I quit my English teaching job to teach music but when I was an English teacher it struck me how different the ‘English teaching in Japan’ gig can be depending on the situation. I’m glad I live in Tokyo because it would be difficult to do my new job elsewhere and I like being in a place where there are lot’s of opportunities and lots going on, but to be honest sometimes it feels very similar to my lifestyle when I lived in London. Huge capital cities are kind of the same in a way.
I sometimes envy my friends who are living in remote areas of Japan, for having a more unique experience than mine. The way they can become truly immersed and how participate in their area’s local culture is really quite special. A friend on the JET Programme lives in a tiny village on the Noto peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture. No I didn’t know where that is either, but when he invited me to visit him I thought it was best to find out.
It turns out the Noto peninsula is vaguely near Kanazawa. Well, Kanazawa was where we took the night bus to, then it was another two hours to my friend’s house. There are several differences between the life of a country JET and mine. Firstly, while my boyfriend and I share in a perfectly nice but boring and small apartment my friend has a gorgeous traditional Japanese house to himself. I particularly enjoyed experiencing his built in kotatsu for the first time. Honestly, if I had had one of those I probably wouldn’t move so maybe it’s for the best. What also really struck me was the warmth and friendliness of the local community. Everywhere we went people knew who my friend was and greeted him warmly. Their generosity extended to us to – we were even given a bottle of Noto sake for free! Some people have the stereotype that Japanese people are insular and unfriendly but honestly I think this speaks more for Tokyo than anywhere else.
It rained the whole weekend we were there, proof that traveling can not always go your way, but we still had a great time. I spent a lot of my childhood holidays climbing wet hills in Wales so I’m pretty much steeled against rain by now. The countryside in Noto was beautiful and the sushi was absolutely fantastic. My favourite part of the weekend was attending a late night festival on the waterfront. I’ve no idea what the symbolism of it was but there were these huge floats and they were not only paraded but also crashed into each other, while the bearers where chanting at the top of their voices (the video should give you some idea). I love finding these pockets of Japanese culture.
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.