There’s MUCH more to Japan than teaching English
We all know the story: you want to go to Japan, improve your Japanese, experience the culture, live like a local– so the easiest avenue is getting a job as an English teacher. Despite never having taught before, without any intention of following education as a career path, and the possibility of being sent to some rural town, you apply to every program you can.
As an ex-pat who has been here for close to a decade, I can truthfully say that I have seen so many talented and enthusiastic young people, with star-filled eyes, come and walk that path, and they almost always get burnt out and return home, disillusioned with their time here.
Although teaching English was once a simple and lucrative career, it has changed with time. Unless you can score a cushy job at one of the international schools, which often require some background, you will probably end up in some random elementary or junior high school, or, god-forbid, an eikaiwa, with little to no support, poor pay, and frustrating conditions. Most schools in Tokyo, Osaka and other major cities have their positions filled with qualified candidates, so it’s likely most new English teachers will end up in some tiny town, far from the Japan of their dreams. Small towns the world over are all the same.
The English teaching community also tends to be fairly insular- the main reason is that, as an “English teacher”, the Japanese teachers and other people you meet see you as an opportunity to test out their own English, and all conversation seems to become “oh do you know sushi?? How about food in (country of origin)??” – which, although entertaining for the first 5 or so times (when you still feel like a celebrity ambassador, languishing in the attention and bringing western culture abroad), tends to dehumanize- you are an avatar of your country, and an opportunity, not a person. As a result, most English teachers find and seek comfort with other English teachers, creating an us-and-them bubble, the opposite of what they were looking for.
On the other hand, some of the greatest successes I’ve seen, and the most interesting people I’ve met have also gone through this system- coming as an English teacher- but the difference is, they got out. The bubble of the English teaching community stifles, and the comfort and convenience of the consistent paycheck, combini/supermarket dinner and drinking cheap alcohol all night while complaining about your school, your manager, your students and the local government, becomes like a warm blanket. These people understand you, things are tough.
But, apart from Garfield, no-one has ever been successful hiding from the world in a warm blanket, divided from the world they inhabit. These people recognized that they were not satisfied with just teaching English, they had goals, and dreams- they were never going to teach junior high school English, the same level of students coming in and out, for 30 years until retirement. They loved this country and the lifestyle and wanted to contribute, to achieve. In most cases, they quit their English teaching jobs, said goodbye to the (sometimes poisonous and negative) English teaching community, found a part-time job doing something that brought them closer in contact to their peers (cafes, restaurants, and so on are great for this- good networking opportunities. You won’t be able to network with a classroom of 13 year olds), improved their language skills and tried to understand the real culture, and used the remaining time to invest in launching their own businesses- often to great success.
It’s only through taking a risk, taking a leap, that you can really do what you want to do- Japan is an incredible country, still growing, and the opportunities are endless. With most foreigners either here for teaching, or contracted by large companies, you have the chance to do anything you want, with little to no competition. Indulge your dreams!
Take it from me, I did the same- and I’ve never looked back.