Working and Teaching in Japan: an Interview with an Expat
To help potential expats gain a sense of what living in Japan is truly like, we asked one British expat, Shaun - an assistant language teacher - how he and his partner adjusted to working life in Japan.
Japan can be a wonderful choice for expats looking to experience the contrast between ancient and ultra-modern, or a strikingly different culture to that found in Western countries. Many expats living in Japan are impressed with working life, as demonstrated in the InterNations 2016 Expat Explorer Survey, which awards Japan 23rd place out of 67 countries for job security and a respectable 34th place for career satisfaction. Japan was also named in the Top 10 Most Job Searched Countries since 2013 by US expats, which further emphasizes the country’s appeal regarding job opportunities. With more than 2 million expats living in Japan (as of 2015), and an increasing number of people considering moving there, the country’s popularity with expats is abundantly clear.
If you’re thinking of moving to Japan, or you’ve recently moved there, this interview will give you insight into looking for a job, working as an English language teacher, and understanding the Japanese work ethic.
Where in Japan do you currently live?
What is your current job title?
Assistant Language Teacher.
What is it about the country that makes it so appealing to you?
I grew up loving Japan, mainly for its rich culture. For me, it started with gaming, then anime and manga (Japanese comics), then music, fashion, and food. Probably in that order!
My partner and I used to go on holidays to Japan regularly, and we grew to love the people and the history - so much that we made it our goal to move there. The Japanese are proud of their heritage, which is something we greatly admire, plus they have such a deep and fascinating history.
Why did you choose to teach in Japan?
Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) seems to be one of the most popular means of employment for native English speakers in Japan, with more than 1,000 language schools employing up to 15,000 foreign English teachers. Plus, you do not need to have prior knowledge of teaching or the Japanese language to become a TEFL teacher in Japan, which is great as I didn’t have any previous experience of teaching. As such, it seemed to be the easiest way to work here and now that I'm a teacher, I couldn't be more content with how it has all worked out for me. It turns out that I love teaching - the insanely adorable kids have a lot to do with that!
Was it hard to find work in Japan?
After a lot of job hunting, we were able to find jobs as assistant language teachers within the first two months of living there. I got incredibly lucky in the sense that I landed an amazing job with a great company.
I currently work at three different elementary schools and mainly teach children ages 7 and 8. I also teach classes for children with special needs spanning ages 7 to around 12. The key to getting a job in Japan is to be honest, show determination and willingness to learn. It helps that there are many job search engines including Career Engine, Jobs in Japan, Japan English Teacher for those looking for teaching jobs, and even Craigslist. We found that Gajin Pot was a particularly great platform to use when job searching.
What’s a typical day like teaching?
I get up at around 5:30am, shower and get dressed and start my morning commute. My commute varies slightly from week to week because of the different schools I teach at, but usually it takes around one hour and 20 minutes to get from door to door. The transport in Tokyo is excellent, especially the rail system which consists of highspeed trains and more than 100 train lines.
When I first arrive at the school, I change into a pair of “indoor shoes” to keep the floors from becoming dirty – a reflection of Japanese attitudes towards cleanliness and being tidy. It is also common to wear indoor shoes in homes and some restaurants.
Next, I make my way to the staffroom to greet the principal, then the vice principals, and the other teachers, out of respect and politeness. After all, I’m representing not only myself, but my country and my company.
I normally start teaching from 8am and finish at 3:30pm. In elementary schools, lessons are generally 45 minutes each. This is great for me as I only teach four lessons a day. In my schools’ curriculums, I generally lead the students in singing five or six songs that include dances and gestures. Singing helps the children learn words and phrases, dancing keeps them active and engaged, and teaching with gestures helps with communication. It’s a relentless activity and I’m usually quite tired by lunchtime!
Food is prepared in the staffroom, and sometimes I’ll help serve for the staff members. Rather than eat with the other teachers, the assistant language teachers eat lunch with the children to give them more exposure to the English language. It’s also a good way of getting to know the students and making them feel more comfortable around us.
Accompanied by their teacher, students bring a trolley assorted with food into the classroom, and in a cafeteria-like fashion, students line up and get their food before returning to their seats. Sometimes the kids play Janken (rock paper scissors) to decide who will have me eat with them at their table that day. It's really fun. I love my students.
Every day we choose a small number of students to become “class leaders” giving them an opportunity to learn how to lead the rest of the class with certain activities or jobs. Class leaders will say "let's eat", which in Japanese is "itadakimasu", and after, everyone says "thank you for the meal", or "goshosamadeshita". In groups, students then clean the classroom and hallways.
What are the major cultural differences between getting a job in Japan compared to the UK?
Living here, I’ve come to realise that Japanese people are generally very work driven and hold a lot of pride in their career and themselves. This means that to be successful, you should show the same strong and healthy work ethic.
Determination and motivation are great characteristics to have when looking for a job in Japan. Use as many resources as you can and don’t be afraid of applying for areas outside of what you know. Being open and willing to experience a new way of life will help you adapt to your new life. I had no teaching experience when I moved here, but now, I’ve learned a lot, I take pride in my job, and I find it truly rewarding and enjoyable.
Images courtesy Shaun