The Working Holiday Visa

Chances are, you have already heard of the Working Holiday visa. Working Holiday has become a catch-all term for a temporary visa (usually one year, though it depends), that allows visa holders to work in a foreign country. As the name implies, the idea is that you only work to finance your holiday, and not use the visa for work as the main purpose. But after you’ve received the visa, there are usually no checks on whether this is actually and if you are free to pursue working or holidaying in any capacity that you see fit. To be able to obtain a Working Holiday visa, there has to be a mutual agreement in place between your home country and the country that you wish to go to. At the time of writing, 26 countries are holding a Working Holiday agreement with Japan. 

I do not know about other parts of the world, but if you are from a European country (I am from Germany), then Working Holiday, Work & Travel, Au pair and many other similar offerings exist, allowing for a temporary stay in a foreign country. As more and more people take gap years between high school and university, the popularity of these offerings is also rising. Getting some experience in a foreign country will always look good on your CV (regardless of whether you actually work or not), and it may also give you a new perspective on life. Where I am from, many people go to Australia, America, New Zealand or the UK for their Working Holiday/Au pair experience to improve their English skills. If your English is already good enough, or you are simply not interested in any of those countries, then I can not recommend Japan as a Working Holiday destination enough. 

Japan is a highly developed nation that is similar enough to other “Western” (whatever that means) cultures that you will not feel completely lost, but still unique enough that you can experience living in a different culture firsthand. If you are fresh out of school and know nothing about Japan apart from Anime, it might be sometimes hard to adapt, so this is definitely a destination that will require some preparation beforehand. First, you need to check whether you are from a country that is eligible for application (as stated earlier, at the moment there are 26 countries from where you can apply). You can check here -> Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan: Working Holiday

If you are from an eligible country, there are a few more restrictions that apply if you want to obtain a Working Holiday visa. These include but are not limited to the following:

1.           You must be between 18 to 30 years old.

2.           You must be a citizen AND resident of the country that you are applying in.

3.        Your primary goal should be the holiday part of the visa, not the working part (though again, this is not      checked or enforced past the application process).

4.           You must hold a valid passport and possess sufficient funds to purchase a round-trip ticket to Japan, as well as enough money to finance your first few months in the country (usually around 300.000 Yen).

5.           You cannot be accompanied by your spouse/children/other dependents.

6.           You must be in good health.

7.          And finally, it must be your first time applying for a Working Holiday to Japan (it’s a once per lifetime deal)

Depending on where you are from there might be other restrictions that apply, so please make sure to check with your closest Japanese Embassy to verify what conditions you have to fulfil. In some countries you might be required to submit a doctor’s statement, stating that you are in good health, while in other countries you might not even be asked about your health when applying. Some countries only permit a limited number of people to apply each year (as low as 30 and as high as 10000), while other countries have no limit at all. If you are from a country that limits applicants, remember that the Japanese fiscal year is from April 1st to March 31st, so applying in early April might be your best bet. In general, the application process is not too hard and should not be too competitive, as Japan is still a niche destination after all. As long as you make sure to give the impression that you have no intention of using the visa as a steppingstone to aim for a career in Japan (regardless of whether this is your true aim or not), you should be good. The only real deal-breaker that I have heard of is having a criminal record. Depending on the severity of the crime, it may still be possible to obtain a Working Holiday visa, but if you have a criminal record it might be best to be prepared for being rejected. Again, confirm with your nearest Japanese Embassy regarding the details. 

A working holiday is a good opportunity to take your first steps in Japan and get to know the country. If you are considering moving to Japan in the future, I highly recommend doing a Working Holiday first and figure out whether you actually like the country or not. Moving here on a full-fledged working visa, without knowing the country and being thrown into the Japanese corporate world right away is a good way to lose motivation quickly and become one among the many disgruntled ex-pats, drinking and complaining at HUB on a Tuesday night.

I have done a Working Holiday to Japan myself, so expect more to come on the Working Holiday visa in the future.

