Teaching English in Japan – Paul’s Story

Meet Paul Dixon – the expert on TEFLing in Japan. Having lived in Japan for four years, we all agree that he’s definitely well-qualified enough to tell you what’s it like teaching English in Japan!

Why did you decide to look at teaching English in Japan?

After several years of bad luck, moving from one university to another due to many different reasons, I finally hit a brick wall in my life. I suddenly found myself graduating from University, with a Film and Television production degree that was of little use back in 2010…especially with so many people losing their jobs, the film and TV industry stopping production, and everything looking so bleak.  So I was very fortunate when a new person began working at my place of work (a part-time job at an interactive archaeology museum for kids).  She had just gotten back from working four years as a JET in Japan.  She was very informative and sparked my interest in being able to go teach in the far east.  Applying to JET wasn’t an option because this is a year-long process, with too many deadlines – so, I applied to Interac whilst doing my i-to-i TEFL course.  By the time a completed the course I had a job lined up and ready for me in Japan… my start date was April 4th 2010!!!

How old are the students you teach?

Usually, people who are an ALT (assistant language teacher) in Japan will teach at elementary schools (aged 6-12) and junior high schools (aged 13-15); so I was very surprised to be teaching at high school only (aged 16-18).  Students in Japan will start off very ‘genki’ (high spirited)… but often a lot of that energy is sucked out of them in junior high school when the real work begins.  For English, they learn to read, write, and memorise a lot of grammar at junior high school; whereas in elementary school, they play games and sing songs, so English seems really fun.  Understandably, at the age of 16 students no longer enjoy English, but don’t let that put you off!  From my experience of working at 5 different high schools over four years, you find that many students will still put in the effort and although they may not like the subject, they are often interested in YOU and YOUR CULTURE.

How are you finding the teaching experience?

When I first came to Japan, even with a lot of TEFL training, I felt that I wasn’t a ‘real’ teacher compared to the JTEs (Japanese Teacher of English).  They would use a mixture of English and Japanese, have all these books on their desks, worksheets, activities, CDs, etc. and there I was in my new suit, fresh face, a few grammar books, and nothing much of anything really – yet I was expected to go and teach a class by myself with the JTE watching (I should point out that normally you are an ALT – for ALTs in Elementary and Junior High School, you often team-teach and are only an assistant and sometimes only required to teach 10 minutes. Where I live, we have high school positions and so we are called NSs (Native Speakers) and are expected to plan, prepare, and teach the whole class).

Knowing Japanese will and does help – but it is not essential. I spent my first year teaching not really knowing any Japanese. Of course, you pick it up gradually, more so if you hit the books and study (I hate studying though).  Essentially though, high school is supposed to be taught in English only – something the government is wanting the JTEs to do too; and this is gradually being done in junior high school too.  Realistically speaking, if you are not in the big cities, the level of English will be lower than you expect and often the JTE level will be lower and of course, their mistakes are passed on to the students.

BUT…  I love being a teacher!  You meet so many different teachers and students, with a range of personalities.  You are part of their life in an important stage as they are growing and learning.  I have been blessed to see my first-grade students through to graduation and even return for the seasonal festivals in my town.  I’ve seen some of them enter high school as a nervous boy, to becoming a man with a job and perhaps with a family – words can not describe how awesome that feels!

What is the cost of living like in Japan? Do you have enough money to keep yourself afloat?

It depends where you live, how you live, and if you like to spend money.  Moving to Japan in itself is an expensive task; apartments can be small and compact, but somewhat expensive compared to other countries, and you’re not guaranteed free airfare or housing like in other Asian countries such as South Korea. If you are lucky you will be in a LeoPalace – this comes partly furnished (washer, stove, microwave, table, chair etc), so you won’t need to spend too much on kitting out your new place.  However, LeoPalace is mostly in the cities – so elsewhere, you may be in private realtor apartments, which means costs will be higher are you’ll pay an additional amount called “Key money” (essentially a ‘gift’ to the landlord, to the value of one month’s rent which you don’t get back).  So whilst your monthly rent could be £280/$420, your set-up costs could be as high as £860/$1,400.

