If you 1) want to work in Japan, 2) were born in an English-speaking country, and 3) possess absolutely no other skills or abilities, then English Teacher’s the job for you. Trust me, I’d know.
So recently, a reader asked about a line I’d written before: “Your job is to stand there and look white. Or black or whatever, but at least foreign.”
And her question was,
As an Asian American planning to teach in japan, does this mean I have less of a chance in finding an English teaching job or get hired Japanese schools? Japanese employers are more likely to hire a “white” teacher than an Asian who is non-Japanese?
The short answer is no, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Because having been on both sides of the Japanese interview process countless times, I’d say there are bigger things to worry about if you want to work in Japan as an English teacher.
How to Work in Japan as an English teacher, in 7 Kind-of-Easy Steps
1. Have the Right Degrees and Certificates
A Bachelor’s degree is the de facto standard, preferably from a name-brand school. There’s probably a sensei or two without one, but for the most part, a Bachelor’s is the minimum barrier to entry.
Keep in mind that for every position, you’re competing with dozens, possibly hundreds, of other fools who also believe they’re God’s gift to English education. So possessing a degree in Linguistics, English, Education, or something similar will help you stand out.
Beyond that, a certificate with letters like TESOL, TESL, or TEFL will probably be helpful. If you’re just getting into this game, signing up for a CELTA course would be a great idea.
In addition, a Master’s degree is hella useful. Japan is thoroughly inundated with English teachers, so unless you want to spend the rest of your life playing Fruit Basket with 6 year-olds, it’s good to have something to keep your resume in at least the Maybe pile.
Further still, if you’ve got a Ph.D., there’s a shot at a full time university gig, but be advised those are few and far between. I know one guy with a doctorate who works evenings and weekends at an eikaiwa, and another who’s unemployed, so an advanced degree is no guarantee of career success.
2. Have Actual Teaching Experience
Ideally, you’d want to be a licensed English teacher in your home country, with several years of school experience. Failing that, having at least taught somebody, somewhere would look good on your resume. You don’t need to mention they were your cousins and uncles.
On the real though, it’s strange to think that anyone would fly all the way to Japan to be a teacher without ever having tried it out at home. But people do. In other words, you might want to date first before getting married. Just a thought.
3. Speak Well
Many hiring panels have native English speakers on them, and from the moment you open your mouth, it’s immediately apparent whether or not you’re a native speaker. A weird accent—whether from Scotland, Portland, or Portugal—can to count against you. Mumbles, ya gotta remember, you’re competing against a sea of other applicants, some of whom just happen to sound like newscasters. Some of whom actually are.
Speaking well is especially important if you look other than white or black, because there are literally thousands of folks from Nepal, Russia, India, China, the Philippines, Korea, etc. all of whom speak English, but not exactly the coveted American or British English. Employers are looking for true native speakers, not just folks who learned English excellent well. So you either need to establish your “native Englishness” right away or have enough qualifications to overcome that bias.
Beyond an English accent that’s spot on, you also need to demonstrate actual communicative skills. Be able to explain things clearly. But not in too many words. Be animated. But not too animated. Be funny. But not too funny. Speak confidently. But be humble. Interviewing is the world’s worst first date, with a line of people all more attractive than you waiting to sit down at the table, and only one gets chosen. But no pressure.
Speaking of speaking, how’s your Japanese? Some places won’t care, but many will. Learning the language is no easy task, but putting forth the energy to study Japanese will serve to remind you what hell your students are going through.
4. Have a Good Attitude
Are you a dick? And not even that, because the real question is, Can you not be a dick for the short 20 minutes we’re interviewing you? Experience suggests that Nope, many people can’t. A surprising number of applicants feel the need to assert themselves, prove they’re right, or otherwise wrap a length of rope around their necks. Just be a nice person.
Or at least pretend you’re a nice person. Is it really that hard? Apparently so. You may be sitting elbow to elbow with your colleagues for years. If you want to work in Japan, you need to convey that you can contribute to a positive environment and not just wreck the place. Come to school with a smile and leave the same way. At least in theory.
5. Be Young
Here I’m assuming you’re moving from overseas. Are you 21 to 35? Great, then skip to the next section. But if you’re 40 or 50, then what’s the life crisis propelling you to run away to Japan as an English teacher? Why don’t you have a husband, a wife, children, a life? Oh, you do? And you’re going to leave all that behind? Or bring it with? Either way, now the situation’s more complicated, and maybe we should just hire somebody younger and single. A Japanese work application may ask your marital status, and it will definitely ask your age.
Also, teaching’s hard. You may be on your feet for hours, speaking, singing, dancing, with students watching your every move, possibly without air conditioning or heat. In the summers I often sweat through my undershirt, collared shirt, and slacks, and emerge from class literally soaked down to the socks. Working in Japan as an English teacher is, I hate to say it, kind of a young person’s game. Can you give high fives to hundreds of students, day in and day out, without getting tired, sick, or just realizing you could be making more elsewhere?
