Being a female English teacher in Japan

Today is Girl’s Day in Japan, but what’s it like to be a female teacher of English in this traditionally patriarchal society? I interviewed Beth Konomoto, an EFL teacher with extensive experience in Japan, to find out.

Why did you choose to teach English in Japan?

Originally, I wanted to come to Japan, because I have always had a fascination with Japanese culture, music and food. A friend of mine, who was working at the company where I now work, decided to move to Tokyo. She emailed me and said her job was available if I was interested. I decided to go for it. I never considered other countries. There wasn’t a particular reason, but in retrospect I’m glad I came to Japan. It’s beautiful, safe (in terms of crime), interesting, and clean.

The majority of English teachers in Japan are male. What’s it like to be in the minority?

I don’t notice it really. There are many women teachers around me in my conversation school and other local schools. It might not be the same in other education facilities, such as universities.

What’s the best thing about being a female teacher of English?

I love teaching English and I don’t feel there is any difference between being a female teacher. I suppose, one thing is that maybe female Japanese teachers may feel more comfortable with a female ‘native’ English teacher.

And the worst thing?

Being female has its challenges, just as being a male teacher does. Discipline and proper conduct can be tough if you don’t set ground rules from the beginning of class, but that can happen just as easily for male teachers.

Have you ever been in an uncomfortable situation in Japan?

Yes, but it was with a male native English teacher at my company. I used to work in downtown Vancouver and would walk through rougher areas everyday before I moved to Japan, so I feel pretty confident in being able to handle uncomfortable situations.

Foreign men often tend to marry Japanese women, but foreign women tend not to marry Japanese men. Why do you think this is?

Well, I may not be the best person to ask this question, because my husband is Japanese! I think one obstacle would be that Japanese men have heavy obligations to work long hours, which prevents time for a relationship as most may be used to in other countries.

Also, there are still many expectations that women will stay home and raise the kids, which many non-Japanese women will not accept. There is also the expectation that even if women work outside the home, that they will still cook, clean, shop and take care of the household finances. However, this is not my experience in my relationship. We have a very equal relationship, I’m very lucky – even by Canadian standards!

Would you agree that Japan is a patriarchal society?

For sure! It’s deeply ingrained in the society and the language. Things are changing to allow women more freedom of choice, and guilt-free choice, but these kind of changes are very slow. There is also great respect given to elders and that includes women. Almost everyone I have met in Japan adores their ‘obaachan’ (grandmother).

What is the most frustrating thing about living in Japan?

Buying women’s clothes for long legs and a short body. My body type is the opposite of how clothes are manufactured for the Japanese market.

And the most rewarding thing?

Meeting new people, sharing stories with my students, and doing something I love.

Do you have any advice for women who are thinking about teaching English in Japan?

Understand that there are very solid traditions working here. Students, especially in rural areas, may not have the experience dealing with or even discussing women in different contexts. However, I have had many great conversations by explaining my feelings as my own and qualifying them by explaining that I grew up with a very independent mother and the societal values around me in Canada were fairly positive and supportive of women as well as women and children. The way I think is not ‘right’ and I make it clear that there are many viewpoints. Many of my adult women students really appreciate having male-focused English language pointed out and explained. It helps that I notice and pay attention to pronouns and language excluding minority groups. An example of this is that some older learners may have used old textbooks that use inappropriate terms in today’s world. I correct them, explaining that language changes and we should use language to respect everyone.

Japan is a great place to live, work and play. Be open, understanding and patient. There are horror stories of women who have been taken advantage of or hurt here in Japan, but the same can be said for any country. Be aware of yourself just as you would in any other place.

After teaching English in Japan for 7 years, Beth is making the move back to Canada to continue teaching after finishing a Masters degree in TEFL/TESL. Using music for language acquisition, teacher-researcher development, and online learning are among her many interests.

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About Paul Raine

Paul has taught English as a foreign language in Japan since 2006, and obtained a masters degree in Teaching English as a Foreign and Second Language in 2012. He has a wide range of experience in a variety of different teaching contexts, including conversation schools, junior and senior high schools, blue-chip companies, and colleges and universities. He is particularly interested in integrating technology with English language pedagogy. You can contact Paul on Twitter @paul_sensei or visit his homepage at paulsensei.com

23 Responses to Being a female English teacher in Japan

  1. Keely says:

    A friend of mine used to teach English in Japan. She returned home to Wales to be near family, but misses Japan so much she often talks of just packing up and going back out there. I’ve never been, but she can’t speak highly enough about the country and its people.

