Monday, 13 October 2014

Finding work in Tokyo - Part 4: Becoming an English teacher 3/3


Private lessons

It's common knowledge that the quickest, easiest and most profitable way of making money in Japan as an English speaker is to have private lessons, or cafe lessons as they are called too (guess why?). At first I was very reluctant to engage in this kind of work, mostly because it's actually not about teaching English when you are a good-looking white guy in Japan, it's mostly about (young) women looking for a nice chat partner or even future boyfriend to practice their English. Not that I wouldn't enjoy the company of an attractive women, but getting paid for it and having some sort of a pressure to conduct at least some sort of a good lesson was making me think; nah, I'll pass...

But as you read before perhaps, things were not easy and money was scarce, so I registered myself at a couple of websites like, and The results varied. While didn't get me a single student, quickly got me my first private student. And guess what, it was for German classes even!

So my first student was Midori, a piano teacher in her 20s who spoke German extremly well. Her pronounciation wasn't that good, but since I'm not bad a teaching phonetics, I was able to help her out. With next to no teaching experience apart from tandem/language exchange back in Germany with some Japanese friends, I tried to balance out the casual talk and actual lesson-type practice. She brought her own textbook and practice material, so I didn't have to prepare anything. I didn't want to actually because my lesson fee was only 2,500JPY including travel expenses which is rather low, especially for teaching German. But I told her and the students who followed, that I just won't prepare anything in particular for the lessons, hence the cheaper fee. But on the other hand, I offered to help out outside of a lesson by mail, LINE message or else. For me that was the best balance of time and money investment, for both parties.

Our lessons were quite fun sometimes, even though I had the feeling that she was not only looking for improving her German, but maybe for something more. I kept it professional though. But spicing the lesson up with a liiiiiitle bit of flirty talk is part of the game, and I wasn't so bad at it ;)

The risk of private lessons is that a student will cancel or stop completely at short notice and your income for that week or month is gone in an instant. That happened with Midori too. All of a sudden she stopped emailing me. So it's always better to have a couple of students and surprisingly enough, I found myself with 3 students at some point.

Another one was Yuka, a young girl who would go to Germany on a working holiday and spoke next to no German, but some English. She was super fun to talk to and because I was explaining in Japanese most of the times, it was great practice for me too. Her plan was to stay in Berlin for one year and she was totally into electronic dance music (Minimal, House, etc.), so I enjoyed talking about my city and the club culture of course. She even introduced me to her sister Sachiyo, who actually studied German at university but forgot basically everything. But she wasn't interested in learning German again but English I thought. I turned out that she just left her boyfriend and needed someone to talk to, in English. Which is very typical in Japan I think. So as a private English teacher you have to be entertainer, counselor, teacher and object of desire (to some point). I heard about some teachers who get paid 6,000JPY just to talk for 1h with some middle-aged women who are bored by their always-working husbands.

A memorable moment was when it was time for Yuka to leave to Berlin, they invited me to join them at Sangenjaya (三軒茶屋), which is the place in Tokyo if you like small bars and izakayas, hidden in a steamy, red-light-district kinda labyrinth with the smells of a thousands food places. Good times.
Pretty cool people in pretty cool places
Crazy sisters!
Usually guys like me only end up teaching women, and to be honest, that's a lot easier for me. But I also accepted a male student once and after my first doubts on why he would choose me as a teacher or in general, why he would want to pay for English lessons, he became almost like a friend to me. Sure, it's English teaching alright when you correct grammar, pronounciation and teach vocabulary, but having your students talk about their obstacles and big choices in life, honestly asking for your advice, is what really makes a private lesson special. It makes both parties forget that this is a paid service and not just two friends hanging out.

But it's definitely not for everyone. With some students you maybe don't really want to get close or share private information. My rule always was and still is not to become Facebook friends for example, no matter how enjoyable the lessons are. Western women in Japan who want to do private lessons always have to deal with the "horny old men", which is an accurate unfair generalization of all the guys who enjoy the company of a younger woman while practicing English or any foreign language. The blogosphere is full of horrible and amusing stories about that, I'm sure.

By the way, in case you wondered. It's possible to easily make 30,000 to 40,000JPY per month with a minimal time investment. All you have to find is the right student, the right price and the right place to get the most out of it.


Around June I found a job ad for German instructor on and I applied immediately. Unfortunately, it was very short notice and required me to start working the next week or so. I had to pass on that but my mail contact suggested that I come to their office and register with them, so I thought why not.

Cosmo is a medium-sized company who places English teachers in a variety of educational institutions, ranging from standard K-12 schools to Juku or cram-schools (塾) or even private companies. They've been around for quite some time and their office is located in Shinjuku, not far from the station, so I knew right away that I was dealing with professionals here (which was a relief, having just left the amateurs at GA behind me).

