The Eikaiwa Experience: Teaching English in Japan
*This article addresses private sector jobs, not government sponsored jobs like the JET program.
In its over 100 years of practice, the previously, highly romanticized dream job for many who held an interest in the culture and people of Japan has taken a back seat in the nose bleed section of dead-end jobs. Or has it?
Starting in the late 80's to early 90's, English teaching in Japan was considered a hot job. It paid nearly twice the annual salary it does now and job security was much more stable as the business was booming at that time. It was one of, if not, the best jobs a native English speaker could get if he/she wanted to make a living in Japan with minimal effort (20-30 hours a week tops). However, as the global economy tanked, and China's economy began to grow at an exponential rate, the market began to show signs of struggling. Like the housing boom in the U.S., the market grew faster than the demand. Schools were popping up on every street corner in all the major cities in Japan. When the demand suddenly fell of a cliff, as a result of greater interest in business with China, the market was forced to contract resulting in the three largest English schools to either close their doors or go bankrupt. By the mid-2000s the private English teaching market had seen its last heyday.
In a matter of a decade, the dried up, washed up, used up, beat up industry we know as the Eikaiwa (English conversation) industry went from the fantasized disney-like image of Japanese girl meets English teacher hero with blond hair and blue eyes who saves her from the constraints of everyday Japanese life, to Oscar the Grouch's trash can. Why did this happen? How did this happen? And why is it that on most blogs you see that this job, teaching English in Japan, is now viewed as second-rate, detestable, and downright ugly in most cases? Well, to put it bluntly, because its been whored out.
As with any booming market, there is a balance between quality of service and company growth at the expense of that service. In the case of the Eikaiwa industry in its heyday, services took a back seat, and I mean waaay in the back. During the 90's Eikaiwa companies were so desperate to fill the demand they would hire any shmoe who could speak English without any teaching background or interest in teaching for that matter. This resulted in a complete and utter breakdown in quality of service. It took nearly a decade for these unqualified, unmotivated, and unreliable foreign employees, as well as the greedy employers who hired them, to nearly ruin an industry that started with honest means. During this time the average foreign employee lasted only months before they discovered that not only did they have no clue how to teach English, but they had no idea how to teach, period. But it was too late, the Japanese running these Eikaiwa became so enamored with the money that was pouring into their coffers that they had little interest in what actually went on in their classrooms. It became about the money instead of teaching. All of this was achievable, at least for a short period, because English as a language was whored out in two fundamental ways: first through the romanticization in Japanese culture of meeting that perfect foreigner who would sweep you off your feet, or be your next best friend; and secondly, by romanticizing to the job seeking foreigner of a life of bliss, with little hours, lots of money, and tons of drooling Japanese basking in your foreign glory. When both of these grossly exaggerated fantasies met in the same classroom it resulted in a concoction so toxic not even the most financially secure Eikaiwa companies could handle the after affects, in fact, they were hit the hardest.
So what's left of the industry these days? While there are a few large Eikaiwa that still operate throughout Japan they look nothing like those during the 80's and 90's. Most of the Eikaiwa now a days are small to mid size companies in nature with a few hundred to a thousand students at most. As a result of the contraction of the market, most of the terrible teachers have already left the industry or were fired, but there still are, and always will be, bad seeds. Recently, there has been growth in the industry and the demand for teachers has risen slightly. However, reluctant to make the same mistakes as before, many companies are looking for qualified, or at least motivated individuals. From the viewpoint of quality of service, the market contraction in Eikaiwa was a necessary and much needed occurrence in order to weed out the bad employees and employers. But even 10 years after the downfall of the industry there still seems to be a negative impression that still remains for both parties (foreign job seekers and Japanese).
As is the case in many Eikaiwa blogs, many foreigners view the world of teaching English in Japan as a has-been, dead-end job with little pay, and terrible teaching conditions. While this remains true for some companies, I believe the majority of terrible teaching jobs in Japan are terrible not because of the company but because of the teacher. There are some legitimate cases of unfair policies and decisions made on the part of the Eikaiwa company, but this is to be expected as the work relationship between the foreigner and the Japanese company is essentially the melding of two cultures with two completely different concepts of work-ethics. However, I'm afraid most of the complaints about teaching are as a result of the teacher. What's the remedy, you ask? Well, you have to ask yourself, 'do you really enjoy teaching?'
If you do, this job can be very rewarding. I came to Japan with the same impression that most bloggers these days hold of the industry: part-time; temporary; and lacking. But I did come with a passion to teach, and boy, was I in for a surprise. I have come to love this job more than any job I've had in the past, and I have had some pretty awesome jobs. I love to teach, more importantly, I love to teach English. It is the most rewarding career I have held to date. Like any job, it has its drawbacks: late hours; at times not enough hours; and the occasional administrative miscommunication. But all in all, not only are my students growing in knowledge, but I too am growing in knowledge, for teaching is learning twice.
For those of you seeking to be an English teacher in Japan, you must first ask yourself: 'Am I doing this because I want to teach English, or am I doing this because I want to live in Japan.' If you can say yes to the former or to both, then come on over and reap the benefits of a rewarding career in teaching English and experiencing the wonderful culture of Japan at the same time. If you can only answer yes to latter question then look for another job because this profession in not for the fickle. This behavior not only damages the reputation of the company, but it can also do harm to the students, especially when new they have to get used to new teachers every few months or so. Gone are the days of making tons of money by simply sitting in a classroom and practicing rote memorization. This job screams for creativity and ingenuity, not only for the sake of your students but for your growth as an educator. It's all about creating a relationship between you and your students that fosters a passion for learning English. This is achievable in any classroom, you just have to have the motivation to make it happen.
With that said, if you are still interested in moving to Japan to become an ambassador of English, then I suggest heading on over to gaijinpot where you can find posts on how to find the best Eikaiwa companies, and how to make the most of your job as an English teacher in Japan, and most importantly, job postings. If you have any questions or suggestions don't forget to leave a comment. And Good luck!