So you want to be a direct-hire ALT?

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:


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.

2) Instability

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.

The Junior High School Year

This was originally written as a guest post for my good friend James at ALT Insider, and is re-posted here with his permission.

Particularly when you’ve just become an ALT, being thrust with only the bare minimum of training into a Japanese state school can be thoroughly disorientating. You won’t be informed of many things in advance, so the purpose of this post is to tell you what is likely to take place during the course of a typical school year, what to do when it does, which events are worthy of further investigation, and which are frankly tedious and to be avoided at all costs.

Along the way you may also find out how to earn some brownie points with your superiors, stay one step ahead of your teaching colleagues, and perhaps most important of all, know when you’re most likely to be able to relax in the staff room and watch cat videos.

In other words – and to paraphrase the ALT Insider Mission Statement™ – I want to help you enjoy your time as an ALT and your time in Japan.

The Basics

First off, a few things about junior high school life which may be relevant to the information that follows

1. Schedule

Most of you will receive a schedule detailing which lessons you are to teach with your JTE, but this schedule is subject to change, often at the last minute.

The first thing that’s worth knowing is that most schools have an A schedule and a B schedule (A日課, B日課 / Aにっか・Bにっか / A-nikka, B-nikka, or sometimes 通常日課・特別日課 / つうじょうにっか・とくべつにっか / tsuujoh-nikka, tokubetsu-nikka), the former being a normal school day of six 50-minute classes, and the latter being one of six 45-minute classes. The B schedule can come into play for any number of reasons, for example when there’s a special event of some sort, or when the students go home earlier than usual.

There will be a blackboard in the staff room on which this kind of information is posted, along with which teachers are going on business trips (出張 / しゅっちょう / shucchoh – it could be that one of your JTEs has a meeting or a seminar, meaning you’ll be free and easy), and whether or not today’s schedule has been swapped for another’s – for example, if it’s Tuesday but the blackboard says, ‘月曜日課’ (げつようびにっか / getsuyohbi-nikka), that means you should refer to your schedule for Monday.

There will also be a blackboard or whiteboard outside the staff room for the benefit of the students, on which you should keep an eye out for timetable changes (授業変更 / じゅぎょうへんこう / jugyoh-henkoh) – for example, when one of your English classes has been swapped for a different subject.

2. Day off in lieu (振替休業日 / ふりかえきゅうぎょうじつ / furikaé-kyuh-gyoh-jitsu)

While the workload of a typical ALT is almost ridiculously light, you will sometimes be expected to work on a Saturday. The good news is that if you do, you’ll get the following Monday off.

Saturday work days typically occur on open days, sports day, the culture festival, and in other exceptional circumstances, such as when a school trip takes place on a weekend, and those students and teachers who aren’t involved work a Saturday so that everyone in the school gets the Monday off.

If you’re a dispatch company ALT, you may get both the Saturday and Monday off, thereby leaving you with a three-day weekend. On the other hand, if you’re direct hire and don’t go to work on the Saturday with everyone else – either by accident or by design – you’ll probably have to take a day’s paid holiday for the privilege.

3. Packed lunch (お弁当 / おべんとう / obentoh)

If you have to work on a Saturday, or occasionally when the students go home early on a weekday – for example after the entrance ceremony or the graduation ceremony – you won’t be served any lunch. Your options in this case are to:

i) Bring your own (either one you’ve bought on the way to school, or perhaps some magical creation you woke at 4am to conjure up, and which features the face of Doraemon rendered in nori seaweed, sausages cut into baby octopus shapes, vegetables arranged to look like the cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro etc.).

ii) Pop to the shops and buy one (although be warned, as some vice-principals may not look kindly on their ALT leaving the premises, even for such an apparently legitimate reason).

iii) Pay for one of the bento boxes the teachers will be ordering (these are usually 5 or 600 yen, but can be more expensive – for example, I once parted with the best part of 1000 yen for a handmade sushi platter delivered from a local restaurant).


If there’s one thing the Japanese – and by implication, Japanese institutions such as schools, boards of education and local authorities – like more than anything else, it’s a good, old fashioned ceremony, and while some can be culturally enlightening, others are tedious to the point where you will be falling asleep on your feet as you look on, half freezing to death in the mid-winter chill of a dark and draughty gymnasium.

