Before I came to Japan, I had a problem: I wanted to find information online about the highs and lows of being an ALT, but I had no idea who to believe. ALTs with a good experience focused on a highlight reel of awesome moments. ALTs with a bad experience focused on trading horror stories.
I wanted to believe the positive types, but the number of people who complained was not easy to ignore. Both were very biased and neither of them were entirely reliable.
This is a long blog. A very long blog. It’s long because I wanted to do something better than just be a cheerleader or a troll—I wanted to write the guide I wanted to read five years ago. I will look at the best and worst case scenarios in various aspects of ALT life and my thoughts on each of them so that you’ll have a better idea of what to expect. I’ll try to do it without being overly biased.
I can’t guarantee what your experience will be like. No amount of reading online can. You will never know what your life here will be like unless you come here and try it out yourself. For what it’s worth, I think even if you have a terrible time, living abroad is a worthwhile experience that can teach you things about life, people, and yourself that nothing else can.
Now, in no particular order:
— SCHOOL STAFF —
Best Case Scenario: You work in a school with staff and students who are positive, friendly, and respectful. The other teachers and office staff make an effort to communicate with you about upcoming meetings and events, changes in the schedule, and other things you need to know. The staff also goes out of its way to help you when you have a problem. Staff also make an effort to topple the language barrier by using simple English or whatever level of Japanese you have. You are invited to join assemblies, staff dinners, etc, to make you feel welcomed. Staff sometimes make small talk with you just to be friendly. Kouchou-sensei and Kyoutou-sensei make a special effort to make you feel welcome, chit chat with you, and double-check that you know what’s going on.
Worst Case Scenario: You work in a school where staff respond to you negatively. You are spoken down to or ignored because of your lack of Japanese ability. Even if your Japanese is flawless, the fact that you are not Japanese results in you constantly being isolated. There is little or no effort to communicate with you, and you are left to find help for things like insurance and maintenance on your own. You ask questions and are answered with 「ちょとまってね」 until you get tired of waiting and ask again, at which point you hear the same answer. Kocho-sensei and/or Kyoutou-sensei don’t take a special interest in you or your well-being. In extreme cases, you may suffer verbal or physical abuse or harassment.
Basically: You spend 8+ hours of your day there five days a week, so the staff at your school can have a huge impact on your impression of Japan. For the most part, staff will at least make sure you are in good enough a situation to get to and from school. Some staff will go the distance helping set you up with the things you need, out of the simple goodness of their hearts, though this isn’t guaranteed.
You’ll probably be invited to dinner parties involving the entire staff, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on receiving social calls unless you have a number of teachers who are similar in age to you, though if you are proactive enough, there are possibilities.
Verbal and physical abuse or harassment does happen. This blog can’t really advise you on what to do if that happens. Your contracting organization should have some sort of support system in place for you, but if you are afraid of retribution, the closest embassy or consulate for your country can tell you far more than I can.
— ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS —
BCS: You live in a metropolitan area and there are many unmarried singles your age who live nearby. You have lively clubs, bars, and restaurants in your area where you can easily meet new people, play, go out on dates, or sneak away to love hotels.
WCS: You live on the peak of the tallest mountain in your area, one hour away from the nearest conbini, let alone love hotel. The one cute girl/guy in your town is married or engaged or has been dating someone seriously for years and is on the road to these. Even if you did find a potential love interest, you’d have to convince them to make the trek out to wherever you live, which could be a serious strain on the relationship over time.
B: The truth is you are extremely likely to end up in the inaka as a JET. In rarer cases you might be living in a mountain village. Japanese youngsters graduate high school and do most of their romantic adventuring in college, it seems, and by the time they come back to their home town to where you might see them, they’ve settled down and are probably on the way to marriage. This means that 24-year-old cutie who smiles at you might just want to practice English, not go on a date.
This does not mean relationships are impossible: It just means it takes a lot more work. If Japan decides you are one of the Beautiful People, the Beautiful People, you won’t have to work too hard searching for the rare available singles around you. If you’re just a regular joe, all hope is not lost: Work on your presentation and your relationship IQ, think about how you can increase your connections to people in your area. Don’t be discouraged by how many times you hit air, keep swinging that bat.
— STUDENTS —
BCS: Your kids are interested and excited to be in English class. They are friendly right off the bat. Your students not only pay attention in class, but eagerly seek you out for practice speaking English or just to learn more about you.
