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Life as an SHS ALT

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 12:32

I am a JET with a family. I have a Japanese wife and two preschool boys.

I’m from New Zealand and my family and I decided to move to Japan to live – in order for me and our sons to experience my wife’s Japanese culture. On Aug 3 I left Auckland after one of the busiest and most emotional weeks I’ve experienced in a long time. It gets more unpleasant every time I pack up one country to the next. Saying goodbye to our home and with the family having left a week earlier, it was something I’m not keen to experience soon!

800 of us arrived in Tokyo on the same day and underwent ‘orientation’. To be honest, disorientation would be a better description – as it really was information overload. It was a great experience, though – didn’t seem like work at all – some really interesting people and a great time was had for three days – and then it was off to our schools.

I learned a month or so before I left NZ that I was going to a city in southern Japan called Tagawa. I applied to be within 50KM of my wife’s family who live in a city called Iizuka and it seems we have ended up within 15KM. I didn’t want to be in my wife’s city because it’s a little run down – it used to be a coal mining town and has fallen on hard times. The problem is where I ended up, Tagawa, is worse still. Widely considered the roughest city in Fukuoka, with high rates of poverty and single parent families. Coal mining packed up here 30 years ago and the city’s population is a quarter what it used to be. Shops are closed and the place just gives an air of ‘shabby’. I spoke to the person who I took over from by phone before I came to Japan and was told the bad news.

I expected a normal Japanese school. Motivated and studious children, rock solid discipline and after-school clubs that keep everyone busy for hours each day. Hmmmm, not what my predecessor told me. I couldn’t believe what he was saying. The students don’t like English? There are hardly any clubs? We’ll see about that I thought. I arrived tired and exhausted by plane at Fukuoka airport, to meet my new boss. I was with a group of about 15 JETs who were going to be working in the area. I waited whilst my colleagues were met and taken to their new jobs. Finally, with just two of us left, a short, long-haired man appeared, along with two women. They’d made a small sign welcoming me (with Sheep drawn on it – naturally), which was a kind introduction to the school. I was driven around the city of Fukuoka on the 90 minute drive to the city of Tagawa. Partway through the journey they asked me if I was hungry – yes I was – and we stopped for food.

Our apartment In Tagawa we first visited my new home. What a shock. The apartment is in an uncared-for 3 story block of 18 flats in a nice-ish part of Tagawa. It must have been built 30 years ago and very little has been done to it since. On the other side of the small car park is an identical block – empty and ready for demolition. Climbing the rusted, dusty stairs to our new home saw my heart sink with every step climbed. Inside the apartment was paneled in dark brown fake wood. The bathroom was black with mould (yes fully black) and the toilet was a horrible mouldy room that stank. Hmm, can’t wait to settle here. My predecessor had furnished the place with some old furniture and there was a lime green coloured fridge in which you could accommodate a six pack of beer and not much else.

Next stop, the school – the place I would work for the next year – perhaps 5 years! Under-investment is the technical phrase, grubby is another good word. The place again was dirty and untidy. The teachers room was a real shock. 100 desks crammed into a space that’s good for 60 desks. Everyone together. Identical grey metal desks and computer cables taped to the wooden floor. Aircon that worked when it wanted to (which was not very often) and piles of paper everywhere. There was one six year old PC in the corner and a handful of laptops on desks around the room. There was one cordless phone for use by everyone in the office – not that anyone ever does use it. Wow – what was I doing here? A quick tour of the school. Hardly any teachers about – it was holiday time. No students.The classrooms looked like they’d come from the 1930’s – and they had. They’d had some extra strip lights put in but that was it. Still using blackboards, the school was in a sorry state. The Teachers room at the school I work.

Culture shock had hit hard – on day one! There was three weeks of buying a fridge and aircon and getting rid of the old furniture (and in Japanese style, replacing it with nothing – just the way I like it). We hired a professional cleaning company to clean the place – that took three people four hours – I’m so glad we didn’t clean it ourselves. The boys were suffering colds and prickly heat and not coping entirely well with the tropical summer Japan enjoys. Things were not going well. Two weeks later and we finally got mobile phones. Two months and they finally installed broadband internet in our apartment. The eldest boy finally got into kindergarten and we’ve finally got settled. After two more weeks the teachers returned from their summer holidays and the students finally began back at school.

