Monday, July 30, 2007

Playing God

I am a true laborer: I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man's happiness, glad of other men's good, content with my harm.

As You Like It


Since I came to Japan, I've been searching for ways in which I might maintain the same kind of freelance living I had back in the states; the 9-5 (or the 5-9, in Japan) just isn't the lifestyle I was cut out for. I like a variety of jobs with my own flexible schedule – to be able to go out with friends if I want to, to stay up all night and deal poker at a private party, to tutor a girl for $50/hour in physics because she needs the extra help before an exam... this is my vacation, because I work what I want to, when I want to.

My original intention in blogging was in fact to report these kinds of opportunities to you readers intending to come to Japan. I still want to try this... but it's not always practical. I'd be willing to say with some certainty that no foreigner could maintain a freelance living in Japan unless one were living in Tokyo or Osaka (if anyone is, prove me wrong!). In Tokyo, you can find plenty of acting, modeling, tutoring, and promotional gigs, as well as the plethora of jobs already available in a big city – IT, headhunting, teaching, and consulting.

But for those of us in western Japan, these opportunities are few and far between. Fukuoka has presented more than I thought possible, but not so many that I could give two weeks notice and buy an apartment near the beach. However, one did catch my eye, and prompted me to do a little bit of research on this gaikokujin-exclusive profession...


Ministerial Work

A bride's special day... something borrowed, something new, something blue... walking down the aisle where her husband-to-be waits nervously, excitedly...

In America, weddings are not only ceremonial, but a legal institution of marriage; you can obtain your wedding certificate at the church (or temple), and have the bond performed by a legally-recognized priest.

In Japan, this process is sublimated; you must go to a government office to receive the marriage license, and then have a wedding according to your beliefs if you choose (not sure the order matters). Naturally, priests or officiators do not have to be specially trained or recognized by the government; in this case, they are little more than actors playing their parts. Enter the foreigner.

There is a call for foreigners, particularly white, bearded men, to officiate at weddings. Japanese couples who are Christian (though Christians are a huge minority in Japan, 1-2%), or those who merely wish to have a western-style ceremony, want the complete package: a white dress with the long train, a dule of doves being released, and a foreigner standing before them in robes to bind them for life.

Naturally, some religious zealots have a big problem with this: men getting paid to exploit their religion for a farcical ceremony. Ethics aside, it's not a bad job for actors (being nothing more than a performance), and it pays reasonably well: ¥10,000-20,000/ceremony, each lasting about half an hour. Most of the weddings fall on weekends as well, so English teachers looking for part-time work are in a good position. Not to mention... well, it might be some of the most positive work you ever experience.

Keep up to date on Gaijinpot. Check your local classifieds. These opportunities might just crop up. I'll be interviewing for a weekend position at an onsen resort near Kumamoto.

Fake priests in demand in Japan
Good rundown of foreigner employment opportunities

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Satsuma Fuji (薩摩富士)

Often called Satsuma Fuji, or the Mt. Fuji of the Satsuma region, Kaimondake (開聞岳) is the largest peak in southern Kyushu, and as such, gives you great views of Kinko Bay, Tanegashima (種子島), Yakushima (屋久島), and the deep blue sea.



The ascent will take you about two hours with a steady pace, between 2-3 hours if you like to stop and rest. Be sure to stock up on everything you need – there’s not a hint of water on the mountain, and in this summer humidity, you’ll dehydrate quickly.

Most of the trek is just soft earth with the occasional wooden stairway, but closer to the top, you’ll need to start using your hands to trespass rock faces.

Unfortunately, once you do reach the peak, the ocean view is somewhat obscured by the cone of the mountaintop. However, it is a great place to catch a cool breeze and watch the clouds rolling by.





If you’re looking for something unique en route, there is a land-skiing slope directly at the mouth of the mountain trail.



Access

From Kagoshima Chuo Eki (鹿児島中央駅), take the 10:40 AM express train from Track 2 bound for Ibusuki (指宿市). In Ibusuki, transfer to the southbound train leaving at 11:39. Arrive at Kaimon (開聞) at 12:07. Don’t bother leaving earlier – there’s only one train leaving from Yamagawa (山川, en route) at 11:48, and the 11:39 from Ibusuki puts you on it.

A better idea would be to stay in the Yamagawa or Kaimon area overnight, and catch a bus or walk first thing in the morning; Kaimondake is famous for catching clouds, and an early morning ascent might be your only shot at a clear view of Tanegashima and Yakushima. In addition, Yamagawa has some great onsen ryokan for your pre- or post-climb lodging.

Getting back

There are trains headed back to Kagoshima Chuo Eki at 3:20, 7:04, and 8:36 PM if you’re heading back in the afternoon. However, if you finish up around 4:00 PM, there are two buses in Kaimon (at 4:23 and 4:41) that will deposit you at the foot of Ibusuki Station for about ¥600. Just go to the only convenience store along the country highway and the bus stop is a one-minute walk. From Ibusuki, you can catch an express or local train (one leaves at 5:41).

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Back Online Soon

My apologies again for the lack in posts; I will finally have internet installed on July 28th, and will finally be free to upload photos and write at my leisure. Rainy season officially ended last week, the Soga Don no Kasayaki was interesting, and the sun is making an appearance after a two-month hiatus.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Japan is no Exception



No different than the rest of the world... people are waiting with anticipation for bookstores to open Saturday morning. Apparently there's enough demand from the foreign community and reading purists (those desiring to read literature in its original language), that the American and British editions of Harry Potter Book VII will be available in bookstores along with the Japanese.

In addition, the Soga Don no Kasyaki (そがどんの傘焼き) will be held at 7:00 PM on July 21st in Kagoshima. Apparently if you stand on the river's shore close to the station, you can witness citizens tossing huge flaming umbrellas into the water. Hence the name: Umbrella-burning Matsuri. I'll post some pictures.

Here's a good listing of events in Kagoshima.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Around Kagoshima

The sun is shining and the grass is green, if it weren't the rainy season, I mean...

AMU Plaza (アミュプラザ)



I can honestly say I don't think I ever imagined I'd see a Ferris wheel built into a train station. Ah, the wonders Kagoshima City has to offer...

Five years ago, none of this was here. Kagoshima Chuo Station did not exist (only its predecessor, the small wayside Nishi Kagoshima Station, 西鹿児島駅). The shinkansen line stopped at Hakata Station in Fukuoka, and the traveler was given a choice between bus and limited express trains to Kyushu's largest southern city.

And now...



The station is pretty much the epicenter for all travel in southern Kyushu and practically the focal point of Kagoshima City (although, I have to admit, Tenmonkan, the shopping and nightlife district, still holds that title). Long distance buses stop in front of the station. Underground tunnels weave beneath the tram lines. A huge brand new shopping center, AMU Plaza, is now connected to Chuo Eki, boasting:

Dining

If you're looking for a quick bite to eat and don't want to search the 5th floor for too long, you might want to consider Pirouette. For lunch, 1200円 will get you meat, a salad, soup, pasta, and bread. At dinner, 1500円 will do the same, and dessert and a drink are included. This is high quality food; I really like the effort they make with the presentation.

There's also an excellent all-you-can-eat buffet directly across from Pirouette. 1800円 for lunch, 2200円 for dinner. Fresh sashimi, organic juice drinks, vegetables, pasta, fruits, tempura, fried chicken, varieties of rice... there isn't a lot of heavy meat, but other than that, this is an excellent restaurant.

For dessert? Mrs. Elizabeth Muffin in the basement of AMU Plaza serves fresh chocolate chip cookies in addition to other baked goods.

Want something from home? There are two import stores in AMU – a deli on the 2nd floor as you cross between AMU and Chuo Eki, and a coffee shop in the basement.

Exercise

You can easily spot Seika standing outside the station; look closely enough and you might even catch a glimpse of someone doing the backstroke. Seika gym is as modern and equipped a gym you can expect to find in Japan: full weight room, exercise mats, treadmills, swimming pool, fitness classes, locker room w/ baths, relaxation area. They don't have too many free weights for arm or chest exercises, but other than that, this is clearly the best place to work out in Kagoshima. About ¥10,000/month membership.

Seika website


Transportation



Kagoshima has a rather efficient tram (shiden, 市電) system, the likes of which I have seen in Hiroshima. ¥150 will take you anywhere on the line.

