A Chat with a Japan TEFL Teacher

We caught up with Ronnie Jones, who has been lucky enough to spend part of her gap year teaching English at a school in Japan...

Konnichiwa, Ronnie! So, tell us why you decided to travel to Japan...

Hi there, er Konnichiwa!

I wish I could tell you Japan was somewhere I'd always wanted to go, but to be honest, I kind of ended up there. It was fate.

I was walking through the Union building at Cardiff University thinking: What the hell am I going to do with my life? At that exact moment, this poster for JET (Japanese English Teaching) caught my eye. I can't remember exactly what the poster said, but it went something like: 'Travel to Japan, be a classroom assistant, have a laugh, and get paid loads more than you thought you could in your first year out of uni.' It sounded like a good idea.

I applied on a whim, but somehow managed to get an interview. It was held at the Japanese Embassy in London, and after the panel of Japanese civil servants and past JET workers decided I wasn't insane, I was in!

My mates couldn't believe it, and genuinely feared for my safety (am possibly the most scatty person ever to have lived) but I didn't care...I was off to the land of the rising sun!

Tell us a bit about your job: what ages and levels did you teach?

I was an assistant language teacher at a high school in a town called Sanjo-Shi. It's famous for making pots and wooden hunting ducks. It's in the province of Niigata, 200 miles, or two hours on the bullet train, to the northwest of Tokyo.

I taught 14 to 18 year olds. My school was a 'Shogyo', which was for kids who aren't quite bright enough to go to the top academic schools. The kids mostly chose to go there to learn practical skills to get jobs, a bit like the secondary moderns of old.

The abilities of each class varied greatly. There was no streaming or setting. Some of the kids obviously practised and were well on their way to fluency, others just didn't really bother, and I got the impression they picked English for a bit of a doss.

My job was a cross between teacher and clown. Some of my Japanese teaching colleagues let me do what I wanted in class (mad games to teach directions, bringing in my much-loved funk music, generally having a laugh) while others made me teach pronunciation and spelling (once I wrote 'embarassing' on the board, which was embarrassing).

Did you enjoy the job? Tell us a bit about what the experience was like...

I found my first six months in Japan hard...I got dumped pretty swiftly after arriving there by my girlfriend, and it was bloody cold for a lot of the time...but the children I taught made it all worthwhile. I got a nickname and was ridiculed for looking like a famous manga - or cartoon - character. Apparently even the headmaster called me by the pseudonym. The days at school were spent laughing with or at the kids and some of the more peculiar teachers who were clearly social outcasts.

It wasn't all good though. My teaching supervisor made me go into school during all holidays even when there were no kids there. With no teaching to do, it was all but impossible not to get bored. I got the impression the Japanese teachers were just making things up for me to do.

Despite this it was an exciting, exhausting, challenging but above all immensely satisfying job. I'd do again if I had the courage to drop it all and re-apply for JET.

Do you have any tips for people who are heading off to Japan to teach English?

I really wish I'd actually learnt some Japanese phrases or cool slang before I left for Japan. After about eight months into the job, I'd somehow leant how to tell the kids to be quiet, to get up, sit down or to make them laugh by trying to be 'street' Japanese-style. This will help you out hugely and will make your life a lot easier if you do this before you go.

In terms of teaching tips though, you don't really need to worry too much. Before most classes I had a chat with my Japanese English teachers who I co-taught with. They did the actual teaching, but we worked together on lesson plans...I relied on madcap humour to get me through too.

There are also conferences where all the new assistant language teachers get together with the ones who've been in Japan for more than a year (you can do JET for three years if you want) and they'll have loads of teaching tips for you.

In general though, I always found that just being enthusiastic and trying to have a laugh when doing the job saw me through in the end. If you're a bit of a shrinking violet you probably won't get through the job interview for JET. What the organisers are looking for is people who are 'genki'...a Japanese word which means 'full of beans' and enthusiastic.

Where did you stay?

I was given a nice, small, one-bedroom flat which my predecessor had lived in. It was sort of a hand-me-down which went with the job.

For the first couple of weeks, before I copped-out and bought a western-style bed, I slept on the floor on a Japanese futon. It wasn't the kind of wooden thing you buy at IKEA, but simply a thin mattress - more like a blanket - with a thin duvet. The flat was very cold in winter: there's no central heating in Japan because the piping it needs could shake a house to the ground if there was an earthquake. That's what I was told anyway.

