Japanese Office Culture
The Short Version
1. Say hello when you enter the room and goodbye when you leave
2. Bow to everyone, and when people bow to you, return the favor.
3. Be punctual.
4. Don’t directly criticize anyone or flatly refuse anything.
5. Be sensitive to the needs and desires of others, since they are often too polite to directly express them.
6. Respect the official beginnings and endings of functions. Don’t eat until “itadakimasu” and don’t drink until the kanpai.
7. Ask your principal, vice principal, and supervisors for permission to do projects at school or take vacations
8. If someone feels your absence when you take a trip, bring back omiyage.
9. Don’t pour your own drink at parties, and make sure those next to you have something to drink themselves.
10. Express gratitude for everything!
The Short Short Version:
1. Use common sense.
2. Be considerate of others.
3. Copy what others are doing.
The Long Version:
So now you’re a Japanese schoolteacher. For me, working in the office is as interesting as working with the kids, and sometimes it’s just as challenging. Americans know that Japanese businessmen are different, but they can’t quite explain why. You’ll be learning firsthand in a fairly forgiving environment. If you have designs on international business, this experience will be invaluable. Even if you don’t learn any Japanese during your stay, you can use this experience in the future.
My philosophy about ALTs in the office is that we’re the ones who decided to move to their country, so we should play by their rules. Most people recognize we’re ignorant of their culture, but since all their other co-workers are Japanese, they’re used to their own etiquette and will subconsciously expect us to follow it, too. So the more you fit in, the more smoothly things will go. However, for better or worse people try to avoid conflict and direct criticism as much as possible, so some of you won’t be told what’s expected of you, and you won’t be corrected if you do something wrong. You must learn by watching everyone else. Just about everything I’ll mention in this talk is something I’ve messed up before. Try to not to get too stressed about it. Your good looks and charm will take you far. Good intentions will carry you the rest of the way. Being generous and good-hearted is more important than mastering reflexive memorized politeness. But the Japanese see their etiquette as the way to express a good heart, so you should still try to get the hang of it.
With apologies to those from other countries, I’m an American so I’ll be comparing Japan to that country throughout this presentation.
The Japanese emphasize doing things “the right way.” This starts with greetings, or aisatsu (挨拶). In Japan, you give someone a first impression of your character, especially how you treat other people, by the way you greet him. It’s stressed to the students constantly, so by the time they become teachers, they’re masters at it. Last year’s junior high school election speeches were about who could encourage us to do the best aisatsu, and the student council’s goal this year is to create a school that does great aisatsu.
The exchange of business cards is a good model for how to meet someone. In Japanese culture, your card, or meishi (名詞), is a symbol for your name, which is a symbol of you. Names are very important, so do your best to remember them, especially those of your coworkers and students. When someone gives you his card, receive it with two hands, bow, read the card (you can make a comment about how interesting the name is, or ask about the kanji on it), and bow for good measure. If you have your own card, you can then give it yourself. Card exchange is often at the end of an introduction so you won’t have to worry too long about what to do with it, but the important thing is to continue to visibly show your respect for the card. Continue holding the card while talking, or if you need to put it away, you can place it in your breast pocket perhaps, or in a specialty card-holder. Sticking it right in your wallet or visibly putting it in your front or back pocket is not as good. If you have your own card, of course, you can just mirror what the other person does with yours!
You’ll be bowing all the time. Greeting someone, or apologizing for something, or saying thank you, is always cause for bowing. Whenever someone bows to you, bow in return. The answer to “How deeply do I need to bow?” is “If he’s your social superior, bow as deeply as he does or more.”
The best phrase to use when you’re finishing a self-introduction is “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.” This means, “Please be kind to me.” It’s nice to ask this from someone rather than just expecting it from him, right? “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” is also used to soften actual requests, so use it and be aware of it yourself.
Try to go to all your schools just to do aisatsu four times a year. The first time you’ve probably done already: making the rounds to all your schools to introduce yourself. If you’re 2nd year or later, do it at the end of summer vacation, when you’re home from your travels. The second time is after winter break, in order to give greetings for the New Year. The third time is in the last week of March, or as close to that as your schedule permits, to give greetings for the end of the year and to say goodbye to teachers who are being transferred. The fourth time is in the first week of April, or soon after that, to greet new teachers and introduce yourself to them. (The 1st and 2nd are a tad early since new teachers are moving their things then.)
You’ll be expected to make a self-introduction during the morning meeting on your first day at each school this fall, and also on the first day of the new term in the spring.
Aisatsu does not just apply to the first meeting: it also refers to the greetings you give in daily life. When you arrive at work in the morning, you should say “Ohayou gozaimasu!” to everyone you see on the way to the staff room. When you enter, you’ll say “Ohayou gozaimasu!” to everyone again, and on the way to your seat, you should also say it to everyone you pass by on the way. If you want to be really correct, go around and say it to every person specifically on your way around the room.
