Japan is one of the most gorgeous countries on the planet, full to the brim with interesting culture, friendly people, and jaw-dropping food. It’s also home to a high demand for English language teachers, making it an excellent place to spend a few years after college. This is particularly true if you’ve got student loan debt to pay off but don’t have a real job waiting for you right out of graduation—which is truer for more and more young Americans. As a generation of graduates, we tend to be overeducated and underpaid: recent surveys suggest that 40% of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Teaching in Japan is a solid antidote to this problem, because it gives you unique, valuable resume material, and if you do it right, you can make a pretty penny. For the first year or two, your income will even be tax exempt—in America, and partially in Japan.


Specific tax requirements for teachers living abroad tend to change, but Americans living in foreign countries are usually entitled to the IRS’s Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.

Technically, you are taxed by the United States for income you make in Japan. You still have to file. However, you can exclude some of your income from your statement. As of 2013, that’s $97,600—way, way more than you’re going to be making, so you won’t owe the IRS a penny come tax time.

This is meant to avoid double taxation situations, but Japan is handy in that, in some cases, they’ll provide tax breaks for foreign teachers living abroad too. How that situation shapes up for each individual is different (and depends on their specific job and location), but your employer will provide you with any information you need. The end result is that you won’t pay American taxes, and the Japanese taxes you pay will be much lower than the average Japanese person. You’ll pay federal income tax, but you might not pay local taxes, you won’t pay property taxes, etc.

The Marketplace

The need for English language teachers is not going away any time soon. See, Japan sucks at English. It’s true. Despite having one of the best education systems in the entire world, and despite pouring much manpower and cash into English education, English doesn’t seem to take very well with Japanese students. Part of the problem is lack of real-world applicability; most Japanese people never interact with English-speaking foreigners, especially if they don’t live in a major tourist city, nor do they use it in the workplace. The number of tourists in Japan is relatively small as well, since traveling there is expensive and difficult compared to many other Asian destinations. As a result, the need for native speakers of English never falters —every year, Japanese employers hire more and more of them.

Understand from the jump that Japan is unlike any other place on the planet. If you’ve worked in other Asian countries before, or if you’ve learned a little about saving cash in those countries, some of those lessons will transfer —but many will not. Be prepared to re-learn everything you know.

Here’s another reality of teaching English in Japan: it is not as easy to get a good job as it is in other Asian countries. It’s easy to get a job, but not necessarily a good one, one that will help you save up that much-needed money. That’s an important distinction. Japan holds a particular fascination in the minds of many Americans, many of whom desperately want to work there. They imagine a life of green tea, picturesque temples, and Japanese girlfriends, and they’ll work for pennies. They’ll endure unfairness and indignity. They love the idea of Japan that much. You have probably met people like this—and incidentally, they usually have a terrible time once they get to Japan and are shocked to learn that their life hasn’t become an anime.

If you make $15,000 a year, you’re not going to save $10,000. It’s just not going to happen. As such, it’s important to do things right on the front end and get a job in which you’ll make enough to save enough.

Don’t get discouraged by the next few pages. I’m going to discuss some unpleasant realities of the job market for foreigners, as well as some of the ways that foreigners are often nickel and dimed out of significant portions of their pay—this is to help you avoid that fate. At the end of the day, Japan is a wonderful place to work and live. Japan at its worst is better than many other places at their best. However, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine either, and if you want to head to Japan to save money, you need to be aware of the potential pitfalls.

In many other ESL teaching situations, how much money you can put away depends largely on what you do and how you budget your day to day life. Teaching jobs in some places are similar, but in Japan there’s a huge amount of variation in terms of pay, benefits, and the lifestyle required. Your first consideration will, of course, be your salary (obvious hint: high is good), but equally important are the additional benefits each comes with. These will make or break your savings, and many newcomers don’t know what to look for.

So, first we’re going to teach you what to look for in a job, as well as the common pitfalls many new teachers stumble into—pitfalls that cost them a hefty portion of their salaries. Then we’re going to teach you how to get the job once you’ve found the one you want. After that, we’ll tell you how to cut your everyday living expenses to as close to zero as possible—and you’ll be amazed at just how close you can get.

Budget For Success

At various places in this guide, we’ll give ballpark estimates for how much money you can save in a year following some of these tactics. For the sake of looking at hypothetical scenarios, we’ll assume your yearly salary in Japan is only around $25,000 USD—which is probably slightly lower than average.

How you take a few years in Japan and turn that into real- life savings is a product of maximizing your money intake and minimizing your costs. By eliminating your costs, you maximize the amount you can send home. Each time you save cash, that’s money in your American bank account.

Here’s our basic target strategy for a year:

Step 1: 
Earn $25,000 or up in a year (based on salary, side gigs, and beneficial money transfers).

Step 2: 
Reduce yearly living costs to $15,000 or less.

Step 3: Time money transfers to your American account for maximum currency conversion rate gains.

Step 4: Enjoy at least $10,000 in savings.

To stay on track, you should make a budget, and then stick to it. Let’s start with this simple equation:

Money In – Money Out (expenses/spending) = Takeaway Money

Your “takeaway money” is what you’re sending back to America. We want that number to be as high as possible, and for the purposes of this guide we’ve set $10,000 as a goal. Remember, we’ve also assumed a $25,000 salary. So, updating our equation, it looks like this:

$25,000 – Expenses = $10,000

Solving for our expenses, we see that to send $10,000 home, we need to keep our Money Out below $15,000 a year.

$15,000 / 12 months = $1,250.

That means you’ll have $1,250 dollars a month to spend if you want to end up with $10,000 at the end of the year. (Note: this is not entirely accurate, since you might make money on the currency exchange, if you’re lucky—we’ll get to that later. It’s not something to count on, though.)

Now, you need to think about monthly reoccurring expenditures:

  • Rent:
  • Utilities:
  • Internet:
  • Food:
  • Transportation:
  • Fun:

Your specific needs will vary, but these are some common things to consider. Go ahead and budget for “fun”—nights out, shopping, etc. You’re going to do it, so you might as well account for it and keep track of how much it’s costing you.

Then you’ve got $1,250 to spread out between these categories. One way of doing it might be this:

  • Rent: $500
  • Utilities: $100
  • Internet: $100
  • Food: $300*
  • Transportation: $60
  • Fun: $190

*Remember also that if you’re working in a public school, you’re going to get a big school lunch every weekday—that helps keep food costs extra low.

