A few people have asked me about teaching English in Japan, so I thought that I'd put together a brief FAQ. Thank you to my friend Stephanie, who works for JET and has sent me some additional information to add to this!

What experience or qualifications do I need to teach English in Japan?

Firstly, you need a bachelor's university degree in any subject - I believe this is a requirement for your working visa. Most companies require you to have spent at least 12 years in English-speaking education, as you are meant to be a native speaker of English.

You don't need teaching experience, a teaching qualification or any TEFL/ESL certificates, although they certainly won't hurt your chances with some schools, and may mean that you can haggle for a higher wage. Some jobs advertised do require qualified teacher status or a minimum amount of experience, but the ALT recruiting companies normally don't. A positive attitude, a good grasp of the English language and a friendly face will go a long way.

How can I apply to teach English in Japan?

There are two main English teaching jobs - ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) or English instructor. ALTs usually work in public schools as an assistant to the main teacher, while English instructors will manage their entire classrooms alone but in private conversation schools (eikaiwa) or cram schools (juku).

For ALT jobs, the most famous is the JET programme. Keep in mind that application takes around a year, and it is quite hard to get onto the programme. If you manage it, though, your flight will be reimbursed, your accommodation subsidised and your wage higher - but you will have to go into school every day, including during holidays, where you will have no classes. I work for Interac, who do not offer as many financial advantages, but do provide you will 5 weeks of holiday (at 60% pay) during the summer, 2 weeks at Christmas and all the usual national holidays.

For private language schools, some of the names that I have heard are Aeon, Gaba, Nova, ECC... I would suggest that you research any school by searching forums etc for what other people are saying. Keep in mind, of course, that some people are just naturally negative and will poison their companies' reputation because of something that was actually their own mistake. Some companies might even post slander about rival companies in order to damage their reputations, so don't let a couple of negative comments put you off - research thoroughly!

You can search for the companies' websites directly to apply, or you can look on TEFL jobs websites - http://www.tefl.com/, http://www.eslcafe.com/ (International Job Forums), http://www.seriousteachers.com/, or by typing "ESL" or "TEFL" "jobs" into a search engine.

Some people manage to get their working visas, or working holiday visas, and then find work while they are in Japan. Alteratively you can come over on a tourist visa, apply for work and find somebody to sponsor your work visa.

It is possible to pick up a lot of private lessons in some places, too - some people find that they can make enough money through private lessons to use it as their sole source of income, without working for a specific company or school. However, this will make it more difficult to have your visa sponsored.

Should I apply from home, or come to Japan and begin job-hunting?

Many companies in Japan (like most of Asia) recruit online in other countries, so it is very possible to apply from home - saving you the risk of spending a lot of money to fly out here, only to be disappointed. However, as I mentioned - some people do come over and search for jobs once here. It's do-able, and since the Tohuku earthquake there have been a lot more openings, as many teachers have gone back home. If you're willing to work north of Tokyo, particularly in the affected prefectures (Miyagi, Ibaraki, Fukushima or Iwate - "MIFI"), you might find yourself being offered a higher salary and more benefits than most English teachers in Japan have become used to.

If you already have friends over here and a little money behind you, you could fly over, stay at someone's house and search for jobs and/or private lessons from there. Keep in mind that you'd need enough to survive until your first paycheck, which might not come until a month or so after you start working. I can tell you that Hamamatsu has a few jobs going, and I'm always hearing about new private lessons. Plus, if you're really nice and contact me, I could put you in touch with some people who could help you out!

Is the market over-saturated with teachers?

I see this comment on forums a lot, and it sounds as if people are trying to scare off the competition. As I said, since the earthquake, there seem to be a lot more jobs. A friend of mine applied for about 100 jobs recently. She is a qualified teacher with a lot of experience and a very energetic personality, and she told me that a few weeks later she was receiving two or three job offers a day! The more I network in Hamamatsu (and advertise online), the more private lessons I find out about. A lot of people who move away don't advertise their classes, but rather ask around their social networks, so the more people you know the higher your chances of finding extra work. It feels, to me at least, that there are jobs a-plenty for a lot of native speakers over here.

