Friday, 12 March 2010

Having Nothing To Do But Not Being Allowed To Go Home

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was a King punished by Zeus for having the gall to tell tales about the head of the gods. Zeus not only disliked someone gossiping about his sexual conquests but he thought that a mere human was over-stepping the mark by presuming to be important enough to get involved in the affairs of the gods. The punishment that Zeus devised was fiendishly clever. For eternity Sisyphus was made to push a rock up a hill. When the rock was nearly at the top it would roll back to the bottom. Thus Sisyphus was condemned to carrying out a pointless task forever.

Such is the resonance of this tale that it has entered the English language:  the adjective Sisyphean refers to a task that is endless and devoid of purpose or meaning.

Being an ALT or Assistant Language Teacher in Japan has a Sisyphean dimension. On any average day the foreign teacher will only have a few classes to perform his or her assisting role. That role varies from job to job. Some ALTs do the lion’s share of planning and teaching a class. Others have the briefest of cameos in an English lesson.
What is pretty much true across the board, however, is that the ALT will not be allowed to go home after finishing their classes. The only exception to this is lucky part-time ALTs who can rock up, do a bunch of rote lessons and vanish minutes after the lunch bell is sounded. For those unlucky full timers they are condemned by the principal and their employers (normally some middle-man organization that is taking a percentage of the ALT’s wage for doing sweet FA) to remain in the staff room when they have no lessons to give.

That often means entire mornings or afternoons with nothing to do. Naturally doing nothing is extremely difficult as any Zen master or prisoner will tell you. The ALT’s Japanese colleagues are in the same boat but they have had a whole life time of conditioning, of being denied time off, that they cope with it much easier. They will often find some vaguely work related task and do it incredibly slowly and precisely to fill up the tedium prior to home time. Indeed, with the bell to finish school they will then commence to do some dossy extra-curricular activity called ‘club activity’. It is important to teach the kids that their free time is not their own. They must attend to some pointless task after they have slogged through an official day.

For the ALT the situation is different. They are the foreigners and are not really expected to do much beyond their pseudo teaching duties. They are expected to just hang around when they have no classes to give. They cannot bunk off. If they do they will be reprimanded, maybe fired and definitely not re-hired the following year. But they are not told how to fill the huge gaps in their schedule. No one is telling the ALT to make materials or rehearse a school play. It is a negative injunction. All they have to do is not go home.

That is where the internet is the ALTs savior. I expect some of my bored ALTing friends will be reading this post while they are about their Sisyphean jobs. To them I suggest why not post a comment at the bottom of this post; give the world some tips on how to do nothing but not go home.

YouTube and Facebook are the answers to the boredom question. They are brilliant and entertaining ways to kill time. So entertaining that the rest of us consider it recreational to surf updates and watch dozens of kitten videos. For the ALT YouTube and Facebook are the very bread and water of their existence.

Other ALT friends I know take a more constructive approach. They try to turn a negative into a positive. Such an ethos is laudable. This type of ALT will typically spend their non-leisurely free time learning Japanese (the Japanese love this one) or blogging for ad sense pennies (if the Japanese knew what this was they might not love it).

What is certain is that as Japanese public and private schools gain more experience with dealing with foreigners they realize that this is the aspect of the job that the foreigner dislikes the most. It is the thing which rankles and stops true assimilation. Just as some bad parents hit their kids in an effort to stop the child from crying, so the Japanese powers that be clamp down more on the foreigners’ free time. It is often the case that the foreign teacher will be ordered to attend the school every day for a few hours during the school holidays. That is strange and cruel punishment. One job I know gives only 20 days a year holiday. Beyond those 20 days the teacher has to come to school regardless of whether there are any students there to teach or oversee. Another school I know has started to put a filter on the internet to block Facebook and YouTube. Another school I heard about granted a teacher paid half day leaves to help his wife who had just recently had a baby. The ALT in question left early every afternoon thinking that he had been granted an official dispensation. He was soon quietly criticized for using his dispensation too often.

Another tale: one friend of mine got into the habit of taking a stroll in the afternoon to work off her lethargy. Someone no doubt told on her to the principal. He then delegated someone to get back to the ALT with an injunction to not ‘go for a walk’ because it was ‘dangerous’ and besides the school wasn’t insured for the quite possible horrible outcomes of the ALT being struck by lightning or getting her ALTness drowned in a nearby river.

What does all this mean? It means that the school authorities and the local board of education and those scummy money grabbing middlers like Interact want the ALT to suffer. In Japan work must always be tai hen da or very tough. Having an easy go of it is very bad form. The group must suffer together. That is the Japanese citizen’s true purpose. From the earliest age they are made to wear shorts or skirts in the winter to keep them cold; they have to attend school all the time and then clubs and cram schools; and then they must be continually taking pointless tests. When they leave school many of them will get an office job which will be very similar to school – another daft uniform and long tedious unproductive hours with the pressure of constant arbitrary deadlines and the necessity of doing unpaid and compulsory overtime. Or it is the house maker route of having to clean the bathroom every day; of going shopping every day; of getting up at the crack of dawn to make lunch boxes every day; and of tending to the invalid parents-in-law every day; but worst of all, having to wear a silly pinafore every day.

Suffering together brings social harmony and makes citizens good consumers. Being too drained from work the bachelor will survive on convenience store bread, pasta and lunch boxes. Being too punished at work the salary man will reward himself with an unfeasibly big car to drive to work. Being fed up of doing the thankless task of keeping a household spic and span the housewife will treat herself to lunch out a couple of times a week. My new theory is that as people are given more free time they actually spend less money, presuming that is that they still had an income to spend. When you have no time, you spend more money.

Naturally these two golden rules in Japan that you must suffer and that you must be denied free time so you spend more money on frivolous over-packaged shit DO NOT APPLY TO THE RICH.

The rich can naturally take as much time off as they want. If the rich are busy then it is because they choose to be busy; it is not that are forced to be busy. The rich love their indulgences and luxuries. Life is not tai hen da. They can buy what they want and do so. They buy the very best and live longer for it. If they are busy they can get one of their minions to do their spending for them. These are the rule makers who have made the system as it is in order to benefit from it. They are the Zeuses who have made a Sisyphus of an entire nation for their own personal profit. That is why ALTs must every working day push the giant bolder of boredom up the hill of stretching hours for no other reason than to be constantly put in their place. 

The Sisyphus image is from


  1. Nice one Jon! Your next should be about the strange and often slave like status of the Eikawa teachers!

  2. I'm the ALT who took the afternoons off. I did get frowned at.. (even though the boss had given me the OK) but that was by the Kyoto (vice principle) who is anal retentive or "good at his job"... my kouchou (principle) was a chilled out guy who let me get away with loads of stuff.

    Try 3.5 years of free time... you grow to yearn it...

    How should you spend that free time? do whatever you like as long as it's marginally (arguably) constructive.