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Dealing With Difficult Coworkers

What do you do if your Japanese colleagues don't fancy your gaijinity?

By 5 min read 7

As an ALT working in the public schooling system, there are many great things about starting life in a new placement. It is a chance to start over fresh, everything is exciting, and it is a great opportunity to make new friends with staff and students alike. In fact the new students are probably the best thing, because sometimes being the ‘token gaijin’ in the school can be like being royalty.

Just walking amongst your new students can bring stares of amazement, friends poking each other, pointing in your direction. A simple ‘hello’ can bring fits of giggles, and whether you are an adorable, genki twenty-something, or (to pull an example completely by random) a balding overweight thirty-something, even a smile can induce squeals of ‘kawaiiiiii!’

Unfortunately, not everyone will consider you the bees’ knees. There is a possibility that some kids may give you the evil eye, and you may even hear the word ‘gaijin’ muttered in a less than positive tone than you read on these pages. However, the most difficult thing is when this occurs in the staffroom, and it is one of your new Japanese colleagues who is either clearly ambivalent to your presence, or even being positively hostile. But if that happens, what can you do?

Understanding is key

Well, the first thing to realise is that your new co-worker, rather than actually disliking you, is in fact possibly a little intimidated by you. There is a good chance that you are one of the few non-Japanese that they have met, particularly if your placement is in a rural area. As such they may be concerned that cultural differences might cause problems. What happens if you tried to shake their hand while they bowed? What if you are blunt and rude like the gaijin in anime? Surely the embarrassment would be unbearable. No, it’s safer to keep a steely distance than chance it.

Nihongo wo hanashite kudasai

As well as possible cultural faux pas, it is distinctly possible that the teacher is worried about his or her poor English, and will choose to ignore you rather than stumble in a language they barely remember from high school. In one of my first placements, the teacher at the next desk to me barely acknowledged my presence for six months, and I presumed that I simply wasn’t her cup of tea.

Then on my final day she brought an English teacher to my desk. Through her translator, she told me how much she had enjoyed working alongside me, and apologised that her lack of English had hindered any interaction, leaving me to rue my missed opportunity. While my Japanese at the time was next to non-existent, had I gone out of my way to struggle through perhaps our working relationship would have been better.

Put your best foot forward

On my first day at the aforementioned placement, in my greeting speech to the staffroom I had spoken in English and apologised that I could not speak any Japanese. I now believe this to be the reason for my colleague’s apprehension. At my next school I tried a different tact, telling the staffroom, in Japanese, that although my language skills were lamentably poor, I was studying so, please speak to me in Japanese. This had a remarkable effect, helping me spark immediate friendships. I also took care to be as open, friendly and accessible as possible. You’ll be amazed how far a cheery ‘ohayo gozaimasu!!’ will get you.

Bribery can help

Okay, buying friends isn’t always the best thing, but it can help show colleagues that you have a grasp on Japanese workplace culture. If you go away, bring omiyage, souvenirs, to be distributed amongst the teachers, thus demonstrating that you understand Japanese culture (and in doing so showing that you may not be as ready to make those faux pas as people expect). Also offer your help.

Many ALTs find that they have plenty of time on their hands, so why not use that to your advantage? Your Japanese colleagues will doubtless have mountains of work, so why not offer to help out with their club activity responsibilities, freeing them up for a precious hour here and there. It reveals an understanding for their difficulties as well as showing great school spirit.

Ask for help

Unfortunately, as the old adage goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and despite all your effort, you might still find that someone doesn’t like the cut of your jib. If this is the case, then you might just be tempted to square up to them and ask nanika monku ano (basically ‘what’s your effing problem?’) Well, I’m afraid that this is unlikely to get you anywhere.

Any air-clearing talks will probably require advanced levels of keigo (the most polite way of speaking in Japanese), assuming you don’t want to make the situation worse. The best suggestion is to contact your dispatch company and ask for them to intervene on your behalf. They should be able to contact the school and perhaps get to the bottom of any disagreement. But be warned, some companies may be somewhat reluctant to bring up grievances, as their business model relies on keeping a good relationship with the school, and some organisations may balk at the idea of upsetting the apple cart

Grin and bear

But what if all of this gets you nowhere. Well, on the positive side of things, Japan has a culture of non-confrontation, so the chances are that no one will be badmouthing you to your face, spitting in your bento or tying your shoelaces together when you’re not looking. So, if you can, maybe you just have to be the bigger person.