    • Paul Raine says:

      Thanks for your comment, Keely. Similar to your friend, most of the female English teachers I’ve met in Japan have had very positive experiences here!

    • Sian says:

      Hi Keely,
      you mention your friend lives in Wales. Im just wondering if she would be willing to teach Japanese as my dream is to teach in Japan but I need more structure to learn the language. I live in Wales and would be interested in having lessons if we live near by and if your friend is willing.
      Sian

  2. Peter says:

    Hello! my daughter has been thinking of teaching english as a language, meaning she has to learn japanese. right now she is 15, hoping to go to japan at 17 for a year, would she need be at college or still be in high school? do you have any advice you could maybe give her.

    • Paul Raine says:

      Hi Peter, thanks for your comment. To teach English as a foreign language in Japan, your daughter will need a working visa (the visa normally issued to English teachers is the “Specialist in Humanities/International Services” visa). To get the visa, she will normally need an undergraduate degree in any subject and a sponsor in Japan. The sponsor will usually be the company she intends to work for.

      Japanese language ability is not normally a job requirement for native-speaker English teachers in Japan, but will definitely be useful for daily life!

      Hope this helps!

      The best of luck to your daughter with her future career.

    • Paul Raine says:

      Peter,

      You might also like to check out this article for information about impending changes to foreigner registration in Japan.

  3. ESLinsider says:

    That’s pretty rare to hear of a foreign woman with an Asian man over there…haha…Say I am wondering if there are many international schools in Japan and if you know of any good sites where you could find these sorts of jobs?

    • Paul Raine says:

      Hi there, thanks for your comment. Yes, regarding foreign women with Japanese men, it’s certainly not the norm in my experience, but not unheard of either.

      There are numerous international schools in Japan, but I’m not aware of any websites that deal specifically with recruiting for such institutions. Sometimes international schools advertise vacancies on the usual websites, such as Ohayo Sensei and Gaijin Pot.

      However, these jobs tend to be highly sought after by the ex-pat community (especially those with PGCE qualifications), and such positions, when they become available, tend to go to friends or acquaintances of teachers already working at the school concerned. Developing a good network of professional acquaintances is therefore very important in terms of finding one of these positions. Also, teaching at international schools tends to be less related to TEFL and more related to English as an academic subject as it is taught to native speakers of the language in the UK, America, etc. Therefore, as I mentioned above, a PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) and/or QTS (Qualified Teacher Status) is almost always required for full-time teaching staff. Hope this information is of some help!

      Paul

  4. lavi says:

    hi i want to know how can i apply for the teaching in japan as a english teacher as i am undegrat and currently based in delhi.

    • Paul Raine says:

      Hi there Lavi, thanks for your comment. You normally need to have completed your undergraduate degree before being able to work as an English teacher in Japan (an undergraduate degree is a condition of the Specialist in Humanities/International Services that the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues to most English teachers.) You will also usually need to have a sponsor (the company you intend to work for). TEFL.com and ESLCafe.com are both good places to start looking for English teaching jobs in Japan. Hope this helps. Good luck!

  5. Joe says:

    Hi, right now I am busy applying for colleges, and I am thinking about majoring in education (multiple subject). I am also hoping to apply to JET my senior year of college. If I wanted to keep my doors open, would getting a masters over a BA be a benefit to me?

    • Paul Raine says:

      Hi Joe, thanks for your message. A Masters degree in Applied Linguistics or a related discipline would qualify you to get a direct contract teaching English at Japanese universities (read more about that topic here). You won’t need a Masters degree to get onto the JET program, but it would definitely give you the edge over other applicants, and would be a solid qualification for your future career.

  6. ghel says:

    hi, i just want to ask if there is an age requirement for an English Teacher in japan?

    • Paul Raine says:

      Hi Ghel, thanks for your message. A university degree is required for obtaining a visa to teach English in Japan, so most English teachers are at least of university-leaving age (21 or 22). It’s possible to teach at a younger age than that if you have permission to work via some other means (e.g. by being the child or grandchild of a Japanese national, or being married to a Japanese national). Hope this answers your question! Thanks again.

