Bio: Farrah Hasnain is currently in her fifth year of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme and is from Washington, DC. She is an Assistant Language Teacher at a senior high school in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka. Her research interests include the ethnography of immigrant and minority communities in Japan and the US as well as English team-teaching methodology in Japanese high schools.
A note from the editor, David Hayter:
However, as safe as the country may be, it is known that sexual harassment and power harassment still runs rampant in Japanese workplaces. This year alone, Japan’s Liberal Democratic MP (Member of Parliament), Kanji Kato, stated that women should bear more children, and that women who were single or childless did not deserve to be cared for in nursing homes. A councilwoman in Kumamoto who took her baby to work was heckled and kicked out of a meeting for having a cough drop. These phenomena are also becoming more prevalent in Japanese media. In 2016, Sanrio released a new character called “Aggressive Retsuko”. She is a single 25-year old red panda who works in the accounting department of a Japanese trading firm. At work, she constantly faces microaggressions from her coworkers and supervisors, and sings death metal at karaoke to release her stress and frustration.
Harassment is not only reserved for big Japanese corporations or parliament. Japanese schools and eikaiwas (English conversation schools) are also rampant with harassment cases, and ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) are also commonly affected. Whether you’re a JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) participant, an eikaiwa teacher, a dispatch company employee, or a private-hire ALT, you or your peers may experience various forms of harassment during your term.
ALTs and Harassment
As a 5th-year ALT in the JET Programme, I have heard of countless horror stories from ALTs and have personally experienced some forms of harassment throughout my term. The prevalence of this phenomenon was shocking to me at first, and it inspired me to survey and interview ALTs and eikaiwa teachers about their experiences. 374 people responded to the survey, and 42 people participated in a follow-up interview (39 via Skype and 3 in-person).
Participants listed by employer
Over 50% of the participants had experienced sexual harassment and racism, 39% power harassment (a kind of harassment that involves abuse of power/bullying against an employee’s subordinates), and 13.1% experienced sexual assault.
Other significant forms of harassment that the participants experienced included maternity harassment, stalking, microaggressions, xenophobia, and bullying.
I also asked the participants about how they would address the issue if they experienced harassment. Multiple preferences were selectable.
The top 5 preferences were:
- Friends (over 80%)
- Spouses/Partners (37.2%)
- Senpai [expats/foreign residents who have stayed in Japan longer] (36.1%)
- Coworkers (31%)
- Family Members (30.2%)
Experiences of Harassment:
245 survey participants wrote about their experiences with harassment in Japan. Here are a few that represent what a majority of the respondents shared. There were also certain instances of harassment that would occur more frequently with some demographics than others (black women, Japanese-passing women, women of color, younger employees).
I’ve been cat-called by students (“Nice hamstrings! Nice ketsu(ass)!”), experienced them performing a pantomime of groping breasts in front of me (while making eye contact and saying ‘momi momi’), and smirk and mutter ‘sex’ under their breath every time they see me.
In regards to the cat-calling and under-the-breath ‘sex’ muttering, I did not bring this event to anyone’s attention nor did I confront the students in question. The reason for this is because while I could identify the voice of the ‘ketsu’ offender, he is a known troublemaker in the 3rd grade which I don’t teach anymore. Reporting him would not have reaped any improvement, so I just ignored it. With the ‘sex’ mutterer, I simply ignored him until he gave up.
The student who pantomimed the act of groping me was a 1st year, so I came down hard on him. I confronted him immediately after confirming that he was indeed being that rude, ordered him to do it again and gave him a good yelling-at. The next day, I reported it to his homeroom teacher and the head teacher of the 1st year. Their response was absolutely lovely and they helped me to sit down and have a discussion with him about why he thought that was appropriate, why it’s bad, and if there were other members of his club who’d encouraged him to do it. The club’s teacher was informed of the results and took appropriate action with the other club members.
In one case, a drunken coworker at enkais or on train rides home from town on weekends routinely would try to tell me that sexual harassment was okay in the US, make lewd gestures, and ask to touch my breasts. In other cases, my supervisor would obviously favor the other ALTs over me in group settings (offering them tea or having family dress them up in kimonos but telling me to get my own tea or that kimono wouldn’t look good on me if I asked) and made repeated racist comments towards me (such as in my culture it’s okay to be lazy but it’s time to be Japanese, on the less severe end).
