A Day in the Life – Part 1
So I thought I’d talk about the difference between an average school day in Canada and Japan. I guess the best way to explain the most glaring differences between the systems is to narrate a typical day stopping as I go to highlight the points of interest. I should also stress that this is from the point of view of someone working at a rural junior high school. While a lot of what I’ll explain is most likely common throughout the country it would be presumptions of me to declare it the Japanese Way.
I’ll use myself as the main character of this story: Andrew, 26 year old male, mostly trollish in appearance. Our plucky protagonist steps out the door of his old, but oh-so-cheap, apartment and jumps on his bike, ready to start his commute. Without finishing page 1 we’ve already hit upon a difference. While Andrew is afforded the great freedom of choosing which road to take, the option being a high traffic narrow road or a higher traffic narrower road, the students don’t have this luxury. Students that bike to school, which accounts for most of them, are required to follow a predetermined bike route, stay in a single file line, and walk their bikes over all train crossings. “All well and good but impossible to enforce” you say, firm in your beliefs. To make sure this happens, teachers and other community members stand along the bike paths and monitor the students as they make their way to school.
So we’ve made it to school and Andrew parks his bike at the back of the bike parking lot. The bike parking is also enforced. Students are given specific locations to park and it is separated by grade and gender. As Andrew makes his way to the front door he enjoys the sing song “good mornings” of the good students and ohayogozaimasus’ of the lazier lot. It all sounds so perfect, almost staged. That’s because it kind of is. Saying hello in the morning to teachers and other students is something that is judged and graded on each students report card under the heading of aisatsu; greetings. Choosing to believe the students are more interested in an honest hello than getting an A, Andrew makes his way into the school and immediately takes his shoes off. Outdoor shoes are a big no no in a lot of traditional Japanese interiors and the school is no exception. While this might not be a mind blowing revelation perhaps the shoe styles are. No one really cares what you are wearing as long as it’s not the pair you came in with. As such, most teachers just throw on whatever is comfortable, looks be dammed. This creates quite a visual clash where teachers walking around in their Sunday best are also sporting the latest in Hello Kitty slipper fashion.
Andrew is now into the school and enters the staff room. He gives his best ohayogozaimasu and the teachers respond in kind. I don’t think these ones are graded. I’ve never worked as a teacher in Canada so I can’t really speculate on differences within the staffroom but one thing that struck me, from the perspective of a former student, is the free flow of students into and out of the staffroom to talk with or hand things to the teachers. I’ve always remembered the staffroom as being this object of great mystery. The room where teachers plotted and schemed locked away from the prying eyes of students. Hell, it’s more commonly referred to as a teachers lounge. Sounds like a dingy place you’d find off some backstreet. Sign out front neon light with a flickering E. Low lighting, cheap décor, and contemporary Jazz humming low in the background. The aging math teacher, cigar in hand, drunk waltzes over to the young, attractive English teacher marking her stack of essays on a marbled counter top – “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”
The first major event of the day is about to begin: the staff meeting. Being that he’s not Japanese and has no real responsibilities or extra curricular activities at the school Andrew spends his time during the staff meetings working on his Japanese listening skills and polishing off a cup of coffee. The morning meeting goes over the basics: the day’s schedule, events past or present, current issues at the school, and student problems around town. Here again is another major departure between Japanese teachers and their western counterparts. A Japanese students’ homeroom teacher is in many ways considered a second parent to the child. They are expected not only to educate the students, but keep up to date with their goings on at home, life, and around the town. In many cases, should a student get in trouble out on the town their homeroom teacher is the first to get a call. After the meeting ends there’s maybe another 20 minutes or so until the bell chimes (fun fact: many Japanese schools use the chime of Big Ben as the school bell) and it’s on to classes for the day.
