Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wrapping up in Japan

May 30th
- My heavier luggage will be picked up by Yamato Transport. If you're moving boxes or luggage within Japan, takkyubin (宅急便) is a useful, cheap method of shipping available at most convenience stores. Nippon Express offers pretty good deals on international shipping (by boat, takes two months).

- Close Kagoshima Bank (鹿児島銀行) account

- My OCN/NTT joint internet fiberoptic account will be canceled, the modem removed. Side note - I beat the bureaucracy on this one by claiming I had no contacts left in Japan; as a result, they decided billing me the early cancellation fee (¥3500) wasn't worth the trouble.

- Go down to the local tax office and pay my taxes flowing over into the new fiscal year. All foreigners leaving Japan should do this (though I bet many forget and don't reap too many consequences). While there, hand in the completed form:

Declaration Naming a Person to Administer the Taxpayer's Tax Affairs (for use by aliens)

If you know a stable resident of Japan, you can designate them to process your tax refund for the lump-sum pension withdrawal. Once you receive the lump-sum withdrawal of your pension in your home bank account, you can mail the receipt to your tax manager, and have them claim the refund, which can be wired directly to their Japanese bank account. A little bit of paperwork, but it pays out.

Health Insurance and Pensions in Japan

May 31st
Depart Kagoshima by shinkansen. Arrive in Fukuoka and enjoy one last stay at the Greenland Espa capsule hotel.

June 1st - 4th
Relax in Fukuoka. June 2nd is my birthday. I do have to stop by the local Chinese Consulate for a visa application, though.

June 4th - 6th
Gradually make my way to Osaka. Plan to turn in my cell phone to any AU office and say goodbye to keitai.

June 6th
Depart at 12:00 PM on the Shanghai Ferry. I bought a first class ticket just so I could use the ofuro one last time. There's table tennis on board, and it should be a leisurely international trip. Only ¥21,500 for 2nd class, ¥26,500 for 1st class. Hand in my gaijin card to immigration authorities, as I will be leaving the country for good.

June 8th
Arrive in Shanghai at 12:00 PM. Catch a cab to the train station and see if any tickets to Beijing are available for that night. If so, head out that evening. If not, I will have a backup place to crash courtesy of Couchsurfing.

Train tickets for Chinese railways can be purchased up to nine days beforehand:
(Useful for departure times, but charges twice as much as the train station attendants would; purchase in China if possible)

June 9th - 13th
Mail in Japanese pension paperwork. Stay in Beijing with my brother. Head to Hong Kong on Friday by train.

June 14th - 16th
Hong Kong. Will try to arrange two nights of accommodations with Couchsurfing and check out the nightlife. Fly out of Hong Kong International Airport at 2:35 PM on Monday, June 16th.

June 16th - August
Arrive in Phuket and begin work with the Thai Mueang Volunteers.

August - ???
Once my volunteering duties are finished, will look for work in the Chiang Mai area, or other parts of Thailand that might appeal to me.

During this time, the 脱退一時金支給決定通知書 (Notice of the Lump-sum Withdrawal Payment) should be mailed to my home address. I can then mail this original, NOT a copy, to my tax manager in Japan, along with a completed 確定申告書 (final tax report) to receive the tax refund.

Two weeks left in Kagoshima. さよなら日本... but not yet.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Health Insurance and Pensions in Japan

Every person regardless of nationality over twenty years old residing in Japan is required to be enrolled in a:

1. Health insurance program
2. Pension fund program

Employee's Health Insurance (健康保険)
kenkou hoken

Back to basics: the insurance system in Japan, depending on the size of the company in which you're currently employed, falls into two categories. If you're with a company that employs more than five people, you must pay under the Social Insurance system (shakai hoken, 社会保険).

Under the Social Insurance system, we have:

1. Employee health insurance (kenkou hoken, 健康保険)
2. Employee pension (kousei nenkin, 厚生年金)

Social Insurance, health insurance
Social Insurance, pension

Eikaiwa employees and those teaching English in Japan

Be careful what you sign up for. I know if you're first coming to Japan, you're busy settling things at home, getting the visa paperwork taken care of, and learning about the job and country, but pay attention to the fine print.

Last year, AEON gave its employees an option: continue working 29.5 hours/week and accept the fact you have minimal emergency insurance, or convert your contract to a 36-hour working week and pay into the shakai hoken health insurance and pension system.

I came into AEON and Japan in complete ignorance about the health care system. Complete - unknowing, uncaring. After all, I'm immortal, aren't I?

For some years, AEON had its employees working 29.5 hours a week. Why not round up to thirty? Because they didn't want the extra charges of paying into the employee insurance system:

"According to the Health Insurance Law and Employees' Pension Law, companies must enroll all workers who work more than 30 hours a week and who have been in Japan for over two months in both the health insurance and pension systems. No exceptions."

Under the shakai hoken, you pay 50% of all premium costs monthly, and the company pays the other half. By keeping employees on a reduced workweek, AEON was sneakily avoiding its responsibilities to both the government, and the working foreign "teachers". As I mentioned in my "The Truth About AEON" posts, management was willfully ignorant of just how corporate headquarters chose to circumvent the law:

...working hours. 29.5. Why? Because, according to Japanese law, if you work over 30 hours you are a full-time worker, and entitled to full-time benefits (and on the reverse, different taxes, of course). Still, management just stared me in the face when I explained this to them.

"According to Japanese law, I am a part-time worker."
"No, you are not. You are full time teacher."
"No, not according to the law."
"Why are you saying this?"

Because it's important for all parties to understand that. No amount of insistence or stubbornness will change that fact. And if I am a part time worker, I should not be coerced into working extra hours unless you want to face the consequences of employing me as a full-time worker.

Other part-time workers in Japan have had it much worse; everyone knows unpaid overtime is as natural as having black hair in Japan. Some were working 40-50 hour/weeks while still under a part-time contract. No health insurance. Part-time wages. No assistance for childcare. There have been some attempts to improve this, but I believe it's still rather rampant.

Let's discussion of this issue

What does the kenkou hoken cover?

- 70% of all medical costs
- 60% of salary from lost days (beginning from the third day absent from work due to injury or sickness)
- High-cost medical expenses cannot exceed about 80,100 yen/month
- 0% interest loans are available

Social Pension (kousei nenkin, 厚生年金)

If you're not planning to stay in Japan long-term:
dattai ichijikin, 大体一時金

You can choose to withdrawal a portion of the pension you have paid into, proportional to the amount of time you have spent in Japan (see details here, under "Lump-sum Withdrawal Payments"). To qualify, you must have lived in Japan and paid into the pension for at least six months; the return must be filed within two years of your departure from Japan. The application form (only applicable for foreign residents of Japan) is here.

"You can file for a refund of up to 90% of your contributions provided you've been contributing for over 6 months but stay in Japan for less than 3 years."

The refund is calculated by taking your average monthly remuneration over the time you paid into the pension and multiplying it by the benefit rate:

Benefit = Average standard remuneration (monthly salary bracket) x Benefit multiplier

If your final month paid in the employee pension fund is between September 2007 and August 2008, and you have lived in Japan for (benefit multipliers):

6-11 months - multiply by 0.4
12-17 months - multiply by 0.9
18-23 months - multiply by 1.3
24-29 months - multiply by 1.8
30-35 months - multiply by 2.2
36+ months - multiply by 2.6

A refundable 20% withholding tax will be deducted from this total. The tax can be recovered however, minus a fee, by signing up with a tax agent before you leave Japan.

Health and Pension in Japan
City of Tochigi Guide to Social Insurance

National Health Insurance (国民健康保険)
kokumin kenkou hoken

If you are self-employed, in a company that employs fewer than five people, or in a different situation entirely (unemployed, student, retired, long-term traveler, etc) you might consider signing up for the National Health Insurance system of Japan; there are alternatives - see "Insurance through Private Companies" below.

Under the National Insurance system, we have:

1. National health insurance (kokumin kenkou hoken, 国民健康保険)
2. National pension (kokumin nenkin, 国民年金)

National health insurance
National pension

What does the kokumin kenkou hoken cover?

