Teaching English in Japan – An Overview

Teaching English in Japan – An Overview
Florian
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Teaching English is the most popular job among newcomers to Japan, and there are good reasons for that. But what exactly does being an English teacher mean – and is it worth it? Read on to find out.

Job: English Teacher

English teaching is often called a “gateway job” for foreigners in Japan. It’s easy to get, doesn’t come with too many requirements and enables people to establish a first foothold in the country.

The reason for this is because, well – the demand is high. Among an ever-rising need for international communication and despite many efforts to increase the English proficiency of students, Japan has somehow managed to only classify as being at a low proficiency level on the “overall English performance” scale. In 2018, it ranked as #49 out of 89 countries on the EF English Proficiency Index.

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Because of its easy accessibility, a job in English teaching offers many opportunities. First and foremost, it’s a job that offers a stable income and lets you stay in Japan for a year at least. After the first year, you can, of course, choose to stay in the industry and move up to a school staff position eventually. But you can also pivot into other careers through regular job hunting, especially if you’re still in your 20s.

Common English teaching positions

“English teacher” is just an umbrella term for different jobs with differing requirements, conditions, and opportunities. Your experiences will vary depending on which of the job types below you go for.

ALT

“ALT” is the abbreviated form of “Assistant Language Teacher”. Teachers in this position act – as the name says – as assistants to the actual English teachers at Japanese public elementary, junior high and high schools. In addition to being teachers, they also have a cultural ambassador function. Other than teaching, they also assist with class preparation and interact with students during extracurricular activities.

The two most common ways to become an ALT are the JET Programme or an appointment through Interac.

The JET Programme is a Japanese government initiative. It receives support from official institutions such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). The basic appointment period is one year. If the teacher performs well, the stay can be extended to up to four times (netting a total of five years).

Interac, on the other hand, is a private company. One of the upsides is that its positions don’t come with a maximum amount of contract extensions – you can continue teaching as long as you want. However, the pay is generally lower.

Because JET and Interac jobs are mostly at public schools all across Japan, the probability of getting a position in a rural area is relatively high. Thus, having a driver’s license (and some driving experience) will increase your prospects.

English Conversation School teacher

The Japanese shorthand for “English Conversation School” is Eikaiwa (英会話, えいかいわ). Eikaiwa teachers are employees at private English education companies.

Eikaiwa classes are mostly intended to be taken after school/work or during the weekends. In that sense, English Conversation Schools can be seen as a variation of the typical cram school (塾, じゅく). Some schools even have that description in their official name.

In contrast to students at public schools, students coming to Eikaiwa usually do so with a goal (that either they or their well-meaning parents have decided on). Often, that goal involves test preparation, be it for (junior) high school/university entrance exams or tests such as TOEIC or TOEFL.

However, some customers (most likely in their 20s and up) just want to learn to be able to make new and different kinds of friends or brush up their English skills for an upcoming trip abroad.

People choosing the Eikaiwa route have many companies and schools to choose from. Here’s a list of some options:

  • ■ Berlitz
  • ■ Linguage
  • ■ ECC
  • ■ Gaba
  • ■ NOVA
  • ■ AEON
  • ■ Coco

Preschool & Kindergarten teacher

As the title says, this job will have you teaching English to kids at the preschool level. More than teaching grammar and all that difficult stuff, your focus will be on creating fun activities for children (that also include English in some way, of course).

Contrary to ALT positions, for most of these jobs, you need to already be in Japan to apply. To find offers, try using a job search site aimed at foreigners like Daijob or Gaijinpot.

Business English teacher

ALT and Eikaiwa jobs will, most of the time, have you teaching to a younger audience – students, basically. On the business level, on the other hand, you’ll be teaching “experienced members of society”, called 社会人 (しゃかいじん) in Japanese.

Naturally, expectations will be higher, and your focus will be more on the practical side. If the typical high school or university student’s goal is passing a test, business clients want English skills they can use on business trips or for communication with overseas branch offices.

Most of the English Conversation Schools listed above have dedicated “Business English” courses, but there are also places focusing on the business aspect exclusively, like Rizap English and Toraiz.

Online teacher

This kind of English teaching job is special in that depending on your employer, you may not need to be in Japan at all to teach. You’ll most likely be talking to customers using applications like Skype.

Salary and work hours

The typical full-time English Eikaiwa teacher gets paid around 3 million yen a year (which means monthly payments of around 250,000 yen).

Of course, that is only an average. Some positions – especially those in the countryside – come with lower pay (around 2.4 to 2.7 million yen/year). Some schools offer slightly higher pay in the range of around 3.2 to 3.4 million.

On the plus side, an average salary allows you to pay all your regular monthly bills (rent, utilities as well as food and drink). In most cases, transportation to and from the workplace is covered by the company/the school. You’ll be able to make a living in Japan without constantly having to search for new jobs.

On the minus side, don’t expect to lead an opulent lifestyle. Sure, you don’t have to become an ascetic. Going to the local bar/karaoke/some live events, buying some new clothes or taking short trips to non-faraway places is very much possible. But chances are you’ll have to pass up on regularly getting the newest tech or fashion – unless you want your bank account to go down to literal zero every month.

