Guidebook to Teaching English in Japan



Opening Remarks
This is a guidebook which I would have appreciated when I first got to Japan. My previously limited knowledge of Japan was gained through introductory level Japanese history and culture classes at university and I realized just how limited this knowledge was when I first visited Japan in 1987. I have written this paper with the following points in mind:

A. Most Americans and other native English speakers don't have a deep understanding of Japan, its culture or the Japanese people.

B. There is still a fair demand for native English teachers and the main qualifications for many of the teaching positions is just being a native speaker of English and holding a four year university degree.

C. Many of the people who are hired to teach Engish in Japan are not professional teachers.

D. Almost anyone can learn to give good English lessons.

E. Some knowledge of what to expect in Japan will help lay the groundwork for a smooth transition into Japanese society and new teaching positions.

F. A more profound understanding of the profession of language instruction among new or inexperienced teachers will help raise the credibility of the job and produce better lessons with the end result being better speakers of English among the Japanese.

1. Why Do We Need A Guidebook for Teaching Language?
There is no accounting for personal preference. When traveling, some people like to throw a few things in a bag and get right out on the road. Others get enjoyment out of meticulously planning each step of their journey before starting. Still others prefer to have their trip planned for them. Personally, when traveling, I like to read up on where I'm going to find out about the layout of my destination and its history, culture and so on. In this way, I can spend less time wondering and wandering.

A parallel can be drawn to language teaching. Some teachers just like to go into the classroom and ad lib and others feel the need for much more preparation. While this may be a strange metaphor, I believe the similarities deserve a closer look and I have written this paper with this in mind.

Language teaching is not an exact science and the debate over how to best teach language will most likely outlast the world oil supply. I will talk about some of this debate in Part Two on English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teaching.

Teaching language in Japan has a few added twists in that the culture is quite unique and monolingual classrooms are the norm1. With a guidebook of this sort, new comers can embark upon the journey of language teaching in Japan with more confidence and a better understanding of their position and what to expect in and out of the classroom.

This guidebook will hopefully be of some use to language teachers who have never been to Japan and who have little or no experience teaching language. I have also tried to include information and ideas that will be helpful to language teachers who are already in Japan, but are having difficulty a) finding new or better employment b) understanding Japan and its culture and customs or c) making existing classes work the way they want them to.

Not everyone will need this guidebook. There are those teachers who, just like certain travelers, don't like or need to do a lot of research before setting off on a journey. Still, the main need for a work of this type is to give current and prospective teachers a better bearing on what is happening with language teaching in Japan and give them some hint as to the future direction of our profession.

As many people have discovered, you do not have to be an experienced or expert teacher to make a decent living as a language teacher in Japan. Still, EFL or ESL, like other teaching, is an important job and should be taken seriously.

The Cold War is over, but we can see the many ethnic problems that are arising with more frequency around the world. Without proper intercultural understanding, problems of this sort may arise with more frequency and intensity and the unstable situation that could occur does not benefit anyone.

As language teachers, we have multiple responsibilities. Guiding students to a better understanding of the target language is high on this list, as is helping them to make themselves understood. In addition to the language aspects, we will pass on bits of our culture and thus become a kind of bridge between our students and our home countries. In this way, we are all ambassadors and need to conduct ourselves in a way that brings pride to our native homelands and fosters deeper understanding of our own unique culture and customs among the people of the nations where we are teaching.

2. Assumptions About Language Learning
The need for language instruction reaches back into history to the first time people of different heritages came in contact with each other. While not a new or unique concept, language learning still carries some of the mystery or feelings of adventure that those first individuals felt.

Communication can take many forms, from basic gestures to advanced dissertations and can cover any of a number of topics. How well we understand each other determines the level at which we can communicate our ideas, feelings and wishes. And while it is possible to learn a new language without a teacher, having a good one can facilitate learning in a real sense. Following is a list of things we can say about learning a second or foreign language.

