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Choosing a Path to Teach English in Japan

School girls in Japan.
Students in Japan in front of a temple.

Year after year, thousands of native English speakers pack their stuff, say goodbye to their families and friends,  promise to write, cry at the gate, and climb on a plane with Japan as their destination. This Asian economic giant is a bastion for both recent university graduates looking to “kill” a year after graduation as well as a proven and lucrative employment market for seasoned ESL professionals.

The lure of Japan is profound. Many board their planes fueled by hopes for a spiritual experience or a simpler life. Others buy their tickets having heard tales of the big money and the gracious and gentle nature of the Japanese. Still others have a flat-out fascination with Japan that they cannot even explain. And finally, there are many who want to perfect their Japanese speaking skills — they see doing a “stint” in the land of the rising sun as the road to this achievement.

The veterans in the ESL field with the credentials or advanced degrees in education and linguistics who get employed at the university level enjoy decent working conditions, competitive salaries, paid health insurance, summers off, and a somewhat comfortable way of life (a mere two or three classes per day.) They have gone through it. Those without credentials begin to build them. Often the first cut into this market is the well traveled road of eikaiwa.

Teaching in Japan (Eikaiwa): The Most Traveled Road

Eikaiwa refers to the teaching of English conversation and it is a billion dollar industry in Japan. These are most often the large chain schools like ECC, Westgate, and Nova (see our section on English teaching schools in Japan for more options and articles by participants). These organizations employ thousands of teachers throughout Japan and can be found in practically every single city in Japan — irrespective of size. There are literally thousands of eikaiwa schools dotting the countryside. All of them have as a mission the task of teaching English to the Japanese.

What is Required to Teach

In order to get a job teaching English in Japan, you will need to be a college graduate from any field (2-year degrees just will no cut it). You should also speak English at native level fluency. There are some who do find teaching jobs in Japan even though English is not their first language, but this is more of an exception than a rule.

Although there is no minimum wage, most teachers bring in at least 250,000 yen a month (approximately US$2,200, but subject to currency rate fluctuations, so verify with a currency rate calculator) before taxes. A typical work week is five days long. Do not expect Western perks such as weekends off. The eikawa business continues to function on weekends and someone has to teach the students. This means that most teachers work at least one Saturday or Sunday, with another weekday off.  Vacation packages are quite similar for most schools. Expect two weeks of paid vacation and most national holiday off. Schools differ on which national holidays they observe, but the norm is 8 to 10 per year. It is worth noting that ECC has the best vacation package of the monster chain schools and arguably the fewest complaints.

Expect to work close to 40 hours per week. Each school is different but you can expect roughly 20 to 25 actual teaching hours per week — with the rest of your work time being office hours. Most schools also will provide you with health insurance or subsidize it. Typical office hours are filled by grading student work, taking class notes, preparing future lessons, or just chatting with students. Furthermore, teachers are sometimes expected to hand out fliers as well. At the end of a typical day, you will know you worked. All in all, when all the hours are counted, your typical teacher works about 40 hours per week.

The larger chain schools mentioned above have fixed curriculums. You will be using their in-house texts, tapes, and other support materials for teaching. For those who do not have a lot of teaching experience, a fixed curriculum is helpful in reducing stress (as there already is quite a bit involved in adjusting to the culture and learning the language, etc.) Those who need to express their creativity in the lesson will probably find this fixed curriculum stifling.

Students assigned a typical teacher will probably be of all ages — literally from 5 to 75. Some schools deal specifically with children, such as Amity and iTTTi Japan Peppy Kids Club. Other language schools, such as Gaba, concentrate on adult students. Because of the competitiveness within the industry, most schools cater to all ages. You can expect a healthy dose of children and young professionals like office ladies and “salary men” — as they are called — to make up the bulk of the students you teach.

Most of the large chain schools will provide you with some type of accommodations. This is a very big help, as it is difficult to find accommodations on your own without the help of a Japanese national. Not to mention the cost. Expect your accommodations to be on the small side. Furnishings are usually sparse and typically are collections of furniture and other items from departing teachers.

There are plenty of places to relax in Japan.
There are plenty of beautiful and serene places to relax in Japan.

A Heavily Traveled Road to Teaching in Japan: ALT

Thousands of teachers work abroad and start their teaching careers in Japan as ALTs — which stands for Assistant Language Teacher. ALTs are native speakers of English who assist the Japanese teacher in teaching English to elementary and junior high school students throughout Japan.

Salaries and More for Assistant Language Teachers

Just as with typical eikaiwa positions, finding work abroad as an ALT requires you to be a native English speaker and a university graduate. The vast majority of those hired are done so indirectly through dispatch companies and not by the schools or BOE’s. These hiring agencies function in a role similar to a temporary hiring agency. Hiring agencies will take a cut from the teacher’s salary in return for placing the instructor. In general expect the salaries to be in the range of 250,000 to 280,000 yen ($2350-$2650) per month, with fixed curriculums and work hours.

