An opinion on the role of teaching English in Japan.
I get messages from people all the time who say:
I want to move to Japan but I don’t want to be an English teacher.
There are so many people who have decided that they want to *move to Japan*, and the easiest way to do it is to get a job teaching English. But there is hesitation to do that for a ton of reasons. Many people aren’t interested in teaching. Maybe there are concerns about the work environment in Japan, or concern that the work doesn’t contribute well to a resume.
Listen. I get it. But people work really hard to find any possible other route to satisfy entry requirements for Japan. This kind of bums me out. So please let me tell you why. I’ve got three big fat reasons why I think you aren’t too good to pursue teaching English in Japan.
Point 1: Your success in life isn’t defined by this job.
To younger prospective English teachers:
For younger people considering teaching English in Japan, maybe you have read some articles online about how taking an English teaching job can be career sabotage. There is no path for upward mobility, there is a salary cap, and future prospective employers will wonder why you were messing around while you could have been getting a serious internship. Yeah. I’m not going to argue those things.
But your experiences can also be what you make of them. If you come here and spend your down time playing video games and drinking with other English teachers, then yeah. They have good reason to judge you for messing around when you could have been doing something meaningful.
On the flip side, you could come here, become fluent in Japanese language and fluent in the culture itself. You could become an invaluable part of grassroots organizations and gain a superstar reputation for being a stand-up member in your community. You could earn stellar references and experience, making you a stand-out candidate for positions seeking international experience.
I’ve seen people who transition from English teaching to rockstar work positions, such as being an America-Japan liason for companies like Starbucks, or landing a dream job as an editor for a manga company.
As a young person considering how their resume looks, the job itself isn’t the determining factor. It’s both how you do the job and how you tell your story about it.
To”older” prospective English teachers:
For that quote-un-quote “older” audience, I’m spilling the beans on what has been up until this point my biggest internet secret. At the age of 33, I started teaching English in Japan.
While this is often the job of choice for recent college grads, every once in a while you find someone like myself, for who-knows-what-reason, decided that well into their adult years, they would move to Japan. And while there is potential for this kind of job to become really valuable for the college grads, this was unmistakably career sabotage for me.
Yeah, I had some cheerleaders who were telling me it’s ok to take time away. I’d still be clever enough to pick up where I left off when I “finish my sabbatical” (hah!). But once I got out of my industry, it was pretty obvious that I could never bring myself to go back. Because I had removed myself from an industry that didn’t align with my values. My life is irreversibly no longer career-centric.
Before being offered my job in Japan, I had been brainstorming different ways I could make a living in America. I longed to end my work day with enough thinking power left to be functional. Should I try to start waiting tables? Can I be a security guard? How can I make a living income in America while being able to use my brain for my own purposes?
Well, I’m proud to say that Monday through Friday, I now clock out at 4pm. And more importantly, I decided my value and success would not be determined by the traditional ideas of what an impressive resume should be.
I decided that rather than try to impress the prospective bosses of the world, I wanted to impress 10-year-old me. The kid who dressed up as Sailor Jupiter for Halloween and dreamed about being an English teacher in Japan when she grew up.
I think she’d be pretty stoked to see what I’ve been up to.
Point 2: Teaching English in Japan can be a gift to foreign people.
This comes with the disclaimer that there are many different kinds of experiences and environments to be found here. That’s pretty much the same as every other country/state/region, right? There are also many ways an individual is prepared to receive challenging situations. I am speaking here only from my own lived experience and impressions.
Teaching English in Japan with the JET program will get you the red-carpet treatment.
As a foreign person, chances are that you are going to need a lot of help once you get here, especially if your Japanese language ability is anything less than brilliant. And if you can get into the JET program, they hold your hand through everything you need to get here and get your life together. I got an apartment, a bank account, and a hanko stamp. I didn’t even know that was a thing, let alone that I needed one. They give you online language courses, there are optional JLPT grants, multiple support communities possibly including from your departure region, the alumni association, your placement region, and more.
Quality of Life
And while I had some questions about how good the salary is, here are some quality of life benchmarks. I:
- Can afford to live in a spacious single family home by myself
- Recently bought a decent used car with only 70k km (~40k miles)
- Can afford to travel domestically and internationally every few months
- Don’t worry about grocery store or restaurant prices
- Can buy new clothes without concern
- Never worry about the cost of healthcare
- Am done with work at 4pm everyday
Not everyday is flawless. But dang. Teaching English in Japan sounds like it can be a pretty decent job, doesn’t it!
Yes, you too can live like an inaka king for the low, low price of being an English teacher.
As far as the salary goes, there are a few other factors to keep in mind. Quite often, there will be a great deal of free time during the day. Other entry level teachers might be making less money, and they are working harder than you are. So did you earn your higher salary? There is something to be said for leaving the comforts of one’s home country and dealing with the inevitable home sickness and culture shock. But for anyone who has had a job before, no. You aren’t earning the higher salary. The generous salary strikes me more as a gesture of appreciation towards foreign relations in general, and has absolutely nothing to do with the difficulty (or lack thereof) required by this position.
