Peace Boat (guest post)

I met Amy Blanchard when I was working in Palma, Majorca, in May this year. She told me about a fascinating project called ‘Peace Boat’ and I asked her to write a guest post to share it more widely. This is the result:

Peace Boat is a Japan-based international non-governmental and non-profit organization that works to promote peace, human rights, equal and sustainable development and respect for the environment.

Peace Boat carries out its main activities through a chartered passenger ship that travels the world on peace voyages. The ship creates a neutral, mobile space and enables people to engage across borders in dialogue and mutual cooperation at sea, and in the ports that we visit. 

Peace Boat ship

When I found out Peace Boat hire volunteer English and Spanish teachers for their round-the-world voyages, I obviously saw it as a wonderful opportunity to travel the world. The role is unpaid but your bed and board provided for, and although you work nearly every day when the boat is at sea, days in port are free.

You perfect the skill of exploring a place in a short amount of time, free of the typical hassles of arriving in a new place such as finding somewhere to stay and lugging around your backpack. With some decent planning, it’s amazing how much you can see in just one day. Moving on quickly allows you to see the bigger picture; the similarities and differences between places as you slowly travel (in my case) from east to west. It’s a really unique way of seeing the world. What I hadn’t appreciated is that it’s also an incredible teaching job.

70th Peace Boat route map

Working as a volunteer teacher on the GET (Global English/Español Training) programme you really feel part of a team (on my voyage; 3 co-ordinators, 10 English teachers, 2 Spanish teachers) setting up an on-board school. You are involved in every step of the process. The participants complete a level test prior to arrival but oral tests/interviews are done on board by the teachers. As a group, the teachers and co-ordinators look at the results as well as the profiles of the participants and work together to arrange them into classes, with a maximum class size of seven students.

Each teacher has two classes of the same (or very similar) level, which helps reduce planning. There are no text books. There is no syllabus. The teacher has complete freedom. At the time, having only had one teaching job, I didn’t appreciate how wonderful this was. Now, post-Delta, with years of being forced to teach from awful and irrelevant textbooks I realise (for me, personally) this is the holy grail of teaching. We had access to a wealth of resources on board, including lessons from previous voyages and information on the various ports that we would visit on the journey. This was the main resource I drew on for my classes.

T-shirt from the 70th Peace Boat voyage

Before arriving in Singapore, we used maps of the Singapore metro and the city to ask for and follow directions. When my students expressed excitement about Indian markets, we had lessons on money and haggling before spending the day in Kochin, India. The students were motivated by how useful and relevant the lessons were, and it was so satisfying to see them in the following classes, bringing things that they’d bought in the markets and explaining how much they paid for them. For longer periods at sea (ten days crossing the Atlantic; fourteen across the Pacific) we focused on communicating with the crew on the boat. This helped foster relations on board and even helped solve some miscommunication problems between one student and the person who cleaned her room.

What began as a way of seeing the world ended as my most positive teaching experience. It was Peace Boat that made me fall in love with teaching again, when I was on the cusp of giving it up. I made some amazing friends and some amazing memories (teaching and playing Twister in a hurricane, attending a lecture with Fidel Castro and dancing under the stars in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, to name but a few).

GET, Peace Boat’s language training programme, is now accepting applications for English and Spanish language instructors for the 91st global voyage departing Japan on April 12, 2016 and returning to Japan on July 27, 2016.


Amy was an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET programme in Japan before moving to Andalucía, Spain to work for International House Huelva. She is now an English teacher and CELTA tutor in Majorca.

Japan or bust: journey’s end (guest post)

This is the final part of a series of posts by one of my university friends, Graham Moore. He is currently teaching English in Japan, and has agreed to write about the experience for my blog. All of the posts are available under the ‘EFL in Osaka‘ category.

Graham’s magic!

Phase 7: Journey’s End

Eikawa: GABA

And now we come to the grand finale. Sort of. Gaba was actually one of the very first places I applied to upon returning to Japan, literally within a week of landing. Gaba is a nation-wide conversation school that specialises in tutoring (usually) adults one-to-one English with customised lessons, making them uniquely suited to the style of teaching I was looking for…. with a few provisos that I will explain later.

