How To Deal With Your Japanese Colleagues

Reference & EducationEducation

  • Author Dominic Bryan San Jose
  • Published August 4, 2021
  • Word count 4,000

One of my worries before coming to Japan was the idea of how to deal with my future Japanese colleagues.

To ease my worries, I watched some videos on YouTube and read several articles about the Japanese working environment.

Those videos and articles formed certain preconceptions about the Japanese people in a corporate world or in a workplace.

The predominant idea was that Japanese people are workaholics.

They tend to stay in their workplace as late as they can due to the tons of work on their desk. This actually worried me and made me think of ways how to deal with my Japanese colleagues who are workaholic.

Another preconceptions formed in my mind were the following: Japanese people are quiet and shy; they have no time for small talk and funny conversations; they are reserved; they are passive; and they are not confrontational.

When I stepped into my workplace in a Japanese school, I was able to confirm that some of my preconceptions are correct while the others are not.

Is it healthy to have preconceived ideas about your Japanese colleagues before you set foot in your workplace? Sometimes it is. But personally, I think it’s not.

Having those preconceptions will definitely affect your day-to-day dealing with them.

I experienced how I hesitated to approach my Japanese colleagues due to my preconceived ideas about them.

The preconceptions are like pre-judgments in which we already put our Japanese colleagues in a box and we don’t give them chances to unfold their real personalities to us.

Hence, when I realized the subtle harms my pre-judgments are making to my relationships with my Japanese colleagues, I tried my best to remove all my preconceptions and started to treat them as new persons with unlimited opportunities to show who they really were.

As I started to do that, I learned some ways to deal with them in ways that are helpful to me and them. Below are the five ways how I deal with my Japanese colleagues in the three schools where I was working as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher).

  1. Read between the lines

Since most of our Japanese colleagues do not express what they think or what they feel about certain situation or opinion, it is highly advisable that we should try to be more sensitive and apprehensive.

It is not only because of the language barrier, especially in Elementary schools, but also the cultural upbringing.

Most Japanese people prefer silence when it comes to certain issues that would rock the boat.

One of the JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) in the JHS where I was teaching shared one time that he prefers not to share his ideas if they would cause inconvenience to the majority or threaten the harmony of the school community.

In almost all of the situations in our school, Japanese teachers and students do their part to be extra-conscientious to maintain such harmony among them.

Detailed instructions are given in each activity so that through repetition, they create some systems of doing things.

These systems govern the daily life in schools from putting the students’ shoes at the right place to conducting classes and preparing school lunch.

And because of those systems, Japanese teachers somehow assume that ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers), who enter into their community life in school, are already oriented on how to go with the flow of life in school by following certain systems.

This is also true when it comes to teaching English language.

In the JHS where I taught, three of the four JTEs rarely gave me hints on the activities they prepared for the class.

I remember one time Ms. Miya (not her real name) did a word game activity. After giving the students a lengthy instruction in Japanese (which I understood none), she turned to me and voila!

She just said: “Hi! Excuse me! Rock, scissor, paper, one… two.. three…” (I also did the janken since I know that.)

She won, and then told me “make”. I answered “make”.

Then the whole class laughed.

The JTE laughed too and shook her head.

I laughed too like an idiot. Deep inside I felt embarrassed because I did not know what she wanted.

I needed to redeem myself.

I just acted in a fun way and made a funny face.

I scratched my head like a clown (which made the students laugh more).

Then the JTE asked again: “see” and I answered “see” (to which the whole class laughed wildly).

I felt I was blushing.

The JTE said (with gesture): “Switch. Say some verbs.”

I said: “make”. She answered: “made”.

(The whole class clapped their hands with collective “ohhhh, sugoi!”)

I said: “write”. She answered: “wrote”.

(The whole class clapped their hands again with “Yatta!”. I also clapped and stomped my foot which made the students laughed all the more.

I got what this JTE wanted.)

I asked few more verbs and I enjoyed the game.

That was a quick demonstration that the JTE wanted the students to do.

From then on, I tried to be attentive to what she wanted.

I tried to be always at least one step ahead of her.

Her classes were fun, and the students and I enjoyed them. And I learned a lot from her.

Well, that is just a simple situation when most of the time our common sense and sensitivity help us act accordingly.

There are plenty of situations when we need to read between the lines, especially when our Japanese colleagues speak with us.

There are things they cannot say but we can already guess what they want.

It is up to us to ask and clarify things when we need to.

Do not hesitate to approach your Japanese colleagues when you need to clarify things.

They appreciate it when we initiate a conversation with them.

The first way how to deal with your Japanese colleagues requires a lot of common sense.