Some tips on learning Japanese – Teachers, tools and attitude

As I keep stressing in various previous articles, Japanese is a very, very difficult language to learn. I’ve been studying for over five years, and while I would consider myself a decently fluent speaker I am still nowhere near-native levels and still constantly encounter unknown words, phrases or Kanji. Unfortunately, learning Japanese is essential if you want to live and work in Japan. Especially when it comes to the latter, you will find it very difficult to find jobs in Japan if you do not speak what’s considered “business level” Japanese. In practice, this most often means holding Japanese Language Proficiency Test (the most commonly recognized Japanese language test) N2 level, or JLPT N2 as it is usually abbreviated. This test is only held twice a year in Japan, and abroad it is often only held once a year, if it is held at all, and it’s considered fairly difficult as far as language tests go.

But if you are set on working in Japan, you will need to study the language and most likely also pass this test, Japanese love their test certificates after all, and this is also applied to foreigners looking for jobs. I am by no means an expert, but still, I thought I would share three things with you, that I consider essential if you want to become any good at Japanese. This topic is near and dear to me, so please excuse the length of this article.

The right teacher

Find someone that enjoys engaging with you

Nowadays, there are many, many different options for you to start studying the language. Most people are probably going to start by taking Japanese classes in university/college classes. Others might go to Japanese language schools, attend online courses or watch lectures on YouTube. But especially if you are just starting out, having the right teacher is very important. Having somebody point out all the mistakes, that you are bound to make as a beginner, is very helpful. This becomes less important as you become more advanced and able to notice your mistakes yourself, but at the beginning, it is invaluable that you have a teacher that takes interest in your progress. If you are at university, and your teacher just stands in front and reads from your textbook then you are probably not going to make any progress. But your teacher does not necessarily have to be someone that’s a professional. Maybe you have a friend that’s good at Japanese, or even better a Japanese friend who is willing to help you. Or maybe you are in an online community where people are giving out advice. Although you should take advice from strangers with a grain of salt, you don’t really know their credentials after all (the same goes for this blog then, I guess).

The right tools

Now let me preface this by saying that I do not believe that there is such a thing as the “right tool” or even “the right way to study”. Everybody will have different tools and methods that work for them. Finding what works for you is also part of the learning process. Thanks to the internet and smartphones, there are now more tools available than ever and finding the right one for you is becoming increasingly difficult. Here are some tools that I used, or still use when studying Japanese.

1. Anki

Anki is an app that lets you create flashcards. And it is very competent at that. You can create large decks of digital flashcards and take them with you, wherever you go. When reviewing your flashcards, you can then choose how difficult a given card was for you. If you had a hard time remember the meaning of a given word, you can let the app know and it will show you the same word when you review again tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and so on until you’ve managed to remember the word. But even if you let the app know that a word was easy to remember for you, it will still occasionally show you that word so that you don’t forget. This method is called SRS, or Spaced Repetition System, and is scientifically proven to work to help with language studying. Anki has a web version, desktop versions, as well as an Android and an iOS app (all are free except the iOS version. I just use the web version on my iPhone). 

2. Wanikani

Now, to be honest, I have not used Wanikani a lot. It’s a website for studying Kanji and comes highly recommended by various people across the internet so I thought I would best include it. You are taught Kanji across different levels and it comes with many useful hints, mnemonics that help you remember kanji and it also teaches related vocabulary. From what I have seen, it seems like a great little website. The reason I have not used it, is simply that there is no option for advanced students to skip the easier Kanji. When I came across the website, I had already been studying for multiple years and repeating all the beginner Kanji from the beginning was not very appealing to me. But if you are a beginner or more patient than I am, then Wanikani seems to be a great tool to use. The first few levels are free but be aware that you are going to have to pay money (subscription) to unlock higher levels.

3. Bunpro

What Wanikani is to Kanji, Bunpro is to Japanese grammar. You can select a JLPT level and are then given grammar points and example sentences to memorize. Afterwards, you can review what you’ve studied and quiz yourself. Just be aware that grammar explanations can be pretty barebones, so do not consider this an adequate replacement for a textbook. The best approach, in my opinion, is to study grammar with a textbook, but then use Bunpro to review and truly memorize the individual points. Basic functionality is free, but to really use the website to its full potential you need to subscribe.

