After 6 months settling into my first job in Japan, I finally received my printed name cards. Our company tagline is Fantastic Story…. (perhaps an inkling of how a driver become President of his own bus company) Well mine isn’t exactly a fantastic story to share, but looking at the Facebook banner photo that I had used for years - it is surprising how Nara Park which I had once visited as a tourist, is now one of my regular stops nearly every other day of the week.
It took nearly 2 years after completing my 9 month stint at a Japanese language school to land a full-time job. Savings accumulated after a 10 year period in a stable job nearly depleted. It was the lowest point of my life when everything just did not go right -- my favourite cat died, the lifestyle changes and my inability to land a job quickly put a huge strain on marital relations. When I returned to Singapore for visa related matters, I just went about quietly unannounced. Facebook messages from friends and former colleagues were ignored, as there was no way I could share that life sucks because I made a wrong move. I must make things right before I can ever consider returning to Singapore one day.
What happened to your ALT aspiration?
Being hired as an English language teacher is widely perceived by foreigners as the easiest way to live their Japan dream. Indeed, main industry players such as Interac will launch recruitment drives for Assistant Language Teachers, while many others seek the option of becoming a tutor at Gaba or other eikawa schools that cater to private one-to-one learning in their language studios. Before coming to Japan, I attended a TESOL course in Singapore for nearly a year, intent to become an ALT too, but after having been in Japan for two years (including the first 9 months studying Japanese at a language school), it had been a fruitless search in landing an ALT job. In this article, I shall reflect on what I had gone through and perhaps for those who are aspiring to become ALT too, you might learn a thing or two too.
Is a TESOL/CELTA qualification necessary?
Certification is always something good to have, especially to be considered for the position of an ALT. For one-to-one teaching at an eikawa such as Gaba, certification is not a requirement - you will qualified by their in house training program before starting work at one of their schools. Personally, as a career teacher for 10 years, I think that is important to ask oneself - What makes u think you are capable of teaching somebody else? Being a native speaker does not immediately qualify you as a English teacher. In Singapore, most of us pick up English easily in early childhood due to factors such as family and environment, while it is a struggle for Japanese school children to grasp a language that they don’t even speak at home or anytime after English lessons. But try asking any Singaporean, even for those who scored As for English in their GCE exams, to teach phonics to Japanese kids. They will be totally clueless.
If teaching others comes naturally to you, then you are certainly gifted, but most people do need proper training to become effective teachers. Through the process of attaining TESOL/CELTA certification, one will certainly be better equipped with pedagogical skills, pick up basic classroom management skills etc that will ease someone who has entirely no prior teaching background. More importantly, ask yourself this question routinely too - Do I like teaching? Indeed teaching is not always about upholding the values of a noble career, but at the very least you should have the passion for teaching to enjoy your job and sustain yourself for the longer term. For those who are planning to stay in Japan for only a few years to live your Japan dream, yes do enjoy yourselves, but at the same time, please make sure you are delivering the best possible lesson to your students and not short change them.
Where to look?
Most people, even prior to coming to Japan, would have come across GaijinPot. Register an account, do spend some time to prepare your resume and cover letter. It is not my purpose to go into the fine points of writing a resume and CV, but rather to tell you that you have to spread your net wider than GaijinPot. Most foreigners will start looking from GaijinPot and Ohayosensei, and for those who are handicapped by their lack of Japanese language, or simply too lazy to look up local recruitment sites in Japanese, they will just to stick to these sites that have content delivered in English. While applying for jobs, I was surprised to see the email notifications, which also indicated the staggering number of people who had applied for the same job.
A common gripe that I have seen from many online postings is being posted to rural areas. Right, I understand that most who want to live the Japan dream want to feature Tokyo Skytree, Roppongi Hills and Harajuku on their Instagram when they are enjoying their off days, not some unknown mountain or rice fields far away from any modern day amenities and urban shopping. There is a finite number of vacancies and just so many applicants - If you are not right in the heart of Tokyo but in a much less glitzy neighbourhood, be thankful that there are others who are complaining of being posted to far-flung villages. Some take it in their stride to make the best of their experience. If you definitely want to remain in heart of Tokyo, Osaka or any major cities, then perhaps it is better to cast your net wider to look for other jobs too.
