T-weet t-woo

With just twelve official followers, Jesus would never have succeeded as a messiah had he been born into the Twitter generation.

Not that I want to equate myself with the son of God, but that was approximately the number I attracted during my brief flirtation with Twitter in the early 2010s. I like to think, however, that one or two of my tweets were either funny, informative, or both, so despite a complete absence of public demand, I have collected them for you here.

The tweets are in reverse chronological order, and cover a period from early 2013 back to early 2011. Some of the statistics and so on will, therefore, be several years out of date:

Number of organ donors per annum: Japan – 112 / USA – 8,126. Number of organ transplants per annum: Japan – 329 / USA – 22,517

Of 15 men and 15 women questioned after exiting a Tokyo convenience store, 4 of the men had made impulse buys compared to 13 of the women

It’s official! The five most common Japanese surnames are: 1) Sato 佐藤 2) Suzuki 鈴木 3) Takahashi 高橋 4) Tanaka 田中 and 5) Watanabe 渡辺

There were icicles on the bathroom window this morning and I still have hay fever – does this mean I’m allergic to frost rather than pollen?

The spout on our kitchen tap is so long that when you turn it on, you can feel a tiny, two-second rush of air before the water comes out

There was a programme on TV last night in which the presenters were sampling 鶏肉刺身 (raw chicken) – surely not a good idea…

Believe it or not, there is an entry in English language Wikipedia called ‘List of Japanese People’

Recent test question: _____ is my pen? Correct answer: Where is my pen? One student’s more philosophical version: What is my pen?

I assume I’m not the first person to be disappointed to find out that cous cous isn’t some special kind of grain, just very small pasta

Most amusing answer found while marking end-of-term exam papers: Q – What do you want to be in the future? A – I want to do a nurse.

1 in 30 children born in Japan are now of mixed-race parentage

“…in 2011, 149,000 British citizens left the UK with the intention of spending at least a year in another country…”

People who commit suicide are far less likely to be smokers than those who don’t – ergo, if you’re feeling depressed, have a ciggie

Last week, for 3 days in a row, school lunch contained no meat at all – great news for a pescetarian, but will probably never happen again

Interestingly, there’s a clause in my employment contract stipulating holiday entitlement in the event of me becoming a bone marrow donor

More panda facts! Pandas spend 10.5% of their time playing, 35.5% of their time eating and a whopping 54% of their time sleeping!

88.8% of houses purchased in the UK are second-hand. 86.5% of houses purchased in Japan are brand new.

How’s this for eco-friendly? When Mrs M finishes her shower, I turn off the boiler & have my shower using what’s left in the hot water pipes

Opened a new bank account for baby M Jr today & got 2 free gifts: one Anpanman (popular cartoon character) towel and one…box of tin foil?!

Annoyingly, the ledge beneath a standard Japanese blackboard is never quite big enough to accommodate a standard Japanese blackboard eraser.

I always expect something like the Indian monsoon, but rainy season in Japan is a damp squib: no more rain than a typical June in the UK.

One of the 1st years filled 11 pages of his notebook just writing the days of the week, so I left a note telling him to try something else.

Good news: baked beans on sale near our house for 98 yen a can. Bad news: Italian-made baked beans don’t taste quite the same as UK ones.

In 2011 the average age of a woman giving birth to her first child exceeded 30 for the first time in Japanese history.

After years of research and experimentation, I hereby decree that it is much easier to eat salad with chopsticks than with a knife and fork.

Gaw blimey guvnor! Mrs M has discovered Eastenders on YouTube and our married life has gone cockney for the first time in a year and a half!

Last night’s epic thunderstorm started at 6 and was still going strong when we went to bed at 11

Number of people in Japan reported to have damaged their eyesight while looking at the solar eclipse: 100+

Little known motoring-related trivia factoid: Mazda – as in the brand of car – should actually be pronounced Matsuda

Note to self: Coco = curry house, Coco! = convenience store, Coco’s = family restaurant

It’s official: proper hay fever medicine is only available on prescription in Japan – the over-the-counter stuff is pricey and ineffective

Most preposterous looking DVD found at local video shop: ‘Soccer Dog’ (they even had the sequel in stock: ‘Soccer Dog 2: European Cup’)

In Japan, a flat-head screwdriver is called a ‘minus screwdriver’ and a Phillips is called a ‘plus’ – think about it…pretty clever, eh?

Longest highway bus route in Japan – 1162km / 15hrs (Saitama to Fukuoka) / longest normal bus route – 167km / 6.5hrs (in Nara / Wakayama)

In true Japanese style I’m 1) not going to use up my paid holiday entitlement this year and 2) not going to get paid for the leftover days

In Japan this year, the popularity of electric bicycles is set to overtake that of motorbikes and scooters combined – 400,000+ sold in 2011.

Contents of emergency supply boxes in Tokyo elevators in case they get stuck between floors: water, food, temp. toilet and…playing cards?!

Never let it be said that teachers and students are poorly fed – highest number of calories in a school lunch this month: 907 / lowest: 702

Some words of jazz wisdom: ‘A genius is the one most like himself’ (Thelonious Monk)

Amusingly enough, here in Japan ‘Being John Malkovich’ was called 「マルコビッチの穴」- ‘Malkovich’s Hole’

Last week our junior high baseball club broke the world marathon record…sort of: all 20 members ran 200m at a time in a 42km-long relay

It won’t be long before we need Jamie Oliver to fly in and rescue us: today’s school lunch included – gulp – the dreaded chicken nuggets…

80% of students studying Japanese in Japan – including myself – learn from volunteers, not professionals

Interesting panda fact: baby pandas in captivity have to be ‘burped’ after feeding, just like baby humans

My local video shop has a copy of Pasolini’s ‘120 Days Of Sodom’ – not quite sure who’s going to rent that one in a small country town…

It may surprise you to know that judo is by far the most dangerous martial art in Japan – 114 deaths over the past 25 years.

Results of annual health check (free for public employees): high cholesterol, low white blood cell count, but on the plus side, no cancer!

It pains me to have to teach words like ‘Italy’ in my English lessons when the Japanese pronunciation – ‘イタリア / Italia’ – is more accurate

Just acquired some authentically non-designer jeans – no text or branding at all apart from ‘high quality guaranteed’ on the fly button

Surprising fossil-fuel related statistic: Japan imports more coal than any other country in the world, including China.

Here’s a fax that won’t land on my desk very often: ‘Warning – wild monkeys spotted in the vicinity – do not approach or make eye contact’

What is it with winter clothing and artificial fibres? Am currently generating enough static electricity to power a medium-sized town.

I assume I’m not the first person to get bored while driving an automatic and switch from using my right foot to my left?

Fewer Japanese schoolchildren – 41% – have respect for their teachers than in any other country in the world

Chilly apartment? Frosty mornings? Cold bicycle seat? No heater in the bathroom? Yes, it’s goodbye summer, hello haemorrhoids!

Slightly worrying animal fact: guide dogs are colour blind and therefore can’t tell the difference between a green and a red traffic light

Useful household tip: the secret ingredient for removing stickers from CD cases, windows, pets etc isn’t white spirit, it’s WD40

CEOs of major Japanese companies earn 16 times more on average than their employees. CEOs of major UK companies earn 88 times more.

Landlord at our apartment last night to deal with a very British dispute: downstairs neighbour angry that a car was parked in ‘his’ space

Saw Inception last night & thought it’d be fun to summarise the plot in a Tweet: so there’s this bloke, right, and, er…actually, forget it

Had a dinner party on Friday where all 4 of us turned up wearing hoodies – symbol of disaffected youth, iconic fashion item, or both…?