Practically the same benefits as the shakai hoken system, with the exception of:

- Not being paid for lost time at work (if employed at a company)
- A smaller cut-off for high monthly medical expenses (i.e. you pay more)


Unlike the shakai hoken, the National Insurance System premiums (monthly payments) are based on your previous year's salary.

Thus, if you are new to Japan, the government does not consider your employment status from the previous year, and you pay the monthly minimum. If you choose to stay a second year, you may notice your paychecks will be substantial smaller, due to the national system now having some data on your salary.

If you stay in Japan without paying into any insurance system, and then try to register with the kokumin kenkou hoken, you will have to pay retroactive from the moment you entered the country. It is illegal to be a resident of Japan without having some kind of health insurance and a pension.

If you're not planning to stay in Japan long-term

The same procedure can be used to get a lump-sum withdrawal of the money you've paid into the pension (dattai ichijikin, 大体一時金). However, it's calculated differently:

Time in Japan
6 - 12 months, ¥41,580
12 - 18 months, ¥83,160
18 - 24 months, ¥124,740
24 - 30 months, ¥166,320
30 - 36 months, ¥207,900
36 months or more, ¥249,480

No withholding tax is taken from the national pension withdrawal.

"The National Health Insurance is managed by ward offices in big cities and by small town government offices. Although it is a "national" insurance, each municipality is receiving funds and paying the claims. They are like a group of small insurance companies. They are all in the red. Some are just redder than others. As a result, insurance rates vary from one city to another. Even Japanese feel cheated by this disparity."

This website goes on to point out how easy it is to be trapped in the National Insurance system; if you're leaving the country, it's generally not a problem, but once you're signed up, it can be difficult to switch to a private company. Some have tried moving without forwarding their address to the insurance, leaving Japan on paper, or just presenting the proper paperwork and taking their chances:

Labor Insurnace (Worker's Comp, 労災保険)
rousai hoken

This is a compulsory insurance that employers are required to provide. It covers injury, sickness, disability, and death related to work, whether at the company or while commuting.

What does the rousai hoken cover?

- 70% of most medical costs (and 100% of some)
- 60% salary paid for lost days (beginning from the third day absent from work due to injury or illness)
- Disability, graded according to the injury

Labor Insurance Information (English)
Labor Insurance Information (日本語)

Insurance through Private Companies

Although employees are required to register with the shakai hoken as per their working contracts, those working freelance or at smaller companies do not necessarily have to pay into the National Health Insurance plan (kokumin kenkou hoken).

- If you are currently paying into the shakai hoken, you can choose to supplement this (and avoiding paying the 30% in the event of injury) by signing with a private company

- If you aren't signed up for the National Health Insurance plan yet (supposed to do it as soon as you receive your gaijin card), it is possible to sign on to a private company, present proof of insurance to the government, and they should stop hounding you to enroll in their plan. However, once you are in the national insurance system, I've been told it can be rather difficult to escape; read some of the controversy at National Health Insurance Watch.

One of the private insurance companies serving Japan is AFLAC

Particular Companies

- AEON employees are all now on the Social Insurance system (shakai hoken, 社会保険)
- Teachers with the JET Programme are on the Social Insurance system

Useful Japanese

ryouyouhi shikyuu shinseisho
Application for Medical Expenses

shobyou teatekin shikyuu shinseisho
Application for Sickness and Injury Allowance

Name of injury or sickness

Was the injury the result of someone else's actions?

Describe the circumstances that led to the injury or disease (when, where, why)

Name and address of treating physician

Period of receiving medical care

Period of hospitalization and medical care

Commuting to hospital


During your time in the hospital, how much did you pay for medical care?

Useful Websites

Social Insurance Agency
- The official website, listing all details of employee insurance and national insurance, and links to some of the paperwork (日本語で)

National Health Insurance Watch
- Controversy surrounding the National Health Insurance system of Japan; some good examples

The General Union Interac Branch
- A review of your rights in Japan concerning health insurance and pensions

City of Yokohama Services
- Detailed information about the National Health Insurance Plan

Living Guide
- Very useful guide for all situations, including medical and insurance issues, in all languages

Income Tax Guide for Foreigners
- The official website of the National Tax Agency. Includes information for foreigners in Japan, foreigners working in Japan, and those leaving Japan.

Legal Counseling for Foreigners
- List of legal counseling services for foreigners in Japan; on the phone and in person, pro-bono and charged

AMDA International Medical Information Center
- A good page covering the general procedures for medical care; there are links to insurance information, but the regulations are a little dated

Health Forum on Gaijinpot

In Case of an Emergency
Call 119 for an ambulance. Don't forget to take your Health Insurance Certificate with you.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

10 Things to be Mindful of in the Japanese Business World

10. Self-introductions

On your first day at a new company, you will be paraded around like the newbie you are and expected to give formal introductions to the department chair, upper management, perhaps even the CEO. If your place of business holds regular group meetings, you might be asked to give a short introductory speech. Give everyone your undivided attention during these introductions, as they will be giving you theirs.

宴会 (enkai) - afterhours parties with coworkers; depending on the business, these can be regular events. Even though you are "off the clock", keep in mind people still talk shop while at parties. In fact, it's a better opportunity to make requests and provide criticism, as you should be drinking and formal language and behavior aren't expected (even if no one is drunk, it's assumed the behavior can be excused as such).

9. Breaks and Vacations, yasumi

Short breaks are easily tolerated, but you might find that smoking breaks are much more common (percentage-wise, more teenagers smoke in Japan than the US) and sociable... if you happen to たばこを吸います (inhale tabacco). I myself do not indulge, but I also miss out on shooting the breeze with coworkers from adjacent offices.

Employees are given at least ten days of paid vacation for their first year with a new company, in addition to the national holidays of Obon in August and Shogatsu in January. To be considered a model employee, you shouldn't use all those days. Generally speaking, you should use about half. However, some managers are amenable (if your manager takes all his vacation time, chances are you can too).

8. Key phrases

おはようございます - Good morning
お疲れ様です - Said during the day to passing co-workers; encouragement to work hard
行って来ます - When going out for lunch or an extended period
ただいま - When returning
ちょっと行って来ます - When going out for a few minutes only

お先に - "Excuse me for going first"; there are many instances of this being used, but a common example would be leaving the table before someone finishes his meal. If you do finish together, try to stand up at the same time.

お先にしつれします - Said when leaving the office early (お先に is also ok, if you're being casual)

7. Cleaning

Unlike many American and western companies, Japanese businesses, even large ones, do not necessarily hire cleaning crews; even if they do, the janitors might just handle the larger jobs (bathrooms, kitchens). As a result, you will probably be asked to join in with your fellow workers one morning or afternoon a week and sweep, vaccuum, dust, wipe, and empty the trash.

6. Aftertime, zangyou

Aftertime, not overtime; although this type of behavior is slowly being changed, it's still expected of many Japanese workers. Your contract says 8:30-5:30? Well, you can come in at 8:29:59 without a hitch, but to be seen as a model worker you should stay until 6:30 or 7:00... perhaps later. Don't leave before your boss. It doesn't matter if you're doing anything productive or not, just the appearance of doing work is necessary. If you do leave before anyone else, be sure to bid them お先に (osaki ni).

Naturally, this is starting to change in Japan as many people are starting to realize what a huge waste of time it is (statistics showing Japan was not very productive); even working mothers were and still are frowned upon for leaving work to give themselves enough time to meet their children at home.

5. Language Skills

"...becoming fluent in Japanese can be a double-edged sword. While in some situations it is either necessary or extremely useful to be good at the language, I occasionally noticed colleagues who felt uncomfortable with a foreigner speaking their language. They didn't quite know whether I should be treated as a local or as an outsider. A Westerner who speaks and reads fluently is sometimes treated as an oddity - like a talking robot: amazing, but does it really understand what it is saying?

