Competing For ESL Jobs in Japan Being a Non Native English Speaker


"I'm a
 non native English speaker,
how can I compete against  a native speaker?
 "

We hear it quite a bit and we also hear "I'm a non native English speaker with a heavy accent, what can I do about this?" These are probably the most common questions we get from visitors second only to questions about age restrictions for finding teaching jobs in Japan.  

So what exactly is a native English speaker? Some parts of the  job market classifies “Native English Speakers” according to the color of their passports. It's kind of like a paint by numbers thing. It is narrowly defined as  those having citizenship from the USA, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

And thus the conundrum is born as there are so many talented ESL teachers from countries that use English as a primary language (citizens of Caribbean Islands, Singapore, Philippines, India etc.) but have great difficulty in getting their first job because of their accents or  because of the hiring practices of a particular country.

So to  shed a little light on the subject of being a non native English speaker,  let's start with some official comments from Berlitz Japan. Not exactly a small fry in the world of 500 pound eikaiwa gorillas. Roughly 53 branches (28 in Tokyo alone.) These guys have been around a while.

Being a Non Native English Speaker
& Some Comments From Big Eikaiwa

From Berlitz's Official Site:

"As evidenced from over 70 nationalities, delivering lessons primarily in English, we are looking for native or native-fluent instructors."


Okay, so what  can you say at this point. There is no legally binding governmental law that says a non-native can't teach English in Japan. So what is the big fuss about? 

It's about what happens when market branding of image overpowers common sense. (You heard it here first.)



A Non Native English Speaker and A Parallel
 in the Real Business World: Apple VS Microsoft

Non Native English Speaker Boning Up For the InterviewNon Native English Speaker Boning Up For the Interview

Here is a real life example to help you understand the power of branding and how it relates to being a non-native English speaker.

Back in the day before smartphones etc. there were 2 gladiators going at it. Microsoft & Apple. Both of these iconic legends started at roughly the same time but Apple is the most valuable technological company and easily the leader in true innovation not only in product design but software as well. But slow out of the gates to get their products  to market. 

Microsoft a  different story. Riddled with design flaws, patches to cover up screw ups, new versions trying to improve what was messed up in previous versions. Despite the fact that Apple hands-down beat Microsoft in brand respectability.  Microsoft's stock value was considerably higher than Apple's per share value. They were also much quicker in getting their products to the market. This  combined with slick advertising allowed them to dominate Apple in the early part of the game.

Microsoft was good at presenting image and marketing - at branding their market as a great product. So their shares were worth more. Again slick image branding was more powerful than common sense.

For A Non Native English Speaker, Improving ones Accent is a Real ChallengeFor A Non Native English Speaker, Improving ones Accent is a Real Challenge

So what does this Apple/Microsoft analogy mean to the non native speaker looking for work as an ESL teacher.

It means that Nova Holdings, ECC, Amity, etc. want to hire teachers for image and accent. They follow a simple marketing / branding strategy. They not only follow it, they excel at it.

So they shop for Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians etc. to present the image to the student that ESL teachers all have this Hollywood type of image and accent. And just like Microsoft, they get their product (in this case the teacher) to the market quickly via their overseas recruitment and placement power. Or simply put their marketing power.

This image many Japanese buy hook line and sinker. One quick look at their websites and posters says it all. White bread cutie pie to teach you English. If Japanese did not buy into this stereotypical image of what an English teacher should look like and sound like they wouldn't be signing up for these classes.  This obviously is not the case. Monthly tuition for a once a week group lesson is 10,000 yen and Nova Holdings can fill their classrooms at this rate.

They often write in their job ads etc. that if you aren't born in an English speaking country you can't teach ESL in Japan and they restrict it to 7 countries. It is actually  a deterrent and not a restriction. In short it is a myth. 

From The JET Programme's Official Page:

"Note: In the case of English-speaking countries (United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, South Africa, Philippines, Singapore, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, etc.) the designated language is English, for France it is French, for Germany it is German, for China it is Chinese, for Korea it is Korean, and for other non-English speaking countries, it is the principal language spoken in that country."


Is it just us here at All-About-Teaching-English-in-Japan.com that are total whackos?  Maybe are math skills are just not that good? My count of English-speaking countries according to the JET Programme is not 7. It is 13. JET is run by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and the Ministry of Education. In short - the government of Japan.

However big eikaiwa's reach and influence or marketing of the image and myth should by no means be  underestimated. Just as Microsoft produced an inferior product but made more money than Apple based on slickly marketing a myth.

What large eikaiwa wants or advertises is worlds apart from the over reaching law of governmental legal requirements. Nothing and we do mean nothing in Japanese law says that in order to get a visa in specialist in humanities (the type given to English teachers) you must be a native English speaker holding one of the 7 golden passports. There is not a word about being a non-native English speaker and visa restrictions.

This is what the government says regarding visa issuance:

  • You need a 4 year degree in any subject.
  • You need to be a native English speaker OR have at least 12 years of schooling in English.

Folks that'a fairly short list.

The private sector says that if you have adequate experience in teaching English you are good to go. Or if  you have a CELTA you can get hired.

So mainstream English schools mandates are not backed by law and are best seen as a suggestion or a wish list. It is not the law. It's a shopping list or a Christmas list. Of course if you are a non native English speaker your English needs to be nearly native. Not only speaking but reading and writing as well and there is no way around this point.

Video Highlights From a Non Native Speaker 

Here is a nice and fairly short video 5:54 seconds from Nicholos Susatyo from Indonesia. He gives you an honest look at how he was able to get a job teaching English as a non-native speaker. 

His Top Points He Touches on are:

  • Make a business card to show you are committed to living and working in Japan.
  •  Being in Japan when you apply for the actual job is quite important. Interestingly enough he got his job when he only had tourist visa status. 
  • He also felt that having  CELTA and TEFL certification was a big factor in getting English teaching jobs in Japan.
  •  Additionally because so many classrooms or English schools are located in rural areas, a drivers license is a very big plus. Incidentally he had an Australian drivers license and then applied for an international drivers license.  
  • As a non native English speaker, he didn't have much trouble landing his English teaching job but as we duly noted on this page if there are grammatical problems with your resume or cover letter or if your fluency is not adequate than you you'll be going down with the ship. 

So a word of advice is that you should not feel discouraged in your struggle to find employment as a non native English speaker. In all actuality really all they can say is "No." Big deal - push on to the next one.

Another point that needs to be taken into account is a contrastive analysis approach. For example a native speaker of Chinese will struggle more with English than a German because of the similarities between English & German languages. So the wisest course of action is to accept and realize that progress in fluency and accent is relative to your native tongue. More here.

And another thing you need to think about is that these  big Eikaiwa positions are not the holy grail of teaching  jobs these are entry level McDonald's type jobs. They got you believing they are the cat's meow. The fact of the matter is that they are not.


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