The Stigma Against Teaching English in Japan

By
On February 4, 2015
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Most of the time, when you ask the dreaded question “so… what do you do?” to an English teacher in Japan, they will tell you almost anything except for just “I teach English.” I confess, I am not a “real” teacher. I give lessons twice a week in the afternoon at a local eikaiwa because the students are fun and the pay is great.

That being said, I have a friends who are legitimate teachers at public schools in Japan. Teaching is a noble calling. Think about it. As a teacher, you provide guidance and knowledge. You revise lessons to suit different age groups and personality types. And, in a perfect world, the only people who taught would be people who were called to teach. However, we don’t live in a perfect world.

english-teaching

Teaching English is a billion yen industry. In many cases, all you need is a bachelor’s degree from an English-speaking country to get the job. Experience is appreciated but not necessary.

Perhaps that’s where the stigma comes from. Some people legitimately love teaching; they’re proud of their jobs and proud of the work they do. To be honest, though, this breed of teacher is few and far between. Most of the foreign teachers I’ve met in Tokyo seem to use teaching as just a way to pay the bills, while they pursue their “true passion.”

Have you noticed the stigma against teaching English in Japan?

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Texan blogger and comic book artist.
  • anna2556 says:

    I’ve taught English in the US public school system for 11 years and thought I’d look into teaching overseas as the Asian (in particular the Japanese) model of education is touted as being one of the best. I would have loved to have experienced it first-hand; however, I think my idea of teaching in Japan isn’t at all what the job actually entails. I keep reading articles detailing discriminatory practices and low opinions of English teachers, while others have stated that there is no actual teaching involved. Rather, it seems to be some weird mix of cheerleader, parrot, and walking dictionary. I’ve been approached by Interac but think it’s time to delete my profile and resign myself to visiting Japan as a tourist instead.

  • Keiko says:

    Your friend could have reported it to the authorities. That teacher who mentally and physically abused your friend should stop working there. I was once an ALT also and I know how hard it is to deal with some Japanese Teachers. I was assigned in two schools but I wasn`t directly hired by the Ministry/ Board of Education. My contract is under a dispatched company or an agency.
    One of the schools where I was designated was awful. Some teachers were rude and sad to say they don`t know how to spell ` MANNERS`. Although your friend`s experience is worse, I won`t go further to details on how they mistreated me but it made me feel depressed for a while living in Japan. I have never met cruel Japanese people ever before, till I started working as an ALT. My depression vanished when I quit my job and I never regret when I handed my resignation.

    P.S. For the readers who are interested to become an ALT:
    This comment does not reflect the entire Japanese Public Schools. In fact I was happy in the other school I worked. The two schools are completely opposite.

  • Furansu says:

    Wait! So far I have been reading that all you need is a bachelor’s degree but now it is the first time I read that the bachelor’s degree must be from an english speaking country! Is that so?

    I am a non native english speaker. My first bachelor’s degree was in Portuguese, I have been working for an english speaking company for 3 years and I am currently studying in an English speaking university in Amsterdam.

    My idea is to take a year break to live in Japan teaching english. Does that mean I don’t have a chance because my first bachelor’s degree was not in english? Does anybody know the answer? It would be very helpful to know..

    • U.O. says:

      I don’t think that you don’t have a chance, but a lot of the job postings that I see do require that you’ve received your bachelor’s degree from an English speaking country and/or you’ve received at least 12 years of education in English (kindergarten through high school). I don’t think that it will be impossible for you, but it may be a bit harder. I hope that was helpful!

  • mei3ss says:

    I never thought of Teaching English as a full time job, and always saw it as something on the side. But its hard to get private students with out going into an Eikaiwa for several years…
    Just curious, would anyone be interested in an APP that basically connected Private English Teachers to English learners? Kind of like tinder for English Lessons.

    Thinking about making this real, any honest feedback would be appreciated!

