Commuting by bicycle

When I lived in London, for two years I commuted to work by bicycle, but the distance was probably no more than about a kilometre and it took less than ten minutes one way. The bicycle that I used at the time was, I believe, a 12-speed cross bike on which only one of the gears actually functioned. This was partly because I was not serious about cycling, so didn’t want to spend money on something more sophisticated, and partly because in London, your bike is likely to be stolen.

When I came to Japan and moved away from Tokyo with the Mariposa – about which I have written at great length in my forthcoming book Charinko – I tried to cycle to the various schools where I worked at least three or four times a week, and this proved to be good training for when I embarked on the tour about which the book is written.

Fast forward to 2011, when Mrs M and myself returned to Japan after a few years in the UK, and I was even more serious about cycling. For the next three or four years I cycled to and from work at distances of up to 11 or 12 kilometres almost every working day of the year. At the time we only had one car and particularly once M Jr was born, Mrs M used it to take her to nursery and go shopping. So I would cycle to work no matter what the weather was like. In the snow I slipped and fell – not seriously and not surprisingly.

On another occasion, a typhoon was approaching Ibaraki and I cycled home from work not quite in the eye of the storm, but in very heavy rain and very strong winds.

In those days I didn’t care that much about how clean I kept my bicycle or how well the gears worked. I merely applied more oil to the chain and sprockets once every few months, and when they stopped working properly, I left the bike with a scrap merchant. In around 2015 I was fortunate enough to acquire another one from Mrs M’s older brother and that was when I began using a trip computer.

I have to admit that I took the whole business of how much time it took me to get to a particular school far too seriously. But it gave me something to concentrate on other than looking at the scenery and thinking about what I may have to do that day, and over the years I improved my fastest times to those schools little by little, so that on a good day with a following wind, I was covering nine or ten kilometres in about 20 minutes.

One of the closest schools to where I live usually took 12 or 13 minutes to reach. One morning I woke up, looked at the weather forecast, looked outside, and realised that today might be the day when I could break the ten-minute barrier. So I got on my bike, cycled away as fast as I could, and about a quarter of the way there, for the first and only time in my entire life, one of the saddlebags got caught in the spokes on the rear wheel. I never did break the ten-minute barrier for that particular school, much to my chagrin.

Over the years I found more obscure routes, mainly to avoid traffic lights, but also to avoid traffic and to find more attractive scenery. So I rarely came across other vehicles, people, or cyclists. I did occasionally get angry if a car passed by a little too close to me when it overtook or came towards me from the opposite direction. On one particular occasion I turned round, chased after the offending motorist, and told him in no uncertain terms that he should give fellow road users more than about a centimetre of space. Perversely, I enjoyed cycling in the pouring rain or in the hot and humid summer months. The only real hardships were when there was a headwind or when I had trouble with the bike. Having said that, even cycling 15 or 20 kilometres, four or five times a week for several years, I had an average of about one puncture per year.

In the final one or two years of working as an ALT, I kept myself company by putting my smartphone in my handlebar bag and listening to podcasts, NHK news, and so on. It’s now been just over six months since I quit that job and apart from human interaction – which is something that I’m sorely lacking now that I work from home – the only other thing that I really miss is the commute. In fact, you could almost say that I became one of those people who enjoys their commute more than the work itself. And while I did drive more often in recent years to avoid getting soaking wet or freezing cold, I still looked forward to my morning and afternoon rides more than I looked forward to my daytime teaching responsibilities.

At some point in the future, I may decide to rent or borrow some kind of office space from which to conduct my translating work and when that happens, no doubt I will cycle there and back. But for the moment, on some days the only exercise that I get is standing up to use my computer rather than sitting down – as a distinctly middle-aged member of society, I have to take more care than I used to about things like my lower back.

My ALT Motto

I recently came up with a motto for ALT-ing that is — if I do say so myself — so good that I have to share it with you:

If you’re getting paid to do nothing, do something.

Anyone reading this who is already working as an ALT will know exactly what I mean, but in case you aren’t or you don’t, allow me to explain.

As it happens, I have just been talking to one of my English teaching colleagues about how there is a shortage of English teachers in Ibaraki — compared to P.E. teachers, for instance — and how he wanted to become the latter but ended up as the former. This reminded me of my career in the media: when I entered film school, my dream was to become the new Woody Allen or the new Martin Scorcese; when I finished film school, through a combined lack of confidence, excess of fear, and sufficiency of pragmatism, I had set this dream aside and settled for becoming a sound recordist instead.

Being an ALT in Japan is similar, in that it is an easy job both to get and to do, and the other, more attractive options — manga artist, sumo wrestler, that kind of thing — seem daunting or over-ambitious. Particularly when you have just arrived in Japan and can hardly speak a word of the language, you are not going to walk straight into a job as a manga artist or a sumo wrestler, and if nothing else, being an ALT is less like being employed to work than being given time to study. But there is a law of diminishing returns, meaning that the longer you stay in the job, the less satisfying it becomes, and the more active you should be in seeking an alternative.

I could and should have quit my own ALT position about five years ago, when I was being bombarded with translating and proofreading work (including a very attractive offer from an American publishing company, not to write but to translate manga). For various reasons, though — my children were still young and I had just begun to suffer from insomnia — I did not. One of the things I learned from that experience was that even if I had to wait few more years to go freelance, I must not waste any of the time that being an ALT gave me.

Famously, Noel Gallagher wrote the first Oasis LP while he was working in a warehouse. For the past few years, I have not been writing songs, but I have been “doing” a Noel. Here is a list of the kind of things that I get up to while being paid to be an ALT by the local board of education:

  • Writing this blog
  • Writing other stuff (specifically, my chapters in the Inaka anthology and my forthcoming travel book, provisionally titled Gaijin on a Charinko: 2,500 Kilometres Across Japan by Bicycle.)
  • Translating and proofreading
  • Creating lesson plans and materials for two evening classes that I teach at the local community centre
  • Creating other materials for one-off assignments (for example, PowerPoint presentations about British culture)
  • Managing my finances (both in English for the U.K. and for the first time this year, my online tax return for Japan)
  • Studying Japanese (this no longer comes in the form of formal classes and homework, but reading news sites, blogs, Wikipedia Japan, etc., and looking up the words, kanji, phrases, and grammar that I do not know or am unsure of)
  • Speaking Japanese (with varying degrees of success: some of my colleagues are keen to chat and easy to understand, while others ignore me completely or speak in such a broad Ibaraki accent that coherent conversation is impossible)
  • Listening to Japanese (a work environment is the perfect place to overhear, make a note of, and then try keigo — polite Japanese — for yourself: how to greet people at various times of the day and in various contexts, what to say when you answer the phone, how to introduce yourself on your first day, etc.)
  • Buying cars (actually this does not happen often, but in the past year both of our cars passed, as it were, their sell-by-date. The experience of finding their second-hand replacements on and was an education in itself)
  • Buying other stuff (food and books from the U.K., for example, but also shopping online in Japan. A couple of weeks ago, I ordered a pine tree sapling for our back garden, having realised that it is practically impossible to find one in real-life hardware stores and garden centres)
  • Bicycle maintenance (I do not have enough time to do this at home, so keep my bike stand, chain oil, foaming degreaser, and so on in the staff locker room)
  • Stretching (I already use a standing desk — which in the staff room consists of putting my laptop on an upturned plastic toy box — but even with this, if I spend a lot of time typing, I need to move my ageing joints and limbs so that I do not get a recurrence of the nearly slipped disc from which I suffered a few years ago)
  • Press-ups (when I pulled a hamstring last year, I had to rest my legs for a few months and concentrate on upper-body exercises. At one point I managed 1000 press-ups in a single day — at home before and after work, but also whenever I had a spare few minutes to pop into the locker room, or into a vacant classroom or meeting room. As I discovered, press-ups are good for your arm muscles but bad for your shoulders, so I am now back down to fewer than fifty a day)
  • Holding my breath (this is a bit of a weird one, but last year, before doing my stretches I began experimenting with how long I could manage. For what it’s worth, my personal best is 2 minutes 15 seconds)
  • Listening to podcasts (I am not keen on wearing headphones at work, so did this for a few months at a particularly quiet school, while I was stretching and in a vacant classroom with no one nearby to overhear. My favourites are a combination of Japanese podcasts that help with my listening ability and English ones that help me feel a little closer to home)
  • Editing photos and videos and posting them online (mostly of our children so that friends and relatives in the U.K. can see how they are growing up)
  • Designing and writing Christmas/New Year cards (not to mention addressing the envelopes — also for friends and relatives in the U.K.)
  • Email/social media

Elementary school ALTs are likely to take sole responsibility for teaching English and to be busy from the moment they enter a classroom to the moment they leave, but in junior high school, I find there is also a lot of downtime during the classes themselves. So, when one of my teaching colleagues asks me to, “Check please!” (i.e. assess the students’ written work), instead of wasting valuable staff room time, I do so when he or she is analysing a grammar point — in Japanese and in great detail — or when the students are doing something that does not require me to interact with them.

