Taking Care of Business

by industriousants

Working hard so we can keep swimming in circles.


Japanese people work hard.
I must have said this at least a dozen times before, but it’s probably worth repeating because a person’s job in Japan can take precedence over everything else in their lives, from their families to even their sanity. It can be hard to fathom the extent of this reality until you immerse yourself in the system for a little while.

I had heard about the workaholic nature of the country before, but had a hard time noticing it when I first arrived. I did note the differences in customer service though. In comparison to Canada, it felt like I could walk into any 7eleven here and be treated like a queen just for buying a pack of gum. Back home, I’ve literally had my change thrown at me instead of politely handed back. Other than that, I saw no huge differences right away. I gathered that the locals in town enjoyed going out to eat because restaurants were always busy. It looked to me like people were enjoying life and perhaps many were. However, I’ve discovered over time that the popularity of eating out might not equate to a leisurely society bent on having a good time, but rather a people who are too tired or busy to cook for themselves, or who are even socially obligated to attend dinners out with colleagues.

It’s been a slow learning experience, and in the beginning I was pretty naïve. At the busy school where I work, things didn’t seem all that out of the ordinary to me. I knew from the beginning that my position as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) would hold less responsibility than that of my colleagues. The others taught more and worked longer days, but I felt it was probably justified as they received twice the vacation time I did and certainly made bigger salaries. I had no real complaints about my work arrangement and none of the other teachers complained about theirs. So like I said, I wasn’t entirely sure where all the stories about people losing their minds or working themselves to death were coming from. Not yet anyway. There is only so much information one can gather from being a fly on the wall, especially if you are a fly that understands next to no Japanese. Basically, my first six months in Japan were like watching the movie Lost in Translation on mute. Lots of great visuals, lots of interesting looking people, a few good guesses about the plot, but almost zero understanding of what was actually going on.

Over time, the volume has been slowly turned up. Almost 2 years in, I feel like I have a much better picture of the education system. More trust has been built between friends and coworkers and they generously share some of their deeper thoughts and stories with me. I can understand more of the language, both verbal and body. All this reveals a much more complex working environment than I was first aware of.

It would take me all day to put down onto paper what I think I know about the Japanese working environment, and still there would probably be huge gaps and discrepancies. My school is probably the only example I could describe with some sort of accuracy. Teachers here begin their day early, as some classes start at 7:30am. Saturday classes happen about 2 to 3 times a month. On average, they teach about 15 to 17 classes a week. When they aren’t teaching, they are correcting papers, furiously flipping papers and marking away with their magical red markers. There is an endless amount of worksheets and tests being formatted and photocopied. The 45-minute lunch break is an illusion. Most teachers usually eat their meals during the first 15 or 20 minutes and then spend the rest of their time meetings with students, either correcting tests and worksheets or reviewing class schedules. Classes finish around 4pm, and then more students line up outside the teacher’s office for one-on-one meetings if any further study issues need to be addressed. These are the immediate responsibilities of a Miyazaki teacher, and there are definitely more.

Most teachers are assigned various roles within the school system. Some are heads of departments, such as the Math department. These departments usually meet every week and they must attend and lead them, or administrate any department events. Others are assigned positions as home room teachers. This is a big responsibility. In a sense, they become substitute parents, as they spend more waking hours with their students than parents do. Any discipline or counseling one might need falls on the shoulders of the home room teacher. At least once a year there is a parent teacher meeting that takes place, but parents don’t come to the school for it. At my school the home room teachers use summer vacation time to personally visit each of their 40 student’s homes. It is a tiring and time-consuming process.

Beyond all this, regardless of their role in their class or department, they are obligated to coach or supervise school teams and clubs. Almost without exception, every teacher (and student) is affiliated to one of these groups and therefore must join most of the practices, meetings, games and tournaments. This wouldn’t be so bad if they were only weekly events. Unfortunately, many teams practice every day, and often on weekends. Games and tournaments are often held on holidays so that parents can attend and students don’t have to miss classes. I’ve learned to stop asking my colleagues what they did on their three-day weekends, because without a doubt they were probably volunteering their time with the badminton or soccer team instead of sleeping in and eating brunch with their families.

As if all this wasn’t enough there is still the matter of the enkai. Work parties, known as enkai, are held on a regular basis. There are only a few where all the teachers attend at once, the most popular celebrating the school year’s start and end, and the winter holiday. There are many more related to specific departments and a few that mark events such as the annual Sports Day or even seasonal changes, like the ever-popular Cherry Blossom Viewing picnic in spring. The cost of attending a years worth of enkai definitely adds up. It can be hard to avoid them because they are seen as an essential part of building stronger relationships with colleagues, and many people feel obligated to attend, even if they don’t want to. Thankfully it’s one of the few work related places where people can let their guard down and be themselves, or at the very least get pissed drunk and sing as many versions of Take Me Home, Country Roads as they damn well please without being kicked out of the Karaoke room.

So, looking at all of this, one has no choice but to wonder what the overall affects are on the people that are caught within this system. Obviously families suffer. Lots of teachers remain unmarried because they find it hard to meet people outside of work. Alternatively, there’s a high proportion of teachers at my school who are married to other teachers. School is their world and marrying someone on the inside makes logistical sense. Who else would better understand the rigorous schedule and work obligations of a teacher, than another teacher? Still, it can’t be easy. Your partner may understand why you are never home before 9pm, but it doesn’t change the fact that you never see each other. A busy friend recently told me she and her husband are trying to have a baby. Unfortunately, as they are both teachers, it makes it difficult to find the energy or the time, and she is forced to plan sex into her schedule about once or twice a month. She told me a friend of hers did the same thing, strategically pre-scheduling sex about once a month, and it worked, but so far she’s had no luck.

When it comes to kids, there is usually one parent, usually fathers, who must sacrifice time with their family in order to educate someone else’s child. For reasons unknown, the latter seems to be the more admirable choice in Japan. Teachers who request less school responsibility in order to spend more time at home are frowned upon. Last year a female teacher retired from her position after only 1 year back from 3 years of maternity leave. Knowing she had two young children in daycare, the school still made her a homeroom teacher and team coach, which essentially guaranteed her a fair amount of obligatory overtime. When she confided her discontent to friends about the schools decision, she received little sympathy. Generally, their opinion was something along the lines of “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

Through all this, I am surprised at how healthy my colleagues look. They cover their tiredness well with make-up and caffeine, and whatever else keeps them moving. Still, you can be sure that the stress and pressure eventually takes its mental toll on some people. Three teachers thus far have left our school because they became sick and unable to perform their required duties. Last year, after an unsuccessful attempt to return back to his position, one of them ended his life.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the personal affairs of my colleagues. I feel like I’ve learned things in confidence, and writing them here, even without naming my school or my town, feels like I’m somehow betraying their trust. But then again, it’s not like my school is unique. In offices and factories all across the country people devote themselves to their employers beyond what seems reasonable. Sudden death by overwork happens enough that there is actually a word for it in Japanese; karōshi.

It’s hard to understand why the system continues to function this way, but I suppose people keep doing it out of a sense of duty or a fear of change. They aren’t oblivious to the issue though, and on occasion someone will take a break from their busy day to come and chat with me about the weather or American politics, and somewhere in there they will lament about the way things are in the Japanese work system. It usually ends there, and then we both get back to work.

May 11, 2011