Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Conformity in Japan: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (Part 2)

Last time I talked about some of the good aspects of conformity in Japan. This time I am taking the gloves off and am going to talk about the bad. I must warn you, a lot of this comes from personal experience, so if it starts sounding like I am griping, I apologize. But the way I perceive it, there is just a lot more "bad" which comes as a consequence of conformity than good.

Briefly, the good amounts to strong group ethics, supporting the family and parents (which often times means living at home permanently), a feeling of unity, and a close-knit culture which realizes that manners and politeness are required at every level to keep society flowing smoothly, and where negative criticism is rarely ever spoken out loud because this would stir up tension and effectively ruin the "Wa" (or peace and harmony) of the group.

Overall, it creates a peaceful atmosphere where you can be at ease. Where being part of the group is seen as desirable. It creates the perfect atmosphere for nation wide cultural festivals too, because everyone can partake in them without anyone ever overstepping the bounds of social etiquette too much (unless they are drunk--then they find excuses to go crazy).

But at the same time, it has a few negative consequences. Such as the fact that everyone thinks it's perfectly healthy and fine to smoke cigarettes, and do it all day long, and in your face. It's not perceived as rudeness, or even wrong, because it's simply what everyone does.

Meanwhile, another good aspect is that it forces you to tip-toe around the feelings of others (a good thing in and of itself) as it makes you work extremely hard to get good at thinking before you speak. Group related functions always do.

But at the same time, at least for me, this is the most exhausting thing about the Japanese way of life. It is the constant struggle to think about what I say and how my words will effect every little thing and every person in the room. I am horrible at it, mainly because I am a talker and, more importantly, an American talker. In other words, I like the sound of my own voice a little too much, so it's hard for me to zip the lip, so to speak.

But in almost a decade of living in Japan, I have improved considerably. I now spend minutes on end thinking of what to say in important meetings, so that I can make every word count. This is an art form the Japanese have mastered. I struggle with it daily.

I only raise this example, because it shows how a culture of conformity can both be beneficial to you but at the same time be slightly harmful.

While giving thought to every word allows me to interact with others on a higher plane of respect and manners, it creates barriers too. I can never make intimate personal friends on first or second gatherings because one simply isn't allowed to show their true self. Every thought, every word, is highly controlled, and it takes twice as long to get to learn anybodies real personality because their individual personality always is suppressed by the societal expectations of conformity to the group mind and the social etiquette.

For example, it is great to be able to never have to take negative criticism or face embarrassment and have so many people be so polite all the time. The problem is, sometimes it is hard to tell if they sincerely mean it, or if they are simply blowing smoke up your ass. For all you know, they might hate your guts, but for the fact that they are adhering to a culture of conformity which prides its niceties above individual quips. It sometimes can breed an environment of artificial compliments and, regrettably, people spend more time trying not to step on each others toes than actually addressing their real concerns.

Subsequently, this creates the infamous "talking in circles syndrome" common to Japanese daily life. It affects everything from school functions, such as PTA meetings, to corporation and employee relations, to national politics. As a side-effect, it also makes agreement hard to come by when one person doesn't quite agree, or worse still, it makes it near impossible to state the problem straight forward and then tackle the issue.

Every year I join what is known as Kenshukai (which means Research Education) which are Prefecture wide events in which you travel to various school districts in your area (or ward if you live in the city) and "study" teaching methodologies and then comment on the strengths and weaknesses of each school system. The way this differs from genuine pedagogy is pedagogy actually focuses on the new ways to teach and how to implement new techniques which will improve learning and education. Kenshukais, however, are bogged down by the incessant diplomacy of the Japanese. If there are real problems, they often only get hinted at, in a roundabout way, and never are put fully on the table.

The best example of this, that I have seen, was when my old Board of Education invited Mrs. Matsuka, founder and CEO of the Matsuka Phonics Corporation in Japan, to give a lecture at the mid-year Education Research seminar. She came in from the city, and in not so many words, flat out said that the teachers were to blame for teaching English the wrong way in Japan.

Silence fell over the crowd. And afterward, hands shot up across the room. Instead of posing questions of how do we change the way we teach English, which would be a discussion of pedagogy, what happened was strange. People raised objections by saying it was impossible to change the curriculum as mandated by the Japanese government, they said even if they tried it they wouldn't have time to prepare (even though they are at school all summer long working while kids are on vacation), and they acknowledged that the Japanese way of teaching English was not adequate but, in effect, said it couldn't be helped.

But, but, but... It was all excuses... for not adopting the right techniques and methods of English education.

I was flabbergasted by this response. But looking back, I realize what they were doing was simply a mass exercise in "not rocking the boat."

Here they were faced with a radical CEO of a successful company which taught the right way of teaching English--a proved methodology which works--and a success record. But Matsuka was butting heads with the very education system itself. Instead of objecting to her radicalism, they simply dismissed her methods, and nobody, not a single person, said--yeah, I'm willing to risk sticking out as a rebel if it means my students have a real chance of learning.


Not a single educator in the room was willing to go out on a line and take Matsuka's side, because, it would mean rubbing up against the system, and it would mean trying to convince the parents, politicians, and policy makers that they weren't only wrong--but so wrong that they had erected a system which works against the goal of integrating English as a second language in Japan.

As an aside, it was no skin of her back, as Matsuka simply charged her going rate for giving lectures and was off before they could recuperate from what had hit them.

But the lesson I observed was clear. The group conglomerated together to resist the one proved way which actually works when it comes to integrating English education in any non-English speaking culture. They did so because they were all under the impression that it was impossible to change the system, impossible to incorporate, or impossible to execute, for whatever reasons--and this is how they all felt about it. End of discussion.

This is what is effectively known as group-think. Where the group thinks the same, and because everyone else holds to the same beliefs, it is believed as true simply because their is an ubiquity of like belief.

This can be good when one is well informed and correct about an issue. But when the consensus is wrong, as it occurs, it usually means the entire group will be wrong too.

Instead of dealing with the issues, they grow dismissive of anything that doesn't conform to the group-mentality, and this resistance to anything which goes against the group is a way of using conformity to override the radical opinions of those people who dare to stand out. Once rejected, the person is either made to submit to the group or they are made an outcast.

Now, I use the example of English education in Japan, since that is what I am most familiar with and have analysed it in detail. But this same problem of group-think dominates the way Japanese respond to real world issues and spills over into their politics and everyday life too.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had an idea rejected or been dismissed for rasing a cross-cultural point by the simple phrase "But this is Japan. That's not how we do it in Japan," or simply "This is the Japanese way."

They use it, almost as if to say, because you're not Japanese you couldn't possibly understand. No, I am afraid I understand all too well. It is because you are Japanese--and so is everyone else--that you refuse to accept any other way but for the Japanese way.

