Travel Magazine

What I Wish I Had Known Before Coming to Japan

By Cubiclethrowdown

I tried to include this in my First Six Months in Japan recap post, but my “What I Wish I Had Known Before Coming to Japan” section was longer than the post itself. It clearly needed its own post, so here you go! Or, if you’re an ALT: here you are! (Inside ALT joke – students learn “here you are” instead of “here you go”, and after months of saying it constantly, it starts to replace “here you go” in your natural speech!)

This list of things I wish I had known before coming to Japan is something I’ve been compiling since I arrived last August. I’ve been here about 8ish months now. These are things that would have made my transition just a little easier if I would have known before I came. I still am doing fine! But maybe these tips can help someone else about to make the jump to Japan. Some of these will be applicable to anyone, but a lot of them are specific to teaching English, and some even more specific to the JET Programme. They are mostly applicable for people moving to Japan, but visitors can glean some tips too. And for those of you in none of those categories, I hope it’s a little funny or interesting for you!

What I Wish I Had Known Before Coming to Japan


How difficult and expensive it is to travel off the island I live on (things look close on a map, but the road tolls in Japan are ridiculous). To do a round-trip bus trip to Osaka (2 hours away) is $60 on the bus, or $80 in road tolls to drive. TWO HOURS AWAY. $80. WHAT.

Pay attention to the seating on buses and trains – there is often a bank of seats reserved for priority passengers (ie. elderly, disabled, pregnant) and it usually has signs or different colored seats.  People seem to have conflicting views here on them. Some Japanese people won’t sit in those seats whether anyone needs them or not, some do and fall asleep and don’t get up for priority passengers. I sit in them but I also pay attention (not sleeping or engrossed in my phone) so that if I see someone enter the train that needs the seat, I get up. Bonus: on longer-haul trains, the seats that are a different color are usually for passengers who paid to reserve a seat. Make sure to check which seats are reserved/non-reserved.

You’re usually expected to take your vacation days during school breaks. It’s often easier to take a school day off for a junior high day than elementary school, because elementary schools sometimes just won’t hold the English class if the ALT isn’t there and then the kids get behind (they’re required to have a certain number of English hours each year). The homeroom teachers in elementary school for the most part don’t know enough English to teach the class alone. My coworkers didn’t have trouble taking off a junior high day here and there to make a long weekend, but I always have elementary school on Mondays and Fridays so I was never allowed to take those days off. I missed a lot of fun events around Japan this year because I couldn’t take time off to travel far on weekends. That being said, I’m planning to take off 5 weeks this summer with all my saved-up vacation and overtime – so maybe that works out!

School/ALT Life

You need to ask teachers “do you have time now?” before asking them anything. If you don’t ask them this, they feel obligated to stop and answer you even if they’re in the middle of something important or need to go somewhere. Don’t just walk up and start talking – ask if they have time first.

After six months, your English will be garbage from speaking in broken sentences and easy-to-understand words all day every day.

ESID (every situation is different – JET Programme’s unofficial but very real motto) but at my schools I’m not expected to come in early or leave late. I tried to be Japanese and come to work 15-20 minutes early  but they told me to stop doing it because I was walking in in the middle of the morning teachers’ meeting. They don’t want me at the meeting which is why they scheduled my start time after it. At one of my elementary schools, they actually asked to start leaving 5 minutes earlier than my end time each day so that I could duck out before meetings started. Fine with me! To be honest, I would probably push back against a school who tried to pressure me into extra hours. I have heard of it happening and it’s really not supposed to. If that happens to you, and you aren’t comfortable with it, you can always remind the school that you are a contract part-time employee for the school and not a full time teacher. The support teachers, librarians and other contract teachers all come in at 8:30 and leave at 4:30. It’s only full-time teachers that work ridiculous hours.

Don’t panic if the junior high kids start changing in front of you – they are  wearing their gym clothes under their uniform (some junior highs, like mine, don’t have changing rooms so the students have to wear their gym clothes under their uniform every day).

