Oct 27, 2016

"You get to watch YouTube!" What I took for granted about teaching English in Japan

"You get to watch YouTube!" What I took for granted about teaching English in Japan photo

For the longest time, I wanted to get out of teaching English in Japan, and one day, that finally happened. How it happened I’ve already documented to some extent in an earlier post. Why I wanted it to happen probably isn’t important for the purposes of this post. Although I should probably clarify that there is no terrible and dark secret for people to be concerned about.

Ultimately, teaching was never what I wanted to do. It was a means to an end (albeit one that took years to reach). Before I get on with what I might have taken for granted as an English teacher in Japan though, let me just briefly run through my illustrious English-teaching credentials.

  • Born to a father who himself taught English, as in, he taught lit. and lang. at high schools where I come from. Not mine, I might add … with some relief.
  • Did a weekend TEFL course before coming to Japan (but never completed the additional distance-learning workbooks).
  • Taught kids in Japan (ages ~ 4 - 16 yrs) mostly in groups, under a school manager who pretty much told us all to unlearn anything we’d spent money on learning with any kind of TEFL course. Good job I didn’t finish those course books then.
  • Did a pretty lengthy stint as an ALT in the suburbs somewhere in Japan. Mostly jr high, with one day a week at elementary school. Both schools were as soft as Disneyland, and if you need to know, I preferred elementary.
  • ‘Graduated’ from that into the eikaiwa thing in the city. There I mostly taught (now) fellow salarymen / office lady types (private and group), with the occasional hobbyist thrown in. No kids.

I won’t lie, it was with some sense of smugness that I turned in my resignation at the eikaiwa (the salaryman gig already secure). If it makes any amends, it was with an equal sense of ‘crapping myself’ that I scuffed up to my first day at the ‘office’.  

So, looking back after a few years of doing my best impression of Chandler from Friends, I can see what it is that I might have taken for granted as an English teacher in Japan.  

1) Teaching English, it turns out, was comparatively stress free

Although this doesn’t include the first job. At that company there was progress to be made. It was assumed we all loved teaching English. Training was regular and informative. Salaries increased. Responsibilities increased. Creativity was nurtured. The apartments were nice. As such, teachers were expected to learn, improve, and grow the school.  

As an ALT and an eikaiwa teacher, I soon realised (and this is just my personal feeling/experience) that there was nowhere to go. No matter how hard one worked, the company wouldn’t reward it. You got the sense that the people upstairs only really started to care when teachers demonstrated themselves to be very negligent. At first, I suppose that this got me down. Eventually, I learned to embrace it. No longer did I particularly fear Monday mornings (actually, there weren’t any as an eikaiwa teacher), and I could always see a clear path to weekends/days off.  

"You get to watch YouTube!" What I took for granted about teaching English in Japan photo

(Pretty much my constant state of being as a salaryman)

I miss this now as here in the office there is a mountain of tasks to get through, and the potential for surprise looms heavy and large.

2) Movement

I’ve never been good at sitting still, unless I’m in front of movie. As a teacher, in any kind of school, you can always move about. Teaching kids can often look a bit like aerobics. ALTs (if they’re doing their job) can be hanging out in corridors, in the yard playing soccer, joining clubs, preparing for sports days, putting up posters, decorating every surface in the school, cleaning, giving speeches … hell, even a bit of teaching, too. There’s no need to be sitting around for long periods and it suited these jittery legs just fine!

"You get to watch YouTube!" What I took for granted about teaching English in Japan photo

In the office, my days are timelined by the moments I can get out of the chair. Toilets trips, cigarette breaks, adventures to the printer … 

3) YouTube

At the eikaiwa we had a lot of time on our hands (except for a Saturday). Most classes were late evening after people like me had finished work (or, at least those that actually finished at all). That left a good run of hours to fill before things got going. Of course, we were told to plan, but nobody took that seriously, not even management. What to do then? Hit up YouTube! Nobody made any fuss, as long as students were happy.  

To be honest, it wasn’t just YouTube. This teacher used to go to his empty classroom and improvise various ball sports using teaching props. I had an exciting basketball free-throw thing going on for while. It took me back to childhood, if I’m honest. 

Emphatically no chance of doing the above now.

4) I was good at it

Especially the eikaiwa stuff. I don’t want to brag, but I found it quite easy. It was more like having a chat with friends than it was work. This was helped by the vast majority of students being fun and nice. When we did get a horror-story of a student come to the school, it rocked all of our worlds, and we’d collectively dread the day that they came in. That was but one student though (and they didn’t renew their contract). Others could be absolutely hilarious, and, I never thought I’d say this, I genuinely miss some of them. 

Here in the office, make no mistake, I’m out of my depth. I’m a fraud, living a lie and waiting to be caught. Every new task and challenge reveals a gaping chasm of insecurity, and lack of self belief.

As a teacher I was top dog, the big swinging, well, you know. Now, I’m brutally aware of how much I don’t know. And it’s a lot!  

5) Empty commutes

I used to feel a little lonely on my commute to work as an ALT.  The station I alighted from saw few visitors, and I used to wish for more people to be getting off there.  More hustle and bustle.

Same kind of thing when I taught kids.  Classes took place after school at kindergartens.  These kindergartens were almost always in the suburbs.  I'd walk around the area in the company of old ladies in aprons, gangs of school kids, the occasional shady dude on his way to play pachinko.  It just wasn't all that exciting.

I kind of miss that now.  These days I'm on packed trains (I never, ever, get a seat), and the commute, rather than being a nice buffer before starting work, is an epic task in itself!

