Teaching English in Japan with the JET Program: Derrik’s story

Teaching English in Japan with the JET Program: Derrik’s story

Interested in learning more about the requirements for teaching English in Japan and how much money you can make? Read on to get the inside scoop from Derrik, an OISE TEFL graduate who’s done just that!

Propelled by his interest to pursue karate in the country where it all started, Derrik decided it was time to commit to his sport and pack his bags for Japan. After a little research, Derrik fixed his sights on one of the most well-known teaching English in Japan programs out there: the JET Program

Derrik enrolled in the OISE University of Toronto TEFL course, was accepted into the JET Program and boarded a plane to teach English in Japan last summer!

Let’s hear it from Derrik:

Why did you decide to teach English in Japan?

Ever since I started karate at the age of 13, I’ve been fascinated by Japan.

I thought, rather than spend a short time and a lot of money on a vacation, I should just bite the bullet and actually live and work there. This way, I could experience the culture and appreciate it more fully.

Why the JET Program?

After doing some research into English teaching jobs in Japan with visa sponsorship, I chose to go with the JET Program based on personal recommendations from people who had taught abroad, both from within and outside of the program.

Can you fill us in on what the hiring process for the JET Program was like?

Sure! The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs promotes the JET Program and distributes applications via its embassies and consulates.

Here’s a quick overview of the application process and timeline for the JET Program:

Step 1: Starting in late October or November, you’ll need to submit your application. After review by the Embassy of Japan in January, applicants who passed the review stage are invited to interview.

Step 2: After the interview stage, selected applicants are notified in late March to April as to their status.

JET applicants can either be:

  • Shortlisted. This means you’ll be selected for employment as long as all other requirements are met.
  • Placed as an alternate. This means you’ll be selected for employment only if a position opens up via a candidate dropping out, a current JET Program participant leaving their position unexpectedly or a new position being created.

Step 3: From May to July you’ll need to undergo health checks as well as reply forms.

Step 4: Sometime in either June or July, selected applicants convene for a pre-departure orientation, with departure happening in July to August.

Karate-do” – my first attempt at calligraphy at my host family’s house.

What are the requirements for acceptance into the JET Program?

Well for starters, you can’t teach English in Japan without a degree – at least not with the JET Program, anyway. You must have your bachelor’s degree by the July following your application to be eligible to apply.

One other thing. Although a TEFL/TESL certificate is not a prerequisite for the JET Program, it is highly recommended.

My sister had also taught in Spain for a year so I took her advice and got TEFL certified before departing – I’d heard enough horror stories about how hard it is to teach English abroad without an ESL certification.

What are the salary and benefits like for teachers in the JET Program?

The starting salary for the 2017 JET year was around $2,500 USD (280,000 Japanese Yen) per month, with raises with every subsequent contract renewal. While this might initially seem a little lower than what you’re used to in your home country, it’s fairly balanced with the cost of living and entertainment in Japan.

All JETs are also covered by basic health care. This Japanese National Health Insurance covers 70% of medical expenses.

How did you find a place to live?

Most JETs inherit their apartments from a predecessor with the exceptions of people placed in large cities which are sometimes required to find their own rentals. Inherited apartments will often come fully furnished by your predecessor for a reasonable price.

What’s been your biggest challenge so far working as an English teacher in Japan?

The biggest challenge to both school and in my personal life has been my low command of the Japanese language. I began the program without being able to speak a word of Japanese, which is quite common for many JETs.

I had mistakenly made the assumption that I would be able to communicate through broken English and physical gestures, only to find the simplest of explanations were met with blank stares.

Japanese students are also notoriously shy, causing even the best English-speaking students to be reserved in their willingness to converse. Japan being culturally isolated and different in so many ways from Western culture also restricts non-verbal communication.

How did you prepare for life and teaching in Japan?

Preparations in my personal life were easy but quite hectic. I was in a good position to leave my life in Canada. I had very few long-term commitments and I had a very understanding and supportive employer when I left.

The most difficult part was how much work I had to complete in such a short amount of time (ending my tenancy, packing, storing my things, visiting family and ending my employment).

My preparation for teaching came solely in the form of enrollment with the OISE University of Toronto TEFL course. Before coming to the JET Program I had no formal teaching experience or schooling – making the OISE TEFL course my primary resource for teaching preparation.