1. Entrance ceremony for new students (入学式 / にゅうがくしき / nyuugaku-shiki)

When I was a lad, for my first day at a new school I simply turned up, sat down in the designated classroom with my new homeroom teacher and classmates, and got on with the day. Not so here in Japan, where first graders on their first day march into the gym, as their names are announced by their new homeroom teacher and their parents look on.

Interest rating: 3/5
When does it happen? A weekday in early April.
How long does it last? A couple of hours in the morning.
Do I have to go? Yes if you’re at school that day.
What should I wear? A suit, shirt and tie if you’re male / something similarly formal if you’re female.

2. Graduation ceremony (卒業式 / そつぎょうしき / sotsugyoh-shiki)

At the opposite end of the academic year, this is when the students in the top grade say goodbye to their school, their teachers and their classmates. The main part of the ceremony involves each student in turn being called to the stage and handed their certificate of graduation by the principal, but there will also be speeches, songs (sung by the outgoing students to those they’ll be leaving behind and by ongoing students to the seniors to whom they’re saying goodbye) and tears all round – in fact, I defy even the most hard-hearted ALT not to shed a tear or two during a graduation ceremony.

Interest rating: 5/5
When does it happen? A weekday in mid-March.
How long does it last? Most of the morning.
Do I have to go? Yes if you’re at school that day, but even if you’re not scheduled to be, you should make the effort and ask either your JTE, vice-principal or dispatch company if it’s OK to attend.
What should I wear? A suit, shirt and tie if you’re male / something similarly formal if you’re female (the female homeroom teachers, incidentally, often wear kimonos).

3. Beginning / end of term ceremonies (始業式・終業式・修了式 / しぎょうしき・しゅうぎょうしき・しゅうりょうしき / shigyohshiki, shuugyohshiki, shuuryohshiki)

Opening and closing ceremonies are little more than formalities, and as a consequence probably the least interesting in the school year. First of all, representatives from each grade, and sometimes a member of the student council, will take to the stage to talk about what they hope to achieve in the coming term (hand in their homework on time, practice harder for their club activity, speak English to their ALT etc.). These speeches are pretty generic, as is the one that follows from the school principal, which is often illustrated with a reference to a Japanese saying, a recent news event, or a historical figure. Once the school song has been sung and the official business is over, one of the teachers will talk to the students about what to be aware of – or beware of – during the coming term or during the coming holiday. This may be to take care when riding their bicycles in the snow, not talk to strangers on their smart phones, or refrain from swimming in the nearby river / lake / storm drain.

Interest rating: 1/5
When does it happen? The first and last weekday morning of each of the three terms during the school year.
How long does it last? About an hour.
Do I have to go? Yes if you’re at school that day.
What should I wear? Some schools will require you to dress formally, while others won’t mind if you turn up in normal work clothes.

4. Introduction to club activities (部活動紹介 / ぶかつどうしょうかい / bukatsudoh-shohkai)

Until they graduate from elementary school, Japanese children have it pretty easy (although most of them will already be doing a couple of after-school classes and clubs by this point – things like piano lessons, hip-hop dancing, soccer youth teams etc.), but the larger part of their three years at middle school will be arguably the busiest of their lives, as almost without exception, they join a club, from thereon in practicing for a couple of hours almost every single day of the year, usually after school and at weekends, but sometimes in the morning before lessons begin – and that’s not even including tournaments or practice matches. So the decision as to which club to join is important – in some cases life-changing – and the introduction to club activities as enlightening for a newbie ALT as it is for a fresh-faced first grader.

Essentially, what happens is that everyone gathers in the gym, and the existing members of each club demonstrate what they do and urge the first graders to join up. Team sports can get fairly chaotic, as baseballs and basketballs fly around in all directions, but martial arts such as kendo and judo are perhaps more interesting, and even the demos for music and art clubs can be worth watching if the existing members aren’t – as is sometimes the case – painfully shy.

Interest rating: 3/5
When does it happen? A weekday in April.
How long does it last? An hour or two in the afternoon.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

5. Rousing send-off (壮行会 / そうこうかい / sohkohkai)

If there’s anything that could be said to be unique about the Japanese school year, it’s the sohkohkai, a word that I have unilaterally decided to translate as ‘rousing send-off’. Sohkohkai take place in the days before big sports tournaments (of which more later), and at first are nothing to write home about, as the members of each club talk about how motivated they are and how their aim is to make it to the second round / final / regional tournament etc.