The Japanese classroom. Let that idea marinate for a little bit in your head. What are your immediate assumptions? The teacher, sensei, standing proud in front of row after row of a subservient student body. Each part of the cog playing their part. The whole system working in harmonious order. Well I regret to inform you that students are students regardless where you are in the world. For every stereotypical quiet studious Japanese kid there’s either a student that never pays attention, one that never speaks, one you wish would stop speaking, and three sleeping in the back. There’s certainly an overall formality present in a Japanese classroom that isn’t seen at home. For example, I’ve never seen a student late for class and at the beginning and ending of every lesson the students stand in unison and bow. That being said it’s still full of all the tropes you’d expect from the life and times of a Junior High School classroom. Our hero steps into the lions den as the students slowly file back into the class. They’ve taken their seats. Big Ben again rings though the halls, signaling the beginning of the period. The congregation rises, bows, and takes a seat. Andrew takes a breath, dons a smile and starts with a tried and true.
“Good morning everyone!”
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Hello Sidney. My name is Andrew Scales. I’m a fourth year JET originally from St. Catharines, Ontario; not too far from Terry’s picturesque hometown of Hamilton. Terry has asked me to guest write a few blog posts and I’m more than happy to oblige. To be completely honest with you I’ve never actually written a blog, nor do I really read them. I’m not quite sure how much weight my opinions hold so forgive me while I test the waters. It’s been a few years since I’ve written anything of value for native English speakers so I apologize if the prose is lacking. While I may not be able to give you flowery descriptions of Japanese society I can, quite proficiently, tell you that “I like dogs.” Anyway, on with the show.
I thought as my first post I’d talk about the reason I’ve found myself assisting Terry in not only daily life, but this blog as well: a very Japanese mentor system known as the senpai-kohai relationship. I guess the easiest way to translate the phrase (read: Wikipedia definition) would be a senior-junior system of assistance. Right away I need to clarify that this has nothing to do with age. Being generous, Terry was witness to the rise and fall of empires before I was born. In terms of life experiences as a whole, Terry is clearly my senpai; the wise old sage he is. In turn I am the kohai; the junior, milk still wet on my lip. While Japan certainly has a reverence for it’s elders, age isn’t really the focus of the senpai-kohai relationship. Senpai-kohai relations develop through two individuals that work in the same company, are part of the same club, and even belong to the same social circle. It’s an unwritten and mostly assumed social contract in which the individual with more experience, such as joining a company or club at an earlier date, becomes the senpai and acts as a guide for individual with less experience; the kohai. The kohai, in return, respects the senpai for their guidance. As you can probably see, even though age isn’t strictly the focus of the relationship, more often than not the senpai is the literal elder of the two.
I’m not trying to imply that there’s no comparable system of mentors and proteges in Western society (thanks again Wikipedia!) but the level to which it seems to permeate society here is unlike anything I’ve seen at home. Regardless of the social or societal situation, those in Japan with more experience seem to instinctively assist those with less while those with less instinctively respect and appreciate the help of their mentors. It’s a relationship that develops naturally and can last a lifetime. Japanese people will refer to their senpais and kohais by those same titles long after the relationship has ended. It’s also not a mutuality exclusive concept. A kohai will become someones senpai with enough experience and vice versa when someone enters into a new situation in which they lack experience. To make it even more complex all of this isn’t to say that it’s an oppressive or rigid system. Nobody is trying to cement a legacy or bring out the whip to demand perfection. It’s simply a benign system of paying-it-forward that exists for the greater good of society. No matter which social situation you find yourself in, all over Japan you can seen the effects of the relationship at work. All of this of course exists within the framework of the larger Japanese concept of social harmony but that’s a story for another day and one I can’t quite put my finger on. I don’t think any foreigner can.
So here I am. Writing a blog post for Terry. An idea that came out of helping him with a presentation on Vancouver Island. Assistance that came out of helping my new kohai at work. Just as Terry’s predecessor aided me when I arrived in Japan I’m aiding him. At the end of the day you can call it being a good person, or Canadian for short; however, I think somewhere, deep down inside, all my time in Japan has guided my actions just a little. It happened to me. It’ll happen to almost everyone that spends any significant portion of time here.
When in Rome…
I have today (Monday), off work in lieu of having worked on Saturday; parents day. It was an interesting day. I awoke at 6:30am, the usual time and it was cold. Compared with Sidney it’s not particularly cold but, in Japan there is no real central heating or insulation so there is a pervasive and pernicious dampness that always reminds you that it is winter. Even in the schools, although the classes are heated, the hallways are not and you are well-advised to wear a sweater. Many students, and adults for that matter, wear surgical masks at this time of year to curtail the transmission of flu and colds. It’s interesting to consider that something North Americans would not even consider for a moment, probably saves the Japanese health care system the equivalent of millions of dollars a year. But that’s Japan: It’s about the common good. But I digress: Saturday!
