Sitting on the fence

After stepping in to my position as an ALT half way through the last academic year in Japan, I found it quite hard at times to earn the trust of some students who had been somewhat left in the lurch by the two previous incumbents of my position that year.  All in all, I was happy with the progress I made by the end of the year and was looking forward to getting the benefit or starting where a teacher should – at the beginning of the school year.  Three full weeks on from the beginning of the new year at junior high, though, it still feels like the term is just getting underway.  Even this week, many classes were still getting their first proper lesson, after the various introductions, special events for new students, etc.  Among those special events was a showcase by the school sports clubs, showing the 1st graders which talented sports teams they had the choice of joining.  I suspect many will have found the choice between a baseball team that can’t catch, a basketball team that can’t dribble, a football team that can’t score, and a table tennis team that can’t rally, a difficult one.

Still, even with classes creaking slowly back into motion, normal service was quickly resumed for me, the ALT.  For one thing, those in charge of me at the schools still seem mysteriously reluctant to tell me where I should be and what I should be doing at any particular time, meaning that my first class of the year was missed, as I sat in the teachers’ room blissfully unaware that I was supposed to be in a 2nd grade class.  At around 10:30 (I start at 8:15 and the first lesson starts at 8:35) on my first day back, I had the following conversation with the teacher in charge of my schedule;

Teacher – “Ah, sorry Andrew, here is your schedule for this month”

Me – “Oh, thanks”

Teacher – “Did you go to 2-1 first lesson?”

Me – “Uh, no………. you just gave me my schedule 5 seconds ago”

Now, back home, if someone had shown such a lack of care toward something directly affecting my job, they would have been on the sharp end of a sarcastic outburst at the very least, and an abusive one followed by childish mocking for at least a day after at the worst.  This is Japan though, and being the outsider somehow assimilates my default behaviour with that of my Japanese colleagues, which means I say nothing, and don’t let it bother me in the least.  In Japanese culture, people very rarely show frustration, or make criticism, as a result of the well known phenomenon of honne and tatemae, by which Japanese keep their feelings and opinions hidden (demonstration courtesy of Bush and Koizumi below).  Thinking back on previous posts, it’s surprising I’ve never mentioned this phenomenon before, as it is so fundamental to how working relationships operate here.  The reason I have started to behave the same way, is quite different, I think.  For me, it’s simpler than the lasting effect of hundreds of years of military rule and agrarian co-operatives; I know that complaining will not make a blind bit of difference, and I know that people will not look poorly on me for something I have little or no control over.  Not only that, but it’s hard not to act humbly when you are functionally illiterate in this country.

Bush – “Welcome to ‘murica Mr Koizumi”
Koizumi (tatemae) – “Very pleased to be here, Bush San”
Koizumi (honne) – “You retarded, burger-munching invasion monkey”

Back home, I’d have been frustrated because the result of someone else’s poor form would likely not only have inconvenienced me, but made me look responsible in the eyes of others affected by it.  Others affected would not be slow to seek answers and apportion blame, but here that doesn’t happen.  I’d assume that people still quite naturally apportion the same blame in their own heads, but because no one says anything, and because even the slightest inconvenience will always be met with apology from the very conscientious Japanese, nothing gets blown out of proportion, and these things are forgotten in an instant.  By me, at least.  Sitting on the fence here is remarkably comfortable even for someone who can be outspoken like myself.

Having a couple of visitors over in Japan and seeing how tourists conduct themselves here in general has put the misguided foreign perception of the Japanese in focus for me.  My first visitor reminder me of the angst shown by some of my fellow newcomers to the country last October, worried as he was that he would somehow be offending the locals at almost every turn.  As it turns out, he had reason to worry, as within a matter of hours he had actually broken two of the major taboos here, first by talking on his phone on the train, and then by offering a tip at a restaurant, before I had time to school him.

My next visitor stated that she felt a little uncomfortable with the relentless politeness and kindness shown as we travelled around Japan.  Although I can see where she was coming from, I assured her that despite her impression that the Japanese were “easily offended”, it really isn’t the case (as long as you don’t offer to tip them).  The Japanese really do not expect visitors to behave like the locals, and being resident here, I’ve started to notice the comic attempts of foreigners to try to show the Japanese that they understand Japanese culture.  For example, the guy serving at a yakitori stall a couple of weeks ago would have needed every ounce of his tatemae strength to resist at least a wry smile at the gaijin who handed him his payment with 2 hands and a deep bow, in a show of respect only used in business transactions.  I just laughed; clearly my tatemae needs work.  If only he’d observed the locals, he’d have seen them behave barely any differently to an American or European in the same situation.

Starchy Japanese business etiquette at work

Back in school, no such starchy social conditioning is shown by the Japanese kids themselves.  The elementary school kids especially are a long way off the age at which adults expect them to behave in a truly Japanese way.  I’ve already written about being treated like a rock star in this blog, but with a new year of 5th graders to teach, I seem to have raised the bar from rock star to god like.  I was a little worried that the plans for the first of their regular lesson was a little light on substance, but all the same I was determined that an easy lesson for them should mean plenty opportunity to let them have fun and build their confidence, which puts me on the front foot for the year. The lesson covered simple international greetings such as hello, namaste and bonjour.  Hmmm, a Scotsman teaching French…..where have I seen that before?

Anyway, I decided not to try recreating Groundskeeper Willie’s finest moment, but despite that lessons went very well.  The downside of that is the more the kids like you, the more likely they are to use you as a climbing frame, or demand you play Janken with them at every turn, outside the classroom.

If my ego was in any danger of growing too big, it was predictably brought down a day later when some of my junior high students called me Jason; Jason being one of those previous incumbents I mentioned, who apparently left the job after a month.  How on earth could they remember the name of a one-hit wonder instead of a chart topper like me?  I know not to take it personally though, as one of my colleagues – a white Canadian – spent the entire year last year being called Delroy – the name of his black Jamaican predecessor.  It’s hard to imagine them confusing the two teachers, so I can only assume that many students think it’s his job title.  It makes me feel sorry for the male successors of female ALTs called Nancy and Jessie.

5 responses to “Sitting on the fence

  1. Heh, you hit a lot of points.

    I wish I could get over the smaller things. Well, I am teaching myself not to take things so super seriously. But you’re right: back home a scheduling mistake like that would have reflected poorly on the person who missed the class rather than the person who forgot to hand over the schedule…unless some fine sarcasm was dished out!

    I’m sure that I am overly polite and bowing and etc to the teachers at work…but honestly I don’t know how else to interact with a lot of them who I rarely talk with. It really is quite easy to be humble when you are not functionally literate in a foreign country.

  2. Pingback: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park | nihonalt·

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