What surprised me was how attitudes in the company changed as I gained fluency. When I was at the beginner level, people often praised my stumbling efforts, but as I got better the praise stopped. It was as if I was trespassing into some off-limits territory where I didn't belong. Many highly educated Japanese are proud of the fact that they can communicate with a foreigner in his or her language and feel slightly disappointed when that ability is made redundant.

When a foreigner has some professional expertise, he (assuming a male in this case) may be more highly regarded and receive better treatment if he speaks little or no Japanese. On the other hand, if he is fluent the issue becomes more complicated. After generating some initial surprise and perhaps admiration, he may find himself compared with Japanese peers more easily and may be found wanting; to older Japanese, who believe a foreigner should behave like a foreigner, he may appear to be getting uppity; some people may assume that greater abilities in the language imply reduced abilities in specialist expertise; and an outside who speaks fluent Japanese will surely have lost some of that foreign cachet by going native, linguistically speaking. It might be compared to a French cordon bleu chef who arrives to work in England. Having a strong French accent and displaying French body language would emphasize his French-ness and might make him more highly regarded. If, however, after a few years he picks up the local ways and begins to speak and act like an Englishman, his perceived professional value may go down a few notches, even though he might be a better chef."

The Blue-Eyed Salaryman, Niall Murtagh

4. Paying Attention

The level of genkiness (energy) in any workplace is variable. However, many bosses will take it for granted that you, just as any other worker in Japan, should respond with a loud, clear, "hai!" when addressed.

When a boss, superior, or even a coworker is speaking for a long time, it's better to say something rather than just nodding or looking straight ahead. Filler words show you are paying attention and understand what is being conveyed: "hai...sosososo...eee...", はい...そそそ...ええ...

3. Commitment

Don't sign any contract in Japan you don't plan on finishing. Legally, there may not be any recourse if you choose to break it, but it reflects badly on you, reflects badly on human resources for finding you, and definitely makes your manager's life difficult for supporting and training you all this time, just to amount to nothing.

Long-term commitment. Even with an initial 3-month or one-year contract, state your intentions beforehand. It's better they know you whether you plan to live in Japan for the rest of your life, for the next five years, or until the end of the week.

2. Health

Starting at a new company you will be asked to go to a doctor for a complete medical examination - EKG, blood tests, physical, x-ray, blood pressure, hearing, vision, urine, etc. The same can be expected every six months or so into your contract.

1. Business Cards, meishi

Business cards are the insulin, and everyone is diabetic: keep a few on you at all times. To be exchanged when meeting someone new, even casually. These cards contain the information equivalent to a resume. Receive one with both hands and read it before putting it carefully aware, unfolded. Offer yours length-wise with both hands and a short bow.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Handbook for Immigrants to Japan

Arudou Debito has coauthored a book with Akira Higuchi to provide comprehensive information for people considering living in Japan. Given the thoroughness of Debito's website, it's safe to say this will probably be the most detailed and useful book for New Japanese in terms of legal issues, living, traveling, health care, renting apartments, buying homes, becoming permanent residents, etc. Pick up a copy next month.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Content with my Harm

With my arm being temporarily immobilized and travel, dancing, and adventure sports out of the picture, I’ve had the chance to sit down and put a major dent on a stack of books that I’ve had with me since returning to Kagoshima last Christmas. In addition to those, I found myself purchasing another relatively assuming one while I was passing through the local Kinokuniya last week.

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else. Although one might assume the author had intended to gain a quick buck with a cheap marketing ploy, the story itself is simple, straightforward, and grabbing.

Enter one Michael Gates Gill. Born into wealth (not just riches, wealth) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Got a job out of college without even interviewing for a top advertising company, wife and four kids soon followed (gradually sucking the income, I might add). Works there for thirty years.

Fired shortly after a merger. Had an affair. Divorced, losing his savings, and now supporting five kids (one from the affair), he still manages to throw down a few dollars and splurge on a Starbucks coffee.

And here’s where we see something remarkable; this man accepts a hourly-wage-paying job at Starbucks. Completely by chance. More to the point, he starts thriving on it, getting more out a job of manual labor and repetitive tasks than he ever did in advertising.

Many of you have heard me criticize tasks like cleaning up in some of my previous posts. The reasons for that aside – not the work itself, just how it’s “sold” to teachers – everyone should experience something like this.

You don’t have to work in a Starbucks on Manhattan Island. You don’t have to be cleaning the restrooms in a steel monstrosity of central Tokyo. But you should know pain. You should know the toils that come with a life of labor, because while you might have the choice to go abroad and teach English, stay at home and work in a cubicle, or achieve your dream job, some don’t; some know only chores that let them survive to the next day.

I’m not trying to adopt a “holier than thou” or "look to the little people" attitude or anything of the sort. Even though I’m currently sitting in a clean apartment having come from a high-paying desk job, you might not realize that, in my lifetime, I have:

- Had my blood plasma collected on a weekly basis so I could have enough money for gas to get to other jobs, necessary for food; a needle was inserted into my left arm, the blood withdrawn, mixed with an anticoagulant, and the red cells returned to me
- Spent full days lifting up trays of heavy dishes, burning my hands from the hot water and my eyes from the bleach fumes
- Had a full-time job that involved cleaning the residue built up in a drainpipe after daily use in a restaurant; to this day I don’t think I’ve smelled anything worse

The point is, don’t ever look down at anyone doing what you consider to be a worthless job. Gill himself was a professional for years and years, and he describes how intimidated he is when asked to work the register at a retail store! The uncertainty he feels in the early days of his Starbucks career: it was in fact a question of if he could do the job. The gratitude that builds for his coworkers and his increasing understanding and humility.

His thinking really does evolve to become more along the lines of Henry David Thoreau, for while he does keep a steady job, an apartment, and ties to the world, he starts seeing life in terms of necessities, not luxuries. And it all derives from his job at Starbucks… I’m aware of the irony.

Think about it: could you work at Starbucks? You might even have smirked or gone over some condescending thoughts one day as you were picking up a triple decaf cappuccino, but do you know how to make that drink? Can you change the oil on your own car, fix the air conditioner, replace the brake liners? Do you think its bad a single mother would choose to work at Dairy Queen to provide some kind of income?

Never assume anything. With regards to Japan, this all ties into the language barrier:

…instead of being superficial, we might bother to consider the people behind the language travesty, this illusion we put up in our minds. Where do these travelers come from? They’re obviously here for a reason, and maybe they’re trying to learn the local language. They could be doctors, lawyers, teachers, and office workers, people perfectly capable of being eloquent. But what do we associate with them? Lack of intelligence. “You can’t speak properly, so I must be smarter than you”: an assumption so far from the truth it’s ridiculous.

I encounter a Mexican who can’t speak English in Texas; he could be a professor doing a guest lecture.

An old Japanese woman sees a black man walking the streets of Roppongi late at night: “he must be a sex-crazed dirty gaijin criminal; thank god we’re fingerprinting them now.” The man in question has spent one day in Japan and found himself wandering an area popular with his contacts.

You, fresh in a nicely-pressed suit and tie, come across a unshaven garbage man tossing a load onto the truck… “some of the happiest people in the world come home smelling to high Heaven”

It’s all about personal satisfaction, and that can easily change with age and experience. Not everyone can be a Starbucks barista.. and some people don't even have that choice.

Live it all: paint fences, clean toliets, scrub floors, dig holes, lift dishes, serve snooty people their drinks, guard buildings, haul trash. You might hate it, but after a time, everyone gets some satisfaction from physical jobs.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Thinking Out Loud

Yet again, I find myself being pulled in seven different directions, only to discover that I haven't moved at all. It's not the first time, nor will it be the last.

During my junior year of high school I had to decide which university I wanted to attend. From my 2nd year in college onward, I was job seeking. After a year working freelance in the city of Austin, I had a wide variety of countries in which to live abroad. Earlier this year, while still living in Hiroshima, I knew I wanted to stay in Japan for a time.

And so I find myself in the remote city of Kagoshima, (LAT 31.5840, LONG 130.540), right back where I started. Not that it hasn't been a worthwhile ride, mind you. No... I don't think I'd recognize the person I was in high school, and I don't regret any of my past decisions.