It was cold. By noon though, the temperature had risen to 18 degrees. It was like summer. There was only one English class scheduled and I attended with Andrew (who is in his fourth year as an ALT) and of course, the sensei. Sensei is a great teacher, knowledgeable and with a great sense of humor that engages her students. She drew upon Andrew to assist the lesson and I pretty much stood there for 50 minutes with a rictus-like grin on my face doing nothing. I cannot fault sensei though, she and Andrew have worked together for at least a year and clearly have a very comfortable working relationship. With parents lining the back of the room, she had to bring her “best game” to the classroom and Andrew “works the room” like Sinatra in Las Vegas. The students adore him.
On Andrew’s recommendation we went to a curry restaurant for lunch. The food was great. Prior to moving to Japan I’d eaten in dozens of Japanese restaurants in Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto, but have never seen curry on any menu. In Japanese supermarkets, curry dishes generally assume more space than the cheese, bread and breakfast cereals sections combined.
I arrived in Niimi on August 20th and to date, have not really left the town. Naomi has actually sent me an email that included various train schedules and destinations. I could defend my un-peripatetic lifestyle by saying that I had to wait for a wi-fi connection, acclimate to schools, and learn how to pay bills. Truth is though, I’ve already done those things and I really should be doing some travelling. I’ ll be going to Kyoto in December. Kyoto, the original capital of Japan, is noted for having more than 1,700 Buddhist temples, 300 Shinto shrines, gardens, palaces, museums and galleries. I’m looking forward to visiting.
Rather than stay at a hotel, I’m hoping to book a room at a Ryokan. A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese Inn. Royokans , at their best , preserve the history of traditional Japanese Inns. Owners take pride in preserving a building that reflects a traditional atmospheric history. Preservation of a true Ryokan is traditionally considered to be more important than the comfort of the guests.
Ta for now.
Since getting a wifi connection the quality of my life has improved immeasurably. I can now receive emails, write this blog at my leisure, watch Netflix, download books on Kindle, music on ITunes (the new Arcade Fire – Reflector) and watch Ray Donovan, Dexter, The Newsroom, Treme, Portlandia and Sons of Anarchy (a guilty pleasure) at my leisure. With Andrew’s help I had a HDMI cable delivered to my door from Amazon Japan (no delivery charge) for less than $10.00, enabling me to connect my laptop to my 32″ flat-screen TV. Life is pretty good and, touch wood, it continues to get easier.
That became apparent to me on Friday when I went to my “secondary” school, Minami. It is more rural than Daiichi, my “home” school and, because I only work there on Fridays, I’ve never really had the opportunity to establish much of a relationship with either the students or the teachers. Although there were no classes that day due to a typhoon alert, teachers were expected to show up and spend the day working in the office. Nonetheless, with no students in the building, the atmosphere was fairly casual. The principal, or Kochi (who speaks English well and has visited Sidney), invited me into his office and we had a very easygoing and enjoyable conversation about Sidney and how I was adjusting to Japanese society. Afterwards, because no lunch was served at the school due to the cancellation of classes, the teachers invited me to join them for lunch at a Chinese restaurant about a half mile from the school. It was a really great afternoon and one of the English teachers kindly gave me a lengthy ride home through the driving typhoon rain. Without a word being directly spoken about the subject, my concerns about classroom participation at Minami were completely allayed. I know it will be much easier for me there in the future. That’s Japan. There seems to me to be this astonishing capacity to intuit people’s concerns and respond to them, often in an oblique but effective way. Even before arriving in Japan it did seem to me that Naomi had an almost prescient ability to anticipate my concerns.