If you are going out to a club sport, the post office, the Board of Education, or lunch, you should announce it to everyone in the staff room when you’re at the door. When you come back, say “Konnichi wa!” to everyone. There are two set phrases for the end of the day. If you’re leaving before other people (and you almost certainly will be), you can say “O-saki ni shitsurei shimasu,” or “please excuse me for leaving before you. Or you can say “Otsukaresama deshita!” This literally means “Your exhaustion is honorable” but more figuratively means “You worked hard today!” “Otsukaresama deshita!” is a truly all-purpose polite phrase which you can use after almost any activity. You can respond to a person who’s leaving, “Otsukaresama deshita!” or “Shitsurei shimasu!” (“No, excuse me!”) Failure to do these aisatsu at the beginning and end of the day make you look sneaky. These rules also apply to any rooms you visit, from another school’s staff room to the barber shop.
Kids are not allowed to enter the staff room without permission. When they come to the door, they must state their name and reason for entering, then ask a teacher for permission to come inside. Most often they are there for one of three things: getting one of the room keys which are right inside the door, seeing a specific teacher, or dropping off something on a teacher’s desk. Even if you don’t know Japanese, if you’re the only person in the room, you can figure out what the student wants eventually.
At the junior high, you’ll enter a classroom together with your teacher. If it’s time for class, and you can’t see your teacher in the staff room, go to the class yourself to be safe – he might have forgotten you. At elementary school, the homeroom teacher will already be in the classroom, and he will dispatch one or two students to the staff room to ask you to come to their class. The students will ask for permission to enter at the door, then come up to you and ask you to come with them, provided they aren’t too nervous. It’s not unusual for elementary school classes to begin 5 or even 10 minutes late because the homeroom teacher is taking care of other things.
Just about everything, from classes to meetings to games, has an official beginning and end. Students begin and end class. They stand together, and the representative says “From now, 3rd period/English class is beginning,” to which all respond “Hajimemasu” or “We begin.” At the end, they do the same thing: “3rd period/English class is finishing” and “Owarimasu.” Meetings and lunch are the same way. No one can begin eating until everyone says “Itadakimasu” in response to the representative, and no one can go to recess until everyone says “Gochisousama deshita.”
Call everyone who works at the school “sensei,” including the lunch coordinator, the nurse, the counselor, and the administrative assistant. Most people will respectfully call you “sensei” themselves. A few may call you “-san,” like you’re a layman…but then, if you don’t have certification then you are a layman.
Teachers refer to each other by last name, even when talking to each other, with the suffix –sensei rather than –san because sensei is a higher level title. The word for “you” is rarely used in formal conversation. So even when you are talking to Mr. Tanaka, say “Tanaka-sensei” rather than “you” and “Tanaka-sensei no” rather than “your.” Just calling someone “sensei” is okay, too, especially if you can’t remember her name.
The only person in the office referred to by first name will, in fact, be you. This seems to be an ALT tradition. At first I thought it was confusion because Asians, unlike Westerners, say their family name first and their first name second (Yao Ming, for instance, is from the Yao family). For example, my inkan says “James.” Some Japanese say it’s because Western first names are easier for everyone to remember. Perhaps it’s because Japanese people are taught that Westerners refer to each other by their first names, doing the same for you is what’s most socially appropriate. I’m used to it myself, but if you don’t like it, you can request a change. After I discussed this with people, some started calling me “Mr. Smyth”!
Everyone at school is supposed to give a genki “”Konnichi wa!” to every guest he sees. You’ll have to work on your reflexes so that when a guest comes to the staff room and says “Konnichi wa” you can spin your chair around and give it right back to him!
During work hours, there should always be someone in the staff room to take calls and welcome guests. This is called rusuban (留守番). It seems like schools and workplaces do not even have answering machines. Usually the administrative assistant does this, but once in a while it’ll end up being you! If you find yourself alone in the staff room, do your best if anything comes up! I was especially nervous about answering the phone, so I didn’t do it for several months, but luckily most people who call are asking for a specific teacher. If the phone rings, someone will run over and get it.
A safe default when starting a conversation, especially when asking a question or asking for a favor, is to be really apologetic about taking up someone’s time. Try to avoid cutting into people’s conversations, and have a sense of when a teacher looks too busy to talk to you at the time. “Sumimasen” or “excuse me” is a common conversation starter and finisher here.
In Japan, indirect communication is important. In a conversation, the onus is on the listener to understand what’s being said, as people will try to imply things in delicate ways…unless someone is overweight. That’s discussed freely. The teachers you’re working with will be hesitant to criticize you, so if you want their opinion of how you’re doing, find an indirect way to get it – asking about a particular method rather than whether or not your strategy worked last period, for instance. This goes for your criticism, too. Don’t criticize one of your teachers directly, and be very careful about criticizing a school or the Board of Education. Questioning higher levels of the Japanese system, like the absolute importance of test scores in admissions to high schools and colleges or the structure or said exams, is more acceptable since that’s basically outside everyone’s control.
People very rarely say “no” to requests. In fact, the only thing they directly refuse is compliments. Instead, you’ll hear “chotto…” which is like “It’s a little…uh…” or something like it.
Typical small talk is about food, weather, your family, whether you’ve adjusted to living in Japan yet, and the like. You’ll get tired of people asking whether you cook or own food or not, but it’s their way of being polite. Politics and religion are the “third rail” in America, but here people are apathetic about politics and curious about Western religion.