Right now, in Japan, I have an apartment. I have a bed. I have access to food. I'm involved with the foreign community. I go out. I travel. I take risks. But, I'm still too comfortable; I eat the same type of lunch every day; I have a routine of going to the gym and exercising; I know how to find American food and drink; work is necessary, but completely useless.

It's not a question of finance; I make enough money to survive and live, and that's all I need. The question is... where will I end up? What will I do? Who will I meet? Does love exist?

I've said it before, and I say it again, more to remind myself than anyone else, there is no point in working a joyless job to fill your life with stuff; the only thing that will accomplish is get you to comfortable and accustomed with your life that you believe there is no other way to live... far from the truth.

That's my concern now. I am living in Kagoshima. I have no permanent ties, little debt, and my heart still aches for more of everything. But a part of me sees the appeal of settling down, looking for a girlfriend, and building a world of my own.

I can't stay, and yet I kind of want to stay. But I won't. My Japanese skills advance every day. Conversations become easier. The city becomes more familiar. Another piece of the puzzle is brought to light.

Japan or not, community or no community, I have to remember that there is more out there. For better or worse, I have to see it, experience it, learn from it.

Staying in Japan


Although I think it would be interesting to live in Tokyo for a time, I know it'd be the wrong decision in the long run. With assess to so many English speakers and American food, I'd probably fall into the same routine I had in Austin. I do miss acting and more opportunities to socialize, but this just isn't the place.

Any thoughts from Tokyo residents?


I love what Hokkaido has to offer, and I just might need to experience it before I leave for good. I've never experienced all four seasons as they are meant to be experienced - a warm summer, a snowy winter, a colorful autumn, and a bright spring. Skiing, adventure sports, sulfurous onsen, fresh milk, delicious chocolate... in a prefecture almost a country in itself.

I've been looking into summer positions as an adventure guide, as well as some of the ski resorts. Anyone reading from up north?

Southeast Asia

Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam

To explore. To see Angkor Wat. To rent a beach hut and spend days doing nothing in Thailand. To go over a darker page of history in Vietnam. I'm not planning on anything full time, but southeast Asia would be a good transition between Japan and...

New Zealand

Where I want to try living next full-time. Another island country, but filled with a great percentage of English speakers. I wouldn't be the minority. I could live with greater comfort, greater freedom. Full of mountain climbers, skydivers, surfers, and thrill seekers.

Antarctica Marathon

No question. I will do this once I raise the $300 deposit. March 2009. Running on solid ice at last.

Marathon Tours

Just as the title suggests. Any thoughts?


Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Dementor's Kiss

You know your life is on a downward spiral when coffee becomes part of your routine. Not a refreshing mochachino after a leisurely game of tennis or an espresso with a dessert of rich chocolate and strawberries... black coffee, bitter coffee, recycled coffee, coffee that can only be made at 8:30 in the morning in the hellish depths of a ten-year-old machine containing a glass pot stained brown with the grounds of so many Mondays. Take a sip of that to survive, and you have given in to complacency, to the nature of the corporate world.

The corporate world of Japan... just what is it like over here? Well, it's just like home. Except there are all these Japanese people. And Japanese signs. And more trains. Aside from that, salarymen tend to work much later than you'd expect in other countries, despite the fact that Japan's worker productivity isn't remarkably high by global standards; although American workers, for example, may not all be putting in 14-hour days, they do put in the 8-5, and remain more focused on what they are trying to do in attempts to go home, relax, and spend time with their families. In Japan, this hasn't really caught on, despite governmental influence (trying to raise the low fertility rate): Japanese men are still, for the most part, expected to be the breadwinners, and to put in the hours accordingly. Even if these overtime hours are spent doing nothing but playing solitaire, it's all about maintaining the facade: you are here late, you are a good, hard worker, an asset to the company. Add the grounds to the filter.

As a result of this mentality, many Japanese are not expected to spend time at home or take long vacations (durations usually less than one week).

This is the world I have entered into willingly as part of the experience of living and working abroad. Although I am living in a foreign country, interacting with Japanese nationals, and enjoying Japanese cuisine on a daily basis, I'm still swallowing my pride, giving up a huge part of my adventurous spirit every morning, subjugating myself to conditions I had promised I would never endure at home. Open up the plastic flap, add the water.

Honestly, I'm torn - I want to be traveling abroad, experiencing a foreign culture, but to do so... I thought I was willing to take whatever employment was available to me, a job that would allow me the opportunities to explore on the weekends and receive a small stipend for my troubles... but I'm not.

By taking a job in any major corporation in Japan (or anywhere, really), you are slowly destroying yourself. If you are working right now and believe this to be untrue, I would argue you have forgotten what it means to be a traveler, a free spirit. Day after day of answering emails, finding coworker rapport slowly becoming more comedic, noticing your legs don't cramp up quite so much after ten hours of sitting, offering to do the most trivial tasks for your manager just for a slight change of pace, listening to the hum of the computers, adjusting to the grey and white surroundings and the splattered light from flourescent bulbs... these things lead to complacency. Turn the brewer on.

But perhaps the biggest mockery of all is the beauty of the world, seeing it every day from the window of an office building. Taking five minutes to get a breath of fresh air when in fact you should be breathing free every moment of your life. Going outside is not a treat. Seeing the sun slowly brighten and extinguish from the same place indoors is not a miracle.

Yes, there is the issue of money. But there's also the issue of you. Would you have been happier to have been born a millionaire, without ever having needed to work or strive for anything? To have everything turned to leisure, nothing essential to living? Would you rather get something new, or experience something new?

Now imagine yourself poor. Earning your existence through nothing but perseverance. Traveling abroad and living on the goodwill of others and the few dollars you gained through blood and sweat. In the end, that sounds more meaningful to me than living at a Privet Drive, buying a $6 cafe latte, and spending a majority of your waking hours doing something that makes you wish you were elsewhere.

Pour it into a cup and take a sip.

How's that taste?


Thursday, August 02, 2007

Japanese Pensions (厚生年金)

Word of the day... wanderlust

A very strong or irresistible impulse to travel.

Take note - this entry does not apply to contract employees in the Japanese eikaiwa industry (although if you've been with any company long enough, you might start making pension payments).

If you are living in Japan and working with a private company - IT, proofreading, some English companies, recruiting, etc. - you might have noticed this kanji appearing next to a ¥20,000~30,000 deduction on your paycheck: 厚生年金. Welfare pension, or kousei nenkin, is paid with 17.135% of your average monthly salary.

As a matter of reference, some other common deductions are:

健康保険 (health insurance)
雇用保険 (unemployment insurance)
所得税 (income tax)

To those of you unfamiliar with the word, a pension is:

...a fixed amount, other than wages, paid at regular intervals to a person or to the person's surviving dependents in consideration of past services, age, merit, poverty, injury or loss sustained.

Required by law, you pay a fixed amount every month to be set aside for you. In the event of retirement, disability, or other circumstances, this money can be withdrawn and used to stem the tide. If you stay with one particular company long enough, this amount can be quite substantial.

But what of the foreigners living in Japan, who probably won't be around at age 65 to claim their pensions? If you are leaving Japan for good, and have deposited pension payments for at least six months, you can make a claim with a tax agent and have the lump sum deposited in your bank account (minus fees, of course).

Under the Employee's Pension Insurance Plan (Category 2 employees), payments are calculated by multiplying the average monthly standard remuneration by the rates shown in the following table, according to the insured period.

Insured period Rate
At least 6 months - less than 12 months, 0.5
At least 12 months - less than 18 months, 1.0
At least 18 months - less than 24 months, 1.5
At least 24 months - less than 30 months, 2.0
At least 30 months - less than 36 months, 2.5
36 months and over, 3.0

For Category 2 insured persons, 20% income tax is imposed on the payment for Lump-sum withdrawal payment. Claims for this tax refund can be made at the tax offices before leaving Japan by submitting a 'notification of tax agent' form to the relevant tax office (usually where Alien Registration is registered) and designating an agent. An eligible tax agent is required to be resident in Japan. When the lump-sum withdrawal payment is made, a notification will be sent, which needs to be sent to the tax agent to claim for tax refund on behalf of the claimant.

