“Assistant Language Teaching in Japan” (in Asia, I guess).
You mean I can work in Japan, live in Japan and explore Japan with zero to no qualifications and work an adult job?? What a dream come true, your late teen self said.
You applied to JET like every aspiring ALT who had the ‘Japanese dream’, who was going to “promote grassroots international exchange between Japan and other nations”. Seems easy enough. You go in, teach classes to students about my country, and they’ll all love you! You’ll be able to speak English with Japanese people who want to learn, practice Japanese with Japanese people and at the same time learn about their culture. You know they’re all really nice people and they’re known to be very polite, kind and respectful.
You get there. Everything was fine.
Your school assigned you to the lead Japanese Teacher of English who showed you around the school, briefs you about the classes and introduces you to all the other English teachers, who are all very nice. They all tell you they’re really looking forward to working with you. Your lead teacher was kind and funny too, but you notice that her English wasn’t that great. But she expressed lots of interest to improve her English with you, and you joke that you should language exchange with each other. Other staff members have also came up to introduce themselves to you and asked you about your country. A JTE has even offered to help you get a bicycle to get to work since you expressed interest earlier. All was well.
Until it wasn’t.
A few months in, your conversations with the staff have gone down to a need-be basis. If there’s no lessons, the conversations are very shallow. They are still friendly, but they are definitely no longer trying to be your work friends. You feel isolated, unsupported and left out.
In the advice post, many experienced ALTs have chimed in about busy teachers not having time for idle chat, teachers seperating work and private life, and finding friends outside of work. All of these are great advice and very true...
...But along the same vein, I think it runs much deeper than that.
Going back to the very beginning where many (not all, I know) of us learned of the opportunity to teach abroad as an ALT, we are knowingly being feed into a sort of “Japanese dream” by overseas recruiters, media and internet.
A weeaboo? PERFECT. You might get a position in Tokyo to make all your weeaboo dreams come true! (actually no we won’t we hate unrealistic people... oh and haha Tokyo? Yeah right lol)
You got school debt? Well hot damn, you can get a job in Japan and make this AWESOME monthly wage to send money home to pay your debt! (oh, actually there goes all your wages because of your medical emergency this month)
Everyone is soooo nice and I got invited to participate in this yearly festival by the locals and learn SO much about the culture, says the recruiter. (Well... it could be true actually)
Bottom line is, there is so much POSITIVE being fed to you as a recruitment scheme to make you think you’re in this “Once in A lifetime Opportunity To Make A Difference” work arrangement.
I’m not here to tell you it’s not a great opportunity. I think for most people who are only here for one or two years, it is just that. Whether you’re in it for the anime, the debt repayment, the travel, the culture, the sex... or all of it. It is an opportunity of a lifetime.
But it’s far from it for the Japanese staff that you work with.
You might be here on a gap year, but make no mistake about it, your Japanese teachers have gone through years of school to get their teachers’ license and worked their ass off every day just so the students’ parents don’t rip them a new one. They aren’t here to play with you, nor here to babysit you.
This is your special opportunity, but the Japanese staff don’t have an obligation to make your opportunity special.
If your JTE wants to help you find a bike, that’s a favour they’ve opted to do for you out of the kindness of their own heart. They aren’t obligated to help you. They don’t sell bikes. They’re teachers.
As a new, young fresh off the boat ALT, it’s so easy to rely too much on the help of our Japanese teachers. And it makes sense for a lot of us. We don’t speak a lot of Japanese. Everything is new and confusing. There’s so much paperwork. And they’re willing to help us through this and you think you’ve built a bond.
There’s another point that comes out of this: kindness is not friendship. Japanese people are great at being friendly, but that’s not the same as friendship.
It’s not that teachers don’t make friends at work. They do. But do you really build a lasting, meaningful relationship with someone who is only here for one year (two years max), as opposed to the 10 years (and counting) of meaningful work relationships with their Japanese colleagues? Do they suddenly just change their work life they’ve built up to include you, only to have you go and lose contact in a year?
I don’t doubt most of us will makes these short term friends, which can absolutely be meaningful and turn long term, but I think when you’re in an environment of high stress, long work hours and busy schedules, you’d rather not have to put extra energy into something that’s not more immediate and available. Just like how we’d all probably prefer to choose a spouse closer to home than one an ocean away. It’s just... easier.
I know I went all over the place with this blog piece, but I hope this sets out the point as a reminder to really separate your personal self from work. Find a hobby, take it into your own hands to go out and communicate your interest to join a local culture club, then build your personal support system from there.
It’s not your Japanese teachers’ once in a lifetime opportunity to be in Japan, but it’s yours. Be realistic about your life in Japan. Make the most of it!