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Bad ALT! The unwritten rules at Japanese schools

14 Comments
By Cara Lam

It’s only been a year, but I’ve already lost count of how many times I’ve felt my face burn to a bright apple red from breaking what I now know are unwritten rules of etiquette at my school. 

When we first arrived in Japan as assistant language teachers (ALTs) under the JET Programme, all of us had to attend a three-day orientation in Tokyo. There, we were given hours of lectures on what to expect in — and how to adjust to — the Japanese workplace. By that I mean, we really were taught how to say “good morning” in Japanese and bow properly. There was little to-almost-no information on what we should avoid doing — the “unwritten rules.”

With ALTs coming from the Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S. to name a few, it is inevitable that we all carry with us different sets of values, beliefs and etiquettes. But somehow, after living in Japan for a period of time, most of us figure to balance our individual personalities with respecting local norms.

Unfortunately, no one will ever tell you the myriad unwritten rules until you break them — as I learned.

The hard way

I broke the first rule the first month I was living in Japan. My students were busy painting their team banners for sports day, so I decided to sit on a table to watch them. The moment my bottom touched the table, a teacher immediately rushed to me and yelled, “Dame Dame! (You can’t do that!)” As my students turned around to see that I was sitting on a table, my face instantly reached its boiling point.

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14 Comments
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Totally agree about the lunch. I too, haven’t mastered the art of slurping those hot noodles while providing a parallel draft of cooling air. I’m not ready to eat unless they’re cooled enough. So for the first 5 minutes, just playing. Hardly choose noodles in my shokudo for that reason.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

FOB ALT goes to unusually strict school and commits faux pas; generalizes situation to all of Japan

Film at 11.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

This is a good article, and I complement Cara for so quickly becoming aware of such cultural sensitivities. Gaijin just passing through Japan do not need to worry about such faux pas, as they will be ignored or quickly forgiven, but once one settles into regular society.... This passes to a whole new level if a gaijin marries a Japanese and remains in Japan.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Fifteen minutes is not enough time for anyone to eat a meal. I use my feet to move things all the time, so does my husband. It's better for the back.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Was on an elevator with 4 women at work. They all knew which floor I was getting off at. We arrived, I tried to be polite - ladies first. Nobody got off the elevator and the door closed. They had been waiting for me to exit first.

Some of the toilet setups and cleaning methods were very surprising to me my first few days working in Japan. Not used to a woman coming into the men's room to clean and striking up a conversation with a local while we are releaving ourselves.

And knowing to bring a handkerchief to dry your hands after washing would have been good to know. I blew my nose into the handkerchief once, that freaked out a bunch of people.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Companies are the same, they have lots of unwritten rules, these are known as shafu (社風), or corporate culture. Nothing is written down, but it is expected that you know them. If you join a company as a freshman or new employee, you'll absorb them as you work, or learn from a mentor; but for mid-career hires, contractors, or part-timers, it can be a nightmare.

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You are not breaking any rules the other teachers love to abuse their power. There are no unwritten rules just grumpy old teachers wanting to blame foreigners for their troubles. Not allowed to do something in your own time like having dinner? Seriously? Why wasn't the other "male" teacher in trouble? If he knew the rules why did he ask you? You are doing nothing wrong, but no matter what you do you will never be Japanese and the Japanese will always remind you of that.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

So that article said about:

 Sitting on top of the desk in classroom.

 Accept food from students.

 Shut locker using foot instead hands.

 Go out with coworker.

As a teacher:

Sitting on top of the desk, especially in front of students. Since those students will absorb things that their teacher show.

Accepting food from others, that's pretty common practice among coworkers especially if someone like to brag their cooking skill. For school context, that student's bento is intended from their parent to be eaten by students, sometimes they prefer one food over another. By accepting that food she will enforce students not to eat something.

Shut locker using foot in classroom, again her students would spot that and follow her.

As a worker:

Go with fellow teacher after work, even when it doesn't intended as dating but your coworker consider that as a dating. Even her male coworker have no clue about this, that's really a proof that other coworker just made it up. In Japan being judged with their peers is pretty common, that's why they just like to remind to their coworker himitsu himitsu all the time.

Just don't try not too overgeneralized that would happen in other schools or other workplaces.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

So that article said about:

 Sitting on top of the desk in classroom.