Recently, the city was given multi-million dollar funding for the express purpose of covering the tracks with grass. I must say it is a welcome beautification to the city, and probably slightly cuts down on the urban heat.


Nightlife

Other than mentioning that Kagoshima is your best bet for any kind of nightlife in southern Kyushu, your trusty Lonely Planet doesn't really offer too many helpful suggestions on the best places to go. If you have the choice between Kagoshima and Fukuoka, choose Fukuoka. But, there are always options.

The nightlife area of Kagoshima is located directly across from Tenmonkan, about a twenty minute walk or an eight minute tram ride from Kagoshima Chuo Station.

Walking around there for the first time, I was entirely convinced the area consisted of nothing but bunny and snack clubs (overprice hostess bars) – you could even see the women coming fresh from shopping in Tenmonkan to return to their night jobs. Upon further inspection, however, I did manage to locate a few places:

Big Ben

Big Ben is, naturally, a British style pub situated under Tenmonkan. It's a little difficult to find, as the entrance is located down a small alleyway. If you're walking west out of the covered area of Tenmonkan, it's immediately to your left down the first small alley.

Big Ben website

AI

I had assumed AI was a hostess club at first, since it bore the byline "Amusement Club", but it turned out to be a decent place with a dance floor, bar, darts, billiard table, seating area, etc.

Map of AI (in the basement)
鹿児島市山之口町11-7 ダイヤモンドビルB1F


Non-Japanese Food

Kagoshima is host to a number of places offering excellent Satsuma Ryori, but if you desire a taste of something from back home, try:

Me Gusto
A Mexican restaurant down a side alley of Tenmonkan. The food has more grease than flavor, but it's closest I've had to a decent Mexican dinner since I came to Japan. Despite the food, the ambiance is dead-on.

Across from Big Ben there is a steakhouse offering western-sized cuts for about ¥2300.


Iso Beach



Iso is the only beach in Kagoshima City. It's not bad if you're searching for a place to go windsurfing or boating in Kinko Bay, but a little too small and close to the road to really relax. The sand is white and black from the volcanic rocks under the water. Watch out for jellyfish. If you're looking for better beaches, take a ferry to one of the islands.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Weathering a Typhoon



If I had internet, this would be a lot more tolerable; as it is, however, the typhoon traveling from Okinawa (and predicted to reach south Honshu) has effectively shut down all schools, many supermarkets, city buses, onsen, and most public facilities in the Kagoshima area (probably a few train lines as well – they travel along the coast and are particularly vulnerable to mudslides). On the other hand, I have plenty of time to eat and write.

Yahoo News
Digital Typhoon

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Truth About AEON: Part VII

Conclusions

You've heard about the good, the bad, and the ugly. You've seen what can go wrong, what will go wrong. And hopefully by now, you know a little more about Japan and AEON than when you first came upon Keeping Pace in Japan.

So what will you do? Cancel your trip? Stop filling out the eikaiwa applications? Try to find another way to join the ranks of the gaikokujin?

In my opinion - and this is based on the opinion of someone who, overall, had a good experience his first year in Japan, despite inconsistencies and lies in his place of employment – the eikaiwa is probably the best means a first-timer has of coming to Japan. And AEON is one of the better English-teaching schools, despite its faults. NOVA may soon be out of business, GEOS is on roughly the same level as AEON, and ECC may have the best vacation schedule, but they're not the easiest people to contact (interviews every six months and only in select cities).

So why am I saying this? I've spent the last five entries talking about nothing but problems and aggravations... why endorse a company that allows such activities? You don't have a whole lot of options. If you are creative and resourceful, the best option of coming to Japan would be:

1. First build up your Japanese to JLP 2 at least, and give yourself at least 500,000 yen for a safe buffer zone.

2. Drop everything and just fly to Nippon. Enter the country with a three-month tourist visa and start looking for work. You can work contract jobs (though technically illegal) without reporting the income, and stay in a cheap gaijin house until something comes up. Without a gaijin card, you cannot get a bank account (which rules out a few jobs payable only by electronic transfer, most gyms, etc.), or an apartment (as far as I know).

3. If you find a stable job within three months you can change your visa status to a working visa, get a gaijin card, and begin anew. I've been told you have to leave the country to change your status from a tourist to working visa – any experience on this? Email me.

4. If you can't find a job within three months, you can have your tourist visa renewed for another three, or leave the country (to Korea or China) for a few days and come back on a new three-month visa. Nothing illegal there.

Some people have done this, and had it work out for them. As you can see, it can be a hassle, and you would have to be constantly looking over your shoulder if immigration decided to play catch-up with your paperwork.

To avoid this, I do believe it's best to come in with a stable company, a valid visa, and go from there. If you're anything like me, once you've lived in Japan for several months, and discovered the essentials of living and the pace of the world, you know you can survive anywhere. AEON helps you with a bank account, foreigner registration, a cell phone, language skills, and an apartment. Your keys to survival.

So what about taking advantage of AEON's offer, entering the country, getting set up, and then resigning? ...possible. I don't recommend this for two reasons: financial and traditional. I'm old-fashioned when it comes to work, and believe in fulfilling your commitments (though I've had this tested very often). Financially, though, you'd be giving up a great deal of money - 65,000 yen contract bonus, about 50,000-60,000 yen for the cash equivalent of your plane ticket home, and all the money you would need to start over in a new city; you can't stay in the company apartment if you're not working for them.

Although it's not my personal choice, I can definitely see why some people would choose to quit the eikaiwa world and find a better job more suited to their skills. This works ten times better if your Japanese ability is JLP 2 or greater.

Don't base your opinions on teacher's personal weblogs, not even mine – although I'm trying to give you more information than I've ever seen about AEON online, it is still a shadow of the actual experience.

Take some time and think it over. Look at the facts you have, and the unknowns (I can help you there as best I can). Know that no matter what happens, you will give up a level of comfort you have come to expect in your country, your home, your job. If you can accept this, keep an open mind, and see yourself experiencing another culture, we just might have a place for you here.

Ganbare (good luck).

The Truth About AEON: Part I
The Truth About AEON: Part II
The Truth About AEON: Part III
The Truth About AEON: Part IV
The Truth About AEON: Part V
The Truth About AEON: Part VI
The Truth About AEON: Part VII

The Truth About AEON: Part VI

Walking Through the Role

A rough and concise guide to working at AEON for a year. Email me with any questions – I only mention the major events, not the finer details.

Research

This was originally prompted by a desire to get out into the world and experience something entirely different; to break away from what was familiar and comfortable; to suffer, and learn through suffering. Adventure. Culture. Language. Food... heh. Truth be told, I was not a big fan of fish before coming into the country. I could stand some fried crawfish and smoked salmon, but never really got the taste of anything baked (or raw). Now, I can gracefully use my chopsticks to devour a blowfish in a matter of minutes. Oishi (delicious).

I was searching for jobs in Japan when I came across companies like AEON and NOVA. What followed was a random search across the vastness of internet websites. Personal blogs of AEON teachers. The life of cubicle workers in Tokyo. Tourist attractions in Kyoto. Were there still trace levels of radiation in Hiroshima? (Laugh if you want, but before I came here, I could have sworn the modern cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were located a distance from their pre-WWII counterparts. The country was more resilient than I had realized, and my knowledge somewhat lacking).

To all prospective eikaiwa employees: I know Japan seems distant, different, and perhaps scary (from the unknown, not safety). I didn't know what to expect. Probably the best advice I can give you is: AEON is just a job. I know it's in Japan, and I know you'll have strange encounters before work, after work, and on the weekends. But AEON is just a job, not an adventure. Japan is the adventure, and I encourage you to take advantage of it.


Application

- A search on the company's website, followed by an online application – my resume, and an essay AEON requests: "Why I Want to Live and Work in Japan".

- Email confirmation of the application and the promise of an interview in the near future.

- Invitation to a group information session in your city. If you're not located in a major metropolitan area, AEON may ask you to travel or just do a personal interview.


Recruitment

Thank you for your interest in AEON. You are invited to attend an information meeting.

The decision to live and work in another country requires very careful consideration. At this meeting we will introduce you to our company and explain our job opportunities in detail. There will also be a video presentation as well as time for questions.

