Japan’s English Problem

It’s the elephant in the room. Observers of Japan will complain about the school system, the testing, the monolithic nature of it all. Sometimes they talk about the textbooks. All of these are valid issues, and all hinder students’ ability to learn the language well.

My favorite is when they scapegoat the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), native English speakers who work at public schools getting paid a pittance, who often have part-time hours and are managed by an outsourcing company. So yeah, blame the completely fluent foreign guy who basically teaches every homeroom once a week, isn’t allowed to use a textbook, and has to prepare his own materials for each class. Yeah, that guys the problem.

No, the real problem is that you have Japanese “English teachers” who can’t speak English. Some barely at all. Others with such a poor grasp of the language it is laughable. The ones that can speak a little, aren’t confident in their abilities – at all!

Because of this diminished ability, teachers spend about 95% of class time speaking Japanese. They explain the grammar in Japanese and translate any English that they feel the students won’t understand (which is everything). I’ve often argued that they don’t actually study English, but rather a completely different subject I like to call “Let’s Learn About How English Is Different From Japanese – In Japanese”. That’s a bit long winded, but you get my point.

I’ll admit, I’m not the greatest teacher in the world. But one essential qualification of teaching any subject matter, especially a foreign language, is being a legitimate expert in the material being taught. Anything less and you are being a disservice to the profession and to your students. It is damaging to your pupils to be a “English teacher” with a limited grasp of the language. In fact, as a student, it would be better to not be taught at all by such an imposter. It is extremely hard to unlearn badly taught grammar and pronunciation.

And that’s my 2 cents.

Memory Lane: Snow Monkeys, Tulips, Babushkas, Oh My!

February 2003 – After a year of teacher English in South Korea I embark on a 2 week jaunt through Japan, then a full Trans-Siberia Railway journey from Vladivostok, Russia to Kiev, Ukraine. From there I planned to visit my paternal great grandmother’s hometown outside Lviv near the Polish border.

Dinner at the Old Believers village, Buddhist Temple in the Republic of Buryatia, Kotovanya (black and white), snow monkeys outside Nagano, Kiev church domes, tulips and windmills of Holland

This wasn’t the most comfortable of trips. For three weeks I meandered around Japan, bullet training through Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Tokyo, Kyoto, Niigata, and Nagano on a Japan Rail Pass. That last city featured a 8 hour hike in the snow along the highway, returning from the snow monkey park with no access to the ATM on a public holiday. I holed up in the Best Western for two days with severe atrophy in my legs. Other than that hiccup, Japan was great, by far the best service I had experienced abroad.

Then came Russia: service without a smile. I had arranged a full private guided Trans-Siberian tour, which was needed, since I wasn’t about to go solo through the streets of Ulan Ude – wasn’t getting the safest vibe. But my guides did help to arrange some unique experiences, including a full course family dinner with some ageless Old Believers in the Republic of Buryatia, just north of the Mongolian border. They told tales of working on the collective farm, read poetry in praise of Ronald Reagan, forced me to play some Bob Dylan tunes on my guitar, and drank me under the table.

That tour finally ended in Kiev, where I went westward to the town of Drohobych and explored my ancestral village of Kotovanya with the help of a taxi driver who I think was just a guy who happened to have a car and some free time. All I found there was a few run down wooden homes and a babushka feeding some chickens in the middle of a dirt road. It was an eye opener. Not a smile was seen along the entire 5,000 mile route.

Plans originally called for a longer southern leg of my journey into Romania and Bulgaria, stretching my dollars as far as I could. But after a few weeks absorbing the whole of Russia, I had had enough. So I quickly arranged a flight from Lviv, Ukraine via Warsaw to Amsterdam. I imbibed in some local delights, bought a sturdy road Dutch bike for $200, and pedaled around that flatland nation for over a month. Best decision I made the whole journey.

Presence Over Production

The Japanese workplace is a funny thing. I’ve railed for years about my utter dislike for the サラリーマン (salaryman) and Japan’s work/life imbalance. These cultural deficiencies have led to one of least productive work forces in the OECD. That’s right, the nation that averages some of the longest working hours per week, produces the least. Employees spend long hours at their desks literally doing nothing, all to maintain the image of the loyal worker.

I’ve seen this, and even participated in this dynamic. I’m not proud. But I’ve used this flawed scheme to successfully operate in Japan and keep my sanity. Let me explain.

I work as a gyoumuitaku (業務委託, subcontracted) worker within the Japanese school system. So I work for an outsourcing company which assigns my daily working hours at a local school. So that company tells me when I start and am done for the day. And by law I have to follow those instructions. Each day I usually am given a work assignment that officially begins at 8:30 AM and ends between 1:00 and 3:40 PM. Even if assigned the 3:40 end time, this is extremely early by Japanese school teacher standards. It’s almost like a half-day when you compare it to the ridiculous times most teachers end up leaving the school.

