Upside Down Work Life in Japan

My Upside Down World


2013 has ended up being a year more interesting than I had even planned. That’s both good and bad. I finished a contract at the only school I had known during my first five years in Japan. I was leaving on good terms. My contract had come to an end and I had decided not to renew because I wanted to face new challenges, work in a new system and teach older students.

I found a new job, doing what I had been doing, teaching at a small international school.  My students would be older. I would be an elementary school homeroom teacher. I met several new coworkers who seemed very friendly and easy to get along with. The man who had hired me seemed charming and offered me a good salary and to pay ALL of my travel expenses.

Once I received my first pay, a month into my new job, I realized things weren’t going well. My pay was smaller than what my contract promised me. My transportation payment only covered some of the expenses I had. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t what I had signed on the dotted line for. Once I questioned this discrepancy; aggressive “fast talk” was sent my way from management saying that this was how it would be. Take it or leave it, my pay would be lower than what my contract said.

I quickly came to learn that I wasn’t the only staff member in this situation. Other staff members were getting paid less then they had been promised. This is of course completely illegal in Japan, but many private language schools operate in this fashion. They know that most foreign teachers won’t cause them trouble for a variety of reasons. They know that many foreigners in Japan are unaware of their rights. They know that many aren’t good at saving money and live from paycheck to paycheck, which doesn’t allow them to suddenly walk out of a job. They also bully workers into shutting up and just taking it.

Once I realized the deal I just kept my mouth shut, put my head down and found a new job. I secretly went for interviews and when I was offered a solid position, I quit. Suddenly quitting was a nice little piece of revenge for me. Management had lied to me and made my life and that of my family more difficult and once I quit (I was a popular teacher amongst students and parents), they had to deal with a shit-storm of angry parents.


The Next New Job

I have been at my new job for more than a month now and in the classroom teaching for a few weeks. My new world is completely different in every way, shape and form from the work world I had experienced to this point in Japan.  I am now teaching in public schools. I am now teaching students in Japanese elementary and middle schools. I am no longer the captain of my own ship (a homeroom) teacher, but I am also happy to not have the responsibility I have had for years. I am an assistant teacher. I help the Japanese teachers teach English to their students. Often I find myself doing 100% of the teaching, but I like it. I no longer have to directly deal with parents who have problems with their child, problems with their child’s relationship with classmates or petty differences with other parents. I no longer have to deal with long-range lesson planning, curriculum deliverables, slack coworkers, extra tutoring and parents expecting too much from their kids and me (monster parents). Now, I show up, teach, smile and say “Goodbye.”

I get home earlier every day. I have less stress in my life. I have a lot more time to dedicate to writing and video blogging. I have more time to see my wife. I have more time to play with my kids. Things are good.

I have come to quickly realize a few things during my short time teaching in public schools. I can’t help, but draw parallels and make comparisons between schools and students in both Japan and my country of Canada.

First of all, I love teaching in elementary schools. Kids are kids no matter where you go. They love learning and have fun in school. Japanese elementary school students are no different. The kids I have taught so far have fun in my classes, participate, smile and give me great feedback. They are excited when I come to their school and send me positive vibes.

Junior High School has proven to be a harder nut to crack. During actually lesson time, the students don’t speak or react to almost anything I throw at them. I’m told that teenagers don’t want to speak up and possibly make a mistake, embarrassing themselves in front of their classmates. That makes sense. Teenagers are self-conscience everywhere, but in Japan it seems that this feeling is multiplied a hundred times.

The students who do enjoy studying English will at least make eye contact, but will cower their heads and only mouth answers to your questions. They are still too scared to speak out.

The sleeping student factor has boggled my mind as well. It’s something you just don’t really see back home. If you do, at least the teacher gets upset about it. The other day I counted eleven students sleeping in my class and the Japanese teacher with me didn’t seem to care. Kids sleep when disinterested and that’s just the reality.


Another confusing reality is bored students just getting up and walking out of your class. They just walk into the hallway and wander around checking out the scene in other classes. Again, many teachers I have met do nothing to stop it and if they try, the male students (the ones who think they are tough) will push the teacher away, yell at the teacher, tell them to “Shut up!”