Don't take that as me saying that you're guaranteed a job in Japan, but if you're enthusastic, good and persistent (experience and knowing the right people doesn't help, either) then I'd say you're very likely to find something.

How much money can I expect to make?

The average ALT salary is about 250,000JPY a month. At the moment, that's pretty high (check http://www.xe.com/ for a conversation rate), we're talking an annual salary equal to or more than the starting salary of a qualified teacher in the UK (keep in mind that you don't need to be a qualified teacher to do this). Interac technically pays around 233,000 a month if you average it out (with holidays), while JET teachers earn around 300,000 a month (before tax, health insurance and pension). Conversation schools (eikaiwa) usually pay somewhere between these two figures, and some companies will let you supplement this income with private lessons, which can pay anything from 2000円 to 10,000円 an hour (perhaps more or less, who knows)!

Private lessons depend on where you live. If you're the only native speaker for miles, you can charge more, of course. If you're in a city full of native speakers, there's always someone who could undercut you, so the pay is generally a little less. But I'm talking about one-on-one students, the kind where you set the price yourself. The average for these is about 2000円 an hour. However, there are also large classes that look for native speakers to teach, or even just to join in their conversations. These might be after-school "juku" or "English clubs" for kids, or adult classes run at various businesses. These pay a lot more, as each member is paying to join the class. I've heard figures from 3500円 to 6000円 an hour, but there's potential for more.

If you have the energy and means to get to them in time, private lessons can be a great supplement to your income. Imagine you do one business class per week, 90 minutes of intermediate adult conversation for 4000 an hour. Then, you meet somebody in Starbucks for one-on-one lessons over coffee and they give you 2000 for the hour. That's already an extra 8000JPY a week for 2.5 hours of your time - that's the weekend sorted! Or you can fill up your schedule with private lessons and do nothing else, as some people do.

The pay is generally good compared to many countries, but it correlates with the cost of living. If you can save up, then you can save a lot. One thing that's important to remember, though, is that there are a lot of set-up costs.

What are the set-up costs?

Well, let's say that you're not working for a school that will pay for your flight. First, you have to fly to Japan. I'd recommend http://www.cheapflights.co.uk/ or http://www.kayak.com/ to find cheap flights... I think they start at about 400GBP, but it depends on the time of year.

You'll need to survive for a couple of months before your first paycheck. Check the cost of living (in the next question) and add it to the set-up costs of an apartment. Most companies will give you subsidised housing or at least help you find somewhere and set it up. Apartments are a little extortionate here - landlords will charge you a deposit, 2 or 3 months' rent up front, "key money" (a non-refundable "thank you" gift to the landlord, not always necessary) and perhaps fire insurance. Rent ranges from 30,000円 to 70,000円 a month, higher in metropolitan areas, so Tokyo might be a lot more. Add to this the cost of furniture, cooking items etc.

Then, you'll have to think about what to buy before you come over here. If you're a big bigger, it'll be hard for you to find clothes over here, so I suggest stocking up beforehand. I went on one big business-clothes shopping trip in the UK before I flew over. To be honest, I'd do that whatever your size, as clothes here tend to be a bit more expensive than what you can find back home (in the UK, anyway... I miss Primark).

All in all, the recommended set-up costs are around 3000GBP or 5000USD, perhaps more if you really like drinking. Interac offer a loan of up to 200,000JPY that you pay back from your wages in installments over 6 months (with 1% interest), other companies might do the same. It's a lot of money but you'll make it back eventually, so it could be worth looking into loans or overdrafts for coming over here, but I won't advocate debt!

What is the cost of living?