UK Border Agency has lost paperwork pertaining to over 120,000 visa applications – is it just me or is that staggeringly incompetent?

7 months after emigrating, the time has come to stop reading the BBC sport page – after all, how much obscure snooker news do I really need?

If you hang your futon over the balcony for a couple of hours on a sunny morning, it’ll still be warm when you go to bed in the evening.

A 3-metre deep / 20-metre square hole recently appeared near our apartment and was promptly filled in again. I’m thinking nuclear waste…

Just taught a class where I was the only one in a room full of thirty people not wearing a surgical mask, which was somewhat disconcerting.

Epidemic of whooping cough (百日咳 / lit. ‘100-day cough’) is sweeping the school – not v.good news for the singing festival this Saturday…

Apparently there’s a word in Japanese for ‘the day after the day after tomorrow’ (明々後日) – how pointless and at the same time marvellous

In rankings for TOEFL (exam to measure English language ability), Japan is 135th out of 164 countries worldwide and 27th out of 30 in Asia.

Have now realised that deliberately cycling over fallen leaves so they make a crunching sound is just as satisfying as walking over them

You know an English lesson is going downhill when your fellow teacher makes the dyslexic student read a dialogue in front of the whole class

Note to self: particularly when there’s a typhoon, try not to leave your mobile phone on a pile of newspapers outside the back door.

You know an English lesson is going downhill when your fellow teacher asks you to sing We Are The World solo in front of 30+ students…

You know an English lesson is going downhill when your fellow teacher mis-spells the word ‘Octber’ when writing the date on the blackboard.

Correct answer to ‘jumbled sentences’ exam question: What do you have for breakfast? More intriguing answer: What do you have breakfast for?

Two extracts from the same student’s homework (task: to write about their weekend): “I got up at sex. I had lunch about one at homo.”

Newsflash: Applicant for Level 1 of Japanese Proficiency Test mistakenly marks 東北 as desired exam location on application form instead of 関東

I’m not saying that I work in the sticks, but of the 21 teachers at my school, 7 have the kanji for ‘rice field’ – 田 – in their surnames.

You know an English lesson is going downhill when your fellow teacher produces the dreaded Pronoun Wall Chart…

Since April this year my junior high students have grown 1.8cm taller and 0.3kg heavier (average across 1st, 2nd & 3rd yrs / 12-15 yrs old)

Hurrah! Family-size packs of Choco Pie are back on sale at the supermarket! (The factory must be back in action again after the quake.)

No. of school dinners to be served this month: 20 / No. of school dinners containing meat: 19 / Not the best news for a semi-vegetarian…

At last, the Japan tree stats you’ve been waiting for! Tallest tree in Japan: 63m high! Thickest tree in Japan: 24.2m circumference!

Average temp in Mito, Ibaraki in 1897: 12.4 degrees C / in 2010: 13.8 degrees C / Annual rainfall in 1897: 1498ml / in 2010: 1298ml

Inter-racial marriages in Japan 1965: approx 5000 per annum / 2011: approx 50,000 per annum / Inter-racial marriages ending in divorce: 50%+

New fastest time for junior high school disaster evacuation drill: 2 mins 20 secs

Average intake of vegetables in Japan 20 years ago: 111kg per person per annum. Average intake of vegetables in Japan now: 95kg and falling.

According to Japan’s interpretation of the 24-hour clock, 12 midday is 00.00 hrs and 12 midnight is 24.00 hrs, which is frankly confusing.

Japan 1970: green tea made up 70% of all caffeinated drinks consumed. Japan 2009: coffee made up 63.4% of all caffeinated drinks consumed.

Number of mosquito bites sustained this year up until last Friday: approx 3 Number of mosquito bites sustained since last Friday: approx 15

Is it just me or is there something odd about the fact that my electric toothbrush takes a full 24 hours to re-charge?

Only just found out that a Japanese player was sent off for a cynical foul in the dying seconds of the final – not very sporting of her!

Most amusing question posed in Junior High School debating contest (aka. Interactive Forum) last Friday: ‘Do you like cockroaches?’

Water temperature in elementary school swimming pool (outdoor / unheated) this week: 29 degrees C

Current maximum daytime temperature in London: 21 degrees. Current minimum night-time temperature in Ibaraki: 23 degrees.

Probability of 6.7-7.2 magnitude quake off Ibaraki coast within 30yrs: 90% Probability of 6.7-7.2 magnitude quake in Tokyo within 30yrs: 70%

1st thing said when I arrived to have lunch with 1st graders (by a girl holding a plastic-wrapped cheese sausage): ‘It looks like a willy!’

No fair-trade chocolate in the supermarket! What am I supposed to do with my middle-class guilt now that I’m living in a class-less society?

I only know this because one of them landed in the playground the other day, but ‘air ambulance’ in Japanese is ‘doctor heli’.

Latest ‘only in Japan’ fact: children here are encouraged to say hello to the people they meet when on the way to and from school.

Official stats from headmaster: all junior high students do 500-plus hours of after-school club activities every year (excl. PE lessons!)

Time spent cycling last Saturday: 6 hrs. Time spent cycling in dry but overcast conditions: 2 hrs. Time spent cycling in pouring rain: 4 hrs

You know you’re getting old when…trousers with an elasticated waistband start to look both practical and aesthetically pleasing.

Why is it that noisy neighbours always play crap music? I’ve never, for example, been kept awake at night by John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

New favourite pastime / ‘only in Japan’ experience: watching all the teachers clean their teeth in the staff room after lunch

Distance sea bed moved at epicentre of 11th March earthquake: 24 metres

Just realised this is where I used to park my car before a night out http://s.webry.info/sp/bestof.at.webry.info/201103/article_31.html

Target time for staff and students to fully evacuate school building during earthquake drill: 3mins. Current record time: 3mins 19secs.

Newsflash: Sound engineer of ten years’ experience puts CD in CD player wrong way up and has to ask school secretary for assistance!

So farewell then my North Face jacket, after nearly a decade of faithful service. You always kept me dry, and yet I only washed you once…

Current favourite pastime: watching the Coffeemate dissolve in my afternoon cuppa. It’s quite hypnotic, you know.

Japan: the country where you can say to your partner, ‘Did the earth move for you, darling?’ and mean it literally.

Best thing about the Royal Wedding by some distance: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s eyebrows!

Money spent at local 100 yen shop since moving into new apartment: approx. 10,000 yen. That’s 100-plus items of useless plastic crap!

Lesson learned from yesterday’s shopping trip: assembling flat-pack furniture in Japan is just as infuriating as it is in the UK.

Stopped at a zebra crossing today for a school kid – after crossing, he gave a bow to us and another car that had stopped – only in Japan!

Cost of 1 x packet Dorset Cereals muesli from food import shop in Mito, Ibaraki: 847 JPY (approx. 6 GBP)

Number of students so far who have done their 自己紹介 (ie. introduced themselves to me personally) during English lessons: approx. 180

Previous record for no. of earthquakes in Ibaraki during one calendar year: 345. No. of earthquakes in Ibaraki during the past month: 400+

Quake, hail, lightning, torrential rain, aftershocks – yesterday was so much like a disaster movie I half expected John Cusack to turn up

Time taken between double-clicking Firefox icon on workplace PC laptop and Firefox actually starting up: approx. 3 minutes.

Satisfaction at buying new shirt for 490 yen: inversely proportionate to mood when contemplating pay and conditions of orphan who made it.

Last night’s aftershock was big enough to have finished school, left home and become a fully independent earthquake in its own right.

Most convenient aspect of new employment contract terms and conditions: wearing of necktie not compulsory.

