Standing noodle bars in train stations. Crowded urban centers with flashing neon lights and nightlife that lasts well until the next morning. High-tech vending machines that sell everything you can think of—and more. These were a few of the images I had of life in Japan before I moved there.
Once I arrived, many of these stereotypes were confirmed, but I also discovered ancient mountain-top temples, warren-like entertainment districts jam-packed with tiny bars and restaurants, and narrow cobblestone streets where I could catch a fleeting glance of a geisha on her way to an appointment.
If you’re looking for an adventure after graduating from college, teaching English in Japan gives you the chance to travel, discover a completely different language and culture, and also make a little money while you do it. In this post, I’ll share some of my experiences and what you might expect if you pursue teaching through a private company.
A serene garden at Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto.
Where and when did you teach abroad?
Shiga Prefecture and Kyoto from October 2002 to March 2004
Tokyo from July 2005 to April 2011
What type of setting did you teach in? What was your title?
My first job was an English Instructor at NOVA, a private English conversation school or eikaiwa with several hundred branches throughout Japan. NOVA no longer exists in the same form, but similar schools like Aeon, ECC, and Gaba are still around.
I also worked as an ALT (assistant language teacher) in junior highs and elementary schools, a Business English teacher, and as an assistant teacher in an international preschool in Tokyo.
How did you find out about this opportunity? What qualifications were necessary?
I first heard about teaching English in Japan through the international programs director at my college, and had my heart set on going with the JET Program, which is organized through the Japanese government. I applied my senior year (to start the fall after I graduated), and was selected as an alternate but ultimately not invited to go, so I looked for other teaching opportunities in Japan and discovered NOVA. [Note: If you’d like to learn more about the JET Program from a past participant's perspective, be sure to check out our interview with Aaron Miller.]
The main qualification was having a Bachelor’s degree (they didn’t care about what your major was). Other things they looked for were having some knowledge of English grammar and a cheerful disposition, but I got the feeling that the degree was the most important thing.
What was a typical day on the job like for you?
I taught in a lot of different settings, so I’ll just focus on the specifics of the eikaiwa job I had when I first moved to Japan.
At NOVA, we had three schedules—an early shift that ran from about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; a middle shift from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and a late shift from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Classes were slightly less than an hour, and we taught eight classes in a shift, with one lunch break somewhere about halfway through our shift and five-minute breaks between each class. Because weekends were the busiest days for my school, I always had to work on Saturday, Sunday, and national holidays. My regular days off were Thursday and Friday.
Most of the classes were small groups (one to four students that were grouped according to level), but once a day we had to sit and guide the discussion in the Voice room, which was an area for students of all levels to hang out and talk.
One of the unusual aspects of this school (and several of the other large chain English schools in Japan) is that students could book lessons at any time (sort of like the way you might drop in to take a yoga class), so you never knew which students you’d be teaching on a given day. This was really convenient for the students, but as a teacher it was difficult because you might see one student a few times in one week and then you might not have a class with him for three months. It was hard to have a real sense of accomplishment or that you were helping people improve.
We had textbooks and were given a few days of training in the school’s teaching method, but we were ultimately responsible for planning what we’d do in each class. This got really tricky because students could sign up just before a class started, so you’d be scrambling to get everyone’s folders together (yep, we used old-school manilla folders to keep track of students’ records), choose which lesson you were going to teach, and decide how to teach it. After a while I became really familiar with all the textbooks and lessons, so it went from being extremely difficult to excruciatingly boring pretty quickly. I know I’m not the only one who experienced this—the Let’s Japan website has some amusing content about the whole eikaiwa experience.
When I taught as an ALT, the company that hired me would send me my schedule one week at a time. Usually I would go to a different school every day, but almost every Friday I taught at the same school. What I did each day varied, but it usually involved a mix of helping out in junior high English classes led by Japanese teachers, leading large groups of elementary school students in games and activities, and doing one-on-one assessments with students.
A brightly lit vending machine. As much a part of the Japanese landscape as Mt. Fuji.
Tell me a little bit about opportunities in this country in general. What options are there? How do they compare to each other?
There are a lot of opportunities to teach English in Japan. The eikaiwa route is definitely popular since they tend to hire people fresh out of college and don’t require Japanese ability or much work experience. Eikaiwa also tend to be located in major cities near the train stations, so getting to and from work is usually relatively simple.
Another option is to sign up with an agency that will arrange different jobs for you. I worked with an agency like this for teaching in elementary schools and junior highs and also for teaching business English at companies and organizations. Some advantages of this type of work are that it usually pays better than eikaiwa and can get you some high-level clients (for example, I taught at some government offices, to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, and at some well-respected universities).
On the other hand, these contracts are usually for a few months at a time and only for a few hours a week, so you often need to cobble together a few of them in order to make a decent salary. When I worked for this type of company, I often taught at elementary schools or junior highs during the day, had an hour or two off in the afternoon, and then taught some sort of evening class. I felt like I was always running around to get from one place to the next.
For people who have ESL or teaching qualifications, there are also opportunities to teach at universities. I never did this personally, but I heard that these positions can be quite lucrative and don’t require as many classroom hours.
