Peter's Generic Information
on Teaching in Japan
Wherein the author give some slightly cynical
information for would-be ESL teachers in Japan
Updated Aug 2004
What's that? Out of college, but can't get a job? In a rut, and looking for a change? Wife just left you, and your life is in a shambles? Want to watch anime every day on TV for free? Well, my friend, why don't you come sell your native language in Japan?
Yes, you, too, can join the thousands of people who come to Japan to teach English as a Second Language (known to us teacher-types as "ESL"). All you (really) need is to speak English natively, have a University degree, and the earnest desire to do right by your Japanese hosts for the time you here.
Before starting J-List, I taught at various schools here in Japan, and I have found a great deal of fulfillment with my former career. I have met young, energetic Japanese with a real desire to learn about my home country of America, who remind me a lot of how I feel about Japan. I would recommend a short stint teaching in Japan (or in Asia in general) to anyone -- if they understand what they are getting themselves into and prepare themselves beforehand.
On the other hand, the golden age of ESL teaching is past. To paraphrase Princess Leia slightly, if money is all that you love, try for Saudi Arabia instead. Japan's birth rate is among the lowest in the industrialized world; there is actually a "famine" of students for schools that is only going to get worse; coupled with Japanese not spending money as they did in the age of the bubble economy and the increase in foreigners wanting to work over here, and you've got a formula for a competitive job market. The salaries are lower and the good jobs are harder to get than they have ever been. Since the first version of this document was put out on the Internet back in 1995, the economy has really taken a tumbling, and everything is more competitive than it was. Remember, too, that "taught English for three years in Japan" on your resume carries about as much weight in the eyes of a potential (non-teaching-related) employer as house-sitting. If you still want to try, I will tell you what I know.
The first group would have to be the eikaiwa [English conversation] chains: Geos, Aeon [pronounced Eon, trust me], Nova, and ECC. These schools recruit in North America frequently and will take anyone with a college degree who seems like they won't freak out at the first sign of toilets with no seat or squid on pizza. (You think I'm kidding about the squid, don't you?)
In the past, I've stated that I didn't like these English conversation school chains for various reasons, including, but not limited to, a) the lack of professional awareness of one's self as an educator, b) the lack of vacation time, and a potential high number of "on" hours (teaching up to seven hours of your workday, with only an hour for preparation), and c) overall, I think the chance that you'll have a bad "Japan Experience" is higher than at some other types of teaching jobs. Over time, I've come to reconsider some of my bad feelings about the schools. Sure, they are commodity operations, and if you work at one of them the manager of your school will do his best to fill your hours with productive (for him) teaching hours, and by and large, these schools do have a high teacher turnover rate. But still, the fact remains that Eikaiwa chain teaching jobs might be the only job available to you if you have no training, experience or connections; and working for a year at one of the chain schools is potentially a good way to get some experience while you learn about Japan. Expect to make around 260,000 yen per month, a little more in Tokyo; extras, such as airfare, apartment "key money" and a "completion of contract bonus" are occasionally available, too.
If you scratched your head at my yen quote above and said, "Hey, put that in dollars, man," I have to ask what you do know about Japan, and why you think you belong here in the first place. If you're going to have a problem with using kilometers and kilograms and expect everything to be easy for you, you might be better off staying home.
Ahem. Sorry, got carried away there.
A second choice are one of the many private English schools, or juku [cram] schools which also have eikaiwa as part of their teaching programs. I tend to recommend these types of schools because, based on my own experience, you will have a more personal experience with a group of people who (hopefully) treat English education as something that's important for Japan's future, and not just a financial thing. Salary should be comparable to the chain schools. There are good and bad eikaiwa schools out there, and some people who run such schools have no business taking a foreigners Japan Experience into their own hands. They either have a zillion misconceptions about foreigners, think they're spoiled pampered whiners (warning: they usually are), and generally don't have the patience to deal the problems you'll face. Be sure and check the Internet for resources -- I recommend Ohayo Sensei and this page for starters, but keep in mind that I stopped teaching in 1996 so I'm not up to speed on what' sout there.
A third choice, and a good one for many, is the JET [Japan English Teachers] program, which has been called an engine for income redistribution from Japan to the U.S., to make up for everything Japan did during the 80s (the guy who said that is even more cynical than me). There are two jobs in the JET program: AETs (Assistant English Teachers), who teach at either junior high or high schools (sometimes several different schools, a different one each day); and CIRs, Coordinators for International Relations, who act as a bridge of communication between the AETs and perform other valuable functions in Japanese city- and prefecture-level governments.
