For people who have an interest in Japan, learning Japanese is a dream. But learning Japanese is hard. Truthfully, textbooks and typical courses don’t prepare you for learning to communicate in Japanese. One of the biggest points is that they push the “proper” or polite Japanese onto students. Not that that is too hard. You can do it, but it’ll take a lot of time! On top of that, it’s not necessary and not very natural. That’s why there is a slight mixture of polite and casual language in the Japanese lessons at language101.com.
Returning to the motherland
Anytime you talk to someone who speaks a second (or more) language fluently, they inevitably say, “You have to live there.” While that isn’t easy or even possible in many countries, it is very possible and downright easy in Japan. But, not all is a walk in a rose garden. So I’ll break down the three main options, giving the good and the bad points of each. I briefly introduced them in my last post, so if you haven’t read that yet, please take a look before you continue here. I don’t want to make this too long.
the JET program
This is the government program and perhaps the easiest to get into. It was once the only way to actually get into teaching in the public school system. In the past few years, the number of JET teachers has dropped though.
A JET teacher usually gets sent to elementary schools, so if that’s your thing, it might be a good choice.
The program also supplies you with an apartment (furnished) and a rather kind salary. The contracts are for one year and usually people can renew for up to 6 years.
The jets that I have known work in a large number of schools. The bad side is that you’re never there enough to get to know the kids or make a difference. You’re kind of like a guest or special speaker.
Another thing is that because the program has fallen out of favor with local boards of education, jets are mostly put out into the countryside. But appointments are up to individual boards of education. So there is a chance to be somewhere a little closer to a big city.
Probably in the 80’s or 90’s when Japan’s economy was skyrocketing, an industry popped up. Japanese people have been studying English in school for decades, but to no avail. (I’ll write about that in another blog.) So, people began to study privately. And they paid big bucks to do it too!
Basically, there are advertised as a foreign experience. Ryu gaku, which means to study abroad, is how these are billed. These private schools bring young English speakers over and teach conversational English to people willing to spend a lot of money.
If you want to stay only for a year or two, these schools are a good way to start out. The pay is the minimum allowed in order to qualify for a visa.
The work is easy (sometimes long though). No study or certification is necessary. In fact, I started teaching on my first day of training! There is paid vacation and paid sick days (not all that common in Japan). People who want to travel around Japan and hop over to other Asian countries find this type of job to be convenient.
These companies, big or small, are private businesses and many of them started out because it was easy to make a lot of money without putting in any effort. If you are serious about teaching, this probably isn’t for you. It’s like a dietician working at a fast food restaurant. And the lessons are monotonous!
While pay is ok, keep in mind, you’ll never be treated that well or even as a professional. Basically, you’re there to entertain people who have money to burn. Some students are more serious, others just do it for something interesting to do.
Health insurance is not given. Some places offer a sort of accident insurance that pays if you get sick or have an accident. Actually, they are not legal, but they are still used.
ALT stands for assistant language teacher. This is the job that I currently do. It’s an opportunity for native English speakers to teach in the Japanese public school system, usually in junior high.
It’s the chance to see the real Japan. You meet a lot of people who have nothing to do with the ESL interest group. You meet a lot of children and see the basis for a lot of the culture. You get public holidays off and a long summer and winter vacation.
The pay isn’t bad, but it’s the lowest of all the available jobs. You are offered cheap insurance (which isn’t actually legal in Japan, but it works). The hours are probably the shortest out of all the jobs.
With an ALT job, you have a lot of time to travel and opportunity to get to know about real Japanese culture.
The downsides of this job depends on your feelings about things. Despite Japan’s spending huge amounts of money on English education, they’re not very serious about getting students to the point where they can actually speak!
Working with kids isn’t for the feint of heart, or at least those who don’t like kids. Especially if you teach junior high. There are more discipline problems than the Japanese stereotype would lead you to believe.
Many schools in Japan don’t have heating or air conditioning (depending where in the country it is.) so if you’re succeptible to humid weather or freezing temperature, it might not be a fun experience.
