Door Closes, Door Opens

The short of it is that I’m back in academia, as those who know me already know.

As I’ve chronicled here on this blog, I entered a PhD program in 2006 and completed it in 2012. In 2011, for a lot of reasons, I decided to take a non-academic job. At that point I had pretty much accepted that my chances of landing a tenure-track position in the U.S. were very remote, and that my only option for university teaching in the U.S. was to become an adjunct, which I really didn’t want to do.

By early 2014 I had made peace with the idea that academic doors were likely closed to me. No one goes away and comes back, unless they’re already an established academic rock star. I had continued to keep in touch with various academic communities, but my publication list was still small (no access to JSTOR and other online journal databases, no real time to do concentrated research). I missed academic life, but I just didn’t think there was a way back in without making huge sacrifices when it came to my salary, my living / working conditions, and my relationship with my partner.

At the same time, by the end of 2013 I had realized that I was ready to leave my non-academic job (as an editor / educational consultant / teacher / curriculum developer / goofy prop maker for a company that sells ESL educational materials for children). It wasn’t that I hated it, I just wasn’t particularly passionate about making things for children (I’d originally been hired to make things for adult learners). I was also a bit weary of corporate life and all the restrictions that working for a Japanese company imposed on my free time.

And then in early May a friend sent me a job ad for a position at a Japanese university.

My first instinct was to ignore it, simply because my impression was that jobs for native English speakers at Japanese universities aren’t always that desirable. They tend to be short-term contracts or part-time gigs. You may be told that you’ll be teaching literature or film, but in reality you’re teaching conversational English to students whose English levels are fairly low. Many positions require some kind of TEFL or other teaching certificate, or a Master’s degree, but many don’t require a PhD.

When I looked more closely at this job ad, though, it seemed a little different. The university in question was a prestigious one. The contract was for three years and the position was full-time. The responsibilities included teaching literature (again, I was skeptical on that one, but also hopeful).

I did a bit of digging and found a friend of a friend who actually worked for the same university. We met up and he gave me a very positive impression of the working environment. (I was really, really grateful to have the insider knowledge, because it can be tough to get a real sense of what a particular university’s working environment is like.)

I brushed off my dossier and sent it in at the end of May. I was interviewed two weeks later, and by late July it was confirmed that I had the job. I started teaching at the university on October 6.

This, for me, is one of the most unbelievable aspects of this whole process–how fast it was. In the U.S. it might have taken me a year from application to hiring. I’m certainly not complaining–I think that aspect of the U.S. hiring process is ridiculous–but it’s been a bit dizzying.

A week in and there are so many thoughts running through my head, some negative, mostly positive. I’m just going to go into list mode at this point.

1. I didn’t suffer a lot to get this job, which makes me feel like I don’t deserve it. I’ve heard so many stories of academics slaving away as adjuncts and spending years on the job market with no results that the idea that I could just get a job, in a way similar to the way that non-academics get jobs, blows my mind. And makes impostor syndrome rear its ugly head to try to convince me that there must be some mistake.

2. My value as a human being is based on more than my scholarly output. Ugh, inferiority complexes. I’m already falling back into that spiral of shame and self-doubt that plagued me as a grad student, the one that goes “I need to publish,” “Before I publish I need to read and research and come up with meaningful arguments,” “But there’s so much to read and I don’t have time and my Japanese isn’t good enough,” “But if I don’t publish a lot and very soon everyone will see me as a hack or a dilettante and no one will respect me,” “But I don’t know where to begin and instead of beginning which is scary I’m just going to curl up in a little ball and pretend that publishing isn’t important.” Thankfully I’m a little older now and a little less likely to be consumed by these feelings, but they’re still there, and they’re still scary.

3. Am I a hypocrite? I’ve spent the last four+ years being very critical of academia, so it’s bizarre to step back into this world. For the record, I’m still critical of many aspects of academia. I think the practice of predominantly using part-time lecturers with no benefits or job security to teach university courses in the U.S. is deplorable. I’m deeply disturbed by the corporatization of higher education.  I’m saddened by the pressure on professors to inflate grades or assign lighter reading loads and the general decline of academic rigor.

But I still love teaching and the opportunity to pursue research that is meaningful to me. And this job allows me to do that in a (so far) positive and nurturing work environment. Which seemed far too good an opportunity to pass up.