Some people say that 140 characters isn’t enough space to properly describe what’s going on in the world, but I think that’s a load of rubbi

I tried to write an incredibly concise and articulate tweet that summed up exactly what was going on in my life, but sadly I ran out of spac

Number of times Mrs M has written our names and address on various forms (apt, mobile, car, bank acc, etc, etc) in past week: approx. 236

Distance Japan’s east coast has moved towards USA: between 2 and 5 metres. Distance Japan’s east coast has sunk into Pacific: approx. 75cm.

Cost of 3-bed flatshare in SW London: approx. 1600 GBP per month. Cost of 1-bed flat in Hitachi-ohmiya, Ibaraki: approx. 350 GBP per month.

Exchange rate in June 2007: 1 GBP = approx. 250 JPY. Exchange rate in March 2011: 1 GBP = approx. 130 JPY.

Time elapsed from entering doctor’s office (no appointment) to leaving with full results of medical check-up (including x-ray): 45 mins.

Length of queue at nearby petrol station last Wednesday: approx. 1.5km. Length of queue at nearby petrol station today: approx. 200m.

Average earthquake frequency under normal circumstances: once a fortnight. Average earthquake frequency at present: once an hour.

Sleepless in Ibaraki – Part 3

This was originally written as a guest post for my good friend James at ALT Insider, and is re-posted here with his permission.

My battle with insomnia and depression had dragged on for the best part of nine months, and it was with no particular optimism that I followed the recommendation – from a fellow sufferer of both – to try something called Sleepio. Developed by a team of experts in the field of sleep problems, as well as being a mobile app, Sleepio is an online course in something called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It isn’t cheap – 400 USD for the initial six-week course, along with a year of follow-up advice as a member of the Sleepio community – but it has finally enabled me to regain control of my life, and perhaps most importantly, to quit taking medication to help me sleep.

The basic, and deceptively simple, principle behind Sleepio is this: because insomniacs spend so much time in bed, stressed out and unable to get to sleep, we develop a negative mental association with our beds and with our bedrooms. In order to rid ourselves of this association, Sleepio users are advised, through various different methods, to maximise the time we spend in bed asleep, and to minimise the time we spend in bed awake, something that is referred to in the programme as ‘sleep efficiency’.

So during the first two weeks of the course, I completed a sleep diary detailing what time I got into bed (or rather, futon), what time I actually got to sleep, how often I woke during the night and for how long, what time I woke up in the morning, and what time I got out of bed. From analysing these statistics, Sleepio’s virtual Professor – a kind of animated, automated version of the programme’s founder, Professor Colin Espie – then gave me a so-called ‘sleep window’, based on the amount of time I spent asleep as opposed to the amount of time I spent in bed.

In my case, the average time I spent asleep during that first fortnight was about five hours and forty-five minutes, and for the third week of the course I was given a sleep window of six hours. This may seem fairly generous, but there was a catch, namely that even if I couldn’t get to sleep or woke for a period of time during that six hours, come what may, I still had to get out of bed at the same time in the morning, and no matter how tired I was the following evening, I was not allowed to get into bed again until the start time of my allotted sleep window.

Getting up at five a.m. every day – even on weekends – may seem counterintuitive, even counterproductive, but the incredible thing was that after a couple of weeks of getting even less sleep than usual, it slowly started to work. Essentially, I became so tired during the day that I was more likely to get to sleep naturally at night, something that, in another example of Sleepio jargon, is called ‘sleep restriction’.

Things were progressing so well that having started the course in early February, towards the end I began a run of thirty-four straight days without needing medication. Possibly because I became complacent and started to disregard my sleep window, possibly because some relatives from the UK came to stay and our household was busier than usual, and possibly because of biorhythms or pure bad luck, that run came to an end, and my problem was that on a bad night I still needed medication to get me to sleep (or rather I felt that I did, and didn’t have the courage to test whether I really would end up staying awake all night if I refused it). Then, over the following weeks, the thing I had been dreading the most began to happen: the zolpidem stopped working.

For the best part of a year, 10mg had been guaranteed to work if I was lying awake at two in the morning, anxious that I wouldn’t be able to function if I stayed that way until the children woke me up or my alarm went off. When I took a tablet, within a few minutes I would feel a tingling sensation in my limbs, along with a kind of warm, fuzzy feeling in my head and chest, and the next thing I knew it would be morning. No dreams, no getting up to go to the toilet, just three or four hours of deep, knocked-out sleep.

The friend who recommended Sleepio had warned me that as well as being addictive, zolpidem has a tendency to lose its effectiveness, and it was ironic this should happen when I was taking it less often than at any point during the previous year. Over two nights in June 2017 I took 15 and then 20mg instead of the usual 10, and came down with a mild case of heatstroke (熱中症 / necchushoh). In the heat and high humidity of a Japanese summer, heatstroke claims the lives of as many as a thousand people annually. In early June, though, the weather wasn’t that hot, and nor had I taken any strenuous exercise or drank fewer liquids than usual, so the extra zolpidem had apparently dehydrated me (its effects were, I couldn’t help noticing, similar to that of ecstasy, whose most obvious side effect is dehydration). The following week I took two more doses of 20mg, and on the morning after the second of these, felt not just guilty about the fact I had resorted to taking zolpidem, but depressed, too.

Because he had just graduated from university, the JTE in charge of second grade classes was keen to delegate as much of his workload to me as possible, and for the most part I didn’t mind the arrangement. There could be times, however, when I didn’t necessarily get the help that I needed in keeping the students quiet, explaining what they were supposed to do, or guiding them during an activity. That day I was to teach fifth period, and was already on edge as we began a speaking activity I had prepared. Most of the students were either slow on the uptake or paid no attention when I told them what to do, and as the activity progressed, appeared to be neither talking nor moving around the classroom as they were supposed to. At first I tried the sarcastic approach, but when that didn’t work, I lost my temper, slammed my hand down on the lectern at the front of the classroom and shouted at them. I was sweating and twitchy, in what felt like a cross between a panic attack and a drugs comedown. Nothing as severe as this should be triggered by a couple of nights of poor sleep, so the culprit was clearly zolpidem.

That day I resolved never to take zolpidem again, or indeed any other drug to help me sleep. Despite plenty of bad nights since – including a couple like that very first one way back in May 2016 when I didn’t sleep at all – the depression has gone, and as time has passed, I have finally been able to enjoy being a father again.

An interesting irony is that since I began keeping a diary for Sleepio at the beginning of 2016, the average amount of time I sleep each night has remained at a constant five hours and forty-five minutes. By spending less time in bed awake, however, my ‘sleep efficiency’ has improved. Also, I now sleep more soundly and am less likely to wake if, for example, it is noisy. The main change, however, has been in my attitude. This time last year, if I only slept for three or four hours I would feel a sense of failure, and that the whole next day was a write-off, during which I would neither enjoy myself nor accomplish anything worthwhile. Now, though, I can stay positive even after a bad night, and convince myself that the following day won’t be a disaster.

Not that I would necessarily choose them as role models, but luminaries such as Donald Trump, Margaret Thatcher, Madonna and Napoleon apparently get – or got – by on just four hours’ sleep a night, and I suspect there are many more people out there who if they cannot sleep do not dwell on it, but instead get up and do something constructive (or for that matter, even pointless) with their nocturnal ‘bonus hours’.

Furthermore, it seems to me that insomnia is like alcoholism, in that once you have it, you are stuck with it for life. As I write, it has been a year and nine months since mine began, and even now I have, on average, a night or two a week when I cannot get to sleep straight away. As far as possible I try to stick to the Sleepio rules, including the so-called ‘quarter hour rule’ – aka ‘QHR’ – which states that if you are unable to get to sleep for period of more than fifteen minutes, you should get out of bed and do something else: in my case so-called ‘progressive relaxation’, a yogic breathing exercise called pranayama, listening to guided meditation videos on YouTube or sleep inducing apps like Pzizz, and occasionally even going for a walk or a drive in the early hours of the morning.

