Secrets on Teaching English in Japan

Secrets on Teaching English in Japan-- EFL/ESL


The vast majority of people who come to Japan teach English. Most stay for a year or two, then move on. Now at this point it's necessary to inject a little reality into the stories going around out there. From the late '80s a lot of books and anecdotes have come out about how YOU can earn BIG MONEY in JAPAN!! THREE jobs for every applicant!! No experience necessary!!! The schools are practically camped out at your arrival gate RIGHT NOW just waiting to SIGN YOU UP!!!! There are pieces of gold in the street just lying there for you to take them!!! And every time the stories are recycled they get even more exaggerated. Well, I hate to yank those glowing dollar signs out of your saucer-shaped eyes, but the reality isn't quite so wonderful. Things were NEVER that rosy, not even in the "Bubble Days" of the late '80s/early '90s; and tens of thousands of other westerners have read those books too and they're already here in Japan. In fact, there is such a glut of labor that nearly every school simply pays minimum wage, which is 250,000 yen per month. (Income taxes will eat up about 10% of that before you get it). That is enough to be relatively comfortable in smaller cities, but in the big cities that is not living it up. And many schools these days can be choosy enough to demand that applicants have special qualifications in EFL/ESL, or several years of teaching experience, or both.

This is not to say you can't get a job, or you must have an IQ like Einstein. The truth is, teaching English at a conversation school is more entertaining than educating. And if you are a young, single woman, you have an automatic advantage. In fact, going to the job interview in a tight suit and high heels might just double your chances. Why? Because the Japanese MEN who run the school would rather have a western woman around, the vast majority of teachers are men, and the students (mostly women, who self-segregate themselves through high school) would feel more open with a woman than a man. In any case, a positive attitude, an outgoing personality, and having a lot of interesting stories to tell are all important factors.

Likewise, being in Japan is a big boost--it shows you're committed and ready to start immediately. Personal contact is very important in Japan. Some big chain schools recruit abroad or allow you to apply through e-mail, and it is still possible to land a job by mailing out a mountain of resumes, but by and large for better jobs the people in Japan taking the face-to-face interviews will have an edge. Most of the larger chain schools that hire outside Japan do so because they have soiled reputations among teachers in Japan. Once the word is out, they are the workplaces of last choice and taken for a quick visa while looking for a new school. On the other hand, getting an apartment in Japan is often a tough grueling experience. Some long-term expats say that 4 out of 5 places just refuse foreigners period. Being accepted at a big chain school can help out a lot, since they provide accommodations. But if you quit or change jobs, you will of course be instantly evicted. The Nova chain in particular draws a lot of fire since they bed you in with 1 or 2 other teachers, but all the teachers pay full rent for the place. Nearly all schools run on a one-year contract system. Afterwards if you renew your visa, you can get up to a 3 year visa.

Finding a job depends really on many factors -- experience, connections, your personal appeal, and simple luck. Timing is also important -- many westerners think they'll just fly on over in mid-summer, just before the beginning of the school year. Perfect right? WRONG! The Japanese school year starts in April and hiring season is usually January through March. If you miss this critical window, getting a job will be that much harder. There are always some schools posting want-ads in the Monday edition of The Japan Times throughout the year, but since nearly every school runs on one-year renewable contracts starting in April, this begs the question as to why they're looking for a teacher. Either they scored in getting a new influx of students, or they hired and fired an incompetent teacher, a teacher decided to call it quits, or they treat their teachers like used toilet paper and they're looking for a new sucker. In the last case you'll find a job all right but you'll also be getting much more than you bargained for. Working for a big chain school may or may not be better than a small school -- it all depends on the management. Teacher treatment can vary from being treated like a valued asset to a necessary evil. So by all means try and find out how often the teacher turnover is. It's simple -- better schools keep their teachers longer. If you find a place where very few or no teachers stay on a second year, it's almost certain you've found a school you should stay far away from.

