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Jun 24, 2019

Should I teach English in Japan?

Should I teach English in Japan? photo


Should I teach English in Japan when there are so many horror stories written about it online? This is really at the core of what we attempt to address in this article. Hopefully what follows will go some way to putting at ease the minds of those people, thinking about teaching English in Japan, who are having sleepless nights about how bad it sounds online.


This article covers the following considerations: Should I teach English in Japan …


as opposed to another country?


as the best way to enjoy an experience of life in Japan?


based on prospective salary?


in order to develop a career in teaching?


That there are plenty of potential negatives to the experience of teaching English in Japan can’t be denied. A lot of what might be read on the teaching forums is rooted in something real -- largely that the English-teaching industry in Japan is littered with employers and schools trying to shortcut their way to profits (or just to stay afloat) by taking advantage of the ignorance and / or itinerant nature of their employees. There are exceptions, of course, but the situation is exacerbated by a client-base (students, boards of education, local authorities) that is often apathetic towards the conditions of the teacher and the industry at large.


Should I teach English in Japan? photo


The reality of teaching English in Japan, though, isn’t at all as draconian as online scaremongers may make it sound -- you’ll get paid a half-decent wage, work in at least healthy and reasonably positive surrounds, have a schedule that in no way could be described as tough, and have as much potential to meet nice people as you will people who are psychotically annoying. Whether you teach English in Japan, or do something else somewhere else, such people are always likely to be encountered.


In fact, one could make the case that some of the negativity being spread around online comes from those English teachers who turned up in Japan surprised to find that they were there to do a full-time job, rather than have some kind of “it’s all about me and my experience,” gap year. 


Most of the problems and transgressions encountered by people who teach English in Japan can be found in contractual terms and very loose interpretations of labor law. So, rather than the people who work in the industry (and the people you’ll work with in the industry), frustrations often arise from discrepancies between contractual time compared to actual work time. From a lack of pay increase and long-term stability. From empty sales gimmicks and silly promotions.


For long-term English teachers in Japan and those who are serious about teaching as a career some of these industry practices need to be taken very seriously. If you’ve just turned up in the country however, such things are better put to one side until such a time as you start looking further down the road.


Should I teach English in Japan … as opposed to another country?


There isn’t the time or, well, the inclination on our part to get into the lifestyle and culture that awaits those who come to teach English in Japan.  


Still, if we think about the largest markets for teaching English abroad -- Latin America, the Middle East, East Asia, parts of Europe -- we can immediately begin to identify the pros and cons of teaching English in Japan. Want to teach English al fresco over a coffee in the city plaza? Japan isn’t for you?


But of course, if the ultimate goal is Japan itself, then the answer to the question has to be an emphatic, “Yes!”


Should I teach English in Japan … as the best way to enjoy an experience of life in Japan?


If what you’re after is a year or two of enjoying the lifestyle, culture, history and travel that furnishes expat life in Japan then there is a strong case to be made that one should teach English in Japan. 


There are two core arguments that support this … 


Time: Despite all of the questionable contract practices that (often rightly) plague the industry, teaching English in Japan comes, for the most part, with a relatively fixed and stable schedule with almost zero prospect of overtime or being called into work on a day off. This in turn then allows teachers to feel quite confident in organizing a life or lifestyle outside of work.


Schedules may take a different form depending on the nature of the teaching.


Eikaiwa - If you teach English in Japan’s conversation schools, you’ll often work from afternoon to evening -- especially when the primary clients (read, students) are working adults. This, then, allows teachers to make use of mornings when the sun is up to get out and about or pursue whatever it is they want to pursue.


Dispatch eikaiwa - We use this term to refer to those English teachers in Japan whose day involves moving between a variety of schools or companies to teach classes. While such schedules can be long, drawn-out affairs courtesy of huge gaps between classes, they do force the English teacher to get out and about and see parts of Japan that they perhaps otherwise would not. 


ALT - Maybe the assistant language teacher gig is about the closest one can get to a nine-to-five job in Japan, at least one with a half-decent salary. So, while teaching English in Japan as an ALT will mean a relatively early start in the morning the 5-6 pm finish time should leave room for activities in the evenings.  


Aside from the occasional school event (Sports Day, Culture Day, follow-up training) there should be little reason for the ALT to be called into action on weekends, unless they’ve gotten too involved with one of the school’s clubs. 


Similarly, ALTs can enjoy long summer, winter, and spring vacations. OK, so for some (depending on what unscrupulous dispatch company they work for) these vacation periods may actually be periods between term-based contracts (read, “unemployment”) so the money isn’t coming in. With a bit of fiscal discipline though the ALT could find weeks of summer at their disposal safe in the knowledge that they’ll be back in employment come the start of September. 