  • ayy lmao says:

    Because deep down teaching english isn’t what people really want and they only treat the job as an excuse to live in Japan. If someone is actually passionate about teaching and it’s the reason that they go to Japan then they will accept it as what they do and what they are, which is rare. People know they haven’t really become anything if they’re only an english teacher.

  • Ebony Hare says:

    I am moving to japan to become an English Teacher and from my research not really. There’s not much chance to move up unless you decide to open your own private school so you don’t really get paid much more. Rather than give you a pay rise many schools would just opt to get another teacher as there’s always young people looking for a job so you’re a little disposable. Once you’ve got experience though you can move into university teaching which is more stable and higher paid but you’re better off in a lot of cases moving on from there. If you can speak and read japanese (You can do JLPT N2 or preferably N1) then you’ve got more options. Some people do stay as a teacher though and enjoy it it just depends really.

  • Jinx15 says:

    Coooool! Good luck, and have a look on Englipedia-at the shoutbox section. We all give eachother heaps of advice and support. So it’s worth signing on. I hope to see you there!

  • primalxconvoy says:

    I think that many people do indeed just work at Eikaiwa, or similar jobs, while studying and engaging in their true passion…

    …which is actual teaching.

    It’s best to just put in the minimum required, with a smile on your face, pay the bills and then study to be a better teacher. There are also some places that allow teachers to use different methodologies and approaches to teach actual, real learners (not “customers”), which can then further develop both the learners and teacher.

  • Platonic_Finger says:

    I think, along with other reasons mentioned here, is that the teaching English industry in Japan industry is seen as kind of slimy. The industry usually is built up on marketing and offers very poor quality, for high prices, makes ridiculous promises and does not improve the English ability of their clients that much, if at all. When the fall of the larger “Eikaiwas” like NOVA occurred, many clients/students got turned off from the whole thing and took their losses. But this had overall a negative effect on how Japanese view the industry and gave teachers the same reputation as say, used car salesmen.

    • primalxconvoy says:

      Considering that Aeon “teachers” are encouraged to “win the trust of customers” so that they can sell them extra books, etc during counselling sessions there (I think teachers are “spoken to” by management if they don’t sellany/much), then who can blame them?

      If you look at the posters at Eikaiwa, they mainly sell the idea of Japanese women being isntructed by a western (usually white) male. japanese men are either in the background, or with their backs to the viewer. By contrast, if you look at some other posters or promotional materials for eikaiwa services aimed at japanese men, they feature young women. I even saw an entire website in the Philippines that was basically a hostess resort under the pretext of “English school”. Photos and videos of young, pretty Filippina girls in a swimming pool. I kid you not. In both cases, the marketing materials suggest that foreigners are to be fetishised physically, and are agents of self-change, improvement and above all, servants to “be talked to”. Compare that imagery to many other English schools around the world, and you will mainly see pictures of the learners, in groups, having fun (with the message usually being “come and study and socialise with other learners in the beautiful city of INSERT NAME HERE”). The message, although not academic, still removesfocus of the teacher as “object/servant”.

      Personally, I think there is a disconnect between the marketing of the job to teachers, and the service to customers. Perhaps if Eikaiwas “came out of the closet” and specified that the job is mainly counselling, marketing, entertainmet, flirting, and customer service, then they might attract the right teacher/customer fit?

      • Platonic_Finger says:

        I don’t know what the answer is… I’m in the culinary industry so I really don’t have to deal with these issues. I do know that Japan’s restrictive VISA requirements mean that one must have a university degree to “teach”. It is therefore in the interest of the Eikaiwas to market themselves to teachers as a gateway to a career or a job that will give them skills and opportunities for the future. The turnaround is massive, after all, and if they did market themselves honestly, it would be difficult to fill all those openings.

        Many students join Eikaiwas with a legitimate desire to learn and study English and many stubbornly continue on despite the huge failures in the concept and execution at Eikaiwas. This is what many people think “learning English” is in Japan and they know little outside it other than the terrible lessons that occur in the school system.