  1. Offer help to your Japanese colleagues

I was instructed by my manager to follow the daily schedule set by the company.

There were many capital letter ‘Ps’ in my schedule and that meant ‘Preparations’.

Since I didn’t prepare much for the lessons (because my JTEs and HRTs prepared the overall flow of the lessons, which is amazing!), I had plenty of time to write (like this article that you are reading, he he he!).

So, whenever I didn’t feel writing, I approached my JTEs if I could do anything for our English classes.

One time, I was feeling bored and no ideas were coming into my mind to continue the article I was writing. I went to my JTE’s table and asked her if she needed a hand for anything that we needed for our English classes.

She replied: “I’m all right Dominic sensei. I have a hand.”

Seriously, her answer made me burst into a suppressed chuckle. I could not contain it. I excused my self. I ran to the rest room and laughed like crazy.

All right. I needed to rephrase my question.

Take two!

“Excuse me sensei. Do you need any help or can I do anything for our English classes?”

Believe me, most of the time they were surprised.

As if they were thinking: “We are freaking busy yet this guy has nothing to do!”

Or as if they were thinking: “We need more than 24 hours in day to do our tasks, but this guy is offering his time!”

I could see their facial expressions in disbelief.

Their eyes twinkled as if such question is the most beautiful sound they have ever heard that day.

I was exaggerating, right?

No, I’m not.

And even I myself was surprised at their surprised expressions.

Why?

Because that’s not natural to them.

They are used to be independent.

They are used to doing almost everything on their own even when things become difficult and challenging.

Hence, when a Filipino teacher approached them, they didn’t know how to react and answer.

All this JTE could say was “Riri?” (Really?!) (In my mind, I was saying, “Ow c’mon! I am Dominic not Riri!” (Hahah! Riri is one of the common names in Japan.)

I just said: “Yeah, I am free this time.”

So she said: “Wer, can you pris check the students’ essays?”

She handed to me the pile of notebooks and I headed to my table.

The notebooks were about 35 pieces but when I looked at the essay, it was very short, two or three sentences.

I just corrected the spellings, grammar, and put some good comments (like wow! Good English! Keep it up!) and a smiley.

In another instance, a petite JTE was carrying a basket full of papers and some drawing materials (since we were making a Christmas card that time).

In my estimation, that basket was a little heavy for her.

Since we were going to the same classroom, I touched the handle of the basket as I asked her if I could bring it.

She blushed and said, “Ow no! It’s okay. I can carry it. Don’t worry.” (Take note, her English is really good. Of all the JTEs there, she is best in English!)

But I insisted. “Come on, it’s all right. Let me bring it since we are going to the same classroom.”

She gave it to me and I realized it was really heavy.

I was carrying the basket but she was still holding the other end of the basket’s handle. So we ended up carrying the basket together when we entered the classroom.

The students (2nd Grade JHS) made fun of us. They were clapping and shouting. I heard the collective expressions: “Eeeee! Sensei!! Yiiihhh!!

I knew they were teasing the JTE.

I just went with the flow and laugh with them. I felt like a teenager again.

I used that situation to start the class with a higher energy since that already served as our warm up activity.

I realized that even for the Japanese students, a foreigner helping the JTE is something unusual.

My point here?

Offering help is one of the shortcuts to winning the trust of our Japanese colleagues.

It can also help us pave the way to friendship with them.

Offer help whenever you can.

But do not overdo this because you might give an impression that you have plenty of time to spare for them.

To deal with your Japanese colleagues, offer help at your own discretion and do not forget to read between the lines.

  1. Affirm you Japanese colleagues

At this point of my life I already understand the value of affirmation. I used to reiterate this to my students when I was still teaching in a university in the Philippines.

I feel good when I receive it, so I do my best to be generous enough to give it.

As I observed, my Japanese colleagues enjoyed the affirmations I gave.

I didn’t know if they received affirmations often but whenever I commended them, I saw how bright their faces were.

Sometimes they could not believe whenever I said: “Wow! That was a fun class!”

An HRT (Homeroom Teacher) in one of my elementary schools always did his best to be a T1 (Teacher 1) instead of T2 (Teacher 2).

(Usually, in elementary schools, the ALT is the T1 while the HRT assists in the class. This is the opposite in JHS. Due to the transition in the Japanese educational system, HRTs are highly encouraged to be a T1. Perhaps that’s the reason why that HRT in our school did his best to be a T1. And that was awesome!)

Anyway, in several classes that we had, I could see how he struggled to facilitate our English classes.

I was impatiently waiting for him to call me and do the vocabulary practice or the listening part.

