Culture Shock & English Teachers in Japan
This article, when it was first published, generated a lot of controversy. It made many non-Japanese, living in Japan angry. But I think these, were the people that needed to read these words the most. If the shoe fits….
Moving halfway around the world, to a culture as foreign and difficult
to penetrate as Japan’s is difficult for anyone. If you become an
English teacher here, you will probably have to deal with a Japanese
boss and staff with different cultural values from your own. This can
lead to a feeling of paranoia in some cases; isolation and
To a great extent, leaving your friends and family and going to Japan
to teach English engenders some of the same feelings as that of
teenagers rebelling from their parents in the West. Teenagers rely on
their parents, yet resent and rebel against them. Of course they
complain to their friends about them too.
Foreign English teachers in Japan must rely on their Japanese bosses
for: their work visa, in some cases their apartment, and of course
their salary. Some teachers come to Japan with virtually no knowledge
of the country. Childlike, they ask questions about Japan that many six
year old Japanese know the answers to. The new teacher can feel
embarrassed at times having to ask such basic questions as how do I use
the Japanese toilet in my apartment? Can you open a bank account for me
tomorrow? How do I get home from the school? To someone used to being
independant, it is an uncomfortable, flashback to the teenage years.
Japan is a beautiful, interesting, yet daunting country for the
newcomer. Some people thrive in the adventure that is teaching English
in Japan and others don’t. For them it is the toughest thing they have
ever done. The new arrival to Japan is faced with three alphabets to
learn just to read her pay cheque! One comes to feel pretty helpless
and childlike at times. Going to the doctor for your first cold can be
intimidating. You don’t understand her questions and she doesn’t
understand your answers.
Pictured: Odawara Castle at night
Paranoia is common amongst immigrants the world over. Experts argue it
is a symptom of not understanding what is going on around you–
linguistically and culturally. The isolation this can lead to, causes
Resentment can set in if you are not prepared for this kind of culture
shock. The possible symptoms of culture shock are many, and of course
different levels of culture shock can occur over many years. If you are
not a member of the majority, culture shock can hit you at any time.
One symptom we often see in Japan is that of foreigners lashing out by
complaining. They complain about the food, they complain about Japanese
people, if they work for a Japanese company, they complain about how
they are mistreated, and if they work for an Eikaiwa school, (which
comprises most Western foreigners in Japan), they complain about the
Eikaiwa school they work for. Some complain about all Eikaiwa schools
as if all of them are the same, and all are bad. Some expats in an
attempt to beef up future sales for the book they are writing, even set
up a whole website to complain about Eikaiwa.
While there are certainly problems in Eikaiwa, there are many great
things happening too. You only have to open the pages of an ETJ
magazine, ELT Journal, or read the latest article at ELT News to see
that. No this prevalence of complaints is something more. Indeed
culture shock is one aspect of this phenomenon.
At many of the big schools the working hours are about the same as they
are at public schools in North America. Yet the teachers of GEOS and
Nova complain about their 28 hours of teaching and 40 hour a week
shifts. (They work a 9 hour shift, five days per week at GEOS, with a
one hour lunch break which equals eight hours of preparation and
teaching). One Canadian elementary school teacher said: ” I don’t know
what they are complaining about. That is what I do every week. That is
what we all do at the public schools in Canada.”
At many schools though, the shifts are much shorter and they don’t
require you to be in the office. The work time of around 20- 25 hours
per week, would be considered part-time work back home. At Kevin’s
English schools the teachers work between 20-25 hours per week with no
requirements to be in the office when they are not teaching. Under the
contract they can be asked to work as many as 28 hours per week but
none are currently doing so. The current average is about 22 hours per
week. They are not required to put in any office hours, so when they
don’t teach their time is their own.
Many of the Eikaiwa teachers miss their friends and family back home.
Some were not happy in their home country and escaped to Japan to try
to sort out their lives–only to find they are not happy here either.
The old saying: “Where ever you go, there you are.” springs to mind.
I assert that the rampant negativism on the internet about teaching at
Eikaiwa schools is only in a very small part due to the schools, but is
a symptom of culture shock and the difficulty adjusting to life in
Japan for some teachers. It is a reaction to the sense of dependancy
some teachers feel as they have to rely on their bosses and Japanese
staff for many things.
The boss who is in some cases also the landlord, is cast by the teacher
(unconsciously) in the role of parental figure, and the Eikaiwa
teacher, the star of our show, is the rebellious teenager with a need
to get it off his or her chest. The internet forums provide the perfect
venue for that.
While most Eikaiwa teachers are well balanced and make the most of
their time in Japan, it is the vocal minority we see on the internet
complaining about how unfair their Eikaiwa school is. While some of
these complaints are legitimate and the Eikaiwa school should be taken
to task, others are merely venting a teenage like rage, as they rale
against what they fail to understand is simply culture shock.
If the person is your friend, you need to listen to them and
sympathize, but at some opportune moment, you may want to suggest to
them, that couldn’t their negative feelings about their boss or school
be due to something else? If their complaint is legitimate then talking
with their union, labour relations board or finding a new job with one
of the many great Eikaiwa schools here, might be the answer.
Kevin Burns, owns and manages Kevin`s English Schools.
He also owns the blog you are reading now.
And I am Hakone