WCS: Any delinquent class from a comedy manga, but without the funny. They hate English, they hate you. Class is a nightmare and students are throwing things, walking in and out of class, and getting into actual physical fights with teachers. Also: Bullying, weapons, and, um, exploration, in and out of class.
B: Usually, students are the greatest part of this job. Being a part of helping young people grow is one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have in your life.
They are young and still retain a lot more open-mindedness than their elders, and so your students are more willing to be friendly with you and have positive interactions. Exams pressure a lot of JTEs into making boring classes based on drills and memorization, but you want to have fun, your students want to have fun, and so you’ll sometimes find yourself feeling more allied with them than the other adult in the room.
Things can get bad. Japanese teachers seem to be hesitant to discipline students (at least in any way visible to an ALT) for fear of their parents. But if you do have issues with students, tell your JTE. It might work its way to a teacher or staff member who can fix things behind the scenes.
Luckily, I think students are usually the rarest cause of ALT angst. If you are positive and friendly, after a while they will be friendly with you. If your English classes aren’t boring or ill-conceived, they will be cooperative in class.
— EXPENSES —
BCS: Your income covers all of your expenses and leaves you with a surplus. You got money to put in the bank or go out on the town or travel to faraway places. In fact, you never find yourself worrying about money, because you never need more than you have, or because you have so much saved up already.
WCS: Welcome to the struggle. You have enough money to pay bills, eat, and not much else. Your town, apartment, transportation, or other such, are so expensive that the once mighty ALT salary is stretched to its extreme limits. You feel the pinch every month, and you only exhale in relief when pay day rolls around. And the process begins again…
B: In the past few years, salaries for ALTs have suffered reductions. Without a lot of planning and cleverness, you probably won’t be able to simultaneously afford travel, eating out every week, savings, and pricey hobbies. The roads are no longer paved in gold like in the 80’s, so you’ll have to pick and choose what you want to put your money into, but you’ll get the hang of it. You won’t be rich, but you should be able to live comfortably.
— ENGLISH —
BCS: The people in your life speak it.
WCS: The people in your life are riddled with anxiety by it.
B: Japanese people put themselves under unfair pressure to speak perfect English. This leads to all sorts of anxieties and neurotic behavior about English and interaction with visibly foreign people (the idea that all foreigners speak English is one that is not easily unseated).
English will obviously be a big part of your life, and a big part of how you make friends and other connections. Most Japanese people can’t communicate in English and/or have a borderline phobia of speaking English, so be kind and supportive when they try. There are some overzealous folks who will chase down any foreigner they see to speak English. This will get a little annoying after you’ve actually experienced it, but think about how rare it is for them to get a chance to speak English. This is not an obligation: Your time is your time, and you can decide when you’re feeling charitable.
Your life will be easier the more Japanese you understand, because you won’t have to depend as much on the 2 or 3 people in your town who are bilingual every time something comes up. It may not be your goal in life to be fluent in Japanese, but learning the language of the country you live in, is never not a smart thing to do.
— ENGLISH CLASS —
BCS: The goal of each class is to both prepare students for tests and also to give them time to develop communicative competence. Students learn rules and pronunciation and are also given communicative tasks that guide them towards using the language learned in class to express themselves. Class is lively because students, JTEs, and ALTs each have varying, engaging tasks to perform over the course of the class. You have a sensible workload, time to prep for classes you lead or make materials for, and your JTEs give you support and feedback.
WCS: All that matters is the tests. The JTE teaches rules from the textbook; the students memorize them. The ALT reads words from the textbook; the students repeat them. The JTE spends long stretches of time writing on the black board, the students spend long stretches of time taking notes or filling out worksheets, and the ALT spends long stretches of time looking out of the window, wondering ‘What am I doing here?’ You have an incredibly packed schedule, and when you are tasked with leading classes or creating materials, you are given no guidelines or instruction, your JTE undermines your instructions, and when things fall apart, you’re all on your own.
B: The best English classes are the ones where everybody’s doing something. Obviously the students need input on what these alien words mean, how to use them, and how to pronounce them, but it is the JTE of the 21st century who strives to also make time for students to use them, and develop linguistic independence.
The weaker the English skills of your JTE, the more likely you are to have a class that relies little on communicating and heavily on memorization and writing. Stronger JTEs are more enthusiastic and more communicative, which is a win-win for everybody.
