Teaching English in Japan: Approach with (only a little) Caution

October 23rd, 2012By Category: Teaching in Japan, Work Tips

The knowledge that you are going to work in Japan for the first time can bring equal parts excitement and apprehension, teetering on the edge of sheer terror (or maybe I just speak for myself) for the ever-travelling English teacher.

After the initial happiness at the idea of living and working in such an interesting country comes the fear about the dos and don’ts in Japanese culture – something which people who’ve never lived here are all too quick to joke and warn you about.

I taught in Spain before getting a job as an English teacher here in Japan, and when I told people the news of my impending move, many were quick to caution me that my Japanese students would be very different from my Spanish ones. Gone were the games and jokes I enjoyed with my current classes – it would be serious drilling and teaching from here on out. So sensitive and prone to shame and embarrassment were the Japanese, I was told, that I would have to tread very carefully with my new classes.

Photo by mbeo via Flickr Creative Commons

I was semi-petrified. Being quite a young teacher, who likes to keep things fairly light in the classroom, I was sure that when I started teaching here, I would be the bull in the etiquette shop, leaving a trail of offended students in my wake on any occasion that I attempted humour or fun.

Of course, some caution is required. But shock horror, the Japanese are human too – they like to laugh, they have a sense of humour and don’t particularly feel like sitting down to be lectured on the intricacies of English grammar four times a week.

Yes, this is a polite culture with a deeply rooted tradition of respect and manners. Singling out of students to name and shame them for some reason in front of their peers is not recommended – but in what culture would it be? Lewd jokes are not the best idea, but never really are in a professional environment.  Common sense reigns supreme.

All of this is to say that teaching English in Japan can be just as fun as anywhere else. I was afraid, after reading various online forums, that the shyness of my students would be crippling in the type of classroom environment that I am used to. However, most of the time I can’t get them to be quiet. I am lucky, as this isn’t always the case, but teaching experiences aren’t always consistent in other countries either.  Games, jokes and fun are all encouraged, if not expected.

Lesson learned – try not to listen to others, either friends or strangers professing to know it all on internet forums, and make up your own mind. Everyone’s experience is different.

When you move to a country far away from your own, you can overwhelm yourself prior to even getting there, imagining a lifestyle completely alien to what you know, but for the most part – at least in fairly developed countries – people do pretty much the same everywhere you go. They get up, they go to work. They smoke, eat, drink and walk their dog on a Sunday. They like to laugh and play games.  Don’t fear that teaching the Japanese will be a grave business. After a month of working here, I can (for now) say that it is quite the opposite.

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Photo by Hannah Quinn

Photo by mbeo via Flickr Creative Commons

Author of this article

Hannah Quinn

An Irish journalism graduate teaching English in Nagoya, though I lived in Seville, Spain for a year and a half before coming here. Contender for the tallest, palest female in Japan, with a weakness for travelling, cooking, writing and reading. Working on my collection of photos of bad translations and kitsch memorabilia.

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  • leslie nguyen says:

    Nice article! I am up to the challenge, but at the same time, I am eager to see the culture shock.


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