Our application process involved three meetings: An information meeting, a group interview, and, for some applicants, a personal interview.

Please bring all of your questions and the following to the information meeting:

1. Completed application for employment
2. Five minute teaching demonstration. An applicant must submit a 15-minute lesson plan and present a 5-minute portion to the group. The lesson should be for just one level of student: beginner, intermediate, or advanced. Other applicants will act as students.

OBJECTIVE: In a creative and interactive manner teach a lesson focusing on English conversation.
SUGGESTIONS: Pattern practice exercises, American customs/culture, educational games and activities, etc. (We recommend that you consult your library or ESL sources for ideas and techniques)

3. A hard copy of your resume and essay.


Stage 1
A group information session. Show up in a neatly pressed business suit. Three representatives of AEON (or fewer) come and speak to a large group of hopefuls. They go over the history of AEON. Show a video of a day in the life of a typical AEON employee. Explain some cultural differences about Japan. Hand out copies of the employment terms. Open the floor up to questions.

In addition, you should be given a summary of the contract stipulations for each of the respective positions (AEON and AEON Amity): working hours, salary, housing, insurance, vacations, training, and your bonus.

Stage 2
That same day, you are broken into smaller groups of about ten (depending on the number of people in attendance), and sent to different classrooms to present your sample lesson. Other applicants will act as students, and there should be one AEON representative taking charge and making notes.

Stage 3
Hit or miss. Depending on your performance in the classroom and your application, you could be asked back in the next three days for an individual interview. After the classroom session, you will be handed a plain white envelope announcing that AEON:

- Is grateful for your participation, but cannot offer you a position at this time
- Will like to offer you a chance to attend a personal interview with an AEON recruiter at X:XX time on XX/XX day.

The demonstration interview. Essentially you spend a few minutes with the recruiter answering any questions he might have and posing any questions you might have, but then comes the difficult part: the practice lesson.

You are given a grammar topic. The recruiter leaves the room. You have twenty minutes or so to prepare posters, visual aids, and anything else you believe you'd need for a lesson. The recruiter comes back, acting like a fledgling English student. You have a set time to communicate the grammar topic to the "student". Depending on your performance, AEON will hire you.


Job Offer

A telephone call following your private interview. AEON informs you of the school location and approximate timeline until your departure. You have a few days to choose to defer, reject, or accept. If you defer, AEON doesn't turn you down; you can choose to accept a position in a different location or a different starting time.


Mail

If you accept, the recruiter will inform you of a few things coming in the mail:

First Mailing
A notice letter on AEON letterhead essentially confirming the date and location of your assignment in Japan. As always, the paperwork is massive:

1. Please sign and submit all 5 contracts (blue contracts enclosed)
2. 6 similar passport photos with a one-color background and your name written on the back (have 10 photos taken at the same time, please keep 4 for future use). All photos must be 2" by 2" and no laser or digital copies please.
3. Original Bachelors Diploma or Original Letter of Graduation (if applicable)
4. Copies of the picture page/signature page of your valid Passport (please make certain that it is very legible and the photo is clearly seen). The copy should include the Passport photo, number, and date of issue and expiration. Don't forget to make sure your passport is signed correctly the full name that is printed on your passport.
5. If you have been to Japan previously, please include a photocopy of all pages in your passport with all relevant VISA stamps on them.
6. U.S. $200 employment deposit (check or money order to the AEON Corporation)
7. Signed "Policy Manual Acknowledgement/Agreements Sheet" (enclosed)
8. Accurately completed "Personal History" form (enclosed)
9. Completed "Application for Certificate of Eligibility" (enclosed)

This will probably be sent to you at least three months prior to your start date in Japan; the visa paperwork takes time, and if you don't have a passport yet, it will take longer.

Life in Japan
Once you formally accept the position at AEON, they will send you regular online newspapers titled "Life in Japan" – everything a foreigner needs to know about living in Japan. They are more cultural ideas (onsen, omiyage, matsuri) rather than practical (internet, alien registration, using the trains), but still quite useful.

Second Mailing

"The information you sent us will be forwarded to Japan for pre-approval of the work visa. Approximately five to ten days prior to your departure you will be receiving the Certificate of Eligibility from Japan. At that time you will proceed with the visa application procedure."

AEON reminds you to check with them before you book your flight, a flight which must arrive on a specific day - no earlier, no later. You may be the only person coming in that day, but if there are more, the company will try to arrange it so that you all arrive within a few hours of each other.


Preparation

What to take

- ¥130,000 in cash. DO NOT TAKE TRAVELER'S CHECKS. I know that AEON recommends keeping most of your savings in traveler's checks in lieu of cash, but this is stupid; Japan is a cash-oriented society. It is a big hassle for you, a newbie to Japan, to find a bank that will accept international traveler's checks and exchange them for Japanese Yen. Only bring traveler’s checks if you're the sort who constantly loses things.

- Passport with your current visa stamp

- Copies of your passport and visa stamp

- One small bag and garment bag to use at training

- One or two large bags to forward to your branch school

- Three changes of business attire (but I personally think two is enough, as long as you have plenty of shirts)

- A nice omiyage (gift) for your school staff once you attire. If you can't possibly stuff one more thing into your bags, you could just buy a box of chocolates or some baked goods once you’re in Japan.

- Japanese language books. I'd recommend Minna no Nihongo (which you can buy here; it's very commonly used in international center language classes) and Basic Kanji Book (good for memorizing the brushstroke order). Of course, you should buy a cheap phrasebook just to survive on a day-to-day basis; one problem I've noticed with these phrasebooks is they cater only to the tourist, not those already living in Japan.

- Comfort food, to tide you over until you find the best places to eat.

- Invest in a high quality camera, if photography suits you. If you just take pictures for fun, don't even bother – your Japanese cell phone should have a decent camera built-in.

- I talked about shoes in the last entries – two pairs, easy to slip on/off

What not to take

- Too many casual clothes. Save some money and buy some fashionable Japanese clothes.

- Too many books on Japan; it may be easier for you to locate these books in your English bookstore, but they're not difficult to find here – save room in your bags for things you absolutely cannot buy in Japan.

Visa

Once you receive your certificate of eligibility in the mail, you must either go to the nearest Japanese embassy, or FedEx the necessary paperwork (they only accept FedEx). Your passport should be returned with a fresh stamp: your first Japanese visa.


Training

You get off the plane after a long flight. A representative meets you. Your baggage is forwarded to your branch school. You are given a train ticket and escorted to housing or a hotel near the training facility.

Training should begin at 10 AM sharp the next day. Seven full days if you're teaching adults, tack on an additional two for kids, usually with a day off between the two sessions.

I had two really good trainers. Looking back, they were quite thorough, but nothing takes the place of experience; everything you go through during training seems so unfamiliar and difficult, but it becomes second nature after enough time.

Naturally, training will vary depending on your area and staff, but you should expect a curriculum similar to...

Adults

Day One

- Taxes in Japan
- Overview of AEON as a company
- AEON curriculum, textbooks
- Japanese lesson

Day Two

- Model lesson
- Textbook review
- Building a lesson plan
- Classroom English

Day Three

- Cultural differences, problems in the Japanese work environment
- AEON contract
- Contract renewal information
- Building a lesson plan
- Teacher presentation: half of a demonstration lesson

Day Four

- More information about The AEON Corporation
- Interviewing prospective students
- Assessing English levels
- Teacher presentation: full lesson

Day Five

- Group lessons
- Building a lesson plane
- Error correction techniques
- Teacher presentation: full lesson

Day Six

- Experience at branch schools
- Proficiency tests: TOEIC, TOFEL
- Making lesson supplements: posters, cards, etc
- Private lessons
- Teacher presentation: full lesson

Day Seven

- First days at your branch school
- Dress code
- Salary statements
- Vacation days
- Insurance
- Traveling abroad

Children

Day One

- Overview of curriculum and textbooks
- Warm up activities
- Games
- Model lessons
- Lesson preparation
- Teacher presentation: full lesson
- Overview of elementary school

Day Two

- Games
- Demo lessons
- Junior high school overview
- Lesson preparation
- Teacher presentation: full lesson


You should also receive your class schedule, details about your apartment, and the names of the other teachers at your school.