So basically, the better your JTE is at actually speaking English, the more likely you are to have engaging classes. (This is definitely not a 100% guarantee.) The closer your students are to exams, the more textbook-heavy will your classes become, though some enlightened JTEs will mix things up with review activities and games instead of just quizzes and worksheets. Finally, senior classes, whose students will soon be entering new schools and/or taking entrance exams, can have a lot of textbook-heaviness, and you may be invited to participate less than in other classes as they focus on test prep.
It’s always nice to be asked to create and lead activities or lesson plans, though it can be intimidating at first. It’ll feel like you’ve dropped a baby into a shark tank the first time you bomb in class, but I assure you that if you put your mind to it, you’ll get better.
Be warned: Japanese folks aren’t big into criticizing people directly, and even less so when a gaikokujin is involved, so you will either have to press your JTE for feedback or ask other ALTs for help figuring out how to improve an idea. While some ALTs sit in the office for eight hours a day, some never get a moments rest and end up bringing work home.
— JTEs —
BCS: You and your JTE work as a team. The JTE has a plan for class, is organized, and can amicably interact with students while retaining a sense of authority. The JTE communicates clearly with you in class when making requests, giving instruction, or information. More than simply speaking English words, your JTE knows how to communicate with you, and doesn’t let not knowing a specific word stop them from talking to you. Best of all, they’re not snobs about their English ability/your Japanese ability, and engage in a little give-and-take.
WCS: You never actually see the JTE because they don’t ask you to come to class. They either think of you as unnecessary or are too embarrassed to speak around you.
Otherwise, you are a team, but not like above: You are Textbook Man and The Human Tape Recorder. It’s their job to cram data and rules into the students’ heads, and it’s your job to mindlessly bark textbook English on command and then have the students mindlessly bark after you. They are not organized, and they cannot or won’t give you clear instruction about what they want you to do. The JTE is overly familiar with you (like not attaching -sensei to your name), and though they might memorize some superficial trivia about you, they don’t really respect or recognize you as much more than a gaijin.
B: Oh boy. Oh boy, oh man. A bad JTE is probably the greatest source of ALT unhappiness. Just five minutes speaking to a bad JTE can be fucking torture, let alone two or three hours a day. If it weren’t for one of my JTEs now, I’d probably be 20lbs lighter, less stressed out, and this blog wouldn’t exist.
I’d probably be the type of person who thought the purpose of this blog was to rain on everyone’s parade.
Anyway, JTEs have varying levels of English, and varying attitudes about English class. In general, younger teachers tend to have better English and are more interested in communicative classes and interacting with foreigners, while older teachers tend to have weaker English, focus solely on rote memorization, and allow their embarrassment to be a barrier towards interacting with you. However, I’ve known fantastic, collaborative older JTEs and standoffish, elitist younger JTEs. And of course, teachers who really love English and love teaching defy these stereotypes.
If you find yourself working with a JTE who has issues with anxiety, do yourself a favor and try to make them feel comfortable around you. I don’t care how you do it, do it. No, you shouldn’t have to. No, their anxiety is not your responsibility. No, it’s not even guaranteed to work. But if you plan on staying here until the end of your contract, trust a guy who knows, it’s not worth it to your health to be in a stressful, contentious relationship for months and months on end.
— THE JAPANESE PEOPLE —
BCS: People are people.
WCS: People are people.
B: One of the greatest lessons I learned living here is just that: people are people. The things that make us human make us all human, even here in Japan. If you’re like most ALTs, when you first get here you will think every Japanese person is an absolute angel, always polite, always pleasant. Then once culture shock sets in, you will be very sensitive to things that annoy you about them.
If you stick around long enough, you’ll see that the Japanese people aren’t all good, they’re not all bad, they’re just people. 127,000,000 of them. There are people who drive too fast; there are people who help you dig your car out of the snow without you asking. There are people who will see you as an unique individual and treat you like a human being; and there are people who want to make you feel small and insignificant. There are people driving black trucks around Tokyo shouting “Japan for the Japanese!”; and there are cute old ladies in kimono at the community center who want to hold a tea ceremony for you.
Of course there are things that are unique to Japanese people. But when you ask yourself questions about them, it can be really helpful to ask yourself if it’s a Japanese thing, or if it’s a human thing that other peoples do as well. It’s easy to get into idealizing or demonizing them otherwise, and doing either treats the Japanese as 2-dimensional caricatures, and not as a group of complex, unique people.
— LEARNING JAPANESE —
BCS: Regardless of your current level, you receive a lot of support and encouragement to use Japanese. There is a reputable Japanese class/teacher nearby you who works with students to reach their individual goals. There are people around you who are interested in studying Japanese and in having events like language exchanges.