For the second part of the ceremony, however, a group of students who won’t be taking part in the tournament in question suddenly run into the room wearing hachimaki (鉢巻 / はちまき / Japanese-style bandanas) and white gloves, as one of their number beats time on a bass drum. They will then line up in formation and yell words of encouragement to each club team in turn, while at the same time performing a series of arm-waving gestures rather like those guys you see at airports directing planes to and from the gates. The overall effect is unmistakeably militaristic, and as I recently discovered, sohkohkai took place during WWII before troops set off for the frontline. It has to be said that depending on the school, some sohkohkai are more impressive than others, but for sheer novelty value, I would recommend that you witness one for yourself.

Interest rating: 4/5
When does it happen? Usually in mid-June and mid-September.
How long does it last? An hour or so on a weekday afternoon.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

6. Welcoming ceremony for new teachers (新人式 / しんじんしき / shinjinshiki)

This takes place before the first term has properly begun, and as such is probably the most relaxed ceremony of all. As a rule, teachers in Japan work at a particular school for about six years, before being placed in their next teaching position fairly arbitrarily by BOEs, who reshuffle their pack of staff cards at the beginning of each school year. So during the welcoming ceremony, teachers who’ve been allocated to work at a particular school will introduce themselves in front of their new colleagues, and perhaps more importantly, the students will learn who is to be their homeroom teacher for the year, and who will take charge of their club activities (usually a coach and deputy coach for each). Because classes haven’t yet begun, the chances are you may not be at school for this, but if you are, you’ll probably be expected to line up at the front of the gym with the other teachers and introduce yourself.

Interest rating: 2/5
When does it happen? A weekday in early April.
How long does it last? An hour or so in the morning.
Do I have to go? Yes if you’re at school that day.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

7. Ceremony for departing teachers (辞任式・辞令式・離任式 / じにんしき・じれいしき・りにんしき / ji-ninshiki, ji-reishiki, ri-ninshiki)

I have to admit I’ve only ever been to one of these, but it was rather nice as it was for one of the more competent and genial English teachers I had worked with, and who was not only leaving the school but also retiring. So the students made speeches, sang a song and gave her a bunch of flowers and a present, all in a very informal and spontaneous way.

Interest rating: 2/5
When does it happen? Late March or early April.
How long does it last? An hour or so on a weekday.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

One-off Events

1. Sports day (体育祭 / たいいくさい / tai-ikusai)

You might think that sports day would be enjoyable, but I’ll be honest here and say that it’s the event in the school calendar I dread the most. The main reason for this is that as an ALT I have almost nothing to do from the moment I arrive until the moment I leave, and the highlight for me is helping tidy away the gazebos, chairs and plant pots at the end of the day. Not only that, but everyone else is so preoccupied that they have no time to engage in conversation, and unlike the homeroom teachers, students and their families, having no vested interest in the results – i.e. which student will win a particular race, or which class will win the prize for best in their grade – makes the whole thing thoroughly anticlimactic.

There is one event that may enable you to take an active part in proceedings, and that’s the karibito-kyohsoh or karimono-kyohsoh (借り人競争・借り物競走 / かりびときょうそう・かりものきょうそう), a relay in which the students are directed to find ‘A person wearing glasses’, ‘A maths teacher’, or – and this is where you come in – ‘A person with blonde hair’ or ‘A person from abroad’ to run with. But this respite from the relentless boredom and indifference is all too brief, as even if you do happen to be dragged out of the crowd to run twenty or thirty metres with one of your students, that will be the full extent of your participation, and you’ll soon be dumped back onto the sidelines to twiddle your thumbs and long for the whole thing to come to an end.

A side note: while some school sports days are now held in spring or autumn to avoid the worst of the heat and humidity, they traditionally take place at the beginning of September. As such, and because you will be out of doors from about eight in the morning until two or three in the afternoon, remember to bring a hat and some sunblock.