        There is a lot of snake oil salesmen and ne’er-do-wells looking to capitalize on a large desire within Japan, learning English and difference. English is marketed and seen as a window to a world of difference, kind of like an OZ or Wonderland that one can access with the ability to speak English.

  • steve drake says:

    Surely English teacher sounds better than freelance writer

  • Nat says:

    It’s interesting when you say it seems to happen a lot in Japan, however it happens all across non-English speaking Asian countries in general. Actually, pretty much everywhere where there is a demand for teaching English. I used to hate it not only for the wide range of people it attracts but, also that I didn’t find teaching English challenging at all and unfortunately at times quite monotonous. However, now I have come to develop a love-hate relationship with it. I think it’s great that teaching presents an option for those who just want to travel, those who couldn’t find a job in their home country, recent graduate or those who need a fresh start as well as various other reasons why. It’s also something you can fall back on, especially when (pardon my french but) s*** hits the fan. But, yes I do sympthise as well with those that worked really hard to get their teaching degree only to deal with trolls in the form of colleagues that even land the same job yet minus the effort. So in essence I have mixed feelings.

  • Ken Tambornino says:

    I think one of the key points in the article is that this is what is happening in Tokyo. I work in a more rural area in Kyushu, and most of my co-workers came here specifically to teach English and are not ashamed to say it. However, people I meet living in Fukuoka have more of the attitude of teaching as a means to an end. Serious teachers don’t mind living outside the cities because they came here to teach or experience Japan. Tokyo especially has a big appeal for those with no aspirations to teach, but simply want a visa to travel, party or look for other opportunities.

    • Jinx15 says:

      Great point Ken. I know many teachers in the Kyushu Fukuoka area as well. What you said seems to be true. Great place to live though wouldn’t you say?

  • Al Álava says:

    In my opinion, the stigma lies on the stereotype that teaching English as a second language is a facile task because the teacher is limited to teaching semantics or the fundamentals of speaking the language – something that any English speaker is aware of. However, we must not forget that although teaching ESL does not necessarily advocate for elecution on the part of the students or for them to become linguists but rather to encourage the students to speak the universal language, it (teaching ESL) requires didactic talents, ability to adjust to the students’ learning curves (which is not so easy as ABC), and passion for the job. This particular facet of teaching is no different from jobs that require customer service skills which are equally discriminated. The commonality is that both do not require a specific degree in order to penetrate the industry. This stigma must be eradicated.

  • Johndale Grace MendeZ says:

    This is pretty ironic to me ’cause being an English teacher in Japan is my dream ever since I can remember. So I personally can’t care much about the “stigma” part. Hope things go well for me, though. :))))))

    • Jinx15 says:

      I hope your dream comes true Johndale! Teaching isn’t as hard as you might think..In fact with a little effort you can be better than 90% of the teachers out there. Make your own materials is my best advice.

  • Super PJ says:

    Every English speaking friend I have in Japan has met their significant other in either giving English lessons or at college when they have language exchange.

    I lived in Tokyo and worked in IT, I never taught a single English lesson, got drunk at a party I crashed with my friend and that’s where I met the girl that became my girlfriend. English teaching is basically Tinder/Grindr with a language barrier.

  • He already said it wasn’t true.

  • voxman says:

    I lived in Japan for 7 years. A lot of my American friends taught English to meet girls. The whole thing seemed a bit shady to me since few Japanese speak English correctly, though many think they do! And the ones that truly do, previously lived in Canada or US or UK for a bit, and got the accent down correctly..

