I lived in Japan for seven years until November 2019 where I started off working in a fishing village as an assistant language teacher (ALT) at four junior high schools. I was not at all prepared for some things which lay in store.
Many large English teaching companies in Japan, like JET and Interac, primarily send native English teachers to rural areas where most of their board of education (BOE) contracts are held. Working as an ALT in or even near a big city such as Tokyo or Osaka is usually reserved for experienced teachers who have been in Japan for years.
Here are five things that caught me off guard while teaching in rural Japan:
1. The technology is far from up to date
After your weekly timesheet gets approved by the head teacher, be prepared to use a fax machine to fax it to your company on Fridays. Japan loves fax machines like it’s still the 1980s. Blackboards are also common, so learn to teach without modern technology like an interactive whiteboard or even a simple PowerPoint. Also, print pictures at your local Lawson or 7-11 convenience store before you need them for your lessons. You will more than likely do a self-introduction lesson several times to several classes, so have lots of pictures ready and don’t expect to show any videos. DVDs are still massively used in Japan, so if you are showing a film, have it in DVD form rather than streaming it on Netflix or using a downloaded version.
2. Not everyone will be happy that an outsider is working in the school
While most staff will be welcoming and the students will generally be delighted to see you, some staff members in the English department will hate that you are there, see you as a complete nuisance, and will make your working life difficult. But don’t get disheartened, and don’t take it personally. That’s on them rather than you. To counter this negativity, always be early for school and go to your classroom early to prepare. Make a list of five-minute, 10-minute, and 20-minute activities for students to do, as these time slots will be thrown your way at a moment’s notice while team teaching. If they only want to use you instead of playing a CD and ask you to read from the textbook, do it with a smile. If they cancel your classes at a moment’s notice or give you additional classes, smile and take it in stride. The ALT turnover is high, so be the exception and prove them wrong.
3. Air conditioners are rare
The summers are boiling hot in Japan, and air conditioners are non-existent in the classrooms in rural schools. There might be one in the teacher’s room, but it generally won’t be switched on until after the pupils have left for the day. The windows will be open to let in more hot and humid air. So, get used to being drenched in sweat and bring a change of clothing. Invest in a cool mist spray for your face, and a good fan is a must. Freeze a bottle of water at night and bring it to class. Cool-biz season (when people can dress more casually and you don’t have to wear a suit jacket) starts when the weather is already hot, so be prepared.
4. Squat toilets are common
A Western-style toilet is a rarity in a rural school. I visited over 20 schools in Japan’s Shizuoka and Chiba rural regions and came across fewer than five Western-style toilets. So, practise squatting and try not to fall in. Most schools won’t have hot water either, so bring your own hand sanitiser for use after the toilet. Toilet slippers are also the norm. These are communal plastic slippers that have been in the school since the 1970s, and you will be expected to change into them even if they are half your shoe size. You will need an extra pair of indoor-only shoes to change into as well as you enter a school building. Don’t break their social norms. It might seem strange to you, but rules are rules in rural Japan and not to be broken.
5. The English speaking level is low
When learning English in Japan, the focus is primarily on reading and writing and passing exams in these disciplines like Eiken. However, the students are generally hard-working, and once they are comfortable with you, they will be more open to speaking in English and making mistakes. Make simple question sheets for them to practise speaking to each other in pairs or small groups and interact with them in English as much as possible.
It is worth it to persevere
Overall, teaching in rural Japan is well worth it. You just have to embrace the new way of life. Try the school lunch, interact with students and other staff members as much as possible, and don’t complain when things seem strange. Yes, you will feel isolated at times, but experiencing another culture at the deep end is a rewarding experience.
If you keep these five things in mind that caught me off guard, you will be well on your way to making the experience a success. I have written about living in Japan in my memoir Fish Town, which will give you further insights into living and working in the country as an English teacher. If you are interested, here is a short film that takes you into that world.