In the next article, part three, I'll talk about the ugly aspects of conformity in Japan. The aspects which create things such as racism, the secluded "island mentality" which contributes to an unease with foreigners and foreign cultures, or the opposite extreme, xenophilia.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Conformity in Japan: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Conformity in Japan: The Good
Every day, my elementary school students walk to school wearing their bright red and yellow caps and colorful tote bags. Their school uniforms are cute, and serve a dual purpose. One, they are designed to alert cars that a gaggle of school children, like little yellow ducklings, is headed their way. (You can read more on Japanese school children's uniforms after the jump.)

This is more important than it initially sounds. Japan is a highly dense population packed into small areas of land. It's half the population of the entire U.S. of A crammed into the area of the State of California. On top of this is the fact that something like 90% of Japan is mountainous, thus the population density increases as it fills each and every valley to capacity. Yeah. Packed!

Secondly, like many things in Japan, the uniforms serve a function of group orientation and conformity to school dress codes. This means all the kids look practically the same. They all have on the exact same outfit. They all have black hair. They all have black eyes. This serves to cut back on bullying, since it creates a uniformity of style and looks among the children, no matter their financial class within the society. It also is less distracting and causes less of a stir because children do not feel compelled to wear distracting styles or colors just to get attention or to stand out.

When I first came to Japan, during my first year as an ESL instructor I was horrible with names and faces. The saying that all Asians look alike (although not entirely true) rings fairly accurate when dealing with Asian children who haven't developed unique facial features or body types. Basically, they're all the same little round faces with bright eyes. Cute, but eerily similar.

Additionally, Japan is comprised of a country which is inhabited by primarily Japanese. Unlike cultural melting pots, such as Europe or the U.S., Japan is a small island with tens of millions of the same people, who all share the same culture, history, language, and all are the same ethnicity. What this means is that there is little to no variation among the Japanese with regard to the cultural traditions of Japan. What is the same for one Japanese citizen is basically the same for all Japanese citizens across the board. This makes it hard to pin-down national identities. As a consequence of this, there is hardly any variance between political and religious ideologies of one group vs. the whole entire group. It's what makes Japanese politics, in my opinion, a shell game (i.e., a farce). On top of this, foreigners residing in Japan make up less than 2% of the nations population. This is why Japan is often described as a * homogeneous society. It's all Japanese doing Japanese things all day long in Japan.

For most Japanese, this is the way they like it. It reinforces what they call "Wa" or the peacefulness of society (Japanese Wa is commonly translated as "group harmony." Although this only captures the basic qualities of Wa and doesn't do the full meaning justice).

This is why things which challenge the status quo are viewed as bad, immoral, and harmful to Japanese society--even when we can objectively state that they're not.

The unspoken rule that tattoos are "evil" is one such example. There is nothing inherently immoral about sporting a tattoo, except for the fact that the Japanese have collectively decided that tattoos are too similar to irezumi, the classic style of ink-etching popular among the Yakuza.

The funny thing is, very few Yakuza even have tattoos. I've seen more high school girls with tattoos than I have actual Yakuza with any ink. Yet you will still get booted from your local gym and be omitted from the local bath house if you ever get caught with one.

I would bet that most Japanese people who have lived abroad and have received ink work have, on average, more tattoos than the the entire crime syndicate in Japan. This popular myth of the tattoo denoting a gangster is reinforced by Japanese cinema, which always paints its gangsters in full color sleeves, with ukiyoe styled dragons tangled around geisha fighting of samurai on their backs, and have given the Japanese the impression that all gangsters sport tattoos. This media based, yet highly unrealistic, portrayal of Japan, however, feeds the stereotype that anyone with a tattoo must be seedy and suspect.

Yet in almost a decade of living here the only Yakuza I met was a Buddhist monk, and he was a rather nice guy, at least I thought so. He didn't have any tattoos.

But this is how Japan treats things that are alien to Japan--with suspicion. At first I thought this was bad--since it is completely uncritical. But reflecting on it, I can see how it helps the Japanese coalesce around an idea--namely that tattoos are bad. It's an imperfect idea, but at least they can feel comradeship by all thinking the same. There must be a certain level of comfort that comes from that feeling of like-mindedness, almost like trust, otherwise I doubt they would do it so much.

Tattoos aren't typically a part of Japanese culture, so tattooed people get treated suspiciously, even though their is no basis for any such reservations. I highly doubt any of my Japanese friends have ever had a confrontation with a tattooed fiend. But because this is Japan, everyone takes such beliefs for granted, and low and behold, everyone remains reluctant to accept tattoo art as, well just that, art.

This shows how close-knit Japanese society really is. General attitudes don't merely permeate a subgroup within the national group, but takes over the national mind-set.

Another good example of how this collective mind-set seems to work is the example of the many popular diets which pop up. Almost overnight a diet fad will become a *national craze. A few years back (c. 2008) there was a popular talk show which talked to one of the models confessed to losing all her fat due to a simple diet anyone could do. A banana diet! (It was such a craze that it even made the international news section of Time. Meanwhile, googling "Japanese banana diet" nets you over a million related links. For the history on the origins of the Japanese banana diet click here.)

Overnight, literally, people flooded the supermarkets and bought all the bananas. I recall this event so distinctly because I always buy bananas, my favorite fruit, for m breakfast. Needless to say, I went to the store, and every single banana had been sold. Every happy yellow bushel of banana goodness gone! For about two weeks I couldn't find a single banana anywhere. Believe me, I looked.

Following trends like this plays a large role in Japanese homogeneity, because it is a way for others to jump on the band wagon and show conformity. It's a way to proudly advertise that you are part of the group! In Japan, group-think is viewed as a positive factor which people should aspire to.

In my country, the U.S., this notion is actually looked down on and frowned upon. People don't want to be the same. We Americans pride ourselves in our uniqueness, independence, and this is reflected in the fact that, in the U.S., society is highly autonomous.

This breeds a competitive behavior not prevalent in Japan. In fact, Japanese are not very competitive at all. This doesn't mean they lack the drive to work hard or do well, but they are not confrontational about it. In fact, from my seven years of experience in Japan, I have found that Japanese people go out of their way to avoid confrontation wherever possible. This is evident in the fact that I cannot tell you my Japanese friends religions or political ideologies. These things just aren't spoken about--as they create too much of a division in the like-mindedness of the society.

