The trials and tribulations of teaching English in Japan pt.1

What can I say? It aint all Manzai and Kawaii kids…

Yesterday a woman from the Board of Education came to observe me teach. She’s a nice woman, been at her job for a long time. Not Japanese, I don’t think, but she’s been here so long you can hardly tell she’s not from here. She has adopted most of their mannerisms and can probably speak Japanese better than many Japanese can.

This is an annual review, making this the third time she has come to watch me do my thing, and I’d had a month advance notice of her visit, so I wasn’t especially nervous.

Only, this week- the week I planned to prepare this lesson carefully with the Japanese teacher- Yoshida-sensei (not her real name) had been out sick. Monday and Tuesday she spent in bed, as per her doctor’s orders, and left me no clue about what grammar point we were to cover. Also, unlike the other English teachers I’ve worked with over the past 3 years, Yoshida likes to make her own lessons. At least I believed this to be the case because she always has. I’d come to the school and there’d be a lesson on my desk that she had taken from some textbook (not our school’s) or some internet site. Or, she’d pull me to the side and ask me what I thought of her lesson. Yoshida joined the staff last year, and this has been her routine the entire time.

Well, Wednesday came around and Yoshida returned to work. I had a full schedule so I didn’t have time to meet with her but for a few minutes before home room and a few minutes after lunch. She presented her idea to me: a game where the kids break up into teams and construct sentences using sentence fragments found on slips of paper.  The team to construct the most sentences correctly wins.

Not a traditional lesson but the BOE woman wasn’t disappointed with it. In fact, my observation went rather well considering I only had a few minutes of planning. She said I clearly had a rapport with the students and handled them with care and professionalism. “You could dish out a little more praise though. The kids really need it.” I took notes dutifully during the feedback and asked questions to clarify her remarks.

One thing she took special note of was my smile. “You have an incredible smile, a powerful smile, which is both a blessing and a curse.”

“Can you clarify that statement please?” I asked.

“Well,” she began, “Your smile is remarkable! You know how many teachers I meet and observe all over this area, but the one thing I remember about you is that smile. I actually look forward to seeing it when we meet it’s so wonderful!”

“Thank you,” I said, feeling a little embarrassed. I might have even done something as gay as blush a little. Of course I’d heard such things about my smile before, but rarely had I received such flattering remarks in a professional setting nor from someone I hardly knew. I suddenly felt a red flag go up…right up my spine via my rectum! She was setting me up like a pro, cushioning the fall with a little misdirecting sweet talk!

“Your smile lights up a room,” she said through pearly white teeth. “But, it also has the effect of turning that light off when it’s missing. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I guess,” I replied nervously, still waiting for the other shoe to drop. “I need to smile more.”

“Yes! Even if it’s fake. Fake is better than no smile, especially for you!”

“My curse,” I sighed.

“Exactly,” she said, with a finality that almost made me think she was wrapping up. I was about to put my pen down when she Lieutenant Columbo’d me with a “One other thing…”

Ah, here it comes! ” Uh huh?”

“A little earlier we had a short meeting with Yoshida-sensei,” she said, and she was no longer smiling. Pearly whites became pursed lips set in a dour grin. Laser eyes scorched my eyelashes. “She had some complaints…no I shouldn’t say complaints. She had some concerns.”



“Concerning?” I asked but I regretted it immediately. I was getting defensive. I heard it in my tone. And if I heard it I know the BOE woman heard it too.

“Now don’t get upset with her…she was just doing her job,” the BOE lady said like we were in this together. It was in her tone.

We were sitting in the principal’s office having this meeting. Rather large black & white framed posters of every principal of this school since the school’s inception during the Occupation after WWII up til now on the wood-panelled walls surrounding us, watching us as we sat on leather sofas facing one another, with a fine coffee table between us, a lovely coffee service atop it, with little delicate porcelain coffee cups and saucers with flowery designs. The principal was actually sitting at his desk a few feet from us, shuffling paper around and, I’m sure, listening to every word we said. But, he’s Japanese and so there are certain things he can’t hear, like her tone. Her tone said, this is how they do things! And believe me, brother, I know . I’ve been here longer than you and when you leave I’ll still be here, and I’m nobody’s fool! So listen to me. Learn from me. Trust me. Don’t get upset with her. She’s just being Japanese. “You understand?

“Of course,” I said. “That goes without saying…”

“Good,” she said. “Well, she mentioned that she had been out of the office Monday and Tuesday this week and so your lesson was kind of done on the fly yesterday.”

“Yeah,  but…”

“It’s not an issue.” she said , cutting off my defense. I decided to just relax, then. Whatever will be will be. “I really enjoyed the class.”


“She also said that she is usually pretty busy, so she doesn’t have time to meet with you as often as she’d like.”

“Uh huh…” I said, cuz she’d paused.

“And, she’d appreciate it greatly if you would take a greater role in lesson preparation because, with all of her responsibilities over the course of a day, she just doesn’t have time to prepare lessons, too.”

“She doesn’t?”

“That’s what she said…”

“She’s been preparing her own lessons since she started here last year…”

“She would like you to prepare the lessons.”

