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How to Adjust to Life Teaching Abroad in Japan

How to Adjust to Life Teaching Abroad in Japan

Every new country has its ups and downs, its quirks and eccentricities. And if you’re going to be teaching in Japan, you’ve probably heard a lot about how many rules there are or how confused new teachers can get.

Take a deep breath and relax. It’s true that etiquette is important in Japan and it probably won’t be quite what you’re used to, but with a bit of research, observation, and flexibility, you’ll learn your way around in no time. Here are some tips to help you more successfully navigate your first few weeks (and any culture shock) from teaching in Japan.

Research & Start Learning about the Cultural Gap

You do need to do your research. One of the most interesting things about Japan is how culturally distinct it is. The Japanese emphasis on preserving their history and culture has permeated society, and blundering in unprepared for just how different it can be will be an uncomfortable experience for you and those around you.

Start by giving yourself enough time at the beginning of your stay to learn your way around and settle in (and wait for the jet lag to wear off). When you first arrive in Japan, give yourself a few days to get oriented before your first days of teaching. Try to take as much in as possible about what’s around you.

You’ll almost certainly make a mistake at some point, but just smile and do your best. Most people tend to be very polite and understand that, as a foreigner, you’ll have some adjusting to do. Even after you’ve been teaching for several years, you may still make a mistake -- being humble and willing to learn will continue to serve you well with local Japanese you interact with.

Related: How to Overcome Culture Shock as a Teacher in Japan

Learn These Important Rules of Etiquette

How to Adjust to Life Teaching Abroad in Japan: Important Rules of Etiquette

It’s important to learn the etiquette of any country you’re visiting, even more so if you plan to spend a few months or years teaching there.This introduction should help get you started, but this is just the basics. Ask questions of local hosts, listen, and practice to make sure you get better at following the rules of etiquette in Japan.

  • Bowing: The first step in any introduction is the bow. The depth and duration of the bow show the degree of formality and seniority of the person you are bowing to. When you meet a teacher with greater seniority or an administrator, be prepared to bow lower.
  • Shoes: Removing your shoes at the entrance to a building or room is quite common. Some schools have people take off their shoes at the entrance to the building, others before entering a classroom. Some schools will also have everyone keep a pair of school-only indoor shoes, which should be new and will be kept at school, never worn outdoors. If you encounter slippers in a bathroom, be sure to swap them on/off as you enter or leave that room!
  • Eating & Drinking: Even if you’ve never used chopsticks, be prepared to learn quickly upon arriving in Japan; ask a fellow teacher if you need a few pointers on how best to hold and use them. When it comes to after work happy hours, avoid pouring your own drink. Instead, pour for those around you, and someone will return the favor.

While these rules of etiquette might seem small or simple, they are important to local Japanese you will meet -- and your fellow Japanese teachers. By working to learn and stick to the rules, you’ll get a better sense of life in Japan, and build stronger bonds with your fellow teachers.

Bring Gifts & Business Cards

Your business card is an extension of yourself in Japan, and they are traded in many professional contexts. Your school may provide you with them on your arrival, but if not, make sure that you have one that includes your title. When someone hands you a business card, bow and accept it with both hands and take the time read the information on it.

If handing someone your business card, bow and present it with both hands with the writing facing the other person. Cards are generally presented in rank order if there are multiple people present, with the most senior person giving theirs last. You should present yours in rank-descending order, giving to the most senior person first.

When it comes to gifts, remember to follow the rules you learned in elementary school and make sure you have enough for the whole class (or at least everyone present). If you go on a trip, it’s considered polite to bring something back for your fellow teachers, and many destinations sell nicely packaged sweets and other small favors for this purpose. One large box of individually wrapped cookies can serve as a gift for the whole staff room.

Learn Your Vocabulary

How to Adjust to Life Teaching Abroad in Japan: Vocabulary

Sometimes people assume that English is such a global lingua franca that they should be able to at least get by wherever they go. We don’t encourage this mindset in any country, but it’s especially not the case in Japan -- after all, you’re most likely there to help teach English!

Tofugu has a useful list of their 100 most important Japanese words and phrases or check out The Japan Guy’s list of school vocabulary. But to get you started, here are just a few. Greetings are especially useful, as they will help you create a friendly relationship with your colleagues -- and can help you start building a relationship with your students:

  • Ohayo gozaimasu - Good morning
  • Konnichiwa - Good afternoon
  • Konbanwa - Good evening
  • Arigato - Thank you
  • Sumimasen - Excuse me/sorry
  • Wakarimasen - I don’t understand
  • Eigo - English
  • Sugoi - Great
  • Sensei - Teacher

Be Considerate of the World and People Around You

Life Teaching in Japan - Shibuya Crossing

There is a strong collective spirit in Japan; this is one of the most defining (and sometimes jarring) aspects of life in Japan that teachers are surprised by. As such, some good rules to follow are to try and always help ‘the group’ (be it your classroom or society at large) and to not stray too far from the norm (including those etiquette rules mentioned above).

  • Work Attire: You should make sure you are dressed appropriately for your environment. Many schools will expect you to wear suits to teach, so check your program’s or school’s website for a dress code section. Definitely arrive on time to work as well as any plans or appointments, or ideally, early; being late is not fashionable in Japan.
  • Tattoos: As a teacher, you may wonder about any tattoos you’ve gathered while traveling elsewhere in the world. While you don’t have to remove your tattoos, you should cover them up while you’re on the job.
  • Health: People usually wear face masks when they are sick to avoid spreading germs, so don’t be alarmed if your classroom looks like an operating room full of students when it’s cold season.
  • Considerateness: Many teachers show consideration for their students and try to follow the same restrictions as are placed on your students. For example, if your school doesn’t allow cell phones, for example, don’t bring yours to class.

As in so many other situations, when in doubt, look around and take note of what fellow teachers are doing. A willingness to learn and adjust to your new surroundings will help you as both a teacher in Japan and a foreigner finding your footing in a wonderful new home.

Rena Behar
Rena is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer who has spent time living abroad in Japan.