Teaching English in Japan

TEACHING ENGLISH IN JAPAN – a first person account



Teaching English in Japan had always sounded exotic to me so when I saw an ad online for English teachers in Kanagawa (I don’t even remember is it was Dave’s ESL or  O – Hayo Sensei since I routinely peruse them both). I immediately sent over my resume. The ad for teaching English in Japan as an assistant language teacher promised a lot of amazing perks that included:

  • A small one bedroom flat all to myself
  • Fully paid vacations
  • Salary of 275,000 yen per month (about $2,500 per month)
  • Visa sponsorship
  • Flight reimbursement
  • Pension and Health coverage

How could I pass up such an amazing opportunity? I sat down at my laptop and whipped up a resume specifically tailored to the position and sent it off by email. Within a day, I received a response from the school and we set up a time to talk by SKYPE.

Imagine my delight when I was offered a job. Within mere weeks, I was on my way to Japan.

What was the best part of the experience?

I think being looked up to by all these Japanese students just because I was a foreigner with blond hair was one of the best parts of my year teaching English in Japan. They really seemed to find me exotic which was different.

I also enjoyed my group of expat friends and hanging out. I loved to go out eating at an izakaya, and of course on the weekend drinking (very expensive!) and traveling all over Japan. I really think that if I hadn’t connected with my small group of friends it could have been a very isolating experience for me.

The sushi was also out of this world. I even mastered the art of the chopstick believe it or not so that was pretty cool.

Finally, I travelled a lot. In one year I was able to travel to several major cities including Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. It helped that  I earned extra money by working for a English conversation school (eikaiwa) on the side. It was a heavy schedule but when I had days off, I was able to travel with ease and not worry about money.

What was the most challenging part of the experience of teaching English in Japan?

Well, I was lucky because my experience was mostly positive. You do hear these horror stories but me and my colleagues were lucky.

Still, there are negatives. One of the things that I found most frustrating about the experience is the actual class room and teaching  experience. I was really a teacher’s assistant and my Japanese lead teacher thought she was fluent in English but in fact I found that her English level was not that good. As a result she made a lot of conversational mistakes although her grammar was impeccable (almost better than mine!) and so she focused on getting the students “grammarfied.” There is a huge emphasis on testing in Japan and scoring high on these tests but not enough on actually speaking English which to me was very frustrating in the end.

I hated the lack of traditional toilets like we have back home in America. In Japan most of the toilets where I was were squatting toilets and to me this complication was not sustainable long term. I just could not get used to it.

The other thing was the small size of everything – especially my apartment. I am a bit on the chunky side you can probably even say I am a “big girl” and so these small spaces in Japan were never going to be something I would ever get used to. I was always bumping into things in my flat or stumping my toe. It was horrible.

With that said, one of the hardest aspects of my year teaching English in Japan was just the fact that I did not feel like I fit in in Japanese society beyond my small group of expat friends and that I ever would. I found people to be very closed off to the idea of a foreigner like me really integrating into the society and after talking with other teachers who had been there before me, I realized it was a common complaint. Don’t get me wrong, the Japanese are very nice and welcoming people on a certain level and up to a certain point.  But I found that it was superficial in the sense that once you try to penetrate beyond a certain point, you encounter a brick wall. Actually most teachers don’t seem to stay longer than 2 or 3 years because there is no where for them to go. They cannot ever advance beyond the level of being a foreigner who teachers English and there are all these laws that have been passed to keep them down in Japanese society so for me, this was not something that I could have sustained long term.

Still, I have no regrets and I learned a lot from this experience.

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