My Biggest Mistake in Japan


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┬áthe 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.



  1. So true, all of it. The bullying thing was one of the hardest issues to deal with when I was in Korea. My co-teacher even tried to explain to me that each student has a bully/enemy and that’s just part of their school life. I guess part of it is how much time they spend together as a class. . .? But the teachers are aware of the student relationships, and so they never, for example, assign students to random groups to do a dialogue or something. Took me a while to catch on, and not punishing the kids who made the one with the learning disability cry never stopped feeling awkward. But there’s really nothing you can do when the co-teacher won’t.
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    • Charlotte says

      Exactly. It’s the hardest thing to watch, knowing how we deal with it in the west. I found in Japan the teachers weren’t properly trained to deal with kids with disabilities either…which is another story all together…

  2. I worked across Asia Paciifc in 1 role for an American IT company. I would say that Japan was the most difficult place to work. There were so many more challenges – especially culturally – that needed to be overcome before anything got done.
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    • Charlotte says

      Completely agree. When people ask me if I’d go back there I say I’d go back to live, but not to work.

  3. Wow I really loved this post. It touches on so many points, especially about how something so simple can project volumes in terms of cultural difference.

    I totally agree with the bukatsu thing. I used to join the brass band and play the flute with my kids. I think the kids were just happy I was there, and that’s it–I bet if I started making suggestions they would start getting fed up with me too, haha).

    As for the bullying thing, I remember being stunned about all of the ‘stop za ijime’ type rallies and lectures we had throughout the year, but then I saw teachers turning a blind eye when bullying actually happened. It was nuts! I actually think bullying is much more harsh and psychological in Japan, and more needs to be done about it–not just have assemblies and then not follow up.

    Anyway, I loved this post! Makes me miss the good ‘ol teachin days.

    • Eek thank you so much!
      At the end of the day, Japan needs to decide for itself whether it wants to tackle this kind of thing. Bullying happens even with adults in the workplace, and of course we all know how Japan’s suicide rate is. If they want to sort out the mental health of their people, then it’s up to them, not up to a snot nosed Brit girl like me haha

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