Some teachers will want to speak English with you, and I highly encourage you do so because you’ll have plenty of chances to practice Japanese with others, but speak s l o w l y because the tempo you use with fellow native speakers can almost never be followed. Even people who can read and write are inexperienced speakers. There are tons of words loaned from English in the language, so if a word isn’t understood, try pronouncing words in a more “Japanese” way, following their syllabary.
There are lots of single teachers, so only ask about kids after marriage is established. Many married people don’t wear wedding rings.
Personal space is still important in Japan, even if you don’t have much, so encroach on someone else’s desk territory, touch his things, pickup his pencil without permission, or touch him on the shoulder spontaneously. Pointing with one finger, especially at a person, is also a faux pas. If you most point, do so with your entire hand.
If you need to give someone money, especially a large amount of money, it’s more polite to put it inside an envelope than to hand it off palm to palm. Pass money with both hands. If you need change, say that when you hand off the envelope. If you are handing someone multiple bills, flip through the bills while counting in front of them. (You’ll see how it’s done from shopkeepers.) It’s also polite to have all the bills facing the same direction. If there is a change bucket, putting coins in it is more appropriate than handing them off.
Most people brush their teeth at the office sink or at their desks after lunch. (I do it, too.) I’ve heard of teachers clipping their nails in the office. I’ve seen teachers sleep at their desks before. This is more acceptable in Japan, I think, because some people work so late that they really are living at the office. Some have Herculean amounts of work. Others are too shy to venture outside the office. If you live near your school, swing by the parking lot on weekends or when you get home for the night. It will never fail to surprise you.
At my schools, students aren’t supposed to talk during cleaning time after lunch. One person has even said about my junior high school, “I knew it was a great school because when I went there, the students were cleaning without a word!” Other ALTs say there is lots of socializing during their cleaning time, though.
Sometimes when you ask a teacher about a third person, he’ll use long, strange Japanese verbs you haven’t heard before. This is a convention of polite Japanese, which hinges on social status and the distinction between those who are uchi (内), or “inside” a company, and soto (外), or “outside” it. (Verbs of giving and receiving also depend on these two things.) Keigo (敬語) is polite speech. Sonkeigo (尊敬語) is used when taking to a superior/outsider about a superior/outsider’s actions. Kenjougo (謙譲語) is used when talking to a superior/outsider about your own actions (or those of an insider). (See how the kanji gets more and more complicated?) It is used when talking to people who have social status, such as adults, rather than people who don’t, like the students.
Socially, Japan is more like 1950s America than current America, so having a significant other sleep over at your house, among other things, is unusual. People do make passes on each other sometimes after they’ve been drinking.
The students are always dressed in uniform. It’s truly strange to see them wearing anything else. In that spirit, dress similarly to the other people in your office. You’ll be dressing like an adult now, not a college student. As a man, I brought dress pants, polo shirts, long-sleeved buttoned down shirts, and ties from home, and that’s gotten me through summer and winter. (Because of “Cool Biz,” a campaign to save energy by cutting down on air conditioning, even salarymen wear short-sleeved shirts in the summers.) Graduation and opening ceremonies require more formal clothes. Other ALTs, especially at elementary schools, wear exercise clothes. P.E. and some elementary school teachers do that, too, so it’s not a problem, and on picnic and sports days, that’s what’s most appropriate. I very rarely see adults wearing shorts.
Have a set of inside shoes/sandals and a set of outside shoes, and if you’ll be in the gym a lot get some “gym shoes” you only use there. (Otherwise, wear your inside shoes in the gym). The many sets of free slippers next to the door are for guests, so you shouldn’t be using them all day and wearing them out.
Tattoos are a symbol of the yakuza, or mafia, so don’t let anyone see yours.
Participation in School Events
The most formal events of the year are the opening ceremony in April and graduation in March. The answer to “Can I give a speech/sing a song at one of those ceremonies?” is “No.” They are very formal, and the content was determined by the fathers of Japan long ago.
Many of you will be asked, however, about playing a role in Sports Day or Culture Festival. I was asked to run the 1500 and teach the kids salsa steps, but usually ALTs do less stressful things like taking part in a relay. I wasn’t asked to do anything for Culture Festival, even though I wanted to, but at the enkai afterwards people said “You should have done something!” so I’ll probably ask the music teacher about it this fall. If you’re asked to do something outside your comfort zone, don’t reject it out of hand: you came here for things like that, right?
Any time there’s an all-school function, be it choir practice or school elections or a morning student meeting, you should tag along. There is a row of seats along the side for teachers.
Weddings are tricky. One of my teachers got married last year. (Somehow he only needed one vacation day to prepare for the ceremony.) He had a lot of friends and not enough space, so he invited his homeroom class, the principals and teachers but not the other staff, like the librarian, the nurse, and me. I asked during a meeting that he wasn’t attending, “So, um, everyone’s talking about going, but I haven’t heard anything…so am I going? I mean, it’s OK if I’m not, I just want to make sure…” There was a pause. Then my vice principal asked my supervisor, “Um, could you please explain to him later?” She never did. So, if you find yourself in this kind of situation, just don’t ask. If you are invited to a wedding, you’ll have to chip in around 3 man yen for a gift.
