I never intended to become a teacher and, like many people who come to Japan as Assistant Language Teachers (hereafter ALTs), I applied for this position as a way to open further shining doors of ambition, albeit I’m not sure what lies behind them. As an occupation, teaching can take you to soaring heights of euphoria and hell-belly lows of stress and frustration, but at the very least it meets the minimal requirement I hope for in a vocation; an inexhaustible source of new things to learn.
Japanese children undergo compulsory education from the ages of six to fifteen, which involves six years at elementary school and three years at junior high. I teach at one junior high school and three elementary schools, but this is by no means representative of an ALT post. At the junior high school I team-teach with Japanese Teachers of English (hereafter JTEs), which primarily consists of reading sections of text, having students repeat words after me, and starting the class with a warm up activity. I work at the elementary schools a lot less frequently, and teach entire lessons by myself, back to back, through the day. It’s quite tiring, but usually more fun because the kids tend to be more engaged and I have control over the material.
My experience of the education sector is pretty limited, but I hope to share some insights which you may find interesting. Ultimately, Japanese schools are perfectly recognisable to a foreign observer, and much is just as I remember from my own education. There are still, of course, a number of differences.
As you may already be aware, Japanese children spend exceptionally long hours at school, at least by typical Western standards. A large reason behind this is what one might call extra-curricular activities, such as sport and music, which is apparently why I often see kids heading to school on Saturdays. My hours are, effectively, 8am until 4pm, but on the odd occasion when I have needed to stay late, I am genuinely taken aback to see the teachers’ office still populated at 6pm. The mistake would be to assume that Japanese people, both as students and adults, have an inhuman capacity for work. While there is a marked difference in attitude towards one’s vocation between Japan and, say, England, the hours can be managed by a relaxed attitude at work, as well as strategic napping. This is not an area I have investigated in depth, but I would like to stress the importance of remembering that people are still people, and that believing those in Japan to be tireless automatons is fallacious.
Another difference between Japanese schools and the ones I attended is the lack of third parties in the schools’ daily operation. There are no cleaners or dinner ladies; the staff and students are responsible for serving lunch and keeping the place tidy. Come lunchtime, white coats, masks and hats are donned in order to dish out the food, and at an allocated time each day everyone, including the teachers, puts on a peak cap, lines up in the corridor, and awaits an announcement to begin cleaning for about fifteen minutes. After cleaning is finished, they line up again, wait for the closing announcement, call out a thank you and disband. At first I didn’t help with the cleaning because I wasn’t sure what to do, but recently I have begun helping myself to a dustpan and broom to sweep under the desks. Not only might this earn me brownie points, it’s an area overlooked by everyone else. You might assume, as I did, that all this would result in squeaky-clean facilities, but actually the schools tend to be rather dusty, even though no one wears outside shoes inside.
A clear distinction is made between outdoor and indoor footwear in Japan. I have black fabric slipper-shoes that I wear in school, and black slip-on shoes that I go to work in. These get removed in the entrance hall and stored in my own two-levelled shoe locker; top shelf for indoor shoes, bottom shelf for outdoor shoes. Some places also provide toilet shoes; special slippers left at the entrance of lavatories into which you are expected to change as you enter. My junior high school does not have these, though my elementary schools do. The idea behind all these changes is that of cleanliness, and the notion of drawing boundaries between areas that are clean and unclean by ritualistically changing oneself. At times this has a greater effect on people’s imagination than it does on the actual transferal of dirt, and I would point anyone interested in this line of thought towards Mary Douglas’s ‘Purity and Danger,’ an old but extremely influential investigation into the very human need to compartmentalise the world in ways which frequently have no relation to actuality, although admittedly toilet shoes most likely do prevent urine from being trodden everywhere after kids use the squat toilets.
Elementary and junior high students eat set school lunches in their homeroom classrooms with their homeroom teachers. I would also be eating the lunches provided if it wasn’t for the restricted diet I embarked upon. At the junior high school I eat lunch in a medium sized room with other members of staff who don’t have a homeroom class; the vice principle, the scheduler, the nurse, and a couple of the English teachers. I also eat lunch with the staff at Kamisanmiya elementary school, but at Matsuyama and Isshou elementary schools I get assigned a class to eat lunch with, and a couple of class representatives will be sent to fetch me from the teachers’ room once they’ve plated up. Frequently the tables are moved into a large circle, with an extra desk for me, although I may occasionally be seated at a group of tables, or even at the lectern facing the class. Generally these are seen as cultural exchanges and a chance for the children, particularly the younger ones, to engage with someone from abroad. At one school the teacher told the kids that table manners were important in England, with the subtext that, as there was an English person among them, they should pay plenty of attention to their dining etiquette. Little did she know I spent my childhood eating dinner while sat on the floor in front of the TV, and didn’t know which way round knives and forks should be set until I was in my late teens. The kids are exceptionally adorable as well as curious, and fire rounds of questions at me, usually of the ‘What’s your favourite…’ variety. Grammatically speaking, these are easy, but as I don’t have a favourite colour or animal or food or flower or song or anything (variety of the spice of life, after all), I have to fabricate answers every time. My favourite colour is blue or green depending on the day, my favourite animal is usually a rabbit because it can be accompanied by a cute mime, my favourite food is something Japanese to impress them, my favourite flower is the first species I think of. I should probably, however, think of someone more contemporary for my favourite singer than Ella Fitzgerald when talking to six-year-olds. I really enjoy lunches at elementary schools, not least because I sometimes get to play with them in the break time afterwards, and have found myself participating in Japanese versions of Tag and What’s the time, Mr Wolf?