A very wise man once told me that you’ll never find a girlfriend if you’re looking for a girlfriend – in other words, romance comes along when you’re working towards a completely unrelated goal – and as time goes on, I have begun to see that the same rule applies to insomnia. So last spring I began taking a camera with me on my evening walks, and have amassed several hundred photographs since, some of which illustrate these guest posts. As well as reigniting my long-dormant creativity (I stopped writing the Muzuhashi blog a couple of years ago), the photography also gave me a goal to aim for other than that of overcoming insomnia: in this case to take some decent photographs, post them online, and get some (hopefully) positive feedback. The next thing on my to-do list was Movember, and in January I drew up a list of New Year’s resolutions that should keep me both busy and motivated for at least the remainder of 2018.

I would love to have been able to write this post in the past tense, as evidence that the insomnia is behind me. Sadly I cannot, but I have come to realise that the most important thing I have achieved is to accept it as a part of my life. In an ideal world I would also like to be able to quit my job and become a freelance translator, but because I know how much pressure that would put on me, for the moment it will have to wait. So for the past few months I have been trying to develop a more positive attitude to being an ALT. Sure, the work can be monotonous at times, or too easy. I can be undervalued, underappreciated and underused. But the wages are respectable and the hours are short, the people I work with are friendly, and even if it is only occasionally (remember, these are self-conscious teenagers we’re talking about, not genki elementary school kids), I do get a positive reaction from my students. My job also gives me time to write posts like this, holiday in the UK with my family, and study Japanese. As long as Kim Jong-un doesn’t combine with Donald Trump to start World War III, there are also many things to be thankful for about living in Japan, a first-world country where the vending machines work, the toilet seats are heated and the trains run on time.

So there’s a happy ending to my story, but what if you find yourself in a similar situation, a long way from home and with no one to turn to for help?

Sleepless in Ibaraki – Part 4

This was originally written as a guest post for my good friend James at ALT Insider, and is re-posted here with his permission.

While my insomnia and subsequent depression were triggered by a combination of factors – moving house, my daughter throwing up in the middle of the night, the kanji test, our upcoming trip to the UK, dissatisfaction with my job as an ALT, the conflict of interest that arose from trying to work my way into translating while still holding down a full-time job – the underlying causes were perhaps different.

No matter how much I studied, my Japanese stubbornly refused (and still does refuse) to become fluent, which left me isolated, and even when I was communicating with the people around me, stuck in a rut of superficial small talk. Furthermore, my desire to raise bilingual children by only speaking to them in English, pretending not to understand should they speak Japanese to me, and not speaking Japanese to other people when they are present, has isolated me to an even greater extent than the average foreign parent in Japan. (The mere fact of becoming a father was, I believe, another contributing factor to my psychological instability: having children carries with it a great deal of responsibility, and has reminded me of incidents and emotions from my own childhood that I might prefer to forget.)

On a more mundane level, I found myself irritated by certain aspects of life here. For example, I had a long list of gripes about Japanese drivers, who jump red lights, overtake parked cars when there is traffic approaching on the opposite side of the road, fail to indicate before making a turn, crawl along in the middle or outside lane, leave their engines running in car parks, or leave their air conditioning on with the windows wound down. This kind of thing may seem trivial, but I spent a disproportionate amount of time complaining to Mrs M, or honking my horn and hurling abuse at other motorists if they did something that I viewed as being particularly idiotic.

I’m sure readers of this blog have similar pet hates – the endless form-filling and waiting in line required to get a visa or a gaijin card, for example, or the poorly heated apartments with paper-thin walls and single-glazed windows – and while I don’t claim to have a secret formula for dealing with them, something that changed my attitude was the realisation that culture shock isn’t a hatred of the country in which you live, but rather, a love of the country where you grew up.

Also, I am far from being the first expat to have difficulty coping with life in Japan. An acquaintance of mine couldn’t handle the pressures of fatherhood, and disappeared back to America never to be seen again, leaving his partner to bring up their young son by herself. Having broken up with his girlfriend, an ALT in my wife’s hometown let his personal life unravel to the point where he hardly left his apartment, which was in a state of complete squalor. And a friend of mine who works in recruitment has dealt with ALTs who have become alcoholics, suffered from paranoid delusions, thrown furniture from their balconies and bricks through shop windows, or simply stopped going to work – gaijin hikikomori, if you will. But if for whatever reason you find that life in Japan is overwhelming you, what should you do about it?

It may sound obvious, but your first option is of course to quit and go home. When I first lived in Japan I worked for an English conversation school in Tokyo, and due to a combination of factors – culture shock, a relationship break-up, noisy neighbours, overwork and disreputable employers – I became so unhappy that I seriously considered hopping on a cheap flight and heading back to the UK. Partly out of pride, and partly because something told me that I shouldn’t give up just yet, I stuck it out, began trawling the small ads, and within a few months had a better job, better employers, quieter neighbours and, most important of all, had met Mrs M. I’m not necessarily saying that you should force yourself to stay on no matter what, but it is quite likely that even if you are having a tough time, you feel the same way that I did, namely that deep down, you don’t want to give up on your dream of living and working in Japan. Also, it may be the case that even if you wanted to, returning home is not an option – for example, if you have work commitments, a wife and kids, or a husband and kids.

Men in particular – and I would freely admit to being guilty of this myself – have a tendency to keep things bottled up, but the first thing you should always do if you’re feeling depressed is to talk to someone. Your new mates in the nearest gaijin pub aren’t a bad place to start, but as well as the fact that you may not want to confess all to them, they probably haven’t known you for very long. The next best thing to going home, therefore, is to talk to the people you left behind.

Like a lot of expats, particularly during the first couple of years I lived here, I almost made a point of ignoring my friends and relatives. This was partly because I thought it would help me integrate into Japanese society, and partly because I felt obliged to make new friends. When I was in the UK, I would typically see or talk to at least one friend or relative a week, but in Japan this plummeted to more like once every couple of months. Emails and Facebook are all very well, but much like the difference between reading a Japanese textbook and talking to a real-life Japanese person, there really is no substitute for a proper conversation. So particularly following our visit to the UK in the summer of 2016, I vowed to have more direct contact with my friends and relatives there, and have since talked to people I had been out of touch with for years at a time, in places as far flung as Sweden, Spain, Canada and New Zealand. Way back in the mists of time, this would have necessitated an expensive and / or logistically inconvenient phone call (as anyone who remembers Smart Pit and the Brastel card will tell you). But as well as being able to talk to pretty much anyone in the world for free (or rather, for the price of a broadband / mobile connection) via Skype, FaceTime or Messenger, nowadays even calling real-life telephones via the internet is cheap. At the time of writing, for example, I can call a UK mobile phone for just 6p a minute from Skype, something which has enabled me to reach even my more technophobic friends.

As such, if you need someone to talk to, you could call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US or the Samaritans in the UK, organisations which are, I assume, unlikely to discriminate against someone merely because they live abroad. Even if your Japanese isn’t up to the task of describing the finer points of your mental state, there are some English-speaking counsellors and therapists in Japan – for example, at Tokyo Mental Health and Tokyo Counseling Services. A word of warning, however: their services don’t come cheap, and nor will counsellors and therapists in your home country – for instance, my Skype sessions with a therapist in the UK cost 50 GBP a time. Fortunately, if you either cannot or do not want to spend large sums of money, there is the TELL Lifeline, a free telephone service from an organisation that also offers face-to-face counselling.