  • maulinator says:

    There is a huge difference in quality of teachers in Japan and you pretty much get what you pay for. There are a few, who are dedicated teachers with actual qualifications to teach and have certifications etc. I think top notch places such as Berlitz tend to hire those types. These people are also found in JET ocassionally and other government programs. The ones I have met from Berlitz were all proper teachers back in the US before coming to Japan. They actually pursue teaching as their main profession.
    THe other group, as the author describes, teaches to pay bills and pursue other passions or girls….. These people, mostly white men in their 20’s are the ones that give the stigma to the English teacher gig. Their command of the English language is tenuous at best. Sure they can speak, but these people are about as sharp as a bowling ball. Speaking the language does not mean you can teach it. They cannot fix someone else’s grammar, because they do not understand what grammar is or what the actual rules are. They cannot provide solutions to problems that students have since they actually do not understand the core of the problem.
    These are the people you see in Roppongi trolling for women, or men. The ones who primarily work at Eikaiwa and like to party. While that might be a good way to waste some time and your youth, it is not a career. Living in a one room hovel, or with roommates and IKEA or second hand furniture is one step abgove the milk crate and free furniture life of a college student. Probably the biggest source of the stigma comes from other expats with real careers who look at the poor eikaiwa teacher and think- what a pathetic sod. No career and no real life. Being able to party but going home to a one room shack is not how “proper” adults should be living.
    Another source of the stigma probably coems from students who realize that these people are less teacher and more just a person who speaks English. They probably realize this when they ask the first hard questions about langauge, grammar questions or how to dissect a sentence. Stuff you learn in the the 8th grade and the “teacher” has no clue. Pull out your Warriner’s “teachers.”
    The problem is not that they are sucky teachers, but the fact that it in many cases it is a go nowhere job, kinda like food service jobs. You don’t go to LA to be a waiter and people in LA who are waiters don’t say that, they are pursuing their true passion which is “acting.”
    While some people pursue their true passion while teaching, in most cases that is just a pipe dream. It seems like very few have a passion, and even fewer actually make it out. And no one wants to be associated with that.

    • primalxconvoy says:

      I would hardly say that Berlitz is “top notch”, considering it adheres to an antiquated model of teaching. Their “Berlitz Method” (which they swear their teachers to secrecy about) is little more than a slight variation of the “Direct Method”, which is widely known in the EFL community, and has had its fair share of criticism.

  • Turner Wright says:

    This mainly occurs inside Japan’s borders. Once you’re out, everyone who hears that you taught English in Japan wants to know how he or she can go about it.

    But for those on the inside, I get it. Even though there are fully qualified dedicated teachers over there, the majority of the time, the standards in hiring are a joke. Anyone from any of the “Big 6” countries with any degree can apply and get a job in no time at all.

    • primalxconvoy says:

      What frustrates me is that, even with a Diploma or MA in teaching/TEFL (or similar qualifications, like being a registered childrens’ educator back home), many places will either shrug their shoulders or even say that this makes you overqualified. One thing that speaks VOLUMES about any Eikaiwa is if they suggest you are overqualified to teach when you have got a Diploma (or equiv) and/or years of teaching experience in different institutions. It is an admission of the level of competence that they expect from their workers, surely?

  • Henrique says:

    Just reminded me– in my country they say a thing about Japan, that is actually not true “i guess”, but, it’s quite.. poetical:

    – “In Japan, the only ones who doesn’t need to bow before the emperor are teachers. Because without them, there would be no emperors, no prime ministers, no temples, nor progress, nothing at all.”

    • primalxconvoy says:

      I used to live near a man who actually taught the Emperor English. he even had to use extremely polite Japanese when speaking to the (at the time) 6 year old Princess at the court.

  • Amberly Thomson says:

    There is a huge stigma against teaching overseas in my area, when I began my search for jobs this past year I received many different responses, some that were incredibly negative.

  • kayumochi says:

    I taught for 16 years in Japan. If you work smart a teacher can cobble together enough clients to make a decent living and save a lot of money. You have all the freedom in the world to attach whatever story you want to to teaching in Japan. There is ,however, a certain kind of white woman in Japan, quite often ones married to Japanese men and who don’t have to teach because their husband pays the bills, who look down on white men who do have to teach to make a living.

