So what was it like, working in Japan? When I first started teaching in Japan, I worked for a conversation school that I'll call Imperial Cubicles, which was repetitive.
I then moved to a company called Dai Nippon Teaching, and worked for that company until my health collapsed in December of 2004.
My job at Dai Nippon Teaching had one good point and one bad point. The good point was variety. I was always doing something new, which put to the test both my improvisational abilities and my planning skills. The bad point was, again, variety. I did so many different things that it was difficult to become truly skilled at any one. A guessing game involving a mystery object (a toy lizard, the tail sticking out of one of my pockets) might work fine at the elementary school level but be totally inappropriate for adult students studying English at a high level in a corporate setting.
During my time at Dai Nippon Teaching, I did pretty much everything which is doable in the English teaching field in Japan. At one time or another I was involved in teaching at elementary school, at junior high school, at high school and at university level. I taught corporate classes, did a little bit of telephone teaching and did some teaching in the form of correspondence courses. I taught an e-mail based writing course. I designed curriculum materials, developing lessons for elementary school, junior high school and business classes. I also designed and wrote, from scratch, two additional e-mail-based writing courses for my company.
Financially, the deal was that the more hours I worked the more I got paid. So I worked a lot of hours. I would sometimes leave home as early as 0630 and sometimes would not return until 2130. A lot of my time was spent sitting on trains, commuting from one teaching location to another, so I was able to get my personal writing done while sitting on trains. For that purpose, I carried my laptop computer in a medium-sized backpack. And, in the same backpack, I usually had a flask of coffee, a packed lunch, a collapsible umbrella and a bunch of other stuff as well. I did a lot of walking with that backpack, so my level of cardiovascular fitness was pretty good.
One last thing I did in Japan was to go to a glitzy upmarket venue to teach English to a group of about forty people who worked in the retail sector.
English teachers in Japan typically use English only, and usually there is no requirement for the teacher to speak any Japanese at all, but on this occasion my mission was to begin by making a short presentation in Japanese on the difficulties that foreigners may have when shopping in Japan. I was then to use Japanese to run the lesson.
(One difficulty a foreigner may have in Japan: you walk into a shop someplace and suddenly the staff start shouting at you, very loudly, without any provocation at all, saying "Irrashai! Irrashai! Irrashaimase!" What's going on here? This verbal onslaught can be scary, but, actually, it's just politeness in an unfamiliar form, the recitation of a set expression which might reasonably be translated as meaning something like "Step this way".)
After three years of university study and seven years in Japan, my Japanese was adequate for this task, since I had managed to get hold of the textbook that would be used, and had put in the time necessary to prepare a short presentation.
The venue was at Roppongi Hills, the latest and greatest of Tokyo's upmarket building complexes, and I went there together with two people from my company, one a male salesman and the other a female sales assistant.
As we walked through busy underground tunnels while changing trains, I kept inadvertently pulling toward the left, with the result that my backpack, which I had slung over my left shoulder, kept bumping into the sales assistant. I kept apologizing and tried to make a conscious effort to keep to the right, but failed.
After we'd gotten to the venue okay, I made the backpack vanish, tucking it out of sight underneath a table, leaving me immaculately dressed in a tailor-made business suit. I got through the presentation okay, and then I had to teach a lesson based on the textbook provided by the client, which was basically a Japanese-English phrase book with an emphasis on retail situations. As a phrase book, it was excellent. As a textbook to be used for teaching communicative English, however, it was not so good.
Fortunately I'd managed to get my hands on a copy of the textbook before the lesson and I had familiarized myself with the contents. Just as well, because my eyesight was too bad for me to readily grapple with unfamiliar paperwork. The left eye was useless and there was a messy snowstorm of floating garbage in the right eye, so that when I tried to read from the client's textbook the print blurred into existence, vanished, then sharpened again.
I'm there, I have forty students, Dai Nippon Teaching's salesman is watching me, and the very polite and immaculately dressed suits from the client are there too, so I'm under pressure.
Fortunately, I've already been through this twice, once with a group of railway workers and once with a group of restaurant staff. I've had two shots at handling a group of this size, a group of people I've never met before, people whose abilities are unknown to me, and now I'm ready to apply the method here.
Speaking in Japanese, I explained that each group (the students were sitting in separate groups at separate tables) would choose a situation in which a native speaker of English hits difficulties while shopping. They would design a role play. I would circulate and help. Then there would be practice of the role play. Then some students from each group would perform their group's role play in front of everyone.
This worked beautifully. My own presentation on the difficulties that foreigners have when shopping had been a bit sketchy, but the students had very firm notions (based on experience) of what those difficulties were, and had situation-specific English problems which they wanted to solve, and which could reasonably be solved in the time available. (From start to finish I had two hours to play with.)
Finally, the lesson worked its way to the stage at which the role plays were performed, group by group, in front of the whole audience. The role plays were warmly applauded, and the whole experience began to flow, and I felt a huge melting warmth inside me as stress melted into success, and I was floating, up in the heights of one of the glitziest places in Tokyo, immaculately dressed in my Japanese business suit in the world of suits.