In particular, I monopolise the homeroom teacher’s desk during lessons and use my time for:

  • Those rare occasions (in my experience, anyway) when I have been asked to make a worksheet or flashcards, or to come up with an activity to be used in class
  • Planning and making materials for my evening classes (see above)
  • Listening to the students talk to each other, making a note of, and then trying kōgo — colloquial Japanese
  • Looking up Japanese words, either in a paper or electronic dictionary (I have never taken my iPhone to an English class except by accident, although I know of both ALTs and JTEs who do)
  • Drafting emails, speeches, etc.
  • Collating the following week’s schedule
  • Studying English (or at least, making a note of grammar and vocabulary points about which I am liable to be asked for an opinion. For example, I now have a long list of the two flavours of adjective — excited/exciting, surprised/surprising, scared/scary, etc. — that, because the same distinction does not exist in their native language, consistently wrong foot both Japanese students and teachers)
  • Compiling to-do lists
  • Holding my breath (well, why not? My record while standing at the back of the classroom and listening to my JTE is about two minutes)

These kinds of things are rarely taxing, so can be accomplished while keeping half an ear on whether you are needed to read something from the textbook or to answer a question from the JTE (“What’s a famous food in the U.K.?” or similar). Also, it goes without saying that even on busy days, I use the ten minutes between each lesson to do a quick burst of translating/emailing etc., or between third and fourth periods to brew a pot of tea in time for lunch.

There is probably plenty more that I could be getting on with, and if you are working as an ALT and twiddling your thumbs between — or staring out of the window during — lessons, I would urge you to get on with something, too. This is not a boast, either, and a lot of things in the above lists are ones that I am not good at or am doing with no particular ambition to improve. What you need to remember is that ALT-ing gives you opportunities: opportunities to learn the Japanese language and learn about Japanese culture, to teach children the English language and teach them about foreign culture, and to do something constructive with your free time. I do not have a lunch break as such — in pre-COVID times I would eat lunch with the students, whereas now I eat in the staff room or the kitchen/dining room — but I remember James at ALT Insider mentioning that an acquaintance of his did, and left the school at lunchtime to take kickboxing classes. Also, don’t get me wrong, as I spend plenty of time reading cricket reports, watching football videos, surfing Facebook, and frittering away my time in similarly mindless ways. After all, everyone has to relax once in a while and particularly towards the end of the day, my motivation to work and desire to go home decline and increase in direct opposition to each other.

Anyway, let’s just repeat that motto to help it sink in:

If you’re getting paid to do nothing, do something.

A cautionary tale: in a nearby town, one or two of the ALTs started complaining about the fact that they had nothing to do and were still required to hang around until the end of their working day. The result? The BOE shortened their work hours, but reduced their wages at the same time. Like I say, getting paid to do nothing (out of your own and other people’s tax yen, let’s not forget) may be a bore, but like working in a foreign country, it is a privilege, so do not waste it.

This October I am finally going to quit my nice, cushy, direct-hire ALT job and go freelance. No one is going to pay me to twiddle my thumbs any more and it will be up to me to ensure that I am earning money for as much of the time that allows me as possible. This may mean that blog posts here at Muzuhashi become even fewer and further between than they already are. It may even mean that after a couple of years, I fail at my mission and go scurrying back to a dispatch company to beg for a poorly paid ALT position so that my family does not starve. But seriously, think about how you are living your life and using your time in Japan, and try to make the most of it.

So you want to be a direct-hire ALT?

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

As James has so eloquently described on ALT Insider before, there are basically three types of ALT:


2) Dispatch company ALTs

3) Direct hire ALTs.

1) Getting a place on the JET program requires that you complete eight book-length essays, twelve interviews, and twenty-five workshops over the course of three years, before being made to swim across an alligator-infested swamp in the pitch dark, stark naked and with only a toothpick to defend yourself (at least that’s what I’ve been led to believe, anyway). Once you’re in, however, the pay and conditions are great.

2) The only pre-requisites for getting a job as a hakengaisha (派遣会社 / dispatch company) ALT are:

a) Being able to speak English

b) Having a passport

c) Having a pulse

In actual fact, two of the three will usually suffice and once you’re in, the pay and conditions are, well, so-so.

3) In theory, at least, getting a job as a ALT who’s hired direct by a kyōikui’inkai (教育委員会 / board of education, aka. BOE) gives you all the benefits of JET (i.e. no alligator-infested swamps and / or a really sharp toothpick) with none of the drawbacks of a dispatch company (i.e. enough cash to buy as many anime figurines as you can lay your hands on).

So how exactly does one go about becoming a direct hire ALT? Well, the short answer is: marry a Japanese person. OK, so I’m half joking, but marrying a Japanese person definitely helps. If you can’t fool one of the natives into believing you’d make a great life partner, though, second on the list would be: use Facebook. You think I’m joking again, right? Not at all. I’m currently on my second direct hire job, and I got both of them through Facebook.

By way of explanation, allow me to give you a quick rundown of my (ahem) illustrious career in Japan so far:

My first job was with a certain eikaiwa (英会話 / English conversation) school in Tokyo, who sponsored my visa, found my accommodation, opened my bank account, and so on, but treated me like a cross between a galley slave, a Guantanamo Bay terror suspect, and a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of their shoe. So I quit them, quit Tokyo, and got a job as a dispatch company ALT instead.

The money was laughable (180,000 yen a month, to be precise), but the hours were short (8.30am to 2.30pm, weekdays only) and the holidays were long — so long, in fact, that I disappeared for a full six weeks during the summer to (shameless plug for own website alert!) tour Japan by bicycle. After a year or so I had to go back to the UK, but by the time I did, I had become Facebook friends with a whole bunch of my colleagues and acquaintances, both Japanese and foreign. When the time was right to have another crack at living in Japan, I put the word out and bingo, a Japanese English teacher I hadn’t even met face-to-face for about five years sent me a message:

‘Hi Muzuhashi,’ it went. ‘I heard you’re moving back to Japan. Do you want to come and work with me in ○○○ junior high school? We need an ALT because the last one went back to China.’ (Or words to that effect, anyway. Obviously she didn’t call me Muzuhashi because that’s not my real name. My real name is Baron Von William ‘Bill’ Buzz Lightyear III of the House of Usher.)

Towards the end of that first year as a direct-hire ALT, out of the blue I got a Facebook email from another colleague from my dispatch company days. This time it was an ALT and while I hadn’t seen him for about five years, either, the mail went something like this: ‘Hi Muzuhashi. I heard you’re back in Japan. Do you want my job with ○○○ BOE? They need an ALT because I’m moving back to Australia.’

Because the money was better than what I was already getting, I accepted his offer and eight years later I’m still here. Not only that, but the more time I spend in Japan, the more direct-hire ALT jobs I come across. Recently, for example, I got an email from a Japanese acquaintance (not on Facebook this time, just someone I work with now and again and have exchanged contact details with) about a job vacancy that was soon to open up at a state-run juken (受験 / entry-by-exam) junior high school. My application crashed and burned, but had I succeeded, I would now be working semi-part-time for a cool 4 million yen a year, in a school where – shock, horror! – some of the kids can actually speak English beyond the standard level of, ‘Almost Japanese like to shopping and buy grape. It is very enjoy.’

As well as the aforementioned positions, off the top of my head I can think of three more BOEs within a 30-minute drive of where I live that hire at least some of their ALTs direct, and that’s just for positions at elementary and junior high schools — that number is almost certainly greater if you include high schools.

