Tenshoku Part 1 – Quitting my Job in Japan

I felt good yesterday. One of those days where you walk down the street humming Nina Simone and the world just seems like a wonderful place. I had no particular reason to be happy –  it was just a normal day.

Admittedly the weather was stunning but I think the main reason I was feeling happy was because of my job. I’d just had a hard but satisfying day at work and I had a moment when I realised how lucky I am to be able to have a job I enjoy in Tokyo.

In December 2015 I started the long process of changing my job and visa status. I trained as an early-years music educator during this time and for the last few months I have been teaching music to young children in a lovely studio in Daikanyama as well as other locations such as Tokyo American Club.

This decision was one of the best I’ve ever made but I can’t deny that the job change process was painful. I have a strong internal locus of control and freak out when I have to put my fate into the hands of bureaucratic processes over which I have no control. I feel like a bit of a drama queen going on about it now, but honestly at times I really did struggle. In case anyone else is going through the same thing I thought I would write about my experiences.

This is part 1 of 2 in which I discuss quitting my job. I want to make clear that I am not an expert in immigration and can only speak about my own experiences and the resources that helped me through.

Why I quit my previous job

As you may know, I came to Japan on a contract with a English teaching dispatch company. In many ways this job was a great introduction to Japan. I taught English in schools in the day and in companies in the evening. I experienced so many aspects of Japanese society, from kindergartens to hospitals, to major Japanese companies and Tokyo Metropolitan Government. I learnt many things – including that I actually liked teaching and was sort of alright at it, both of which surprised me.

I’m not really motivated by money so I believe that, at least in your 20s, a job should be one of two things: either it should be related to your interests and further your career progression or it should have the kind of hours and stress levels that don’t interfere with your lifestyle.

My job wasn’t ticking either of these boxes. I was working long and unpredictable hours, sometimes leaving the house at 7.15am and not getting home until 9.30pm. I could have handled this if this was a job relevant to my interests and ambitions but it wasn’t. I like teaching, yes, but my passion is music and the arts – if I was spending so much time teaching I wanted to be teaching these. In addition, although I liked many of my colleagues as individuals, there were several aspects of the company that made me uncomfortable. I was making good money but I had come to Japan to experience Japan and I didn’t have the time to do this. When the long, unpredictable hours and the company’s harsh policies on sick leave started to aggravate a health condition that should be manageable the job became not worth it. After 5 months, I decided I wanted out.

Handing in my notice

転職 (tenshoku – changing jobs) can be a bit of a taboo in Japan. In a country where lifetime employment is still common, quitting your job can be seen as a betrayal. I’ve known Japanese people who have faced harrassment after handing in their notice, been denied leave they were entitled to or even been told they were ‘not allowed to quit.’ Of course the situation is different for foreign employees who usually have yearly contracts rather than lifetime employment, but still, ending a contract midway as I did can be really frowned upon.

To immediately clear up a widespread misconception: yes you can change your job in Japan. It is not ‘work for us or go home.’ Your former employer may make threats but your working visa is valid until it expires, even if you change your job.  Take care however, because you cannot renew your visa without an employment contract so if you are changing jobs be sure to leave enough time to arrange everything before your visa expires. Additionally, you have to notify immigration within 14 days of quitting your job and from that point I’ve heard that you can only stay in Japan for 3 months without working.

Japanese labour law states that, ordinarily, workers are required to give 2 weeks notice to their employers before leaving their job to avoid paying damages. However, I’ve heard of contracts that demand 30 or even 60 working days notice. Whether these are in fact legally enforceable is a grey area so if you need to quit in a hurry I would encourage you to seek support from a union (the General Union are good) or a legal expert. My contract asked for 30 days notice and and I chose to give this and a bit more. I wanted to make things easier for my company and I also cared a lot about my students and I knew if I didn’t leave enough time they was a chance they would lose out.

Handing in my notice was stressful. I timed it really badly and did it at a point where almost the whole office was listening in to the tense conversation (no private meeting rooms for me). My company tried to make me stay longer and asked searching questions about the precise reason I was leaving. My advice would be to anyone about to do this is to be polite but assertive. You don’t have to give a reason why you’re going and they do not have the right to make you feel guilty about your decision. You are probably not being selfish or hurtful, changing jobs happens and your company should accept it. I got through this stage by being on it with the paperwork (give a signed and dated letter of notice, make multiple copies) and by standing my ground even while I tried my best to make everything as convenient for my company as possible. Ultimately, it’s an uncomfortable conversation but your company can’t actually do anything to you. This too will pass. If in extreme cases you are experiencing violence, psychological abuse or power harassment of course please get help. I recommend the General Union as an excellent first port of call who can help you get the services you need.

I don’t want to tell people what to do but I see so many people working in Japan who seem stuck in a job that’s making them miserable, because they feel they have no options or they are scared that things could get worse. You do have options. Yes things could get worse, yes the transition process can be rough. I certainly do not recommend jumping into the unknown unprepared – do your research and do not take my word for it. But often the risk and short term pain leads to long term gain.

For me it was definitely worth it.

Check back for a post on changing my visa status soon!

What’s great about teaching English in Japan – from someone who never wanted to be a teacher

Teaching is in my roots. My dad is a teacher. My mum has taught. Several other members of my extended family are music, dance, early years and classroom teachers. My Grandma was a University lecturer who taught teachers to be better teachers for goodness sake. So I have always said that I never want to be a teacher. Nothing against the profession, it’s just I wanted to do something different. I like children well enough but I don’t want to spend all my time with them and I don’t have that magic ‘vocation’ towards moulding the next generation. Through my family, I’ve seen the benefits of teaching, but also the crap that they put up with. And when people ask whether I want to follow in my insert family member’s footsteps, I’ve always firmly said that I want to put up with different crap.

