Foreigners in Japan are Helpers, Nothing More

September 21, 2017

“Once you accept your role and don’t try to buck the system, it’s just easier.”

I was explaining my work in Japan to a Couchsurfer from The Netherlands, but no matter how much I tried to tone down the fact I considered my job completely meaningless, she looked so skeptical.

“That’s just depressing…”

“It is what it is,” I told her, trying to sound sage. And it happens to be true. As much as others can write me off as a cynic or get angry at me for disparaging their chosen career path, with only a few exceptions, teaching English in Japan, and in a greater sense all foreigners working in Japan, accomplish nothing.

Now, all ESL teachers have success stories about students they’ve seen dramatically improve after enough time under their tutelage. I have a few as well, and I certainly remain proud of those achievements. However, these exceptions don’t change the fact the English education system in Japan, coupled with the cultural practice of keeping foreign workers at a distance, serves to only put on a show of learning for the overwhelming majority of students, not provide actual education.

The argument made for this approach to foreign workers in Japan isn’t necessarily malicious; most employers who apply this custom, from professional baseball team managers to recruiters at private language schools, do so because they believe foreigners wouldn’t want to do things “the Japanese way”: working unpaid overtime, attending pointless meetings, learning the proper language to address superiors and subordinates, presenting original ideas…

In some cases, they might be right; foreign workers of any nationality facing these kinds of rules their first year in Japan could be driven to madness. On the other hand, residents who have proven themselves in the workplace over decades can find it frustrating their status will never change.

To give you an example, I’ve worked three different full time jobs in Japan. The first was an eikaiwa chain school, where I was given no breaks and scolded whenever I tried to sit down for a few minutes between classes. The turnover at these types of businesses is so high (90% don’t stay beyond one year, last time I checked) it’s no wonder foreign teachers are looked upon as expendable. They must conform to their school and manager’s rules, not the other way around.

While I agree the onus should be on us to change according to our surroundings, it’s not out of line to think there might be some flexibility or compassion from the other side: listening to ideas how we can modify lessons to better suit some students. In my experience and those of most of the teachers at the same company, this was simply not the case. “Shut up, clean the bathroom, have classes for exactly 50 minutes and not one second more, don’t tell us you’re better at teaching high schoolers than 4-year-olds…”

It’s safe to say I left that job feeling angry and uncertain about my future in the country, having no concept of suketto. Literally meaning “helper”, suketto is a rather apt way of describing foreigners’ role in Japanese society: we can work the same jobs and live in the same neighborhoods, but rather than being an integral part of either, we’re relegated to standing on the sidelines and being on call whenever there’s an English sentence that needs proofreading. I thought if I improved my language skills and adjusted my attitude (still very American), another position would allow me room to grow.

“Foreigners who understand [the suketto concept] from the start of their relationship with the Japanese are much less likely to suffer from culture shock.”
– Japan’s Cultural Code Words, Boye Lafayette De Mente

My most recent job at a private high school is the exact opposite in so many ways, but still keeps me at a distance when it comes to how my skills are utilized. Instead of being worked to the bone, I have lots of downtime at my desk (to write this story…). While I am generally respected, I’m excluded from the responsibilities required of other teachers: organizing sports day, leading home room, attending training. If I happen to forget to come to a meeting or class, there’s much less pushback than if a “real” teacher had done so. I am living the life of a textbook suketto.

Foreign workers in Japan who learn to accept their place in a society that doesn’t really know how to deal with them being ambitious are more likely to be happy with their lives abroad. When a job pays for them to be busy for 2-3 hours a day and sit at their desk pretending to be busy the rest of the time, they can laugh it off and try to be as productive as possible, or complain that they aren’t being properly utilized, which will seldom result in any change.

There are always exceptions: eccentric language school owners who actually want a partnership to understand how best to help students; sempai who truly take foreign kohai under their wing; foreigners who choose not to rely on anyone and make their own way in Japan as artists, singers, bakers, writers, and teachers.

It’s the ultimate dilemma for expats in Japan for the long haul: do you just keep your head down and do your job, stifling your soul but enjoying the benefits of living in a safe and prosperous country, or take a stand and try to be a leader in a system that wasn’t designed for you, most likely making yourself miserable, but offering the slightest of chances you’ll make your presence known?

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