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The Coronavirus and English Teacher Recruiting in Japan for 2021: Your Questions Answered

Teachers will face a significantly different job market due to the coronavirus as recruitment season approaches in Japan. We try to answer some of your questions about the pandemic's impact on your new job hunt.

By 9 min read

In an average year, January is the month when new teacher recruitment would kick into high gear because January is when applicants would start to hear back about interviews for jobs they applied for in November and December.

Unfortunately, thanks to the spread of the new coronavirus, the job market looks quite different in Japan in 2021. Understanding why this year’s job market is different and the best way to navigate it could be the key to landing a better job come spring.

To help readers who might have questions and concerns regarding applying for or changing jobs this year, let’s address some of them.

Will the job market be more or less competitive?

There are fewer competing candidates in the teaching industry.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed traveling in or to Japan has been impossible for foreigners. With infection numbers spiking in Tokyo, a new entry ban into the country for nonresidents came into force shortly before the new year. This ban is unlikely to be relaxed while the state of emergency remains in place.

In the best case scenario, most predict immigration restrictions won’t end until after the vaccine rollout begins, probably no earlier than March. This means out-of-country job seekers won’t have enough time to go through the full hiring process, which typically ends by April. Companies are instead sourcing candidates who are already in Japan to compensate.

Making things even more complicated is the fact that many teachers from the U.S., the U.K. and other areas affected by the pandemic who are here in Japan, are opting to extend their intended length of stay by at least another year. According to teachers I’ve spoken with recently, one factor informing their decision to stay put for the time being is that they see Japan as a safer place to be right now than their home countries.

On a personal level, I agree with this assessment and regardless of my own opinions on the competence of the Japanese government, statistics do appear to back up the notion that Japan is currently safer than many other countries. The U.S. and the U.K., in particular, rank as the two countries with the highest COVID-19 death rates per capita compared to the rest of the world. Certainly, despite recent spikes in both infections and deaths, at less than 4,500 fatalities thus far, it’s clear that Japan has fared better than other developed countries.

If you are already in Japan, this is a golden opportunity.

Overall, there are fewer candidates entering the English teacher job market in Japan this year, since a significant portion of new hires each year come from abroad. However, the number of positions being advertised also appears to be less than in previous years. Anecdotally, the prevailing theme seems to be that there are simply fewer candidates interviewing for each position. One teacher, who was applying for an advertised direct-hire position (working directly for the city government rather than via a dispatch company) in the Kansai area, told me that there were around 20 candidates at the in-person interview for this particular ALT position.

I know that as recently as 2018, the number of candidates interviewed for this same city Board of Education position was more than 50 people. The city has around the same number of vacancies this year as they did in 2018. So, going by this one example, the number of competing candidates seems to have halved. This is due not only to new candidates being unable to enter the country for most of 2020, but also down to the fact that many teachers currently in Japan, myself included, have opted to stay put until the pandemic is over.

According to Ryan Nagle, recruitment services manager at GaijinPot Jobs, the one big takeaway for potential candidates should be this: If you are already in Japan, now is a golden opportunity. Companies have an immediate and pressing need for teachers since they cannot hire directly from overseas. This makes your attractiveness as a candidate better than ever.

Should I look for a rural position?

Teaching in the countryside has its perks.

Indeed, the perceived safety of a teacher’s working location looks to be a significant factor in job hunting this year. Like previous years, most jobs we see advertised on GaijinPot Jobs and other sites are in major cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka.

Unfortunately, given the nature of the spread of the coronavirus, these same areas are also the ones with the highest infection rates and, therefore, the biggest risk to teachers’ health.

The far lower infection rate was one reason that prompted me to remain in my current position in Nagano for another year instead of moving back to the city. Putting it delicately: I’m no stranger to a three-course dinner, and being overweight is a factor that elevates your risk of complications when it comes to the coronavirus.

If you are prepared to assume the risk of working in a cluster zone, you probably have a bit more bargaining power.

At the time of writing, Nagano Prefecture has recorded less than 2,000 confirmed infections since the pandemic began and 19 deaths. Compare this to Tokyo, which currently sits at almost 90,000 infections and 680 deaths or Osaka with 38,000 infections and 691 deaths, and you can see why I (and many others) would rather stay in the countryside, at least until a vaccine rollout has begun.

There has certainly been an increase in applications for rural opportunities in recent months, adds GaijinPot Jobs’ Nagle. However, he says, on the flip side, this also means that city-based employers with higher pay rates may be more receptive to applicants at the moment. Nothing is guaranteed of course, but if you’re prepared to assume the risk of working in an area with a higher concentration of infections, you probably have a bit more bargaining power than you would previously.

