Sometimes working as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) at a Japanese public school can be incredibly fulfilling. Most days though, it can be downright weird. This is especially true for female ALTs.
Some Japanese students—hell even teachers—see the opportunity to ask a female gaijin (foreigner) outrageous questions too good to pass up. They can range from innocent to totally inappropriate.
Chalk it up to those budding hormones, but many female ALTs said they’ve received melodramatic marriage proposals from male and female students alike.
After sampling a pool of 63 female ALTs across Japan, here are seven of the most common weird questions they’ve been asked on the job.
1. Will you marry me?
This particular question is often asked by middle school and high school students. Chalk it up to those budding hormones, but many female ALTs said they’ve received melodramatic marriage proposals from male and female students alike. One ALT told us that some of her students have used these proposals to get out of boring responsibilities like cleaning time.
As an ALT, I think teenagers love to make these proposals because they feel comfortable around the foreigner occupying that strange position of being a “teacher” who isn’t really a teacher. If you’ve ever been an ALT in Japan who’s been reduced to a human tape recorder, you know what I mean. This question is usually harmless and just for laughs.
2. Do you have kids?
Several ALTs recounted stories of their elementary school students running up to them, rubbing their tummies and asking, “Akachan iru” which translates to “Is there a baby in there?”
Simply answering no doesn’t let the ALT off the hook either. It instead opens up the floodgates for overly personal follow-up questions to determine why her womb is unoccupied.
They’re just nosy or curious why a fertile woman would choose to work rather than make babies.
Why do they ask this? Younger students may still be in the mindset that all women must be mommies charged with taking care of them at home and at school. The Japanese teachers may ask because they’re just nosy or curious why a fertile woman would choose to work rather than make babies.
Because, you know, a woman’s worth lies solely in her ability as a baby maker.
3. Do you have a boyfriend?
This question is usually accompanied by such hits as, “What’s your type” and “Do you like Japanese men?”
If the ALT says she’s single, the students and teachers have a field day asking why. One ALT said some of her students went so far as asking whether she thought the students themselves were hot!
One of my students once told my JTE (Japanese teacher of English) that he saw me walking in town over the weekend with a hot date. When I told the class the date in question was actually my husband, the usually boisterous student went quiet.
This question may be an attempt to welcome the female ALT into Japanese society. What better way to assimilate than to date or marry a Japanese person?
4. What does your family think about you coming to Japan?
This question is usually accompanied by such hits as, “Don’t your parents miss you” and “When will you go back to your country?”
It’s honestly not meant with ill intent, though. It’s usually just Japanese teachers who see the ALT as someone akin to their daughter. They’re probably thinking about how much they would miss their own child if they moved to another country on their own.
On the other hand, some of them just can’t understand why a 20-something or older woman would fly all the way to a foreign country and be away from mommy and daddy for so long.
These well-meaning JTEs fail to realize that we’re bad-ass enough to live on our own abroad. That’s not to say that we don’t miss our families back home—thank god for Skype!
5. Did it hurt?
Rather than being a lame pick up line about you falling from heaven, this one is about piercings.
Although not really a gender-specific question, this was one of the most popular ones female ALTs reported getting asked.
Facial piercings are a definite no-no for many Japanese teachers and students because most public schools in Japan follow strict dress codes that forbid body jewelry. That includes earrings.
You’ll notice this is really a passive-aggressive way for the teachers to say, “You dumb foreigner, didn’t you get the memo? Teachers are supposed to set a good example for students and that shiny thing on your face is distracting the hell out of them!”
6. Do you play sex?
No, that’s not a typo. That is how junior and senior high school students who are just hitting puberty ask about the birds and the bees.
Variations of this question may include, “Do you know Pornhub,” “Are you a virgin” and my personal favorite, “Do you like penis (pronounced like pen-is).”
To be honest, I have never been asked any of the above questions directly. I typically ignore openly provocative questions or say, “It’s a secret,” which is code for none of your damn business!
7. Can I touch them?
Occasionally students and the odd JTE will ask ALTs about their bra size and hip or waist measurements. Students of all ages from elementary to high school have even been bold enough to ask whether they could touch the ALT’s breasts or butt. Japan has a serious problem with chikan (gropers) on trains and considering last year’s issue with Airdrop perverts, this is cause for alarm.
Intentional groping, sex jokes, and questions about a woman’s body and sexual habits all fall under the umbrella of sexual harassment. It goes without saying that this type of behavior should not be tolerated.
We are not sex dolls or lab specimens to be examined and prodded. We are human beings and we deserve the same respect as anyone else.
Kids will be kids, but harassment is still harassment
From the majority of responses recorded, it’s clear that many questions directed toward female ALTs are often sexualized and misogynistic. It’s no secret that sexist attitudes in Japan do persist, particularly the idea that a woman’s place is at home and that women should naturally be submissive. Just take a look at Netflix’s Aggretsuko, which humorously tackles women’s treatment in the workplace.
These outdated gender expectations often clash with female ALTs who largely hail from Western cultures that may be slightly more progressive when it comes to women’s rights. When these two come together, it’s a recipe for the perfect storm in the workplace.
What can you do about it?
If you are a female ALT and your students ask you inappropriate questions just to get a reaction, you don’t have to take it lying down.
The first thing you should do is let them know their behavior is inappropriate. Would they ask the Japanese teachers or any Japanese woman these questions? If not, they shouldn’t be asking you.
Don’t let them play the naive card either—being curious about meeting a foreigner for potentially the first time is not an excuse for ignorance.
If the student’s behavior is really distasteful, report the incident to their homeroom teacher. It’s best to leave disciplinary action to the school staff, despite how much you may want to slap the taste out of their mouths.
Otherwise, you could end up in a very sticky situation with the Board of Education (BOE) and the offending student’s irate parents. Plus assault is never the answer.
If the comments are coming from a co-worker, it’s best to confront the individual in a professional manner. Don’t let them play the naive card either—being curious about meeting a foreigner for potentially the first time is not an excuse for ignorance. It would also be wise to report it to your supervisor, the school Principal, or Vice-Principal.
Make it absolutely clear that you will not tolerate such comments. If the harassment is coming from the management level, make a report to their higher-ups, such as a BOE representative.
Are you a female ALT in Japan? Have you ever been asked any weird questions on the job not mentioned in this list? Let us know in the comments, below.