Gaba hires instructors from many walks of life to create a diverse selection of teachers for their clients. You don’t need even to be a native English speaker, just a fluent speaker, but with at least a Bachelor’s degree and like all EFL positions, a history of teaching will play in your favour. With no former teaching experience and no teaching qualification, I emphasised my educational background, my varied interests and my travel experience in my resume. This tactic worked and I was accepted for an interview.

The interview was the most formal I have had so far; strictly dark suit, smart shoes and tie. The applicants were given a company talk and asked to take a short English/teaching quiz* just to prove we could at least think like teachers, even if we had no experience. We were given separate interviews, in which I blagged confidence harder than I have ever done before. My interviewer told me my resume was impressive and that, were I to be hired, I would likely be popular with clients with science-based jobs, wanting to learn English to aid their research/understanding of scientific literature.

*Research helps. I found at least two blogs describing the Gaba interviews in detail. One common question was “Is _____ a gerund?” Though proficient in English, I am not as knowledgable in its terminology. A gerund is a word that is both a noun and a verb, e.g. painting, building. In my interview, the word in question was ‘boring’. I answered no, with the reasoning that I knew ‘boring’ as a verb and an adjective. It turns out that a hole made by boring can also be called a ‘boring’, hence it can be a noun and therefore is a gerund. I would personally call this a bore-hole; I do not know if this was counted against me or not. [Note from Sandy: I didn’t know this either. I feel there may be a flaw in this logic.]

Two days later I was called back for a second interview and trial lesson with a staff member acting as a client, just to see how I performed. I did the best I could and I think I performed admirably. But two days later, I received an email I had been dreading…. I had not been accepted for the April recruitments. They did ask my permission to keep my details in case they wished to contact me in the future. Something I was genuinely not expecting them to do. But after two months of job hunting and working at conversation cafes, I received an unexpected phone call at the end of May, asking me if I was still interested and willing to start training next week for April recruitment. I gleefully accepted.

Before I had even applied to Gaba, I had done extensive background research on the company and doing so revealed many mixed opinions, the bulk of which centre around their scheduling system. Gaba instructors are not employees, but contractors and hence are not entitled to many standards that most workers are, including compensation for training days and travel costs. They also do not provide set working hours, meaning one’s attendance may be required without guarantee of salary. But it is also this system that gives Gaba its greatest perk: flexibility.

Allow me to explain further. Instructors choose their own working hours, divided into 40 minute lessons throughout the day, from 7:00-22:00 on weekdays and 8:45-21:15 on weekends. You can choose to teach anything from one lesson per week to fifty (or more if you have the energy!). Taking holidays are easy; if you want a day, week or even a month off, you simply don’t book any slots for those days. However, these time slots have to be booked by students (or allocated to students by the counsellors) for it to count as a lesson. If you make yourself available for ten slots on a particular day, but only seven get booked, you are only paid for seven lessons.

Depending on your lifestyle, this can be somewhat disorderly. Imagine you have designated slots for three lessons, a break and then another two lessons. Now imagine only the first three are booked. This is not too much of a problem – you can easily ask the staff to cancel the last two and go home early. But imagine that only the first and last lessons are booked. This will mean about two and a half hours of doing (almost) nothing and not getting paid. Likewise, last minute bookings are not uncommon, and you may have prepared for three lessons, only to discover you have a fourth minutes before it starts.

Occasionally, you get No Shows, meaning the lesson is booked, but the student does not turn up. In such cases, the Instructor is still paid but must remain his/her booth in case the student does appear, even if it’s only for the last five minutes. If the student cancels before 6 pm the previous day, the lesson slot becomes unbooked again. If the student cancels after 6 pm the previous day, the lesson slot becomes rebookable, meaning the instructor will be present and get paid, but will either have to teach a late booking or do related activities such as marking homework.

The likelihood of being booked is, on average, is 60% for a new instructor. Gaba encourage you to book early mornings, evenings and weekends where possible as these are peak hours. Should you become promoted (‘belted up’ in their terminology), you will also earn more money per lesson during these hours. Your likelihood of being booked also increases with time spent in the company and for veterans, it is about 90-100%.

Timetable of my first week. UME and CHA refer to the teaching locations.