Most ALTs are dispatched to junior high schools. An instructor is generally rotated between two or three schools. Hours are the quite the opposite of eikaiwas, or English conversation schools, which have quite a few evening classes and generally start in the early afternoon and run until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. In general, ALTs work between 8:00 and 5:00 p.m., with weekends and Japanese national holidays off.

It is important to note that every situation really is quite different. While some ALTs are busy and may complain about doing extracurricular activities and office work for the Japanese staff, many others often describe their jobs as "cushy" and spend time surfing the Web and studying Japanese — or just about anything else you can do at your desk.

The JET ALT Program

First off, the Jet Program is the most sought after route into ALT programs so it is the toughest to get into.

As far as teaching jobs overseas goes, this program pays a little better than your average language school. Your yearly teaching salary starts at 3,360,000 yen (US$31,500+) annually and graduates to 3,960,000 yen yearly (US$37,000+) after 4 years, with 2nd and 3rd year interval salaries.

Expect to get national holidays off (there are 10 to 12 of them) plus another 12 personal days.

The local government or BOE that does the hiring becomes the teacher’s boss, so there are differences between the benefits that Jet participants receive. Health insurance is not paid by the Jet Program so you have to pay up 40,000 yen per month (about US $400). Health insurance is mandatory and is automatically deducted from your pay.

JET experiences vary greatly. Many new to the teaching scene in Japan regard the JET Program as the “holy grail” of jobs. And while the JET Program does pay better than the big four (Geos, Berlitz, Aeon, ECC), JET is not without its own problems. Some teachers get gravy jobs with nice, large, and subsidized apartments while others claim they do not even have heat in the winter — and their shack of an apartment is infested with bugs. The official JET position regarding the massive deviations in living and working conditions is that “each situation is different.” It is the mantra of this organization.

Like most teaching jobs overseas run by the major chain schools, youth, energy and a desire to experience Japan heavily outweigh teaching or educational credentials. JET is a youth-to-youth cultural and language exchange program, and 40 years of age is the cutoff for eligibility.

Participants are stationed throughout Japan’s 47 prefectures. Like most large chain schools, you cannot choose where you will work, so it is hard to say where any teacher might wind up. Being stationed in a very rural location is a very real possibility. This should be kept in mind by all prospective applicants. Applications are taken in November with all final hiring winding up in June. Within the JET Program competition for positions is fierce and waiting for acceptance is often cited as the hardest part.

Which Is the “Best Road” to Teaching in Japan?

If you browse around internet forums, you will often read rants from ALTs who quit and bolt from eikaiwas in favor of the less demanding atmosphere of a typical ALT position. Again, every situation is different because every BOE or eikaiwa is different, though the JET Program is considered the most comfortable in terms of working hours, apartment subsidies, and salaries. ALT work from dispatch companies comes in second, and the hectic and long work that characterizes the eikaiwa industry puts these jobs in distant third place in terms of desirability.

Tips for Teaching and Living in Japan

Regardless of the path you choose on entry there are tips and warnings that apply to all despite respective paths chosen…

1) Teaching in Japan is generally not the cake-walk you read about on many websites. Expect to be working close to 40 hours per week.

2) Expect your accommodations to be small. Beds, garbage disposals, large ovens, end tables, storage, pantries, and large refrigerators will be absent from your typical apartment. Expect a streamlined efficient apartment without bells and whistles.

3) Clothing sizes, especially shoe, will be on the small size. Large teachers should bring enough clothing to last your stay.

4) Food, public transportation, safety standards, health and beauty aids, banks and financial institutions meet or exceed western standards.

5) There are scams out there, so make sure that you have a contract that looks honest and reads clearly. Talking to former teachers is probably the fastest way to get the bottom line as to the nature of the position.

6) Few Japanese speak English at an understandable or conversational level, and this applies to even larger cities. So do not cut yourself off from the culture — start studying Japanese well before you go.

7) Japan is quite different from western countries. Expect a decent helping of culture shock. Those who take positions in small or rural areas must expect the level of shock to be greater. Noticeably missing in rural areas will be shopping malls, internet cafes, movie theaters, and English speaking doctors and dentists.

8) Do not be overly worried that you do not have the necessary experience to land a job. You do not need a great deal of experience if you're looking for an entry-level English conversation instructor position. In reality, the biggest English schools hire teachers left and right without experience. The bulk of the industry runs on entry level teachers.

9) The myth that Japan is a country that is too expensive to live in needs to be examined a bit. Private 1-bedroom apartments will be in the 80,000 yen to 120,000 yen range (about US$800 to US$1200, depending upon your location). Those who limit eating and drinking out and do not own a car should do ok, though you must still account for high food prices, health insurance, and other fees. See Numbeo's cost of living comparison between Japan and the U.S. for more details. Note: If you find you need more income, you can take on your own additional private students and earn more.

10) Be realistic in your expectations. Remember that whether you are working as an ALT or at a private English school, you will be walking into an entry level position. It is not a fry cook position at a fast food joint and it is not a tenured university position. Like many jobs, it is still work—but work which allows you to live in a foreign country with a sophisticated culture.

Related Topics
Teaching English in Japan: Resources and Articles
Living in Japan: Expatriate Resources and Articles
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