 Accept food from students.

 Shut locker using foot instead hands.

 Go out with coworker.

As a teacher:

Sitting on top of the desk, especially in front of students. Since those students will absorb things that their teacher show.

Accepting food from others, that's pretty common practice among coworkers especially if someone like to brag their cooking skill. For school context, that student's bento is intended from their parent to be eaten by students, sometimes they prefer one food over another. By accepting that food she will enforce students not to eat something.

Shut locker using foot in classroom, again her students would spot that and follow her.

As a worker:

Go with fellow teacher after work, even when it doesn't intended as dating but your coworker consider that as a dating. Even her male coworker have no clue about this, that's really a proof that other coworker just made it up. In Japan being judged with their peers is pretty common, that's why they just like to remind to their coworker himitsu himitsu all the time.

I am a firm believer of leading by example but i think some of these rules are rather stupid, the desk thing for instance, i sit on desks in classrooms all the time, mainly because standing for 6 straight periods hurts my already injured ankle and there is no seat for the ALT, all the students are already sitting anyway so they don’t need to sit on a desk, and if they do it outside of class or during breaks who cares, i see far worse behavior go un commented on by teachers during gap between periods.

As for unwritten rules, as the saying goes "when in rome do as the romans do" however this should be exercised with common sense, if a rule is stupid or in effective/efficient then it should be changed or not followed.

In the situation raised by the author I think most people would agree there was nothing wrong with going out after work with a college for drinks or anything else for that matter what happens outside of work is none of your employer or anyone elses business quite frankly, not too mention implying that every relationship between the memebrs of a similar age and opposite sex has to be romantic is an outdated and ignorant view usually held by an out of touch generation.

There is a teacher at my current school dating another teacher, and good on him.

Where else is he going to meet someone when he works 6 days a week 0700 till 2000.

If all foreigners adopted all Japanese mannerisms and culture aspects and norms then we wouldn’t be foreigners, but we can never be Japanese anyway so why try?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Oh also the lunch time allocated is not enough and their should be a recess break as well in the morning.

I stopped eating the school lunches the lunch centre provided as they had too much rice and barely any vegetables or protein they also arrived cold, sat in the lunch room for an hour and were served cold.

I bring my own bento to school now and am far better health and taste wise.

If something is not good and no one says anything then the same garbage continues the school lunch is a perfect example.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

One of my best buddies is a teacher here, been at the same school for 7 years and it seems like the local teachers regularly try to humiliate or undermine him in front of his class. Why he puts up with it, I don't know but it would seem that some locals think the gaijin employee is on the same level as the students and therefore worthy of a public flogging.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Most of the "rules" this person talks about are arround the idea of not being a bad "role model" for your students. Example: Do not sit in a table, finish your food before stading up, do not play with food.

The rest are just about people being bussy bodies and trying to make you miserable because they are miserable.

the worst “crime” I committed — one that made me feel like I fell into a bubbling hot geyser — was when other teachers found out that I had dinner with a male Japanese teacher alone the night before

It's not a crime, what you had was the reaction of a lot of frustrated teachers that do not have any kind of human interaction with anyone leashing out on you.

let your coworkers — or whoever tells you off — know that things work differently in your hometown and how you handle it where you come from

NO, THAT IS STUPID.

This is not a "In my country is different" type of thing, this is a, you are dealing with a bunch of horrible people type of situation. They will just grab to that and basically justify any of their awfulness as saying "This is the way we do things in Japan", when that is not true.

I hate hate hate hate people who come to japan, and think that normal human interactions somehow do not apply here, because "this country is, oh, so culturally diferent" when they have no idea what they are talking about.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

theFuToday wrote on 10:19 am JST

Was on an elevator with 4 women at work. They all knew which floor I was getting off at. We arrived, I tried to be polite - ladies first. Nobody got off the elevator and the door closed. They had been waiting for me to exit first.

Well, in this case a simple "douzo" or a "you first" hand gesture while holding the door would be enough, no? Be it with ladies or men. Be polite with people, not gender.

Or, if you were near to the door, it would actually be better to get off first, as you would just stay in the way...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I once whistled a tune in class while waiting for something. Teacher got very irritated.

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