Monday: I was being certified, so no lessons

Tuesday: Allocated five lessons, none were booked. Not surprising given it was only online for 24 hours. Spent the first three slots planning for tomorrow’s lessons, cancelled the last two and went home.

Wednesday: First proper day and all five slots were booked, including two of the desirable client-requested blue bookings!

Thursday: Four allocated slots, only the first and last were booked. Had a very long lunch break.

Friday: Day off!

Saturday: Five allocated slots, four were booked. The 16:00 slot was booked less than an hour before the lesson started, so speedy preparation was required.

Sunday: Five slots, first three were booked. Luckily, I was able to cancel the unbooked slots and meet up with a friend.

I was fully aware of (and okay with) all of this information before I even had my interview. Regardless of what you may think of Gaba’s system, I believe they very open about the pros and pitfalls of it. The booking system is explained in detail during the company talk, on their website and even on Wikipedia. I have a feeling that many of the complaints of Gaba that I had read about were from instructors who had not researched the company – as late as the contract signing, there was an individual in our group who appeared to be unaware of the payment system. To counter, I have spoken to many staff members who are more than happy with working for Gaba, even after many years.

The training was a breakdown of the company and their teaching method. Gaba uses communicative language teaching as their ideology and emphasises learning functions of a language (e.g. describing people, scheduling, complaining) over the more traditional methods like learning grammar and sentence structure. They produce many text books to cover many functions, and some are specialised to business clients, some to travellers, some to those needing it for every day activities. Gaba also prides itself on customisation; altering the text and teaching additional words and phrases relevant to the client’s needs – something harder to do outside of one-to-one teaching.

A typical lesson consists of 5 minutes chatting, 10 minutes reading the target language (a sample conversation) and answering any of the client’s questions about words and phrases they may be unfamiliar with, 10-15 minutes of practising additional words and phrases, and inventing examples that may be useful to the client, 5-10 minutes of role play and 5 minutes of feedback. However, clients may request anything that helps them with their skills, whether it be reading a newspaper, scientific journal, practising a presentation or even just having a conversation. As I am a new instructor, many just want to spend the lesson chatting and get to know me. Even in such cases, we are still expected to take notes and suggest improvements for the client’s English.

The trainees practised trial sessions with one another, and we discovered the importance of planning a lesson in only a few minutes, keeping track of time during the lesson, altering your language to suit the client’s level and coming up with ideas on the fly. After three days of training we were…. almost… ready to start teaching. Experience will be the practice from here on.

At the time of writing, I’ve had about 25 lessons and already I’ve seen great variety in the client base in terms of background, hobbies, jobs and needs. I am still treading unfamiliar ground right now but I hope I will become more confident and enjoy it. And I hope Gaba’s scheduling system stays a blessing rather than a curse – I’ve come a long way and I don’t want it to all be for naught.

But either way, it’s a start.

That’s the last of Graham’s posts about how he made it to Japan and found work. If it’s something that will be interesting to others, I’d like to ask him to write more about his experiences as an unqualified teacher in Japan. I hope you’ll agree that it’s been a fascinating insight into how he made the leap from dream to reality, and that it inspires you to follow your dreams too!

Japan or bust: on the hunt (guest post)

This is part four of a series of posts by one of my university friends, Graham Moore. He is currently teaching English in Japan, and has agreed to write about the experience for my blog. All of the posts are available under the ‘EFL in Osaka‘ category.

Graham’s magic!

Phase 6: Let’s get down to business

Visa, house, bank and phone in hand – I was ready to find work!

Service: Osaka Employment Service Center for Foreigners

This was the first place I knew about from the UK. But my second big gripe with Japan is that this place is staggeringly useless. Despite advertising “English speaking staff available”, there was a single man whose English was intermediate at best and everyone else didn’t speak a word of it. Really? I’m not demanding that everyone in Japan speak fluent English, but there are a few places I would expect it, a presumably government-funded employment centre for foreigners advertising the linguistic prowess of its staff being one of them. I had to register; there were helpful guides written in Chinese and Portuguese, but none in English. Really? I mean, realllly???

Once I finally commanded the attention of the only staff member who could speak any English at all, things got even less impressive. I wanted to search for an English teaching position in a school, something I know there is high demand for in Osaka. He was able to find and print out ONE job advert (written entirely in Japanese). Realllllllyyyyy?????? I called the number multiple times on different days and got no reply. I never went to the Employment Center again.