In Japan, all the teachers work in the same office, and out of class that’s where they are to be found. The principal, nurse, and librarian have their own offices in addition to staff room desks, but that’s for entertaining visitors as much as anything. You’ll have a desk of your own, and people will always be able to see what you’re doing.
The principal, or kouchou sensei (校長先生), is technically the head of the school, and the vice principal, or kyoutou sensei (教頭先生), the head teacher. Both were teachers at one point, as the sensei in their name implies, who passed enough tests and built up enough relationships to move to the next level. In practice they’re like the CEO and COO in the old corporate model. The principal’s duties are more diplomatic and ceremonial, so you’ll often see him outside gardening, and he gives speeches before all major events. The assistant principal handles the day-to-day operation of the school, and he knows the technical details. You need to ask both of them for permission before you do anything major, such as leading a charity campaign, giving candy to the students, or taking vacation time.
The third in command is called the kyoumu sensei (教務先生) . He is a teacher, and on top of that he is responsible for the school’s schedule. He sits next to the principal and vice principal in the office, and you can go to him with questions about the schedule and various activities.
In addition to your supervisor (tantousha 担当者) at the Board of Education, you will have a supervisor at each of your schools, with the one at your “main school” being your lead supervisor. Your supervisor will be an English teacher, or at the elementaries the person in charge of English education at the school, but not necessarily someone with fluent English. You are just one of his responsibilities. You must also ask your supervisors for permission to take vacation time if your absence will affect them.
Hierarchy among teachers is determined by age, not subject matter: the Japanese teacher, the P.E. teacher, and the shop teacher are equals. Some of the teachers are tannin 担任, or homeroom teachers. Perhaps the biggest determinant in how much work you’ll have is whether your English teachers are also homeroom teachers, who have to read students’ diaries every week, do state paperwork for each student, have regular conferences with parents, and so on. Elementary school teachers without homerooms become resource teachers for specific subjects like math and science. Teachers are also supervisors for club sports, with varying amounts of involvement and experience in the sport itself: the students run their own practices much of the time. From junior high school, these clubs practice until sunset and on Saturdays and Sundays, too. All in all, Japanese teachers have far more responsibilities than American teachers do.
There is also a Parent-Teacher Association, and in Japanese it’s called, well, the “PTA.” Because the teachers have so many responsibilities, it can seem like the parents are less involved in school than they would normally be, but I think it varies from city to city just like in my country. Many parents may be helping out with sports and other activities, but they won’t necessarily introduce themselves to you. It’s more like a Board of Directors than a group involved in day-to-day life. Like the school, it has a president, or kaichou (会長), and a vice president, or fukukaichou (副会長), as well as a treasurer and a secretary.
Japan is part of the Confucian cultural zone, and that means seniority is very important. It is associated with wisdom and temperance. Teachers are listed in the staff register in order of age. Your principal and vice principal are always referred to by their titles rather than their names. Younger teachers owe older teachers deference and service, both at work and at staff parties. Even students must refer to those in higher grades as senpai and to themselves as kouhai, and this respectful relationship continues throughout their lives.
Seniority is so important that staff members are frequently moved from school to school so no one acquires too much seniority. Your contract is with either your high school or your local board of education, but everyone else is under the prefecture’s board of education, or kenchou (県庁). The state board can move them wherever they like, even to city hall. Teachers typically cannot stay in a school for more than seven years; the average term for a principal or vice principal is two years. Some of your teachers, especially those who majored in something besides education in college, haven’t yet passed the notoriously difficult teacher’s license examination, so they’re technically temps. They have to re-apply for work every year, and they’re shuffled from one school to another. 60 is the mandatory retirement age. Many teachers are out of work while they still have energy left, but on the plus side, it’s easier for young teachers to break into the business than it would be elsewhere.
Besides the teachers, there is a very busy administrative assistant, or jimu sensei 事務先生, a school nurse, a librarian (who may or may not have multiple schools), and sometimes a counselor. Notably absent are groundskeepers, food staff (at many schools), and technical staff. The students clean up for themselves so no janitors are needed. The town has its own food center, where school lunches are made and shipped en masse to all the homerooms. The students serve lunch to each other and return the dirty dishes afterward. However, the head of the town’s food staff will often have a desk at one school or another. The administrative assistant is responsible for solving technical problems, particularly with computers, but since he’s not a trained electrician or plumber, outside help is often called in through the Board of Education. If you understand computers, you can probably help a lot of your co-workers. Everyone, particularly the principal, helps with the garden. Or else no one does anything with the garden.
Staff changes are announced on the last day of school in March. Teachers have a week to put their affairs in order, and then they move to their new schools. A few days after they arrive, staff responsibilities, including for homerooms are decided, and a few days after that school begins again. So the two-week spring break you see on your schedule is the most important time of year for the other teachers. Especially the single teachers.