That’s fairly lean, but it’s reasonable. Obviously, if you want more room in your budget, you can do one of two things: increase your Money In (doing something like working a side gig) or decrease your Money Out (eat out less, go out less often, run the air conditioner less, etc.)

Keep track of these expenditures each month, and see how much you differ from your target spending. Adjust accordingly, and don’t cheat—you’re not showing this to anyone, so be accurate and honest.

The easiest way of keeping your Money Out very, very low is to find a job that will eliminate some of these expenses entirely—like giving you an apartment, paying for your transportation, etc. In Part I, we’ll focus on exactly how to do that. In Part II, we’ll show you how to keep costs close to nothing in your everyday Japanese life.

Before You Come to Japan

1) Types of Teaching Jobs Available:

Before we can get into how to apply for jobs (and how to actually get them), you need to know the different categories these jobs fall into.

JET – The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme

The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme is a Japanese government initiative that brings university graduates (mostly native speakers of English and predominantly American, though 40 countries are represented) to Japan to teach in public schools at all levels, from kindergarten to high school. The vast majority of JETs are ALTs—Assistant Language Teachers—though a few are SEAs (Sports Education Advisors) or CIRs (Coordinators for International Relations.) The program began in 1987, and although it’s arguably shrinking, it still remains the largest exchange program in the world.

That said, the majority of English teachers in Japan are not affiliated with JET—they work for private companies. Why JET matters is that it’s probably the best of the gigs available to you.

JET participants can stay up to five years, and as of 2012 they are awarded raises for each year they stay. You start at roughly $35,000 dollars per year, and by the fourth year top out at about $40,000 USD.

This salary is actually highly competitive for foreign teachers in Japan. More importantly, however, the JET program offers all of the side benefits we’re looking for (we’ll list all of these a little later.) Housing is likely to be free or cheap. They’ll fly you out, as well as home. You’ll have health insurance, as well as around 20 paid vacation days. You won’t be penalized for getting sick. It’s essentially a proper, completely unshady teaching job.

Most JET ALTs will work in small cities, suburban, or rural areas (where there’s an increased need for language teachers, as most privately employed teachers are in city centers.) Few are in urban centers. Tokyo, for instance, has no JET ALTs as of this writing. That doesn’t stop thousands of people from mentioning in their application materials that they want to live in Tokyo—a major red flag for the selection committee, since it shows that the applicant hasn’t done their homework, and suggests that they’ll be disappointed when the inevitable occurs and they’re placed in a rural area.

Note that I said “placed.” JET does not offer you any choice in terms of where you live. You can request an area in your application (it will most likely be ignored), but if you’re lucky enough to be picked, it’s either where they choose or nowhere. The schools you work in are not up to you (you might be teaching elementary school, or you might teach high school, and you won’t know until you’re accepted.) Likewise, they’ll have an apartment ready for you. If you don’t like it, you can move into another one, but it’s a pretty significant headache.

Why this matters is that your costs will be low. Country living’s cheaper. And since you’re in a public school, at least one meal a day (school lunch) is free—and that adds up.

When I worked with JET, they put me up in a two-floor house directly on the beach in a gorgeous place in southern Japan. My salary translated to about $3,000 USD a month, and my monthly expenses looked about like this:

  • Housing: $150
  • Utilities: $150 (I also ran the AC often)
  • Food: $300
  • Car: $200 (including gas and maintenance)

These are rough numbers, but they fairly accurately reflect my basic cost of living: under $1,000 dollars a month. That means that I could put away nearly two grand a month. That’s $24,000 in one year.

Of course, no life is ever that cut and dry. Unexpected expenses crop up, or maybe you want to do some traveling (and that saps some savings), etc—but the point is that there’s a great margin here for putting cash away.

Then, of course, we can’t forget that we’re living overseas: you can take those thousands you’ve saved up, watch the exchange rate like a hawk, and make a few hundred extra bucks by transferring that money to your American bank when the yen is high.

ALT Dispatch Agencies

Private ALT dispatch companies work similarly to the JET program in that they help match teachers with public schools. As far as the day-to-day work goes, you’ll interact with the schools and their administrators yourself, and your ALT agency will “manage” you. Your paychecks will come from them, your work schedule will come from them, etc. They act as the medium between you and the schools. If you have questions or concerns about your job, you’ll generally direct them to your supervisor, who will in turn call the principal of the school and get back to you with an answer.

ALT dispatch agencies offer more flexibility than JET in most cases. You’ll have more of a say in terms of where you live (since you can apply for specific locations, unlike JET), what grade levels you teach, and where in town you live.

On the other hand, ALT companies are also where shadiness breeds most rampantly. These are among the lowest paying positions in Japan with the fewest benefits, and illegal business practices are relatively common. Do your research on specific companies ahead of time, then make an informed decision about applying. Working for a company that doesn’t take good care of its workers may still be a viable option for you—you’ll just need to plan for it and realize the places in which you’ll be making sacrifices.

Along with eikaiwa jobs, these are the easiest to get for foreign teachers.


Eikaiwas are private English conversation schools and tutoring programs—these jobs are also easy to land. Instead of working in a few different “real” schools, you’ll typically work in one building located in a more commercial area (sometimes in malls or train stations, in fact.) There are both large chain schools with thousands of locations as well as independent single schools.

The pay at these jobs tends to be better than your private ALT makes, and the benefits often follow suit: housing, vacation days, and even cars are pretty common. You usually work with a much smaller staff, which may or may not be a bonus, depending on your style.

The real difference is in the experience of teaching. Eikaiwa teachers will work with a much broader range of student, from small children to businessmen who need to learn English for work. You’re more likely to work mostly nights and weekends (since students are in school or at work during normal business hours), and skill levels vary widely. Some eikaiwas do most of their business during the normal work day, and those are usually catering to housewives and small children. In the case of the latter, these can sometimes become daycare-esque situations, in which the parents want to drop their toddlers off and, maybe, have them pick up some English while they’re still young. For some teachers, that’s great. The kids are adorable and fun. If you’re not the type to enjoy that, be aware.

Eikaiwa curriculums will often have more structure, which can be good or bad (again, depending on your style and preferences.) Many specialize in test preparation, and you’ll be expected to adhere to a pretty strict framework for helping students prepare for college entrance exams, standardized tests, etc. In some schools, much emphasis is also placed on textbook sales—they’ll have their own texts or workbooks, and they’ll push their teachers hard to sell as many of them as possible.


