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The McJob of Asia

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By Lisa Gay

I remember talking to a friend before I was supposed to begin teaching English here in Japan. “Don’t fool yourself,” he said. “Anyone can do this job—it’s the McJob of Asia.” Not the sort of advice a young graduate is going to take seriously, but after a few years in the game, I’m starting to see where he was coming from.

Teaching English in Japan was never dignified—nor was it ever going to be, with “genkiness” prized over “professionalism”—but at least it was well-compensated. Yet with Japan’s lost decade extending way past the 10-year mark, English teachers are feeling the recessional tug. Where once the JET program supplied public schools all over Japan with a fresh crop of graduates every year, now there’s a bleak landscape of dispatch companies feeding off the bloated body of government-run JET and cutting every corner (and labor law) they can. McJobs? It was once just a mildly funny joke. Now it’s a way of life for many Westerners trying to make a living teaching English.

Dispatch companies are a great deal for cash-strapped Board of Educations (BOEs). Not only can BOEs have native English speakers in local schools for a lower cost than either hiring privately or using the JET program, but the draining task of dealing with a crop of largely non-Japanese-speaking foreigners is farmed out to someone else. The BOEs save time and money; the act of hiring, firing and training recruits falls to the dispatches.

But for those of us employed by one of these dispatch companies, the difference is astounding. Forget the luxury of free airfares and subsidized housing—de rigueur even for jobs in South Korea. These days, most teachers do without health insurance, pension plans and unemployment insurance. Dispatch higher-ups will tell you this is because instructors work part-time hours. But with most teachers starting at 8 a.m. and working until 4 p.m., their excuses ring hollow. This situation is a clear violation of Japanese labor standards, but BOEs pass the buck, and dispatch companies laugh all the way to the bank.

The backwards regression doesn’t stop there. My own recent experience with a dispatch company left me working on a tourist visa for nearly three months. It’s a serious offense to be caught working without a proper visa, but my company told me it wasn’t a problem; it is common practice and I shouldn’t worry about it. But that didn’t change the fact it was illegal, and I dreaded approaching anyone who looked remotely like a police officer.

And let’s not forget it isn’t just about teachers getting screwed out of a decent salary. The students also get a bum deal. In a special report that ran on the Nippon News Network last summer, a panel of parents and students were interviewed about their English classes. One boy said that he had had as many as seven or eight teachers in one year, and another girl who had no less than four teachers said it was hard to make a connection with English instructors because they were constantly streaming in and out of school. The revolving door mentality of a McJob is rearing its ugly head.

When I was introduced at my local BOE just three months ago, the staff expressed hope that my fellow teachers and I would stay with them for many years. But if that was their goal, then they’re really clueless. They’ve provided no incentive to stay: my starting salary will never increase, and I’ll never get the full-time benefits mandated by law. I have been made to feel interchangeable and disposable. And I am: if I quit, there will be many other eager applicants waiting for my job.

If the BOEs really wanted to keep teachers around long-term, the first thing to do would be to increase private hires. But this can’t be done without the government enforcing labor legislation that’s already on the books. As it stands, the bidding system that many BOEs use to dish out contracts makes the dispatch companies that actually do follow the law uncompetitive. And so the downward spiral continues.

The heyday of the JET program is waning, and the good old times aren’t coming back. To be sure, JET had its problems—it was difficult to fire bad teachers, and good teachers couldn’t be retained for more than five years. Dispatch companies were supposed to fix these problems, but instead, they are adding to them. When you have four different English teachers in a school year, it’s a problem. When you have seven? It’s a complete failure on the part of the Japanese school system.

Lisa Gay works as an English teacher at a dispatch somewhere in Japan.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

35 Comments
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It boggles the mind why a young graduate from a Western country would come to Japan to teach now. On top of dispatch companies siphoning a chunk of your already miserable salary, you have the most apathetic, laziest students on the planet.

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It's Boards of Education, not Board of Educations. No wonder she only works for a dispatch company.

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i hope she didnt use her real name...... they must be gunning for her now.

very informative article on the other hand. this is the dark underbelly of the education system here.

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Why would anyone work as an ALT for one of those dispatch companies? Get the hell out of the country if it comes down to that.

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Unfortunately almost all English jobs are the same save a few. Employees are treated like a battery, when this one runs out of energy, the next one is already in the queue to take its place. Japan has a mysterious aura to those who havent actually lived here for more than a couple years. So the lines will be forming to come to "teach" and the process continues.

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For a 22-25 year old, these jobs aren't bad until they figure out what they want to do with their life. There are few similar opportunities in other countries that pay as well.

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I question her point about 'genkiness' being prized over 'professionalism'. Surely being genki IS part of being professional if you are a teacher, just as compassion is part of professionalism in a nurse or good ethical sense is in a lawyer. Im not a teacher, but I know plenty that do a great job, are genki, professional and most importantly, having served their apprentiship with the eikawas or BOE were recognised as being skilled and found themselves some great teaching jobs elsewhere in Japan. Lisa, if you find yourself stuck on the bottom rung of the ladder, perhaps its time to step off and try a different ladder?

