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Apr 23, 2011 10:53 PM
So it's been over a year and a half since I've left Arizona for Kagawa; a little over a year since I've left Kagawa for Ehime; 11 months since I've left Ehime for Hiroshima; and 4 weeks since I've left Hiroshima for Niigata. Ever since I've made the decision to come back to Japan back in 2008, I knew that I wanted to stay here for maybe at least 3-5 years, and if my first city didn't work out, I'd move to a new city and see how life would work there, etc. So far, in less than 2 years, I've lived in 4 places in Japan. Did everything work out the first time? Well, yes and no. I thought things were working out back in Kagawa. Sure I had a few obstacles here and there, but I worked them out and a good portion of the teachers I worked with always praised me for my progress by January. I really loved my base school (which was right by my home) a lot and I was close to everybody there. By that time, I made a decision that I wanted to stay. But then, my weasel of a boss at the contract company I was working for at the time releases me and gives me no reason. I had this happen to another friend of mine who was working at Okayama at the time, but his circumstances were different, but still, the reasons they gave him were very trivial and worst of all, inconsistent. I had a lot of plans and this really screwed things up.

Thankfully, I had a friend in Ehime, and he hooked me up with a job. But I had some complications at the time that really messed up my plans for Golden Week, etc. Hell, all the crap I went through at the end of February until May really messed up my plans not just for Golden Week, but for summer vacation as well. By the middle of May, I got another job in Hiroshima. Hiroshima wasn't 100% the fresh start I needed, but I just did this job just to get back on my feet and just to be in Hiroshima again. After my home stay in Hroshima back in high school, I knew one day, I would be living there again, and hey, a boy hood dream of mine came true. I lived right by Itsukshima island and I made some great friends in Hiroshima that I will never forget. I can't exactly say I had a love/hate relationship with my job, but I just didn't feel the same appreciation for my efforts, contribution and accomplishments as I did back in Kagawa, even though I did get along with my co-workers at my junior high school.

I was teaching high school in Kagawa, but I was teaching elementary and junior high in Hiroshima. And I will tell you that being an Assistant Language Teacher at the junior high and senior high schools are very opposite experiences, while teaching elementary school, depending on the homeroom teacher's mood, I'm free to act like I'm Adam Sandler and/or Chris Farley. I'll admit it feels good to be paid a descent amount of money to be a human tape recorder for early stage teenagers and to be bored to death (and to be a 1990s SNL performer a couple times a week), but when attempting to be productive or contributing, I just didn't like being shot down about it, while it was more encouraged in the high schools. Even after a week and a half of teaching in high school again, I feel these differences. Plus, I'm really awful with 13 year and 14 year old kids.....or maybe they're awful with me....well, I don't know, but I'm much better with elementary and high school kids for some reason. But the circumstances of the education system in Japan, especially for junior high, I can understand why a significant percentage of ALTs are reduced to being human tape recorders.

Well, I'll take the time to give you a brief look into Japan's education system. Keep in mind I am only speaking based on my experiences. In Japan, the ALT world has this saying, "every situation is different," and hopefully, someone has a different experience than mine that can contribute something more distinct.But moving on, yes, Japan has one of the most respected and demanding education systems in the world, but it has it's not perfect and it sure has its problems. If anything, there are some things that I strongly disagree about their system which I think is counter productive for society and development. Compulsory education in Japan is first through ninth grade, and high school is actually not required but more than 90% attend, and 2% I believe actually drop out. Most high schools are prefecture-sanctioned as opposed to city-sanctioned like in America. To get into high school, students have to take entrance exams. The prefectures have their own exams, and private schools have their own. Some high schools are low, medium, and high level.