6) Work never came home with me

Not entirely true. When I first started out as a teacher, evenings were full will lesson planning; detailing every minute step of how I was going to conduct the next day’s lessons. In those early days I think it was more about making up for my failings as a teacher than it was effective lesson prep. Once I got the swing of things though, I could plan a lesson in 5 minutes if needed. I continued to plan lessons at the eikaiwa though.  I very rarely referred to them. They just made it extra sure that I went to sleep at night.  

The point being then, that once work was done, it was done.

I miss the certainty of that. As a teacher you can see the finish line and you know what you need to do to get there. Whether that be a single lesson, a week’s schedule, some lesson plans, or material creation. Things end. You can tick them off and not worry about them again.  

As a salaryman, there is no finish line. At least not one that I can see. One task completed leads to a bigger, more important one. The previous task is rarely a single entity that can be forgotten once complete. It counts. It affects what comes next so you better do it properly.  

"You get to watch YouTube!" What I took for granted about teaching English in Japan photo

(I'm in there somewhere)

I used to mock the attitudes of workaholic Japanese, and yes, felt that I was above and beyond that. Turns out I’m not. Work comes home with me, too. Every night. I wake up and the first thing I do is check the phone. I don’t watch TV or read anymore. I’ve even started coming to the office on Saturdays or Sundays (not yet both you understand, although I fear that’s coming). I feel guilty about booking holidays. I am now, a salaryman in Japan.

Don’t get me wrong though. My current job is miles ahead of anything I did previously, even taking into consideration the faults and frets. And I’m quietly proud to be where I am now. I’m not saying that I’m a high flyer (far from it) but I worked and waited to get to this point. It’s a personal thing anyway. Some people might hate my job. Others love teaching English in Japan. For me though, I knew that getting here is something I really wanted to do in Japan, before I could think of going back home. Had I sacked it off and gone back prematurely, well, I’d have likely been unemployable for a start, but I’d have also been bothered by a bit of regret that you just don’t need in life. I suppose in that respect, I’ve crossed the finish line. Not that I could ever tell the people upstairs that!

This is how I became a salaryman: How I Became a Salaryman in Japan (And How You Can, Too!)

I got the pics from Flickr

Top: Tim Adams Flickr (I added frame and text)

Eggs: Bernard GoldBach Flickr (I added frame)

Dog: diaper Flickr (I added frame)

Office: James Nash Flickr (I added frame)



A foreign salaryman in Japan, documenting life from somewhere near 'salaryman town' Shimbashi, Tokyo. Way out of my depth!


  • helloalissa

    on Oct 28

    Despite all the faults (mostly the greedy hakengaisha) of being an ALT or working in eikaiwa, it's not bad for a 'job.' I love that being a teacher means standing and moving a lot - I couldn't sit at a desk all day. And the technically only part time hours aren't bad. It's surreal to live and work in Japan sometimes, especially when you have really amazing students and it doesn't even feel like work. It's also easy to take working in Japan for granted, so thanks for the reminder!

  • SalarymanJim

    on Oct 29

    @helloalissa Thank you for your comment. Overall I enjoyed being an ALT. It can be a pretty fun job. I suppose a lot of it depends on the school in which you're placed. I hear that some ALTs get rotated each 'semester' but I stayed at the same school the whole time so I was really able to get settled in get to know things rather well. With the hakengaisha I was with however, you didn't get paid for summer/winter/'spring' holidays. So in that respect, they weren't actual holidays, you were technically unemployed. This used to bother me a lot, but then I just tried to embrace it and try to enjoy that feeling of having loads of free time but knowing that there was a job and a pay cheque coming in the near future. Eventually though, as you get a bit older, you start to think that need those pay cheques to become a bit more consistent. This is one of the harsh realities of life I suppose. The people a the the hakengaisha were mostly nice, but they just didn't have the resources to give much support so I was always surprised that people who came to Japan for the first time through that company were able to get their lives set up. It much have been difficult for them.

  • helloalissa

    on Oct 29

    @SalarymanJim Right, the holidays are great for travel breaks until you realize they're at the same time the rest of Japan can travel and everything costs more. I had only one school my first year as an ALT as well and it was awesome. I didn't like my experience of going to five schools each month nearly as much, but that situation is really common now. I think it's normal to be freaking out while getting set up in Japan, yeah. Besides JET and some tiny companies, I don't think any of them help with much other than the initial orientation briefing you on the job. It's perfect for young people without debt who can save up for the 'holidays' and enjoy life here for a short time. Can't really understand how the long term ALTs who get married and have families can do it.

  • SalarymanJim

    on Oct 31

    @helloalissa I know what you mean about the 'long-term' ALTs. I assume they've got plenty of private classes and are doing other 'projects' during the 'holidays'. Actually, that's a good point about an ALT is that the hours are fixed (and not so long) so that you can make a regular schedule of private classes, if you want. The first company I was with was great in supporting the transition to Japan; pre-departure meeting in a posh hotel with free drinks and dinner, loads of support via email from current teachers, air fare supplement, week's worth of hotel booked and paid for, their own really nice apartments (fully furnished) with no key money required (although they weren't cheap), airport pick-up. It was always funny when teachers left though, as they'd collected all this crap for their apartments that they somehow had to get rid of before moving out. As much as management tried, they could never get people to get rid of all of their stuff, so those apartments became more and more 'furnished' as the years went on. Sounds good, but then some people's tastes just don't match!!