This was originally written as a guest post for my good friend James at ALT Insider and is re-posted here with his permission.
As James has so eloquently described on ALT Insider before, there are basically three types of ALT:
1) JET ALTs
2) Dispatch company ALTs
3) Direct hire ALTs.
1) Getting a place on the JET program requires that you complete eight book-length essays, twelve interviews, and twenty-five workshops over the course of three years, before being made to swim across an alligator-infested swamp in the pitch dark, stark naked and with only a toothpick to defend yourself (at least that’s what I’ve been led to believe, anyway). Once you’re in, however, the pay and conditions are great.
2) The only pre-requisites for getting a job as a hakengaisha (派遣会社 / dispatch company) ALT are:
a) Being able to speak English
b) Having a passport
c) Having a pulse
In actual fact, two of the three will usually suffice and once you’re in, the pay and conditions are, well, so-so.
3) In theory, at least, getting a job as a ALT who’s hired direct by a kyōikui’inkai (教育委員会 / board of education, aka. BOE) gives you all the benefits of JET (i.e. no alligator-infested swamps and / or a really sharp toothpick) with none of the drawbacks of a dispatch company (i.e. enough cash to buy as many anime figurines as you can lay your hands on).
So how exactly does one go about becoming a direct hire ALT? Well, the short answer is: marry a Japanese person. OK, so I’m half joking, but marrying a Japanese person definitely helps. If you can’t fool one of the natives into believing you’d make a great life partner, though, second on the list would be: use Facebook. You think I’m joking again, right? Not at all. I’m currently on my second direct hire job, and I got both of them through Facebook.
By way of explanation, allow me to give you a quick rundown of my (ahem) illustrious career in Japan so far:
My first job was with a certain eikaiwa (英会話 / English conversation) school in Tokyo, who sponsored my visa, found my accommodation, opened my bank account, and so on, but treated me like a cross between a galley slave, a Guantanamo Bay terror suspect, and a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of their shoe. So I quit them, quit Tokyo, and got a job as a dispatch company ALT instead.
The money was laughable (180,000 yen a month, to be precise), but the hours were short (8.30am to 2.30pm, weekdays only) and the holidays were long — so long, in fact, that I disappeared for a full six weeks during the summer to (shameless plug for own website alert!) tour Japan by bicycle. After a year or so I had to go back to the UK, but by the time I did, I had become Facebook friends with a whole bunch of my colleagues and acquaintances, both Japanese and foreign. When the time was right to have another crack at living in Japan, I put the word out and bingo, a Japanese English teacher I hadn’t even met face-to-face for about five years sent me a message:
‘Hi Muzuhashi,’ it went. ‘I heard you’re moving back to Japan. Do you want to come and work with me in ○○○ junior high school? We need an ALT because the last one went back to China.’ (Or words to that effect, anyway. Obviously she didn’t call me Muzuhashi because that’s not my real name. My real name is Baron Von William ‘Bill’ Buzz Lightyear III of the House of Usher.)
Towards the end of that first year as a direct-hire ALT, out of the blue I got a Facebook email from another colleague from my dispatch company days. This time it was an ALT and while I hadn’t seen him for about five years, either, the mail went something like this: ‘Hi Muzuhashi. I heard you’re back in Japan. Do you want my job with ○○○ BOE? They need an ALT because I’m moving back to Australia.’
Because the money was better than what I was already getting, I accepted his offer and eight years later I’m still here. Not only that, but the more time I spend in Japan, the more direct-hire ALT jobs I come across. Recently, for example, I got an email from a Japanese acquaintance (not on Facebook this time, just someone I work with now and again and have exchanged contact details with) about a job vacancy that was soon to open up at a state-run juken (受験 / entry-by-exam) junior high school. My application crashed and burned, but had I succeeded, I would now be working semi-part-time for a cool 4 million yen a year, in a school where – shock, horror! – some of the kids can actually speak English beyond the standard level of, ‘Almost Japanese like to shopping and buy grape. It is very enjoy.’
