Japanese office culture is often very different from what most ALTs have experienced in their home countries. In Japanese office environments, image is important. You may notice everyone in your offices bustling about and keeping busy, even if they don’t have much work to do. This is an area where you should follow the example of your colleagues and keep busy. Whether that’s by volunteering to help out, or by keeping busy on your own projects when you are finished with school work. The important thing is to ensure you are using your time and keeping up appearances.
Punctuality is important in Japan. Always be early or on time to school. It’s frowned upon to be unprepared and late. If you’re going to be late, even if only a few minutes, call ahead and use leave (nenkyuu or daikyuu).
If you are finding it tough to fill your day, volunteer to write an article for your town’s paper, host an international event, join a club in town, join a school club, or study Japanese.
Dealing with Problems
If you notice a real problem occurring in your school or office, you should be thoughtful in how you deal with it. The direct route is generally not the best option. Japan works on a seniority system so if it’s a problem with a teacher or co-worker, you will need to have documented proof to guarantee your complaint be taken seriously.
When dealing with problems, be sure to always keep your temper and be polite. Raised voices and tempers will cause you to lose face and will not help resolve your problem. Document your complaints and translate them into Japanese, or have someone you trust translate them for you.
To lodge a complaint, request a meeting with your supervisor and BoE boss. Hand your complaint to them. They will take it through the proper channels for you. If your supervisor or boss is the problem, hand it to the kacho (vice superintendent of schools). Wait for an official response. Remind them of the problem if they haven’t replied within a month.
If nothing happens to improve the situation, petition your PA for help. This is a very serious step, though, that will cause a lot of conflict, so beware of what you’re doing before you go into it.
The Big April Shuffle
At the beginning of the new school term and fiscal year in April, there is a big office shuffle. You may come to work at the end of March to be informed that your favourite teacher, JTE or supervisor is leaving. The April shuffle will impact not only you, but the entire office. Often, first-year ALTs aren’t informed of this process and come in to find the office completely switched around with teachers missing and new staff appointed.
The April shuffle has long been part of the Japanese office culture. It dates back to the shogun who would make his feudal lords switch posts every six years, so that none of them would ever gain too much power. Nowadays, people say it’s the best way to distribute power and balance amongst an office and to give staff experience across a range of roles.
Be aware, the positions that are changing are generally a secret. You are welcome to ask, but may find other staff reluctant to pass on the secret information, even when it is widely known. The best thing you can do is to be patient. Do your best to work with the new staff and build up new relationships.
The hierarchy in Japanese schools, in order, runs: kyouikuchou – superintendent of schools, kocho sensei – principal, kacho – vice superintendent – kyoto sensei – vice principal. The kyouikuchou and kocho sensei are often more figureheads, but if anything bad happens it’s them who must retire.