Interest rating: 1/5
When does it happen? A Saturday in early September.
How long does it last? From approximately 8.30am till 2.30pm.
Do I have to go? If you’re a JET or direct-hire ALT, almost certainly / if you’re a dispatch company ALT, not necessarily.
What should I wear? Sports gear – for example, shorts and t-shirts are perfectly acceptable.

2. Culture festival (文化祭 / ぶんかさい), aka school festival

Besides school trips and sports day, this is the event in the school calendar the students look forward to the most, but much more interesting than the latter, mainly because it incorporates as its main attraction the chorus contest (合唱コンクール / がっしょうこんくうる / gasshoh-konkuuru).

For the chorus contest, each class sings two songs – one they have chosen for themselves and one that every class in their grade sings – and competes against the other classes for first prize (in smaller schools, the classes from all three grades sometimes compete together). The amount of practice the students put in is astonishing – it is not unusual for them to sing a song a hundred times or more in the weeks leading up to the culture festival – and on the day, their performances can be technically brilliant and genuinely moving, not to mention team-orientated, as even the students who either can’t sing or don’t want to have to find their place in the mix.

The sense of relief when it’s all over is palpable, and after lunch, both students and teachers put on a stage show (舞台発表 / ぶたいはっぴょう / butai-happ-yoh), which features dancing, videos, speeches, comedy, quizzes, and more often than not, at least one or two male teachers and students dressing up in women’s clothing.

Interest rating: 4/5
When does it happen? A Saturday in mid-October.
How long does it last? From approximately 8.30am till 4pm.
Do I have to go? If you’re a JET or direct-hire ALT, almost certainly / if you’re a dispatch company ALT, not necessarily, although like the graduation ceremony, this is one of those events that it’s worth giving up some of your free time to attend, if only for the morning.
What should I wear? A suit and tie / formal clothes in the morning, but I’ve found that it’s OK to dress down a little in the afternoon.

3. School trip (修学旅行・校外学習・宿泊学習 / shuugaku-ryokoh, kohgai-gakushuu, shukuhaku-gakushuu)

It is a law decreed since the beginning of time that every third grade middle school student in the entire country shall go to Kyoto on a school trip, and while as an ALT you will not be invited along, what this means is that for three days in late spring there will be no third grade classes to teach, and afterwards you will have to help the students with their homework (more often than not, their challenge for the trip is to grab a foreigner, ask them some questions in English, take their photo and then write about the experience).

The first and second graders will also go on trips, sometimes for the day to a zoo or an aquarium, and sometimes for two or three days to a ski resort – or if they’re really lucky, a theme park – and these, too, will give you ample time to ‘make teaching materials’ in the staff room.

When does it happen? Usually in late spring / early summer.
How long does it last? Three days.
Do I have to go? Sadly you can’t, but since you’re a foreigner in Japan, you’ve already been to Kyoto, right?

4. Sports tournaments

There are two main sports tournaments during the school year. The first is referred to as ‘sohtai’ (総体 / そうたい), which roughly translates as ‘general tournament’, and can feature club members from all three grades. By the time the second comes around – ‘shinjinsen’ (新人戦 / しんじんせん / literally, ‘new people battle’) – the third graders have quit their clubs to concentrate on studying for high school entrance exams (of which more later), leaving newer members (hence the name) with the responsibility of representing their schools.

Basically, this is another opportunity to sit at your desk and surf YouTube. Also, because so many students will be absent during these tournaments, there are often plenty of school lunch leftovers to be had, so now is your chance to scoff two bags of ramen noodles, three tubs of natto, or sixteen kinako-agé-pan, while not having to feel guilty that you may be depriving the students of their fair share.

Particularly if you work at a school with a strong sporting tradition, the various teams will then progress from the initial local tournament (地区大会 / ちくたいかい / chiku-taikai) through the regional one (中央地区大会 / ちゅうおうちくたいかい / chuu-oh chiku-taikai) to the prefectural (県大会 / けんたいかい / kentaikai), and so on and so forth, until if they’re particularly good they make it all the way to the national tournament (全国大会 / ぜんこくたいかい / zenkoku-taikai), all of which leads to further lessons being cancelled due to a lack of students, and further opportunities for you to check Facebook or, er, write guest articles for ALT Insider.

