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Where in the world - Teaching in Japan

Following on from our Teaching Around the World interviews, our Where in the World? interviews aim to provide you with some insight into the great travel and teaching opportunities that are available to TESOL graduates. In each interview, we will be speaking to past TESOL graduate about their experience of living and working abroad as an English teacher.

We hope that you will find these interviews interesting and informative and that they will help to inspire your own English language teaching adventures.

Where in the world is Kyle Volkwyn?

Brief introduction

My name is Kyle Volkwyn. I have been living and teaching English as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in a public elementary and junior high school in Sendai, Japan for about 10 months. I would like to stay in Sendai for a few more years.

When did you complete the TESOL course?

I completed my TESOL course at Wits Language School in February 2012.

How did you go about looking for your first teaching job?

I found out about my first, also current, teaching job through my university`s student portal. I received an email requesting for young graduates from South Africa to go teach English in Japan. The program that I am on is actually a cultural exchange program (JET Program).

Where was your first overseas teaching job?

My first overseas teaching job is here in Japan. I am currently completing my one-year contract.


Kanon sama – a Buddhist goddess and the source of the name of Canon cameras

When did you live and work in Japan? How long have you been there for?

I arrived in Japan in August 2013 and have been living in Japan for 10 months. However, I would like to stay here for at least one more year.

Why did you choose to go there?

I chose to come to Japan for the international experience and exposure to a different culture. I wanted to travel and experience what is was like living in one of the `most homogenous` countries in the world. I also wanted to learn some Japanese while I was here. While here, Cupid decided to shoot a Japanese lady and me with arrows at the exact same time; and we are planning to travel the world together while we are still young.


My sunshine

What school or organization do you work for? What kinds of students do you have to teach?

I work for the Sendai City Board of Education. I am an ALT (Assistant Language Teachers) on the JET Program, which is a cultural exchange program. I teach at elementary school level (ages 6 -12) and junior high school level (ages 13 -15). As I`ve mentioned before, Japan can break you if you are not mentally prepared. Japan`s educational system is also intense and there is a lot of pressure for children to compete at a very young age. One test/exam can decide a child`s entire future.

What is it like to teach in Japan?

Most of the English language instructors in Japan are known as ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) or ELTs (English Language Teachers). Your experiences and job duties will vary depending on where you work. Japan is a very hierarchical society, so ALTs are not regarded as teachers (senseis), but are supplements to teachers. I am an ALT in a public school, so I don’t do any lesson planning. I receive R30 000 monthly salary and I am also required to register to the national health insurance. Although the salary is high, living expenses (e.g. food and rent) are also a lot higher than in South Africa. Some companies will sponsor work visas for teachers. Earning such a large amount of money each month will allow you to travel around Japan as well as elsewhere in Asia. Foreign teachers are generally treated well, however every situation is different. Some people have had bad experiences in Japan and end up leaving after a few months. Japan is an island country and the culture is different from the rest of the world - the country can break you if you are not mentally prepared. I would recommend spending at least one year in Japan for the life experience.


Zuigangi temple, Matsushima, Miyagi prefecture

How did the TESOL course prepare you for your first job as a language teacher?

TESOL is definitely a necessity if you want to teach English as a foreign/second language. If you work in the Japanese public education system, it`s likely that you will use the skills you acquired on the TESOL course. However, there are also many language institutions in Japan that will allow you to utilize the knowledge you gained during the TESOL course.

What is it like to live in Japan?

Japan is a very safe country to live in. It has a very good public transportation system and a lot of convenience stores. The people are generally friendly and helpful. However, you will need to learn Japanese if you want to experience the country more deeply. Japanese society is still insular, patriarchal and hierarchical. If you are in a rural area, away from the bigger cities, you may find yourself bored to death. However, if that`s your thing then Japan has a lot to offer in terms of safety and natural beauty/scenery. Japan is also the country of festivals and there are festivals for almost everything. The cost of living in Japan is high and the living spaces are small. However, you will be earning a considerable amount of money so don`t let that worry you. The climate will differ depending on where in Japan you find yourself. The country experiences 4 full seasons, of which winter seems to be the longest. Winters in northern Japan are long and harsh, with plenty of snow. Summers are very hot and uncomfortably humid (although not as bad as Singapore). Autumn and spring are my favourite seasons in Japan as they are not too hot or too cold. Japan is also a volcanic country, so there are quite a bit of earthquakes and tremours (the country is located on `The Ring of Fire`). There are also a lot of natural hot springs (onsen) located around the country. The southern part of the country experiences typhoons. Although sushi and tempura and ramen are popular around the world, eating traditional Japanese food everyday can make you feel extremely home sick. Eating rice and sweet beans everyday can become too much. There are some days when I feel like going to a Pick n` Pay, buying some boerewors and steak and pap and tomatoes for tomato chutney and rolls and charcoal and firelighters, and having a lekker braai. But, this is not possible here because the food tastes different and the South African spirit is absent. However, I manage to survive somehow. Pizza is also ridiculously expensive in Japan. Lastly, Japan has a strong drinking culture and it is acceptable for work colleagues to get drunk together after work into the early hours of the next morning. However, I find this type of lifestyle to be unhealthy and counter-productive to having a stable family.

What do you love or hate about Japan?

Love: safety; natural beauty and fascinating historical culture; my Japanese sunshine (girlfriend).
Hate: insularity; winter.


Mountain shrines

What advice would you give to EFL teachers thinking of teaching in Japan?

Japan is a different world from South Africa. Learning Japanese will help you a great deal. Living here, one will go through all the stages of culture shock. You will be at your lowest during the winter. It`s a great life experience. Just keep on `ganbatte-ing` (persevering) and you will be fine. Be respectful of the local culture, but never change yourself or your values just to be accepted by the local people. Japan is not really a country to save money for the future, it’s a great way to get international experience and travel while working.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to stay in Japan for at least one more year. After that, my sunshine (girlfriend) and I will travel the world together. After that, we want to move to South Africa and exchange rings at the alter and go on honeymoon to Egypt.


Yamadera, Yamagata prefecture