University instructor jobs are much like they are in the States—the hours are flexible and the pay is generous for the actual number of hours worked. These jobs are ideal for some but not most. They tend to be more competitive, for one, and many require a Master’s degree, prior experience, and some Japanese language skills.

Not all do, however. Look out for them. Many are part time, which is likely to be a problem—it means they probably won’t be able to sponsor your Work Visa. However, if you find a university position that will sponsor you and accepts your qualifications, you’re in luck. Definitely pursue it.

Direct Contracts with BOEs (Boards of Education)

These jobs aren’t an option for 99% of those entering Japan for the first time, but if you stick around for long enough they may become one. Usually, Boards of Education that want ALTs in their schools will contract with an ALT dispatch agency or JET, but on occasion they will hire their teachers directly. More often than not, they’re looking for fluency in Japanese and around five years of experience. They’re also extremely competitive. Should you come across one and manage to land it, however, you’re gold.

2) Location, Location, Location:

One of the first Japanese words you’ll learn when you hit Japan is inaka. It translates best to “countryside,” but it’s used a little more liberally than we might use it in English. Depending on the type of job you’re applying for, you might have far more opportunities in more rural areas—this is especially true for ALT jobs. Eikaiwa jobs tend to be more numerous in urban centers, as you might expect.

A lot of people looking for Japanese jobs focus their search on big, famous cities, but that’s not the way to make money. Expand your search, and look at the jobs themselves. Ignore where they’re located. You can have a great life anywhere in Japan, honestly.

Don’t think in black and white about this.

Japan has a lot of trains, in case you didn’t know. Some people may cringe at the idea of living in a suburban or rural area, but that’s small thinking—it’s actually hard not to live pretty close to a big city. You may live in a small rice farming village, paying dirt cheap rent for a big house, but be an hour outside of the heart of Tokyo by train. With all the money you save, you’ll still have plenty left over to go into the city on weekends and live it up—but your daily life will be inexpensive and laid-back. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Foreign teachers who live in less urban areas will save exponentially more money. Rent and everyday costs (like food) are likely to be lower. You’ll also find that people in inaka areas are often extremely friendly and helpful, and they’ll make your life easier in innumerable ways. I’ve known teachers who had their laundry done by neighbors, who received fresh vegetables from neighboring farms each week, and who were sold cars for pennies on the dollar. When I lived in rural Nagasaki, I rarely paid full price for the meals I ate at local restaurants, and was often given extra food to take home. It’s easier to immerse yourself in the community, and the community helps take care of you. All of these little perks add up to substantial savings over the course of a year.

Another added bonus is that living in a slightly more isolated area facilitates language learning. It may be tough at first, since people who speak English are fewer and farther between, but that’s part of the adventure, isn’t it? Being forced to adapt more fully to the landscape will increase the pace at which your Japanese skills improve, and that’s an amazing thing. Learning a language is its own joy, but Japanese skills may also translate to more money, both in the short and long term: it will make you more competitive if you try to “upgrade” your job in Japan, it’s impressive for resumes when you come back home, and it opens up other avenues of income in your spare time (like translation work.)

It’s also important to distinguish between degrees of cities. A city that Japanese people might not consider a very big city may still feel like a dense urban area by the average American’s terms. Again, my own experience is a fine example—Nagasaki City is a relatively cheap place where one can still save money and live comfortably on the cheap, but it’s also home to about 500,000 people, vibrant nightlife, and a myriad of businesses both domestic and international. That puts it on par with cities like Albuquerque, New Mexico and Raleigh, North Carolina— they’re not New York, but they’re far from the countryside. If you know a truly rural existence isn’t for you, you can still slash your living expenses drastically by choosing a second or third tier city.

Don’t get me wrong. You can save money while living in one of Japan’s biggest cities, like Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto. In the upcoming sections, you’ll find a number of ways to do so. If you can eliminate your housing expense (by finding a job that provides an apartment), that will remove your biggest hurdle. Ultimately, it’s easier to do so in more isolated areas, however.

3) Things to be looking for:

When you go to look for jobs, there are a number of considerations to take into account apart from simply the salary. If you want to put away the maximum amount of savings, keep the following in mind.

Visa Sponsorship:

This one’s a deal-breaker. Without a proper Work Visa, you’re limited to only a few short months in Japan, and you’re not supposed to work on a Tourist Visa. It’s up to your employer to help you work out getting your Work Visa, and while this process isn’t too complicated, some employers would rather not deal with it. In their job listing, they’ll usually be clear about it: they’ll either say “Applicant must already reside in Japan,” “Proper Visa Required,” or something along those lines. Don’t bother applying for jobs that won’t get your visa squared away.

One thing worth noting is that Work Visas last years, and if you change your job in-country, that doesn’t typically affect your visa status. As such, it’s technically possible to head to Japan with a visa sponsored by a company you don’t necessarily like very much, look for a better job while already in Japan, and then change jobs. This isn’t recommended, but it’s something people have been known to do.

Transportation to and from Japan:

You’ll be buying plane tickets at least twice—when you move to Japan, and when you go back home. That will often run close to $2,000 USD, and then you have to factor in transportation to and from your residence once you arrive in Japan (which can mean another few hundred dollars worth of train fares), etc. If you find a job that will fly you out, you’re already looking at a difference of several thousand dollars.

Potential savings: $4,000 dollars (two plane tickets, there and back)


Many good positions will offer you free or very cheap housing. Some won’t. What you’ve heard about housing in Japan is largely true—if you’re in a big city, expect to pay seriously high rent to live in a glorified closet unless you live in a particularly cheap neighborhood. In smaller cities and rural areas, nice apartments (or even houses to rent) may be available at remarkable prices. Either way, if your employer covers your rent, your biggest monthly expense is no longer an issue.

There’s another important phrase you should know here: it’s “key money.” Key money is money that you give to your Japanese landlord upfront. This is, unfortunately, not the same thing as a deposit. In fact, it’s usually in addition to a deposit. You won’t get it back. It’s more like a gift and a sign of goodwill towards the landlord. This can be anything between a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending on where you’re moving into. You probably don’t have an extra thousand to spend on the front end of your move to Japan, so it’s a great bonus if you don’t have to pay it. Some jobs that offer you housing will still require you to pay key money to the landlord, but many won’t. Usually they’ll specify in their job listing.

