The Land of the Rising Sun isn’t for everyone. But like Sirens to a sailor, Japan exerts a pull on the naive to the point that any job, no matter how miserable, seems tolerable in exchange for a brief encounter. I was among that number.
Now, you can’t put the words “Japan, “miserable,” and “job” into one sentence without mentioning “eikaiwa,” in the next. Try it—it’s physically impossible. Jobs at Eikaiwa (English conversation schools) are plentiful, due to the ample supply of Japanese folks willing to pay to learn English. And, perhaps fortunately for you, the teaching qualifications are close to nonexistent. If you speak English and have a college degree, Congratulations, you’re qualified. A number of eikaiwa schools will even arrange for an apartment and help you sort out official hassles like a visa, health insurance, bank account, and taxes. Plus, the salary is reasonably good. Yo, what’s not to like?
To understand why working for an eikaiwa will be your personal Hell on earth, let’s begin by looking at a typical job ad:
Work 40 hours per week, and teach 25 class hours per week. Tue-Fri 1-10pm, and Sat 10am-7pm. Salary of 220,000 yen per month.
Actually, that sounds great! 220,000 yen per month is about $2,800 U.S. a month, or $33,600 a year. Pretty sweet, especially if you’re a new graduate who’s last job was at the Foot Locker. 40 hours a week? Well, you’d be doing that anyway. And you’re really only “working” 25 hours a week, which is less than a part-time job. It’s like a paid vacation to live in the land of your dreams. Sign me up!
You know, I dropped by the supermarket last week. It was around midnight and I thought I’d just pick up a couple of cocktails on my way home. Then, as I passed through the refrigerated section, I saw a package of sushi for 70% off. 70% off!? Are you effing kidding me? Cheap raw fish—how could that not be a good idea? I’ll spare you the details from several hours in my bathroom, but let’s just say that sometimes when something looks too good to be true, it is.
But back to the eikaiwa. If 25 hours of teaching a week sounds like 25 classes, or five per day, you’re well on your way to buying a package of week-old tuna rolls. You’re teaching by the hour, not the class. So if classes are 50 minutes long, you’ll teach 30 classes a week, or 6 a day. Even still, you’ll have ten minutes between each class, during which time you can relax. Just kidding. You don’t get a break. You have to talk with students. A teacher talking to students? Sounds a whole lot like teaching. So in reality, you’re doing 5 extra 10-minute mini-classes every day. That brings your teaching load up to about seven hours a day, during which time you’ll be lucky if you can take a doodie break or down a gulp of coffee.
Now, before we go any further, it’s reality check time. Teaching looks easy. Kind of how being President of the U.S. looks easy. But it’s an incredibly tough job, both mentally and physically. Teaching, I mean. Being President is, by comparison, a piece of cake. As an eikaiwa teacher, you’re on your feet all day long, talking, writing, gesturing, with people watching every time you want to scratch your privates. Four hours of teaching feels like 8 hours doing any normal job. Hope you don’t get itchy. Picture being an actor putting on a one-man show, on stage for seven hours, every day. Then picture the audience not laughing at any of your jokes because you’re speaking a language they don’t understand.
I speak from experience with a lot of hard jobs. As a construction worker, I shoveled, carried, and hammered shit from sunup to sundown. As a programmer, I stared into a computer screen for 12 hours a day. Night shift at a convenience store? Did it. Bike messenger? Yup. Corporate manager? Uh huh. Foot Locker? Yeah. Dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant? Jeez, did that too. And in Japan, I’ve done a dozen more jobs. The conclusion? Did you know that when Sinead O’Connor sang “Nothing Compares to You,” she was singing about an eikaiwa? Little known fact.
But it gets worse. The typical contract that states you’ll be teaching “25 class-hours per week” also includes a clause for overtime. This means the school can require you to teach additional classes in exchange for overtime pay. Now, I like money as much as the next guy, but I also wouldn’t hit myself in the head with a brick for a few extra yen. Yet after six hours of teaching, interspersed with 10-minutes bursts of talking to students, I’d choose the brick over more hours of teaching. But since I had no choice, I watched my workload shoot up over 35 classes a week, plus the additional 10 minutes between each class. I wasn’t the only one, of course, as all the other teachers were in the same boat. The first time a teacher passed out in class and got carried to the hospital, I was like, What the hell’s going on? The second time it happened I was like, Oh, that again. The third teacher that went down, I think I just stepped over her lifeless body and walked into class. No time for people dying—I gotta teach English.
A lot of people complain about other aspects of eikaiwa work. Having to take out the trash, vacuum the carpets, sell study materials, or get chewed out by the manager. But seriously, those are just minor annoyances. The real problem is in the fundamental structure of the contract, and the Godless desire of the company to work you to death. Oh, and the schedule. But I’ll have to tell you about that in next week’s thrilling conclusion.