By Amy Woodbridge
Want to use your TEFL certificate to find a job in Japan? Teachers with TEFL certification usually choose one of two major routes:
- Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) jobs in public schools
- Instructor positions in private language institutes
Working as an ALT
Assistant Language Teachers may work in elementary, junior high, or high schools. English classes in Japan are headed by a Japanese teacher of English, with a native English speaker as an assistant.
ALTs may find that their roles vary depending on their school or their head classroom teacher. Some ALTs focus mainly on helping students with English pronunciation, speaking, and listening, while others take a more active role in planning lessons and teaching grammar, vocabulary, reading, and writing.
A typical school day will last from approximately 8:30-3:30, and ALTs will normally teach anywhere from 3-5 periods in a day. Most ALTs find that they have several free class periods, which they can use to prepare for upcoming lessons.
Major school holiday periods in Japan include the following:
- Late March to early April
- Late July through the month of August
- Late December to early January
You can find some more information about teaching English in Japan here.
Working in a language school
Japan is home to a number of language institutions: some of these are specifically for children, while others are for English learners of all ages. Japanese students learn to read and write English as part of their school curriculum, but many lack confidence in their spoken English skills.
Foreign teachers can find work in Eikaiwa (conversation schools), leading small classes of students ranging from beginner level to advanced.
Conversation teachers may find that their schedules vary throughout the week, as Eikaiwa usually provide evening and weekend classes so that students can attend after school or work. On average, a teacher in an Eikaiwa may teach about 6 hours per day.
Generally, to teach English in a language school or as an ALT, you’ll need the following qualifications:
- A Bachelor’s degree is required in order to get a Japanese work visa. If you are already in Japan on a working holiday visa, you may not need a degree, although this will make a TEFL certificate even more of a necessity (see below).
- Most jobs will accept a degree in any field, although a concentration in a related subject field – such as English or Education – can be helpful.
- Many jobs will require a TEFL certificate, although this is not a hard requirement for all positions. It is, however, always an asset in the competitive job market in Japan.
- Having a TEFL certificate may qualify you for a higher salary bracket.
The University of Toronto offers a recommended online TEFL course for prospective TEFL teachers.
Native or native-level English ability
- Teachers are usually required to speak English at a native level.
- Most jobs do not require any Japanese language skills.
Cost of living
Japan is an expensive country; Tokyo is often ranked as one of the world’s most expensive cities. However, with a little resourcefulness, it’s not terribly hard for a teacher to seek out cheap places to eat, drink, and enjoy themselves.
At the time of this writing, 100 Japanese Yen (JPY) equals approximately
- 1.02 USD
- 1.06 CAD
- 0.63 GBP
- 1.09 AUD
- 1.24 NZD
- 10.32 ZAR
- 0.75 EUR
The following costs show a range of what you might expect to pay in Tokyo. Keep in mind, of course, that Tokyo is more expensive than the rest of the country. The cost of goods and services in smaller cities will generally be less expensive than what is listed below:
- One-bedroom apartment in Tokyo (outside city center): 55,000-80,000 JPY
- One month of internet: 2,500-4,400 JPY
- Two pieces of sushi from a kaiten (conveyer belt) style restaurant: 100-300 JPY
- Bowl of ramen from a noodle shop: 600-900 yen
- 1-way ticket on local transit (3 km-30 km): 150-350 JPY
- Pair of name-brand running shoes: 8,000-10,000 JPY
- Movie ticket: 1,800 JPY
- 1 km in a Taxi: 200-300 JPY (plus 710 JPY starting fare)
Some items (movie tickets, taxi fares, many types of produce) can be much more expensive than what you might be used to paying at home. Other costs, however, are very reasonable, and not any more than they would be in other large cities. Tokyo’s train system, though enormously complex, is famous for its efficiency, reliability, and affordability.
Typical salary and benefits
As an ESL teacher, you might make anywhere from 220,000-280,000 JPY per month, depending on your location and qualifications. Teachers in large cities will generally make slightly higher salaries to cover the cost of living, and having a TEFL certificate will often qualify you for a higher salary bracket.