First Days

On the day following your last day of training (or the same night, depending on how far you need to travel), you will be thrown headfirst onto the nearest train and sent to your branch school. Most likely your manager and a teacher will be there to greet you with a gift or at least a ride to your housing.

They will set you up in the company apartment or a hotel while the old teacher moves out. You might have enough time to tour the school and meet a few people before it closes, and then comes your first test.

The welcome dinner. Teachers and management only. You are poked and prodded with questions, told you use chopsticks so well, and from the teachers' reactions, it's absolutely mind-blowing that you can pronounce "konnichiwa".

I, for one, feel that if you can speak Japanese all the time, you should. You will garner a lot more respect, not to mention put the "foreigners can't learn Japanese" stereotype to death. It will definitely make the branch school a more comfortable place to work (although you will still be prodded with questions).

Depending on when you arrive, you could have 2-5 days with the departing teacher. Two to five days to take notes, review student information, observe lessons, learn what the manager expects from you, become familiar with office operations, and soak up everything the departing teacher has to offer.

And now a farewell dinner for the departing dinner. Two dinners in one week (assuming they weren't cheap enough to cram into one).

You're on your own. You may be the only foreign teacher at a school whose manager and staff don't speak English well. You may have a fluent manager, and two other foreign teachers on staff. It depends entirely on the location.

During your first week, you'll have to...

- Go to the local government office and apply for an Alien Registration Card – up until the moment you receive it, you should carry your passport with you at all times; if you don't, the police have grounds to arrest you. It's best just to avoid the situation.
- Set up a Japanese bank account
- Get a Japanese cell phone
- Arrange all the paperwork to have your bills paid by automatic withdrawal from your bank account


Working

Business Meetings

Every week at a set time, all teachers will meet with management to go over business operations. These meetings are a waste of time, and nothing productive will ever come out of them. I recently read a short manifesto by an American who worked several contract positions in Tokyo and Fukuoka. I think his interpretation of Japanese business meetings says it best: the purpose of a business meeting is not to accomplish anything, it is to come to a consensus on what has been accomplished.

That having been said, you go over money that needs to be brought in, new students, campaigns, maybe farewell and goodbye parties... but nothing is accomplished – all the information relevant to your position could be reduced to a two-minute conversation.

Nevertheless, you won't be able to avoid these meetings, so brush on your Japanese, throw on a fake smile, and be prepared to be excited and genki about events you had no control over and statistics that really don’t concern you (I never played along with this, which is probably another reason why my contract wasn't renewed. My manager never understood why I couldn’t be "jumping up and down" excited that another teacher's student had signed up for a three-month course, or gotten a high TOEIC score. Apparently saying "that's good" isn't enough.)

Sick Days

Don't take sick days unless you're prepared to feel a whole lot worse at the end of the day than when you started.

Let me elaborate. You wake up, nauseated. There's not a chance in the world you feel like standing up in front of eight students and listening to their speeches for an hour. Something must be done. You reach for your trusty cell phone and dial before the clock strikes 10:00 AM (according to policy)...

Hai, moshi moshi
I can't come into work today, I'm just too sick.
Oohhh, I'm so sorry. Please wait, I will take you to hospital.
The hospital?? No, I just need to rest.
Please wait. I will come.
No, I'm fine, I just need to stay inside, rest, and eat healthy foods.
I think you need to go to hospital

Based on what? Your expert medical opinion? Hardly. Half the time, this is not so much out of concern for your health, but rather an attempt to prove that you are physically incapable of dragging yourself to work and to provide medical documentation for missing work.

I hate hospitals. When I'm sick, all I need to do is rest at home. Spending hours in a waiting room and a few additional hours waiting for a doctor who can look me over and then tell me I need to rest doesn't help. And if the doctor tells you can return to work for the rest of the day, AEON sees no problem in forcing the issue. The company should be accommodating to your request to stay at home, but they will often demand that you go into a hospital, or at least be examined by a staff member to see if you’re really sick.

You still have the final word – if you really don't want to go to a hospital, don't. Tell them no. You should be the one forcing the issue. Inform them that going to a hospital will just make the problem worse (unless you’re one to accept medications you can't read).


Evaluations

You should have someone from headquarters come and observe your lessons at three and six months after your arrival. They will hand you an evaluation sheet detailing any problems or praise. You will be given an offer to renew your contract for a given amount of time, or told you need to leave in six months.


Completion of Contract

I guess the first "official" notice that your contract is nearing completion begins about one month prior to your final day at school: you should receive a written request asking whether you would prefer a plane ticket home or the cash equivalent. If you request the cash equivalent, you must assume AEON will use their numbers to calculate a "fair price" – in other words, expect the price to differ from than which you paid to come to Japan by a few tens of thousands of yen.

Following that, you should receive a checklist in the company mail from your trainer, listing your responsibilities, both at school and in the company apartment, before the new teacher arrives.

- Your apartment will be inspected for cleanliness, furniture quality, and to make sure everything is intact

- Your bank account will be closed, you Japanese cell phone handed in

- Your utilities will be transferred to the new teacher, the difference paid by you

- On your very last day, your manager will give you a copy of the official recommendation letter, your bonus (about ¥65,000 for a one-year contract), your final paycheck, your plane ticket home (or cash equivalent), and all the relevant tax information if you need to file back in your country

- Depending on your school, you will either be placed in a hotel while the new teacher occupies your apartment, or vice versa


Fin.


The Truth About AEON: Part I
The Truth About AEON: Part II
The Truth About AEON: Part III
The Truth About AEON: Part IV
The Truth About AEON: Part V
The Truth About AEON: Part VI
The Truth About AEON: Part VII

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Truth About AEON: Part V

Reprimands and Blogging

This entry covers the experience that caused the beginning of the end of a pleasant work environment for me at AEON. No, I didn't steal anything, insult anyone, or commit a fatal cultural error. I blogged about a business meeting. If you've been following me for some time (since September, at least), you know probably know this by now – it was one of the entries that scored me the highest hit count I had ever seen up to that point.

So what happened?

One Thursday after lunch, as I'm preparing for my next lesson, my manager pulls me aside and tells me we need to have a meeting. A little puzzled, I comply, and shuffle my feet towards an empty classroom.

"Tana sensei, other teachers read your blog, and we need to talk about it."

I was a little confused at that point. I had asked my trainer about blogging at AEON, because that was a big source of information for me researching back in the US, and I wanted to give prospective employees a better idea of what it meant to come to Japan and work in the eikaiwa. Although, I do have to admit my entries up to that point were very primitive and based largely upon GaijinSmash. My ignorance.

Still, my trainer gave me some advice that I took to be the official stance of AEON: don't mention names, and don't brag about any illegal activities that you may or may not be doing (I can't believe some people would put that kind of information on an easily traceable website). I had complied with this – I mentioned I was an AEON teacher and my location, but did not mention the name of my school or any of my staff. And yet...

"Some of the teachers read your blog, and they were so angry... [The assistant manager] read your blog and he was so angry. Why did you do this?"

She was mostly concerned with my entry about an AEON business meeting, which did not contain specific information about the earnings or students of the school, but did discuss my interpretation of the staff's reaction to certain information (e.g. genkiness in the workplace). I had also discussed my reaction to a terrible kids class I had taught earlier that week, and my own trepidation about teaching so many children's classes. In addition, I had covered some of the staff reactions to my presence in the office – this was mostly coming from my manager, but I had the impression they thought I was an idiot because of my poor Japanese skills: spelling everything out, using a childish tone to talk to me...

Essentially the meeting was me clarifying every point I had ever made on my blog. It was humiliating, and I can't believe she devoted company time to talk to me about it.

"Why do you write these things?"
"These are my thoughts, my opinions; I don't tell people these things. The blog helps me think things over, like a diary."
"But this is different than diary, you post these things on the internet. Anyone can read."

There was no point in arguing any further; I later wrote an entry about blogging in the workplace which summarizes my problem with this meeting very nicely: I didn't bring this information into the workplace. I kept my comments at home, on my personal weblog, which is by definition an online diary. The staff chose to read it, and find offense with it. It's no different than them snooping around a personal diary I might have had lying on my desk – they chose to read it, and must face the consequences of having that information. I didn't give it to them, I didn't complain to them, and I didn't see the point of bringing such problems into the school. Apparently management felt otherwise.

