A Year and a Half in Japan

Patrick and kindergarteners

In the English as a Second Language program at Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis, Patrick was both an administrative assistant and a short-term or part-time lecturer. He has a master’s degree in Elementary Education and a TESOL Certificate. Sometimes he still thinks about teaching overseas, although he’s almost sixty-five. Recently he’s been working as a private chef. We spoke via Skype when he was in Indianapolis and I was in Manila. Thanks to Patrick for the photographs.

Patrick’s story

The Fukushima English Center

In 1999, after teaching international university students part-time, I decided to apply for a full-time job in Japan. I’d liked working with Japanese students, and I’d heard the money was adequate and the language schools mostly honest. I had a telephone interview with an American representative of the Fukushima English School, and then I sent a video so the administrators could check my English. They hired me. I was thrilled. I was 49 years old, and this was my first attempt to live abroad.

Before going on to Fukushima, I stayed in a traditional inn in Tokyo and visited with a friend I’d met in Indianapolis. For the first week when walking down dark side streets I often caught myself looking over my shoulder, an American habit. Gradually I realized I wouldn’t get mugged in Japan, even in that huge city. In fact, Japan was a cash-based society, meaning people carried around huge amounts of cash because they didn’t use checks. There were no guns and little violent crime. After I started working my pay came as an envelope of cash.

The apartment building and school entrance

When I saw six-year-old children taking trains and subways to school, I looked around for their parents. I discovered that everybody felt safe sending their kids off alone. I could get on a train or a subway and go to any part of the city, walk around and feel safe. That was so refreshing. I was brought up as a totally nonviolent pacifist. Sometimes I wish I’d stayed in Japan because America can be so horrifying these days.

I also loved the fact that the Japanese put group interests above those of the individual. Most young people lived at home, and sometimes their families arranged their marriages, which were like business relationships without the romantic notion of finding the perfect mate and the perfect sex partner. People weren’t as brainwashed by romantic TV shows and movies. Marriage and child-rearing were about the good of society. It took me a while to get a sense of the collectivist’s view of the group and how it felt in the culture. Japanese customs seemed so alien to ours.

The apartment: two tatami rooms, kitchen, bath with tub

Japan was a high-tech, world-class economy. People had Smartphones years before we did. On the trains and subways I’d watch them with their phones and wonder what was going on. They were interested in automobiles, but the nationwide train system was incredible, and everyone used it. Nowadays I’ve read all the books of Haruki Murakami, a famous fiction writer who’s got a great sense of humor and writing style. The protagonist of his latest novel, Colorless TsukuruTazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, is an engineer who plans and updates train stations. The book contains a subway map of Tokyo. I think it may be the most sophisticated system in the world.

The apartment

Juxtaposed to the modern side of Japan was the ancient side. In a Kyoto side street I came across a big sign over the entrance to a retail shop showing a naked butt being slapped with two gloved hands. The store sold motorcycle gear. Right next to it was a stairway leading to a tiny Zen temple which was probably a thousand years old. The modern-ancient dichotomy was everywhere, and the contrasts were sometimes jarring. I was impressed with how nice people were—although once an old lady yelled at me for crossing against the light. Generally I thought Japanese was such an interesting-sounding language, and there were common words that sounded hilarious, like words kids would make up.

FEC common room

In Tokyo the subways and trains have signs in English now, but there were none in Fukushima and on the highways just north of there—not in those days. Once I drove up to Sendai, and I couldn’t read any of the signs. In Fukushima I’d go into stores wanting to buy a boom box and discover it sold clothes. Even though I was 49 years old, I felt like a pre-schooler. I probably learned more in one year than I’d learned in my life. For the first month or so I was exhausted at the end of each day.

It was the first time I’d been part of a racial minority, so noticeably not Asian. People on the street would stare, especially in Fukushima, where at the time we had probably seventy westerners, almost all English teachers. Once a friend and I decided to blow kisses at people who stared at us, but the reaction was a little disconcerting. Of course the kids all knew how to say hello in English, so they’d ride by on their bicycles and yell, “Hel-lo-ow. How are you?” Then they’d ride off so they wouldn’t have to say anything else.

