Teaching English in Japan

Inuyama Castle

Turning Japanese

Scottish writer Iain Maloney spent two years teaching English in Inuyama, a small town in Japan. Here, he writes about his experiences

The door slid shut with a bang and all four customers turned and stared. I squeezed my way along the narrow space between walls and stools, perched myself on an empty one and opened my phrase book.

‘Biru . . .’ Pause to look at book.

‘. . . Kudasai.’

My beer arrived and with it the questions. By 10pm my new friends were leading me to a pub-cum-tattoo shop so I could be introduced to the English-speaking Bosnian owner. We played darts, ate tacos and drank sake infused with ginseng and snake venom.

‘I’m a bit tired,’ I emailed my mother, ‘but Japan seems very nice.’

I spent my first evening sitting on the balcony of my new flat with a can of Asahi beer and a cigarette. It had been one hell of a day. I’d been told that I would be arriving in the middle of the rainy season. ‘Fair enough,’ I thought, ‘I’m from Scotland; I can cope with rain.’ But after being in the country for three minutes I was soaked through, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Humidity is something the Scottish weather just doesn’t do, and I don’t like it: leaving the airport was like walking into a hangover. I felt physically deflated, every ounce of energy I’d held in reserve sapped by the simple act of walking.

On the train I was squashed against strangers, face against glass, struggling to breathe. Between stations and stolen gasps I caught glimpses of my new home. The architecture was Soviet-style, functional and featureless rather than the futuristic Blade Runner look promised by the guidebooks.

I was met at the airport by my new boss. We reached Inuyama and confidently followed the map to my flat. I stopped and bought some noodles from a convenience store and stood eating them as my boss looked from the cross on the map to the multi-storey car park we were standing in.

‘I don’t think this is it,’ he said.



On one side of the car park was a temple. On the other a corrugated structure reminiscent of a crack house. I was too jet-lagged to care. An old woman looked at the map, and confirmed that we were indeed in a car park.

The view from my balcony: to the north the Japanese signs blinked invitingly and traditional roofs curved over Zen gardens. The south was reminiscent of small-town America: a long straight Main Street lined with neon burger and bar signs. Karaoke bars and sushi shops on one side, Denny’s and McDonald’s on the other. East meeting West with my flat at the epicentre.

I worked for Nova, the biggest private language school in Japan. Unlike JET, which places teachers in state schools, Nova is for fee-paying students of all ages. It is ideal for the first-timer to Japan: the company organises all the paperwork and accommodation and arranges for you to be met at the airport.

I had pictured teaching as a distraction from the important business of travelling, drinking heavily and belting out Green Day tracks in karaoke bars. It wasn’t. My pupils were aged between two and 78, and as Nova is a conversation school they practice chatting by, well, chatting. You don’t have to worry about students repeatedly asking you to explain the ‘present continuous past perfect subjunctive’; you’re more likely to be asked, ‘why don’t westerners take their shoes off in the house?’ or ‘How do I get a British girlfriend?’ Two questions I am still unable to answer.

Teaching the children was an absolute joy as they they were energetic, fun and mostly well-behaved. Forty minutes of stomping and shouting around a classroom, playing baseball and snap, and getting paid for it? If this is work then I’ll do a 14-hour shift. Besides, nothing can beat the overwhelming feeling of Mr Mayagi-like wisdom you get the first time a child bows low and says: ‘Good morning, Sensei’.

Although I arrived in Japan a virtual illiterate, the language wasn’t the obstacle I expected it to be. Staff in train stations speak enough English to get you to Tokyo and even the ticket machines speak more languages than your average UN translator. Living in the country does require some effort if you want to converse with more than ticket machines, though; smiling and pointing is fine, but I don’t believe that illiteracy is a virtue and I wanted friends not charades partners.

Japanese, with only two tenses and no plurals or articles, comes as a welcome relief for anyone forced to conjugate être and avoir at school, and finding a victim to practice on is easy in such a friendly country. Usually within ten minutes of sitting at the bar by myself, someone a few sakes braver would sidle over to practice their English. Invariably they were part of a larger group and would invite me back to their table for drinking games, amusement and, once, an arm-wrestling competition.

Japan is so varied and wonderful that everyday something surprises you, whether that be women in traditional kimono belting out Pink’s ‘Just Like A Pill’ at karaoke, fertility festivals with three metre tall wooden penises or peerless Mount Fuji standing 3776m high with a cigarette vending machine at the top. But nothing beats Japan’s people. Unparalleled in hospitality, warmth and friendliness, their example strips the cynicism and selfishness of Europe off you like so much excess weight. In this job I became both teacher and student. I fell in love.

Iain worked for Nova for two years, and intends to go back to them – their website is www.teachinjapan.com. The other big private teaching companies are Geos, Aeon and ECC. JET is a government affiliated scheme that places teachers as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in state schools.

You don’t need a TEFL qualification to teach in Japan, though in many companies you will get a better salary if you do have one. A university degree is essential due to the extremely strict regulations about foreigners working in the country.

If you’re intending to teach, secure your job while in the UK: it’s almost impossible to change a tourist visa into a working visa.