Anything which creates a division, like religion or politics, is viewed as something to keep on the low down. They don't want to raise Cain here in Japan, after all--that would seek to interfere with their precious "Wa," so religious and political ideologies in Japan are safeguarded and kept rather secret. They are treated as a private matter. Even sex is less private than religion or politics in Japan! I can talk about sex with my Japanese guy and gal friends, and have all kinds of ribald laughs. My wife's best girlfriend and I often tease each other in a way which borders on the risque, but for the life of me, I could not tell you what her religious or political position is--and she's practically family!

Conformity, then, helps to promote unity--or at least the sense of unity. This, I find to be an excellent trait, and something I have come to admire about Japan.

All this might sound a little strange to people from more diverse cultures, where conformity is hard to come by, and diversity is prided over similarity. But this is just one of the interesting quirks which makes Japan, well, Japan.

Next time, in part two: Conformity in Japan: The Bad, I'll talk about how conformity can be a negative influence as well, and how it can sometimes hurt Japan.

Monday, September 03, 2012

ESL Websites and Resources (Expanded)

Nearly all of these websites focus on ESL learning and together form a useful database for English materials, such as flash cards, word puzzles, worksheets, and English based activities and games ready made for your convenience.

1. Eigo Note Blog (www.eigonoteblog.com)

2. Eigo Noto (www.eigo-noto.com)

3. Boggles World ESL (www.bogglesworldesl.com)

4. A4 ESL (http://a4esl.org/)

5. ESL HQ (www.eslHQ.com)

6. Eigo Batake (http://eigobatake.x0.com/)

7. MES English (www.mes-english.com/games.php)

8. Genki English (http://genkienglish.net/)

9. Matsuka Phonics (http://www.mpi-j.co.jp/)

10. Dave's ESL Cafe (www.eslcafe.com)

11. My Vocabulary.com (www.myvocabulary.com)

12. Livewire Puzzles (www.puzzles.ca/)

13. ESL-Tower (www.esltower.com) 

14. Kids Can Have Fun! (www.kidscanhavefun.com)

15. KizPhonics (www.kizphonics.com)

16. Hiconicimage (hiconicimage.com)

17. Have Fun Teaching (www.havefunteaching.com)

18. Activity Village UK (www.activityvillage.co.uk)

19. Class Helper (www.classhelper.org)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

English Teaching in Japan: And Why It Hasn't Worked

I have almost a decade of teaching experience in Japan. Much of it is ESL teaching but also I have done work with a Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education sponsored think-tank that focused on teaching methodologies to enhance English learning in Japan with the goal of English fluency, as well as worked as English Coordinator for the 3rd Annual Hiroshima English Language Camp, again, in Hiroshima, Japan. Now, I have migrated down to Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu, to help spread valuable information about the correct way about teaching ESL to the Japanese. I'm not trying to be snooty, there is actually a correct, and natural, way to acquire English--otherwise there wouldn't be any English speakers.

What I have learned over the years is that the Japanese education system wants instant English ability, and so they have developed their entire English training curriculum around a "cram-and-exam" based learning system similar to how TOIEC and TOEFL are set up. But this is the wrong way around--as these tests are designed to test an already developed proficiency NOT inrease English retention and knowledge. In other words, the current Japanese model of English education expects its learners, who have never studied English before, to already be FLUENT in English! It's such a ridiculous expectation that it makes the English education system in Japan look terribly ridiculous. This embarrassment of Japan's failure to teach English properly and instill it into their students has created an erroneous mind-set which assumes that English is too difficult a language for the Japanese to learn.

This is total nonsense. English is one of the EASIEST languages in the world to acquire. It is what has allowed it to become the dominant language around the world--the ease at which it can be learned and applied, as well as adapted to suit the culture's specific needs. Latin, Greek, Arabic, French, and even Spanish have all been dominant languages in the world at one point or other, but none of them have succeeded because, unlike English, they are much more culturally specific. English is, as I like to say, a mutt language. A not so eloquent way of calling it a heterogeneous miscellany of assorted languages. It is a hodgepodge of other languages, which, interestingly enough, makes it pliable, and allows it to be both culturally diverse and extremely adaptable.

The English language is easy to simplify down to a simple set of loose grammar rules and phonics forms which, if properly learned, can allow one to become entirely proficient.

Japan has largely bypassed the only proved method of teaching non-native speakers English--i.e., PHONICS. It's how ALL native English speakers learn to recognize the sounds, develop an ear, and it is how we all learn to read and comprehend English words. The grammar comes later. English speakers, whether they recognize it or not, typically follow phonics based curriculum when they learn as children, which are the natural English language learning techniques codified.

I have found some great phonics programmes available to ESL learners which I'd like to share here.

The first is the Japanese based company MATSUKA Phonics Institution, MPI for short.

Japanese website: http://www.mpi-j.co.jp/

English website: http://www.mpi-j.co.jp/e/about/

I have used MPI for my main lessons at the Elementary school level--and it gets AMAZING results. Most of my JHS school graduates gain their basis for English proficiency from the phonics lessons we did at Elementary school. In Hiroshima, I had JHS students passing the Eikentei pre-1st and 2nd grade exams... whereas other schools are lucky to have anyone pass the 3rd grade exams let alone ace them.

Phonics works. Really. It does.

There is, however, something to be said of getting them while they are still young. The younger the more primed they are for acquiring a secondary language, as their ear has not fully hardened to their own language yet. Which, I find, stresses the importance of teaching phonics based programmes earlier rather than later. The earlier the better.

But the Japanese system is designed to omit phonics based learning by making an inflexible and overly crammed schedule which reduces English proficiency by using a 'cram-and-exam' style--short term memory based--teaching system. It is a joke. It also explains why most Japanese study eight or more years of OFFICIAL English yet retain nearly NONE of it. They lack the reading and recognition base that phonics provides. Without this base, their latter skills drop out once they forget the wrote memorization they drilled for endlessly in JHS and high school. If they have the phonics base well developed, by the time they get to JHS and high school they are only reinforcing and adding to the language architecture firmly established by the sturdy phonics base.

Another reliable phonics program is the Hong Kong based KizPhonics. Most of their materials are available online--for FREE. You can also purchase their workbooks and they have competitive prices.

KizPhonics: http://www.kizphonics.com/

Also, they have extremely in-depth guides which explain their phonics based programme and how exactly phonics works. It is a bit technical, but I have found it is necessary to relay this information to ALL of my schools, since here in Japan, NOBODY has heard of PHONICS, apparently.

I usually spend a month or so convincing my schools to switch over to phonics based programmes, and this involves TEACHING the ADULTS what PHONICS is exactly. So I have a whole PowerPoint demonstration designed to do just this.

Eikaiwa based programmes are supposed to be for those who already are proficient English speakers. You cannot start with eikaiwa teaching with non-English speakers and hope to get results, but this is exactly what the Japan system tries to do. It is no wonder that after decades of English learning Japan continuously ranks among the lowest and least English proficient nations. They simply teach English incorrectly, and this leads to poor English users and an overall embarrassingly poor English proficiency when compared to other nations which teach English as a second language.


