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Published: August 7th 2009
So, I find myself at the unemployed end of three years (and one week) of teaching English in Japan. It seems fitting to cast an eye on the whole experience. What's it like? What does it look like? Who do you work with? How are the students? Prepare to be enlightened, (perchance) entertained and generally disuninformed.
Who did you work for?
I worked for ECC, one of the biggest companies, and from what I can gather, it's the best of the big ones to work for. The money is decent enough for the work you do, the hours are pretty short and you get lots of holidays (including bank holidays, which Japan has in tropical abundance). You get well looked after by Personnel, who do a brilliant job of bridging the cultural gap between a big, traditional Japanese company and Western workplace expectations. One advantage of working for a big company is that you can get recruited from home, which takes care of your visa. (You have to get that before you come, you also have to have a Bachelor's degree to get the visa but certainly not to do the job!) The downside is that it's big, monolithic, impersonal
My favourite class this year- Yuka, Miki, Mai, Shunsuke, Ai
and grindingly slow to change. The 'creme de la creme' of basic English teaching is a JET contract, where you're employed by the Japanese government in an attempt to bring English speaking into Japanese schools. The money's better, you get a nice subsidised flat, and generally work in one high or junior high school without many practical hours. JET is being downsized, though, the government have finally realised that they're in massive, massive debt and it's cheaper to pay people who're already here just for the hours they work. Also in the mix are those teaching English at universities, for even better money and great holidays. To work at a university, you have to have a Master's. Again, probably not to do the job, just to get it.
Why are there so many schools for teaching English in Japan?
Apart from JET, NOVA, AEON, GEOS and ECC, there are literally thousands of schools of all sizes and shapes, from home schools to more obviously commercial affairs. Why? Japanese kids take six years of English in school, don't they? Yes, they do, and in fact it's gone up to eight as of 2009. The English teachers in the general school
Doing his best Richard Nixon impression.
system, though- wait for it- generally can't speak English. Astonishing! They're good at teaching grammar, and the level of English required for the university entrance exam is pretty high. However, there are no oral exams and the test is multiple choice. So Japanese people often have good vocabularies, but little to no practice whatsoever at communicating.
What's the workplace like?
The native teachers' (as the English-speaking contingent are known) situation is very different from that of the Japanese staff and teachers. We get decently enough paid, have lax rules (look presentable, be cheerful and don't be late) and are offered overtime as a choice; minimal stress. Your Japanese counterparts get paid less, work bonkers hours but somehow manage to be helpful and fun to work with.
How's the actual teaching and who do you teach?
This is in two sections- adults and kids (sounds like a video shop).
On the adult side, the work isn't difficult. Most of the adult conversation lessons are Groundhog Day, especially after a while. They follow a formula, and after a month or two, you can do it in your sleep. The text books for these are hideously boring (booking hotel rooms, describing
Every working day starts from here.
clothes, wishing people a happy new year) and very out of date (Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise are still a celebrity couple). And, here in the land of high-tech, we still use tapes in lessons. You can teach more demanding classes (same groups every week), but the money's the same for more work. Your students are anything from high school and university kids looking to improve their chances of employment, housewives improving their ability to communicate when they travel (or find someone to whom they can whinge to about their marriages), misfits desperately looking for somewhere to belong, retirees with time on their hands, girls hoping for the love of a hairy foreigner (seriously!), to salarymen who are being posted abroad and realise they don't speak a lick of conversational English. You get the whole gamut of abilities, plenty of people whose English is great and just want to keep up to speed. All shapes and sizes, inclinations, perversions and subversions.
Kids, kids, kids. This is the biggest plus side of all. When I first came out here, I was petrified of (well, nervous about) kids' lessons. Picture wild monkeys unleashed in a room with an astonished white man wondering
Through the gates...
how to keep them entertained, safe and somehow learning something for an hour. However, things have changed, and they're the number one reason that teaching in Japan has been so fun. Once you've done it for a while, the classroom control and planning (minimal, it has to be said) are no longer hard and you can really appreciate the kids' personalities. Japanese kids are so fun- they seem to be less cynical than at home (as are Japanese in general, I feel), and get into games and role plays with very little hindering self-awareness or embarassment. I taught from age 3 to 12, with each age group having its own merits. I have laughed throughout most of my kids' lessons, because the students are hilarious, constantly surprising, adorable and generally brillant to be around. God, I've loved teaching kids.
How's the money?
If you're single person or don't have kids, the money's very good, especially for the hours you work. Because Japan is a relatively cheap country to live in (by European standards) I could still go out for dinner once a week, eat well, do local sightseeing and events, take a Japanese lesson and save about a third
...onto the platform...
of my salary. As for pay raises...they are there, but they're not exactly what you'd call raises. After three of them, they'd risen to a staggering 3.2 percent increase in my original salary. This is partly to do with the fact that there are no promotions, so the top and bottom of the tree are in the same place. If you want more, you can open your own school and fight for students but it's hard work (and teaching English for life? Uh.). It's not a career for many.
What's the schedule like?