4. NHK News Web Easy

Now, all the studying in the world is not going to make you fluent, if you do not use what you have learned. If you are studying English for example, there is a lot of material aimed at people picking up English as their second language, magazines, books, YouTube channels and so on. But Japanese is a rare language, and therefore material aimed at students of Japanese is scarce and hard to come by. One of the easier resources to access is NHK Easy News, a news website aimed at Japanese children. Usually, there are multiple articles a day, written in a less formal style than normal news. Further, you can toggle Furigana for all Kanji, meaning you do not have to look up every word and can often read articles in one go. There are even some words that you can hover over, to get an explanation of their meaning (in Japanese). Just remember that the service is aimed at Japanese children, i.e., native speakers, so it is likely not going to follow conventions that you are used to from your textbooks. Still, a great website to get yourself started on actually consuming Japanese content.

The right attitude

頑張ろう!Do your best, but don’t overdo it

I have saved the most important and most difficult point for last. Having the right attitude is incredibly important when studying Japanese. You have to accept that this is going to be difficult. You have to accept that there are people out there who are better at speaking Japanese than you. You have to accept that you are probably going to keep studying regularly over a long period of time to see any results. It can be incredibly frustrating. I have studied Japanese for five years, lived in the country for three. I have probably never invested more time and energy into a single activity. But still, I come across words and Kanji that I’ve never seen when I read the news or watch TV. It can be tempting to say, well if I just study for four hours every day, then I will be fluent in no time! But in my experience, obsessing about studying often has the opposite effect and you will instead burn yourself out and maybe even grow to hate the language, and by association everything Japanese. I have seen it happen to other people. Learn at your own pace. Do not compare yourself to others. The internet provides us with great tools for language studying, but it also shows us success stories of other people. You will come across people saying they studied eight hours every day and became fully fluent in a year. Do not listen to these people. Find your own way, your own pace. If you have the drive and energy to spend eight hours a day studying something, you should probably use it to make the world a better place.

About Studying in Japan

For many of us, our first real point of contact with Japan, apart from Anime and Manga, might be when we start studying about Japan at University. Many universities offer courses about Japan, be they Japanese language courses or courses on culture, history and the like. Maybe you major or minor in Japanese (or Japanology) and your interest in the Language, the country and its culture is what got you into University in the first place. Due to this, too many of us studying in Japan for some time seems like a very natural progression. Today I wanted to talk briefly about the different options that are available to you if you are looking to spend some time living and studying in the country of the rising sun.

If you are studying anything in Japan, it’s probably going to be Japanese

Language School

Your first option is going to be applicable if you are interested in studying the Japanese language. But you do not need prior knowledge to attend many of the Japanese language schools that you can find all across the country. There are many different kinds of school, some small, some big, some more focused on receiving students from western countries while others are focused on students from other Asian countries. If you are looking to attend a language school, Japan has visa agreements with many countries that allow you to stay in Japan for up to 90 days. If you are not from a country that has such a visa agreement in place, or you want to attend school for more than 90 days, you are going to need a student visa. These visas are sponsored by the school and usually allow you to stay and study in Japan for up to 1 year (although you are not allowed to work unless you get permission).

Exchange programs or language programs at Universities

Student exchanges are getting ever more popular and Japan is no exception, with many Japanese Universities sending their students abroad and accepting foreign students in return. If you are currently enrolled in a university, it is a good idea to check whether your university has any student exchange agreements with Japanese universities. Depending on your university, the application process for these exchange programs may be highly competitive, but if you are lucky enough to be chosen as a participant, you will usually receive scholarships and living assistance and thus you can enjoy your life in Japan pretty carefree. But in case you were not chosen as an exchange candidate, do not despair. For diversities sake, many of the big Japanese private universities offer language programs, which allow you to attend University and experience campus life in Japan for up to one year, while mainly focusing on studying Japanese. The caveat here is that oftentimes these programs can be expensive, but in many countries’ governmental bodies, organizations or educational institutions offer scholarships that you might be able to apply for. Inside of Japan, universities, local governments and other organizations provide scholarships as well, making studying in Japan for a year a rather affordable deal.