NOW, here is my GRIPE. Every time I leave a school system in Japan for another school, even if it is in the same gun or prefecture, the previous school DROPS the phonics based programme I worked so hard to erect and immediately the children's English ability evaporates into thin air. Meanwhile, the schools revert back to teaching English incorrectly, and this often makes it impossible for the students to learn English properly in the future due to the fact that they have to unlearn the WRONG methods and learn the CORRECT methods--all over again. This is why English learning in Japan has failed so miserably over the years. About the only way to overcome this handicap is for the Japanese ESL students to study abroad--in and English speaking country.

That's my two cents. Take it for what it's worth.


Tristan Vick

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

2 Haikus

Here are two English haikus I wrote for the "Kusamakura" 17th annual International haiku competition in Kumamoto.

My days grow shorter
My memories grow fuller
I was younger once

Zephyr blowing hot
Shaved ice is my favorite

Red, blue, delicious

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Let's Dance! A Poem for my Daughter

My daughter Solara is just two years old;
She is one of my BEST friends, truth be told.

I don't really know why;

But I like to think it's because...
We're cut from the same mold;
Or maybe, perhaps, same piece of pie.

While I'm working at my desk she comes over to me;

Tapping my arm, as if to say, look at me! Look at me!
In her sweet little voice she says, "Daddy, let's dance!"
And my heart melts into mush as my feelings begin to gush

What good father could pass up such a chance;
When his baby girl asks him to dance?

Certainly not I.
No, certainly not.

So I drop what I'm doing;

I drop it like it's hot;
To spend one extra minute of one extra day;
To see her little face light up; 
As she shouts out, "Hooray!" 

What good father could pass up such a chance;
When his baby girl asks him to dance?

Certainly not I.
No, certainly not.

I turn on the music and take her little hands in mine;
And we dance! We twirl! We dip! And we swing! 
And if the moment is right;
Sometimes, we even sing.

Dancing, singing, swinging, she leaps up into my arms;
She wants to hold my hands like the adult dancers do it;
So I take her sweet little hands in mine; 
Her smile so warm;
And we twirl, we dip, and we laugh.
Oh, how we love to laugh! 

What father could pass up such a chance, to hold his precious daughter tight and dance, dance, dance, dance?

Certainly not I.
No, certainly not.

She is so wonderful! 
My dynamic, dancing, daughter;

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Kumamon and Me!

Kumamon came to my school... randomly. It was a surprise visit. It's Kumamon's 2nd year "Birthday" and he is making the rounds putting smiles on everyone's faces.

Kumamon is Kumamoto Prefecture's mascot. He is part of a campaigner to boost tourism to Kumamoto prefecture. And he is working big time! Last year alone he generate seven million dollars in tourist revenue.

If you still don't know what Kumamon is, or don't fully grasp his appeal, this blog explains it very well.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

America vs. The WORLD: U.S. Measures Chart

I found this picture online and had to laugh. Having lived in Japan for six years, I have become accustomed to the Metric system... which is sooo easy! When I went back over to the States for Christmas my family kept asking for conversions, because I kept using the metric system. Needless to say I had more than a little bit of trouble trying to get back into the weird U.S. systems--which make little sense once you go metric.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Grandmother of the Forest

Digital Photo by the Polish artist Katherine.

Helping my students translate their own renditions of the Little Red Riding Hood fable compelled me to write my own version. I hope you have as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

by Tristan Vick

One day, Little Red Riding Hood, who wasn't so little but rather on the plump side, was picking herbs in the forest. As she gathered special herbs needed to make tea and medicine, she noticed a very handsome man coming out of the woods. He was tall, had dark hair, and soft brown eyes which betrayed a certain innocence about him. His fashion was impeccable, and he wore the latest fashion of eighteenth century England, with a charcoal gray suit coat  with an inside waistcoat. The waistcoat was of a slightly lighter gray, which helped to enhance the contrast of his fancy layers. Pulling out a gold pocket watch, he checked the time. 

As Little Red Riding Hood gazed upon his beautiful face, her cheeks blushed and her heart rushed. With a rosy complexion she made her way toward where he paused to check his pocket watch.

To Red’s dismay, however, the young man startled at the sight of such a large mass lumbering toward him through the wood. Before she could reach him, he clapped shut his pocket watch and abruptly turned around and fled back the way he had come. Red was heartbroken. None of the boys ever wanted to talk to her. She broke down in the woods sobbing. Admonishing herself, she said, “Nobody will ever want to be your friend, you’re too fat and ugly.”

After collecting herself, Red promptly headed to her grandmother's house. Grandma would know what to do, she thought.

Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother was a very beautiful sorceress, who looked far more youthful than her true age. This was due to the art of black magic, and a powerful spell that her grandmother knew of which kept her perpetually young. If she had such magic, thought Red, perhaps she will have something that will make me beautiful and desirable.

Having told her grandmother the story of how nobody would be friends with her and the young man in the woods who would rather tuck tail and flee the scene than speak even two words to her, with a warm smile her grandma consoled her, saying, “There there now little one, I shall fix everything.”

Standing up, Red’s grandma, with her elegant waist, slender arms, and dainty hands, began gathering powders, jars filled with dried roots of the extremely potent variety, and bottles of elixir, and threw them all into a black cauldron cooking upon the fire.

Looking at the basket Red held in her arms, her grandmother asked for a few of the special herbs. Red gladly handed them over, and asked, “Are you making a love potion?”

Stirring the pot, her grandmother crumpled up the dry leaves and tossed them into the pot. “Something like that, my dear. This is a magic soup! It will cheer you right up.”

“Will it make me beautiful?” inquired Red.

“It will make your deepest desires into reality!” her grandmother replied with a great big grin. Then handing Red a bowl full of magic soup, she said, “Now drink this and think of the think you most want in the world!”

Since Red was feeling hungry from her long day in the woods, she greedily gulped down the soup.

Poof! Suddenly Red vanished in a cloud of smoke. To the grandmother’s surprise, Red had turned into a large black wolf.

“I didn’t expect that,” grandma said with a curious sort of admiration. Bending down she rubbed the wolf’s mane and scratched behind its ears, then opening the door to the cottage, she said, “Off you go!”

Feeling free as the bird, Red, who was now a wolf, dashed through the forest with great speed. The exercise invigorated her and the fresh air felt great! She found a pack of wolves to play with and they gladly accepted her into the group. All day long they ran up and down the hills and through the trees, until they all fell asleep curled up in one large pile. As she dozed off, Little Red felt happy, she was no longer a lone wolf.