In marking the English homework of Japanese students, one of the most common errors is the misplacement or lack of the commonly found English articles a, an, and the. Japanese does not have articles; understandably then, it’s difficult for a student to appreciate the difference between “I have dog” and “I have a dog”. Another difference between the two languages is that Japanese has two tenses, present and past. There is no future tense; it is implied from the context of the conversation. The present tense is used for future and habitual action. In some ways Japanese is quite simple: in other ways (Kanji), it is very complex. A bit like the country itself.
The Daimo Festival commemorating the annual walk of the Samurai that paid tribute to the Shogun in Edo, is held every October 15th in Niimi. As it most often falls on a weekday, I was fortunate to get a half day off school to attend. We (Naomi, Alex-ALT and myself) arrived a little early and were escorted to a sheltered area where we either knelt or sat cross-legged on cushions to await the parade. Traditionally, anyone who attempted to rise above ground level during the procession was apparently decapitated on the spot. Small mounds of sand in the shape of a mountain and capped with salt still dot the parade route to better facilitate the cleaning up of spilled blood afterwards. Tactfully I suppose, our host neglected to mention the significance of the sand but Alex, who is pretty well-versed in Japanese culture mentioned it to me. It seemed as good an explanation as any other for the sand. Although I didn’t see anyone beheaded on Tuesday (kidding of course), it is still considered good form to remain seated as the procession passes. Hence the low angle of most of the photos I took. I was pleased that my friends Tsukasa and Masa (seen in the photo in front of the shrine) emailed me a couple of photos for the blog!
Alex got the half day off work because some of his students were in the parade. He teaches elementary school so many of his students are quite young. As they passed us it seemed they were quite surprised to see Alex and spontaneously broke ranks with the procession to come over and give Alex a high-five. It was a pretty cool moment that I’m sure Alex appreciated. Along the route the “samurai”, bearing the shrines that are quite heavy, periodically shake and tip them violently in an attempt to awaken the gods within. It’s understood that among parade participants sake consumption begins rather early in the day at the Daimo Festival so the violent shaking of the shrines seemed as enthusiastic as it was ceremonial.
It was an unforgettable afternoon and, like Alex, I was delighted to be there. Being included in, and given the opportunity to witness a cultural event that dates back centuries and is pretty much totally alien to one’s own experience is an honor. I should point out that the Daimo Festival is no doubt far more subtle and nuanced than I have described but I can only pass on what I’ve heard and read. Suffice to say , it was a great afternoon that I’ll long remember.
But there’s more.
Afterwards our hostess took us on a tour of the very house we sat in front of for the parade. Not particularly auspicious from the street, it was astonishingly beautiful within. Apparently it had been an inn or hotel at one time and dated back to the Edo era (more than 250 years). Although there was nothing to suggest it was in any way a public building, there were rooms preserved with a museum-like attention to detail. Art, china, maps, sculpture and historical artifacts were perfectly displayed in a labyrinth-like building of steep staircases and beautiful rooms. It seems there was a private residence attached to this museum-like building but, not speaking Japanese (yet!); I can’t say. Like so many other places in Niimi, it had a channel of water diverted from the Takahashi River running through it. The river in Niimi courses through the town, sustaining it, like blood through a body. That may sound a tad pretentious but it’s true: I suppose the diversionary channels originally provided fresh water to homes but they now sustain rice fields and gardens and the ubiquitous gurgling water is heard everywhere. Every night I fall asleep to the sound of clean flowing water.
Having had the opportunity to enjoy a Japanese Daimo Festival, it was a pleasure on Saturday (yesterday) to reciprocate I suppose, and assist in helping with the Halloween Party at the Niimi College. Funekoshi-sensei, the teacher I assist in the special needs class (my favorite), has told me that Halloween was unheard of in Japan when she was young. Although they do not “trick or treat” door to door, they do now have parties and Halloween displays are ubiquitous everywhere. Andrew, Nathan, Stacey, Alex, David, and myself pedaled to the college yesterday morning to help out with the party. The kids were were quite young and we read a couple of Halloween books, judged their costumes (everyone got a medal), and handed out candy. Yes, the kids were adorably cute! We had a lot of fun.