Japanese culture emphasizes strict adherence to social norms and etiquette, and Japanese people are famously polite. As a foreigner, it’s important to have a basic understanding of Japanese culture in order not to offend, but don’t stress too much: Japanese people are also wonderfully forgiving, and they understand that foreigners are not always accustomed to their culture. If you feel you’re doing something wrong, a bow and a sheepish apology can go a long way.
Dining out – Going out with co-workers or friends usually means ordering many shared plates of food. When serving yourself from a shared plate, use the opposite ends of your chopsticks to touch the food. Often, everyone will have glasses for beer, with several bottles or pitchers in the center of the table. Pour drinks for others, but don’t pour your own – someone else should notice your empty glass and fill it for you.
Bowing – Bow when you say hello, bow when you say thank you, bow when you apologize, bow when you’re asking a favor. In most situations you’ll encounter, a nod of the head is considered a casual bow, where somewhere around 45 degrees will be appropriate for meeting co-workers or asking someone a favor.
Footwear – When entering a Japanese home, remove your shoes and wear the slippers provided for you. However, you’ll still need to take these slippers off in certain areas:
- Tatami (straw) flooring – Tatami is only stepped on with bare feet or socks.
- Bathrooms – There will usually be a separate pair of slippers for bathroom use only.
If you are entering a restaurant, it will usually be fairly obvious if you are expected to remove your shoes or not. Many larger restaurants have small wooden lockers in the waiting area for shoes. Again, these restaurants will provide “toilet slippers” so you don’t have to walk through the restrooms in your socks.
Names – Japanese names are written [Surname] [Given name], the opposite of how Western names are written. When addressing an adult, you will usually call them by their last name followed by “-san.” “Sato-san,” for example, roughly translates to “Mr./Ms. Sato.”
When you are teaching, your students might replace “-san” with “sensei” when they address you. Conventions will vary by school, but many times English classes – particularly when the students are children –use first names, so your students may know you as “Katie-sensei.”
Tattoos – Tattoos are associated with Yakuza, or Japanese Mafia. If you have visible tattoos, you will be required to cover them fully if you want to enter gyms, swimming pools, or hot springs.
Chopsticks – Keep in mind the rules associated with chopstick use:
- Don’t use your chopsticks to point at people.
- When you’re not using them, lay your chopsticks flat; do not stick them into a bowl of rice so that the ends are pointing up. This is only something that is done at funerals.
- Don’t pass food from directly from your chopsticks to someone else’s. Again, this is associated with funeral rites. Place the piece of food on their plate instead.
- If you are serving yourself from a shared serving plate, use the opposite ends of your chopsticks (the ends that haven’t touched your mouth) to serve yourself.
Meeting up: Socializing in friends’ houses or apartments is uncommon in Japan. Friends or co-workers will usually meet in a restaurant. Japanese izakaya (typical Japanese restaurants/pubs) will often offer course menus – which may even include unlimited drinks for a set time – in order to make it easy for large groups to relax without needing to worry about splitting a complicated bill.
Karaoke: Many nights out in Japan inevitably end with a rousing session of karaoke. Karaoke buildings are ubiquitous, and unlike Western-style karaoke in that groups will sing in a small room together instead of on-stage in front of a bar of strangers. Pile in, grab some tambourines, and sing your hearts out until 5 AM if you wish.
Nightlife: All of Japan’s larger cities have an active nightlife, although none so much as Tokyo. With clubs and bars that stay open until daylight, there’s never a shortage of fun to be had. Expats flock to Roppongi, which has everything from up scale entertainment to dive bars. Shibuya also has an active nightlife, as do some areas of Shinjuku. Missed your last train, but too tired to stay out until morning? Find a 24-hour internet café, or find a “room” in one of Japan’s famous capsule hotels.
Though jobs in Japan are competitive, they’re also plentiful and rewarding. Whether you’re interested in Tokyo’s eccentric fashion, Hokkaido’s wild scenery, or the sunny beaches of Okinawa, earning your TEFL will bring you one step closing to teaching overseas.
Amy Woodbridge lived in Japan for 5 years. She has worked in literacy and ESL in Japan, China, Thailand, the US, and Canada, and currently writes for Teach Away Inc. Teach Away is the leading international teacher recruitment company, with the widest variety of teaching jobs overseas.