Perspectives: Teaching English in a Japanese kindergarten, Pt 2

In part 1 we covered how Stacie got to Japan and the problems with her first job. In this part we talk about her current job and living in Japan.


What’s a Japanese kindergarten like?


The entire purpose of kindergarten is to teach children how they’re supposed to behave when they go to proper school. Compulsory kindergarten is three years here and it’s just the preliminaries so they behave properly when they go to elementary school.


Ok and what’s an average day like?


We play in the morning for two hours, usually in the yard regardless of how cold it is. We go outside rain or shine, even if it’s snowing and play with footballs, skipping ropes, bicycles and all that jazz.


Even the smallest children, children that can’t walk yet, aren’t safe from sports day.


After that they’ll come inside and we’ll do something which is in a very minor way educational, so we’ll learn an English song or something. I’ll usually teach the vocab to them with flashcards then we’ll learn the tune. Afterwards we’ll do something creative, either me or my Japanese partner teacher will take it and it’ll either be making something ridiculous if it’s me or origami if it’s her.



After that we eat bentos, which are fabulous lunchtime creations. I get more excited about it than the kids do. It also usually involves them rooting about in my lunchbox and finding if there’s anything they’ve never eaten before. (Which I’m pretty sure they lie about.)


After lunch they play more or practice for an upcoming event.


What are the events?


Events are huge in Japanese kindergarten, they practice for them every day for 6-8 weeks. Sports day is pure lunacy. They practice for 6 weeks doing the exact things they’re going to do on sports day. For 6 weeks every day is sports day, then when you get there it’s a damb squib of a day.


Even the smallest children, children that can’t walk yet, aren’t safe from sports day.


They find them a sport, like “Can you fling this teddy through a ring”, and everyone comes to watch an 18 month old kid.


But it's this big event, the whole family turns out to watch their kids, everyone cries. It’s a weirdly big deal.


If I was to take you from teaching mid lesson in an English class and put you in a Japanese one, what are the differences?


They’re far more respectful here than they are at home. I know it’s a bit of a cliche and they’re not little angels, they are just children and what you would expect, but when I would arrive at school, even in high school in my old job, there’d be a small line of children who’d wait to take your bags or folders.


Bowing is everywhere as well, we bow for everything. When me meet each other in the morning I bow and my class bows back at me.


There’s also a huge importance placed on being there, on turning up to your lessons. It’s not acceptable to not come to school or not go to lessons, even if you’re very very sick you wear a mask and come to school. But you can sleep all day. People do just fall asleep anywhere here, park benches, trains, buses, train platforms, at work in the staffroom. Sleeping people everywhere. It was really weird when I first arrived, children were asleep in my class and I wasn’t supposed to wake them up.


How is the classroom environment?


It’s really physical work, which is not something I expected to have being a school teacher. You’re expected to touch the kids here, pick them up and throw them around, all this stuff that never happens back in England.


I literally walk in the door, they scream “good morning”, throw themselves at me and I catch them now. It was the weirdest thing to get used to that they could touch me and I was supposed to pick up them up and go along with it. Little kids cry, they get sad, they fall over and hurt themselves, here 20% of my day is loving kids better from various injuries and miseries and it’s made for the closest classroom environment I could possibly imagine. Especially since I’m not supposed to speak Japanese at school.


How well do you think the language immersion works?


It works really well, they speak more English than you could really expect of a 5 year old. And they try really hard. They try hard because they want to be my friend, they come sit on my lap and bring a book, they want to play with my iPad in English, they want to play with my hair because it’s curly and they don’t have that. There’s all this stuff that children at home miss out on.


They really remember them. They remember their names, the colour of their hair, where they lived. I don’t remember any of that stuff about my teachers.


This week, because my class left yesterday, I’ve really been able to appreciate what that has given us; given me as a teacher and them as students.


They not only have a contact abroad who will send them postcards and stuff, but they have a friend… who is so different, who can’t speak the same language, but we love each other anyway and it’s beautiful. It’s the reason I’ve loved this job so much.