Websites: Freelance tuition

In a country where learning English is in high demand and doing so costs a premium, many students find hiring a personal tutor more cost- and time-efficient, and many teachers find it likewise. There are many websites that allow students to find teachers: and to name a few. In Tokyo, is also a popular choice, though the Osaka version is somewhat bare.

All of these websites follow a similar format. Fill in your personal details, contact information, previous teaching experience, interests, teaching style and specialities, areas near to you (in particular, accessible train lines and nearby stations) and your fee. Tutoring fees range enormously: from ¥100-15,000 (or more) per hour, with ¥2,000 being the average starting price.

Filling in each form slowly chips away at your patience, as does the need to refresh your profile weekly to ensure its visibility, but these websites are (usually) free to use and getting your face on as many websites as possible will give you a better pool of students. Unfortunately, like everything, this is a competitive market and students are obviously going to hire more experienced teachers, and word-of-mouth is far more important here. I only got a few contacts over multiple months – my lack of teaching experience and lack of commitment in refreshing my profile likely stymied my chances.

Website: Kansai Flea Market

Kansai is a region in the middle of Japan containing, among others, the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. To the amusement of many Westerners, this region is also known as Kinki.

This was not the first website I found for job-hunting in Japan, but it is the one that gave me the most interviews. Many of the adverts were sketchy in detail, and I must say, even somewhat dodgy-sounding…

Despite the suspicion this was some sort of code for Yakuza recruitment, I applied. It was an English teaching job but basically none of the other information was true.

…however a decent number of ads interested me. My first jobs in Japan were conversation cafes.

At conversation cafes, clients pay a minimal fee (by Japanese standards) to chat to natural English speakers for 1-5 hours, while enjoying a soft drink or two. Most clients are already somewhat proficient at English, at least able to speak in basic sentences, while many are quite literate. Some use conversation cafes as a means of language exposure, some use it to make sure their skills don’t go rusty, some just like chatting to foreigners! Topics can be about anything and everything, whatever the client and host find as common ground or as a topic of interest. You are not expected to necessarily teach them, but you can write words, show pictures, draw diagrams as you see fit. No fancy work clothes, just casual clothes are fine. And it is probably one of the easiest jobs in the world – all you do is talk and listen!

The pay is understandably low; ¥1000 (£6) per hour, paid in cash, and you are unlikely to work more than 10 hours per week, if that. Also, given that you are not employed, or even contracted, there are no additional benefits like insurance or pension. There is possible room for development; some cafes do teaching classes as well, presumably made available to those with more suitable backgrounds, or who have managed to work a substantial number of shifts, but generally it’s a dead-end job.

Cafe: Leafcup

Leafcup is a nation-wide group of conversation cafes. Criteria for staff is absolutely minimal; if you can speak English and are not an illegal immigrant, you can work there. It is basically a walk-in job; I had no interview beyond a chat with the cafe manager in the middle of one of their international parties.

The hours, however, are terrible. You have no scheduled work times; the cafe will periodically email you (maybe once or twice a week) to ask if you are available to work a shift on a particular day at a particular time, and you need to reply quickly before it is offered to someone else. Occasionally they will send out mass emails for shifts or notifications of cancelled shifts and it is a first-reply-first-served basis. I lived very close-by and I could seize these impromptu shifts easily, but even so, I probably worked an average of less than one shift per week.

I would still recommend anyone looking for work (ANY work) in Japan with nothing already lined up to become a Leafcup instructor as soon as they land. No hours are expected of you beyond what you accept (and it’s super easy to cancel a shift), so it will not interfere with your job hunting and if nothing else, it is a very easy way to network (especially at the international parties held every other Saturday) and depending on your ultimate work schedule, an extra ¥2000 for a laid-back evening’s work may not be a bad thing.

