Various life courses emerge from teaching English in Japan: short-term and long-term stays, transformation into other professions or increasing precarity among a cohort of mostly uncontracted freelance workers. In this piece, I highlight those who move in and (then) out of Japan, taking our curated series from a focus on people coming to Japan to people who choose to leave.
Tyrone, an Australian now in his late 30s, worked as a school teacher back home before deciding to venture abroad. After a three-month challenging experience in India in autumn 2005, he joined a friend working at Nova, one of the biggest suppliers of ALTs (assistant language teachers) in Japan, and taught English for two years in a small town in Mie Prefecture. Life was, in his own words, “the good old times when a salaryman would see you in the train and come and ask you to teach him English for 5000 yen an hour.”
In 2007, Nova went notoriously bankrupt. Tyrone made do with hectic freelance work and eventually found a stable teaching position in Tokyo. When I met him, in the autumn of 2012, he was at the start of his fourth year with the school but had decided it would be his last. He was tired of a general deterioration of the ALT situation, a recurrent complaint during my research.
Tyrone also experienced an “exodus” of peers after 3/11 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and felt isolated. Even though he loved Japan and had started to feel at home, he was not as immersed as he thought he should be, despite his now proficient in Japanese and membership of a local union. Governmental improvements in July 2012 concerning the residency system failed to cure his general discontent. Tyrone started applying for jobs in Korea and Taiwan, where at the time the English teaching industry seemed more dynamic. By December 2013 he had found his “most stable contract so far” in Taiwan, where he still currently lives and works.
As Tyrone’s story illustrates, teaching English in Japan flourished up until the best part of the 2000s; but constant economic decline, panics spurred by tragedies such as 3/11, and competition from markets in neighboring countries have made English teaching a precarious form of employment. With less incentive for native speakers coming from well-off countries (US, UK, Australia, Canada), in recent years this industry has attracted different labor pools, such as well-educated young people from the Philippines, either based in Japan or teaching by correspondence.
In August 2016 MEXT (The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) promised to bring JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) numbers back to their 2002 peak levels. These promises are coupled with other measures to increase English proficiency by the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. How such incentives will affect a volatile industry remains to be seen. As it stands, the precaritization of English teaching in Japan challenges the assumed trajectories and power differentials of mobilities East-West and North-South.
Raluca Nagy is research associate at the University of Sussex and the Free University of Brussels. Her overarching interests are healthcare and mobility. It is from this perspective that she has been following the livelihoods of English teachers in Tokyo.