Snoozin' on the job
The Japanese are very sleepy people. They are experts at being able to sleep anywhere, any time. At work, in meetings, sitting on the train, standing on the train — any time they can grab a few winks, they do. Vending machines are stacked with a huge variety of espresso drinks and other super-caffeinated elixors to help them battle the Sandman.
When I first arrived in Japan, one of the things that shocked me about my school was seeing teachers sleep at their desks. It is not an uncommon sight to see various teachers put their heads down on their desks during the day and just take a nap for 20 minutes or even an hour. What's particularly shocking about this is that it happens in the main teachers' office, right in front of the vice principal.
It's the same story in class. Students will bow their heads and sleep through an entire class, completely undisturbed by the teacher, who appears not to even notice or care.
There's a kind of mutual understanding that everybody's just exhausted all the time. "Shou ga nai" as the Japanese would say — "It can't be helped."
There's good reason for all these droopy eyelids. The typical Japanese teacher works 12 to 14 hours a day. Technically, they only have to be at school until 5 p.m., but I think they might be branded as lazy if they actually left at that time. They start their day around 7:30 a.m. and most are there till at least 7:30 p.m., and some as late as 9:30 p.m. Or even later.
Now, being honest, this does not always mean they've got their nose to the grindstone the whole time (as you can see). I do think they tend to be less efficient than the standard 9-to-5er. Sometimes, much to my annoyance, presence is valued over productivity; there are days when they are just logging the face time expected of them, doing eight hours of work spread out over 12 (or more) hours, wasting their lives away.
My supervisor tells me teachers at my school typically teach 18 classes per week (each class being 50 minutes long). That works out to three or four classes a day — less than what most American teachers do in my hometown, especially now that budget cuts have slashed school staff to the bare minimum.
That said, they do have some responsibilities that American teachers don't. First of all, most of them are assigned (involuntarily and arbitrarily) to supervise school clubs and sports, which often meet for several hours after school everyday. Some, like the baseball team, even meet for practice before school as well. Oh, and those teams and clubs meet year-round. Now it's true that some American teachers coach teams too, but that's voluntary and they get paid additional salary to do that. Japanese teachers don't.
On top of that, most of the teachers are assigned to be homeroom teachers. The ones unlucky enough to be homeroom teachers for seniors serve as counselors to their 40 homeroom students, guiding them through the process of getting into college. This is no small task, as anyone acquainted with the college applications process in America knows.
Japanese teachers also play a much more active role in students' lives than American teachers. If a child gets hurt or lands in some trouble outside school, often the homeroom teacher is called before the parents. Whereas American parents tend to be really defensive about not wanting outsiders to interfere with how they raise their kids, in Japan it's just the opposite. Homeroom teachers in Japan are more intimately involved in the character development of each student, working to instill discipline and decency. Recently, one student at my school was picked up by the police for throwing rocks at an abandoned building and breaking windows (something I once did as a teenager — minus the getting arrested part!). His teacher had to scrap weekend plans to pick him up from the police station and likely give him the scolding of his life. Another example: In a lot of upper-academic schools, like mine, students are prohibited from having part-time jobs outside of school. The thinking is that they should be focusing their full attention on studying. If parents discover their kid has a secret job, they might not take it upon themselves to confront their child and make him quit. No, they very well may call the kid's homeroom teacher and make the teacher get the kid to quit!
Then when you consider that it's common for teachers to come in to work on Saturday, and sometimes Sunday as well, to teach supplementary classes and supervise student activities, you start to understand why they are falling asleep at their desks.
As for the students? Consider some of the daily stresses endured by Japanese students. There are no school buses for high school students, and they can't drive because the legal minimum driving age is 18 (and they're not allowed to get their license before graduation). So all the students ride their bicycles to school, some from significant distances. Remember, schools here do not serve as neighborhood schools like schools in America; students must take exams to gain entrance to certain schools, and they attend the best school they can get in to in their area. If they live in the countryside, that school could be very far away. Joe has students who commute by bus, train and bicycle from their home two hours away. Imagine how exhausting that gets day after day — especially if you're one of those kids who really wants to play a sport, and it requires practice before school starts! The Japanese are hardcore when it comes to these pursuits; if you want to be part of the team, you must be at every practice. No excuses.
As if the commute and the extra-curricular meetings weren't enough, there's also juku — supplementary "cram" schools that students attend in the evenings and on weekends to try to get ahead so they can go on to the best colleges. My supervisor guesses that around a third of the students at my school attend juku at some point during their high school years.
You know those articles you always read saying how U.S. schools are so far behind schools in other countries, especially in Asia? Say like this recent MSNBC story that included this nugget:
Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the United States (180 days).
Yeah... that's totally misleading. While it does clearly demonstrate how much time is actually wasted in Japanese schools on non-instructional activities, what's missing from this equation is the number of hours Japanese kids spend in cram school. If that were factored in, it would be easy to see why Japanese kids are outscoring American kids — because in reality the Japanese are spending far more time in the classroom.
It's not at all unusual for some of my students to head to juku at the end of the regular school day and stay there until late in the evening, say 10 p.m. Last year a couple girls in my advanced English class told me that not only did they attend juku everyday after school during the week, but they also attended on Saturdays and Sundays — for 12 hours each day! That 12 hours a day applied every day over summer vacation, too! They were happy when summer "vacation" was over! I could hardly believe it when they told me that. Who can imagine American schoolchildren forfeiting their summer vacations to take extra classes 12 hours a day all summer long in hopes of getting into a better college? It's inconceivable! There is actually a Japanese term to describe this kind of insanity: shiken jigoku — literally, "examination hell."
