About me: I'm tenured foreign faculty at a large-ish private Japanese university. Online I see a lot of people who would like a job like this, but consider getting it a near-impossibility. I also know people teaching EFL at universities, but just can't seem to make the transition to a permanent job. In retrospect, there actually is a relatively clear career path from English teacher to this. But the soft requirements and the state of the job market don't seem to be documented online. This simple website is my attempt to make the information Google-able. Getting a good job without contacts isn't easy to do anywhere, but if you follow even half these steps you can probably make a decent living. Hope it's of use to someone.
So you're a liberal arts college graduate, and came to Japan to teach English after graduation to see the world a little and maybe save some money. Turns out you love the country, and while you're not exactly discussing the fine points of Flannery O'Connor's fiction with your students, you like the job and could definitely see yourself doing it for a career.
Then "reality" hits: people tell you you're not a real teacher, and that teaching English is a dead end. It looks like your undergraduate degree in English literature is just as worthless here as it seems to be elsewhere. Every once in a while you hear about the prospect of university jobs in Japan- perhaps even one where you actually can discuss Flannery O'Connor with your students. But in the same breath you're told that tenure is rare, and that the good jobs are very competitive- the implication being it's hopeless, and you shouldn't concern yourself with that option.
Although it's true in the absolute sense that tenure is rare for foreigners and that jobs are increasingly competitive, it's important to note that genuinely qualified candidates for these positions (i.e., both credentials in relevant fields and proficiency in Japanese) are even rarer still. So rare, in fact, that they may never fully outpace the number of available positions, even in this shrinking market. Which is to say, if you actually do become qualified and are also willing to learn the language and live here, your odds of getting a good job here are considerably better than commonly believed by many disenchanted expats. While Japanese universities are under stress due to the low youth population, pressure to internationalize and accept foreign students and a growing tolerance of (Japanese proficient) foreign faculty counter-balance that trend to a large extent. Another factor is that over the next 5 years, large numbers of boomer professors will retire. Although universities may eliminate many of these positions due to lower enrolment, the positions that are being re-advertised still signifies an opportunity for younger prospective faculty relative to the recent past. In fact, we're now at a point where even large numbers of foreign faculty recruited in the 80's and 90's are beginning to retire and leave behind open positions. This year I saw substantially more postings for tenured jobs for foreigners than I did when I got started.
Tenured jobs at private universities can pay anywhere from 5-20 million depending on the institution, your age and qualifications. The class load for a tenured position is typically 5-6 classes a week, 28-30 weeks a year. This is actually not drastically different from working conditions for tenured faculty in the west, where you should also be applying. But if you have a taste for Asia, you can add this region to your list of prospective career opportunities.
I'm going to make some assumptions about you if you're still reading this, and seriously considering trying for a job like this-
1. You're in your 20's and have (or are getting) a B.A in the liberal arts. Best case scenario, you're a college student that spent a year in Japan on exchange, got pretty far with the language and want to go back. Perhaps you're a JET that would rather study Japanese and perhaps even work toward a Masters degree between classes rather than just sitting in the staff room browsing YouTube. Or possibly you're in your late 20's/early 30's, have a TEFL Masters and are teaching EFL at a university here, but just can't see tenure in your cards.
2. You have experience in Japan, and either have some proficiency in Japanese now, or are serious about putting in the hours and getting a JLPT certification at or above at least N2 in the coming years.
3. You’re academically inclined, and are willing to eventually get a PhD in your field (or at least would be, provided you could be convinced it wouldn't just be a hopeless waste of your time and money).
4. Most importantly, you're someone who thinks about the long term and stays the course toward a goal. Despite the bad rap liberal-arts types get as impractical dilettantes, you're willing to work hard to do what you want to do, and you just want to know where the opportunity to do it is, so that you can get started.
Is that you? Ok, let's go.
