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So You Want to Teach English in Japan...
Part 1: Things to Know Before You Get Serious

So you want to teach English in Japan? Great! It can be a very interesting, educational, and even fun experience. However, Japan and/or the job itself probably aren't quite the way you imagine they are so here's some facts you should take into consideration when deciding if you really want come to Japan to teach. Keep in mind, I'm not trying to scare you away, discourage you, or paint things in a bad light. I'm just pointing out things I've learned both from my own experiences and from other ALTs, that are often either not thought of, not mentioned, or glossed over in many situations.

Things to Know About Japan:
1. Most people in Japan (including your coworkers if you get a job) speak little to no English. Some places in Japan have English signs, menus, instructions, etc but many don't. You're not going to find much English media either (unless it's been redone in Japanese). So, if you have no desire to learn Japanese you're probably better off just going to Japan as a tourist for a couple weeks.
2. Japanese people are usually quite friendly but there is a certain amount of prejudice and misconceptions when it comes to foreigners so be aware that you might encounter some things like that (for example, not being allowed to rent an apartment you want because the landlord doesn't allow non-Japanese or being randomly pulled out of a crowd and asked to show your passport).
3. Many things that are cheap and easy to obtain in the US (some types of food and assorted other items) are very expensive and/or extremely rare in Japan, though the opposite is also true.
4. Japanese traditions and customs are very different than those in places like the US, Europe, and Australia. While Japanese people are usually fairly tolerate of foreigners when they make mistakes (though less so with some things than others), you will be expected to try your best to follow those customs (taking off your shoes at the proper place, behaving in the right way, etc). Breaking or disregarding customs that you don't like or expecting people to change for you because you're a foreigner is a very bad idea and could even get you in trouble in some places/situations.
5. Unless you look Asian, you're going to stick out a whole lot. Even if you do look Asian, you'll probably still stick out a bit. Just something you'll have to get used to.
6. Japan is not in the feudal era or Edo period anymore. There's no ninja or samurai running around. Sure there's a bunch of old buildings in some areas but the country as a whole is just as modern as the US. On a similar note, there's no monsters, giant robots, cat girls, magical girls, or anything like that running around either (unless you're at a cosplay convention). I'd think this would be obvious but you never know with some people. Remember, just because you saw it in an anime doesn't mean that's what Japan is really like.
7. Japan is not paradise and does not have a perfect society. Once again, this seems obvious enough but I've seen some US otaku (anime, manga, etc fans) get to the point where they think that anything and everything about Japan is perfect. It's not. Japan and the Japanese society have plenty of problems (many of which I've discussed or at least touched on in my travelogue). Not that Japanese society is all that bad either, but overall I wouldn't say it's really any better or worse than places like the US, Canada, Australia, etc, it's just different.