The main native English speaker contact was a fun American guy named Catch, seemingly from Hawaii. Even though he was in Japan for a long time already and working in a Japanese company, he was the most open, honest and straight-forward person I had met in a professional setting so far. He was not beating around the bush, he was giving me all the facts, the good and the bad ones. He even listened to my bad stories about GA, which is not really what you should do on your first interview, talking bad about your former employeer that is. But he was super cool about it and assured me that I won't have any of these problems with Cosmo. He was right :)

The interview was great, I liked them, they liked me. Even though there was no formal contract, I became a Substitute English Teacher at Cosmo. The way it worked was that they'd send me a possible substitute job offer by email, including date, location and type of lesson/company and I could decide if I want it or not. If I decided to go, all I had to do was to be there in time, do my lesson or two, and head back. In and out, easy. The payment was also higher than average, some lessons even going for 5,000JPY (50min lesson). But they often required me to be on the train for 30 - 90min.

My first lessons were at Inter TOMAS, one of the big players in English after-school education. I was subbing for a Danish girl which turned out to be someone I already met online over a year ago! Her dream was to become a singer in Japan and she was a little bit too crazy for me to become friends back then (no joke), but when both found out that we know each other, she was cool about my earlier "rejection" and we had a good laugh about the whole thing. Another almost magical coincidence, showing me that there is a path I need to walk that I don't really understand yet. Talking about understanding, I didn't really have a clue what to do, even after she sent me a lof of info about her classes and possible students that day. The very first lesson was about strenghtening reading skills with three students on different levels. I was quite confused and nervous, and felt stupid for asking. The staff there didn't even know that this was my very first day working for them and I felt bad for asking, but luckily another teacher was able to help me out. The working  atmosphere was really nice too, the different English teachers and Japanese staff going to and fro, preparing and conducting their lessons. Seemed like a good place to work to me.

The second lesson was almost shocking. Originally I was told to have a singing (!) lesson with a young girl. We were supposed to sing and practice the words of Let it go from the movie "Frozen" which is extremly popular in Japan. I was actually looking forward to that lesson because I love the song and sing at Karaoke everytime....seriously. But unfortunately, that lesson was canceled and instead I had to watch a little boy taking some sort of placement test in English. It was another of these standardized test accompanied by a CD. Poor guy had no clue and was super sleepy. It was Saturday evening, around 6pm and this little fellow couldn't stay awake. I felt so bad that we had to force him to take this test. There was another Japanese staff with me who tried to have him listen and stay awake. If it would have been just me, I'd let this poor boy sleep and tell the parents or whoever was responsible that they should try another time. I'd call it the dark side of Japanese education.

Picture unrelated...
I also had a couple of lessons in Juku, the cram-schools of Japan who force even more education on young and already exhausted minds in the evening. Even though I liked the not so serious school atmosphere, they way they were pressuring kids to study even more was somewhat sad to witness from my European education background. In Japan it's all about standardized tests, entry exams and memorizing. There is next to no "natural" learning in this system. Even English is taught by Japanese teachers who sometimes have only a minimal understanding of the language. Grammar and vocabulary is studied in a systematic and repetetive way, almost with no self-speaking or independent thinking in class. It's all about memorizing. But what do you expect of a 8 year old kid who just completed 6h of school, just to continue studying at a Juku in the evening? A young mind can only take so much per day. Juku, definitely not my favorite type of educational system. Having said that, not all companies were the same and the ones I was subbing at usually had a little bit of a different approach. While the goal remainded the same (the entry exams), their unique selling point was the better learning material, the different type of classes and a more "natural" learning experience.

Since I was a substitute teacher, I could also try a different approach myself and not follow the syllabus so strictly. So instead of making the kids suffer I tried playing games to wake them up and enjoy themselves while also encouraging them to use their memorized English vocabulary. After I got a hang of it, it turned out pretty well. But I still was kinda strict in my classes. I expected them to participate, listen and not disturb. Japanese kids are usually extremely well behaved, so that wasn't even a problem.

Some funny things I remember. Once I had to teach a single 5 year old girl who was surprisingly good at English. But the way she was used to the classes before made her repeat almost everything I said to her, even if it was just a question. It took her some time to realize that I want her to think herself, not just repeat.

Me: "My name is Michael. What is your name?"
Her: "My namu is youanamu.." (with a cute voice of course)

Over the last couple of months I was able to see different types of Juku and schools with classes from 1 kid only to sometimes 6 kids in a classroom. A very fascinating experience and it made me really respect the work of teacher more, especially in childhood education. This work can be tough, trust me.

Another good thing was that I was able to travel to some places I wouldn't usually go to. I went to Odawara (小田原) and headed to the beach right after my classes were finished. The city is famous for it's large castle but the beach was more impressive.

