TEFL Certification Japan is more than the land of sushi and sumo, it’s a goldmine of teaching opportunities. Here’s how to find them.
Sweat pours from my face as I’m led to the stage on an insanely hot and humid summer’s day. As I stand alone, I nervously scan the sea of uniformly black-haired kids gazing up at me, blue-eyed, big-nosed foreigner. It’s my first day at Kamisho Junior High, a countryside school of 200 students in ono, west Honshu, and I’m about to give my introductory speech to the entire school. In Japanese. My heart races at 150 bpm as I glance down at my scribbled notes, hastily contrived from my new best friend: a Japanese phrasebook. I don’t speak the language, and I hate public speaking. Remind me again, why did I come to Japan…?
Fast-forward six months. I’m out walking Shiro the school dog through crisp white snow on a glorious winter’s day. (Yes, my school has a dog.) Two colleagues pull up on the school snowmobile, and one asks if I want to swap the dog for a ride. (Yes, my school has a snowmobile.) Sounds like a fair trade. As I throttle us over the powder-covered baseball pitch, I am powerless to remove the huge grin from my face. I don’t remember dog-walking or snowmobiling being in the job description, but I’m left feeling extremely fortunate that my native tongue has become the world’s most sought-after second language.
Japan has long been a prime target for those wanting to teach English in Asia, and the demand for teachers shows little sign of abating. It may not be as lucrative as it was in the 80s before the bubble burst, when an English speaker could apparently waltz into an easy 20-hour-a-week job that would more than pay the bills, but there is still a huge need for English, and native speakers will have little trouble finding work. Though teaching qualifications and experience will widen your options, simply put, Native English Speaker + Any University Degree = Teaching Job in Japan.
Living and working in Japan is not without its challenges, though. So far, I’ve experienced eight typhoons, two earthquakes, and been stung by a jellyfish. Foreigners are high-profile, and being constantly eyeballed at your local superstore begins to grate after a while. An American colleague was even reported to the Board of Education by an elderly woman who had spotted him committing an unpardonable offense – holding hands with his Japanese girlfriend.
Still, the unending joy of discovery outweighs the minor irritations. I’ve played Taiko with master drummers, drunk sake beneath the sakura (cherry blossoms), and gone fishing in a swimming pool (only in Japan!) with newfound Japanese friends. Yasu, the 48-year-old proprietor of my favorite bar and a climbing fanatic, has taken me high into the Okuetsu mountains on backcountry snowboarding expeditions; Keiko, a middle-aged housewife, gives me free weekly Japanese lessons; and Sakai, my barber, regularly invites me to play soccer with his local team. These are just some of the people who have welcomed me into their lives to share their language, food, culture, and customs. In fact, even the baddest boys in my school shout a friendly “Samu-sensei, hello!” when I arrive in the morning.
There are three main options for teaching English in Japan. The best known is a government-run initiative called JET, which places native English speakers from North America and other English-speaking nations (including the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) into elementary, junior high, and high schools across Japan. Placements can be anywhere from the sprawling concrete of Tokyo to tropical Kikai-jima, a remote island some 400 miles south of Honshu, accessible only by a 12-hour ferry ride that runs just three times a week.
The big difference between this job and other teaching positions is that you are an Assistant Language Teacher, so you always team-teach with a Japanese English teacher. You are a walking, talking, real-life example of the English language and foreign culture, rather than an explicator of complex grammar and tenses.
JET is generally regarded as the best deal in Japan. The monthly salary has been fixed at 300,000 Yen since the program’s inception 19 years ago, but remains generous enough to live on comfortably, and frugal teachers can even build savings. A return flight to Japan is also part of the deal, and the program has an excellent support system, providing accommodations and assistance with any problems that may arise.
Of course, JET is not without its downsides. As neither Japanese language ability nor teaching experience is required, competition for the approximately 1,500 U.S. positions available each year is fierce. Also, the application process is drawn out over ten months starting in September, with successful applicants not landing on Japanese soil until the following July. What’s more, although you can request a location, there’s no guarantee you’ll be placed there. The vast majority don’t get their top choices, because famous cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Sapporo are heavily oversubscribed, while little-known rural areas tend to get overlooked.
Another teaching option is private schools. English is big business in Japan, and companies such as AEON, NOVA, and GEOS recruit native speakers and arrange working visas from abroad. There are also hundreds of smaller private schools throughout Japan which tend to hire on a more local basis, often through word-of-mouth or the local press. The advantage of private schools is that you choose your location and start date. The job, pay and perks can vary hugely from school to school, from top dollar for teaching keen adults to a pittance for babysitting brats.
The third way to find employment is through eikaiwas, or private English conversation classes. Many Japanese, from geishas to garbage men, are eager to learn the lingo and will pay you for the simple privilege of chatting with them for an hour or so. Demand for eikaiwas outstrips supply, and many English teachers use them to supplement their main income. They, too, are usually found by word-of-mouth, or via local notice boards in cafes and libraries. Pay is negotiable, from around $17 to as much as $90 an hour – usually in cash.
So, if you’re hungry for Japanese, want to see the land of sumo, and establish a base from which to explore mainland Asia, teaching English in Japan is the perfect way to go. It’s also a great way to shatter any cultural stereotypes you might have. I used to think the Japanese were a shy and reserved people, but I was soon to find otherwise. on a recent trip to a local art museum, Shogo Yamada, the school captain, who is a keen student and proficient sportsman, but also a 15-year-old boy with raging hormones, asked me the following question:
“Samu-sensei, have you ever play sex?”
Do these sound like the words of a shy and reserved person? I think not.