Greetings from Japan!
My name is Samantha, & I’m currently living and teaching English in the tiny but beautiful town of Kyotango in the Kyoto Prefecture of Japan. Let me tell you a little bit about how I got here, what I do, & how you can get to the land of shrines, crazy fashion, & matcha tea too!
When I was in the middle of TLH program, I wasn’t sure exactly where I was headed next, but I knew I wanted to go to Asia. After doing some research, I realized that not only was Japan one of the safest countries in the world, but that it was also one of the highest paying countries for TEFL instructors! With this information in mind, I applied for JET Program, which is run through the Japanese government and highly respected in both Japan and America.
The application for JET can be quite time-consuming, so start planning early! It requires an online application, a mailed, physical copy of said application, letters of recommendation, an essay, and a panel interview at your local Japanese consulate or embassy. I submitted my application in November, but I didn’t find out until the end of March whether or not I’d been formally accepted. It’s quite the process and requires a lot of waiting and paperwork. However, it’s totally worth it. Departure dates are in late July and early August depending on where you live. (You DO need a BA/BS to apply. However, you do not need to speak Japanese or to have TEFL certification. I would highly recommend TEFL certification as it significantly bolsters the strength of your application.)
So you’re probably wondering about where in Japan you’re going to get to live. Maybe on the sunny shores of Okinawa sound ideal? Or maybe in the fast-paced city life of Tokyo? Or maybe amidst the rich culture of Kyoto? To be quite frank, the odds of you living in a big city under the JET Program are slim at best. On the application, you’re able to select your top three preferences in terms of prefectures. However, this is by no means guaranteed. For me, this is part of what made it so exciting! Be willing to go where you’re needed & embrace the adventure! As long as you keep a positive attitude and an open mind, you’re going to have the experience of a lifetime. (That being said… if you are accepted into the program and find out that you’re placed in remote, northern Hokkaido, you can always decline their offer.)
In the JET Program, you will be employed by the Board of Education, and they will assign you to your schools. Some JETs only teach at one school, whereas others teach at up to 5. I teach at three schools, and this seems like a good balance. The JET Program also requires participants to team-teach! I can’t stress how significant your attitude and approach to your co-teachers will be in your JET experience. Your co-teachers will lesson plan with you, grade papers with you, & basically shape your work experience. Be flexible. There are many “Long Arm” moments you’ll experience. You think you have a free period!? Think again! Namie-sensei just asked you to come to his class next period! Hope you have something planned! Though Japanese teachers are ALWAYS busy, make an effort to get to know them on a personal level & you’ll be highly rewarded.
One more note regarding public high schools in Japan: There are many awesome club activities! They range from the “English Speaking Society” to tea ceremony club to kimono club to sumo club to more traditionally western clubs like baseball, soccer, and tennis. Take advantage of these afterschool activities! They’re a great chance to learn more about Japanese culture!
Work will keep you fairly busy throughout the week, but the quality of life in Japan is very high and there is always something to go do or see. Self-identifying foodie? You’re in for a treat. Sushi is always fresh and cheap. Hiking fanatic? Try Japan’s famous Kumano Kodo. If you love the beach, don’t worry. You’ll be living on an island. Drive long enough & you’ll bump into some gorgeous coastlines. If nature isn’t your cup of tea, there are more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than I can count. Like to go out and partayyy? Hit up Osaka’s wild nightlife. Want to delve into the traditional culture of ancient Japan, drink under Japanese cherry blossom trees, & go temple hopping? Kyoto’s got you covered. Ever fancy being chased and bit in the ass by a deer? (This actually happened to me. Beware the deer.) Let me recommend Nara. History buff? Hop on the bullet train to Hiroshima and be sure to try a traditional dish called okonomiyaki and the oysters. They’re super おいしい or delicious! Into music? Fuji Rock is a massive music festival that takes place every summer at the base of Mt. Fuji! Japan literally has something for everyone and whether your thing is video games, anime, mango, or hiking, exploring, and delving into culture, I can’t imagine that you’ll walk away from Japan disappointed. You also have 20 days of paid vacation on top of national holidays to get out and explore. Not bad, eh?
On another note, there are many cheap flights and discount airlines that fly out of Japan. I’ve been living in Japan for eight months and have been able to visit South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and The Philippines all on my JET budget while only using 9 of my paid vacation days. TRAVEL AS MUCH AS YOU CAN! You’re going to get paid in Japanese yen & the yen is stronger than the currencies of nearby countries… meaning that your money will go further.
While living in Japan has many, many perks, there are also challenges. Let’s be realistic here. Japan’s monoethnic population can be overwhelming for those used to diverse environments and strict rules regarding behavior can sometimes seem silly to people from the west. (IE: You can’t ride a bicycle if you’ve even had a sip of wine or a glass of beer. It’s ILLEGAL.) If you’re going to be a successful TEFL Instructor in Japan, familiarize yourself with cultural no-no’s, such as walking into private spaces with your shoes on or not bowing long enough to someone of higher rank. You will have to integrate into Japanese culture, and the more effort you make, the better off you’ll be.
Another challenge many foreign teachers face is the low level of English throughout Japan. Of course, there are individuals who speak fluent English, but compared to other Asian countries and especially to European countries, I found the overall English speaking ability to be quite low. Be prepared to lower your standards. Japanese kids are SMART, but the current system of language instruction doesn’t do them any favors. **This might also depend on where you are located in Japan. Cities have higher levels of English speaking than rural towns.**
Despite some of the challenges mentioned above, I think the pros of working in Japan far outweigh the obstacles you’ll face. Every country will present its own set of challenges. It’s also important to keep in mind that ESID- every situation is different. Just because someone else struggles with something or didn’t like something, doesn’t mean that it’ll be the same for you.
Given that we all have various experiences and expectations, maybe some of you are still very interested in working in Japan, but for some reason feel like the JET Program isn’t right for you. Rest assured, there are other options out there. Besides JET, another very well-known and respected program is Interac. Interac, like JET, sends AETs (Assistant English Teachers) out into the public school system. I’d highly encourage you to check out their website for more details. https://www.interacnetwork.com/recruit/japan/ If you’re looking for something a bit more flexible, you can always investigate more into private international schools, eikaiwa (English conversation schools), private tutoring, and English cafes. There are a ton of opportunities out there. What you might struggle with the most outside of JET and Interac is finding some organization to sponsor your work visa.
To sum everything up, living and working in Japan as a TEFL Instructor kind of feels like hitting the jackpot. The salary is quite competitive, the standard of living is high, and the culture is absolutely fascinating. While not for everyone, if you are at all curious about Japan’s history, culture, language, and food (omg, Japanese food will blow your mind) then strongly consider branching out and moving to the Land of the Rising Sun. If you’re interested in hearing more or have specific questions about TEFL in Japan that I have not covered here, please feel free to contact Chris/TLH and ask for my contact information. I’d love to Skype or chat about life and work in this beautiful country I’m currently calling home. さようなら!