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A Few Things I Think I Know About Living and Working in Japan

slapdasch3

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A Few Things I Think I Know about Living and Working in Japan

1 You as an individual don’t exist in Japan. It’s very much a hierarchical society where everyone has a place in a kind of pecking order. People aren’t comfortable unless they can figure out where you fit, or don’t fit, in the overall scheme of things. Your status is determined by your role as amember of a particular family, the school you may attend, the place where you work and the immediate community where you live.

2 As a kind of corollary to point 1 above, in terms of social responsibility, you represent more than just yourself. For example, a group of students from the Japanese college where I taught got caught shoplifting. They were disciplined, but that wasn’t the end of it. The school was required to send a delegation of higher-ups to formally meet with and to personally apologize to the store owners. Your conduct has repercussions and certain kinds of mistakes can lead to far-reaching trouble for those socially connected with you.

3 “ The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.” This is a concept not unknown in many places but it’s especially true in Japan. Being or doing different in almost any way, will attract the kind of scrutiny that is not to your advantage. One example of this sort of thing was evident in a story told to me by a Japanese teaching colleague. She said she had gone to two different primary schools with art classes. At the first school, she was told by her art instructors that the sun should always be the color orange. Later, as a new student at a second school, she followed her training/ instincts, which told her to continue to depict the sun as orange. Her assignment came back with a note containing the following message: “If you wish to continue as a member of the class, you should know that in this school the sun is red, not orange.”

4 Many learners at Japanese colleges and universities, contrary to the stereotype of Asians as model students, do not work very hard. Colleges and universities are considered ends in themselves in the sense that once you are accepted into a prestigious school, you are pretty much assured a spot at a high tier company. These companies have their own corporate cultures and are happy to instill their ways and standards into new workers with the “right” credentials. A number of Japanese students see college as a place to relax, make friends and establish contacts. They’ve labored tremendously hard at cram schools and practice testing to make it into college and will be worked to the bone once they hit their jobs in the “real world.”

5 “Of all politics, academic politics is the least interesting because there is so little at stake.”

The competitive nature of just about anything having to do with working and the work place means people in most jobs will form groups or cliques of like-minded individuals looking to “expand real estate.” Working for Japanese at a Japanese college for over ten years gave me some insight into the ways power in Japanese academia is exercised and maintained and the lengths people will go to crush your career if you happen to be on the outside.

I’ll give the short version of what was done to me. After 7 years of employment at my college, our dean came by my office one day and asked if I wanted to go through the process of upgrading my statusas a tenured lecturer to full professor. A long series of disagreements over details related to English Department teaching methodology and standards had instilled an obvious dislike in the dean towards me. This fact made me extremely wary about his motivations. Nonetheless, I figured, with the help of my Japanese wife, I could jump through the required hoops and get around any obstacles the dean might care to insert into the mix.

The dean outlined a process that included the need to have the school president give a stamp of approval for my promotion. I collected all the necessary paper work and documents needed on my end, turned it all in and was told a committee would make a decision in a couple of weeks.

After a month of hearing nothing, I requested a meeting with the dean. He avoided me for several more weeks, then finally made an arrangement to get together. The dean told me that the reason for the delay was that the president had held up the process by refusing to make a decision. Finally, the president had decided not to agree to a promotion.

Again, while leaving out a number of details, I later found out the dean never even gave the president my materials or had the chance to consider the promotion. The whole process had been designed by the dean to humiliate and put me in my place. It was also a way to send the message that the school wanted me gone.

One point related to this whole episode is that I don’t believe I was singled out for “special treatment” because of being a foreigner. In Japan, if you don’t get with the program, you’ll get what’s coming to you just as easily if you happen to be Japanese.

6 If I were to sum up, in very general terms, a major difference between Japan and U.S. culture is the following: Japanese care too much about what other people think and Americans don’t care enough
 

tomoni

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A Few Things I Think I Know about Living and Working in Japan

1 You as an individual don’t exist in Japan. It’s very much a hierarchical society where everyone has a place in a kind of pecking order. People aren’t comfortable unless they can figure out where you fit, or don’t fit, in the overall scheme of things. Your status is determined by your role as amember of a particular family, the school you may attend, the place where you work and the immediate community where you live.