How to claim redemption
The claim form can be collected from your nearest Social Insurance Office or pension section of your ward office. Before leaving Japan, in addition to this form, you would need your pension book (nenkin techo), which has your pension number. It normally takes a few months after the application is made to receive your refund of contributions, which is paid by direct deposit into your bank account.

More information on pensions
Link to PDF forms

Naturally, I'm still working out all the specifics, but if you've been with a private company in Japan for a year and now have to leave, make sure you take care of this first.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Playing God

I am a true laborer: I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man's happiness, glad of other men's good, content with my harm.

As You Like It

Since I came to Japan, I've been searching for ways in which I might maintain the same kind of freelance living I had back in the states; the 9-5 (or the 5-9, in Japan) just isn't the lifestyle I was cut out for. I like a variety of jobs with my own flexible schedule – to be able to go out with friends if I want to, to stay up all night and deal poker at a private party, to tutor a girl for $50/hour in physics because she needs the extra help before an exam... this is my vacation, because I work what I want to, when I want to.

My original intention in blogging was in fact to report these kinds of opportunities to you readers intending to come to Japan. I still want to try this... but it's not always practical. I'd be willing to say with some certainty that no foreigner could maintain a freelance living in Japan unless one were living in Tokyo or Osaka (if anyone is, prove me wrong!). In Tokyo, you can find plenty of acting, modeling, tutoring, and promotional gigs, as well as the plethora of jobs already available in a big city – IT, headhunting, teaching, and consulting.

But for those of us in western Japan, these opportunities are few and far between. Fukuoka has presented more than I thought possible, but not so many that I could give two weeks notice and buy an apartment near the beach. However, one did catch my eye, and prompted me to do a little bit of research on this gaikokujin-exclusive profession...

Ministerial Work

A bride's special day... something borrowed, something new, something blue... walking down the aisle where her husband-to-be waits nervously, excitedly...

In America, weddings are not only ceremonial, but a legal institution of marriage; you can obtain your wedding certificate at the church (or temple), and have the bond performed by a legally-recognized priest.

In Japan, this process is sublimated; you must go to a government office to receive the marriage license, and then have a wedding according to your beliefs if you choose (not sure the order matters). Naturally, priests or officiators do not have to be specially trained or recognized by the government; in this case, they are little more than actors playing their parts. Enter the foreigner.

There is a call for foreigners, particularly white, bearded men, to officiate at weddings. Japanese couples who are Christian (though Christians are a huge minority in Japan, 1-2%), or those who merely wish to have a western-style ceremony, want the complete package: a white dress with the long train, a dule of doves being released, and a foreigner standing before them in robes to bind them for life.

Naturally, some religious zealots have a big problem with this: men getting paid to exploit their religion for a farcical ceremony. Ethics aside, it's not a bad job for actors (being nothing more than a performance), and it pays reasonably well: ¥10,000-20,000/ceremony, each lasting about half an hour. Most of the weddings fall on weekends as well, so English teachers looking for part-time work are in a good position. Not to mention... well, it might be some of the most positive work you ever experience.

Keep up to date on Gaijinpot. Check your local classifieds. These opportunities might just crop up. I'll be interviewing for a weekend position at an onsen resort near Kumamoto.

Fake priests in demand in Japan
Good rundown of foreigner employment opportunities

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Truth About AEON: Part VII


You've heard about the good, the bad, and the ugly. You've seen what can go wrong, what will go wrong. And hopefully by now, you know a little more about Japan and AEON than when you first came upon Keeping Pace in Japan.

So what will you do? Cancel your trip? Stop filling out the eikaiwa applications? Try to find another way to join the ranks of the gaikokujin?

In my opinion - and this is based on the opinion of someone who, overall, had a good experience his first year in Japan, despite inconsistencies and lies in his place of employment – the eikaiwa is probably the best means a first-timer has of coming to Japan. And AEON is one of the better English-teaching schools, despite its faults. NOVA may soon be out of business, GEOS is on roughly the same level as AEON, and ECC may have the best vacation schedule, but they're not the easiest people to contact (interviews every six months and only in select cities).

So why am I saying this? I've spent the last five entries talking about nothing but problems and aggravations... why endorse a company that allows such activities? You don't have a whole lot of options. If you are creative and resourceful, the best option of coming to Japan would be:

1. First build up your Japanese to JLP 2 at least, and give yourself at least 500,000 yen for a safe buffer zone.

2. Drop everything and just fly to Nippon. Enter the country with a three-month tourist visa and start looking for work. You can work contract jobs (though technically illegal) without reporting the income, and stay in a cheap gaijin house until something comes up. Without a gaijin card, you cannot get a bank account (which rules out a few jobs payable only by electronic transfer, most gyms, etc.), or an apartment (as far as I know).

3. If you find a stable job within three months you can change your visa status to a working visa, get a gaijin card, and begin anew. I've been told you have to leave the country to change your status from a tourist to working visa – any experience on this? Email me.

4. If you can't find a job within three months, you can have your tourist visa renewed for another three, or leave the country (to Korea or China) for a few days and come back on a new three-month visa. Nothing illegal there.

Some people have done this, and had it work out for them. As you can see, it can be a hassle, and you would have to be constantly looking over your shoulder if immigration decided to play catch-up with your paperwork.

To avoid this, I do believe it's best to come in with a stable company, a valid visa, and go from there. If you're anything like me, once you've lived in Japan for several months, and discovered the essentials of living and the pace of the world, you know you can survive anywhere. AEON helps you with a bank account, foreigner registration, a cell phone, language skills, and an apartment. Your keys to survival.

So what about taking advantage of AEON's offer, entering the country, getting set up, and then resigning? ...possible. I don't recommend this for two reasons: financial and traditional. I'm old-fashioned when it comes to work, and believe in fulfilling your commitments (though I've had this tested very often). Financially, though, you'd be giving up a great deal of money - 65,000 yen contract bonus, about 50,000-60,000 yen for the cash equivalent of your plane ticket home, and all the money you would need to start over in a new city; you can't stay in the company apartment if you're not working for them.

Although it's not my personal choice, I can definitely see why some people would choose to quit the eikaiwa world and find a better job more suited to their skills. This works ten times better if your Japanese ability is JLP 2 or greater.

Don't base your opinions on teacher's personal weblogs, not even mine – although I'm trying to give you more information than I've ever seen about AEON online, it is still a shadow of the actual experience.

Take some time and think it over. Look at the facts you have, and the unknowns (I can help you there as best I can). Know that no matter what happens, you will give up a level of comfort you have come to expect in your country, your home, your job. If you can accept this, keep an open mind, and see yourself experiencing another culture, we just might have a place for you here.

Ganbare (good luck).

The Truth About AEON: Part I
The Truth About AEON: Part II
The Truth About AEON: Part III
The Truth About AEON: Part IV
The Truth About AEON: Part V
The Truth About AEON: Part VI
The Truth About AEON: Part VII

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The Truth About AEON: Part VI

Walking Through the Role

A rough and concise guide to working at AEON for a year. Email me with any questions – I only mention the major events, not the finer details.


This was originally prompted by a desire to get out into the world and experience something entirely different; to break away from what was familiar and comfortable; to suffer, and learn through suffering. Adventure. Culture. Language. Food... heh. Truth be told, I was not a big fan of fish before coming into the country. I could stand some fried crawfish and smoked salmon, but never really got the taste of anything baked (or raw). Now, I can gracefully use my chopsticks to devour a blowfish in a matter of minutes. Oishi (delicious).

I was searching for jobs in Japan when I came across companies like AEON and NOVA. What followed was a random search across the vastness of internet websites. Personal blogs of AEON teachers. The life of cubicle workers in Tokyo. Tourist attractions in Kyoto. Were there still trace levels of radiation in Hiroshima? (Laugh if you want, but before I came here, I could have sworn the modern cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were located a distance from their pre-WWII counterparts. The country was more resilient than I had realized, and my knowledge somewhat lacking).