The owner of the Catfish Bar with his staff

Fukushima had a blues club called Namazute, or Catfish, which was a hangout for native speakers of English and people who wanted to practice the language. The owner had lived in Tokyo for years and loved American music. On weekends I’d go there to listen, socialize, and maybe meet a Japanese woman who spoke English. About once a month the owner brought in a live band, and I found the Japanese blues bands were fantastic. The singers all sang in English, but none of them spoke it offstage. There were great harmonica players and guitar players. I even got to sit in a couple of times.

Fourth graders

FEC started in April with the school year. The school system had required English classes which started in junior high—nowadays English starts in grade school. Students could also attend language schools, called juku, to learn more English and other subjects. They were under lots of pressure to do well, but at the same time their traditional collectivist culture prohibited them from standing out. Or as the Asian proverb goes, “The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.” In front of their classmates, students wouldn’t even tell me what their academic plans were. If I put a question to the class nobody would raise a hand. Ever. If you responded incorrectly you risked embarrassing your parents, your ancestors, the other students and the teacher. If you responded correctly you were showing off. So how was I supposed to teach English communication to students who would not participate?

English center kids

The kids were an interesting amalgam of western influence—mostly music and television and movies—and traditional culture. In Tokyo kids with purple hair were singing folk songs on the street, but in the school system any student with hair dyed brown would be sent home.

Fukushima English Center was centrally located. It owned several businesses, including some retirement homes, two kindergartens and two high schools. I taught all age groups—junior high school kids, high school kids, several really advanced adults, and then several company classes in the evening. Every week I drove a school car to the two kindergartens and the two high schools. I usually worked a split shift.

The whole experience swept me away. I loved it, even though as a gaijin in a juku you’re basically an entertainer keeping the kids happy so the school can keep the business. The teachers were responsible for the curriculum. We had lots of materials, but we were free to expand on them as we wanted to, especially in the children’s classes. Other teachers were better at singing songs and doing chants and making friends with the little ones. I worked better with the adults and the high school kids. For the adult classes we used textbooks and current magazines. Of course, for beginning English speakers one class a week is not much time. It was up to me to make things interesting, bring in outside materials and form relationships to help students.

At a high school

The government supervised the schools and made sure that the foreign teachers earned enough money so they wouldn’t be begging on the street. Teachers were not supposed to take on extra tutoring, but everybody did. Often private tutoring just meant going out to lunch with adult students. I worked with a woman who’d been in Japan for three years, and I think she stayed on for two more. She made a lot of extra money. Usually the school didn’t care as long as it didn’t interfere with the teacher’s official job.

After a year I was offered a job in a private Catholic institution called Sakura no Seibo, which had a junior college, a high school, a junior high and an elementary school. I taught at the girls’ high school, which was run by nuns although the kids weren’t Catholic and there was no religious instruction, just chapel occasionally. The school was known as good for learning English, probably better than the local public schools. In Japan generally the state-run universities and high schools were the better ones. The salary I was offered was double that of the English center—$60,000 a year. I thought, “Wow, I could never even make that in America.”

At another high school

But before I left the center, my boss, a sweet older man who has since died, told me, “Patrick, you’re going to a different Rome,” referring to the adage about doing as the Romans do.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ll find out when you get to that school. There are very strict rules, and you don’t want to stand out in any way. Just keep your head down and do what they tell you to.”

“But this school is known for its English teaching. That’s why I got the job.”

“Well, you’ll see.”

The “housewife” class

I had no sense of what he meant, but I found out from other teachers that you weren’t ever supposed to rock the boat. The curriculum was dictated by the government and standardized from school to school. I was assigned to teach the required English general classes, five different English groups which met once a week in the language lab, forty students to a class.

Even before they walked in the door, the students looked depressed. They’d come in with their heads hanging down like they were going to be tortured. They had to sit next to a partner, put on a headset and go over a dialogue while the teacher listened secretly from the enclosed booth in front, ostensibly to correct them. The textbook was Side by Side.

[An enormous groan comes from the interviewer.]

A company class

When I was trained in TESOL, I learned many best teaching practices, which were nothing like this. So being the rebel that I am, I started bringing in music and fill-in-the-blank exercises for the lyrics. I brought in videos of the music the kids were listening to, like Michael Jackson and the Backstreet Boys. Shortly after school started, I had several visitors from the administration and my boss, a guy from Pittsburgh who’d been there for ten years and had a Japanese wife. The visitors strongly doubted the viability of using this music, which they told me I could play only after the Side by Side routine and only at the end of the hour for entertainment purposes. Once I realized I was trapped in an absurd situation I started not really caring how my boss felt about me, just as I’d responded to idiot bosses for years.

