When working in a foreign country, it's to be expected that there are many cultural differences that take some time to get used to. Even I have to admit that I am still occasionally surprised by some differences that I never noticed or just took for granted.
One of the biggest and most obvious cultural differences is the way that schools employ teachers. The situation tends to vary wildly from school to school, but in many institutions there exists a system of employment that is so difficult to understand that the specialised structure and language used to talk about teachers in Japanese schools seems like a foreign language even to native Japanese employees at "regular" companies or businesses.
Let's review some of the more common employment practices in Japanese schools. Be mindful that each school may have a different system as well, complicating an already complicated system, but let's dive in anyway:
(専任) Sennin Teachers
A sennin teacher is what most people think about when you talk about being a teacher. They are considered full time employees, and they are not allowed to work anywhere else (including part-time jobs) as long as they have this position. This is for good reason - it's a big responsibility taking care of your own homeroom class of students as well as doing all the other more obvious teacher duties.
Depending on the school, sennin teachers may not even have to sign a new contract each year, because they are considered permanent employees.
It is very difficult for new teachers fresh out of college to get this kind of position immediately. It usually takes many years of experience working as a part time or semi-full time teacher... which we'll get to shortly!
An obvious benefit for sennin teachers is that the pay is higher than their part-time or semi-full time counterparts, but that comes with a larger burden of responsibility as well. Go ahead and ask any sennin teacher at your school if they think their job is easy... dealing with parents, working incredibly late hours with no overtime pay, coming in on their days off to help with club activities that they may or may not have even signed up for. The list goes on, I'm sure.
And yet they can not complain too much (one would hope) because becoming a sennin teacher is probably the goal of anyone who is truly passionate about education and strives for a career at a school in Japan.
(常勤) Joukin and (非常勤) Hijoukin Teachers
If joukin means full time, then hijoukin means part time, but perhaps not in the same way that you think of it in English, and once I again I must emphasise the fact that each school has different naming systems so the true meaning of the titles tend to vary.
In general, joukin teachers are not paid hourly. They are "full time" employees who have more responsibilities perhaps, but they do not take care of homeroom classes so their work burden (and pay) is a lower than sennin teachers. Some schools consider this a semi-full time position. They often are required to stay at school until 5:00pm whether they have classes or not.
Hijoukin teachers are usually paid hourly and often don’t have to be physically present at school outside of classroom hours. Many schools tend to rely heavily on hijoukin teachers, and in some cases schools even have a limit on how many times these teachers can renew their contracts. There are some situations, depending on contract types, where they cannot stay at the same school for more than 3 years. You may be thinking, “But wouldn’t that make it difficult for them to get promoted to being a sennin teacher?” Well, the answer is a resounding YES.
New teachers fresh out of college always tend to get these hijoukin positions, and it takes many years of experience to land a position as a sennin teacher. The reason it’s so difficult to move up quickly is that usually the only time a sennin teacher position opens is when someone else quits. There are a limited number of homerooms, and opportunities to get one of these positions can be few and far between.
Sometimes, foreign native English teachers hired directly by the school can be classified as hijoukin teachers. Their pay is usually directly related to how many classes they teach per week - no more and no less. If you stay at a school long enough, they might eventually give you the opportunity to become a joukin teacher with more duties and responsibilities. However, unless you have a degree in education, it’s probably unlikely that you’ll be assigned to take care of a homeroom by yourself as a sennin teacher. Needless to say, you’d have to speak Japanese pretty fluently as well.
Even if you classify hijoukin as “part time,” that doesn’t necessarily mean you work less than full-time teachers. While some hijoukin teachers only teach 5 classes or less per week, others may teach up to or possibly more than 20. On average, most sennin and joukin teachers teach between 12-16 classes a week. So, as far as in-class teaching goes you may end up teaching more hours as a hijoukin teacher… but at least you don’t have to attend parent-teacher meetings!
We hope the explanations about Japanese employment terminology can help you in deciding your future teaching career in Japan.