A. First, no two students will learn at exactly the same pace. Some people have a knack for picking up languages and others don't. Still, almost everyone has the ability to learn a new language. A teacher who understands these points and is sensitive enough to recognize the pace at which individual students learn and have the flexibility to adjust their lessons accordingly is indispensable.

B. People have different reasons for learning a new language. Some people do it just to keep themselves busy, others have a specific goal in mind such as passing a certain exam or gaining a higher position in their current line of work2. Because of this difference, students will want to focus on different aspects of language.

C. Also, language learners differ in the level of motivation. This is in some ways related to the two previous assumptions, but deserves proper attention and can be a big factor in the success of certain classes and individuals. One aim that will be discussed in Part Six is how to motivate students to take more responsibility for their own success.

D. Everyone has a store of words or phrases that they understand when they see or hear them. At the same time, the words and phrases we use when writing or speaking will come from a different pool3. The skilled teacher will be able to aim their lessons at exercising and expanding both of these facilities in their students.

E. There will also be a gap between what we try to teach and what our students learn. Language is at the core of each country's culture and our perceptions of new or unknown things is highly dependent on our cultural heritage4. We may have a specific target when teaching, but how this is percieved by the students will sometimes differ from our intention.

F. Even though cultural differences can sometimes create a barrier to perfect understanding, grasping the important parts of a message that another person wants to pass on is not that difficult. We can come pretty close to conveying most messages even though there are sometimes not perfect translations for what we want to say. The gap in perception may cause problems if we, as teachers, are not perceptive enough to notice the differences or flexible enough to make allowances.

3. The Aim Of This Paper

This work has a variety of aims. Utmost, is the desire to pass on general information on Japan and language teaching as well as specific information for teachers about teaching English language to Japanese students. While the emphasis will be on teaching adults, there is information on teaching children of all ages. This information is contained in Part Six.

Another aim is to create a reference for teachers who are looking for ideas or examples for specific classes. The intention of this guidebook for language teachers in Japan is to give teachers with little or no classroom experience a source of ideas that will be helpful when planning lessons and to guide them to other interesting or helpful resources that they may not otherwise find.

In the end, I would like experienced teachers, non-experienced teachers and potential teachers to better understand the challenges we face in this profession and feel more comfortable and confident when going for an interview or entering the classroom.

I would like to show teachers how important our job is and give some ideas how to better present ourselves and gain respect as professionals. In this way, I feel teachers can get more from the experience in Japan.

This paper in itself will not make you a great teacher. Instead, it will give you some insight into what it takes to be a good language teacher in Japan and guide you in your beginning stages as a teacher here. After that, you will need to develop your own teaching style and discover what strengths you possess and which areas you will have to improve.

Also, you will find at the end of this paper a bibliography to get you started in your search for more detailed information.

4. How To Use This Guide
Chances are that you will find yourself in a teaching position where not all of the material in this guide will be of use to you. I have tried to keep the guide general enough to encompass the needs of most language teachers, but at the same time include specific information that will help in actual teaching situations. If you have a specific problem and are looking for quick answers it is possible to look for an appropriate heading and skip to that part. Still, I suggest going through each section in its proper order in an attempt to follow my reasoning and get some background on the parts of our profession that I felt important enough to include.

5. Organization
It goes without saying that a complete explanation of all aspects of ESL/EFL in Japan is beyond the scope of one paper. Therefore, I have attempted to shed light on areas of foreign language education and English language teaching in Japan that I feel are essential or at least useful for both the beginning teacher and those who are already teaching, but want to understand the science more. To help the reader in organizing the information in their own minds I have broken the paper down into seperate chapters based on certain aspects of Japan, language teaching or useful information. Each part has its own Opening Remarks, Conclusion and Notes. References to articles are cited in complete form, but those to books are cited by author and year of publication (page number is included where relevent). I have chosen this format since all of the books I make references to are included in the Bibliography.
An outline of the rest of the paper is as follows:

