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Teaching in Korea vs. Japan, a Showdown...


Two years ago, I was a senior in college, trying to enjoy the last few months of life as a carefree student before stepping into the deep, dark, unknown commonly referred to as the “real world.” After a lot of careful deliberation and a sobering analysis of the American job market (especially for History and English majors), I decided to move to Asia for a year to work as a teacher.

But where to go? I’d never traveled to any Asian country before, so my knowledge was confined to what I’d read or heard from other people who had lived or travelled in the region. I wanted to go somewhere I could be comfortable, but still learn and experience a lot of new things. The first country that came to my mind was Japan. It was the Asian country that I’d heard most about, and I really like eating sushi.

After a bit more research, I realized that Korea was a far better destination for me. After living here for more than a year and a half, my experience has only compounded those affirmations. I’ve decided to compile some of the reasons I chose Korea for anyone who might be weighing the same decision.

1) Money: If Pink Floyd taught me anything, it’s that money is important. If making and saving money is important to you, then Korea is a much better choice than Japan. In general, the average ESL teacher in Japan and Korea make about the same salary. But the cost of living in Japan is significantly higher than it is in Korea. In my personal experience, I’ve been to Japan for vacation, and I can tell you that everything was more expensive, from a drink at the convenience store to a nice dinner out. In contrast, teachers working for ChungDahm Learning in Korea can save about $1,000 a month, without giving up any of the modern conveniences you’ve grown accustomed to.

2) English: If you don’t speak Korean, getting around in Korea can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. But this is the case in all foreign countries. In general, most places you go in Korea, especially in the big cities, you can get by with knowing little to no Korean. English is becoming more and more prevalent every day, and if you are patient with people, communication shouldn’t be a problem. Japan, on the other hand, is notorious for its lack of English fluency. So, with no foreign language skills, living in Korea will be your best bet. But if I were you, I’d learn to read the Korean alphabet: it’s extremely easy to do (it took me about 2 hours, and I am no language wizard) and will make life much better for you, even if you don’t understand all of it.

3) The People: It took me a very short while to realize that there are a lot of things that are unique to Koreans. All countries have unique characteristics and trademarks. But in general, Korean people are extremely warm and hospitable. This is especially true if you are a foreigner. Koreans are very proud of their country, culture and heritage. As a result, they love to see foreigners visiting their country. I’ve been in Korea for a while, and that feeling of being welcomed still makes me feel great about being an ex-pat in Korea. I get the sense that people are genuinely happy to have me living here. In Japan, foreigners are a lot more common, so chances are you won’t feel quite as special there.

4) Food and Health: Of all these topics, this one might be the most controversial. I won’t deny that Japanese food is good. But Korean food is extremely diverse, and tends to be much healthier in general. If you come to Korea and stick to Korean food, you will probably lose weight. Of course, fried chicken is as plentiful as any other kind of dish. However, that’s just a testament to the real diversity of edible delights there are here, from street food to restaurants.

Seoul Apartments resized 600View of apartments in Seoul, Korea.

Are these opinions biased? Sure. But that doesn’t change the fact that, in the mind of this expat (and many others I’ve spoken to in my travels, mind you), Korea is the place to be this side of the Pacific Ocean.

Mark Rudnick is a proud product of Worcester, Massachusetts, and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, who found himself moving to Korea to teach English in 2009. He obtained his first teaching role at ChungDahm Learning after being recruited by Aclipse. He currently works at the R&D office at Chungdahm in Seoul, after spending a year as a teacher at the Pyeongchon Branch. Mark finds Korea a fascinating place to live and work--there really is something new to learn each day (for example: did you know that before the popularity of cell phones, all Koreans carried beepers?).

Read Mark's blog here. Connect with him on Twitter or shot him an email!