The next day a handsome man was walking through the woods. As he walked into the darker area which was heavily shaded by thick trees, he began to feel like he was being followed. Spinning around he shouted, “Who goes there?!”

Although he waited for a reply, there was none. So he turned back around to hurry on his way. But just in front of him, from behind a tree stepped a large black wolf. The man froze in his tracks, as the wolf slowly walked toward him, as if it he were somehow familiar to it.

“D-don’t come any closer!” the man said, raising his hand in a show of caution. Strangely enough, it seemed to work. The wolf responded and then sat in front of the man as if it were as tame as a friendly beagle sitting by its master’s side.

Getting close the man crouched down and put out his hand toward the wolf. It smelled his hand and then, in a show of submission, gently licked the man’s hand. “Well, I’ll be!” exclaimed the man. “You aren’t so bad.”

Rubbing the wolf’s mane, and scratching behind its ears, the man said, “Maybe I’ll keep you and take you home with me.”

Just then the wolf spoke in human tongue, “You smell good.”

Alarmed, the man had leapt back a considerable distance. Pointing at the wolf with a shaking finger, he asked, “Did you just speak?”

Casually, the wolf got up and started circling the man. “I feel awfully hungry. Do you have any food?”

“I beg your pardon, but I do not,” replied the man timidly. He began to fear for his life as the wolf continued encircling him, edging closer and closer.

“Are you sure you don’t have anything to eat?”

Pulling out his pockets, as a friendly gesture to show he hadn’t a single thing in them, the man said, “See, nothing at all. I do apologize.”

"You're sorry?" the wolf said gruffly.

"Yes," said the man. "I am terribly sorry."

“Sorry, indeed!” snarled the wolf. The man stumbled back in fear.

“Ah, um… I think I had better get going,” said the man. Slowly stepping back, away from the wolf, the man made hasty retreat. The wolf merely seemed to be grinning at him.

“You know,” said the wolf, “It’s not safe in these woods.”

With that, the man turned and dashed away. His fancy suit jacket snagged on a nearby branch and tore. But he didn’t stop to look back. All he wanted was to escape that wolf and get out of the woods.

Thanks to his youth the man was able to run several kilometers without tiring. But even his young lungs couldn’t keep up the pace, so he decided to rest against a large tree. As he sat there, he looked up to see a beautiful woman pass between some trees a few yards ahead of him. She was dressed in black, but had a bright red shawl draped over her head and shoulders.

“Hello there!” he shouted out. “Don’t be afraid!”

Stepping out from behind a large tree came a beautiful raven haired woman. He noticed her hair, for her red shawl gently slipped off her head and came down around her shoulders. She not only was beautiful, with her midnight black silky flowing hair, but had an elegant waistline, slender arms, and small gentle hands too. Her dark eyes were smoldering, and seemed to hide a special kind of wisdom and maturity which only comes with age. The man instantly fell in love with her.

“What is such an elegant woman like you doing in the woods alone?” he asked.

“Oh,” she said, blushing slightly. “I am looking for my pet.”

Taking her hand, the man bowed slightly and kissed the white of her skin with soft lips. “Come, now,” he said. “Fear not, for I shall help you find your stray. What kind of animal is it?”

“I’m afraid you might not like me if I told you.”

“What could you possibly say to me that would turn my opinion against such an angelic complexion and the sweetest face I have ever laid eyes upon?”

“Still, I must warn you, no man has ever been able to subdue my spirit.”

“Don’t be so silly,” the man said authoritatively. “How could anyone not love someone as beautiful and fair as you?”

“You see,” the woman said stepping close to the man, and putting her lips near his, “It is no ordinary animal. She is very special to me, and I cannot bear to imagine her getting hurt in these immense woods all alone.”

“Well, come out with it,” the man said, trying not to sound overly agitated. Women were fickle, he thought, but he didn’t want to arouse her suspicions that he was short on temper, or anything less than a gentleman, so he gathered himself and asked with a pleasant voice, “What manner of beast is it? Is it a cat or dog?”

“I'm afraid it is something far less tame,” replied the woman. Pressing her body against his in a manner quite sensual for a stranger, she ran her fingers through his hair and caressed his soft face. Without warning she suddenly leaned in and kissed his lips. Looking into his eyes with her piercing gaze, she asked, “Won’t you help me with my precious darling?”

Feeling light headed from the kiss, and having never met such a woman before in his life, he replied without a moments hesitation, “Sure! I’ll help you find it.”

“No,” said the woman, a sinister smile forming upon her luscious lips. “I am afraid you have misunderstood me. I don’t need you to help find my wolf--I need you to help me feed it!”

“Wolf?!” cried out the man, flying back with fright. Just then the black wolf, whom he had met earlier, appeared from a nearby thicket of trees, and growled at him menacingly. Alarmed, he scurried backward until his back was pinned against a large tree.

“What’s going on here?!” the man demanded to know. But the mysterious woman simply caressed her wolf exactly like she had been caressing his hair moments earlier, then she looked up at him with her dark smoldering eyes and smiled a chilling smile.

Feeling a terror overcome him, he felt like running away, but for some odd reason his legs had stiffened to the consistency of lead. Something about her kept him entranced--frozen to his patch of mossy forest. Slowly the woman put her red shawl over her head, and without breaking eye contact disappeared into the woods. As she vanished into the shadows before his very eyes, her voice called out, “You know, it’s not safe in the woods.”

High above the forest a rustling below upset the birds and sent them flying into the air. From below came the snarling of a beast and the screams of a man—a man being torn to shreds as he was made the wolf’s dinner.

The End

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Japanese Education System and the Infamous Kenshukai

A friend of mine, who has diligently taught English in Japan for three years, emailed me a confession detailing her immense frustration with the Japanese education system. 

As someone who has taught ESL (English as a Second Language) for over half a decade in Japan, I greatly sympathized with her frustrations. The following is my reply to her initial letter. 


The demonstration classes you are referring to, if I understand your meaning, fall into the category of happyokai (発表会) which is an extension of kenshukai (研修会) of the Ministry of Education, Sports, and Science (文部省), also called MEXT.

As far as I can tell, the only difference between the happyokai demonstration class and the kenshukai is that the kenshukai demo is usually presented before the Prefectural Board of Education, whereas the hayppokai is usually presented before the PTA or the local city/town boards of education.

I only point this difference out, because like you, the demonstration classes bother me to no end. I used to make little distinction between the happyokai (HPK) or the kenshukai (KNS). Although both are pretty much useless, when it comes to learning new teaching methodologies or as a means to improve pedagogy, I still feel I can benefit, although perhaps indirectly, from a good HPK demonstration.