  • GeneralObvious says:

    You usually can’t get or won’t be able to keep a job working in the public school system unless you are a good teacher. Both Interac and the JET program are fairly selective in their hiring process now. The jobs are stable and the pay is consistent, so they get tons of applicants and can be picky because of it. Eikaiwa’s are far more lenient however, many will take anyone that can afford the plane ticket and has a “degree”.

    The reason foreigners are hesitant to say they are an English teacher however has nothing to do with that. Most people want to stand out and be a little different, when you are living in a country where 98% of the non-natives have the same job as you, that’s a little difficult to do.

  • David Joiny says:

    It depends on each teachers motives and situation but I would say that in the situation will usually be that most ‘teachers’are just here for the paid holiday.

    • Jinx15 says:

      You always have awesome opinions on the shoutbox too bro. I think you nailed it here. Some things never change eh?

      Just wish we lived closer, we could hang out more. Love Jinx.

  • soccerteesandplaydoh says:

    I thought this would be a more interesting investigation into Japanese perceptions of Eikaiwa teachers. Of course gaijin don’t want to foreground their Eikaiwa work — it’s the equivalent of saying “I’m not really a waitress.”

    I began life in Japan in 1988, the second year of the JET Programme, and I don’t think any of us realized just how much we represented Brand America (or Australia, Ireland, etc.) There was a lot of sketchy behavior and general thoughtlessness, and then foreigners really started to pour in as hostesses, or unmotivated “teachers” out to bilk students of every yen possible.

    I’m really not surprised we got a bad reputation.

    • kayumochi says:

      I first came in 1990 and got to witness the very tail end of the Bubble. Those were the days, weren’t they? And yeah, there was a lot of “sketchy” behavior to say the least.

  • Paul Lynch says:

    Nobody says the “pay is great” at an Eikaiwa.

  • Mat Davies says:

    Interesting article. Japan is a different ball game entirely. I worked in Germany, Poland and the UK as an English Teacher, and Japan is quite old fashioned when it comes to EFL. I work in the private sector, however, I have heard similar points by friends in the public sector. The books are old, the industry does not understand the skills associated with the communicative method (CELTA/DELTA) and shuns a lot of new ideas. I know that JALT is very active and I am sure that there are exceptions to the rule. But based on what I have seen, there is an old fashioned culture regarding language education and its delivery here. Not something to be proud of.

    • GeneralObvious says:

      I currently work in the Miyazaki Public school system. The books are not outdated and MEXT is constantly changing the guidelines for English instruction. They are now in the process of standardizing the way English is taught, by training the homeroom teachers on how to lead English language classes (moving away from ALT led classes) and increasing the number of English hours per week for elementary and junior high school students. They are also shifting the focus towards communication and away from grammar and spelling. The new guidelines will be put into effect in 2016, with teacher training beginning this year.

  • jeri says:

    never heard of that. They always tell me they are english teacher here in Japan… with dignity.

  • Robby D Jones says:

    I think it is partially because there is a cap on how much an English teacher can make in Japan also. There are people in the JET program here on there first or second year and they are making more than people who have lived here for 10 years because honestly the options aren’t that great. So everyone knows that they can’t do it forever so they have to focus on something else. Yes, it is how you pay the pays as a college graduate in Japan if you don’t have a extremely specialize skill. You also don’t want to be lumped in with every other person who just showed up 3 months ago who is doing the same job you are doing.

    • GeneralObvious says:

      That’s not true. You can be contracted directly through the local board of education and you will be paid far more than anything a JET job will get you. There are 2 people in my city who were hired in this way. Most people aren’t willing to put in the time or effort to get a position like that though. You have to work “Japanese hours” for a few years i.e. showing up for work well before your scheduled classes in the morning and staying until well after all the students leave, coming to weekend and after school events, eating with the children daily, etc. All the while not getting paid overtime.

    • I’ve noticed that as well. I do have friends who have been teaching here for 10+ years, but they aren’t making much more than someone fresh off the plane (sometimes even less). You don’t really get raises or have a chance at furthering your career in most Eikaiwas (and perhaps even in local schools).