I was about to ask the BOE lady who happens to love my smile, ‘why, instead of taking it to the Board of Education, essentially my boss’ boss’ boss, and being that I’ve sat next to her for the past year happily preparing lessons for the other two Japanese English teachers and helping her tweak her own, why didn’t she just tell me that she’d like me to prepare her lessons as well?


But if you know Japan then you know that in Japan that is a rhetorical question.

The BOE lady watched me suffering, choking on the unaskable unanswerable question and said, “Well, Mr. Loco, that’s it for now. Ganbatte ne!” (Hang in there!) And don’t forget to smile!”

“Ganbarimasu!” I replied, automatically.

After the BOE lady left I went back into the teacher’s office and spotted Yoshida-sensei at her desk. She looked up at me with that same nervous look she always has, but I never paid it much mind before because many teachers…hell, most people in Japan…have that same nervous look around me. But now I could see Yoshida’s nervous look  for what it really was: actual nervousness.

“I think we need to talk,” I told her, with a big plastic smile on my face, showing a mouthful of coffee and tobacco stained choppers. “You got a sec?”

to be continued…



16 Responses to “The trials and tribulations of teaching English in Japan pt.1”

  1. January 29, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    An unwritten rule of performance appraisals is that you should never be surprised by anything that comes up. For example, if your appraisal cites you for poor performance, well you’ve probably been having meetings with your team leader about it for the previous 6 months. If it says you have a skill gap, hopefully your boss has been talking with you to organise training to fill that gap. This rule is not always followed (unfortunately) but it kind of my ideal of how performance appraisals should occur.

    Of course, that all seems to go out the window in Japan. They just go over your head and, in the end, all you get is a concise, warped version of why you’re such a fuck up. Not only frustrating, but hardly conducive to your professional development – which is the whole ****ing point of performance appraisals and observations in the first place!

    I feel for you.

    • January 30, 2010 at 6:01 pm

      Hey Chris D. Thanks for the thoughtful response. And for the empathy/sympathy. Syouganai jan, demo daijyoubu dayo!

  2. January 29, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    Hmm… I have that same rapport with my co-workers here in the States!

    I feel like a fly on the wall with your slice of life posts. Hope all is well Loco…


    • January 30, 2010 at 5:59 pm

      Thanks Mike! Yeah i hope all is well too. But son7t worry Ive been around the Japanese block a few times…can drive through the same pothole but so many times before you swerve around it. (-:

  3. 5 WC
    January 29, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Exactly right, Chris D. There should be nothing in a performance review that hasn’t already been told to you. That’s exactly the wrong way to do it and can only lead to trouble.

    Trouble like I think Loco-sensei is going to cause in the next installment of this during his little ‘chat’. 😉

  4. January 30, 2010 at 1:56 am

    This kind of thing usually happens in Japan when someone has a personal beef with someone. People tend to simply fuck someone`s shit up without warning. It usually takes several months to get things back on a decent level of professional respect.

    • January 30, 2010 at 5:57 pm

      Hey Freedom…really? great )-:
      thanks for the shout though

  5. January 30, 2010 at 10:09 am

    Yoshida’s screwed. BIG TIME.

  6. January 30, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Haha, I cracked up on that last sentence:

    “I think we need to talk,” I told her, with a big plastic smile on my face, showing a mouthful of coffee and tobacco stained choppers. “You got a sec?”

    Nice writing. I have similar problems in my office, with my boss’s boss often voicing his thoughts about my work to my boss and rarely to me directly, despite being in the same room.

    • January 30, 2010 at 5:55 pm

      Hey Mike! Thanks for the shout! It’s gratifying to know people are enjoying my writing (-:

      Btw, did you get my email?

  7. 11 Hapa
    January 30, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    I’m from Honolulu (but born in Okinawa), and I happen to love reading your blog.
    I’ll be moving to Hamamatsu in March, and I can honestly say that the only thing I’ll
    truly miss about living in the US is following our President on a daily basis the way I do now. This has been an amazing week for him; first I assumed that the highlight of the week was to be the State of the Union speech on Wednesday, but I was wrong. The Highlight was today’s event. Today President Obama was invited to speak in front of, and take questions from the entire Republican delegation from the House of Representatives. As you can imagine he was walking into the enemy camp in what has been a highly contentious political year – to put it mildly. Anyway, it was 140 Republicans to one Democrat – what might be considered an unfair fight. And it was unfair, ’cause The President flat out schooled them with the unparalleled agility of his mind, and his mastery of policy and facts. It was truly beautiful. I doubt the Republicans will ever invite this President to participate in this format with them ever again. I am sending you a link to the video of this event because it was an extraordinary political event in American political history – one that you should not miss just because you’re living in another country.
    I really hope you’ll watch – though it is about 1.5 hrs long.

    • January 30, 2010 at 5:53 pm

      Hapa-san, thanks for the shout and the link!!! great stuff!
      Good luck with your move here…

  8. January 31, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    Oh wow this reminds me of a section of The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (I’m a bit of a Gladwellian…LOL) where he discusses why certain nationalities have a higher incidence of plane crashes…interesting stuff this thing we call culture..

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