Is it safe to teach in Japan anymore?

That was the question the mother of a son about my age asked me this weekend. Her son has been going to school and then teaching English in China for the past couple of years, but he’s thinking maybe he wants to go to Japan next. Why would his mother think it less safe to teach in Japan than China?

Because last week NOVA, one of Japan’s largest private language school franchises, shut down due to financial crisis. This made big headlines around the world because many of the company’s foreign teachers found themselves stranded in Japan, having not been paid for a month or more. Some foreign embassies wound up offering aid to stranded teachers. A quick recap of the company’s collapse:

The firm, which mainly offers English classes, has more than 800 schools and 400,000 students across Japan.

But in June, it was ordered to suspend part of its operations, after a court ruled it had misled customers in advertisements about some services.

Since then, student enrolment has fallen sharply and Nova has accumulated debts of up to JPY50bn ($437m, £213m).

Its 2,000 Japanese staff have not been paid since July and some 4,000 non-Japanese instructors have not been paid their salary for October, union officials said.

Nova has now closed all its schools, Kyodo news agency said.

I can certainly see why this kind of news would concern parents of adult children who are off to the other side of the world to teach English. But as I wrote before, in a post at my old blog last February, I’m concerned about all non-regulated foreign English teaching programs. The post, “Foreign English Teachers: Products or People?,” actually started out with a reference to NOVA. I was reposting an evaluation of the probably future of English teachers in Japan, written by a friend, which ended thus:

There are some private company teachers [contracted to public schools] around already. I have met a few of these folks, and they have it really rough. I am quite comfortable on my JET salary, but would not be without the subsidized housing, the paid vacations or if my salary was much lower. It is difficult to live in Japan on that kind of salary. It would be better to work for NOVA than one of the companies that contracts out to BOEs.

So it now appears that the only big stable teaching option left in Japan is JET, which is stable precisely because it isn’t private. I don’t actually think it is any more dangerous for a person to work for a private English teaching program in Japan than it is to work for one anywhere else in the world. Which is to say, doing so anywhere in the world puts the teacher at risk of poor pay, unstable work conditions, bait-and-switch tactics to get them in country, and the possibility of being unemployed far away from a support network. As I pointed out later in that post, it happened to me in Taiwan. It happened to another former JET I know when she went to Russia. It isn’t country-specific. It’s beginning to seem like there isn’t a way for a person going abroad to teach to confirm their program won’t be a scam, without them moving to the country first, and then looking for a job, which rather limits the job market to people who have outside means of support while looking for said reputable job.

I do still recommend the JET program to many people, and I did to the mother who asked me the question. As I said before,

The JET program has long been the best-run major EFL teaching program out there. They know their stuff; the teachers don’t have to worry about getting lost on the way to orientation in a country where they don’t speak the language, or that their schools will forget them if there’s a typhoon. Certainly, every JET has a different experience, with some better than others in terms of coworkers or housing or whatever, but there is still a mandate from the national governmental level that they will be taken care of. It’s interesting that JET actually stands for Japan Exchange and Teaching, founded on the idea that the foreign teachers were there both as teachers and as citizens of other countries that Japan might like to give a favorable impression to.

But unfortunately, I also have to say that my final conclusions about private programs only appear to be made stronger by the collapse of NOVA:

But if countries around the world are so keen to import genuine, exotic, native English speakers to lend an air of legitimacy and prestige to their efforts at English education, they need to decide if they are looking for actual teachers, or whether they just want pretty parrots who end up living in a cage of semi-legal status, poor pay, and no available support network. If it’s the latter, I have to say, I wouldn’t suggest foreign teaching as a worthwhile experience for anyone anymore. If it’s the former, then the school systems themselves need to get involved in the hiring and hosting of the teachers, and treat them with the respect they deserve as professionals, rather than as commodities to be displayed when convenient.

If you know of a truly well-run, professional foreign English teaching program, in any country, and would like to spread the word, please leave a comment. Certainly we are in need of some good news.

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8 Responses to Is it safe to teach in Japan anymore?

  1. safelyinsane says:

    Hmm, I didn’t hear about the problems concerning NOVA. As there’s a possibility I may be teaching English in Japan some time in the future, I found this post nice and informative. Thanks for bringing this stuff to attention. =)

  2. Roy Huggins says:

    Ya, those poor people are in pretty dire straits. NOVA never paid very well to begin with. So getting home is often tough even when you do get your paycheck.

    But there is still Interac and other smaller companies that provide ALTs that are plenty solvent. And, of course, there’s always JET.

  3. Dana says:

    Roy, since you’re over there, do you know anything about the current working conditions with Interac and similar programs? When Sarah was over there last year, she said the ALTs contracted with her BOE through private companies had crappy pay and more restrictive contracts (see above.) Even though the companies are solvent, they might not be good to work for. When I was there, I don’t think any private companies were contracting with BOEs yet.

