Steve Tainton


How things have changed in my absence

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” – Robert Burns

Last I checked in I was headed back to the land of milk and honey (if not green tea and wasabi) to seek my fortune and repair financial damage done during my brief sojourn in Thailand. What I did not know is that I was about to be buffeted about again by the wheels of fate (if not by the gears of immigration bureaucracy). When I got back to Japan I re-applied with my former employ and was soon after hired, however it came to light that my visa was no longer valid. I was caught by a new regulation stating that a working visa becomes invalid if the holder is not employed for a period of three months or more. The particularly insidious thing about this is that it is untraceable by the authorities and won’t show up until the visa needs to be renewed. In effect I entered Japan, undetected so to speak, with my visa valid, or so I thought, until April of next year. It is plausible that a less thorough employer could have hired me on the visa, but come next April I would not have been able to renew it (and perhaps would have jeopardized my chances at a new one). Having already indebted myself to get back to Japan, this was nothing short of a metaphorical kick-in-da’-cajones. I had two options: 1) Go back to Thailand and become on of those Farangs that eventually throws himself out off of a Pattaya hotel balcony. 2) Further indebt myself and apply for a new visa with the hope that a first world paycheck would have me back in black someday. I have never been to Pattaya and am not too keen on going, so it was option # 2.

The Japan visa process consists of applying for something termed a Certificate of Eligibility. The ‘COE’ is issued by immigration after receiving proper documentation from the potential Japanese employer. Next the COE must be submitted in order to obtain a visa. It is possible to do so in country, but that requires an additional four weeks. By doing a visa run to a foreign based Japan embassy or consulate the process is reduced to several days. I choose to head back to Thailand for a week. Fortunately, there were no snags and my re-entry to Japan went smooth enough. After receiving the one year Specialist in Humanities and International Services (what bunk!) visa, one still has to pop into the local city hall and register for what is known as an ARC, or Alien Registration Card. That done, the visa holder is good to go for employment – not a fun process, though relative to Thailand more straightforward and efficient. In any case, now, a month and a-half after my initial arrival in Japan, I am where I thought I would be from the start. All’s well that ends well? Well,…

In the year I was out of Japan the EFL industry (Incidentally, Japan based teachers and employers tend to use the term ESL more prominently, though academics would point out the error.) has undergone some major changes. Though I am simplifying, for reasons of governmental insurance regulations, most foreign teachers are now classed as part-time employees. The result of this means diminished or diminishing hours for teachers, and in turn lower monthly salaries. Not good. There is a silver lining however. Due to a new strict interpretation of hours worked, employers now offer very clear definitions of working time, meaning lesson planning is either included in the schedule or unnecessary. There is no gray area in which one might have to plan lessons, but not be reimbursed for the time. At least this is true of the big eikaiwa companies.

In the meanwhile, a number of teacher-student introduction services have sprung up on the internet. The basic premise here is that a teacher registers with a website for free and the student pays a fee to access the website’s teacher database. The student can then contact the teacher directly to arrange for private lessons. This may be the way of the future in a country where a ‘full-time’ (technically part-time) teaching job actually translates into a thirty hour work week. Of course, the responsible teacher would be filing the extra income from private lessons on there tax-returns…no, really of course they would, wouldn’t they?

A lot of forum posters are claiming that Japan might not be the earner that it used to be, then again for those with a bit of hustle the market for freelance work is burgeoning. I personally believe that an English teacher overseas has to view him/herself as a miniature corporation and constantly innovate to keep up with market demands. If the new business paradigm for a teacher is a part-time, visa sponsored job coupled with freelance teaching, then I see no choice but to go that route. The only other way to go is signing on to Japanese social insurance with its hefty monthly contributions and throw yourself at the mercy of an employer who will then work you like a true salaryman (Employers also have to contribute to the employee’s social insurance, so that will get that money back from the employee in a pound of flesh, or a ton of stress.) The irony is that after insurance contributions and figuring the extra hours involved, the teacher on social insurance is bringing home less per hour than the part-time, thirty hour per week teacher. The social insurance scheme only makes sense for the long-term Japan resident, and then only if said resident has a family to support, otherwise it’s a raw deal.

Are there any lessons in all this for the Thailand based crowd? I think so. One is to keep abreast of the latest visa regulations so that you don’t hit any SNAFUs (Situation Normal…you know the rest) with renewal, job change etcetera. The other lesson is that, just as in any business, government regulations can have a spectacular impact on the status quo. Good business people are constantly working to keep ahead and innovate during times of change, any teacher working overseas should be doing the same. Remember that if you don’t innovate and advocate for yourself, no one else will. I see myself as an English Communication Consultant. Now, it’s true the school that sponsors my visa is my biggest and most important client, but I am beholden to make stockholders (Visa, Mastercard, Mom) to increase my customer base and maximize profits. Believe you me, the companies that employ teachers adhere to the above philosophy, so why shouldn’t we?


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