Some Japanese children start going to juku from a very young age in hopes that the extra preparation will get them into a better junior high school, then a better high school and then the best university. They sacrifice their childhoods in the name of their future. I know one woman who told me she was forced to go to juku in elementary school, and it is her worst memory of that period of time in her life. It's just heartbreaking how much pressure Japanese society places on the children here. There seems to be no recognition that people have limits, that learning has limits! After sitting in regular school all day, who has the mental energy to absorb much more at juku? It seems absolutely crazy! There's no time for reflection, no time for critical thought. I almost feel like it's a form of mind control.
In fact, in some ways I feel like the time demands on students result in lower expectations at regular school. Their schedules are crammed so full that deadlines for homework in my school seem to be unenforceable — some of the kids literally have no time to do their homework, so they're routinely allowed to hand in assignments late (and even then, clearly done half-ass).
One of my other JET friends gave her students a survey that included a question about how many hours of sleep they usually get each night. Some of the kids said they averaged four hours a night.
That is why students fall asleep in class, and that is why the teachers ignore it. I don't get upset when it happens in my class. Usually I leave the Sleepy McGees alone unless their participation is necessary for the lesson at that moment, in which case I take a piece of paper and rest it atop their head and wave it back and forth while saying cheerily, "Wake up! Wake up!", until the tickling of their hair startles them awake. I feel it doesn't do any good to get angry at the kids.
It's this "Life is Work" approach that has contributed toward something of a revolt among a subset of Japanese youth who can't handle the pressure. I read a book a while back called Shutting Out The Sun: How Japan created its own lost generation, by Michael Zielenziger. It's about the phenomenon of hikikomori, young people who completely withdraw from society. They lock themselves in their rooms and refuse to come out — sometimes for years. Their families enable them by leaving food outside their doors, but family members are too embarrassed to reach out for help. There are more than 1 million of these shut-ins, according to this book. That's mind-boggling! But can you blame these guys? I think I'd become a hermit too if I were Japanese!
Part of this book focuses on a guy named Hiro, whose parents sent him off to juku starting at age 5. Since he'd scored well on intelligence tests, they hoped he could earn a place at an elite elementary school that belonged to a feeder program that would ultimately guarantee students admission to a prestigious university. Hiro started juku each day at 4 p.m. and wouldn't get home until 10 p.m. He was constantly exhausted. At age 6, he flunked the entrance exam, but his parents pushed him to continue studying for entrance exams anyway so he could go to a top school. In an interview with the author as an adult, Hiro recalled outbursts of anger toward his mother due to all the pressure, saying:
I remember one time yelling at her and saying 'I am not going to be your robot anymore.' I remember all this anger welling up inside me. I threw a cup against the wall. Another time I threw my pencil box out the window. She pushed me so much... she ruined my youth.
Don't get me wrong, I have great respect for the Japanese work ethic, but I also think that this level of stress is unnecessary, not to mention unhealthy. Last year, I visited an 11th grade class to teach a special lesson and I noticed a kid with patches of hair missing all over his head. I saw the kid sitting there twisting hairs and pulling them out! When I said something to the classroom teacher after class, she said he was OK, but his hair was falling out because of stress. She said this like it was no big deal, just an everyday statement of fact. Well, whether it was stress, or a medical condition like trichotillomania, obviously that kid's dealing with way too much anxiety — why was I seemingly the only one so bothered by it? (Maybe they were just brushing me off because they already had it handled?) In recent weeks there's also been a girl who routinely comes barging into the teachers' office at random times in a full blown panic attack, hyperventilating into a paper bag.
The light at the end of the tunnel for these kids is college. I'm told that once they graduate high school, the pressure lifts. Whereas going to university only doubled my workload, the opposite happens for Japanese college students. For them, it's Party Time! (I guess it's party time for American college kids too... but for us it's "Work hard, play hard." For the Japanese, it's more like "Worked hard, play hard.") It is not their performance in a college that is so important — it is what college they gain admission to. Once in, they are allowed to coast by — rather low expectations are placed on them. As long as they show up, they pretty much cannot fail, and once they graduate and get a job (and many colleges have arrangements to feed graduates into certain companies), their company will put them through a training program. Then of course it is back to work. For those who enter white collar professions, becoming what the Japanese term a "salaryman", they can only look forward to a lifetime of 60- to 80- hour work weeks — just like the teachers at my school.
Japan has created the perfect system to churn out generation after generation of workaholics. Indeed, most of them are so overworked, they hardly have time to form their own identity. I feel like a lot of them wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they did have free time! Some of my co-workers will readily tell you that they go home everyday after work and spend what little time is left before bed by drinking. And they don't see anything wrong with that. It's so depressing.
This all sounds pretty brutal, doesn't it? I wonder if I have the impression that it's worse than it is. After all, many of my students are happy. They seem to like school. They talk about how much they enjoy their school club activities, respect their teachers and love their friends. They may be insanely busy, but the up side is their shared exhaustion seems to produce a deep sense of camaraderie.