Potential yearly savings: $7,200 (based on 600 dollars rent per month, assuming free housing)

Everyday Transportation:

Most ALTs will use public transportation coming to and from work. A short train ride to work and home may only cost two or three dollars, but this can add up to several hundred dollars a year. Many private ALT dispatch agencies (the companies most commonly advertising jobs on the Internet) claim that your transportation fees will be covered and then don’t actually cover them. Instead, they’ll tell you that your estimated commuter costs are factored into your salary.

That’s not a crime against humanity, but it’s often misleading. They’ll package information as if your transportation costs will be given to you on top of your base salary, and you won’t realize that it’s considered a part of your salary until you get your first paycheck. This is something to ask about before signing on, perhaps in the interview. Don’t be pushy about it, but have accurate information to factor into your decisions. Remember, we’re here to save, and every few hundred dollars counts.

Potential yearly savings: $500 (based on a 200 yen commute—which is on the cheap side—and 250 working days)

Health Benefits:

Your employer is really supposed to help you out on healthcare costs. Good ones will. Many won’t. Japan has a wonderful government-run healthcare system (in which the state pays 70% of the cost), and reputable employers will pay a portion of your health insurance costs. Even though this system is highly effective, the monetary burden can under some circumstances be heavy. Your expected contribution, for instance, is calculated by your previous year’s salary, under the assumption that it has remained the same. If you move from a high paying position to one with lower pay, your costs may be higher than is truly warranted.

Again, in many good positions your healthcare will be essentially provided for, and what comes out of your salary will be negligible. Many private ALT agencies may again mislead you during the application process—they may make references to having a health insurance program available to you but be referring to the national system, then not pay into your costs. Or they may have a “company health insurance plan” that amounts to little more than accident insurance. In this area once more, ask specific questions and do your homework ahead of time.

All of this matters. It’s probably not what you have in mind right now when you think of living abroad, but hospital visits can get pricey, and you will be at an increased likelihood of getting sick. Your immune system is used to America, and you’re most likely going to work with hundreds of children. Ask any teacher friend you have— packs of little kids are like a breeding ground for sickness.

If you have to see a doctor and end up needing prescription medication, you’re going to lose some money. If your employer doesn’t pay you for sick days (or worse, penalizes you), this further compounds the problem. Which brings us to the next point.

Potential savings: Varies, but if you get sick or injured, the number may well be in the thousands.

Paid Vacation and Sick Days:

Under Japanese law, full-time employees are entitled to a certain number of paid vacation days. You should look for positions that advertise those, because you use them for more than vacations. There are a number of things you’ll be required to do as a foreigner that have to be done during the work day. If you live in an area that requires you to have a car to get to and from work, for instance, you’ll have to get a Japanese Driver’s License. Or, you may have to fill out Visa paperwork. If you leave the country for any reason (such as visiting family), you’ll have to get a Re-Entry Permit to come back. Setting up your bank account may also need to be done during the work day (due to bank hours.) Workers in Japan commonly use nenkyu (paid vacation days) to take half or full days off of work to complete these tasks.

Some employers will not offer any paid vacation days, meaning that when you have to do these things, you don’t get paid at all. That can add up to nearly a month’s salary that you won’t receive, should your obligations weigh heavily enough. Consider the example of getting a driver’s license—for most people, this actually requires taking off three work days (it’s a complex process that we won’t get into here.) If you’re not paid for those days, you’re out a few hundred dollars.

Additionally, having some paid vacation time is a great thing because you should travel! You’re living in a foreign country. You shouldn’t waste the opportunity to go out and see some of it.

As I mentioned, you’re actually legally entitled to this benefit as a full-time employee. How some companies with foreign employees get around this is by officially logging your worked hours as 39.5 hours per week instead of 40 and up—even though chances are you’ve worked over 40.

If you’re a teacher, a common way of justifying this is by not paying you for “free time” during the day, including lunch, recess, and the 15-minute periods between classes— even though, in reality, this is part of your job.

As ridiculous as it sounds, some employers penalize teachers for sick days in the same way. Note that this is different from not paying them, which is fairer (even though it’s still a bit harsh.)

To put it into perspective, at least one private ALT dispatch agency deducts ¥15,000 (about $150) for each day of work missed due to legitimate sickness. The official reasoning for this is that you shouldn’t be paid for a day you don’t work—which isn’t crazy. However, teachers working for this company actually only make about $90 USD a day, meaning they’ve been penalized an additional $60.

Furthermore, the same company will then deduct an additional $150 USD from the employee’s salary at the end of the month. This is referred to as their “Performance Bonus,” which they get for showing up to work on time, missing no days, etc. It’s very easy to keep under normal circumstances. The ridiculous part of it all is that the Performance Bonus portion of your income (nearly $2,000 a year) is included as a part of your promised salary. Again, it’s advertised as being something you receive in addition to your salary (I mean, they use the word “Bonus”), even though it’s not.

Potential yearly savings: $2,000, assuming 20 vacation days

Summer/Christmas Pay

This is another thing to get clear answers about during the application and interview process. If you’re going to work for an eikaiwa, this won’t apply: you’ll work all year round. However, those working in public schools won’t be working during summer break (which usually lasts for most of August) or around Christmas/New Years (when kids will get off 2-3 weeks as the semester ends.)

The Board of Education will pay its Japanese teachers during these holidays, and they’ll usually pay you, too. If you’re working for JET, you will receive this pay. If you work for a private ALT agency, the Board of Education will most certainly pay your salary to your agency as normal. However, many agencies do not pass along that money to the teacher. Instead, they pocket it and tell the teacher that they won’t be paid for a month they didn’t work.

That’s something you can deal with if need be: you just have to plan for it and prepare another source of income for that month. You’ll still want to expect it, though—and if you find a job that pays you during the summer, that’s an extra month’s salary to put towards your savings.

his is another place to be savvy. You might ask the recruiter, “Am I paid every month?” and a clever recruiter may respond, “Of course, you’re paid for every month you’re under contract.” Most applicants, eager and hopeful, will accept that. What you should ask is “What are the beginning and end dates of my contract?” Because in many cases, your contract will begin in March, run until August, end temporarily, then begin anew in September—that’s how they get around paying you during the summer. Many companies will not volunteer this information. They’ll hand you a contract when you arrive in Japan, and that’s the first time you’ll ever see it. By then, it will be too late not to sign it, even if you notice something wrong with it. Are you really going to turn around and fly back to America on the stop? They know you won’t.

