connecting with likeminded foreigners is pretty easy.
- More travel opportunities within Japan. Korea’s quite a bit smaller, and you can see most of the country fairly quickly. Japan’s certainly not huge, but there are a lot of awesome (and diverse) places to travel within the country.
- Like Korea, you’ll also have access to great nightlife in the big cities (Tokyo and Seoul are tied as party capitals in my book).
- Like Korea, there are a ton of English teachers in Japan, so networking is easy. I’ve also found in Japan, it’s easier to meet and make friends with Japanese people (not that you can’t make Korean friends, but they tend to be a little more standoffish with foreigners).
This was a tough one to score, because both countries have a lot of benefits and offer a pretty sweet lifestyle for new teachers.
But the reason that I chose Japan is that there’s more to do.
Take a city like Tokyo. You’ve got amazing nightlife.
You’ve got beautiful green spaces like Yoyogi Park.
You’ve got all the quirky neighbourhoods like Harajuku and Akihabara.
You’ve got the beaches to the east of the city.
And during the summer, you’ve got festivals going on almost every weekend.
Don’t get me wrong, Seoul is not a boring city (it’s a hell of a lot more exciting than the city I’m from). But once you’ve spent a few months there, you’ll feel like you’ve seen most of what you want to see.
And I’m definitely not the only one who thinks so. This is a common sentiment among people who have travelled to and lived in both countries.
The exception to this is if you’re young, and partying is a priority for you. If that’s the case, I would absolutely recommend Korea (either Seoul or Busan). The nightlife is as good as Japan’s, but at about 2/3’s the price.
I lived in Seoul when I was 25, and while my liver is still angry at me, it was the right move at the time.
11. The Environment (Cleanliness And Pollution)
In the global sense, both Japan and Korea score quite high here. Both countries are first world by a long shot, and you certainly won’t have to deal with the pollution of a place like China, or the sanitation (or lack thereof) of India.
Having said that, Japan is definitely the cleaner of the two. In fact, it makes most countries look filthy by comparison…seriously, Japan is super clean. You’d be hard pressed to find any trash on the street, and you could perform open heart surgery in almost any public Japanese bathroom. They also have low levels of pollution.
Korea’s definitely not a dirty country…but it is less clean than both Japan and, probably, your home country. Trash is a bit of an issue. Public bathrooms are disgusting. The country badly needs to update its sewage system (a lot of the country still runs on septic tanks).
It also gets more pollution. Many Korean’s will vehemently tell you that it’s pollution from China, and while that may partly be true, it’s also domestic (thanks largely to all the coal plants in Korea). This gets particularly bad in the spring months.
12. The Weather
The flight time between Seoul and Tokyo is well under two hours, so it’s not surprising that Japan and Korea have very similar climates. In both countries, you can expect the following:
- 4 seasons (spring, summer, fall and winter), all about 3 months each
- Hot, humid, sticky summers
- Relatively mild winters (at least compared to Canada and the northern parts of the US)
- Absolutely beautiful spring and fall months
- A rainy monsoon season in early summer (late June and July)
- A LOT of rain
I’d say between the two countries that Japan has slightly hotter summers, and Korea has slightly colder winters. To be honest there’s more regional variation within both countries than between them. For example, Seoul is known for it’s brutal winters, while Busan is a lot more mild. The eastern part of Japan is less overcast and rarely gets snow in the winter, while certain parts of western Japan absolutely get nailed with snow.
Making the decision to pack up and move to a foreign country to work is a big decision. Hopefully this list has given you more insight so you can make the best decision based on your preferences, situation and goals for the next year.
If you have any questions for me, feel free to drop them in the comments section and I’d be happy to give you more information!