4. I need to manage my time better. I’m teaching eight classes, which isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. The classes only meet once a week (for an hour and a half). I have three sections of one class and two of another. For the two-section class a lot of the work has already been done for me–there’s a textbook, worksheets, and a final exam that’s being created right now. One of my other classes is essentially a thesis writing seminar where the students bring in their work and we all discuss it. So basically my weekly schedule includes 12 hours of actual teaching, minimal planning for 2 classes, and more heavy-duty planning for 3 classes. There’s also much less grading than in a typical U.S. undergrad course.

Still, I’m really, really busy. Everyone says this is normal for the first semester, which makes sense. And I also have a ton of other stuff to do right now, like filling out endless paperwork and getting my office set up and figuring out how to use the university’s myriad online systems. Hoping that things are a little calmer next semester–but then I might have to do more committee work.

5. I’m happy that my colleagues are happy. Everyone I’ve met and spent time with so far has been lovely. And while I obviously don’t know them incredibly well, our conversations about the university and life in general are not characterized by bitching or eye-rolling. Some of them (both tenured and non) have also been at the university for more than ten years, which is a good sign.

6. Let me not go blind. I’m always disgusted by rebuttals to any critique of the U.S. university system that essentially boil down to “I didn’t have any problems getting a tenure-track job, so all you adjuncts are just lazy, whiny, and entitled.” Or “I haven’t personally witnessed the kind of abuse or suffering that you’ve described, therefor you must be exaggerating or making it up.” Please, please, let me never fall into this trap. I know that I am qualified for my job and that I will do well in it, but I am also really, really lucky. I was in the right place at the right time and I was a good fit. Let me never acquire that smug tone that those who have had some success so often use toward those who’ve struggled more.

7. Come to Japan! University teaching jobs for native English speakers in Japan vary considerably when it comes to working conditions, salary, course load, and the kinds of course you’re actually able to teach. In general, though, the situation here seems to be MUCH better than the lot of the average adjunct professor in the U.S. And universities all over Japan suddenly seem to be hiring a lot more foreign faculty, maybe at least in part because of the 2020 Olympics.

Obviously I realize that not everyone can just uproot and move halfway across the world. But if you’re looking for a way to teach, do research, and be paid a living wage, you might consider extending your job search to Tokyo.

It’s only been a week, but I feel great. Overwhelmed, elated, scared, supported, uncertain, confident, sometimes all at once. I think it’s a good place to be.

Watching Godzilla in Tokyo



“Godzilla doesn’t run. He LUMBERS.”

So said NPR’s Glenn Weldon, outlining one of many reasons that hardcore Godzilla fans were disgusted with Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version of the monster—it RAN. Emmerich’s Godzilla more closely resembled the stampeding T-rex from Jurassic Park, not the slow-moving, building-stomping creature that fans knew and loved. It was such a departure that Toho Studios eventually renamed it “Zilla” to avoid confusion.

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla most definitely lumbers. Watching the monster move with agonizing slowness, huge chunks of architecture ripped apart in slow motion as he carelessly swings an arm or stomps a foot, I realized how important that deliberate, foot-dragging gait is, and how it sets Godzilla apart from countless imitations.

Because Godzilla, first and foremost, is sad. Angry, yes, destructive, definitely, but also tragic. The creature from the original film has long since become a joke, a plastic toy or cartoon who stomps on fake-looking sets and utters high-pitched roars. “Zilla” is a suffix attached to anyone or anything without impulse control. But the original 1954 Gojira film was produced in a Japan still reeling from the effects of World War II. Godzilla himself was an emblem of the destructive power of the atom bomb. Producer Tanaka Tomoyuki said that “the theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.” Music director Ifukube Akira said that Godzilla was “like the souls of the Japanese soldiers who died in the Pacific Ocean during the war.”

I saw the original 1954 film for the first time a few years ago, and I was surprised that it didn’t have much B-movie flavor to it. There are the shots of terrified people running from the monster, but they feel quite genuine (at one point someone even rolls their eyes at the thought that they’ll have to take cover in bomb shelters “again”). The fear of a fantastical monster is mixed with the very real fear of war and the suffering that comes with it.


Godzilla himself is, of course, a man in a rubber suit (I love the picture below, from William Tsutsui’s wonderful Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of the Monsters.) haruo-nakajima-in-the-godzilla-gojira-costume_zpsf1df45a7But even if he’s a guy in a suit, Godzilla feels different from the countless other kaiju that populated Japanese movies throughout the 1960s. He’s filmed in stark black and white. His attacks frequently take place in darkness. His face is eternally grim. And even if his slow, lumbering steps were a side effect of the heaviness of that suit and the actor’s inability to move quickly in it, the result is a monster that feels more physically imposing–and occasionally more vulnerable. Gojira 1954 is a monster movie, but a deeply tragic one—in the end we lose both Godzilla and a self-sacrificing scientist, and we’re not quite sure who we should mourn more strongly.