Junior high school curriculum is based on getting these students ready for the entrance exams, and us ALTs being born in a foreign country whether it'd be America, England, Canada, and/or Australia or wherever, we really are in no position to of course really teach English we idealistically want to at times. Because teachers are focused on getting these kids ready for exams, there is really no opportunity to teach English as a communication tool at that particular level. A Japanese student can understand the functions of English grammar, but really wouldn't know how to apply it. A lot of the system is revolved around just rote memorization for the sake of exams, but not on applying what they learned. I heard from a former supervisor of mine that the problem isn't exclusive to English, but in other subjects as well. Yes, it is very strange, but it is what it is. At my junior high in Hiroshima, I had very little opportunities to really do a cultural exchange in the lessons and it was mostly textbook reading and the teacher explaining vocabulary and grammar, and me just being a human tape recorder as I wrote before. I just mostly stood in the back and just took notes and I must admit, in some ways, it is now paying off.

Even though ALTs may have no opportunity to have students apply what they learn in class, the things you can do out of class is I wouldn't say limitless, but a lot more relaxed. You can talk between classes, before school, after school, and during club activities. In Japan, teachers are given great respect and even at the junior high level, lessons are teacher-center oriented so students are required to be obedient, and at most times, they are, though there will be a class clown now and then. As for the exams, it is of course Japanese based which I hope saying that explains it all because it would be too long and drawn out to explain the high school entrance system. But knowing Japanese, at times, I was given opportunity to familiarize myself with the exam system and help students get ready.

Even though I previously established that "every situation is different," I'm sure a huge amount of people in my line of work have had to experience this. There will be students who will not come to school for whatever reason. It could be mental health issues in relation to bullying, having trouble with studies, or is just a troubled student. With the students who don't come to school and just stay home, this is called being a "hikkikomori," someone who is just withdrawn from society altogether. This is not to be confused with the otaku phenomenon where they just stay home and play games on the computer or whatever. This is a serious issue and I just don't like how the Japanese handle it, but it is how their culture and society is that is part of the problem. In Japan, despite no matter how many times you may have seen the hit anime "Evangelion," people are discouraged from acting negatively such as talking about their personal problems. The purpose of this idea is to keep the work environment energetic and happy. Heck, in most Japanese songs you may hear, you rarely hear anything negative or about how difficult life is in certain neighborhoods, etc. Most songs in Japan are made to keep people positive hence these singing fad groups from Morning Musume to AKB48.

Moving on, in America, you will always have a co-worker tell you that they're getting a divorce and what not, but you don't do that in Japan, no matter how close you are. Even though Japanese co-workers go out and get drunk almost every night, even when a person is drunk, they shouldn't talk about their personal problems. If it happens, they get that person a taxi to go home in. The whole point is to keep things positive and going. I agree that's a very good thing, but everybody has their limit and I think in Japan, a lot of people have hit their limit. Thankfully, this has not happened to anyone close to me during my experience in Japan as of yet, but Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and only a small fraction of them ever seek any professional help. In Japan, they have some very bizarre ways of trying to discourage suicide by telling them of consequences. For example, if a person jumps in front of a train, then their family has to reimburse all the passengers on that train. If someone kills his or herself in their apartment, and people move out as a result of the suicide, then the family has to pay rent for those rooms until its filled. As oppose to telling them consequences, they need to find ways of helping these people who are really sick. Just don't leave them alone, or tell them that their families will be in a huge ass debt. Also, the thing is, it is also looked down upon to seek a psychologist in Japan. It's seen as a sign of weakness. In turn, some of these Japanese people will just seclude themselves from society. Just being cooped up in your home isn't going to do anything, it's just going to make it worse.

Sadly, there are a huge number of people like this, and I'm sure every ALT has had to have students of this particular nature for whatever reasons.

Then there are students who just simply play hooky (or was it hookie?). In Japan, through the cultural idea of "giri ninjo," meaning duty and obligation, moral education is part of the curriculum. Even though Japan's system is based on the exams, moral education is also part of getting students ready for society as well. As a part of this idea, if a minor gets in trouble with the law, say for example, they were stealing, it is not the parent that is contacted, it is usually the school that is responsible. At one of my previous schools, a student was caught stealing at a SATY department chain store near the station by the school, and the police had to have a meeting with the teachers about the situation. If a minor commits a crime in America, I know the school will be informed about it, but they of course have no legal obligation to the student outside the school. Well, schools in Japan, it is not legal obligation, but more of a culture and society obligation because of "giri ninjo." Since I am a contract worker with the schools, I do not have to participate in this part of the system, but an ex-ALT I met during an orientation for my home stay when I was in high school had to pick up students at a police station at 2am.