2 As a kind of corollary to point 1 above, in terms of social responsibility, you represent more than just yourself. For example, a group of students from the Japanese college where I taught got caught shoplifting. They were disciplined, but that wasn’t the end of it. The school was required to send a delegation of higher-ups to formally meet with and to personally apologize to the store owners. Your conduct has repercussions and certain kinds of mistakes can lead to far-reaching trouble for those socially connected with you.

3 “ The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.” This is a concept not unknown in many places but it’s especially true in Japan. Being or doing different in almost any way, will attract the kind of scrutiny that is not to your advantage. One example of this sort of thing was evident in a story told to me by a Japanese teaching colleague. She said she had gone to two different primary schools with art classes. At the first school, she was told by her art instructors that the sun should always be the color orange. Later, as a new student at a second school, she followed her training/ instincts, which told her to continue to depict the sun as orange. Her assignment came back with a note containing the following message: “If you wish to continue as a member of the class, you should know that in this school the sun is red, not orange.”

4 Many learners at Japanese colleges and universities, contrary to the stereotype of Asians as model students, do not work very hard. Colleges and universities are considered ends in themselves in the sense that once you are accepted into a prestigious school, you are pretty much assured a spot at a high tier company. These companies have their own corporate cultures and are happy to instill their ways and standards into new workers with the “right” credentials. A number of Japanese students see college as a place to relax, make friends and establish contacts. They’ve labored tremendously hard at cram schools and practice testing to make it into college and will be worked to the bone once they hit their jobs in the “real world.”

5 “Of all politics, academic politics is the least interesting because there is so little at stake.”

The competitive nature of just about anything having to do with working and the work place means people in most jobs will form groups or cliques of like-minded individuals looking to “expand real estate.” Working for Japanese at a Japanese college for over ten years gave me some insight into the ways power in Japanese academia is exercised and maintained and the lengths people will go to crush your career if you happen to be on the outside.

I’ll give the short version of what was done to me. After 7 years of employment at my college, our dean came by my office one day and asked if I wanted to go through the process of upgrading my statusas a tenured lecturer to full professor. A long series of disagreements over details related to English Department teaching methodology and standards had instilled an obvious dislike in the dean towards me. This fact made me extremely wary about his motivations. Nonetheless, I figured, with the help of my Japanese wife, I could jump through the required hoops and get around any obstacles the dean might care to insert into the mix.

The dean outlined a process that included the need to have the school president give a stamp of approval for my promotion. I collected all the necessary paper work and documents needed on my end, turned it all in and was told a committee would make a decision in a couple of weeks.

After a month of hearing nothing, I requested a meeting with the dean. He avoided me for several more weeks, then finally made an arrangement to get together. The dean told me that the reason for the delay was that the president had held up the process by refusing to make a decision. Finally, the president had decided not to agree to a promotion.

Again, while leaving out a number of details, I later found out the dean never even gave the president my materials or had the chance to consider the promotion. The whole process had been designed by the dean to humiliate and put me in my place. It was also a way to send the message that the school wanted me gone.

One point related to this whole episode is that I don’t believe I was singled out for “special treatment” because of being a foreigner. In Japan, if you don’t get with the program, you’ll get what’s coming to you just as easily if you happen to be Japanese.

6 If I were to sum up, in very general terms, a major difference between Japan and U.S. culture is the following: Japanese care too much about what other people think and Americans don’t care enough
Hello slap dash

it seems that your time here was not idyllic.

#1. I disagree, but there is more - perhaps – more emphasis is put on the group in general.

#2. I think in most places you represent more than yourself, and again in Japan that may be more the case than perhaps the United States.


#3. I suppose as a truism – but these kinds of generalizations do not actually reflect accurately -in my opinion - anyplace.

#4. It is funny because I often hear comments like this referring to people who go to a prestige university. However, And every institution, there are students who do not work hard. However at the upper end universities the students that generally get in worked extremely hard to get in and keep working hard to get further ahead in their lives and careers.

This may be more the case at the universities and colleges with easier admissions, rather than the upper level ones that everyone seems to suggest.
Again I don’t know how relevant that is today as you have become much more focussed on their life after universty in preparing for the workplace because of the bad economy in Japan.

note I don’t mean to make this a generalization this is just my experience.