Japan isn't as expensive as people tell you it is. Most of these numbers come from businessmen who never ventured outside the expensive parts of Tokyo. I'll give you my average costs (in JPY)...

Housing stuff

Rent: 60,000円 a month (this could be a tiny 19m2 place or a larger, 56m2 place that you share with someone else)... JET and some other companies subsidise this, though, so you could pay FAR less. Stephanie says of her experience:

"Depending on your placement on JET, you can luck out and get a really jammy placement. In Hamamatsu, some of our rents are as low as 6000 yen per month. Some of them don’t include water which may work out as another 1500-2000 per quarter. Mine is currently around 11,000 (which includes water) and I’m living 5 minutes from the city centre in a really nice place. The Hama BoE was also really kind and our apartments came furnished. The fridge, microwave, TV & furniture set, wardrobe, washing machine and kitchen storage unit were all included. Some of these items are rental items but everything has been paid for by the BoE. When I came, all I had to do was buy a bed but my predecessor left hers behind so it was a year before I finally decided to buy my own. It wasn’t difficult to get rid of the old one. In any case, my apartment was really furnished when I moved in. Hamamatsu JETs also didn’t have to deal with deposits or key money or the other stuff that normally comes with the hassle of getting an apartment. Everything was sorted out by the BoE and paid for by them. This has been my experience. Some other JETs I know have had similar experiences but at the end of the day, I guess it probably depends on contracting organisation. We’re really lucky that Hama BoE is so nice."

Electricity: 2000円/month
Gas: 3500円/month
Water: Sometimes included in rent, sometimes about 2000円/month
Phone bill: Can range from 3000円 to 10,000円 a month depending on usage
Tax: No "council tax" until your first year is over, as it's based on previous year's earnings in Japan. After that, it's about 17,000円 a month I believe.... ouch! However, it's worth noting that JET employees receive an extra 30,000 a month that they are meant to put to one side and use at the end to pay their taxes. So, depending on how you look at it, JET employees get 330,000 a month, or they don't have to pay taxes.
Pension: Some people don't pay into the pension scheme, but if you do it's around 10,000-15,000 a month. However, you can claim it back when you leave Japan, it usually takes 8 months or so.
Health insurance: Around 8000円/month, can be as much as 30,000円/month though!

*Some companies (Interac, for sure) and private lessons will pay your transportation costs.
A 20 minute bus ride: About 250円
A 30 minute train ride: About 450円
A 1-hour shinkansen (bullet train) ride: About 6000円
Tokyo-Hamamatsu by normal train: 4000円
Tokyo-Hamamatsu by bullet train: 8000円
Buy a bike! They're around 10,000円 new.
As for car costs, I can't be totally sure. A car might cost you about 200,000円 but I know Interac branches will cover this cost for you. Petrol/gas is expensive (but not as expensive as the UK), about 130円/litre. Every 3 years, a massive tax/check is due on all cars, about 250,000円... best to buy a car that doesn't have this coming up anytime soon.

Food and drink
Average meal: Can range dramatically from 280円 (at Sukiya) to 2500円. If you go to an izakaya with friends and share food and drinks, it can be around 2000円-3000円. Average meal, though, is about 1000円 (maybe with a drink)... there are lots of nice, reasonably priced places around!
Combini (convenience store): A bento box (packed lunch) is around 400円 to 500円, a sandwich 200円, a bottled drink around 150円.
Alcohol: Can depend SO much!! "One coin" bars offer drinks for 500円. Some places offer drinks for around 300円, while others go up to 800円. The best option is to find "nomi hodai" - all you can drink. I know one place that offers all you can drink for 980円 for 90 minutes! Average is around 1500円 for 90 minutes. At convenience stores and supermarkets, you can buy cans of alcoholic drinks for less than 100円.
Groceries: Around 3000円 a week, depending on what you buy. You can find a packet of udon noodles for 19円, and yet a packet of cereal will cost you around 400円. Fruit is pretty pricey (400円 for some strawberries) but fish is reasonable (300円 for 3 pieces of salmon). Don't try to stick to your old diet, and you can save money by "eating Japanese-style".
Hint: Kappa Sushi and other conveyor-belt sushi offer 105円 plates. Sukiya is cheap (but perhaps not so healthy). Many places offer good lunch time deals and set menus. Family restaurants usually have unlimited soft drinks for around 180円 and very reasonably priced food (e.g. Dennys, Gusto, Cocos etc).

