Some see English teaching as a stepping stone towards other career goals. It enables you to pay the bills and spend a significant period of time in a country, whilst assessing the market, networking, studying or simply looking for opportunities. It’s probably fair to say that you can learn far more about a culture as a worker, than as a tourist. And there are opportunities beyond simply teaching English, none more so than in Japan.
Russell Willis began publishing comic fanzines as a teenager in the 1980s and achieved considerable underground success in the U.K. This early foray into publishing came to an end after waking up one day to find his business partner had emptied their bank account and disappeared without a trace!
He eventually found his way to Japan where he spent a period teaching English. This gave him a unique insight into the market and the culture of English study in Japan. In 1990, he put his publishing skills to good use when he launched eigoTown.com, an English study site for Japanese learners. It has gone on to become the foremost Web portal for studying English in the country. Russell was also asked to produce the Official CD-ROM for Britain’s UK98 Festival in Japan, and created the acclaimed Finding Out software for children as well as creating ELT News, the most popular independent Web site for English teachers in the world.
Japan is not a particularly entrepreneurial nation. People with an eye for business may find ample opportunities ready to be exploited. Going to Japan as an English teacher, though, does enable you to get the lay of the land and pay the bills while you are looking for that opportunity.
Canadian Maynard Plant moved to Japan in 1997 and worked as an ALT. Over time, he became fluent in Japanese and began playing music for fun. In 2001, his younger brother, Blaise, joined him in Japan and, together with a couple of Japanese friends, formed the band Monkey Majik. Maynard put some of the money he’d saved from English teaching towards a self-financed CD which was sold exclusively at Tower Records, in Sendai. The EP went on to attain the number one sales position at the store for six straight weeks, and eventually led to them signing a deal with Avex Records. They have gone on to release five studio albums and a string of hit singles.
Thane Camus is the grandson of Nobel Prize laureate novelist/philosopher Albert Camus. He was born in the U.S. but grew up in Japan. It is rumored that his Japanese is actually better than his English, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming a host on an NHK TV show aimed at students of English. His fame increased ten-fold after appearing on Karakura TV, the comedy-variety vehicle for top television personality, Sanma. In many ways, he is the quintessential ‘gaijin tarento’, (foreign celebrity) in that Japanese people consider him to be cute and non-threatening, and quite prepared to be made fun of. In fact there seem to be an increasing number of such foreigners on Japanese television. As another American celebrity and political pundit, Dave Spector puts it:
“Making foreigners cuter takes away the threat of foreigners being more powerful, or having more know-how, or more sophistication. So definitely, they use that in a way to make themselves more comfortable. So I’ve done things on Japanese TV that are totally silly, or ridiculous. I mean like jumping rope with French poodles. Doing things like the lowest Bozo, circus kind of stuff. But it doesn’t bother me at all. A lot of times the foreigners on TV, models and what-not, are compared to pandas. They use that term here–pandas– because they’re cuddly, you can go and have fun with them, and throw a marshmallow and that’s about it. And you don’t get involved any more deeper than that. But…since I’m making half a million dollars a year, I’m very happy to be a panda. I’d be a much lower animal. I’d be like a sloth, or something, or a hedgehog, you know, for that money. So it doesn’t bother me at all.”
So, why not go to Japan, start by teaching English, become fluent in Japanese, and and then try to become a TV star?