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By Sera Sekerci

The most important thing that I learned from my experience teaching English in Japan is that culture is everything. So is attitude. Your attitude will often determine the quality of your experience. However, with a good knowledge of Japanese cultural values and communication styles, you will be more prepared and you will be able to maintain a positive attitude when you encounter situations that confuse you or cause you to become frustrated.

Let’s get more specific. The first thing that I recommend for any teacher who is preparing to teach English in Japan is to read as much as possible. Read about the country, the culture, the history and the people from a variety of sources and points of view and remember that everyone’s experiences and opinions are always filtered through their own perceptions and ways of viewing the world.  Arm yourself with knowledge and then check it out and see if it’s true for you.

Here are the things that I wish I had known before I moved to Japan:

  1. It’s about the team, not the individual: If you move to Japan to work in a school and most of your colleagues and supervisors are Japanese, get ready to work in a team atmosphere. Your individual achievement as a teacher is not as important as the performance of the entire school. In order to gain the respect of your colleagues, show your understanding and acceptance of this view in your interactions in staff meetings and company events, your willingness to work extra hours once in a while and your overall attitude toward the success of your school.
  1. Get to know your colleagues outside of work: In a culture like Japan, the cultivation of good working relationships doesn’t happen only at work. You might be invited to join the staff after work for a drink or dinner. You might be tired and you might prefer to go home instead. But joining your colleagues for a drink when you are invited is an important way of showing your dedication to your team members. Also, don’t miss this opportunity to learn about Japanese culture and practice your Japanese! I formed great friendships with my colleagues over sushi and drinks!
  1. Expect indirect communication: Japanese professionals tend to communicate in an indirect manner. This means that if they are not satisfied with your teaching performance, they are unlikely to tell you directly. In contrast, someone who comes from the United States or England might prefer to receive constructive criticism directly in order to improve. You won’t get that kind of criticism so you need to get smart about how to work with a different communication style. If you are aware of this, you might still become confused at times, but at least you will know that it is because of communication differences.
  1. Dress professionally: I worked in a language school that served everyone from business people to kids to grandmothers in Tokyo. Whereas in the United States, we might have a casual dress code for teachers, it is very important in Japan to look professional. The students will judge the quality of your teaching partly based on how you look, especially if you are working with business professionals.
  1. Open-mindedness, curiosity and a sense of humor will take you far: It all comes back to attitude. You are going to Japan to explore a new place, right? If you are in a rural area, people will stare at you. You will feel awkward at times. Everything will feel small at first. You will make hilarious mistakes with your Japanese! If you begin the adventure with a goal to learn as much as possible about the country and about yourself, you can’t go wrong.  Try to keep your mind open and you will have fond memories that will last forever.



Note about the author: Lindsay McMahon worked for Aeon Corporation in Tokyo in 2005-2006. She is currently running a private language and cultural training company in New York and Boston called English and Culture Tutoring Services

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