My Biggest Mistake in Japan

mistake

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?

Wrong.

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.

 

The JET Programme

 

** Another post copied over post from Sherbet and Sparkles! Enjoy! **

This week I went to dinner with a nice American girl. I’d helped her a little in her application to the JET Programme, and she got in.

I like to help people with the JET applications in my spare time. I had a lot of help when I applied, and so I like to give back. Also, I just like that satisfaction you get from knowing you helped someone out.

So what is JET? Most people think it stands for “Japan English Teaching” but it’s actually “Japan Exchange and Teaching”. The Japanese government spends a lot of money sending young people from all over the world to live in the Japanese countryside, to live among Japanese people who would never get to see a non-Japanese person  otherwise, while teaching in the local schools. I was on the JET Programme for 2 years.

I had always wanted to be on JET. I first encountered Japanese people when I did an exchange in my town with one of the Keio middle schools when I was 13. I thought those kids were amazing – I’m still good friends with some of them today. My Japanese teacher (because I would not shut up until my parents let me study it in the evenings) told me about the programme, and I had my heart set on it from that day forward.

Applying to JET is a rollercoaster of emotions. You need to write an essay, then you have an interview, then a police check – but that’s not all! You don’t know if you’ll get on the programme until around this time in the year (for a July departure) and you won’t know which area you’ll go to until June, in some cases.

I sat there across from my friend this week and I could see all the same emotions in her that I had 3 years ago. I’d been to Japan twice before – the second of which was for a year as an exchange student – so I imagine she was feeling even more nervous than I was. But I was so excited for her. I was bouncing on my chair telling her how she’ll be the star of her town, how the kids will be amazing, how the food will make her fat, but happy…

So why did I quit?

Well, there is a downside to JET. In preparation, I had done a joint degree in Japanese and teaching English. I had also had experience teaching English. I was ready and raring to rock the classroom. But you can’t as an Assistant Language Teacher. Well, not in junior high schools, at least. My job was to, if I was lucky, make 15 minute activities that couldn’t be too creative and at other times I stood in the classroom and was a living cd player. Why wasn’t I happy with the activities? Well, it really depended on the teacher and the class. Some classes were awesome – I remember doing a gap-fill exercise to The Beatles’ Hello Goodbye. The kids LOVED it. It was creative, used real English and wasn’t a textbook. Other times I was not so lucky.

The textbook had a section on how to take a train. It had a small map with stations called “Plum Station”, “Flower Station” and “Sunshine Station”. This was for 16 year olds. I was asked to do an activity based on this, so I started off working through these pages, and teaching things like “take the Apple Line to Plum Station, then change to the Banana Line”. This worked well. Then I whipped out a REAL LIFE map of the london underground. I had simplified it to a handful of stations and had written how to say the stations in katakana. The teacher wasn’t happy. The students did their best, but they just don’t experience real English. It was using all the same terms as we had just practised, just with real life stations. If it’s not in a textbook, the teachers don’t think it’s useful and the kids get scared and don’t try to understand it.

My opinions were not valid in the school, my experience and skills were not touched upon. And moreover, the other teachers in the school practically ignored me. I understand Japanese perfectly fine, but they spoke to me in a mock foreign accent… They made me so angry.

However, the students were angels and I love every single one of them. That’s why I went back to see their graduation last month. Even the kids who were little monkeys were sweet. One little boy in the first grade (11 years old) would come up to me every morning and say, in English, “Charlotte-sensei, I have a hangover!!” I’d reply with “OH NO! What was it this time? Beer? Whiskey?” While he would nod enthusiastically and choose which drink he had “drank”. Another girl named Airi was particularly close to me. She was a loud mouthed drama queen – always screeching about this and that and creating a scene. She dyed her hair and rolled her skirt up, and the teachers said she was a lost cause. Do you know what? I’ve dyed my hair since I was 12, I sure rolled up my skirt when I was younger, and teachers have also called me a lost cause (the one that sticks most in my mind is my A Level French teacher who told me I am “just not cut out for languages – if French is too hard then Japanese will be impossible”.) I wasn’t going to let her fall behind. I knelt by her desk when I was in her class and explained stuff to her one on one until she got it. And do you know what? I think she was one of the brightest kids in there. It’s just that when I wasn’t in the room, no one tried with her and so she didn’t try to study.

Look at this long post… I could talk for days on my JET experiences. If there happen to be people out there applying, I would be glad to write a post on how to prepare and so on. But I think I should make more posts about the cute things students wrote and drew for me. While looking back in my old folders I came across a stash 🙂

Gratitude in Japan

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For some reason, I happened to be reading through an old blog of mine that I used to write when I was in Japan. I started to read a few posts from there and couldn’t even remember writing them, but they were like portals back to my Japanese life.

I’ve found one post that I particularly liked. After almost 2.5 years out of Japan, this is a particularly nice post to look back upon and think about the cultural differences I encountered.

