June 7, 2000
My friend Katherine and I were on a bus a few weeks ago when we had an interesting experience. Just before the bus departed, a dirty-looking, fairly youngish guy staggered in. I didn't really take any notice of him at first, although he sat directly in front of us. About two minutes into our trip, he suddenly chuckled. I've been known to remember a joke and suddenly laugh out loud, so I thought nothing of it. Then, he did it again. Then, he let out what can only be described as a guffaw (def: a hearty, boisterous burst of laughter).
Remember, he was alone. Physically, at least. It soon became clear that there were all kinds of funny things going on in his head.
Some other people on the bus turned around to see what was so funny. That seemed to set him off even more. After about five minutes, he was laughing, loudly and continuously, and rocking back and forth. It wasn't a normal laugh, either. It vaguely reminded me of Krusty the Clown from the Simpsons -- trilling up a scale and ending on a repeated high note. Except, he then trilled back down the scale, gasped for breath, and started again. He did this for the final ten minutes (TEN MINUTES! NON-STOP!!) of our bus trip, and as far as we know he is still laughing.
I don't know what would have happened had he done this
in the US, but there was almost no reaction from the Japanese passengers,
of whom there were about fifteen. The laugher was, in essence, holding
us prisoners with his laugh. We couldn't get away, and nobody really
wanted to approach him. It was quite a surreal experience.
And speaking of crazy people, I feel like I should talk a bit about teachers in Japan. I haven't spent a lot of time on this subject, even though I spend more time with this group of Japanese people than any other. Their lifestyle is quite unbelievable.
First of all, teachers in Japan get paid a lot more than teachers in the US, and they are also afforded more respect and a higher social standing in general. Calling someone [name]-sensei instead of [name]-san is a sign of great respect. That certainly sounds good, but the downside is that none of them have any time to spend their money or enjoy their life.
The average workday is 8 am to 7 pm, and often later. A teacher never teaches only one subject, even if they are trained to teach only one subject. For example, if a school doesn't have, an art teacher, the rest of the teachers have to take turns teaching that subject, regardless of their training. In one of my schools, this is the case with English. A Social Studies teacher was forced two years ago to teach English. While is he a very nice guy, he speaks no English. Not "almost" no English, but no English. He has to teach the first-year students because the second and third year students speak better English than he does. Also, all teachers who have homerooms (most of them) have to teach a Moral Education class in addition to all other duties. But here's where it gets crazy -- not only are the teachers expected to teach (4-5 classes a day out of 6 periods), but they are also the coaches, counselors, and indeed de facto parents.
Even if a teacher has no idea how to play a particular sport, they can be forced to coach that sport. Therefore, there is a great emphasis on conditioning, and not so much on learning the skills of the sport. It is hard to teach the skills of volleyball or basketball if one has never played it, but itís very easy to tell the kids to run for 90 minutes. That's not to say that there are no good coaches, but they are the exception. Also, nearly 100% of students are required to be in a "club" after school. These are usually the aforementioned sports, but on occasion the school has an art club or something like that. Clubs last from around 4 to around 6 or 6:30, depending on the time of year. The teachers must be present during practice, so they cannot plan lessons or do anything else during this time.
So, the teachers have to teach and coach. If that were all, their job would be difficult, but still reasonable. But that is not all.
In Japan, the entire upbringing of the child is turned over to the school system. If a student is caught shoplifting, the police call the SCHOOL. Not the school, then the parents; JUST the school. A teacher then has to come to pick up the student, no matter what time of day it is, and it is up to the teacher to decide and enforce punishment. Remember, though, that punishment cannot include any kind of suspension, in or out of school, so basically there is no punishment except the occasional yelling (corporal punishment is also, thankfully, forbidden). During festivals in Kiryu, the teachers have to rove the streets in packs to make sure that their students don't get into trouble. None of this is considered the parents' responsibility. I am not exaggerating, honest. Also, if a child is having emotional problems, either at school or away from it, it is the teacher's responsibility to help that child. Sometimes interested parents take part, but most of the time they do not.