So if you’re looking for a direct hire job, it’s best to go by the old adage, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ In other words, make friends with as many people as you can, and keep in touch with as many of them as you can. (Obviously it goes without saying that the longer you’re in Japan, the greater the likelihood that one of those contacts will pay dividends.)

But once you’ve been told by one of your network of contacts that a direct hire job is up for grabs, what do you need to do to impress the BOE in question that you’re the right person to hire? If you’ve been personally recommended to the BOE by someone who already works there, then quite possibly nothing at all, but if you think you might be up against some competition, what most BOEs are looking for is someone who is low maintenance. Ideally, this means you:

1) Have a visa

2) Can speak Japanese

3) Have experience of working as an ALT

1) Having a visa — be it a haigūsha (配偶者 / spouse) visa, a work visa from a previous job that’s valid for at least another year, or eijūken (永住権 / permanent residency) — makes you low maintenance because it saves the BOE both time and effort. One key fact I omitted from the story above is that in the years between my two stints in Japan, I married my Japanese girlfriend and got a spouse visa, thereby making me low maintenance. While the accepted wisdom is that BOEs won’t sponsor foreigners for work visas because it’s too much hassle, however, the reality is that sometimes they do.

2) Being able to speak Japanese makes you low maintenance because you can handle the day-to-day stuff that goes on at a typical Japanese school without someone from a dispatch company having to intervene on your behalf — for example, those times when the vice-principal or the school secretary comes over to you and says, ‘Tomorrow is a national holiday so you don’t have to come to work,’ or, ‘Tomorrow is the culture festival so you have to come to work even though it’s Saturday,’ or, ‘Is it true that every man, woman, child, and sheep in New Zealand carries a high-calibre automatic rifle with them at all times?’

Being able to read Japanese, incidentally, is less important, so long as you have a wife / husband / roommate / drinking buddy who can help decipher your tax documents, school lunch payment invoices, and so on.

3) Having experience as an ALT makes you low maintenance because when your new English teaching colleague turns to you ten minutes before the end of your first lesson together and says completely without warning, ‘So, do you have a game we can do now?’ you won’t reply by saying, ‘Game? You what? Er, yes. I mean, no. I mean…Oh, is that the time? I’m sorry. I have to go back to the staff room for my insulin injection or I might lose consciousness.’ Instead, thanks to ALT Insider, you’ll say, ‘Of course. Leave it to me. OK kids, it’s time to play ○○○!’

‘So, Muzuhashi,’ I can hear you ask. ‘Once I’ve landed a direct hire job, what’s in it for me?’ Well, in descending order of importance:

1) More money

2) More money

3) More money

Sorry, joking again, although the main advantage is of course:

1) More money

Because there’s no middleman (i.e. dispatch company) creaming off a third or more of what the BOE pays for its ALTs, that means more real cash in your pocket and more virtual yen in your bank account. Practically speaking, you should get somewhere in the region of 300,000 yen a month, although it might be more (as in the case of the aforementioned juken school job) and it might be less. A case in point was my first direct-hire job, which paid 250,000 yen a month, and hardly any money at all during August (about 60,000 – enough to cover health insurance, pension payments and so on), which made me not a lot better off than my friends who were working for Interac in the next town.

2) Less hassle

Almost as important as money is the fact that as a direct hire ALT, you’ll get a lot less interference from the Powers That Be than if you were with a dispatch company, and possibly even than if you were a JET. Like I said, the BOE is looking for someone low maintenance, which means that so long as they don’t get a call from your vice-principal saying you’ve dyed your hair day-glo pink, got a tongue piercing, and had the words ‘Thug Life’ tattooed in gothic script on your forehead, they’ll basically just let you get on with doing whatever you’re doing. This in turn gives you the chance to develop a better relationship with your colleagues, to the point where they won’t mind — and more importantly, won’t call the BOE — if you turn up late or go home early.

(Having said that, some BOEs and the vice-principals at their schools can be just as nitpicking as a dispatch company, and a friend of mine who’s a direct-hire ALT has to deduct time from his allocation of paid holiday if he leaves even an hour earlier than the scheduled time.)

3) Added extras

Another perk of the job is that you may get some on-the-side work passed on to you by your predecessor. For example, when my friend went back to Australia, he didn’t just recommend me to the BOE for his ALT job, he also allowed me first dibs on his conversation classes at the local community center, one of which pays 10,000 yen — tax-free, cash-in-hand — for just an hour and a half of ‘English teaching’ (i.e. chatting to some local OAPs) every fortnight.

Last but not least, let’s have a look at the downsides of being direct hire:

1) Fewer holidays

Probably the biggest downside to being direct hire ALT is the fact that your paid and/or unpaid holiday entitlement will be shorter than that of a typical dispatch company ALT, and you may even be obliged to ‘work’ at the BOE during spring, summer, and winter vacations, which I can assure you from personal experience is mind-bogglingly tedious.

The first time I did this, I was stuck in a stuffy town hall office with a bunch of desk jockeys from 8.30am to 5.15pm every weekday for about five weeks with absolutely nothing to do whatsoever. I didn’t have internet access — in fact, I didn’t even have a computer — and to top it all off, the chair they had found for me was so low that I had to sit on a ream of printer paper just to stop my chin from hitting the desk. Being direct hire, though, I started working on my relationship with my teaching colleagues and nowadays I ‘work’ at school during vacations instead, meaning I can turn up late, leave early, and wear shorts and a t-shirt while I’m there.

2) Instability

While your responsibilities will probably differ very little from those of a dispatch company ALT, by the same token, your job security will also be no better, in the sense that as a keiyakuin (契約員 / contract employee), you will only ever be on a one-year contract, meaning the BOE could fail to renew that contract come the end of the school year. So if your school merges with another school due to a lack of students (because of the low birth rate in Japan this is a common occurrence these days, particularly in the countryside), or if your BOE is charmed and / or bribed into thinking they should hand over their ALT contract to a dispatch company, you could be joining the queue at your local branch of Hello Work, or at least renewing your subscription to Ohayo Sensei.

So there you have it, everything you ever wanted to know about being a direct hire ALT but were afraid to ask. I say, ‘everything’, but of course this is a highly personal viewpoint based on my own fairly limited experiences in Japan, so if you have any useful information to add and / or think that I’m talking complete and utter rubbish, please leave a comment


Since I wrote this post, new rules have been introduced — or rather, old rules have begun to be enforced — covering contract workers such as ALTs. The effect of this depends on where you are and how you are employed. For example, as a direct-hire ALT, from this academic year (April 2020-March 2021) I will get bonuses, more paid holiday, and other improvements to my working conditions. For others, though, either nothing has changed or in some cases, boards of education are downgrading their ALTs to part-time, moving from direct-hire to dispatch companies, and instigating other money-saving strategies.

A few more things that I neglected to mention in the original post:

If there is not already one in place, try to organise a regular meeting with the other direct-hire ALTs in your area, as this is a good way of letting off steam and allowing you to feel that while you may be isolated at your school, there are others nearby experiencing the same things as you.

Very occasionally, JET ALTs quit part-way through their contract and the JET organisation has no one to replace them. If you keep your ears open and happen to be in the right place (i.e. Japan) at the right time, you may, therefore, be able to bypass the JET application process — not direct hire, but the pay and conditions are pretty much the same.

Finally — and while this is not something I would recommend — if you love working in Japanese schools and your language skills are good enough, it is possible for a foreigner to obtain a licence as a fully fledged high school English teacher. The application process includes writing an essay and sitting an interview in Japanese, although the real crunch is that once you are qualified, your work hours are likely to be as long as those of your Japanese colleagues. Like I say, this is for those who want full cultural immersion and do not mind giving up their weekends (evenings, early mornings, holidays, souls…) for the sake of their students.

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.


For the past twenty years or so, the city in which I work has been running an exchange programme with its twin town (or ‘sister city’, as they prefer to say here) in the States, so for much of last week I had the chance to act as interpreter, when a group of ten students and two teachers came for a whirlwind tour of Ibaraki.

Not that they were short of interpreters: at the first-night welcome party there were four of us, most of the Japanese speeches had already been translated into English, and the Americans – K-sensei and her student, er, K-san – did an admirable job of reading out the phonetic Japanese versions of theirs, leaving me with more time to relax and eat pizza (the organisers of the exchange had decided not to inflict anything too culinarily outlandish on their guests when they had only just arrived in the country).