There are two paths toward teaching "English" at a Japanese university. For part-time and limited-term contract full-time work, the majority of opportunities are in the field of English Language Education or English as a Foreign Language, which I’ll refer to as EFL from here on. I'll discuss these first because by far the majority of foreigners teaching at Japanese universities are doing EFL classes, at least to an extent. However, for tenure, most opportunities are more often found in the fields of English Literature and intercultural studies in a broader sense. This is where career English teachers often hit a wall, even after attaining advanced TEFL degrees and demonstrating competence. I’ll discuss how to avoid that trap after covering the route most people take.
Part-time and contract full-time EFL work at Japanese universities: The lay of the land
After WWII the high school curriculum in Japan was shortened by two years to fit with the American system, and remaining classes became the responsibility of universities. Therefore, first and second year college students get stuck taking a lot of non-elective credits of questionable relevance to their chosen majors. One of them is English language education. Colleges aren't bound to any fixed curriculum for those classes, but they need to do something.
Unless the university largely exists for the purpose of offering majors in Foreign Languages, however, they rarely have the full-time staff that has both the ability and willingness to teach all those classes; professors would really rather teach the subjects they actually got hired to teach. Some places hire phalanxes of part-timers, others set up "language centers" and staff them with teachers on limited-term full time contracts, which is cheaper than minting pricey new tenured professors to do what essentially amounts to a chore. If you choose this path, that's where you come in.
Classes usually pay around 10,000 to 12,000 yen for 90 minutes, 30 weeks a year. Contract full time is usually 8-10 classes a week, although more and more 10 classes is becoming the common offer. Usually you teach 3 or 4 weekdays, and get the remaining days off, either to do extra part time classes elsewhere or work on your research. You also get a research/travel budget which can be between 150,000 to 400,000 yen, depending on how generous the institution is, and how much they really want to see you doing beyond just focusing on your classes. As contract full-time you'll collect your salary throughout the year, but typically, you don't even have to be on campus during the 5 months you're not teaching. These kinds of jobs usually pay around perhaps 5-6 million yen a year on average, although this varies a fair amount by region and institution. On the low end some pay in the low 4 millions for 8 classes. You can get 7 in Tokyo and as much as 8-9 million a year is possible at elite private and national universities, but obviously those jobs are a lot more competitive.
Due to a new labor law that limits these contracts to a maximum of 5 years, terms are typically limited to 4 years, although word on the street is the LDP might cave and revert the legal limit to a maximum of 10. If this happens, you could potentially get to old age and only have to change jobs 3 or 4 times, preferably moving to better jobs as you go. That option is a distant second to tenure, but even if this is as far as you get, it's still a lot better than most EFL teachers in Japan manage.
Here's how you can eventually move from JET (or a similar gig) to that kind of EFL work:
1. Start studying Japanese. Technically not the first necessary step, but I recommend starting here anyway. The ability to deal with students in Japanese will help you even in interviews for part-time work teaching EFL, but you should also have the long-term in mind if you plan on living here for more than a few years. In the future your classes will still be largely taught in English, but there's more to a job than that. People that hire you for a permanent position will want to know you can participate in faculty meetings, read memos, consult with students and deal with all the other assorted little duties that come with the position. Prospective staff that aren't linguistic deaf-mutes have a huge leg up on otherwise highly qualified competition. What good is a long list of impressive publications if administrators can't even deal with you, and everyone has to do all your chores for you? Even getting an N4 is helpful, but to be competitively employable for a permanent job you should ideally have the N2 at a minimum, and preferably be beyond the N1. The earlier in life that you get started on that eventual goal, the better.
