Breaking the Mold: Can You Teach English in Japan as a Non-Native Speaker?

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Photo by Olivia Blackburn

One of the best things about writing here on GaijinPot is the huge community we get to interact with via the Facebook group and other social media channels, as well as our own comments section. I’ve previously written about how to find an English teaching job and how to nail that job application here in Japan as well as how to ace an ALT interview.

Today, I’ve decided to tackle an issue that seems to be extremely common among readers. I’m often asked questions like this: “I’m not a native speaker, but can I still teach English in Japan? If so, where can I find a job?”

The answer to the first part of the question is: yes (with a few caveats). As for the second, well, that’s a bit more complicated.

In principle, according to immigration law, all that an overseas applicant needs to teach English in Japan is:

  • a university degree
  • a firm job offer from a company willing to sponsor your working visa

So, contrary to some comments I have read in the past, there is no legal impediment to non-native speakers becoming English teachers.

I’m not a native speaker, but can I still teach English in Japan?

My view is that, in some cases, non-native speakers can actually make more effective teachers than native ones. As a writer and teacher, I’ve immersed myself in the English language from an early age. But the same can’t be said of many native speaking teachers here in Japan. They often have degrees and prior working experience completely unrelated to either the English language or education in general.

Conversely, some of the non-native teachers I have worked alongside, in places like Osaka and Kurashiki City in Okayama Prefecture, have turned out to be some of the best educators I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

I believe that the perceived barriers to non-native speakers in the English teaching industry are manifestations of a form of elitism among some Japanese managers and recruiters who hold the mistaken belief that only someone born into a language can truly understand all its facets and intricacies. I worked with enough bilinguals and trilinguals during my time in Hong Kong to know this simply isn’t true.

So, if you have the talent but not the birthright, where can you find a job in Japan as an English teacher?

First of all, if you are looking for an exclusively English teaching position, I would rule out the larger eikaiwa (English conversation school) chains such as Nova, Gaba and Aeon.

The reality is that these are commercially motivated companies and, as such, they have to pander to what their customers want. Sadly, the aforementioned prejudice against those with a non-native accent is a problem not just for recruiters and managers but large swathes of the English-studying Japanese public, too.

Most paying Japanese customers of these larger chains have a very specific idea of the kind of teacher they want: typically young, attractive individuals with as neutral an accent as possible. In the past, I’ve even been rejected from such jobs because my Scottish accent “didn’t sound native enough.”

For would-be, non-native English teachers in Japan, an assistant language teacher (ALT) in the public school system can offer a more accessible pathway into Japan.

From my own experience, ALT recruiting companies such as Interac (the biggest ALT company in Japan) have no trouble with hiring non-native speakers — provided they can pass the English speaking, reading and writing tests all candidates take at the interview. Interac has the added benefit of jobs available all over Japan, though salaries and conditions vary from place to place. Check out for their latest vacancies and be sure to take note of which jobs are open to overseas applicants.

Prefectural and city boards of education across Japan also seem to be softening their previous hard stance on “native English teacher” requirements. The Philippines, in particular, seems to be producing a lot of teachers in Japan these days. In 2016-17, there are 37 Filipino ALTs in the JET Programme, according to program statistics. While that number may seem small, there are numerous chapters devoted to Filipino English teachers in Japan outside of JET, as well as part of an association called Filipino English Teachers in Japan (FETJ), which provides support to its members by offering regular training and assistance in job placements. Looking for a support group of this type may also supplement your teacher job search.

City boards of education that currently offer direct hire programs in Japan include Osaka City’s CNET program, the Kurashiki City NET Program and the Sagamihara Board of Education in Kanagawa. You will, however, need to be in Japan to apply for these positions. Private junior and senior high schools are another area where there may be opportunities for non-native teachers.

I’ve even been rejected from such jobs because my Scottish accent “didn’t sound native enough.

Another avenue to try are international and other private schools, like Global Indian International School, Little Angels International Schools if you are already have the qualifications to teach English as a second language.

ALT work is not only the easiest to find, but it’s also probably the most likely to hire a non-native applicant. The downside of this is that in some cases — especially in more rural areas — the lower expectations in terms of pay and conditions of those from comparatively poorer nations, has had the effect of dragging down salaries for ALT work across the board.

Government regulation — or rather the lack thereof — hasn’t helped either. When I first came to Japan in 2006, it was government mandated that teachers needed to earn at least ¥250,000 per month in order to secure visa sponsorship. Today, that figure is down to ¥170,000.

Of course, if you’re a native speaker of another language then you don’t necessarily need to teach English here in Japan. On Gaijinpot you can search for jobs pertaining to your own native language. Back in my eikaiwa days, I worked alongside many French, German, Chinese and Korean teachers.

Schools such as Berlitz have long offered programs in languages besides English. Other eikaiwa — such as Nova and Aeon — also periodically need teachers of languages besides English, but these roles tend to be rarer and often only on a part-time basis, for which no visa sponsorship is offered.

My advice to anyone who wants to come to Japan to teach is this: Do not let your background deter you. Anyone who has sufficient skill, training and credentials can be an English teacher. It may take a non-native speaker a bit longer to get here, but it’s certainly not impossible.

Hang in there — and keep checking GaijinPot every day for the latest opportunities.

Do you know any schools in Japan that are currently hiring non-native speakers to teach English or native speakers of other languages to teach? Let us know in the comments below!

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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