The following day T-kun – who back home in the States is in even more sports clubs than his Japanese counterparts: basketball, athletics and American football – was guest of honour at the school where I am currently working, and we immediately put him to work in some first-grade (seventh grade if you count the American way) English classes. After a few minutes of conferring, each of the students asked him a question – Do you like Japanese food? How tall are you? Do you have a girlfriend? etc – although even with everyone speaking English, I still needed to do some interpreting, this time from beginner’s English into British English, and from American English back into beginner’s English.

In the afternoon the exchange students were treated to a bunka-taiken (文化体験 / cultural experience), and first up was origami, for which they didn’t just learn how to make the usual birds and planes, but also a so-called kami-teppoh (紙鉄砲 / paper gun), an ingenious triangular contraption that you hold at one corner and snap open with a whipping motion to produce an impressively loud banging noise (so impressive that the boys never tired of creeping up on people and firing it off directly behind them).

Next was shodoh (書道 / calligraphy), for which they wrote the character for friend (友) over and over, until it was legible enough to be committed to posterity on a square of gold-edged card. T-kun is left-handed, and I asked the sensei if this might present him with any difficulties.
‘To be honest,’ she said, ‘left-handed children used to be made to write with their right hand instead. These days you can use pens and pencils, so it isn’t so much of a problem, but kanji were originally conceived to be written right-handed, with a brush.’ (Possibly for the same reasons, Mrs M’s father, who was born left-handed, taught himself to be right-handed when he was still at school.)

Last of all we donned kimono and hakama (袴 / essentially a man’s kimono) for chadoh (茶道 / the tea ceremony). This was my fourth or fifth encounter with chadoh, and while I don’t pretend to know anything more than the absolute basics, I did at last find out about the whole bowl-turning thing: the chawan (茶碗 / tea bowl) has a decorative front and a plainer reverse, and the server presents the more appealing decorative side to the customer (the drinker?). The customer then rotates the chawan clockwise through 180 degrees, so that the decorative side is facing away from him or her. He or she then drinks from the plain side of the chawan – thereby keeping the decorative side pristine – before rotating it anti-clockwise though 180 degrees to its original position and handing it back to the server.

‘All we need now is some kertarner,’ said the boys as they struck samurai-style poses for the camera after the ceremony. ‘Don’t they have any kertarner we can use?’
‘What’s a kertarner?’ I asked them.
‘You know, a samurai sword!’
‘Oh, you mean a katana!’
‘Is there anywhere we can buy one?’
It was at this point that K-sensei intervened to try and persuade them that maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea to try and smuggle samurai swords onto the return flight.

After another day at school, on the Friday we took a trip to the Aquaworld aquarium in Oh-arai Town, where as the first customers of the day we were granted a glimpse behind the scenes. Our guide wore a Britney mic and carried a portable loudspeaker, but even with the volume turned up, his voice was drowned out by the sound of the many pumps and water treatment gizmos above the fish tanks (whose perspex walls, incidentally, are a reassuringly sturdy 55cm thick), which made the experience rather less educational than it might have been.

After watching the dolphin show we headed for the food court, where I sat down to have lunch with a couple of the Japanese boys.
‘So, do you want an American girlfriend?’ I asked them.
‘Yes!’ came the enthusiastic reply, and I assume the Americans would have returned the compliment: after several days in each other’s company, the students finally seemed to be getting over the double-whammy of a language barrier and teenage shyness, and had more fun skimming stones and paddling in the Pacific after lunch than the penguins did at feeding time.

In the afternoon we went to a shopping cen…sorry, I mean ‘outlet mall’, which on a dull weekday was almost completely devoid of customers. Still, some of the girls managed to spot a slightly scary looking transvestite (is there any other kind of transvestite than a slightly scary looking one, I wonder?), and the boys – egged on by me, it has to be said – dared each other to go into the Triumph lingerie shop, ask one of the assistants for help, and hold up a bra-and-panties set in front of the mirror as if they wanted to try it on.

After a very long flight, several days of looking after a group of rowdy kids and several evenings spent with a teetotal host family, the other American teacher, S-sensei, was in dire need of beer, so we booked a table at a nearby izakaya for a child-free evening meal. By about 10pm, S-sensei was finishing off his sixth dai-jokki (大ジョッキ / large glass of beer), and insisted on ordering ‘One more!’ before calling it a night – much to the surprise of his hosts, he was still able to walk and talk as we made our way out to the car park.

The following evening, Mrs M and I were invited to a barbecue by T-kun’s host family, and when we arrived, the boys were having a BB gun shooting contest. T-kun managed to knock down a row of three bottles and cans in twelve seconds (it was the kind of gun you have to reload between each ‘bullet’), and just as I was remarking how only an American could handle a gun so expertly, one of the Japanese boys achieved the same feat in just seven seconds.

After dinner we grabbed some torches and headed for a nearby valley, where along a gravel track at the edge of the rice fields, a few points of greenish light were flitting back and forth in the long grass. These were hotaru (蛍 / fireflies), which for a first-timer like me were an enchanting sight, and which even Mrs M confessed to not having seen for the best part of twenty years (in a nice example of linguistic logic, the kanji for hotaru forms part of the Japanese word keikoh – 蛍光 – meaning ‘fluorescence’).

After a farewell party on the Sunday evening, the exchange students and their teachers began the long journey back to America, although not before expressing their continuing amazement at the fact that I don’t have a middle name (‘You don’t have a middle name?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘My parents didn’t give me one.’ ‘But you have to have a middle name!’ ‘What’s your middle name, then?’ ‘I’m not telling you!’ etc). As well as allowing me some time away from teaching English, it had been nice to be able to see the country through the eyes of those who are experiencing it for the first time, and reminded me of how I felt on the occasion of my first visit nearly a decade ago, when – as S-sensei described it – Japan seemed like ‘a magical place’.

Baseball club 野球部

Just because the summer holidays have already started doesn’t mean the students stop coming to school, so for the couple of weeks’ work I am obliged to do between now and the end of August, I have decided to join in with the various club activities that will be occupying them during their supposed time off.

First up was baseball, which is renowned for attracting pushy parents who complain if they don’t think their child is being coached to the best of his ability, and with that in mind, K-sensei has been swotting up. もし高校野球のマネージャーがドラッカーの「マネジメント」を読んだら (If A High School Baseball Manager Read Drucker’s ‘Management’) is a recent best-selling book by Natsumi Iwasaki that describes – as you might expect from its rather dry title – what happens when a high school baseball coach decides to base her training regime on the management theories of Peter Drucker. The book has subsequently been made into a film, while Drucker’s original books – which not entirely coincidentally are published by the same company – have been selling pretty healthily too, and as well as If A High School etc., K-sensei has also read a kind of Drucker-For-Dummies-With-Manga tie-in.

K-sensei’s co-coach is N-sensei, although neither of them was anywhere to be seen when I arrived at 7.15 on Friday morning. They had been drinking until the early hours at a staff party the previous night (Mrs M wouldn’t loosen the purse strings enough to allow me to go), and K-sensei arrived at 7.30, although while he had remembered to bring a digital breathalyser with him, he had forgotten to bring the door keys to the main building. So we sat around and waited for N-sensei, who finally turned up with his own set of keys about fifteen minutes later.

By now the club members had already jogged a couple of laps of the school grounds, and while K-sensei typed up a training schedule in the staff room, I put on my PE kit and went outside to join them for some stretching. For this the team stood in a circle around their captain, who shouted, ‘Ichi, ni, san, shi!’ to their ‘Go, roku, shichi, hachi!’ as we did each exercise.

Already dressed in white uniforms and blue baseball caps, the students then changed into their spikes, which looked like old-fashioned, ankle-high, black leather football boots, with some kind of additional toe guard attached to the left shoe of each pair. As with old-style football boots, the spikes themselves were metallic, and looked as if they could cause some pretty serious damage if the wearer were to mis-time a slide into home base (surely professionals have progressed to something a little more hi-tech, I thought, possibly in moulded plastic?).

Our first practice drill involved stealing bases, with three players at a time either backtracking if the pitcher spotted their run, or carrying on to the next base if he threw a pitch as normal. After a couple of laps of the diamond taking one base at a time, everyone gathered around N-sensei, removed their caps and bowed with an ‘onégaishimass!’ (The literal meaning of お願いします is ‘I politely ask a favour’, but it can be used to mean ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘nice to meet you’ or any number of other things, and when uttered by baseball players, karate students and the like, comes out as more of a grunted ‘oss!’)

