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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Foreign Teachers Still Needed In Japan?

There's a debate raging in the Japanese-English media about the value of the foreigner teaching English in Japan.

Here's a thread: SENSEI.

I would like to chime in on that.

I do not want to take away the contributions of any foreigner teaching English in Japan. You care, you cared, and will care.

As an assistant English teacher (AET) on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme (1990-1993) I sure as heck wasn't a qualified teacher. I was chosen because of my communication skills (most excellent) and because I genuinely seemed like a nice person (debatable, but I can fake it)(No... I am nice).

The key note on JET... is not teaching. I've been saying it in this blog for years now. It's "exchange". It's an exchange of values - which are the same, but the Japanese needed to see that we weren't that much different from them.

It's an exchange of us going to schools so the kids can see that foreigners aren't all the bad type that you read about in the papers or see on TV.

It's an exchange of us going about the cities and towns where we live so others can see that we are just normal people.

It's an exchange that the Ministry of Education called 'internationalization'.

How are we supposed to teach Japanese kids English? We can - sort of, but really it's up to the Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs), who despite possibly having superior teaching skills and superior English grammatical knowledge (in my case), simply lack the skills to speak English as well as a native English teacher.

Perhaps it should be mandatory for every JTE to have to spend a year abroad living and learning what it is that they will be teaching.

I spent hours talking English and Japanese with my students every week - outside of classes... it wasn't to teach English but almost like it was to get them to LIKE English.

I'm an odd duck. But I was a fun odd duck. The kids wanted to communicate better with me and pushed themselves to do better in English so they could. That's how I know that my time in Japan wasn't wasted.

It wasn't wasted for myself - hence this blog 20 years later because I care for Japan. And, it certainly wasn't wasted for the Education Ministry who I think got their money's worth with kids who actually took an interest in learning English thanks to people like myself, Matthew, Jeff, Ashley and so many others!

Sure there were a few kids who hated English and had no interest in speaking to me... but by and far 95% of the kids did want to speak English - and at least with me around, I know they tried.

I had kids come up to me on the street and say hello and start up a conversation - IN ENGLISH! Adults, too. Everyone wanted to learn. Everyone wanted to speak. Everyone wanted to try.

I could sit alone in a bar for three minutes and then have a person come up and start talking to me in English. Where else would they get that chance? Where else would I get a chance to talk with firemen, farmers, housewives, bank executives, a Yakuza boss, etc? Hell - that was internationalization. That was a great experience for me - and for them (at that time) I bet it was a great experience too. 

Was the JET Programme a waste for me? Hell no! It made me grow up and realize - just like the Japanese - that the world is a bigger place than I had ever known. 

Was it a waste for my friend Matthew? He married a local woman. Spent a couple of years there after the JET Programme. Had a child. Moved back to the USA. That daughter JUST graduated high school. They also have a son - a beautiful kid! Wasted? No! That family is a great example of internationalization... of exchange!

Was it a waste for my friend Jeff?  He too married a local woman. Kids. Family. Still teaching there long after his JET contract was over! He HATED Japanese food when he arrived - but I bet you with his gorgeous Japanese wife that he had to learn to eat Japanese food. He also stepped in a Japanese toilet his first night out with Matthew and myself in Tokyo on our second say there! That's internationalization.

No... teaching English in Japan is a privilege. We foreigners have a lot to offer the kids and adults who want to learn to become global citizens.

My bosses at the Ohtawara Board of Education in Tochigi-ken would always correct other Japanese people who called my a gaijin... saying I was An-do-ryu sensei. That's respect! They didn't have to? I didn't that offense... but THEY did. That's internationalization!

Someone asked why a Chinese language or Korean wasn't taught in Japan? That's rich! The Japanese are still hated by all of Asia for atrocities committed by them during and before WWII. The Japanese in their turn have ZERO interest in anything to do with the rest of Asia... they still have work to do... and perhaps a JET-like program would be a way to start... French or German? Sure... why not? Perhaps they do exist as teaching programs or classes in Japan... but right now, the Japanese are very keen on Western/English culture. They are inundated by it from TV and Movies... so English is still the ruling factor.

Anyhow... as for going to Japan and not getting the same amount of money as JET participants - boo-freaking-hoo. We were selected to participate on a program. We did not go willy-nilly and get hired on. Teaching at a cram school, however... that's a bitch. You do need to teach the kids and adults. It's not all fun and games like it is for the JET Programme... but then... we're not there as teachers only. We were there as JETs as part of an exchange programme. We were paid well. We had some of our accomodations paid for. We were looked after like we were royalty.

We did NOT need to work extra hours to make ends meet. I am sorry that some non-JET teachers do. But we knew what we were signing on for when we went to Japan on the JET Programme. Sorry if you didn't.

I had seven years of post secondary education behind me before going to Japan. I had coached women's soccer for 5+ years - even at the College level. I had taught piano and clarinet for a couple of years. I had been hired on by the prestigious Toronto Star newspaper as a reporter - and quit to go to Japan on the JET Programme. Do I deserve more money? No. Am I glad it was offered to me in recognition of my abilities? Yes.    

