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Teaching is becoming a 'black occupation' in Japan

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Japan is working itself to death. The frequently recurring term karoshi (death from overwork) suggests as much. It’s an indirect rather than a direct cause of death, which makes statistical precision difficult, but, as a rough standard, 80 hours a month of overtime work in the months leading up to a victim’s death from a heart attack or stroke or suicide will back a claim for karoshi compensation.

Karoshi is generally associated with the private sector and its ruthlessly exploitative “black companies,” but among workers lately toiling “borderline karoshi” overtime hours are, says Shukan Toyo Keizai (Sept. 16), professionals you might not expect to find in such a plight: public school teachers.

Not all of them, but significant percentages: Nearly 60% of junior high school teachers, and 30% of their elementary school counterparts, work 60 hours or more a week, education ministry figures show.

It’s a relatively new development, brought on by aging teachers whose retiring ranks cannot be replaced rapidly enough, and by social change, of which more in a moment. Teachers today work on average 4.5 hours a week more than they did 10 years ago – “not counting work done at home,” one teacher is quick to point out –  and though only one case of officially recognized karoshi among teachers is mentioned, teachers regularly complain of endless working days and no time off. “At this rate,” says one, “I’ll surely break down physically.”

The one who succumbed – in June 2011 – was a 26-year-old Osaka-area junior high school teacher. It was his second year on the job and he was highly dedicated, maybe too much so. To teach good lessons requires preparation. He prepared. There’s after-school club activity to supervise. He threw himself into that too, and into keeping in touch with parents. He was working 60-70 hours a month overtime, but actually more than that because test grading and lesson preparation are not counted as “work.” One day he collapsed in his apartment. Three years later his death was officially recognized as karoshi.

Public school teachers are supposed to work 38 hours, 45 minutes a week, but “I’m lucky when I get out at 8 p.m.,” says one Tokyo-area teacher in her 40s who typically starts work at 8 a.m. The day begins with supervised free classroom activity, followed by the first period starting at 8:45. Lunchtime is spent wolfing down something while providing guidance or preparing. After the last class at 3:25, there’s cleanup, then meetings, then club supervision and so on. By the time that’s over, it’s 6:30. Home? Only if she takes her remaining work home with her – more test grading, more lesson planning. Or else a parent will call, requesting, if not demanding, a consultation.

Weekends are as likely as not taken up with club activities. That can be especially trying, Toyo Keizai finds. A club can be anything – music, culture, sports. Every teacher is assigned to a club. Teachers are typically asked to state a preference, and when possible the preference is taken into account, but it can’t always be, and teachers who find themselves “advisors” to activities they know nothing about are in a particularly stressful situation.

The social change referred to above is placing an unprecedented burden on schools. Time was, school was one of three educators, the others being the family and the community. But family time and energy are now limited by the fact that both parents are likely to work – and by a rise in the number of single-parent households. The active interest formerly taken by the community in its children is far less in evidence now. There remains school, which must pick up the slack. Symbolic of that is the addition next year to the elementary and junior high school curriculum of “moral education,” which family and community used to provide but no longer do to the same degree. Teachers are bracing for additional burdens, rather than hoping for alleviation.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

15 Comments
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Why 'teach' when you should be coaching, counselling, administering and going to another meeting instead?

I have had numerous students take teaching licence courses. Most balk after the prac-teaching experience. Out of 21 I supervised, five became teachers, three in junior high school (7-day weeks and workdays ending at 1 or 2 am there) and two went to teach in juku saying that is where real teaching occurs (and they are happier it seems).

Jukus' roles are one thing, but mainstream school has the immense socializing role pointed out in the article which is neglected by may commentators focussing only on the academic side.

The point that preparation and actual teaching miss teachers' professional attention says it all.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Teachers today work on average 4.5 hours a week more than they did 10 years ago

This is especially concerning and it would be interesting to know why it is.

Japanese schools dominate kids' lives. As a parent, I've never been asked about the schools' approach or what I'd like, so I presume parents have no say in the matter. For the clubs and activities my kids go to, the coaches and sensei decide how they operate. My impression is that everything is top down.

There are many countries where women are more economically active and work longer hours than Japan, but they do not have teachers supervising baseball clubs that practice before and after school every day. It is wrong to suggest there is causation there. The article suggests that schools are busier because other forms of group activity, the family and communities, are failing, without a. questioning how much group activity kids need, and b. assuming that families have always played with their kids, which is doubtful since the traditional Japanese dad is always at work or settai. Its modern Japanese dads who play with their kids.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

20 years at a private high school and can confirm this is true. The teachers that sacrifice their personal lives, health and families to take on this job are the unspoken heroes. Some sink hard though as the demands are ever pervading and very little praise if any is given when things go well. The BLACK part comes from those old school out of touch kachos and buchos riding these poor teachers way too hard. The glaring desk nazis who would feel just at home as a guard in a WW2 prisoner of war camp are the main source of suffering. Instead of showing true leadership by supporting their workers, trying to streamline the workload and make the job more efficient they look for things to get angry at and feel their sole purpose is to make themselves good by berating these poor hard working teachers while doing very little else. So much time and energy wasted with paperwork, collecting Hankins and useless "meetings" those that manage to have enough energy to actually educate their students for the challenges of the modern world become quite rare. The work ethic in Japan is second to none and if they spent some time shedding the burdens of the past everyone would win, but in 20 years I've seen very little examples of this.

