ALT Privacy Perspectives in Japan by Nathaniel Simmons Ph.D.

by Nathaneil Simmons, Ph.D.

BioDr. Nathaniel Simmons taught English in Japan for two and a half years in Japan’s Kansai region in Nara (2007-2009) and Osaka (2013).  Simmons is an American communication professor who studies privacy management within intercultural and health contexts.  His research is published within (USA) national and regional journals, as well as international journals.  Simmons recently authored Gaijin Private Parts: Maintaining Privacy at Work in Japan, which examines how privacy is managed between foreign English teachers and their Japanese co-workers.  Simmons co-authored Celebrity Health Narratives & the Public Health, which investigates how celebrity health disclosures influence public health perceptions, and Bitch Slap APA, which uses satire and humor to teach the American Psychological Association’s writing style.  Please see his website for his CV and further details:

Nathaniel Simmons, Ph.D.

As an ALT, your life will continue to include many things that you may or may not perceive as private information.  As a former ALT turned communication professor, I am interested in privacy and how we maintain it by what we say or don’t say.  This interest led me to interview nearly 80 participants about how they maintain privacy at work.  Half of my participants were ALTs and half were Japanese co-workers [JCWs], such as fellow teachers or supervisors.  I share their perspectives and a summation of this research below: 

ALT Perspectives

“There were no barriers. Every person in the village, every school, you know everyone in the Board of Education, the whole school knew that I broke my leg and what days I was going to the hospital, and medication I’ve been given. There’s no quiet, patient confidentiality.” — Jamie

ALTs, like Jamie, felt that their privacy expectations about their (a) space and place, (b) bodies, (c) sexuality, and (d) romantic relationships were not upheld by their co-workers.  An ALTs’ space or place refers to areas where privacy is expected or an entitled right.  For example, Ren said, “I feel like a lot of my sense of privacy is violated when I come in [to work] and stuff is on my desk.”  ALTs also commented that their home wasn’t treated as privately as they wished.  Some ALTs were asked for their keys by their employers for repairs or inspections to be made.  Stephanie said for her “One of the more surprising things was when I would call in sick to work and somebody would stop by my apartment.”  Such “surprise” visits would limit one’s chances of taking a mental health day.  Information about an ALTs’ bodies was also perceived to be private information by ALTs.  This included health information.  Aarti explained after a medical visit, “…it was public knowledge to everyone about what I had gone in for, and if I was sick, like, if I was taking meds and, that, and I was like, this is really weird.”  Regardless of the ALTs’ sexuality, ALTs felt that their sexuality or sexual acts should be private and not discussed with co-workers. Tim, a heterosexual man, felt his privacy was invaded when a coworker asked him about his sexual life.  He said, “[my coworker] asked me once how many times I have sex with my wife. I just look at him and go, ‘Oh boy!  [That’s] Way off base!!’” Related one’s dating life was also perceived as private and ALTs felt invaded when JCWs questioned them about other foreigners they may have seen them with in town or, if they were dating someone. LGBTQ ALTs were put in a more precarious space when asked about their dating relationships due to an unawareness and concern for how JCWs would respond to them if they were to come out at LGBTQ. Gideon, a gay man, explained, “I didn’t really want to come out at work, so I told them [co-workers] the type of guy I liked but in female version. I change pronouns.” When ALTs were questioned about these areas, they felt invaded. 

How did ALTs manage their privacy?

To manage privacy, ALTs used: (a) withdrawal, (b) cognitive restructuring, (c) independent control, (d) lying, (e) omission, (f) avoidance, and (g) gaijin smashing to manage their privacy at work.