The other day while teaching a class, one of my students got up, walked to the back of the room and got inside the metal locker used to house cleaning supplies. He closed the door and stayed inside, quietly for the remaining twenty-five minutes of class. When the bell rang, he came out of the locker! You might as, “Kevin, why don’t you do something about that?” I can’t. More precisely, I’m not allowed to. I have been clearly told by my employer that my role is not to discipline students. I have been told that if kids misbehave in class or walk out I am to just ignore them. That’s the role of the Japanese teacher with me. I’m still confused that there simply seems to be no discipline.

Yesterday some boys were running around the hallway throwing paint at each other. When a female teacher tried to stop them they all screamed at her and intimidated her. She later asked me if students in Canada do this and I said that I had never seen anything like it. I’m sure it happens, there are crude and uncultured punks and parents everywhere in the world, but whoah….

Teaching primary school kids is a pleasure. They are happy to see me and look forward to my English classes. Junior High School…hmmm…I still have a lot to learn. In time I will get more used to it and my shock at student behavior will either wear off or I will become numbed. Also, I will work hard to develop a more effective ways to get through to them. Well, at least get through to some of them. I have a feeling that by the end of the year, the kid in the



  1. This is such an interesting blog post! It’s incredible that the students are allowed to just sleep and wander away from the classroom whenever they feel bored. Is there a high incidence of ditching school too?


  2. Yup. Public education in Japan certainly seems to be garbage. Not what it used to be, from what I’ve heard. It’s no wonder I have problems with some kids in eikaiwa. They act the way they do in school, no discipline. The thing is, I’m supposed to discipline verbally. Even when we tell the parents, many of them don’t seem to care, or just say “oh well, they’re just kids.” Yeah, well, other parents are spending money for their kids to study English, and expect their kids to do well.


  3. This was eye-opening. I had no idea about the lack of motivation and discipline—in Japan, of all places. Do you see this as a sign of social decay, or is there, perhaps, some deeper cultural subtext that I’m missing? What makes Japanese secondary schoolers think they can throw paint, hide in lockers, and harass female teachers with impunity? I’d have a hard time keeping my temper in such an environment.

    My Korean students show all the signs of Confucianism-enforced passivity: in Korea, the student is an empty vessel into which the teacher is supposed to pour his knowledge. Learning is heavily teacher-centered, which I think is a bad thing. Students in Korea have no sense of initiative or proactivity; they don’t plan, and they barely think. Critical thinking, when it happens, is a precious rarity, and is usually found only among those students who have lived and studied in the West. But because I’ve never taught at a Korean public school, I have no idea how similar or different those students might be when compared with yours. I have no point of reference. Me, I teach university kids. They’re about as mature as American high-schoolers, I’d say: same level of shallow thinking and general lack of creativity.

    As for violence, I recall breaking up three or four fights back when I taught American high school in the early 1990s. I also had one large kid threaten to kick my ass, but he was too much of a pussy to make good on his word.


  4. I’ve taught high school in both the U.S. and Mexico (I’ve also taught at an adult language school in Korea). Although I’ve never had a full-time junior high school position, I’ve taught those grades as a sub, and it is tough! I would take high school OR elementary school over junior high, any day.

    At my Mexican prepa, I teach a lot of really wealthy, entitled students, and although their behavior is seldom as bad as what you describe, it wouldn’t meet the ordinary expected U.S./Canadian standards, either. U.S. high schools almost invariably have an assistant principal in charge of disciplinary matters, and he/she is always one tough cookie. There is no such back-up at my current school. So I’ve had to find my own way of handling things. Some students just sleep, as you say. Others move around at will. Fiddling with smartphones and laptops is near-universal; conversing socially in loud voices is pretty normal. I used to get irked a lot, but now, in my third year here, I’m a bit more successful at weathering the storms and coaxing some of the positive behaviors I would prefer to see. I teach pretty demanding subjects – philosophy, history, social sciences, art history, literature, all in English – and it is easier to get cooperation from the classes that are ambitious and really care about their academics than from those who are just going through the motions, of course. But I try to do my best with all of them, and at the end of the day, if I’ve honored my academic subjects (which I love), gotten through to some of my students, and not had any major disasters, I figure I’m good. For another day, at least.

