The Dirty E-word: English Teaching in Japan

You’re not one of those, are you? Those people who come here to prey on the failing and flailing English education of Japan. Those English teachers.

Sometime during my lifetime, English teaching in Japan went from being kinda cool to kinda not-so-cool. I don’t recall getting a memo of this change, but apparently it’s here to stay. While Japanese people seem okay with English teachers, my fellow expats have become more judgy than ever.

“I started dating a guy. But ugh…turns out he’s an English teacher…”

My Canadian friend made a face as she said the E-word. Not knowing what to say, I stuffed my face with toasted avocado shrimp sandwich and nodded.

“You know how they are,” she continued, clearly annoyed. “Useless native speakers who can’t achieve anything in their own countries. They got no skills what-so-ever and have never taught anything or anyone in their lives. They come here and inflict themselves upon the poor Japanese, party for a few years until they get bored and leave.”

I washed down my bite with lemonade, but the bitter aftertaste of her venomous tirade lingered.

“Not that bad, is it?” I said carefully.

“Worse! They come here to teach a language but don’t even bother to study Japanese themselves. They leave without knowing anything about Japanese culture. But I’m telling you, those who leave are still the good ones. Those who stay are just stuck in dead-end jobs and dead-end lives.”

Right. Time for another emergency bite of avocado and shrimp.

“You don’t know because you’ve never taught English. But trust me, it’s an industry for lazy good-for-nothings. I’ve seen it first-hand.”

And this is where I had to make a difficult choice: toast or argument. The point of no return saw me reluctantly putting my sandwich down, diving head first into what would become a thoroughly unpleasant discussion. For my bravery I was rewarded with some interesting insights on exactly how un-cool English teaching in Japan is.

English teacher? God no, of course not.

Are you a student? A model? An English teacher? No, no, and no. I am not one of those gaijins. Do I really look like I can’t land a proper job? Please.English teachers

Any expat worth his or her salt wouldn’t wanna be associated with the bad foreigner stereotype that’s attached to English teaching. Much in the same way that one guy in your friend group refuses to hang with other foreigners because “they are all the same” (unlike his special self, who is uniquely qualified to understand Japan on a level you can’t comprehend).

The special snowflake syndrome is also very much prevalent in English teaching. So if you live in Japan and aren’t teaching English – congratulations! You’re special. Unique. Amazing. The only appropriate way to explain to people what you do for a living starts with “I’m not an English teacher, anyway…” and ends with a condescending sneer.

But if you are unlucky enough to be an English teacher, you need to salvage what you can from the wreckage. Ah, Eikawa? God no, I’m not one of those. I came here for the JET programme that is so much more superior. What, the JET programme? Why on earth would I join that? I work at a private international high school. Pecking order, friends.

English teachers in Japan are fake

English teaching in Japan is often described as the educational equivalent of McDonald’s – good for a few years to rack up cash, but a dead-end career at the end of the day. So naturally, people who come here to be fast food teachers get criticised for not being actual teachers (“speaking your native tongue doesn’t make you a qualified teacher”). ALTs get bashed for being nothing more than entertainment (“they are dancing bears – real teaching is done by the Japanese”). Teachers of smaller children get a hard time for doing something that’s too easy (“anyone can teach hello and goodbye”).

Bad news, guys. Whatever you do, you’re doing it wrong.

Capitalism all the way

EikawaLuckily, companies don’t care if teachers are failures. In fact, they don’t really care about teachers at all. English conversation schools are bloated cash cows floating about in a market hungry for more English. You can’t go anywhere without bumping into encouraging (ahem) ads, and the Eikawa schools are just everywhere. And we all know what rhymes with everywhere – exploitation.

There have been some minor hiccups for English language school corporations throughout the years. An example that comes to mind is when the giants Nova/GEOS went bankrupt in 2007, causing thousands of teachers to lose salaries, paid holidays, health insurance and what not. But despite this tiny scandal, the industry didn’t change and is still going strong. Everybody forgot it ever happened and new companies stole the spotlight. Market economy is a wondrous thing.

The price is paid by foreign workers who’ve fallen into the hands of sly corporations. Previously, English schools got away with a ridiculous 29 ½ hour workweek – just short of the 30 hours that would’ve seen employees enrolled in costly social insurance programmes. While this was partially solved by new labour regulations some time back, many companies like Gaba still evade responsibility for their employees (sick leave, paid leave, pension, insurance, etc). But hey, whoever needed all that for flipping some English burgers?


Now that we have judged English teachers and corporations, it wouldn’t do to let the Japanese language education system get away. In one word, it’s terrible. And not even the I-spilled-coffee-on-my-white-trousers kind of terrible. No, but rather the I-stepped-on-a-rusty-nail-and-had-to-amputate-my-leg kind of terrible. This terribility (a real word, I swear) exists in all institutions; Eikawa, public schools, private schools. The system is simply broken, and honestly, it’s not the individual’s fault that the system is faulty.

Besides, teaching is already bloody hard, even without extra obstacles. I have never taught English properly, but I have taught (tried to teach) Swedish to a class of Nordic fans. Lesson planning, homework and grading aside, the sheer scope of random questions raining down on me were nothing short of terrifying. “So I read online that in main clauses, the verb always needs to come second, unless it is a binary question. Is that right?” Uhm well… I just failed to understand 12/10 things you just said, but sounds about right to me?

Also, explaining things that don’t have grammatical rules is the worst. Oh you see Noriko-san, en å and ett å are clearly different. What do you mean “why?” They just are! So remember it yeah? Thanks.

You are what you do

Judging is a time-honoured human past-time going way back. Hunter-gathererI bet pre-historic hunters looked down on the weak gatherers (“they can’t even kill animals”) and hunter-gatherers looked down on both (“they can’t even multitask!”) After all, how are we supposed to feel good about ourselves if we can’t outrank someone? The problem is that some professions fall in and out of fashion, and English teaching is one of those.

This is why English teachers are now seen as incompetent native speakers, lazy new grads or adventure-seeking party-goers. Every other expat is engaging in something more meaningful than them (with the possible exception of blue-collar workers from South-East Asia). Remember, we are what we do – and what we earn.


I didn’t manage to persuade my Canadian friend to think better of English teachers. A real shame, and more so because she is not alone in harbouring these sentiments.

I have met plenty of hard-working, dedicated people who genuinely care for their students: all respect to them. I have also met people who come here seeking adventure, using English teaching as a point of entry. And so what if they do? Doesn’t make them bad teachers.

Have we not had days when we stay awake until 2 AM, Googling what the heck to do with our lives? How we can escape our situation? Experience something new? In my world, there is no shame in that. It was such a night that saw me ditching a banking job offer in London in favour of volunteering in New Zealand for the better part of a year. Best thing I ever did. Plus, I can now chop wood, use a chainsaw, shear sheep and climb mountains.

If anyone can find the same amount of joy in Japan teaching English, I fail to see why we should pass judgement on them. I hope my fellow expats will think more kindly of both the profession and the ones who practise it.

And to the English teachers out there: keep fighting the good fight.

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