The other core argument that might support the claim that teaching English in Japan is the best way to enjoy sampling life in the country revolves around responsibility, or lack thereof. 


In many, if not most cases English teachers in Japan should feel little obligation to go above and beyond their core duties and schedules. This is quite simply because they are highly unlikely to be rewarded for it, or even have their efforts recognized in anyway, financial or otherwise. There will be exceptions, of course, but the staple gigs of eikaiwa teacher and ALT come with little or no incentive to put in the extra hours be this at school, the office, or home -- in large part because their employers have spread business operations too wide and too thin that the budgets are not there to be dishing out bonuses or pay rises to even the most exceptional of performers.


So then, if you teach English in Japan, you should feel free to leave work at work and get on with the rest of your life -- a freedom which those pursuing a career in Japan find harder to enjoy.


Should I teach English in Japan … based on prospective salary?


Time and responsibility are one thing, but of more practical concern when it comes to considering destinations at which to teach English should be salary. Do English teachers in Japan have the expendable income to enjoy that “time” and (lack of) “responsibility?”


It used to be that 250,000 yen a month was the almost default starting salary for an entry-level English teacher in Japan -- a perfectly livable income circumstance for singles, even those based in Tokyo, perhaps the most expensive place to live in Japan. 


Maybe times have changed though. Years of economic stagnation since Japan’s bubble burst have meant a collective tightening of belts over the last couple of decades. Perhaps reflecting this is an English-teaching industry that appears to becoming ever-more reliant on kids to fill its classes. Maybe mom and dad don’t have the time or money for classes themselves. Perhaps modern Japan’s outward-looking business model places even greater importance on having a populace that is multilingual. 


Maybe we had better look at what the going salary for jobs teaching English in Japan is these days.       


The following table summarizes the salaries of the first 10, full-time (or contract) English teaching jobs in and around Tokyo that we came across on a popular job-listing site.  Salaries listed in Japanese Yen (per month) ... 

entry level270,000kids conversation
experienced275,000 - 350,000preschool
entry level275,000eikaiwa
entry level250,000 - 300,000eikaiwa
experienced200,000 - 300,000kids conversation
experienced240,000 - 300,000ALT
experienced250,000kids conversation
entry level243,000 - 275,000kids conversation
experienced270,000 - 300,000preschool
entry level230,000 - 260,000juku


Average English-teaching salary (lower end): 250,300 yen per month


Average English-teaching salary (upper end): 288,000 yen per month


Example salaries for teaching English in Japan outside of Tokyo (Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Nagano, Gifu) 

entry level275,000eikaiwa
experienced250,000eikaiwa
experienced300,000juku
experienced250,000kids conversation
experienced220,000 - 240,000ALT
experienced250,000corporate
experienced230,000 - 270,000ALT
experienced250,000 - 260,000eikaiwa
experienced250,000eikaiwa
experienced240,000 - 255,000ALT


Average English-teaching salary (lower end): 251,500 yen per month


Average English-teaching salary (upper end): 260,000 yen per month


So not much has changed then?!


The statistics above are in no way definitive -- many of the listings describe the salary as “negotiable.” Some of the positions, particularly in the case of ALT jobs, may not offer remuneration during school holidays or periods between terms (we didn’t check) so the average monthly salary over the course of a year may be less. 


To provide a bit of context, the average wage in Japan in 2016 was 321,700 yen per month for “regular workers” (permanent company workers often referred to as seishain / 正社員) according to the Basic Survey on Wage Structure conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.  


If that leaves you feeling a little disheartened (although it perhaps shouldn’t) … 


… a 2017 article in The Japan Times cites a survey by the Japan Business Foundation (Keidanren) which revealed average starting salaries for new graduates in Japan as being 213,000 a month. 


Anyway, for those prospective English teachers in Japan who are young, free and single (and especially those who are fresh out of university) around 250,000 yen per month to teach English in Japan (Tokyo or elsewhere) should be enough for the basics of food, clothing and shelter as well as providing enough expendable income to go out and get that experience of Japan.


If any part of the goal for teaching English in Japan is to save money, perhaps pay off some of a student loan … then many of the entry level teaching positions are going to make this a challenge.  


Perhaps some further stats will help. A 2017 article on Japan expat community platform City-Cost used data acquired from surveys conducted by a popular real estate agency in Japan to breakdown potential expenditure and savings for singles living in Tokyo on a monthly wage of 250,000 yen.  


After the basics of rent, utilities, phone, food, insurance and taxes they estimated around 70,000 yen would be left at the end of each month.  


Honestly, if the English teacher in Japan is able to make significant savings from this when factoring in expenditure on leisure activities, well, they’d be doing pretty well.


From personal experience, during my first two years teaching English in Japan when I was earning around 250,000 - 270,000 yen a month, I managed to save around 1 million yen over the course of the two years. Pretty good going, I think!