Clothes: Expect to pay from 2000円 to 8000円 for a pair of trousers, shoes, a top; although there are second-hand stores around where they're much cheaper.
Accessories: Sorry, no idea. But these things are generally pretty pricey.
DVDs, games: Around 2000円 for a CD, maybe up to 5000円 for a new game!! Again, there are second hand stores.
Books: Same applies... a new book might set you back 1500円-2000円. But good foreigner communities usually pass around free books that they've read.
Household items: Pretty high, around 6000円 for a futon, 500円 per plate, 120円 for a fork, 10,000円 for a small toaster oven. BUT Japan has these wonderful things called 100-yen stores which sell all the small household items you could ever need (cleaning products, cooking items, cutlery, plates) and second hand stores where you can find cheap furniture (my couch was 3000円!).

Karaoke: Hamamatsu's cheap under-the-track karaoke costs about 100円 an hour, but usually you'll find weekends more expensive everywhere. Some places offer an hour of all you can drink (and sing) for about 1000円, although some can be a lot more expensive. Many also offer "free time" - something like 1500円 for as long as you want between 11pm and 4am!
Clubs: Club door prices can be very high. I've seen them start at 1000円 and go up to 3500円. Some bars will let you get in but then charge a table fee of 500円 to 1000円 (make sure first) - although there are plenty of places that won't charge extra.
Cinema: Expensive... about 1800円 to see a movie, but 450円 for a MASSIVE tub of popcorn. Stephanie tells me that the loyalty card schemes for cinemas are really good, for example watch 6 movies and get the 7th free, or free drinks and food when you collect a certain number of points.
Theme park entry: Around 4000円-5000円 usually, for the smaller parks to Disneyland! Saying that, the cheap ones in Hamamatsu are only around 500円 to 1000円.
Hostess bars: Fancy paying a Japanese lady to talk to you? These will cost you from 5000円 an hour for very little more than broken conversation and a bit of false flirting. I couldn't tell you the cost for "extras"...
Onsen: About 500円 for entry.

If there's anything I've missed, let me know! As you can see, the cost of living is pretty high, but you can save money if you're careful and wise. I'm sharing rent at the moment (so paying 30,000円 a month), doing a couple of extra private lessons, travelling once a month or so, eating meals at restaurants or izakayas once or twice a week. During the week, two of us split the cost of groceries and cook at home. After bills and all that, I'm still managing to put a fair bit away every month... although when I lived alone and was paying double what I do now in rent, travelling a lot and drinking a bit more - with no private lessons - I was breaking even every month. But I was still having a really good life, as you can see from the last year's blog.

What are the working conditions like?

Firstly, if you're in public schools, chances are that your hours will be 8am until 4.15pm or so on weekdays. Interac employees have the advantage of five weeks off in the summer, two at Christmas, and all national holidays off, too. JET employees, and perhaps other public school companies (or direct hires) get the national holidays but still have to come into school during other holidays - this could include Christmas day. The students won't be in the schools, so essentially you will be "preparing lessons", which for many means watching movies on your laptop. It's one of those strange Board of Education rules that everybody just obeys, although some nice schools might let you leave early. Stephanie adds, though, that it's perfectly fine for JET employees to store up their paid holidays and use them over the summer, and that it's down to cultural differences.

