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Culture Shock & English Teachers in Japan

By Kevin Burns

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 disillusionment.

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.

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 the paranoia.

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.

About The Author
Kevin Burns is the owner of Kevin's English Schools, the Canadian schools in Japan:

When not writing or teaching, Kevin and his wife manage Merry Lue's General Store in Kanagawa, where they sell food from home, antiques, games, hobby items, clothes, books, children's stationary and more.

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