A Teaching Career in Japan: Work at Colleges and Universities
How does 5,000,000 yen ($42,600) sound for teaching 10 to 15 hours a week for seven months, relocation costs covered, housing subsidized, health coverage, annual bonuses, and a research allowance? For many EFL professionals, a permanent full-time position at a Japanese university is the dare-to-dream job; the set-up for the rest of one’s working life.
The good news is, a few such jobs have actually survived the bursting of the “bubble economy” in the early 1990s. The bad news is, unless you have a Ph.D. and multiple publications in academic journals, several years of teaching experience at a Japanese university, some command of the Japanese language, and—preferably—a personal introduction to the head of a department, there’s not much chance of you hearing about such positions, let alone landing one. The truth is, the market for serious EFL instructors—unlike the seemingly insatiable demand for “native-English teachers” at private language schools—is saturated, and for good reason: Japan offers first-world salaries and working conditions to professional academics with a taste for cultural immersion.
Where does this leave the aspiring EFL instructor, the newly-minted master’s degree holder, the new arrival hoping to get a foot in the door? A scroll through recent postings at The Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) job site and the biweekly job newsletter called ohayosensei indicate that the situation is not completely hopeless. Turnover among lecturers is high enough to justify publicly advertising positions. In fact, many university instructors make a good living by working part-time at several different universities until a full-time position comes open.
So how do you get that first teaching experience that will open up all the other doors for you? One route is through agencies such as Westgate that, increasingly it seems, are taking active roles in the job marketplace in Japan. This is, in fact, how I gained experience working at two universities in the Tokyo area. I can recommend this route, but with some reservations.
Here’s a brief rundown of what Westgate offers…and takes in return.
Advantages: usually has full-time teaching positions at one university campus, supplies furnished accommodation and airfare, offers a developed curriculum (a big advantage for someone without much teaching experience, accepts teachers over the age of 35—a common cut-off age in image-conscious, youth-oriented Japan), 3-month contracts are available (allows for a taste of Japan and teaching overseas without a big initial commitment, and provides work visa sponsorship, which allows you to stay in-country to search for a job after your Westgate contract expires), no master’s degree required (although some formal teacher training is necessary).
Disadvantages: Westgate is a company, which means it takes a percentage of your salary as profit. Salaries for 2006 ranged from 250,000 to 275,000 yen ($2,150 to $2,360) a month—the same as entry-level positions at private language institutes. The agency adds a layer of administration between you and the university; you have to work with university officials as well as handlers assigned by Westgate. The hours can be very long: nine hours a day on campus, according to Westgate’s website; a maximum of seven classes a day plus “conversation lounge” type teaching times. It is doubtful that you will have the time or opportunity to pursue any research for the academic publications most universities expect from applicants while teaching.
The application process: A stint with an agency such as Westgate may or may not lead to better, more permanent teaching positions in Japan. What it does offer, however, is a chance to try it on without a yearlong commitment, plus a coveted work visa good for at least a year.
Highlights of Teaching at Colleges and Universities
- Universities offer arguably the best combination of benefits and teaching conditions in Japan, quite possibly in the EFL world.
- They are, however, a tough market to crack: advanced degrees, relevant publications, prior experience, and some Japanese language ability are highly prized, if not absolute requirements; age under 35 is a definite advantage.
- Despite the emphasis on professional credentialing, most university teaching is really “edutainment”: extracurricular classes offered to students who want to brush up their conversational English. Associations such as JALT provide chances to network with other, more established lecturers and tap into the local job market.
One final piece of advice: be wary of letting individual opinions sway you too much one way or the other. Every situation is different for the full spectrum of living and working overseas opportunities, not just teaching university or college in Japan but at any institution in any country. Personally, I survived and even flourished teaching at a hogwan in Korea that drove others to break contracts and make midnight dashes for the next plane out of town. It’s a question of being in the right place at the right time in your life. So, do your homework. Try to have some sense of what you’re getting yourself into. Then, if you decide to go for it, stay open to the new and the unexpected. That is why you want to teach overseas, isn’t it?