Well, that sounded a bit negative, so here are some words of consolation: If you’re in your early twenties, you’ll be making about as much money as your average Japanese peer. So at least for the first few years, there’s no need to feel inferior.

The highest-paying English teaching jobs are at the university and international school level. Here, you can expect around 4 million yen and more per year. However, these positions usually require some English as a second language (ESL) teaching qualifications as well as classroom experience, so they’re not as easy to get.

Requirements

Because English teaching jobs are so common among foreigners, it’s easy to be under the impression that everyone is doing it and there are almost no requirements. While there is some truth to that, there are some things that you have to consider. Here are answers to often-asked questions.

Do you need a degree?

To teach English in Japan, you need a visa that allows you to work here. In general, a Bachelors’ degree (or an equivalent degree of higher education) is one of the must-have requirements for a regular working visa. So, finding an English teaching job without a degree can be tricky.

Getting a Working Holiday Visa is one way to bypass the degree requirement. As long as you plan to only stay for up to one year and happen to be from one of the countries where this visa is available, this may be the way to go.

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Having experience in teaching (3-10 years depending on the position) is another way around the college degree. This will technically enable you to get the “Engineer/ Expert in Humanities/ International Services” visa.

However, if you’re starting without any teaching experience, spending three years to get a Bachelor’s degree might be the faster option. Since any degree will do, you could always study something more career-oriented and still become an English teacher.

Do you need a teaching certification?

Not necessarily. For example, most big private conversation schools (Eikaiwa) only require candidates to be able to speak English on a native level. They might consider certifications a strong asset, but don’t outright require them.

The reason for this, of course, comes down to money. To increase their customer base, private schools want to offer lessons at competitive (i.e. low) prices. While people with certifications or a background in education might be more qualified, they also tend to cost the companies more because they ask for more money (rightly so!). As a result, schools and programs that focus on affordability often rely on “untrained” English speakers.

This practice has both its positive and negative sides. People looking at it from a purely educational perspective might (understandably) find it outrageous to settle for such low standards.

The cost-cutting, of course, leads to overall lower wages for people teaching English in Japan. You could also argue that this hurts the job prospects of people that went through the process of getting a dedicated education in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL).

On the other hand, you could say that this hiring practice “gives everyone a chance”. If you speak native-level English and want to teach – you can come! For the Japanese learners, it also enables easier access to English education outside of their schools, universities or workplaces.

If you have a proper teaching certification, try to apply to job offers at the university level (or international schools). These jobs are not as abundant and thus more competitive but give you better compensation for your (past) efforts.

Do you need to be a native speaker?

“Language level: Native” is a requirement you’ll see in many job openings. This is mostly because many schools use terms like “native” and “native speaker” as marketing tools. “Look!” they tell their customers, “our teachers have been speaking English for all their life! They are the real deal and know what they are doing!”

You will, therefore, have a natural advantage if you’re from an English-speaking country or have grown up bilingually. However, there’s no need to give up immediately if English doesn’t happen to be your mother tongue.

Here’s why!
I bet you were already thinking this, but being a native isn’t everything. Most people that run English schools know that there are certifications for English teaching. Even if they don’t consider it a top priority, many will see them as a plus. As a non-native, try to leverage that advantage.

Also, as long as you speak English well enough, what country you are from or what language(s) you were raised with might not matter after all.

Especially at Eikaiwa, the “native speakers” promise is aimed at the customers – meaning, most of the time, the parents of the kids you are teaching. I’ve met quite a few Japanese people that had no clue what the native languages of some European and Asian countries were.

So, if your English SOUNDS native (meaning: no strong accent and as close to “standard” American or British English as possible), then you still have good chances. You sometimes hear stories of native speakers that were turned down because their natural accents didn’t sound “native enough” to the people at the school they were applying to.

If you’re having trouble finding positions in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, consider looking at jobs in the countryside. While you’ll have to pass up on the hustle and bustle of big city life, your chances as a non-native are likely to be higher. You’ll also be able to experience Japan’s lesser-known sides and locations (especially if you speak some Japanese to interact with the locals)!

On visa and visa sponsorship

Depending on what kind of position you choose, your visa will be different. ALT jobs require you to have an Instructor visa, while Eikaiwa jobs call for the visa type “Specialist in Humanities”. This also means that you can’t change from one job type to the other halfway through without getting a different visa first.

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Since JET and private ALT dispatching companies like Interac are expecting to hire people from abroad, visa sponsorship will already be included.

With Eikaiwa, it’s not so easy. There’s no single answer – you’ll have to check the websites and/or job offers of the respective companies to find out if they’re able to sponsor. If they don’t, the job offer will require you to already hold a visa that makes you eligible to work in Japan to take the job.

Teaching English – a summary

There are good reasons for why English teaching is so popular among foreigners first coming to Japan. At the base level, it provides you with an excellent opportunity to get to know the country on a day-to-day level and to truly immerse yourself in the culture, including everything from daily chores to work to vacation.

The industry is not without downsides, but if you’ve always wanted to come to Japan long-term and have a passion for education, getting an English teaching job might just be your thing. There are more opportunities now than ever – so try and snatch one for yourself!

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Florian

My love for ninjas and interest in Chinese characters (kanji) were what first made me come to Japan, as a high school student. Over ten years and many visits later, I’ve found a job here and have chosen it as my new home.