"Back home, the only jobs where the staff take summer & winter vacation are normally teachers. But school here is nothing like back home. We don’t have sports club and daily training throughout the summer. Japanese schools do, so Japanese teachers work. Back home if you were working for a company, you’d have the 3-5 weeks paid leave to be taken at whatever time you choose throughout the year. The Japanese work on this similar system like professional companies back home. JETs are held to the same standard because that’s the norm in the Japanese school system and we are government workers so why should we be held in a different regard? Our contract is very similar to the Japanese teachers’ contracts ...Whilst in Japan, it’s normal to attend school for extracurricular activites during the summer. Clubs are still in session, there are sports tournaments and brass-band concerts so the teachers are here too. It’s not a rule from the BoE that everyone just has to obey – it’s what’s normal life for people here. As foreigners, we probably look at it differently, so take paid leave for summer/winter vacation – after all, that’s what it’s there for."

It's worth noting that JET ALTs are directly employed by the Board of Education, whereas Interac is a separate (middle-man type) company. It seems that there are pros and cons to both; if you work for JET or are directly hired by the BoE, you can expect better pay and working conditions, but you are in turn expected to work the same days as the rest of the teachers. If you work for another company, you are given different treatment, although of course these holidays do not come at full salary. A friend of mine said to me once "JET teachers get the money, Interac teachers get the time". I suppose it totally depends on how much you enjoy being at your school and what you want out of your time here.

Personally, I enjoyed having the time to travel during the summer last year, most of that time not being a national holiday, meaning that places were far less crowded. I get quite bored sitting at my desk on days with one or two lessons, so I can't imagine going in every day in the summer... I think I would hoard my paid holidays and use them for summer or Christmas!
For Eikaiwas, the hours are very different. You won't start as early, perhaps even midday sometimes, but you won't come home until 8, 9 or even 11pm some nights. Most of my friends who work at Aeon, ECC etc have Mondays off, but have to work on Saturdays. In some cases you won't even get public holidays off, but I think you're entitled to more paid days off a year.

As for paid holidays, the offset advantage is that most companies will give you around 20 days a year to use as paid holidays or sick days... while Interac give you 5. This is because you still get paid for those long holidays, just less. For August, Interac ALTs receive 60% of normal pay, and about 75% for December. Your "paid holidays" are still being used, it's just that you don't get to decide when they are.

As I said, an ALT will be an assistant to the main teacher. Sometimes this means standing in the corner of the room, which will require zero preparation. Other times, you'll be expected to design, make and run the whole class, which could leave you very busy in between classes. Still, in depends on your Board of Education. I have 3 or 4 classes a day, leaving the rest of the day for preparation (or writing this FAQ). Friends in other areas have had their entire schedules loaded, although the maximum will be 6 classes a day (as that's what the schedules are). In elementary school, one class is 45 minutes, and in Junior High it's 50. There's usually a 10 minute break between each class, and you might be asked to eat lunch with the students, too.

I'm not as sure about Eikaiwas, but I know that people who work at them are always busy. You might jump from class to class all day without a break and stay late at night preparing lessons. Of course, in an English school like this, you run the show - so you will be busier, but at least it's YOUR class. I have heard some places described at sweatshops, though, so if you're a lazy kind of person, I'd recommend ALTing a little more...

Of course, private lessons can vary from teaching a small bunch of children to a one-on-one chat with a housewife over coffee, so the amount of preparation varies wildly. Travel time is up to you and how far you're willing to go for a class. You're your own boss here, but if you're running classes at some companies, they might have a very specific idea of how they want things done. They might ask you to prepare something - but often, you just sit and talk for an hour or two!

Do I need to speak Japanese?

As is the case in any country, it helps to learn some of the language before you go. Think of your own reactions when you meet people who've moved to your country but can't speak a word of English. How do you feel? How would you feel if someone came to your school to teach you their language but hadn't bothered to learn a word of English? Well, those are my thoughts.