Complain all you want about not being fairly compensated... us JETs made more money than some JTEs who had been working for 20 years! How is that fair? But one of those teachers said to me: "It's okay. You have left your home, your family and friends and way of life to come here. Why shouldn't you be compensated for it?"

So JETs get more money than non-JETs... it's tougher to get into the JET Programme. And... if the money isn't good enough... find another job teaching somewhere else. The Aussies and New Zealand guys and gals  who came to Japan to work as bartenders... they made money. They went home with money.

Me? I didn't travel to Thailand every weekend. I traveled around Japan when I could. But really... I spent my money on things that would enable me to live. I enjoyed my time in Ohtawara. I went out with friends. I drank my self stupid. I went out on dates. I bought meals, drinks, souvenirs, pets, food that was elegant and thus not cheap - I lived. I bought a stereo, a Korg keyboards, samurai swords, books, spent a ton on photography, and even more on movie rentals. I ate at restaurants, fast-food joints, shopped locally and elsewhere. I had people over for dinner. I cooked for girlfriends and friends and co-workers - both foreign and Japanese. I took kyudo (Japanese archery) lessons. I participated in festivals, did radio interviews, newspaper interviews, gave advice on living in Japan, taught a cooking class with Matthew, did a weekly English teaching class (as did Matthew), which paid a stipend, but really, I think we did it for fun. I felt as though I was a part of the community in Ohtawara.


I taught under the table for three months and cleared $10,000. Now add my JET salary to that. I made that type of money because by the time my third year rolled around, I was not only a better communicator in both English and Japanese, but I had earned the respect of my community.

Even now in the blogosphere... some of my best friends are people I have never met (yet): Mike Rogers, Jimbo, Peter to name a few... all because I went to Japan.

It's why I do this blog. It's not to poke fun at Japanese culture... it's to share it. Twenty bloody years later. I still speak of Japan like I just left it to come back to Toronto on a vacation. Probably because I know I will go back one day... but with my son... and probably with Matthew, if he wants to. Just not now, buddy... I'm broke, but I'm not complaining too much about it.  

The JET Programme and non-JET Programme teachers DO have a lot to offer the people of Japan and foreigners wanting to experience a different culture. But, as with everything in life... you have to put in the effort and not whine about it. 

Andrew Joseph


  1. Can not say "AGREE!" any louder or stronger. What is going on in Japan now with eikaiwa is what I consider to be a natural evolution of the market and $/Yen available. I don't consider my time there (90-96) a waste at all - it was the best thing I did for my life! And...I got to meet Andrew Joseph, too! Tho' there are probably some people that would question if that is a good thing or not! :-) Ha!Ha!

    1. I also question whether me meeting me was a good thing...

    2. Y'know... I was just going to put a link to this story and send it off as a blog... but it really did hit me that you and Takako - there is no way anyone can tell me having foreigners teaching English is a waste! No way in hell!

  2. Let me know if you get tired of my dumb suggestions:

    Authors are having some success selling directly to the reader using Why not help authors translate their books into Japanese for a small percentage of the profits. You can also help in marketing and PR. Target trashy romance novels.

    Or maybe come out with a book of your own: "Dating a Gaijin". "First rule: Gaijin don't like to be called gaijin. Call them cowboy, soldier, or stud."

    This way, you can combine all your loves: making enough money to live in Japan, the Japanese language, and satisfying the whims and desires of women.

    1. Your suggestions aren't dumb - and I appreciate you writing in!
      I would have to divorce my wife in order to go back to Japan to live, which while interesting, I'm not at that point yet.
      Perhaps a book is a good idea. I certainly lack the language skills to translate anything into Japanese... but I like the Dating A Gaijin book.
      I'm doing How To Survive Women as a blog, and I've had an article picked up by a UK comic book company... so maybe the dating thing has merit. If there's one thing I know all about, it's FIRST dates. Keep writing in and keep making your great suggestions!

    2. Thank you for your kind words. Congratulations on getting picked up. Best of luck w/ the Mrs. It's romantic how you are willing to stay in Canada for her and your son.

    3. hey Diego.a.... no... I'm not romantic about that at all... While I'M the one who went to Japan and had a great time, my wife and son would be lost. While both love Japanese food (he's 6!), my wife has no interest in going to Japan! She refuses to read these blogs because she (wrongly) believes I love the past in Japan more than my present in Canada (with her). She is also jealous of the gorgeous women I easily met in Japan and wouldn't trust me there for an instant! I don't even trust myself! I will go back to Japan with my son - for a vacation... when he's 10, perhaps...

  3. Replies
    1. You... you are brilliant! I love the attachment. Click on "What Teachers Make" in the comment above. It will take you to a blog - a short one which tells you what teachers make. Cheers!

  4. Amusing anecdote from a 2012 documentary:

    "One of the stupidest things I've ever heard is: 'Foreigners come here, work as teachers, make millions of dollars and take it back home with them.' Well, the foreigners I know make $2,500 a month, can barely scrape through the rent, and spend most of it at the pub."

    There is other fun stuff in that film like: "Abunai! Gaijin!" and "Yappari".