Withdrawal refers to retreating from relationships or conversations. In other words, ALTs would make conscious efforts to not get too close to co-workers. Cognitive restructuring refers to instances where ALTs changed their perspective, thoughts, or beliefs. ALTs changed their perspective by making conscious efforts to alter the way they perceived privacy violations.  Independent control refers to taking action into one’s own power rather than rely on someone else.  For example, if an ALT needed to go to the doctor, they would study up on their medical Japanese and brave the medical encounter by themselves. Lying refers to instances where one purposefully did not tell the truth. If an ALT was asked what they were doing for the weekend, but didn’t want to disclose, they responded by saying, “Just staying at home.” Omission refers to instances where information was left out of conversations or statements. Related to lying, ALTs would leave out details of their daily activities to obtain a sense of privacy. Avoidance refers to instances where ALTs stayed away from situations, conversations, or people that might have otherwise resulted in situations where one’s privacy was not easily maintained. Similar to withdrawal where ALTs would limit how personally close they became with someone to avoid questioning, they also would avoid people or situations entirely so as not to be asked questions that might be perceived as private. Gaijin smashing refers to instances where ALTs used their foreign identity as a way to play ignorant of Japanese cultural norms, thus putting them into a place to knowingly violate them to obtain their desired goal. Richard defined gaijin smashing as, “it’s where you use the fact that you are not Japanese to get out of social interactions of people that are Japanese, are usually beholding to.” Hypothetically Speaking, Richard described how he responded to moments where he felt his privacy was violated.  He said, “If someone asks me a question, the answer is on them, you know, like you asked for it – and deal with it, is a lot of my mentality.  I don’t mean it quite so aggressively, but that’s how I think about it. I don’t want to volunteer information, but if they asked me, I will answer it and they will answer in turn. And it’s a little – I don’t want to say manipulative, but it creates a situation where I have the upper hand.”

JCW Perspectives

“I just think the concept of privacy is kind of different from Japanese people and English people.  Not English people, foreign people.”  — Sasaki

Like Sasaki, Japanese co-workers (JCWs) believed privacy was different for Japanese and foreigners. JCWs mentioned the following topics were considered private information: romantic, platonic, and family relationships; health (including age and weight); hobbies; and personal data such as finances/income, phone numbers, email addresses, as well as where one lives. JCWs also commented that privacy is different for foreigners in that it is perceived to encompass a larger scope of items that are considered private than Japanese. At the same time JCWs, mentioned that it is sometimes important to share ALTs’ private information with others because it helps them help ALTs. For example, if an ALT is sick and works at multiple schools, they need to let other schools know so that way they might prepare for a possible absence. Ono said, “In Japan, it’s normal, I guess, maybe if someone gets sick, you know, we [co-workers] talk about that, right?  But for foreigners maybe it’s strange, I guess.” Such actions weren’t made out of spite, but rather to help the ALTs and other schools. Taniguchi explained that it was her responsibility to contact other schools the ALT worked at, so that they might be prepared for a potential absence in the future, even if it was a few days off.  She described the situation: “One ALT has to be absent because, maybe he was sick in the morning, but Japanese, we, have to call to the principal [and tell him] that the ALT will be absent because of so and so. And, also, he will visit another school the next day, so maybe we should share those information with [them] because one of the ALTs [is sick]. But, also, because the, maybe the cause is, if an ALT can speak Japanese and contact them directly, but maybe we don’t do. We don’t need to do that, but maybe there’s a miscommunication and the next day the school will wait for him, but [he] does not come.  Before one [day], day-by-day they should know, so as my job I had to inform them, but maybe this is too much for ALTs. (Laughter).” 

How do JCWS manage their privacy?

Japanese co-workers reported using the following two strategies to manage their privacy boundaries: (a) drawing clear boundaries by not talking or changing contexts, and (b) being proactive by demarcating privacy boundaries early on within a relationship. 

JCWs said that they draw clear boundaries between their work and private life. Tosu said, “At work is work, private is private. I draw a line. It’s a different situation.” Matsuo echoed Tosu’s feelings.  She said “I’m very secretive.  So, I wouldn’t talk, especially with my co-workers. Like, my private and my work life is a totally different things. I try to draw line between these two.” So how did they do that? When I asked Kai how she keeps her privacy at work, she said: “I try to not talk too much. Silent is good.” Koga also believed the best management strategy is to not talk.  Koga explained “Basically, if I want to keep something secret, I just talk nothing about it… I don’t want to tell a lie, so I don’t make up stories. But, I just try to be honest or talk nothing about this, you know.” In fact, Japanese co-workers recommended ALTs not share too, if they want their privacy. Sasaki said, “If they don’t want the people to know, they shouldn’t say, they shouldn’t.” 

