Thursday, March 30, 2006


It will probably be the only time in my life that a pair of sneakers helped me get a job.

If you know much about Japanese culture, you probably know that the Japanese are a little finicky about their footwear. Shoes are not to be worn inside a home, although slippers are quite common and often provided for guests. (The slippers are invariably five sizes too small for western males, except for my buddy Schwartz, who has the smallest feet of any white guy I know. Naturally, he wastes those small feet by keeping them in America, instead of bringing them to Japan where they could really fit in.) Many restaurants have sections where stocking-footed diners sit at low tables directly on tatami (straw mat) flooring. Shoes are left either at the entrance or in the aisle. Slippers are provided for trips to the bathroom. When you get to there, you’ll likely be confronted by yet another pair of slippers (blue ones in the men’s room, red ones in the women’s room). You’re to trade your hallway slippers for these toilet slippers (often, conveniently labeled as such) while doing your business, then trade back upon exiting the bathroom. Even in the dressing rooms for public baths, where it’s assumed everyone will be naked, you’ll find toilet slippers waiting in the bathroom. Be careful you don’t wear them back into the dressing room, or you could really cause a stir.

Most schools have shoe rules, too. Slippers are still provided for visitors, but students and faculty typically have a separate pair of indoor shoes that they change into upon entering the building. Outside shoes can be just about anything, but inside shoes are often sneakers. It’s just like Mr. Rogers trading his wingtips for Keds at the beginning of every episode, although here, white Asics seem to be the norm among students. Faculty have more choice in the matter, and it’s common to see teachers in suits or dresses with anything from matching dress shoes to cross trainers to sport sandals on their feet.

I arrived in Japan from China with only my trail-worn hiking boots. I’d shipped sandals, brown loafers, and black dress shoes, but no sneakers since the last pair I had in the U.S. was nearly spent. My plan was to buy a pair in Japan, but I knew that would be tricky given the size differential. Coming home from Sapporo a few weeks, Mo suggested we look in the outlets near the airport, which look surprisingly like any outlet mall I’ve ever had the misfortunate of visiting in the U.S. It was uncanny, really. The layout was the same, the stores were the same, even the music was the same. The sizes sure weren’t the same, though. It took four stores before we found any size 12 sneakers, a single pair of silver Nikes for 4000 yen (about $35US). I’m not much of a Nike man these days, but I seemed to have little choice in the matter.

Since the weather still favors boots (unless you ask the college girls walking through snow and ice in 3-inch heels), I’ve been using my new sneakers as indoor shoes, mainly at the high schools where rehearsals are held for Maureen’s musical. But when I went to my first job interview here two Saturdays ago, I decided to bring them along. One of Maureen’s friends suggested it might be a good way of demonstrating that I’d learned something about the culture.

One thing that I’d already known for a long time about Japanese culture is the importance of being on time, which, here, means being early. My interview was scheduled for 1:30. I took a train that arrived at 12:50, giving me a full forty minutes to find my way from the station to the high school. My contact had suggested taking a cab, but had also given me directions by bus. With so much time, only a short distance to go, and a hot streak of foreign navigational confidence, I boarded the bus at the #2 platform per my instructions. From there, I was to ride down a hill to a lemon yellow school. The bus went down a hill, and there, on the left, was a school. It wasn’t quite lemon yellow, but its pale yellow exterior looked as if it could have faded from lemon at some point. I signaled the driver and exited. Inside the building, I found a lot of students who all looked a little too young to be in high school. One showed me to the teachers’ office, where a kind English teacher informed me that this was, in fact, a junior high. The high school I wanted was further down the street, down another hill to another yellow building. By now my time was getting tight. I walked quickly outside but just missed the next bus. Fifteen minutes of fast walking later, I was at a much more yellow school, but ten minutes late. I don't have a cell phone here, and didn’t pass a single public phone on the way. I wondered if I should even bother going in, but the security guard gave me a warm smile and pointed up the stairs.

