July 11, 2012

ESL Streets in Japan No Longer Paved with Gold

I occasionally get information and advice requests from friends whose kids wonder about going to Japan to teach English.

I went to Japan in 1985, taught for several years, and then moved into journalism. (I had degrees in Arts, Education and Journalism to back me up). After an initial tight year or two I eventually developed some great teaching gigs, all private contracts through personal connections. At one point I was teaching just three days a week (albeit leaving home at 6:30 a.m. and returning at 9:30 p.m.), averaging around C$60/hour, and enjoying four-day weekends.

That largesse is long gone. . .  In recent visits to Japan one and four years ago, I was shocked at the low wages on offer in ESL job adverts, accompanied by some high education requirements.

I've been back in Canada for over ten years now, so my knowledge of Japan's ESL market conditions are not what they once were, but when I got a recent request, I contacted a couple of buddies in Japan for insight.

Here is my initial stab at giving a Mom some advice for her daughter who was looking at teaching English in Japan:

It's been over 15 years since I was last in the English-teaching biz in Japan, and a lot has changed. A few of the leading chain ESL schools there have gone bankrupt over the last several years. I avoided the chain schools anyway (drudgery hours at low pay), lucking out with a private school that sponsored my work visa, and let me pick up my own contracts on the side. I'm not sure how well XYZ would get along without a degree -- that's been pretty much a minimum qualification for decent teaching work going back to the 80s. My sense is that TESOL qualification has also become more of an advantage since my heyday of the mid-80s/early 90s before I shifted to journalism. Please don't take what I say next the wrong way (but it's a fact of life, eh?) tall, attractive, young, blondish women have always done well in Japan... And while Japan is, relatively speaking, one of the safer countries in the world, it's also not that difficult to "stray" if you don't have a good grip on where you are, who you are, and, what you want.

To my gratitude, both friends in Tokyo responded to my e-mail plea for more up-to-date info within hours, confirming that the English-teaching boom that began in Japan in the early 80s and rolled along for 10-15 years, was over. The market is much tighter now, and higher qualifications are required for decent positions.

A succinct take from Kevin Ryan, a professor whose blog you can see at http://www.kevinryan.com/:

Had a friend with a daughter who just graduated university. She got a job at a chain school, and it was very exciting at first. She was able to get set up in an apartment, but ended up using most of her salary for rent and food, paying the "company store". She worked hard hours, about 30 contact hours a week, in a suburb of Osaka. It was OK, but she didn't have any time to do much else but work and live. She left after about 6 months. You need a solid MA in TESOL for anything more than that. The market has tightened up tremendously since you were here.

And a broader response from Mike Lloret, recently retired from corporate communication and training at a leading Japanese electronics firm. His blog is http://balefires.blogspot.ca/:

First, a quick response to the mother's points:

  • Experience working with children and tutoring is a plus; many schools, especially smaller private ones, derive more of their income than you'd think from classes for kids. Note that some of them can be very young kids, who may have little-to-no exposure to English outside the classroom.
  • Some sort of TESOL certification is becoming very important, as Paul notes. A degree is pretty much an unavoidable minimum requirement, and these days there is a strong preference for degrees in education, linguistics, TESOL, etc. Some employers are seeking those with Masters degrees.
  • There can be a little wiggle room with regard to the degree if the job-seeker has extensive experience, especially in Japan, but I wouldn't count on it, and that doesn't seem to apply in this case, anyway.

It might be instructive for the young woman to take a close look at gaijinpot.com, paying particular attention to the length of time the job offers have been there. Except for the openings in Fukushima and prefectures close to it--most of which are hard-to-fill replacements for teachers who fled what they saw as danger after 3/11--the openings represent employers holding out for better-qualified and/or cheaper applicants, not a lack of job seekers.

This might be instructive for background knowledge:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120703zg.html

Your comments about attractive blondes are accurate, as noted in this anecdote:

http://1000thingsaboutjapan.blogspot.jp/2012/07/will-miss-466-ease-of-getting-hired.html

and if the young woman is unaware of the Lindsay Hawker case, she should look it up.

The bottom line is that I don't think much of the young lady's chances of getting a decent job here, and definitely wouldn't recommend that she come over before getting a binding contract.

So, unfortunately, the good times seem to be over for "experience Japan by teaching a little English on the side." I'm not saying it can't be done, it just won't be as easy or fun as it was when money seemed to slosh around in abundance, and a ramen shop on the Ginza offered gold-dust garnish for your broth. . .

Posted by Paul at July 11, 2012 08:34 PM