With 4,360 participants from more than 40 countries in 2012, the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET), is the largest teaching exchange program in the world. Referred to as JETs, participants are hired as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs), and placed in schools within a Japanese Prefecture (district), in my case the Prefecture of Okayama. I’m a bit of an anomaly in that, although I’m employed as an ALT, I am the only ALT I’m aware of who is not a JET; a fact readily evinced by the fact that I’m more than twice the age of my fellow ALTS. In short, give or take a few years, I am roughly twice the age of my contemporaries.
With regard to my fellow ALTs I’d have to say that the selection process (which to a certain extent I may have circumvented), must have been fairly rigorous: Without exception these are some of the brightest, committed and most articulate people I know. Care for a wee chin-wag about the films of Altman or Scorsese, imagery and symbolism in Borge’s novels or Leonard Cohen’s importance as a Canadian singer, poet and icon? No problem: These are typical conversations I’ve had just recently. Of the fourteen ALTs (I believe) in and around Niimi, I work with three of them at two Junior High schools; Daiichi and Minami.
Nathan (from one of my favorite cities; Portland, Oregon) teaches at Minami, which is a little more rural than Daiichi. Minami is my “secondary” school and I only work there on Fridays. Months before leaving Sidney for Japan I emailed Nate asking him what I might expect when I arrived in Japan. Any trepidation I had about coming to Japan was allayed by his off-the-cuff, informative and funny three-page reply. His email correspondence really set my mind at ease and working with him in the classroom has been a learning experience (he’s in his fifth and final year as an ALT). I shamelessly rip-off his teaching style and mannerisms in my classes at Daiichi. On weekends I’ve enjoyed having a Heineken with Nate at my favorite pub, Nemunoke. How can you not like a pub that plays jazz and has posters of John Coltrane and James Dean?
Andrew. I don’t know anyone who has immersed himself in Japanese culture with a greater commitment than Andrew. In his fourth year as an ALT, Andrew has completed advanced courses in Japanese and, if he is not fully bilingual, is very close to it. He tells me he has problems with Japanese verb conjugation – I have problems saying hello! He and Naomi Sugi are the two people who have most assisted me in dealing with the practical realities (banking, bill paying etc.) faced by newcomers to the country. Andrew teaches an evening English class once a week at a local community center that he graciously allows me to attend. What I really love about the class is that the students (middle-aged adults) come as much to socialize in English as much as they do strictly to learn. Some have been attending for years. A woman brings tea and snacks for the break after the first hour. We play English-learning games like Hangman and Scrabble; it is a pleasure to be there. Andrew is from Port Dalhousie which is very close to my original hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. Only the university is pronounced ” Dal-Housey” by the way – most people in Southern Ontario say “Da-Loozie”. With respect to teaching ESL to Japanese students Andrew may well be “the smartest guy in the room”. The students adore him! Daiichi is Andrew’s secondary school and I work with him on Mondays and Thursdays.
Stacey, now in her second year, is the other American ALT I work with. She’s from California and has a very confident and easy-going classroom manner. She is attuned to the nuances of the Japanese English teacher and intuitively knows exactly when to contribute and when to stand back. To my mind, knowing exactly where you are with respect to the “sensei” is the most important part of being an ALT and Stacey is quite brilliant in that regard. Again, as with Nate and Andrew, I blatantly steal from Stacey. She is at Daiichi on Wednesdays.
The other ALTS I know but do not work with in Niimi are Oana, Andrea, David, Alex, and Jack. Although I’ve never met her prior to coming to Japan, I have a particular affinity for Oana because she worked in Sidney. She doesn’t suffer fools kindly and has a great sense of humor. At the last ALT dinner (at a terrific restaurant) it was Oana who motivated the “room” to open up and talk about themselves. Andrea is a little more reserved than Oana (they live in the same building and hang out together) and is writing a historical fiction novel based during the French revolution. I hope it gets published – that’s what I mean about capable, accomplished people. She has promised to give me a brief tutorial on how to text using a cell phone. I don’t often see David, Alex or Jack but they all seem like pretty interesting people and it’s likely I will bump into them in the near future.
Regardless of how hot it might be, Japanese women will cover their arms to avoid getting a suntan. Tanned skin is considered “common”, I’ve been told.
Large trucks in Japan always look as if they have just rolled off the assembly line. Lots of chrome, freshly painted and sparkling clean. I have never seen a dirty truck in Japan.
