I have worn the one and only suit that I possess more times in the last fortnight than in the preceding five years, because if there’s one thing the Japanese love, it’s formality.

First off there was my job interview, which as well as being formal, was, so to speak, a formality. Providing I didn’t turn up wearing ripped jeans, chugging on a can of beer and swearing like a trooper, I was bound to get the job, although having said that, the interview was so stilted that it wasn’t until several hours afterwards that I realised the job had officially been offered to me.

‘It’s great that you’ve got the job, isn’t it?’ said Mrs M.
‘Have I? I thought they were still thinking about it.’
‘No, no. Not at all.’
‘So what are they thinking about then?’
‘Oh, that was just something about holiday pay. Didn’t you realise?’
‘Well, no. To be honest, I didn’t really understand what they were talking about. It was all a bit too polite for me.’
‘Just as I thought,’ said onii-san. ‘That lot were typical civil servants.’

Rather than being employed by an intermediary, which had been the case with my previous two teaching jobs, this time I was talking direct to the Board of Education in a small town in the west of Ibaraki (in a district that, bizarrely enough, calls itself East Ibaraki), and the ironic thing about boards of education is that their members know very little about education. They are essentially town hall pen pushers, and more out of their depth than ever when it comes to dealing with foreigners. So no attempt was made to use easy Japanese, and rather than saying, ‘What were you doing before you came to Japan?’ for example, the pale-faced gentleman with big glasses and slicked-back hair who interviewed me would say, ‘Prior to arriving in Japan, would you be so kind as to tell me how you were engaged in a professional capacity?’ or words to that effect.

To put the bespectacled man and his colleagues at ease, I even brought Mrs M along as interpreter, and as is often the case in that kind of situation, most of the questions were thus directed at her. Just to give proceedings an added gangster-like touch, we had a driver / bodyguard with us in the form of onii-san, who probably hadn’t expected be present for the interview at all, but who tagged along nontheless, and even wore his shell suit for good measure (apart from special occasions, the shell suit is the standard yakuza uniform these days).

Once the interview was out of the way, I thought I would be free until the first day of term, but the BOE contrived to invite me back to their offices twice more: once to receive my contract, and once to meet with the other ALTs (assistant language teachers) and JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) with whom I was to be working.

For the former, four ALTs and five TTs (elementary school classroom assistants, as far as I could make out – the TT stands for Team Teaching or possibly Team Teachers) all filed into a rather drab meeting room, whose walls were clad in old-fashioned chip board of the kind you used to see in Woolworths: painted off-white and covered in a grid of small holes for the insertion of display hooks or shelving. We lined up one behind the other, and the same bespectacled official who had conducted my interview welcomed us to the district and read out each of our contracts in turn – or rather, a summary of the contract printed on one side of A4 to look like a certificate – before presenting it to us with a bow (the TTs’ contracts, interestingly enough, delineated their hourly wage: 1700 yen, or about £10).

The meeting with our JTEs was, well, more like a meeting, in the sense that we sat around a semi-circle of tables in the same drab room and read through several pages of official paperwork. Here too I had trouble keeping up with what was being discussed, but my fellow ALT C, who has only been in the country for a few months and barely grasped the basics of the language, must have been completely in the dark, and just to make things that little bit more unnerving, the bespectacled official gestured towards him on more than one occasion and said (while laughing, and in Japanese), ‘Of course, this will all be rather more difficult for C-san, as he doesn’t really speak the language. Good luck with that!’

On the way back from the meeting, I dropped my suit off at the school to which I had been assigned, so that I would be able to cycle in and change into it again the following morning. This was for the shigyohshiki (start-business-ceremony / 始業式), which by Japanese standards was on a relatively small scale. Having already made a speech to my new colleagues in the staff room, I was led into the gymnasium along with eight or nine other new members of staff (the school year runs from April to March, and thus neatly coincides with the flowering of the cherry blossom, with all its symbolic import of new beginnings and the like), where each of us introduced ourselves to the assembled students.

A couple of carefully chosen student representatives spoke about their hopes and expectations for the new school year, details of which teacher was to be in charge of which class and which club activity were announced, and the kocho-sensei (headmaster / 校長先生) made a speech. The atmosphere at the school, I should say here, seems particularly relaxed, and while I suspect this is often the case at smaller, rural schools, it can be as much to do with the person in charge. Quite apart from being a jovial sort of fellow, our kocho-sensei appears to be as interested in gardening as he does in meetings and paperwork, and spends a good deal of his time tending to the various flowers and vegetables in the school grounds: at least once a day he will emerge from his office in combat trousers, a fishing jacket and a baseball cap and say something like, ‘I’m just off to the garden centre to buy some potato seeds,’ and conversation in the staff room will often turn to the subject of obscure edible plants, or what kind of soil is best for the cultivation of devil’s tongue. Kocho-sensei also appears to be something of a philosopher, and the majority of his speech at the shigyohshiki was taken up with an extended meditation on the symbolic significance of the colour blue, as inspired by a Chinese author whose book he had recently been reading. His speech for the following day’s nyugakushiki (entrance-learning-ceremony / 入学式) involved a lengthy baseball anecdote about a school team who fought back to the brink of victory before just missing out in the final play of the game. He related this to the current situation in Japan, post-earthquake – how we should try our hardest for each other and be dignified even in defeat – and while it could have been the way the microphone brought out the sibilance in his words, I sensed that he was getting rather emotional (at this point S-sensei, one of the JTEs, began to dab her face with a hankerchief, but again, this could just have been because she had a runny nose).

While the shigyoshiki was relaxed – even jokey at times – there was a lot more pomp about the nyugakushiki, for which kocho-sensei wore his dinner jacket, the gymnasium was decked with bunting and the school band provided musical accompaniment. There were a lot of important people too, including perhaps fifty or so parents and siblings of the new first year students, two of whom were presented with a textbook as a symbol of their forthcoming studies (‘This was paid for with our taxes,’ said kocho-sensei, ‘so you’d better look after it!’). PTA representatives, BOE representatives, local council representatives, students: almost everyone in the room was given the chance to make a speech, and the whole thing lasted for more than an hour (after about forty-five minutes of what must have been pretty intense concentration for a twelve year old, one of the first years slumped forward in his chair, his face ashen, and was escorted to the nurse’s room to recover).

Apart from this, my abiding memory of the shigyohshiki was of four be-suited fathers sitting in the front row of guest seating, all wearing fluffy, brightly-coloured, Nora Batty-style slippers. For each one of this succession of ceremonials, I had dutifully put on my best black leather shoes before leaving the house, but there is often no point in doing so, because upon entering many public buildings – schools, for example, or boards of education – one is obliged to take one’s shoes off. Rather than having to don a pair of standard-issue, faux-leather slippers, the better prepared Japanese will therefore carry a more comfy pair with them at all times, and no one seems to be too self-conscious about the design or the colour.