In short, as a JET teacher, you'll either be given a flat which is quite cheap or free, or your teaching supervisor will help you find somewhere.

How did you integrate into Japanese society? Did you make many friends?

Yes I did, but I'm not sure it was 'integrating myself' into Japanese society. There were some JETS who threw themselves into local life so much so that they consciously avoided western company. Each to their own as they say, but I thought they were slightly odd. My take on it was I've been sent to Japan to be Western, to teach kids about the outside world, not try and become Japanese myself.

I decided I'd have Japanese lessons with this local girl called Yoko. It turned out to be the best thing I did in my year in Japan. In a roundabout sort of way, Yoko changed my life.

It became clear pretty quickly that I was rubbish at Japanese - rubbish at speaking it, and even more rubbish at writing it - but being a lovely girl, Yoko didn't give up on me. One night at my flat we got talking about my failed attempt at getting into journalism school, and Yoko told me about Heart FM, the local radio station. She managed to get me an audition there, and I got my own show. It's this that eventually got me into journalism and to where I work today.

We decided on a funk show with lots of local news and ideas for things to do, aimed mostly at ex-pats. I sorted out the music side and presented in English and Yoko translated it all into Japanese. I had a great time and met loads of people.

Tell us a bit about the nightlife in Japan...

I don't know if we were sucked in to the drinking culture of Japanese society, but all of my closest mates in Japan would get completely wasted of a night out...wasted in a way I'd rarely do at home. The reason is there was no way of knowing how much we were drinking. We'd go to these places that ran 'nomihodi' (apologies for the almost certainly incorrect spelling), 'drink as much as you want, for a very small amount of money' affairs. We were all given these small glasses and then loads of big jugs of beer. After the fourth glass, it was impossible to pace yourself.

We did have great fun though, and almost every night like this would finish with us all crowding into a karaoke booth nearby and singing until about six in the morning until we got bored or fell asleep, or sometimes both.

Did you get many opportunities to travel around Japan?

Most of the parts of Japan I got to travel to were within an hour's drive of my flat. I don't feel I missed out though. I saw some amazing things and went to some amazing places. There was this ancient town hall in a village I doubt is in any tourist guide, where I was the only foreigner given the privilege of seeing a play that's older than Shakespeare. There were also times spent hiking in the hills in the simply breathtaking countryside between Niigata and Nagano.

I did go to some of the more usual tourist places too. Kyoto's an amazing place. It's the cultural heart of the country and its former capital. There are two quite spectacular temples there, Ginkajugi and Kinkakugi. One's covered in pure gold leaf, but both have amazing gardens and are breathtaking. I'd definitely recommend them. In general though, there are so many places to see in Kyoto I suggest you do what we did: hire a bike and spend a couple of days taking your time to have a good look around the fabulous city.

One thing you've got to do though is go to the Geisha district and try and see one. This part of the city, next to the river Kamo, is a labyrinth of alleyways...head along one and try to catch a Geisha. I saw one...it really made my day!

So that's Kyoto...the other place my school allowed me to go to was Tokyo. There's simply not enough space here to describe it. All I'm going to say is you'll be amazed. It's exactly what you think it'll be like.

If Tokyo's too big for you, try Osaka. I had a great weekend there. It's a lot easier to get around than Tokyo, and a lot less crowded too!

Finally, got any funny stories or particularly memorable incidents from your time in Japan?

Japan's the kind of place you could write a successful surrealist comedy show about (if you hadn't already been beaten to it). There was the time I went to this fertility festival in a remote snow-covered village, only to see be greeted by a large wooden phallus, being ridden by a group of Japanese ladies and carried on the shoulders of local men. (Little phallic lollies were on sale as souvenirs...it still makes me laugh.)

There was another time I was at an enkai, or a drinking party, with local Japanese teachers from school, when someone had the idea that we'd start doing toasts. They were teaching me the Japanese version, 'kampai', so I chipped in with 'chin-chin'. Smiles faded...some looked down, others pretended not to hear...only the occasional snigger from the insane teacher I never liked broke the silence. 'Chin-chin', I was told, is Japanese slang for penis.

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