Smile through their animosity, and comfort yourself with the probability that their dislike for you is nothing more than petty jealousy. Because, let’s face it, you’re an awesome teacher, everyone else loves you and as you walk through school high-fiving students, they are the butts of the classroom jokes, and their lessons are stupefying dull compared to what you do. Haterz gonna hate. You’re better than that.

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  • primalxconvoy says:

    If the problem isn’t racial, then so be it, but if it is, then the OP’s original story sounds a tad apologist. Consider if this was a a person of colour in an office comprised mainly of rednecks:

    “There is a good chance that you are one of the few people of colour that they have met, particularly if your placement is in a rural area. As such they may be concerned that cultural differences might cause problems. What happens if you tried to bro-fist them while they shook hands? What if you are blunt and rude like the black people in Hollywood films? Surely the embarrassment would be unbearable. No, it’s safer to keep a steely distance than chance it.”

    See? Such actions are not only immoral but in many cases, illegal in developed countries.

    But this is the thing to consider; Japan isn’t really a developed nation when it comes to gender, age and race issues. It’s about 50 years behind the West. It doesn’t even have racial discrimination laws that make such behaviour a crime.

    If this IS a race issue, you may still have to suck it up. There are, however, better places to work in Japan, which are usually in more educated and international areas, such as Tokyo. You might find Japanese people there more professional and less racist.

    However, what is important is that there might be more reasons for teachers being less reticent to speak while at WORK, as such situations demand different behavioural patterns. Perhaps they are overworked, perhaps they have seen many AETs come and go, perhaps they are in the dog-house for poor working behaviour, or many other “normal” reasons. The world doesn’t revolve around us, after all.

  • maulinator says:

    I think that the article simplifies the
    work dynamic too much and following the advice might lead to unnecessary

    Let me break down the article for the

    Understanding is key

    The principal assumption here is that the counterparty
    (your “evil” co-worker) is more intimidated by you than dislikes
    you. Fear is good, you can manipulate
    fear. I do it all the time. But more likely the co-worker is not
    intimidated but envious of you. Envy- or
    jealousy in the green-eyed monster. Envy
    will make people do evil things just to “bring you down a
    notch,” There is a saying in Japan,
    the nail that is sticking out is hammered back in. If you are a gaijin and you are getting all
    the cute comments from the students or someone just feels like you are being
    treated in a special way, even trivial things will irritate them. Your job is to make them feel special. Down play the special treatment you get but
    do not humble-brag. As Japanese people
    are accustomed to honne/tatemae the are pretty good at picking up on humble-brag
    more so than your foreign counterparts.

    If the person hates you, this is different
    than envy. If you are hated then ignore
    him/her unless it is detrimental to your career to do so. If the person does not like you and he/she
    does not affect you in any way, then who cares? Leave the person alone and let him stew in
    his hate-soup. My response to this
    article is more along the lines of what to do when the environment is openly/
    or passively hostile (which is more likely to be the case in Japan).

    Nihongo wo hanashite kudasai

    This part is true. This will help with your peers, as you humble
    yourself and let them know that Japanese is not your strong part but you are
    trying in earnest. This shows two
    things. 1. Is the fact that you are trying to acclimatize yourself to the
    culture and the workplace and you are modest enough to acknowledge your
    Japanese is shit, Humility is a character
    trait that is regarded highly by many in Japan as is the trait of trying
    hard. It is amazing how many Japanese
    associates expect to have their hard work acknowledged and not the result. I would rather hire someone who comes to work
    once a week and makes me $100,000 in revenue as opposed to some shmuck that
    works 20 hour days and results in only $50,000 in revenue for me. The Japanese way would be to praise the guy
    who works 20 hours a day. Keep that in
    mind when you talk to your peers. Also
    use the phrase “okagesama de” which loosely translates to “it is
    all thanks to you” when someone compliments your work. Keep your friends close but your enemies
    closer. Let them feel like they helped
    you even if they didn’t. What do you care so long as they don’t take credit for
    the work.

    Put your best foot forward

    If speaking English to your co-workers in
    not working then try by all means in Japanese.
    Even if you are gesticulating more than speaking (and if your office
    allows you the luxury). This is where I
    agree with the author. There is nothing
    wrong with being cheerful and polite to your co-workers. There is nothing to be gained by being angry
    or mean to your co-workers. This will only
    reveal your true intentions so why do it?
    The added advantage is that they won’t expect it when you thoroughly
    crush your co-workers when you have to.
    If someone is not being nice, then one trick is to say good morning to
    everyone and the people who like you will return the greeting. Say good morning to the office asshole a
    little louder and more energetically so everyone can hear and it will
    eventually force the asswipe to say something or make it clear that the person
    does not like you to the entire office.

