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What Are Some Important Things to Know About Teaching Adult Japanese Students?

Eric Vargas

Teaching Adults in Japan can be a very rewarding and eye opening experience. Eastern countries all seem to have similarities, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the cultures of China, Korea, and Japan are all the same. As a language teacher you will see that these cultural differences are most evident in the classroom. Begin this journey with an open mind and be prepared to make some slight modifications in your teaching methods. In the end you will see that teaching adult Japanese students will be a worthwhile and fulfilling life experience.

What You May Notice in Your Students
There will be a very noticeable difference between the typical high school student and the professional adult student. The high school or university student usually studies in order to prepare for an exam or to receive a specific certification. The professional adult student on the other hand does not have this goal in mind and many times he or she is simply taking lessons as a hobby. What this means is that your lessons may leave more room for creativity and perhaps you may even need to tailor your lessons according to your students’ specific requests.


You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that Japanese adults have great reading and writing skills. Many Japanese professionals will even begin their day flipping through pages of both Nikei Shimbun and The Wallstreet Journal. This strength in reading and writing is the result of a strict Japanese classroom structure based on memorization, drills, and exam preparation. This could also be one of the main reasons why many Japanese students who have never been taught by western teachers are virtually inept when it comes to listening and speaking.

Things You May Need to Focus on
Since many Japanese students need to work on their speaking it will be useful to know ahead of time that many adult students sometimes utilize Katakana, a syllabic alphabet, to take notes or write down foreign words phonetically. From the outside this may not seem like such an important issue, but this may actually do more harm than good. The Japanese language has a number of borrowed words from English which sound similar (such as Smartphone=sumatofon) and this sometimes influences a students’ pronunciation. The letter L also does not exist in the Japanese language and the letter W is pronounced more like a U at times. Having this in mind it would be smart to encourage or even make it mandatory to write everything down in English and not in Katakana.

You may also need to provoke your students to speak. Despite being professional adults they may be extremely shy when asked to express themselves in English. Even in the advanced levels, there is a strange phenomenon where a student may have great pronunciation and listening comprehension, but they are extremely reluctant to speak. When planning out your lesson try to focus a bit more time on speaking and listening activities. Be positive and patient, but most importantly remember to smile. The simple act of smiling may relax your student and make them feel less nervous to speak up.

Japanese students are very self-motivated and enthusiastic about learning languages

Using Materials
Whether you are giving private or small group classes, always make sure to use materials and try to use the board as much as possible. Among Japanese teachers there is a common saying which is “If it was not written on the board, then it was not important.” Think about how this relates to your students and remember that old habits die hard. This may be more of a cultural thing, but Japanese students like to have tangible evidence that they learned something during the class. Students enjoy leaving the classroom with notes that were copied from the board, worksheets, course books, or any other material that they can later refer to or even show to friends or family members after class.

Arriving on Time
Being punctual is very important in Japanese society; even arriving five minutes late is frowned upon. Many experienced teachers show up five or ten minutes early to their classes and if you get into this habit you will even notice that some of your students will arrive at the same as you. If and when this happens try not to make the common mistake of starting the class ahead of time for your early bird students, especially if it is a group class. Be aware that many times a student will take advantage of this time and he or she might try to have a short private lesson with you. At first there might not be any harm in doing this, but there is potential for this to become a habit. Your student may show up even earlier to class or linger around several minutes after each lesson for more one-to-one attention. Try to prevent this situation from happening as this is very common behavior in some Japanese students. This may be a big inconvenience especially if you need time to prepare for your next lesson.

The Bright Side
Generally speaking, Japanese students are very self-motivated and enthusiastic about learning languages. Due to strict Japanese teaching methods your students will most likely be very disciplined and organized in class. If you give out homework activities you will have it finished and submitted on the due date you assigned to them. If you give your class a specific amount of time to finish an exam, you can also expect to have it done at the moment you utter the words “Time is up.”

You will quickly realize that our Western culture is very different from that of the East and it is a smart idea to go about this experience with an open mind. Just remember that every country has its own unique characteristics and as such, learners will be different too.

About the author

Eric is an American expat currently living in Buenos Aires Argentina. When he isn’t working on his upcoming book or giving classes to his ESL students he enjoys listening to Spanish Alternative rock, painting, and exploring the Buenos Aires nightlife.