Sunday, December 17, 2006

Working at the Board of Education

The Nejime Town Hall is a squat ugly troll beside the river. Three stories tall, it is a concrete Soviet-style office block.

It is a microcosm of all that is wrong with Japan.

Inside, dozens of public servants work hard at appearing busy. Sixty percent of the people do nothing but doodle on their desks or stare at computer screens, grimly shuffling paper when another person comes near. The bulk of the work that does go on is devoted to those projects that directly harm or detract from the life of Nejime: the terrifying garbage system, the thought police of the Local Neighbourhood Association, the agricultural subsidies and construction boondoggling that keep the economy alive. Massive time and energy is devoted to special projects that can waste time and money even more effectively: I will never forget the large department set aside on the ground floor dedicated to gappei, the merger with the neighbouring town of Sata. I would walk past this huge room every morning to see all 12 public servants

playing solitaire on their pc.

This 'gappei preparation project' took six months.

On the second floor you will come to the Nejime Board of Education, the kyouikuinkai, the source of all evil, despair and intellectual failure in Nejime.

Here there are about 13 people in various positions of real or imaginary authority.

The key point of the BOE is that the 'pretense at working', predominant in the rest of the Town Hall, has evolved to its highest expression here. I admit that I myself was among the worst offenders. No, I don't admit that, I grind the statement out through gritted teeth, because I spent hundreds of hours doodling in kanji practice books and drinking coffee while 2 kilometres away an entire school of kids was listening to their teacher drone on in Japanese about English grammar points.

At first I fought my fate, but the system is implacable. There was no thought anywhere that change was needed, that the current system wasn't working, that I was here to teach English, that the kids were to learn English. Instead, when problems arose, they were my problems. I wanted to change something and inconvenience people, I couldn't work with the system, I couldn't speak Japanese.

To affect change is such a system is simply not possible. I was physically prevented, refused entry into class. The next step would have been expulsion from my job and from the country. In Japan, you play ball or you don't play.

That's why so many JETs leave after a year. The job is ridiculous.

But I liked the primary school, and I loved my outside life, sushi and sex and onsens and getting drunk with Fergus.

It is no exaggeration to say that for three years the Nejime BOE worked hard at preventing anybody from learning English. So I accepted the inevitable.

I became an active observer of its rhythms and its contradictions. And being at once part of it and outside of it, I could observe from a perspective, impossible, I believe, for a Japanese person.

Every morning there was morning meeting, conducted at 8.30 and lasting anywhere between 1 minute and 10. For the first few weeks of my job, when I knew little or no Japanese, I was literally completely unaware that I was in the middle of a Japanese meeting. There were none of the signs that you might expect in the West: people sitting around a table or at least sitting at attention; a person of authority talking to the others; other people contributing or asking questions; eye contact being made by listeners to speakers. Instead what I at first took to be a homeless man, or on second thought a senile man from another floor, would wander into the room, collapse on a couch, and drool and mumble to himself for five minutes. The other people in the office would, it seemed to me, completely ignore him. People took calls, worked on their computers, chatted to each other. However in time I realised that this was the meeting. It was a watershed in my understanding of Japan, not only that I hadn't known it was a meeting, that nobody had told me, that it had been assumed that I had known. That meant that this kind of meeting was the norm. This obviously senile old git was the Head of the Board of Education. He was in a positon of authority.

Even when my Japanese became good enough to understand the gist of the meetings, I was not endeared to the Japanese office. A Japanese meeting consists of one guy standing up and saying something along the lines of...
"I hearby open the daily meeting of such and such a date. I urge everybody to do their best and improve the education in Nejime. Thank you very much."
After which the next guy in line would say...
"Thank you very much, honourable such and such. The teaching section has nothing special to report."
Then the next guy would say "Thank you very much. Honourable such and such has gone to his weekly business meeting in Kanoya"
Then the next guy would say "Thank you very much. I have nothing to report"
And this would go on until the last guy says "The meeting is now closed. Thank you very much."

After that the hard work would continue until long after the time to go home had passed. Useful time-filling operations include: paper shuffling, looking at the computer, opening drawers, drinking green tea and shredding paper. Advanced level time killing techniques include, but are not limited to: picking wax out of the ears; putting papers into envelopes before taking them out and shredding them; clipping of fingernails, playing with the tea leaves in the bottom of the cup, joking with co-workers; and when worse comes to worse talking to the gaijin in the corner.

Only the office girl does any work, and she has a hard time of it- telling her seniors where things are, constantly taking phone calls, faxing, organising meetings, schedules and stationery, and then making tea at 10.30 and 3! For her troubles she gets chocolate once a year on White Day and the privilegeof being sexually harrassed on other days. Finally, her career reaches its peak when she is married off to some corrupt construction official in her 26th year. Whether her new fate is better or worse than her previous is hard to judge.

And that is the Nejime Board of Education