How to Teach English in Japan

Note: this post isn’t about how to actually teach the English language – for that start by doing a TEFL course. This post deals with your options when applying for English teaching jobs in Japan.

First day of training in Osaka
First day of AEON training in Osaka, with my boy Darin. The job sucked, he quit after 2 months, I reluctantly stuck it out, we’re still great friends, and funerals aside that’s the last time I was clean shaven

A friend of mine was recently applying for English teaching jobs in Japan, and as I spent a total of 4 years teaching English in Japan he asked my advice on how to apply.

I sent him a long email summing up the options for applying from overseas for an ESL job in Japan with a sponsored work visa, and realised it would also make a useful blog post. The rest of this post is an edited version of that email.

ALT or Eikaiwa?

Basically there are two types of ESL jobs in Japan you can usually get sponsored in from overseas for – ALT positions in regular schools, and Eikaiwa (private language schools).

ALT is assistant language teaching, meaning basically that you work together with a Japanese teacher to help them deliver English lessons in high schools. They do the lesson planning, grammar explanations etc, you do the pronunciation drills, help with games & conversation practice etc to bring the lesson to life, so to speak.

Eikaiwa are the private language schools, which is what I always did. The students are mostly taking lessons after school or work, so the hours are later and the average age of the students is older. I always did adults only, but you’ll often have a mix of adult lessons and kids lessons depending on your company and location. With eikaiwa jobs you’re the only teacher in the classroom, so you’re responsible for lesson prep etc, but the system varies by school.

One further option is to teach at universities. While most full time university positions are filled by long-term residents of Japan with heaps of teaching experience, you can get short-term placements through a company called Westgate. They do require you to have some ESL teaching experience, so those completely new to teaching won’t be able to consider this route.

Which Company Should You Apply To?

There’s a so-called Big Four eikaiwa, namely Berlitz, Gaba, ECC, and AEON. Berlitz & Gaba focus mostly on 1-to-1 lessons, ECC & AEON are mostly group classes. Berlitz don’t usually sponsor new hires in from overseas, so you’re looking at the other 3. In my first spell teaching English in Japan I worked for AEON in Kyoto, then Gaba in Kyoto & Osaka; my second spell was with Gaba again in Tokyo. I hated AEON, while Gaba was much better though not without issues.

With AEON the lesson structure’s really strict, it’s basically all scripted and they don’t like you to deviate much. This means it’s really easy once you’re used to it, but it’s also very restrictive if you actually care about teaching your students to the best of your ability. At Gaba it’s 1-to-1, mostly with adults, and you’re supposed to adapt the lessons to each individual student. As a teacher I found this much more rewarding and felt I was better able to help them learn – the flip side is it’s more draining mentally as you always need to be fully switched on and directly engaged in a conversation.

The main issue with Gaba is that it’s a volume game – you’re technically self-employed and paid per lesson with no guaranteed income, and the schedule is 40-minute lessons with only a 5-minute gap between lessons. You really have to cram them in to make a liveable income, so again it can get a bit draining. Also when you first start it takes a while to build up a base of regular students so you have to be ready to deal with a couple of lean months initially, whereas with other jobs you get your full salary from the first paycheck.

Gaba doesn’t pay for non-teaching time but then there isn’t really any – if you’re not teaching you don’t need to be there, you can leave & go for a walk or coffee, run errands or whatever. At AEON your salary also covers office time, so when you’re not teaching you have to be doing something – lesson plans, ‘lobby talk’ with students, posing for promotional poster photos (think Lost in Translation ring-a-ding-ding, for real – I know exactly how he felt!), or worst of all ‘student counselling’ where you’re supposed to leverage your rapport with the students to pressure them to buy overpriced supplementary home study materials. Needless to say I hated this and missed all my sales targets – but really who even takes a teaching job to have sales targets? AEON is aware that the answer to this is not many people at all, and so are not quite entirely honest about this side of the job during the hiring process. But anyway, AEON won’t let you out of the building between lessons other than your official lunch break; at Gaba you can come and go as you please, so long as you’re there ready & waiting when your student arrives.

So I found Gaba lessons way better as a teacher than AEON lessons, with much less bullshit; but you do have to crank out a lot more of them, and the system is what it is, kinda sink or swim – they put you in the pool but they make no guarantees. They don’t misrepresent any of this in the recruitment process though, whereas AEON are dishonest from start to finish – they don’t really explain the sales crap, they falsely claim to offer subsidised housing, and they pull all these weird mind games to try & make sure you don’t quit ahead of your scheduled contract completion date (most AEON teachers seem to spend most of their time debating whether to quit).

The housing thing’s a real piss take with AEON. They say they find you a place that costs up to 55k JPY per month, and subsidise anything over & above that – this to help teachers in Tokyo, where rents are significantly higher. But what they actually do is charge every teacher a flat 55k even if the apartment is actually cheaper than that. While I was living in Kyoto my friend was out in the Hyogo boonies beyond Kobe, we looked up the rent for her building and it was 35k so they were ripping her off for 20k a month! Effectively it’s not AEON subsidising the expensive rents in Tokyo – rather, it’s the teachers in cheap apartments who are actually the ones paying to subsidise teachers in Tokyo. Also they ban you from moving out of their company housing even though they have no legal right to do so – no doubt due to the fact they place all their 600-odd foreign teachers with the same housing company. One therefore imagines they’re getting a sizeable discount from said company, which of course isn’t passed on to the teachers.