Cafe: Pocket English Shinsaibashi

In the middle of Osaka’s shopping district is a little conversation cafe with a small but loyal group of customers. Unlike Leafcup, PE is not a chain and it does not appear to have any hierarchy beyond the owner, a cheerful young woman named Maho. The interview was the best of any I had ever had. She asked me to do a trial two-hour chat to see how I did, and was impressed with my clear voice and the range of topics covered. I shrugged off my nerves after a few minutes and enjoyed the whole thing. She asked me to start as soon as I could. Best of all, I got paid for the interview!

And thus began my first major commitment in Osaka. As PE has a smaller pool of staff, there was an immediate need for me to work longer hours. Indeed, during May 2014, there were only three staff members, including myself, and I was the only foreigner. In practice, this still only meant 3-5 hours, 3-4 days a week (and still only ¥1000 per hour), but it was a start.

Pocket English
At my work station, in my work clothes. Observe the lack of fume cupboards and lab coat.

PE’s atmosphere is much friendlier than Leafcup’s; the small, cosy room, the sofas, tree-trunk design tables and 1980s pop music playing in the background contrast to Leafcup’s hard chairs and largely empty space. PE also allows chat hosts to help themselves to snacks and free drinks, something that Leafcup chat hosts are generally forbidden from doing; this small difference is a great comfort when talking continuously for 5 hours on a hot, humid, Japanese summer day.

The clientele are pretty much what I was hoping for; working professionals at any age between 23-83. And all have their reasons for wanting to learn; some want to better understand English TV shows and movies, some need it to further their careers, some (actually, many) enjoy travelling and can do so with greater ease with some English under their belts. Some just like to do it as a hobby; I’ve met many retirees who are keeping themselves occupied despite their age, showing you’re never too old to try something new.

The only possible downside is that it is only open weekend afternoons and weekday evenings, reducing the number of potential shifts one can work. Also, Maho insists that you do not work for any other conversation cafe in addition to PE. As such I did my best to keep my occasional shift at Leafcup quiet, a feat sometimes jeopardised when a shared client would appear and loudly proclaim “Hey! I saw you at Leafcup yesterday!”

As much as I enjoy(ed) working at PE, the wages were simply not enough to cover my living costs, and I still had too much free time. I needed to find some additional income.

Cafe: Plus Color

Near Utsubo Park, Osaka, is another conversation cafe that is incredibly hard to find and I barely got to my interview in time. They operate in the afternoons as well as the evenings, meaning I could potentially work a shift at PC before doing my usual shift at PE. The interview at PC was somewhat more formal than either of the other two conversation cafes and the atmosphere somewhat more stark. Possibly because of my insistence that I could only work afternoon shifts, I was unsuccessful in my application.

Eikawa: Marvin’s School

A small studio between Osaka and Kobe, and one of the most aggravating interviews I ever had. I replied to their offer of an interview… which apparently they did not receive and I arrived at the school unexpected. Fortunately, they didn’t turn me away. Unfortunately, they asked me to teach a class. Wait, they had virtually no idea who I was and they weren’t even anticipating my arrival and they asked me to teach a class with almost no preparation. Reaaaaaalllllllyyyy??????????? This wasn’t a conversation cafe, this was a school! In the end, I did a half-baked lesson based on the differences between US and UK English, which gave the two clients plenty of information but I’m not sure how useful it was. Marvin’s School offered me a shift but their interview method of “throw you in the deep end with no arm-bands” didn’t instil great faith in me. I didn’t bother to follow up.

Website: GaijinPot

GaijinPot is a forum and personalised ads site for work and accommodation, and probably the best known of its kind. There aren’t as many ads as KFM, but the jobs advertised are somewhat more professional. If you are a happy job-hunter, you can create a resume online and and allow companies to contact you, and likewise search through ads and apply to job positions directly. Filtering the search options to “Entry Level”, “Kansai Region Only” and “Japanese Beginner Level” dramatically reduced the number of potential jobs for me. Among the ones that interested me were video game translator and tester (though the pay was very poor) and a couple of teaching positions.

Eikawa: NOVA

NOVA is an eikawa mired in bad reputation and indeed went bankrupt a few years ago. They reformed, though smaller than before, and given that a common joke among EFL teachers in Japan is that NOVA stands for No Vacation, I was hesitant to apply for them. One of my friends, a former NOVA employee, confirms their shifty reputation; he claims to have been screwed over by his contract (the exact details of which have slipped my mind) and spoke of their policy of giving a ¥200 bonus for every lesson taught, which is nullified if you are late for ONE lesson, potentially costing a teacher a big chunk of their rightfully earned salary. Some former students have likewise complained about their teaching methods. Thankfully, as desperate as I was for a job, I never applied for NOVA.