Enrolling in University

Last and least, we have the nuclear option. If one year is not enough for you, you could always decide to enrol in a Japanese university full-time. If this sounds appealing to you, you probably are already very well-versed on everything Japanese and don’t really need me to tell you anything. For anyone else, the big and obvious problem here is, that courses will almost always be held in Japanese. The number of people, who can understand enough Japanese when they are fresh out of high school and looking for a University, to attend classes in the Language will be pretty low in most non-Asian countries. Some universities provide undergraduate programs in English, but they are also few and far between. Just as with a work contract, committing yourself to a foreign country for up to four years without much prior knowledge can be a big ask, so many people are hesitant about attending University in Japan full-time. If you are from a European country with no tuition costs (I’m from Germany were tuition is generally free), you should also consider, that tuition fees in Japan can be pretty high (up to 10.000 Euro or 100.000 Japanese Yen per semester in some cases).

If you are studying the Japanese language, or are at all interested in Japan, then attending a University or a Language school can be a great way for you to experience life in Japan. If you are considering moving to Japan, then getting to know the country beforehand is also a bonus. Student-life in Japan is famously pretty relaxed, in stark contrast to working-life, but you will still be able to judge whether you could see yourself spending time in the country long-term.

Learning Japanese

If you research options on living in Japan, you might sometimes find comments that go something like this “you do not need to know Japanese to live in Japan, just be an English teacher and you’ll be fine”. Sure, if you are coming to Japan as a tourist, you will probably be fine communicating in English or with your hands and feet, but if you want to LIVE in Japan, I cannot recommend learning the Language enough. When in Rome, talk as the Romans do and all that. Just even a basic greeting in Japanese will open many doors that would have otherwise been closed to you and it takes so little effort to learn a few basic phrases that there is no excuse.

Now, do not get me wrong, Japanese is a very, very difficult language, especially for people from the western hemisphere, and even being able to have daily conversations is considered a pretty big achievement. Becoming fluent is something that is going to take most people years of study and effort. The motivation for starting to study can be different, some people study so they can understand Anime or Japanese videogames, others do it because of their interest in Japanese history or love for Haruki Murakami books. But in my experience, this motivation is not enough to keep you going until you truly reach a fluent level, close to a native speaker. If you want to make it that far, more often than not you are going to have to put yourself in situations where you have to speak Japanese, force yourself to adapt to your surroundings and advance your language skills. There is a decently sized English community in Japan (especially Tokyo and Osaka), and it can be very tempting to always fall back on these communities for everything you need (be that simply making friends, or things like medical assistance, getting a haircut etc.). But by doing this, you are isolating yourself and denying yourself a chance to challenge yourself and grow as a person. I am not saying that everyone should be able to speak perfect Japanese, but you owe it to yourself and your surroundings to try to get to a conversational level at least. If you manage to do that, your time in Japan will most likely feel more fulfilling.

Now, as for how to study the language, in the digital age, there are hundreds of different options available. If you have the time, then attending university classes or a language school is a good idea, especially if you are a total beginner. If that is not an option, there are countless books, YouTube channels, websites and apps that teach Japanese (of note here is, that most of the available options will most likely be English/Japanese). One big trap that many people fall into, is the search for the one-stop learning solution. That ONE book, ONE channel, ONE app that teaches you everything from basics to fluency simply does not exist. Studying is an ongoing process, and that includes the continuous search for appropriate study material. Another mistake is not using the language skills that you acquire during your studies. Japanese is not a language that is as widely studied as English, therefor a lot less study material targeting language learners exists (e.g. novels aimed at non-native speakers with a side-by-side translation etc.). Material is available, but you might have to search for a while. I recommend getting a SRS (spaced repetition) application such as Anki, which is really just a fancy name for digital flashcards and using that as you study. Other recommendations would be WaniKani for Kanji and NHK Easy News to get used to reading in Japanese. 

Accept that this is going to be a struggle, but it is going to enrich your life, grant you access to a completely different culture. At the same time, it is also going to make your life in Japan (if you want that) a lot easier and make you more attractive on the Japanese job market as well. A more detailed guide on studying might come in the future, for now, I am going to leave you with this rant