Teach English in Japan: Interview with Neil Mullens

Teach English Abroad
Teach English in Japan with Neil Mullens
Teach English in Japan with Neil Mullens

How long have you been teaching English in Japan?

I came to Japan in late 1996, initially with the intention of working my way around Asia. However, within three years, I’d gotten married, started my own school and the rest, as they say, is history. Apart from a 12 month stint in Osaka, I’ve spent the entire time in Shizuoka, famous for its mountains, rivers and beaches.


How did you find your first teaching job?

Obviously, back in 1996, there wasn’t access to jobs online. If I remember correctly, I used to subscribe to a monthly overseas jobs publication that had a small section for TEFL/TESL jobs. I think I landed my very first teaching gig in Denmark by responding to one of those ads, and may well have found my first job in Japan that way, too.

I’m not entirely sure whether I would have made the same choices if I’d had access to the wealth of online information available today. It’s certainly easier these days to make a more informed choice and avoid some of the pitfalls lying in wait for prospective teachers.

How easy is it to find teaching jobs?

Once you’re established in Japan, it’s very easy to find teaching jobs, even in the present economic climate. That’s why it’s often beneficial to secure an initial contract with one of the big chain schools, or perhaps try to enter the JET Program. Once you’ve got your foot in the door, numerous other opportunities will become available.

However, there is a caveat. The quality of jobs offered, in terms of salary, working hours and conditions varies greatly from school to school. If you limit yourself to a narrow location when job searching you may find yourself having to take whatever you can get. If, however, you’re prepared to be flexible and move anywhere in the country, far greater opportunities will arise.

Is it necessary to have teaching certificates or training to find employment?

In recent times, a few companies have been requesting TEFL certificates, but it is not the norm. Most schools provide some kind of in-house training, which is usually paid, and generally only takes 3-7 days to complete. However, for university positions, an M.A. or PhD is a prerequisite, and many good universities also expect a number of publications.

Is it necessary to be able to speak Japanese to find employment?

Language schools generally insist that only English is used in the classroom, and they invariably have staff that can communicate well enough to be able to assist the teachers. English-only classrooms would also be encountered by those working within the JET Program. However, as you would be working in State schools, often in remote places, some ability in Japanese would certainly make your life easier.

In recent times, many school boards have taken to using third-party dispatch agencies for the purposes of hiring teachers. Although you would be teaching the same kind of classes as those working within the JET Program, you are essentially employed by the dispatch agency. On the whole, these agencies provide a very limited support network for their teachers and, indeed, requesting help is often frowned upon and may result in your contract not being renewed. Not only do many of these agencies request basic Japanese proficiency in their job advertisements, but you should also consider it essential for survival in the workplace. You should also be aware, that while these agencies often require Japanese ability and previous experience, the salaries and working conditions they offer are among the worst in Japan.

How did you get your first work visa?

My first visa was arranged by my employer before I landed in Japan. This certainly saved me a lot of stress and heartache down the line. In Japan, once the visa has been issued, it belongs to you, not your employer, as is the case in some other countries. This means that there are no problems switching employer within the duration of the visa. Of course, that’s not to say there won’t be other contractual complications!

Is it possible for teachers to arrive without a work visa and look for a job?

Yes, it is possible, but be aware that it can be costly and time consuming to get a visa later, as you will have to leave and reenter the country in order for a visa to be issued. Also, because of the large number of teachers already in Japan, with a legitimate visa on hand, it’s unlikely that most reputable employers would even consider hiring you. In the case of renewing visas, however, most companies are quite happy to handle the paperwork and assist you with the submission of those documents.

What is the cost of living in Japan?

The cost of living in Japan varies greatly depending upon where you are based. New arrivals generally get assistance in finding accommodation from their employers, and it may be subsidized. Still, expect to pay anything from ¥50-65,000 (US$549-714) per month for an apartment that will be small, by western standards. It’s usually much cheaper to find your own apartment, however, most Japanese landlords would prefer to have empty apartments than rent to a foreigner. Those who are more open-minded may still require a Japanese guarantor. Also bear in mind that renting by yourself will incur quite high deposits. This can be equal to two months rent in the Kanto region or as much as seven months rent in Kansai.

Although food is expensive by American standards, Brits won’t see such a huge difference. If you cook and prepare most of your own meals, you can get by on ¥40,000 (US$ 440) per month, and eat pretty well. Utilities and other costs such as a broadband internet connection are likely to set you back another ¥20,000 (US$220) per month. Public transportation is cheap and efficient, and work travel is generally paid for.

Your lifestyle will have a huge bearing on your total monthly costs. Entertainment is very expensive in Japan. Drinking, clubbing, eating out, going to the movies, visiting museums and staying in hotels, will quickly dispose of your ‘disposable’ income!

How much money can the average teacher expect to save?

A lot of recent (and some not so recent) college graduates come here and want to continue the full-on lifestyle they enjoyed as a student. Invariably, they save almost nothing, and more likely find themselves borrowing money from their frugal friends the week before payday. Having said that, I have known some people who were able to save ¥100,000 (US$1,100) per month on an average salary.

What is the typical number of teaching hours per week?

For anything other than university positions expect to work a minimum of 40 hours per week, however 50 hours per week is becoming increasingly common. Actual contact teaching hours varies greatly from school to school, and can be anything from 20-40 hours per week. You should also be aware that working for dispatch agencies may incur a considerable amount of (unpaid) commuting time.

How many weeks of holidays per year can teachers expect?

Again this varies greatly from school to school. On average, you can expect 5-10 days paid leave per annum. Foreign-run languages schools may give up to three weeks paid leave per year. JET program teachers can expect most of the regular school holidays. However, teachers doing essentially the same job as their JET program equivalents, are either not paid during school vacations or receive a greatly reduced income.

Did your employer provide you with medical Insurance?

Some employers do provide State healthcare and pension contributions, as they are required to do by law. However, it is increasingly becoming the norm that employers find ways to circumvent these contributions. This is usually done by registering teachers as part-time workers, counting only their contact teaching hours. The government is perfectly aware of these illegal practices but seems unwilling to take any action. Therefore, you may well need to take out private healthcare insurance which can be quite expensive.

Do you recommend Japan for other English teachers?

I probably sound very negative about teaching in Japan, but I think people should be aware of the possible pitfalls. Despite everything, Japan is wonderful country in which to live. The cuisine is first-class; the cities cater for almost every imaginable interest; and the countryside is simply breathtaking. There are still some good jobs available in Japan, but you may not find them immediately upon arrival. If you can suck it up at a lousy job for a while and be flexible in your approach to finding something better, you perseverance will be worthwhile.

What advice would you offer for others thinking of teaching English Abroad?

At the end of the day almost anyone can teach abroad but there are three words which will make the difference between a rewarding experience and utter misery: research, research and RESEARCH!

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Japan Information (More information on teaching English in Japan)
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