Here is a quote (author unknown) from a net forum a few years ago, but still holds true today. It offers a humorous look at the promise and reality of the eikaiwa experience:


For the vocationless graduate with a penchant for travel, the call of TEFL is strong. For the penniless member of the same breed, unable to afford an RSA certificate, beware! A teaching job in Japan is yours for the taking, if you’re prepared to, well...SELL YOUR SOUL.

Perhaps some will feel this is going to far. It is certainly true that there are some plum jobs amongst the cherry blossoms. And yet, without having an insider’s view of the Japanese job scene, it is very likely that you will end up mesmerized by the rampant, glossy, advertising of the giants - Nova, Geos, Berlitz and the American-focused Aeon. These companies are the corporate face of the English teaching market in Japan and prey upon those of us who casually flip through the Guardian Education supplement of a Tuesday. Jostling for our attention in the classifieds are numerous small ads promising great opportunities in Turkey and Russia. Forget them. Allow your eyes to drift towards the reassuringly oversized and sophisticated box that promises: “An Amazing Cultural Experience” and “International promotion and career opportunities” and best of all “TEFL experience is an asset, but not essential”. Wooo hooo! Lets go! And so many do.

In such a way I was lulled into sending an application form to one of the ‘big four’. A couple of months later I found myself staggering towards a big sign in Narita International Airport - ‘Have a nice time in Japan, but don’t break the rules’ it both welcomed and cautioned. The barely registered twinge of uneasiness I felt on reading this slogan was a sensation I was to become familiar with in the following weeks and months. No, actually I take that back. The twinge of uneasiness at the airport was like an orgasmic shudder when I compare it to what awaited me at my new job. If I say I was misled by the London recruiters about my new life and work in Japan, I don’t think I’ve quite covered the magnitude of the situation. The following parable gets closer to how it was:

A recruiter of a big English-teaching company is hit by a bus and dies. She is met at the gates of heaven by St. Peter who says, owing to an administrative hitch, they are unsure where to place her - heaven or hell. Instead she is to be given the choice herself by spending a day in each and then deciding.

Arriving in hell for her ‘taster-day’ she is met by the friendly faces of colleagues from her company, dressed exquisitely in designer casuals. They greet her warmly and show her around hell, which is a beautifully landscaped country club with golf courses and tennis courts. She has a fantastic day playing sports, dining on lobster and steaks, dancing and getting drunk with her friends. Everyone laughs at her jokes and she even gets to meet the devil himself, who is, dare she say it, ‘kinda cute’. It is with great sadness that she leaves in the evening.

The following day she spends in heaven. Here she hops from cloud to cloud, plays harps and generally hangs out with the angels. Again she enjoys herself very much. St. Peter asks her for a decision the next day. After great deliberation, she chooses hell over heaven. ‘To hell you will spend eternity’, St. Peter decrees.

When she arrives the country club and golf courses are gone. In their place is a filthy, desolate wasteland. Her friends are still there, but they are dressed in rags, picking up garbage and putting it in sacks. The Devil comes up and puts his arm around her. "I don't understand," she stammers, "yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a country club and we ate lobster and we danced and had a great time.

Now it’s a wasteland of garbage and all my friends look miserable.” The Devil looked at her and smiled evilly. "Yesterday we were recruiting you; today you're staff."

It wasn’t all barren landscapes and torture. After all, I honoured my first year’s contract, and I know many more who stayed longer (mostly, but not all freaks).

Admittedly there were others who only lasted a couple of days. With over 340 schools to fill with some 4000 recruits from overseas, NOVA is the biggest single employer of foreign staff and Geos is hot on it’s footsteps. Take it from me, their insatiable thirst for fresh faces is less to do with growth, more to do with a high drop-out rate as new teachers discover, to their dismay, the true meaning of the Japanese work ethic.