The way I see it, the HPK has the pretense of showing how much the students have learned, but as we both know, in actuality this amounts to little more than sheer wishful thinking. A rehearsed class is a recitation of memorized facts, not a demonstration of accrued knowledge. But why the emphasis, I ask myself, on memorized facts?

Testing. The fact of the matter is, Japan judges its success on whether or not its students can pass tests. Not on whether or not they have a general grasp of the information, but whether or not they know what information will be the focus of their testing. So the aim, it seems to me, becomes restrictively narrow to cover only the information they know will be on the tests. And of course the Ministry of Education knows what will be on the tests, since they are the ones who design and issue the tests. Literally all of Japan's education curriculum is predetermined by the government and the educators have no say in the matter. Anything which strays from the parameters of the mandate is not meeting the testing standards of the Ministry of Education, which usually spells trouble for the school. Therefore the school boards are keen to make sure all their schools within their districts are following the official guidelines. God forbid somebody teaching something different--something novel--something original even. If it doesn't fit within the narrow parameters which have been set, then it simply isn't allowed.

I find this hinders the education system in Japan in more ways than I care to count.

Another aspect of the education system which bothers me is, as you mentioned, the rehearsed classes. It seems to me, over the six years I have spent teaching in Japan, the HPK is of utmost importance for teachers who wish to keep their contracts and stay at the same school. They have to *impress the PTA, since one complaint could technically get them fired (i.e., transferred to a new school). But maybe worse than irrelevant classes are ineffective teachers (I should specify I am thinking mainly about English teachers in the context of the Japanese classroom).

Unfortunately, as we both know, no teacher, no matter how insufficient or poorly educated, will likely maintain their position indefinitely; as per custom here. No matter how horrendous, how unskilled they are, their ineptitude is usually overlooked and they are passed on to other schools only to become somebody else's problem. Personally, I have always felt the embarrassment of being out of one's depth and being completely ineffectual as an educator would cause some of these "educators" to re-evaluate their carrier choices, but apparently not. I don't know, but it just seems common sense that one who is not properly educated may only be pretending to be an educator, since we know that all good educators first require a good education themselves. Yet if good teachers are as hard to come by as they are in the U.S., I could imagine Japan having more than their fair share of lackluster teachers. The problem is, as you probably have observed, is the lackluster teachers almost always seem to be English teachers. All the other teachers are usually pretty decent. Why should this be?

Because English learning in Japan isn't about learning a language--like I eluded to above--it's about passing tests! The teachers, unfortunately, come out of the same broken system. But their poor English skills aren't the only thing interfering with their English education. In my estimation, their strict adherence to the MEXT mandates is another challenge. No teacher is willing to be a radical and start a rebellion of English learning. Indeed, with the issuing of Eigo Noto, the horrible textbooks meant for elementary fifth and sixth graders, the freedom of English education has been restricted even further. While teaching in Hiroshima I was using the wonderful English materials by the MPI (i.e., the Matsuka Phonics Institute). Regrettably, that all went away when Eigo Noto was pushed on us--and the English education has suffered horribly for it. Other places had not English education for elementary level learners, so Eigo Noto in many places is viewed in a positive light--but I wish to dispel this myth. Eigo Noto is horrendous and would be better suited as kindling to keep the fire going during the frigid Japanese winter.

Now we have teachers with almost no English education required to teach English from a textbook which looks like a team of illiterate monkeys typed it up. All this has become a total nightmare! The Japanese teachers are wondering how the hell they can teach something they don't know anything about, and all the native ESL instructors, such as myself, are wondering how the hell we are supposed to teach from something so horribly devised that it is actually working against our goal of improving student English ability!

Over the years, whenever I have tried to introduce new material to a class, even having given notice weeks (sometimes months) in advance, on the day I am usually told we do not have time for my lesson plan. Indeed, the teachers are under the stress of having to get through the mandated material. Usually I am reminded that they have their semester tests, their mid year tests, their finals, or their high school entrance exams to prepare for. With trying to meet so many testing requirements, which focus on mainly on grammar and vocabulary skills and never on language ability, it is no wonder they can't seem learn any English!

Additionally, the teachers have the additional burden of trying to keep their jobs--and this requires them to show off how amazing their classes are and how much the students have learned and how proficient they are appear!

Yet this sort of pin points the frustration we have, as Western educators. We place emphasis on actual results, that is, real proficiency and real ability. Not the mere appearance of it. We practice things like teaching methodologies and study ways to improve pedagogy. We want the students to learn, but what’s more we wish them to comprehend!

This involves teaching students to think independently. That is, individual problem solving comes with it the prerequisite of thinking on ones toes. Language, being something spontaneous and organic all at the same time, often requires one to make split decisions. Since individual problem solving isn't cultivated in Japan, language becomes doubly hard for Japanese. Their tendency is to group together to solve problems, as two minds are always better than one. But this works for solving word problems in a test book or for planning for meeting or in forming think tanks to solve social issues. It is not suited for acquiring language or having to deal with the spontaneous obstacles of everyday life.

If they can't think for themselves when it comes to trying to understand something, then gaining any sort of comprehension seems all but hopeless.

Comprehension of a subject is NOT a part of the Japanese education system. It simply isn't designed with comprehension in mind. Especially when the system is all top down. It simply isn’t designed with the students’ needs in mind, rather, it is designed with the need to pass tests. 

I (strongly) feel that this is the wrong way to go about educating our children.

After decades of slipping test scores, however, The Ministry of Education eventually noticed that while their school systems appeared to be doing great, and while their students were oh so excellent at reciting memorized knowledge, that when actually called upon to show proficiency rather than mere performance they found disaster lurking.

Over the last several years statistics have shown that Japan is being out performed by nearly all the other Asian countries with regard to English learning. A huge embarrassment, for sure. But instead of correcting it with new programs and new teaching methodologies, they issue more and more kenshukais, as if this would be enough to make them fluent in English.

My guess is that kenshukai was initially started as a way to keep track of the Japan's overall progress with regard to standardized testing, probably as a means to better gauge which Japanese schools were classified as academic or not and then rank them accordingly. But it seems that it has now become a way to rank itself among other nations as well. Not only this, but because of the slipping test scored and the poor English ability, Japan keeps issuing English based kenshukais. I have personally been to over a dozen in less than five years. 

But the issue is being looked at the wrong way around. Instead of asking what methods they can adopt to improve overall education, they are focusing on the areas needed to improve test scores. If Japanese students score bad on vocabulary nation wide, then the government starts issuing new textbooks with better written vocabulary, more vocabulary, and so on and so forth. Yet this only bogs down the already heavy saturation of grammar and vocabulary they already are required to learn. It simply ignores the real problems. Imagine trying to stop the Titanic from sinking by patching each individual compartment without ever addressing the large gaping tear in the main haul?! 

