Speak Japanese? You’ve got yourself a job


What kind of work will I find after leaving Japan? This is a question nearly all language teachers in Japan ask themselves at some point. And it’s a question that’s being asked more frequently, given the present state of the economy and its dwindling job prospects. There are, however, remarkable opportunities overseas for those wishing to put their experiences in Japan to use in the field of Japanese-language teaching.

“People assume you need excellent language ability to teach Japanese,” says Gina Edens, a full-time Japanese teacher and head of the Japanese Department at the Whitgift School, a boys’ school located south of London. “But that’s not true. What’s more important is knowing how to manage a classroom and having a love for teaching.”

While Edens taught English as an assistant language teacher on the JET program from 1991 to 1994, she learned to speak Japanese quite fluently, though her reading and writing skills remained basic. Even though these skills have improved immensely since she became a Japanese teacher, there are still times when her students ask her a question she isn’t confident enough to answer. “I find it’s best to be honest with the students,” explains Edens. “I tell them I’ll have to check the answer and get back to them. These are opportunities for me to learn still more Japanese along with them.”

Teaching a foreign language is not all about vocabulary and grammar; it’s also about kindling an interest in the country and its culture. For Edens, her three years living in Hokkaido provided her with a knowledge of daily Japanese life, culture and traditional customs that has become an asset in the classroom. “Students have a real interest in how Japanese people live,” Edens adds. “And I try to bring in materials that nourish that curiosity.”

Edens is just one of a growing number of former English instructors in Japan who are finding new careers in Japanese-language education. According to Kornelia Achrafie, program officer at the Japan Foundation London Language Centre, a resource center for Japanese-language studies, there are 293 schools in Britain that offer Japanese-language programs at the primary and secondary levels. At present 9,050 students are enrolled in these programs, a significant rise from the estimated 4,000 students in 1997.

This situation is not unique to Britain. In many countries, there is a growing interest in teaching Japanese, particularly at the secondary-school level. One of the major factors fueling this trend is the need to promote greater international understanding. For many young people throughout the world, however, the interest in learning Japanese comes from the influence of Japanese youth culture, manga and fashion.

“For many of my students, learning Japanese has more street credibility than, say, some European languages,” says Edens. “It’s cool to be the only kid on the street who can speak Japanese. Here, at Whitgift School, writing in Japanese has become a kind of secret code language among the younger boys. In this highly competitive world, having a skill like Japanese is definitely an advantage that many parents recognize and encourage. We’ve seen the difference it makes in university and job interviews.”

Edens’ own decision to become a certified Japanese instructor came several years after her JET experience. She wasn’t ready to settle down into a career right away. She wanted to see the world. Edens cycled for a month from Hokkaido to Kyushu, before taking a boat to Shanghai. She then traveled alone through China and South Asia for a year.

A few weeks after returning to England, Edens received a telephone call from a friend touring New Zealand, inviting her to come along. What was originally a plan to travel in New Zealand for six months turned into a 2-year stay. In the town of Nelson on the South Island, Edens noticed a language school that had just opened. She stepped inside and was offered a job teaching English and a working permit allowing her to stay in New Zealand.

Six months later she became the first person in the country to teach languages as part of an innovative government program in long-distance learning. Using the Internet and a conference phone to communicate with students located in distant towns around the island, Edens began teaching Japanese, along with French and German.

“A lot of our lessons centered around asking the students questions in Japanese about things they were interested in, including unusual local sports, and encouraging them to reply in Japanese, too.” explains Edens. “We had a lot of fun. This is how I learned to say things like ‘pig hunting’ in Japanese.”

Eden decided to make teaching her career, but she wanted proper teaching credentials first. Edens moved back to England and enrolled in a postgraduate education program at Nottingham University. The university’s one-year program is the only one in Britain offering Japanese-teacher certification. Graduates are almost assured of a job, Edens said. At present, she is one of four full-time Japanese instructors at Whitgift School, teaching 350 students, or roughly one-quarter of the student body. This year four Whitgift students have been offered places at Oxford and Cambridge to study Japanese, while others go on to study at other universities.

“There is a shortage of Japanese teachers here and JETs really should consider it. It’s a great career.”