Here’s a confession: My main income in Japan comes from English teaching. The work itself is not bad, but those with experience know that saying this aloud automatically sends you to the bottom of the expat social ladder. It’s no longer the 80s but Tokyo is a megalopolis that still cares about glitz and status; a place where even celebrities apparently like to brag about how much money they make. And English teachers do not make money. Once upon a time they did. In the Bubble Era they were strangers in loopy land and their mere foreign-ness was enough to make them a living. Or so my boss sometimes tells me.
Those days are long over. Years of economic stagnation and waves of backpackers have seen to that. Owners of ESL factory farms have spent decades fine-tuning their operations to squeeze maximum profit from their staff for minimum benefit in return. Full time employees are hired as ‘contractors’, meaning they can forget about standard Japanese work perks like health insurance, paid holidays and career advancement. While your Japanese buddies are spending up their Christmas bonuses, you’ll be staying at home worrying if your latest salary cut (due to christmas cancelations or the latest round of company austerity measures) will see you looking for a cheaper apartment. The companies seem to be in a competition to see who can provide their employees with the smallest physical space in which to complete their work, and how many unpaid hours they can extract from you in the form of special reports, meetings and extreme travel distances.
Every expat in Japan knows how we sad sacks earn our living. Everyone in the entire English speaking world is less than three degrees of separation from a friend/nephew/cousin who has taught English in Japan for at least six months, but people who actually live here know what it’s really like. They’ve seen us standing in office foyers with sagging satchels full of heavy textbooks at 7AM, waiting for students who couldn’t show up for their lesson but didn’t bother to inform their teacher. They know us by our suits and ties, since expats with real jobs switched to office casual long ago. Maybe they were one of us at some stage, and managed to escape to something better. To the many bankers, lawyers, IT specialists and diplomats living deluxe lifestyles in Tokyo, foreign ESL teachers in Japan have become a kind of subspecies to the point where the job title itself is used as a pejorative to discredit opinions about Japan in arguments.
That’s why I hesitate to confess to the entire internet that English teaching is how I pay my rent (except at Christmastime, when I do it with borrowed money).
So why do people stick with it, years after they should have understood their situation and moved on? There are a number of reasons. Some of us, strange as it seems, are actually teachers who enjoy the process of knowledge transfer, no matter what the image. And let’s face it, teachers are rarely envied anywhere in the world. Some simply hate the idea of working in an office. Others in Japan are hampered by lack of in-demand skills, or are busy with side occupations that don’t quite support the family yet. I work with an inordinate number of DJs, writers, photographers and entrepreneurs on the verge of making it big.
Some ESL teachers revel in their lowliness. They’re usually the ones who’ve lived in Tokyo one year or less, before the shame kicks in. I’ve been there. I started my ESL (heh) career many years back at the baddest McEnglish conversation school of them all, NOVA. Even other conversation school teachers looked down on NOVA, sometimes with merit. We had the smallest teaching booths, the fewest holidays (the company’s nickname was “NO VAcation”) and a reputation for disrepute and sleaze so bad that the company implemented a ‘no fraternization outside class’ policy to allay female students’ very real fears that teachers were only there to pick up girls.
I got a taste of what I was in for the first night I worked. Some of my new colleagues headed out, asking us to join them later at Shinjuku station for some drinks. Another newbie and I missed the party after spending about half an hour searching around Shinjuku station for a bar containing a crowd of drunk gaijin on a Monday night. How hard could it be to spot that?
The pile of empty cans on the payphones next to the coin lockers should have been a hint. There was no bar. We’d just been invited to our first night of ‘station beers’, one of those eikaiwa traditions we hadn’t seen in the recruitment brochures of smiling, healthy-looking teachers (another myth). You see, real bars in Tokyo are expensive — especially ones in high-traffic areas like Shinjuku station. Most would slap you with a per-person table fee of ¥1500 (about 12 bucks) before you even think about ordering a drink. That’s if you can actually get a table. Tokyo’s thousands of convenience stores, however, offer a wider selection of alcoholic beverages than most bars for a couple of bucks each, and there are several of them at the station. Problem solved.
So that was station beers — even in the middle of winter, we huddled around the payphones and coin lockers to rattle our brains like empty spraypaint cans and unwind after a full day of speaking at 1/8 speed in a funny accent for a living. And you know what? After about a week, it felt OK. We learned to ignore the disparaging looks from passers-by and accept the camaraderie of the homeless insane as they too unwound before retiring to their cardboard boxes in the underpass. Some say Westerners in Asia walk around with airs, expecting to be treated like white kings. That is absolutely not the case in Japan, and especially not when you’re shivering outside Shinjuku station and considering a second tall can of Asahi Super Dry. Well, I could brag that I was paying half as much for it as my friends back home.
My standards suitably lowered, I was ready to being a long and extremely unprofitable career as an English teacher in Japan. And to be honest, I have not been disappointed since.