English teaching in Japan
For many years Japan has been a popular destination for foreigners looking to teach English while doing other things: travel; learn the language; pursue a hobby; get a girlfriend. The common model was the short term foreigner who comes for a couple of years and then moves on. People like me who came and stayed are the exception. The English teaching market here has been saturated for a long time. This was especially true in the 1990s when the high yen attracted more and more young folk. But now the teenaged, school age population of Japan is shrinking just as the population as a whole is and the market, or customer pool, is slowly evaporating.
Currently South Korea and China are almost as popular as Japan has been. China especially, since it is the prime rising power of Asia. I have a friend from university who spent five years teaching English in South Korea very successfully. By comparison Japan is somewhat in decline - its population is shrinking, its economy is stagnant, and it is governed by a mental, right-wing gerontocracy. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad, of course. There is plenty here that is endearing. The economy is still large requiring a lot of international communication and trade which are inevitably done in English, hence the market for native English speaking tutors. And now with the 2020 Summer Olympic Games awarded to Tokyo boards of education throughout the country are looking to further augment their English programmes. Currently mandatory English runs from the fifth grade of elementary school to the end of high school.
I think there are five basis foreign English teacher career paths:
1) work at one of the many English Conversation Schools. These teachers are the infantry in the trenches of the continuing language battle. It’s grunt work. Schools used to recruit by newspaper advertising, but since the advent of the internet it’s all online now. There are large chain schools throughout the country as well as small neighbourhood schools. In my opinion the small neighbourhood schools are the best because the large chain schools always over-extend their financial position (they have a perpetual cash flow problem) and then try to cover it by squeezing salaries and treating the foreign employees like slaves. These teachers depend on their companies for their work visas and sometimes their apartments as well, so they are in a vulnerable position. Large chain schools have a tendency to go bankrupt with spectacularly disastrous ripple effects.
2) work for a dispatch company. These teachers also depend on their companies for visas and apartments. But instead of teaching in a language school they teach at private junior and senior high schools. These companies are a medium providing foreign English teachers to private schools. The companies “dispatch” the teacher hither and yon around town to work each day in one school or another. Income is better and usually year-long.
3) work for a board of education as an ALT, an Assistant Language Teacher. This is good work. You work in public junior and senior high schools directly employed by the local board of education. How does one find these jobs? They are not advertised. It depends on connections and recommendations. Who do you know? The income is good, but it is a strict wage, so when you aren’t teaching you aren’t getting paid. That means only about seven months of income in the course of the year. It requires other work to compensate for the slow months.
4) work as a JET teacher, the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme. This is a Ministry of Education programme to provide foreign English teachers to public schools. Typically the teachers are unqualified in education in their home countries. They are simply young university grads, paid little, out for a lark. People can apply for the programme from their home countries. Currently JETs and ALTs are increasingly bitter rivals. Because the JETs are paid less the boards of education are looking to replace the higher paid, more experienced and older ALTs with cheaper, younger, fresher JETs. This is the intention, I think, as the 2020 Olympics approach.
5) university work. These are prized positions. It is just like the ALT in public junior and senior high schools except it's working in a university English department. Greater pay. Greater job security. Greater benefits. A graduate degree in ESL is usually required.
Some teachers start at one of these and then move on to another. Someone might come as a JET and then become an ALT. Or they might come to teach at a large language school and then become an ALT, or shift to the neighbourhood language school. Or they might come as a tourist and then be offered a job.
The minimum requirement to teach English in Japan is to be a native English speaker and a university graduate. It helps if you have 1) a graduate degree; 2) are a certified teacher in your home country; 3) have a graduate degree in English as a Second Language, or else some authentic certification in ESL.
In Japan appearance is very important. How things look is usually more important than how they actually are. In the economy it lets leaders claim success in the face of distress. In the energy industry it lets leaders claim control of the nuclear crisis when the truth is blatantly opposite. In education it lets conservative right-wing nationalists manipulate school textbooks and curricula with impunity. In English education the mid-western American is the preferred type because they look good and they satisfy the native stereotype: tall, thin, fair hair and complexion, big noses. There are ethnic foreign English teachers here but they will find many more doors closed to them than to fairer skinned candidates. If it’s not racism it’s definitely a racial preference. Americans would call it discrimination by racial profiling.
There are two cardinal sins in Japanese culture. Two absolute mistakes to be avoided at all times no matter what: 1) never, never, never say what you really, genuinely think; and, 2) never, ever be late. Suits me. I’m made for this place.
The website Gaijinpot.com is a common resource for jobs, apartments, items for sale, personal ads, blog links, etc. In the old days the Monday morning English-language Japan Times newspaper was the source everyone flocked to to search for employment information, but today there are websites like Gaijinpot.com. “Gaijin” means “foreigner.” Many of the ads are for English Conversation Schools and dispatch companies and require applicants to be “currently living in Japan.” It’s meant to guarantee that applicants already have a legal visa. Again, in the old days some employers would recruit oversees and fly us here at their own expense. That was my situation, but those days are gone.