What I’d heard was true. The students are a challenge. 25% of a typical class sleeps during the lesson (I can understand this as it’s damn hot). 25% talk to one another. 10% play with or use their mobile phones, 10% draw and scribble and 10% walk in and out of classes. That leaves 20% who face the teacher and appear to be listening. My high school is widely agreed to be the worst high school in the worst city in the worst area of Kyushu. We have a shocking reputation in the whole of the prefecture!

The city of Tagawa is one of Japan’s social back spots but I always feel safe. It’s run down but mostly clean and the people are always friendly. Every morning I am greeted by some twenty people on my walk to work. Our families movements are noted all over the city and people will say to me – I saw you at the supermarket last week! It makes you feel special and strangely, not at all spied upon. People are very generous and it’s very good living here. The city has a population of 50K and I think I know all the 6 foreigners living here in the city. Two brits, one american one canadian and an aussie (plus me).

Despite what I’ve said, I’m really pleased I’m at the school I’m at. The teachers are relaxed, the school bosses are kind and relaxed and the students are a good laugh most of the time. Sometimes they’ll even tell you they like English! Every day I get stopped perhaps 30 times by friendly students who say hello. The classes are a mixture of riot control and the day room at an old peoples home. But I never feel unsafe. The students are kind, but bored.

I’m looking forward to my year at school – perhaps I’ll stay on three years like my predecessor? Who knows.

Tagawa two years on…

After nearly two years in Tagawa I thought it time to update the world on my situation.


After one year, almost to the day, we moved from our old Jutaku apartment.  We’d grown used to the place and although it wasn’t hard, emotionally, to move, I could have lived there longer – but the opportunity for a new and better apartment arose and we took it.  The new apartment is modern, more spacious and everything works (unlike the old place).  It costs more – but it’s worth it.

My Japanese wife is very settled in Tagawa and I fear she won’t want to leave when the time comes.  Both my sons speak the local Tagawa ben dialect – which is interesting.   The elder son is at kindy and enjoys it very much.

As a family we are quite busy which means my links to the community are less than I would have wished for.  Once a week I enjoy a Japanese lesson from a volunteer teacher – but my Japanese language skills are not something I’m proud of.  Most weekends are spent out and about.


The English department has seen a death. Last year one of the team passed away, which for me was very sad.  As an ALT you’re in a unique position of working with all the English teachers, so I worked closely with my colleague, who at the age of 53, died of cancer.  In April 2009, the end of school year, the department saw the addition of two new teachers.   This year, 2010, one teacher moved and was replaced.  Whilst it’s strange to many people and wholly inefficient (just as the teacher has mastered teaching in their school he/she is transferred to a new school where they have to start again), it does give you an opportunity to work with new people – so there’s always a chance to meet new interesting people.

With two years classroom experience, the keitai are gone, makeup is done prior to my classes (I’m talking about my – mostly – female students’ makeup) and the card games and electronic games that were part of the English classroom when I first arrived don’t make an appearance.  Students do still walk around in class, but as often as not, it’s part of the lesson – so that’s a positive.  Fewer students sleep and even the bad boys read out loud in class – and often get involved in dialogues (and I don’t mean shouting at the teacher).  My classes run smoothly and I get a great deal of satisfaction watching my students getting involved.  Granted, not all are involved and not all want to be there but it’s a vast improvement over my first experiences.  Whilst my Japanese language skills are poor – I really haven’t made the relationships I want to with the students or staff – the students are some of the friendliest people you could meet.  Good and bad students all say hello – and outside class they’re fun and interesting.

With a tough academic school, hours are long and preparation by teachers and ALTs is demanding with homework, marking and clubs to attend to.  At my school there are very few students involved in clubs, homework is a fantasy and the high pressure of academic schools is virtually non-existent.  That means teachers can get involved with he few motivated students who want to participate which is quite rewarding. When I first arrived at the school, building had commenced on a new classroom block and two years later not only is the new classroom block completed, but the old block has been demolished and the teachers room completed renovated.  It really is like a new school. Sadly the students don’t keep it in very good condition and it’s looking tired in places already.

After two years I can understand why my predecessor stayed three years – and I’m seriously considering if the school will want me for five years.

This article was written by Miles Green