Friday, March 03, 2006

English Teaching in Japan: Grim Forecast

This article was published very recently in the Independent Online Edition (Career Advice).

Shane Inwood: Thinking of teaching in Japan? Don't bother
Published: 02 March 2006

Do you fancy a stint teaching English in the land of the rising yen? Heard a few good things about it from that girl who works for the record label? You know; the one with the really cool tattoo you talked to when you and your workmates went to that trendy sushi place after the end-of-work do.

Bad news, I'm afraid. While you were mucking around finishing up that TEFL qualification or BA, the party ended in Japan. You should have got here sooner, because it used to be a blast.

I can't think of any other work abroad that paid so well, gave on-the-job training, accommodation and a visa, and had such amazing nightlife. Don't get me wrong; expat life in Japan is still mental, but nowadays it's a kind of fruit picking/ backpacker mental rather than the Skybar-champagne-happy-hour mental it used to be. And a few years ago, we never thought it would end.

"But wait!" I hear you cry, "The Japanese economy is doing splendidly, the Nikkei is up one billion per cent, and what about the guy from The Last Samurai who won the Oscar? Japan is back! Surely?"

Surely, yes - if you're Ken Watanabe, or have just sold out a public share offering for an internet anime studio. But every time I'm out in town for a few beers, the stories circulate like second-hand smoke through the bars. I hear about the pair of teachers who just got fired from a well-known college after 15 years of service. The very seniority and experience that put them into a higher pay-bracket also put them first on to the chopping block.

Another of the college's veteran teachers returned from rehabilitation in England after a stroke and found he'd been replaced. The rumour is that the college didn't want a teacher with a stick because it wasn't good for their image.

I guess the two other companies he worked for felt the same; they fired him too. As a "part-time" teacher he was ineligible for health or unemployment insurance. Meanwhile, all their other part-time teachers returned from holidays to letters notifying them that their salaries had been cut mid-contract.

People mutter about the 120 teachers from Osaka and Kanagawa prefectures who have been replaced with "dispatch teachers" employed through middlemen, so the schools don't have to pay them salaries during the long holidays. And what about the NCB English school that went out of business altogether?

There are a lot of long-term expats here, with wives and children, who are suddenly very nervous. Everyone is fighting for a share of work that is vanishing like the polar bears.
Most people, when they first arrive, work at a place like Nova, probably the biggest employer of native English teachers in the world. By dint of their overseas recruiting programme, NO-VAcation (as we called it when I worked there) is the first employer for many arriving in Japan.

But even this has changed. Recently, after a long struggle with the local General Union, it was forced to provide its full-time teachers with health, pension and unemployment benefits.
So it immediately reclassified all its new teachers as "part-time" and cut their hours and salaries to below the minimum full-time bracket to avoid paying the benefits. You are not allowed to do overtime any more because that would push you into the full-time bracket and make you eligible for the benefits.

Finally, the very thing responsible for the Japanese economic recovery, the soft yen, works its magic as well. So if you come over, your standard Nova salary of £1,600 a month five years ago has been magically reduced to £1,100 a month now. And remember: Japan ranks near the top of cost-of-living charts. Other language schools, such as Berlitz, also perform such contortions. English schools are, of course, businesses.

Years of recession, 750,000 fewer school-age children each year, and the end of the Japanese love-affair with English have combined to cause a slew of company collapses and a degradation of conditions so severe that my Japanese vegetable-delivery-truck-driving friend now gets about the same salary as a new teacher.

So if you still want to come over, by all means do. But do it for the experience of checking out Japan, not for the money. There isn't much here any more. And don't start undercutting everyone else advertising for private students. And don't... Oh well, I'm just bitter, I guess. I got a pay cut and can't complain, in case I get labelled as troublesome and replaced by someone cheaper. You, perhaps.

The writer is an English teacher, writer and musician based in Osaka

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