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Is Teaching English in Japan Problematic?

Updated on March 17, 2016
Two people, one with the arm around the other, sitting in a doorway overlooking a garden in Japan.
Two people, one with the arm around the other, sitting in a doorway overlooking a garden in Japan. | Source

I don’t expect to come up with any definitive answers in this article, as this is a very complex issue that will require further exploration. The intention of this piece is to open up a discussion around these issues.


An important note, before we get started, is that I am problematic.

We are all problematic on some levels. As Kat Blaque said in her “What I Learned in 2015!” video,

“I learned that I am not a flawless goddess, but a flawed human being. Having a little modicum of fame has forced me to look at the way that I speak and to examine the ways in which I am and am not intersectional”.

This resonates with me because I am by no means a perfect feminist and would never claim to be. I will always have work to do and there will always be areas in which I am ignorant. As a feminist, I hope to continue to be open, to listen, and to learn as much as I can.

With that being said, I hope to open up a discussion on some of the issues surrounding teaching English in Japan as a person who experiences white and Anglophone privilege.

How problematic is it to teach English in Japan as a white person from the West?

Image of the front part of a school bus driving on a road with a blurry background.
Image of the front part of a school bus driving on a road with a blurry background. | Source

"This is Not Japan"

A Tumblr site called “This is Not Japan” (all resources linked below) has a number of posts about this issue.

Their posts are usually structured as answers to questions submitted by users.

One quote that really stuck out to me is:

“Part of the problem with teaching English abroad, and this goes for other countries not just Japan, is that many places will hire simply on the “native English speaker” basis under faulty presumption that a “native” speaker is best to teach their own language and they do not need formal language training to teach effectively. White people teaching here presents a lot of problems too in reinforcing the idea that white people are the “normal” for English speakers, while PoC English speakers struggle with getting recognized as native English speakers because they aren’t white”.

They also ask several questions of those expressing a desire to teach abroad:

“I think you really need to think long and hard about the implications of teaching English abroad and English language imperialism and racism. What sort of teacher do you plan on being?… Just in general, what research and reading have you done about English language teaching in Japan and more importantly how much of your reading has been from Japanese teachers of English rather than expats?”

“Have you unpacked the racism in teaching English abroad and the pedagogy(ies) and methodology(ies) you favor for teaching?”

“How will you address the issues of what type of English to teach, keeping in mind that your dialect is just one of many and most English speakers speak a variant other than “standardized” English (and again whose “standard” are you using)?”

“How will you work with students who do not want to learn English and view it as unnecessary for their goals? Forcing them to learn is an act of imperialism. How will you minimize reinforcing language imperialism when just your presence does exactly that? Will your classes give your students the ability to discuss their own culture, thoughts, etc. or will it just focus on them being able to talk about Anglophone culture and issues while being unable to discuss or share their own?”

Even if you’re aware of your privilege, practice anti-racism, don’t appropriate Japanese culture, and don’t force your own culture on others, teaching English in Japan is still problematic because of the deeply rooted nature of systems like English language imperialism, orientalism, and white supremacy.

Image of a pair of reading glasses sitting on top of a road map.
Image of a pair of reading glasses sitting on top of a road map. | Source

“How to Teach English Abroad and Not Be a Neocolonialist"

Alyssa James wrote a very helpful article called “How to Teach English Abroad and Not be a Neocolonialist”.

The whole article is worth reading and I’d definitely recommend it. I’ve pulled out some key quotes:

“English fluency is social and economic capital. You’ve proven this simply through your ability to travel the world and probably get paid more than a local teacher for doing the same job unqualified… You didn’t earn this privilege; you simply hit the linguistic lottery”.

“Acknowledge that issues of power are enacted in the classroom — teacher over student, compulsory English learning, and so on. Think about how you can empower your students to take ownership of their learning”.

“3. Learn and use the language of your students in the classroom.

Rather than promoting multilingualism, prohibitions on native language use implicitly support the hegemony of English. The ability to ask and answer basic questions in your students’ language can make the classroom a safer and more welcoming space for language learning. At the very least, allow them to use their native language if it will encourage comprehension”.