2. Get a Masters degree in TESOL/Applied Linguistics. This is now a pre-requisite for contract full-time work, but even being enrolled in one makes you eligible for most part-time. Programs held at physical locations here in Japan such as Columbia University Japan or Temple University Japan (on a part-time weekend basis) and Sophia University are best, because you make contacts with people already in the system. If you're too far from Tokyo or Osaka to do that there are various distance education programs that are cheaper. If you're a commonwealth citizen (e.g. Australia, UK), it's likely you can find a program that allows for distance education, but still gives you a big fee reduction due to your citizenship. Failing that, there are a myriad of distance programs (Birmingham, Aston, Anaheim, Macquarrie, the list is pretty much endless). Be careful though: the better known the distance Masters are, the more they tend to be viewed as second-rate and churning out second-rate grads. Birmingham is a legit program, but is beginning to carry a bit of a stigma because so many people have it. Avoid University of Phoenix and other straight-up degree mills like the plague.
With any luck, you can do all this course work on your weekends, or better yet, during dead time between classes at your current job.
3. Join your local JALT (Japan Association for Language Teachers) chapter. They meet about once a month, watch a presentation on a teaching idea or what-not, and go out to drink. Although its nominally open to all language teachers here, this is the de facto group for University-level foreign English teachers in Japan. A lot of older people in full-time positions depend on it for their social lives. When they need someone to do some classes part-time (and they do, every year if not every semester), they usually just ask around at the JALT meetings. It's the simplest way to get your foot in the door, and get the university-level teaching experience you'll need to get better jobs down the road.
This is important to know regardless of your field: If you're a student getting started, the secret to networking your way to a job at conferences and chapter meetings is to not do it. Just make your face known, go drinking, talk about stuff unrelated to work and make friends. Nothing makes established people warier than random hungry people showing up at their social event just to "make contacts" and find work. People won't bother checking your work experience or publications if they aren’t comfortable with you to begin with. If you seem responsible and aren't a huge jerk, someone will eventually give you a chance and ask for a resume and check you out.
4. Publish. Most people don't worry about this one until later, but in my opinion you should get ahead of the curve and start thinking about this even before you finish your masters degree. I know that at this point you probably think you already have a lot to do just to teach EFL, but bear with me- it's not so bad!
In most fields, you're not expected to publish until you start your PhD. But increasingly universities ask for 3 publications even for part-time EFL work designed to be taught by people with masters degrees, just to separate the wheat from the chaff. You don't need publications to get part-time everywhere, but increasingly it helps. At this early level, it basically just serves as another quick-and-easy hurdle to sort resumes with, in the same way your B.A was a prerequisite to get onto JET.
Here's the contradiction though- although universities say they want people with publications, these positions are strictly teaching-only, and in fact at many places full-time and part-time EFL staff are in various ways prevented from doing anything in class that even smells like research, such as handing out an optional survey to students after class. What they really want is people who will focus on their students and the classes they're paid to teach; research is for the "real" faculty. A lot of English teachers try to move into "serious" research in their field, such as educational psychology. That's the way to go if you plan on moving on to an Applied Linguistics or Education PhD, and make yourself eligible for work worldwide. But for contract work in Japan, sadly often this may just signal to interviewers that these teachers will be more focused on getting their next job than they will be at doing the one being offered now.
So what do you do in the face of these seemingly contradictory expectations? Some people just cynically write some BS, which will mark them as sloppy at best and dishonest at worst when someone reads it while sifting through their application materials. Most others just assume academic publishing is beyond their current capabilities, and give up on doing it at all.
But you don't need a meta-analysis in an international journal at this point, or even something designed to look like it. At this early stage, my suggestion is to simply publish your teaching ideas locally. Even short 500-word lesson plans will do. JALT has all kinds of special interest groups and magazines where you can share activities and games. Getting those kinds of things into KOTESOL publications (South Korea's JALT equivalent) is even easier to do, and under some university rubrics that will count as an international publication for you.
These might seem "too easy" to count as real papers, but at this level it actually covers all your bases: it gets those boxes checked off so that you qualify for interviews, it gives you something honest to talk about without wading out of your current depth, it shows that you actively think about what you do in the classroom enough to write about it (which will go a long way in interviews in and of itself), and it signals to people offering EFL work that you don't have your head in the clouds, and will focus on doing what you're paid to do.
