Bad ALT! The Unwritten Rules at Japanese Schools

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It’s only been a year, but I’ve already lost count of how many times I’ve felt my face burn to a bright apple red from breaking what I now know are unwritten rules of etiquette at my school.  

When we first arrived in Japan as assistant language teachers (ALTs) under the JET Programme, all of us had to attend a three-day orientation in Tokyo. There, we were given hours of lectures on what to expect in — and how to adjust to — the Japanese workplace. By that I mean, we really were taught how to say “good morning” in Japanese and bow properly. There was little to-almost-no information on what we should avoid doing — the “unwritten rules.”

With ALTs coming from the Australia, Canada, New Zealand,  Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S. to name a few, it is inevitable that we all carry with us different sets of values, beliefs and etiquettes. But somehow, after living in Japan for a period of time, most of us figure to balance our individual personalities with respecting local norms.

Unfortunately, no one will ever tell you the myriad unwritten rules until you break them — as I learned.

The hard way

I broke the first rule the first month I was living in Japan. My students were busy painting their team banners for sports day, so I decided to sit on a table to watch them. The moment my bottom touched the table, a teacher immediately rushed to me and yelled, “Dame Dame! (You can’t do that!)” As my students turned around to see that I was sitting on a table, my face instantly reached its boiling point.

via GIPHY

Unfortunately, no one will ever tell you the myriad unwritten rules until you break them — as I learned.

The next few rules I broke revolved around kyuushoku, or school lunch. Compared to other cultures, Japanese people have a lot more rules of decorum when it comes to eating. One time, I stood up while drinking my milk carton to hurry up as I couldn’t finish my lunch in the allotted 15-minute eating time; another time I had students pick up their chopsticks and search for ABCs in their alphabet soup before saying “Itadakimasu (Thanks for the food)”…  On both occasions, again I heard, “Dame, dame!” Yet another unwritten code breached.

From then on, I tried to be a good girl and eat school lunch in a non-rule-breaking way… until I accepted a student’s food when she told me she couldn’t finish it and got caught out again. Apparently, you’re not supposed to accept food from others.

“You gotta stop breaking rules at lunchtime, Cara,” I scolded myself.

And I did — only to start breaking them at other times. My bad. I should really have figured out that feet are considered dirty demons in Japan. In class one time, I had both my arms filled with whiteboards and markers so instead of using my hand, I closed the door of a locker with my left foot. The nearby English teacher gave me the “dame eyebrows” and questioned why I did what I did.

At this point, I couldn’t care less, so I simply apologized and moved on. Funny. No face burning.

The worst ‘crime’

But the worst “crime” I committed — one that made me feel like I fell into a bubbling hot geyser — was when other teachers found out that I had dinner with a male Japanese teacher alone the night before. To me, that dinner was a language exchange session, a platonic meeting. To my Japanese counterparts, however, it was considered a date — and you are not supposed to date someone in the same workplace, especially in a school setting.

I had told a teacher about that dinner the following day. She freaked out, then announced it to the whole staff. Almost everyone in the room froze. Jaws dropped. Eyes bugged out.

“Oh. My. God… I need a hole right now.”

Photo by Cara Lam

Perhaps there was a reason why a teacher gave me a book on Japanese manners?

My face was steaming and my mind went wild. The male teacher was there in the room but he played it off well by just smiling and said, “I wanted to learn more English. That’s all.”

…there is only so much I can do to pretend to know what I don’t know.

Was that really all? I guess I’ll never know. He’s knows all the unwritten rules, while I’m the dummy that bumps into the wall every so often.

How to deal

There are likely many more rules out there that I’m not aware of and prone to breaking, but there is only so much I can do to pretend to know what I don’t know. Having trespassed against the hush-hush Japanese commandments to different degrees, I’ve learnt that it’s OK to make mistakes. We all break rules as foreigners, and honestly, it’s much better to be told off than to be secretly judged or disliked.

To make the situation more beneficial, let your coworkers — or whoever tells you off — know that things work differently in your hometown and how you handle it where you come from. Make that mistake a cultural exchange lesson. Sometimes, what is considered fine back home may be a complete faux pas in Japan, and certainly vice versa. Our role, as ALTs and foreigners, is to bridge cultures and enable that intersection between us and them.    

Be mindful not to repeat the same mistakes — it’s one thing to represent your own customs and another to disrespect the Japanese. For me, at least, I will never hang out with a male coworker alone again to avoid an uncomfortable hot flush and — quite literally — save face.  

What rules have you broken in Japan, and how have you dealt with the situation? Let us know in the comments below!

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