  • James Lowrey says:

    I’ve noticed the stigma even though I’m in England, I wanted to be an ALT and I was told by a lot of people not to… I decided I want to stay in England for different reasons though, I still think it sounds like a great job. The only bad thing about it is that it seems set up in a way that makes it as hard as possible for the students to actually learn any English, I’ve even heard stories about ALT’s being told off for explaining things in Japanese… This is probably where a lot of the stigma comes from, it seems like it’s just a way to get money for showing up and being a gaijin a lot of the time.

  • papiGiulio says:

    Let me be completely honest. There are English teachers and there are “English teachers” in Japan.

    1 group is sincere, hardworking, dedicated, love to work with kids/students and makes it their goal to improve their English ability. Then we have group 2. These teachers just come here to party. And why wouldnt they. The teachers salary (granted now much less) used to be over 300000 yen a month. deduct a mere 50 to 70000 yen for rent and you have a LOT of money to party. I have some gaijin friends who did this, and many of them bragged about it which in turn made others jealous and I think thats why there is this kind of stigma.

    I personally never wanted to become a teacher when I came to Japan, my goal was different and I was never interested in teaching. I personally felt it wasnt such a respectable job. For reasons above and since Japan has loads of teachers that cant even pronounce English properly yet could still easily become a teacher. Anyone can/could be a teacher. Oh I think about this completely different now, aside from the douchebag here and there, its quite hard work. preparing lessons, teaching etc.

  • Christopher Hunter says:

    I think you’ve answered your own question. If you take a job, any job, as your money/home/support but don’t draw any sense of identity from it, I don’t think that’s a stigma as much as a common lifestyle decision.

    • kayumochi says:

      Japanese tend to draw less of a sense of identity from their jobs than, let’s say, Americans.

  • Alaska ESL teacher says:

    As a Native English Teacher in South Korea, I can tell you that we have bad English teachers. They give the good English teachers a terrible name. As foreigner native English teachers, we’re all lumped together and constantly have to prove we’re not – THAT bad teacher they had last year. To make things worse, if a group of teachers get caught and it makes the national news, it ripples through the whole Native English teacher community. We often find ourselves having to redo drug tests or medical tests because some bunch of bad English teachers or foreigners got caught and we have to answer for the paranoia that it creates or the problems that THEY created. It can be seriously frustrating. There seems to be a complete disregard or conveniently forget that as Native English teachers, you’re not just teaching English, you’re representative of your country and being a foreigner. You’re a role model to not just your students, but to the people who are native to that country. If you act like a moron and do stupid things and break laws and make cultural faux pas’s, and are an inconsiderate um – TWERP, it doesn’t just affect you, it affects everyone who is a foreigner around you and in the future as well for the person who replaces you. I think that’s the most frustrating part – is answering for the idiocy of others. That being said – I love teaching ESL in South Korea, but since I’ve been here well over 4 years, I’ve decided to leave the country and head off to other adventures.

    • matty says:

      I can see being a teacher specifically brought from overseas to teach can thought of as a diplomatic role. I’ve always considered those who are a part of the international teaching programs also have the opportunity to bridge the gap between the two cultures. That’s quite a responsibility for someone who takes this job seriously.
      Years ago a former ALT who worked in Japan told me about how there was a name for certain teachers who, nearing the end of their job, would leave the country without paying rent and anything else they could get away with. I wish I could remember the word she said, but apparently it was common enough to label ALTs in this specific housing building– and this was back in the late 90s. Hopefully, things changed for the better.

  • Vinny Alayo says:

    I disagree, I love teaching, and I love Japan, thats why I’m going

    • Alaska ESL teacher says:

      My intention is Japan next – I love teaching. I love teaching ESL. I also love Japan. First – I’m oft to get my CELTA – and up my credentials. So I’m taking a break. Also, at this time, South Korea is going through a mass budget cut and keeps cutting Native English Teachers. I’m going to take a break, do some other stuff and then come back overseas unless life throws a curve ball and one never knows about life.

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