He also lied to me about my contract terms regarding emergency sick leave, called my PA (Prefectural Advisor) after speaking to an ER doctor while I was in critical care to say I was trying to get out of working after vacation, called me daily while I was in hospital demanding I give him an answer about when I’d be back or he would hire a new ALT and terminate my contract, made racist remarks when I had to stop kyushoku due to my health and allergies (namely saying all Muslims needed to just eat like normal people, despite this having nothing to do with religion), telling me ‘losing weight by eating your own food won’t make you sexy enough to get away with being lazy,’ threatening me with firing if I wasn’t ‘mentally stable’ when I asked about counseling after a family death, ordering coworkers not to help me get to work when I broke my leg to prove I was ‘faking it’ (I had to walk 2 hours each way on crutches til I healed), repeatedly coming to my home to criticize my work, tell me about neighborhood complaints I was not responsible for, and make racist remarks…
He also refused to sign part of my transfer request paperwork so that it wasn’t processed, then told me two months after he was supposed to that because of that, my request was denied, I was out of a job, the After JET conference and appeal deadline had passed, and so had prime hiring period, and then he told me he had done so and told my coworkers not to be references for me if I asked because he wanted ‘people like’ me out of Japan and he hoped no other company would hire me. I’ve also experienced groping and sexual comments from strangers at social gatherings on a few occasions.
The principal at my main school obviously had issues with me. She was a bully in general to the entire staff but I refused to go along with some of her more ridiculous demands so her attitude toward me changed. She would be condescending and call me out in front of staff. Made me so stressed that I almost wanted to quit and once it got so bad I almost left school in tears in the middle of the day. The fact that I am Asian (Chinese) and spoke Japanese definitely was a factor as I ‘looked’ Japanese but wasn’t. Speaking to my colleagues confirmed this racial bias for me as my successor (non Asian) did not experience the same problems as me at all.
I felt that my ex-co-ALT used his position of relative superiority within the Japanese school system to belittle, dismiss, or undermine whatever I said to other JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English). For example, in front of me on a regular basis he would use Japanese to belittle or dismiss my ideas to Japanese colleagues. One of my JTEs is a retired and returned teacher who consistently uses low level power harassment to belittle me in front of a full class of students. IE, he will ask me grammar questions and if I do not respond exactly the way he expects then he will insult my ability to speak my native language to the students in Japanese, slamming doors in my face, etc.
The power harassment was from my immediate supervisor at my high school. It lasted 2 years, but the majority of the bullying occurred the first year because I was alone with her in an isolated office. It was a terrible experience. I was in touch with the JET who worked as ALT Coordinator at the BoE but he refused to help me. I had to lean on my boyfriend for emotional support and found that I was very depressed by the end of the year working with this person. She did so many mean and vindictive things to me.
After the first year working with her, I was able to get out of the office because a CIR at the BoE who I was friends with reported what I had told her about this woman to the BoE coordinator and he spoke with my vice principal and other teachers who immediately began helping me get out of the situation. They then watched to see what she would do and saw how vindictive and mean she was which supported my accusations. Honestly, the situation was dire from day one. But as soon as I moved things became immediately better for me. I found out also that she had a record of bullying at a previous school in her report. I just wish the JET ALT Coordinator had listened to me the first year instead of telling me I would just have to deal with harassment because that was the way this was handled. So terrible.
Please make certain the ALTs working in these positions are trained on how to deal with bullying of ALTs.
I have been asked by senior teachers how big my penis is, how often I cheat on my wife, whether my children have big penises, whether being fat means I’m lazy, if all foreigners eventually get as fat as me, whether I’m ashamed of leaving work “so early” (ie. at the end of the workday), etc… Essentially, I have found my co-workers to often be extremely lacking in discretion when it comes to conversation, often resulting in racist statements, sexually inappropriate statements, or harassment based on my body size. I also find it extremely difficult to find many administrators or faculty who are willing to treat me or my fellow foreign teachers with professional respect despite often being more qualified and experienced than they are.
The teacher with whom I was working called me a baka gaijin in front of the students. The same guy also told the class my wife was ugly, while I was standing there. He seemed to think we were some kind of comedy double act where I was the fall guy for his jokes. I don’t think he was being malicious. There is a common belief in schools in Japan that the foreigner in the class is going to be some kind of clown. That it’s time to have fun and a bit of a laugh with the ALT/JET. I think he was just going along with that and got carried away. I let it go because, to tell the truth, he was the most approachable person in the school. And also, the school was still recovering from a former JET who had been a nightmare for the school (I met the guy and he was an absolute d**k). So, I didn’t want to rock the boat. It never happened again with that guy. If it had of I would have done something about it.