I’d also add that once you’ve been in Japan for a while and have the hang of things, you can teach private lessons, either to individuals or small groups. You can charge as much as you’d like for these lessons, and people tend to hold them at coffee shops, so the atmosphere is casual. The main downside is that students don’t have any problem with canceling since you’re not an official school, so it can be hard to get a reliable income this way.
How did you handle logistics like visas, housing, and transportation?
My company took care of my working visa (this was arranged through the Japanese consulate before I left the US). My original visa was a “Specialist in Humanities and International Services” and was good for three years. Visas in Japan tend to be tied to the specific type of work you do, but not necessarily to the company that originally sponsored you. So it’s not a problem to go from teaching English at one company to teaching it at another, but if you were to go from teaching to another industry, you might need a new visa.
NOVA also arranged housing for me (though I had to pay for it myself). This was helpful since I had never been to Japan and only learned where I was going to be based a few weeks before I departed. After I arrived and figured out where the fun was (surprise, surprise, not in my sleepy little suburban town), I was able to get my own place in Kyoto, which I found through another English teacher who was moving away. I soon learned that other English teachers or foreigners were an excellent source of information and opportunities like this (apartments, bikes for sale, jobs) since people are always coming and going.
Transportation in general is a dream in Japan. Trains are clean, well-maintained, and run on time. There are JR trains and several private lines as well, so you often have a choice of several stations within a small area. Most companies also pay all or part of your commuting expenses. One thing that surprised me was that train passes in Japan are only good between the stations on your commuting route, so you’ll have to pay any time you take the train to other stations.
When my first visa expired, the new company I was working for sponsored me for my extension, and I went through that process a few more times. If you’re legally employed by a company, the renewal process is quite straightforward.
Posing with a tanuki, a mythological creature thought to bring luck to businesses.
What were some of your favorite aspects of living abroad? What were some challenges you faced?
How long do you have? I could spend a loooooong time talking about all the things I love about living abroad, specifically in Japan, but I’ll try to keep this brief.
One big thing I loved was the sense of self-confidence that I gained. I had always been really shy and reserved, and talking to strangers all day really helped me to get over that.
I also felt that it was really easy to try new things. For example, I tried writing, acting, and hula hooping, to name a few, because I was so out of my element that I began to question a lot of things I’d always assumed about myself.
I also loved having the opportunity to travel both within Japan and throughout Asia. There are just so many interesting and beautiful places in Japan, and I did a lot of sightseeing in my own city of Kyoto as well as taking day-trips to nearby Osaka and Kobe. In my first year and a half I visited Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and managed to fit in a few visits to Tokyo and one to Sapporo. Not too shabby!
Some of the challenges I faced were dealing with the extreme ups and downs of life in such a unique place—I was either really happy or really sad, really loving my time or really hating it. It took me a while to feel like life there was just normal. But that’s part of the reason that I loved it so much in the first place—everything was an adventure!
My lack of Japanese skills in my early days sometimes meant that I was a little isolated, and getting sick and going to the doctor was really scary because there weren’t many doctors in Kyoto who spoke English. The medical system in general is really different, and piling the language barrier on top of that just led to even more confusion. For example, doctors there tend to prescribe several types of medication, even for something as routine as a cold. So one time I came home from a doctor’s visit with no less than five prescriptions and had no idea which medicine was supposed to do what. I was also not a big fan of the powdered medicine that you had to just pour down your throat. Try to avoid that at all costs!
What advice would you give to students who are thinking about moving abroad?
Promise yourself that you’ll stay for at least a year. In college I went to London for what was supposed to be a year, but I was so unhappy that I ended up leaving early and returning to my college in the US. I always wondered what would have happened if I’d stuck it out. I have a feeling I would have made more friends, started to feel a little more comfortable, and grown to appreciate the whole experience. When you’re moving abroad, especially to a place that’s as different as Japan, it takes time to adjust and for things to start to feel familiar.
Be realistic about your expectations. Keep in mind that it’s not always going to be perfect, especially in those early days. I felt very isolated and overwhelmed in my first few months in Japan, but as time went by I began to look back on those days with a sense of nostalgia and happiness for how far I’d come.
Learn as much of the language as you can, both before you go and while you’re there. The more Japanese I learned, the more the world there opened up to me. I went from living in a small box filled with other English teachers and foreigners to being able to interact with everyone I encountered. This made a HUGE impact on my quality of life.
Hooping in front of Heian Shrine in Kyoto. Just because.
What are some resources that were helpful to you either before or while you were living abroad?
I love the Sound Princess Diaries blog, which offers rare insight into Japanese society from an American woman who works in a Japanese company: http://princessofsound.wordpress.com/
If you live in Tokyo, Metropolis is an excellent resource, giving you tons of info on bars, restaurants, and goings on about town: http://metropolis.co.jp/
GaijinPot is really useful for finding and applying for jobs: http://www.gaijinpot.com/
Engrish is an amazing place to find pictures of hilarious English, much of it originating in Japan: http://engrish.com/
And MUMU is a charming little guide to Japanese culture and life: http://www.kanaday.com/index.html
Melissa Suzuno, a Literature major from Reed College, is the Content Marketing Specialist at AfterCollege. She manages the AfterCollege blog, obsesses over Hello Kitty, and sings karaoke whenever she gets the chance.