Three times a week I met with my freshman English majors, kids who’d either shown an interest in English or who had actually lived in English speaking countries, often in homestay situations. One had an American mom. They were much more enthusiastic than the kids in the required classes, and some of them had been to the US or Australia or England and had good skills already. One had an American mom. They were a really interesting group of kids, and I thought I could make some headway with them.

Another adult class

But with this class another incident occurred which added to my growing sense of the absurd. Once a week we met in a computer lab and used computer software to improve pronunciation—for them just more of the same old stuff. I decided they should get email pals abroad. My brother teaches in California, and he was having his students make contact with students in other countries. Dave’s ESL café also had a list of students who wanted to contact others using English. So it was the perfect setup. It took maybe two class periods to get them all Hotmail accounts and get them started writing. Soon they were eagerly waiting to come into class.

My boss, this guy from Pittsburgh, came to visit the lab one day and said, “What are you doing?”

“They’re writing letters to people in America.”

“They don’t know how to write yet.”

“Well, this is how they’re learning to write.”

“Oh, no. You can’t do this. This is unacceptable.” He shut the whole project down.

Co-teacher Abe Sensei

In Japan I discovered Penguin graded readers, which I later used very successfully in the US with people I tutored and with English-language community college classes. If I’d been allowed to set up my own curriculum in Japan I think I could have made a difference for my students. The graded readers enable kids to read quickly at a level where they’re comfortable and where they can assimilate the grammar and vocabulary, just from reading and discussing what they read. I used the readers for extra reading—and also for the people I tutored privately. But in Japan the whole approach to education is just backwards. Change takes time, and it has come from the top down. [Reading has been shown to be the best way to improve vocabulary. For another experience with the readers, go to http://caroldussere.com/2013/02/02/teaching-in-gangnam-seoul.]

My approach has always been student-centered, not teacher-centered. My first teaching experience was in a small alternative school in rural Maine that had no curriculum except for what the kids and the adults involved wanted to do. What I learned was that children love to learn and that they learn best by pursuing their own goals. All the basics needed for life-long learning can be “taught” by supporting the natural interests of children.

A lawyer and private student

Some teachers had been at Sakura No Seibo for years. The ones with the best jobs were making $70,000 a year at the junior college, where they seemed to have a lot more freedom in an enjoyable atmosphere. But in my situation, I didn’t think I could do it no matter how good the money was or how much I liked Japan.

Exams came on a regular basis, for all students in all subjects. They took up a whole week, and proctors monitored them. Everybody taught to the exams. When the first exams came around, I was worried because we hadn’t covered very much and the students hadn’t learned very much, especially the ones who didn’t want to learn English. I didn’t want them to fail, so I wrote an exam that was pretty easy but would pass inspection, then started teaching not the exact questions on the exam, but ones like it. One day I held up a copy of my test and said, “Okay, here it is. It’s only three pages long. It’s all things we know about, so don’t worry.” Two days later I was called into the office to meet with the head of the school. Somebody’s kid had told their parents I’d showed them the exam. I’d gone too far. They offered to let me resign, and they paid me for another month. I didn’t think I could find another job in Japan at that point, so I came home.

River near Fukushima
Just outside Fukushima

There are things I miss about Japan and things I’d still like to experience in Europe. I’m sort of an armchair radical, upset for so long about what my government is doing or not doing. It pisses me off that I haven’t had the nerve to emigrate. Today I’d choose one of the advanced social democracies in northern Europe like Sweden or Denmark. One of my nieces did her junior year abroad in Nicaragua and Ghana. My other niece went to Bolivia, Mexico and Kenya. My daughter went to several countries in Latin America. Back when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I didn’t enjoy school much, and with all the protesting I didn’t take it seriously, but as far as I know they didn’t have a junior year abroad program. Harvard was the pinnacle of education, so why should anybody want to leave? I really think every American should have to live abroad to experience other ways of living and participating in society and other democracies. There are issues apart from what brands to buy. I always advise recent college graduates, especially because it’s so hard to find jobs, “Go abroad and teach English. Start now. You can make it a lifetime pursuit.”

Farmland near Fukushima

[The Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster which leaked radioactive material into this beautiful countryside in the spring of 2011 is still leaking into the land and the Pacific Ocean. Travel is restricted.]