  • A. Part Two focuses on some of the past trends in ESL and EFL. Here we will concern ourselves with past and present methodologies, systems and techniques. This information is useful for not only new teachers, but for teachers who feel comfortable in the classroom and are ready to do a little experimenting. While not dedicated to giving specific lessons plans, we can familiarize ourselves with different thoughts on teaching language and see some of the changes that have occurred over time and the reasoning behind such changes.
  • B. Part Three is an overview of Japan and its educational system. There are some important changes taking place and this background information will be helpful for new arrivals to Japan who want basic facts on a variety of topics concerning the development of education as a whole here in Japan.
  • C. Part Four is a brief description of the different positions available for native English language teachers in Japan. I have tried to include the general conditions as well as good and bad points. Although compensation varies greatly, I have included rough estimates of what to expect in the form of pay.
  • D. Part Five deals with finding English teaching jobs in Japan. Finding and securing employment will be the first challenge for many intended readers and I have tried to include information that will be helpful for all the major potential positions. In addition, there are some tips for successful interviewing, comments on what the interviewers are really looking for and advice on the right attitude for success in Japan.
  • E. Part Six gives practical information on differentiating levels of competence in English, selecting material and preparing syllabi and lessons. I have included some detailed lesson plans based on specific vocabulary items, grammar points, functions, themes and situations to give the reader a feel for what to concentrate on. Also included is a compilation of different strategies for a range of classroom settings. i.e. all adults, mixed classes, children's classes, big classes, small classes etc. and a short list of some common language teaching techniques.
  • F. Part Seven is intended to give the reader some concrete ideas on how to structure some particular speciality classes. I have included an extensive outline for a speech communication course that is designed to teach students the basics of making public presentations in English. There is also an outline for teaching a class for students preparing for the interview portion of the Standard Test of English Proficiency (STEP) and tips for teaching business classes. Lastly, I included ideas for teaching a video based class on movie appreciation that I designed for Sony Language Laboratory.
  • G. Part Eight contains useful information about living and working in Japan. There are details concerning the visa system in Japan, renting an apartment in Japan, obtaining medical care, learning the Japanese language and finding English publications.
  • H. Part Nine is a brief look at Japanese history and culture and is intended only as an overview to give readers an idea of the complex background of the country where they will be teaching. The list of famous Japanese is intended as background information.
  • I. Part Ten looks at some possible changes that may take place in Japan in the not too distant future. I have tried to include potential changes in the job market and language teaching in general. The rapid rise in the popularity and usefulness of the personal computer is sure to have an impact on how we teach and learn languages and this is just one point that I have mentioned.
  • J. Part Eleven is a collection of references that may be of help in different aspects of your life as a language teacher in Japan. The references include publications, groups and networks and is intended as a supplement to the bibliography.
  • K. Part Twelve is a bibliography broken down into sections on grammar and style, EFL/ESL teaching, textbooks, and Japan. If the reader is interested in a closer look at any aspect, this is hopefully a good place to start this digging.


    Teaching English or other languages in Japan is an interesting proposition. Many people will have no troubles learning to teach or adjusting to the culture, but having a guide to smooth the way cannot hurt either. I have tried to include some of the insight that I have gained while here in Japan to give prospective teachers some idea of what to expect and useful information on teaching a foreign language to the Japanese and getting along in Japanese society.

    The organization of this paper, with seperate opening remarks, conclusion and references for each part, was undertaken with an audience from a variety of backgrounds in mind. I have tried to make the information as accessable as possible and to maintain a flow from the general to the specific.

    In the next section we will begin to see that teaching English (or other languages as well) is not as simple or as straightforward as some may think. Good luck in your journey.


    [1] Explored in more depth in Part Two.

    [2] For a good introduction to many of the reasons for studying a foreign language see J. Harmer (1991) pages 1-3.

    [3] M. Zuckerman (1980) on page 2 gives a good overview of the difference between our recognition vocabulary and our active vocabulary.

    [4] Sell, D.A. Perceptions in Foreign Language Learning. In Asian Languages and General Linguistics. Kyoto. Shokado. 1988.

    Part Two - Language Education