In recent times, it seems like every online ESL teacher is obsessed with teaching students in China. This might be because many English instructors get their introduction to the ESL industry via a Chinese company. But teachers focussing exclusively on China may be missing big opportunities for teaching English online to Japanese students in 2021 and beyond.
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Advantages of Teaching English Online to Japanese Students
If you are used to the time zone differences involved with teaching Chinese students, you will be pleased to know that Japan’s time difference is very similar to China. While Beijing and Shanghai are GMT+8, all of Japan (JST) is GMT+9, just one hour ahead.
Another advantage is that Japan is a developed country. It has a high standard of living and generally high disposable income. Japan’s GDP per capita in 2020 is USD $47,200 which compares favorably compared to the United States (USD $53,240) and especially to mainland China (USD $8,130). Japanese consumers highly value education and skills. The majority of ESL students you will encounter have the motivation and the means to pay teachers very well.
Japan has an impressive local internet infrastructure. Fast broad band and mobile internet speeds along with extensive network coverage mean very few of your students should have trouble getting online for your lessons. Smartphones and tablets are ubiquitous. Most people are familiar with Zoom (or at least Skype). The majority of Japanese organizations introduced work-from-home rules during 2020. This has rapidly increased mainstream adoption of online video communication.
Unlike mainland China, all the familiar social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are alive and well in Japan. Google is also the dominant local search engine. A majority of Japanese still use Yahoo Japan as their web portal but Yahoo Japan’s search results have been served by Google’s search engine since 2010.
One “local” media platform that will be new territory for some people is LINE. Think of it as the local equivalent of WhatsApp. In Q4 of 2020, LINE had a monthly average Japanese user base of 84 million out of a total population of 120 million. LINE is also quite popular in Taiwan, another prime ESL market.
Demand for English Teaching in Japan
The Japanese economy is becoming more globalized each year. Manufacturing sectors that were formerly the backbone of the economy have followed western companies in relocating their operations to low wage countries. A decade ago China was the “hot” new destination for cost conscious industries. These days it is more likely to be South East Asia. In any case, globalization has forced most large companies to place a higher emphasis on English language training within their organization.
International branch transfers for staff are typically for terms of 3-5 years. Language preparation for transferees and their family is usually covered by the employer in the time before and during their deployment.
Promotion to higher managerial positions within companies often depends on foreign language communication skills. For example, many companies have a policy that junior managers need to achieve a Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) score of 700+ before they will be considered for more responsibility.
Some large Japanese owned companies such as Rakuten and Fast Retailing have taken things a step further. These organizations have declared English to be the “in-house” language used for all internal communication. Anyone wishing to be employed by either of these companies needs to take their English skills seriously. More companies are expected to follow suit over time.
The COVID-19 pandemic lead to a downturn in foreign travel in 2020. However in prior years, Japanese people of all ages were enthusiastic and adventurous holidaymakers. Neighborhood community centers often have “English Circles” where retirees can improve their English for fun, mental stimulation or to prepare for their next overseas journey.
Young adults were also avid travelers prior to the pandemic. Study abroad and working holiday trips were popular for university age men and women. Demand for English for Travel lessons is expected to bounce back “post-pandemic” in response to delayed plans of this type.
English teaching for toddlers, elementary and high school kids is just as popular in Japan as it is in China. Families are aware that English skills are an important asset for their sons and daughters. Parents invest in their education accordingly.
IELTS is a well established academic entry standard for foreign study. High School students study hard for a test that will open up opportunities at prestigious foreign schools.
Japan has a culture which values politeness and respect for others. Students of all ages have a deferential attitude to teachers and instructors. They will expect you to direct the class and take control of the learning process. This can mean that you need to work a little harder to find out what your students’ learning needs, preferences and interests really are.
It is rare in Japanese society to show displeasure with a poor service experience. Usually, an unhappy student will just concoct an excuse and stop booking lessons. So be aware and look for clues about whether your students are satisfied with their progress. It’s very unlikely that you will get direct negative feedback from clients.
Unlike some parts of Asia, Japan is most definitely not a country where haggling over price is common. There are some exceptions but for the most part, when you quote a price, the client will either accept or go elsewhere. There isn’t any price negotiation.
Office workers are usually very diligent in their jobs and commit to long work hours. On top of that, lengthy commutes are the norm in larger cities like Tokyo and Osaka. As a result, students are occasionally tired and lack enthusiasm. Think of creative ways to engage them and “pep up” their energy level. Also be careful about giving too many pre-lesson or post-lesson study assignments.
High school and elementary students often suffer the same problem. Parents take academic entrance exams very seriously. Many teenagers attend after school “Juku” (cram schools) to supplement their regular learning. So don’t be surprised if your teenage students seem a bit drained. Plan activities that match their interests and stoke their enthusiasm.