But he rarely called me to assist him.

I was just standing at the side.

You can imagine me standing at the side, close to the door, while turning my head back and forth from the HRT to the students.

I had to maintain the smile on my face despite the high dosage of sleepiness I was feeling due to the cold weather.

Sometimes I was walking around the classroom while wiping my tears caused by uncontrolled yawnings.

I wanted to be of help but he rarely asked me, especially when introducing new words because I wanted to play with kids.

But kidding aside, I admired his persistence to teach and speak English.

He knew how to teach English in a Japanese way (in nihongo of course).

The students understood him and followed his instructions whenever we had games.

After my second class with him, I told him: “That was a very fun class. I also enjoyed it. You are a very good teacher.”

“Riri? Ohhh, arigatou gozaimasu!” He happily replied.

I noticed that from then on, he made more fun activities and games and he became more genki (energetic) in our classes.

I didn’t know how he took my affirmations, but I noticed how he tried to have more fun English classes.

In JHS, the simple words of affirmations I gave to the JTEs were very important too.

I didn’t know why they did that, but whenever I affirmed the JTEs, they always gave back affirmations to me.

Well, I must admit, it felt good too. But of course, I didn`t give affirmations just because I wanted to get it back. When I affirmed them, I meant it.

One time, after our class, as we were walking back to the staff room, I said to the JTE that his class was very interactive and that his classroom management skills were really impressive.

I told him that I liked the way he handled the big class with some challenging students.

I also told him that his English pronunciation and the use of simple English were very good.

His smile was wide and he thanked me.

The next words and stories he told me were unexpected. He began to share his life how he became a teacher, his favorite countries, movies, and even his wine selections. He ended up inviting me for a dinner to his home with his wife and two kids.

That was really surprising.

See where our affirmations can take us?

But friendly advice, just like offering help, do not overdo your affirmations.

Analyze the situations and read between the lines before throwing your affirmations.

Because when said at the right time at the right place to the right person, affirmations become a sweet sound that drives inspiration and boosts the confidence of a person.

To deal with your Japanese colleagues, go and find at least one or two good things about them and affirm them.

Then, share with us your experiences and their reactions in the comments section below. We are excited to learn your ways how you deal with your Japanese colleagues.

  1. Spend time your Japanese colleagues

As a foreign ALT, it should be clear to us that our concept of spending time with other people is different from our Japanese colleagues` concept of spending time with them.

If you want to truly know how to deal with your Japanese colleagues, it is essential to know that Japanese people in general are highly organized and they schedule almost everything in their lives.

For instance, the next month`s schedule is organized and planned this month.

Hence, it is difficult to buzz into their schedule without prior notice.

When I say spend time with them, I refer to little acts of kindness that we can do to let them know that we care.

How did I do this?

After each class, there are 10-minute break.

During Mondays and Thursdays, we had four consecutive English classes with the first grade and second grade students (JHS), respectively.

We just transfered from one classroom to another.

The JTEs do not go back to the staff room after each period.

But the ALT has the option to spend those ten minutes in the staff room.

Instead of running back to the staff room, I usually spent those ten minutes striking conversations with my JTEs.

We talked about anything that he or she was comfortable speaking about.

I also helped the JTE in carrying his/her stuff, preparing for the next class, and setting up projector or TV for our classes.

Other than this, I also used those ten minutes mingling with the students.

I speak with them as they try to practice their English.

I also learn significant Japanese vocabularies by simply mingling with them and asking from time to time the English word for what they say.

One time, as I heard them speaking and laughing, I asked them: okashii wa eigo de nan desu ka? [What is okashii in English?] (The students laughed all the more.)

Then, one of the students shouted: Crazy! Dominic sensei, kare wa okashii desu! (and then more laugh).

I was also laughing with them.

I said: All right, eigo desu?(English please.)

The noise subsided and then the collective expression: eeeeeee nani?

Then one student said, Dominic sensei, he crazy!

I didn`t know how serious was that and how the student took that, but I just took that as a joke of course and laughed with them all the more.

I had countless of 10-minute fun with the students and JTEs.

And the results?

More fun classes.

More ease at work.

More familiarity.

Better relationship with my colleagues.

The students are your spokesperson to their classroom teacher (adviser) and the teachers are your spokesperson to the Principal and Vice Principal.

There were instances when other teachers approached me and thanked me for having fun with their advisory classes.

Of course that is not the only opportunity to spend your time with them.

There are other opportunities like the after-class clubs.

Usually, there are teachers monitoring the after-class clubs and they are happy to see an ALT watching them.

