Saturday, December 3, 2016

Teaching Abroad: Japan vs. South Korea

Teaching at a private Kindergarten in South Korea

It's become more and more common every year for young graduates from English speaking countries to spend a year or more living overseas and teaching English. Two of the most popular places to do this are Japan and South Korea, both places where I have taught. I've been asked by friends how they compare, so here is some general advice, pros and cons, and my own personal observations. Keep in mind this is not a definitive guide, just a starting point which reflects my experience and the experiences of people I've met. Hopefully this will be helpful to anyone thinking of teaching abroad and trying to decide which country is best for them.


As neighboring countries with a shared connection to Buddhism, Confucianism and the influence of China, Japan and Korea do have a lot in common with each other. That said, they're also really different. Even with very little knowledge of the two countries, a few days spent in each will reveal a world of differences. Below are some big generalizations, so please bear in mind that I'm not describing individuals from either country, but rather cultural norms.

In the heart of Tokyo, enjoying a quiet spot in Shinjuku park

In Japan, people are extremely indirect in the way they speak and address a problem. Usually you have to read someone's facial expression to even know that there is a problem. They care a lot about things being done in the proper or usual way and have a great dislike for breaking the rules. This can be wonderful (like the Japanese trains system which is rarely late) or infuriating (when there is a better way of doing something, but it's rejected because it isn't the "normal" way of doing something.) Japanese culture has a love of tranquility and silence, so that even in the midst of Tokyo you can find a quiet garden or a peaceful hot spring. People are usually polite and often perceived by foreigners as shy. As a foreigner, especially if you don't speak Japanese, you might feel like you never truly get to know a Japanese person. You certainly can, but it may feel extremely difficult at times.

Hiking with the crowds at Bogyeongsa, near Pohang, in South Korea

Koreans can be extremely direct at times. For example, it's completely normal for older people to ask someone they're meeting for the first time about their marital status. And the more you get to know someone in Korea, the more likely they are to make direct comments about your physical appearance (often out of concern for your health). Koreans care less about doing things the proper way, which can be great (they're generally more laid back than Japanese people) or it can be frustrating (for example, the way Korean drivers generally don't care much about traffic laws.) If you go to Korea, you should learn the concept of "ppari ppari" (빨리빨리), which means to hurry or go quickly. It basically describes the often frantic pace of Korean life: you start work early and finish late, you have little break or holiday time, and when you watch older Koreans it seems like you never really see them stop working or keeping busy. It's simultaneously admirable and unhealthy. Compared to Japanese people, I think many Koreans seem more vivacious and friendly.


In both countries you will see most people working extremely long hours, which doesn't always translate into increased productivity. People are expected to work regardless of being sick, and there is a major problem with anti-biotics being over-prescribed by doctors (because people think you should just take some medicine and get right back to work.)

At the same time, it's hard not to respect the people that do work hard. I learned a lot from my Japanese and Korean co-workers about caring a lot about the quality of my teaching, being reliable and consistent, and putting in extra hours when I needed to. I've been lucky to work with some really talented and passionate teachers in both places. But not everyone is that lucky, especially if you work in the market of eikaiwa / hagwon (conversation schools), and sometimes in the public school systems, too.


Teaching at a small eikaiwa in Sendai, Japan

At the moment, Japan is probably not the best place to teach in Asia, but it's still a possibility. Japan's economy has not been doing well and teaching salaries there have been decreasing. There are still some positions with good salaries, but you can expect them to be very competitive. Jobs in Japan will not have the same perks as Korea in terms of paid airfare, free rent/housing allowance, assistance with health insurance, etc., but they will probably offer slightly better vacation time. 

If you want the best salary, then you should probably try to get into the JET program (public school teaching). But be prepared to spend your summer sitting at a desk pretending to work (or maybe not even pretending.) If you want good vacation time, try a private company that recruits ALT's (assistant language teachers) for public schools, such as Interac. Both of those programs may offer you the chance to do a lot of genuine teaching or they might just want you to be a robot that reads out from a textbook, it all depends on the school you're placed at. 