A standard practice that feels idiosyncratically Japanese is the ‘aisatsu’ at the beginning and end of lessons. At the start of class the teacher will call for the greeting to be given and a student will give a brief announcement about the lesson about to take place, as the others stand or draw themselves up to sit formally, after which everyone calls out ‘onegaishimasu’, effectively thanking you for the knowledge you are about to impart. At the end, another brief thanks is given before the students disperse. The whole procedure sounds extremely formal and serious, but in practice this is rarely the case. The teachers tend to do it with a smile and the kids, especially once they reach their teens, have a habit of offering a rather hollow aisatsu, and are usually preoccupied with packing up their things or leaving the room.
At particular times of day music gets played out across the school sound system. At my junior high school this is usually the same tunes every day, leaving me to wonder why they don’t change it up a little more. In the morning an American song, I’ve never been to me by Charlene (pictured), plays sometimes as many as three times in one morning. At first I barely noticed it at all, and it was one of the teachers that pointed out to me that it was in English, but as the months have unfolded I have made out increasing sections of the words, coming to the inevitable conclusion that it’s fucking stupid. The lyrics, based on the unusually complex narrative of a well-travelled woman lecturing a young mother into staying in the kitchen of her unhappy marriage, revolve around the narcissistic and nonsensical chorus of “I’ve been to paradise but I’ve never been to me.” On top of being nauseating and absurd, my feminism is ignited every time I hear the line “I’ve seen some things that a woman ain’t s’pposed to see.” What, exactly, has she witnessed that is perfectly acceptable for men to experience but is morally repugnant for anyone with two X chromosomes to observe? I assume the song was selected it for its soothing melody and not its content (which includes the phrase “subtle whoring”), although somehow it topped the UK chart in 1982.
At lunchtime there are usually the same pop-type songs, although I have been surprised on the odd occasion by something familiar. One day Starships by Nicki Minaj was playing, and as I passed two students I danced and mouthed the words, because hot damn that song is catchy. Another day on my way down I heard Aha’s Take on me, which made me so happy I entered the dining room with a beaming smile and told the staff I loved it. Cleaning time, meanwhile, starts with an emotive piece of classical music, followed by a quick-paced, energy-filled instrumental piece, I assume as motivation to be particularly thorough, finishing with a slower, banjo-led song that puts me in mind of barn dancing. I have no idea who is in charge of choosing the music, and one day I might be filled with enough curiosity to ask.
At the elementary schools music seems to play a lesser role, and I have only noticed it being used as backing to school-wide announcements. These tend to be soothing lullaby-like tunes, and on more than one occasion I’ve heard Studio Ghibli themes, in particular My Neighbour Totoro.
Something which I gave no consideration to until very recently is the fact that students are not allocated classes based on their ability, but rather spend every lesson with the same homeroom group. This, presumably, reflects a cultural tendency to place importance on age-mate cohesion and group harmony, albeit they sit at individual desks in alternating boy-girl rows. What this means for my role is that I work with classes of varying aptitude, and find myself trying to negotiate between encouraging the sterling work of good students and discouraging the poor behaviour of bad students. I do think it deplorable to hold the more talented kids back by those who have no interest in their studies, although this does mean I have more balanced classes to deal with, and certainly wouldn’t welcome the idea of having to teach a class populated entirely by disinterested, rebellious eejits.
The elementary school children do not wear uniforms, although they do all have the same P.E. kit. At my junior high school, the girls’ uniform is, unsurprisingly, a variant of the sailor-style shirt, blazer and skirt, while the boys wear a shirt, trousers, tie and blazer. The photo I include is of two very small mannequins in a glass case situated in the principal’s office. I felt ridiculous asking to take a photograph of them, so I hope you appreciate this particular visual aid. They also all have the same navy backpack with the school emblem, and a P.E. uniform which they wear underneath their formal uniform. The students in this country seem to participate in a lot more sport than children in the UK do, and so I assume the uniform layer is a way to save time from changing frequently. Sometimes the kids are wearing their P.E. kit during English lessons, for reasons I can only guess at, and sometimes they have a sports class afterward and start undressing themselves the instant the English class finishes. Although they have their shorts on, when teenage boys start shuffling around the classroom with their trousers around their ankles, one is quite unsure where to look.
Communicat has every new teacher prepare a lesson in which they introduce themselves to the class, involving many a laminated flashcard of imagery from the teacher’s native country. I feel a highlight of mine is when I show photographs of typical English food, including a Cornish pasty and an English breakfast, as the students are usually unfamiliar with the dishes, but everyone can relate to food. The pièce de résistance of my first lesson, however, is the moment I reach into an opaque bag and pull out a teapot in the shape of a pub. I found the monstrosity in a charity shop before leaving, and thought it so wonderfully tacky and quintessentially English that I brought it over as a piece of realia. Strangely enough, the kids tend to be so impressed and captivated by this cheap piece of crap that I began to also think it some sort of treasure from a distant land. I quickly discovered that if I pulled the pot from the bag and held it aloft I could captivate my audience before bringing out the lid and, having held it a centimetre over the pot in a second’s dramatic pause, could elicit gasps of wonder as I dropped it into place with a silence-shattering clink. It was always nice when I could consequently get the students to mime holding a cup as I pretended to pour out tea for each in turn. And with that, children in rural Japan would learn a valuable lesson about stereotyping English culture.