Teaching English in Japan can be one of the most rewarding experiences, should you choose to accept the challenge and go into it with an open mind and willingness to learn. It will demand that you celebrate the country’s beauty and uniqueness and embrace its imperfections. In doing so, you will learn a lot about Japanese culture, work environment, your students, and yourself in the process. You’ll also learn what it is to be both a teacher and a student.
If you’re entertaining the idea, here are some of the best and worst parts about teaching English in Japan to consider before committing to the decision.
Let’s start with the best parts.
The best parts of teaching in Japan
Teaching and learning languages
Though you’ve signed up to teach English, regardless of your experience, you are going to learn a lot about your own language through the questions that students ask you. Some will leave you stumped, and others will amaze you. It will encourage you to teach beyond what’s written in textbooks and delve into why we speak the way we do, why we change the way we talk depending on context, etc.
In turn, students will learn about Japanese from the questions you ask them. You’ll also be able to pick up proper Japanese expressions from your colleagues and casual slang from your students. It’s a very unique exchange and provides insight on how to communicate effectively when there’s a robust language barrier in place. It will force you to get creative and learn how to simplify your own speech and expressions.
Nearly every corner of Japan is accessible by train. The areas that aren’t are walkable or best explored by bicycle. From local trains to bullet trains, Japan has made it so easy to explore. It’s also a nation that depends on things running on time, which means you can usually expect to get to work in a timely fashion. Some schools may even reimburse transportation costs.
Lesson plan ideas
One of the best perks of being a teacher is that, if you’re willing to listen and observe, your students will give you lesson ideas. By listening to conversations they have with each other, observing how they interact, and paying attention to what they write about in their assignments, you can incorporate their interests into lesson plans.
This can save you time or even get the creative juices flowing when you’re stuck on ideas for creating lessons plans that will engage students, helping then learn and participate in a dynamic atmosphere.
The food is simple, healthy, and delicious
Many of the locals will assure you that Japan’s food is simple, healthy, and safe to eat. Japan’s loyalty to its craft, especially when it comes to food, is incomparable. People spend their whole lives dedicated to perfecting their specialty foods, trying to find the right balance of flavors and textures, or putting their own spin on it.
Soup broth isn’t too bitter, ramen isn’t too spicy unless requested, and many of their traditional or gourmet sweets are not overloaded with sugar. Just think of Japan as the Goldilocks of food meccas. Flavors don’t swing too much one way or another -- the flavors are just right.
On the other hand, here are some of the downsides to teaching in Japan.
The worst parts of teaching in Japan
A different work culture
Life as a teacher in Japan is just different, and that can take some time for you to adjust to. For example, after you’ve finished a lesson and you ask your students questions or for feedback on whether or not they understand what you’re teaching, they’ll often say that they do understand or that they don’t have questions.
However, in keeping with the idea of harmony and not disrupting their classmates’ learning experience, chances are they actually don’t understand the material you’ve covered, and they’ll save their questions for the end of class when they can ask you in private. This habit is also to save face so as not to appear unintelligent in front of their peers.
Keep this in mind while you’re teaching. It's important to engage as many students as possible in your lesson activities to gauge understanding and ensure that nobody gets left behind.
Committing to long workdays
Depending on the kind of school environment you teach in, you may have to work long hours until 9-10 pm for students coming after a regular work or school day. This may limit you from creating a social life outside of work.
Furthermore, work isn’t always over when you leave the classroom. In Japanese culture, it’s common to go out with colleagues for a drink or karaoke. Not every night or week, but these outings help keep the harmony among the group. You may also be required to work some weekends and at school events.
At times, living and working in Japan can make you feel isolated and homesick. This is especially true if you don’t speak or understand Japanese and are living in a small rural town with few other teachers or expats around. This may mean that you won’t have anybody in the immediate vicinity or in your daily social circles to share your experiences with or get feedback on a regular basis.
If you’re working in the public school system, you may spend a lot of time on trains traveling between to 3-4 schools a day. Sometimes this can be 30-45 minutes just to teach for an hour at one school, or you may be assigned to teach at a different school every day.
Some will have a longer commute time from where you live, and while not unbearable, it can certainly be tiring. This is something to consider when picking where in Japan you want to teach, especially if you think you’ll end up wanting to live in Japan long term.
Teaching jobs in Japan
Now that Tokyo is gearing up to host the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the 2020 Olympics, the demand for English teachers has never been higher. There are a plethora of companies looking to hire native English speakers from overseas, so it is fairly easy to look for and land a teaching job. No prior teaching experience is necessary, but good communication, explanation skills, and patience are critical. It helps to include a great resume too!
Starting salaries usually fall somewhere between $20-30k, depending on the company you work with. It's on par with entry-level job salaries in the United States, and even though it may not seem like a lot if you live and work in rural Japan (which you likely will), it's incredibly livable. In terms of growth, there isn't a corporate ladder to climb, but there are certainly opportunities for higher salaries and bonuses the longer you work for one company or school.
Your quality of life and career's longevity in Japan will depend on how much effort you put into your work, how much you enjoy it, and how well you communicate your concerns and needs. Working and living in a different country doesn't come without obstacles and frustrations, but once you learn to navigate the waters, it has the potential to be one of the most enriching experiences.
There is an expression in Japanese called Ganbatte, which is the equivalent of "do your best" or "you can do it." Should you choose to go teach English in Japan, ganbatte and enjoy!