Taking a hiatus from my advertising career in Singapore to teaching English in Tokyo for one year was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, but is turning out to be one of the most rewarding.

By Jenie Gabriel

It has its shortcomings, but on most days, I’m thankful I chased after my dream of living in Japan. The realizations and experiences I’ve gained so far have outweighed the hurdles I had to overcome prior to my departure, and during the comical struggles of living in a foreign land without speaking the native language. Here are some of the life lessons I’ve learned from teaching English in this megalopolis:

Humility and Determination

In one-to-one English conversation schools (eikaiwas), instructors meet a variety of clients day in and out—from high school students to big shots of corporations. Fortunately, in Japan, the “sensei” or teacher is generally respected, no matter the age, gender, and social status. Thus, though the client is a regional director or the president of a multinational company, it takes a dose of humility to learn the right usage of articles—a, an, the—from a millennial taking a sabbatical or a fresh graduate, who’s still undecided about his or her career path. I think these well-respected higher-ups, who can afford to hire an interpreter, should be commended for choosing to persevere and be a good example to their subordinates. Truth be told, when learning English, having the right attitude matters more than the ability to correctly pronounce “through”, “though” and “tough.”

Similarly, meeting clients in their late 50s and 60s is nothing unusual in eikaiwas across Japan. Some of them have been learning and practicing for more than 20 years, while a handful of them just started with their Level 1 textbooks. They are living proof that it’s never too late to learn something new and it’s a privilege to be one of the senseis for this admirable group of people. They are role models for younger generations, inspiring us to keep persevering to make our goals a reality and to remember the value of knowledge, a gift that no one else can take away from us.


As I jotted down my Pros and Cons list before accepting the job offer in Japan, I didn’t realize how much I would learn simply by leaving the stable and relatively good-paying job I’ve been used to for more than nine years. I was lingering in my not-so-comfortable comfort zone for many years, and I’m glad I hit my head one day and decided to break free. In hindsight, if I were to write the Pros again, I would place “fulfillment” on top of the list. Throughout my stay here, I’ve learned that enjoying what you do at least 80% of the time trumps working just for the money 70% of the time. Despite the pay cut, I found it more rewarding to teach professionals useful business vocabulary words and phrases, than to be at the mercy of certain clients, who have no concept of “work-life balance.” What I’ve realized, albeit almost a decade late, is that I value intrinsic rewards more than extrinsic ones. (Though more comprehensive benefits for instructors wouldn’t hurt, of course.)

Courage and Freedom

“Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage.” (Anaïs Nin) That’s one of the quotes I’ve always tried to live by, and last year, I finally mustered enough courage to walk the talk. Leaping out of one’s comfort zone may lead to a few wounds and bruises, or even a battered heart, but there are some risks we need to take to live life to its fullest. Courage requires faith and I learned that the universe eventually rewards those who chase after their dreams and conquer their fears.

Leaving the corporate world was a huge risk for me, because of the stability and savings it brought, but I realized that I can live with less every month, and actually be happier. There is a sense of inexplicable joy that comes from spending your weekday mornings at your own pace, breaking away from the shackles of unreasonable deadlines, and effortlessly basking in this newfound, priceless freedom. And while I admit that sometimes, I miss the exhilarating challenges, brainstorming sessions, and mentally-stimulating collaborations in fluorescent-lit conference rooms of towering buildings, I’m still not ready to say goodbye to the new and peaceful life I’ve created for myself. My bank account might have shrunk slightly, but my life has definitely expanded in ways I’ve never imagined.

Have you learned other life lessons while teaching in Japan, too? Comment below and share some snippets of wisdom with us!

Main Image: Bunny Bissoux