Will I get paid more in a cluster?

More risks don’t mean more money.

Before considering this notion more carefully, you need to ask yourself: “Do I feel at risk?” Although a lot is still unknown about the COVID-19 disease itself, the risk factors around those likely to suffer serious complications from infection by the coronavirus are becoming clearer. The latest updates on complicating conditions, according to the CDC, can be found here.

So, if you do not suffer from any of these underlying medical conditions, then it becomes an issue of risk management. Nobody is absolutely bulletproof, but if you can live with the statistically unlikely prospect that you may contract a fatal illness or the bigger danger that you pass it on to a close contact who is in one of the vulnerable groups then there are opportunities in the bigger cities, for sure.

For example, most assistant language teacher (ALT) companies offer salaries starting between ¥230,000 and ¥270,000 per month, regardless of location.

However,  the concept of extra “danger pay” (the idea of offering a higher salary for work in a potentially more hazardous locale) does seem to be playing out in the eikaiwa (private English conversation school) sector at the moment.

Salaries don’t seem to have dropped at all since the pandemic began.

Starting salaries for eikaiwa teachers ordinarily start between ¥270,000 to ¥290,000 per month. Currently, on the GaijinPot jobs boards, you can find salaries being offered even higher. Bear in mind though, that working at an eikaiwa necessitates closer contact with groups of people in small spaces, thereby increasing your risk of contracting the coronavirus. While ALTs teach to larger groups of students at public schools, ventilation and social distancing is more easily accomplished in a full-size classroom.

For the time being, at least, salaries don’t seem to have dropped at all since the pandemic began. The long term impacts remain unknown, but to a certain extent, as far as ALTs are concerned, salaries seem to be coronavirus-proof.

Will the Olympics have any effect on working conditions?

The new stadium in Tokyo’s Ariake district would have accomodated 15,000 spectators for the Olympics.

If the Olympics do go ahead, I don’t anticipate it impacting teachers’ pay and conditions.

We are now less than six months away from the intended start date of the Olympic Games. Any English teaching initiatives linked to the games would have already started many months ago.

The Japanese government made a big deal of how English education would increase to make the country more welcoming for foreign visitors when the city won the games way back in 2013. At one point, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even claimed that every public elementary and junior high school would have its own designated ALT by 2018. His plans were widely derided by teachers and experts at the time, with many facets of the plan ultimately either heavily scaled back or not implemented at all.

In the end, it proved to be a litany of hyperbolic statements made by public officials regarding English education that produced no actual substantive change.

Since the Tokyo Olympics were first awarded, the only major innovation in English teaching has been the revision of the elementary school English curriculum. English is now a core subject for fifth- and sixth-grade students and they now receive double the number of classes they used to in the subject. However, the number of ALTs working in these schools has not changed—nor has the package offered to them.

Can I apply to be an English teacher if I’m not in Japan?

It’s unknown when Japan’s entry-ban will end.

Long answer short: at the moment, no. There are many variables at play, but I would hope that new applicants can enter Japan again by summer. For ALTs, September is the next school season, so those interviews typically start in June. Eikaiwa teachers, on the other hand, don’t have to keep to the starting window and may be able to enter Japan sooner.

However, it depends on how quickly a vaccine will be available in Japan and how far along with the rollout (here, and in other countries) we need to be before the entry ban for foreigners ends. The latest estimates suggest that healthcare workers will begin vaccinations next month, with the elderly following in March and others with underlying conditions soon after. If all goes according to plan, all high-risk groups should be covered by the summer, according to government sources.

Some companies are still interviewing candidates and waitlisting them for potential positions later in the year, but that’s far more common in the eikaiwa industry than for public schools that hire ALTs. Schools are still inviting applications via their homepages, but they cannot give specific timelines as to when candidates will be able to come to Japan to begin work.

Remember that eikaiwa recruit all year round, whereas teachers hired as ALTs ordinarily only start in either April or September.

Some final thoughts

You got this!

This pandemic has turned the whole world upside down and it may be several years before we know the full extent of the social, economic and human costs.

For the moment, at least, English teaching in Japan seems to have avoided the worst of the impact. Teachers are still working, companies are still hiring and salaries have actually gone up a little.

We don’t know when all this will end, but if you’re currently in Japan, fancy a new challenge and aren’t phased by an elevated risk of contracting this terrible virus, then there are opportunities out there.

Good luck and happy job hunting!

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