That seems to be exactly what The Ministry of Education is doing with regard to English learning as a second language. Instead of fixing the large obvious problems, they are patching irrelevant, unimportant, problems--meanwhile English education in the country continues to sink to new lows.

Perhaps this is the Japanese Ministry of Educations greatest mistake--micro managing English education. It has led to useless hours upon hours of pretend demo classes, all rehearsed performances which completely fail to gauge proficiency. 

Two things. If you don't know the students actual ability before the class you can't gauge their improvement. So what's the point? Second, if the class is a scripted performance, then you really can't know for sure whether or not they have comprehensively learned the material. They may simply all be good at memorizing the script on the day. So the question becomes, what are we adjudicating them on exactly?

In the numerous kenshukai post meetings, I inevitably always get asked to add to the discussion and comment on the class *performance. They want to hear it from a native speaker how wonderful they all did! Although I can pour compliments onto my students, and boost their confidence, I have nothing good to say about these post kenshukai meetings. But what can one even say? The class either appeared to go well or it didn't. The students either appeared to know what they were doing or they didn't. But in the end, nobody at all (apart from maybe the homeroom teacher) can tell how much the students actually improved (or didn't improve). So, again, what's the point? 

One who is new to the Japanese education system might remark, in their naivete, that the kenshukai could be used as a way to share teaching methodologies. You and I, however, know better than this. No teaching methodologies can even get off the ground without the Ministry of Education's approval, and only then only if the plan goes all the way up the bureaucratic chain, and only after it meets all the mandates. It's impossible to share teaching methods, because they simply aren't allowed. Even if they are brought up in casual discussion, teachers simply lack the authority to implement them. 

Sadly, every semester they are disappointed in the lack of proficiency gained and the total lack of English comprehension. Thus another kenshukai is scheduled, and the vicious cycle of futility repeats itself.

Honestly, the only thing I have found kenshukais to be good for is for catching up with other ALTs and flirting with cute, young JTEs.  Actually, correct that last remark. It may have come off as overly sexist. In truth, they don't have to be young JTEs, just cute. ;) 

All this is just to say, I share your frustrations.


Tristan Vick, Professional ESL Educator 

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Collection of Little Red Stories

Every year, in my English class, I have the students re-write the Little Red Riding Hood fable (called あかずの扉  in Japanese, or simply Akazukin for short). I usually begin by showing a short two minute animated video of the Little Red Riding Hood story done by the British Council (the United Kingdoms organization for cultural relations and English learning). The video is very cute and, I find, is perfectly suited for Japanese elementary school students.

The great thing is, most of the students are already familiar with the story. The one in the video also uses British English which is a good change of pace (since I speak in the bland American accent). I ask them if they can catch the words. Inevitably their eyes grow big as they strain to listen to the words. I show them the video a second time to give them a fighting chance.

Next, I give them the basic plot points of the Little Red Riding Hood storie, which I have simplified for their ESL level, narrowing the key plot points to six.

1. Little Red goes to her grandma's house.
2. Little Red meets a big scary wolf.
3. Little Red arrives at grandmothers.
4. Wolf pretends to be grandma.
5. Wolf eats Little Red and Grandma.
6. Hunter saves Little Red and her grandma.

After this I usually give them a template I made with six boxes for them to fill in. The challenge is that they have to rewrite the story. I tell them they can change the whole thing or just one box--it is mainly up to them.

After a bit of excitement the class calms down, and they get busy writing (I allow them to write in Japanese to begin with--they are only elementary school kids, after all. I later translate them--another reason I try to keep the structure of the plot simple. Also, by making it five or six points, as shown above, the students can follow the pattern and create their own version much more easily than if I were to simply ask them to rewrite the story without highlighting the plot points first).

Usually the brainstorming and writing takes up the rest of the class time. Before the bell, I collect the papers and translate for them.

In next weeks lesson I will have them rewrite the English neatly, draw pictures to accompany their stories, color them, and then present them before the class. The H1 (Homeroom Teacher 1) and I always try to work together to help them read and pronounce the words correctly. Often times they get into their parts and do the voices and gestures of the characters. It is always a blast!

Here is one example of a student's take on Little Red Riding Hood. (Of course I helped translate and get the grammar just so.)

One day, Little Red was picking rare fruits for her mother. Suddenly, she met a big scary Wolf. Unfortunately, her gun wouldn't work. The Wolf snatched up Little Red in his teeth and gobbled her up! Putting on her clothes, the Wolf pretended to be Little Red. Then he went to Little Red's grandmother's house. Fooling the grandma, he ate her too. The End.

I absolutely love it! Another story went like this:

One day, Little Red's mother wanted her to take some mackerel fish to grandmas. While walking to grandma's house Little Red met a wolf. But he was a nice wolf. The wolf had an idea.
"Let's eat this fish together!" he said. 
 "Okay," said Little Red Riding Hood. 
So the two of them sat down and ate all of the fish! After their stomachs were full and all the fish were gone, they worried about what to do. 
"I know," said Red. "We can go fishing and catch more fish!"
So they went fishing and were happy when their very first catch was a giant tuna fish! It was one of the largest tunas they had ever seen. They carried the heavy fish all the way up the mountain to grandma's house. Finally, they reached grandma's house but they were exhausted and hungry from the long walk and having carried such a heavy prize.

Grandma cooked the giant tuna and made dinner and together they ate it all up! It was a happy time. 

The End.  

Many of the stories crack me up. In the past, one girl's morbidly erotic version had Little Red fall in love with the Wolf. When the woodsman/hunter arrives to slay the Wolf and save the grandma, Little Red intervenes, explaining that the Wolf was only hungry. Besides, grandma was old anyway. At least that was the gist. The hunter notices Red is showing (i.e., she is pregnant) and asks Red what the meaning of all this is. Rubbing her belly with a maternal love, Red explains that she is carrying the Wolf's baby. The story ends with a wedding. Naturally.

My students always tell the best Little Red Riding Hood stories. Which is probably why I have so much fun making them do it. They seem to enjoy it too.

[Note 1: As an ESL instructor in Japan, I am required by the Japanese government to teach from the Eigo Noto (Eigo Note) textbook. However, some of the lessons are too insufficient, pathetic, or horrible to teach effective English, and so I supplement them with my own lesson plan. I use this lesson instead of the Giant Turnip section of lesson 8 in book two.]