Actually, some employers DON'T want you to be able to speak Japanese. They think that the kids will lose any incentive for speaking English if they can just speak to you in Japanese anyway. So, sometimes it's actually beneficial to hide your Japanese ability... although, contradicting this, Interac offer a bonus (5000JPY extra per month) if you pass their Japanese conversation test or have passed the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) at level 4 or higher (I passed it - woo!).

Of course, when it comes to actually living here, it's a no-brainer. Imagine living in a new country where you're suddenly illiterate and can hardly speak. You might think that Japanese people should speak some decent English, seeing as they've been learning it from a young age, but this often isn't the case (for a variety of reasons; stubbornness, shyness, perfectionism, perhaps just plain annoyance at having these arrogant foreigners tell them what language to speak) - although you'll find that you understand more Japanese than you think will all the katakana words. Sure, you can ride off the backs of the foreigners who speak Japanese and perhaps a few Japanese people who speak English, but it's definitely worth trying to learn some. Japan is like an onion... the more you learn, the more layers you can peel back, the more you can learn and discover and understand the place you're living in. You'll pick up a lot here, but I'd suggest you learn some basics before flying over!

Can I choose where I'm placed?

Of course you can apply to companies located in specific areas, or to a specific branch of a company (e.g. ECC Nagoya). If you're with Interac, you can give them a vague idea of your preferences. They'll call you up a couple of months before you're set to leave and offer you a placement. You'll be given a couple of days to research the placement and decide whether you want to accept it or not. If you don't accept it, they'll offer you another one, although if you keep rejecting them they might start to reconsider you. I originally accepted a placement in Fuji City without doing any research... luckily for me, fate was on my side, and my placement was changed to Hamamatsu. I can't express how happy about that I am. Stephanie explains that JET ask for three prefences, and whether you have specific reasons for wanting to be placed there. There is a stereotype that JET send people into the middle of nowhere, although in Hamamatsu it seems that there is an even mix of Interac and JET - perhaps it is that high schools have a majority of JET teachers, while the younger children are given Interac ALTs.

If you have a specific place in mind, then let the company know. If you have a valid reason, for example your wife lives there, then they're likely to consider placing you there (Interac will also move people after a year if they have a decent reason). Keep your options open, though. If you think that being anywhere other than Tokyo would ruin the purpose of coming to Japan, then you need to reconsider why you're looking into coming here in the first place. There is so much more to Japan than Tokyo... so many small villages where children have never seen a foreigner before, where you will be treated as some kind of local celebrity. That kind of thing doesn't appeal to everyone, but accepting a more isolated placement will certainly increase your chances of being hired (unfortunately), as everybody wants to be in the big cities. At the moment, of course, the main emphasis will be on placing ALTs in the Tohuku region.

I know that Interac hires "alternatives", people without placements. There alternatives work in head office in Tokyo until a placement becomes available to them - perhaps because somebody dropped out suddenly. It's a nerve-wracking thing to move to a new country with no idea of where you'll live, but you get to live in Tokyo for a while and you get paid without actually teaching!

What support systems are in place? How will I set things up when I arrive?

I can't speak for everyone, but most companies have support systems in place to help you settle in. Of JET, Stephanie says:

"I originally applied for JET and was invited for the interview. At the same time, I applied for Interac and Berlitz and had arranged an interview (with Interac) before I got the call from JET offering a placement. I took JET because I felt more confident in the fact that it’s sponsored by the government and there’s a large support system for JET. I haven’t ever had any major problems where I’ve had to really call up on it but it’s good to know that there is somewhere to turn to if you’re having trouble with your contracting organisation or other non-work related stuff for legal or serious advice. "

Interac have good support systems in place, too, although the quality can vary between branches. We are given "IC"s (independent contractors, I think), Japanese natives with good levels of English who take us to our new apartments and help us settle in. They will take you to city hall to register for your alien registration card, health insurance and all of the paperwork. They'll take you to buy furniture for your place. If you're sick, Interac will send an IC to pick you up and take you to the doctor. They are translators, essentially, but they can be a lot more. One of mine held my hand while I was having my wisdom teeth out and bought me lunch. Some people exploit them - I've heard of ALTs calling their ICs in the middle of the night, asking them to call taxis for them... although I don't recommend that kind of behaviour, as all communication with them is *meant* to go through Interac!

