Ganbatte - Means "Go For It!" or ... How to become an English Teacher in Japan

by Celeste Heiter, <i>Eigo no Sensei</i>, Mar 28, 2001 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

So you want to teach English in Japan?

Well...take it from one who's done just that - pack your bags, pull up your socks, and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

Let's assume, for starters, that you don't need convincing. You've thought it over, you've browsed vicariously through an armload of opulent travel brochures, resplendent with Buddhist temples, lofty mountain peaks and tatami tea rooms, and have decided that Eigo no Sensei (English Teacher) is the job for you. Believe it or not, in the smorgasbord that is the 21st-century job market, singling out a career choice from such a bewildering array of options is half the battle.

Wish I could tell you that the rest is easy, but there's a vast expanse between saying you'd like to teach English in Japan, and actually greeting your first student in that English conversation salon on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, with a goodly measure of faith, courage and perseverance, becoming an English teacher in Japan is an attainable goal. Here's what you'll need to achieve it.

The Four Elements

The process of becoming an English Teacher in Japan can be divided into four elements or phases (roughly, but not necessarily, in this order):
Prepping, Packing and Psyching,
Getting Settled in a Brave New World,
Finding a Way to Earn Your Daily Gohan (Bowl of Rice), and
Immigration Nihon-do (the Japanese Way).

Pre-Travel Research and Preparation

I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of adequate preparation before embarking on your odyssey to find work in Japan. Of course, nothing can fully prepare you for the culture shock that awaits you at Narita Airport. But the more you familiarize yourself beforehand with the language, the customs, the cuisine, the culture, the history, the geography, the economy, and the currency exchange, the less likely you are to be rendered catatonic after a nine-hour plane flight; and the more likely you are to successfully navigate your way to your first night's lodgings and beyond.

Ten Must Do's Before Making Your Move to Japan

Make sure that your passport is valid for at least a year. The last thing you'd want to have to do is figure out how to renew your passport from Japan while you're still trying to figure out how to find your way home from the train station after work every night.

Check the latest vaccination requirements. Japan is a wondrously advanced nation, and vaccinations are not typically required. But you never know. Your local Japanese Consulate will have that information.

Buy a ROUND TRIP ticket. You may not be allowed entry into Japan on a 90-day landing permit (tourist visa) with a one-way plane ticket. And unless you're among the rare percentage of individuals who manage to procure a work visa before moving to Japan, you'll have to start out with a tourist visa, and upgrade to a work visa after you've found a job. (More on that in the section on Immigration).

Get yourself connected with as many contacts in Japan as possible. Think Six Degrees of Separation, and don't overlook even the remotest prospect: Your next-door neighbor's boyfriend's college roommate, your old high-school classmate with the Japanese mom, that guy from Starbucks who's always going on and on about his days as an English teacher in Japan, that cute girl whose dad travels to Japan on business. And don't be shy. The majority of Westerners who live there, or who have lived there, or who have friends who live there, are remarkably willing to hook you up if you express a sincere interest in moving to Japan.

Study the language. You're gonna need it. And not just a couple of touristy phrases. The Japanese language is made up of three separate alphabets: Kanji (the brush-stroke characters used to depict objects and to convey abstract concepts), Hiragana (the shorthand-looking characters used to denote tense and grammar) and Katakana (the angular characters used to write foreign words). Go to a good bookstore, get yourself a basic Hiragana / Katakana primer and learn those characters first. They will serve you well until you begin to recognize the kanji characters you're exposed to everyday in Japan.

If you happen to be ambitious enough to try to learn a few kanji characters before you go, the most useful ones would be the kanji for North, South, East, and West; Up, Down, In, and Out; Push and Pull; Beef, Chicken, Pork, Fish, Egg and Vegetable. And if you're feeling particularly motivated, it's worthwhile to learn to write your own name in katakana. If you can manage to get a good grasp of these few things, you'll be way ahead of the game.

And do invest in a good pocket-sized Japanese dictionary before you leave. Imported books can be very pricey in Japan. Another little Japanese language book I like is Todd and Erika Geers' Making Out in Japanese. Just for starters, here are a few essential phrases to practice before you go:

O-hayo-gozaimasu - Good morning
Kon-nichi-wa - Hello (in the daytime)
Kon-ban-wa Good evening
O-yasumi-nasai - Good night
Hajime-mashite - Nice to meet you
Gomen-nasai - I'm sorry
Su-re-shimasu - Pardon me
Kudasai - Please
Arrigato - Thank you
Do-itashi-mashite - You're welcome
Sumi-masen - Attention please
Dozo - Be my guest, After you, or Please accept what I offer
O-tsukari-sama-deshita - We did it! It's Miller Time!

Study Japan's history, culture, economics, customs, and current events. Japan is a complex composite of nuance and nationalism. So, the more you know, the less likely you are to commit an unforgivable blunder; and the more likely you are to conduct yourself with tact and grace. Even a little goes a long way. No doubt there are dozens of good texts on these subjects, but my personal favorites are: Passport's Japan Almanac by Boye De Mente; The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict; and for a lighter perspective, Dave Barry Does Japan is right on the mark.

Research employment opportunities from home and schedule your first job interviews, if possible, before you leave. Of course, the Internet is now the quintessential resource for this endeavor. A good place to begin is with Interac, an organization that specializes in the recruitment and placement of foreign language instructors in Japan. No doubt, there are dozens of others to be found with a simple keyword search. If you can get your hands on a recent copy of it, the Japan Times classified ads are an excellent job-hunting resource. Another good stand-by and all 'round text is Jobs in Japan by John Wharton. Unfortunately, there is a downside to this reference resource, which is that it hasn't been updated since 1993. But it's still in print, and still contains a wealth of advice on finding teaching jobs in Japan. Toward that end, it must be said that, where Japan is concerned, this old chestnut applies: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Pack only the essentials. Unless you can afford the emperor's ransom it costs to have a limo waiting for you, you're going to have to lug all your worldly possessions from the airport to wherever you'll be staying for the first few days. So definitely get some luggage with wheels, and only pack what you can't live without.

Prepare yourself a care package in advance to send via boat mail. In a sturdy box, pack up a few treasures you'd like to have once you've set up house in Japan. It might be a few of your favorite books, or some comfort foods like canned soup and Jello; or perhaps a few framed photographs of family and friends, or a favorite teddy bear. These nostalgic items will make your new surroundings feel more like home when you miss it most. Once you've got a permanent address, ask a trusted friend or family member to ship your package to you. Boat mail to Japan takes about six weeks.

Get yourself psyched up for the lifestyle change. Start eating, living, and thinking Japanese. Take your shoes off when you walk in the door. Learn the names of all the different kinds of Japanese foods and beverages and how to prepare some of them. Pay attention to Japanese events in the daily news. Learn the names of key politicians, athletes and celebrities. Watch Japanese movies on video. (Jujo Itami's Tampopo is a great little movie, as is A Taxing Woman, and The Funeral) Read Japanese literature. (Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is a great place to start). Every little thing you do will enhance your ability to adapt and succeed in Japan.

Next..............Getting Settled in A Brave New World.

* * * * *