WCS: Nobody cares about your Japanese. Other foreigners have a very competitive attitude about Japanese ability, and Japanese folks ignore your speaking attempts and only respond to you in English. Some people might outright tell you to give up or to not even try, because, they say, there exists so much nuance and reliance on reading between the lines in the Japanese language that only Japanese people can really understand it.
B: Learning Japanese is not easy. It’s not hard, but it’s not easy. It basically comes down to how much time and effort you put into learning it and using it.
Of course, you really do have to study it and use it. A lot of ALTs kinda, sorta want to learn Japanese, but find excuses not to. Having some sort of study routine will probably be helpful, as well as finding some way to make yourself accountable or track your progress.
There are catty Nihongo-Okay ALTs who lack true confidence and get into linguistic pissing contests; do not let them make you stop. There are also friendly, supportive people who like to help. Find them. Be one of them.
For speaking practice, it’s easy to assume that having a boyfriend/girlfriend who speaks that language will be helpful, but I’ve witnessed a number of relationships where the stronger, more motivated partner dominated the linguistic give-and-take, light on the give, heavy on the take. This isn’t necessarily because they’re greedy or selfish—you have to remember a good girlfriend/boyfriend is not necessarily a good teacher. But if you show that you are serious about learning and talk about this from the get-go, you might be able to make it work.
It’s awkward at first, but I think setting up a language exchange is the best way to get speaking practice. You can find people online or in your area, and if they’re not interested in a 50/50 exchange, you can dump them without a lot of drama. If you sign up with a teacher or a class, make sure that they actually give you what you’re looking for to avoid wasting time or money.
— YOU —
BCS: You are treated as an individual, with a unique identity, with hopes and dreams and desires. Your gender, ethnic, and sexual presentation are noted in tandem with your dignity as a human being.
WCS: You are seen through the lens of stereotypes. This includes stereotypes about foreigners throughout Asia and Japan, as well as stubborn stereotypes that are projected around the world from Hollywood.
B: So, here’s some more really-real stuff nobody seems to talk about, but the way people treat you can be very different depending on your ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.
Asian ALTs are expected to play more by the rules of Japanese society and have less Gaijin Smash xp than any other ethnicity. While it’s harder for you to get away with stuff like wild hair or complaining about work, it seems you are more easily accepted by the people around you. (The only JET ALTs I’ve known to be offered the fabled direct hire from their schools have been Asian ALTs, but that’s anecdotal evidence for you.)
If you’re on the brown~black spectrum, you have incredibly high levels of Gaijin Smash xp, but you must wield it wisely. You probably won’t face hatred here, but you will face a massive gap of knowledge about brown~black people. As such, you will probably hear some stuff that would be wildly rude back home said with all the innocence of a lamb by Japanese folks that absolutely must touch your skin and hair to make sure it’s real. Also: Yes, they are staring at you. Yes, they are staring at that part. Yes, they are talking about it. Think about newborn puppies until it’s over.
In Japan, white ALTs find themselves in the novel position of being subject to minority stereotypes. Perhaps for the first time, you will find your intelligence or capabilities being brought into question because of the color of your skin. You might also find your physical features under the same scrutiny as the brown~black ALTs above. (Yes, you’re being stared at too.) I usually say all non-Asian ALTs more or less suffer the same negatives, but white ALTs usually enjoy higher Adoration xp. (Japanese advertising, especially fashion/cosmetic adverts interested in setting up irrational standards of beauty, have a very noticeable fixation on white folks.)
I’m a straight man, so I am sitting on the tippy-top of the gender/sexuality privilege totem pole, and as such I don’t really know about the struggles female and LGBT ALTs face. If you’ve read this guide and you do know have experience regarding the female or LGBT ALT experience, or you are over 30 or an ESL ALT, please feel free to leave a comment here, or send me a tweet. I would love to update this guide with that info.
As Kurt Vonnegut once said, ETC.
Your life will probably be somewhere in the middle of the highs and lows described above. If your life is so great that you don’t have a single complaint, great!: But your teachers change every April, and so too will the dynamics at your school. Think about how long you really want to stay here, because it won’t be good forever.
If your situation is pretty terrible, it might get better come April, or it might stay the same. It’s up to you to decide if you’re willing to take that chance. Save up some money, prepare your CVs and cover letters, create an exit strategy for yourself, and try to get out sooner than later.
The more I look at this sucker, the bigger it gets. It’s not doing anyone any good in constant editing, so here it is, I hope this helps.