    Likability counts a LOT in these situations, and since you come across as a thoroughly likable guy, I think that will ultimately win you plenty of friends among your students. It does take a while sometimes. And there will always be days when the students just don’t give you anything to work with and you feel like you’re teaching in a vacuum, and that’s no fun. But there should be better sorts of days, too.


  5. I have taught high school in the U.S. and Mexico (and have also taught at an adult English school in Korea). Although I have never had a full-time junior high school job, I have taught it as a (sometimes long-term) substitute teacher, and it is tough! I would take elementary school, high school, university, or adult education over junior high school any day. So you have my sympathy there.

    The students at my Mexican prepa are somewhat spoiled and entitled – big money here – and although their behaviors are not usually quite as bad as what you describe, they are not not up to the ordinary, expected U.S. / Canadian standard, either. In virtually all U.S. high schools, there is an assistant principal in charge of disciplinary matters, and he/she is always one tough cookie. There is no such position here, so I pretty much have to handle everything disciplinary on my own. Students sleep, as you say. Some move around at will (although not to the extent of simply leaving the classroom without permission). Fiddling with laptops and smartphones is near-universal; conversing socially in inappropriately loud voices is very common. And I won’t even get into all the varieties of cheating, which are rampant. I used to get quite irked by all this, but over time I have gotten a little better at weathering the storms and coaxing some of the positive behaviors I would prefer to see.

    The subjects I teach are hard – philosophy, world history, introduction to social sciences, literature, art history – and of course I have an easier time of it with the classes that are serious about their academics as opposed to those that are completely indifferent to anything except what parties are coming up this weekend. But whichever group I’m with, I try to do my best. If, at the end of the day, I have honored my academic subjects (which I love), gotten through to some of my students, and not had any major disasters, I figure I’m good. For another day, at least.

    Likability counts for a LOT in these situations, and since you come across as an eminently likable guy, I think you will win plenty of friends among your students eventually. It does take a while sometimes. And there will always be days when your students give you nothing to work with and you feel like you’re teaching in a vacuum*, which is no fun at all. But there should be other sorts of days as well.

    * Isn’t it interesting how the sound quality of a quiet room in which people are listening, and one in which they are not listening, is COMPLETELY different? When what you’re saying isn’t entering people’s ears, there actually seems to be an echo effect.


  6. Interesting post (but where’s the end of it? 🙂 ). It kinda surprises me to see that education in Japan faces this problems. One would think that of all the countries in the world this wouldn’t happen in Japan but I guess bad kids and parents exist everywhere.

    Also, it’s a shame to see someone taking advantage over someone else just because they’re foreigners and might now know their rights or be afraid to use them. Fortunately you were able to quit that job and you got more time to yourself and your family. And that has no price tag on it!


  7. This is a lesson for foreigners teaching anywhere, talk to current teachers at the school you are interested in if you can. They might not tell you everything but you get an idea what type of environment it is, or if there are any issues. I give you a lot of credit Kevin for fast action. Hope this one works out much better for you long term.

    In the United States since it so big it varies from state to state, county to county and city to city. If it’s a private school standards are higher all the way around. Public schools also varies since the funding comes from taxes, with the wealthiest counties/cities having the best public schools. Also the economic background and the relationship the parents have with each other is a major factor.

    Kids aren’t allowed to just wonder the hallway unattended without hall pass. Once the bell in wrung there shouldn’t be anyone just hanging out in the hallway. I remember my History teacher never making anyone wrong. If it was 1% right she would encourage them. The most fun I had learning is interacting with my teacher and classmates. It seems you have to be more creative to get students interested in this technical age. I worry about those that have no direction cause they will matter one way or another. That is energy and creativity that will be misused if it is not harnessed in a positive way in helping society. This is happening too much, plus with no guaranteed getting a great education will get you a job.

    Some are cut out for the creative arts. During Jr High and High School they would have recommend a vocational school or another alternative that would fit better. Maybe film school, producing, directing etc. Do they have a guidance counselor for the student to meet with on a yearly basis? That helped me a lot to determine my strong points and what I would enjoy doing with my life. Just letting children be can be destructive, if they have no direction.


  8. This is a really interesting blog post.
    Junior High Students walking out of class simply because they’re disinterested?
    I’m really surprised, I thought class culture was more strictly enforced in Japan. I’ve never seen people quite literally walk out of class in America.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s