As well as the aforementioned positions, off the top of my head I can think of three more BOEs within a 30-minute drive of where I live that hire at least some of their ALTs direct, and that’s just for positions at elementary and junior high schools — that number is almost certainly greater if you include high schools.
So if you’re looking for a direct hire job, it’s best to go by the old adage, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ In other words, make friends with as many people as you can, and keep in touch with as many of them as you can. (Obviously it goes without saying that the longer you’re in Japan, the greater the likelihood that one of those contacts will pay dividends.)
But once you’ve been told by one of your network of contacts that a direct hire job is up for grabs, what do you need to do to impress the BOE in question that you’re the right person to hire? If you’ve been personally recommended to the BOE by someone who already works there, then quite possibly nothing at all, but if you think you might be up against some competition, what most BOEs are looking for is someone who is low maintenance. Ideally, this means you:
1) Have a visa
2) Can speak Japanese
3) Have experience of working as an ALT
1) Having a visa — be it a haigūsha (配偶者 / spouse) visa, a work visa from a previous job that’s valid for at least another year, or eijūken (永住権 / permanent residency) — makes you low maintenance because it saves the BOE both time and effort. One key fact I omitted from the story above is that in the years between my two stints in Japan, I married my Japanese girlfriend and got a spouse visa, thereby making me low maintenance. While the accepted wisdom is that BOEs won’t sponsor foreigners for work visas because it’s too much hassle, however, the reality is that sometimes they do.
2) Being able to speak Japanese makes you low maintenance because you can handle the day-to-day stuff that goes on at a typical Japanese school without someone from a dispatch company having to intervene on your behalf — for example, those times when the vice-principal or the school secretary comes over to you and says, ‘Tomorrow is a national holiday so you don’t have to come to work,’ or, ‘Tomorrow is the culture festival so you have to come to work even though it’s Saturday,’ or, ‘Is it true that every man, woman, child, and sheep in New Zealand carries a high-calibre automatic rifle with them at all times?’
Being able to read Japanese, incidentally, is less important, so long as you have a wife / husband / roommate / drinking buddy who can help decipher your tax documents, school lunch payment invoices, and so on.
3) Having experience as an ALT makes you low maintenance because when your new English teaching colleague turns to you ten minutes before the end of your first lesson together and says completely without warning, ‘So, do you have a game we can do now?’ you won’t reply by saying, ‘Game? You what? Er, yes. I mean, no. I mean…Oh, is that the time? I’m sorry. I have to go back to the staff room for my insulin injection or I might lose consciousness.’ Instead, thanks to ALT Insider, you’ll say, ‘Of course. Leave it to me. OK kids, it’s time to play ○○○!’
‘So, Muzuhashi,’ I can hear you ask. ‘Once I’ve landed a direct hire job, what’s in it for me?’ Well, in descending order of importance:
1) More money
2) More money
3) More money
Sorry, joking again, although the main advantage is of course:
1) More money
Because there’s no middleman (i.e. dispatch company) creaming off a third or more of what the BOE pays for its ALTs, that means more real cash in your pocket and more virtual yen in your bank account. Practically speaking, you should get somewhere in the region of 300,000 yen a month, although it might be more (as in the case of the aforementioned juken school job) and it might be less. A case in point was my first direct-hire job, which paid 250,000 yen a month, and hardly any money at all during August (about 60,000 – enough to cover health insurance, pension payments and so on), which made me not a lot better off than my friends who were working for Interac in the next town.
2) Less hassle
Almost as important as money is the fact that as a direct hire ALT, you’ll get a lot less interference from the Powers That Be than if you were with a dispatch company, and possibly even than if you were a JET. Like I said, the BOE is looking for someone low maintenance, which means that so long as they don’t get a call from your vice-principal saying you’ve dyed your hair day-glo pink, got a tongue piercing, and had the words ‘Thug Life’ tattooed in gothic script on your forehead, they’ll basically just let you get on with doing whatever you’re doing. This in turn gives you the chance to develop a better relationship with your colleagues, to the point where they won’t mind — and more importantly, won’t call the BOE — if you turn up late or go home early.
