1. Learn some Japanese
When you apply for the job, they will most likely tell you that you don't need to know any Japanese at all. Indeed, the big companies will insist that you never speak Japanese while teaching or interacting with your students. However, what they will fail to mention is that your students will often speak Japanese to you. Sometimes your students just won't know how to express themselves in English (especially kids or low-level learners), and knowing a few key words in Japanese so that you can understand their question will really pay off. Learning a bit of Japanese will also help you build better business relationships with your co-workers and bosses. It's amazing how far an “otsukaresama desu” will go at the end of the day (“otsukaresama desu” is hard to translate, but it is commonly used as a sort of acknowledgment of someone's hard work, and can be said to your co-workers at the end of the day or after a class).
2. Hang out with your students... but not just your students!
In most cases, your school will encourage you to spend time with students outside of work (adult students, of course, and not one-on-one). You will be amazed how much your students are willing to do for you, and you should really take advantage of their kind offers. They will take you places that would be hard visit by yourself, teach you to cook traditional food, show you Japanese culture firsthand... and surreptitiously teach you Japanese in the process! However, as wonderful as your students will be, you will probably find that spending too much time with them can feel like an extension of work. It's a good idea to try and join in some local community events or start some hobbies that aren't related to your work. That way, you will be able to make some different friends, both fellow-foreigners and Japanese.
3. Eat right, sleep right
I don't want to sound like your mum or anything, but don't forget to look after yourself while you're living in Japan. One of the things I found hardest about working at an eikaiwa was the long (and strange) hours. I typically worked from midday to 9pm, and then found myself staying until 10pm to catch up on paperwork (yes, there's a lot of paperwork, which they probably won't tell you much about during your training...). At the beginning, I would also take work home in the evenings and on weekends. Try to stay organised so you can leave work as quickly as possible, go home, and get a good night's sleep. Also, because of your strange hours, you might find that eating right is not easy. I found myself eating really late most of the time because I would still be hungry when I got home at 10pm, having had “lunch” at around 4pm. I think this is ok, but try to have healthy, light dinners prepared so that you don't end up snacking on fried chicken from the convenience store on the way home from work.
4. Get creative!
At some point, your job will probably require you to make something. Don't worry if you are not naturally artsy – just do your best and try to be creative with the materials available to you. If you're decorating your classroom, why not get some postcards or pictures from home and make a display about your hometown/country? Many schools will provide lesson materials, but lots will also encourage “expansion”, ideas you have to make yourself. Arm yourself with magazines from home (one fashion magazine is a priceless source of pictures for lesson materials), cheap coloured paper, card and crayons from the 100 Yen store, and check the Internet for endless free resources for EFL/ESL teachers.
5. Get to grips with grammar
A lot of people (including myself) go to Japan to teach English without any official teaching qualifications or previous experience. The company I worked for didn't seem to care if we had TEFL qualifications; they just wanted us to have a degree – in any subject. I studied English at university, but I have to admit my English grammar was not really up to scratch when I arrived in Japan. Almost immediately I had students asking me difficult questions about sentence structure and tenses, and I had no idea how to respond. Fortunately, I had had the foresight to get myself a really good grammar book (Practical English Usage by Michael Swan). Luckily I also had a friend back home who's a bit of a grammar whiz, and I could email her all my panicked queries in the middle of the night. So, especially if you're teaching adults, get to grips with some basic English grammar before you go to Japan, and save yourself a few sleepless nights.
Thanks for the tips, Ali!
Readers, do you have some "working for an Eikaiwa" tips to add?
You can read about her searches for connections to Japan in the UK on Haikugirl's Japan or follow her on Twitter. Ali is currently available for freelance writing work.