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BOEs usually (always?) pay 300 000 yen a month, which is good, but the 'dispatch companies' take 50 000 - 70 000 of that, leaving the teacher on a pretty average wage. With the crapification of Japanese jobs, it is still an above average job by Japanese standards but most teachers could be making much more back in their home countries.

Just a word of advice to anyone who is married to a Japanese national: quit your job immediately and just do privates. You'll double your salary within a year, be able to choose who you teach and when you teach them. I have no sympathy for those too lazy to take this step.

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Wow, this is depressing me. Glad I got out of teaching when I did. Amazing that salaries are slightly less than when I was doing it, a decade ago.

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Unfortunately this not only affects the so called lower rungs on the ladder. There are plenty of universities that have hiring and salary practices that are unfair and/or discriminatory, and it's getting worse.

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Yeah, the bubble burst about 15 years ago, mate, along with the Japanese economy. The McEnglish (eikaiwa) industry in Japan has always been more about entertainment than education, and the way they teach in schools ? Well, on average 6 or 7 years of English education and the majority of people can't even string a sentence together.

It's not a bad thing to teach for a couple of months while travelling ( all you really need is a diploma, a suit and a pulse ) but not really to be thought of as a career.

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Although the wages are stagnant as noted above, compared to when I came to Japan in 1993, housing and most other goods are actually cheaper, so in that sense the wage buys more now. In particular one's main cost, housing is much more reasonable, especially in the countryside.

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Japanese are finding that outside of a few sectors like banking and sales there are no real economic incentives for learning foreign languages. What's important is toadying up to the boss and not screwing up by barfing on his shoes at the December bonen-kai. I've known Japanese who were very good at English who didn't even bother to put it on their resumes, knowing it wouldn't make any difference in their work assignment or promotion.

There was I guy I'd known for three years in my section at the office, three desks away, to whom I'd spoken to (in Japanese) on an almost daily basis who finally opened up to me for the first time in fluent English with upper-crust London accent. I think he was moved by the saying "No aru taka wa tsume wo kakusu" (a capable person knows how to be modest) and didn't want to appear that he was showing off.

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but at least it was well-compensated

Since when was 250k-300k a month considered well compensated? That may be passable for a very very raw graduate but it's not well compensated, nor was it ever. It's certainly not well-compensated when you consider you'll be making the same amount in 5 years.

The truth is almost any entry level job in someone's home country (assuming they are from the industrialized world, of course) will pay at least that, if not considerably more. The only real reason for someone to come to Japan or another country to teach English is for the experience, not make a decent living at it.

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Funny, she's complaining about it all but she doesn't mention if she is qualifed. The folks that I know who have degrees in teaching or MAs in the area do a few years working in crappy jobs and makeconnections, learn Japanese... and then get sweet university deals (PT works, FT) or work at private JHS/HS. Those that have been in the crappy dispatch system or eikaiwa places usually belong there as they don't have a clue about teaching and have no interest in getting qualified to get out of the McJobs.

Japan is a good place for those fresh out of uni to make some easy money and save some cash. If you want to make teaching abroad your life long job, invest in yourself so you don't have to work these types of jobs forever. Seems pretty simple and common sense to me.

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And the General Union has spoken!

Congrats Lisa! Thanks to individuals like yourself and your Union ilk, who have pushed so hard for Shakai Hoken.... you got what you wanted and the law will be enforced. Now we can all add a 20 000 Yen expence to our monthly bills. Great work!

Most English teachers are here for a short time and what to make as much money as they can before returning home, and aren't concerned about joining the health care system. They are happy with a third party carrier. The enforcement of this just chips away at everyone's take home pay. You complain about your pay, but you are in favor of having less of it? Which is it?

90% of the "English teachers" here are unqualified to do so in their home country, and if their wages blow perhaps it's because their qualifications do too. Maybe one shouldn't complain about getting screwed by their dispatch company when they are getting paid to do something they really aren't qualified to do.

Simple solution... leave! If things are so much better in Korea or back at home, please leave. The sooner you do the better things will be for those of us who want to be here.

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If it's that bad, don't do it.

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When the dancing monkeys make more than you do -you need to start looking elsewhere for gainful employment.

-as said before, it's not how much you make, but how much you are able to save. (are you getting ahead).

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Somebody call the Waaaambulance...

First mistake to make in Japan is placing all your faith in your company.

Is the ALT job really so demanding? Do you not have 2 to 3 hours a day of free periods?

I'm guessing you use this free time to write sob story, waa boo articles of how life here is hard...instead of using this time to improve yourself, edit university papers for cash, study for that JLPT level 1, work on a correspondence Masters degree, join a calligraphy/art/science class, map out your future, or simply vegetate...all whilst being paid.

I would prefer working for one of these shadier dispatch companies because the shadiness can work both ways. They provide one with a visa and base salary...One then doubles his/her salary by working private lessons under the table tax free. Larger companies often threaten their workers whom choose to work on the side.

