I have been living my dream life in Japan for a year now. While it has been a dream come true, there are also many things that I wish I knew before I moved here and started teaching English in Japan.
15 Things I wish I knew before teaching English in Japan
I am an assistant language teacher (ALT) for the JET program living in the heart of Tokyo. Here is a comprehensive list of 15 things I wish I knew before I made the move to Japan:
1. You don’t need a teaching degree, but you do need to be qualified
It is true that you do not need a teaching degree or even teaching experience to become an English teacher in Japan. However, it is important to remember that it is a competitive market. If you are lacking teaching qualifications, then you will need to make up for it in other categories.
Any teaching experience is better than none. Whether you work at a summer camp, tutor on weekends or work as an assistant teacher, it will benefit you to have some form of experience working with children prior to working in a Japanese classroom.
You should also make the effort to take a TEFL course and get TEFL certified before teaching English in Japan.
2. You will have to embrace the Japanese work culture
Japanese work culture has earned its reputation for a reason. If you are unaware of that reputation, then it is extra important to do your research. I am fortunate and my teaching position has strict hours and overtime is not allowed. But, the intense work culture still exists in my workplace and can cause tension between my coworkers and the ALTs.
While you and other assistant language teachers may leave at 5:00 P.M. every day, many of your coworkers will be in the office until 8:00 P.M. or later. This can create awkward hostility or tension between you and your hard-working coworkers. Learning how to consciously and considerately navigate this circumstance can transform your relationship with your them, especially if you are co-teaching. Every school is different and has its own culture, but generally most schools expect teachers to put in long hours.
Be prepared to work weekends. Saturday school is not just for detention in Japan. Schools often hold classes on Saturday. You may even be asked to work on a Sunday if there is a festival or event scheduled then.
3. You will need to budget your salary
The salary for most assistant language teachers is relatively low. Since I was placed at a school in Tokyo, my salary is stretched further than if I had been placed in a rural school. I quickly learned that between rent, food, and spontaneous trips that I would need to be wise with my salary and create a smart budget.
Prior to living here, I always loved the idea of being able to eat cheap meals from 7/11 and other convenience stores. However, I learned that grocery stores are much cheaper than my favorite convenience stores. I also had to learn how to love cooking in my tiny, inconvenient kitchen. While it sometimes feels like a painful task, it is much cheaper to cook at home than to eat out, especially in Tokyo.
Sacrifices are inevitable when planning a budget on the salary as an English teacher in Japan. Buying clothes is no longer as essential as putting money toward a once in a lifetime trip. It can be helpful to find friends that are also ALTs or earning a similar salary as you. That way you can be each other’s champions and be able to make similar economic choices together.
If money is a concern, you can also take comfort that if you work hard and get into the right positions Japan can still pay some of the highest salaries for teaching English abroad. Try and get a job at an international school or university if this is something that you’re aiming for.
4. You Should Learn Basic Japanese Etiquette
Many Western countries are known for having a pretty relaxed attitude toward etiquette and formality, but Japan maintains the tradition of formal etiquette. You will definitely want to know how to greet your new boss with a formal Japanese phrase and bow. This etiquette will follow itself into the classroom for most Japanese schools as well.
Learning the right kind of etiquette practices can make or break your first impression on many people that you meet. Whether it is your boss, coworkers or new friends, it is expected that you will learn these habits and know when to use them correctly.
You should also anticipate many of your Japanese friends remaining polite with you, even after you have been friends with them for some time. This can be hard for many people as they navigate new friendships. Just try to remember that it is part of the culture and does not reflect a lack of comfortability or friendship around you.
5. There are many ways to travel around Japan
One of the great things about traveling in Japan is that you have many options to adjust the trip to make it more affordable. While the shinkansens are famous for their speed and punctuality, they can be expensive to take for every trip you want to go on. Luckily, there are alternative options that are much more affordable.
