Life in Japan Teaching

Working Culture in Japan as an English Teacher

14 March 2014

This post was not written when I was teaching, but I think some people are interested in finding out what working in Japan is like, so I’m penning this post. I’m putting it under the Flashback Friday series, since it is technically a flashback post.

In this post, I will cover my experiences and views on the working culture in Japan in public elementary schools.

I was working in 3 different schools, and they observe the exact same “rules”, so I can say they are pretty consistent.


During our orientation briefing by the company that hired us, we were given 580284 warnings that we should never, ever, EVER be late. Not even half a second. It’s one of the biggest taboos in Japan.

If we were going to be late, we should call the company to inform them, so that they can call the school. That is our highest priority, even if doing that will delay us even more.

Don’t ask why can’t we call the school directly. It’s protocol.

Fortunately, I have never been late a single day my entire time working. I also noticed that none of the teachers have ever been late on normal days.

There was only once when teachers ran late, but only because there was a freak snowstorm and caused massive traffic jams everywhere. I barely survived cycling in the snow. One teacher who drove was caught in the jam for 6 hours and still came to came to school, even though school had already ended for his class.

SIX! I would have called in to say it’s impossible and turned around to go home. But well, this is the Japanese spirit.


Anyone who arrived in the morning would greet everyone else in the staff room, and everyone else would reciprocate.

Before heading back, I would go look for the principal to take my leave, and then announce to the entire staff room 「お先に失礼します!」(“Please excuse my early departure”) before bowing my way out of the staff room.

Morning greetings are natural, because everyone is coming in around the same time. But I always felt weird announcing my departure because most people are staying behind and there’s the guilt (although completely unjustified) that I’m leaving before them, and rubbing it in their faces.



There is no such thing as cubicles. Everything is open and everyone can see what everyone else is doing.


The “Big 3” – Principal, Vice-Principal (yellow star) and Head Teacher – will sit right in the front, facing the other teachers and with their backs to the blackboard.

In case you were wondering, this was taken on Sports Day, thus the attire of teachers.

My table is the one with nothing on it but food and a camera case! LOL.


Basically, it is an extremely rare sight to see anyone using their phones while in school. As such, I also don’t use my phone at all.

To qualify, that was back in the day before smartphones became commonplace. Not sure about how things are how. But if Japanese traditions are anything to go by, I would say things haven’t changed much at all.


My last class may have ended at 11am, and I have finished preparations for the next few weeks, but I am obliged to sit there and just be physically present even though I have absolutely nothing to do.

Because it says on my contract that work is till 4.30pm.

Although I come up with the curriculum entirely by myself and write them by hand in English and Japanese, make the games and materials from scratch, I have 3 different schools for which I use the same materials.

3 schools x the free time I have = lesson plan perfection.

I try to take as much time as possible to prepare, but I still end up with loads of free time on my hands.

I cannot use my phone, I cannot use the computer, I cannot even read a book because it is not “work”. Usually I go bother/beg other teachers for something that I can help them with. Marking, sitting in classes, whatever!

I rarely get jobs though, so I have had many lonely battles with the zzz monster.

That’s one thing I really disliked; wasting my time away like that :C


Firstly, there is no such thing as sick leave. I’m not kidding. There is no sick leave stated in the contract.

I don’t know about other jobs in Japan, but teachers don’t get sick here, apparently. And so I wasn’t allowed to get sick either.

The bottom line is: If you can get yourself to the doctor’s, you can get yourself to school.

It may sound like a lack of basic rights and extremely harsh, but I think their point of view is that there will be no one to take your classes (they don’t have a relief teacher pool like we do in Singapore). Especially for me. I am the only English teacher in the entire school. Where on earth are they going to find someone to relief my classes?

There was once I had food poisoning. I had diarrhoea and was vomiting right up till just before leaving the school. Still, I went. I somehow survived the day though. Yes, I stayed all the way till 4.30pm even though i had no classes.

I’ve also heard of one vice-principal never missing a day of work for the past 20+ years :O

7. OMIYAGE お土産

This is pronounced oh-mi-ya-gay and it means souvenirs. It is almost an unspoken rule to get omiyage for other teachers when you travel.

By travel, I don’t even mean traveling overseas. Japanese love traveling domestically (I can understand why. I do too! In Japan. Not Singapore.) and even if you’re going to a place two hours away, yes, it would qualify for omiyage-buying.

No wonder it’s such a big business in Japan! EVERYWHERE you go, you’ll see lots of prettily packaged local foodstuff.