As Liam Carrigan points out in his Gaijin Pot article, the question of whether or not you should talk to your employer is a tricky one. The cowboy conversation school I worked for in Tokyo was unlikely to have helped if I told them I was depressed, but the school managers I saw on a daily basis were some of my closest friends at the time, and would, I suspect, have proven both sympathetic and trustworthy. I felt much the same way about my colleagues at the dispatch company through which I first worked as an ALT, and now that I’ve moved on to being direct hire, it so happens that my supervisor at the board of education is an English teacher with whom I already had a good working relationship. On condition that she keep it to herself, I told her about my problems, and as well as a sympathetic ear, received some useful advice (a friend of hers had recently recovered from a similar brush with insomnia, medication and psychiatric treatment).

Whatever you do, though, the most important thing is to not bottle up your feelings. Communicating the fact that you are depressed to another human being is the first step along the way to overcoming it, and it is important to emphasise the fact that no matter how hopeless you may feel, if you seek help and work hard at trying to find a solution, things will get better. Not only that, but in my experience, you may emerge on the other side as a better person. Having found myself in a place that felt like rock bottom, I have learned to appreciate the good things in life, to be more considerate to the people around me, and to be more positive about my job, Japan, my family and the future.

The Junior High School Year

This was originally written as a guest post for my good friend James at ALT Insider, and is re-posted here with his permission.

Particularly when you’ve just become an ALT, being thrust with only the bare minimum of training into a Japanese state school can be thoroughly disorientating. You won’t be informed of many things in advance, so the purpose of this post is to tell you what is likely to take place during the course of a typical school year, what to do when it does, which events are worthy of further investigation, and which are frankly tedious and to be avoided at all costs.

Along the way you may also find out how to earn some brownie points with your superiors, stay one step ahead of your teaching colleagues, and perhaps most important of all, know when you’re most likely to be able to relax in the staff room and watch cat videos.

In other words – and to paraphrase the ALT Insider Mission Statement™ – I want to help you enjoy your time as an ALT and your time in Japan.

The Basics

First off, a few things about junior high school life which may be relevant to the information that follows

1. Schedule

Most of you will receive a schedule detailing which lessons you are to teach with your JTE, but this schedule is subject to change, often at the last minute.

The first thing that’s worth knowing is that most schools have an A schedule and a B schedule (A日課, B日課 / Aにっか・Bにっか / A-nikka, B-nikka, or sometimes 通常日課・特別日課 / つうじょうにっか・とくべつにっか / tsuujoh-nikka, tokubetsu-nikka), the former being a normal school day of six 50-minute classes, and the latter being one of six 45-minute classes. The B schedule can come into play for any number of reasons, for example when there’s a special event of some sort, or when the students go home earlier than usual.

There will be a blackboard in the staff room on which this kind of information is posted, along with which teachers are going on business trips (出張 / しゅっちょう / shucchoh – it could be that one of your JTEs has a meeting or a seminar, meaning you’ll be free and easy), and whether or not today’s schedule has been swapped for another’s – for example, if it’s Tuesday but the blackboard says, ‘月曜日課’ (げつようびにっか / getsuyohbi-nikka), that means you should refer to your schedule for Monday.

There will also be a blackboard or whiteboard outside the staff room for the benefit of the students, on which you should keep an eye out for timetable changes (授業変更 / じゅぎょうへんこう / jugyoh-henkoh) – for example, when one of your English classes has been swapped for a different subject.

2. Day off in lieu (振替休業日 / ふりかえきゅうぎょうじつ / furikaé-kyuh-gyoh-jitsu)

While the workload of a typical ALT is almost ridiculously light, you will sometimes be expected to work on a Saturday. The good news is that if you do, you’ll get the following Monday off.

Saturday work days typically occur on open days, sports day, the culture festival, and in other exceptional circumstances, such as when a school trip takes place on a weekend, and those students and teachers who aren’t involved work a Saturday so that everyone in the school gets the Monday off.

If you’re a dispatch company ALT, you may get both the Saturday and Monday off, thereby leaving you with a three-day weekend. On the other hand, if you’re direct hire and don’t go to work on the Saturday with everyone else – either by accident or by design – you’ll probably have to take a day’s paid holiday for the privilege.

3. Packed lunch (お弁当 / おべんとう / obentoh)

If you have to work on a Saturday, or occasionally when the students go home early on a weekday – for example after the entrance ceremony or the graduation ceremony – you won’t be served any lunch. Your options in this case are to:

i) Bring your own (either one you’ve bought on the way to school, or perhaps some magical creation you woke at 4am to conjure up, and which features the face of Doraemon rendered in nori seaweed, sausages cut into baby octopus shapes, vegetables arranged to look like the cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro etc.).

ii) Pop to the shops and buy one (although be warned, as some vice-principals may not look kindly on their ALT leaving the premises, even for such an apparently legitimate reason).

iii) Pay for one of the bento boxes the teachers will be ordering (these are usually 5 or 600 yen, but can be more expensive – for example, I once parted with the best part of 1000 yen for a handmade sushi platter delivered from a local restaurant).


If there’s one thing the Japanese – and by implication, Japanese institutions such as schools, boards of education and local authorities – like more than anything else, it’s a good, old fashioned ceremony, and while some can be culturally enlightening, others are tedious to the point where you will be falling asleep on your feet as you look on, half freezing to death in the mid-winter chill of a dark and draughty gymnasium.

1. Entrance ceremony for new students (入学式 / にゅうがくしき / nyuugaku-shiki)

When I was a lad, for my first day at a new school I simply turned up, sat down in the designated classroom with my new homeroom teacher and classmates, and got on with the day. Not so here in Japan, where first graders on their first day march into the gym, as their names are announced by their new homeroom teacher and their parents look on.

Interest rating: 3/5
When does it happen? A weekday in early April.
How long does it last? A couple of hours in the morning.
Do I have to go? Yes if you’re at school that day.
What should I wear? A suit, shirt and tie if you’re male / something similarly formal if you’re female.

2. Graduation ceremony (卒業式 / そつぎょうしき / sotsugyoh-shiki)

At the opposite end of the academic year, this is when the students in the top grade say goodbye to their school, their teachers and their classmates. The main part of the ceremony involves each student in turn being called to the stage and handed their certificate of graduation by the principal, but there will also be speeches, songs (sung by the outgoing students to those they’ll be leaving behind and by ongoing students to the seniors to whom they’re saying goodbye) and tears all round – in fact, I defy even the most hard-hearted ALT not to shed a tear or two during a graduation ceremony.

Interest rating: 5/5
When does it happen? A weekday in mid-March.
How long does it last? Most of the morning.
Do I have to go? Yes if you’re at school that day, but even if you’re not scheduled to be, you should make the effort and ask either your JTE, vice-principal or dispatch company if it’s OK to attend.
What should I wear? A suit, shirt and tie if you’re male / something similarly formal if you’re female (the female homeroom teachers, incidentally, often wear kimonos).

3. Beginning / end of term ceremonies (始業式・終業式・修了式 / しぎょうしき・しゅうぎょうしき・しゅうりょうしき / shigyohshiki, shuugyohshiki, shuuryohshiki)

Opening and closing ceremonies are little more than formalities, and as a consequence probably the least interesting in the school year. First of all, representatives from each grade, and sometimes a member of the student council, will take to the stage to talk about what they hope to achieve in the coming term (hand in their homework on time, practice harder for their club activity, speak English to their ALT etc.). These speeches are pretty generic, as is the one that follows from the school principal, which is often illustrated with a reference to a Japanese saying, a recent news event, or a historical figure. Once the school song has been sung and the official business is over, one of the teachers will talk to the students about what to be aware of – or beware of – during the coming term or during the coming holiday. This may be to take care when riding their bicycles in the snow, not talk to strangers on their smart phones, or refrain from swimming in the nearby river / lake / storm drain.

