Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Saga of a Ronin English Teacher in Japan

Ronin Dave contemplates his employment options.

Finding a teaching job in Tokyo isn’t always as easy as one would think. Though there is a plethora of English schools available, not all of them are very good to work for. Some offer low wages, long hours, little vacation time, and a host of hidden responsibilities they expect to be taken on. Then there’s the matter of financial stability. English schools come and go, sometimes with very little warning to their employees.

One of the more infamous cases of a school closing virtually overnight was Howdy English. Teachers arrived one morning to discover their school closed and locked. The owner, it appeared, had absconded to France still owing her employees their last month’s wages.

Some schools go out with scarcely a whimper as my first company did.

I had arrived in mid-December, which was not exactly the best time to go looking for teaching work. I had originally planned to come to Japan in September, but this was in 2001 so naturally I had to delay my departure. The money I had saved up dwindled over the next three months until finally I decided it was now or never, and departed to Japan without much of a plan or savings.

From the get-go my finances were tight. It’s often advised that someone coming to live in Tokyo should bring anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 to live on till their first paycheck. I showed up with less than half of the minimum amount advised to bring. This was not a good thing, for with some companies it can take from six weeks to two months to receive a first paycheck.

Instant oatmeal packets from home kept me alive the first week as I scoured the Internet and papers for employment. Pickings were slim and employers were picky. One attempt ended in shambles because I did not have enough experience and I was an hour late for the interview. I kept getting lost in the labyrinth of Tokyo’s metro, which cost me other potential jobs.

For some bizarre reason I was hesitant to go with the big companies like Nova, Berlitz, or ECC. I think I was going through an anti-big-business phase at the time. I wanted to have more independence and say-so in a company’s direction — which would have been impossible with a large factory-like English-school business.

I was out of my mind. I soon learned that a timely and financially secure monthly paycheck far outweighs any advantage independence has.

I finally got one interview with a small company that was easy to get to, though it was an hour outside of Tokyo. The company was English Square. It was a new company recently split off from another new company. English Square was the brain child of Canadian Adam Cantrememberhislastname. His Japanese partner was someone called Ashida, who provided the financial backing.

They offered 250,000 yen per month, the low-standard monthly wage for English teachers in Tokyo. Many teachers would not accept this wage as Tokyo is an expensive place to live. Since I was in desperate straits I jumped on it like a beggar on a moldy crust of bread. What had attracted me was their promise of profit-sharing. I failed to realize at the time though, you have to have profit in order to share it.

Over the next few months, my hopes for fruitful employment rapidly declined until it plunged into dark despair eased only by cheap beer and bitching sessions with the other employees of the company — which happened to be only one, Ivan Campbell.

Ronin Ivan

Toward the end of this “learning” experience, I was inspired by my suffering, like all writers are, and wrote the following account:

In the time that I have been in Tokyo, I’ve squandered my time in various ways: starving, jumping the gates at train stations, teaching the spawns of Satan, learning the deadly arts of chopsticks, pursuing a black belt in tea, and working for a good company.All right, I’m lying, except for the starving, jumping, teaching, chopsticks, tea part; the rest is lies.I’ve been teaching English to children from ages three to 10, or at least trying to do so. Ah, children! They’re not just our hope and future, they’re also gaseous balls of snot and flatulence filled with demonic energy out to leech the very life from our bones. No, seriously, this experience has taught me to love kids, especially in lemon and butter sauce. Accompanied with a light Chianti, they can’t be beat.

As for my company, well, it started off as a good idea with lots of hope and grandiose dreams but it ended suffering from a terminal dose of reality. Originally, the plan (or what passed for a plan) was that every month they would hire more teachers and open more schools and just keep expanding with the hordes of students they expected to pull in through word-of-mouth advertising.

They figured in seven months they would be in Osaka. At the rate we were going (since I represented 50 percent of the workforce), we’d have been lucky to be across the street by next year.

My company seemed to be lacking in certain crucial business essentials: brains, customers, my pay, and anything resembling an actual working plan. What pay I did get was late and taxed to bits, including the transportation reimbursement. This is what I get for a joining a new start-up company.

At the beginning of this fiasco, before it became apparent that it was a fiasco, back when I naively still had hope and the dignity to pay full fare on the train, I thought, “Hey, this would be a good company to be with from the ground floor.” Unfortunately they pushed the wrong button and it ended up in the basement where it caught on fire and burned down the whole building.

If my company was a racehorse, it would be a sleek, massively impressive horse that people would bet their unborn children on. When the starting gates opened, it would burst from them and tear down the track like a bolt of lighting, then drop stone dead after an impressive 20 feet.