JCWs also stated that it is important to change physical contexts to maintain privacy. For example, Koga said that when co-workers started to share something private with her she told them “Okay, I want to listen to you. I want to hear you out, but we can’t do that at work.  So let’s change place, I don’t want to discuss my private life at work.” She clarified that, “A little bit may be okay, a starter, so like, for example, I want to talk about my boyfriend, I’m struggling with them. Oh, okay.  I have time tomorrow. Let’s go to grab something and hear you out.”

Overall, Japanese co-workers mentioned the importance of being proactive throughout our discussions.  Being “proactive” referred to taking initiative early on within the ALT-Japanese co-worker relationship to discuss what is considered private in order to avoid potential privacy violations. Maeda explained: “Private is different.  I feel ALT and Japanese teachers thinking about the private. So, if you know he says, ‘I have two children,’ or something like that, you think ‘Oh, you have two children.’ And, I don’t think this is very secret. So, if he or she don’t want anyone to know they have children, I want them to tell me, ‘Please, don’t tell anybody,’ or ‘This is secret.’  That kind of thing. I want them to mention about that. If he doesn’t say that, I don’t know that I have to keep that private.”

What’s the big picture?

ALTs and JCWs both perceive some topics as private. At the same time, JCWs and ALTs perceive each other differently. In my research, ALTs saw themselves as a “free space” where Japanese cultural norms did not apply and that JCWs could ask them anything. However, as an ALT, it is important to understand Japanese cultural perspectives. One’s perceptions of reality are often a bit more complex than we might initially think. JCWs revealed that when they share information about ALTs with others, it is because they care. For example, sharing an ALT’s illness with others allows them an opportunity to find the best resources to make their lives easier. At the same time, there are logistical considerations. If an ALT is sick one day and they work at multiple schools, the workplace that you miss, might call your other workplaces to give them a heads up that you’re ill and may not make it to work. This helps schools plan and have a “worst-case scenario” in mind in the event that an ALT’s class needs to be cancelled or postponed. 

JCWs revealed that it takes time to know someone. The typical ALT contract doesn’t help with this. JCWs need time to build trust and friendships. Once trust and friendships are constructed, only then is it deemed culturally appropriate to share private disclosures for JCWs. At the same time ALTs are often placed into relationships with their Japanese supervisors where they must trust them initially. This is a difficult situation for both ALTs and JCWs, which can lead to frustrations for all parties. However, understanding this cultural difference can be helpful in conceptualizing the intercultural dynamics at play. There are also steps that ALTs can take to protect their privacy. 

What should I do to maintain privacy in Japan?

1.      Be Proactive.

Take the JCWs’ advice that I spoke with and be proactive. If you share something at work that is private or that you want kept between you and whomever you told, tell them that.  Otherwise, they may not know your expectation. Also, don’t be afraid to say, “I’d love to speak with you about this, but can we go somewhere else?”  Choose a place that will be comfortable for you both. 

2.      Use Privacy Management Strategies from this Blog.

Try different strategies and see which work best for you. Communication is both an art and a science. There’s no wrong or right way. If you try one strategy and it goes well, then try it again. If it doesn’t go well, reconsider trying that strategy. The ALTs I spoke with offered some great tactics that did work for them (i.e., withdrawal, cognitive restructuring, independent control, lying, omission, avoidance, and gaijin smashing). As you decide which to use, ask yourself the following two questions: 1.) Will ____ be appropriate for this situation?  2.) Will ____ be effective for this situation?  For example, gaijin smashing, according to the ALTs I spoke with, always works, but is it the most appropriate? What are the consequences of gaijin smashing? What are your own personal ethics towards lying? Sure, lying and gaijin smashing may work, but ask yourself what unintended consequences might arise as a result of such a choice. 

3.      Use your Social Networks.

Ask fellow ALTs, gaijin, and/or Japanese friends questions. If you want to share something with someone else in person, then test the waters and see how a smaller disclosure may land before you share the entire topic for revelation. Don’t be afraid to blog it out (sometimes even anonymously).  Several gaijin I spoke with did this. Just remember to do so anonymously. Use pseudonyms and not actual names. Be descriptive, but not too descriptive as to give away your location. You wouldn’t want your employer to figure out it is you (and yes, some ALT organizations do monitor their employees’ social media). 

This blog post is based off the book, Gaijin Private Parts: Maintaining Privacy at Work in Japan by Dr. Nathaniel Simmons. Available on Amazon in paperback:

or electronic format:

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