Interest rating: 1/5
When does it happen? The first and last weekday morning of each of the three terms during the school year.
How long does it last? About an hour.
Do I have to go? Yes if you’re at school that day.
What should I wear? Some schools will require you to dress formally, while others won’t mind if you turn up in normal work clothes.

4. Introduction to club activities (部活動紹介 / ぶかつどうしょうかい / bukatsudoh-shohkai)

Until they graduate from elementary school, Japanese children have it pretty easy (although most of them will already be doing a couple of after-school classes and clubs by this point – things like piano lessons, hip-hop dancing, soccer youth teams etc.), but the larger part of their three years at middle school will be arguably the busiest of their lives, as almost without exception, they join a club, from thereon in practicing for a couple of hours almost every single day of the year, usually after school and at weekends, but sometimes in the morning before lessons begin – and that’s not even including tournaments or practice matches. So the decision as to which club to join is important – in some cases life-changing – and the introduction to club activities as enlightening for a newbie ALT as it is for a fresh-faced first grader.

Essentially, what happens is that everyone gathers in the gym, and the existing members of each club demonstrate what they do and urge the first graders to join up. Team sports can get fairly chaotic, as baseballs and basketballs fly around in all directions, but martial arts such as kendo and judo are perhaps more interesting, and even the demos for music and art clubs can be worth watching if the existing members aren’t – as is sometimes the case – painfully shy.

Interest rating: 3/5
When does it happen? A weekday in April.
How long does it last? An hour or two in the afternoon.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

5. Rousing send-off (壮行会 / そうこうかい / sohkohkai)

If there’s anything that could be said to be unique about the Japanese school year, it’s the sohkohkai, a word that I have unilaterally decided to translate as ‘rousing send-off’. Sohkohkai take place in the days before big sports tournaments (of which more later), and at first are nothing to write home about, as the members of each club talk about how motivated they are and how their aim is to make it to the second round / final / regional tournament etc.

For the second part of the ceremony, however, a group of students who won’t be taking part in the tournament in question suddenly run into the room wearing hachimaki (鉢巻 / はちまき / Japanese-style bandanas) and white gloves, as one of their number beats time on a bass drum. They will then line up in formation and yell words of encouragement to each club team in turn, while at the same time performing a series of arm-waving gestures rather like those guys you see at airports directing planes to and from the gates. The overall effect is unmistakeably militaristic, and as I recently discovered, sohkohkai took place during WWII before troops set off for the frontline. It has to be said that depending on the school, some sohkohkai are more impressive than others, but for sheer novelty value, I would recommend that you witness one for yourself.

Interest rating: 4/5
When does it happen? Usually in mid-June and mid-September.
How long does it last? An hour or so on a weekday afternoon.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

6. Welcoming ceremony for new teachers (新人式 / しんじんしき / shinjinshiki)

This takes place before the first term has properly begun, and as such is probably the most relaxed ceremony of all. As a rule, teachers in Japan work at a particular school for about six years, before being placed in their next teaching position fairly arbitrarily by BOEs, who reshuffle their pack of staff cards at the beginning of each school year. So during the welcoming ceremony, teachers who’ve been allocated to work at a particular school will introduce themselves in front of their new colleagues, and perhaps more importantly, the students will learn who is to be their homeroom teacher for the year, and who will take charge of their club activities (usually a coach and deputy coach for each). Because classes haven’t yet begun, the chances are you may not be at school for this, but if you are, you’ll probably be expected to line up at the front of the gym with the other teachers and introduce yourself.

Interest rating: 2/5
When does it happen? A weekday in early April.
How long does it last? An hour or so in the morning.
Do I have to go? Yes if you’re at school that day.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

7. Ceremony for departing teachers (辞任式・辞令式・離任式 / じにんしき・じれいしき・りにんしき / ji-ninshiki, ji-reishiki, ri-ninshiki)

I have to admit I’ve only ever been to one of these, but it was rather nice as it was for one of the more competent and genial English teachers I had worked with, and who was not only leaving the school but also retiring. So the students made speeches, sang a song and gave her a bunch of flowers and a present, all in a very informal and spontaneous way.

Interest rating: 2/5
When does it happen? Late March or early April.
How long does it last? An hour or so on a weekday.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

One-off Events

1. Sports day (体育祭 / たいいくさい / tai-ikusai)

You might think that sports day would be enjoyable, but I’ll be honest here and say that it’s the event in the school calendar I dread the most. The main reason for this is that as an ALT I have almost nothing to do from the moment I arrive until the moment I leave, and the highlight for me is helping tidy away the gazebos, chairs and plant pots at the end of the day. Not only that, but everyone else is so preoccupied that they have no time to engage in conversation, and unlike the homeroom teachers, students and their families, having no vested interest in the results – i.e. which student will win a particular race, or which class will win the prize for best in their grade – makes the whole thing thoroughly anticlimactic.

There is one event that may enable you to take an active part in proceedings, and that’s the karibito-kyohsoh or karimono-kyohsoh (借り人競争・借り物競走 / かりびときょうそう・かりものきょうそう), a relay in which the students are directed to find ‘A person wearing glasses’, ‘A maths teacher’, or – and this is where you come in – ‘A person with blonde hair’ or ‘A person from abroad’ to run with. But this respite from the relentless boredom and indifference is all too brief, as even if you do happen to be dragged out of the crowd to run twenty or thirty metres with one of your students, that will be the full extent of your participation, and you’ll soon be dumped back onto the sidelines to twiddle your thumbs and long for the whole thing to come to an end.

A side note: while some school sports days are now held in spring or autumn to avoid the worst of the heat and humidity, they traditionally take place at the beginning of September. As such, and because you will be out of doors from about eight in the morning until two or three in the afternoon, remember to bring a hat and some sunblock.

Interest rating: 1/5
When does it happen? A Saturday in early September.
How long does it last? From approximately 8.30am till 2.30pm.
Do I have to go? If you’re a JET or direct-hire ALT, almost certainly / if you’re a dispatch company ALT, not necessarily.
What should I wear? Sports gear – for example, shorts and t-shirts are perfectly acceptable.

2. Culture festival (文化祭 / ぶんかさい), aka school festival

Besides school trips and sports day, this is the event in the school calendar the students look forward to the most, but much more interesting than the latter, mainly because it incorporates as its main attraction the chorus contest (合唱コンクール / がっしょうこんくうる / gasshoh-konkuuru).

For the chorus contest, each class sings two songs – one they have chosen for themselves and one that every class in their grade sings – and competes against the other classes for first prize (in smaller schools, the classes from all three grades sometimes compete together). The amount of practice the students put in is astonishing – it is not unusual for them to sing a song a hundred times or more in the weeks leading up to the culture festival – and on the day, their performances can be technically brilliant and genuinely moving, not to mention team-orientated, as even the students who either can’t sing or don’t want to have to find their place in the mix.

The sense of relief when it’s all over is palpable, and after lunch, both students and teachers put on a stage show (舞台発表 / ぶたいはっぴょう / butai-happ-yoh), which features dancing, videos, speeches, comedy, quizzes, and more often than not, at least one or two male teachers and students dressing up in women’s clothing.

Interest rating: 4/5
When does it happen? A Saturday in mid-October.
How long does it last? From approximately 8.30am till 4pm.
Do I have to go? If you’re a JET or direct-hire ALT, almost certainly / if you’re a dispatch company ALT, not necessarily, although like the graduation ceremony, this is one of those events that it’s worth giving up some of your free time to attend, if only for the morning.
What should I wear? A suit and tie / formal clothes in the morning, but I’ve found that it’s OK to dress down a little in the afternoon.