I would have liked to have my predecessor help the schools a little more with the transition. What I mean by this is that I had a super keener predecessor which is great, but I could have used her help in starting to get the teachers ready for a new ALT who maybe might not want to take on all the extra optional work that she created, and might not have the same skills. My pred was a PowerPoint whiz and I am not, and my teachers were frustrated that I couldn’t whip up a from-scratch PPT game in 5 minutes. I’ve since shown them that I have other fantastic skills and they’re happy now, but it was a bumpy start. Each ALT is entitled to take on however much extra stuff they want while they are at school, but if they do, then I wish when they leave they would be very clear with the schools that the new ALT is not obligated to do it, or may want to try something different instead. None of us are going to do this job forever (it’s a max of 5 years on this program), so please, keep your successor in the back of your mind!

Don’t come here thinking all the students are going to be angels who are super genki about learning English. I’m in a smaller town and I work on an island that has primarily fishing and farming for work. Kids grow up here and usually don’t leave, they take over their parents farms or fishing business. My kids, for the most part, don’t give a flying fuck about English. It’s tough to give them a reason for needing to learn it because honestly, they won’t need it in their life here. There are also LOTS of kids with behavior problems, and the way teachers deal with it is very different here. Parents get to decide if students are put in special needs classes or the regular stream, and there is a lot of stigma here about special needs so I’m sure you can imagine why I have so many special needs kids with no support going to regular classes.

Students have a constitutional right to be in the classroom in Japan, so in most cases they can’t be sent to the hallway, the principals office, or suspended. There’s no detention, and very little classroom discipline. No one says anything if kids are sleeping or noisy or bothering other students. Usually the teachers just ignore it and in some classes it descends into chaos. I’ve been pretty firm with the teachers that I won’t go to classes where the kids can’t behave…. I’m not going to waste my time trying to talk over them or try to do an activity when no one is paying attention to me. I refuse to go to classes where the kids tell me to “go and die” or call me names when I’m trying to teach. It doesn’t hurt my feelings (I’m a 32 year old adult) but I expect to work in respectful environment. Of course I don’t expect students to be angels, but there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed. I stopped going to one of my  classes for two months (with the support of my supervisor) because the teacher has ZERO control in the classroom and it was a rude zoo where kids told me to go fuck myself and refused to do their English work. Ain’t nobody got time for that. The teacher got better at handling the kids and now I go to class again. It’s going okay so far. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself!

It would have been really helpful to have more information on the Japanese school system before I came. All we were told was about the division of the grades (ie. kindgarten, elementary school is grades 1-6, junior high is 7-9, senior high is 10-12). In junior high and high school, the students are referred to as 1st years, 2nd years and 3rd years. No one told me that kids don’t have to pass their classes and they still get moved up each grade with their class until the end of 9th grade. No one told me that 9th grade students have to apply to high school and write an entrance exam – senior high is not compulsory education in Japan so some students don’t move on after 9th grade if they can’t get into high school. No one told me junior high students only have English classes 4 days a week. No one told me that English isn’t even an actual subject in elementary school – it’s called “Foreign Language Activities” and there’s no work or grades for it. It depends on the school district but in my town, grades 5 + 6 have English once a week, grades 1-4 have it once or twice a month, and kindergarten has it maybe once or twice a year. So the kids forget EVERYTHING between classes and we do the same friggin thing every time and by the end of 6th grade they usually can say “What color do you like? I like blue” and that’s about it. This also means kids coming out of elementary schools have wildly varying levels of English, because there’s no comprehension checking or grading done in elementary school. When they move up to junior high all of a sudden English is a formal class like math, science, history, etc. and they have to do work for it and have class 4x a week. And so, lots of kids start to hate English in junior high. Can you blame them?

If you are an ALT – in the teachers’ room, you are allowed to eat snacks but  you should stop eating and discreetly put it away when students come in the room. They aren’t allowed snacks at school, so it’s seen as a bit rude to eat snacks in front of them. I find this really difficult as students are coming in and out of the teachers room all the damn time. Try to do it during a free period while students are in class. Also, students are not allowed to have drinks in class so you won’t be able to either.