Japanese people expect punctuality in all aspects of their daily life. Public transport systems run on precise schedules. Chimes and announcements occur in public and private spaces to remind people when it is time to start work, study and go home. As an instructor you will be expected to always be on time.
Try not to go overtime on your lessons either. You might be tempted to think this is adding “extra value” but in reality, you could just be creating delays in your client’s busy schedule. Often, your student won’t tell you about it either, out of the embarrassment and respect for your teaching authority.
When addressing you, most students will use a title which reflects your role e.g. “Teacher Paul” or “Paul Sensei”. You might need to remind them a few times if you prefer something a little less formal.
Japanese people themselves rarely refer to one another by their given names. When they do, it is usually when addressing a child or much younger person and includes a “-chan” suffix for girls or a “-kun” suffix for boys e.g. “Miho-chan” or “Yusuke-kun”.
When referring to other adults, Japanese will use family names with the “-san” suffix for men and women e.g. “Tanaka-san”. I personally prefer to address adult students by their family names but with “Mr/Ms” as the prefix, since I want to stick to language immersion best practices. But depending on the context you might also want to get them used to using given names for English conversation in informal contexts.
Finally, be aware of a few “taboo” topics. Drugs, sex, war and politics are all potential conversational mine fields. Some advanced level students may be interested in discussing these issues with you, in particular to learn about the different cultural attitudes between your country and theirs. They can sometimes be good opportunities for students to improve their debate skills and practice expressing opinions, but make sure you get “buy in” from the student first. Japan isn’t a particularly religious society but attitudes toward social issues are still fairly conservative.
Language Challenges for Japanese Students
The Japanese population routinely gets a low score in global English proficiency ratings. This is usually blamed on the compulsory education system which places too much emphasis on grammar and not enough on actual conversation practice. Most Japanese can read English and write to some extent, and have a functional vocabulary knowledge but struggle to communicate verbally with another person.
Teachers in the school system seem to prefer to keep a tight lid on their classes, putting an emphasis on discipline and conformity. The Japanese classroom environment encourages “rote learning” and regurgitation rather than creative thinking skills.
Also, students have an intense fear of making mistakes or publicly embarrassing themselves in front of their peers. This leads to a deep reluctance to speak up in a group environment or ask questions when they don’t understand something.
So what language structures do Japanese learners of English regularly struggle with?
- Pronunciation – “L” vs “R” , “V” vs “B” sounds, “T” vs “Ch” sounds, “a” and “o” vowel sounds.
- Grammar – Confusing simple past and present perfect or simple present and present continuous.
- Levels of Politeness – Japanese students often need to be taught informal phrases like “how’s it going?” or “why don’t we …”
- Intonation, Syllable Stress and Cadence – Advanced students sometimes need help to make sentences which are correct on paper sound natural and convey the correct nuance.
- Tag Questions (especially negative tags) – e.g. “You haven’t seen Mike, have you?” will sometimes get the response, “Yes I haven’t”.
- “Japanese English” – There is a surprising amount of English which has been “borrowed” into the Japanese language but sometimes the meanings have been distorted. For example to call somebody “high tension” sounds like an insult, but in Japanese it simply means they have a lot of energy!
Marketplace Platforms to Get Japanese Students
If you want to start teaching English online to Japanese students then any of the following teacher marketplace platforms might be a good beginning. They could be a good way for you to get those all important early testimonial references to kickstart your career as a freelance ESL instructor.
- Verbling – 15% deduction of your lesson fees. Native North American accents preferred.
- Preply – 100% commission on your first lesson. After that it is a sliding scale starting at 33% and reducing to 18% after you have taught more than 400 hours. Native North American, UK, Australian, New Zealand and Irish accented teachers accepted.
- iTalki – 15% deduction of your lesson fees. Native North American, UK, Australian, New Zealand, Irish, South African or non-native neutral accented teachers accepted.
- CafeTalk – From 35% to 15% commission depending on the number of lessons you teach. Basic interview required.
Hopefully this article has given you an introduction into the opportunities for teaching English online to Japanese students. In my own experience, students from Japan can be a lot of fun. They are also honest, reliable and curious about people from cultures different to their own. If you have an online ESL teaching niche it would be worth investigating how to attract students from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Do you have any experience teaching English online to Japanese students? If so, leave a comment below.
And if you are interested seeing how Japan compares to other Asian target markets, check out my article on teaching ESL online to Chinese students.
The author of this post lives in Japan with his wife and family. He has taught English part-time (online and off) for more than a decade. He is passionate about WordPress consulting, online marketing and using the power of the internet to help people achieve their dreams.
He thinks that until you’ve tried sashimi tuna with wasabi, soy sauce, hot sake and a cold beer chaser, you just haven’t lived.