3. School trip (修学旅行・校外学習・宿泊学習 / shuugaku-ryokoh, kohgai-gakushuu, shukuhaku-gakushuu)

It is a law decreed since the beginning of time that every third grade middle school student in the entire country shall go to Kyoto on a school trip, and while as an ALT you will not be invited along, what this means is that for three days in late spring there will be no third grade classes to teach, and afterwards you will have to help the students with their homework (more often than not, their challenge for the trip is to grab a foreigner, ask them some questions in English, take their photo and then write about the experience).

The first and second graders will also go on trips, sometimes for the day to a zoo or an aquarium, and sometimes for two or three days to a ski resort – or if they’re really lucky, a theme park – and these, too, will give you ample time to ‘make teaching materials’ in the staff room.

When does it happen? Usually in late spring / early summer.
How long does it last? Three days.
Do I have to go? Sadly you can’t, but since you’re a foreigner in Japan, you’ve already been to Kyoto, right?

4. Sports tournaments

There are two main sports tournaments during the school year. The first is referred to as ‘sohtai’ (総体 / そうたい), which roughly translates as ‘general tournament’, and can feature club members from all three grades. By the time the second comes around – ‘shinjinsen’ (新人戦 / しんじんせん / literally, ‘new people battle’) – the third graders have quit their clubs to concentrate on studying for high school entrance exams (of which more later), leaving newer members (hence the name) with the responsibility of representing their schools.

Basically, this is another opportunity to sit at your desk and surf YouTube. Also, because so many students will be absent during these tournaments, there are often plenty of school lunch leftovers to be had, so now is your chance to scoff two bags of ramen noodles, three tubs of natto, or sixteen kinako-agé-pan, while not having to feel guilty that you may be depriving the students of their fair share.

Particularly if you work at a school with a strong sporting tradition, the various teams will then progress from the initial local tournament (地区大会 / ちくたいかい / chiku-taikai) through the regional one (中央地区大会 / ちゅうおうちくたいかい / chuu-oh chiku-taikai) to the prefectural (県大会 / けんたいかい / kentaikai), and so on and so forth, until if they’re particularly good they make it all the way to the national tournament (全国大会 / ぜんこくたいかい / zenkoku-taikai), all of which leads to further lessons being cancelled due to a lack of students, and further opportunities for you to check Facebook or, er, write guest articles for ALT Insider.

When does it happen? General tournament – mid-June onwards / tournament for new members – late September onwards.
How long does it last? Two or three days / longer if teams progress to the next stages.
Do I have to go? Partly for insurance purposes you’re unlikely to be able to, although I have known ALTs who have been given a ride by one of the teachers to baseball / tennis matches etc.

5. High school entrance exams (入試 / にゅうし / nyuushi)

These aren’t an event as such, but I’m including them here because enabling your students to pass them is your ultimate goal as an ALT. Depressing as it may sound, the most important thing to remember about the English part of an entrance exam is that it involves reading, writing and listening, but no speaking. Plans are afoot to have a speaking element in university entrance exams, with a view, one assumes, to eventually doing the same for the high school version. Also, at the schools where I work, for the past couple of years the second graders have sat a speaking test that involves each student having their voice recorded onto an iPad-style tablet and then computer analysed (you’ll be interested to know that I sat this test masquerading as a student and didn’t get 100%). But the simple fact remains that whether we like it or not, and no matter how many speaking activities we have the students do in our classes, ultimately those same students can get a place at, say, Tokyo University (the Japanese equivalent of Harvard or Oxbridge), with full marks in the English section, but without even being able to utter the immortal words, ‘I’m fine, thank you, and you?’

But anyway, one of your tasks as an ALT is to familiarise yourself with entrance exams: the easier multiple choice questions, the more difficult reading and writing sections, the listening test recordings, and so on (if you can, ask your JTE to show you some past papers – the reading comprehension passages are particularly enlightening, in that they can be very long and often make no sense at all). That way, from the very first time you teach a new first grade class in early April, you’ll be aware of what they need to know to achieve their ultimate goal of getting into high school.

Another important thing to note is that there are two kinds of high school, public (公立 / こうりつ / kohritsu, aka 都立 / 県立 / 道立 / 府立 etc.) and private (私立 / しりつ / shiritsu). The test for public (i.e. state-run) schools is the same for everyone in a particular area, and depending on a student’s score, they will either get into a prestigious high school for brainy kids, or a not-so-prestigious high school for not-so-brainy kids. When it comes to private high schools, however, each makes its own test, with the more prestigious ones setting tougher questions and vice versa.

The public high school entrance exam takes place in early March, and depending on where you are, the results may not be announced until after the graduation ceremony. The private exams, on the other hand, take place in mid-January, with the results announced not long after, so that some third graders already know what high school they will enter by mid-February, and as a consequence can quit studying altogether (the dilemma for parents, though, is that a private high school will cost a lot more to send their child to).

6. Home visits (家庭訪問 / かていほうもん / katei-hohmon)

Another memory from my childhood is what’s known in the UK as the parents’ evening, for which mums and dads go to their child’s school once a year to talk with homeroom and / or subject teachers. In Japan, though, instead of parents going to school, every first grade homeroom teacher personally visits the home of each of their students – i.e. as many as thirty-plus households spread over the school’s catchment area. These visits take place on weekday afternoons in April, and what they mean for us is – yes, you guessed it – some conveniently large chunks of free time. For the homeroom teachers, on the other hand, they mean having to dress in decent clothes for once (as opposed to the tracksuit they usually wear), get lost trying to locate the more hard-to-find homes on their list, drink approximately ten cups of green tea in an afternoon, and eat just as many rice crackers, cookies and cakes (which isn’t so bad when you come to think of it).

7. Parent / student interviews (三者面談 / さんしゃめんだん / sansha-mendan)

As the school year progresses, your interactions with third graders will become even fewer and further between, as they finish the textbook and spend more time revising and taking tests. One sign that their time at middle school is almost over is the parent / student interview, for which – and as opposed to home visits – parents come to the school to discuss which high school(s) their child is aiming to get into. The interviews, which are most likely to happen from about November onwards, will have no direct effect on you as an ALT, but they will grant you yet another opportunity to skive off, as lessons for all grades are often cancelled for several afternoons on the trot.

8. Student exchange (交換留学 / こうかんりゅうがく / kohkan-ryuugaku)

Trips to foreign countries – usually exchanges during which students stay in the home of a local family – are more common in high schools, but if, like me, you happen to work at a junior high school that has one, you should try to take as active a role in the proceedings as possible. In my case, for a week or so every June I act as interpreter for a group of ten students and two teachers from Tennessee, something that involves sightseeing, time on the beach and at the local mall, free meals, origami, calligraphy and the tea ceremony, as well as meet-and-greets with the mayor, head of the board of education, local councillors and so on.

The exchange is also a unique opportunity to organise some English lessons which involve your students conversing (well, attempting to converse) with genuine native speakers, so if a class like this is in the offing, make sure to suggest some fun, communicative activities in advance (this may sound like stating the obvious, but I have on more than one occasion witnessed JTEs do the usual boring, all-Japanese-all-the-time, read-and-repeat English lessons, as American students and / or teachers sit at the back of the classroom, silent and bored).

9. Student council elections (生徒総会 / せいとそうかい / seito-sohkai)

At between twelve and fifteen years old, most of your students – bless their little hearts – are not the best at public speaking, and nor are they likely to turn what is essentially a political event into something fun or showbizzy, so having attended a couple of these in my early years as an ALT, I now make a point of avoiding them.