[Note 2: This accomplishes the objective of the English Note lesson 8. Strangely enough, the origianl lesson plan does not accomplish the objective set forth by the book. In other words, chapter 8 of book two fails to teach the kids how to create their own fable and then write it in English. If you are familiar with the Eigo Note textbook, you will likely be familiar with the horrible Giant Radish story--and the three days of repeating the same stupid chant only to find on the last day they students are expected to meet the impossible task of writing a full fable in a different language. Yeah, pretty impossible, since we haven't covered how to write a fable let alone how to form coherent English sentences. If you are an ESL instructor, or English teacher, please feel free to use this lesson plan. You can adapt it to your own classroom setting and alter it for your own purposes and needs. Good luck!]

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Superstitious Japan: Yakudoshi

Even as Japan is mainly a secular society which prides itself on its "freethinking," a term most Japanese throw around loosely, over the years I have found that Japan is infested with age old superstitions and ritualized customs which have seeped into mainstream life.

Partly this is due to the fact that the contemporary culture of Japan is fused with a 3,000 year old history. When you have had certain customs or traditions ingraned into society for so long, they aren't thought of as "superstitions" so much as they are traditional Japanese practices which reflect their ancient heritage.

One such tradition is called Yakudoshi.

Yakudoshi refers to the belief that there are certain ages in one's life where their bad luck increases and there good luck diminishes (as if good luck and bad luck were forces that were intertwined--like the yin and yang). Thinking about yakudoshi in terms of the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang makes sense considering that, in Japan, yakudoshi is part of the official religious practice of the Ommyodo school of philosophy. Ommyodo literally translates to "The Way of Yin and Yang."

One of the best online Encyclodpedias about Japan is the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii. On there page about Japanese traditions they state that 

Bad luck ages are referred to as yakudoshi, with yaku meaning “calamity” or “calamitous” and doshi signifying “year(s).” These years are considered critical or dangerous because they are believed to bring bad luck or disaster.... For men, the ages 24 and 41 (or 25 and 42 in Japan) are deemed critical years, with 41 being especially critical. It is customary in these unlucky years to visit temples and shrines to provide divine protection from harm.... The equivalent yakudoshi ages for women are 18 and 32 (19 and 33 in Japan), with 32 thought to be a particularly hard, terrible or disastrous year. 

My Japanese wife recently asked here friends what they thought about this tradition, and one of her friends, an American woman married to a Japanese man, had this to say about the yakudoshi ritual:

It was my Yakudoshi last year, and my mother in law and I had many disagreements about its customs. I refused to go to go to a shrine and be cleansed, because it's just creepy and unnecessary to my western mindset.

Another friend of my wife's informed that her mother-in-law waited until after her yakudoshi to buy a car. Supposedly because she didn't want to buy a new car and then have the bad luck of wrecking it. 

There is even an iTunes calendar app to help you keep track of your yakudoshi! After all, you wouldn't want those unlucky years sneaking up on you!

This superstition of good-luck/bad-luck periods in one's life, however, is not so different from other long held Japanese superstitions and traditions, such as blood type determining a person's personality type, or the fertility rituals in which a giant penis is paraded around the local rural communities. Most of them are odd, even downright absurd, if not plainly bordering on the ridiculous. Many Japanese citizens--the same Japanese people who pride themselves on their status as "freethinkers"--will often blindly accept, with unquestioning ease, these age old superstitions and rituals. 

Mainly, I think, they accept it without protest because they view these age old customs and rituals as an inbuilt part of the Japanese cultural identity. Strangely enough, many people seem to not only practice them out of tradition but also seem to believe in them. Those that don't believe often still practice them anyway, and when questioned on why they continue to practice useless and erroneous traditions you'll often hear the rejoined, "But it's part of Japanese life, it's part of our cultural identity, it's what we've always done."

Whether or not that excuse is good enough to pardon oneself in the practice of silly and erroneous things which, quite frankly, make a person look absurd--I don't know. For a country often concerned about saving "face" and maintaining a certain decorum, and priding itself on its strong economy, modern lifestyle, health, longevity, and a slew of technological achievements, it sometimes seems that many of Japan's ancient customs and traditions are out of place in today's world. But that's Japan for you--a hybrid of the ancient and the modern, the old blended in with the new. It's one of the things which makes Japan truly fascinating for me.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Finding Work in Japan After JET

Some people have been wondering about my life post JET Programme and how I came to find stable work in Japan. Here I try to explain a little about my current situation and how it came to be while offering advice to those who may soon be in the same boat (so to speak).

My job now is basically the same as JET but I get to do more. I work for a city government, privately. The pay is less (way less), but since we moved in with my wife's parents I haven't noticed it too much.

I lucked out finding the job early though. Roughly *two weeks after I quite the JET Programme and I had absolutely nothing lined up.

However, let me state that I did apply with the job services here in Japan--called Hello Work. There is a ton of paper work to go through... so you will need your significant other, or a close native speaker of Japanese, to assist you--but you should definitely apply.

Here's why.

You get paid for looking for work in Japan! They go by your previous earnings. Every week you make a percentage, which is taken out of your unemployment tax which you've been paying the whole time you've been working and living in Japan. I would have made 9 man a month (roughly $1,000 American)... however, because I found a job within 2 weeks of signing up they gave me the 9 man plus a 20 man early find bonus! I literally made 30 man (approx. $3,000) in less than 3 weeks.

Here's the thing though... Hello Work SUCKS for finding jobs--and you have to go to one of their seminars and listen for two hours to a Japanese person drone on and on about finding work in order to get the money back. As a foreigner, absolutely NOTHING they say in the seminar will apply to you. Nothing.

I went the the "International" section of the Hello Work agency and tried to find someone who spoke relatively good English. The person does not exist! At least not in my area. Hiroshima City ought to have one.

I left Hiroshima and came down to Kumamoto, and they had no English section, but looking online I found that the Fukuyama branch in Hiroshima has an English speaker. If you're in the Hiroshima area here's their address and phone number of their Hello Work English contact information.

3-12 Higashi Sakura-cho Fukuyama-shi


So anyway, Hello Work pretty much sucks for finding work when you a non-native. That said, I still recommend applying to them to get the extra money--because you won't know how long it will be until you find work--it may come in handy. If you get lucky like I did, it's a pretty nice bonus. Kind of makes up for the five years on JET I worked without ever getting a single bonus. 

I found my current job on a local city listing online. But the best place to look for work in Japan (at least for foreigners) is on GaijinPot.com


Make sure you sign up to their job listing section. Your name will be posted for companies to contact you as well as allowing you to see all the job listings. 

I received tons of job listings for English speakers with moderate Japanese. Everything from bar tending to the same old ESL grind. There are translation jobs, as well as personal tutoring jobs, among many other jobs to select from.

Well, that's the low down on what I know. Like I said, I found work right away so I didn't struggle too much. I wish you the best of luck and hope this info helps.


Bikkuri Vick