There has been a lot written by English teachers about their experiences living and working in Japan. But how about the perspective from the Japanese side? I interviewed Aki, an advanced speaker of English, and long term member of administrative staff at an English conversation school (Eikaiwa school), to get her take on working with native English teachers, and learning and teaching English in Japan.
What do you think is the biggest cultural difference between foreign language teachers and Japanese members of school staff?
Maybe not only I, but all other Japanese staff working for language schools feel that the big difference is the value… for work
What do you mean by ‘value for work’? Do you mean ‘work ethic’?
‘Work ethic’, yes. Now I understand that, for teachers, maybe private life is more important than their jobs. So, they’d like to completely separate ‘on’ and ‘off’.
Yes, ‘work life’ being separate from ‘private life’ is a very common concept in Western culture.
Of course I understand and respect that way of thinking.. But.. Maybe Japanese people have a really strong responsibility and are dedicated too much to work, so even when I take a day off, if something serious happens, maybe the other school receptionist would call me immediately without hesitation, even though I am off. Then she or he would like to know what to do.
How is that different to the way that a foreign teacher might react in that situation?
Of course it depends on the teacher, but sometimes when I wanted to contact a certain teacher as soon as possible, I would say that I was sorry to bother them, and some people were OK, but others were kind of.. “Why are you contacting me on my day off!”
So work life overlaps into private life for Japanese people? There’s no barrier, or there’s a very thin barrier?
Yes.. Of course now, the situation is getting a little different, especially with the younger generation, who have exactly the same way of thinking as foreign people, but still I think that deep in our hearts, we have that kind of tendency.
You mentioned that the younger generation is adopting a more Western perspective towards work. Do you think that’s a positive thing or a negative thing?
I think a positive thing, because, in my experience, a lot of stress from my work affected my health – while I was working I didn’t think so – but with retrospect, I should’ve divided into private life and working life completely. Then, maybe, I would still be working for the same company. [Aki has since left the company in question]
The average salary for a native English teacher is ¥250,000 per month, or for private lessons, it’s around ¥3000 per hour. For Japanese administrative staff working in English schools, how does that compare?
I think the basic hourly wage for a new member of staff will be around ¥900 per hour, as a part-timer. As the member of staff becomes more experienced, the salary will increase by a little, but not by much, just, I think, by around ¥20 or ¥30 per hour.
Do you have to speak good English to work at an English school?
Well, actually, it depends..! I’m not going to speak ill of some other staff, but not all of us are good speakers of English..!
Is there a minimum qualification in English that you need to work at an English school?
For my company, the job advert said that basic English communication skills for daily conversation were necessary, but it didn’t mention any specific TOEIC or Eiken [Japanese test of English language proficiency] scores.
In your opinion, do you think that one of the benefits for Japanese staff working at an English school is the chance to use English?
Yes! Everyone wants to speak English.. that is why many people want to get that kind of job!
Does that make up for the salary in some respects – the chance to use English?
Yes – especially at my company, married housewives tended to work as administrative staff.. They are not the breadwinners. The husbands are usually the breadwinners.
What percentage of the Japanese school staff, in your situation, were male?
Male school staff are very rare. Less than 5%. I knew only three or four out of about one hundred and fifty.
Customer service is very important in Japan. How does it affect your job as an administrator at an English school?
In Japan, students are customers. We have to look after them, even if they don’t mention any specific complaints. We have to… ‘entertain’ them.
You mean you act as a kind of ‘host’?
Yes, yes, yes! Like a party hostess or something like that!
Do foreign staff also do that?
Some people do that, but it really depends. I think Japanese students understand the difference with the cultural background. I think they don’t expect native teachers to do that kind of thing. They only expect Japanese staff to do that.
So it’s kind of a different set of rules for foreign staff?
Yes. But for Japanese staff, the most important thing is for the teachers to give good lessons to the students. So, even if we notice that difference, we don’t think ‘it’s not fair’. We just accept it. The most important thing is to keep the students.