Just writing about games and activities may seem beneath you, but showing you actively think about how you approach teaching classes will never hurt you. As you advance in your career and add bigger publications in your chosen field to your list, you can chalk those ones up to juvenilia, or, if it really bothers you, remove them from your CV altogether. If you currently teach higher-level classes that involve reading novels, it's even possible to fuse EFL and literature, and talk about approaches to teaching a particular work of fiction.
5. Cast your net wide. There’s a big schism between the numbers of applicants at good universities in the cities and lesser-known ones in the rural areas. Your chances of getting a job go up dramatically if you consider the latter as well as the former. You came halfway across the world to reach Japan- will it really kill you to go another 600 miles?
6. Learn how to handle interviews. There are two mistakes people make with interviews at this level. One is not putting any thought into what they do, and having no intelligent answer when asked how they teach, say, academic writing. But almost as bad is taking it too seriously.
Regardless of the job level, if you've made it as far as the interview stage in Japan you can take it as a given that you're considered qualified, and that your credentials are no longer an issue. Here, the interview is often more of a jerk-test than anything else: sure you look good on paper, but will they want to have to deal with you every day? Be positive and friendly. When you're asked if you're willing to handle responsibilities beyond teaching or if you're okay teaching a certain way that they mandate, respond with unqualified enthusiasm. Your selling points should be that you'll work hard and be pleasant to be around, not that you're a genius. When the topic turns to pedagogy or your research, don't be too forceful in your answers, and try to allow space for your interviewer's own opinions.
What doing all that will get you
If you follow the above steps to a minimum in the current climate (online Masters, 3 minimalist activity-oriented publications in little newsletters, a modicum of Japanese, plus some part-time experience you got via the people you met at JALT), you should be able to get a contract full-time job somewhere. The competition at that point lies in getting a job that allows you to stay in your city, rather than having to move to Shimane.
If you’re willing to live in Tohoku, Hokkaido or Shikoku, the steps above can often be enough to get you a tenured full-time job after a round or two on the EFL contract circuit, at least for the time being. In some cases, they like who comes in on contract and decide to keep them rather than risk spinning the wheel again. Even further out there just aren’t that many foreigners in some of those places, and so they need to offer tenure just to attract candidates. In those cases you might get in with as little as a Masters, some basic publications and good Japanese.
There is one catch though: check the finances and hensachi (偏差値) ranking of the rural college you’re applying to online, particularly the private ones. You could wind up getting “permanent” employment at a place that won’t exist in 5 years.
Pivoting to tenure: The “EFL Wall”
Prospects in rural Shikoku aside, while the above steps are effective for getting part-time and contract EFL work, it's rarely sufficient for tenure in urban areas even at foreign language centers, let alone in literature faculties. Most people that get permanent jobs teaching EFL usually get it on the understanding that they’ll organize curricula and manage and supervise all the part-time and contract teachers. People getting hired into such positions today are usually the top of their pile, with PhD's, a long list of decent publications and lots of professional participation beyond teaching duties. But only so many people can be considered the best in their field, and only so many are needed to manage everyone else.
You might be an exception if you travel far enough, but looking ahead those exceptions are becoming fewer and further between, particularly among teachers under 40. The people with tenure that don't have such impressive resumes tend to be older or live a lot further out in the countryside. Often they came into their institutions as contract workers in earlier, simpler times in the 80's and 90's, or in more rural areas where good foreign staff were harder to come by. They worked their butts off by helping out around the department in ways previous foreign contract teachers never had. When their term limit came to an end, the faculty decided they'd rather keep them around than try their luck with a new foreigner who might be less helpful, and so they either gave them full tenure or perhaps a permanent extension on their contract position, which gave job security if not all the associated benefits.
The above scenario is probably the most realistic happy ending a career EFL teacher without a completed PhD and a long list of good publications can hope for now. It can still happen if you enroll in a PhD program, and promise to finish it within a few years of getting the job. But if you're young and making plans for your future now, I wouldn't bank on it happening for you 5-10 years down the road. I suspect that such happy endings will gradually become rarer as the job market matures, even out in the rural areas. Universities far from the cities are often having trouble even staying afloat, let alone increasing permanent staff.