To all prospective eikaiwa employees: I know Japan seems distant, different, and perhaps scary (from the unknown, not safety). I didn't know what to expect. Probably the best advice I can give you is: AEON is just a job. I know it's in Japan, and I know you'll have strange encounters before work, after work, and on the weekends. But AEON is just a job, not an adventure. Japan is the adventure, and I encourage you to take advantage of it.


- A search on the company's website, followed by an online application – my resume, and an essay AEON requests: "Why I Want to Live and Work in Japan".

- Email confirmation of the application and the promise of an interview in the near future.

- Invitation to a group information session in your city. If you're not located in a major metropolitan area, AEON may ask you to travel or just do a personal interview.


Thank you for your interest in AEON. You are invited to attend an information meeting.

The decision to live and work in another country requires very careful consideration. At this meeting we will introduce you to our company and explain our job opportunities in detail. There will also be a video presentation as well as time for questions.

Our application process involved three meetings: An information meeting, a group interview, and, for some applicants, a personal interview.

Please bring all of your questions and the following to the information meeting:

1. Completed application for employment
2. Five minute teaching demonstration. An applicant must submit a 15-minute lesson plan and present a 5-minute portion to the group. The lesson should be for just one level of student: beginner, intermediate, or advanced. Other applicants will act as students.

OBJECTIVE: In a creative and interactive manner teach a lesson focusing on English conversation.
SUGGESTIONS: Pattern practice exercises, American customs/culture, educational games and activities, etc. (We recommend that you consult your library or ESL sources for ideas and techniques)

3. A hard copy of your resume and essay.

Stage 1
A group information session. Show up in a neatly pressed business suit. Three representatives of AEON (or fewer) come and speak to a large group of hopefuls. They go over the history of AEON. Show a video of a day in the life of a typical AEON employee. Explain some cultural differences about Japan. Hand out copies of the employment terms. Open the floor up to questions.

In addition, you should be given a summary of the contract stipulations for each of the respective positions (AEON and AEON Amity): working hours, salary, housing, insurance, vacations, training, and your bonus.

Stage 2
That same day, you are broken into smaller groups of about ten (depending on the number of people in attendance), and sent to different classrooms to present your sample lesson. Other applicants will act as students, and there should be one AEON representative taking charge and making notes.

Stage 3
Hit or miss. Depending on your performance in the classroom and your application, you could be asked back in the next three days for an individual interview. After the classroom session, you will be handed a plain white envelope announcing that AEON:

- Is grateful for your participation, but cannot offer you a position at this time
- Will like to offer you a chance to attend a personal interview with an AEON recruiter at X:XX time on XX/XX day.

The demonstration interview. Essentially you spend a few minutes with the recruiter answering any questions he might have and posing any questions you might have, but then comes the difficult part: the practice lesson.

You are given a grammar topic. The recruiter leaves the room. You have twenty minutes or so to prepare posters, visual aids, and anything else you believe you'd need for a lesson. The recruiter comes back, acting like a fledgling English student. You have a set time to communicate the grammar topic to the "student". Depending on your performance, AEON will hire you.

Job Offer

A telephone call following your private interview. AEON informs you of the school location and approximate timeline until your departure. You have a few days to choose to defer, reject, or accept. If you defer, AEON doesn't turn you down; you can choose to accept a position in a different location or a different starting time.


If you accept, the recruiter will inform you of a few things coming in the mail:

First Mailing
A notice letter on AEON letterhead essentially confirming the date and location of your assignment in Japan. As always, the paperwork is massive:

1. Please sign and submit all 5 contracts (blue contracts enclosed)
2. 6 similar passport photos with a one-color background and your name written on the back (have 10 photos taken at the same time, please keep 4 for future use). All photos must be 2" by 2" and no laser or digital copies please.
3. Original Bachelors Diploma or Original Letter of Graduation (if applicable)
4. Copies of the picture page/signature page of your valid Passport (please make certain that it is very legible and the photo is clearly seen). The copy should include the Passport photo, number, and date of issue and expiration. Don't forget to make sure your passport is signed correctly the full name that is printed on your passport.
5. If you have been to Japan previously, please include a photocopy of all pages in your passport with all relevant VISA stamps on them.
6. U.S. $200 employment deposit (check or money order to the AEON Corporation)
7. Signed "Policy Manual Acknowledgement/Agreements Sheet" (enclosed)
8. Accurately completed "Personal History" form (enclosed)
9. Completed "Application for Certificate of Eligibility" (enclosed)

This will probably be sent to you at least three months prior to your start date in Japan; the visa paperwork takes time, and if you don't have a passport yet, it will take longer.

Life in Japan
Once you formally accept the position at AEON, they will send you regular online newspapers titled "Life in Japan" – everything a foreigner needs to know about living in Japan. They are more cultural ideas (onsen, omiyage, matsuri) rather than practical (internet, alien registration, using the trains), but still quite useful.

Second Mailing

"The information you sent us will be forwarded to Japan for pre-approval of the work visa. Approximately five to ten days prior to your departure you will be receiving the Certificate of Eligibility from Japan. At that time you will proceed with the visa application procedure."

AEON reminds you to check with them before you book your flight, a flight which must arrive on a specific day - no earlier, no later. You may be the only person coming in that day, but if there are more, the company will try to arrange it so that you all arrive within a few hours of each other.


What to take

- ¥130,000 in cash. DO NOT TAKE TRAVELER'S CHECKS. I know that AEON recommends keeping most of your savings in traveler's checks in lieu of cash, but this is stupid; Japan is a cash-oriented society. It is a big hassle for you, a newbie to Japan, to find a bank that will accept international traveler's checks and exchange them for Japanese Yen. Only bring traveler’s checks if you're the sort who constantly loses things.

- Passport with your current visa stamp

- Copies of your passport and visa stamp

- One small bag and garment bag to use at training

- One or two large bags to forward to your branch school

- Three changes of business attire (but I personally think two is enough, as long as you have plenty of shirts)

- A nice omiyage (gift) for your school staff once you attire. If you can't possibly stuff one more thing into your bags, you could just buy a box of chocolates or some baked goods once you’re in Japan.

- Japanese language books. I'd recommend Minna no Nihongo (which you can buy here; it's very commonly used in international center language classes) and Basic Kanji Book (good for memorizing the brushstroke order). Of course, you should buy a cheap phrasebook just to survive on a day-to-day basis; one problem I've noticed with these phrasebooks is they cater only to the tourist, not those already living in Japan.

- Comfort food, to tide you over until you find the best places to eat.

- Invest in a high quality camera, if photography suits you. If you just take pictures for fun, don't even bother – your Japanese cell phone should have a decent camera built-in.

- I talked about shoes in the last entries – two pairs, easy to slip on/off

What not to take

- Too many casual clothes. Save some money and buy some fashionable Japanese clothes.

- Too many books on Japan; it may be easier for you to locate these books in your English bookstore, but they're not difficult to find here – save room in your bags for things you absolutely cannot buy in Japan.


Once you receive your certificate of eligibility in the mail, you must either go to the nearest Japanese embassy, or FedEx the necessary paperwork (they only accept FedEx). Your passport should be returned with a fresh stamp: your first Japanese visa.


You get off the plane after a long flight. A representative meets you. Your baggage is forwarded to your branch school. You are given a train ticket and escorted to housing or a hotel near the training facility.

Training should begin at 10 AM sharp the next day. Seven full days if you're teaching adults, tack on an additional two for kids, usually with a day off between the two sessions.

I had two really good trainers. Looking back, they were quite thorough, but nothing takes the place of experience; everything you go through during training seems so unfamiliar and difficult, but it becomes second nature after enough time.

Naturally, training will vary depending on your area and staff, but you should expect a curriculum similar to...