So, the teachers are also the coaches, the police, the counselors, and the parents. But, you might ask, what about when school lets out for vacation? This is not a problem. The school year never ends in Japan.
There are three trimesters: April to July, September to December, January to March. However, during the 6 week summer vacation in July and August, the students still have to go to school everyday, for at least half the day, to participate in their club activity. If the students go, the teachers go, too. During the week long vacations in December and March, the teachers have to catch up on their work and write lengthy (60+ page) reports that are sent to the Board of Education and promptly filed unread. And in case you were counting on weekends, it should also be noted that in Japan everyone has to go to school on the first and third Saturdays of the month. The second and fourth Saturdays, as well as many Sundays, are reserved for interscholastic sports. Remember -- the teachers are the coaches, so they have to go to work on all of those days, too.
And we're not done yet, folks. OK, so the teachers
already have an impossible job, and have very little time to devote to
actual teaching. Their ridiculous schedules wear out the mind and
body. Of course they have, in their contracts, 40 days of paid vacation
(that's nearly EIGHT WEEKS) during which they ostensibly can recover.
Here's the catch -- it is an unwritten rule in Japan that one does not
take vacation. Really. Sick days aren't even in the picture,
since they are not in the contract. This is true all over Japan,
not just for teachers. The "do what is best for the group" mentality
is a killer, because it prevents people from ever taking a vacation.
After all, if one teacher takes a day of vacation, the other teachers
have to work even harder, and fit even more into their days, to make up
for that teacher's absence. The rare exception is almost always for
a death in the immediate family (spouse, parent, or child only), and even
then only one or two days of the contractually allowed seven are used in
many cases. In my experience, the teachers I work with use about
5 or 6 vacation days per year, although almost never on a day when classes
are in session.
Let's review. The teachers have to work 11-12 hours per day during the week, plus they have to work almost every Saturday and many Sundays. There is no extended vacation, and usually they have to work during the already short vacations just to catch up. They are also, in essence, not allowed to take personal days except in extreme circumstances. They have to teach, coach, supervise, counsel, and in every way RAISE these kids. What about their own kids? Don't worry -- they are being raised by their schools, remember?
Sure, teachers in Japan get more money. But when the hell are they supposed to enjoy it? What do they spend it on? I'll just say this -- I've never seen a junior high school parking lot in the US with so many Mercedes, BMW's, and other expensive foreign cars. Not that they have time to drive them. Well, some of them have to drive them a lot, because we're still not done with the craziness.
Teachers are officially employees not of the school or the city, but of the prefectural (state) board of education. Normally, a teacher stays at one school for about 4 years (maximum of 8), and then is transferred to another school. They have very little say in when or to where they will be transferred, which can be anywhere in the prefecture, and they are only given a ONE WEEK notice when they are transferred. Everyone starts their new job on the same day, April 1, and people being transferred are not informed until around March 25. March is a very stressful time, because everyone is very nervous about where they might have to work in April. Because of these seemingly random transfers, some teachers end up driving 30 - 45 minutes everyday to get to school. For those teachers, then, the work day becomes even longer.
I used to think that the life of students in Japan was pretty hard, and I felt sorry for them because they seem so tired all the time. Now I realize that their struggles pale in comparison to those of their teachers. There are some changes scheduled for the near future, the biggest of which is the elimination of school on Saturdays, but this will do very little to lighten the workload, since they will have to teach the same curriculum but they will have fewer hours to do so. Besides, weekends will still be taken up with sports and other club activities. In my opinion, the system makes life impossible for both teachers and students. I no longer wonder about the recent rash of violent behavior among junior high and high school students in Japan -- I only wonder why teachers, so far, haven't followed suit. If I had to do their job, Iím sure I'd go crazy.
Maybe I'd even start having fits of maniacal laughter on buses.
And with those sunny thoughts, I bid you adieu.