Gojira inspired plenty of sequels in Japan, with the monster becoming steadily kid-friendlier as time went on. Igarashi Yoshikuni sees a parallel between this “banalization” of Godzilla and Japan’s gradual loss of war memory:

“This shift in the targeted audience confirms the banalization of the monster in the series, the effects immediately discernible even in the quality of production. Godzilla comes to faithfully reproduce human ways: it begins to act like a human and even becomes a ‘mother’ in 1967. The son, Minilla, even speaks Japanese—the ultimate domestication of monstrosity. In 1960s Japan, a place overflowing with optimism inspired by economic growth, the monsters could not find a place other than as caricatures. The darkness that prevailed in the first two films of the mid-1950s had vanished from the screen and Japanese society.”

So what does Godzilla mean in 2014? Especially when he’s been brought back to life by a director whose previous  film (2010’s Monsters) used an alien invasion as an allegory for (among other things) U.S.-Mexico immigration issues?

I adored Monsters, so I was excited to see Edwards’ take on Godzilla, even if reviews were a bit mixed. I was also wary of what a talented, make-the-effects-on-his-home-computer director would do when given a huge chunk of cash—maybe play to his strengths, or maybe get carried away with the CGI.

I agreed with a lot of the criticisms—Edwards’ Godzilla has some silly dialogue that isn’t always silly enough to be funny, plus paper-thin characters—but I still loved it. First and foremost, it’s a real thrill to see a Godzilla movie in a Tokyo theatre, to see the first full shot of Godzilla’s massive body and hear that ear-splitting roar. The visuals gave me the shivers more than a few times.

Like zombies and vampires and really any movie monster or malady, I realized, Godzilla can mean whatever you want him to mean. In 1954 he may have been the terror of the bomb and the aftereffects of nuclear radiation. This time, I felt a chill at the much-talked about opening scene, which features a graphic image of a nuclear plant imploding, and another chill at a scene that recalled the 2011 tsunami. From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima, firebombing to unstoppable waves, Godzilla embodies the fear of the moment.

But Godzilla is also a savior, albeit the kind of savior who has to destroy half the city in order to destroy the much worse monster that always seems to be lurking at the movie’s midpoint. Watching Godzilla and a sort of uber-Mothra duke it out in the middle of a cityscape, casually leveling entire skyscrapers with a single turn of their bodies, that feeling of sadness came back in spades. There’s a resigned, mournful quality to Godzilla’s fighting, as if he knows this is his job, but he’d really rather not be there.

When Godzilla finally lumbers, slowly and morosely, out into the ocean, there are no cheers or swells of triumphant music. Godzilla wins—Godzilla always wins—but everything is in ruins. Victory at any cost, even if the cost essentially negates the victory. In a present where it’s hard to rank the urgency of the ongoing catastrophes taking place across the globe, and where the purported saviors often end up doing just as much damage as whoever they’re fighting against, the image of Godzilla the destroyer-savior seems just a little too apt.

So I’m long overdue for a post, and there’s plenty to write about (new job, new career stuff in general), but it’s taking a while to sort it all out in my head, so it hasn’t happened yet.

In the meantime, my sister just got back from an amazing trip to Tanzania, and the email she sent me was so cool that I asked her if I could post it here. Here it is!


Trip was incredible. Seriously the greatest 2 weeks I’ve had maybe in my life, definitely in the last 10 years. My mind was totally free from chatter and stress, and I had zero stomach issues and no headaches (very rare) and even felt awake most days despite sleeping on hard ground in a tent with two guys (super nice guys). We saw every animal you can imagine living in Africa (easily 10,000 wildebeests, no joke, 100 giraffes, a few troupes of baboons, ostrich, warthogs, lions WITH and without cubs, etc). But even cooler than that, we got to see Oldupai Gorge, which is where Mary Leakey discovered the first australopithecus boisei and the first true hominid, Homo Habilis. Also saw the Laetoli footprints, which they estimate to be from a man, woman, and child around 3.1 million years old. That day blew my mind almost as much as anything else.

