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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

December 28, 2009

So, just who are we anyway?

I'm past the age where chatting up the ladies in Japan is a viable option (not to mention that it wouldn't exactly be endearing to my wife) but I do remember a time when the inevitable "What do you do?" question would be popped by an enticing young lady I had just met. "Ummm I'm an English teacher," I'd stutter, almost wincing with anticipation at her look of disdain upon not having said 'investment banker'.

Let's face it- the general response (usually an implicit one in this land of tatemae) is not that of admiration. The general notion is that we Eigo no kyoushi are in fact talentless itinerants, drafted into the profession only because our mother tongue happens to be in demand. But we don't have any real skills- nothing of real professional virtue.

It's not just the lovely ladies with whom one has to use the 'E' word with trepidation. Any type of official, or even the guy who starts chatting with you on the train, will look almost disappointed when you mutter that you are an English teacher. It's a bit like saying you are a poet or philosopher or that you're looking for your big break to get into the movies- OK, you don't have a real job I see.

Of course it is true that some Non-J English teachers are here in a state of flux or limbo. It's just a temporary thing- a step on the way to that real job. Some are truly unqualified and in fact couldn't get much of anything 'back home' but have found that their mother tongue is at least marketable abroad. This meets the Japanese public expectation about the credibilty of English teachers- that of shiftless wanderers who couldn't make it back in Peoria. Others are what I'll call semi-qualified but will scrape their way up through the system and gain education and experience until they have, often to their own surprise, made an actual career of it. I'm not being derisive of such people in the least- after all that sounds a lot like me. Let''s face it, very, very few of us were actively recruited from the Education Faculties of Ivy League universities.

There are ways around the stigma of this shameful confession though. If you regularly write textbooks you can say that you are a materials writer or that you work for a publishing company. That will buy you some more J cred. In my case, I expediently avoid demeaning myself in the eyes of my interlocutor (and by 'expediently' here I mean 'soothe the ego') by saying that I am a professor. A university professor (yeah, yeah, OK- associate professor if you must). That certainly makes the hankos come down on that bank loan approval forms quite a bit faster and gets me trough customs just that bit faster.

When asked what exactly I am a professor of I have the option of keeping my J creds by stating that I work in the medical faculty. Hell, that might even be enough to elicit a 'Sugoi!' or two. But if the English element (or, slightly better, medical English) is revealed I automatically lose a few social testosterone points.

This is ironic because if or when my equally qualified Japanese colleague is asked what he does he gets big kudos locally for being a prof in the top faculty at the top university in the area (OK- It's Miyazaki- big fish, small pool and all that). But me? Nah- I'm presumed to be there largely because I speak the language as a native. I'm there by linguistic default.

I never wanted to be an English teacher. Now this is not a case of sour grapes or anything or armchair grumbling. In fact I just can't imagine anyone in their formative years declaring that their lifetime goal is to become an English teacher. When I was a kid I wanted to be a hockey player (Damn that gammy leg!) and an actor (Damn that gammy agent who didn't get me the good roles!). Then as I realized that I lacked only the size, strength and talent to play in the NHL I considered (more seriously) diplomatic work (damn that gammy French fluency requirement!) and becoming a Christain minister (damn that gammy proclivity for sin and subsequent guilt!).

I took philosophy and religious studies courses in university because I was interested in these subjects. I was not thinking about my job in the real world thereafter. I knew that you didn't see a lot of "Philosopher wanted" ads in the newspapers but so what? And I did learn a lot from these courses. I developed more refined ability with critical thinking as well as skills in managing discourse and rhetoric. I certainly felt that I became more articulate, able to express myself concisely, and suitably versed in Western culture (although this and 250 yen will get you an American Blend- a small one- at Doutor's).

After that, getting a teaching certificate and doing another graduate degree in Applied Linguistics were certainly intended to give me viable work options- although the latter was also of great benefit to my development. It helped me realize that my skills were in communication and that I did have some natural affinity for teaching. I also developed an academic interest in how languages 'work'. And as I was/am a travel buff foreign lands beckoned with opportunity... and so here I am.

I think a lot of us are in the same boat. We kind of 'fell into' teaching English but, as we got older, and the big brass door of life options began to shut, we realized that we had to become professionals or remain in permanent limbo. That this was our lot and we'd better make the best of it. Do a job well done, as an oldtimer would doubtless tell you. And when you get married and make babies it's not as if you have a lot of opportunities to reinvent yourself anyway. You've becoma an English teacher for life. That's your calling, your station now despite your best laid plans of becoming...well... an artist/poet/philosopher.