There are two things at play here: one, the increased competition for university EFL work among foreigners, and two, the increasing tendency of universities here to make EFL jobs contract-only (or worse, sub-contract only) in the first place.
Back when NOVA shut and the JET program cut back, I had a theory the spigot that eventually produced college EFL teachers would run dry and increase demand for the few that remained: these programs were responsible for bringing the majority of the current ones to Japan in the first place, after all. To an extent I was right about this; the available pool of college EFL teachers seems to get older and older with each passing year, and it's rare to see a face under 30 at JALT events now. But while the collapse of the English conversation school industry caused a lot of English teachers to leave and ended the inflow of new ones, it also drove large numbers of the remaining ones to professionalize and seek credentials, and people with TEFL masters just aren’t uncommon here anymore. The credential inflation has been strong over the past decade; a Masters is now an absolute must for contract full-time work, and it may even reach the point where you need a PhD just to do those same contract jobs.
As grim as that sounds, it gets worse: By taking the EFL race all the way to the PhD level, English teachers here are qualifying themselves to become tenured professors in a field of study that to a large extent exists by default here, and will likely move even more toward contract positions in the future rather than less. Many foreign English teachers here assume this is a matter of discrimination, but it has more to do with the nature of the classes they teach than anything else, and eventually it will affect their Japanese counterparts as much as it does them.
The rise of contract work in Japan
To explain why it’s so difficult for foreigners with EFL credentials to get tenure in Japan, it’s important to explain what tenure is here in the first place. Full time (正社員）employment here is protected by strong labor laws which make it very difficult for even truly incompetent employees to be fired once they’re hired. As a consequence, “tenure” at universities is really just a matter of getting a regular full-time job in the first place.
In the 80’s and 90’s, taking on a full-time academic from overseas that presumably would be unable to speak Japanese seemed daunting to many universities; hiring someone here is like marrying someone without any hope of divorce, so institutions tend to only choose safe bets. Instead, most only opted to give them “visiting professor” positions with limited terms. While this worked just fine for professors at western universities who simply wanted to spend a sabbatical in the mysterious Orient, it led to a second tier of employment for foreign academics that actually wanted to stick around. This is the traditional double standard that teaching staff in their 40’s and 50’s often complain about. Under this paradigm, foreigners getting tenure is simply a matter of universities acknowledging that foreign staff deserve the same rights as their Japanese employees.
But while contract positions may have started with foreigners, it hasn’t ended there. Increasingly, getting stuck in contract work is becoming the norm for many Japanese people too, and not just in teaching jobs.
Japan’s generous system of lifetime employment with age-based raises worked great during the boom years, but by the late 90’s it was becoming a burden on major corporations trying to compete with more flexible foreign counterparts. Japanese politicians were understandably reluctant to lax labor laws that protected the electorate, but they allowed a loophole: instead of having to give every new employee a lifelong deal, companies could contract or sub-contract new limited-term workers in a manner that liberated them from the responsibility of paying the benefits due to regular employees, and freed them up to hire and shed new workers as needed.
Unfortunately, what started as a stopgap measure to help fill lesser roles has increasingly become the norm. Today, 40-50% of Japanese workers under 30 are stuck in various forms of irregular employment as companies take on fewer new full-time employees and more contract employees to manage routine, delegate-able tasks.
Universities have by no means bucked that trend. With the domestic student population dropping, this is the last moment in history they want to inflate their payrolls with new staff. That isn’t to say that all new jobs are contract, just that universities’ personnel sections try to make as many new jobs by-contract as they can. There is a simple question that personnel asks a department before they approve a new tenured position: Will the credits this person teaches be necessary for students to graduate? If the answer is no, the position becomes contract, if it is even created at all.
