There are two main types of privately run English schools in Japan, the eikaiwa and the juku. The eikaiwa (literally English conversation) is popular among companies who need their employees to communicate internationally, the elderly looking for a hobby, and parents of young children who want their kids to be able to speak English. The focus of an eikaiwa is first and foremost the ability to communicate in English. The other kind of school is the juku, or cram school. There are juku for any school subject you could imagine, and the focus of these kinds of schools are not communication of any kind, but the ability to pass the dreaded high school and college exams. It is possible (and I've seen this first hand) for a student to truly excel at English juku, and not be able to have even the simplest of conversations. The Eikawa is also where you will find the majority of native English speaking teachers. Most juku require their teachers to have certifications, where the eikaiwa only requires a four year university degree (in anything) and they only need that to get your working visa.
I had signed my teaching contract with a small company called ECS (English Communication Services), an eikaiwa. There were six full time teachers, two secretaries, our manager, and the owner, Jerry. Jerry was a trip. He was a second generation Japanese American, but he tried to pretend that he was Japanese born and bred. He said it was better for business. He had several other companies that he ran, most of which were of a somewhat... mysterious nature.
River on the way to work
I met Lisa at the office in the early afternoon the day after my arrival in Japan, and she introduced me to the others that were there. Lisa, I learned, was not actually our manager, though she had most of those responisbilities. Instead, as a Japanese American, she was the liaison between the foreign and Japanese staff. Being well acquainted with both cultures, she had the exciting job of smoothing ruffled feathers on either side, as well as teaching duties. That afternoon she introduced me to the actual manager, Mimi.
"I don't like foreign people," Mimi said as she looked me up and down. "Did you know that foreign people are responsible for the majority of traffic accidents here in Japan? And foreigners are so unreliable. You can never trust them to be anywhere on time."
". . ."
A million comments ran through my mind in moments, none of which were probably appropriate at the time, the most prominent being 'if you hate foreign people, aren't you in the wrong job?' And I'm pretty sure that Japanese people cause the majority of traffic accidents in Japan, since foreign residents make up about 1.5% of the population. Ah, racism. Little did I know at the time, but racism was about to become a constant companion.
The six other teachers were from a rash of different places. Lisa from Hawaii, Marissa from Canada/Ecuador, Mark from Michigan, and then the two Dea's. Big Dea and Tall Dea... not only did they have the same name, but they even looked similar. The craziest part was, even their last names were only two letters different. Personality wise, however, they couldn't have been more different. Big Dea was from the same state as I was though from a different part, and Tall Dea was from Michigan, like Mark, but also from a different area.
Fukuyama by Night
That afternoon, the only other teacher was Tall Dea. We had what I have since come to call the Introduction Conversation. It seems that anytime two foreign people come together in Japan, we always seem to have the exact same conversation that consists of the same five questions.
Question 1: Where are you from?
Question 2: Why are you here?
Question 3: How long will you stay?
Question 4: What do you think of Japan?
Question 5: Do you like going out drinking?
After we had chatted for a while, he stood up to head off to his first lessons.
"See you tommorrow, then," I said.
He stopped in his tracks and slowly turned to face me, a condescending smile on his face. "No, probably not," he replied. "That's not how it works here." And with that, he swept out of the office, leaving me to wonder if I had really made a good decision to come to Japan in the first place. Suddenly I felt very lonely.
When she had a chance, Lisa came over and started explaining the schedule for the next day. ECS's students were mostly company workers, and instead of coming to our school, the teachers would drive out to their companies. That way, the workers could easily return to work after lessons were over. (The fun life of a Japanese business man. Work from 8 AM to 6 PM, have mandatory English lessons for an hour and a half, and then return to work until 10 or 11 PM before being forced by your boss to go out to dinner followed by drinks, allowing you to return home at about 3 AM, giving you about 3 hours to sleep before it all begins again. No one needs more than 3 hours, right?!) "You and I are going to go to the company together. Both of our lessons are at the same place."
View from my apartment... can you find the castle?
Both of our lessons? A sense of welling dread began in my chest. "Wait... Aren't I observing your lessons? I mean, when is my training? I told you when I applied that I'm not an education major, I'm a theatre major... I don't know anything about teaching!"
"I hired you because you were a theatre major!" she said smiling. "You're so expressive! Don't worry, you'll be fine!" The mantra for all work related worries. You'll be fine. And with that, she too left for her afternoon lessons. I walked back to my very empty apartment through the beautiful October sunshine, slowly wondering what the HELL I was going to do. When I got back, I stood out on the veranda for a while. As I stood there, I realized that I could see the very top of the castle. Funnily enough, that small thought was enough to make me start feeling a bit better. I was going to be fine.