What visa do I need?

Some people come over on a working holiday visa, which they have to change to a working visa soon afterwards. To change your visa, I think you have to "pop out" of the country, perhaps to South Korea for a weekend.

Anyway, to answer in short - you need a working visa, namely an Instructor visa. I recommend looking on your embassy's Japan website, as every country might have slightly different requirements. You'd need someone to sponsor your visa if you don't have adequate fudns to do it yourself. If you've been hired already, though, your company should sponsor your visa and explain what you need to do to get it.

When should I apply?

You can apply at any time, as most places are always hiring. However, the main starting seasons for schools are in March (Interac) and August (JET). For JET, you have to apply a whole year before starting. With Interac you can apply and be working in Japan in a matter of weeks, if you're lucky. I'm not sure about the language schools/eikaiwas, but when I emailed my CV to a company who were hiring they took two months to reply and invite me to an interview (by that time, I'd found Interac!).

When I originally applied with Interac, it was for August 2009. I had applied in April or May '09. It turned out that they didn't have enough placements, and they asked me to defer until March 2010. I was grateful, as I needed time to prepare and save money. So, you can apply now and defer your start date until a later time, as long as you communicate with your employer.

How long can I stay in Japan as a teacher?

As long as somebody will employ you! I believe the JET programme allows a maximum stint of 5 years, while Interac will renew your contract forever (as long as you don't give them cause to drop you!). Once you're in Japan, you'll be able to network and find out about a lot more jobs and private lessons than you could online from your own country. As you get to know more people and they discover that you teach English, you can expand your possibilities and move up the "ladder". I suppose the top of the teaching English ladder would be running your own English school, but raking in money from private lessons alone can be a pretty profitable living. So, to answer that, you could technically stay here as long as you want - but things like buying property and getting a credit card are reportedly quite big hurdles for foreigners. Now, I couldn't possibly comment on their motives, but I have observed that 80% of the men I know who have been here for five years or more have a Japanese wife (this is a pure guess, not an actual statistic!)... something which seems to make a long-term stay in Japan a lot smoother.

Will I be able to apply for other jobs in Japan?

It's definitely not impossible to craft a career path out here. Many will tell you that it's impossible for foreigners to do anything other than teaching English unless they speak fluent Japanese. This might be true for some professions, but the women I met at Tokyo's Being a Broad get-togethers certainly showed me that it can be otherwise. Some of those inspiring women are self-employed in Tokyo as photographers, hair stylists, life coaches and journalists, and not all of them are fluent in Japanese at all! They have good friends, who are Japanese and speak brilliant English, who have helped them. If you network, look into your options and believe in your idea, I'm sure that you can find a lot of other things to do. Saying that, I'd definitely recommend buckling down and learning the language if you're thinking of finding alternative employment. There's always translating work, writing for publications (in English etc), voice recording and modelling! A word of warning: be very careful of the "hostess" type jobs. I've read some sinister stuff about those industries... if you read Tokyo Vice, you'll see what I mean.

What is teaching actually like?
The general motto is "every situation is different", as you could be teaching small-town kindergarten kids or helping high-powered businessmen in Tokyo to brush up on their grammar. It depends entirely on you, your school and your students. A lot of people think that it's a dream come true - being paid just for speaking your native language! How easy! However, I think there's an acquired skill in speaking an English that's easy to understand (you come to learn it as you see how their textbooks are organised), making activities that are fun and useful and in getting them to remember things through practice. You'll need to keep children interested, or perhaps to answer an advanced student's question about possessive particles (I recommend investing in a grammar book for such emergencies).