Day One

- Taxes in Japan
- Overview of AEON as a company
- AEON curriculum, textbooks
- Japanese lesson

Day Two

- Model lesson
- Textbook review
- Building a lesson plan
- Classroom English

Day Three

- Cultural differences, problems in the Japanese work environment
- AEON contract
- Contract renewal information
- Building a lesson plan
- Teacher presentation: half of a demonstration lesson

Day Four

- More information about The AEON Corporation
- Interviewing prospective students
- Assessing English levels
- Teacher presentation: full lesson

Day Five

- Group lessons
- Building a lesson plane
- Error correction techniques
- Teacher presentation: full lesson

Day Six

- Experience at branch schools
- Proficiency tests: TOEIC, TOFEL
- Making lesson supplements: posters, cards, etc
- Private lessons
- Teacher presentation: full lesson

Day Seven

- First days at your branch school
- Dress code
- Salary statements
- Vacation days
- Insurance
- Traveling abroad


Day One

- Overview of curriculum and textbooks
- Warm up activities
- Games
- Model lessons
- Lesson preparation
- Teacher presentation: full lesson
- Overview of elementary school

Day Two

- Games
- Demo lessons
- Junior high school overview
- Lesson preparation
- Teacher presentation: full lesson

You should also receive your class schedule, details about your apartment, and the names of the other teachers at your school.

First Days

On the day following your last day of training (or the same night, depending on how far you need to travel), you will be thrown headfirst onto the nearest train and sent to your branch school. Most likely your manager and a teacher will be there to greet you with a gift or at least a ride to your housing.

They will set you up in the company apartment or a hotel while the old teacher moves out. You might have enough time to tour the school and meet a few people before it closes, and then comes your first test.

The welcome dinner. Teachers and management only. You are poked and prodded with questions, told you use chopsticks so well, and from the teachers' reactions, it's absolutely mind-blowing that you can pronounce "konnichiwa".

I, for one, feel that if you can speak Japanese all the time, you should. You will garner a lot more respect, not to mention put the "foreigners can't learn Japanese" stereotype to death. It will definitely make the branch school a more comfortable place to work (although you will still be prodded with questions).

Depending on when you arrive, you could have 2-5 days with the departing teacher. Two to five days to take notes, review student information, observe lessons, learn what the manager expects from you, become familiar with office operations, and soak up everything the departing teacher has to offer.

And now a farewell dinner for the departing dinner. Two dinners in one week (assuming they weren't cheap enough to cram into one).

You're on your own. You may be the only foreign teacher at a school whose manager and staff don't speak English well. You may have a fluent manager, and two other foreign teachers on staff. It depends entirely on the location.

During your first week, you'll have to...

- Go to the local government office and apply for an Alien Registration Card – up until the moment you receive it, you should carry your passport with you at all times; if you don't, the police have grounds to arrest you. It's best just to avoid the situation.
- Set up a Japanese bank account
- Get a Japanese cell phone
- Arrange all the paperwork to have your bills paid by automatic withdrawal from your bank account


Business Meetings

Every week at a set time, all teachers will meet with management to go over business operations. These meetings are a waste of time, and nothing productive will ever come out of them. I recently read a short manifesto by an American who worked several contract positions in Tokyo and Fukuoka. I think his interpretation of Japanese business meetings says it best: the purpose of a business meeting is not to accomplish anything, it is to come to a consensus on what has been accomplished.

That having been said, you go over money that needs to be brought in, new students, campaigns, maybe farewell and goodbye parties... but nothing is accomplished – all the information relevant to your position could be reduced to a two-minute conversation.

Nevertheless, you won't be able to avoid these meetings, so brush on your Japanese, throw on a fake smile, and be prepared to be excited and genki about events you had no control over and statistics that really don’t concern you (I never played along with this, which is probably another reason why my contract wasn't renewed. My manager never understood why I couldn’t be "jumping up and down" excited that another teacher's student had signed up for a three-month course, or gotten a high TOEIC score. Apparently saying "that's good" isn't enough.)

Sick Days

Don't take sick days unless you're prepared to feel a whole lot worse at the end of the day than when you started.

Let me elaborate. You wake up, nauseated. There's not a chance in the world you feel like standing up in front of eight students and listening to their speeches for an hour. Something must be done. You reach for your trusty cell phone and dial before the clock strikes 10:00 AM (according to policy)...

Hai, moshi moshi
I can't come into work today, I'm just too sick.
Oohhh, I'm so sorry. Please wait, I will take you to hospital.
The hospital?? No, I just need to rest.
Please wait. I will come.
No, I'm fine, I just need to stay inside, rest, and eat healthy foods.
I think you need to go to hospital

Based on what? Your expert medical opinion? Hardly. Half the time, this is not so much out of concern for your health, but rather an attempt to prove that you are physically incapable of dragging yourself to work and to provide medical documentation for missing work.

I hate hospitals. When I'm sick, all I need to do is rest at home. Spending hours in a waiting room and a few additional hours waiting for a doctor who can look me over and then tell me I need to rest doesn't help. And if the doctor tells you can return to work for the rest of the day, AEON sees no problem in forcing the issue. The company should be accommodating to your request to stay at home, but they will often demand that you go into a hospital, or at least be examined by a staff member to see if you’re really sick.

You still have the final word – if you really don't want to go to a hospital, don't. Tell them no. You should be the one forcing the issue. Inform them that going to a hospital will just make the problem worse (unless you’re one to accept medications you can't read).


You should have someone from headquarters come and observe your lessons at three and six months after your arrival. They will hand you an evaluation sheet detailing any problems or praise. You will be given an offer to renew your contract for a given amount of time, or told you need to leave in six months.

Completion of Contract

I guess the first "official" notice that your contract is nearing completion begins about one month prior to your final day at school: you should receive a written request asking whether you would prefer a plane ticket home or the cash equivalent. If you request the cash equivalent, you must assume AEON will use their numbers to calculate a "fair price" – in other words, expect the price to differ from than which you paid to come to Japan by a few tens of thousands of yen.

Following that, you should receive a checklist in the company mail from your trainer, listing your responsibilities, both at school and in the company apartment, before the new teacher arrives.

- Your apartment will be inspected for cleanliness, furniture quality, and to make sure everything is intact

- Your bank account will be closed, you Japanese cell phone handed in

- Your utilities will be transferred to the new teacher, the difference paid by you

- On your very last day, your manager will give you a copy of the official recommendation letter, your bonus (about ¥65,000 for a one-year contract), your final paycheck, your plane ticket home (or cash equivalent), and all the relevant tax information if you need to file back in your country

- Depending on your school, you will either be placed in a hotel while the new teacher occupies your apartment, or vice versa


The Truth About AEON: Part I
The Truth About AEON: Part II
The Truth About AEON: Part III
The Truth About AEON: Part IV
The Truth About AEON: Part V
The Truth About AEON: Part VI
The Truth About AEON: Part VII

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Friday, July 06, 2007

The Truth About AEON: Part V

Reprimands and Blogging

This entry covers the experience that caused the beginning of the end of a pleasant work environment for me at AEON. No, I didn't steal anything, insult anyone, or commit a fatal cultural error. I blogged about a business meeting. If you've been following me for some time (since September, at least), you know probably know this by now – it was one of the entries that scored me the highest hit count I had ever seen up to that point.

So what happened?

One Thursday after lunch, as I'm preparing for my next lesson, my manager pulls me aside and tells me we need to have a meeting. A little puzzled, I comply, and shuffle my feet towards an empty classroom.

"Tana sensei, other teachers read your blog, and we need to talk about it."

I was a little confused at that point. I had asked my trainer about blogging at AEON, because that was a big source of information for me researching back in the US, and I wanted to give prospective employees a better idea of what it meant to come to Japan and work in the eikaiwa. Although, I do have to admit my entries up to that point were very primitive and based largely upon GaijinSmash. My ignorance.

Still, my trainer gave me some advice that I took to be the official stance of AEON: don't mention names, and don't brag about any illegal activities that you may or may not be doing (I can't believe some people would put that kind of information on an easily traceable website). I had complied with this – I mentioned I was an AEON teacher and my location, but did not mention the name of my school or any of my staff. And yet...