Is it getting confusing yet? Many employers are counting on that, because they want to pay you as little as possible.

Potential yearly savings: Approx. $3,500 dollars

4) Don’t Get Discouraged: Now You’re Armed

The problems discussed in this section are widespread, but they’re not everywhere. There are plenty of good employers and good jobs out there, but often the dishonest or predatory companies advertise their jobs the most aggressively (since they have an understandably high turnover), so you’re likely to run across them in the job hunting process. We don’t want you to experience the frustrations many others have, and now you know what to look for.

There’s a tricky balancing act to follow, though. Be suspicious—I’m serious, don’t get taken for a ride—but don’t be accusatory or overbearing. People wanting to teach in Japan are a dime a dozen, and if you ask too many tough questions during the interview process, they may simply drop you for being difficult. It’s best to apply, nail the interview, and then ask questions.

The short version:

  • Don’t compromise. If you get a bad feeling from a company, don’t work for them. If that means you have to wait longer than you planned to move, wait. The bad companies and schools are often counting on you coming to Japan and then finding out the ways in which they’re screwing you over—they know that after you’ve packed up your life and moved across the world, you’re unlikely to quit.
  • Do your homework, but know good information from bad. Whoever you go to work for, chances are others have come and gone and have shared their experiences on the Internet. Google specific companies and specific people in those companies. Take what you read with a grain of salt, however. Many ESL teachers are fresh out of college, haven’t worked a day in their lives, and end up angry that having a job is hard—so they complain about it on the Internet. Separate helpful, objective information from whining.
  • Be patient. There are a lot of jobs out there. Don’t be in such a hurry to snag one that you take a terrible one, then have an awful experience in Japan. Problems and frustrations are often harder to handle when you’re in a new country, away from everyone and everything you’ve known. Don’t set yourself up for a bad time— do your due diligence on the front end, and you’ll have the journey of a lifetime (and a fat wallet to accompany it.)

5) Let’s do some math:

The average teacher in Japan is not getting a job with this winning combination of savings. Once again assuming a $25,000 salary, getting the costs in this section covered means you don’t have to spend $17,200. That’s money that you get to send home that most people won’t—and that’s in one year.

Of course, that would leave you with $650 a month to spend on bills, food, leisure, and other miscellaneous costs. In reality, most people will spend more than that—but then you’re dipping into your baseline of $17,200 savings, and that gives you plenty of wiggle room. You can spend freely and still walk away with $10,000, easy.

In upcoming sections we’ll show you even more cost-cutting tactics to reduce your monthly spending in Japan, and we’ll show you ways to add to your base income on the side.

6) When to Apply:

Different types of jobs hire at different times of the year. Most jobs begin in the beginning of April, the beginning of the Japanese school year (and fiscal year.) Some will hire beginning with the second trimester (so employees begin in late July/early August.) If you miss the relatively short window for getting in applications when jobs open up, you’ll have to wait at least six months to have another decent shot. Remember: this is Japan, a popular destination for people who will work for cheap just for a chance to go —that means the job market for foreigners is highly saturated, and employers don’t need to search for long to fill their positions. When you see a new listing that looks good to you, pounce on it.

Of course, jobs will still crop up all year-round, but there will be fewer outside of these periods (and they’re likely to be less ideal.) Stay on top of the job listings, and be ready to bring your A-game in terms of your resume and cover letter once those key timeframes are coming up.

7) Where to Look:

Where do you even go to find job listings? There are a few heavy-hitters out there that consistently serve up hundreds (if not thousands) of jobs. Here are the ones to scour.

If you want to try for JET, you’ll want to look here:

JET has its own very particular (and time consuming) application process, and you’ll be able to find all the specifics on it through their website.

GaijinPot ( is ground central for job listings, apartments, and a variety of other useful information. You can upload a resume into their system that employers can search, or you can peruse the job listings and look for things that interest you. Multiple job offerings will show up there each day, it’s a good idea to check back often.

OhayoSensei ( is a newsletter that comes out every few weeks, and you can view their current “issue” on their website. It’s absolutely worth subscribing. It’s free, for one, and over 300 employers subscribe and use OhayoSensei to list their jobs.

The Japan Times ( start_e.html) is an English-language Japanese newspaper, and they also have job listings. These listings are less likely to be for teaching positions and more geared towards long- term residents of Japan with language schools and stronger credentials, but it’s still worth looking at.

8) What Employers Are Looking For:

There are a few things that virtually every ESL employer is looking for. These might seem obvious, but it would blow your mind how rare they can be on applications for Japanese jobs:

Professionalism: The average person applying for a job in Japan is fresh out of college and has little to no real-life work experience. These tend to be the employees who get hired and then have a terrible time adapting to having an actual, full-time job, ESL or not. Project professionalism in your application materials, and when it comes time for the interview, don’t be overly casual. If you’re doing a Skype interview, dress nicely.

Friendliness and Sociability: In many ways, interacting well in the culture of the workplace is as important in Japan as your actual performance. Being polite, showing respect, and having a sunny disposition go a long way. Sarcasm and cynicism do not. Employers are looking for people who are intelligent but bubbly, optimistic, and happy. These are the people who make learning English fun for their students, after all. Social interactions are magnified in a cross-cultural setting. If you come across as awkward in the interview, you can bet that to Japanese coworkers you’ll seem ten times as awkward, and you probably won’t get the job.

Adaptability: Living in a foreign country comes with its own set of unique challenges. People who can’t hack it will implode at work, and so employers want to know that you’re willing to roll with things. At the same time, don’t be so unassertive that you sound desperate. If they ask you what grade level you’d like to teach, say something like, “I think I’d be most well-suited to teaching middle school, but I’m open to any grade level. I get along well with kids of all ages.” Likewise, if they ask you if you’d prefer to live in an urban or rural environment, say “I love the city life, but I grew up in the countryside, so I really thrive anywhere.”

An Interest in ESL, not Japan: Employers aren’t trying to hire the person who most wants to come to Japan. They’re trying to hire people who will be good employees and good teachers. A startling percentage of applicants spend most of their time talking about why they’re interested in being in Japan, not why they’re interested in teaching ESL. Teaching ESL is the job you’re applying for. I can’t stress this enough. Nobody cares if you “think Japanese culture is interesting” or if you love sushi—they want you to be a good teacher.