To be honest, all jobs are good for getting you here. That being said, none of them are fulfilling. There are other jobs here, but the ones that I outlined are the ones for people coming for the first time. The others require more experience.
its important to know that in any of these jobs, you will not be treated fairly by the company that you work for. The owners and managers are often unethical and or incompetent. Yes, harsh, but I wish I had known that before I had come.
But, once you are here and get to know your way around, you can make choices that are best for you. Many people put up with it and just use it to earn money so they can easily and cheaply travel to mainland Asia and around Japan.
so, if you are interested in living in Japan or Asia in general, you can find a job pretty easily.
When I was first studying Japanese in college, my professor told us about the JET program. It was a way for people to go to Japan to live and teach English. I thought, “No way!” I’d never live in a foreign country! (I’ve been here for almost 13 years now)
The Jet program is one set up by the national government to bring native English speakers to Japan to teach English to school children. I’m not exactly sure how long it’s been around, but it was pretty big until recent years. At first native speakers could only stay in Japan for a period up to 3 years (because of Japanese labor laws), but it recently changed to 6. JET teachers, as they are known, often visit many schools and take part in many school activities and lessons.
Eikaiwa (ā kye wah)
Learning to speak English has been a national obsession in Japan for quite awhile. Somewhere in the 90’s, I believe, the concept of an English conversation school came up. They were a hit and it was a big money maker for a couple of decades. Students would be able to participate in a small class and be able to chat with a native English speaker.
ALT (assistant language teacher) companies
The JET program is one that has been kind of expensive for the government. Also, because of the limit on years that someone can participate, it has been difficult for the government to find people to teach English in schools.
Currently, ALT’s work primarily in junior high schools. However, there ae ALT’s that work in elementary and high schools. The primary jobs for people who want to be an ALT is with dispatch companies. Basically, you’re a subcontractor, although it’s much more complicated than that. Typically the job is about 30 hours per week.
Wich is best?
Most people I have met don’t plan on staying that long in Japan. They have plans for when they get back home, so they don’t make any roots here. Their friends are primarily other expats but perhaps they date Japanese people.
For those that want to stay longer or have met that special someone, they tend to gravitate toward the ALT jobs. Not all are with the dispatch companies. Some are directly with the schools, but those are temporary too. Basically you get a one year contract and the job is up for grabs each year. None of these positions are meant to be permanent, so it’s difficult to truly make a living doing them.
The good the bad and the ugly
in my next post(s) I will go over the good points and bad points of each. It might take a couple of posts.
One of the many things that surprised me after coming to Japan was the large number of national holidays. Like most Americans, I had a very strong stereotypical image of Japanese people. Work was everything and your own pursuits don’t matter. To be honest, that is true to a certain extent.
The good ole days
When I was a student, I eagerly waited for holidays. I didn’t care about the celebrations, I just didn’t want to go to school. I wanted to play! But, holidays were a rare thing, kind of like Bigfoot sightings. But here in Japan it’s a different story.
What holiday is it?
almost every month there is a national holiday. (I know, right?) From what I understand, they are the birthdays of former emperors. (The current emperor’s birthday is a national holiday.) When the emperor dies, of course the new emperoror’s birthday is celebrated. However, the previous emperor’s birthday is changed to a national holiday of another name. Because of Japan’s long history, that’s a lot of Emperors’ birthdays!
In fact, there are so many holidays that many people can’t remember what they are. I only remember a few like, Sea day, Respect for the Aged day, Green Day, Children’s day, etc. I must admit, though that I don’t know if all of them were actually an emperor’s birthday or not. I know that Constitution day wasn’t.
The perfect storm
There is one week in May where 3 or more holidays line up. Japanese people have named this Golden Week. I guess having that many days off is golden. I agree! In fact, this post was finished after the fact. Many Japanese people travel during this time. In fact it’s the third most expensive time to travel in Japan. I enjoyed my Golden week with shopping and yard work. Oh yeah, and that day that I did nothing.