I have lost count of the number of times I returned to my desk to find biscuits and snacks of all sorts appearing mysteriously. Most of the time I never know who it was that bought it.

Omiyage snacks on the left. Leftovers from lunch on the right.

Omiyage snacks on the left.
Leftovers from lunch on the right.

That’s so wasted right? Spend all the money and effort but no one knows who bought it! Don’t even know who to thank!

Which is why when *I* buy omiyage, I go personally to every single person to offer it to them. I make sure everyone knows what they’re eating is from me :D I find it’s more sincere and it also adds to the appreciation of the gift, doesn’t it?

I mean, if I don’t know who bought it, then… just eat lor. Nice also like that. Not nice also like that. If I do know who bought it, then I will eat it with extra appreciation!


In schools here, I cannot wear make up. No perfume either. No nail color or nail art. No sleeveless shirts. And absolutely no tattoos. Even there are tattoos, it must be perfectly concealed and NEVER shown to anyone.

The other teachers wear smart casual/formal wear to work and change in the locker room to tracksuits. Tracksuits are their “uniform” in school. Before leaving, they will change back to their smart casual/formal wear.

They do this because it looks “inappropriate” to be seen in tracksuits when entering or leaving the school. Or not dignified. Or something.

I am forever grateful they did not make me adhere to the same rules. I would hate to cycle in a suit to work!

In fact, attire-wise, they were actually very easy on me and had no issues with what I wore. My usual attire is long-sleeved shirts or sweaters with jeans or cotton pants. During summer, I will wear short-sleeved shirts instead.

There was only once where I made a faux pas and wore leggings that had a skirt piece attached.


Something like this

I think the skirt was a bit too short and fitting and my uh, butt shape could be seen a bit too well for school standards D: I retired it to the back of the cupboard after that day.

9. PDA

As I was living in a 20-min vicinity from my schools, I was basically living in the same neighbourhood as my students. And I had close to 800 students.

We were told by the company to avoid public displays of affection because it would not be good for students or parents to see a teacher behaving like an affectionate human inappropriately.

To the point where I’m jittery about holding hands with Fu, much less letting him put his hand around my shoulder or waist. There was once he gave me a quick peck on the cheek and I nearly pushed him down the escalator out of reflex.

Hopefully this was interesting! Would there be any interest for a part 2? I’m thinking maybe to write about what teaching in Japan is like? Well, we’ll see how it goes :)


  • Reply Joyce 16 March 2014 at 7:03 pm

    Hi I’m a Singaporean looking for teaching opportunities in Japan. Just want to know if you could share any tips on the process of getting a teaching job there? Thanks!

    • Reply Rin 17 March 2014 at 2:58 pm

      Hi Joyce,

      I think the most important thing I learned while job searching is to remain hopeful and determined. It took several months of applications before I received a job offer.

      As Singaporeans are not viewed as “native” speakers of English, it is several times more difficult for a Singaporean to get an English teaching job compared to say, an American, British or Australian.

      If you have any teaching credentials or experience, be sure to highlight them in your cover letter. Qualifications are the next thing that people here look for.

      It’s tough, but keep going. Good luck!

  • Reply Lani 18 May 2014 at 4:22 am

    I think this post had me laughing out loud the most. Thanks, Rin! I’ve been home sick most of this week. This was definitely the best medicine.

    • Reply Rin 22 May 2014 at 2:56 am

      Heh, glad it cheered you up a little! Hope you’re feeling better now! <3

  • Reply Midorin 20 January 2015 at 9:37 pm

    Woa! My friend was a yochien teacher, she wasn’t using makeup until the principal obligated her to do it. We lived in Tokyo btw^^

    • Reply Rin 21 January 2015 at 5:52 pm

      That’s interesting! Maybe because it’s Tokyo? (The schools I worked in were in Saitama, not Tokyo)

  • Reply Erin Lopez 9 May 2018 at 2:34 pm

    Hi Rin! I am so inspired to your story.. Ive been searching for a job in Japan since two years ago.. got interviewed but in the final interview they said the position was sad.
    There was a time I went for a trip in Japan and then I received an email that I was hired then asked me to send my credentials. So that day I send my credentials right away to them. Unfortunately, the next day they said the position was filled again. :(
    So today onwards I am going to look for a job again.. because I am so inspired of your perseverance.. that I will never give up my dreams. Thanks for inspiring me! Good luck to you!

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