While taking the bus may not be the most luxurious or comfortable ride, it can save you hundreds of dollars. You can take a round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto for approximately $30 USD if you take an overnight bus. Overnight buses may not give you the best night sleep of your life, but they are very affordable and can allow you to spend your money on other things.
6. Embrace the seasons of Japan
Japan not only experiences each season, but also chooses to celebrate each season in unique ways. Not only are there many festivals to celebrate each season, Japanese markets and convenient stores will also sell seasonal foods and snacks. While this is definitely part of genius-level marketing, you can only truly experience all the flavors of Japan if you embrace the seasonal culture.
If you do embrace it, then also remember not to get too attached to any of your newfound favorite treats! The basic rule to follow: If you see something new that sparks your interest, try it before it’s gone!
7. Save Money on Rent
Whenever I was placed in Tokyo, I was extremely excited to be living in the metropolitan area. My school is in the center of Tokyo and I wanted to live close to it so that my transportation to and from work would not take too much time. My mistake was not doing my own research on cheaper areas and apartments near the area.
I chose an apartment in a busy area and I am paying for that decision monthly. Even though I do love the convenience of where I live and how close it is to very popular neighborhoods, I also would probably be better off living in a less popular area where my rent would be cheaper.
Ultimately, you will probably not be spending too much time in your apartment. Choosing a place that will help you save money every month is definitely worth it in the long run.
8. Don’t let the language barrier prevent you from trying things
There are some misconceptions about English proficiency in Japan. While many people, especially retail workers, can communicate with basic English, there is also a large percentage of non-English speakers.
This can be really intimidating for non-Japanese speakers, but I really encourage everyone to not let the language barrier scare you. While the linguistic barrier may exist, non-verbal language goes a lot further than you may think.
Learning key phrases and using Google translate can be just the right amount of communication necessary to feel confident in any situation. I especially recommend learning the phrase “Osusume wa nan desu ka?”. This translates to “What do you recommend?” This can allow you to learn the local cuisine of your area on a much more intimate note than ordering the most popular item on the menu.
9. Bring familiar snacks to remind you of home
Prior to arriving in Japan, I could only think about how delicious the Japanese snacks were going to be. I could not wait to try all of the new treats and enjoy my new Japanese diet. I didn’t anticipate how difficult and expensive it would be to access foods that remind me of home.
Being homesick is something that you should account for. One small way to help solve this problem is by having some of your favorite familiar snacks with you.
Although you can’t bring several food-related items into the country, there are many things you can bring. I encourage bringing your favorite sauces, spices, and packaged snacks. There are several chains of grocery stores that carry imported goods. However, the cost for these items is usually double to triple the cost that you would pay at home.
10. Use Meetup, Facebook, and other websites to find friends and do fun activities
While some ALTs make friends with their coworkers, it is also common to struggle with forming connections with them. Finding friends in Japan can be challenging, especially if you do not speak Japanese.
There are many websites that help with this exact problem. Meetup is great because you can type your hobby or interest into the search bar and find a group of people who are meeting up to share their interest in that hobby. For example, I’ve joined a book club and a yoga club through Meetup and have found people with common interests as me through those groups.
There are also many groups on Facebook for foreign residents in Japan. International and local events are often posted in these groups as an open invitation. These groups can also be helpful in providing important information about traveling, resale opportunities, and networking events.
11. Be Prepared to Teach by the Textbook
I thought that my years of teaching experience in the U.S. would fully prepare me for teaching in classrooms in Japan. While some of the teaching strategies I learned do still apply, I pretty much had to throw my teaching style and philosophy out the window.
In the U.S. teachers are expected to create elaborate plans, align them with curriculum, and strategically plan how they will implement those plans into the classroom based on their students’ individual needs.
In Japan, teachers typically create lesson plans that involve teaching only the content in the textbook. Students take intensive exams that test them on content from their textbooks. Consequently, the focus rarely strays from that specific content. While some teachers may appreciate it if you have a more involved role in the classroom and bring in your own teaching style, you should never assume that all teachers will want that.
