There are a lot of stereotypes out there about Japanese schoolgirls, who have come to be seen in the West as somewhat of an iconic symbol of Japanese pop culture. (And to all you anime nerds out there… Oh dear, don’t even get me started with you.) You might have the idea that Japanese schoolgirls are fashionable, ridiculously cute, and talk in really high-pitched voices. And sure, some of them really are some of those things. But mostly, they’re just regular teenagers. I should know, because I spent a whole year working with them. I was even named “Assistant Head Teacher” (!!) to a class of first-year high school girls.
I was supposed to be teaching them English, but I’m not sure I was actually able to teach them much of anything at all. For one thing, they were so fascinated by me and my physical appearance that it seemed to distract them from what I was trying to teach! Really, you’d think some of them had never seen a white person up close before.
Excerpt from a typical English class “taught” by Jana:
Jana: (approaching a group of students) Okay, so did you girls understand..
Student 1: omg, Sensei, your eyelashes– they’re not black!!
Jana: Oh, um, yeah… a lot of white people have eyelashes this color. But do you understand this worksheet?
Student 2: Yeah whatever, we were going to do it later. But what color are they? Come here, let me see your eyes up close! Take off your glasses so we can see! Sensei, come on!
Jana: Okay okay, fine. (Taking off her glasses and bending down so the girls can examine her face.) See?
(Students scream ecstatically)
Students: Sensei, omg, your eyes are so cool, your eyelashes are like, golden or something!!! I’m so jealous, I wish I had eyes like yours!!!!!!!! Is that really your natural eye color??? Aren’t you wearing colored contacts?!?!
Jana: No, I’m not wearing colored contacts. So try doing the worksheet and ask me if you don’t understand, okay?
(Jana laughs, rolls her eyes and walks away to repeat the process with another group of students.)
I don’t even know how many girls asked to see my eyelashes up close. (They seemed most fascinated by my eyelashes, for some reason.) The color of my skin, my hair color, and even the color of the little hairs on my arms were also objects of continuous awe and envy. There was one girl in particular who, almost every time I had her in class, would come up to me, stare at me for a few seconds, and say in an entranced voice, “Jana, very pretty.” (Just like that, in English.) At first I was flattered. Then overwhelmed. Then after a while, I didn’t even know how to respond anymore.
On one hand, having my appearance idolized by these girls did a lot for my self-esteem. (It’s made me realize that maybe I am actually an attractive person.) But on the other hand, I also found it kind of disturbing that someone like me– someone just about as un-Japanese-looking as you could possibly be– apparently represented the ideal image of attractiveness in the eyes of Japanese teenage girls. I tried my best to teach them that they were beautiful too just the way they were. I really hope at least a few of them got the message, because I think that’s something a lot more valuable than a few basic phrases of conversational English.
Given the fact that I was completely obsessed with Japan as a teenager, it may come as no surprise to you that I’ve wished I could experience Japanese high school life for myself. I’ve often regretted not trying to study abroad in Japan during high school. (I don’t know why, but somehow the idea just never occurred to me at the time!) But my inner schoolgirl is now satisfied since I did finally get to have this experience, even though it was as a teacher instead of a student.
Japanese high schools are different from their American counterparts in so many ways, I don’t think I could even reasonably list all the differences in this post. I can only really speak for the school I taught at though, which was a private, all-girls high school. Apparently public schools are quite a bit looser with their rules, but the rules at my school were really strict. So much so that it seemed almost comical to me. The thing that really took me by surprise when I first started out were the 頭髪検査 (touhatsu kensa), or “hair inspections”.
And no, I’m not talking about checking for lice! At my school, as is the standard for private schools in Japan, it was against the rules for students to dye their hair. So at the start of each term, every student in the school had to walk past a line of teachers, who held clipboards and took note of students whose hair wasn’t quite black enough. Offending students had to return for another inspection every day until their hair was an acceptable color. (They had to dye it black again.) As one of the teachers put in charge of the first-year students, I was supposed to participate in these inspections, too. But along with most of the other teachers, I mostly just stood there and watched while a few main teachers made the decisions. I think they just wanted us all standing there to intimidate the students!
Of course, the students also had to wear uniforms, and the rules concerning this were very strict as well. Students who broke the rules (by wearing their skirts too short, forgetting to wear their ribbons, having the wrong color of shirt on, etc.) had to stay after school to write a 反省文（hanseibun), which is like an essay in which they write about how sorry they are for breaking the rules, what they did wrong and how they’ll prevent it from happening again. It was occasionally part of my job to read these essays and give the students a talking to about what they’d done! (At first I was just like, “Um, yeah, so don’t do it again, ‘kay?” But I got better with practice!)
There was a high ratio of badly behaved students at this particular school (completely impossible to get some of them to listen in class!) but most of them were still good kids at heart. And there were also some absolutely wonderful students who I really enjoyed teaching and getting to know. They made all the stressful times worth it!
The students in the English Club, who I met with once a week, were just so many levels of awesome. We spent most of our time playing games with alphabet cards and I don’t think they actually learned much English, but I laughed harder during some of those meetings than I ever remember laughing in my life. These kids were hilarious! And of course, it helped that they actually liked English and were interested in learning about other cultures. (Exchange students joined our meetings too, which was a lot of fun.)
It was a crazy year. Incredibly stressful sometimes, but also really rewarding. It really made me have a lot of respect for high school teachers. They have a really tough job! You’ll probably never see me teaching high school again, but I’m definitely glad I tried it for a while.