You’re on the bottom of the food chain, and it has little to do with being a foreigner. You are more often than not the youngest teacher at your school; you have the shortest tenure and the fewest responsibilities, and odds on you don’t have a teacher’s license, either. If you do have a “home school” where you spend the majority of your time, you’re more likely to be considered a permanent part of the staff there and to receive invitations to parties and the staff leisure trip in February. If you have multiple schools, you’ll be seen as “part time” staff at many of them since they don’t see you as much. So it helps to be humble.
People will mistakenly call you by your predecessor’s name for months, even years afterward. People get lumped together, so the impressions you make reflect on all foreigners. Even if foreigners do certain things, like drunk driving, at a low rate, their rate is higher than usual Japanese people so they’re more dangerous as a group.
People are usually talking about you even if you don’t realize it. Sometimes complaints go up to the BOE, not to you, to avoid conflict. Teachers will rarely critique your classes, so you have to be a good monitor yourself of what works and what doesn’t.
You will probably be asked to come to school before your work hours technically begin in order to participate in the Morning Meeting at 8:15 or 8:20. This is part of doing things “the right way,” and it shouldn’t be a big deal. For me, it’s great listening practice, and it’s a chance to find out what’s really happening at school.
After the official beginning, the kyoumu teacher goes over the schedule for the day and for the rest of the week. He and the other teachers are free to make announcements if they like. The teachers discuss various activities, and then they talk about problems at school. Finally, the vice principal and then the principal can say what they please, and then the meeting is closed.
The Japanese used in meetings is more formal than conversational Japanese. There is no Kumamoto-ben. For example, during meetings, “today” is not kyou (今日); it’s honjitsu (本日).
The schedule for the day, week, and month is written on the large blackboard behind the principal, and everything is discussed in the morning meeting, so your supervisor may forget that you can’t understand Japanese and hence don’t understand what’s happening at school. If you’re lost during the meetings, it’s best to ask your supervisor about each day’s activities so you don’t find yourself abandoned in the staff room later.
As for meeting etiquette, you can drink tea, but you shouldn’t eat. Eye contact with the person who’s speaking is unnecessary.. You can even do other paperwork if it’s not obvious. Silence is used as a tool in meetings, most often to express consent (“Is that OK?” “….” “Okay, great!) or to move on (“Any other questions?” “…..” “Well then, kyoutou sensei, do you have anything to add?”) Meetings have a certain rhythm, so unless your Japanese is fluent, it’s better to ask your supervisor about something after the meeting than to ask during the meeting itself.
Teachers talk about the “juicy stuff,” like problems at school, bad students, and the like during these meetings, but they’ll be reluctant to talk to you about any of these things later. Even if you feel it’d help you understand a student, it’s officially not your business. What you do hear is private. “Saving face” is a priority here, as in China, and when students get in trouble, schools will go to some distance to keep it quiet.
There are also meetings on some afternoons, often called kenshuu (研修), to discuss certain topics in detail. You can talk to your supervisor about whether you’ll attend them or not. These meetings sometimes go past your contracted hours, but leaving in the middle of a meeting is impolite. I always attend them for my “home school” if I’m there at the time (more Japanese practice), but when there’s such a meeting at a school I’m “visiting,” I’ll head back to my home school early.
Another important kind of meeting is a research class, or kenkyuu (研究), which happens every month or two. All the teachers will watch one of their brethren teach a class, and afterwards they’ll have a meeting to critique it. Teachers do vast amounts of preparation for these classes. It’s a fun way to see how other subjects are taught here. And eventually, you’ll have one of your team-teaching classes researched yourself.
Kairan and Handouts
Kairan (回覧) are announcements and bulletins that are passed around, typically in order of seniority, for everyone to see. These can include the city newspaper, bulletins for cultural events in the city, reports from the board of education, invitations to educational meetings outside your town or even your prefecture, and also invitations to staff parties, be they enkai (宴会) or uchiage (打ち上げ) or kondankai (懇談会). If you see something that says “19:00” and “4000円,” it’s probably for a staff party. Most kairan don’t apply to you, but asking what they say is a good way to study and start conversation. If there are multiple copies of a bulletin, you can take one. After you read a kairan, make a mark like other teachers have done and give it to the next person. The administrative assistant and principals get it last. In responses to enkai invitations, O means “Yes, attending” and X means “No, not attending.”
Many handouts go right to your desk. Some may not be given to you, particularly if it’s not your home school or you can’t read Japanese. If you want to get more of the handouts, ask your supervisor. Reading the stuff that comes across your desk is the most work-safe way to study Japanese.
Simply put, don’t complain about your contract because it’s amazing. Your working hours are shorter. Your base pay is the same as the other young teachers’, even including their biannual bonus. Many of you will have your taxes and even your rent subsidized. You have more vacation time as well as much more freedom to use vacation time: there are no substitute teachers here. If one of the resource teachers can’t cover a class, the kids will do work by themselves. It’s much, much easier to take vacation time when school is out than when it’s in session. Unlike the other teachers, your sick days are independent from your vacation days. You only have to work 20 days in a month: after that, you get chouseibi (調整日), or free vacation days. No one else, not even ALTs in other prefectures (or even some Kumamoto cities!) gets this.