(Having said that, some BOEs and the vice-principals at their schools can be just as nitpicking as a dispatch company, and a friend of mine who’s a direct-hire ALT has to deduct time from his allocation of paid holiday if he leaves even an hour earlier than the scheduled time.)
3) Added extras
Another perk of the job is that you may get some on-the-side work passed on to you by your predecessor. For example, when my friend went back to Australia, he didn’t just recommend me to the BOE for his ALT job, he also allowed me first dibs on his conversation classes at the local community center, one of which pays 10,000 yen — tax-free, cash-in-hand — for just an hour and a half of ‘English teaching’ (i.e. chatting to some local OAPs) every fortnight.
Last but not least, let’s have a look at the downsides of being direct hire:
1) Fewer holidays
Probably the biggest downside to being direct hire ALT is the fact that your paid and/or unpaid holiday entitlement will be shorter than that of a typical dispatch company ALT, and you may even be obliged to ‘work’ at the BOE during spring, summer, and winter vacations, which I can assure you from personal experience is mind-bogglingly tedious.
The first time I did this, I was stuck in a stuffy town hall office with a bunch of desk jockeys from 8.30am to 5.15pm every weekday for about five weeks with absolutely nothing to do whatsoever. I didn’t have internet access — in fact, I didn’t even have a computer — and to top it all off, the chair they had found for me was so low that I had to sit on a ream of printer paper just to stop my chin from hitting the desk. Being direct hire, though, I started working on my relationship with my teaching colleagues and nowadays I ‘work’ at school during vacations instead, meaning I can turn up late, leave early, and wear shorts and a t-shirt while I’m there.
While your responsibilities will probably differ very little from those of a dispatch company ALT, by the same token, your job security will also be no better, in the sense that as a keiyakuin (契約員 / contract employee), you will only ever be on a one-year contract, meaning the BOE could fail to renew that contract come the end of the school year. So if your school merges with another school due to a lack of students (because of the low birth rate in Japan this is a common occurrence these days, particularly in the countryside), or if your BOE is charmed and / or bribed into thinking they should hand over their ALT contract to a dispatch company, you could be joining the queue at your local branch of Hello Work, or at least renewing your subscription to Ohayo Sensei.
So there you have it, everything you ever wanted to know about being a direct hire ALT but were afraid to ask. I say, ‘everything’, but of course this is a highly personal viewpoint based on my own fairly limited experiences in Japan, so if you have any useful information to add and / or think that I’m talking complete and utter rubbish, please leave a comment
Since I wrote this post, new rules have been introduced — or rather, old rules have begun to be enforced — covering contract workers such as ALTs. The effect of this depends on where you are and how you are employed. For example, as a direct-hire ALT, from this academic year (April 2020-March 2021) I will get bonuses, more paid holiday, and other improvements to my working conditions. For others, though, either nothing has changed or in some cases, boards of education are downgrading their ALTs to part-time, moving from direct-hire to dispatch companies, and instigating other money-saving strategies.
A few more things that I neglected to mention in the original post:
If there is not already one in place, try to organise a regular meeting with the other direct-hire ALTs in your area, as this is a good way of letting off steam and allowing you to feel that while you may be isolated at your school, there are others nearby experiencing the same things as you.
Very occasionally, JET ALTs quit part-way through their contract and the JET organisation has no one to replace them. If you keep your ears open and happen to be in the right place (i.e. Japan) at the right time, you may, therefore, be able to bypass the JET application process — not direct hire, but the pay and conditions are pretty much the same.
Finally — and while this is not something I would recommend — if you love working in Japanese schools and your language skills are good enough, it is possible for a foreigner to obtain a licence as a fully fledged high school English teacher. The application process includes writing an essay and sitting an interview in Japanese, although the real crunch is that once you are qualified, your work hours are likely to be as long as those of your Japanese colleagues. Like I say, this is for those who want full cultural immersion and do not mind giving up their weekends (evenings, early mornings, holidays, souls…) for the sake of their students.