Oh and by the way, Cosmo was that cool of a company that they offered me to sponsor my visa without me even asking them! While I write this I am still waiting for the results though, so wish me luck ^_^


I live very close to Ryogoku station and whenever I take the JR train, I could see the windows of a small English school named easyeigo right next to the station. I was always thinking; it would be nice to work there, it's not even a minute on foot from my place. So one day, I remembered what sales taught me ("always fill the funnel") and so I emailed the owner via his website. Bryce is from Australia, in his early 40s, married with a Japanese, two kids and in Japan for over 10 years, running this school for more than 7 years. I was extremely lucky because he was actually looking for someone to help him out with classes once a week. He asked me to come over after his classes to have a talk/interview and we ended up having beers and being quite drunk in the end. Did I mention he's Australian? Not sure how to phrase it, but if it wouldn't be for my Australian housemate, who I got to know pretty well after some time, I wouldn't know how to handle the "bluntness" of Australian guys. I probably became a little bit Australian myself, I don't know. But it is almost a moment of tranquility, a divine-like mutual understanding and brotherly acceptance when two men call each other "cunt" in the face and laugh it off. Needless to say, this interview was great fun. A hell-of-a, no-bullshiting type of guy.

His way of teaching was even more impressive. His adult classes always had a maximum of four students and he strongly focused on maximizing speaking time for the students. With a reliable set of excercises and learning materials, the classes were all about engaging in discussions, independent thinking and of course, lots of fun. He gave me a quick rundown on what to do and then threw me into the cold water. As usual, I was rather nervous in the beginning but managed to teach some good classes. When in doubt, speak about yourself as a teacher. Since I was a new face, the students were naturally interested in me in the beginning. But only a week later, I already forgot most of what he showed me and felt stupid for asking again. First I thought he just needed a temporary guy but as he kept on listening to my classes and asking for feedback, I started to believe he really wanted me to stay. Which was a great compliment and, of course, additional pressure for me. Some lessons I taught were really bad in the beginning, almost always when he was around to hear it. But what he did was really cool though, he saw my weak points and simply told me what to do better. Problem -> solution. No shortcuts. I was able to give him feedback whenever I wanted and he told me where to be careful (keeping track of the time, e.g.) and where to apply easy excercises to make my classes more interesting.

That did the trick mostly. After a couple of weeks I got the hang of it and was able to conduct some good and fund classes. Still, I wasn't really satisfied with it. Whenever I walked by his classroom (we usually taught at the same but in seperate rooms), his students seemed more engaged, classes generally more active. Oh by the way, maybe I should write a bit about his students. Most of them are female I believe, with an age range around 30-50 and different levels of English. Most of them were Japanese but also a lot of Mongolian, Korean and Chinese students. They were from around the area mostly, a lot of them from Sumida-ku directly. Ok, back to classes again. So after I felt somewhat comfortable with teaching my classes, I wanted to raise the bar and adapt some more of Bryce's teaching methods. I sat in on a couple of his classes as a guest and took some notes. Great way to learn from a pro.

A typical class. Bryce is the strict-looking guy on the left.
Another very fun and important thing regarding this work was what happened after classes. Bryce was always up for a beer and a talk and even though his life and my life so far as well as characters are quite different, we got along extremyl fine and shared some good stories and laughs over a lot of some drinks. Believe it or not, drinking was an important factor in this school. The so called "beer classes" were about drinking a different type of beer each class and talk about it. For example, if it's a beer from outside of Japan, people could share their travel experience about that country besides talking about the beer's taste. I think everyone who likes to drink from time to time and is learning a language would agree with me when I say that it's way easier to speak a foreign language while being a biiiiit tipsy, でしょう?;-)

Every couple of months there was also a school party where all students gathered and mingled while having food and drinks. Bryce asked me to join and do a bit of face-marketing (being a new teacher and stuff). It was fascinating to see that all of these students with the most diverse backgrounds came together because they loved to learn English. One of the best nights I had in a long time. Free food and drinks too, which is always a good thing for broke student me.

Teachers also get invited to birthday parties sometimes, yay!

Ooooh, and I forgot to mention that Bryce is an archer! He has bow & arrow and a small target bag in his school and allows me to practice sometimes. That alone makes him my best friend already, haha. I love all traditional types of sports (as in medieval; swordplay, archery, horse-riding, etc.) and I never really practiced archery, so that was a cool bonus to working there.

Behold the office archer!

Beer & office archery, good times

Currently I am working there every Thursday for three lessons, sometimes helping out on different days too if Bryce has other plans. I'm hoping for more working days though. Not because of the above-average payment but because it's the best and most fun job in Japan I had so far.