It is also common in Japanese classrooms for students to be shy when raising their hands or offering to volunteer an answer. Your expectations of student involvement will have to shift because the Western classroom is different from a Japanese classroom.
Students failing to volunteer in an American classroom might be seen as a failure of both the teacher and the student. However, in a Japanese classroom it is more acceptable for students to be shy when volunteering. Discipline is handled very differently in Japanese classrooms and it typically does not fall on the ALT to handle disciplinary matters, so always talk to your coworkers before making any rash disciplinary calls.
12. You Can Be Friendly with Your Students
In the U.S. there are many privacy laws that prevent teachers from connecting with their students on a personal level. Not only are their laws, but classroom management theories also suggest that teachers should maintain a level of distance in order to maintain authority.
However, as an assistant language teacher from a foreign country, it is encouraged for you to be personal with your Japanese students. Students are eager to know about your hobbies and personal life. They see it as a reflection of your culture and your country.
Respect is much more ingrained into the typical Japanese classroom, so there is less pressure on you to earn and maintain respect from the students.
Being open and personal with your students helps them with feeling more confident to share personal information about themselves during conversation practice. Of course, remember that you are a teacher and there are boundaries, but feel free to open up about your hobbies, how you spend your holidays, and even your music taste.
13. Create Extra lessons during your spare time
While most of the time you either are not expected to plan or you are creating lessons that follow a rigid plan, there are times when teachers will ask you to teach a lesson that you have created and planned. These lessons should be creative and reflective of you as a teacher.
While it would be ideal for teachers to ask you days or weeks in advance for a lesson like this, that is not always the case. It is in your best interest to have a backup folder for spare lessons to teach. You can use this in the case that a teacher asks you to have one prepared for the class you are supposed to teach in a couple of hours.
14. Culture Shock
This one is probably the most obvious. Culture shock is to be expected whenever moving to any new country with cultural norms that are different from your own. Doing research about the culture helps. However, it’s also important to keep an open mind because even the best of research may leave out some aspects of the culture that might shock you.
Being highly aware of your surroundings and considerate of others is ingrained into the culture. Talking to your friend on the train to make the time pass will result in unwanted stares and scoffs. Eating while walking in the street is also considered impolite. Japan functions smoothly on the basis that there are a set of rules to follow and you will definitely receive unwanted attention if you do not comply with this.
Having open discussions about your experience with culture shock can also help with the transition. Learning more about why certain norms are followed can help you learn more about the culture in general. It can also help to make friends that are familiar with your own culture. That way you can bond and share similar experiences with your culture shock.
15. Plan Trips (even if you have to travel alone)
One of the most difficult aspects of moving abroad can be loneliness. It can be difficult to make friends who want to travel and explore Japan as much as you do. Becoming comfortable with traveling and doing activities by yourself can be essential to getting the most out of your time in Japan.
Japan has so much to offer as far as geographical diversity, so take advantage of it! Go skiing and check out winter festivals in the Hokkaido/ Sapporo region. Surf the waves in Okinawa in the summer.
Many foods and products in Japan are domestically sourced. It can be cool to check out your favorite foods and products from the cities where they came from. Each region has its own set of customs and cultural norms and the best way to learn about them is by getting up close and personal.
Some last words of advice
When you move to a new country it can be awkward and alienating at times. The best way to make the transition smoother is to do as much research as possible. The more research, the less situations where you feel helpless.
Making a Japanese friend can also help you. They can assist you to set up a bank account, file your new residency, and navigate all of the paperwork needed for living here can make the first few months less daunting.
The most important thing to remember is to simply have fun and push yourself to explore and try new things. Living anywhere new can be scary and overwhelming, but it can also be invigorating and life-changing.
Never be afraid to ask for help or reach out to someone who you think could be a potential friend. Enjoy your time in Japan and embrace Japanese culture!
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