As for mind games and other crap, they say if you quit you have to give 3 months notice, but the national legal requirement is 1 month, and if you don’t want to renew your contract you have to tell them 3 months ahead of the end – yet, however you leave, they always present it to the students as though you just gave them 1 month’s notice and ask you to also lie to the students about that. This is because in their initial sales pitch to prospective students they promise the students that if they join they’ll always have the same regular teacher, and they tell them this even if it’s already known that you’re leaving in 2 months. Bullshit upon bullshit, basically. One of my friends from initial training did quit after a couple of months, and they summoned him to head office before a 3-person panel to explain himself, heavily pressuring him to change his mind – they even implied they’d report him to immigration, which again is simply not a legal thing they can even do. Your visa in Japan is not tied to the employer who initially sponsors you.

So basically fuck AEON, consider them a last resort! If you can put up with all their crap you can get a visa, earn an ok wage, and switch jobs when you finish the contract. But for me Gaba was a million miles better, and from everything I’ve heard ECC is also better.

I haven’t worked for ECC but know it by reputation and through many friends who work there or have done in the past. ECC is similar to AEON in terms of lesson style, salary, benefits etc, but their teachers always seem far more content – better management and less bullshit, from what I gather. Also no sales and fewer office hours.

That’s another issue with Gaba actually – due to your self-employed status as a Gaba teacher you don’t get the usual full time employee benefits like paid commute and health insurance, which you do with the others. This adds to the pressure you feel to crank out a large volume of lessons.

Aside from eikaiwa schools your other options are ALT gigs. Basically there’s the government JET program, and there’s Interac which is a private version placing ALTs at high schools. JET really look after you, but there’s a lot of competition for places and you have no say in where in Japan they place you. Interac pays less & looks after you less, but you can at least choose the area. I’ve never had any interest in either of these.

You can also check the Dave’s ESL Cafe international job board, sometimes random eikaiwa jobs turn up on there at small privately owned schools – they usually only hire teachers already in-country with valid visa, but sometimes they do recruit & sponsor from overseas so it’s worth checking. Also as noted above, Berlitz don’t usually hire from overseas but you’ll occasionally see a Berlitz position advertised on Dave’s ESL Cafe.

Finally, if you already have some teaching experience you could apply to teach at universities with Westgate. They place you for a semester, roughly 3 or 4 months, after which there’s a 2 or 3 month gap until the next semester starts; despite the short placements they still sponsor you for a full 1-year working visa, so you could apply to e.g. Gaba for when your placement ends, or you could take off travelling for a bit and come back for the next semester if they offer you another placement. My friends who’ve done this were all petty happy with Westgate – the hours are quite long, with lots of contact time, but there’s no AEON-style BS going on and the gaps between semesters will be very appealing for some teachers (but perhaps not those whose top priority is saving).

Requirements

For all these jobs in Japan it isn’t necessary to get a TEFL or any other certificate. They all train you at the start for how to teach their system, and TEFL certificates aren’t required for the visa and don’t seem to make any difference in the hiring process. However, if you’ve never taught before doing a course will certainly help your confidence by giving you an idea what you’re doing, both for demo lessons during the interview processes and especially for when you stand up in front of a class for the first time. You can do TEFL certificates entirely online these days; see here for details.

The only actual requirement to teach English in Japan is a degree certificate, without which you can’t get a working visa. Teaching experience isn’t necessary, and in fact AEON even seem to prefer teachers without any experience at all (my guess is because experienced teachers see through their bullshit better and thus are more likely to quit).

Housing

For eikaiwa placements, with Gaba you can choose your city (they’re in Tokyo, Yokohama, Saitama, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, and Nagoya, and you can select from a range of available schools within each city). With AEON and ECC you can choose from a handful of available positions at time of hire, and they have branches in major cities throughout Japan. With Gaba, ECC and Interac you sort yourself out for accommodation; JET arrange housing for you, as do AEON. As explained above, with AEON you get screwed if you’re in a small town but it works to your advantage if you’re in Tokyo; in other big cities like Osaka your rent will be about right.

How to Apply

Gaba: you can apply entirely online, with interviews conducted over Skype. See here for details

AEON: apply online, then attend a face-to-face interview at one of their recruitment centres or events. See here for details

ECC: apply online, then attend a face-to-face interview at one of their recruitment centres or events. See here for details

Westgate: you can apply entirely online, with interviews conducted over Skype. See here for details

Interac: the process varies by country, see here for details

JET: placements start in July/August every year, with the long application process starting in October of the preceding year. See here for details

Check Dave’s ESL Cafe for other vacancies

See myTEFL for getting a TEFL certificate online

Give me a shout below if you have any questions and I’ll get back to you.

To read more about my experiences living in Japan click here


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