So now I’m teaching English in Japan. Ha ha.

The main reason that this happened is that I wanted to be in Japan. Seeing as I’m not one of the 1%, not working or volunteering is out of the question. Jobs that aren’t English teaching are few and far in between for those without fluent Japanese, even in Tokyo. In this sense, I guess I didn’t have much choice in my current profession. But now I’m here it turns out there are actually some pretty good things about teaching English in Japan. So if, like me, you want to experience living in Japan but have misgivings about teaching, here are some positives from someone who never wanted to be a teacher.

Kids are cute/funny

We all know people who adore children. Their faces light up when they see a pram, and if they don’t have kids of their own their queuing up do babysit the little darlings belonging to their friends and family. I am not one of these people. I like playing with kids but I like handing them back to their respective owners when I get tired so I can stop watching my language and go to the pub. But even I find my elementary school students adorable and sometimes they utterly charm me. Teaching a class of seven year olds the hokey pokey (really recommend it for lessons on body parts and left and right) and seeing them loving it is a great way to put a massive grin on your face when you’re having a bad day. My kids do so many quirky things. Like the time one of my 12 year olds made a dirty joke and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him off because it really was funny and he had done it in pretty impressive English. Or the kid who made the class ‘jump’ and ‘sit down’ over and over again in a voice which could command battleships when I let him be Simon in Simon Says until I had to tell him to stop almost five minutes later. And there’s the super enthusiastic first grader who yells ‘nice to meet you too’ every time she sees me in the corridors and I haven’t the heart to correct her because her little face looks so happy. They’re beautiful little people and it’s so exciting to watch them grow as you never know what they’re going to do next.

Adults are interesting

I genuinely look forward to most of my adult lessons because they’re chances to interact with interesting and successful people. Amongst my students are nurses and senior government officials. Just the other day I was proofreading one of my students’ speeches for work, which was about his views on city planning for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. It’s great that what we study together has a real world application for him. Personally I enjoy my one to one lessons the most as the interaction is like a conversation. You can develop real learning relationships with your students and it is rewarding to watch them improve and see them overcome their boundaries.

You learn a lot about Japanese culture

Like it or not, a significant proportion of our personalities are shaped during our school days. Therefore, for anyone who’s interested in Japanese culture, watching the differences in how life is structured for children at this formative age can lead to wider understanding of the differences between Japanese culture and their own. Instead of being served lunch in a refectory, Japanese school children take turns serving lunch to each other, fostering a sense of independence. I was taken aback at the beginning of my first lesson when the children gave me a sort of greeting/thank you speech in unison, complete with bow. This kind of ritual demonstrates the Japanese seniority system – respect and deference to those older than you, regardless of competence – and doubtless prepares the children for the complicated etiquette of Japanese corporate culture. During discussions with my adult students I learn what working in Japan is like from those actually experiencing it. This is infinitely better than hearing it from a buzzfeed article, a documentary or even an academic article and much of what I’ve learned has been really eye opening.

Your understanding of English improves

I love words. I love speaking them, reading them, writing them, and the ways in which we wind them together to communicate fascinates me. Teaching English really gives you a better awareness of your own language. It’s really surprising how little most English speakers know about English grammar for instance. I’m a geek and I genuinely enjoy reading up on modal verbs, but for those less sad than me who want to become more proficient wordsmiths, I recommend stepping into the shoes of a non-native speaker. You’ll be surprised what you learn about your native tongue. And those good ol’ ‘communication skills may look good on your CV. Who knows, I’m not about bothering with that right now.

It’s easier to stay healthy

When I have worked in offices, I sometimes sat hunched at my desk for 9 hours straight, only getting up to make coffee. I stuffed my face with chocolate and cookies (the female majority office) or doughnuts (the male majority office). My back hurt, my eyes hurt from staring at a screen all day and I was often vaguely jittery from the caffeine and the sugar. Obviously part of this was down to my own bad habits but the office environment certainly didn’t help. As a teacher I am on my feet for 5+ hours a day, I climb many flights of stairs getting to my classrooms and you don’t know how tiring doing 20 rounds of heads shoulders knees and toes can be until you try it (so much bending!). With the help of the excellent new yoga school I’ve joined my back, RSI and caffeine addiction are better than they have been in years.

The pay is pretty decent

Whatever you say on your CV, however much you love your job, for most of us the main reason we go to work is not to ‘develop skills’ or ‘contribute to society.’ We go to work to get paid, and attempt to get paid in the most fulfilling way we can. Whilst you’re not going to get rich English teaching, the pay is pretty good for the amount of work you do, especially if it’s your first job out of University. I believe the JET programme pays ¥3,360,000 a year, which is roughly £18,300. My company pays by the hour and so I will earn slightly more or less than that, depending on how much work I do. These figures are actually better than they first appear when you consider that the yen is weak at the moment and the way pay is in Japan. I was shocked on how little some Japanese companies pay. Low paid work can be really low paid – I’ve heard of adults serving food for 800 yen an hour – about £4.40. Even up the ladder pay is lower than you would expect – an Australian friend just left Japan after a seven-year stay, in no small part because she could earn far more for the same, quite prestigious job, back home. Granted, teaching English is not the doss some believe: it takes skill and energy, and I do work outside of my paid hours such as lesson planning and writing reports but, speaking as someone who worked their arse off in an internship for less than minimum wage, I’m pretty happy with the ration of work vs. pay. I stay quiet about this in front of my Japanese friends who work harder for less.

I still don’t want to go into teaching on my return to the UK. But, as jobs go, English teaching is a great way to pay the bills while I explore this incredible country.

Ginza last weekend. This photo has absolutely nothing to do with my job (pictures of my students are streng verboten, obviously).