The final phase in Graham’s adventures coming soon…

Japan or bust: on the way (guest post)

This is part three of a series of posts by one of my university friends, Graham Moore. He is currently teaching English in Japan, and has agreed to write about the experience for my blog. All of the posts are available under the ‘EFL in Osaka‘ category, where you can find out more about Graham, why he wanted to go to Japan, and what he did in the UK to prepare.

Graham’s magic!

Phase 3: Screw it, I’m going to Japan anyway

If Japan wasn’t going to invite me, I was going to crash the party. A second trip to London (luckily coinciding with a friend’s wedding), a visit to the Japanese embassy and a parting of £23 allowed me to get a working holiday visa. This gave me one year to travel, live, and work in Japan. Even if I failed to get a job, I would have at least been to the country I had dreamed of for so many years.

With my passport returned, I booked a flight from London to Tokyo a mere five days before I flew. I waved goodbye to my family and friends and proceeded to travel around Japan for two months. I really cannot emphasise enough that Japan is EXACTLY how you imagine it to be…

In lieu of a picture of the shinkansen, a temple or some ramen, I decided this one better embodies Japan. (Graham’s photo)

…and that is exactly what makes it an essential destination. I could talk at even greater length of the sights I saw during my travels but that’s a story for another day; I will merely say I was able to cover Tokyo, Nikko, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Naruto, Naoshima, Okayama, Tottori, Hiroshima, Akiyoshidai, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Okinawa, Zamami and Ishigaki. I considered this useful research on the Japanese lifestyle, hopefully allowing me to better understand my hypothetical future students.

Then I decided it was time to settle down and start work…. no wait, actually, I travelled for another month. I flew to Malaysia to meet some friends for a crazy Chinese New Year celebration before heading north to Thailand to meet some more friends. Anyway, with 9 months left on my visa, I returned to Japan to look for lodging and work.

I had chosen Osaka as my base of operations as it is a large city with high demand for foreign workers. It is right in the middle of Honshu, the main island of Japan, with easy access to any other place I may be likely to travel to. Osaka is also famous for its food and shopping, two items likely to benefit those living in it. Plus Kyoto and Kobe are very nearby.

Phase 4: A man’s home is his castle. A gaijin’s house is a gaijin house.

I crashed at the incredibly cheap Toyo Hotel in Shin-Imamiya for a few days. I needed to relax after my three months of travelling (I maintain that if you’re not exhausted after travelling, you’re not doing it right) and I needed to find a place to live. Apartments can be tricky to rent for foreigners; landlords may not be willing to let non-Japanese speakers, or those without a current source of income, sign contracts. Also, in addition to two months’ rent in advance, tenants are also likely to have to pay high deposits, including key money. This can mean a new tenant has to pay the equivalent of 3-6 months rent up-front.

Not with gaijin houses (gaijin means ‘foreigner’, and has become a kind of community name for expats working in Japan) – gaijin houses are similar to student houses in that they offer cheap accommodation in shared houses. They are fully furnished and are only available for foreigners. Best of all, you pay rent only, no deposit or key money. It was pure luck that I was able to find the perfect place to stay on my first try. While searching for gaijin houses, I found a post about cheap gaigin houses.

I heeded this man’s praise and contacted the landlord. After viewing the accommodation, I asked if I could move in straight away. Easiest move I have ever done. The house itself is small, but ultimately this is standard for Japanese housing. I chose the Western style room over the Japanese style; it costs more but the room is slightly larger and comes with a bed (as opposed to a futon and tatami mat). The area is quiet, but there are plenty of supermarkets and restaurants nearby, and Umeda, one of the largest train stations and shopping centres in Osaka, is only 20 minutes walk away. My ¥40,000 (~£240) rent covers my room, water and internet. I only pay for the electricity that I use in my room (around ¥2,000 per month in the summer, ¥4,000 in the winter). The toilet, shower and washing machine are shared but currently I am the only one living in this two-bedroom house. It’s a little lonely but it means I can spread my stuff out into the hall. My landlord has also kindly let me borrow a bike for a mere ¥3,000 deposit, an investment that has already saved me at least as much in train fares.