  7. Valentina says:

    Hi there I’m starting university this September and I’m considering becoming an English/ Spanish teacher in Japan, what type of course would you recommend, I live in the UK.
    Thanks

    • Paul Raine says:

      Hi Valentina, thanks for your comment. The basic qualification for TEFL is either the CELTA or the Cert TESOL. I’d be very wary of any other qualifications besides these two – they are the gold standards that any employer worth their salt should respect, and bump you up to a higher pay-grade if you’re lucky. I’m afraid I don’t know much about Spanish teaching in Japan, although one of my friends is a native Spanish-speaker from Peru, currently employed at Berlitz. I think he mainly teaches English, but maybe also a little Spanish. You might be able to get some freelance Spanish teaching/translation work in addition to your main English teaching job. All the best with your studies and your future job-searching, and if you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Thanks again!

  8. Pang says:

    Hello Paul. I am currently in my first year of college and I am thinking of doing an Elementary Education major. On the other hand I would really like to teach English in Japan. So I am stuck. What I would like to know is (or clarify) if I were to just get a BA degree in any field of study then will I still be able to teach English in Japan? Do I need a TEFL degree? Would knowing the language be required? Would I need to go through training in order to know what I should have teach if English was not my major? I am sorry ahead of time if these questions had been answered already. Also, if possible, do you know any good websites or anything where I can get more information about teaching English in Japan? Thank you.

    • Paul Raine says:

      Dear Pang,

      Many thanks for your message. There are two sets of requirements you need to think about satisfying in order to teach English in Japan. The first are the requirements for obtaining a Specialist in Humanities / International Studies visa, which is the standard visa issued to most English teachers by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To obtain this visa, an undergraduate degree in any subject is required. (Check here for more information). The second are the requirements of the company you hope to be employed by, which can vary considerably, but usually include an undergraduate degree in any subject, and some kind of post-graduate TEFL qualification (most commonly the CELTA or CERT Tesol)

      Most of the larger English schools (Gaba, Aeon, Shane, etc) will help you obtain a visa once you have been accepted, and you will not need to directly apply for this yourself.

      So, to answer your questions more clearly:

      If I were to just get a BA degree in any field of study then will I still be able to teach English in Japan?

      A degree in any subject is sufficient for fulfilling the requirements of obtaining a visa, and satisfying most employers. However, a degree specifically in Education would probably put you in an even more advantageous position regarding employers.

      Do I need a TEFL degree?

      No, but as I said, it certainly won’t harm your career prospects, and could help distinguish you from other candidates.

      Would knowing the language be required?

      Surprisingly, knowing Japanese is not a requirement for obtaining a visa to teach English in Japan, neither is it required by most employers (teaching positions in junior/senior high schools tend to request this ability more often). However, in terms of daily life, you will certainly find Japanese language ability useful, if not essential. But it’s something you can start to learn once you arrive in Japan.

      For more information check out the following links:

      Post-graduate TEFL qualifications:

      CELTA
      Cert TESOL

      English teaching jobs in Japan

      Dave’s ESL Cafe
      Ohayo Sensei
      Gaijin Pot
      TEFL.com
      JET Programme

      Hope this helps!

      All the best with your future career

      Paul

  9. Hayley says:

    Hi there,
    My partner and I applied to JET this year and we have just found out that he has a place and I am on the reserve list.
    We’ve been told that it would be fine for me to join him after he has settled in and that it would also be fairly doable for me to apply to English teaching based job NOT with JET once I am in Japan.
    I was hoping if you have known anyone in a similar situation? I’ve bookmarked a lot of the job web sites for Japan to look back on once he finds out where he is based and also there is still a chance I could still be going with JET. I’m just trying to grasp what I would be facing once I am out there. I have a Photography degree with a TEFL certificate and also teaching experience within high schools in Scotland.
    Thank you for your help and advice

    All the Best

    Hayley

    • Paul Raine says:

      Hi Hayley,

      Thanks very much for your message, and apologies for my late reply. I hope you were successful with your JET application. If this turns out unfortunately to not be the case, then, as you say, there are numerous other English teaching opportunities that you may be able to apply for once you arrive in Japan, although I’ve never personally known anyone who has found themselves in this situation, so I’m not sure of the exact process you would have to go through (regarding visas, etc) or how likely it would be that you could find a job quickly.

      I wish you the best of luck with whichever course you decide to pursue.

      Kind regards

      Paul

  10. Mr Coco says:

    Sift through the wheat to get rid of the chaff when doing your research about where to apply for a job. Ultimately the place where you accept a job will determine how your experience in Japan will go. http://questions12.wordpress.com/

  11. Jennifer says:

    Hello there
    I am a 19 and from the UK I’m thinking of taking a TEFL course to teach in Japan would I still need a Bachelor’s degree? I really love Japan and would really love to teach there!

    Kind regards
    Jenii

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