This brings us back to the role of EFL teachers- remember, unless the university specifically offers a degree in English as a foreign language, the kinds of classes EFL teachers handle likely aren’t necessary for graduation. Since universities are free to do whatever they wish for legacy first- and second-year English language credits, more or less any part-timer that speaks the language to an extent can cover those classes. Those classes are an afterthought, not a justification for putting the school on the line for a salary that will eventually climb north of 10 million yen a year. Particularly not when every foreigner around is diligently working on an online Masters, and leaping for joy at the prospect of limited-term contract work at a university. Why entice applicants with steak when so many with similar qualifications will work for what are relatively scraps?
In light of this, with the exception of some managerial roles in Language Education Centers, the fact that any foreign staff have been able to rise from the ranks of EFL up to tenure at all has largely been the result of a mismatch between what faculties want from foreign staff, and what they’ve actually been able to attain given the state of the existing labor force here.
Even in cases where career EFL teachers have gotten tenure up until now, you can often observe a curious mismatch between their faculty and their formal credentials. It’s true that in some cases their faculty decided to just hire a foreigner full-time to handle their own language credits. Perhaps at the time they were hired, the university didn’t have a language center to delegate those kinds of classes to. Perhaps the faculty was small enough they decided having one foreigner that they knew and got along with would be preferable to dealing with all the assorted foreign part-timers that come and go with every passing year. For this reason you can meet EFL teachers that are professors in faculties of Dentistry or Marine Biology. Often, their major responsibility is acting as a conduit and mediator between the part-time foreign EFL staff, who typically don't speak Japanese, and administrators, who typically don't speak English. As a nod to students’ majors, they may teach terminology related to those fields, or help them read academic papers related to their studies.
In other cases though, they have jobs that on the surface aren’t really related to EFL at all. Japanese universities are rife with humanities faculties with names such as “International Culture”, where students essentially learn about the western world in a broader sense. Most people with EFL backgrounds that get tenure tend to actually teach things like English Literature, American Literature or even just “American Studies”; basically, it’s the equivalent of if a college in the US with a Japanese Studies major decided to hire the only genuinely Japanese person in town (who had previously just been teaching his language at the local junior high) to talk to students about what his country is like, and about popular books. Sometimes these tenured foreigners started in contract EFL, but got recommended to the Dean of the same school's Literature or International Culture departments by their supervisor when their term limit came up, and the language center couldn't keep them any more. The language centers may not have more tenured positions to offer exiting contract staff, but the adjacent departments do.
In short, up to now tenured EFL teachers often didn’t get their jobs because the school needed a tenured EFL teacher -or at least, that wasn’t the ostensible, primary reason. In the rare event it happens at all, it’s because either A) they needed a foreign EFL teacher with Japanese ability who could communicate with all the monolingual part-time foreign EFL teachers on their behalf, and/or B) for whatever reason a faculty decided they wanted to have some culture-related classes taught in English by a genuine foreigner, and that EFL teacher was the most likeable, responsible and Japanese-fluent foreigner they could find at the time.
But in 2014 simply being a westerner is a shaky reason to become a tenured professor of foreign literature or culture in a major industrialized nation, even if they do speak the local language well and try to be helpful around the department. Whether prospective staff are foreign or not, what faculties really want is people with genuine credentials and expertise in the subjects students enrolled to learn about. And humanities departments have a lot more to teach than the difference between definite and indefinite articles.
What Humanities Faculties really want
Suppose you’re the head of a decent English Literature department with a decent hensachi standardized rank score. Suppose further that not a single member of your faculty is actually English, and that to boot, you really could use someone with some experience teaching English as a foreign language, because while none of your staff really possess that skill, comprehending the language is pretty much a necessary condition for discussing the motifs contained in an English novel’s narrative. Someone who could write and proofread English sections of your entrance exam wouldn't hurt either.
