Out of all the countries in the world to teach English in, Japan is still one of the best. The golden “bubble” days where teachers could earn up to $3000 a month are only but a sweet memory for the veteran teachers living in Japan and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. Still, teaching English in Japan can be a great opportunity, especially for a young person with little working experience. However, without arming yourself with the current knowledge about the English industry, you could find yourself toiling away for a company you don’t like in a city you hate. English companies do their best to promote themselves on the web. Unfortunately, when you don’t live in Japan it’s hard to tell what these companies are saying is true or not which doesn’t lend itself to making an informed decision about who to work for. Here’s what you need to know about the English industry in Japan to help you make your choice about pursuing a job there.

If you are looking for more info about teaching English in Japan, check out the Inside Scoop to Teaching English in Japan. 

Working as an ALT in the Jet program or Interac

This is one of the most well-known ways to become an English teacher in Japan. The JET program or the Japan Exchange teaching program is a program sponsored by the Japanese government. What this means is that competition to get into JET is fierce, but the pay is pretty good and the government basically takes care of getting an apartment for you. To someone who doesn’t know where to start, this may sound like a great perk (which it is, to be fair). There is a very likely chance however, that you will be sent to a far-flung corner of Japan.  Once there, you’ll travel around to the schools in the area and teach English as  an ALT. Except to need to drive a car at some point. The JET alumni network is supposedly very helpful in figuring out life in your area, but the program itself doesn’t do very much in the way of teacher training. The idea is that you will go from school to school and work with the Japanese teacher for the class and teach the kids English as a team so ideally you won’t be abandoned in a room full of kids. In actually, you may be either a “human tape recorder” or the Japanese teacher will do almost nothing to support you. While both scenarios are possible, let’s look at them both.  As a JET in the classroom, the Japanese teacher might try to teach the kids for the whole lesson. Only when something needs to be read does he then hit your “play” button. The kids repeat what you said and then the lesson continues. The other scenarios is that you may be expected to come up with all your own lesson plans and materials that supplement the textbook and teach kids anywhere from kindergarten to high school while the teacher leaves the room or makes him/herself unavailable to support. Unless you have experience teaching this could be a huge undertaking for a new teacher. Of course, there is always a possibility that the kids might not like your painstakingly crafted lesson and start fooling around or not paying attention. Even though you’re a teacher, you don’t have any disciplinary power in the classroom.

After personally talking with JETs who have experienced both scenarios, it seemed that getting burned out was a common complaint. JETs get frustrated with the complexities of the Japanese education system and  become dissatisfied with their work.There is another way besides JET to get into a classroom in Japan.  Interac has also been around for a long time and has a well established system for getting foreigners into Japan. The requirements to work for Interac are similar to JET and the way the day runs is also similar but the perks you will get are not. Unlike JET, Interac offers little apartment support and a lower salary for doing the same job. Interac is privately run and its reputation is not as clean as JETs is. You can read more about their recent dirty deals here

Japanese English School Chain companies- ECC, GABA, NOVA etc

Chain English companies like these are another easy way to get a visa. There are schools being built all the time and they are always hiring. With a chain company, you have more say in where you will be placed and what kind of schedule you want to work. Big chains like ECC can help you get housing too. Sadly, more often than not, the apartments are old and small: livable depending on your standards, but not the most comfortable. Your monthly income depends on how much you teach, but the general going rate is 1500 yen per lesson. Teaching 40 lessons a week at GABA, for example, equals out to 240,000 yen a month, which is within the industry standard. ECC pays a touch more. At GABA, because you have more say in your work, you can opt to take company provide teaching certification courses and teach young children, test prep courses, etc. To teach the most lessons, you need clients to request you as a teacher regularly. If clients don’t like you they can disrequest you or worse, write negative comments about you which your boss will read. Another one of your duties will be to push textbook sales. I know this is an issue at ECC specifically. Even if a student isn’t ready for a more difficult textbook, you are obligated to try to convince her that she is. The teacher also receives a monetary bonus for selling more books.

You may also like: The Five Best Cities to Teach English in Japan

After talking with a teacher who is ready to leave ECC, she said that she was tired of trying to sell herself to clients. Selling people unnecessary books was hard for her as well because she felt like she was cheating people that trusted her out of their money. This particular teacher decided to take a pay cut and work for a non-chain English conversation school.

There are two types of lessons they teach at chain companies: one is the “tailor made” lesson, like you can get at GABA and NOVA. These lessons are more paced to the student’s learning speed and often done one-on-one. While this is good for the student it can sometimes lead to trouble for the teacher. The other is the McDonald’s hamburger lesson- lessons that are standardized across the board so even anyone with no training can teach English. A lesson about present progressive verbs  taught in Hokkaido will be the same as a present progressive verb lesson taught in Okinawa. ECC for example, provides teachers with a script that they must memorize and recite throughout the course of the lesson that explains everything they think the students need to know. It doesn’t matter if the student understands it or not, the teacher must read the script and do exactly as it says or face punishment from the company.

Chain companies for the most part do not care about you or your well being for the most part. In actuality, there is a good chance that companies will try to exploit your dependency on them for a visa to screw you over. NOVA, in the past, was notorious for abusing its foreign staff (read more about how NOVA stopped paying its teachers here. Even now, try as it might, NOVA can’t erase its bad image from the internet.

Non-chain English conversation schools in Japan

These are the wild cards of the English company industries. Small schools can promote a family-like atmosphere and be really supportive and helpful to its foreign staff. Smalls schools in the countryside sometimes have difficulties getting foreigners and tend to be more willing to help out the right candidate if it means he/she will come work of them. With a small school, you can  also know exactly whereabouts you’ll be working, what kind of students you’ll be teaching and what the average apartment in the area will be like (you’ll need a little google-fu for this one). Out of the three groups of English companies, non-chain schools give you the most control over your life with the primary exception being the time. English conversation schools run around their clients’ schedules, which means teaching times fall between 12 noon at 10pm. The salary and perks are often less than what teachers could be earning as a JET or at a chain company, but you’ll usually have more control in the classroom which should lead to a higher job satisfaction.  Still, working in a small company is not for everyone.   Being around the same people all the time can be tiring- especially if you don’t get along. Also, because there are not a lot of workers, you might not get time off as easily as you would in a big company.

When considering a non-chain school, it’s important to ask tough questions right from the onset. Unlike big chain companies that have to follow the rules, small companies can try to cheat the system. A small company might try to push you to work under a tourist visa (which is illegal) for example. This article talks about the problems with small schools a little more in-depth

In talking with a teacher at a small school, she said that she was-for the most part- satisfied with her job.  However, she didn’t like working so late all the time because that prevented her from going out after she and her friends finished work and having a social life. She also didn’t like having many other coworkers as it was somewhat lonely being among the only foreign staff.

While teaching English in Japan has enough downfalls to scare you into wanting to give up the whole idea of teaching in Japan, remember that the purpose of this article is to help you avoid making the same mistakes as teachers in the past have. If you have learned nothing else from this, thoroughly check out the company you want to work for. Japan isn’t a bad place to work at all, there are a lot of solid opportunities if you know where to look. Now that you’re armed with the right information, you’re on your way to finding one yourself!