# 5.
I think the politics of University, like any other employment place really depends on where you are – and it certainly varies from faculty to faculty.

As for your experience at your college or university end - that is atrocious.

I do not know about your situation but if that is what happened it is unconscionable.


Thank you for your interesting post
 

slapdasch3

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Thanks, Tomoni, for your thoughtful comments. You may be correct that some of the generalizations in the posting are not particularly useful. Nonetheless, they are a part of my reality as a twenty year resident in Japan.

True, you might label my overall experience in Japan as "less than idyllic" but there were many positives. I met my wife (married 27 years), was paid extremely well as a tenured lecturer at a Japanese college and enjoyed working with Japanese students. It's easy to come up with a long list of things Japanese students are not especially good at when considering English language skills, but once you have some understanding of their educational backgrounds and aspirations with English their classroom behaviors make quite a bit of sense. (Some of this comes back to the idea of how hard college level students work. You make a useful distinction between those attending elite schools and those at less than stellar academic institutions. My school was definitely not in the upper tier).

To close, I reckon my time in Japan follows the usual overseas pattern of some things being lost and others gained
 

johnnyG

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Just curious--what is your work history before you worked at the university in japan? What other jobs (types), and where?
 

slapdasch3

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Hmm .... I'll have to think my way through this one. My work history includes several stints as a security guard in Austin, Texas, working for both the state and the city. I got a master's degree in TEFL while working these gigs,

I've been in over 40 countries, including 2 years with the Peace Corps as a TEF¯L teacher/trainer in Sri Lanka and two years teaching in Seoul, South Korea at a language school. In Japan, I taught academic english for an American branch campus (SIUCN) for 7 years before doing my tenured lecture position run at what was then Aomori Public College.

I also did time at several kibbutzim in Israel doing everything from agricultural work to artificial insemination with turkeys. I drove a taxi in Perth, Australia for a while as well.

This isn't the whole story, but I think it gives you the general idea about "my brilliant career." I'm thinking I can put something like, "He had a pretty good look around" on my tombstone.
 

Majestic

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Do you have a specific idea of "things being lost"? Some particular regret from spending so much time in Japan?
 

johnnyG

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Hmm .... I'll have to think my way through this one. ...
I guess I was wondering how comparable something in your work history was to your final job at the uni (and japan) that you were making some conclusions about.

I see plenty of teaching there (your history), but little japan-specific, or anything on par with your final job. Eg, the american branch campus may not have been representative of uni work, esp on the side of interaction with faculty/admin.

I worked at ICU for a couple years back in the 80s. At the time, the faculty in the department/division I was attached to was at each other's throats (it predated and was above me, not my issue). I think they eventually broke that division into separate parts to resolve it.

Arguments at faculty meetings can be intense because there's so little at stake (and no "proof" as in business as to whether something is right or not). And at ICU, add the religious factor--pursuing what is 'right' may have been infused with that.

During my own history at a small private uni (29yrs), the pendulum swung all over the place.
 

johnnyG

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Do you have a specific idea of "things being lost"? Some particular regret from spending so much time in Japan?
Is that referring to the existential gasp? That you can't do everything--that you have to choose? ;)
 

slapdasch3

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Concrerning the idea of things being lost, for me, a lot of it comes down to rarely being able to have face-to-face contact with family and friends. Don't forget that the proliferation of social media, computers, e-mail and the like is still a fairly recent phenomenon. I was away from the USA living and working for years at a time and the main way to keep up with things on the home front was letter writing, with the occasional ridiculously expensive phone call thrown in. I know I'm dating myself horribly, but that's the way it was when you were knocking around without a lot financial resources.

I agree completely, JohnnyG, with your comments on differences between working at an American branch campus and for a Japanese educational institution; it definitely ain't the same thing. I also think you hint at the idea that I was culturally in over my head. Perhaps you are right to a degree. I made at least one major mistake, among others. When you get as isolated on the job as I was, you have to get pretty good at reading between the lines. Your point on the pendulum swinging all over the place resonates as well.

When all is said and done, I likely should have been more cognizant of the fact that there was so little at stake the overlords were going to resort to tactics beyond overkill.
 

johnnyG

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No, I wasn't thinking 'over your head', just kind of wondering how your background might affect/color your initial post. My wife also teaches, and has been at two local small uni over our time here (while I stayed at one). And I also know some other teachers from schools around town. Many things are the same, but frequently those things that are the same get pushed out of the spotlight by the differences.