‘Why are your uniforms still clean?’ demanded N-sensei (with the ground still damp after last week’s typhoon, I had deliberately avoided sliding for fear of messing up my new tracksuit bottoms). ‘Anyone who doesn’t want to get their uniform dirty can quit now. You can wash it in the washing machine, can’t you? Look, this is what you should be doing.’ He dived to the ground face first and stood up with mud marks on his t-shirt and trousers.

‘Were you in the correct position?’ N-sensei continued, with no response from the students. ‘No. Should you be resting your hands on your knees like this?’
This time, one or two of them muttered a reluctant ‘no’.
‘No. If you do you can’t react quickly enough. You crouch down and use your hands to balance. Keep your weight on your right foot so you’re ready to start running, and go up on the balls of your feet like this. Two more laps, and do it properly this time.’

The very first student to step up to first base immediately rested his hands on his knees, and this wasn’t the only time during the morning that I thought to myself, Drucker or no Drucker, K-sensei will have his work cut out knocking this lot into shape. The team was eliminated from a recent inter-school tournament in the first round, and while most of the first-choice players have now quit the club to concentrate on studying for their high school entrance exams, it’s not a result that reflects particularly well on the first and second years they have left behind.

The student with his hands on his knees, incidentally, is quite an interesting character. Outwardly, he looks and acts like the school bully and / or the one most likely to end up in some kind of juvenile correctional facility, but despite apparently not paying any attention at all in class – at least when I’m teaching him, that is – his English is better than almost anyone else in the year. The macho posturing is, so I’m told, the result of living in a mother-less household – I assume his parents divorced and she moved out – where he isn’t given breakfast and makes do with cup ramen for dinner, but for the recent second year work experience week, he was allotted two days at the local police station, so there is some hope that he’ll stay on the right side of the law when he gets older.

One of the more studious second years is K-kun (kun / 君 is a suffix for addressing boys or male inferiors at work), who helped me with the next couple of drills, one of which was a gambit whereby the batsman takes the pace off the ball with the bat so that it drops at his feet. In doing this he will almost certainly sacrifice his chances of making it to first base, but since the opposition will be pre-occupied with a ball that has landed just too far from the catcher to enable a quick pick-up-and-throw, one of his team-mates should get the chance to steal a base at the same time.

‘If you block it this way,’ said K-kun, gesturing towards first base, ‘the guy coming in from third can make it home, but if you block it the other way, he’s going to get run out. Hold the bat like this. Keep your right hand soft and don’t twist it around – lift it up and down by bending your knees instead.’

The soccer club members were practicing at the other end of the playing field, and as we rotated positions in our group of three, Y-sensei – who vies with the table tennis teacher M-sensei for being the most intimidating in the school – started yelling at them.
‘Our last baseball coach,’ said K-kun, ‘was really scary. You see the kindergarten behind the school?’
‘Yes’ – it was probably 150 metres from where we were standing.
‘Once, when he was angry, he threw a ball all the way into the playground.’

Somehow I couldn’t imagine K-sensei or N-sensei getting angry, but then again, perhaps they were toning things down a little today because I was there. When I looked over a couple of minutes later, the entire soccer club was down on its knees doing ten minutes of kusa-tori (草取り/ weeding – turf is very hard to maintain in the heat of a Japanese summer, so most school playing fields have a surface of compacted, dusty soil).

Away from the twenty-five or so students with whom I was practicing, one kid was on his own at the side of the field, apparently repairing the large net that stops balls from hitting passing cars or from flying into nearby fields, which may or may not have been a similar punishment to the soccer players’ kusa-tori. At the opposite end of the playing field, two more students were pushing car tyres back and forth along the ground.
‘Have they done something wrong?’ I asked K-sensei.
‘No,’ he said. ‘They’re pitchers. Pitchers are special. They use different parts of their bodies when they play, so we give them special exercises.’
Nearby, another two students were throwing a ball back and forth at impressively high speed.
‘Are they pitchers too?’
‘They must be second years, right?’
‘No, no,’ said K-sensei. ‘They’re first years.’
A group of professional baseball players came to Mrs M’s hometown for a training camp a few months ago, and seeing them pitch at close quarters was quite something. You could hear the ball make a kind of fizzing sound as it flew through the air, and even though they were standing just a foot or two away from the spectators, their pitches never strayed from a narrow area around the catcher’s gloves. K-sensei told me that professional pitchers can move the ball at 150kmh or more, and while these twelve year olds weren’t quite at that level yet, the ball still made a satisfyingly loud slap as it hit the gloves of whichever one was acting as catcher.

There is a solitary girl in the baseball club, who seemed to be holding her own pretty well. In fact, she was probably the most foul-mouthed person there, and spent a fair proportion of the practice session telling her team-mates they were idiots, or to stop taking the piss.
‘She’s a pitcher as well, isn’t she?’ I seemed to recall her telling me this during an English lesson recently.
‘She was a pitcher,’ said K-sensei.
‘But not any more?’
‘No, not any more.’
‘Oh, right.’

Each practice routine had a name, and while many of these were clearly derived from English, I couldn’t work out what most of them meant, and when things began to get more complicated – one of the drills involved the batsman appearing to fake one of the drop shots we were practicing earlier, only to adjust his grip and give the ball a proper hit – I stayed on the periphery and fed stray balls back to the pitcher. (One of the most interesting things about the session as a whole was that there was no match at the end of it: a major reason why the standard of football in Britain has dropped so low is because there is too much emphasis on playing matches at too young an age, and not enough on perfecting basic skills.)

A third teacher – H-sensei – joined us for a final half-hour of long-range catching practice, preceded by his paunch and shuffling over from the staff room with a too-small baseball cap balanced precariously on his head. ‘Did you learn baseball when you were younger?’ I asked him later. ‘No, I was in the judo club!’ he said, and while H-sensei didn’t look entirely at home, he did prove the point that, à la Babe Ruth, you don’t necessarily have to be slim or quick on your feet to be good at baseball, as he could thwack the ball high and long. Standing at the far end of the playing field, I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t completely hopeless myself, although if your previous experience of catching practice happened on a cricket pitch, suddenly finding yourself wearing a huge baseball glove gives you a distinct mental advantage.

I caught probably five or six balls at various different angles and heights, and was just beginning to enjoy myself when K-sensei called an end to proceedings. There followed ten minutes of kusa-tori – teachers and students together, in this case – and raking the ruts out of the pitch, before we were called in for one final conflab. K-sensei told everyone they would be coming to school at 6.30am on Monday (they would also be coming in for practice on Saturday and Sunday), to catch a bus to the third stage of the tournament from which they had been eliminated a few weeks before.

‘Watch the teams practice,’ he said. ‘You’ll see that they look relaxed. They’re not killing themselves before a game because they already know what they can do. Look at them play. Today you guys were…well, you were hopeless. What do they do differently? What should you be doing better?’

I said a brief thank you to everyone for allowing me to take part, and returned to the staff room to eat my packed lunch, more than five hours after the practice session had begun. No wonder children in Japan are so well behaved, I thought, and no wonder there’s so little crime here. With pretty much everyone under the age of twenty spending this much time playing sport every week, all of that bottled-up teenage testosterone just vanishes. Five days later my body still hasn’t quite recovered from the exertion, but if only I had been given the chance to spend this much time playing football when I was younger, I might have become a half-decent player instead of an occasional five-a-sider, and I might not have spent the best part of my teenage years watching TV or staring out of the window waiting for something to happen.

End of an era

I had intended to work at the friendly, rural junior high school and friendly, rural elementary school for another couple of years, but just before Christmas a friend of mine made me a job offer I couldn’t refuse, and as of this month I shall be working at not one but five friendly, rural junior high schools in the next town (and to Mrs M’s delight, earning an extra few thousand yen into the bargain). So before I forget what it was all like – and if it’s OK with you – I’m just going to pop on my rose-tinted spectacles and go for a quick jaunt down memory lane.
As you may remember from my posts about baseball and soccer, I spent the first fortnight of the summer holidays having a go at the various club activities on offer at the school. Possibly because most such sports were originally imported (while some schools have kendo or judo clubs, that wasn’t the case here), the chants and calls employed by the students as they played were almost exclusively in English – or rather, a brand of English specially adapted for use by Japanese teenagers.