In earlier posts, I mentioned that the new year (fiscal, school, etc.) begins in April. I guess it’s a habit from the Lunar calendar. April is also the time for one of the most exciting (to Japanese people) events of the year.
Ummm, they’re just flowers
When I say exciting, I probably should say popular or anticipated, but it never ceases to amaze me how much of a big event the blossoming of the cherry blossoms is. It’s on the news and it’s even part of the weather report. People even travel around Japan to go to their favorite cherry blossom place. Even minute difference in varieties of cherry blossoms spark interest.
“Have you ever seen the mountain cherry blossoms?”
“Ummm, no… Are they different?”
“Yes, they grow in the mountains.”
I seriously didn’t know how to respond to that. I suppose though, that it’s a good thing that people have such an appreciation for nature.
It’s beginning to look a lot like graduation?
As you may have guessed, the coming of the cherry blossoms signals the advent of change. Kind of like the first snowfall back home. (Of course where I’m from, when it snows,we all freak out.) The cherry blossoms signal graduation and moving on to a new school. Many companies transfer their employees, sometimes very far. The best and worst time to look for an apartment in Japan is in March. Everyone is moving!
One giant step for man, one giant step for Japanese kind
Back home,I would have never really paid much attention to the small changes. Sure, I would wait for the weather to finally warm up, but other than that, only Christmas and the last day of school meant anything.
In Japan, every minute point is marked and often talked about. There are even dates that have an alternate pronunciation and can be made to have a different meaning, like cat day! Yeah, I’ll have to explain that in a later post. There are ceremonies and meetings for every little thing!
To me, one of the most surprising things is that nobody is prepared for these changes. Every year seems like utter chaos. Perhaps it is because they are trying to make two systems work together, the old and new calendars. I work in public schools, so it’s more evident to me. There is basically a 2 week period between the end of the old and new school years. Back home, we have 3 months! Basically, they use spring vacation to try to get everything done. And theyre never prepared. The first month of my job in the new school year is mostly pointless. There’s no schedule!
Here we go again
So a new year has begun. Here I am again, but at a new school. It’s like doing everything for the first time again. But, at least there’s lots of ceremonies and events to go along with it.
Back home, that’d sound like a good thing, but not in Japan. Japan has very distinct “events” through the year, and allergy season is one of them. Even though I grew up in an agricultural valley (a big one) I never had allergy problems. In Japan I do.
It seemed like a good idea at the time…
After WWII, Japan had to work hard to improve its economy. One thing was the production of paper. Someone in the government had the good idea to plant cedar trees because they apparently grow quickly. This would help Japan to have a supply of paper.
Nowadays, everyone in richer countries outsource things. Paper is one of those things. Because Japan is now an economic powerhouse in the world, things like paper are just too expensive to produce at home. I assume that the majority of the paper now comes from China.
So what does this mean for the cedar trees? Seems like a nice thing to let them grow old gracefully. The thing about cedar trees is that they produce a lot of pollen. And many people are allergic to that pollen. To make matters worse, cedar trees make more pollen the Oder they get. At least , that’s what I’ve read. So now well over 30 years old, these freeze produce so much pollen that you can see it! The mountains hide in a faint yellow haze.
But wait! That’s not all!
As China grows, its appetite for oil does too. Apparently a large part of their oil is refined at small, not very well regulated oil refineries. The bottom line: lots of pollution. And it blows to Japan. That along with pollution from many factories.
On top of that, there is the constant migration of yellow sand from the Gobi desert. Yep, it all blows over here. Actually, South Korea gets the worst of it. Just a few weeks ago, the air quality in South Korea was so bad, that the computer models couldn’t give accurate readings because the numbers went above the limits! It wasn’t pretty.
Invest in masks. It’s a growing industry!
When I came here, one of the things that creeped me out was all of the people wearing those ubiquitous, white masks. Mostly people wore them to protect against colds or from making other people sick. (Most of the time they are not very effective.) But now, you see the masks at times other than cold and flu season. The masks have grown finer and able to filter out molecules as small as PM 2.5. Wow! But it works as long as it fits well and you keep it on!