By 7:00 am on a school day I’ve pretty much showered, dressed and had a small breakfast. It’s about that time I put on a podcast of CBC’s, World at Six and step out onto my small balcony with a coffee. Shortly thereafter I see the first of the students bicycling past the building on their way to school (my school; Daiichi). When I arrive at Daiichi, also by bicycle, about 45 minutes later, there are dozens of students on the playing field playing the sport of the “Club” to which they belong. Most Clubs are of an athletic nature, baseball, volleyball, tennis etc., but there also clubs associated with various hobbies and arts. Membership in a club is compulsory and activities are scheduled both before and after school hours.
Although the first class doesn’t start until 8:50 am, I like to be at my desk well before 8:00. I take off my shoes at the entrance of the school, put on my “indoor” shoes and go to class. Most teachers are already at their desks by the time I arrive. By the time they finish supervising after-school club activities, it may well be after 7:00 pm by the time they get home. Upon entering the office in the morning I address the staff saying “Ohayo ga zai masu” (good morning) and bow. They reply in unison and also bow. I get a coffee, sit down and check my schedule of classes for the day.
There are six 50 minute classes per day plus a lunch break. On any day I have between three and five classes. There are three grades in Junior High and the age of the students is generally between about 12 an 14. There are also much smaller special needs classes that now have no more than three students.
Special Needs is my favorite class. We have a very talented artist who is autistic and popular with pretty much everyone in the school. Last week we took these large, zucchini-shaped gourd-like plants, cut them into sections and boiled them in a very large pot. I had no idea what they were but it seemed pretty clear they were gross and clearly inedible. It was only after we’d cooked them, drained them in cold water and scraped out the flesh and seeds that I realized what they were. Loofahs! Once dried, identical to the ones you might buy in a bath shop. Apparently the flesh of the plant also has astringent cleaning properties.
The English teachers I work with are smart, articulate, and damned good at their profession. Except for the fact that, regardless of how well you know a learned language, you will never fully grasp the nuances of pronunciation, cadence and things like the use of idioms and metaphors as well as a native-born English speaker; they would not need ALTs at all. They are certainly aware of this and, to a certain extent, are no doubt thinking, “This is MY class. What do I really need this gai-jin for?” The answer is simple: They need the ALT to be totally engaged in speaking to the class: That is really what it is all about. If you can stand in front of 30 kids, sing dumb songs and clearly articulate in English at the level the students are comfortable with, you will be ok. It is NOT a job for shy people. It is also very gratifying in the middle of a class to glance at the teacher and get that nod that says, “Yes, we are both on the same page here – you are doing ok”. (that happened to me on Friday and it was a very welcome validation).
Class begins with everyone standing to attention. The students bow (rei) and the teachers return the bow. I do a “warm up” asking the students how they are, what the weather is like, the date and the time. I then distribute a short English-learning game quiz that I’ve prepared that might focus on pronouns for example. I’ll read English from the lesson book and then assist the sensei (teacher) for the remainder of the class. It gets easier with each passing day but, I don’t mind admitting, it was pretty intimidating at first.
Lunches are big, nutritious and varied. On any given day we might have fish, chicken, soup or beef as an entree with a side dish of salad, dessert and a small bottle of milk. Everyone in the school gets a lunch and Wednesday is my designated day to “clean up” for the office staff afterwards.
Clean up? At 3:30 pm, after the last class, I stand in front of the computer classroom (my designated clean-up area), as the students line up in rows in front of me. A student says rei (bow), we bow and then clean the room. Kids with a damp cloths squat low, lean forward with the cloth on the floor and run from one end of the room to the other, thus cleaning the floor. Other kids sweep and wipe down the desks. As I am the only Sensei in the room, the mood is pretty casual and the is a lot of kidding around. It was in the clean-up that I initially established a rapport with some of the students.
Before leaving sometime after 4:00 pm, I stand, bow and apologize for leaving early. The teachers bow and thank me for my effort. I am almost always the first to leave.
Obviously much more goes on but that is a “bare bones” account of my working day. With that “framework” in place, I’ll try to be a little more casual and anecdotal in my next post