In order to take advantage of this I simply make sure I am at work during my assigned times without fail. I even leave for work probably an hour early so just in case their are any bus delays I am still comfortably plopted at my desk well before that morning bell rings. I am there usually around 7:40.

What do I do for that hour and twenty minutes before I actually might have a class? Not much. Usually I just kinda zone out. But I look busy. I’ve done many a blog post during this time. Sometimes I catch up on my Twitter. Doesn’t really matter. I know the vice principle sees me arriving early, each and every day. That’s the most important thing. Any class planning is done in my official work time. When my workday ends (usually around 1:00 PM) I get the hell out of dodge. Quickly. I mumble a nice “お先に失礼します!” (osakinishitsureishimasu) and run for the exit.

The key here is consistency. If I screw up and show up late even once, all bets are off. Are my classes the best ever? No. But they aren’t awful. They are what you would expect from an outsourced teacher with part-time hours. What matters is my presence. That’s all that ever matters in Japan. I don’t call in sick. Don’t take many assigned school work days off. If I do either of those things, red flags will go up. They find a reason to replace those who aren’t present. I could teach the best English classes ever. I could transform the lives of young learners, catapult them to future success. Won’t matter one bit if I show up late one random Tuesday. Presence over production.

So my advice to anyone looking to work in Japan? Find something with unambiguous working hours and be present for each and every one of them. The rest will take care of itself.

Sushi Take-out

One of those Japanese experiences that doesn’t get old for me, even after a decade: going out for sushi. And for budget minded folks like us that means kaitenzushi (回転寿司, conveyor belt sushi). So today we walked to our favorite kaitenzushi spot here in Sapporo, Toriton (トリトン). It’s a medium sized chain that is very popular.

Always crowded at Toriton

Of course, getting a seat at this place can take a while. Like most Japanese restaurants, reservations aren’t taken. On this particular Saturday the wait was looking to be well over an hour.

Unlike most Japanese who gladly wait in lines that wrap around the block, I don’t play that shit. So we went to the take-out counter, where there was zero wait, and decided to enjoy our sushi at our own abode.


Funny thing is that the take-out counter works no differently than that of a normal counter seat. Dishes roll by, you grab what you like, but then transfer the sushi to plastic containers. When you got everything you need the staff count the color and amount of plates you’ve accumulated and tally your bill. The whole process is rather seamless.

We went a little over budget

True, you might not get the full sushi experience by packing up your nigiri in a doggy bag and rolling out the door in 10 minutes. But I enjoyed a comfortable meal with some AccuRadio Christmas tunes, a cheap happoshu beer, and a newly trimmed schnoodle by my side.

Shochu Cocktails

Each Friday evening, after spending a rather mind numbing week at work, I like to unwind with a drink or two of my choosing. Recently, I have been a fan of the chu-hai, usually the higher alcohol content varieties. A new favorite is a hybrid vodka chu-hai called 99.99 or フォーナイン. (four nine) It does the trick reasonably well.

No idea what this English description means, but it sure tastes good!

But if you really want to get creative, and save some hard earned Yen, here is the recipe:

Buy your shochu in bulk. I prefer the liter bag varieties found in most supermarkets. Get a few liters of soda water. And finally, stock up on some Korean fruit vinegar (pomegranate, green apple, muskat!), which can be found at import stores like Kaldi, Jupiter, and Costco.

Shochu in a bag, Korean fruit vinegar, and some soda water. Good times!

Take 2 parts soda water, 1 part shochu. Add a splash of fruit vinegar, and enjoy (on the rocks is best). You really can’t go wrong.

Ode to the Salaryman

Recently I received some correspondence asking for my insights into Japanese culture, in particular the concept of “salaryman” (サラリーマン). Although my response may seem harsh, possibly exaggerated, the grain of truth runs deep. I’ve had to slightly edit my original response, but much of it remains intact. I may have been in a slightly jaded mood the day I wrote this. But what else are blogs for? It might touch a nerve with some people. But regardless, it is my opinion that Japanese attitudes towards work-life balance and gender roles need to be addressed, in a dramatic way, if the country wants to navigate the next 50 years successfully.

I framed my response in the style of a university lecturer.


Thank you for your enrollment in DMH University’s MA in East Asian Studies. We look forward to your participation in the course modules. You have chosen to begin your studies with our Modern Japan module (J301 and C433 respectively). Taught by Dr. DMH himself, we believe you’ll find his style casual as well as engaging.


