Teaching in Japan- Everything you need to know.

So you’re thinking about accepting a teaching job in Japan but you’re not sure if it is for you? Well here are somethings I think you should be aware of after teaching in Japan for 6 years.

So what do you need to know?

  • Be prepared for fewer holidays. If you work for a Japanese school or company, you will have fewer holidays, longer term times but a lot of National Holidays (Bank Holidays). They don’t quite beat a week off work but they often fall on a Monday or Friday so you will get a good number of long weekends throughout the year.
  • Be prepared to work Saturdays. For elementary schools it will be for special events such as sports day, or summer fetes and this is not considered overtime. If the rain delays the event, then you could be expected to attend on Sunday instead. Many high schools even have lessons on Saturday mornings.
  • Living in a country that sits firmly on the ring of fire you will have to partake in regular earthquake and tsunami drills. Even though the chances of an earthquake big enough to evacuate is rare, it is a constant reminder of the extreme responsibility you are taking on each day, should any big natural disaster actually occur. I worked for six years with no evacuations but it is something to be aware of.
  • In Japan the children and parent’s are held accountable for the child’s educational success not just the teacher. I have always believed it should be a group effort so it is refreshing when the sole responsibility is not placed only on the teacher. I have heard stories of high school children falling asleep in lessons and been left to do so. Luckily that never happened to me but I like the idea that as the children get older, if they miss the lesson, it is their responsibility to catch up.
  • An awareness of Juken is important. Juken or Jukus are after school tutoring classes that a large number of Japanese students attend to help them get into popular private schools. They have become such a huge part of the Japanese education system that there were 5 different Juku schools just on one street in my area. But why do you need to be aware of them? Well… depending on the age group you are teaching, the children can spend anything from 1 day a week to 6 days a week at these school from 5:00pm to 9:00pm. By the time the children are attending the 5th Grade programme, they are spending 7 hours a day, 4 days a week studying at Juku and doing their homework on top of their regular school hours. So if you notice your students coming into your lessons tired, over worked and sometimes struggling with the pressures put on them at home, you know why.
  • Maths is a subject held in very high regard in Japan. If you are teaching in an international school where you will be teaching maths, be prepared to be teaching two years or even more above the expected age range but with big gaps in their reasoning skills. The Japanese curriculum, especially what they are taught at Juku, is very much rote learning so you will find the children can use even the most complicated strategies with great accuracy but throw in a problem solving question and you may be faced with many blank expressions.
  • In every Japanese classroom there is a clear social hierarchy. If you know you class well enough you will start to see there is a Queen Bee or King Pin and there will always be one if not both. In the six years I taught in Japan across three different age ranges, there has always been one. If the child at the top of the chain, is a good student then you are in for an amazing year but if they are not then you may have your work cut out for you. Your relationship with them is also important making sure they understand you’re the teacher and they are the student.
  • The myths about Japanese students and their behaviour in school is true. Coming from the UK, I was a little unnerved when the children did what I asked them to do first time… but they did and continued to do so. You will always have the odd student that breaks the mould and Japanese students are certainly not perfect but what teacher wants that? We all love a class with character.
  • Language will be a frustrating barrier at times. As a teacher you will no doubt need to communicate with parents so be aware that many of them could have limited to no English even if the child can speak it fluently. This means that your communication will often be done through a translator. If you work in a big company or school then there will be a professional translator employed to help you but even then, you have to hope that your carefully worded report is being translated with the right intentions. If you work for a smaller company, be prepared for the child to be your translator.
  • This may not affect everyone but it is good to know that Special Educational Needs (SEN) is a relatively new thing in Japan and comes with some very negative connotations for example; children with a statement can not be accepted into Japanese universities. As a result many parents will refuse to recognise or provide help for their children if they have a special educational need. This can make your job as a teacher a bit more challenging, especially if they need external support such as speech therapy or an educational psychologist.

At the end of the day, Japan is a very unique country with its own distinct language and culture which will provide certain challenges to any teaching job but what you will gain will easily out weigh any barriers. We found the standard of living in Japan was much better than it was in the UK, with better pay and less pressure in a safe, clean environment. If you have the chance to do it working for a reliable school or company then I would say go for it. You will not regret it…We didn’t!

Note: This post was written based on my experience of living and working in Japan from 2014 to 2020.

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