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Exclusive Interview: Working as a Non-native English Teacher in Japan

Exclusive Interview is a series where we interview expats about their experiences. This time, we contacted Candy (Candy in the Land of Sushi on YouTube, @candykab on Instagram). She is an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) and has been teaching English for almost 7 years in Japanese schools. If you think Japan only accepts native English teachers, Candy is here to tell you that is not true.

Interviewee Profile

Country of Origin: The Philippines

In Japan since: 2015

Japanese Level: Conversational

Working Industry: Education

Why did you originally come to Japan?

I worked as an English teacher in a Japanese school in the Philippines. I enjoyed my experience there and thought, should I teach in Japan? Back then, I didn’t know about the ALT or JET program. I was just googling “teaching job in Japan”. I found this one company and applied through it. I also looked for English teaching jobs in South Korea, but they didn’t hire non-native teachers. Then, Japan it is.

What kind of work do you do in Japan?

I was and still am an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). I taught in junior high school for six years in Nagano previously. I now teach in an elementary school in Kawasaki.

Why do you apply through a dispatch company?

First, I didn’t know about the JET program by the Japanese government before. I applied through a dispatch company because the law is quite strict in the Philippines. Filipinos who want to work overseas must go through a mediator so the government can check the contract. It’s for ensuring the safety of Filipinos in another country.

I think this is only in the Philippines, though. My coworkers from India, America, or other countries didn’t go through it. They can apply directly.

What are the differences between being an ALT through the JET program and a private dispatch company?

If you apply through JET, you are hired directly by the Japanese Board of Education. The ALTs in the JET program receive higher pay and other excellent benefits. However, there is a limit to how long you can stay in Japan. ALTs from a dispatch company have no time limit. You can work as an ALT as long as they want you or as long as you want to teach in Japan.

Are ALTs assigned to only one school?

It depends on your contract. It’s always ESID; every situation is different. I worked with only one school at a time during my previous contract, but I moved schools quarterly.

Probably the most common arrangement is for one ALT to teach at two schools. In the countryside, however, one ALT can teach in 10 schools because there’s no other ALT in that area. So it can go from one to ten schools for one ALT.

How competitive is the selection process of being an ALT?

My agency back then was very selective. First, we had an orientation. After that, an English test, aptitude test, and SA test. We also had to do several teaching demonstrations. The manager recorded us to see the way we were talking and pronouncing words. The last step was an interview with the Irish manager. He was a perfectionist and had a high standard to the point that appearance was one of the assessment points. I know some ALTs who failed at that agency but then applied through JET and passed.

I guess there were 30 people at the orientation in my batch. Two people passed the test, but the other person had a problem with the document, so her departure was delayed for two years. I was the only one in my batch that came to Japan successfully right to schedule.

How long is the process of applying until coming to Japan?

In my case, it was around 8 months initially but prolonged to 10 months because the company had to renew its license. I sent my resume in January, and then I came to Japan in October of the same year.

Do the companies hire all year round?

Yes, pre-pandemic. The company hired throughout the year, but it’s halted right now. Because it is difficult to enter Japan, they had a large supply of teachers waiting to get deployed. So, they have stopped hiring for a while.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a non-native English teacher in Japan?

The advantage is that we know how to teach English because we have experience learning English, so we hopefully make better, more creative, enjoyable lesson plans.

The disadvantage is, in my experience, some international schools don’t hire Filipino English teachers because they don’t think we are good enough to teach English. I’ve heard that some schools immediately skip your resume when they see you are Filipino or Asian. It’s a sad truth, but it happens.

However, I’m not generalizing all international schools. I have friends who currently teach in international schools and are doing well. You just have to prove yourself a lot.

Have you ever met a non-native English teacher from other countries besides the Philippines?

Yes, there are teachers from India, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Russia, Estonia, and other countries in East Europe. There are also Indonesians. I haven’t met any, but I’m sure there are Indonesian ALTs.

As an ALT in one of the lowest English-speaking countries in the world, do you feel like the English level, in general, is going up?

Having taught in the countryside for six years, I don’t feel it has improved. Then, moving here to the city, I have some students right now who are great at English. It has definitely gone up, but it’s not at par with other Asian countries. I also teach Taiwanese, Chinese, and Korean students online, and they are better. So, Japan needs to keep up.

Was it easy to socialize with other teachers/your coworkers?

Yes, recently. I had difficulty adjusting to the culture initially, especially when I still couldn’t speak the language. However, I’m very introverted, so I’m okay with not talking to anyone at the moment. I’m happy with that as long as I do my job well. It didn’t bother me a lot before, but now that I can speak more Japanese, it’s easier for me to socialize with them.

How do you make friends as an introvert in a foreign country, in this case, Japan?

It’s easy to be an introvert in Japan. I think most Japanese are introverts. For instance, eating alone in restaurants is common. It’s not an issue being an introvert here. Extroverts may find it more difficult to adapt than introverts.

I made friends through my company, so most of my friends are Filipino and ALTs. There are apps like MeetUp if you want to find new friends, but I haven’t used them.

Are you always the only foreigner among your coworkers?

Yes, because one school usually only has one ALT, unless it is a huge school. I’ve heard schools in Tokyo and Kawasaki with 16 classes on each level have 2 ALTs.

How well do you need to speak Japanese at your job?

I don’t really use Japanese. We are not allowed to speak Japanese to the students in our contracts. However, I need Japanese to communicate with others, do daily activities, and survive in Japan.

So, there’s no JLPT requirement?

No. However, in my current dispatch company, if you have JLPT N1 or N2, they will offer you managerial jobs with a higher salary. I don’t remember when I applied to my first company, but I think applicants are required to study Japanese for a bit. They won’t ask for a language certificate or anything to prove your skills.

How do you learn Japanese?

Prior to coming here, I mastered katakana and hiragana. Then, I learned kanji by reading my students’ last names, signs, and product labels. I naturally memorized words that I often hear or new words from my class lessons. I didn’t learn through Japanese books.

What culture shocks did you experience as a Filipino working in Japan?

The only shock I’ve experienced is that Japanese people somehow physically distance themselves from each other, even more now with the pandemic. In the Philippines, we can be close when we talk with people. In Japan, only close friends, not colleagues or classmates, do that.

Other than that, I can’t remember any significant differences. Maybe because I’ve been here for a long time, but also I already worked with Japanese students before coming to Japan. It helped me to learn what to do and to expect.

I also think Filipinos and Japanese are pretty similar, especially at work. We are very non-assertive. We don’t like arguing, pushing our ideas, and saying no, particularly with our superiors. We also have similar honne and tatemae culture.

What tips would you provide to other Filipinos who want to work as ALT in Japan?

My tip is to learn the Japanese language and culture before coming to Japan. Don’t be like me; I just learned katakana and hiragana. The next tip is always to have a positive mindset. Be resilient, always smile, and find happiness amidst all the difficulties in life.

Also, don’t bring all of your habits to Japan. For example, it’s not a taboo, but burping in public is looked down upon in Japan. It’s common and acceptable in the Philippines, but you shouldn’t do that here.


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