Lecture 1 – Salaryman Dr. DMH

Where to begin with those “things”. Yep, “things”, because I am not really sure they are human. Can’t put them in the same category as WOBs(Waste of Bloods) because not really sure they have (B)lood at all. They are basically nonpersons to me. They are one of the primary reasons certain aspects of this nation suck. Actually, if they could all be gathered on to an enormous metaphorical bus and then driven off another metaphorical cliff into the ocean I would be extremely content – like Buddha under the Bodhi Tree.

Here is the run down of a salaryman’s daily life. This is not a generalization, every single one of them follows this daily pattern to a T. There are no round pegs in square holes. And I would reckon that 90% of the working male population classifies themselves as “salaryman”:

1) Wake up at a reasonably early hour (6:00-7:30 AM). Eat a meticulously prepared breakfast of rice, miso soup, and some kind of foul fermented soybeans, washed down with green tea – all which he assumes will be ready for him, prepared by his wife and/or mother he still lives with (especially if he is not married, but there is a good likelihood that he lives with mother if he is that most honored of all children – the first born male). Put on a well ironed black suit with black or dark nondescript necktie and jacket, regardless of scorching hot temperatures in the summer – rarely does the salaryman break a sweat because of his inter-dimensional lizard skin.

2) Either drive or commute via public transport a long enough distance to be sufficiently exhausted upon arriving at the office, 1 hour minimum (2 and a half hours in most cases – one way!) This is what the salaryman refers to as “free time”.

3) Arrive at office and bow profusely to everyone, deeper bows to senior staff, and shout with over machismo “Ohayou Gozaimasu!”. The enthusiasm in which they say this phrase is remarked upon in hushed corners later in the day and is the primary characteristic used to evaluate potential mates for the office ladies to marry.

4) 8:30 to lunch – work dutifully at very non-private desk, robot like, not once discussing anything other than work related topics with anyone around you.

5) Lunch – either prepared by wife/mother in a “obento” box (that is arranged with so much care and precision that one has to question the sanity of the women who made it) or eaten at restaurant with co-workers (other co-workers at this time tell “crazy” stories of their day at their non-private desk)

6) After lunch – until 6:00 PM (refer to # 4)

7) 6:00 – (undetermined) – The salaryman absolutely does not think of returning home at this time – some often commit seppuku, ritual disembowelment, at their desks when such thoughts do occur. Work continues as before, even if there is no work to do.(in such cases it is acceptable to stare at computer screen for several hours) Salarymen are only permitted to leave when boss leaves or is given very special permission to leave by boss. At that point the salaryman then shouts “Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu!” while deeply bowing. This translates as “I am sorry to disgrace myself, leaving in shame at this early hour, my family and deceased elders shall disown me should I gather the courage to face them again!” Others remaining in the office then shout “Otsukaresama deshita” meaning, “You are not forgiven!”

8) The work day does not end at this time, for 60-90% of days the salaryman must go with co-workers and boss to izakaya – a place to eat and drink and let one’s guard down for the remaining hours of the day. While drinking at izakaya – salarymen get very personal and reveal their true self. Salary men might make bold claims like “I like beer” and “I enjoy working at this company very much!” Such wild discussions will remain confidential and will never be referred to within the office.

9) 11:00 PM – 2:00 AM Salaryman returns home. Quickly washes up and and goes to bed in separate room from wife – in order to not have sexual intercourse.

10) Next morning – REPEAT #1 – #9

On the rare day off many salaryman can be seen overcompensating for lost time with their children and wife. They behave with gusto in public parks and shopping malls – ensuring that onlookers see that he is a great father and wonderful provider for his family.

It is important to note that “salaryman” is not some abstract sociological concept only discussed by social anthropologists. In fact, I have met many men who refer to their occupation as “salaryman” as well as many children who refer to their father as a “salaryman”. It is also considered a great goal in life to become a “salaryman”. When students write essays about their future job many declare “I want to be salaryman.”

As stated before it is my humble opinion that Japan would be a far greater nation should the “salaryman” be completely eradicated. That being said, the situation is far more complicated. More “salaryman” are being created daily by a monolithic education system hellbent on churning out faceless, necktie wearing, soulless robo-office workers. So to truly address the “salaryman” problem one has to dismantle the Japanese education system – the focus of our next lecture.

Japanese School Lunch

The one and only thing Japan does well in regards to their school system is school lunch (給食, kyushoku). Each day, for a very reduced fee, elementary and most junior high schools, provide a highly balance Japanese style lunch. Each calorie and nutrient is carefully considered. Sugar and processed foods are kept to a minimum. There are no vending machines. No bringing in outside foods.

pork cutlet, white rice, miso soup – a fairly typical Japanese school lunch

I’ll admit that sometimes certain dishes are less than palatable. But I know for certain that my body is getting exactly what it needs.