In the end, after making me feel pretty lousy and telling me all the teachers at the school hated me and didn't want to talk to me, she asked me if I would like to transfer to a different school (also in response to my uncertainty in teaching kid's classes). I said I would if it would solve the problems here (I didn't really want to pick up everything and go after just three months, but she made it sound like there was no recovery from this). She also stipulated that if she informed corporate headquarters about this, they would fire me; essentially, I was being censored. Told to remove all references to AEON or be fired. I walked away and stayed pretty silent for the rest of the day.

That night, I wrote this entry (sorry about the Lost in Translation cliché) as a way of apologizing and explaining myself. I also included a small note along the lines of: "Since I have not been understood at my current branch, I will be transferring to a different school as soon as possible."

The next day. About two minutes after I arrive at the office my manager pulls me aside and wants to talk about my latest entry. Again, devoting company time to my blog. This is beyond ridiculous.

"This part is ok, but why did you do this? Why did you say these things?"

Referring to my decision to transfer. It's my choice as an individual. Am I not allowed to talk anymore? If I choose to confide that information to someone, am I in violation of AEON's rules? Regardless, the point is moot, because it was written on a blog, and I didn't bring it into the workplace. It was so pathetic seeing sympathy from her, as if this situation warranted sympathy – she was completely ignoring the root of the problem: there was no problem unless you happened to bring it into the light.

Again, censored. Told to remove all reference to the transfer, and prepare for another meeting next week. Later that day, I also received a call from my trainer telling me I was going to be reprimanded and it was a "serious situation".

I didn't want to make a stand over this. I wanted to stay in Japan. To be honest, I found the whole situation laughable – AEON, a supposedly respectable Japanese company, was devoting company time to addressing a problem they were perpetuating. Over a blog.

And why? Why would the company waste time and resources talking to me about these things? My blog entries were interpretations of cultural differences, hardly whistle-blowing material. Yet, according to the policy manual, AEON has the right to control "anything detrimental or embarrassing to the image and reputation [of AEON]." They used this policy to fire two teachers in Tokyo over information they posted on their blogs, and actually employ someone to search the blogosphere for any and all information.

The next week, I had an official sit-down with my trainer, who observed one of my classes (no doubt to determine on behalf of AEON if my "dangerous behavior" affected my classroom performance), and gave me an official Disciplinary Notification:

This is an official notice of disciplinary action up to and including dismissal, as indicated in the AEON Foreign Teacher's Policy Manual, if the areas of performance discussed do not improve. Immediate and effective improvements need to be made in teaching and/or interpersonal skills.

The reasons for this notification have been explain fully, as well as guidelines and suggestions needed for improvement.

The employer reserves the right to take disciplinary action or terminate the employment contract, if performance or behavioral problems continue or do not improve.


Although I stubbornly felt the problem was with management and the company spending so much time discussing the "problem", I did make an effort to rectify things with the staff at my school. I wrote an official letter of apology. I stayed late without saying a word. I did things without question, even when they warranted questions. I talked to the staff, but it was all very mechanical, because I was dead inside; from that point onward, I decided not to let a single aspect of my outside life or personality show through in the office (classes were the exception); placing that AEON nametag around my neck first thing in the afternoon was like amputating part of myself.

There was a reason behind it all; if AEON didn't want to know my opinions (good or bad), then they wouldn't get them. They would get nothing, just like they wanted. No personality, no stories, no ambition, no emotion. Nothing. I hope I lived up to their expectations. You can't have the light without the dark.

These feelings only improved slightly over the course of the next several months, due to my own stubbornness and the conceit of the staff.

Long-term ramifications

All this occurred before my renewal evaluation in December. All these opinions were embedded in the management and head teacher before my renewal.

My contract was not renewed, mainly on the basis of co-worker rapport. The staff let their feelings affect a person's career. Unbelievable. Of course, I hadn't planned to stay for over a year regardless, but to be turned down on the basis of a blog (and letting those feelings alter their judgment about my performance in other areas)... it was a little frustrating.

So where am I now? Writing about AEON on my blog. In the end, they accomplished nothing except giving me fire to fuel the raging debate about working in eikaiwa.

In all honesty, I was never really angry about the company's reaction to my articles. I knew the intent and purpose behind them, and it wasn’t meant to be personal or insulting – just information about working in Japan. There's only so much you can put up with before you decide what will and will not get to you. This was it for me. I just didn't care after that point.

So if AEON had fired me? So what? I could have done a job search and come up with something, or I could have gone home and searched for a job there, after blogging about the events and probably writing a news article for a legitimate media source.

If the staff had tried to make my existence in Japan as uncomfortable as possible? They didn't help, but again, it was impossible to let their behavior throw me off.

What if? What if...? The possibilities are endless. Nothing's changed about corporate responses to blogging – if the information is out there, someone will find it; I mention this because I told no one in the company, foreigner or otherwise, about my blog's URL or name. Be careful, but don't stop writing; you're always helping someone.

The Truth About AEON: Part I
The Truth About AEON: Part II
The Truth About AEON: Part III
The Truth About AEON: Part IV
The Truth About AEON: Part V
The Truth About AEON: Part VI
The Truth About AEON: Part VII

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Patience

I appreciate all the people reading up on the eikaiwa entries. Sorry I didn't post all seven at once, but my internet access is still shady. I will try to get part V up by tomorrow, and VI and VII by Sunday. I apologize for those of you waiting. Again, any questions, just email me.

Since I do have quite a few new readers who may have explored my earlier entries, I feel I should explain the discrepancies in my writing style (and my views on Japan in general). I'm not proud of the view I held when I first came to Japan. It was ignorant, and it was immature. I'm not omniscient, and I'm still learning new things about this country every day. I leave those postings to show everyone (and remind myself) how I evolved: from a backward ignoramus who based most of his opinions on blogs and negatives conversations with foreigners, to, hopefully, someone who embraces cultural differences and the way they broaden your mind, someone who studies Japanese knowing it is necessary for survival, and tries to see Japan for what it really is - not this throwback homogeneous culture that many westerners see, but a country filled with people just like any other. People with the same basic needs, wants, desires.

These might explain my transition:

Revelations
Conversations in Sapporo

The Truth About AEON: Part IV

Naturally, I had many questions at the information session and in the days following my official acceptance into AEON. After all, Japan was an unknown to me: a new world, with trials and tribulations. Who knows what life will hold for me in the land of the rising sun? The recruiter was helpful with most of these concerns, but you should benefit from my experience as well – here are some of my first questions about Japan. Again, if you don't see something that you would like to ask about, feel free...

My First Questions

Location, Location, Location

You do have quite a bit of flexibility in choosing where you'd like to be posted. In fact, if both your time schedule and location is up in the air, you can pretty much go wherever whenever you want. If you're particular to a certain time, AEON may give you a few choices for teachers departing around that date. If you're looking for a certain date and place (e.g. Tokyo in the summer), you might have to wait a few months longer than others.

Other than a city name, general statistics you could find on Wikipedia, and information about the student population of your particular school, you receive absolutely no useful facts. No websites to consult. No one to contact in the area – AEON doesn't give you the departing teacher's phone or email, regardless of whether the teacher is willing to talk or not. If your recruiter hasn't been to the school or lived in the area, he can't tell you any more. I found this particularly frustrating, since I couldn't find the kind of information I wanted online – running trails, gyms, touristy places in town, international centers, internet access, maps or listings of businesses in the area...

If you're in one of the larger cities of Japan, this really shouldn't be a problem. Once I had lived here a few months and been privy to the best internet websites, I had no problems... still, I didn't know what to look for back home... it would have been nice for AEON to clue me in just a little.

Exclusivity

AEON has you sign a contract which states that you will work for the company alone during your time in Japan – in other words, you cannot pursue other part-time or contract teaching positions. This is not illegal, just annoying. According to Japanese law, you are entirely within your rights to work however many jobs you'd like under a visa (applicable to the visa status, of course), regardless of the visa sponsor; AEON cannot revoke your visa for violating your employment contract. But they can fire you, and are still operating within the law.

My main question here was about conducting business online – selling things over eBay, trading stocks, etc. AEON has no problem with this. In fact, once I arrived in Japan, I was unofficially told that many teachers still work on the side... let's face it, no company can track their employees 24/7.

