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Using Down Time as a Language Teacher in Japan for Self-Improvement

What’s the point in having all that free time as an ALT if you can’t make good use of it?

By 8 min read

Like many who come to Japan initially to teach at an eikaiwa (English conversation school), I very quickly came to the conclusion that assistant language teacher (ALT) work would be a better fit for me and my ambitions here in Japan.

One of my main reasons for doing so was that ALT work allowed me to have my own free time on the evenings and weekends. I then used this time to focus on other projects, such as the lovingly crafted weekly ramblings that I share here on GaijinPot.

However, what’s the point in having all that free time if you can’t make good use of it?  I’ll be honest: I frittered away much of my free time going out, drinking, socializing and recovering from said drinking and socializing the next day in my earlier days living in Tokyo.

Now, don’t get me wrong, all of the above were fun to some degree — especially for a young,  single guy in his early 20s. That’s not me anymore, though. I reached a natural breaking point after about two years of this kind of lifestyle. I grew weary, tired and, frankly, bored with it. I realized that if I was going to stay the course in Japan long term, I would have to find more fruitful ways to spend my time away from work.

Today I offer you some of the knowledge I have garnered down these productive years in the form of five constructive ways for ALTs to spend their weekends in Japan.

1. Community engagement

Unlike other parts of the world, which have become increasingly insular in recent years, getting involved in your local community, good relations with your neighbors and an instinctive drive to work alongside and support your fellow men and women remain fundamental underpinnings of Japanese culture and society.

As soon as you move to a new area, you really should find your local kouminkan, or community center. There should be one within walking distance of your house or apartment. If you don’t know where it is, go to your nearest koban (police box) and ask them. Often, these community centers offer Japanese lessons, which give you a great opportunity to connect with your new community through the volunteers who will tutor you. Not only this, but there will be information on a variety of other classes, festivals and events that you can take part in and might not otherwise have known about.

From a language learner’s point of view, I find that once you master the basics of simple, daily interactions then taking part in other classes where Japanese is the primary language of instruction, is a great way to improve your conversation skills — with the wonderful side benefit of making new friends.

Back when I lived in Okayama, I met a lot of mates through my interactions at the classes I took at the local community center. Certainly, it was better than sitting at home watching DVDs and arguing with bots on Facebook…

You don’t need to spend every waking moment here watching anime

2. Strengthen your body and your mind

It’s an old cliché, but it is true: “A healthy body helps maintain a healthy mind.” So, regardless of your fitness level, joining a local gym is also an excellent way to improve yourself mentally and physically.

For a lot of ALTs, as I have outlined in previous posts, dealing with depression, anxiety and loneliness are real issues. Many, like me, probably also have issues with self-esteem and living in a different culture, away from friends and family and not knowing the language and customs can aggravate this. Going to the gym regularly helps combat these ailments in a number of ways.

Exercise raises serotonin levels in your brain, which helps to combat negative feelings. Of course, the most obvious benefits are social. If you look better, you feel better. So losing some weight or refining your shape will make you more confident, too. And when you’re more confident, it’s easier to interact with those around you, which also reduces your loneliness. A decidedly un-vicious circle.

3. Not every day in Japan has to be about Japanese stuff

I’ve said this before and I’m about to say it again because it’s a point that needs to be emphasized: the people who survive the longest and are the happiest in Japan are those who find a balance between their Japanese home and their foreign identity. In other words, don’t try to become more Japanese than the Japanese themselves.

You don’t need to spend every waking moment here watching anime, obsessively learning kanji or practicing when you should and shouldn’t bow and to what degree! Yes, I have met people who are that uptight and who actually behave like that.

Make time to enjoy things you enjoyed back home. Play some video games. Perhaps do some home cooking. Follow your favorite sports team. Most big leagues and teams have their own overseas fan sites these days, which for a small fee usually allow you to watch all their games live. Believe me, when I’m feeling a bit down or depressed, switching on Celtic TV and watching my team demolish the former Rangers FC yet again, goes a long way to lightening my mood!

Of course, whatever sport you’re into, chances are there is a local team here in Japan looking for your support, too. I try to take in the Japan Professional Soccer, or J.League, games whenever I can. My local team is Nagano Parceiro, who currently play in the J3 (third tier) league. I also like to watch Jubilo Iwata if a live soccer game is being broadcast. My favorite Japanese player, Shunsuke Nakamura, previously played for Celtic and joined Jubilo last season.

The prefecture of Nagano (where I live) also, apparently, has a pretty good basketball team that plays in Japan’s professional basketball league, or B.League. I’ll have to check them out sometime.

I would say, if you can, try to set aside at least a few hours a week to do something fun that reminds you of home or was a part of your regular routine. Not only is this a good way to unwind, it also goes a long way to fighting off the dreaded “culture shock.”

… set aside at least a few hours a week to do something fun that reminds you of home.

4. Learn the lingo

It’s obvious, but you should try to devote some time — I would say at least three or four hours per week — to learning Japanese. A good command of basic Japanese makes all of my previously suggested activities far more easily attainable. Not only this, but I also regard it as a matter of basic courtesy.

When you’re in a foreign land, you should do as the locals do and speaking their language is a big part of that. Don’t overdo it though! You don’t want to become that guy who passes the JLPT N1 in a year or two but completely loses their social skills in the process!

I’m reminded of a friend of a friend I met a number of years ago. He spent the entire evening bragging that he had passed the N1 examination after less than a year of study and his main line for chatting up women seemed to be: “I know more kanji than you.” Suffice to say, he didn’t attract much interest.

So, by all means, work hard at Japanese, better yourself and get certified. But please, please don’t become “that guy”!

5. Meetups

I use the the website and official app for Meetup.com. It’s a community for people to create and manage all manner of events and activities taking place all over the world — even in your area right now!

Through the app, I was able to realize two objectives at the same time. I was able to enjoy hobbies such as futsal, martial arts and Japanese language exchange, but also, and perhaps more importantly, I met lots of really good friends and expanded my social network considerably. Meeting people of different backgrounds, but with whom you share common passions, doesn’t just make you feel less lonely — it expands your mind, too.

Of course, the more rural you are, the less choices there are but even the most remote places will have a few groups you can consider joining. Even if you don’t see anything you like, once you’re registered, you can also set up your own groups. Why not start a meetup about something you like that could interest your community?

The life of an ALT — especially one living away from the big cities — can sometimes be a little lonely. But that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

So, how about you? What tips do you have for making good use of your down time here in Japan. Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts!

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