When does it happen? General tournament – mid-June onwards / tournament for new members – late September onwards.
How long does it last? Two or three days / longer if teams progress to the next stages.
Do I have to go? Partly for insurance purposes you’re unlikely to be able to, although I have known ALTs who have been given a ride by one of the teachers to baseball / tennis matches etc.

5. High school entrance exams (入試 / にゅうし / nyuushi)

These aren’t an event as such, but I’m including them here because enabling your students to pass them is your ultimate goal as an ALT. Depressing as it may sound, the most important thing to remember about the English part of an entrance exam is that it involves reading, writing and listening, but no speaking. Plans are afoot to have a speaking element in university entrance exams, with a view, one assumes, to eventually doing the same for the high school version. Also, at the schools where I work, for the past couple of years the second graders have sat a speaking test that involves each student having their voice recorded onto an iPad-style tablet and then computer analysed (you’ll be interested to know that I sat this test masquerading as a student and didn’t get 100%). But the simple fact remains that whether we like it or not, and no matter how many speaking activities we have the students do in our classes, ultimately those same students can get a place at, say, Tokyo University (the Japanese equivalent of Harvard or Oxbridge), with full marks in the English section, but without even being able to utter the immortal words, ‘I’m fine, thank you, and you?’

But anyway, one of your tasks as an ALT is to familiarise yourself with entrance exams: the easier multiple choice questions, the more difficult reading and writing sections, the listening test recordings, and so on (if you can, ask your JTE to show you some past papers – the reading comprehension passages are particularly enlightening, in that they can be very long and often make no sense at all). That way, from the very first time you teach a new first grade class in early April, you’ll be aware of what they need to know to achieve their ultimate goal of getting into high school.

Another important thing to note is that there are two kinds of high school, public (公立 / こうりつ / kohritsu, aka 都立 / 県立 / 道立 / 府立 etc.) and private (私立 / しりつ / shiritsu). The test for public (i.e. state-run) schools is the same for everyone in a particular area, and depending on a student’s score, they will either get into a prestigious high school for brainy kids, or a not-so-prestigious high school for not-so-brainy kids. When it comes to private high schools, however, each makes its own test, with the more prestigious ones setting tougher questions and vice versa.

The public high school entrance exam takes place in early March, and depending on where you are, the results may not be announced until after the graduation ceremony. The private exams, on the other hand, take place in mid-January, with the results announced not long after, so that some third graders already know what high school they will enter by mid-February, and as a consequence can quit studying altogether (the dilemma for parents, though, is that a private high school will cost a lot more to send their child to).

6. Home visits (家庭訪問 / かていほうもん / katei-hohmon)

Another memory from my childhood is what’s known in the UK as the parents’ evening, for which mums and dads go to their child’s school once a year to talk with homeroom and / or subject teachers. In Japan, though, instead of parents going to school, every first grade homeroom teacher personally visits the home of each of their students – i.e. as many as thirty-plus households spread over the school’s catchment area. These visits take place on weekday afternoons in April, and what they mean for us is – yes, you guessed it – some conveniently large chunks of free time. For the homeroom teachers, on the other hand, they mean having to dress in decent clothes for once (as opposed to the tracksuit they usually wear), get lost trying to locate the more hard-to-find homes on their list, drink approximately ten cups of green tea in an afternoon, and eat just as many rice crackers, cookies and cakes (which isn’t so bad when you come to think of it).

7. Parent / student interviews (三者面談 / さんしゃめんだん / sansha-mendan)

As the school year progresses, your interactions with third graders will become even fewer and further between, as they finish the textbook and spend more time revising and taking tests. One sign that their time at middle school is almost over is the parent / student interview, for which – and as opposed to home visits – parents come to the school to discuss which high school(s) their child is aiming to get into. The interviews, which are most likely to happen from about November onwards, will have no direct effect on you as an ALT, but they will grant you yet another opportunity to skive off, as lessons for all grades are often cancelled for several afternoons on the trot.

8. Student exchange (交換留学 / こうかんりゅうがく / kohkan-ryuugaku)

Trips to foreign countries – usually exchanges during which students stay in the home of a local family – are more common in high schools, but if, like me, you happen to work at a junior high school that has one, you should try to take as active a role in the proceedings as possible. In my case, for a week or so every June I act as interpreter for a group of ten students and two teachers from Tennessee, something that involves sightseeing, time on the beach and at the local mall, free meals, origami, calligraphy and the tea ceremony, as well as meet-and-greets with the mayor, head of the board of education, local councillors and so on.