At this point, you may be very tempted to hire a westerner, stereotypical Japanese aversion toward dealing with foreigners be damned. The need to appear more internationalized by having a foreign face around may seem superficial, but it’s hard to persuade students they’re really learning about the foreign culture in great depth if there isn’t a single member of the staff that actually grew up in it. And frankly, getting native speakers that can teach English as a language is important too. But hiring such staff poses two challenges:
1) Even if your university is well-paying and well-located enough to attract their applications to begin with, you may get stuck with highly qualified people from overseas that don’t speak Japanese and are hard for university administrators (or even other professors) to deal with. This could lead to them not reading or understanding important memos and emails, and being unable to perform administrative duties that all staff are expected to help out with. They can show their face at meetings, take care of the English section of the entrance exam, and maybe proctor some tests. But it could be difficult getting much more out of them than that.
2) Suppose there actually is a foreigner who you think would make a good fit in your department: A Japanese-fluent EFL teacher elsewhere in your university nearing the end of her contract. Her supervisor recommends her as someone who is hardworking and responsible, and you can believe it, because she's been volunteering to help in your department every chance she can get. If she's really accomplished she may even have a PhD in TEFL and related publications. But as much as you like her, that doesn't really match the job description. How do you maintain that your department is of high caliber if you have a professor that doesn’t even have a degree in the relevant field?
Some universities made qualifications a priority and hired qualified staff from overseas, but the experience put a lot of people off. Staff from abroad look impressive when they have a long list of publications, but it’s less impressive a year or two later when students complain they can’t understand their classes. It’s less impressive still when they have no real role in meetings or departmental decisions, or begin to throw tantrums as the culture shock of living in Japan begins to get to them. A relevant PhD allows them to pass as experts in the field, but they often don’t have the fundamental language skills to be fully functional members of a department here, or even to teach effectively.
As a result, some faculties essentially opted to tackle the language/culture barrier problem rather than the qualification problem, which is to say some have tended to lean toward "known-entity" foreign staff that their colleagues can vouch for, who actually speak Japanese, and have experience dealing with Japanese students. Foreigners that speak Japanese and are known entities here, of course, tend to already live in Japan. And foreigners that live in Japan and lobby for jobs teaching English literature tend to currently teach EFL. In other words, faculties sometimes just hire former JETs that stuck around and got married.
Doing this is a bit of an embarrassment, because faculties are essentially choosing expediency over qualifications. EFL teacher’s willingness to pursue advanced degrees and therefore approximate “real” academics has mitigated this embarrassment somewhat, but the problem is by getting Masters degrees and PhDs in various branches of EFL, they’re often getting advanced degrees in the wrong subject; there are only so many EFL teachers that can get wedged into positions for teaching Beat literature. To the extent that these credentials have been advantageous to them in these cases all, it is because faculties can at least argue to their personnel departments that their proposed foreign candidate has or is getting a PhD in something. But more often than not their PhD is in some form of Applied Linguistics. And more often than not, they aren’t applying to an Applied Linguistics department. In the cases they actually are, competition is stiff because disproportionately large numbers of other EFL teachers with the same qualifications are applying too.
The result of this race among EFL teachers to professionalize by upping their existing skill set, then, is a mismatch between labor supply and employer demand. Even in a relatively out-of-the-way area, a tenured position for a person with advanced degrees in TEFL can easily attract 50 applicants. An equivalent position for a foreigner in a literature department may only get 15, and in the majority of cases, those 15 people are just more of the same TEFL people trying their luck.
And even in this supposedly impossibly-competitive market, many of those TEFL types will get those jobs even in cases where more qualified people exist. I know a TEFL Doctoral candidate who came very close to getting such a lit job at a decently ranked and well-paying private university, despite the fact he freely admitted he had no interest in literature. He got as close as he did largely because he spoke Japanese fluently, and wouldn’t have had the same problems the retiring monolingual foreign literature PhD had had. Eventually the faculty caved to reality, and the job went to a person with a literature PhD who was already out here with his wife and had at least moderately good (but by no means outstanding) Japanese. But even given what should have been an obvious choice, it was a closer call than you’d expect. That’s how high the demand is for foreign staff that can actually function in Japanese and be involved in the department.