Work Schedule

You'll either be working Monday through Friday or Tuesday through Saturday. Tues-Sat is more common, especially if you're at a school that teaches children; Saturday is usually the best day for parents to send their children to an eikaiwa. As a result, Saturday will be your busiest day, starting at either 10, 11 AM and ending at 8 PM. Other days you'll start at 12, 1 PM, having a few classes and off time, and end at 9 PM.

I would have liked to have known the exact working schedule for my school, but I later found out this wasn't possible so far beforehand... classes are added, removed, changed, and the entire schedule is redone in October and April. You do receive your full schedule once you arrive in Japan during training.

What to Bring

This depends on your country of origin, of course, but I was most curious about any products that were lacking in Japan that I might miss. Foods, toiletries, movies, books, etc.

DVDs in Japan are coded to Region 2 – not Region 1 like the US. Some DVD players can operate with both types, but your computer's DVD drive might not be able to switch (or if it can, it might be for only a limited number of times).

I have talked about western chain restaurants you can find in Japan.

English sections in bookstores are plentiful – if you know a Kinokuniya in your area, it has one.

I was concerned about brand name items in stores; food that I was already familiar with. Import stores are easy enough to find in Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Sapporo, and Nagasaki (and even a few in Kagoshima), but they're not everywhere, and you can't always expect to have access to the same foods you've come to enjoy every day. If you're bent on this, I'd recommend the Foreign Buyers' Club.

I'd buy most of the clothes you need back home, especially your business suits (AEON recommends you have three). In general, I haven't had too many problems finding clothes my size over here, as a 6'1", 181 cm tall American man. But, there have been issues with my size 11.5 feet; you can find plain white and black shoes, but don't expect a lot of variety when you're looking for shoes over 28 cm long. Eventually I just asked some friends to mail me some Timberlands from America. My best advice to you – buy two new pairs of shoes that you can slip on/off easily for work and off time; you have no idea how often you'll be required to remove your shoes at the threshold of a business; it's embarrassing if you take too long.

Power

The good old electrical kind. Japanese alternating current operates at the same frequency as American power, 60 Hz, at 100 V. If you have any American-built electrical appliance or computer, it will work just fine in Japan. The outlets are the same too, so you don't need any converter.

Travel in Japan

You cannot arrive early in Japan on a tourist visa to take advantage of a JR Rail Pass and travel about the country (unless, of course, you happen to be a native English speaking Japanese citizen) – AEON has you tied to your working visa the moment you step through immigration.

Internet

Back in Austin, I could successfully navigate my way through Time Warner Cable's internet services to set up a month-by-month internet connection for only $30/month. In Japan, I knew nothing about the companies, the services, the issues with connecting a foreign computer to a Japanese LAN line.

I don't believe there are any compatibility issues as far as the internet is concerned – to quote, the internet is the internet is the internet is the internet. No matter in which country you reside.

As for the companies providing internet services? There are several with English assistance.

But the best one I found by far is NTT's fiber optic internet service:

NTT English line
0120-463-364

They were doing a special deal when I signed on, so I only had to pay for monthly service (no installation). However, no matter what service you choose, it takes time to install your connection over here. It could be over a month. Be patient.

Should I buy a computer in Japan?

...rather than hauling one from my country? In general, I would say no. The prices aren't so different for computers, but the keyboards are set up a little bit differently (just ask anyone who's had to look for the @ or ' keys), and you'll probably have to pay extra for an English operating system, if you can find one. If you really expect to type a lot in Japanese, though, it might not be a bad idea.

The Language

I believe AEON downplays the important of Japanese in your school; true, you may have a manager who speaks English fluently without a trace of an accent and never have to worry about Japanese at work. But you could also have a manager who barely speaks 100 words of English and needs an interpreter to tell you anything... messages get lost, confusion occurs (and of course, your coworkers make fun of you, thinking you can't understand them).

I think you should at least get started on a six-month course before you come to Japan. It's going to be much easier for you to pick it up once you enter the country – focus on colloquial and business Japanese. Learn hiragana and katakana as best you can. Try to study the first hundred kanji.

Outside Behavior

AEON placed a great deal of emphasis about representing the company, even in your off hours. This really had me questioning just how much time I really had to myself to travel, relax, act in my own fashion. The truth is this time is entirely your own, and you are free to walk about the country unshaven and sleep on a park bench for all the company cares, as long as you return to work promptly the next day.

The Truth About AEON: Part I
The Truth About AEON: Part II
The Truth About AEON: Part III
The Truth About AEON: Part IV
The Truth About AEON: Part V
The Truth About AEON: Part VI
The Truth About AEON: Part VII

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLP)

Applications are now being accepted for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, to be held on December 2nd this year. Stop by a registered location to buy the application form (500円) and start studying.

Deadline: September 11, 2007
Fee: 5500円

JLP Level 1 (most difficult)

The examinee has mastered grammar to a high level, knows around 2,000 Kanji and 10,000 words, and has an integrated command of the language sufficient for life in Japanese society. This level is normally reached after studying Japanese for around 900 hours.

JLP Level 2

The examinee has mastered grammar to a relatively high level, knows around 1,000 Kanji and 6,000 words, and has the ability to converse, read, and write about matters of a general nature. This level is normally reached after studying Japanese for around 600 hours and after completion of an intermediate course.

JLP Level 3

The examinee has mastered grammar to a limited level, knows around 300 Kanji and 1,500 words, and has the ability to take part in everyday conversation and to read and write simple sentences. This level is normally reached after studying Japanese for around 300 hours and after completion of an elementary course.

JLP Level 4 (easiest)

The examinee has mastered the basic elements of grammar, knows around 100 Kanji and 800 words, and has the ability to engage in simple conversation and to read and write short, simple sentences. This level is normally reached after studying Japanese for around 150 hours and after completion of the first half of an elementary course.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Truth About AEON: Part III

Ignorance

Often times, as was the case at my branch, the manager was completely unfamiliar with the contract signed by foreign staff. When I persisted in certain actions that I knew were allowed according to my contract, the manager always had to call headquarters in the end and be put in her place... they pointed out that "yes, he is right according to the contract."

I hated doing things that way. I tried to explain that "this is what I signed up for, this is what I was told, and this is the way things will be according to Japanese law," but was often shut down and contradicted; sometimes, I just went along to mollify things. In most cases, the requested work or action wasn't any big deal, despite the fact it was against the contract. But sometimes... the amount of stubbornness and ignorance I witnessed was just staggering.

For this entry, each argument will have two pieces: one, the actual quotation from the AEON manual or contract, and two, what happened in my case.


AEON encourages teachers to develop friendships with students in a group situation. However, AEON discourages all teachers from having inappropriate, intimate relationships with AEON students, and in particular, teachers should not, under any circumstances, socialize with students under the age of 20 on a one-to-one basis.

I had met a new student in one of my high-level conversation classes (Odyssey), and invited her to come out to karaoke with my friends in Hiroshima next weekend. I passed her my email address when I was supposedly alone in the hallway. It didn't take more than five minutes before the manager approached me, telling me one of the teachers saw me giving my email address to a student. I confirmed this, and explained the situation; according to the contract, I was entirely within my rights to socialize with a student.

"Going out with students is ok, but you can't ask them in the lobby, or in front of other teachers..."

I was too surprised to react. Of course this was in complete contradiction to what I knew to be true... strangely hypocritical for an organization that supposedly encourages socializing. I can only conclude that management must not have liked the idea of me spending time with a female student, even in a group scenario. That's the kind of mentality we see in Gaijin Ura Hanzai File – the innocent Japanese girl being corrupted by the dirty foreign dog.

...

1. The teacher's contracted salary is based on a 29.5-hour workweek, which is a combination of teaching time and office duty hours. Breaks are not included in the workweek calculation. The 29.5-hour workweek consists of a maximum teaching time of 25 hours per week (1500 minutes, which is equivalent to thirty 50-minute lessons) with the remainder of the time spent in various office hours. Workdays may vary in their combination of teaching time and office duty hours.