Be the user and not the used!

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Since when was 250k-300k a month considered well compensated? That may be passable for a very very raw graduate but it's not well compensated, nor was it ever. It's certainly not well-compensated when you consider you'll be making the same amount in 5 years.

I believe that this is an excellent level of compensation for the lady that wrote this article.

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By law everyone has to get national health insurance. Go to your ward office and apply. And since your salary is so low, your monthly cost will be really low. It is based on wages.

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McJob is kind of wrong, you'll get paid 3500-5000 yen an hour. I agree that genkiness over skills is favored, Japanese students want gaijins like the stereotypical they see on TV.

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Yelnats, According to Interac "no they don't" Interac hires more ALT's in Japan than any other. And they don't pay into the National Premium. The put their teachers on Global Health.

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So is a "backwards regression" a progression?

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Because I'm one of the lucky ones, I'll be honest and include my salary information here, but before I do I have to ask if it is cheaper for BOEs to hire through dispatch companies???

Our school uses a dispatch company only because we couldn't find a teacher for only four classes. That being said it costs more to use the dispatch company than to hire directly and our school pays salaries even to part-time teachers based on their teaching hours. If they teach 10 classes a week they are paid for 10 classes a week regardless of holidays, school events or vacations.

OK... The information I'm giving about my salary isn't to brag, but to show that there are some schools that don't discriminate, but I do realize these jobs are almost impossible to land. Just for the record I answered the ad for my school in one of the major English daily newspapers.

This is my 5th year at the Jr./Sr. high school and my take home pay each month is about 395,000 after taxes and my school pays for health insurance and pension according to the law. My summer bonus this year was 690,000 Yen after taxes and last year my winter bonus was 1.2 million Yen after taxes.

Like I said, I'm one of the lucky ones and I post these numbers out here so people can see what the dispatch companies are doing to teachers because the government refuses to police these agencies. What they should be doing is requiring BOEs to hire directly.

By the way, I'm a real teacher and have a MS in Education.

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I just dont know what people expect from all of this. 250,000-300,000 yen can be $20 an hour or so depending on how many hours are worked. How much more do you expect to make doing a job that has no requirement other than having a college degree in SOMEthing (not even English) and for a job that has no specialized skill requirements or certifications that you must have?

Sounds good to me to make that much, a lot of unemployed people out there who would be happy to make that $20/hr while needing no other skill than to be able to speak their native language in front of others? If you have special skills that you think you should be making more, then go out there and find a job that pays that, this type of job is not for you.

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huh!? get a real job then...

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How serious can you take the opinion of someone who starts off declaring that "Teaching English in Japan was never dignified" and goes on to bemoan her choice of coming to Japan to teach English? Ms. Gay does not exactly seem like a go-getter who is going to make her way in the world through good times and bad. Instead it is the persective of Entitlement. How much money and benefits do you expect employers to pay someone to teach English conversation? Teaching English conversations is not a bad idea for someone fresh out of school who wants to see a different part of the world and perhaps save some money for the next step in their life. Beyond a couple of years it is time to move on and get into something more permanent like Movieguy who seems to be doing well for himself and isn't full of angst about his career choice.

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Lisa, so your friend tells you that teaching English is the "McJob of Asia" before you even go there, but you do it anyway, and after a FEW YEARS you're still in "the game", as you call it. Why? And what game are you talking about? Spending several years of your life doing a job that is the college graduate's equivalent of scanning groceries is definitely NOT a game.

Except maybe for university jobs, anyone with outside interests and motivation should approach English teaching the way US policymakers perhaps should have approached the war in Iraq--go in with a timetable and an exit strategy, and stick to them.

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McJob is kind of wrong, you'll get paid 3500-5000 yen an hour. I agree that genkiness over skills is favored, Japanese students want gaijins like the stereotypical they see on TV.

ummm....yeah you obviously have never worked for one of the big name dispatch companies before. 3500-5000 yen an hour? let me know which dispatch company pays that much and i will be happy to sign up.

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Plenty pay that - business dispatch - CES, Phoenix,... Generally you need to have at least a CELTA and some business experience though. Which means the folks like the writer are still shite out of luck...

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Im an ALT at a JHS. I make 235,000, have plenty of holidays (paid, half for summer, which is 6 weeks), use my free time to study for the JLPT 2kyu or 1kyu ( 1kyu looks quite beastly though ). I'ts a good job to have while getting yourself ready for something else, not a career choice though.

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calling your work a "McJob" is insulting to the workers of McDonald's --> those people actually have training and are "skilled."

-Do you want fries with that?

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Seriously, if she doesn't like teaching, she has 2 options,

1) go home 2) get a better job

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JET is not that bad....when I think of what this same job would be worth in my home counry. I also manage to get through to my kids without being overly genki....they just have to accept that I am different from the others they have had, but that I still have alot to offer. Less 'genkiness' plus professionalism plus genuine care gets me the same results as a 'super genki'. As stated by almondjoy....never a career choice.

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