I felt good yesterday. One of those days where you walk down the street humming Nina Simone and the world just seems like a wonderful place. I had no particular reason to be happy – it was just a normal day.
Admittedly the weather was stunning but I think the main reason I was feeling happy was because of my job. I’d just had a hard but satisfying day at work and I had a moment when I realised how lucky I am to be able to have a job I enjoy in Tokyo.
In December 2015 I started the long process of changing my job and visa status. I trained as an early-years music educator during this time and for the last few months I have been teaching music to young children in a lovely studio in Daikanyama as well as other locations such as Tokyo American Club.
This decision was one of the best I’ve ever made but I can’t deny that the job change process was painful. I have a strong internal locus of control and freak out when I have to put my fate into the hands of bureaucratic processes over which I have no control. I feel like a bit of a drama queen going on about it now, but honestly at times I really did struggle. In case anyone else is going through the same thing I thought I would write about my experiences.
This is part 1 of 2 in which I discuss quitting my job. I want to make clear that I am not an expert in immigration and can only speak about my own experiences and the resources that helped me through.
Why I quit my previous job
As you may know, I came to Japan on a contract with a English teaching dispatch company. In many ways this job was a great introduction to Japan. I taught English in schools in the day and in companies in the evening. I experienced so many aspects of Japanese society, from kindergartens to hospitals, to major Japanese companies and Tokyo Metropolitan Government. I learnt many things – including that I actually liked teaching and was sort of alright at it, both of which surprised me.
I’m not really motivated by money so I believe that, at least in your 20s, a job should be one of two things: either it should be related to your interests and further your career progression or it should have the kind of hours and stress levels that don’t interfere with your lifestyle.
My job wasn’t ticking either of these boxes. I was working long and unpredictable hours, sometimes leaving the house at 7.15am and not getting home until 9.30pm. I could have handled this if this was a job relevant to my interests and ambitions but it wasn’t. I like teaching, yes, but my passion is music and the arts – if I was spending so much time teaching I wanted to be teaching these. In addition, although I liked many of my colleagues as individuals, there were several aspects of the company that made me uncomfortable. I was making good money but I had come to Japan to experience Japan and I didn’t have the time to do this. When the long, unpredictable hours and the company’s harsh policies on sick leave started to aggravate a health condition that should be manageable the job became not worth it. After 5 months, I decided I wanted out.
Handing in my notice
転職 (tenshoku – changing jobs) can be a bit of a taboo in Japan. In a country where lifetime employment is still common, quitting your job can be seen as a betrayal. I’ve known Japanese people who have faced harrassment after handing in their notice, been denied leave they were entitled to or even been told they were ‘not allowed to quit.’ Of course the situation is different for foreign employees who usually have yearly contracts rather than lifetime employment, but still, ending a contract midway as I did can be really frowned upon.
To immediately clear up a widespread misconception: yes you can change your job in Japan. It is not ‘work for us or go home.’ Your former employer may make threats but your working visa is valid until it expires, even if you change your job. Take care however, because you cannot renew your visa without an employment contract so if you are changing jobs be sure to leave enough time to arrange everything before your visa expires. Additionally, you have to notify immigration within 14 days of quitting your job and from that point I’ve heard that you can only stay in Japan for 3 months without working.
Japanese labour law states that, ordinarily, workers are required to give 2 weeks notice to their employers before leaving their job to avoid paying damages. However, I’ve heard of contracts that demand 30 or even 60 working days notice. Whether these are in fact legally enforceable is a grey area so if you need to quit in a hurry I would encourage you to seek support from a union (the General Union are good) or a legal expert. My contract asked for 30 days notice and and I chose to give this and a bit more. I wanted to make things easier for my company and I also cared a lot about my students and I knew if I didn’t leave enough time they was a chance they would lose out.
Handing in my notice was stressful. I timed it really badly and did it at a point where almost the whole office was listening in to the tense conversation (no private meeting rooms for me). My company tried to make me stay longer and asked searching questions about the precise reason I was leaving. My advice would be to anyone about to do this is to be polite but assertive. You don’t have to give a reason why you’re going and they do not have the right to make you feel guilty about your decision. You are probably not being selfish or hurtful, changing jobs happens and your company should accept it. I got through this stage by being on it with the paperwork (give a signed and dated letter of notice, make multiple copies) and by standing my ground even while I tried my best to make everything as convenient for my company as possible. Ultimately, it’s an uncomfortable conversation but your company can’t actually do anything to you. This too will pass. If in extreme cases you are experiencing violence, psychological abuse or power harassment of course please get help. I recommend the General Union as an excellent first port of call who can help you get the services you need.
I don’t want to tell people what to do but I see so many people working in Japan who seem stuck in a job that’s making them miserable, because they feel they have no options or they are scared that things could get worse. You do have options. Yes things could get worse, yes the transition process can be rough. I certainly do not recommend jumping into the unknown unprepared – do your research and do not take my word for it. But often the risk and short term pain leads to long term gain.
For me it was definitely worth it.
Check back for a post on changing my visa status soon!