Hacking and sneezing
This has to be my least favorite season. Every year I have manages to get a sinus infection. This year, I’m hoping that I can avoid it. I have tried masks, medicine, air filter and a host of other things. Last year, I went and got my sinuses washed out on a weekly basis for about 2 1/2 months! So far so good.
Yep, that’s what I said, spring. In Asia, people traditionally followed the lunar calendar. The new year starts in February and this is also considered the beginning of spring. In all fairness, there are some trees that blossom in February. Where I live, the plum blossoms are very popular to go see. (Japanese plums are not actually plums at all, but are related to apricots. They cannot be eaten unless pickled.) Also, what we call Chinese New Year in English is also the Chinese Spring Festival.
I was quite surprised when doing a quiz game with my students one year. I asked them, “What season is it now?” Being February, I of course knew that it was winter. But, the students answered that it was spring. What?! I couldn’t believe that they didn’t even know such a basic thing! They were 15 years old! The teacher (who spoke English well enough but not quite well enough to explain their answer to me) said that foreign countries have a different way of thinking. Um, okaaaaaaay. I was also further surprised to discover that all of my students believed that February was the beginning of spring. I was highly irritated. I have since then calmed down.
Since I have been over here in Japan, I have come across many differences. Unfortunately, I haven’t always met those differences with a mature attitude. “How dumb!” is something I have frequently thought. People often say that they are interested in other cultures, but I think that only extends to vacation time activities. When you have to live with it, rarely are such differences tolerated or met with understanding. I have gotten used to a lot of things, but I still run into things that I just can’t let slide. (Like the time the local government office tried to give me “back” ¥50,000 [$500] that wasn’t mine. I spent at least 20 minutes trying to explain to this lady that it wasn’t mine. She agreed with me and promptly gave me the money!)
February snow showers bring March…?
The interesting thing is that with the advent of the spring in February, there are no changes, except for the few trees that blossom. China has its biggest festival of the year but in the west, we all call it Chinese New Year. I guess calling it the spring festival would be too unnerving for many people. There is a festival here in Japan, but it’s not a big to do at all. It’s just something people do at their homes. I’ll write about that next time.
Just a little more
So, even though spring is almost here, I will simply go about my daily activities and continue to freeze my tail off. That is, until the solar calendar spring comes.
Christmas is over and Japan’s biggest holiday is here. Everyone is busy running around trying to prepare. Food prices are going up and students are enjoying their holidays. Not much for a foreign guy to do except stay home and hide from the crowds.
Japan isn’t a religious country. There are very old practices stemming from Shinto and Buddhist beliefs, but they’re pretty much just habits now. And the grandest occasions for some of these practices is New Year’s. If you were to compare holidays, the Japanese New Year’s holiday is like Christmas.
Japanese New Year (Shogatsu) begins well before the first of January. The biggest thing for most people is the New Year’s post cards. The number of cards depends on the family, but I know some people who have to send somewhere around 300. Yeah, it pretty much brings the postal service here to a grinding halt!
A great migration
The next thing is coming home. Many people return to their home towns and spend the 3 day holiday together. It’s a chance for people who have been away to meet their childhood friends as well. It always amazes me that people here keep in touch even with people they know only in elementary school.
The next thing is the traditional food,osechi. Before there was refrigeration, food couldn’t be kept without means of preservation. For the 3 day holiday, traditionally there is no cooking. So food is cooked with high amounts of salt and or sugar. Needless to say, it isn’t necessarily the best. Traditional food takes a long time to cook too. So nowadays, most people buy osechi or just eat regular food and go out to eat.
Not in Kansas anymore
Then there is New Year’s day. Back home, things are noisy when midnight comes. Sadly, guns have in some part replaced fireworks. But in Japan, it’s quiet, very quiet! If you live near a shrine that has a bell, you can hear the bell ring and that’s it. The interesting thing is that people are out and about. There is a tradition of visiting 3 shrines after the midnight hour.
So this year, I’ll be in Japan for New Year’s. A perfect time for me to stay home and hide from the crowds.