Teaching in Japan a dream come true for Leadership Network member

Wanting to communicate better with exchange students at her high school was the spark that started Leadership Network member Megan Wilson's Japanese language-learning journey. In this article, she describes how this modest aspiration led on to her attaining a BA in Japanese language and eventually to where she is today — teaching English in the city of Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu, Japan.
A montage of four photos showing Megan teaching in the classroom

Megan in the classroom

It has been three months since arriving in Kumamoto, a city on Japan’s most southern island, Kyushu.

Kumamoto City has a population double the size of Christchurch; however, I live in the Nishi-ku Ward where there aren't so many people and it's easier to access nature.

I work at four schools here in Kumamoto – three elementary schools and a junior high school.

I particularly enjoy greeting students on the way to school. As soon as they see me they often yell “Megan-sensei…good morning!”

Teaching in Kumamoto is very different from New Zealand.

Classroom time is much more structured — they are pretty dependent on the textbooks and all the desks are lined up in rows with students facing the teacher(s). Arguments can be easily fixed with a game of rock, paper, scissors and students ask permission before entering the staffroom.

I’m slowly growing my confidence in the classroom, learning new phrases in Japanese and making connections in my local community.

In my spare time, I like to venture around Kumamoto, try new foods from the convenience store and attend local Japanese language classes.

A montage of three photos: a bowl of noodles, Megan and a friend in front of a shrine, Megan and a friend in front of a second shrine

In her free time, Megan likes to explore the Kumamoto and try out new foods from the convenience store

Meeting and getting to know locals makes the experience of being here so much richer. Before getting a washing machine, I would often strike up conversations with locals at the laundry, which was always so much fun.

One of the first locals I got to know I met shortly after arriving in Japan through a chance encounter while looking for cutlery, plates and bowls on Facebook Marketplace for my then-unfurnished flat.

When the woman I bought the items off, Kiyomi, saw how heavy they were, she offered to drop them off at my place. I was a little bit hesitant at first, but when Kiyomi arrived I invited her in and we sat on my floor and chatted for hours. We quickly became friends and have since watched to the Izu-ko Fireworks together, visited Mt Aso, and we also study together at a local cafe.

But what led to me teaching in Japan? It’s a long story that begins at high school.

During high school, my school hosted short term international students (almost exclusively from Japan). I respected their work ethic a lot and, studying alongside them, we quickly became friends.

To make communicating easier, I started to teach myself Japanese. I made hiragana posters and stuck them to my wall, would try my best to slowly build my vocabulary and would invite my Japanese classmates to hang out. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of my Japanese language journey.

In my last year of high school, I was awarded a First Foundation Scholarship as the first in my family to attend university. I was so happy because I wanted to prove to my siblings that if they tried their best, they too could achieve their goals.

Megan sitting on school benches outside a classroom along with Japanese exchange students at her school

Megan started learning Japanese as a way to connect with Japanese exchange students at her school

I was also fortunate enough to be awarded the University of Otago Alumni Scholarship and spent my first year at St Margaret's College in Dunedin. It was there I decided that health science wasn’t for me, and I swapped physics for a Japanese paper. I had an amazing teacher called Haruko-sensei who encouraged me and supported my initial learning of the Japanese language.

I knew that the best thing to do to really advance my language skills would be to study in Japan, so I applied for both the Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia and JASSO Scholarships to study at The University of Tokyo on the USTEP Programme, both of which I was fortunate enough to get.

Being in Tokyo was incredible. I was impressed by the packed trains in Shibuya station, and how people can navigate Shibuya crossing on a rainy day in a sea of umbrellas.

After returning to Dunedin, I graduated from university with a BA in Japanese.

I wanted to find a way to get back to Japan so during Covid I completed a CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) and Certificate in Adult and Tertiary Education. At the time, Massey University and Education New Zealand also offered a Global Competency Certificate Programme, which I did and which was a lot of fun.

It was through my practical teaching experience at the New Zealand Institute of Skills Technology,Te Pukenga, and volunteer work in the community that I was inspired to apply for the JET Programme.

I always had the JET programme in mind as an option but in 2022 I decided to take the idea seriously and submit an application.

I wanted to teach in Japan for a number of reasons — I wanted to strengthen the grassroot ties New Zealand has with Japan, enhance my teaching skills and further develop my Japanese language skills and cultural understanding. Which brings to me to where I am today – living and teaching in the beautiful south of Japan, getting to know the area and its people and finding my feet in the community.

For those who are interested in teaching in Asia (especially Japan), I highly recommend applying for a programme like the JET Programme. In the meantime, definitely reach out to local language exchange groups like JKaiwa or try using language exchange apps such as HelloTalk or Tandem. There's no substitute for learning face-to-face with a native speaker.

The Foundation Leadership Network equips New Zealand’s next generation of Kiwi leaders to thrive in Asia. We provide members with the connections, knowledge and confidence to lead New Zealand’s future relationship with the region.