  4. Jennie says:

    I would teach abroad through CIEE. They only offer programs in China, Spain, Chile, and Thailand, but I did my study abroad through them and had an amazing time. When I was in China, I had a few friends who were there teaching through CIEE and they all seemed to like it and had good experiences with the program.

  5. Laura says:

    I teach english in Japan right now and work with Interac. I haven’t been here for that long (around four months), but would recommend them to anyone. They have helped me every step of the way, which is very important for me from a company as I speak no Japanese.
    The job is essentially the same as JET, but I don’t make quite as much (I’m making 250,000 per month). However, it is MORE than enough to survive, and still save lots. I do live in a rural area though.
    I found the almost year-long application process very daunting with JET – this is why I chose to come over here with Interac. And I don’t regret my decision, it’s been great so far.

  6. How well you are treated by Interac seems to depend entirely on what branch you are in. My friends that have worked for Interac have reported a much better treatment in the rural areas and in than in the larger cities. this is primarily because in larger cities, Interac has a greater pool of people to choose from and feels less compelled to follow its own policies or, in some cases, Japanese law. People in the Tokyo or Chiba areas have reported higher satisfaction than in Osaka, but all major cities still have problems. The easiest way to make sure that you are not getting taken advantage of in the teaching industry here within ANY is to join a union and learn your rights as a worker in Japan.
    http://interac.generalunion.org

  7. Brian says:

    I can’t say I totally agree, but somewhat. I work for a BOE serviced by the Yokohama branch. Despite being in Japan’s 2nd most populous area, we are taken care of very well. They are much more flexible than NOVA with regards to procedure. If for exapmle, you can’t attend a meeting, it’s ok to tell them without receiving any penalty or reprimand, and they don’t give you a hard time about calling in sick. They just say ok we’ll call your school and get well. They are proactive and reactive in keeping their employees out of trouble. They for example sent out a company wide memo reassuring their teachers that Interac was still a secure place to work following NOVA’s collapse. That being said, just looking at Gaijinpot website, their main recruiting tool, you can easily see that different branches make different arrangements with their teachers. For example, ones such as Hiroshima try to sell you on the scenic beauty of rural Japan, and write up descriptions of the areas they dispatch to. They also offer monthly bonuses for certified Japanese proficiency and contract renewal bonuses. The Yokohama branch, by comparison, does none of these. Their job ads use a template and no real information about the position is offered. And the sole deciding factor in pay is what the BOE chooses to pay for it’s ALTs, which fluctuates from year to year. You could actually be making more money or less money in subsequent years. A particularly underhanded thing they do (aside from the now industry standard national pension dodge of “29.5” hour contracts) is to state your 250,000 yen or whatever salary per month with no mention in the job ads of the fact that you will not receive this amount 4 of the 12 months of the year. During August there is no work whatsoever, and Interac pays 60% of your salary. The time off might be nice, but 2 months later when you have to live off that for a month, it’s tough. Then again for December the pay is 75%, and the first and last month of the contract are prorated. It’s typical to only get 50% of your pay for March and April, which means 2 months down the line that you’ve got your work cut out for you trying to scrape by. That’s pay, now as for working conditions, despite the fact that they are nickel and diming you and trying to escape every financial loophole they can, the actual working environment is nice. Or should I say can be nice. You don’t work at all with a supervisor. You work in a real Japanese school with real teachers who are far removed from the antics of a service industry. As such, it’s easy to forget you work for Interac and get caught up in feeling like you’re really a part of the school. It’s very gratifying, and it eliminates the desire to retaliate against the employer by not working overtime. In a typical work week, you’ll have about 3-4 classes a day, each 50 minutes. That’s no more than 20 hours of teaching a week. So although you are required to be in the school for 40 hours a week, you teach no more than half of that. So there no rush to prepare for class like there is at a NOVA. You have more than enough time to come up with teaching plans, make materials and self reflection.After school they actually encourage you to join in club activities, so you will be payed to play basketball for example. Nothing to do with teaching. But, and this is a big but, Interac has very few guidelines as to how the schools and the Japanese teachers responsible for the Interac teacher are to treat them. You may work in a school where everything is run with efficiency and you always know what to expect, or a school that overworks you with too many lessons, or a school with bad Japanese English teachers, forcing you to have to work even harder not only to find your bearings but to feel comfortable in a class where very little effective team teaching is happening. Still on the whole, it is a very low stress job with lots of time off. Just brace yourself for low pay.

  8. John B says:

    Thanks for all the detailed info about Interac. I’ll be starting my year in Japan with them in April 08, and it’s good to hear actual testimony. Reading some of the postings of the NOVA (NO PAY) debacle has me a bit spooked. No citizen, no rights? -John B

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