As one who put his future on this horse, namely, the hope to be able to buy food in order to ensure my future, I would have a strong word with the owner and the manager of this ex-horse. But they have been too busy working other jobs trying to come up with the cash in order to bury their dead horse.

Our company finally just folded quickly and quietly in the night, still owing me the last month’s pay. Fortunately, I know where my boss lives so the ever-imminent threat of my burning his house down is motivation enough for him to pay up when he has the money.

So now I’m a Ronin English Teacher in Japan looking to sell my services to the highest bidder, or any bidder for that matter. As I sharpen my skills I look over the necessary tools I will need for specific clients. For the business man, I have my blazer and tie. For the housewife and office lady, I have my wit, charm and my baby-blue eyes. For children, I have my squishy ball and my patience.

Now am I prepared to go forth and walk the ronin path.

I walked the ronin, or “masterless samurai,” path for several months. To get by, I did a number of substitute teaching jobs for different companies and one intensive course where I screamed at Japanese students near Mount Fuji. I even did TV extra work where I was paid $30 a show to be part of a foreign audience whose job was to cheer on a Japanese pop star as he struggled to say a few lines in English.

I never did get my last month’s pay from English Square. Adam mysteriously disappeared a month before the company folded. Ashida kept making excuses for his absence. To this day I wonder if Adam fled back home to Canada or if in a fit of rage Ashida did him in.

Our interview suits

I did get three good things out of English Square: 1) a working visa, which helped me acquire work during my ronin phase ; 2) a good friend — Ivan, the other 50 percent of the work force; and 3) a valuable lesson in avoiding start-up English schools.

Ivan ended up with an apartment way outside of Tokyo in order to be closer to work he thought he would get from English Square. He currently works in the center of Tokyo and has an hour-and-a-half commute each way. Ivan didn’t despair of the long commute, however, and he has just now finished over 400 books, which he read while on the train.

Eventually, I overcame my big-business phobia and got a job with one of the big schools. Sure, I became a slave to the system, but I became a paid slave with a secure paycheck.

Three years later, with an actual bank account with actual money in it, I haven’t regretted that decision. My ronin days are (for now at least) behind me.

Ronin were samurai without a master. During the Warring States Period (1467-1615), ronin could always sell their swords to new masters but in the Edo Period (1615-1867) their existence was rough.Some became wandering swordsmasters like the famous Miyamoto Musashi and teachers of martial arts. Others became little better than bandits. Ronin were both admired and scorned by society for their free way of life.

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July 23, 2006 - Posted by | Blogroll, english teacher, english teaching, japan, job searching, ronin, samurai, tokyo, travel, Uncategorized, work

6 Comments »

  1. Hey, I just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading about your experiences. It’s nice to be in a poistion where you can look back at the way you first were when you arrived in Japan and kinda chuckle at your own naivete. Far better to work for one of the Big Four than be left out in the cold.

    Comment by RisingSunofNihon | July 24, 2006 | Reply

  2. Hello. I enjoyed your story and am in the process of learning more about life in Japan as an English teacher. I’m not sure if this will get to you so I’m making it short. My email is jesso8@hotmail.com; I’d be grateful to learn a little from you if you have the time oh great samurai.

    Comment by Jesse | September 16, 2006 | Reply

  3. This is just what I needed to read. I almost went to Japan to teach English but I will stick with I.T. actually better yet I will just keep working my on my own company here in the states and just life part time in Japan for 6 months.

    Forget working for anyone but me.

    Muahahahahahahaahahahhaha.

    I greatly enjoyed your site, and writing. Take care.

    Comment by Ron Tayan | March 13, 2007 | Reply

  4. [...] On my trials and turbulations during my first year, check out my Ronin Teacher Saga: http://samuraidave.wordpress.com/2006/07/23/saga-of-a-ronin-english-teacher-in-japan/ [...]

    Pingback by Why I Like Japan « Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report | February 27, 2008 | Reply

  5. [...] On my trials and turbulations during my first year, check out my Ronin Teacher Saga: http://samuraidave.wordpress.com/2006/07/23/saga-of-a-ronin-english-teacher-in-japan/ [...]

    Pingback by Why I Like Japan » TravelBlog Archive » Roving Ronin Report | February 27, 2008 | Reply

  6. [...] On my trials and turbulations during my first year, check out my Ronin Teacher Saga:http://samuraidave.wordpress.com/2006… [...]

    Pingback by Travel » Why I Like Japan | July 7, 2008 | Reply


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