JET-specific ALTs: once you arrive in Japan, stop referring to yourself as a JET and start using ALT. In Japan, ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) is the catchall term for everyone working in that position in schools, whether they came from JET, Interac, etc. If you use JET instead of ALT, people outside of the JET community will be confused. Most of your teachers/students won’t know (or care) which program you came over here on. Just use ALT, its the correct word here for your position. (JET is the program, not the job. You don’t hear the Interac kids saying “Oh, I’m an Interac!”)

The Japanese words for “something” or “whatever” (fill in the blank words … ie. What {whatever [sport/food/color]} do you like?) are naninani or nantoka. You’ll hear this A LOT, especially in elementary school. If you want kids to fill in the blank, you can tell them “What naninani do you like?” and they’ll yell FOOD or SPORT or whatever. You can also use it for answers, like “What color do you like? I like nantoka!” and they’ll yell BLUE or PINK or whatever. Some teachers also use a “hmmmm hmmm” sound instead of those words (I do this too, because naninani and nantoka are Japanese, and I want the kids to hear me speaking English words, not mixing in Japanese randomly – they start thinking all English speakers will understand Japanese words and that’s ridiculous). But it also helps when talking about or planning a lesson with the teachers. Also, if you see two circles written like this 〇〇, that also means like fill in the blank – so you’ll see on worksheets “What 〇〇 do you like?” or “〇〇-san is the tallest of the three.” It’s read as marumaru – lit. “circle circle” for  things, and daredare – lit. “who who” for people.

General Life

If you’re picturing robots and super high-tech lifestyles, stop it right now. The technology infrastructure where I live is at about 1980s levels. I AM NOT JOKING. For example, the schools do not understand how the internet works and think everything has viruses. I cannot connect my laptop to the schools hardwired network, and there’s no wifi at school. So I tether off my phone ALL DAY (thankfully I get 10GB a month of data for $30). There’s also tons of rules of using USBs on school computers or connecting my computer to the SmartBoards in the classrooms. It’s a nightmare. The schools and Board of Education also still use faxes for everything. FAXES, PEOPLE. I get all my lesson plans by fax to the Board of Education. The ALTs have a meeting there every Thursday, but sometimes the schools fax it on Monday for a Tuesday lesson, so I show up empty-handed. They can’t email them to me for … whatever reason.

Also, can we just talk about the banking for a second? WE STILL USE PAPER BANK BOOKS. I haven’t had one of those in Canada since the 90s. Online banking is a joke and I can’t pay any of my bills online, I get a paper bill in the mail and I take it with the money to the convenience store and pay it there. Thankfully my supervisor set up a direct withdrawal for my utilities, but for the rest of my bills (cell phone, credit card, wifi, etc.) I have to get cash out and pay at the convenience store. To pay my rent, I have to take a piece of paper my boss gives me to my bank. Then I have take the money out of the ATM inside the bank (at my own bank where I have an account but the teller can’t take it out because…Japan), take a number, wait, give them the paper and the money, take another number, wait, go up and get my receipt and change. Oh, and the banks are only open from 9am till 3pm on weekdays (hello sexist country that assumes everyone has a housewife at home to take care of this) so I have to take time off school to pay my fucking rent. It’s outrageous. People are not joking when they say Japan is still a mostly cash-based society. To be fair, it’s absolutely safe to carry around huge amounts of cash here. After being in Honduras, I had an anxiety attack every time I did this for about the first three months until I got used to it.

Short and sweet: you need to take your shoes off before going into changeroom cubicles at clothing stores.

The full-serve gas stations will clean all your windows and give you a fresh wet rag – it’s for wiping down the interior of your car.

The easiest and cheapest way to send money back to North America by far is Transferwise (heads up: referral link – you’ll get a free transfer and so will I!) I send money every three months with this and it’s super easy. They have detailed instructions for Japanese bank accounts, but you can use it almost anywhere in the world.

Look for the little ridged trays when paying – sometimes they’re on the counter or sometimes attached as part of the cash register. This is where you should put your money, you’re not supposed to put it straight into the cashier’s hands.

If a cashier or waiter is staring at you after you’ve ordered and seems like they’re waiting for you to say more, it’s because you need to say ijou desu (“that’s all”) when you’re done ordering.