Good post with useful information.I come at this from the opposite perspective having lived and taught in Japan for 10 years and going to Korea on holiday a few times.  
I agree that Korea is the better place to make money as there are more and better jobs for fewer native speakers. I would disagree about the high cost of living in Japan. Once you get outside of Tokyo, it has become a lot cheaper thanks to 10 or more years of deflation. You can really sense that the economy doesn't have the vibrancy of Korea. Surprisingly there sill seems to be a lot of money in the country though. 
I think both places are great to live in. It depends on what you're looking for. I was happy I chose Japan.
Posted @ Wednesday, March 02, 2011 11:54 AM by Jeff Romonko
Hi Jeff, 
Thanks for the comment! That's good to know that there are some places to live in Japan that are on the cheaper side. I definitely agree that both places would be great countries to live in, especially for ex-pats looking to explore the world. In general, my sense is that in 2011, especially for those recent grads concerned about the life of their bank accounts, Korea is the ideal place to live and work (especially for those with student loans). 
I certainly hope I get the chance to visit Japan again. That whole "deflation" thing wasn't doing me any favors on my last trip, but maybe the economy will turn itself around. I will say that living in a country like Korea, it's sometimes easy to forget that there is a global financial recession going on at the moment. 
I'm glad to get some insight from a fellow expat! 
Thanks for reading, 
Posted @ Thursday, March 03, 2011 3:27 PM by Rebecca Mcneil
Hi Mark, 
I have been doing research about working abroad. I graudated with a degree in music and eventually fell on the idea of teaching. I initially wanted to do the PeaceCorps but realized that it was such a long commitment and teaching in Asia would be a way to decide if I could make it overseas. I was struggling with where to go and though I always seemed to lean towards Japan (based on tv and movies) and so I found this blog very insightful. You also put a lot of great tips about local food, local culture, employers, and cost of living. Thank you. 
Posted @ Monday, March 07, 2011 7:27 AM by Adrianne
Hi Adrianne, 
I'm very glad to hear that you found my blog post useful! It sounds like you are in the process of the exact same mental exercise that I had before my decision to come to Korea. I was also thinking about the PeaceCorps, and ended up deciding on coming to teach in Korea through Aclipse instead. While I think PeaceCorps is a great program, it sounds like teaching in Korea would be the perfect fit for what you are looking for.  
I would love to continue this conversation with you so I can you answer any other questions or concerns you might be having. Send me a message at or @mark_at_aclipse on Twitter! 
Posted @ Monday, March 07, 2011 9:58 AM by Rebecca Mcneil
It's good to hear all the wonderful things that you have said about Korea. It's a pity that they along with other countries in the east are closed minded about teachers form other parts of the world except for the 5 countries listed on job sites. I have been teaching for over 20 years and have taught in different countries including the East but now I am ready to move on it is proving difficult as I am not from any of the five countries they desire teachers form. The interesting thing thought is that the USA, England and Canada recurit teachers from Jamaica and these teachers have proven to be "cream of the crop." To enlighten you more, Jamaicans are native English speakers who excell in whatever they do.
Posted @ Wednesday, March 09, 2011 2:13 PM by Barbara
Your blog has been immensely helpful. Teaching has crossed my mind and even though I have a full-time job as Young Adults Librarian, I'm leaning towards doing something different. Thanks so much :-D
Posted @ Tuesday, May 03, 2011 4:55 PM by Leslie Davis
Hi Leslie! We're so glad that our blog has been helpful for you! As you can tell, teaching in South Korea is an incredible experience and could be that change you've been leaning towards. Check out our website to apply online today: 
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Posted @ Sunday, July 31, 2011 10:57 PM by ASDFAS
So what qualifications do you need to teach in SK?
Posted @ Sunday, September 18, 2011 12:13 PM by Sharmin
What a great article. You really helped to outline the differences. When deciding between two countries, it also helps to take a look at the job opportunities available in each one. Sites like Teacher Gig have job listings for countries all over Asia. You can browse by country or view all of the jobs at once.  
Teacher Gig Job Listing For Asia
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Posted @ Friday, June 21, 2013 6:43 AM by neiladvani89
I absolutely concur with you, Barbara. We , Jamaicans, can be such fabulous and phenomenal teachers, yet we are not being placed on that chart which enumerates prominent countries from which teachers of English are being recruited by SK. What ignorance and waste! I am the holder of a Master's Degree who possesses 17 years teaching experience, including that of Spanish as a foreign language. Furthermore, I worked on the JET Program for 3 years. Why must it prove to be that onerous to get a foot in the Korean classroom?
Posted @ Wednesday, July 30, 2014 10:15 AM by Howard Lilly
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