Recently I was in a Japanese restaurant with some Japanese friends. The conversation was flowing, but then I stopped dead when I heard a certain song. It was a song I’d long forgotten, a song that took me right back to the school I worked at while I was in Japan.
I worked at a junior high school, and in Japan, all JHS students should choose one club activity. It’s fairly hardcore, and the kids have to practise their chosen activity every day – even on weekends.
When I arrived at the school, I was told there was a baton twirling group. I couldn’t believe it! Of all the schools in the prefecture, I got the one that did twirling! From the age of 7 I was a majorette in a troupe called The Sapphires. We were the top in England…though I wasn’t that good myself. The winter months were spent planning our new routines, spring would be village fetes and carnivals to hone our moves then in the summer we’d travel all over the country to competitions – most of which we won.
So to have a team right there in Japan – I could show them all our training exercises and get them to be top of their game! They’d love me forever and we’d all live happily every after, right?
In Japan, it’s not the level of skill that you have that matters, it’s going through the motions. So, as long as you join the club and go to the meetings, it doesn’t actually matter if you put in any effort or not. You’re there as part of the team, not to be amazing at whatever it is yourself. Proving this cultural observation of mine, there are teachers assigned to each group, but the chance of them being an expert in that activity is slim, and they rarely turn up to train the kids. The kids train each other – meaning that bad habits are passed down from year group to year group.
So I turned up to their training session on the top floor of the school to find them sitting down, copying each others’ homework, playing with their phones. I asked to see their routines, and they were technically very very good. They’d been given some great tricks to learn – some of which I couldn’t replicate later at home when I tried… But their dances were set to slow music…love songs where the beats dragged on.
April came and the 3rd graders graduated and tiny little 1st graders joined the team. I saw an opportunity to start a new training regime and to oversee them practise so I could pick out any bad habits they were learning. The kids hated it. They hated me butting into their ‘downtime’, they hated me trying to change things, they hated the music I was suggesting for their dances. They just wanted to sit down with the team and chill out for a bit – even while the school’s famous sporting teams were showing dedication by training really hard outside the window.
I tried to show them videos of other Japanese baton groups who are just spectacular. I thought maybe they’d be inspired and want to be like them. They said that those girls were different. They were just country girls so they would never be as good as that. Then they went back to playing with their phones.
Around the time of me being exhausted trying to think of ways to make the girls be more passionate about baton twirling, some nasty bullying happened. A nasty 1st grader girl was picking on a slightly eccentric teammate. The bullied girl stopped coming to practice, and then stopped coming to school all together. I was fuming. As someone who suffered with bullying, I spotted the signs early on and told the Japanese teacher in charge. She said to leave it be, and the girls will sort themselves out. Of course, that didn’t happen and I felt rotten that a little girl was missing out on an education just because this wasn’t sorted out earlier, and more so that there was nothing at all being done about it. As a foreign teacher, I had no right to discipline the kids and I wasn’t even meant to be left in a room with students without a Japanese teacher there (though this rule was conveniently forgotten each time the Japanese teacher was sick and I was asked to lead classes alone).
The mistake that I made with my experience with the baton twirling group was that I, as a foreigner, can’t just come in and project onto the kids the things that I assume people strive for. In the west, we are taught to be the best that we can be. I am proud to say that I was in the top English majorette group, and I trained hard in my garden every night to try to be as good as the other girls. In Japan, they are taught to be a team. As long as they were together at the right place at the right time, even doing the least amount of work possible to qualify for that activity, then that’s OK.
I also can’t assume that education works the same all over the world. Bullying is dealt with seriously in the UK, but it isn’t in Japan. Me standing over a Japanese teacher tattle-telling on a spiteful girl won’t make Japan change its stance on how to deal with bullying. They are in charge of their own country’s children and I should treat this with an open mind, even when kids are staying home from school because of it.
I did a lot of good for the team, as well. After me prompting and then preparing them, they performed at the summer festival in the village, and were simply wonderful. Two of my favourite girls performed a duet and even pushed themselves to do much more difficult moves than they’d previously tried – which they aced on stage without a single baton dropped. They also performed at the local old peoples’ home, showing that just because they themselves chose the baton team to get out of much harder sports, they can still use their skills to make other people happy.
We expats go about the world and take with us ideas of how things should be, and what is right and wrong. It takes some failure to realise that you have to relax these jerk reactions in response to things that you think are wrong. And we can’t go into things like a bull in a china shop, as I did. This was my biggest mistake in Japan.