When You Arrive in Japan

1) Second-hand stores and 100-Yen shops: Your New Best Friends

Japan is home to some pretty incredible low-cost shopping options. When you first arrive in Japan, you’re probably going to need to do some shopping for your new apartment, and two types of businesses can save you hundreds right out of the gate.

Second-hand stores (most notably the oddly named “Hard-Off” chain of stores) have exceptional deals on all sorts of things, including furniture. In your city, you can probably find other independent second-hand stores that sell household furnishings, too. At some of these stores, the prices are deeply, deeply discounted for products that are in great condition—we’re talking about things like new couches for $20 or flat-screen televisions for $75.

100-Yen shops (hyaku-en shoppu) are the Japanese equivalent to dollar stores (they’re sometimes called One Coin Shops as a result), but what you’ll find inside will surprise you. It’s impossible to list the dizzying variety of products available here, but go check it out—you may end up getting dozens of things you need for your new home at only a dollar a piece.

2) Succeeding on the Job:

The people you work with are not idiots, and they will understand that you’re acclimating to a new environment, stepping into unfamiliar job territory, and dealing with language and culture barriers. You’ll probably find that coworkers and bosses go out of their way to be helpful to you. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to offend, and first impressions matter here as much as anywhere else (and maybe more.)

Japanese business culture extends to schools as well, and the single most important thing you can do is put the collective before your individual needs. The team matters, not the individual. Show them your first priority is the success of the school.

An example: while you may be told that your work day ends at 5:00 PM, you’ll notice that the Japanese employees aren’t leaving. Many of them will stay well into the night.

Now, they have much more to do than you, no matter what shape your specific job takes. Everyone in the office knows it. It’s also unlikely that anyone really expects you to stay until the others leave. But you should, at least at first. Make the show of it. Stay until you’re told to go home. After the first few days, you can scale things back, and soon you’ll be slipping out of the door at 5:00 (or whenever) on the dot with nobody even noticing. It’s the gesture that matters, however. It shows them that you came to work and that you’re eager to pull your weight.

Soak in the office culture and customs. You’ll hear the same exchanges over and over again, and you’d be wise to learn them.

When people leave the office, they’re likely to say this:

Osaki ni shitsureishimasu. – おさきにしつれいします。

This means “I’m sorry to leave before you.” They’ll say it quietly to the office as they head out, and everyone will reply:

Otsukaresamadeshita! – おつかれさまでした!

This doesn’t translate well. It’s technically an honorific way of saying “you must be tired,” but it’s really something more like “thanks for your hard work.” You may catch coworkers or bosses that speak a little English saying “you must be tired” to you, but they’re not saying that because you look exhausted or unkempt—they’re thanking you for your efforts. Say it back. You’ll use it when people leave work, but you’ll also use it often in the workplace in general.

Souvenirs and gifts are of special importance in Japanese culture, and they can work wonders for how you’re perceived. Your employer is likely to give you a primer of sorts on this before you ever show up, because they want to be absolutely sure that new employees follow these customs. Souvenirs are called omiyage in Japanese, and they’re a sign of goodwill. When you arrive in Japan, you should bring something with you to give to anyone you’re going to work closely with. It’s not practical to get something for every teacher in school if you’re in a public school, but your principal, vice principal, and teachers you specifically work with are good people to bring a gift for. It doesn’t have to be anything special, but it’s best if it’s something related to where you’re from. Nice pens from your university bookstore are one simple option: make sure your school’s logo is on there. Food items are also okay, so long as you can travel with them. I knew someone from Louisiana who gave small bottles of Tobasco sauce, for example.

Remember, it’s not so important what the gift is, just that you give one.

When you go on vacation or a business trip, you’ll bring back souvenirs for everyone you work with, but that’s way easier—in train stations and stores all over Japan, they sell special souvenir boxes for exactly this reason. Small snacks, candies, or pastries special to that city will be individually packaged, and you just distribute them around the office.

Be flexible and be observant. Make the effort to fit in, introduce yourself to people as best you can, and in no time you’ll be a regular part of the team.

3) Potential Side Gigs:

Part time jobs are called arubaito in Japanese, and some teachers need ‘em. A lot of options won’t be available to foreigners, unfortunately, for a few reasons—it’s trickier legally and tax-wise for Japanese employers to hire foreigners, for one. And if they need a bilingual employee, it’s usually far easier to find a Japanese employee who speaks decent English than an American who speaks sufficient Japanese. However, some part-time jobs are more or less tailor-made for English speakers, and these options are among the most popular.

Private Lessons:

Most teachers that take side gigs for extra cash are taking additional teaching gigs. The most common is to teach private lessons in the evenings or on the weekends. Oftentimes teachers are “grandfathered” into these positions—teachers on their way out of Japan will pass off students or conversation groups to incoming teachers—but some also advertise their services, especially online. Many websites offer marketplace services in which teachers can create a profile and students can contact them directly. Some of these include:

  • Private Sensei (
  • (
  • 121Sensei (

These websites cater specifically to people who want 1 on 1 conversation practice, but conversation clubs and study groups are also common. In my case, for two years I did an English conversation lesson one night a week at my neighborhood’s community center, which tacked on an additional few hundred dollars a month.


Some ALTs in public schools will also teach in eikaiwas in the evenings or on the weekends. Usually that’s as simple as going down to your local eikaiwas, introducing yourself to administrators, and telling them you want to work a few classes a week.

English Camps:

English-intensive camps abound, especially in the summer. These are difficult to actively seek out, but you’ll hear about them through your primary job. This can be a good way to make an extra grand or so for a week’s worth a work. Do as many of them as you can—they’re a lot of fun, and they’re great for networking.


Many foreigners who aren’t teaching English work in the hospitality industry in some capacity. Most commonly, they run bars that cater to foreign customers. While a lot of these places will specifically want Japanese staff (so they can fluently interact with Japanese customers), some will also happily hire Americans. Hostels will also sometimes employ Americans part-time or otherwise, though this is a less common (and hostels aren’t even numerous in Japan.)

English-Language Media:

In slightly larger cities, there may be opportunities for teachers to work part time at companies that do editing, marketing, or production for English-speaking markets. There’s really no good way to specifically seek these out (though you may occasionally see listings for these jobs on sites like GaijinPot or in the Japan Times job listings.) More often than not, they’ll be looking for full time candidates rather than part-timers, but if your resume is persuasive, they may take you on either way.