Ah, the the hours. 30 hours a week! It means you have plenty of time to follow external pursuits, but also leaves you with the temptation to loaf about and do nothing before/after work. I've been guilty of this at times. I think, though, that I'd have preferred to do more hours for more money and remove the need/want to top up my salary with extra work at weekends or elsewhere. I worked in five different schools (not conventional schools) a week, and shifts are about six hours long. On weekdays, most of the shifts are from three to nine or thereabouts. Because of this, you
get little opportunity to spend time with that many other teachers and can become a bit nocturnal (good for the party people). I had a great schedule this year, more like normal working hours, but I was high in the seniority when it came to making the schedules. You usually be working with one or two other native teachers on the same day, but not necessarily the same hours. Because everyone has different schedules, it makes spending time with your friends quite tough, as you tend to have different weekdays off and can't reserve every Sunday for friends. Well, I couldn't, anyway. My biggest regret is not spending more time with others, but the situation isn't conducive to regular get-togethers unless you live in the same (part of) town.
How do you get around?
You take a lot of trains. And they're all paid for, almost never late, and run frequently from five thirty in the morning until around midnight. Genius, really. Japanese companies pay for the commuting costs of their employees, something which is staggering to us. However, in areas where the most affordable housing is far from the big-city offices, it's one way to solve the problem.
A Hankyu Train
Retro, love them.
However, if you couple the long overtime routinely expected of salarymen with three hours on a train every day, you're not left with much other than a lonely dinner, a bath and bed after work. People who work and live in one city often cycle around but still claim for the transport. Making money on your commuting when and where you can is a national pastime- taking cheaper (but slightly longer) routes, buying discount tickets, claiming for buses when in fact you walk/cycle to the station and so on.
Who do you work with?
You work with 'Westerners' and Japanese. The Japanese staff are- on the whole- super people. They're under considerable pressure to keep things running, students happy and money coming in through sales, but do as much as they can to make your life easier by preparing your class materials, deciphering your letters from the bank and chatting when they have the time.
As for the foreigners...ah, foreigners in Japan. Anyone who's done this job will have a smile on their face as they read this. Where does one begin? I have to say, I have worked with some completely cool people. But there is a very
sizable bunch of useless tools in the box, too. A large proportion of the teachers at ECC are Canadian and from the 'Greater Toronto Area', because the company's North American recruitment office is in Toronto. The next biggest contingents are the Americans and Australians. At the bottom of the scale, Brits are on the increase, and there's a clutch of Kiwis. Most of the teachers are men. More on this later. You can loosely categorise teachers into four categories (with overlaps, shame I can't do you a venn diagram). Age-wise, 22-35 covers almost everyone.
1. Travellers. Quite a few people come here for the hell of it, for a change and a way to experience a different lifestyle. It's clean, modern and easy, as I've heard someone say, 'Asia light'. But it's still very different, the language and culture are a world apart from life as we know it at home. With the decent holidays and excess cash, you can use Japan as a springboard to other places in East and Southeast Asia.
2. Debt-payers. It's a fact that you have good saving power in Japan. I had debts from travelling and wanted to save up to pay for a
Aya, Shelley, Yuki. Awesome people.
Master's degree. Others have study debts (massive, if they went to university in the US), credit card bills, whatever. The financial detritus of modern life. I have been able to put away about Y80,000 a month. Most months, at least when I was strict.
3. Japanophiles. Some people love Japanese culture- whether it's the manga (cartoons), kooky fashions (anything from french maids to whore-a-likes) or technology. In here you can also pile the linguists, who've studied Japanese at university and come here to fine-tune their skills.
4. And finally, the LBHs. Otherwise known as the 'Losers Back Home'. Another company is (was) very well known for these, and I've worked with a fair share. Imagine the guys (no girls in this category, not a single one!) who may be lacking in social skills, are perhaps rather badly-dressed and are quite possibly (quite probably) still virgins. Not through their own choice. In Japan, all that changes! A decent proportion of girls here find western guys a very attractive prospect, and have little concept that the potential objects of their fantasy could be complete dicks. I mean, Western men can often cook and express emotions readily, unlike their Japanese counterparts (I'm glibly
Hana, one of my favourite students. Always in a good mood.
stereotyping here, by the way). They usually look like men, too, unlike so many young Japanese guys who spend more time on their hair and clothes than the girls (that's another blog, coming soon). The LBHs find out soon enough that certain clubs and bars are stacked to the rafters with girls that adore them- either because they're super-handsome (i.e. different), can provide 'free' English lessons or the cachet of having a foreign boyfriend. Or something. These guys undergo a transformation, reinventing themselves as trendy, wacky, funkily coiffeured, vital, confident, alter-egos of their previous selves. The life and soul of the party, fun and witty (or so they think), they talk about girls all the bloody time. Honestly, I had a date this, these girls that, my girlfriend the other, all the phone numbers I got in a club last night. And so on. Drives you up the wall. The good news, though, is that when they go home, they get short shrift from the girls back there. But for them, Japan is a paradise. Moving countries to get laid, amazing. You wouldn't believe how many LBHs there are in Japan.
That's it. Probably the longest blog and I
Chimoe, Kinari, Shusei, Keigo, Katsuhito.
doubt if many people made it to the end. Teaching in Japan has been great fun and I'm sad to leave. But the time is right to move, this it can't be long-term (financially, career-wise or for your sanity), except for a very small minority. Other than meeting my amazing wife here, it's been educational, informative, enlightening and occasionally frustrating. Of course I've made some lifelong friends, too. Overall, a big fat thumbs up.
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