I’ve got hundreds of drawings of things they do on a weekend and requests to come in on a Saturday and Sunday because I am not at their house.


I’m friends with their mothers; they cried their eyes out yesterday. One of my little boys cried so much he had to leave the room and be brought back in, only to start crying again.


You don’t expect that kind of emotional response from a 5 year old and definitely not with a teacher.


My kids in the Japanese school consider the teachers to be their friends. And not in the tragic sort of "hey dude way", but in a really sweet honest representation of what teaching should be. The little ones come in and start telling me about their day, I don’t know what they’re saying most of the time, but I love that they like me enough, to want me to know.


The relationship here is really really different. They get really attached to their teachers, even grown ups, proper adults, they remember with so much fondness the teachers who had them when they were just tiny kids like mine now. They really remember them. They remember their names, the colour of their hair, where they lived. I don’t remember any of that stuff about my teachers.


You’ve lived in two places so far, Kitakyushu-shi and Hiroshima. Which did you prefer?


Hiroshima was a lot better. I lived in Kitakyushu-shi when I first moved here which is quite metropolitan but there’s nothing to do.


It is a community in the truest sense of the word, we all talk all the time, we’re in touch with each other.


Kitakyushu-shi is one of the few places on Kyshu where it’s easy to get a bullet train to anywhere else, so a lot of people live there and work somewhere else. It’s empty in the weeks and really busy on the weekend, quite a family orientated place but it really has very little in way of oddities and expats. Where there were no expats I felt really really alien and there wasn’t a lot to do.


Hiroshima is huge, well it’s not huge but it feels it after living in Kitakyushu-shi. It has a huge expat community which makes a huge difference to your quality of life because my Japanese is not particularly good so it would make it difficult to go out and find Japanese speaking friends.


(We discussed the sizes of both cities here, neither of us knew them so I looked it up after. Kitakyushu-shi has a similar population size to Hiroshima but is about half the area and so a lot more dense (almost twice as dense.))


But I do have lots and lots of Japanese friends because I meet them through English speaking people now and a lot of my English speaking friends, their wives speak English too. It is a community in the truest sense of the word, we all talk all the time, we’re in touch with each other. A lot of the people who run websites which are pertinent to us and run the tourism websites, we all know them. If I wanted to stay here and say move into tourism I’m sure I could.


It’s an ageing community too so if I wanted to come back and stay here I’d be in good company.


How much time do you get to see Japan?


You get lots and lots of days off. National holidays in Japan are numerous. They know foreigners want to go see Mount Fuji and places, so sometimes your very nice head teacher will say “You know what? Take a little extra time.” They’re very nice about that stuff especially if you’re willing to bend over backwards for them.


It’s better if you can get a bus to go visit places; the bullet train is prohibitively expensive although for good reason, it is fantastic. If you manage to get a coach then you can sleep overnight and wake up there which is how I like to do it. It’s far cheaper and gives you more money to spend when you get there.


Most surreal moment?


I got hit by a van on my way into work. It was a very old man who hit me, he took took me to the police station a couple days later to make a statement .


He came to pick me up and I thought he’d come to finish me off, he had to swerve to avoid a bus on his way over, he was just a horrendous driver. I get into his car and we head off to the police station and there’s this awkward silence, the most awkward of all the silences, broken only by him saying sorry a couple more times, before we fall back into the beautiful silence.


All I can hear is the Japanese radio station he’s playing, they come out of the weather and on comes “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procoul Harem. We’re in his car traversing the traffic in the most haphazard of ways, he’s completely silent and there’s a whiter shade of pale going on between us. It was utterly  surreal.


He did manage to keep a sense of humour about the whole thing though, as he swerved to miss another bus, he’d say “Whoops not again”.


Stacie's got her own blog, A Weird and Wonderful Wander which is equal parts witty and touching. She wrote a great piece about an austistic boy she taught if you're not sure where to start.