    Bribery can Help

    Bringing souvenirs or omiyage is customary
    and I do not consider that bribery.
    Bribery can work though in making people feel special. You have to make it seem specialized for the
    person you are targeting. Kill them with
    kindness so to speak. If you get some
    omiyage, and are handing them out, then you can let your evil co-worker know
    that you got these because you thought that the person might like them.

    Helping with work can work against
    you. If you offer to help and you screw
    up then your reputation will take a detrimental hit and you will get shat
    upon. Make sure it is work that you can
    do. If they give you an assignment that
    you clearly cannot do, then either you are unqualified or the person is being a
    shit and making you do something you know you will fail at. Do not take the bait humbly decline while
    praising his/her abilities Something
    like ” I thought I could help but what you are doing is complicated, you
    are an amazing worker! I am sorry I
    wasted your time asking if I could help or not”

    Asking for Help

    Be humble when you ask for help. Always thank them for their input and if you
    get praise say something along the lines of “okagesama de- it was a team effort.” I agree with the author here as well, nothing
    good will come from saying “nanka monku anno?” That is clearly antagonistic and you do not
    want to show that until you have the co-worker ready to be destroyed, and when
    you do destroy him/her make sure there is no chance for retaliation. This ain’t the schoolyard anymore, when you
    destroy someone you are killing off his livelihood and they will do drastic
    things to keep their job.

    Clearly asking for help from your placement
    office will help address the issue (if you are lucky enough to have someone to
    bitch to, but in most cases you are on your own). If you do decide to complain make sure you have
    hard evidence. This is because you are
    asking someone else to fight for you/represent you, and you need to arm him/her
    with the facts/ammunition as possible.

    Grin and bear it

    If someone is being passive aggressive,
    ignore it. One beer after work and you
    will most likely forget. But if someone
    is being openly hostile you have to fight back or you will be the office
    bitch. But do it while being polite to
    their face. This way it will seem like
    you are taking the high road even if secretly you are not. Haterz gonna hate but sometimes you have to

    My response is also a little simplified
    since I do not have the time to write the entire “playbook” but I
    hope people will get a general idea of how to deal with difficult co-workers.

  • Jamming James says:

    I think it’s important to distinguish the difference between the important enkai’s and the optional ones. I work at 3 schools and if I went to every enkai at each school it would cost me an arm and a leg. The issue I have is trying to figure out which ones are important and which ones aren’t, which is an issue on its own.

    Also, I generally have a similar experience to Mark above, but because of this I usually have the attitude of ‘If they don’t want to talk to me at work, I don’t want to pay sometimes upwards of 5/6k yen to go just for the sake of showing my face’

    • mrdavidnet98 says:

      I think you’re right. I suppose I got to the stage where every enkai was important because of the transfer and the sheer difficulty of deciding between them. If you have one person in a school or office you totally trust things are so much easier and I genuinely had that with three of my seven schools but neither of my offices.

  • Brodie Taylor says:

    There are always some teachers in Japan who won’t like ALTs. It’s never bothered me because they’re usually older men who are old fashioned, highly insular and scared of engaging with anything or anyone outside their comfort zone. I feel sorry for them to be honest, it must suck to be that terrified of the world. What can be stressful is when you have a difficult coworker who you need to work with on a daily basis, eg: a JTE. I have one JTE in particular who never communicates with me, blatantly ignores me, never cooperates with me in the classes we’re supposed to be “team teaching” and openly refuses to engage with me in front of the students. He just expects me to do it all myself and gives zero support. To be honest I don’t know why he’s even a teacher as he clearly doesn’t care about the quality of the lessons or helping the students, or me, out. His English is actually pretty good, I suspect he doesn’t like me because I’m a woman but who knows. Sometimes I want to barge into his office and give him an earful, but as an ALT who will always be at the very bottom of the hierarchy, I know my place. Confronting him about his poor attitude will only cause problems for me. The best thing foreigners can do at the workplace is to bite our tongue. We can’t change everyone, we can only do the best with what we have and if some colleagues don’t want to work with a resource like us then that’s their problem.

    • Manish Mirani says:

      Exactly in same situation and agree that foreigners got develop their work without anyones support.

  • maulinator says:

    nanika monku ano (basically ‘what’s your effing problem?’) is incorrect. The correct thing to say is

    “nanika monku anno” (何か文句あんの?)

    or nanika monnku aruno (何か文句あるの)is correct. What the author wrote:nanika monku ano (basically ‘what’s your effing problem?’) becomes 何か文句あの?which does not make sense.



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