What has been your most memorable experience living and teaching English in Japan so far?

My most memorable experience within my school has to be when we made holiday greeting cards. The Japanese school system is strict and combined with a rigid social culture the kids couldn’t quite grasp the concept of “let’s just have fun today making greeting cards”.

They all needed to know how to make the card, exactly what to write, where to write and what they could or couldn’t draw. After a while, however, they began to relax and understand they were free to create whatever kind of card they would like.

For me, it was a rare glimpse into seeing the students being allowed to have fun and be free to express themselves during class time. At the end I was given one card which simply read:

My most memorable personal experience was climbing Mount Fuji. Although not a technical climb at all, Fuji has a very long ascent. We began our trek when it got dark out, hiking through the night and still almost missed the sunrise.

The view from the top was incredible and the climb was challenging in its own regard making it a very rewarding experience – one that I would be happy to repeat.

What’s your favorite thing about Japanese culture?

It has to be the food. Everything is so delicious and food specials vary seasonally making it seem like there always something new to try. Add on the varying degrees of quality and sometimes the difficulty of finding some restaurants and it can turn into a personal pursuit of sorts.

Have you encountered any challenges?

One of the most challenging cultural differences was that having been placed in a small city, I am one of only a handful of foreigners. This often turns heads and I noticed I was being stared at a lot. I noticed it a lot less as time went on but every so often I do find myself irritated by it.

Has anything taken you by surprise during your time in Japan?

The most surprising thing for me was the Japanese work ethic. Many of my Japanese coworkers put in 12-hour days – even coming in on Saturdays or less important holidays. Although admirable, you can tell it is somewhat of a burden on their personal lives.

They tend to work hard but not smart in a manner of speaking, opting for making tasks more work than they actually are rather than optimizing efficiency or changing how the workplace is run.

What’s your favorite spot you’ve visited in Japan?

My favorite spot that I’ve visited in Japan was the mountains outside Nagano. I stayed there for winter vacation with friends and we were able to see the iconic Japanese Macaques (monkeys!) bathing in the mountain hot springs.

Where will you be traveling next?

My next big trip will be the southern island of Okinawa in the spring or summer for snorkeling, surfing, and cultural touring.

As a successful JET program applicant and a graduate of the OISE University of Toronto TEFL course, what are the top three pieces of advice you would give to someone looking to land a job teaching English in Japan?

  1. Talk to people who have actually been there. Their experience and knowledge is invaluable to getting a true perspective on life as a foreign language teacher.
  2. Confidence is key. Use your experience and qualifications to make the case not just for why they should hire you but rather why they can’t afford to not hire you!
  3.  You don’t NEED to speak Japanese but it will enhance your experience so study up before you go!

Would you recommend the OISE University of Toronto TEFL course?

I would highly recommend the OISE University of Toronto TEFL course. The web interface and course materials were easy to work through and provided a lot of information in a concise way.

Their combination of visual aids, media, testing and text delivery provided a variety of learning pathways. You can immediately tell that you are learning content presented for high information retention. Gradings and online support were also prompt and insightful.

What part of your TEFL course did you find the most useful and/or interesting?

The most useful part of the TEFL course was the strategies to establish student talk time in the classroom. The general idea of a teacher is that they teach but this can lead to the instructor dominating the verbal landscape.  

The fallout from that, as an instructor, is that you have no way of knowing at the time which students are understanding and digesting your instructions and which students you are losing in a sea of foreign ramblings.

Gaining communicative proficiency is a huge part of any language course yet is often overlooked with curriculums heavily focused on vocabulary and grammar. In my opinion, student talk time is the most important part of teaching. You can preach all day about the theory of English and its structure. But at the end of the day, it’s the students who use their skills the most that become the most proficient.

Also, I have found many teachers are still stuck in archaic teaching methods and just teach as they were taught 20-30 years ago. It is up to newer generations to come forward and change the landscape of learning with progressive, tested and proven methods of language acquisition.


Hi, I would like to find out more about the TEFL course this writer took. Did he took up a 100 or 120 hours module? I have some questions:

1) Is there a hard copy certificate being mailed for this online TEFL course?

Hi there Josline! Derrik completed a 120-hour OISE TEFL course. All students who complete any of our courses receive a physical certificate direct form the University of Toronto Faculty of Education (OISE) via mail.
Elspeth Chalmers

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