When I was with the tennis club we shouted ‘Naishoh!’ (‘Nice shot!’) when a point was won, ‘Naisu catchee!’ (a sarcastic ‘Nice catch!’) when the ball went out of play, and ‘Faitoh!’ (‘Fight!’) for any exhortation to try harder. With the basketball club it was ‘Naishuu!’ (‘Nice shooting!’) when a point was won and ‘Domai!’ (‘Don’t mind!’) when the ball went out of play. And with the volleyball club it was ‘Chaa!’ when there was a ‘Chance!’ to win a point and, er, ‘Spaiku!’ for a spike (ie. what you or I would call a smash).

Aside from stretching, squat jumps, press-ups and so on, we would start the day with at least ten laps of the school grounds, to be completed within a certain time limit and accompanied by a chant of the club members’ own devising. The volleyball girls would maintain a continuous call-and-response of ‘[name of junior high school], hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-hoooh!’ and the tennis girls would chant ‘[name of junior high school], faitoh, ho, ho, hoooh!’ Before the basketball girls started jogging, we stood one at a time on a kind of podium next to the playing field for koédasu (声出す), which entailed each of us in turn shouting the name of the club, our own name and our aim for the day – eg. ‘I WILL PRACTICE HARD AND SUPPORT MY FELLOW CLUB MEMBERS!’ – at the tops of our voices.

M-sensei was in charge of the table tennis club, and on the day that I joined in fully lived up to his reputation as the angriest teacher at the school. Each member of the club keeps a notebook in which they write about what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis and reflect on how their practice and tournament matches went, and M-sensei berated the students for their lack of application in fulfilling this task for the best part of three quarters of an hour. In fact, he spent most of the morning in a barely concealed state of frustration and anger, and the entire time we were in the sports hall, I only saw him smile once.

Then again, the table tennis club is the most successful at the school, and its members regularly progress from regional to prefectural tournaments (despite having the tidiest pitch, the soccer team hasn’t made it beyond the first stage of a tournament in more than five years), so this climate of fear seems to do the trick.

More significantly, such a regime really does appear to instill confidence in the students. My playing partner for the morning was T-kun, who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum and hardly utters a word during the normal course of school life, but who patiently took me through the basics of the game in simple Japanese, and who appeared to be taking it very easy indeed as we knocked the ball back and forth – once or twice I even noticed him suppress a smile after I had played a particularly poor shot.

Club activities were a lot less formal at the elementary school, although H-sensei, the 5th year homeroom teacher, did a very good job of knocking the brass band into shape. At the beginning of last April, most of its members had never even picked up an instrument, but for sports day in September they performed a selection of pop songs, film theme tunes and the school song, all while marching in formation.

As it turned out, H-sensei was classically trained, and explained to me that she only became a teacher after much soul-searching over whether or not to try her hand at being a professional musician instead. She also re-wrote a Japanese folk tale in easy English for her homeroom class to perform at the end-of-year culture festival, where along with demonstrations of their acting, writing, arithmetic, skipping and unicycling skills, almost all of the students did some kind of musical performance.

While only one student fainted from the heat and only one was injured seriously enough to be taken to hospital during the junior high sports festival, its culture festival only went ahead with the aid of large numbers of surgical masks and large amounts of prescription cold medicine. But where the elementary students tend to be slightly off key in an endearing kind of way when they’re singing or playing, the junior high students sounded like full-blown professionals for the inter-class chorus contest. Formation dance routines copied from the latest pop videos received the biggest applause, but the highlight of the day for me was a swinging, jazzy waltz performed by five members of the brass band – I’m a sucker for underdogs, and the quintet’s tuba player was the fat kid with chronic eczema..

The students I most enjoyed teaching English to were the tokubetsushién (特別支援 / special needs, which after studiously consulting his dictionary at the beginning of the year, my fellow teacher K-sensei insisted on calling ‘the handicapped class’). Because there were only four of them, there was more time to get to know their personalities than in the usual classes of twenty or thirty-plus, and in any case, they were an inherently memorable – if rather motley – group.

Like the aforementioned tuba player, A-san was overweight and suffered from eczema, not to mention permanently greasy hair and a uniform that only saw the inside of a washing machine about once a month. But despite such obvious drawbacks, she had a pretty good grasp of English and the kind of sunny personality that could brighten up the greyest of days, and while a certain amount of what she said was impenetrable – she would sometimes rock back and forth in her chair and talk to herself – we would often share a joke with each other as she waited for the other members of the class to finish writing. K-san was the quietest of the four, and another A-san the most awkward (sometimes she would sit through an entire lesson grumpily staring out of the window and refusing to answer any questions, even from K-sensei), but the star of the show was I-kun.

For roughly fifty per cent of the time, I-kun had a cold, a stomach ache or some other indefinable illness, and when he wasn’t excusing himself to go to the loo, he would be blowing his nose on the roll of toilet paper that was always close at hand, and throwing the remnants into a tatty old cardboard box he used as a wastepaper basket. For the remaining fifty per cent of the time, though, I-kun was unstoppable, and instead of studying English in the conventional manner, treated our lessons as a kind of free-form word association game. Whenever he managed to come up with a correct answer – which was mostly, it has to be said, by pure chance – he would exclaim, Ah! Yappari, oré wa tensai da! (あっ!やっぱり、俺は天才だ!/ ‘Ah! Just as I thought, I’m a genius!’), and while most of his gags will be meaningless to a non-Japanese speaker – in fact, most of his gags will be meaningless even to a native Japanese speaker – I made a note of some of the ones that made me laugh:

For the days of the week: ‘Monday, Tuesday, Queuesday…’
Or: ‘Saturday, Sunday, nandé?’ (nandé means ‘why?’)
When counting: ‘thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-Doraémon…’ (Doraémon is a famous cartoon character)
Or: ‘thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-san…’ (san is Japanese for the number three)
And in the same vein: ‘ten, twenty, santy, forty…’
Instead of ‘I leave home at seven forty’, ‘I leave home at seven horse’
Instead of ‘Her husband Koji teaches Japanese’, ‘Her brass band Koji teaches Japanese’
Instead of ‘Miss Green’, ‘Miss Glico’ (Glico is a famous confectionery company)
K-sensei – ‘What’s the past tense of “have”?’ I-kun – ‘Ham and egg!’
And instead of ‘I like tea’, ‘I like unchi’ (unchi means ‘poo’)

Rather than sharing a single table, the special needs students preferred to spread their desks around the classroom, and I-kun was always furthest from the blackboard. Even when copying word-for-word, his spelling was atrocious, and at first I put this down to his learning disabilities. Eventually, however, I came to the realisation that he was merely short sighted.

‘Do you wear contact lenses?’ I asked him.
‘Yes, yes. I wear contact lenses,’ he replied.
‘Does I-kun wear contact lenses?’ I asked M-sensei later that day (as well as the table tennis club, M-sensei oversaw the special needs students).
‘No, he doesn’t,’ said M-sensei. ‘His mother won’t let him.’

The following lesson, I-kun was sitting in his usual position at the back of the classroom, and instead of a dialogue from the textbook about school timetables, he wrote this:


In other words, he gave up trying to write what was on the board and instead copied whatever English he could find on the items in his pencil case.

Despite his hard-man image, M-sensei was the most visibly emotional of the teachers during the graduation ceremony at the end of March (he had taught I-kun at elementary as well as junior high school), for which the kocho-sensei made a typically rambling speech about a spacecraft that was lost for several years on its way back from collecting samples in a far-flung corner of the solar system, and a musician who became successful despite going blind after a childhood illness.