As a tall, black woman in Japan, I am sometimes treated like a rare specimen by people and that leads to surprise, unsolicited touching, from touching my hair–once in an onsen when I was showering which made me feel the need to wash my hair again–to suddenly standing hip to hip with me to compare leg length to, one time from my students, touching my earlobes. My reaction for strangers is usually to stay calm and roll with it, sometimes with humor in the cases of leg comparing; sometimes going through the motions due to shock, as in the onsen; and sometimes scolding when it’s my students touching my hair.
There was one time, though, I was changing in a locker room when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone reaching to touch my pant-less leg. I internally freaked out and flinched out of the way. Turns out, the woman somehow didn’t think I was black and asked how I stayed so evenly tan. I had to inform her that I am a black woman and it’s my normal skin color. I dunno why she felt the need to try to touch me, but I didn’t ask and tried to get out the fastest I could.
I know that I’m a rarity in Japan and that most people I run into will never get to interact with a foreigner, let alone a tall, black one, so I try not to let it get to me. The TV blackface always makes me angry, though…
East-Asian Canadian ALT
I look like a Japanese person and I know Japanese…I get why I’m treated like a Japanese teacher. I had to learn how to “read the air” and communicate in subtle Japanese ways with my coworkers every day. Communication here is less direct than back home and in my family’s culture. Oh, I was once yelled at for not using keigo (honorific Japanese) on the phone. I just said “hai” to my coworker. He was older than me so he wanted me to be more formal. If I am doing something “wrong” with how I dress or talk it’s direct, but if it’s something like lesson planning it’s never really direct for me.
I have a co-ALT who is white and we’re told conflicting things at work all the time…I have to dress more conservatively and use nenkyu (paid time off) less often than her. I can’t dye my hair either even though she can have highlights and get compliments on them. On the other side of the coin, I can defend myself. The other ALTs in my city don’t know the language so they can’t speak up for themselves or know the system. I also had to step in for other ALTs when they would report chikan or other things. Their supervisors are very hands-off with everything so they are stuck with finding someone to interpret for them or support them in-person.
I’m a totally invisible foreigner outside of work. I like blending in, but it’s nice to be a special snowflake sometimes too. I see Japanese people and my students get easily enchanted by my co-ALT all the time like a celebrity. I tried explaining how differently I’m treated to my co-ALT and other JETs but I get the “ESID” mantra. It’s not different? It’s a common issue that comes from history. I know of lots of people in Japan who are anti-Korean and Chinese too. In my jikoshoukai [self-introduction] I told the class my family immigrated from China and the students said anti-Chinese comments. This was before they knew I spoke Japanese. I pretended not to understand so I could hear their honest opinions about China. The JTE told me to talk about Canada instead when I confronted her after the lesson. We couldn’t have a civil conversation with the homeroom.
Japan is not a perfect country. Canada isn’t perfect, either. Perfect countries aren’t real.
People here can discriminate and have double-standards so I wish the “Japanese mindset” or “not breaking the ‘wa’” wasn’t put on such a freaking pedestal by other gaijin here.
My English level always has room for doubt with my JTEs. I am from the Philippines and, well, English is the official language. I am also a certified teacher back in my home country. They asked me to change my accent and sound American, because it is the real English. I was hurt by their remarks about me and had my breaking points. I always feel like they would be happier with an ALT from North America. At one party with my senseis, they compared me to women at a Filipino pub near the party and asked me if I worked there after school. I stopped going to the parties but I have lunch with my supervisor sometimes. She also does not get along with the JTEs who gave me comments, but she told me that they were in charge of the department.
I don’t want to ask for a transfer because I’m worried about my problems repeating again and I want to stay. My Filipina-American friend also had the same problems in her school in a different part of Japan and I was surprised! Being American can’t protect you either. JET is a very famous and competitive program and it’s very hard to get this job. I thought the teachers would be more professional with the JET ALTs but I heard it’s not always true. In the classroom I like teaching my students and they give me so much pride. They are full of life and they accept me more so. The income is good and I have a lot of friends in Japan. Maybe I just have to pray more and make do.
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