Interest rating: 1/5
When does it happen? At the beginning of the school year.
How long does it last? A couple of hours on a weekday afternoon.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

10. Guest lecturers (講演会 / こうえんかい / koh-enkai)

A couple of times a year the school will invite guest lecturers to talk to the students on various topics: for example, drug and alcohol abuse or traffic safety. It very much depends on how charismatic – or otherwise – the lecturer is, but if you don’t have something more important to do in the staff room, these can be worth checking out, if only because they make for good Japanese listening practice. I’ve seen lectures that merely involved an old guy reading from a script and clicking through an ineptly produced Powerpoint presentation, but on the other hand, I once attended a lecture by a woman whose son had committed suicide – not easy listening, for sure, but a fascinating insight into an aspect of Japanese society that isn’t normally discussed.

Interest rating: 2/5
How long does it last? An hour or two on a weekday afternoon.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

Regular events

1. Open day (授業参観 / じゅぎょうさんかん / jugyoh-sankan)

This is another one of those times when you will (probably) be expected to go to work on a Saturday, and then (probably) get the following Monday off. It’s also one of the very few times in the school year that your JTE will go all-out to create a super-duper, activity-filled English class, producing all kinds of laminated flashcards, complicated worksheets, full-colour posters, slideshows, and so on and so forth.

The day itself will start off ordinarily enough, with a normal morning of four classes and probably a bento lunch, but as the afternoon and fifth period approach, parents, grandparents, and siblings will start to arrive, and will be standing at the back of the classroom or milling around in the corridor when the class begins. Once fifth period is over you can relax and quite possibly go home early, as everyone else will disappear to take part in a PTA meeting.

As well as one or two open days during the course of the school year, there will also be times when bigwigs from the BOE turn up to ‘observe’ classes on a weekday, something that’s known as a ‘planned visit’ (計画訪問 / けいかくほうもん / keikaku-hohmon). Your JTE will probably make even more of a fuss – and put on even more of a performance – for these, but because the bigwigs in question often visit every single class in the school during a single fifty-minute period, what invariably happens is that a) they appear in your classroom for approximately thirty seconds before moving on to the next one, and b) you have no way of predicting at what point in the class this will happen, so are doing something really tedious – like reading and repeating from the textbook – when it does.

Interest rating: 3/5
When does it happen? A Saturday in mid-April, and sometimes again later in the school year.
How long does it last? The open class itself is only one period in the afternoon, but you’ll be expected to work the whole day.
Do I have to go? Probably, but possibly not if you’re a dispatch ALT.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes, but try to look as presentable as you can.

2. Evacuation drill (避難訓練 / ひなんくんれん / hinan-kunren)

In a country cursed with so many natural disasters – earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, landslides, flooding, avalanches etc. – the evacuation drill may well be the most important event in the school year. If there’s a real disaster, of course, you’ll get no warning of the need to evacuate, but for the drill you should be informed in advance and – for example, if it’s the middle of winter – can have some warm clothing to hand before you’re asked to run outside and line up in the playground.

An important note: during the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, a significant number of people were washed away by the tsunami either while they were still lined up in school playgrounds, or because they had been told they no longer needed to line up in the school playground and could go back to their business. As such, if you live near the coast and there’s a tsunami warning and / or a large earthquake, regardless of what anyone around you is saying or doing, evacuate to higher ground (if possible at least twenty or thirty metres above sea level), on foot and as quickly as you possibly can.

Interest rating: 4/5
When does it happen? Two or three times a year, usually on a weekday afternoon.
How long does it last? 20 or 30 minutes.
Do I have to go? Yes.
What should I wear? Whatever you have on at the time (although see above).

3. Tests

The Japanese love their tests almost as much as they love their ceremonies, so there are a liberal sprinkling of these throughout the school year, most of which feed you with yet more helpings of free time (although you will sometimes be asked to mark the test papers, which can spoil the fun somewhat). The main flavours of test you should keep an eye out for are as follows:

i) Mid-term test (中間テスト / ちゅうかんてすと / chuukan-tesuto)

ii) End-of-term test (期末テスト / きまつてすと / kimatsu-tesuto)

iii) End-of-year test (学年末テスト / がくねんまつてすと / gakunenmatsu-tesuto)

iv) Academic ability test (実力テスト / じつりょくてすと / jitsuryoku-tesuto – at least in the area where I work, third graders take an academic ability test once a month, which is another reason why I hardly ever see them.)

Incidentally, teachers will often spend an entire fifty-minute class informing the students of their test results and analysing the answers. This is known as tesuto-kaéshi (テスト返し / てすとかえし), and basically means another hour of downtime for you.

4. Staff meetings (職員会議 / しょくいんかいぎ / shoku-in-kaigi)

Staff meetings are very rarely interesting even if you do think of them as Japanese listening practice (the exception, perhaps, being if the teachers discuss problem students or problem parents), and if you’re lucky, your JTE, principal or vice-principal will let you go home before they start. If you’re unlucky you’ll have to sit through the meeting until your official home time, but once that arrives, in my opinion you’re perfectly within your rights to gather your things together and tiptoe out of the staff room with an apologetic bow.

Interest rating: 1/5
When does it happen? Usually on the first Monday of the month at about 3 or 4pm, but this can vary.
How long does it last? Anything from ten minutes to a couple of hours.
Do I have to go? Often no, but sometimes you’ll be obliged to.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

5. Morning assembly (全校朝会 / ぜんこうちょうかい / zenkoh-chohkai)

If you turn up for work in the morning to find the staff room empty apart from the school secretary, this probably means there’s a morning assembly taking place in the sports hall. Morning assemblies are the exception rather than the rule, so this usually means that something unusual has happened, like someone being involved in an accident on the way to school, or coming in joint-fifth place in the regional fire prevention poster making contest (prize, certificate and trophy giving, incidentally, are known as hyoh-shoh / 表彰 / ひょうしょう).

Interest rating: 1/5
When does it happen? Before classes start on a weekday morning.
How long does it last? 15 or 20 minutes.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Normal work clothes.

6. Staff parties

Several times a year the teachers will go out together for a meal and a drink, and you will often be invited along. You’re certainly not obliged to go, and if you do it may cost a fair amount of money – say, 5000 yen for two or three hours of all-you-can-eat / all-you-can-drink (食べ放題・飲み放題 / たべほうだい・のみほうだい / tabéhohdai, nomihohdai) – but it can be a nice way of getting to know your colleagues in a more relaxed, non-work context.

Among other things, such occasions are referred to as enkai (宴会 / えんかい), nomikai (飲み会 / のみかい), hanseikai (反省会 / はんせいかい), if it’s the end of the calendar year, bohnenkai (忘年会 / ぼうねんかい), or if it’s the end of the academic year, owakarékai or sohbetsukai (お別れ会 ・送別会 / おわかれかい・そうべつかい).

Interest rating: Depending on the circumstances, anything from 1/5 to 5/5.
When does it happen? Various times of the year.
How long does it last? The initial party won’t go on very late, so from approximately 6pm till 9pm, but some or all teachers may stay out later and move on to a different venue.
Do I have to go? No.
What should I wear? Whatever you want.


So that’s about it. In writing this post, I have assumed that what goes on in junior high schools elsewhere in Japan is similar or even identical to what I’ve experienced here in Ibaraki, but if your own experience differs or if you think I’m talking a load of old rubbish, feel free to say so in the comments. In the meantime, I hope you’re now better able to anticipate what will happen during the school year, better prepared to make the most of your time as an ALT, and looking forward to all of that staff room cat video leisure time you will soon have at your disposal.