When I started my two-year teach abroad stint as a fresh-faced new grad back in August 2009, I had no idea where I wanted to go with my career. I knew I wanted the opportunity to travel to new places, get out of my comfort zone, meet people from all over the world and explore different cultures and ways of life. Teaching English abroad seemed like the perfect next step for me - but I chose Japan mostly on a whim, as the market for ESL teachers was booming there.
Quite honestly, I made the move to teach English in Japan knowing very little about the country. I don’t recommend you do this! Not only was teaching children an entirely new experience for me, lesson planning and working with colleagues who speak a different language was too. The beginning of my teach abroad experience could have been far less rocky if I had researched and planned ahead better.
Here are my top five tips for English teachers before heading abroad to teach in Japan:
Get your packing list essentials in order.
As Japanese clothing sizes run quite small, you may need to bring enough staple items of clothing to last you your stay - especially skirts and pants! If you have large feet (8.5 US and above), you might also also struggle to find shoes that fit in most Japanese stores. Make sure you’re well stocked up on appropriate footwear for all seasons. Japan also gets incredibly hot in summer, and the humidity is hard to escape (although the other seasons are pleasant and more than make up for the muggy summers). Be sure to plan ahead and pack enough light clothing.
Get to know Japanese customs.
Save yourself potential embarrassment in the classroom and elsewhere and learn some Japanese etiquette before your arrival. Be observant and respectful of cultural differences - this will go a long way in helping you understand how Japan’s unique culture works and how you can integrate yourself into Japanese society.
Things like walking and eating at the same time, wearing shoes indoors and sneezing in public are considered rude in Japan. Japanese people are also into gifting - you must remember to always bring a host a gift. Another big difference between North America and Japan? Tipping is not customary.
Plan your finances to your teach abroad goals.
You’ll have some start-up costs to consider (airfare, your TEFL certificate). You should also have a rainy-day fund set aside for any emergencies that might crop up. After that, you’ll have monthly bills, rent, phone and grocery bills plus other living expenses to budget for. If your aim is to travel in your free time, or to save up money to pay off student debt back home, then you’ll need to live below your means to free up some cash for those things.
Learn basic speaking Japanese and written characters.
It doesn’t take long to master some key Japanese phrases and there are lots of resources online to help you get started. Katakana and Hiragana are the most common writing systems you will see in Japan, so get a head start and take the time to familiarize yourself with some basic symbols. Trust me - it’ll make ordering in restaurants much easier!
Stockpile comfort food.
If you're heading overseas, you’ll want to bring some of your favorite foods with you. That’s not to say that authentic Japanese cuisine isn’t wonderful - it is - but inevitably homesickness strikes and you get a yearning for old favorites! This tip really depends on where you plan to teach English in Japan. No two teachers will have the same experience: for example, I was teaching in a remote town in coastal Japan. Maybe you’ll be teaching in the capital, Tokyo. In more metropolitan areas, international cuisine is very easy to come by. It’s a good idea to bring some packets of dried food stuffs like gravy and mac and cheese - whatever you can’t live without during your time abroad!
Teaching and living abroad is the experience of a lifetime and a little planning ahead goes a long way. There’s no easy way to explain what it’s like to teach English abroad in Japan. You have to experience it for yourself to understand. Either way, you need to be flexible and willing to let go of all expectations. My experience had way more positives than negatives and it’s changed me for the better in so many ways. Don’t forget to head on over to the Teach Away job board to take a look at all our current English teaching jobs in Japan!
Do you have any top tips for teachers looking to teach abroad in Japan to add to the list? Let us know below!