I’ve heard that with some of the agencies, you’re actually not allowed to speak Japanese with your students. Ever.

"4. Use culturally relevant and decolonizing approaches to teaching.

Teach English in a way your students will use and relate to in their everyday lives. Use culturally relevant examples that put students in the driver’s seat of their learning… Learn what your students’ interests are, have them describe what good teaching is, and incorporate this into your lessons. Integrating information from students’ everyday lives validates their cultural identity as an important aspect of learning”.

Image of a waterscape with a shadowy mountain in the background and grasses in the foreground.
Image of a waterscape with a shadowy mountain in the background and grasses in the foreground. | Source

Consulting Some Friends

I also spoke with three friends of mine, none of whom are Japanese, which is important to note, about this issue, and they said:

“Going and teaching in Japan would be being complicate with a system in which English is the dominant norm, but I wouldn't consider it linguistic imperialism. Most people on Japan don't know english but would like to. Imperialism requires one to learn English to survive; it eliminates native languages. This certainly is a widespread phenomenon, but not necessarily the case for Japan”.

“Maybe you’re reinforcing the fact that English is the language of global commerce and that you are privileged for being born an anglophone, but whether or not you go and teach that course won't change those facts. The experience may even broaden your perspective and make you think critically about western culture”.

“You gotta acknowledge your privilege and how it is entangled in others' oppression, but at the same time I'm kinda skeptical of this debilitating understanding of cultural appropriation, where as soon as things become complicated and messy people just step out and act as if by renouncing something they have gained some sort of purity”.

“Cultural appreciation is different than appropriation, and I believe there is ways in which we can exchange cultures… that are anti-oppressive. Of course it won't be completely fool proof, but what is?”

“It is always going to be difficult navigating through other cultures and societies that aren't predominantly white. A lot of forethought, patience and understanding is required”.

“I’ll be honest, I’ve had icky feelings about it in the past, but then I imagine it had a lot to do with the ignorant and patronizing way that I’ve heard people speak about it… I guess the point some people are trying to make is that Japanese people still suffer a lot of cultural and racial oppression, and the fact that white westerners with little to no teaching qualifications are hired to spread the English language probably does support English imperialism and serves as an indicator that Orientalism still exists. Some people seem sure that it can be done in a responsible way, others are more skeptical”.

Image of a plane outside of an airport, framed by a window, with the sun nearly covered by clouds.
Image of a plane outside of an airport, framed by a window, with the sun nearly covered by clouds. | Source


Clearly, there are many factors to consider. This is obviously a very messy issue. It will require more research and asking around. My hope is that I can find ways in which to teach English abroad that are anti-oppressive, though I am aware that that may not be possible.

Please please tell me what you think. Share in the comments below. Send me a message. I want to know what you think.

Should I do this?

Are there anti-oppressive ways in which to do this?

What do you think about these critiques?


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    • wiserworld profile image


      2 years ago

      Thank you for sharing the tips about teaching in Japan. Well done!

    • Herb Dino profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Michaela: I certainly think it can be an eye-opening experience that might make you think about your own culture more critically.

      That's interesting! I've only dabbled in linguistics a little, but from that little I learned how important it is for the study of society, culture and human understanding.

    • Michaela Osiecki profile image


      2 years ago from USA

      I think teaching English in Japan as a white person can be a very eye-opening experience for some - to suddenly BE the ethnic minority in a very homogeneous society can really change a person - for better or for worse.

      Teaching in Japan is something I've considered, because as a Linguistics major I am very interested in the systems of language use and structure, not just for English but for all languages and how language evolution affects a region and it's culture. I think being able to bridge the gap between languages as different as English and Japanese can really open up doors to cultural understanding.

    • Herb Dino profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Wesman: Haha, I expect he does find it pragmatic! I certainly think there are many practical things about it, which is why it's something I'm considering for my future, but I want to weigh the ethics of the thing before I jump in.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      2 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      I've got a younger cousin who makes a living teaching English in Japan. So he finds it very pragmatic, also, he's close to seven feet tall, and has curly red hair. No doubt the Japanese find him exotic.


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