Phase 5: Phoning it in and taking it to the bank

The day after I moved in to my gaijin house was one of the busiest days since coming to Japan. I wanted to start job hunting ASAP, but I needed to register my address, get a phone and open a bank account. I intended to do all three in one day.

Registering myself wasn’t too hard; once I found my ward office, I just showed my registration card, filled in some forms and asked them to write my address on the card in kanji. The next two were problematic. In Japan, you need a phone number to open a bank account….. but you need a bank account to buy a contract phone. The banks would not allow me to use my landlord’s phone, so the only option was to buy a prepaid phone.

This was my first major gripe with Japan; everywhere else I have been in the world, using a phone is a simple matter of buying a SIM card and inserting it into your phone. Japan does not use a 2G signal and my Samsung phone that had served me so well in the UK was useless here. Finding a prepaid phone was alarmingly difficult, only Softbank seemed to have them and finding a Softbank store with stock was infuriatingly hard. I eventually found one – and buying a phone in Japan is painfully bureaucratic; with no exaggeration, it is harder than opening a bank account. I know this having done one after another. I had to fill in more forms, choose my number and my PIN, I had to show my registration card and my passport, the latter of which I didn’t even need for opening a bank account!

The next phase in Graham’s adventures coming soon…

Japan or bust: in the UK (guest post)

This is part of a series of posts by one of my university friends, Graham Moore. He is currently teaching English in Japan, and has agreed to write about the experience for my blog. All of the posts are available under the ‘EFL in Osaka‘ category. Read phase 1 to find out more about Graham, and why he wanted to go to Japan. In phase 2 he tells us about the options for teaching in Japan which he investigated while still in the UK.

Graham’s magic!

Phase 2: Searching from the UK

Programme: JET

The most common recommendation for those wanting to teach in Japan is the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET), a government-run system that offers a lot of support to aspiring teachers. While former JETs talk fondly of their experiences (and indeed at the time of writing, I have a JET friend in Tottori who is enthusiastic about her work), ultimately I didn’t even consider it as an option for me. I wanted to teach adults and JET focuses mainly on high school students, plus it didn’t have the amount of free time I desired, having just finished a PhD, one of the few perks of which is you can generally come and go as you please.

Eikawa: GEOS

A friend of mine recalled his time in Japan teaching with GEOS and recommended them as a capable eikawa (English school). A quick Google search reveals they are now bankrupt and hence unlikely to be hiring.

Eikawa: ECC

My first real consideration was By Education, Through Communication and For Community, better known as ECC, a hybrid school and corporation with a solid reputation. I believe their pay is marginally lower than JET’s but they offer higher support for their teachers and give the opportunity to teach both adults and children. I would be expected to do both, though I could put a preference for the latter if I wished. ECC’s main selling point though, was its relatively low working hours (29.5 per week) and its high amount of holiday time (7 weeks, including national holidays). At the time, this seemed like the perfect match for me.

I just made it in time for their June recruitment, though during the application I did get asked the question I was hoping I would be able to avoid: “If you have a PhD in Chemistry, why are you looking to teach English?” Despite this, I was accepted for an interview in London, though apparently Japanese companies often do not pay accommodation or transport costs for interviews, even when in another country. Luckily I have kind friends in London.

There were sixteen interviewees in total, some already teachers, some from other walks of life. After a company talk, we were given an hour-long English test; you had to get a minimum of 70% of continue with the interview process and about half of us were anticipated to fail. It was actually pretty difficult for a non-linguist like me, though I passed and I was able to go on to the next stage. As ECC predicted, seven people failed, two of whom were actual English teachers! Worst of all, I had a quick glimpse of the papers and saw some had failed at 69%!

The remaining nine of us had to plan and perform a practice lesson for teaching simple vocabulary. Long story short, I did my best but I was not among the final five who made it to the final stage. How many were accepted I will never know. But I imagine my lack of TEFL certification and previous experience did not benefit me. I was back to square one again.