"Some of the teachers read your blog, and they were so angry... [The assistant manager] read your blog and he was so angry. Why did you do this?"

She was mostly concerned with my entry about an AEON business meeting, which did not contain specific information about the earnings or students of the school, but did discuss my interpretation of the staff's reaction to certain information (e.g. genkiness in the workplace). I had also discussed my reaction to a terrible kids class I had taught earlier that week, and my own trepidation about teaching so many children's classes. In addition, I had covered some of the staff reactions to my presence in the office – this was mostly coming from my manager, but I had the impression they thought I was an idiot because of my poor Japanese skills: spelling everything out, using a childish tone to talk to me...

Essentially the meeting was me clarifying every point I had ever made on my blog. It was humiliating, and I can't believe she devoted company time to talk to me about it.

"Why do you write these things?"
"These are my thoughts, my opinions; I don't tell people these things. The blog helps me think things over, like a diary."
"But this is different than diary, you post these things on the internet. Anyone can read."

There was no point in arguing any further; I later wrote an entry about blogging in the workplace which summarizes my problem with this meeting very nicely: I didn't bring this information into the workplace. I kept my comments at home, on my personal weblog, which is by definition an online diary. The staff chose to read it, and find offense with it. It's no different than them snooping around a personal diary I might have had lying on my desk – they chose to read it, and must face the consequences of having that information. I didn't give it to them, I didn't complain to them, and I didn't see the point of bringing such problems into the school. Apparently management felt otherwise.

In the end, after making me feel pretty lousy and telling me all the teachers at the school hated me and didn't want to talk to me, she asked me if I would like to transfer to a different school (also in response to my uncertainty in teaching kid's classes). I said I would if it would solve the problems here (I didn't really want to pick up everything and go after just three months, but she made it sound like there was no recovery from this). She also stipulated that if she informed corporate headquarters about this, they would fire me; essentially, I was being censored. Told to remove all references to AEON or be fired. I walked away and stayed pretty silent for the rest of the day.

That night, I wrote this entry (sorry about the Lost in Translation cliché) as a way of apologizing and explaining myself. I also included a small note along the lines of: "Since I have not been understood at my current branch, I will be transferring to a different school as soon as possible."

The next day. About two minutes after I arrive at the office my manager pulls me aside and wants to talk about my latest entry. Again, devoting company time to my blog. This is beyond ridiculous.

"This part is ok, but why did you do this? Why did you say these things?"

Referring to my decision to transfer. It's my choice as an individual. Am I not allowed to talk anymore? If I choose to confide that information to someone, am I in violation of AEON's rules? Regardless, the point is moot, because it was written on a blog, and I didn't bring it into the workplace. It was so pathetic seeing sympathy from her, as if this situation warranted sympathy – she was completely ignoring the root of the problem: there was no problem unless you happened to bring it into the light.

Again, censored. Told to remove all reference to the transfer, and prepare for another meeting next week. Later that day, I also received a call from my trainer telling me I was going to be reprimanded and it was a "serious situation".

I didn't want to make a stand over this. I wanted to stay in Japan. To be honest, I found the whole situation laughable – AEON, a supposedly respectable Japanese company, was devoting company time to addressing a problem they were perpetuating. Over a blog.

And why? Why would the company waste time and resources talking to me about these things? My blog entries were interpretations of cultural differences, hardly whistle-blowing material. Yet, according to the policy manual, AEON has the right to control "anything detrimental or embarrassing to the image and reputation [of AEON]." They used this policy to fire two teachers in Tokyo over information they posted on their blogs, and actually employ someone to search the blogosphere for any and all information.

The next week, I had an official sit-down with my trainer, who observed one of my classes (no doubt to determine on behalf of AEON if my "dangerous behavior" affected my classroom performance), and gave me an official Disciplinary Notification:

This is an official notice of disciplinary action up to and including dismissal, as indicated in the AEON Foreign Teacher's Policy Manual, if the areas of performance discussed do not improve. Immediate and effective improvements need to be made in teaching and/or interpersonal skills.

The reasons for this notification have been explain fully, as well as guidelines and suggestions needed for improvement.

The employer reserves the right to take disciplinary action or terminate the employment contract, if performance or behavioral problems continue or do not improve.

Although I stubbornly felt the problem was with management and the company spending so much time discussing the "problem", I did make an effort to rectify things with the staff at my school. I wrote an official letter of apology. I stayed late without saying a word. I did things without question, even when they warranted questions. I talked to the staff, but it was all very mechanical, because I was dead inside; from that point onward, I decided not to let a single aspect of my outside life or personality show through in the office (classes were the exception); placing that AEON nametag around my neck first thing in the afternoon was like amputating part of myself.

There was a reason behind it all; if AEON didn't want to know my opinions (good or bad), then they wouldn't get them. They would get nothing, just like they wanted. No personality, no stories, no ambition, no emotion. Nothing. I hope I lived up to their expectations. You can't have the light without the dark.

These feelings only improved slightly over the course of the next several months, due to my own stubbornness and the conceit of the staff.

Long-term ramifications

All this occurred before my renewal evaluation in December. All these opinions were embedded in the management and head teacher before my renewal.

My contract was not renewed, mainly on the basis of co-worker rapport. The staff let their feelings affect a person's career. Unbelievable. Of course, I hadn't planned to stay for over a year regardless, but to be turned down on the basis of a blog (and letting those feelings alter their judgment about my performance in other areas)... it was a little frustrating.

So where am I now? Writing about AEON on my blog. In the end, they accomplished nothing except giving me fire to fuel the raging debate about working in eikaiwa.

In all honesty, I was never really angry about the company's reaction to my articles. I knew the intent and purpose behind them, and it wasn’t meant to be personal or insulting – just information about working in Japan. There's only so much you can put up with before you decide what will and will not get to you. This was it for me. I just didn't care after that point.

So if AEON had fired me? So what? I could have done a job search and come up with something, or I could have gone home and searched for a job there, after blogging about the events and probably writing a news article for a legitimate media source.

If the staff had tried to make my existence in Japan as uncomfortable as possible? They didn't help, but again, it was impossible to let their behavior throw me off.

What if? What if...? The possibilities are endless. Nothing's changed about corporate responses to blogging – if the information is out there, someone will find it; I mention this because I told no one in the company, foreigner or otherwise, about my blog's URL or name. Be careful, but don't stop writing; you're always helping someone.

The Truth About AEON: Part I
The Truth About AEON: Part II
The Truth About AEON: Part III
The Truth About AEON: Part IV
The Truth About AEON: Part V
The Truth About AEON: Part VI
The Truth About AEON: Part VII

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Truth About AEON: Part IV

Naturally, I had many questions at the information session and in the days following my official acceptance into AEON. After all, Japan was an unknown to me: a new world, with trials and tribulations. Who knows what life will hold for me in the land of the rising sun? The recruiter was helpful with most of these concerns, but you should benefit from my experience as well – here are some of my first questions about Japan. Again, if you don't see something that you would like to ask about, feel free...

My First Questions

Location, Location, Location

You do have quite a bit of flexibility in choosing where you'd like to be posted. In fact, if both your time schedule and location is up in the air, you can pretty much go wherever whenever you want. If you're particular to a certain time, AEON may give you a few choices for teachers departing around that date. If you're looking for a certain date and place (e.g. Tokyo in the summer), you might have to wait a few months longer than others.

Other than a city name, general statistics you could find on Wikipedia, and information about the student population of your particular school, you receive absolutely no useful facts. No websites to consult. No one to contact in the area – AEON doesn't give you the departing teacher's phone or email, regardless of whether the teacher is willing to talk or not. If your recruiter hasn't been to the school or lived in the area, he can't tell you any more. I found this particularly frustrating, since I couldn't find the kind of information I wanted online – running trails, gyms, touristy places in town, international centers, internet access, maps or listings of businesses in the area...

If you're in one of the larger