The Japanese take great pride in their school lunch. Many adults often pine over their kyushoku days. My wife was noticeably jealous when she learned I would be getting school lunch when I began working in the public schools here in Sapporo. (all school employees also get lunch at the same reduced rate) There even is a recent trend of restaurants serving exclusively school lunch menus. (Check out Kyushoku Toban) Yes, at an inflated price, you can pay to relive your kyushoku days. They even serve milk in the tiny cartons!

I Don’t Read Manga

It seems like every expat I have ever interacted with in Japan came here to be in closer contact with some beloved manga they read back home. They wanted to get closer to the source. To read it in Japanese. To spend hours in manga cafes just like the locals.

Well, I don’t read manga. Never have, never will. You know why?

Because I am an adult!

I have never seen the appeal of these small, black and white illustrated picture books. Maybe I am missing something. But my philosophy is: If everyone seems to be into something – don’t do it. Do the opposite. I read novels and nonfiction. I appreciate real art. Not mass produced, serialized fluff for the masses.

Yes, I have tried to read manga. I suppose it could be a decent learning tool for colloquial Japanese. But this obsession the foreign community seems to have with these juvenile paperbacks seems a bit ridiculous. I’ll keep reading long-form, unillustrated tomes – and leave the comics for the kiddies.

Earth Gym

It is my opinion that paying for a gym membership, no matter where you live in the world, is one of the worst wastes of money imaginable. Here in Japan is no different. In the last year I have utilized my own surroundings, and incorporated some simple exercises that have helped to shed 25 kilos. And I did this all with little to no cost.

The secret: walking. Walking daily. Walking everywhere. My employer reimburses me for my daily commute using public transportation. They do this regardless of if you use it or not. So I cut my public transport use in half by walking the first leg of my commute every morning and afternoon. (35 min each time) I avoid the crush of people on the morning tram ride and am able to pocket about 10,000 Yen on transportation fees.

This walk is relatively flat, so to compensate, each afternoon/evening I take another brisk walk up Asahiyama. It has a nice paved course and a steep enough incline to get the blood moving. I pretty much do this rain, snow, sleet or shine. It’s a year round thing.

My evening walk up Asahiyama offers wonderful night views of the city.

But walking is only part of the equation. Each morning and afternoon I do a Perfect Pushup routine that is simple and consistent. This product is compact (I’ve packed it on trips abroad), and really helps to isolate muscles and lock your wrists in place. It’s done wonders for my strength training.

Come and Get Me NHK!

Japan has a curious problem when it comes to its public broadcaster NHK. On the one hand, they will claim that anyone who owns a TV (or a smartphone capable of downloading the NHK streaming app) must pay a yearly fee of approximately 13,000 Yen (130 USD). On the other hand, they do nothing to enforce not paying this fee, and go about collecting fees indirectly through middlemen. Because of these two facts, it makes the legality of the NHK fee seem murky at best. This isn’t your average gaijin talking, avoiding fees under the blanket of linguistic ignorance. A large portion of the Japanese public avoids paying this fee too.

I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with the dreaded NHK man. But rarely have I had to actually interact with these scumbags. This is done by simply not answering the door for anyone unless I am absolutely sure it is an expected guest or package delivery agent. No one else gets past that firewall. I’ve seen them through the keyhole, waiting, often ringing the buzzer several times, hoping to catch you letting your guard down and opening your door. NHK third-party agents are known for being overly aggressive, forcing you to sign up for payment by interrogating you endlessly should you mistakenly answer their door to door call.

Of course “aggressive” is a relative term. An “aggressive” Japanese collection agent isn’t really all that intimidating if you come from suburban America, where thwarting Jehovah Witness reps and their like was almost a sport. So when I accidentally opened the door to an NHK agent by accident a few years ago, I just made sure to channel my inner crazy in order to make him see the error of his ways.

Some of us have tried the “gaijin smash” in such situations: feigning Japanese language ignorance, and hoping that does the trick. This can have a 50/50 chance of success, as agents might possess some English skills or have ways to maneuver around that barrier. I decided to take it one step further.

As soon as I realized that I had opened the door to an NHK demon, I decided to make him regret it. I went full Jody Foster in Nell, mumbling incoherently in my own imaginary language, flailing my arms wildly, and acting mentally disturbed.

I almost broke character, laughing when the dude continued to try to get info from me in Japanese and broken English. It took him a few minutes but he eventually relented, backed his way into the elevator, and sayonara-ed sheepishly as the doors closed.

I quickly closed my apartment door, re-secured the lock, and breathed a sigh of relief. The man didn’t even leave a pamphlet, nor did he get my name. In fact, more than 3 years have passed since that frightful day and I have yet to encounter another NHK agent.

So stay strong my foreign friends. Be bold, be weird. You can defeat NHK via unorthodox behavior and embracing your inner Nell.