Here is my post, from 10th March 2011 (the day before the tsunami):

In the past week, I’ve had two events that have made me understand Japanese culture just that little bit more than I did before. The first was graduation. Of course, I had graduation last year too, but as it was my first, I was in awe of everything and so wasn’t able to catch a few things. The second, was the wedding of two Japanese friends.

As with any formal event in the Japanese school calendar, such as sports day or the culture festival, the students spent a long long time practicing for the graduation ceremony. Looking back to last year, I wonder why on earth they would want to spend so much time on what is, actually, standing then sitting then standing and singing, then sitting, then standing, then walking, getting some papers, taking them with two hands then tucking them under your left arm, then walking, standing, sitting, standing and listening to enough speeches to make your ears bleed. Some time in the week before graduation, I was stood in a classroom of graduating students, with about 10 minutes before class started. I like to try to speak to the kids in this time; just by being there with nothing to do gives the kids some free time when they can- and often do- talk to me about whatever they like. I saw that the class before was science, and so asked a girl what she had studied in it. “Oh, we didn’t do much science”, she said. “We were writing letters.” Letters? In a science lesson? I asked if it was some kind of project to save rain-forests or – heaven forbid- stop whaling. But she told me that they had been writing letters of thanks to their parents, for helping them and pushing them throughout their junior high school life.

What an interesting custom. In a country where parents (read: mothers) spend hours every day planning their child’s schedule with evening classes to get them ahead, make sure they do homework, buy them piles of books to help them.. it would be common place to take a step back and thank the parents. Unfortunately I don’t think I ever thanked my mum and dad.. well, of course things are different in England. Education is much more left to teachers. There is no cram school, though I did take (at the expense of my parents) extra French class to make sure I actually passed the A Level. But they did work hard to make sure I did my homework, and mum used to read over my essays (she is very good with words, is my mum). In days before wikipedia, dad was always getting me to use his wonderful collection of encyclopedias to help. But I never said thank you. I think even after graduating university, when the key speaker (Brain May wooo!) had told us that we needed to thank our parents for their funding and support, did I not thank them. So I thought it was wonderful that my kids were made to sit down and think about how they had come be where they are today.

And then the weekend before the graduation ceremony, at my friends’ wedding, I saw another custom of expressing gratitude.. but I have mixed feelings about this one. I’m sure I’ll do a separate post about it, but basically it was the wedding of my friend Mi-chan, a guy who I met a year ago. It was a mock Western wedding (I’ll explain why it’s “mock” in the wedding post…) but there were still a lot of things that were very Japanese. One of those things was, during the lunch (the days events were: wedding ceremony, lunch with speeches, after party that was pretty much exactly like the lunch but with more people and no posh food) the bride stood up next to the groom, who was holding a microphone and some tissues near her face, and read out a letter to her dad. As far as I can see, the sole purpose of this was to make everyone in the room cry. The parents (all 4 of them) had to stand in a line at the back and cry, but not before the bride herself started crying. So most of the speech was her sobbing things like “I’m sorry …. mrrrhhhhh…. for always …. mhhhrrrrrr… being … mrrrrhhhhhh… so … selfish .. mrrrhhhhhhhhhhhh!” into the microphone while the groom mopped her damp face.

Now, I don’t disagree that the father should be thanked and congratulated for bringing up a girl who is able to snag a good husband. A lot of his hard earned yen probably went to paying for the wedding too. But.. in front of everyone, and using something that should be a private little act of gratitude to manipulate the emotions of all the guests… I guess I don’t see the point of it. What’s more, it’s always the father. I’m pretty sure the mother worked just as hard, if not harder since it her job to bring up the children in Japanese society.

I think it’s really great that gratitude is a big part of Japanese culture. I wish we took the time out to say thank you to people too. Though we have the culture of sending thank you cards, people of my generation usually only use them to say thank you for a gift (even now I only get round to them when I have my mum breathing down my neck and nagging me endlessly about them.) Perhaps I should take notice and make the effort more often.

Working in Japan

Japan

I know so many people who would do anything to be able to go and work in Japan. It seems to be on the bucket list of so many people, whether they are people who are obsessed with anime, people who like to travel or just people wanting to live an adventure for a year.

I want to write (what may be a kinda long post) about how you can live in Japan – from what options are available to what you’d need to do. SO, let’s get going…

Question 1 – Do you have a degree?

If the answer is NO, you have two choices; be a student or get a working holiday visa.

Japan doesn’t give working visas to those without degrees. It kinda sucks, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t go live in Japan still, it just means that it might take a little money.

If you want to be a student, you can enroll at a language school, or perhaps if you are a university student you can be an exchange student like I was.

HOW CAN I DO THIS?!

Well, to be a student, first you should pick a school to study at, then apply for your visa. You can get lots of info on this here. I’ve never done this (I went through my British university) so I’m afraid I don’t have so much advice. Shop around for the best deal with the school and check out the local area, too. Some universities have programmes where you don’t have to be a university student yourself to go there, but going to a language school is probably the easiest option.