Teachers typically don’t know your working hours are shorter, and besides that, it’s quite uncommon to leave right at the closing bell in this country. People work until the job is finished more than working until the clock runs out. At many work places, there’s a closing bell at 5:00 and then a “real” closing bell at 5:15. My home school even has a soft ball at 10:00 PM and futons at school so teachers can sleep there if necessary. So if you leave right at 4:00 every day, it’ll be noticed. How to get around this? You could simply leave later than you’re supposed to, and as you get in the spirit of Japan this will seem more and more normal.
It’s impolite to ask about payment here, but some will ask anyway, and your salary is on the public record since you’re a state employee. I always tell people that ALTs can’t choose their locations in any way, shape, or form, though they can express their preferences, so it’s most fair to guarantee a base salary so that teachers in big cities like Osaka can cover their living expenses. And I go all-out to try to earn the money.
Computer, Printer, and Fax
There are usually multiple copying machines, with one for nice single copies and one for mass copies for all the students. The biggest difference is what kind of paper and ink they use. Learn how both machines work so that you don’t have to ask the administrative assistant to make copies for you every time. Faxes, even 1-pagers, are usually sent along with a cover sheet explaining what’s in the fax.
Color printing costs money, so use it only when you need something to be in color. Otherwise get used to changing printouts to black and white: that option is in the same place in Japanese printer setup.
People don’t like conflict here, so no one will tell you if you’re hogging a machine. You just have to be aware of it. If you’re going to use a computer for a very long period of time, try one of the less-used ones. Use the office phone for work-related calls, your cell phone for personal calls, and be conscious of how your voice carries inside the staff room. Using the office computer for personal reasons, especially during work hours, is looked down upon here as much as anywhere else.
There is a PA system (housou 放送) for calling any individual classroom or the entire school. I’ve never used it myself, but if an elementary class is late in getting you, the administrative assistant might use it.
Most technology words are borrowed from English, so even if things are hard to read, you can talk your way through most matters.
People here are crazy about food, and there are more conventions around it than we have in America. One is that people generally don’t eat while doing something else. You shouldn’t eat while standing or while walking somewhere. Even if you’re at a sports game, people will make fun of you for doing this. Also, you shouldn’t eat breakfast at the office – you look unprepared.
At elementary and junior high, you’ll be expected to eat the same school lunch as everyone else. You can bring your own lunch every day if you really want to, as some teachers do, but you’ll have to work it out with your lunch center. On school days without school lunch, you can buy the same bentou (弁当) as everyone else, or you can bring your own homemade lunch, which will be a big hit because people are curious about what foreigners eat. Since everyone eats the same thing so often, if you have any allergies, you should inform the teachers in charge of ordering and serving food.
Often the administrative assistant will give you tea or coffee, especially at a school where you’re more of a visitor. Say thank you or “itadakimasu” for anything you receive. You should still wash your own cup when you finish.
Often parents will bring gifts for teachers, particularly produce if you’re in a farming town. It’s nice to ask where a gift comes from. If the giver is in the room when you are eating something, say “itadakimasu” to him before eating it, and then say it’s delicious right after. If the school lunch chef visits your school, it’s nice to compliment his work, too. There is often a staff “stash” with small snacks you can eat. If you take food out of there, you should put food in, as well. Leftovers from school lunch often end up in the refrigerator or on the table. As one of the few teachers living by himself, you can usually take these home. Try to take the milk home only if there are excessive amounts, or the expiration date is a week away, since other teachers use it for their coffee.
If you’re eating with the kids, try to eat everything on your plate because they’re expected to do the same thing, and try not to let them off easy by taking things they don’t like. If there’s extra food in the class canisters, you can usually take some, but wait for the kids to have a go at it first. They need the calories, and they’re supposed to finish everything according to the mottainai or “don’t waste” philosophy. On fried chicken days and the like, kids will play rock-paper-scissors to decide who gets the extra pieces of chicken.
If you’re eating with the students, don’t start until everyone says “Itadakimasu.” Set your chopsticks down sideways across your plate so that they don’t point at anyone in particular. To do so is a challenge. Don’t leave your chopsticks sticking out of your food. This is a funeral custom. A bowl of rice with sticks coming out is placed before the dead.
If you like parties, this is where you can really shine. Not all your schools will invite you to their functions, but your “home school” typically will, and those who are invited usually attend. Parties are held at least once a month. It’s a great way to get to know your co-workers, and over alcohol people more often say what they really think. Legitimate excuses for missing enkai, and in general, are (1) family, (2) religion, and (3) a prior commitment, including travel. Punctuality is a sign of trustworthiness here, so don’t make promises you can’t keep; if you’re going to come, come on time; if you’re going to be late, call it advance and say so. Backing out at the last minute is the worst possible thing you can do, since the dinners are ordered in advance and they’ll have to pay your share anyway.
Japanese parties are always the same. First, there’s a big dinner at a nice restaurant where you can eat and drink more than you usually would in a week (and you’ll pay more, too). After the first party, or ichijikai (一次会), there are successive optional smaller parties at pubs, karaoke bars, snack joints, and the like (nijikai 二次会, sanjikai 三次会….get it?)