On the plus side – tax is cheap (although from the second year you start paying the full city tax, National Health, and pension), and if you buy furnishings from a second-hand store, you can save a lot of money – I’d recommend Daiso.  Eating out is also cheap if you go to street vendors, and they’re very filling too.

In all honesty, though, you can easily save!  I’ll often go out for karaoke, eat out, go snowboarding and arrange day trips, and during the summer I’ll travel around Japan and I’m STILL able to save money.  The main thing is not to move around to different housing too much, as that is what’ll eat away at your earnings.

What is a typical Japanese apartment like?

Small!  Although saying that, it depends on where you live, how much you spend, and which realtor you live.  In the cities, you’ll come across two types of flats: ‘apaato’ (small flats) and ‘manshon’ (larger ones), which are obviously more expensive.

Describe your typical day in Japan

My workdays begin at 7 am when I wake up.  I shower, get ready and out the door by 8 am – I have my own car that I partly pay for, and my employers pay the rest.  On my way to school, I go to my local convenience store, buy breakfast and coffee and then I arrive at work at about 815am. (My schools are very close).  This year my schedule has been very light – I have only two schools (Monday is a Fisher high school and the rest of the week is a commercial high school). I teach on average 3 classes a day.  The rest of my time is spent studying, preparing, talking to teachers and sometimes going to watch other classes.  Last academic year I was at a different school and used to be a member of the soft tennis club – practice was from 4 pm-6 pm every day (I chose to do this); but this year I have been busy with regular tennis on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with the local community club, English conversation class on Tuesdays, Japanese Class on Thursdays, and Soft tennis and Futsal on Sundays. (I only pay ¥100 per regular tennis class and Futsal session – everything else is free)  In September and October 2013 I even found the time to train for a 10km run, which I ran in November – my first ever race, which I completed in just under 54 minutes.

Any there any hidden secrets you’ve discovered whilst TEFLing in Japan?

Japan is a stunning country to visit, from large castle towns to small fishing villages.  You have great snow in the winter in Hokkaido, beautiful blossom tree parks for Hanami parties in the spring, beach volleyball in the summer, and spectacular scenery in the autumn.  As a teacher, you get a summer vacation, winter vacation and spring vacation – so plenty of time to go exploring.

In the smaller towns, you have many winding streets with hidden shrines.  Locals are more than happy to stop and talk to you – sometimes you even end up going drinking with them and seeing the real Japan – or even getting a Japanese mother to take care of you.  Karaoke is a must – don’t worry if you can’t sing… it’s about having fun.

Oh, and let’s not forget the onsens (hot springs) – hot water at about 42′C, wherein some locations you can bathe with the local monkeys too.  Be warned… you shower before you go in, you walk around with a small towel, and bathe fully nude!!!

Any last advice?

I cannot emphasise how wonderful Japan really is.  You have plenty of opportunities to travel and explore, the ability to save money, respectful students that will greet you throughout the day, locals willing to help you and share the real Japan, beautiful scenery, interesting culture, food for every pallet… what more can I say?

Remember! Don’t be afraid to try or do new things. Going to another country, to live and teach is very scary – but many people have been before you, and many will continue to go after you.

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  1. Vivian

    I am doing a TESL programme and it is finishing at the end of this month. I’ve always fantasized teaching English in Japan, and I do want to take up TEFL in hoping that I can fulfill my dream.

  2. Elle Pollicott

    That’s good to hear Vivian – I’m sure 2015 is going to be a great year for you!

  3. Paul Dixon

    Haha…wow… 2 years later and I am still in Japan – but reading this, oh my, I have made so many grammatical and spelling mistakes – shameful… So 2 years on I now live in Kanagawa close to Tokyo. I no longer teach high school (i now teach ES and JHS) – I have managed to avoid singing a lot of songs in ES, but they have started to request them… JHS have dropped team teaching – but thats ok, i dont like team teaching…lol…

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