Potential additional income: Teaching just a single one- hour private lesson class a week for $200 a month (a relatively modest figure) would equate to an extra $2,400 a year. Work multiple classes on the weekends, and your extra money can skyrocket.

4) Travel

Since you’ll be living in a foreign country, it would be a waste not to see as much of it as you can. Even if you never take any vacations for pleasure, it’s likely that you’re going to have reasons to travel. Luckily, Japan’s particularly easy to get around on the cheap.


Trains tend to be among the more expensive ways to cover large distances across prefectures, but special deals abound. There’s the “JR Shikoku Birthday Ticket,” for instance, which allows you to travel on JR Shikoku train lines freely for three days during the month of your birthday. The cost is 10,000 yen—about 100 dollars. Three friends can also get the same pass for the same price. In practice, that means only one of you actually needs to have been born during the month you’re traveling (1 in 3 odds for any given month, if you involve four people.) Depending on your needs, that’s pretty massive savings, and if you know you have a reason to travel along those train routes, you can try to schedule your journey to coincide with that deal. Similar deals are available for different regions during different time periods each year. Do your homework ahead of time, and you can find good deals.

Buses, however, will usually beat trains in terms of affordability. Of particular interest are overnight buses, which will travel through the night. The seat space is larger, the chairs recline, and you can pull a curtain for privacy. It’s really not difficult to get some pretty decent sleep, and you eliminate the need for lodging for a night by combining transportation and a place to sleep. Sleeper buses are rarely full, and getting a ticket is as easy as getting one for any other bus. You don’t even have to do it ahead of time.

Cars shouldn’t be discounted, however. Japan’s expressways are toll-heavy, and parking within cities can cost more than what you’re probably used to. However, if you’re traveling with other people, filling a car and splitting the cost of tolls and parking may still be far cheaper than each person paying for a bus/train ticket separately.

Don’t forget boats, either! Japan is a nation of islands, after all. Ferries run between different destinations in many regions, and these can be a cheap (not to mention scenic) way of enjoying the ride.


Normal Western-style hotels (think Holiday Inn) cost the same (or more) than they do back home, but Japan is littered with a special class of hotel called a business hotel as well. Business hotels trade the frills and luxury for practicality and savings: they’re clean, safe, and functional, but they’re sparse and small. Business hotel rooms will usually run in the neighborhood of $40 US, even in major metropolitan areas.

Capsule hotels are even cheaper. In a capsule hotel, you don’t have a “room” in the traditional sense. Instead, occupants sleep in rows of phone booth-sized capsules. Each capsule will typically have a television installed in the top of it, as well as its own temperature controls. All other facilities—from showers to bathrooms—are shared. These can range from dingy and ultra-cheap to downright luxurious, with fancy spas, workout rooms, high class restaurant floors, and relaxing lounges. A stay at a capsule will usually only cost you $30-40, but note that women aren’t usually allowed to use them.

Internet cafes are cheaper still. It sounds odd to consider a net café as a viable lodging option, but in Japan this is extremely common. Private, walled-in booths with couches or mattresses are available, complete with blankets and pillows. Each will have a computer, television, and potentially video game systems, allowing you to take advantage of the café’s library of media while you relax before crashing. You can pay hourly, but most net cafes have special “night packages” that offer a much better value—often 8 hours for about $10, or 12 hours for $15. Internet cafes often have staff with some (limited) English abilities, a luxury less common among the staff at conventional hotels (surprisingly enough.)

CouchSurfing is flat-out free. connects people with extra space to people who need a place to crash, and many travelers coming to Japan use it. It’s best to give something back while you’re staying with someone —cook them a meal, give them a souvenir from America, or help out with chores. One of the big advantages of CouchSurfing is that you usually end up with a new friend out of the deal, and oftentimes hosts will be happy to help transport you around, show you their neighborhood, or take you to their favorite local spots.

5) Food

Grocery stores and local markets are the places to find food at its cheapest, the same as back home. You’ll never save more money than by cooking your own meals, but try to reduce your reliance on familiar food items from home. It’s possible to get a lot of the ingredients and pre-packaged foods you’re used to from home, like real cheese (Japan’s ubiquitous Hokkaido white cheese is pretty depressing), name-brand peanut butter, American snacks, etc. However, a lot of these items are marked up significantly, since they’re imported.

Instead, make your peace with Japan’s domestic generic equivalents, and learn to cook using more Japanese ingredients. Again, you’re living a foreign life now—part of the fun of it can be learning how to cook the local cuisine, as well using new and local ingredients.

Cheap chain restaurants are all over the place, and even if you live in the countryside, you’ll probably have businesses like Yoshinoya or Sukiya around—which are great for a quick bite at a reasonable price. Japanese chains are generally less expensive than international chains. McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, and plenty of other familiar chains exist in Japan, but a full meal will cost a few dollars more than you’re used to at home.

Convenience stores have a surprising selection of decent food at pleasing prices. Onigiri (rice balls) are a favorite staple, and pre-prepared hot meals are available every day.

Department stores also often have restaurants in them. If you’re in a multi-level department store, you’ll usually find the food offerings on the basement floor. Since these are completely unclassy, the food’s usually less expensive. That doesn’t mean it’s not delicious, though—chances are that somewhere nearby where you live, you can find an inexpensive lunch spot with deceptively tasty food.

Potential savings: Make eating cheap a habit, and you’ll save thousands. If you spend just 500 yen less a day on food, you’ll save about $1,825 a year.

6) Leisure

Filling your free time with fun activities doesn’t have to be expensive in Japan, either. You can get a feel for the culture and nightlife without breaking the bank.

Your local town hall will often have more cultural offerings on tap for free. Things like amateur sports, martial arts classes, zen archery, flower arranging, and classical calligraphy are pretty common, and they usually don’t cost anything. This is a good way to do something distinctly Japanese, not to mention make connections with locals.

When you’re going out, look for all you can drink deals— called nomihodai in Japanese. These are most common at izakayas (Japanese-style pubs/restaurants), which you’ll become familiar with one way or another. Karaoke bars also usually have nomihodai deals, in addition to cheap food. If you’re hell-bent on a hangover, these are good ways to pre-game before hitting the more expensive night spots.