A lot of the university English teachers I know in Japan have similar backgrounds in the humanities. Few studied the so called 'practical' subjects. The vast majority are articulate and skilled communicators. Most have a facility for self-expression, so English teaching is a natural fallback. Many have dabbled in the arts in some form or another and have kept that up as a hobby. There's a certain commonality here.

And you know what? It's not a bad job. We have responsibility. We get to interact with a variety of people. We get to be creative. We are, to a certain extent, our own bosses with our private, personal spaces at work (at least in comparison to the poor saps in the Somu office cubicles). The work is not back breaking. We get to attend conferences and keep up the look of being professionals. There is an occasionally stimulating academic basis to what we do. We have the chance to conduct research that we are interested in. Some of us (and by 'us' here I mean 'me') can keep a blog and write newspapere articles on work topics that interest us.

So, is this what I really want to do? No. I still want, in my heart of hearts, to be a hockey playing actor-cum-rock star or travel the world and be paid to write abut my travel exploits- but something tells me that ain't gonna happen. But given the fact that most people on this earth don't seem to like their jobs or simply don't have any options as to work, given that drudgery is the normal price for taking home a paypacket, I can't complain. In fact, even if the young lovely I once tried to seduce didn't make pachi-pachi eyes at me when I told her my vocation, I'm still thankful for what I've got. I've got a life here.

Have a great 2010 everybody!

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Wow Mike, couldn't have said it better myself. You described my situation perfectly, and I have to say that it is nice to see/hear that others have followed a similar path to mine because at times I have moments of doubt as to what the heck I am doing over here in Japan. I think at some point English teachers need to either poop or get off the pot, as my mother would say (replacing poop with a more sordid word). If we decide to stay and make a career out of English teaching I think its a good idea to get properly qualified and be more profesional about it. I find myself at this transition point now, having acquired a masters degree in applied linguisitics and now trying to parlay that into a more secure university job. Which leads me to a question for you and anyone else out there reading this: for someone like me who is starting to make a more serious career out of teaching english here, and who wants to start doing research and publishing papers in journals, what's a good way to get started? My guess is that I need to find an area of research which interests me and start reading and writing about it, but if you or anyone else has suggestions I am all ears.

I'm looking forward to reading your blog in 2010. Happy New Year everyone!


Mike, just wanted to say I'm a fan of your writing. Your articles always make me laugh and nod in agreement. Keep up the good work. Have a great "Year of the Tiger"!

I had quite a laugh about the looks are given when you say you are an English teacher. Like Rodney Dangerfield, I feel I get no respect (or that the only respect is self-respect.) And when I go back to the US, people (even friends) way, just what is it you teach?"

Actually, all I ever wanted to be was a mother and a teacher. Sounds easy, but I had to adopt three kids to accomplish the mother part and have had to work in almost every situation imaginable in Japan to accomplish the teacher part, just recently starting full-time at a univeristy. My kids say, "Wow, you sure came a long way to accomplish those goals!"

Please keep up the interesting columns.


Having lucked out as a substitute for the Center Entrance Exams - none of the proctors was sick today - so have a whole day in the office to kill time.

Nice one, Mike, very nice one. I hear you knocking and you're already halfway down the hall with that stuff.

Nothing alarmingly meaningful to add; I think you got it taped down pretty well, and I love some of your phrasing: 'shiftless wanderers' is priceless. I always enjoy your wee pieces immensely, as the milkman said to the housewife. Keep it clicking and ticking in 2010, and be well, my friend.


Hi Paul.

Thanks for dropping by and I'm honoured to see that you're reading my humble pieces.

I will be doing an item on using lyrics in the classroom in the near future.

Have a good un.


Hi Mike,

I came across your flavor-packed website while searching for information about teaching at a university level. I've been reading article after article of yours for about an hour now and I've gotta say this one really hits home. I was a metalsmithing major in college, and lo and behold, I find out that it's not the best way to make a living in the world.

Long story short, I made it to Japan on the JET program and have been here for the last 4 years. I've kind of settled into this lifestyle and am now looking for a career outside of the "Limbo" that you so accurately described.

Reading your articles has really been enlightening, and I'd jump at the chance to pick your brain a bit. If you've got a free moment could I ask you a few questions via a normal Email?

Judging from one of the articles in the "workload" section it sounds like you have your hands full, so I won't ask much. It'd be a great help to me.

A new fan,

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