Sometimes it can be hard; you'll have to work for or alongside some difficult people (for example the Japanese English teachers at Junior High schools), and you might feel that your ideas are never good enough. Remember that some Japanese teachers have spent years studying English and don't like feeling inferior to an ALT (who may not be a real qualified teacher, after all). Respect them and their ideas, and sometimes just grit your teeth and go with the flow. At the end of the day, if the children all fail their English tests at school, it's their main teacher who'll get the blame - although, on the other end of the spectrum, if a student aces a speech contest or language test, you won't receive much recognition for your help. In eikaiwas and private lessons, there's more pressure on you to get them producing that target language, and you might have angry parents complaining about you if they don't feel they're getting their money's worth.

Children in Japan are generally well behaved and sweet. Of course, they are still children, and can be loud, annoying, silly, and generally demonstrative of their lack of interest in the subject. English isn't really "cool" for most young people... did you ever have to learn French in school? I did, and the kids who put on a real French accent were mocked for being teachers' pets. It's the same for English - the kids who go to cram schools rarely show that they understand, because they don't want to stand out in class. This is not an individualistic society, remember. It's all about the collective, harmony, blending into the group and never standing out. The saying is "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down"... although that isn't to say that there aren't exceptions. Elementary school kids are ridiculously cute, especially up until the age of 10 or so. They're still cute after that, but they start to develop attitudes if you don't get them interested in the class. I like to bust out "cool" games that are related to things they like, such as anime, Pokemon etc. A lot of people believe that all Japanese children are reserved and shy. It depends what you're used to, but I certainly wouldn't say that about elementary school children here - they are usually friendly, hyperactive, bubbly (the best word is Japanese - genki!) and sweet. Older kids become a little more reserved and are generally tired all the time because of how ridiculously busy they are. Still, there are plenty of class comedians out there to challenge that stereotype!

I've heard a few new teachers express surprise at how low the general English ability is in Japan. It's true - apparently, Japan has the lowest level of English ability in all of Asia. Almost everybody studies it for 7 years at school, and yet some adults will be baffled by "how are you?". Why is this? My theory is that it's down to patriotism or stubbornness, in a way. Some big English weirdo comes to your school and tells you that you have to speak their language, even though you have no intention of leaving Japan - why would you want to? Many just don't want another language forced upon them, I think. Also, the way language is taught at some schools is alarmingly strict and rigid, making students terrified of making any grammatical mistakes. And so, they remain quiet instead of risking a mistake out loud. There's this idea that English is "impossible", but this stems from the same thought as "foreigners can't learn Japanese because their brains are different", a fact that is consistently proved wrong by Japanese-speaking foreigners. Saying that, I've met a lot of Japanese people who speak fantastic English. I don't know if it's because of Hamamatsu's foreign population, but I've been very impressed by the level of English I've encountered here.

Adult classes are very different, mostly conversation circles. Occasionally I bring worksheets, perhaps teaching some simple grammar points or proverbs. You can bring in articles to read and use as conversation points. As people are paying to learn, they are a lot more keen to understand, and to try and to make mistakes even if their grammar isn't perfect. You can meet some very interesting people this way, and find out a lot about Japan through their stories.

As an English teacher, you can feel like a paid speaker, a host, a clown, a foreign exchange student (how I feel when I eat lunch with my students), a human tape recorder, an honoured guest, and sometimes like an actual teacher. If you're patient, good at explaning slowly and with a lot of gestures (and pictures) if necessary, and can come up with good activities - delivered with a smile, of course - it can be very rewarding in return.

Remember that you will never be alone. Even if you're the only English speaker in your town, the internet is full of resources for teachers - check out my links bar. There are hundreds of downloadable worksheets, articles and ideas if you're lacking ideas.

Any other questions? Feel free to email me at gaj86@hotmail.com, and I'll try to answer them!