2. The maximum teaching time is 25 hours per week. Teachers may be requested to teach over these limits. In such cases, all teaching time exceeding this limit is calculated as overtime. The number of classes may vary considerably from day to day or season to season. Whenever the teaching time exceeds 25 hours per week, the teacher will be paid the overtime rate for all hours or fractions of the hours...

3. Office hours include, but are not limited to, prospective student interviews, counseling, promotional activities, office maintenance, class preparation and other tasks necessary for the smooth operation of the school... Teachers are required to be in the office for their scheduled working hours. However, teachers may leave the office during their schedule breaks.


This is what we call a convenient loophole. Convenient for AEON, that is, in that they never pay their teachers overtime for certain extra "teaching time". Let me explain – I mentioned that AEON has many campaigns, involving a host of different teaching materials which you are required to follow up on directly with students. This means that although you are, in every sense of the word, teaching students these materials in the 10-minute intervals between classes, you are not considered "teaching" under the contract, and are not paid for overtime if enough of these sessions occur.

To repeat: you are teaching, and not getting paid for it. In fact, during some busy months, you can have these student meetings after almost every class all week, amounting to a few hours extra work.

In addition, there is an aspect of Japanese culture you'll just have to adapt to; I'm not complaining about this, because I understand it's necessary if you work in Japan. I'm referring to cleaning up. Many Japanese businesses, even big ones, do not hire janitors or cleaning staff to tidy up after hours. As a result, employees are expected to take out the trash, vacuum, replace the air vents, clean the bathrooms, etc. Even in Japanese schools, students have a cleaning break to wipe the boards and sweep the floor.

At AEON, this cleaning time does add up, especially if you have to wait until the last student leaves the building before you can begin doing things that are not for the public's eyes (cleaning, you dirty thinkers). I just wish they would put this time on your work schedule as part of your office hours, since you are required to stay and do your part. I have written documentation that management asked me on multiple occasions to stay after 9:00 PM (scheduled working time), and clean the boards in what was legally my off time.

Management may tell you have to wait until every last student leaves before you can start doing your "required" cleaning work. AEON headquarters would disagree with this – your working time is only on the schedule, which does not include time after your last class. If they want you to stay during this time, ask them to schedule it from your office hours. Doing so will seem petty and incur the wrath of everyone at your branch, so you pretty much have to stay in your own time if you want your coworkers to at least act cordial.

The time after the last class was probably the source of greatest dispute I had with management. I knew I was free. Yet I was told otherwise. And when headquarters informed them I was correct, I was told I had to behave according to my branch's rules anyway if I "wanted a good recommendation"; it was such a flimsy threat I was lucky I didn't die laughing on the spot. I later found out no one from your branch school is responsible for writing your final recommendation letter (although you can request it).

You are told you need to do your part with cleaning the building.
This is true, but if they want you to clean after the last class at 9:00 PM, inform them it should be scheduled as office hours. If they are unwilling to do that, kindly explain that the cleaning will be done the next day during scheduled work time.

You are told you cannot leave until the last student leaves
See previous statement. I was also a little frustrated with this "request" because some teachers knowingly kept their classes 20-30 minutes late at times. If they want to work late, that's fine, that's their decision, but it shouldn't affect my working hours. This is also true for teachers talking to students in the lobby after class... again, have these long conversations in your own time if you expect the other staff to stick around; this isn't about being rude to students and trying to avoid personal conversations, it's about freedom. If you tell me I cannot leave the building until all the students are gone, and then condone other teachers keeping students in the building after hours, sparks are going to fly.

Completely unrelated to this argument – working hours. 29.5. Why? Because, according to Japanese law, if you work over 30 hours you are a full-time worker, and entitled to full-time benefits (and on the reverse, different taxes, of course). Still, management just stared me in the face when I explained this to them.

"According to Japanese law, I am a part-time worker."
"No, you are not. You are full time teacher."
"No, not according to the law."
"Why are you saying this?"

Because it's important for all parties to understand that. No amount of insistence or stubbornness will change that fact. And if I am a part time worker, I should not be coerced into working extra hours unless you want to face the consequences of employing me as a full-time worker.

Other part-time workers in Japan have had it much worse; everyone knows unpaid overtime is as natural as having black hair in Japan. Some were working 40-50 hour/weeks while still under a part-time contract. No health insurance. Part-time wages. No assistance for childcare. There have been some attempts to improve this, but I believe it's still rather rampant.

...

Management will assign break periods within the business day. Teachers are free to leave the office during their breaks, provided they notify the Branch Manager before leaving the office, they clock out/in on the Time Recorder, and return prior to their scheduled time. The Branch Manager may ask the teacher to reschedule break times for other periods during the same week. This may be for attending workshops, trainings or classes.

During my first few weeks, perhaps just under two months, at AEON, I didn't really leave the office during my scheduled break times. I went out to grab lunch or a snack, brought it back, and ate at my small desk while studying Japanese or making weekend plans. This was entirely my decision; I didn't want the other staff to believe I was a slacker and would be adhering to the exact numbers in the work schedule (that later changed when respect stopped being given from both sides).

In my first schedule, I had at least one two-hour break on a given day. My manager asked if she could reschedule this particular break to a different day – turning one two-hour break into two one-hour breaks. From her tone I thought I could negotiate a slightly different time, and asked her if I would be possible to make a new break the next day:

"Could you move one hour to tomorrow? I need to pay some bills at the post office; they're due tomorrow." (true, I should have signed up for a bank account withdrawal)
"Oh, break time is not for paying bills. You can leave, but you have to stay close to the office."

Again. Utter stock. This is on verge of stupidity, and it would not stand this time. I wasn't going to argue the point that day, but that kind of lie (or at least ignorance) told to foreign teachers did prompt me to take full advantage of all the break time I had scheduled in the future. I don't think my manager ever believed me when I told her I was free to do as I chose during scheduled off hours; it took a meeting with my trainer to convince her otherwise (maybe not even really convince her, but at least get her to stop forcing the issue).

...

a. Employees earn one Employee Designated Paid Vacation day for every two-month period of work, or five days per year, calculated from the beginning of the third month from the starting date of the current contract. Therefore, the teacher can submit a request for the dates of two of these five Employee Designated Paid Vacation days within the first six months of work. Beginning with the seventh month of employment, the teacher may request dates for all unused Employee Designated Paid Vacation days.

b. The company may ask that the teacher make changes to his/her requested vacation days if those dates fall on days that are crucial to the smooth business operations of the company. In such cases, teachers should submit a second request for other desired vacation dates. The company encourages the teachers to take their vacation days on those dates that immediately precede the Company Designated Vacation periods. The company encourages teachers not to request Employee Designated Paid Vacation days during the last two weeks of their contract. This period is a crucial time for departing teachers to conduct their final lessons and prepare for a smooth transition with incoming teachers.


"The company encourages the teachers to take their vacation days on those dates that immediately precede the Company Designated Vacation periods." If AEON is referring to the days preceding Obon (national holiday week in August) and Shogatsu (New Year's national holiday week), this is true – you are free to request days before these holidays and generally have them granted. This is how I was able to go home over Christmas. AEON has blackout days which cannot be used for vacation before Golden Week.

However, the "Company Designated Vacation periods" include days off, which were Sundays and Mondays in my case. Requesting Saturday off was never a possibility. I asked on multiple occasions – when my family was coming to visit for one week only, when I had to do a job interview, and Saturday was the only day available, when I wanted to attend the last days of the Sapporo Snow Festival... completely inflexible.

I know Saturday is a busy day for a school that caters to children, but if you don't want teachers to request it, don't say they can. Don’t lead them into believing they can request any dates not on the company blackout list – it's just plain deception.

Even when these restricted vacation days were granted (again, never on Saturdays), I was told I could not explain to my students why I was leaving; I had to tell them I was going to an "official AEON business meeting, and was very sorry... but I have urgent business." Wow. For lack of a rational answer, what is wrong with this company?

This goes back to the great divide between employee and manager expectations. Teachers come over here with the promise of:

Why not spend the next year (or more!) teaching in Japan, skiing the Japanese Alps, exploring Japan (not to mention Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, and China), and eating amazing food all while gaining valuable professional and life experience?

