Starting the Job
O.K., so you came to Japan and are going to start you new job. What can you expect?
Training. Many schools provide you with training that can last anywhere from a few hours to a week. Do not expect full pay; often there is just a token payment for the training sessions, as they are not considered work. Some schools which have longer training sessions may even consider it a chance to re-evaluate teachers. If you show up late for training, do not dress or act appropriately, you may find the job not quite as yours as you thought it. This is very similar to:
Probation. The word doesn't sound too good, but essentially that's what you're on for the first three months. During this time, you will be evaluated by your performance at the school. Mistakes will be forgiven, but if they betray a pattern, then you might get the old "things just aren't working out" speech.
Visa. If you have a visa already, then disregard this. Many newcomers, however, come to Japan on a tourist visa when they look for jobs. In this case, one of the first things your new employer will have you do is fill out the application forms for the Certificate of Eligibility. The Certificate of Eligibility is the Immigration Department's stamp of approval on your working visa. It takes anywhere from one to three months to get, and once it has arrived, you will have to leave the country, get your working visa stamped into your passport at a Japanese embassy or consulate, and then hightail it back to Japan. Many people go to Korea for this formality as it is closest and cheapest; however, citizens of some countries may be required to return to their country of origin to have it taken care of. You will responsible for these traveling expenses, unless you have a very generous employer (I've never heard of this happening, however).
WORKING ON A TOURIST VISA? --
Well, yes, technically it is illegal; for most conversation schools in Japan, however, it is pretty much unavoidable. These schools cannot hire much from overseas, and few job seekers are willing to spend up to 3 months in Japan sitting on their hands. So while the Certificate of Eligibility is being processed, teachers will work on a tourist visa. Immigration knows about this, and turns a blind eye, knowing how there is no other reasonable way around it. Don't worry about being arrested or anything; it's SOP.
Contract. If you already have a visa, they will give you your contract immediately; if you are on a tourist visa waiting for you Certificate of Eligibility, you will be presented with your contract once you return from overseas with your work visa. The contract they offer you should be in both English and Japanese, with a statement somewhere that if there is a contradiction between the two versions of the contract, the English version will be considered official. Otherwise, they could blindside you with some clause that you can't understand. Make sure you get a copy for your own records (expect them to give you one automatically). Of course, you should ask to read the contract in full before signing it; don't be afraid to ask about parts you don't understand or didn't expect. Contracts are usually for one year, renewable.
Alien Registration. Just after you start work, while you are waiting for your visa to come through, your employer will probably ask you to get an Alien Registration Card (often called a "Gaijin Card") at your city or ward office. Usually you would not get one of these while still on a tourist visa, but in order to start receiving your paychecks, you are going to have to open a bank account, and they will probably require you to produce an Alien Registration Card as identification.
When you get your card, they will stamp your passport with a notice saying that you received a card. If you later leave the country without a re-entry permit, they will see the stamp in your passport and demand that you hand in the card at the airport.
The card itself is about the same size and stiffness as a credit card. It contains all your vital stats, a photo, and a fingerprint. The fingerprint was an issue for a while (and probably still is), primarily because there are many Korean families that have been living in Japan for generations as permanent residents (a legacy of pre-war Japan), and consider Japan their home country--but are yet required to be fingerprinted and carry these cards with them wherever they go. You will notice when you get the card that is comes in a clear plastic slipcover, which bears a small flower design strategically placed to cover the fingerprint. No doubt a "compromise" on the fingerprint issue.
You must also carry this card wherever you go, everywhere in Japan; if the police stop you (and sooner or later, they most likely will) and you do not have the card (they always ask for it), then you're in deep doo-doo. You have to go to the police station, fill out a lot of apology and explanation forms, and then have someone get your card for you and bring it to the police station before they will release you. I know people who have had this happen to them, and it's not fun. I have been stopped by police several times (usually on my bicycle--for some reason they often think you've stolen it because you're a foreigner), and only once have I been caught without my card. I was on my way back home from the sento (a Japanese bath house), wearing nothing more than a yukata and sandals--nowhere to put the card. Perhaps that, along with the fact we were less than a block away from where I was staying, is why the policeman let me lead him back to where I was staying, go inside and get it for him, instead of hauling me in to the station. You might not be so lucky.
Time Off. Japanese law requires that you be given 10 paid vacation days every year you work at a job. Up until a few years ago, the company could give you those days after you finished the first year. In effect, they could deny you that time off during the first year. That changed with a recent law that said those first 10 vacation days are yours 6 months after the contract is signed. Do not expect your first 6 months to have much time off, however, save for national and school holidays. The law also states, however, that your employer may decide when you will take 5 of your 10 paid vacation days; few schools will do this, though.
Also, during your first few months before your visa comes through and you sign your contract, do not expect to get paid for school holidays. It may happen, but more likely you will be treated like temporary staff until the contract is signed.
Do not expect time off to be easy to take. You will probably be required to request it long in advance (up to 2 months in some circumstances), and the closer it comes to your time off, the harder it will probably be to make changes. You will also probably be surprised at how much paperwork there may be involved, not just with this but with any formal request or change around the office. Many schools are less formal than this, but don't get your hopes up too high yet.
Days Off. Do not expect to get Saturday and Sunday off; it may happen, but it doesn't usually. You may not even get two consecutive days off. This is normal in an industry where many businesses stay open seven days a week. Some schools are closed on weekends, though, so you may get lucky. If you don't like the days off you have been given, then wait until you've worked there for at least a few months, and then start asking the manager when it might be possible to request a change.
Looking for a Job
Starting Your Life in Japan