Apart from the graduation ceremony, beginning of term ceremonies, end of term ceremonies, clubs, lessons and exams, there were plenty of other events to keep the students occupied. These included sankenkai (散見会 / open day), ohsohji (大掃除 / spring cleaning) and sohkohkai (壮行会 / a rousing send-off to the summer sports tournament, for which a group of students in bandanas and white gloves chanted and gesticulated along to the rhythm of a big bass drum, and which looked and sounded like something from a Kurosawa samurai film). There was work experience week, school council elections, a drill for evacuating in the event of a disaster, and a drill for evacuating in the event of a suspicious intruder. A visiting high school headmaster made a speech about ‘What it means to become an adult’ (which despite the title had nothing to do with sex education), and one day we were all shown a video about bullying, which coincidentally was one of the most post-modern experiences of my entire life (I was in a school sports hall with some junior high school students, watching a video in which some junior high school students are in a school sports hall watching a performance of a play by some junior high school students that depicts the true story of how one of their classmates was bullied, and is performed on a stage set that recreates one of the classrooms at the school. As well as flashbacks to the bullying and to how the bullying was then turned into a play, at the climax of both the play and the video, the girl who has been bullied, who is playing the role of herself in the play, breaks out of character and delivers an emotional speech to the audience – or rather the audiences, if you include those of us watching the video – as herself. Confused? Unless you happen to be Noam Chomsky, I should hope so).

When writing about the junior high school in particular, I have tried to emphasise how friendly and relaxed it was, but despite his apparently laid-back attitude, the kocho-sensei ran a very tight ship, where even the slightest transgression from school rules was deemed unacceptable – normally the student in question would be surrounded by a posse of teachers, given a very stern talking to and leave the staff room in tears. The school was such a nice place to work precisely because the students hardly ever caused trouble, behaved badly during lessons or vandalised school property, and precisely because they always said hello when they passed you in the corridor, and always addressed those students in the years above them as ‘so-and-so senpai‘ (先輩 / senior) rather than just by their names.

At a rehearsal for the graduation ceremony, the students’ conduct was monitored down to the minutest detail, including how to stand up and sit down, how to bow while both standing up and sitting down, and even how to walk out of the hall at the end of the ceremony – a reminder of which was displayed behind the scenes on the day, and reads as follows:

– Sitting bow
– Hands when bowing – don’t let them hang
– Girls’ hands – don’t open them, don’t curl them up into a ball (cat hands)
– How to walk when you leave – don’t let your mind wander
– How to replace your graduation certificate (when you are sitting down)

On one of my last days at the school, a former student dropped by to let us know the results of his university entrance exams, and while he was chatting with the other teachers, I went outside to load some things into my car. His girlfriend – who told me that she too was a former student – was loitering at the front door.
‘You can go into the staff room and say hello if you want,’ I said.
‘I’m not allowed.’
‘Why’s that?’
‘Having your hair dyed is against the rules.’
Her hair had reddish-brown highlights, and even though she had long since graduated from the school, its regime still applied. I wonder if I’ll still be under the same spell in three years’ time?

Soba-uchi 蕎麦打ち

The kocho-sensei at my junior high school was originally a science teacher, and under his guidance, the four special needs students do more gardening and botany-based activities than anything on their official timetable. A few weeks before Christmas I joined them in the school allotment to help harvest the soba (蕎麦 / buckwheat) crop, which was then left to dry in the sun. A few days later the soba seeds, which are wrapped in shiny black husks, were separated out and spread out on a tarpaulin on the classroom floor, and come the spring term the laborious process of transforming them into soba flour will begin.

The next step – known as soba-uchi – is to make noodles from the flour, but with barely enough seeds to produce a single portion of noodles, kocho-sensei went to a nearby farm shop to buy a job lot of flour (which incidentally is expensive stuff: a kilo will set you back more than 1000 yen / £5). With the students still on their winter vacation, he then invited the staff from two nearby elementary schools to join us for a kind of soba-uchi group bonding day.

When I arrived in the morning, kocho-sensei already had a towel tied around his head, something that seems to be a pre-requisite for any activity that might be considered bloke-y. A towel is the headgear of choice for most builders and carpenters, for example, not to mention anyone firing up a barbecue, mowing the lawn or taking part in those festivals where groups of men march through the streets carrying extremely heavy replica shrines. S-sensei – who is my point of contact at the elementary school where I teach once a week – turned up similarly attired, and turned out to be something of a soba-uchi expert.

‘What ratio are you using?’ he asked kocho-sensei.
’Go-wari,’ replied kocho-sensei (go-wari means 50%, and while you can buy juu-wari – 100% – soba at some restaurants, those in the know say that if you mix in a certain amount of wheat flour, it makes the noodles easier to make and tastier to eat).
‘Go-wari?’ said S-sensei. ‘That’s not soba at all, it’s udon!’
‘I’m just trying it out to see what will happen.’
‘Well, it’ll certainly make the dough easy to work with. Not sure what they’ll taste like, though. How much are you making?’
‘500 grams of soba flour and 500 grams of udon flour, so that makes a kilo.’
‘A kilo? That’s way too much!’
‘Don’t worry, I’m going to divide it in half before I roll it out.’

We were soon joined by kyoto-sensei (教頭先生 / the deputy headteacher) and both the kocho and kyoto senseis from S-sensei’s elementary school, and for the first half hour or so I hovered in the background while they got a production line up and running. S-sensei had finished a pristine batch of noodles within about fifteen minutes, and I was surprised to see kocho-sensei struggling somewhat with his, despite being in possession of a brand new soba-kiri hoh-choh (蕎麦切り包丁 / soba knife – these are similar to a meat cleaver but more rectangular, with the handle in the middle as opposed to at one end).
‘Nice knife,’ said elementary kocho-sensei. ‘How much did that set you back?’
‘It was supposed to be 25,000 yen, but it was the last one in the shop, so I managed to haggle him down to 15,000.’

‘I’ve got to go to the staff room and meet someone from the board of education,’ said kocho-sensei after completing his own batch of noodles, ‘so it’s your turn now. Do you fancy having a go at foon-zuké (踏ん付け)?’
‘What’s that?’ I asked him.
‘You put the dough in a plastic bag on the floor and knead it with your feet.’
‘I don’t think we’ve got time for that,’ said S-sensei.
‘True. Well, I’ve measured out a nana-wari (70%) mix, so have a go at that.’

Once you’ve measured out the flour and sieved it into a wide, shallow lacquerware bowl, you gradually pour in one part water to two parts flour and work this in with your fingertips (in this case we were using 250ml of water to 500g of flour, which appears to be the standard amount, and produces enough noodles for about five portions). The mixture gave off a tremendous earthy aroma, and while at first it resemled breadcrumbs or the topping of a fruit crumble, once all the water had been added it soon congealed into a lump of dough about the size of a grapefruit.

The uchi part of soba-uchi means ‘hit’, and I assume refers to the next stage of the process. While you don’t leave the dough to rise as you would for bread or pizza, it still needs to be softened up, which means repeatedly turning it over and squashing it with the heel of your hand: kocho-sensei said that about four hundred ‘hits’ is about right, which takes about ten minutes and requires a fair amount of elbow grease. (The owner of a restaurant in Hokkaido once demonstrated the process to me, and after years of making soba by hand, his forearms resembled Popeye’s in their post-spinach state.)

Contrary to S-sensei, kocho-sensei preferred to add warm water to the flour instead of cold, which made the resulting dough comparatively easy to work with, and I was soon ready for the next step. Again using the heel of your hand, you roughly flatten out the dough on a large chopping board – about 75cm square – and roll it out using a long, thin rolling pin called a menboh (麺棒). Getting the dough down to the correct thickness is easy enough; the tricky part is rolling it into a square instead of a circle.

Elementary kocho-sensei was the expert at this, and explained that once your dough has reached about half the size you want to end up with, you wrap it around the menboh, roll both across the board six times – gently so as not to flatten the dough too quickly – turn the menboh through ninety degrees, unroll the dough, wrap it around the menboh again – this time from the next ‘corner’ of the square – and repeat the process. At least in theory, this should stretch the four corners of the dough and leave you with a square that is slightly smaller than the chopping board.

Using the menboh to lift up one edge of the dough, you then fold it in half, fold it again lengthways, and once more end-to-end, leaving you with an eight-layered rectangle approximately thirty centimetres long by fifteen centimetres wide. The important thing at this stage is to to sprinkle some uchiko (打ち粉 / spare soba flour) over the dough before each fold – something that I neglected to do on my first attempt, and which resulted in my noodles sticking together in the way that spaghetti can if you forget to stir it as it’s cooking.

Now it was time for the fun part, namely getting my hands on that hefty soba knife. As a rule, Japanese chefs wield their kitchen knives slightly differently from us Europeans, so that rather than using the point of the knife on the chopping board as a pivot and lowering the blade in an arc towards the body, here you hold the knife above and parallel to the chopping board, and keep it level as you cut downwards and slightly away from the body.

