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What Is It Like to Teach English in Japan?
Written by: Catherine Cappello
Last Updated: March 22, 2021
Teaching in Japan - A Unique Experience
Teaching English in Japan provides unique opportunities to immerse yourself in Japanese culture while working as a paid professional teacher. Combining ancient traditions with a high-tech economy, Japan has long been a popular destination for teachers who appreciate the excellent pay and benefits.
Most people get a degree or certificate and then use it to get the job they want. I guess I’ve just lived my life backwards. I am currently enrolled in an online TEFL certification class in order to help get yet another job teaching abroad.
What motivated me to take a position teaching English in Japan in the first place was frustration with the education job market in the States, and the need to prove to myself and my family that the terrorist attack on 9/11 was not sufficient reason to forego the chance of a lifetime. I had also lived in Germany and traveled extensively as a child, which instilled in me at an early age the love of seeing other parts of the world and experiencing other cultures. The experience I had in Japan in 2002-2003 was the best (and most challenging!) I could have ever imagined. It is because of that experience that I would like to go abroad again.
The organization I went with encouraged teachers to develop friendships with students, who were comprised mostly of businessmen and women. This turned out to be very positive because I had a couple of students that showed me parts of Japan I never would have seen otherwise. It also allowed me an inside look at what Japanese family life is really like. In addition, I had a student who had studied the art of making sushi and was very accomplished by the time she began taking English lessons for the first time at the age of 87. She chose to use two of her private two-hour lessons to tell me everything I would ever want to know about sushi, and was able to sample more than probably most foreigners ever could.
Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the drastically different way of life I was to embark upon. Simple mundane tasks we take for granted, such as showering and going to the bathroom, were about to be challenged. For starters, the school in which I taught had traditional Japanese toilets, which basically meant squatting over a hole in the floor. Using a “Western” toilet meant washing one’s hands under the tap that ran into the tank on the back of the toilet. I soon discovered that one does not take a bath without taking a shower first, since baths are merely for relaxing.
Adjusting to extremely tiny living quarters was challenging, but fun. Living in an apartment that measured approximately eighty-eight square feet, I had to learn to make use of every inch of space so that it could be multi-functional. This brought out a creative side that I don’t think would have been developed otherwise.
Grocery shopping in Japan was another experience that has completely (and permanently) altered my way of thinking about stores and how they are organized. In attempting a recipe that one of my students gave to me to try, I needed to buy some sugar. It took me four attempts at shopping for this one item before I actually got sugar instead of salt. The success was only because I finally found a clerk who understood the English word “sweet” and my faulty attempt at the Japanese word for sugar. (Yes, I was able to incorporate those other three bags of salt into a few of my English lessons.) I have never in my life seen so many different kinds of salt. Without that experience, I would never have thought of looking for salt by the fish, and for sugar by the coffee.
During the year in Japan I discovered in what a truly small world we live. Through a friend of mine who originally hails from Togo, West Africa, I was able to meet a new friend, who is originally from Brazil. Portuguese was his first language; we both knew a little bit of French and German, I knew a little bit of Spanish, and we were both attempting to learn Japanese. I never realized the humor of the way we spoke with each other until my mother came to visit. As Valdir and I were talking – very seriously, I might add – she started laughing hysterically. When I asked what was so funny, she responded that in the course of one sentence she heard at least three or four different languages; how could we possibly understand each other? The language that we were really speaking was, as Valdir endearingly referred to it, salada-go. (“Go” is the Japanese suffix for a language.)
I was fortunate to have been placed in a city only a couple hours away from a woman that had lived with my family as an exchange student many years earlier. My mother had kept in touch with her; however, we never saw each other again until thirty-two years later, when I accepted the job in Fuchu. While we didn’t get to see much of each other during the year, it was still even more of an incentive for my mother to come and stay one week with Junko and one week with me. Since I still had classes to teach on two of the days that she was with me, she became the focus for most of the students. They absolutely jumped at the chance to show off their knowledge of the language with none other than the mother of their teacher.
After spending about two months before going to Japan preparing by reading as much as I could about the culture, learning some of the basic necessary phrases, and doing the preparation that the company required for its new hires, I thought I was ready. Then I read something that was so important and thought-provoking and changed my sense of readiness. It said that because the culture is so different from anything that we in the Western world can fathom, it’s best to “let it happen” and not try to compare it to what we know. Because we all take our past experience with us, what one person experiences very positively may be the most horrendous experience for the next person, and vice versa. This is really what ended up changing my way of thinking, and has added a new sense of wonder to life and all the experiences that I encounter.
When I first went to Japan I vowed to myself that I would just let the experience happen and not try to figure out at the time how I was going to explain to anybody back home what I was going through. After all, my experience could never mirror that of anybody else because of my background – and theirs.
Consequently, I did so many things, tried so many foods (about eighty percent of which I still don’t know what they were), met so many people, and in general had so many experiences that to this day I can only treasure within. The net result was that I never went through culture shock until I returned to the United States. Now I am motivated to have more experiences in other countries.
Having a TEFL certificate will open more doors to make this possible. This time I will read about the culture just so I have a general idea, learn a little about the history, and try to learn a little of the language, but it will be so much easier to let the experience happen and enjoy it for what it is. By going with an open mind and willing to try speaking the language of the new country, it’s amazing how many people one will encounter that will bend over backwards to give the new arrival the experience of a lifetime. Based on the experience in Japan, I must add that traveling/ living abroad, one cannot return unchanged. It is truly an experience with no regrets.
After being frustrated with the US job market, Catherine Cappello decided that, at the age of 55, it was time to get TEFL certified to open up more teaching abroad opportunities for herself! She had lived in Germany previously and traveled extensively as a child, which instilled in her at an early age the love of seeing other parts of the world and experiencing other cultures, and also taught English in Japan from 2002-2003.
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