Managers accept new teachers in their branch on the condition that their hearts are in one place, and one place alone: the well-being and betterment of the company. I don't think this is the case for any foreign teacher in Japan. No one comes solely for the purpose of being a part-time worker or an English teacher (nothing against teaching, I just think your interests should lie a little deeper). We come to travel, to learn, to explore, to socialize, to evolve. AEON doesn't want to hear this, nor do they want you to spread such "dangerous" facts to the student population. This was the case during my experience, anyway.


Send comments my way. Wow, this entry really was bitter and biased. All fact and heart mixed together.

The Truth About AEON: Part I
The Truth About AEON: Part II
The Truth About AEON: Part III
The Truth About AEON: Part IV
The Truth About AEON: Part V
The Truth About AEON: Part VI
The Truth About AEON: Part VII

The Truth About AEON: Part II

Salesmanship

Like any private business, AEON has a certain obligation to maintain sales goals, recruit new clientele, and focus only on the yen at times. This is entirely understandable. I repeat: I understand AEON's need to be concerned with money; they have to have enough to pay employees, print new materials, cover the utilities, and recruit new members.

However, I disagree with how they lie to their employees regarding such intentions. Not just shadow or subtly conceal: lie.

From the beginning, in the initial briefing in your home country, you are told you are being brought into Japan to be a teacher, a cultural representative, a being free to explore Japanese culture in the manner you choose. This is a half-truth. AEON completely glosses over the work outside of the classroom, the work that is expected to be your priority, more so than any experiences you have with students: sales.

How can I explain this fairly...? Your manager will consider the time you spend outside the classroom recruiting students and promoting campaigns paramount. After all, once students have signed a contract, AEON has their money; after that, there is little more to do than ensure their happiness, so they can buy other materials in the future.

Interviews

Recruiting new students is a fairly common event, especially during the month of April. When prospective students enter a branch of AEON, they are expected to see foreign teachers conversing happily with students in the lobby, the manager bowing and greeting them, and English materials all around.

It is inevitable that you'll be asked to conduct interviews during your time with AEON. It's rather simple, and quite friendly: introducing yourself to students, talking about yourself, getting them to talk about themselves, assessing their English level...

The entire interview is framed around you telling the student their English level is very good, and you hope you can see them in class at AEON very soon, so you can talk again. Sales goal accomplished.

But regardless of whether you know (based on your teaching experience) a student would fit perfectly in a certain class, you don't get the final word. Students can choose any class they like as long as they are willing to pay. Of course, management can inform them “the foreign teacher said you would do best here...” but the final decision is that of the student; thrust enough cash at AEON, and you can be in the highest conversation class regardless of whether you speak at a high school level.

This can be especially frustrating if you're asked to do private lessons for children who have absolutely no English skills; their parents just want to force some English into them by any means necessary, and AEON is happy to oblige. Many (depending on circumstances, of course) do not want to be there and will do everything in their power to disrupt lessons.

Campaigns

I can’t go into details as to the specific campaigns AEON promotes (mainly due to fear of reprisal – if you want the details, email me). Essentially, there are many different materials students can purchase, from listening CDs, to writing workshops, to English books related to different jobs.

"Teachers" are asked to think of their students ahead of time, to consider which materials would be best for them. This is ignoring the fact that some students can barely afford to attend class in the first place, let alone splurge on extra materials. This is also ignoring the fact that some professionals do not have the time to spend an extra hour or two using these materials at home.

Let me give you an example: one time, I had two high school students who had purchased two different material sets and fallen out of the habit of doing them. On instructions from my manager, I asked them when they could finish. They're high school students, and told me they were very busy (it was exam time). I understood, and relayed the message, promptly being told they had no choice in the matter: they bought the materials, and we had an obligation to make sure they finished, regardless of whether they wanted to or not. I should point out these girls were acting of their own accord – they didn't have to report to their parents. The school was completely in the dark about facts of life like financial responsibility, and necessary downtime.

But regarding the deception – it is quite obvious what we're trying to do: namely, sell students extra often times unnecessary materials to raise money. Management will tell you otherwise:

"This is not a business thing."
"This is so fun."
"This is not only money, this is an educational thing."
"Maybe you can 'remember' students who need [campaign materials]."
"We are doing [campaign] because of not money, we are doing it for our students' satisfaction."

Strange that they would try so hard to convince you that this is for students rather than putting money into the corporation. Although this may be a popular method for "advertising" campaigns to foreign teachers, the truth comes out in a crunch:

"They won't buy [campaign] in the future." (when my consultation didn't result in a sale)
"If they didn't buy [campaign], it means they didn't agree with that or they didn't understand." (inconceivable that some students have financial or other hardships)
"Sugoi, ne!!" (in response to my knowing the prices of some campaign materials)
"That's not the pretty side of it, but its true." (AEON trainer regarding campaign sales)

My concern, again, is not so much that this occurs at AEON, but that they misrepresent your purpose in coming to Japan. All of the training and interviews you do in your native country reveal nothing about selling materials, checking up on previous materials sold, and taking time away from office hours and between classes (technically not "teaching hours" – will discuss this in a later entry) to do such things.

Counseling

This is a little more understandable, not as strongly focused on sales. Naturally, you want feedback from your students every so often regarding how they feel about class, if they want to change anything, what they enjoy most, how they practice at home...

Every few months or so, AEON employees are asked to meet with these students for a short talk about their performance in class and any concerns they might have in a meeting.

Usually, these meetings do not result in any sale whatsoever – they are merely to check up on pupils and open a dialogue with the instructor.

However, if a student has a contract with AEON ending in the near future, employees are asked to schedule a meeting to determine if they would like to continue with AEON, or finish out their contract (usually scheduled as a meeting with the teacher, then followed by a consultation with management).

Teachers are asked to provide a list of students' strengths and weaknesses in their respective classes. They are also required to list more strengths than weaknesses, even if the student may be struggling. In this manner, we can show them that AEON alone is responsible for their "great improvement with the English language", but ooohhh... there are still a few things they need to work on... why not start a new contract, sign up for another class?

This is nothing short of harassment of students at times. The worst thing I was ever asked to do was to try and sell materials to a woman about to give birth. Management wanted the details as to when she would return to AEON, and have me try to convince her to buy as many English-teaching materials as I could during her long absence. This was absolutely despicable.

...one of the first things I was told about counseling upon arrival at my new school:

"Of course, even if they are perfect, we must tell them they need to improve, so we can get money."

...

These are facts when you work at AEON, not open to interpretation. I have tried to convey them without any bitterness, but as you've read, it can be difficult as times.

However, I will say this: all these actions are a result of a blind corporate following. Managers push sales and campaigns so hard because headquarters pressures them; their jobs are to ensure sales goal are met, and they have no choice but to push these values onto the foreign staff at times.

This is where we see the main breakdown in communication; for although managers are entirely within their rights to make such requests to AEON employees, they don’t understand why we might be hesitant or confused at such requests. Managers weren’t there for the initial briefing, the information session, the interviews, the week of training in Okayama (for AEON West Japan) – they have no reason but to expect 100% blind obedience for work required. Ignorance on both sides: what foreign teachers are expected to do, and what managers are within their rights to do. This will be the topic of my next entry.

Send comments, open a dialogue.

The Truth About AEON: Part I
The Truth About AEON: Part II
The Truth About AEON: Part III
The Truth About AEON: Part IV
The Truth About AEON: Part V
The Truth About AEON: Part VI
The Truth About AEON: Part VII

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Fingerprinting




Whether you're a first-timer traveling to Japan in the near future, a long-time resident holding a working visa, or just someone who wants an extended layover on route to Peking, be aware: immigration authorities will take your fingerprints.

Beginning in November 2007 immigration will resume fingerprinting of all foreign nationals entering Japan. If you refuse to be fingerprinted, you will be denied entry into Japan.

Why? Concerns over terrorism, which is a little ironic, considering that in most instances caused by a "terrorist" in Japan, the terrorist himself was Japanese.

I'm not entirely sure about the fine lines between working visa holders, permanent residents, spouse visa holders, or Japanese citizens who happen to look "foreign". Right now all I can promise you all tourists will be fingerprinted. Be prepared to accept this if you want to visit.

Click here to view a video in which paid actors act over-enthusiastic and stupid to give immigration authorities a means to inform foreigners about these changes.

Japan did have a foreigner fingerprinting policy some years ago: read some history about it here.


Debito's opinion