If you’re young and/or male, people will expect you to drink and assume you can stick it out for every event, and what’s more, they’ll really want you to do that because partying with a foreigner is special for them. If you don’t drink, let everyone know as soon as possible so you aren’t dashing their hopes, and be sure to raise your hand for receiving oolong tea, uron cha (烏龍茶), the standard non-alcoholic party drink, before the kanpai. If you’re planning to go home early, have a reason and tell people at the beginning so it doesn’t I’ve only felt truly pressured to drink a couple times.
Ironically, since everyone is supposed to be relaxing, seniority plays a big role at enkai, and people keep score on how you behave. The best rule of thumb is to read the atmosphere and do what everyone else is doing. Because it’s more relaxed, hierarchy isn’t as powerful during an enkai, so people will make objections to superiors about school policy and the like that they wouldn’t do in the office. Also, people talk about sex more freely after drinking, and chances are they’ll ask you really awkward questions some day. If you’re adept, you can often dodge them by diverting the conversation topic – remember, you’re jousting with drunk people. Sticking up one pinkie means “girlfriend,” and if someone flashes one at you, they’re coming in for that line of questioning.
First of all, don’t drink until the toast (kanpai)! This goes for all the parties, not just the first one. Second, remember to wipe your hands with the towel provided to you, but you can save that for after the kanpai or when everyone else is doing it. Maybe you’ve seen the traditional Japanese way of sitting, seiza (正座), in which you kneel down and sit on your feet. It can be painful, but it’s difficult for Japanese people too, so most people typically only do it until after the kanpai. On the plus side, it’s an easy way to reach everything on the table. You can practice it a little each enkai.
When you first enter a room, check for a person collecting money. This is the otouban (お当番). He is in charge of paying for everyone, usually beforehand since it’s a set course with all-you-can drink premium. He also usually sits closest to the door so he can order drinks during the party. In a small restaurant, you can call for more drinks with a “sumimasen!” If you have your own room, there is typically a telephone by the door for calling the desk and making orders. If someone near you needs a drink, tell the otouban. But during your time here you’ll end up ordering the drinks yourself much of the time, so it’s best to get used to it.
If it’s a party for you, and all your parties in August and September will be, you have to make another self-introduction. Keep it short because everyone wants to drink. A paragraph or two is enough.
Food is most often served family style. Turn your chopsticks backwards when reaching into a community bowl so you won’t introduce your germs, at least until someone says you don’t have to do that. Make sure everyone can get a share. It’s customary in Asia to leave a little bit of food on each common plate, just in case someone really needs it – but once the plates pile up and you need space, someone can take care of the last part.
Seating for the big dinner is decided by lottery. When the rice comes out, the meal is almost over – typically only the dessert follows. The teachers responsible for opening and closing toasts are decided by seniority. If you’re asked o do a closing cheer, try to bring in something fun from your home country, like “hip hip hooray!” or a traditional South African song. Introduce the cheer, then have everyone do it together.
At some point during the enkai, conversation will turn to how great you are, so be ready to refuse their compliments or turn it around by returning compliments. It’s hard to return compliments for how well you use chopsticks, so just be grateful for that.
Moving between tables is allowed. Like at other parties, be sensitive about people who are all alone. If you go somewhere, bring your cup in case someone wants to pour you a drink. Formally, you shouldn’t eat food from someone else’s place, but it does happen, especially at the very end.
Ironically considering how much the kids have to eat at lunch, there are often tragic amounts of leftovers afterward. Once in a while you can box it up and take it home – it depends on the crowd. Many consider this a faux pas, but others will say you can do it, or they’ll even do it for you.
As nervous as you may be, people are more nervous of talking to you. You’re going to become very accustomed to meeting Japanese strangers, but they only meet a couple foreigners a year at most, and the prospect of speaking English can cause huge stress for some people and make them shut down.
At karaoke, try not to hog the mike. Doing 2 songs in a row is rare, 3 especially rare. At a good party, things rotate among everyone. You can choose one or two strictly personal favorites to show your chops, but lean toward songs everyone knows. People get more into it that way and sing along more. Try to remember songs that have been played or mentioned at school. The Beatles and The Carpenters are safe. At some parties, people will pick songs for you to sing, so it’s good to get a handle on what’s hip among Japanese. For example, the most popular Billy Joel song here is “Honesty,” which I’d never heard before but which people have chosen for me to sing more than once. You’ll also make a huge impression if you can sing a Japanese song. If someone is having trouble singing a song, try to help them out by singing along. Don’t let the fun die!
Since you’re a schoolteacher, coming to school smelling of smoke or alcohol, or still drunk, is really inappropriate. People will know even if they don’t say anything. And if you’ve been out somewhere, your clothes are going to smell like beer and smoke whether you know it or not.
Japanese Drinking Rules
This is a drinking culture. In the US, there are drinking parties and classy parties, but here alcohol is pervasive and parents get drunk in front of their kids. That said, alcohol is meant to facilitate social interaction, not prevent it, so getting too drunk to communicate, stay awake, or keep all your food in your stomach is a mark against you. By the way, in Japanese the word “sake” refers to all alcoholic beverages.