Similarly, eikaiwa (especially the big chains) may want robot teachers or teachers that are primarily sales people, or (in the case of smaller, locally owned schools) they might require real teaching. By "real teaching", I mean that you will be responsible for the planning, implementation, methodology, perhaps even materials for your classes. If you don't have training or experience in language teaching, this could be very difficult for you. There is a wide range of salaries, benefits and vacation time in the eikaiwa world, so do your research before applying somewhere.

South Korea

Teaching in a Montessori school in Korea

Korean schools generally offer a lot more perks than Japan, like the ones I mentioned above. Just to lay them out again, so you know what to look for, you will usually be offered: paid airfare to and from Korea, a rent-free apartment or housing allowance, 50% health insurance covered by the employer, and one month's salary as a bonus on finishing a one year contract. When considering your salary in Korea, you should add the free apartment/housing allowance to the offered salary to get a realistic sense of how much you're being paid. 

Hagwon positions in Korea often require you to be a robot teacher, or to strictly follow a set curriculum. They can be extremely unstable and sometimes illegally take advantage of foreign teachers (a common example is firing a teacher right before the end of the contract, so that they don't have to pay the bonus; another common one is to claim they are taking money from your salary for your health insurance, when in fact they are not actually paying for insurance but simply pocketing that money.) You need to be very, very careful accepting a position at a Hagwon in Korea. That said, things are improving, and if you carefully speak to other foreigners and look for reviews online before accepting a position, you can definitely find some good schools. Check out the forums on Waygook or try looking up the local foreigner group in the town where the school is located and ask around.

The public school system is much more stable, but you also have a lot less freedom over where you live, and nowadays it's common for teachers to work at multiple schools, increasing commuting time and work hours.

Daily Life

There are a lot of perks to living in both Korea and Japan, although of course in the case of each country it depends a lot on the specific place, what the foreign community there is like, and what your work life is like. 

South Korea's KTX. Photo from here

In Japan, I really appreciated the public transportation, however, it is very expensive compared with Korea. Some Korean cities also have great public transportation, while others do not, but it is generally cheap. The intercity buses in Korea are also a great way to get around and very inexpensive. Like the famous bullet train in Japan, Korea has its KTX, which is a little slower than Japan's but still very fast and also a little cheaper.

Cheap, everyday food in Korea - Haejangguk (spicy pork stew)
Tempura lunch set in Japan 

The cost of living is much lower in Korea in general than Japan, with a few exceptions (clothes and coffee can be pretty overpriced in both places.) Both countries have amazing, healthy, inexpensive food, but it is difficult to be vegetarian or vegan in either. It also helps to like seafood, since its in a lot of the main dishes in both Japan and Korea.

Why I still have to study Japanese, despite having a BA in it and having lived there for 3 years. Photo found here.

Both languages have their own challenges. In the case of Japanese, the writing system is extremely difficult and it can take you many, many years to gain a basic level of literacy. The Korean writing system, Hangul, is much easier by comparison. On average, it takes most people a week or two to become literate; some people only need a few days. However, Korean pronunciation is significantly more difficult than Japanese. Both have grammar that is very foreign to English speakers, but Japanese grammar is a bit easier than Korean (because Korean has more irregular verbs).

While there are long working hours in both places, I felt them a lot more in Korea than I did in Japan, mainly because of the "ppari ppari" culture that I described before. In Japan I may have worked long hours and sometimes 6 days a week, but at least I was able to find somewhere peaceful to go and relax outside of work. In Korea, I sometimes got the feeling that there wasn't really anywhere quiet and peaceful in the entire country (which is not true, I did eventually find some lovely, quiet places.) But daily life in Korea has felt much more stressful so far than Japan.

How to Choose

I've been lucky to live in both Korea and Japan, and I love them both. I'm looking forward to seeing more of both of them in the future.

In my case, I've chosen Korea this past year over going back to Japan because it offers me a lot of perks that I can't find in Japan now. I'm also getting more and more interested in Korean language, culture and food since I first arrived, which is deepening my personal connection with the country. In terms of money, Korea is probably the better choice these days, unless you get very lucky and find a high-salary job in Japan. Korean jobs offer great perks, which can help you save a lot of money when combined with the low cost of living. But there are still good positions available in Japan, so in the end, consider the pros and cons I've mentioned and any others you may hear about elsewhere, and make your choice. Both countries have a lot to offer and as someone who has lived in both, I think either one can provide you with an amazing experience that you will always remember.

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