Though I would never outwardly encourage a person to apply for this kind of job, I wouldn’t dissuade them either. I’d just warn them a bit, that’s all. It’s like those guys who perform acts of self-mutilation on stage - you know, sticking swords down their throats and grinding their faces in broken glass. Their claim is that, as they expect and prepare for the pain, they don’t perceive it as unpleasant. This is the name of the game if you want to work for Nova et al. Prepare yourself for the worst and you might just be able to keep a Zen head above water. The beginning is the worst. Three days of training is all I apparently needed to become a professional teacher; less really, as all teaching practice during this paltry training period was performed on live, full-fee-paying clients. The fourth day was the first full working day. ‘Daunted’ would cover how I felt, as a previously qualified and experienced teacher of English to the foreigner. Needless to say, I can’t speak for the majority of new teachers - utterly inexperienced or qualified to teach anything at all. That first day, and every consequential day thereafter, consisted of eight 40 or 45 minute lessons. Between each class was a ten-minute interval. During this blink-of-an-eye pause, it was our duty to evaluate each of the previous student’s performances, give them a mark, hunt for the files of the next class, choose a new lesson, plan it, give a few whimpers of dismay, and go teach again. This factory line approach to lessons - the antithesis of good teaching, as I knew it - is the key to big bucks. The high quantity of classes taught at the school, along with a blanket teaching style, is apparently the winning formula to attract the Japanese public. Fast food English, you might say.

For anyone with ideals about being an original and conscientious teacher, this kind of job is not for you. The strict lesson structure you are trained to use is not to be tampered with. Superiors at my school would often keep an ear open on neighbouring classrooms to ensure the right words were being said; the right lesson stages happening at the prescribed times etc.

On the other hand, for those who need a job and are happy to put aside innovation and imagination for the duration of their contract, you could be on to a winner. As far as I know, all you need is a regular heartbeat and a university degree - a requirement of the Japanese immigration authorities rather than your employer.

On a more positive note, you are helped with accommodation and basic set-up difficulties. Hell, I was even given a company futon. There is ample opportunity to make and save money as long as one doesn’t become too much of an alcoholic (it is worth noting that you will become a bit of one, however hard you try). I lived comfortably for the first time in my adult life and was able, on leaving Japan, to travel for a year. Extra incentive for men is that you will almost certainly experience a renaissance in your love life. The foreign male is viewed as quite a hot commodity amongst many Japanese women.

I must add that all of the above are possible with many of the smaller schools too. A little web research is necessary to find out about them - their pleas for new teachers are rarely seen in the British broadsheets. With a job at an unenfranchised school, you will have more opportunity to experiment with materials and teaching methods. It is possible you will be the only teacher, in which case, your chances of cultural and social interaction with your students are much greater. The contract I signed stated that any interaction with students outside the school would result in suspension or dismissal. Many an evening I would be twiddling my thumbs or getting drunk with my English speaking colleagues, whilst my housemate, employed at a tiny independent school, would be flooded with endless invitations from her adoring students.

Working in Japan can be an “amazing cultural experience” and all the rest of it. It can also be a pain in the arse. Ultimately it is up to us penniless graduates to do the necessary enquiries and not succumb too quickly to the over-polished promises of the English teaching giants.


It is very important to try and find out what place is somewhere you'd like to be. Talking to other teachers (especially outside their workplace) who're at the school you're looking at can give a lot of insight. Is the boss a petty Napoleon? How much can you modify a lesson to meet the student's needs? How much notice do you have to give to end the contract early? What happens if you get sick? Do you get the minimum legally required 10 days a year off? Will you ever get a raise or bonus? How much time do you have to prepare for clases? Will the school pay your commuting costs? Will they pay some or all of your health insurance? And will you be working on national holidays and weekend nights? The contract is another good sign. Many schools require 20-25 class hours per week, but these days some larger school chains require a grueling 30 hours or more. Some schools try to virtually run their teacher's lives, requiring them to be there 40 hours a week, even when they aren't teaching classes. Will you be called on to do endless contractual "as other duties require", like spending hours trying to wheedle students to sign up and pay for another year? Some might also try to prohibit you from getting part-time work or private tutoring (which is really how you make ends meet in Tokyo or Osaka). Some schools might welcome your ideas on teaching and materials, others may just shove their own curriculum down your throat. Given a choice, it would be better to hold out for a better school. If you come all the way over to Japan to work, why not have a positive experience instead of a nightmare??

The Japan FAQ:Know Before You Go

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