Now for the basics of Japanese drinking, which I have figured out little by little and at great cost. Young people and women are expected to look after their superiors’ drinks. No one should have an empty glass, so while talking, keep an eye on this. If someone’s glass becoming empty, ask him what he’d like next, and then pour it or order it or find someone who can do these things. Beer is also referred to as nama (生 ~ “fresh”) mono or nama biiru during parties.
A person cannot decide when a drink is poured for him: he depends on others. When it is being poured, however, the person receiving the drink determines how much he wants to have. He lifts the glass, even lightly pushing upward against the bottle, when he’s had enough, and he can say “Hai!” or “Arigatou!” as well. So whether you’re pouring a drink or receiving one, keep this in mind.
Hot drinks poured in shot glasses have their own special rules, so be careful about ordering them. The most famous of these drinks is nihonshu (日本酒), rice wine, “sake” to us English speakers. Namely, you cannot pour your own glass. You must let someone else pour it for you, and once the glass has been poured, you must drink it all, so in a sense you’re entrusting your life to your drinking partners.
Shouchu (焼酎) hails from Kyushu, and so it’s quite popular around here. (Koreans also drink it; it’s called soju.) It’s like vodka or brandy, but it’s usually watered down. Sometimes you’ll pour right into a person’s glass, but usually you’ll prepare the drink yourself with the three-piece “shouchu set,” which includes alcohol, water, and ice. Ask whether the person wants ice, because the drink can be served hot or cold. Also, ask how much of the cup, on a scale of 1 to 10, should be alcohol. If you’re not sure, go with 5. If you know a certain teacher likes shouchu, chances are good he’ll want some about halfway through the party.
Some people will come to you, bottle in hand, raring to drink with you cup for cup. Some people will take your empty cup, ask you to fill it for them, drink it for you, then give it to you and fill it up for you to drink in turn. Or they’ll give you their cup, fill it, and wait for you to drink it, return it, and fill it for them. The nice thing is that most people have low tolerance, so they won’t keep it going for long. If you’re concerned about drinking too much, remember it’s a social thing, so the appearance of drinking with someone is much more important than the amount you drink. No one ever asks how many cups you cleared. Don’t touch your cup if no one else is looking at it. And if someone wants to pour beer into your cup, but your cup is already full, it’s okay: accept the little that can fit, then drink from that.
At the end of the party, people talk to each other about how they’re getting home. You know the usual suspects: taxi, carpooling, or having family pick you up. There’s also a great system called daikou (代行), in which a taxi brings two drivers so one can drive your car home for you, and it all costs about the same as a regular taxi! This is partially to prevent drunk driving. Even the police don’t know you drunk drove home, if any of your teachers know, you’ll lose a lot of respect. On top of that, if someone is caught drunk driving, anyone who encouraged him to drink is also legally responsible, which causes legal problems for everyone else. Here in Japan, after one sip of the kanpai, you’re legally drunk.
Westerners have been exchanging gifts since The Iliad, so omiyage shouldn’t seem all that unusual, but sadly we’re out of practice. The point of omiyage is to show that someone’s in your thoughts. For now, you should concern yourself with welcome presents to your home schools, your host family, and your Board of Education. You’ll find that the incoming teachers at your schools in April will bring omiyage themselves. Your dictionary probably says omiyage means “souvenir,” which Westerners interpret as a keepsake from a shop, but here in Japan people almost exclusively give food. If you’ve already brought something else from your home country, though, don’t cry! Give it anyway! It will still be appreciated, as the plates I brought from America are still displayed in my elementary school staff rooms.
After the first month, omiyage refers to local food you bring back to the office after traveling. The more gifts you buy, the merrier, but in terms of obligation, if a school or group is going to feel your absence, you should get something for them. Know how many people are in the office and get enough for everyone. In Japan, especially, there are shops everywhere selling individually packaged goods.
You can give freely to teachers, but you have to ask your principal and vice principal for permission to give things to the students. I brought pennies when I first came, but my supervisor forbade me from giving money to students. I brought Tootsie Rolls when I returned from Christmas vacation, and those were acceptable at four of my five schools.
New Year’s Cards
Sending New Year’s Cards, or nengajou (年賀状), is a Japanese custom, and you can make a big impression if you participate, as well. You can buy basic cards at the post office or nicer cards at Hallmark (which then require cheaper postcard stamps from the post office). You can send them to your schools, your Board of Education, your host family, your teachers, and other people with whom you had regular contact this year. If you want to write in the Japanese, it’s best to copy from a sample because the locations of the sending address and the return address, along the contents of the message itself, are determined by tradition. Otherwise, sending cards in the style of your own country would be an exciting departure itself! Nengajou are specially delivered by the post office on January 1st, so when you’ve completed your cards, you can drop them off any time in December.
Don’t send cards to anyone whose parents or grandparents have tied in the last year. For those people, the New Year’s celebration is a solemn one. But since you probably don’t know about deaths in the family, being new to everything, a simple “gomen” with condolences will suffice. If you get a card from someone you didn’t receive from, no problem. That person, seeing your card, will write another one to be sent to you a couple days later.
Try not to relax too much after you’ve gotten the hang of things. You can always make a mistake, especially when you’re complacent. Try to express gratitude for everything, because you are given so much every day! Have fun!