The exchange is also a unique opportunity to organise some English lessons which involve your students conversing (well, attempting to converse) with genuine native speakers, so if a class like this is in the offing, make sure to suggest some fun, communicative activities in advance (this may sound like stating the obvious, but I have on more than one occasion witnessed JTEs do the usual boring, all-Japanese-all-the-time, read-and-repeat English lessons, as American students and / or teachers sit at the back of the classroom, silent and bored).

9. Student council elections (生徒総会 / せいとそうかい / seito-sohkai)

At between twelve and fifteen years old, most of your students – bless their little hearts – are not the best at public speaking, and nor are they likely to turn what is essentially a political event into something fun or showbizzy, so having attended a couple of these in my early years as an ALT, I now make a point of avoiding them.

Interest rating: 1/5
When does it happen? At the beginning of the school year.
How long does it last? A couple of hours on a weekday afternoon.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

10. Guest lecturers (講演会 / こうえんかい / koh-enkai)

A couple of times a year the school will invite guest lecturers to talk to the students on various topics: for example, drug and alcohol abuse or traffic safety. It very much depends on how charismatic – or otherwise – the lecturer is, but if you don’t have something more important to do in the staff room, these can be worth checking out, if only because they make for good Japanese listening practice. I’ve seen lectures that merely involved an old guy reading from a script and clicking through an ineptly produced Powerpoint presentation, but on the other hand, I once attended a lecture by a woman whose son had committed suicide – not easy listening, for sure, but a fascinating insight into an aspect of Japanese society that isn’t normally discussed.

Interest rating: 2/5
How long does it last? An hour or two on a weekday afternoon.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

Regular events

1. Open day (授業参観 / じゅぎょうさんかん / jugyoh-sankan)

This is another one of those times when you will (probably) be expected to go to work on a Saturday, and then (probably) get the following Monday off. It’s also one of the very few times in the school year that your JTE will go all-out to create a super-duper, activity-filled English class, producing all kinds of laminated flashcards, complicated worksheets, full-colour posters, slideshows, and so on and so forth.

The day itself will start off ordinarily enough, with a normal morning of four classes and probably a bento lunch, but as the afternoon and fifth period approach, parents, grandparents, and siblings will start to arrive, and will be standing at the back of the classroom or milling around in the corridor when the class begins. Once fifth period is over you can relax and quite possibly go home early, as everyone else will disappear to take part in a PTA meeting.

As well as one or two open days during the course of the school year, there will also be times when bigwigs from the BOE turn up to ‘observe’ classes on a weekday, something that’s known as a ‘planned visit’ (計画訪問 / けいかくほうもん / keikaku-hohmon). Your JTE will probably make even more of a fuss – and put on even more of a performance – for these, but because the bigwigs in question often visit every single class in the school during a single fifty-minute period, what invariably happens is that a) they appear in your classroom for approximately thirty seconds before moving on to the next one, and b) you have no way of predicting at what point in the class this will happen, so are doing something really tedious – like reading and repeating from the textbook – when it does.

Interest rating: 3/5
When does it happen? A Saturday in mid-April, and sometimes again later in the school year.
How long does it last? The open class itself is only one period in the afternoon, but you’ll be expected to work the whole day.
Do I have to go? Probably, but possibly not if you’re a dispatch ALT.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes, but try to look as presentable as you can.

2. Evacuation drill (避難訓練 / ひなんくんれん / hinan-kunren)

In a country cursed with so many natural disasters – earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, landslides, flooding, avalanches etc. – the evacuation drill may well be the most important event in the school year. If there’s a real disaster, of course, you’ll get no warning of the need to evacuate, but for the drill you should be informed in advance and – for example, if it’s the middle of winter – can have some warm clothing to hand before you’re asked to run outside and line up in the playground.

An important note: during the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, a significant number of people were washed away by the tsunami either while they were still lined up in school playgrounds, or because they had been told they no longer needed to line up in the school playground and could go back to their business. As such, if you live near the coast and there’s a tsunami warning and / or a large earthquake, regardless of what anyone around you is saying or doing, evacuate to higher ground (if possible at least twenty or thirty metres above sea level), on foot and as quickly as you possibly can.