Is learning Japanese necessary?
I find it quite amusing to see postings about people who are only looking for jobs without any need to speak in Japanese. Seriously, not even conversational Japanese? So you just want to continue watching anime with subtitles and listen to Jpop tracks with romanji for the rest of your life? Then IMHO, you should give up your place in Japan and let someone more deserving to come over. Even if you are working as an English teacher, it will certainly help to be able to speak some Japanese to engage your students and colleagues in some friendly banter. By attaining a decent of level of Japanese, you will gain more confidence in browsing Japanese recruitment sites, writing a resume in the standard Japanese format, and going for your first interview in Japanese
By reaching out to more people, more job possibilities will come your way in daily conversation, while working part time jobs, or in other ways that you may never have thought of. Even if working as a UberEats delivery person, being able to speak some basic Japanese should serve you well.
Going to a Japanese Language school.
There are those who are still young, and who can well afford to study up to 2 years at a leisurely pace. However for others like me who are not exactly young anymore, we need to start job hunting in less than a year’s time. I first intended to study for just half a year, but after two terms starting from the most elementary class, here was still a significant gap to attaining a decent level of conversational Japanese, hence I extended my study for another term. Looking at some of my younger classmates whom were taking classes at another school too - they seek to aim for admission to a Japanese university and need to attain the necessary JLPT requirement, the lessons at my school, while at a comfortable learning pace, may be a tad too slow for those in a hurry to get started with working in Japan.
Should I do part time?
A number of my classmates did part time at various F&B establishments, and there was notably one whom was always tired and sleepy in class. Doing part time was too draining and impacted on his studies, eventually he had to repeat one academic term. I did not do any part time. Perhaps a part of me felt that working at a convenience store was too menial a job for a university graduate with 10 years of working experience as a teacher, but I felt strongly that concentrating my efforts to achieve a JLPT N2 certification will serve me better.
Is attaining JLPT certification necessary?
For many part-time jobs such as working a the convenience store at a local izakaya store, recruitment ads usually list N3 or N4 as the language requirement. For jobs such as working at the hotel, the airport or some higher end retail stores, while your job scope is mainly to deal with foreign tourists, you are also expected to serve Japanese customers hence ads usually list at least N2 as the language requirement.
If you have done JLPT before, you will know that it is essentially a MCQ test, and that a pass may not be indicative of one’s mastery of the language. Many of us prepare for JLPT with various drill and practice tests, and will forget most of what we have learnt right after the exam. It is important to continually learn and use the language, as we are simply mere mortals who have a finite memory and yet to harness most of what the brain is capable of.
After attaining N2 certification, I managed to pass the first round interview at a hotel. However, I knew I was lost within the first ten minutes of the second round, as the HR Manager spoke at a regular speed and did not give me any gaijin concession by dumbing down his language. (During the first round, the floor manager was kind to slow down and even corrected my use of honorific speech) Some articles about interview preparation will tell you to get your introduction speech polished and prepare some answers for possible questions such as listing out your positive and negative traits. That will prepare you to a certain extent, but one of the primary concerns of the interviewer is to ascertain that your language ability is sufficient for the job, hence there is no way to guard against random questions that fall beyond the range of FAQs. You will need to improve both your listening skills and practice conversation consistently.
Today I am working as a tour guide, leading tours to Kyoto and Nara four times a week. There is way more walking and being under the sun in this job than my previous. I took a steep pay cut, but hell yeah I’m enjoying my job most of the time. It is great to feel appreciated by customers and doing what I can to make the tour a pleasant and enjoyable one. My Japanese, while still nowhere near business level, is sufficient enough to engage co-workers without breaking into any English. I am looking to purchase a landed home here in Osaka, and hope this will still turn out to be a fantastic story for me and my wife. Thank you for believing in me.