Things to Know About Being an Assistant Language Teacher:
1. You're not going to get rich working as an ALT. If you're careful with your money, most ALT salaries are easily enough to live on and the higher ones may even allow you to save a little. On the other hand, if you end up with one of the lower salaries you might end up losing a bit of money (at least if you like to tour or shop; you'd probably be fine if you just sit at home most weekends).
2. You may have little to no say in where in Japan you'll end up. This varies a bit by company, and some will even let you know the location during the interview, but with others you might not find out until you're actually in Japan. So just because you want/request to be in or near Tokyo for example, doesn't mean you will be.
3. You may have little to no say in what age group you'll be teaching. If you're being hired by a private language school you'll probably end up teaching classes of all ages and if you're being hired for public schools you might be in elementary, junior high, or a combination of the two. Since high schools and colleges are private, it's far less likely (though not impossible) to get a job in one.
4. You might not get many holidays, personal days, or sick days (actually, you might not get any sick days). This varies a lot depending on who you're working for but don't expect much. In public schools you'll typically get Japanese holidays and school breaks off (since the school closes down and all) but not always (some companies use days like that for mandatory training seminars and the like). And in some places (especially private language schools), it's quite common to have to work on evenings, weekends, and Japanese holidays (though you still tend to get two days off per week). Don't expect to get non Japanese holidays off at all unless you use a personal day (heck, I had to work on Christmas, which Japanese people celebrate too). Finally, keep in mind that, even if you supposedly get lots of vacation time, personal days, or whatever, your company will likely put lots and lots of restrictions on when you can use them, how many you can use in a row, how many days in advance you have to give notification, etc. Some companies will also do their best to discourage and/or guilt you out of using your vacation time and personal days.
5. Timeliness is very important. You'll be expected to be at work on time or early and will often get in trouble if you're even a few minutes late (unless you've got a really really good reason). Also, don't ever even think about leaving early unless your boss/department head/principle/etc gives you permission. Expect to work 8-9 hour days, quite possibly without any true break time since many companies' idea of a break (even if you're not getting paid for said time) is to socialize with students or prospective students, eat lunch with your class, etc. Many companies (private language schools especially) may also expect you put in a lot of unpaid overtime or even come in to work on some of your days off. You can refuse, but know that your coworkers, bosses, etc probably won't be very pleased if you do.
6. You may have to work with and/or for people you dislike. Even if that's the case, you'll be expected to be polite and friendly at all times and never contradict said person. In the social hierarchy in your typical school (public or private) an ALT (especially a new one) ranks very low so you've really just got to smile and go along with everyone else in most situations. If you're lucky, all your coworkers will be great and might not even mind if you correct them a little from time to time so you'll never have a problem with this stuff, but just know that things don't always turn out that way. If you have trouble being pleasant and amiable (or at least faking it when necessary), controlling your temper, or staying quiet when someone says something you dislike or disagree with, ALT work is probably not the best choice for you.
7. You might have to do a whole lot of work or almost no work. For private language schools, this varies by company. For public, it varies by school and even by teacher (since you'll be "assisting" the homeroom teacher or official English teacher in each class). You might or might not have a curriculum or guidelines to follow and you might or might not have preexistent materials to work with. You might have to plan all the lessons out yourself, buy or create all the materials yourself (often at your own expense), and pretty much run every class on your own. On the other extreme, you might just get stuck sitting in a corner turning a CD on and off and occasionally being asked to pronounce different words. There are people who like both of these environments but you usually won't get to choose. For the record though, private language schools usually have a set curriculum you have to follow but other than that you're running the show. Elementary schools typically involve quite a lot of planning, prep work, and the like, but the teachers often give you a lot of freedom in what you teach and how. Junior high and high schools, on the other hand, have fully certified Japanese English teachers so things are a bit different. Some will be happy to just dump all the work on you and let you run things while others may prefer more of a team effort. But some think that, seeing as they actually studied to be English teachers, they're already experts on the language, even though that's often very far from the case (since they just learned from other Japanese people who learned from other Japanese people, etc). Teachers like that tend to see ALTs as unnecessary and they're the ones who will stick you in the corner to run the CD player while they go on to teach what is quite likely very poor English.
8. Going off point 7, you might be running around constantly doing classes and/or planning lessons or you might end up sitting around most of the day with very little to do (though that's pretty rare in private language schools). If you are stuck with nothing to do, you'll have to find some way to keep busy. Studying Japanese is a good way to pass the time and using schools computers or bringing in a laptop of your own is usually alright as well, at least so long as it looks like you're working (no video games, youtube, or anything like that).
9. One last point. ALT contracts are typically for one year (with the option to renew if the company/school likes you) though you can occasionally find shorter ones. While you usually can break the contract without serious consequences (aside from that facts that you won't be getting any more money and will likely lose your apartment almost immediately, since housing is often arranged by your company), it's not a good idea so don't even think about being an ALT if you're not sure that you can manage to stick it out for at least a year even if your job ends up being far less than ideal.

So, you got all that? Still want to be an ALT? Remember, I'm not trying to scare you. Some people end up in great schools with great co-workers and students. Unfortunately, not everyone is that lucky. Some people end up in pretty miserable situations and you can't just jump from school to school or job to job until you find a place you like.
If all you want to do in Japan is shop and see the sights you're much better off just going there sometime on a vacation. Working in Japan will teach you much more about the language and culture than a vacation will but it also involves a whole lot of time, dedication, and work. Even though you're in a foreign country it's still a full time job and if you don't treat it as such you could end up stuck there with no job, no money, and no place to stay.
If you're still sure you want to be an ALT in Japan, go on to So You Want to Teach English in Japan... Part 2: Preparing to Go to Japan.

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