10 ( +12 / -2 )

Another factor not mentioned are the Saturday morning lessons (once a month where I live). On many of those days, parents are allowed to go in and watch the lessons, increasing pressure on the teachers. Often the Saturdays become whole days for the teachers because the headteacher decides the afternoon is a convenient time to schedule meetings.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Thanks for that Ricky. The article makes no mention of how schools are organized and blames things like marking, lesson prep, and test grading, all of which are core teacher work. Japanese teachers overwork due to other duties, like clubs and excessive events, and the inefficiencies Ricky describes.

My kids' school has an open day every month, and an event most months, some of which are planned weeks in advance. My kids also bring home a letter from the teacher pretty much every day, most of which is trivial information about what the kids are doing. Its as if its compulsory to obsess about the school and everything that goes on there like helicopter parents.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

Work the required hours

Demand over time pay, (or refuse to do it)

Cut students who misbehave

Actually fail students who fail

It's ludicrous to expect the teachers to put up with all the demands for that pay. Get rid of the stress (unpaid over time and rotten apples) and the job will improve greatly, as will school life for the students.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Dan LewisSep. 15  10:05 pm JST

Work the required hours

Demand over time pay, (or refuse to do it)

Cut students who misbehave

Actually fail students who fail

Admirable suggestions, but completely unrealistic for Japanese in their employee culture,

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Nedotjo have to agree, and it's not as if they are educating the next generation to pick up the baton of progress either. Such a waste. If it's broken, fix it right? Think again.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Well I hate to blame the "victim" but if you want to work like a slave it is your own fault. Hardly any teachers get fired, even when they do outrageous and obscene things, so leaving work on time and using your holidays would hardly get you canned.

I observe that many in Japan do not have work life balance because they did not have part time jobs in high school or college and really feel that they would never be able to find another job so they are subject to abuse. I know if I get canned something else (probably better) will come along.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Despite existing laws, and any new laws, nothing will change in the short term. Those same schools where teachers are working 60 hours a week are also teaching children to obey their elders, to put teamwork above individual achievement, never to question one's superiors, and never to do anything which results in being "the nail which sticks out."

When these kids grow up and enter the workforce, they work as they learned to work in school. 6 days a week of study, after school club activities, and often juku on top of that. The only break they get is their time in university, where they learn so little of any marketable skill that they are dependent on their future employers.

Change is not going to happen when the entire workforce is brainwashed into accepting the status quo.

One of my Japanese friends is a new father. He works for a garden-variety Japanese company, and, so as not to look bad, used only half is allowed paternity leave, and didn't take a day off when his wife returned home from the hospital with their new baby. He is legally entitled to 2 weeks of vacation each year, but he will never take more than 5 consecutive days off, and works on those remaining days when he is supposed to be "on vacation." Unlike America, you cannot cash out your vacation days in Japan. He is not ordered to do these things, and if he did use his vacation time as he is legally allowed to, his company wouldn't stop him. But he is fully indoctrinated, and would never put his own wants and needs above those of his coworkers or company.

"Karoshi" is almost entirely self-inflicted, and has become the problem because Japanese people simply do not want to say "no" to overwork. It never occurs to them to do so.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

sangetsu big difference between education and indoctrination ne, and if you get the two mixed up you have yourself a nice dystopia.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

What I love about my return to the US. Mostly air conditioning. I haven't sweat inside after a decade of skin problems living in Tokyo. And lastly getting paid for overtime work. I am a salaried employee with a bonus and excellent benefits, but I get paid 1.5x for every minute I work over 40 hours and I get 1.3x for every minute worked after 6p for a total of 1.8x at the end of the week. OT is discouraged though I can get up to 5 hours without permission, though prior permission is needed from management in order to get more and only is granted during times of specific business needs. This is in top of my 30 days vacation with the option to buy a week more and I do not need Manager approval to take time off. I spend 3 weeks in Tokyo every summer with my family. It's nice working for a company that appreciates its employees and actively encourages work/life balance.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Teaching is becoming a 'black occupation' in Japan

Becom**ing?!**

RecklessSep. 16  12:27 pm JST

Well I hate to blame the "victim" but if you want to work like a slave it is your own fault.

This is a bit simplistic. It's often not the case of a teacher just being told they have to stay late by a malevolent boss. Lots of the time, it's a case where there's a job that legit needs to be done (or at least, people believe it needs to be done) and the only way to get it done is to stay late. Based on my own experience about half the people staying late are driven, sincere teachers without whom the school would fall apart. (The other half are pointless drones just wasting time because they don't have any idea what else they could be doing with their lives.)

One thing I've learned from experience is that Japan-style OT is a vicious circle. The more OT you spend at work, the more careless you get about getting things done properly at work. The more careless you get, the more unexpected crises start cropping up because you haven't properly planned and prepared things. The more crises you have to deal with, the more OT you have to do. Once a worker finds themself trapped on the OT treadmill, most times the only way out is for management to step in and deal with the unrealistic expectations being put on the worker. And that never happens in Japan, because most Japanese managers refuse to manage.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Stop giving homework and tests.  Let the cram school teachers take care of that.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Television (perhaps) also reported the competition regular teachers of grade schools face now from part-time unlicensed teachers. These too are themselves exploited because they are employed at low salaries and rarely given the upgrading to regular teacher that they may have been vaguely promised. Their knowledge of subject matter and children's needs is questioned in my source, which was probably NHK or an English news media. Desperate out-lying towns may think they cannot afford regular licensed teachers. This is indeed "black business" meaning a shady occupation, is it not?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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