To cut noodles, you also need something called a koma-ita (小間板), which is a kind of wooden paddle with a handle on top and one straight edge. Being careful not to exert too much pressure, you place the koma-ita at one end of the dough with a millimetre or two of dough exposed. Using the straight edge as a guide, after each downward cut you keep the blade on the chopping board and lean the soba knife slightly to the left, nudging the koma-ita ever so slightly in the same direction, and leaving it in just the right position to guide you for your next cut.

‘You cut fifteen times for each portion,’ said elementary kocho-sensei. ‘Then you slide the noodles to the edge of the board and pick them up gently with your right hand. Tap them on the board like this’ – lowering one end of the handful of noodles onto the board not only got rid of any excess flour, but also separated any noodles that hadn’t been cleanly cut – ‘then hold the other end in your left hand and do the same thing again. Give them a bit of a twist before you lay them out,’ he said. ‘Makes them look more appetising, doesn’t it?’

At the other end of the kitchen, the tea lady, the school nurse and the home economics teacher had been cooking away for most of the morning, and just outside, the elementary kyoto-sensei was simmering the noodles for a few minutes at a time over a gas burner in a huge cooking pot. They were then rinsed in cold water and arranged on large, flat, basket-like trays before being carried into the next room, where tables had been laid for the forty or so teachers, who by midday had begun to arrive for lunch.

A posse of them soon crowded round to check on my progress, and having concentrated so hard on trying to produce the perfect soba, I was exhausted by the time I completed the final cut.
‘Full marks! Very good!’ said elementary kocho-sensei, and while my noodles weren’t as uniformly slender as S-sensei’s (who did, I was interested to see, have at least one mini-crisis, when a batch of dough became irreparably creased as he was rolling it out and almost forced him to start again from scratch), they didn’t look quite as flat, wide and tagliatelle-like as some of the others that were on show.

As well as being comparatively low in calories, the completed noodles have an attractive, speckled appearance – the tiny black dots are leftover fragments of husk – and today we had a choice of hot miso-based soup with pork and vegetables (kenchin soba) and cold, soy sauce-based soup with wasabi and spring onions (zaru soba) in which to immerse them. One of the teachers at my table told us about a restaurant in Mito where you can order soba sushi, soba dumplings and even soba ice cream, but for the moment at least, I think I’ll stick to good, old-fashioned noodles.

Elementary school / 小学校

My schedule at junior high school is fairly light, and even when I’m in a classroom, it’s merely as an assistant (I only just learnt the Japanese word for ALT, and no wonder, as it’s the rather ungainly gaikokugo-shidoh-joshu / 外国語指導助手). Every Wednesday, however, I work at a nearby elementary school, where despite my job title being the same, I effectively take on sole responsibility for planning and teaching four lessons during the course of the day.

By the time they start junior high school, children are already well on the way to becoming surly teenagers, who would rather stare at the floor in embarrassment than hold a conversation, and whose workload gets exponentially more arduous, what with after-school club activities most nights of the week and a lengthy list of exams to pass before they reach high school, where the list of exams will become even more lengthy. At elementary school, though, they still have that wide-eyed enthusiasm that makes teaching them a pleasure, even if keeping them under control can be rather hard on the vocal chords.

I get up slightly earlier than usual on a Wednesday morning, as I have to drop by the junior high school to change into my work clothes and collect my lesson plans. Having cycled five minutes down the road to the elementary school, I will then have first period to remind myself of exactly what it was I put in the lesson plans, and to say hello to the other teachers as they pop in and out of the staff room.

While office workers all over Japan will be coming to work in open-necked shirts this summer (an idea called ‘Cool Biz’, whose purpose is to save on air conditioning bills and thus combat electricity shortages), I have rarely seen the kocho-sensei at my elementary school wearing anything other than a tracksuit, and this relaxed dress code is partly because during morning break, everyone jogs around the playground to the accompaniment of a medley of pop songs. The last of these has an instrumental break at the end, which is everyone’s cue to start sprinting, and while I can appreciate the benefits of deliberately wearing out a bunch of over-excitable school kids, I can’t say that I’m particularly looking forward to Jogging Time – or indeed Sprinting Time – when the temperature starts creeping into the thirties.

Lunch break is a little less regimented, and I will often get roped in to play games with whichever kids grab me first. Football is played with a proper ball, large goals, on a large pitch, and with lots of little players running from one end to the other and back again (elementary students all have reversible red-or-white peaked caps, and the first time I joined in, I had to ask them to properly divide themselves into a red team and a white team, otherwise how was I going to know who was on my side?). Dodgeball is beloved of Japanese children, and the game I took part in a couple of weeks ago quickly degenerated into chaos, due to the fact that another group of children was trying to play basketball in the same place at the same time. I was once persuaded by some of the younger children to play oni-gokko (鬼ごっこ / the Japanese version of tag, or ‘it’ as we used to call it when I was younger), but have vowed never to do so again, as I became ‘it’ within a few seconds, and spent the rest of break time fruitlessly chasing down the other players, who were able to utilise a rule which says that even if you are caught, you will be safe so long as you have crossed your arms first.

Elsewhere in the playground, the children will be riding unicycles, spinning hula hoops and clambering around on the rather old and frankly treacherous looking climbing frames, which are a good three metres high: last week, one poor girl burst into tears at the top, and was still stuck there with a teacher trying to talk her down when the bell rang to signal the start of cleaning time.

Elementary students aren’t quite as thorough with their cleaning duties as their counterparts in junior high, but they are admirably dedicated to the task, and dutifully obey the class rota that dictates who cleans which part of the school and on what day. They also line up when they’re finished to bow to each other and say ‘gokuroh-sama-deshta’ (ご苦労様でした / ‘Good job!’). Just like at junior high school, they even serve their own lunch, which is delivered ready prepared and still warm from the town’s municipal catering company. Again, there is a rota for each class that lists who has to dress in surgical masks, elasticated bonnets and white coats and act as dinner ladies and dinner gents for the day.

One of the kocho-sensei’s right-hand men, S-sensei, is my main point of contact at the school, and as well being very patient with my rudimentary Japanese (relatively speaking, his English is significantly better), he always has my schedule mapped out well in advance, including which class I am to visit for lunch. There are only six possibilities, as due to the declining birth rate in Japan, many rural schools have been forced to close, class sizes are getting smaller, and where my junior high has two classes in each grade with up to thirty seven students in each, the elementary has just one class per grade of around twenty.

The great thing for me about working at elementary school is that the students are closer to my mental age as a Japanese speaker, and I am a lot more comfortable talking about zoo animals or Tokyo Disneyland than I am about politics, religion or radiation levels. Over lunch, your typical elementary student will ask me something like, ‘What’s your favourite mode of transport?’ or ‘Do you have any pets?’ and then, depending on my answer, will proceed to tell me all about how their dad owns a truck that he drives for the family cleaning business and he let them ride in the cab once, or how many dogs their family owns, how old they are and what breed they are. When I was introducing myself for my first lesson with each class, I had to answer many such questions – questions that for children of between six and twelve years old are of the utmost importance. ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ or ‘What’s your favourite food?’ are the standard, but you do get some pretty bizarre ones now and then. ‘What’s your favourite shape?’ for example, had me completely stumped, until one of the other students called out ‘heart!’ and saved me from having to say that I liked squares or triangles.

At the end of the day, everyone lines up in the playground wearing their other hat – either a yellow baseball cap or a yellow Richie Richardson-style cricket hat – and randoseru (school bag). The children will be grouped depending on where they live so that no one has to walk home on their own, and god forbid that anyone’s parents should come to pick them up in the car: just as the junior high school students all ride bicycles to school, so the elementary students all walk, even if it’s for a very long way indeed (one of them told me yesterday that it takes her fifty minutes to walk home, which makes for a round-trip of an hour and forty minutes every day).

As one of my colleagues at junior high said, many of the students had probably never seen a white man in their entire lives before they met me (their previous ALT was Chinese), and because I only teach at the elementary school once a week, the sheer novelty of my presence means they can barely contain their enthusiasm when they see me in the playground or when I pass them on my bicycle. Before I start to feel too much like a pop star or the Pied Piper of Hamelin, though, I am back at junior high by 4pm, where the students treat me a lot more like the mere mortal that I am.


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.