Tokyo, a city of bright lights, incredible (if slightly bizarre) technology, food (even fast food) that is fresh and beautifully presented, and a culture that both embraces the “western world” yet manages to keep enough of the little things that make Japan, Japan. Combined with people who are polite, elegant and have impeccable fashion sense, the guidebooks make a pretty positive case on why you should go to this city.
So early May, I went on a three-week trip to see the country for myself. While I was there, it became apparent that I would need far more than 21 days to understand this crazy place truly. As a result, when I returned to England, I made a (somewhat impulsive) decision to go back to Japan for an indefinite time.
So I quit my job, left my Camden flat, convinced the Japanese Embassy to give me a working holiday visa, did a 3 day TEFL and found a place to stay in Tokyo on the web. Three months later I found myself on a plane to Narita airport with nothing but a guitar and a suitcase of clothes. About halfway through the flight, it finally kicked in that not only was I unemployed, but I was also moving to another country… unemployed.
As a way of introduction, I should point out that I am half Japanese and hold a basic (conversational) grasp of the Japanese language. This, I will fully admit, is an advantage I have over a lot of people who choose to come here. I am genuinely grateful to my mother, who forced me to learn Japanese as a child despite my complaints and bickering at the time. I would strongly advise anyone wishing to come to Japan to gain a basic level of the language. A significant number of people do understand English; however, not so many speak it and knowing just the most basic phrases will have the locals look at you in the sense of wonder and amazement. Anyway, I digress. So what is Japan actually like as a place to live and work?
Finding work was a relatively straightforward (if somewhat time-consuming) task. There are websites with job postings for native level English speakers and if you web search for “Eikaiwa (conversation school) + “local ward name”” you will get quite a few private language school websites. After a week or so of emailing out CV’s and cover letters, I had my first interview. The interview itself was pretty basic, managers are primarily looking for how good/understandable your pronunciation is and how genki (happy) you come across.
At the end of the day, the customer is critical in Japan, and as much as you will be judged on how effective your teaching skills are, you also need to show that you will keep your pupils happy, laughing and wanting to come back for another set of lessons. Being half professor, half monkey is actually one of the hardest things about teaching in this country. I have been criticized for not making a pupil (out of the some 50 I teach) feel 110% after their first lesson with me! “You must be super genki Tomo, and you must get along with everyone straight away.”
So a typical day. I work from 13:00 – 23:00 during the week and 11:00 – 20:00 at the weekend. I would point out that a lot of schools expect you to work on the weekend, so days off will generally be on weekdays. During this period, I have anything from six to nine lessons ranging from 40 to 60 minutes.
The school does provide textbooks, but there is no set curriculum as such. You are merely expected to teach a grammar topic from the textbook (of your own choosing) while adding any vocab and phrases as they come up in conversation. All my classes (except one couple) are on a private “man-to-man” to basis. Pupils will range from kids to beginners right through to the very advanced throughout the day. Making the transition from your “beginner English voice” to your “advanced English voice” in the two minutes between lessons can be testing at times, especially when you first start teaching.
As intense and mind-boggling as this may sound, the lessons are mostly delightful. You get to know your students quickly, and you develop a genuine interest in what they have been up to, will be doing etc. After all, I see some of my students more often than I see my friends! The more confident pupils will even ask you how you are, what you did on your day off and about your country. There is certainly not a day when I genuinely don’t feel like going in, despite my manager’s nitpicking!
I hope to be able to write more articles about teaching life in Japan on a relatively regular basis. In the meantime, I will leave you with a few beautiful quotes from my students:
“I want to eat you!” – said by a five-year-old child who had spent 35 minutes hiding under my desk without saying a word of English until that (beautiful) moment.
“Love is like the measles, everyone has to go through with it” – said by a man after I asked him to give me an example of the phrase “to go through with something”.
“I don’t hate my co-worker per se, but he’s a crazy idiot who drives me up the wall” ¬- a sentence made by an advanced (if perhaps bitter) student.