Family Day? Not in Japan


One of the problems with maintaining a blog about child raising is that the child-raising itself takes so much time that thee is little time to blog about it. If I thought I had little to,e last year while on child care leave, I have even less time this year now that I’m back to full time work teaching.

Being a teacher in Japan leaves even less time, since the time demands include evenings and weekends. My current school requires me to be in charge of at least one sports-related club and my committee work requires me to sacrifice entire weekends from time to time. My school additionally has various entrance exams during the year — five of them in total — which require me to give up holidays. There are also Open Campus days, School “Experience” days, Entrance Explanation days, and other administrative-oriented events…most of which take place on the weekend so that parents and prospective students can attend.

So, when I was recently asked to work a second weekend in a row, to chaperone students to a speech contest, I requested that another English teacher take charge, arguing that I hadn’t seen my daughter in almost 8 days.

My request rankled a few feathers. “We are all busy,” was the indignant reply. Yes, I thought, but I’m the only one  with a 2 year old daughter whose mother not only is pregnant but also has to work extra hours to cover classes she will have to cancel in January when she takes child raising leave.

Essentially, the Japanese attitude is that workers must give up all thought of family in favor of their workplace. All must be sacrificed for work, because it is mei waku (troublesome) to a coworker if they have to do extra work in your place. The peer pressure never to take time off, never to ask a colleague to give you a hand, is enormous.

When I was working in Boston, it was customary for a coworker to say, “Hey, something’s come up, can you handle this for me?” In return, it was understood that at some point in the future, when something came up for me, the coworker would return the favor. Almost an unspoken assumption. The unspoken assumption at my Japanese school is that you should never ask a colleague to do work that you should be doing; an unspoken assumption that you should never take time off for family, that you should always place work before family. Almost as if family is an inconvenience, a curse rather than a blessing, particularly for men.

Of course, some of my colleagues lament privately to me that they want to spend more time with their children. The conversation always ends with them sighing, “Well, it can’t be helped.” (shouganai)

Bullshit. If there’s one aspect of Japanese society and culture I have never gotten used to, and never will accept, it’s the defeatist, cowardly attitude of, “Well, it can’t be helped.”

It can ALWAYS be helped, but not by turning the other cheek or by allowing your superiors or societal mores run roughshod up and down your spineless back.

Children don’t stay young forever. People get old and die. Some things…MOST things…are more important than work. Two of my siblings have died, one at the age of four months, the other just two weeks before turning 16. I still remember vividly a series of funerals when I was 10, when practically an entire generation of my older relatives died from heart, lung, and other assorted diseases.

I won’t take my relatives for granted. It pains me that I can’t visit my family and relatives in the U.S. more often. I simply will not allow my workplace or my colleagues to take time away from my family here in Japan. One day my daughter is 2, the next she’ll be 12. Which is more worthwhile, being a part of my daughter’s childhood or staying as long as possible at work?

The ultimate irony of my colleagues expecting me to work during the past two weekends was the fact that November 11th was “Family Day.” In fact, the previous week was “Family Week,” so designated by the Japanese national ministry directly supervising my school. A prime example of tatemae, a characteristically Japanese form of saying one thing in public and meaning exactly the opposite…and everybody knowing the truth behind it all anyway.

Every day is family day. That’s not “tatemae” to me. I don’t hide behind my words; I stand in front of them.

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