Understanding the Japanese Workplace from a Foreigner's Perspective

As you may or may not know, I live and teach in Okinawa, Japan.

In many respects the Japanese school I worked for is very modern. The buildings are new, there's a brand new computer lab, kindles to check out, and iPads to use. The classrooms are built around a two-story media center and gorgeous library.

The staff was very accepting of me and I noticed they received foreigners with open arms. Everyone was eager to learn about my background, Mexican-American culture, and native language.

In other aspects the school is traditional and antiquated.

When I first started working there I requested a class set of ukuleles and was rejected. Thankfully, a Japanese co-worker was aware of this rejection and placed the order for me. A few weeks later, the ukuleles had arrived.

The first few months came with a lot of growing pains.

I couldn't figure out why everyone kept asking me if I was cold. The weather in Okinawa is hot and humid. Even with the heat in mind, I dressed in slacks and high-collared blouses. Why would they ask if I was cold? Did they think California (where I came from) was hotter? Eventually another one of my Japanese co-workers took pity on me and explained that "are you cold?" was their way of telling me I needed to cover up my shoulders. I felt so embarrassed and self-conscious when I found out that my dress code was not appropriate for the school. That same weekend I updated my wardrobe by purchasing long-sleeved blouses for work.

The work hours were from 8:15am to 5:00pm with a closed-campus 45-minute lunch. This means that neither teachers nor students can leave the premises during lunchtime. Teachers have to stay with their students during lunch and lunch recess.

With the longer hours and the short lunch, it took me some time to adjust to a new eating schedule. When 4:00pm rolled around, I was starving. I decided to take fruit with me to the 4:00pm meetings and snack while listening to the speakers. A Japanese co-worker told me that it was very rude to eat during the meetings and that I should not do it again. I was so confused. The man sitting behind her was eating cookies and another co-worker was eating a tangerine. In response to her comment I pointed to the other people eating. She didn't respond, apologize, or take her comment back. It was such an awkward encounter for me

We had no substitute teachers. If you are really sick and have to leave work, your co-workers will have to cover your lessons by teaching during their preparatory period. These teachers will not be compensated for their time and will probably not get that hour back. This means teachers really feel the pressure to come to work sick.

But this was the easy part. Even with no substitute teachers, we managed. Everyone was pretty flexible and understanding. The difficult part was learning that my Japanese co-workers often did not speak their mind, even if they really needed to.

Many times when I did something wrong, my Japanese co-workers would not correct me or tell me how to fix. Instead, they would make really strange comments that I was supposed to understand and act upon immediately. And when they did, I saw other people doing the same thing without being confronted about it.


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