To do a working holiday visa, it’s slightly harder as there are certain conditions, such as being from a certain country, being within a certain age bracket, having a certain amount of savings stocked up and so on. I found a really good website that talks you through the process so check it out. If you don’t have a degree then this is possibly the best way to go about Japan for the year.

Question 2 – Would you be up for fighting for a popular job?

If you have a degree then perhaps you’d like to become an ALT (assistant language teacher) in a school. I asked if you’re ok with fighting for this job because the process is very complicated and involves writing essays, having interviews, and applying for a job that thousands of other people are also dying to get.

This is mainly with The JET Programme but if you happen to fail with them, there are other companies that do the same thing such as Interac, and depending on the city there are other, smaller companies too.

Why is JET so popular?

Well, there are many advantages to being on JET. The first being that the pay is very, very good. I’m willing to say that unless you get a real job at a big company in Japan, you won’t find a salary this good in Japan. Interac and the others don’t pay quite as good, but it’s still better than most.

JET is great because you are welcomed into a great community. You have pre-departure meetings in your home country, and then everyone gets to go to Tokyo together and we take of the Keio Plaza hotel for a few days while we are all training. Those days were so much fun and I made friends with JETs from all over the country.

It’s also a fairly easy job and you don’t need much to be able to do it. The application process requires you to be on the ball though – you need a great essay and to be able to be charismatic and engaging in the interview. Nothing in your application process should hint that you want to go to Japan because of anime, or because you want to find a Japanese partner. You need to have some REAL, solid reasons for wanting to go there.

Why did you leave JET?

There are also a few downsides to JET. The main one for me was that I felt I was over qualified for the school that I was placed at. Some people get placed in amazing schools. Some get placed at schools who use them as human tape recorders. My placement was somewhere in between that, but it still didn’t mean I was actually teaching. I wrote a lot more about it in this blog post from a while back.

They tell you that you are there to teach but really you are there so that they can have random foreigners in the countryside. You will probably not be placed in Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka etc. You are more likely to be placed in the middle of nowhere, with one convenience store which is a 20 minute bike ride away, and where wild boars come scratching at your door every night (hahah, you think I’m joking?!)

I miss life on JET a lot, but I am very grateful to be in a job where I use my skills and my brain.

HOW CAN I DO THIS?!

I’d love to write a blog post on how to get into the JET Programme, but actually a great guide has already been written. Go check it out, and good luck!

Question 3 – Do you want something a little less…stressful?

If the fight to get a place on JET doesn’t appeal to you, then you’re still in luck! In Japan there is a culture of taking classes outside of school – usually called “juku” or “cram schools”. They leave school and go straight to these schools to sit for another few hours cramming their brains with more info. It’s rare that juku would hire native English teachers since they would focus on grammar (being taught in Japanese, of course…) but there are also after school English schools called “eikaiwa”. There are big names ones like Aeon, ECC and the troubled NOVA, and then smaller ones that are owned by, usually, a middle aged Japanese woman who studied abroad and wants to share her love of English with children (correct me if I’m wrong, guys!!)

How is this different to an ALT/JET job?

Well first of all, your salary would be less. It may even be commission based (I had some friends who were to build up their student base and only then made a decent wage.)

Your hours would be different, too. An ALT works from 8am -4pm. An Eikaiwa teacher might work something like 2pm – 10pm. It means that these two different creatures don’t get to hang out so much as their schedules are totally opposite.

Like I mentioned above, as an ALT I went into classrooms and mainly stood at the back until the teacher needed me to say something, then the kids would repeat after me. Occasionally I’d plan a 15 minute game or something. I worked as an eikaiwa teacher part time when I was at uni in Japan. It was a very small school, run by a nice Japanese lady. I was to teach alongside a real idiot British guy (the type who has lived in Japan for 10 years but speaks only a few words), and in an evening the two of us would teach 4 elementary classes back to back. We’d start with a welcome song, then maybe do some alphabet workbook activities, then maybe read them a story and finish off with some shadowing (a strange practice they like to do in Japan where the kids listen to, say, a fairy tale cd, and try to mimic what they say in real-time. The kids have no idea what they are saying. I have no idea if it’s any good or not.)

TELL ME MORE!!

I can’t personally, but I have found some pretty great links that explain what it’s like working at one of these companies.

Keeping the Peace in Japan working for AEON

What can I do with a BA in Japanese Studies – unnamed school

Susie Somewhere at Peppy Kids Club

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There are, of course other ways to get to Japan. Perhaps you can get a gig as a foreign model, or you are a real life teacher and get a job at a university. But these are the three most popular ways of getting to live and experience Japan, and this post is LONG ENOUGH.

Have you ever lived in Japan? I’d love to hear how you got there and what you did!

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