In Japanese schools, foreign Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) are employed by local boards of education to not only assist with language-learning during English lessons, but to provide teachers and students with all sorts of firsthand insights into overseas culture.
This cultural exchange element of the job is particularly important in rural country towns, where many of the residents may have never interacted with a foreigner before. However, sometimes cultural norms from overseas can clash with what’s considered acceptable by the local board of education, and that’s the position one ALT found themselves in recently, when she was asked to remove her earrings.
The story, which involved an ALT from Latin America, was shared on Twitter recently by a teacher at a Japanese public elementary school.
The tweet reads: “An ALT was terribly angry with the school board. The reason appears to be because she was told to remove her earrings when in front of the children. In her culture, hoop earrings are worn from a young age to defy racial discrimination and act as a symbol of strength and self-respect. She said, ‘Isn’t learning a foreign language about gaining knowledge of another country’s culture?'”
The Japanese teacher continued the story with:
“‘How much of a negative effect do my piercings have on students?’ the ALT asked. When you come to Japan, sure – it’s correct to follow Japanese culture. However, you can get along well with people when you get to know each other’s cultural backgrounds. I thought this was what children should be shown.”
While students are prohibited from wearing wearing jewelry at school, teachers aren’t generally required to follow the same strict rules as students. Making the situation worse is the fact that, though the request came from the board of education, they didn’t ask the ALT to stop wearing earrings directly — instead, they instructed the principal of the school to discuss the matter with the ALT.
The incident sparked debate online, where a range of opinions were brought up.
“I’m a homeroom teacher who wears earrings and nail polish to school. If anyone said anything to me about it, I would sue them for sexual harassment.”
“We had an ALT who dared to wear big piercings in class, but it was so children might say things like 'pretty!' or 'I like your earrings' in English. The shape and color of the earrings also got the children to say 'pink!' and 'triangle.' We do anything to rouse children’s feelings, but the board of education…sigh.”
“If piercings are prohibited because students can’t have them, then does that mean teachers aren’t allowed to have a driver’s license either?”
“I once had to tell an ALT to stop chewing gum in class. They stopped, though. What could I have said if they argued that it was part of their culture?”
“Don’t people wear hoop earrings as a symbol of beauty? Is there really a cultural aspect to it?”
That last comment actually drives home the importance of what the ALT was striving for — cultural learning and understanding. While hoop earrings may simply be seen as a fashion accessory to people in Japan, for Latin American women, hoop earrings are empowering — just ask Cardi B or Jennifer Lopez — and it’s not uncommon for pre-teen girls to wear them.
The more that people in Japan are exposed to hoop-wearing Latinos, the more they would be able to understand that there is a proud cultural identity tied to wearing hoops, which represent a variety of different heritages and nationalities.
However, in this particular case, the topic of wearing hoops in class divided opinion not just amongst Japanese, but amongst ALTs too, with one of the ALT’s foreign colleagues suggesting she just take the earrings out to keep the peace.
It just goes to show that where you draw the line between keeping your cultural identity and giving up your old ways to assimilate into Japanese society isn’t the same for everyone — it’s a juggling act and an individual decision that all foreigners living in Japan struggle to make peace with at one time or another.
Sadly, it remains unclear whether the board of education and the ALT in this case were able to come to a happy resolution. Here’s hoping whatever decision was made was one that respected the cultural sensitivities of everyone involved. Because in a country where schools can force students to dye their hair black and demand they wear white underwear, what’s considered right or wrong can be a tricky landscape to navigate.
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