JET jobs pay the highest of the "sit around and jack off" English teaching jobs: 300,000 yen a month, usually with some kind of bonus at the end, and sometimes decent (5-weeks in summer, paid) vacation. I say sometimes because each JET school is different -- you can end up with a "Japanese and Americans should be treated the same, so you get no special treatment from me" hard ass who'll enforce your contract religiously, or maybe not. The maximum you can ride on the JET train is three years. If you think this the job for you, bear in mind you will likely be reading out of a textbook for forty-five bored thirteen-year-olds who don't give a damn about you for 15-20 hours a week and being bored the other 20 (or, like me, roaming the Internet off-line, if you have a Powerbook). Personally, I think you can find more stimulating ways to spend time in Japan.
CIRs, who aren't teachers but program facilitators, must have a minimum of two years of Japanese study, preferably three. CIRs get 20 days off per year, plus holidays. You work in a Japanese-style office, wear a tie, speak Japanese all day and will perform valuable services for people. You avoid the "taught English" label at the top of your resume, and will be somewhat respected for your position by others -- you are, after all, an important bridge between your local city government and the foreign community. Needless to say, this is the job you should consider if you have a deeper interest in Japan and its language. It's more work with the same pay as AETs, but you will thrive in a massively interesting and challenging job, using Japanese and making your face wider (er, it's a Japanese expression that means that a lot of people will know your name). I had the honor of being a CIR for five months after the girl who had been here before me bugged out and left early, and it was a very interesting, enjoyable time for me.
Unless you happen to be over the recently-revised age limit of 40 (it used to be 30 back when I was teaching), JET is a good way to come here. The only people I would recommend against applying for it are persons especially interested in studying Japanese. There is a tendency for JET gaijins to make friends in their own groups, to feed negative feelings about Japan to each other, and to create a mini-society where they try to keep Japanese influence out as much as possible. Makes me want to slap them silly.
It has occurred to me that I haven't covered part-time teaching possibilities as well as I could have. For many people, part-time teaching is a great way to pick up extra income and have a variety of teaching experiences. Plusses are that you can potentially make more money than a full time job; minuses include the lack of any kind of visa sponsorship, and the potential for burn-out, as you have to teach more and more to make ends meet. You can find teaching jobs for 2500-4000 an hour, occasionally more.
The last two categories of teaching jobs-company and university/junior college jobs-are the ones I personally know the least about. If working thirty hours a week teaching English to engineers at Subaru or Daihatsu sounds appealing for you, give it a whirl: you'll probably learn a lot about auto chaises and aluminum alloys, but some of those guys are cool. University/Junior College jobs are the hands-down best you can hope for, but the requirements for these jobs are so stringent, and the competition so tough, as to be out of the scope of this article. I will state, however, that Japan is currently engaged in a dangerous game when it comes to universities. Despite the fact that the population of students is declining every year, more and more universities are being built, to the tune of 20 or so a year. This means that there might be opportunity for qualified foreigners wanting to work at universities in the short term; however there is likely to be a big academic crash on the horizon for Japan.
How to get the jobs
The hands-down best way to get a job in Japan is to know someone who can shoukai (introduce) you into a position. This is called kone (pronounced koh-NE, there is no silent 'e' in Japanese), or connections, and this is the way to find employment here. I got my first job by taking over a college friend's job when he was leaving Japan (to get away from his marriage-minded Japanese girlfriend). Ways you can hop on the kone train include coming to Japan to do homestay or having Japanese students come to your house, asking college professors for help, or finding out where your hometown's sister city is in Japan. My hometown of San Diego is sister cities with Yokohama, and there are many educational and work-exchange programs available between the two. (On three separate occasions, I've run into people I studied Japanese with at SDSU in Yokohama, which is a pretty major coincidence, if you consider the population of the city, and the fact that I don't live near there at all.)
Find a good library that stocks The Japan Times, and read through the Monday editions. They are just bursting with jobs, organized neatly into categories for "women only" and "men or women" and with age limits posted clearly, where applicable [flash! as of April 1999, you're not allowed to do this anymore...maybe they read this article...]. Know that any given ad posted in the Japan Times can get one hundred or so responses, and some of those are by PhDs and other massively overqualified (or at least overeducated) people. Some people can break themselves trying to get jobs this way, but it an option available to you.
For JET jobs, call your nearest Japanese Consulate or Embassy. The application period is from October to December, so plan ahead. See the Internet. Remember to search Google and read lots of information -- if you join a mailing list, be polite and lurk for a while before blurting out all your questions.
