The Sensei Blues: Teaching English in Japan

It was the weekend paper that introduced me to English teaching in Japan. Not long before, I had returned from an around the world trip, and was back ensconced in my previous life: my office cubicle cage and suburban security. Anything seemed preferable to this, and it was onto this fertile ground that the seed of an overseas travel and employment opportunity fell. The advertisement pointed out that it was a chance to start a new career, learn about a foreign culture, and earn $50,000 a year at the same time.

This was the year 2K, and the financial situation has changed significantly in the short time since then, the yen having fallen approximately 50% against the Australian dollar. Nevertheless, Japan still exerts enough of an attraction to keep a significant number of people from English-speaking nations flowing into the country each year, looking to try their hands at teaching their mother tongues.

The vast majority come either as participants on the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme, or as an employee of one of the “Big 4” commercial English Schools, who have branches all over Japan. The former will teach children within the Japanese education system, and the latter will teach students of all ages and form part of the national phenomena known as eikaiwa, or English conversation schools. When I say all ages, I’m not joking. I’ve sung and danced my way through classes of crying 2-year-olds as they sit on their ambitious mothers’ laps, and struggled to fit new sounds and grammatical concepts into the long-hardened linguistic pigeon-holes that have formed within the brains of 80-year-olds.

The students’ motivations and goals vary, as well as their abilities. Weary businessmen trudge along in the evenings, preparing for an overseas posting, bored housewives enthusiastically pursue their new hobby, cram school teachers and tertiary students enroll to practice what they’ve learnt, and children are sent by their parents, who hope it will give them the edge they need to get accepted into a better high school or more prestigious university. I’ve taught company directors, factory workers, flight attendants, policemen, chefs, orthodontists, taxi drivers, hostesses and a couple of Buddhist priests.

Similarly, the reasons why people flock to become English teachers are different. Some, like I was, are looking for the chance to kill two birds with one stone, see a country that is notoriously expensive to travel in on a normal backpacker’s budget, and earn some money at the same time. Some come straight from university, their bachelor’s degree satisfying the visa requirements, and a job in Japan offering the opportunity to start paying back their student loans. Some are looking for a change in direction, or a temporary break from their current careers. All descend on a country no longer enjoying the heady days of the “Bubble Economy”, which burst in the late 1980s, but still an intriguing option.

So what kind of life can the newly-arrived English teachers expect? Largely it will depend on where they live and work. Even outside the larger cities, life is generally very convenient, with regular trains and buses the norm, 24-hour convenience stores, supermarkets, restaurants and the ubiquitous vending machines selling hot and cold drinks, beer, sake, and cigarettes. In fact, a place that the average Japanese person would consider as “countryside”, would generally be regarded as a large town by most Australians.

Nevertheless, one’s lifestyle in downtown Osaka, or central Tokyo, will obviously tend to be a lot more lively (not to mention expensive) than that of someone living amongst the rice fields of rural Kyushu, or in the harsh winters of northern Hokkaido. There will also be a significantly greater opportunity (or risk, depending on your perspective) of falling in with the ex-pat crowd, and living on a diet of hamburgers, Heineken, work complaints, and a large number of conversations that begin with, “You know what I really miss?” In the smaller towns you might not see another gaijin, or foreigner, all day (if you do, the accepted etiquette is a nod and a smile).

Either way, work will probably be a large part of your life, even more so if you are employed by an English conversation school. In this case, your other English-speaking colleagues will probably also become your social network, especially if you also have to live together. My first year in Japan was spent living in a small, overpriced, three-bedroom company apartment, with two other co-workers. Two of the rooms were separated by shoji, sliding doors made from paper. It doesn’t take much imagination to get an idea of the acute lack of privacy involved with such a domestic arrangement. In fact, despite having spent most of my adult life in shared accommodation, my memories of that year include the pervasive feeling of suffocation, a lack of space, and the desire for solitude.

The other side of the coin are the many rural JET participants. Despite their higher wages and generally much better working conditions, they may find themselves isolated and unhappy, lacking close contacts to help them make sense of their new circumstances in a strange culture.

And a strange culture it is in many ways, though not as alien as one might expect. Although there are a myriad of cultural differences, some obvious, and others only revealing themselves after years, Japan is essentially a modern capitalist country, whose citizens are generally non-religious, and whose goals in life are much the same as those of most Australians.

But back to a “Day in the Life” of an average teacher at an English conversation school.

