Out of the ways to come to Japan is to be an English teacher, with one of the largest categories being that of an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher).
For those not knowing much about the teaching scene in Japan, a ALT will be dispatched to one or several private or public schools from the elementary school to high school. The most famous is the JET Programme which is run by the government, and has about 4,500 teachers. However, due to the sheer demand for ALTs and some glaring deficiencies in the way JET is run, there are a large number of privately run dispatch companies to fill in the gaps.
If you have not been selected for the JET Programme (in general they pay the highest wages while offering the cushiest teaching schedule), but would like to select the general location where you work or just do not want to go through the long application process, you have a choice of dozens of ALT dispatch providers of all shapes and sizes.
If you do not know what an ALT does or how it compares to other teaching jobs, you may want to refer to this article.
What should you look out for in an ALT contract?
The general job of an ALT is going to be very similar no matter which agency you select. You will be required to go to one or more schools to be the native English speaker to assist the schools’ English language curriculum and to interact with the students giving them insight into foreign cultures. That is where the similarities between the different agencies stops and the differences start to take shape. Before taking any ALT job, you should find, hopefully in writing, the following:
Status of employment
There term “full-time” does not always mean what you think it does. Do not expect the job to be that of a “seishain” (permanent employee) position but a one year contract. Be sure to ask the employer:
“What are the maximum teaching and ‘in school’ working hours of the position?”
Some employers will only allow you to work a maximum of 29.5 (???) hours so that the position falls below the legal definition of a “full-time” employee forcing the company to provide a number of benefits such as health insurance and pension.
While money is important, it is not always as important as other factors in selecting your ALT Dispatch company. Work location, management, training and other benefits should also be on the table when discussing your employment.
Most likely, you will only work as an ALT for a couple years before returning home or making a jump to a better position, so making an extra $1,000 per year is not worth being under-supported, under-trained, treated like a disposable employee, living in a dead city, and lacking opportunities to grow your professional network leading to your next career. Find a dispatch company that offers the best complete package.
Salary – yearly salary before overtime: The local Board of Education that your dispatch company won the contract from will probably not want to pay the same rate when school is not in session. Spring break when they change school years in Japan, Summer vacation, Christmas vacation may not be paid the same as the normal months when you’re working.
This gets tricky just looking at the job ads. Perhaps one dispatch agency is offering 250,000 yen per month but conveniently does not disclose that you will have a reduced salary during the months that have fewer teaching hours. The total salary may be less than the other agency that had listed the salary as 230,000 yen per month salary which could actually pay a straight salary every month.
While one can appreciate that you get a lower salary for working less during some months, this haircut is going to hurt unless you plan for it as your rent, utilities and food bills are not going to be any cheaper during those months. If you can find other work to supplement this you may even appreciate the unpaid holiday time, but for many this will make it tough to survive in Japan.
Warning about transparency: If this is not explained to you in the interview and you have to press for details, you can be sure that there are other areas which you would assume are standard but are not.
Bonus: Does your agency give you performance bonus, extra bonus for getting qualifications or JLPT? This can mean a lot of money and if you don’t get a bonus that could be leaving a lot of money on the table. Some school’s bonuses can be as much as a month or even two months salary, but the standard is about half a month or sometimes less.
Moonlighting: The people at your dispatch company is well aware that an ALT’s salary is going to be difficult to live on (Actually it is difficult to live anywhere on a first year teacher’s salary), so many agencies will, upon doing a good job at work, give official permission to engage in other paid activities in your spare time. As long as it would not hinder your ability to effectively do your job, be seen as improper or in competition, the good agencies will allow this. (Don’t get a job as a bartender at the local pub on the weekends, this could impact your job and be a problem).
Please note that depending on the activity, you may need to get permission (mostly just notify) the immigration office, and the extra revenue could make your taxes a bit complicated. Until your salary reaches 20 million yen, the employer should file the taxes on behalf of the worker. If you are doing extra work, this makes things more complicated, but if you have permission you can give them your gensen choushu hyou (your witholding tax receipt – how much money you have or haven’t paid in tax from your other companies).
Support: You would want to ask questions about: a) Initial training, b) ongoing training, c) Local support in case something goes wrong.
- Initial training – Of course each agency is going to tell you that their training is top notch…. just as all car salesmen are going to claim that their vehicles are safe and of good quality. Ask how many days the training is, if the training is paid or not (and at what rate if not), and about any ongoing training. Sometimes “excellent on the job training” can mean two days of meetings and then you go in and solo teach your own classes…
- Ongoing training – The initial training is not going to be enough. You should be giving regular training sessions and feedback as the schools you work at probably will not tell you directly if you’re going a great job (it will show up in your official evaluation without any warning though).
- Local Support: Do you have someone when you arrive to help you make a bank account, get a phone and show you the ropes about living in Japan, or are you thrown in the deep end without waterwings? Even moving to a new town in Japan when you already live here can be difficult if you don’t speak Japanese well. A good company will at least offer to help with this.
There is no good or bad location, just one that is a good match for you. When I first came to Japan, I lived in Osaka. It is a very vibrant and exciting city to live in; however, it also gave me a lot of unexplained stress and I did not reach my goals that I had set for myself (I intended to study Japanese and pass the JLPT test). It wasn’t until I lived in Iwate that I felt comfortable, became part of the community, and learned how to speak passable Japanese. Your mileage will vary so find out as much as you can about where you are going to live and work. A smaller agency will not have other positions so relocating without quitting will not be possible.
If you want to stay in Japan but not in education, you are going to need to relocate toward one of the large cities. For better or for worse, Tokyo has become a big hub for all of the highest paying and most exciting work, with Osaka coming up next. Go to one of those places if you want to be where stuff is happening.
Japan labor law states that you get at least 10 days for vacation per year after having worked for six months. As an ALT, you will probably get even more days; however, your employer may want to control when you take those days so they do not lose money from the BOE. While you do not want to be one of those who ask about vacation days in the first interview, you can tactfully ask how it works. It’s as simple as thinking of an honest question:
“I do not know if this will even happen, but my parents mentioned wanting to visit Japan. If this happens….and I definitely do not want to cause any problems with the school or work in general….but how does this work in Japan and at your company?”
Red Flag (Lawful employment)
If your agency says “Please come over on a tourist visa and we will change it when we get here,” run from this agency. That is not the lawful way to do things, and it could make it harder for you to obtain or renew a work-related visa in the future. If the agency is breaking this law, they are probably breaking others.
The less-reputable dispatch agencies have a higher turnover rate and many of the ALTs bail out before their contract is completed. We can’t blame them as the most likely feel that they were lied to by the company. Respect is a two-way street and loyalty is earned.
Other items to clarify
The Devil is in the detail so be sure as what work-related expenses are covered and which are not. Some common ones include:
- Company car – if you have to drive, does the employer give you a company car to use or make you pay to lease one through them? This is a chunk of change that will make a big difference on your bottom line. Will the company help you obtain a Japan driver’s license?
- Do you have to pay for your visa or visa renewal, transportation to the immigration office. While it is not that much money, be prepared to be nickel and dimed to death as you’ll probably have to pay for every little thing in a bad company. Good companies will take care of some of these little expenses for you.
- Any help with housing? Do they help you find it or are you on your own? Any subsidized housing? Or does the company own the apartment and sublet to you (with a “little” margin on top)?
- Teaching resources – what does the company (and other teachers in the company) provide to make your life easier and help you do your job better (and even improve)?
Finally, check the reviews online such as Glassdoor. Not all things that people say is 100% true of course, especially if they are disgruntled former employees, but a pattern is a pattern. Very few companies have consistently positive reviews but this will help in your decision making process.