From moving assistance to the more-than-livable salary, this job has honestly felt like a blessing. While it’s not something I will do forever, I very much appreciate that this opportunity was available to me.
Point 3: One of the secrets to finding success in this culture is doing what other people want you to do.
Importance of the Group
You’ve probably heard about obligation parties. Say what you will about them, the fact that it’s called an obligation [anything] should be a clue that there are many expectations placed on people here through work, neighborhood, sports team, family, friends, etc.
And at a bigger scale than that, at times, some Japanese person’s whole life seem to be steered by a force besides themselves. I’ve met a TON of Japanese people who work in a field completely unrelated to their college major. And it’s not because they went to college for one thing and then changed their mind.
From what I’ve been picking up on, there is a different dynamic for picking up the slack. What I mean is, as a Japanese person, if there is a job opening or you somehow are escorted into a professional position, you take it. It’s not due to lack of determination or lack of self-actualization. It’s because people are so tuned into the good of the group that when there is work to be done, someone will probably do it.
Yeah I’m gonna be IN Japan but I’m still gonna do my own thing.
Now you might be thinking, why does that matter to me, a foreign person who plans to live my life the way I want to?
It matters because: if you can’t get into the group-wellbeing mindset, you aren’t going to thrive here. Or if you do, it probably won’t be doing it in the most culturally sensitive way.
Authentically adapting to a new culture is going to require you to do some things that feel uncomfortable to you. In Japan, you might be asked to compromise on some of your independent desires.
When someone tries to do something in a new way, it causes problems. This can be a huge pain in the side. As a creative, it has literally been my business to think differently. This is a place of tradition, where things are done the way they have been done for a long time.
According to the book, Japan Unmasked, the way things are done isn’t just a tradition. It is equated with morality in the roots of Japanese culture.
And maybe you’re like me and you really thrive when you find the sweet spot between what you love doing, and how you can be useful. Then you get in the flow and it’s awesome! And so it’s makes sense to dream… how can you bring your own unique talents to Japan! Maybe you even have some insight on Japan’s challenges and pain points, so you’ve thought of some new ideas about how you can bring a breath of fresh air to the issue!
You’ve got ideas about depopulation, work culture, or whatever other problems you’ve prioritized as Japan’s biggest issues, and your ideas might legitimately be brilliant.
But the reality is that this country works completely differently than western countries. And you will require help, time and effort from other people. And they will help you because that’s how people work here. And you will continue to impose your needs on the society here. And without any ill intent, you will be a burden to other people.
And it’s ok to be a burden, IF you say thank you and you give back. Not in the way you want, but in the way the recipient wants. Because in life, the most sincere gifts aren’t the ones you want for yourself. They are the gifts that the other person actually wants and perhaps is straight-up asking for.
But to know what someone wants, you have to listen. Guess what. Japan clearly wants help speaking natural English from English speakers. That’s why the government gives JET ALTs the red-carpet treatment. Japan wants help with English. It’s not just the government. A lot of Japanese people honestly want to get better at English and appreciate the contributions English teachers make.
The funny thing is that when I was a designer, I was a great designer. I won awards, juried panels, and had beautiful projects. My clients thought I was smart and cool. And yet, I was still kind of treated like disposable labor.
But here, I came in with laughable Japanese skills, minimal experience teaching children, but I have been treated by my coworkers and neighbors with dignity. They call me sensei and they value my presence. More than in any other destination I’ve been to, people have been friendly and warm to me. I very quickly felt adopted by Japan.
This is a society that values the good of the group. This group, aka Japan, wants help with English. Trying to swim against the stream before you even get here should be a bit of a red flag. If you don’t want to cooperate with what Japan wants, maybe this country isn’t a good fit for you.
Teaching English in Japan: worth the consideration.
Again, this is just a reflection based on my personal experiences. There are many different kinds of situations that people can land in and many different ways to receive them. So take everything I’ve said with a grain of salt. But what do you think? Did I change your mind about teaching English in Japan? The JET programme applications open and close on an annual basis. If you’re reading this during the down season, it’s a great time to keep studying Japanese or strengthen your application by doing an easy online TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate course such as Mytefl’s 120-hour certificate. I personally completed Mytefl’s 120-hour online course, and I was happy to have a bit of an introduction into TEFL, a refresher on English grammar, and the added strength for my JET application.
Whatever path you chose, I wish you the best of luck!
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Japan Unmasked: The Character & Culture of the Japanese
Understanding Japanese culture is crucial for those interested in Japan. While Westerners have long analyzed unique aspects of Japanese culture, few truly comprehend the underlying beliefs and values that shape Japanese thinking and behavior. In "Japan Unmasked," author Boye Lafayette De Mente explores the social, cultural, and psychological characteristics that define modern-day Japanese culture, seeking it's true essence and role in the global community.