Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Japanese Work Ethic (or 'How To Look Busy When You Are Not')

If you are a dedicated follower of my blog (you good thing you), then you will know that this week, comprising of the last of September and the first of October, is Senior High exam week, wherein classes cease, students sweat, and I use up three red pens adding 'ed's and 's's and 'ing's to the words of students who labour under the delusion that the entire English language functions with ONE TENSE ONLY. And so it was, Monday through Wednesday. But, as I teach only two grades, and the exams of those grades had been assiduously completed, marked and submitted, Thursday and Friday were days in which the students and teachers of Kaisei High School, as a single entity, shook their black heads and said, no, we need you not.

Does this mean that I get to spend the first, grass-scented, amber-hued, days of autumn on my balcony, naked, drinking Sapporo and imagining what life would be like if I were Rory Gilmore? Alas, no.

The JET programme is illustrious (this may seem a clumsy segue but bare with me), difficult to enter, and extremely well-paid. It is also the result of a concerted effort on the part of the Japanese government to persuade promising and well-educated non-Japanese into the country, with a view to a. achieving the globalization of Japan (whose population remains 98.5% Japanese), and b. convincing these insular peoples that white folk are not exclusively the sex-and-self-obsessed types they see depicted on television (thanks Grey's Anatomy). Contrary to popular belief, the average gaijin will not swallow your sweet little Japanese babies whole (though they are so unbelievably cute as to appear edible), vomit them back up in public and then perform the complete Thriller dance in the remains whilst infecting all in the surrounding with a virulent STI AND attempting to convert them to Christianity. This being a particularly tough stereotype to break (also arduous to enact), and one dearly held for some centuries, the JET programma frequently comes under attack for failing in its various aims and costing the tax-payer too much money whilst doing so.

The filter-down effect of this beaurocratic harakiri on me is that a day in which my place of work does not require the application of my skills does not mean a day off for me. What it means is something more complicated than this.

It means that both yesterday and today have been spent at Cheiria, a self-proclaimed 'life-education centre' on the outskirts of Sapporo, a half hour subway ride from my residence in Sumikawa. In Chieria, one room is dedicated to those JETs who have been rejected from their respective schools, for whatever reason (school festivals, exam week, public urination). We must be there from 9.30 to 3, attendance vigilantly attested to by a sign-in/sign-out sheet. Whilst there, there is no supervision. JETs will variously vactantly surf the net for 5.5 hours (me), eat their way through the local supermarket, learn Japanese, or sleep on folded arms. What I am trying to illustrate is that it is only rarely that presence at work physically means presence at work mentally. Though some may utilize the hours and available colour-printer to create teaching resources, for most this is an awkward limbo existing between a frantic school life and a holiday proper. And yet - we are paid to be here, to sit and wile away the hours until we can legitimately depart and resume much the same activity at home.

This may seem like a typically Western and abusive response to a malleable and trusting quirk of Japanese employment, but this half-working state is the retarded, illegitimate child of the Japanese Work Ethic. The JWE manifests itself in Japanese Working Life in the form of attendance at the office at 6.30am and departure at 8.30pm. It is testified to on the subway at 10pm, where men still clad in business suits sleep restlessly on the shoulders of the similarly attired fellow passengers; in the home life, where the man eating alone on the couch at night is the bread-winner and must therefore salute his position by never encountering the family he works to provide for; and in the statistics recording infidelities as both recurrent,expected and accepted. In my specific working environment, the JWE means that the teacher will remain at his desk until nightfall, whether he has actual work to do or not, simply because an early departure signifies lack of commitment to the job and lack of respect for fellow workers. It means that the average teacher will eat his/her lunch at his/her desk whilst perusing papers, in order to maintain the illusion that dedication supersedes nutrition in terms of importance.

In my eyes, the JWE leads to exhaustion, broken families, and unrealistic expectation. It leads to paper-shuffling, cook-spoilt-broth and sky-high stress levels, and, for all its apparent rigours, has not managed to kickstart the stagnant Japanese economy.

But I am a JET, employed and paid by the government, whose practices and expectations have culminated in a very comfortable, if contradictory, lifestyle for me, and it is not mine to question why. So I will surf the net, read my book and listen to my iPod, and try to enjoy the fact that because I am doing these things in an office, rather than on my bed, I am getting paid for it.

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