There were several pairs of slippers at the edge of the foyer, and for a moment I considered them carefully. Then I decided that since I had bothered to carry my indoor shoes all this way, I might as well wear them, funny as it felt to be wearing silver Nikes with my black suit into an interview. Not that I really expected it to matter given my tardiness, especially after wasting a couple more minutes looking for the teachers’ room upstairs.

I walked into the office apologizing profusely, even seriously considered prostrating myself before the two young women and one middle-aged man who were waiting for me. They showed me into a conference room and completely dashed whatever slim hopes I had left by starting the interview with several aggressive questions about my lack of teaching experience and relatively short time spent in Japan. The one good thing my plight did, however, was help relax me. I knew I didn’t have a prayer, so I felt a little more at ease to answer honestly, candidly, and enthusiastically. I didn’t even flinch when the man asked me a question in Japanese. I simply explained that I didn’t speak very much Japanese and asked for the question again in English. I asked several questions about their school and English department at the end, apologized more, thanked them for their time and walked out, never expecting to hear from them again.

“How was the interview?” everyone wanted to know at dinner that night.

“I got there late.”

“Oh.” This said as if I’d told them I’d puked on the vice principal.

Three days passed with no word. On the afternoon of the fourth day, I was shocked to see a new email with the subject “Job Offer.” Following some discussion about the details of the arrangements, I accepted.

On Wednesday night, I attended my first event with my new co-workers, an office dinner party at one of the gigantic resort/spa/hotels in Noboribetsu. Rooms were reserved and I was invited to spend the night, with everything paid for by the school.

The dinner party served the two-fold purpose of honoring five retiring teachers and introducing four new ones, myself included. Everyone sat on the floor in front of individual, low tables, on which a considerable variety of Japanese cuisine was spread. I only recognized about half of what I was eating, but there was plenty of everything. There was also plenty of beer. Everything that I’d read and heard about the Japanese opening up over alcohol proved most true.

One young social studies teacher, who speaks only a little more English than I speak Japanese, had learned a few choice phrases from the Canadian teacher I was replacing. He introduced himself, raised a glass, and boldly proclaimed, “Let’s get pissed!”

Later, one of the women who had interviewed me sat down beside me, beer glass in hand. After only a very little small talk, she began telling me all about herself without my even having to ask. That would never happen without the cover of alcohol. She also brought up my interview, and the fact that I was late.

“I honestly never expected to hear from you again.”

“We were all sitting around wondering where you were and what we were going to do to you if you did eventually arrive.”

“Why did you decide to hire me?”

“You were so sorry about being late, and we all agreed that you would be something fresh and new for our department.” Then she added, with a smile, “Oh, and your shoes. You brought indoor shoes with you. Everyone else we interviewed just wore slippers.”

All of the teachers I met were very welcoming and spoke openly with me. There are about six Japanese English teachers, most in the their mid-twenties to early thirties, making it very a young, energetic department. It is also a department undergoing some turmoil. Last year they had two native English speakers on their staff, one full-time and one part-time. One of those teachers left on bad terms. The other, the Canadian, left on very good terms. He was among the five retiring teachers being honored at the dinner, even though he had only been at the school for two years. The other four teachers were older Japanese with more than 30 years of service each.

Classes start during the second week of April, so I still have some time to prepare myself. The school is located in a southern suburb of Sapporo, and is about an hour and half commute by train. That doesn’t bother me, since (1) I like to ride on trains, (2) it will be excellent time for reading and writing, and (3) the school is paying for it. I will work three days most weeks, teaching very basic English to first year students, as well as conversation classes with third year students. All classes will be team-taught, meaning I’ll have a Japanese teacher of English (JTE) helping me at all times.

I’m excited, nervous, and anticipating lots of stories to come out of this. Wish me luck!


Tim said...

Congrats Scott, that's great news. I hear it's tough to get those private AET jobs. Best of luck with it.

Havok said...

Good luck to you Scott. Sounds like it will be interesting, if nothing else.

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