Firstly, he or she will wake late. Weekly teaching schedules consist mainly of afternoon and evening shifts as most students come after school or work. Quite possibly our subject will be nursing a hangover.

Time permitting, breakfast will consist of white bread (wholemeal bread or brown rice is practically unheard of in Japan). Otherwise a rice ball or two from a convenience store on the way to the station will be washed down by a can of coffee on the train. Hopefully the commute isn’t too far, and the train not too crowded at this hour.

Upon arrival at the school (usually located in the vicinity of a large train station) there is an appraisal of the teacher’s student list for the day, accompanied by sounds of disapproval or acceptance, depending on how many low-level/troublesome/boring/annoying students appear on the schedule. Many of the more infamous students had nicknames at one school I worked at, such as “Grunty” (reflecting her communicative ability), or “The Beast” (bad breath). It may sound cruel, but I think it helped keep the teachers sane, and relieve the ennui that generally encroaches upon their working lives.

The biggest enemy of the English teacher is boredom. Teaching 8 classes a day, each one 40 or 50 minutes long, can be tiring, but what will get most people in the end is the sheer monotony of repeating the same lesson over and over again, as is required at most big language schools. Initially lessons are often enlightening, and give the teacher the chance to learn a lot about the culture through conversation with students. There are, however, only so many times you can be interested in finding out that a student’s hobbies are watching Hollywood movies and sleeping, and that their favourite music is Japanese Pop. The lower the student’s level is, the more mind space is left for daydreaming, and I was amazed at how I started to live a parallel life during lessons, having completely unrelated thoughts going on in my head, while on the surface still teaching a class.

After 8 hours of this, broken up with a supermarket lunch box, or a trip to a nearby noodle shop, you’re free for what remains of the night. Maybe this entails a quiet evening studying Japanese. Most people make at least some effort to try and understand the language, and community classes are often very cheap, or even free. Or you might have a night out with co-workers where you’ll re-cap on the day’s events and all agree how much you dislike your company. Some teachers take up or continue pastimes such as martial arts, calligraphy, or Japanese cooking.

A quick word about expenses: Japan is often renown and feared for its cost of living, and although this reputation is definitely justified in many respects, it doesn’t apply across the board. For example, a bottle of whisky will be about half the price compared to Australia. Orange juice, tofu, ice cream and white goods are all cheaper than in Australia, although you’re more likely to buy rock melons as a birthday present for a good friend, rather than include them on your regular grocery list. You can part with over $100 for one of the brand name versions in an upmarket department store!

And while the global trend is to reduce smoking in the interests of public health, often by imposing heavy taxes, giving up nicotine in Japan is made difficult by the fact that the government runs and profits from the tobacco business. Thus it allows you to smoke practically anywhere, offers mild warnings on packets such as “be careful not to smoke too much”, and sells cigarettes out of vending machines for around $3 a pack.

However, moving into your own apartment is prohibitively expensive. A huge non-refundable “appreciation gift” to your new landlord is necessary in most cases, and this often amounts to several thousand dollars. On the positive side, you can often furnish your apartment with other people’s discarded items. These are left out for collection once a month, and people part with usable, and often quite new items, to make space for the latest and greatest. And what you can’t find on the side of the road is often available in the 100 Yen shops, where everything costs less than $1.

It may be a short-term distraction for some, or the beginning of a new life and career for others. It may at times be teeth-gratingly frustrating or mind-numbingly boring. It may be mysterious, alluring, baffling, expensive, or just plain strange. Whatever your take on it is, living and teaching English in Japan remains an attractive option for many people, an experience which, with the right mind-set, can give you an insight into a unique country and culture. It may even force you to learn something about grammar. Now, did I just use too many compound words to modify the adjectives in this paragraph? You’d think I’d be use to it by now…or is that “used to”?

Additional Information
There are a whole host of websites and books that deal with living and teaching in Japan, and they extend across the gamut of seriousness and usefulness. Almost any question you could have has been asked before, and many sites include forums where you can post your query, or search the database for previous responses. A few of these sites, which often include links or recommendations to other literature, are listed below:

Ishikawa JET Blog – a blog about living and working as a foreigner in Ishikawa. – Includes a lot of advice and information about travelling in different regions in Japan, transportation, general life issues, visas, and just about anything pertaining to Japan. – You’ll find loads of information on life in Japan, including accommodation and jobs listings, as well as a comprehensive (and often irreverent) forum.

www.eltnews.coml – A site dealing primarily with teaching English in Japan.