So that’s what leads to the final and most important step for getting tenure here:
If you want tenure in the humanities in Japan, get a Masters in TEFL and a PhD in more or less anything else.
Here's the real point of this essay: If you're acculturated to Japan, have experience teaching to Japanese learners with limited English, speak Japanese at a business level and actually have a Non-TEFL PhD in a relevant field such as English Literature or Culture, your odds of getting tenure here are extremely good. The PhD-wielding candidate I described above will retire making 20 million yen a year, for example.
This isn't to say that a TEFL masters and EFL experience aren't useful; there's a tacit understanding that foreign staff will handle English credits that the other staff can't, and any class you conduct in English will be a de facto English class to an extent.
But the problem is that's all most foreigners here ever try to qualify for. Very few people here, or even people elsewhere willing to relocate here, have genuine credentials to teach aspects of American or English culture and literature. But if you do a search for tenured jobs open to foreigners in the humanities and social sciences, that's where the majority of permanent work is available. All the larger universities I know have more foreigners tenured in fields such as literature and linguistics than they do in language education. Check the humanities staff page on a nearby university's website for foreign names and see for yourself. It's true there are more EFL teachers overall, but if you look closer they're mostly younger lecturers on limited term contracts. The literature staff down the hall many not be as large in number, but they're all Professors and Associate Professors.
But surprisingly, most EFL teachers seem oblivious to that fact. Rather than noticing the stark divide in employment terms, they continue concentrating their attention on positions that are either contract-only or disproportionately competitive.
The tragedy of this is that most people that click with teaching English in Japan tended to be liberal arts majors in the first place, and would have wanted to have gone on to advanced degrees all along, if they had known there was any hope of getting a job afterward. And yet here they are struggling with t-tests and conducting factor analyses on surveys about language learning motivation, all because they think its the only way to keep living here on a decent income. That's not to disparage that field -if learning languages is truly what you love and want to research, by all means go for it. It’s a noble social science.
But if your heart’s not truly in it, you may never finish. You're going to hate whatever your thesis topic is by the time you're done, so be sure to choose something you truly love. If not, it will become unbearable halfway through. If literature is your true passion, you should consider that a strength, not a weakness. Don't think getting a PhD in a topic you're not 100% passionate about is the only way you can get a decent teaching job here that will allow you to stay here long-term on a professional income. On the contrary.
Caveats and final remarks
You may be wondering how you can possibly live up to this ideal. Who has time to become an expert in literature or cultural studies, and also become near-fluent in Japanese, even planning 10 years in advance? It sounds like two life-long goals, and most people have trouble attaining even one such goal in their lifetimes.
I concede that the theoretically ideal candidate I am describing here is something of a unicorn. My point is that despite its powerful employability, almost nobody is even attempting to aspire to this ideal, and that the closer you come to it, the more competitive you will be. If you’re a JET and wondering what your next step is, by all means keep studying for the N4 while you’re here, and return home and get that Masters degree in Literature, Film or Cultural studies, and keep the idea of going onto a PhD in mind. Do it knowing that even if there are 6 PhDs for every tenured position back home, your experience teaching in Japan plus even the N4 will make you a very strong candidate for university work here if you ever want to return.
If you already have a TEFL Masters, are teaching EFL at colleges here and your heart just isn't in doing an Applied Linguistics PhD, consider a different field instead. Look around the universities in your area, and see if an advisor will take you on and allow you to write it in English while you work your contract EFL job. I know a few people that did this, and they all have tenure now. A Japanese PhD (博士）is more or less useless abroad, but here it qualifies you for work more than a distance Applied Linguistics PhD ever will.
12/28/2013 Edit: More info on changing job market, and some clarifications.
Questions or comments? Check out the thread about this page on reddit.