Many people ask me this question when they are thinking about teaching English in Japan and I usually answer that it’s not necessary but it does help a lot. Most people who visit Japan to teach English wish to do so because there is something about the Japanese culture that they find interesting – this is great because if your only ambition is to make money and you know nothing about the Japanese culture then I’m afraid you might not like living in Japan at all.
The majority of people who ask me about working in Japan don’t speak any Japanese at all and that’s not really a huge problem. I’ve been interested in the Japanese language and culture for about twenty-five years and I truly believe that an understanding of the Japanese culture is more important than learning the Japanese language. The reason for this is that a lot of Japanese people have basic to intermediate English language skills and the Japanese people who work in administration at English Language schools often speak English very well.
Below are a few suggestions if you’re worried about working in Japan without Japanese language skills:
o Try to arrange a homestay with a Japanese family for a few weeks before you start work as a teacher but check that at least one person in the family can speak some English. This is a great way to understand the culture better and you’ll learn very quickly about some of the customs in Japan – you’ll soon realise how important it is for you to learn these customs if you don’t want to be seen as being rude or ignorant. It’s also a great way to make friends with a Japanese family who are keen to know more about your country and they could end up being friends for life. I was seventeen years old and I’d only studied Japanese for one year at university when I visited Japan for the first time. I stayed in the Kanto and the Kansai area for six weeks and although my Japanese language skills were very poor at this time, I did learn a lot about Japan simply by spending time with several Japanese families as part of a homestay program. One wonderful benefit for me was that I met a lovely host mother who lives close to Tokyo. I still visit her every time I’m in Japan and I also try and telephone her once every couple of months and I’ve been doing this for over twenty years. We always speak in Japanese and she has helped me so much to broaden my understanding of the Japanese culture.
There are companies like Homestay in Japan with programs that can help you arrange a homestay.
o Read about Japan as much as you can. There are lots of books available on Amazon such as Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the Rules that Make the Difference! By Boye Lafayette de Mente.
o Get some private tutoring from a Japanese teacher before you go or while you’re working in Japan. If you do this, you’ll pay extra for private lessons so you’ll need to be very clear about what you want to learn. Tell the teacher that you need to learn everyday phrases and be ready with a list of English expressions that you want to know how to say in Japanese or you could spend hours discussing lots of grammar points when you really need to know some basic Japanese phrases as soon as possible.
o You may think that you’ll make friends with lots of Japanese people very quickly and that you’ll be speaking in Japanese as soon as you get off the plane. Most Japanese people who want to be friends with foreigners really just want to practise their English so you might want to reconsider those private Japanese lessons. If you start dating a Japanese person and you’ve never learnt Japanese before then you might start to pick up some interesting habits. There are lots of words and expressions in Japanese that are only said depending on your gender. So for example if you’re a boy from England and you start dating a Japanese girl and you begin to mimic her Japanese expressions then there is a good chance that you’re going to start sounding like a very effeminate boy and that might be embarrassing – so take care and get some structured lessons!
o Look up websites that have a list of basic Japanese phrases for tourists. The Japanese translations of every day expressions are often written in English and they are easy to read and pronounce without any Japanese lessons.
Why I think it helps to learn Japanese at university before you go and live in Japan:
I’ve had the advantage of being able to speak Japanese for many years. I really enjoyed spending three years full-time at Monash University studying the Japanese language and the Japanese culture. The language component included grammar, conversation and learning to read and write hundreds of Japanese kanji characters. We also had to learn about Japanese literature, traditional music, sociology and history as part of my Japanese Culture major.
In my twenties, I spent two years teaching English in Japan and since then I’ve visited Japan many times for work or as a tourist and I’ve absolutely loved every experience. I’ve never had any problems making friends in Japan or any trouble finding out more about how to enjoy my time in Japan because of all my studies. Studying the language has also helped me to understand quite a bit more about the way Japanese people think and behave and knowing more about the language has heightened my appreciation and understanding of the many traditions and customs in Japan. Furthermore, a lot of job opportunities have opened up for me because of my language skills. I’m really pleased that I took the time to spend many years learning the Japanese language as it has also helped me to communicate with many more people on social networking sites. Apparantly, Japanese is the third most popular language on the internet after English and Chinese.