Interest rating: 4/5
When does it happen? Two or three times a year, usually on a weekday afternoon.
How long does it last? 20 or 30 minutes.
Do I have to go? Yes.
What should I wear? Whatever you have on at the time (although see above).

3. Tests

The Japanese love their tests almost as much as they love their ceremonies, so there are a liberal sprinkling of these throughout the school year, most of which feed you with yet more helpings of free time (although you will sometimes be asked to mark the test papers, which can spoil the fun somewhat). The main flavours of test you should keep an eye out for are as follows:

i) Mid-term test (中間テスト / ちゅうかんてすと / chuukan-tesuto)

ii) End-of-term test (期末テスト / きまつてすと / kimatsu-tesuto)

iii) End-of-year test (学年末テスト / がくねんまつてすと / gakunenmatsu-tesuto)

iv) Academic ability test (実力テスト / じつりょくてすと / jitsuryoku-tesuto – at least in the area where I work, third graders take an academic ability test once a month, which is another reason why I hardly ever see them.)

Incidentally, teachers will often spend an entire fifty-minute class informing the students of their test results and analysing the answers. This is known as tesuto-kaéshi (テスト返し / てすとかえし), and basically means another hour of downtime for you.

4. Staff meetings (職員会議 / しょくいんかいぎ / shoku-in-kaigi)

Staff meetings are very rarely interesting even if you do think of them as Japanese listening practice (the exception, perhaps, being if the teachers discuss problem students or problem parents), and if you’re lucky, your JTE, principal or vice-principal will let you go home before they start. If you’re unlucky you’ll have to sit through the meeting until your official home time, but once that arrives, in my opinion you’re perfectly within your rights to gather your things together and tiptoe out of the staff room with an apologetic bow.

Interest rating: 1/5
When does it happen? Usually on the first Monday of the month at about 3 or 4pm, but this can vary.
How long does it last? Anything from ten minutes to a couple of hours.
Do I have to go? Often no, but sometimes you’ll be obliged to.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

5. Morning assembly (全校朝会 / ぜんこうちょうかい / zenkoh-chohkai)

If you turn up for work in the morning to find the staff room empty apart from the school secretary, this probably means there’s a morning assembly taking place in the sports hall. Morning assemblies are the exception rather than the rule, so this usually means that something unusual has happened, like someone being involved in an accident on the way to school, or coming in joint-fifth place in the regional fire prevention poster making contest (prize, certificate and trophy giving, incidentally, are known as hyoh-shoh / 表彰 / ひょうしょう).

Interest rating: 1/5
When does it happen? Before classes start on a weekday morning.
How long does it last? 15 or 20 minutes.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

6. Staff parties

Several times a year the teachers will go out together for a meal and a drink, and you will often be invited along. You’re certainly not obliged to go, and if you do it may cost a fair amount of money – say, 5000 yen for two or three hours of all-you-can-eat / all-you-can-drink (食べ放題・飲み放題 / たべほうだい・のみほうだい / tabéhohdai, nomihohdai) – but it can be a nice way of getting to know your colleagues in a more relaxed, non-work context.

Among other things, such occasions are referred to as enkai (宴会 / えんかい), nomikai (飲み会 / のみかい), hanseikai (反省会 / はんせいかい), if it’s the end of the calendar year, bohnenkai (忘年会 / ぼうねんかい), or if it’s the end of the academic year, owakarékai or sohbetsukai (お別れ会 ・送別会 / おわかれかい・そうべつかい).

Interest rating: Depending on the circumstances, anything from 1/5 to 5/5.
When does it happen? Various times of the year.
How long does it last? The initial party won’t go on very late, so from approximately 6pm till 9pm, but some or all teachers may stay out later and move on to a different venue.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Whatever you want.


So that’s about it. In writing this post, I have assumed that what goes on in junior high schools elsewhere in Japan is similar or even identical to what I’ve experienced here in Ibaraki, but if your own experience differs or if you think I’m talking a load of old rubbish, feel free to say so in the comments. In the meantime, I hope you’re now better able to anticipate what will happen during the school year, better prepared to make the most of your time as an ALT, and looking forward to all of that staff room cat video leisure time you will soon have at your disposal.