And many people are in things over their heads. Some fake it pretty well that that's not the case (for a longer or shorted while); some can't or don't, or don't even try. I've even had deans that exemplify some of that (and one 理事長).
 

Majestic

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Concrerning the idea of things being lost, for me, a lot of it comes down to rarely being able to have face-to-face contact with family and friends.

That is what I suspected. I have been in Japan slightly longer than you have, and I have vivid memories of trying to time phone calls to the US. I also remember using the most lightweight paper and airmail envelopes so that letters to the US would be cheap. The phone calls were particularly dreadful as there was a big element of uncertainty as to how much you would be charged, and you would never know until the bill finally came. International calls could easily run into several hundred dollars. It seems unbelievable now.

I don't feel the distance anymore. I was very happy to leave Suburbia, USA. I couldn't imagine moving back. For me, the profit/loss equation of living in Japan has resulted in a huge surplus in my favor. I live in Tokyo, however, and it suits me very well. If I were living in small town Japan, I might feel differently.
 
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slapdasch3

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It occurs to me that there were some rather humorous aspects to being away for years at a time. Several times I came back in the miidst of fads that would become trends and I didnt have a clue about any of it.. One example was driving around late at night with a buddy who said he needed to stop at a bank to get some cash. My reaction was what bank was going to be doing business at that time of day. And that was my introduction to an ATM machine.

Another time I returned home and began to try reaching a number of friends by phone. All I got for my trouble was an answering machine telling me to leave a message. The whole concept of a phone answering machine struck me as particularly bizarre because most of the people iI was attempting to contact hadn't even had telephones when I'd last known them.

Speaking of phones here's a bonus brainteaser:

Q: Can you name an invention as important as the first telephone?

A: The second telephone.
That is what I suspected. I have been in Japan slightly longer than you have, and I have vivid memories of trying to time phone calls to the US. I also remember using the most lightweight paper and airmail envelopes so that letters to the US would be cheap. The phone calls were particularly dreadful as there was a big element of uncertainty as to how much you would be charged, and you would never know until the bill finally came. International calls could easily run into several hundred dollars. It seems unbelievable now.

I don't feel the distance anymore. I was very happy to leave Suburbia, USA. I couldn't imagine moving back. For me, the profit/loss equation of living in Japan has resulted in a huge surplus in my favor. I live in Tokyo, however, and it suits me very well. If I were living in small town Japan, I might feel differently.
 

mdchachi

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After a month of hearing nothing, I requested a meeting with the dean. He avoided me for several more weeks, then finally made an arrangement to get together. The dean told me that the reason for the delay was that the president had held up the process by refusing to make a decision. Finally, the president had decided not to agree to a promotion.
So what happened? Meaning, are you still there in the same role? Or were you forced out and now "retired"?
 

slapdasch3

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The short answer was that I was forced out but the details are complicated. In some ways, the administration didn't know what to do with me. For one thing, I was the only person at the school with a job designation of "tenured lecturer." I had my share of faculty supporters and my work and student evaluations were very good. On the negative side, the dean and a new president clearly wanted to get rid of me.

Another issue that made it tough to force me out was that I had been teaching for six years with Parkinson's disease. I never researched what kinds of job protection regulations were in place for disabled workers in Japan but i think the dean and the president were both savvy enough to know my being a tenured employee with a disability could potentially turn into a very messy situation; aggressive action to fire me could well have been troublesome and risky.

In the end, I hung on for several years until the school announced a plan that would turn the college from a public to a private educational institution. Under these circumstances, a private entity could change or rig the rules in any way they wished. The writing on the wall was clear so I walked out the door 11 years ago. I suppose you could label my departure a "voluntary" forced retirement.
 

mdchachi

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Ok then where have you been? You should have found jref at least 10 years ago. 😄
Anyway glad to have you here. I hope all is well. There is some advantage to being retired in a pandemic.
 

johnnyG

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Too bad--employers here actually have reasons to retain/employ technically disabled people, I think a tax credit or something.

(incidentally, I was peace corps korea '74-76, tho in health/TB control and not tesol)
 
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