7) Sending Money Home

It’s great to save money in Japan, but it doesn’t do you any good if you don’t know how to send it back home. There are a number of ways to do this, and they’re all pretty easy after you’ve done it once or twice.

Which options are available to you will depend largely on where you live. Some services, like GoRemit (formerly GoLloyd’s, perhaps the most popular option) will work from anywhere. If you have trouble setting up a remittance, you might also consider asking your employers, who will probably have some experience with doing this with their teachers.

Some helpful terms to know:

Remittance: soukin, そうきん, 送金

Overseas remittance: gaikoku soukin, がいこくそうきん,外国送金

Remittance fee/charges: soukin tesuuryou, そうきんてす うりょう, 送金手数料

If you have trouble when you go to send money, say these words to an employee at your bank and they’ll help you out.

Exchange rates:

In many Asian countries, teachers can make a pretty penny timing their money transfers well—the exchange rate works in their favor, and the money they make overseas multiplies when it becomes dollars.

Teachers in Japan don’t get to take advantage of this to the same degree. In general, the yen and the dollar stay close to equal, so the amounts you send are likely to be close to identical in dollars.

However, even small fluctuations in currency rates can add up to significant savings when you’re sending larger amounts of money. For simplicity’s sake, think of 1 yen as being roughly equivalent to 1 penny. 100 yen is about one dollar. Right now, for example, 1 dollar is equal to 97 yen. Sending 10,000 yen over will net you a paltry two dollars —it will convert to $102. If you were to send 1,000,000 yen, that would be 10,241 dollars—241 dollars extra.

Just a few months ago, however, it took only 77 yen to make 1 dollar—meaning transferring over that same 1,000,000 yen would be worth roughly 13,000 dollars. Find a moment like that to transfer money, and you’d make $2,500.

What you’ll want to do is watch the exchange rate carefully, and time your transfers for maximum effect. Currency markets spike and dive like any other economic entity, and occasionally the dollar will tank against the yen, even if it’s only for a day. Big differences like the one I’ve described above happen over the course of months or years, not weeks, but it’s worth it to let your yen sit in your Japanese account, then transfer when the time is right.

At the very least, send money when the exchange rate will nullify the service charges you’ll pay for transferring the money. Often, other teachers will alert each other to favorable exchange rates. If the yen spikes, you might see Facebook messages to this effect.

Do note that many money transfer services will have a maximum amount that you can send at one time, so you may have to space out your transactions.



GoRemit used to be GoLloyd’s, until it became a part of Shinsei Bank and relaunched with a new name. It’s one of the simplest, quickest services for sending money out of Japan, and you can use it at your nearest ATM. Registration is free, but you do have to fill out an application:

They’ll require you to fax or mail them a copy of a form of identification (options are listed, but most people use their foreigner residence card), as well as a utility bill (electric, gas, Internet, or almost anything else will work.) Alternatively, you can provide them with an official transcript of your Resident Record (juminhyo no utsushi), but most people won’t have that on hand.

About a week after applying, you’ll receive a welcome package with step-by-step instructions on how to transfer money at your ATM. It’s as easy as pie.

Other Remittance Services:

SBI Remit: lang=en

JTB International:

Both of these services are web-based, which some people will prefer. However, they won’t transfer directly to a bank account—someone has to physically receive the funds States-side. SBI is affiliated with Moneygram, so the recipient will have to go to a Moneygram location. JTB transfers to Cirrus ATMs.

Both of these services have more associated fees than GoRemit, making them less ideal options.

Japan Post Bank:

Japan Post is another popular option, but it’s not available everywhere (as of this writing, there are around 250 locations.) If you live near a Japan Post Bank, it’s as fine an option as GoRemit, but if there isn’t one around, don’t bother.

At JP Bank, you can send electronically or via paper, and the forms necessary to do so are available in English.

For paper transfers, they’ll send the funds in a physical envelope to an individual or to your bank (juusho ate soukin.) This is not recommended, so make sure you’re filling out the correct form when interacting with employees.

Electronic transfers (kouza ate soukin) are the better option. If you have a JP Bank account, you can transfer directly from your Japanese account in your American account. If you don’t, you can still send money, but you’ll have to give it to them in cash.

The exchange rate is competitive, and the fees are generally low—2,000 yen for an American bank (excluding your home bank’s receiving fees.) They’ll require your residence card or Passport.

Your Japanese Bank:

Many Japanese banks have their own overseas remittance services. The downsides to this are that the entire process usually needs to be done in Japanese, and the fees tend to be higher than something like GoRemit.

Western Union:


Western Union is a relatively new presence in Japan, but they’ve got 140 dedicated locations, as well as nearly 27,000 kiosks in convenience stores—specifically Seven Elevens and FamilyMarts. It’s not as simple as sending money at the ATM, but some people may find it preferable.

To use Western Union’s services, you’ll have to apply for accounts for Seven Bank as well as Western Union’s transfer services: how_to_send.php

If you’re sending to California, Texas, or New Mexico, extra documentation is required to set up these services. The fees are often higher than GoRemit for large transfers, and someone in your home country will have to be designated as a recipient of the money. For these purposes, Western Union is not the best way to go for most people— but it’s an option if you don’t have bank access nearby or you need the money to be available in America more quickly.


You can send money internationally via PayPal like you would domestically, even sending money from an account you have linked to your Japanese bank to a second address linked to your American bank. However, this isn’t usually a good option—unverified members can only send a small amount at a time, and though you can lift that limit by verifying your account (which is easy), the fees and exchange rates PayPal uses are higher than other options. This method is only recommended if, for some reason, you have an emergency situation in which you need to transfer money instantaneously.


At the end of the day, saving $10,000 a year requires effort. There are no magic tricks or sneaky loopholes for generating cash—only fiscal fundamentals, empowered exponentially by the specifics of Japan’s ESL marketplace.

Here’s the short version: snag one of the jobs that pays well, then slash your living expenses.

Now you know how to identify jobs that will set you up to save, how to actually get them, and how to save the money you earn. You know how to supplement your base income in quick and easy ways, as well as how to transfer that money thoughtfully to multiply your gains back home.

All the while, don’t forget to smell the roses. Japan’s a wonderful place, and you’ll look back fondly on your time there long after you’re gone. Forge some friendships. Have some unique experiences. Hell, make a few mistakes. Coming back to America with cash in your pocket is an extraordinary thing, but the experience of living abroad and immersing yourself in another culture may be more valuable yet.