The next phase in Graham’s adventures coming soon…


Japan or bust: how I changed careers to achieve a dream (guest post)

This is the first in a series of posts by one of my university friends, Graham Moore. He is currently teaching English in Japan, and has agreed to write about the experience for my blog. All of the posts are available under the ‘EFL in Osaka’ category.

Graham’s magic!

Phase 1: I dream of Japan

Japan has fascinated me for many years. The combination of its modern image as a crazy, busy, futuristic wonderland with its traditional, almost mythical, history of shoguns, samurai and martial arts has kept it high on my list of places to visit for as long as I have wanted to travel. A high proportion of my ample collection of video games originate from Japan (Final Fantasy VII, despite its age, remains my favourite game of all time) and I diligently practised karate during my university days. The more I learned about Japanese culture…

If the trains are late by more than five minutes, you are given a note to show to your boss as a reason for your lateness.

The crime rate is so low, you can leave your bike unlocked at night and nobody will steal it!

With the exception of Monaco, Japanese people are the longest-lived people in the world!

…the more I wanted to see it first-hand. And so began a journey that would take me the best part of a decade.

Japan in one picture. Yes, even the girl in the pizza suit.
Japan in one picture. Yes, even the girl in the pizza suit.*

I am a scientist by education and I never pictured myself as anything else until recently. My dream was to work as an industrial chemist and ultimately move to Japan, hopefully working on some exciting new technology (like designing self-repairing metal for a car or a giant robot) or synthesising world-changing chemicals (like a cure for cancer that also gives you gives you Super Saiyan powers). I studied Chemistry at Durham University for my undergraduate degree, with three years of lectures and practice labs, before working a year in industry at FujiFilm Imaging Colorants, Scotland. The advantage of doing an industrial placement during the final year rather than as a penultimate sandwich year was that, upon graduation, it would be easier to make the transition into the working world.

And this situation seemed perfect – I was working for a Japanese company after all, surely it would be easy to transfer to Japan from here? But sadly this was 2008 and the economy was taking a major hit – FujiFilm IC could not afford to take on graduates and they weren’t even able to continue their industrial placement scheme the following year. Fewer places were hiring and many of my friends were laid off mere months after being hired for their first job. My time as an undergraduate finished on a low note and the future was not looking as bright as it should have. Finding funded PhD positions was easier than finding a job. I went from having no intention of doing a PhD (at least not until I was older) to having one confirmed at the University of Nottingham in a mere three weeks.

It was somewhat less abroad than what I was hoping for but financially speaking, it was stable and more than enough for my lifestyle. Having a doctorate under one’s belt can only be a good thing, plus I would extend my time as a student by 4-5 years, something I was very happy about. During my first year, I discovered a university program called BESTS (Building Experience and Skill Travel Scholarships) which allowed research students to spend part of their degree working abroad. Japan was among the countries that had allowed BESTS students to work there previously, and the research I was undertaking was also being done in Japan. I could even take a bonus module in Beginner Japanese as part of my PhD (something that FujiFilm IC had offered to previous placement students but not to my year’s). All a perfect fit, right?

Sadly, when you are a PhD student, your supervisor is your king, and unfortunately, I am quite the anti-monarchist. We were destined to have many clashes during my studies and the notion that his students may also be productive outside of his laboratory was an alien concept to him. And while the University of Nottingham gave me the best experiences of my twenties, none of them were in the Chemistry department. I’m sure the majority of people with PhDs enjoyed their research, but I didn’t. And as my second graduation approached, I was once again flustered as to where to go. Industry hadn’t worked for me and neither had academia.

The brain part is being optimistic
The brain part is being optimistic (From ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’, copyright Jorge Cham)

“Why not teach English in Asia?” multiple friends suggested. I’m not sure if this was a recommendation based on my English skills and love of Asian culture or simply as a go-to gap year-esque idea, but the thought intrigued me. I am a pedant for accuracy in English and I had experience dealing with people with beginner English skills, so why not? Plus it would be a means to my long-standing goal of getting into the land of the rising sun. May 2013, my PhD was near completion, my quest for an English school in Japan began.

Phase 2 in Graham’s adventures coming soon…

*Image credits
Temple image from ‘theswissrock’City image from nhouse.sgSushi image from PBSGirl in pizza suit image from Business Insider