Expect to bag your own groceries at most grocery stores. Move out of the cashier corral – usually just past there are banks of packing stations with extra bags, newspapers, etc. and that’s where you bag your groceries.

The personal hygiene here is pretty shocking. Japan is a very clean country in the sense that buildings, homes, restaurants and public spaces are usually spotless. Outside of mega-cities like Tokyo and Osaka, you’ll have to search hard to find litter on the streets. People are religious about bathing. However, the general personal hygiene standards here are much lower than North America. I don’t know why but people here seem to be pretty fucking clueless about how germs are spread. No one washes their hands with soap (if at all) after using the bathroom, and people who are sick cough and sneeze all over the place without covering their mouths. And then everyone freaks out about getting the flu (I wonder why you’re getting sick…?) I’ve been through 3 flu pandemics at my school (over 30% of the school sick) and I still haven’t gotten the flu. I’m sure I will sometime, but I think staying away from people coughing all over the place and washing my damn hands is helping.

The amount of weight I have gained here is something I was not prepared for. I didn’t realize how physical my job was in Roatan and now that I’m back at a job where I’m either sitting or standing and not much else, it’s really affecting my body. Combined with the fact that for the first three months, I refused to go outside because of the extreme heat/humidity, and the fact that I’m banned from gyms and swimming pools here due to my tattoos, and the fact that Japanese food/snacks are fucking delicious and I have enough money now to eat whatever I want, and the fact that school lunches are about 750-900 calories (no joke) every day… I’ve managed to put on a solid 15lbs here in the first six months and IT’S GOTTA GO. I can’t keep buying new pants – I already have to buy them on the internet because the stores here don’t carry my size (12-14 US, which is a 3XL in Japanese sizing). Since the weather cooled off, I’ve started walking for an hour every day after school with a coworker, and trying to do a fitness video once or twice a week in my house. I also don’t eat the rice/bread in my school lunches anymore (I give it away to the kids), I steer clear of the instant lattes and junk food in the teachers room, and in January I started keeping a 100% paleo diet at home.  I’ve lost about 5lbs so far and hope to keep going because *game of thrones voice* summer is coming, and I’ll be hiding inside again for 4 months.

Most important: if you ask for something and you get a “chotto…..” (“a little”), it’s a NO. Japanese people hate saying no. You’ll never hear anyone responding to a request with “iie” (“no”). They’re super indirect and dance around everything in hopes that you’ll figure it out yourself. It’s difficult. Just know that chotto usually means no!

If you come from a country that doesn’t do lines well, you’re gonna have to change your ways. Japanese people love to line up, and it’s very orderly. DO NOT cut in line, anywhere, ever. It’s super rude here.

I wasn’t expecting people to be so kind to me here. I literally fumble through my entire life here because I’m still struggling so much with the language barrier. I am constantly shocked at the kind things Japanese people do for me and all the help I get because I am useless. I’m extremely ashamed of how I have treated newcomers in my own country (I was never an asshole but I definitely was not as helpful as I could have been). I know going forward in my life that I will be more patient and understanding. People are constantly gifting me food that their family has grown, teachers drop extra treats on my desk when they’re being passed around, and we even sometimes get extra dishes at restaurants from the owners. It’s really heartwarming when people are so unconditionally kind to me.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and in another 8 months I’m sure I’ll have a Part II companion for this, and maybe even more after that. But hopefully this will help out anyone on their way to Japan to avoid some of the mistakes I made in my first 8 months here! Coming to Japan or moving here from a Western country can be daunting, but it’s doable. And if you mess up, Japanese people are very kind about it… usually


Have you been to/lived in/worked in Japan? What would you add to my list to help newbies?

Want more Cubicle Throwdown in your life? Of course you do, you rockstar. You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, G+ and Pinterest, if you like. You can also add me to your Bloglovin’ feed, or email me! If social media is not your jam and you just want my posts straight to your inbox, check out the sidebar and put your email address in the “Never Miss A Post” box. No newsletters or spam, just my posts – scouts honor. xo!

You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :