On your Japanese journey, an English teaching job can be an easy vehicle for getting into Japan and surviving there. But it also has a lot of downsides: collapsing companies, shady bosses, low job satisfaction, and most importantly, it provides little opportunity to encounter or use Japanese. Even worse, plenty of eikaiwa schools actively discourage teachers from learning or using Japanese. The Japanese natives you meet through these jobs either speak English or want to speak English, even if you spend time with them outside the work environment.
We all lament not having enough free time to study as much Japanese as we would like, but isn’t it better if time spent at your job–time you have to spend to survive–can support your Japanese study as well? Out of all the Japanese jobs you can spend doing in Japan to improve your Japanese, I believe the most abundant and most overlooked is the humble part-time job.
You heard me. We’re talking minimum wage, no experience necessary, “I thought I’d quit doing this after highschool” jobs. Receptionist, cashier, salesperson, delivery guy, dishwasher, burger flipper, you name it. This probably sounds like crazy talk; why go all the way to Japan to do a job any Japanese native out of highschool could do better than you? My only answer is the speak from experience: your Japanese will explode.
After a rocky two and a half years in the English-teaching business, I was hovering around a Level 10, stagnating in Japanese and incredibly frustrated. After swearing off eikaiwa, I was faced with the big question: what now? Money started to get tight and, in a desperate pinch, I cobbled together a 履歴書(りれきしょ – a Japanese resume), grabbed a copy of TownWork and started answering ads. After just a few shaky phone calls, I got an interview, and soon I was working at a new branch of an udon shop…and having the time of my life!
In three months of working in the restaurant industry in Japan, my skills experienced more growth than they had through my entire two-and-a-half-year English-teaching career, for several reasons:
1. Sink or swim
In an English-teaching job, or most other circumstances in Japan, the amount of Japanese you need to use is very limited. English instructions are plastered everywhere, most important buildings have at least one English-speaking staff member in them, and when that doesn’t help, gestures and pidgin Japanese usually suffice.
Not so with a job where you are expected to speak to Japanese people on a moment’s notice. You’re interacting with customers and you need to communicate quickly, efficiently and politely. If you can’t do that, or make yourself able to do that, you don’t have a job. When a job and income are on the line, it suddenly makes going out of your way to get better at Japanese a high priority.
2. Talking to new Japanese people every day boosts confidence
That said, it’s not actually that difficult to stop sinking and start swimming, because you’ll have countless opportunities to use your Japanese and get better. Not only are you interacting with Japanese coworkers in an immersion environment, but talking to hundreds of customers a day really takes the intimidation out of initiating conversation. You don’t hum and haw and worry about what you’re going to say because you’ve done this hundreds of times before. You skip the worrying and gain the ability to just talk. It doesn’t matter if you’re starting out with canned phrases like “何のお待ちでしょうか?” and “1万円でよろしいですか?” because the confidence you gain talking to people carries over into conversations that go off the rails.
3. Immersion environment
Groups of people rarely come into a restaurant to eat in silence, so working in a restaurant is a great way to hear countless snippets of real conversation. You might not get to hear full conversations, but you can treat it like channel-surfing through the radio, and you’ll hear a lot of casual Japanese and phrases. The same could be said of a part-time job anywhere else (except perhaps a library). In public places, people talk, and you can take advantage of that.
4 Background-noise-boosted listening abilities
Restaurants are noisy. Customers jabber, dishwashers hum, kitchen timers go off, dishes get stacked, and the staff members yell things to each other. When someone gives you instructions or a customer asks a question, being able to cut through all the background humming and hear the speaker clearly is a vital skill. As with all things, practice makes perfect, and using your Japanese in such a noisy environment every work day will supercharge your listening ability. All the conversations you’re having also build your ability to anticipate what is being said in Japanese and let your brain fill in the blanks when you really can’t hear the words clearly, something you do in your native language without even realizing it.
So if you’re tired of the English teaching gauntlet and want your Japanese to really start shining, don’t be afraid to take the leap into a Japanese part-time job! It might not be the most glamorous work you’ll do in your life, but the valuable Japanese experience you gain will more than make up for that.
Written by: Akebi
Akebi spends her time playing copious amounts of video games in Japanese, when she’s not learning the craft of making delicious noodles at her part-time job.