Admittedly, my tailor-made suit no longer had the proper tailor-made fit, because I had been about 75 kilograms when it was made, and my weight had now dropped to about 62 kilograms. (A kilogram is approximately 2.207 pounds so my weight had dropped from roughly 165.25 pounds to about 136.83 pounds.)
After the role plays, I did a circulation exercise. Each table broke into two groups, one set of students who circulate and the other set who stay put. All of the circulating sets move clockwise one table and play the roles of native speakers of English with retail-related problems. The people who stay at the tables play the roles of retail workers. So, rather than having rehearsed role plays being performed one at a time, we're moving into the area of unrehearsed situations being done impromptu.
Once the energy plays out of this setup and the noise levels drop, I get the circulating groups to each move to a new table to start over.
It all works beautifully and the students are happy and confident and successful, and at the end the client's top suit -- at least, he's the most senior person on the ground, a very nice guy and very polished -- makes a very nice speech in Japanese and says very nice things about me, and I'm confident that he's genuinely pleased with what's happened, that I've successfully managed to create something which meets the client's visionary expectations.
And then Dai Nippon Teaching's salesman makes a speech, and he's obviously pleased, though he does make the point that true mastery of English is really the work of two thousand hours of study rather than just two.
Of course, he's a salesman, and it's natural for him to sell, but it's nicely done and it doesn't undercut the situation. And, of course, it's true. Higher levels? We're talking hundreds of hours of study.
And that's it, my big success of the year, the toughest thing I've done in Japan, something which looked, at the outset, like a disaster just waiting to happen (two hours, students of mixed ability and unknown level, client's self-made phrase book textbook, and, on top of that, Potentially Very Important Client's evident high expectations) but which went off beautifully.
The next day I'm at an elementary school I've never been to before, just there for the day to teach some pretty simple stuff, like days of the week. It's my first (and only) time at this school (when I've gone to teach at elementary school it's always been on an occasional basis, just a day here or there) but it goes very well because I'm team teaching with elementary school teachers who actually know how to teach English (not always the case) and who are well prepared, and who have designed lessons with appropriate slots for me.
Then it happens.
For one of the lessons, the kids go into a special activities room which is carpeted with tatami mats (traditional Japanese mats made of rushes). The lesson goes superbly and, at the end, the teacher has all the kids bow, which is a standard way to finish off a lesson in a Japanese elementary school.
I'm feeling happy and mellow, and I bow too, going down very low, and suddenly --
The left side of my face explodes and I'm shocked back, and what the hell has happened? What has happened is that a girl aged maybe nine has cannonballed into the left side of my head. She came out of her bow and started sprinting for the door in human cannonball mode, acting without thinking, and she smashed right into me, my spectacles (which, fortunately, are of the "nobody ever regretted buying quality" variety) taking the shock and distributing it.
And I am furious, shaken by uncontrollable anger, the backload of stress sliding forward, blowing my fuses, and I have to strike out, I have to physically hit something, I am gripped by a colossal and despairing rage, and, in a moment of uncontrolled and uncontrollable violence, I slam the right side of my head into the wall. Fortunately, there happens to be a corkboard noticeboard right there, bereft of notices.
Then the moment of rage is gone, and I'm conscious of having lost my cool, and I'm wondering how this is going to play out. But the teacher is apologetic, and, though he must have noticed my reaction, I get the feeling that he fully understands that it's unreasonable to expect me to be happy at being slammed hard on the side of the head by a human cannonball. And, fortunately, the true megavolt intensity of my uncontrollable lapse into physical violence remains my secret. All the teacher would have seen would have been a brief collision between head and corkboard.
As for the girl, well, she's a little flustered but recovers quickly and is off. I don't seem to remember her making an apology, and I got the impression that she thought it was my fault, that I should have seen her coming and should have got out of the way.
But I hadn't seen her.
I was effectively blind in the left eye, and, walking through crowded Tokyo train stations, had collisions or near-collisions with people who also thought I could see them more clearly than I could. And my night vision was shot so that people emerged out of the night suddenly, materializing on sidewalks out of nowhere, and once, on a dimly lit street in a place called Kita Matsudo, I walked slap bang into a utility pole.
At the same place, Kita Matsudo, shortly after walking into the utility pole, I was walking to the station through a really dark area when I heard the weirdest sound off to my right. It was something changing in the air. But what? The mental image that surfaced was, absurdly, of a lightbulb collapsing into darkness. Then I realized that the sound had been caused by a cyclist sweeping past in the night without anything in the way of a light.
Shortly after that episode, I bought a new flashlight and took to carrying it defensively at nights. The cyclists who were breaking the law by zipping along at night with no headlight could at least see me, thanks to the white blaze of my flashlight, even if I could not see them.
Any time a Japanese person asks me what I don't like about Japan, my standard answer is "bicycles". I've completely lost track of how many times I've almost been killed by lawless cyclists hurtling through the night without anything resembling a headlamp. They're lawless because it's too much of a hassle for the police to enforce the laws which theoretically govern the use of bicycles, and a significant number of people are killed or injured each year in accidents involving bicycles.
Anyway, thanks to my trusty flashlight, I survived December 2004.