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The Art of the Deal: 4 Strategies for Getting Better Teacher Contracts

There are ways to piece together a superior deal for yourself than what's on offer when discussing salary and benefits with schools or hiring boards — under certain circumstances.

By 7 min read

I’ve had it said to me numerous times over the last few years that the Japanese don’t know how to negotiate. The argument that proponents of this theory put forward is that in Japan’s group-think mentality — especially with regards to work — negotiating your own contract conditions is seen as an act of individualism that won’t be tolerated. Being a team player, they say, involves accepting exactly the same deal as your colleagues.

I disagree with this logic but can certainly see why some might draw this conclusion given the “take it or leave it” manner in which contracts are usually presented when you receive a job offer.

I have learned over time, though, that there are ways to negotiate a better deal for yourself under certain circumstances and at certain times.

You may disagree with some of what I am going to say here, and that’s fine. Remember that this is based purely on my own experiences here in Japan over the years. Your own experiences may be entirely different. Further, I accept no responsibility if you miss out on a job offer because you ask the boss the wrong thing at the wrong time!

However, if you feel that you would like to make some improvements in your current — or next — job situation, here are some strategies I’ve used in the past for negotiating a better deal.

1. Consider who it is you work for

Your capability to negotiate will depend largely on who your employer is. I’ve been able to successfully negotiate improved conditions several times with private companies I have worked for. However, if you’re working for a city board of education or another government entity, such as the JET Programme, the salary and conditions are fixed and negotiation will be almost impossible unless there is a very specific set of circumstances or your role is different from that of a regular ALT.

Your best chances of negotiating a better deal for yourself always lie in the private sector.

Smaller companies, or ones that have a very limited pool of English teachers at their disposal will be more agreeable to negotiation. Larger companies, like the bigger eikaiwa (private conversation school) chains and nationwide ALT dispatch companies have the money and the infrastructure to run literal year-round recruitment, leading to an exceedingly high turnover of staff. With these companies, there are always another five candidates waiting to step in and replace you if you aren’t happy with the offer.

However, take the example of my previous employer, a small school where I was the only native English teacher. I was able to negotiate a better deal for myself than what was initially offered because it was less time, effort and money for them to give me what I was asking than it would have been to go out and source an equally qualified and equally experienced alternative candidate.

2. Money isn’t everything

At the end of the day, all organizations, regardless of size and scope, have to stick to budgets. As such, it behooves them to avoid giving you a higher salary than they have the money allocated for in the budget. That’s not personal and  it’s not political — it’s the reality of the situation. As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather: “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”

So, if money is off the table, perhaps you can negotiate other incentives to improve your contract.

One of the easiest things a company can give you is extra holidays. The legal minimum in Japan for a full-time, one-year contract is 10 days paid leave per year. However, I’ve seen as many as 20 offered on a first time contract depending on the employer. Asking for a couple of days extra leave won’t do any harm — and is a good indicator as to whether the company is willing to be flexible in other areas.

Can you demonstrate how you are an asset to the company, such as a proven record of increased student retention, bringing on new students or raising test scores?

3. Be prepared to walk away

Since it started back in the mid-2000s, I’ve been a big fan of the BBC show Dragon’s Den (known in the U.S. as Shark Tank). I recall on a flight back to Japan from Scotland, reading the autobiography of Duncan Bannatyne, perhaps the most obstinate and shrewdest of the “Dragons” (the multi-millionaire investors around whom the show’s format is based). Bannatyne had some very astute observations about the art of negotiation. Chief amongst these was his assertion that in order to get the best deal, you need to be strong enough to say: “No deal.”

Bannatyne likened negotiation to a game of attrition where it is often about who will blink first. When I’m job hunting, I adopt a two-stage approach. First, I secure a job — any reasonable job — as quick as I can. Once that is secured, I then set about trying to find something better in the time between that first job offer and the start date.

Some would say that it is unfair to “string along” the first company when deep down you have no real intention of working for them, but at the end of the day, job hunting is a mercenary game and you need to look after No. 1. Besides, it’s not as if Japan has a shortage of people wanting to be English teachers.

What this approach accomplishes well is that it empowers me to be able to say no to a contract that doesn’t meet my requirements. Believe me, the “Dragon” was right: when you go into a negotiation without the fear of being left with nothing, the negotiation becomes a lot easier.

This happened to me a couple of years ago. I was offered my current job only two days before I was due to sign and start work with another employer. I knew that this school couldn’t afford to start the school year without a native English teacher on staff, given the reputational damage, so I used that leverage to knock them down from a six-day to a five-day work week, with a couple of other extra incentives thrown in.

Had I not had the other job lined up as a back up, I would probably still be working Saturdays to this day!

4. Ask yourself: “Why do I deserve better?”

Private schools in Japan — be they eikaiwa, juku (cram schools) or full-time programs — are all money-making enterprises. If you are going to demand more from them, you need to ask yourself what makes you better than the rest. What can you offer them that justifies that extra vacation day or that extra ¥5,000 to ¥10.000 per month?

Know what your specific skills are. Do you work best with a certain type of class? Can you demonstrate how you are an asset to the company, such as a proven record of increased student retention, bringing on new students or raising test scores? A good negotiation needs to show both parties how they benefit from the deal.

In closing, I would say that negotiation in Japan is certainly more awkward and less direct than I have experienced in the U.K. or Hong Kong. Certainly, I’ve never met anyone quite like my old boss in Hong Kong, whose opening line was: “OK, this is the job. How much do you want for doing it?”

Like so many things in Japan, the indirect approach works best. Be discreet, be cautious, but also know your own value and don’t be shy to highlight your own strengths when it comes time to discuss that contract.

Have you successfully negotiated a better salary or working conditions for your teaching contract in Japan? Do you have any tips for others seeking to do the same? Let us know in the comments!

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