Playing with them in the gym and watching them perform in their music club or kendo club are really appreciated by the students.

Joining with them during the cleaning time is also an amazing thing that makes a difference.

All of them may reach the attention of the other teachers including the Principal and the Vice Principal.

Through those instances, you create certain kind of impression to them that helps them treat you like one of them.

Again, by being sensitive and reading between the lines, you will see more opportunities to spend some time with them.

Just be creative and try to understand your school`s situation as every school is different.

To some extent, there will be drinking sessions to which you will be invited.

Be aware of the possible cost it may incur on you. The price usually ranges from 4000 to 9000 yen per night. So, it`s your call to say yes or not.

In the first and second invitations I received, I just said: matakondo onegaishimasu… gomenasai (So sorry, please ask me some other time or next time.)

They understand already when you say those words.

When I received the third invitation, upon learning that there would only be three of us in an inexpensive izakaya (some sort of a pub), I happily accepted the invitation and enjoyed their company.

This kind of drinking session helped me and my Japanese colleagues be more comfortable with each other. This gave a lot of insights how to deal with them.

You can also utilize this kind of opportunity to establish a better and stronger bond with your Japanese colleagues.

Remember this in your dealing with your Japanese colleagues, but never forget to practice discretion.

  1. Laugh with your colleagues

My last tip how to deal with your Japanese colleagues is do be afraid to laugh with them.

One of the preconceptions I have proven wrong was that my Japanese colleagues have no time for fun.

In fact they love fun.

I was happy how my simple actions (which I intentionally did to have fun) made the JTEs smile and laugh.

When I was already comfortable with the JTEs, I started cracking jokes and sharing funny stories.

To my surprise, they also shared funny stories and jokes about many things.

In most instances, I could understand the stories but not the punchline.

But they still found me laughing very hard.

The truth was that, most of the time, I was not laughing at their jokes, but the way they told the jokes.

I was amused how they tried hard to tell a Japanese joke using English language.

You can imagine how they sound with many R sounds replacing the L sounds.

I often misunderstood their jokes because of those sounds.

For instance, one of the JTEs shared a joke about a lover who laid on their bed after locking the door.

What I actually heard was a robber who raid on their bed after rocking the door.

The JTE went on with his story while I was trying to figure out why would a robber raid his own bed after rocking the door.

I could see how he wondered why I was already laughing while in fact the punchline was not yet given.

Towards the end, I sensed that he already said the punchline because he was laughing hard.

I also laughed all the more and I really had a good time laughing at how he laughed not at the joke he cracked.

In fact, I already forgotten the story itself because all I could remember was the robber.

My point here is that, our Japanese colleagues too can be very funny in the way we never expected.

I also realized that my Japanese colleagues were really into karaoke (our videoke version in the Philippines).

I barely had a hold on the microphone to sing my favorite songs when we went to an izakaya.

They don`t like karaoke! (hahah!)

But still, I enjoyed them singing their favorite Japanese songs which I also began to like, since one of those songs sounded nice.

I specifically liked Masaki Sudas song Machigai Sagashi`, which I later searched on YouTube.

Once you meet your Japanese colleagues, don`t be afraid to have fun.

Actually, in daily dealing with your Japanese colleagues, you need to wear more smiles to lighten not only your mood but also of everyone who sees you in your workplace. It might be difficult for you, but try and try. As they say, fake it until you make it.

Enjoy your work.

Appreciate the good things of being an ALT.

Seize the day.

In millennials` term: YOLO (You Only Live Once!)

You never know how long you will work with them.

But one of the beautiful things they can remember about you is being a happy person.

In my first three schools, I worked for only three months but I could feel the good relationships I had with my Japanese colleagues.

I tried my best to have fun everyday.

I know you can do more that this because I am convinced that having a happy disposition is very natural to us (especially to us Filipinos).

Gambatte!

If you are an incoming ALT, you may already include to your toolbox some tips I shared here so that you can pull them out whenever you need tips how to deal with your Japanese colleagues. If you want to excite yourself about your workplace or school, you may check the seven impressive things in Japanese school, especially in public schools.

If you think of other ways how to deal with your Japanese colleagues, please share them to us through the comments section below.

If you are already an ALT, let us know your ways how you deal with your Japanese colleagues.

We will be happy to hear from you through the comments section below.

Thank you and all the best!

I`m Dominic, an English teacher in Japan and a writer and web designer. I enjoy visiting historical places and exploring Japanese culture. Sushi is always the best in Japan! My homepage is https://teacherdoms.net/

This article can also be read here: https://teacherdoms.net/how-to-deal-with-your-japanese-colleagues/

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