||So You Want to Teach English in Japan...
Part 4: Things to Do Once You Get to Japan
If you've found a job, or are at least looking for one, then you're all set, right? Well, more or less anyway. But it's always good to be prepared so here's my list of important things you should do once you get to Japan, both during work and your free time.
Things to Do At Work:
Note: This list applies more to public schools than it does to private language schools.
1. Check your classroom and supplies. You may or may not have your own classroom but either way there's a good chance that the school has some materials you can use (either their own stuff or things left by the previous ALT). So as soon as you get the chance go through all of it and take note of what's there and what you can use it for (if you've got a curriculum, skim through it and see what subjects you'll be teaching so you'll know what materials you already have and what you still need to get or make).
2. If it looks like you'll still need materials you might as well work on getting or making them. You could wait until you really need them, but it never hurts to get a head start.
3. Do stuff with the kids. Don't ignore your kids when you're not teaching class. Try playing with them during recess (you should probably ask your supervisor at school if it's ok first, just to be polite). Also, find out what clubs the school has. If there's an English club, or a club based around something you're interested in, find out if it would be ok for you join in the meetings and activities.
4. Be helpful. If any staff members ask for your help with something be pleasant and helpful. Unless there's a really good reason (and I mean a really good reason) for you not to help, don't try and make an excuse or back out of it.
5. Be polite, especially to the teachers and other staff. On that note, never correct a teacher in front of the class, unless they actually ask you if they're right or not. Actually, some teachers might want you to always correct their English if they're wrong but others can get really mad so error on the side of safety and don't correct them unless asked. If a particular teacher seems especially picky, don't correct them outside of class either. Some are convinced that their English is perfect and don't like being proven otherwise.
6. Pay attention to how the other teachers dress and adjust your own clothing accordingly. Start out dressed really nice (suit and tie for guys, and some sort of professional business outfit for girls) and then scale back if you can. You may have to dress nicely at least most of the day but in some schools you can get away with wearing casual clothes or gym clothes most, if not all, of the time.
7. Find some way to keep busy during your down time. Lesson planning and prep always comes first but chances are you'll still have plenty of free time. Studying Japanese is always good and most schools won't have any trouble with you bringing in a laptop or using a school computer. You might even be able to get on the internet. The key though is to do something that at least kinda looks like work (especially to people who can't read English). Most people probably won't care if you're actually working, so long as you do get all your actual work done in a timely manner, but keeping up appearances is important. E-mail is ok, forums and web sites too as long as they're not too flashy. Naturally using programs like Word isn't a problem and you can probably get away with graphic type stuff as well (photo editing, digital art, etc) if you're careful. Some schools might not even mind if you listen to music on headphones. Games are a definite no...but if you really want to cheat the system try an old fashioned text adventure. Chances are no one will know enough English (or at least pay enough attention) to realize that you're actually playing a game. However, if any of the staff members ask you to stop doing something, be polite and do as they say.
Things to Do Outside of Work:
1. Buy an electric dictionary. They're a bit expensive but if you're going to be living in Japan for a while they're extremely useful (I carried mine around everywhere). I would have listed this as something to do before going to Japan...except that those hardly anywhere imports them. But in Japan is another story and any half decent electronics store should have some. I recommend Yodobashi Camera if there's one nearby, mainly because of their useful Gold Point Cards. Anyway, what you're looking for is a little electronic Japanese - English dictionary. Their features vary by model but all of them will include at least a Japanese dictionary (in Japanese), a kanji dictionary (in Japanese), and a Japanese - English dictionary for looking up equivalent words in the other language. Nicer ones may include multiple dictionaries, regular English dictionaries, a thesaurus, and more. The more expensive models let you write kanji (either on the screen or a little pad by the keyboard) instead of having to look them up manually and some models have other languages such as Chinese or Korean or assorted other reference material included. Keep in mind though that the dictionaries are made for Japanese speaking people, not English speakers, so the majority of the data is going to be in Japanese. That said though, Canon's models have an option to switch all the menus to English and often come with English manuals, which is really helpful when you're starting out. It's worth noting that, if money is an issue, there's some decent Japanese English dictionaries available on the DS and various types of smart phones for much lower prices. However, since cellphones and game systems aren't usually allowed at most schools, you may not be able to use them at work
2. Explore the area around your apartment. Just see what's nearby and have fun. Important things to keep an eye out for are grocery stores, 100 yen stores (much nicer than $1 stores in the US), restaurants, train stations, subway stations, bus stops, convenience stores, post offices, and any other places that you might want/need to visit on a regular basis.
3. Find an international ATM. Never know if you might run low on cash and have to pull some extra from your account back home. Post offices and some convenience stores (including all 7/11s) have them.
4. See if your town has a tourist info office (they're usually in or right by the train station). If so, grab a map and see if they have any English materials. You never know what neat stuff there might be to see right in your own town (or there might be nothing at all, you never know).
5. Familiarize yourself with the public transit systems. Trains are probably the most important but if you're going to be using subways or buses a lot (really depends where you're living) figure them out too. The Japan Rail's (JR) English language site is pretty useful, especially the Hyperdia search, which can help you quickly and easily figure out how to get from one station to another (stations, times, when to switch trains, etc).
6. If you need or want to do drive while in Japan, you probably already got an International License (they're pretty cheap and easy to get in the US, provided you have a normal license). But if you plan on driving in Japan and are considering staying for more than one year you'll need a Japanese license (Japan only accepts international licenses for one year). If you're from the UK or Australia it's supposedly a fairly easy process to get one. But if you're from the US, Canada, or anywhere else that drives on the right side of the road, you'll need to pass a test. Worse, it's quite common for foreigners to fail the Japanese driving test 4-10 times or more (not so much because the test is hard, but because the instructors have a tendency to fail foreigners repeatedly for no real reason), so the sooner you start trying the better. Also, if you can, bring a Japanese speaking friend along the first time to help with any translation issues you may have
7. Take whatever time you can to explore Japan and try different things. After all, you're in Japan, you should make the most of your time and see and experience as much as you can.
Well, that's it. I hope you've found these guides helpful. Going to Japan to teach isn't always easy and can be scary at times but it can also be a very interesting and rewarding experience. Just make sure you know what you're getting into, prepare as much as you can before you go, and work hard once you arrive. Good luck!