But where does this lead to now that I've gone on a large tangent so you can get an understanding of the context to my entry? Well, here's the thing, from first to ninth grade in Japan, you can't hold a kid back a grade. When I was in jr. high, if you failed JUST ONE class, you'd have to repeat the entire grade. In Japan, it's not like that. A hikkikomori who doesn't participate and a kid who plays hooky for 95% of the year, and a kid who could fail EVERY class he or she takes will graduate and move on regardless. A part of this is of course due to culture and society differences. Japan is a group based society and it is not as multi-ethnic and religious as America. 2% of the population is foreigners and a huge fraction of those foreigners are Chinese and Koreans. The student has to be part of the group and can't be alienated or whatever. The group has to be united, etc. Not only is it a cultural thing, it's also a constitutional thing as well. Kids in Japan have a right to an education and all that which is a good thing, but I just feel the way it is, it's very abused like a red headed step-child.

Of course the media portrays Japan to the west as having some of the best students in the world, but being here first hand teaching high school, I see the problems of this system at the compulsory level carried onto the (optional) high school level in Japan. A good portion of the high schools I'm now teaching in Niigata are not at the level you see in the media. I find myself teaching things they should have learned in junior high. Heck, I'm having to teach them things I could teach elementary students. For example, a lot of my students couldn't understand the word "favorite." This is a word that is heavily taught I believe in 8th grade English classes in Japan in accordance to my copy of my notes, and the textbook I used. If anything, that word should be in their entrance exams. I just feel if they did away with this automatic grade promotion and graduation regardless of performance and attendance, I think the levels between high schools in Japan would be more equal. I don't know, but I just really don't like the idea of graduating from junior high school without having to attend a single day of class, or bombing every subject. As for those kids, as I said, will go on to high school, but low level public or private schools. Then again, I know I am living in a different country and a different culture, in the end, you can take me off America, but you can't take America off of me.

Even though my current students may not make it to Tokyo University, I of course still care about them and they are still nice, friendly, and talkative. My Friday school is actually one of the lowest level schools in Niigata city, but I still love those kids. It has been easy for me to transition there compared to the other schools because it has a boxing team and I practice with them when I'm there and on weekends. They really complain about my defense based style and my reliance on my jab way too much. I told them, it's just the way I fight and I'm not suited to the brawling nature that the Japanese are trained in. Plus, I told them a lot of American champions are defense based like Winky Wright, James Toney, Pernell Whitaker, and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. I even show them videos of these guys on my iPod touch and they don't even buy why I do that even though I humiliate their captain with my counter punching and defense. Plus, we do a lot of BJJ rolling so I can't complain. I do a lot of 10th Planet moves on these kids and they give this WTF reaction on their faces. It's a lot of fun.

With the 11th and 12th graders on the team, I'm just maus boxing or sparring with them, and with the 10th graders, I'm teaching them the basics. I also teach the kids not to telegraph punches with this trick I saw in a video with Michael Jai White and Kimbo Slice. I feel by getting involved in this way, despite their academic abilities, an ALT can get the respect of the students and other teachers. Plus, the kids like it that I've met a world champion, Ioka Kazuto, WBC minimumweight champion, and that I sparred with him and that I've met MMA fighters like Hermes Franca, etc. So, I think things are ok.

And outside of Friday, I'm at 3 other schools for the rest of the week. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I'm at a commercial high school which is down the street from my apartment. On Tuesdays, I'm at another school near my home, and on Thursday, I have to take a train to that school. So its pretty demanding that I'm teaching at my best estimate, maybe over 1000 students. It is demanding, but I wouldn't say it's a cake walk, but if you really enjoy it, it is easy to overcome the obstacles and very productive.
Posted by ParaParaJMo | Apr 23, 2011 10:53 PM | Add a comment