So maybe you’re a 45 year-old with two kids, a dog, and it’s your dream to work in Japan. Unfortunately, the nation doesn’t exist for the express purpose of fulfilling your desires. The ideal candidate is qualified, energetic, reliable, unencumbered, and young. Surely that’s not too much to ask.
6. Look Like an English Teacher
Remember Lurch from the Addams Family? Yeah, ain’t nobody hiring that guy as a kindergarten instructor. Lurch-sensei may be the sweetest 7-foot tall dude in the world, but him cradling little girls on his lap isn’t something school principals want to see. If he were a 25 year-old woman, yeah, no problem. Now, is that fair? Hell no, but write a letter to Santa about it, because the truth is, appearances matter.
So let’s be real: Hollywood likes its cowboys white, in rare cases black, but Asian . . . eh, not so much. Or take Hooters, please. They didn’t get famous by hiring a bunch of dudes. I mean, Ken Seeroi’s super open-minded, but he’s not trying to get a refill of wings from some guy named Brad, even if Brad does have a B-cup chest. No way that’s happening. I’m gonna order a pitcher of beer first, then wait to see if Brad starts looking better in them orange shorts. If so, then eh, sure, maybe more wings.
Being Asian in Japan
Now, I’m not Asian, so I can only report what I’ve seen and heard from colleagues and friends, but it’s pretty obvious that there are tons of Asian Americans teaching here. At the dozen places I’ve worked, I’d say about 75% of the foreign teachers were white, 1% were black, and up to 25% were Asian, mostly of the American variety. With a 1% margin of error. If it’s true that Asian Americans comprise roughly 6% of the U.S. population, that’s pretty significant. When it comes to teaching English in Japan, being Asian may even be an advantage.
Here we need to include the caveat that in private, for-profit organizations, being white or black is probably a plus, because teachers are marketed to paying customers. Eikaiwa love to slap gaijin faces on their websites and posters and say, “Look, we have authentic foreign-looking people who can teach you real English.” This is kind of like if you wanted to be a gangsta rapper. Which school you gonna go with, the one with teachers who look like Ice Cube, or Vanilla Ice? Your choice.
But for a lot of other organizations, appearing “foreign” conveys the opposite message—you’re not one of us. Public schools don’t need to market you to students. The kids have to show up no matter what. Likewise, colleges and corporations don’t rely upon selling English classes. For these and many other organizations, they don’t care what you look like. They just need someone qualified and reliable, who can fit in.
7. Don’t be the Nail That Sticks Out
It’s no secret that heaps of “foreign” people move to Japan, stay a year or two, then fly home. They land at Narita with colorful backpacks and heads full of ninjas and Pikachu and can’t even last through a one-year contract (which is why many include a hefty completion bonus). The general consensus is that “foreigners” struggle to fit in. And to be fair, it’s largely accurate.
It’s not hard to see how many Japanese folks view “foreigners.” Just be white and sit down at an izakaya beside any random Japanese geezer. And before long, it’s Why did you come to Japan? Can you read the menu? Amazing. Aren’t you surprised that we wait in lines? Don’t you find the trains crowded? Aren’t Japanese people shy? Never mind the fact I’m an 80 year-old drunk who won’t shut the fuck up. Can you eat Japanese food? How about sashimi/natto/noodles/rice/tea? Because for “you,” Japan’s different. Right?
Working in Japan as an Asian American
Japanese folks are indoctrinated with the idea that their culture’s too weird, their food’s not what “you” eat, and the work in Japan is too hard. (Actually, it is too hard.) And that’s why “foreigners” leave. But Asian people . . . and I’ve heard this plenty . . . “well, at least they’re Asian.” So they’re foreign, but, you know, not white foreign. The perception is that other Asian nations, while clearly different and inferior to the amazing culture that is Japan, are still, well, Asian. So if you look Asian, then of course you grew up hanging out your laundry, taking showers at night, and eating kimchee. Don’t try to hide it. Never mind the fact you’re from Cleveland.
So from the perspective of an employer, looking “Asian” could be an advantage, because now they’ve got the best of both worlds—someone who speaks perfect English and can explain foreign culture, but who won’t rock the boat too much and may actually stick around. Maybe they can even relate to you in the way they could never do with a “foreign” person. I mean, sure, we know you’re foreign, but not like them.
What Japanese Students Think
Finally, let’s end with what students think. Because in my experience kids are pretty malleable. They react really quickly—Wow, it looks sort of like us, yet it speaks English!—but also adapt just as fast. They soon grasp that America is a land with lots of different races who are all Americans. Unfortunately, they miss the bigger point—that Japan is too.
Instead, from birth, Japanese kids are taught that the world contains exactly two kinds of people: Japanese and foreigners. They then spend the rest of their lives trying to explain away all the contradictions this brings. You’re black but were born in Ibaraki? Oh well, um, riiight—you’re half Japanese. Brilliant. But “Japan as a multi-cultural nation” is a lesson nobody’s trying to attend. Best just preserve the illusion that Japan’s homogeneous. Stay foreign, teach English, and everybody’s happy. Fruit basket.