Factoring in family, an ability or need to send money back home, or long-term financial prospects and answers to the question, “Should I teach English in Japan?” become riddled with caveats … 


Do you have a choice? Are you considering teaching English in Japan in order to be with a loved one? Do you have other skills that can be developed but for now you just need to get a foot in the door, so to speak? 


If teaching English in Japan is about making money, there are undoubtedly better salary packages to be had in other countries. Oil-rich states in the Middle East come to mind. However, one should also factor in the kind of lifestyle available in any prospective country -- some destinations may offer better prospects for saving money in large part due to there being nothing to spend one’s earnings on.


Japan, emphatically, cannot be considered such a destination


Should I teach English in Japan … in order to develop a career in teaching?


At the eikaiwa and ALT level teaching English in Japan for those pursuing a career in education may well be seen as a broadening of the mind and horizons even if the English-teaching experience itself is one that doesn’t carry a great deal of weight.  


That said perhaps the ALT, who gets an insight into Japan’s public (and possibly private) education system, will be able to bring to their next job the kind of experience that may carry some direct utility. 


Perhaps the key point here is how long you teach English in Japan. One or two years will perhaps represent a healthy spirit of adventure and learning for some potential employers back home or in another country. Longer than this though and eyebrows will be raised and questions asked about how up-to-date one’s experience is and, more importantly, how relevant one’s license to teach is. 


Teaching career success stories coming out of Japan are often built around further study.  


These success stories come from teachers that this former English teacher worked with:


There was the colleague who came out to Japan to pursue a love interest. They taught at a kids eikaiwa for around five years and fell in love with teaching (and oddly, out of love with the initial love interest). Upon returning home, they studied and attained the relevant qualifications to teach in their country’s state elementary schools which they continue to do to this day, and love.


Another former colleague came to Japan with zero teaching qualifications and taught at a number of eikaiwa. They left to pursue a teaching career by way of attaining an on-the-job teaching qualification (aimed at international schools) at a school in Dubai. This was followed by a stint in Muscat (Oman) and the on to eastern Europe where they continue to live, teach, and take advantage of really cheap beer.


I came out to Japan and soon made friends with a history teacher who shares the same nationality. For him, a couple of years at the kids eikaiwa was followed by a brief stint as an ALT before being snapped up for a trainer / management position in the office. Long-hours and too much paperwork sent him to Brunei for a few years of teaching in government schools in the oil-rich state. Pursuing online post-grad studies (education related) he is now back in Japan working at some fancy international school and apparently loving it.  


So, the success stories are there but rather than being down solely to teaching English in Japan, they’ve come more through hard work and career savvy.  


Another thread that might be pulled from this question is that relating to teaching practices, creativity, and methodology.


It’s true to say that many English-teaching operations in Japan are particularly keen to hire teachers who actually have no experience. They want a blank canvass to work with. This is a business for them and they’ve a product to deliver. The same product and to everyone, particularly in the eikaiwa field.


Here, students are sold on strange gimmicks branded as teaching methodology that they’ve seen slapped up on the insides of trains and on quirky YouTube commercials. For the most part it’s nonsense but eikaiwa management wants people who can deliver it, not question it and offer better alternatives. They’ve spent eye-watering sums on the advertisement, after all.


So, those who come to teach English in Japan armed with a suitcase filled with strong views on how teaching should be done, may find that clashes and friction await, depending on the school at which they work.


On the ALT side of things the kind of teaching you do will almost entirely depend on the teachers you are assisting. This could range from having creative freedom to plan and carryout classes as you see fit (so long as the target material is covered) to being little more than the human version of that CD which came with the textbooks.  


If you’ve plenty of teaching experience and you maintain a hard and fast line on how teaching should be done, perhaps teaching English in Japan could be a struggle. At the very least it would be prudent to sound out thoroughly any prospective employers about their teaching style, classroom management et al.


In summary, “Should I teach English in Japan to develop a career in teaching? “No,” would be the short answer to that but it doesn’t have to damage or dampen your career aspirations either. Timing is likely to be the key factor here. 


Ultimately, any considerations regarding the question, “Should I teach English in Japan?” would do well to cover the age old adage of, “the grass is always greener on the other side,” or however it goes.


The point being that Japan has seen its fair share of expats who kicked, scrapped, and moaned their way out of teaching English in Japan to doing something else in Japan where they discovered a working world of overtime, stress, heavy responsibility, suits, boring meetings, cultural clashes, and a distinct lack of opportunity to play the ‘I’m a foreigner, put your kid gloves on’ card.  


Maybe teaching English in Japan isn’t so bad after all. And ultimately, if you really do want Japan, it might be your only option in the short term.



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