The last way to get a job is to just come here. Americans and Canadians automatically get a three-month tourist visa, so you can use that time to look for work. (Canadians and Australians/New Zealanders have one other option open to them, called Working Holiday. Look into it.) You'll have to leave the country again to get your working visa, but it's a great excuse to do some shopping in Korea and have some good Kimcheege.
A word about courtesy
I recently had a bad experience with the wife of a foreigner I knew, let's call her Valerie. She came to Japan with her husband, and asked me for advice on contracts in Japan. Now, in Japan, a contract is not viewed with the same strictness as it is in the U.S. In other words, even if you have a one-year contract with a company, you can still quit, and they can still fire you -- it's just the way it works here. I told her this, and unfortunately she took it a little too seriously. She signed one contract, then, finding a better job, told the first school she was not going to work there -- and incredibly, she told them that the reason was "because she'd gotten a better offer." (This caused myself and other "lifer" foreigners to groan, and mutter "fucking gaijin"). She then had to other contract-related problems with two other schools in close succession, quitting both jobs soon after starting them. She's now in Tokyo. Throughout all this, she was not wrong at all (to hear her tell it), and in fact, she was the victim of this thing or that which she didn't like about the schools (when you live in Japan long enough, you see that North Americans are somewhat quick to assume the role of victims -- this phenomenon is called higaisha mousou in Japanese, in case you want to know). Clearly, however, there were problems with her approach to and attitude about working in Japan.
Now, what this person did wrong was not breaking a contract, per se. What she did was cause meiwaku (inconvenience) to the Japanese people who put their trust in her, and this was very bad. She thought only of herself, and what she could "get" out of Japan, not what she could do for the schools or students she would be working with. One of the schools had even let their other teacher go to hire her, and was really put out. The view of all foreigners was hurt by this person, and we all felt embarrassed.
So my point is this: if there's a "golden rule" to living in Japan, it is that you should not inconvenience other people -- don't cause meiwaku. If you think that this idea makes sense to you, then please continue with your plans to live in Japan. If you have some kind of "Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, therefore I'm owed a good job by them" kind of attitude, please don't bother. Really.
On Higher Education
I get a lot of feedback from this page from people who want to work in Japan but haven't graduated from a four year university. The short answer is that in order to even get a working visa for Japan, you need to have graduated from a university. There are exceptions -- if you're married to a Japanese, you automatically get a marriage spousal visa, for example. However, I advise anyone who is serious about coming to Japan but who hasn't been to college to think long on hard about completing your education before you do anything. When I look back at my life, virtually everything good that I've been able to achieve was a direct result of having spent four very interesting years at SDSU. If you're a young person wondering how you can come to Japan some day, by all means plan on going to a challenging and interesting 4-year university first -- the rest will come to you easily then.
To work here for a year or two just to "soak up the country," a BA and some luck will get you by; but for anyone thinking seriously about ESL education as a longer-term thing, I recommend that you prepare yourself. To be competitive for the better teaching jobs, a Masters' in TESL (teaching ESL) is recommended; at the very least, take a year to get a "theory and practice of teaching ESL" certificate (which includes practice teaching) like I did, or a minor in linguistics, which I also did. It will definitely give you an edge, and getting that one job pays for the extra effort to get the certificate.
Be careful: I don't recommend anyone go get a Masters' in TESL unless you are serious about the field. Overqualification is a big problem in this line of work, and getting too qualified can hurt you more than it helps, amazing as it may seem. I have met PhD's who made less than me (I have a BA), and had a harder time finding jobs because of their advanced degree.
If you're serious about coming here, there are a zillion things you have to know ahead of time, such as key money (you have to pay up to six times your rent up front when you move in, unless your school will cover it for you), phone line ($600 to put in a phone line, but you can sell your 'bond' later for most of your money back), working visa stuff, and so on, and to be honest, I don't have time to tell everyone everything. See what books and/or online information sources are available to you, or ask people who are teaching now for help.
Japan is an easy place to live in that you will be safe, you will find friendly people, and you will probably be able to find work if you stick with it and have a good attitude and try to make yourself teacher-worthy, but there are some bad things, too. Many foreigners can't hack being in a strange environment, and leave after a year, especially women, who have to put up with more crap than some of us men (a friend of mine left after being groped in a train). If you have no experience living overseas, take special care when making plans to come here -- you will be in for many subtle shocks, such as beer vending machines, old men urinating out of doors, pillows with hard plastic things in them, Japanese stores closing in the middle of the week seemingly just to make you mad, and cynical 'lifer' gaijin like me who have little patience for teaching you how to hold chopsticks and explaining what 'daijobu' means, since you're going to be out of here in a year anyway.
That's my generic teaching info. Hope you can put it to good use.