Spent lots of time with the local tribes, mostly Maasai, who are those tall thin herders in the red robes that you see on National Geographic standing with a wooden stick draped over their shoulders. We had Maasai guides with us the whole time and got to see their homes (nyombas) and their villages (bomas) and their schools. They live exclusively on cow milk, cow blood, and cow meat. Period. They were incredible. Also got to go hunting (yes HUNTING) with a tribe of fully nomadic bushmen called the Hazabi who speak a click-based language. They let us follow them 3 hours into the forest and they shot a bird out of a tree with a wooden arrow. The bird landed with no head. As in, they shot the head clean off with a WOODEN tipped arrow. Then they promptly built a fire with no matches (just 2 pieces of wood) and cooked the bird and offered everyone a piece. I almost drop-kicked the squeamish vegetarian girl in our group when she waffled as it was handed to her. Fortunately she discreetly threw it over her shoulder, hopefully they didn’t notice. That was a pretty great day.



Hi there. You don’t know me, and there’s really not much reason for you to take my advice about filmmaking. You make films, I just watch them. And I occasionally write about them.

But I’m writing you this letter anyway because I think your films are so, SO close to being great. You’ve been called the “new Miyazaki” (something you wisely choose to call an “overestimation”). But with just a few changes, I really think it wouldn’t be an overestimation at all.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Your visuals are stunning. Like, I could seriously just watch some of your movies frame by frame with the sound turned off and call that a great afternoon. It’s not just the grand, sweeping images that mimic crane shots, or the vivid colors in your classically pretty pictures of Japanese gardens and falling cherry blossoms. What I really love are the hundreds of tiny, intimate details. The labels on beer cans and chocolate. The vividness of raindrops in a puddle, so hyper-real that you’d swear you were looking at a live action image. The clutter of an apartment kitchen, drab grays contrasted with the bright colors of vegetables in a bowl of homemade ramen. The black-and-white shadow of a swinging door against an apartment wall.


I also love the way you pay attention to sounds. The hollow clicking noise that the string makes when you pull on it (two or three times, not just once) to turn on the single overhead light in a Tokyo apartment. The tinny echo of an iron door shutting. Trains–the sound of the railroad crossing, the repetitive “doors are closing, be careful” announcements, the murmur of eerily silent crowds disembarking.


Before I get to the stuff I don’t like, I should say that I’m not against sentimental stories as a rule. I adore Miyazaki, and plenty of his stuff is sentimental as anything. But there’s adding a pinch of sugar to your tea, and then there’s dumping in the whole bag. And your films frequently cross the line from pinch to bag.
So here are my suggestions. Take them or leave them.

1. Lay off the voiceovers. I’m kind of over voiceovers in general, but in your case they’re really, really unnecessary 90% of the time. Your visuals are so powerful, you don’t need a disembodied voice spelling out their meaning. Sure, a few words here and there won’t hurt, but in particular the excessive use of voiceover in “Kotonoha no niwa” just started to grate on my ears after a while. Some of the words are quite beautiful (“The sky was so much closer when I was a child”). But often that disembodied voice is just saying things that any viewer can infer. Let us infer a little.

2. Go easy on the soundtrack. Your trademark piano scores are pretty, to be sure, but I’ve got a thing about silence in film. It’s nice. So many films feel the need to always be banging us over the head with something–quick cuts, music, dialogue, explosions–that it’s nice when a movie just sits there for a bit and soaks in its own ambient noise. You do that occasionally, and it’s lovely. I’d just like to see more of it.

3. Ditch those pop songs. My God. I don’t know if you’re handcuffed to Johnnys or some other tyrannical music production company and are, like, required to use a saccharine, over-the-top pop song in the trailers and climaxes of all your films, but if you have any choice in the matter, my God, please stop. They’re horrible. They take everything from the realm of gently sentimental to treacly and tired.

4. Tell your actors to tone it down. For the most part your films are full of believable, naturalistic performances from your voice actors. But there’s inevitably some climactic moment where people start shouting or shout-crying, and then the movie just feels like a bad Japanese soap opera. I’m not saying cut out these scenes altogether–although some of them really don’t add much–just remember that less can be more.


All right, that’s it. Again, your stuff is gorgeous, and it’s your stuff, so you can make whatever the hell you want, even if beyond the visuals your films aren’t quite doing it for me. But I just have this feeling that if you made a few SLIGHT changes–changes that won’t alter the core of your aesthetic or your story–you could really make something amazing. I’ll keep watching to see what you do next.

Been away from the academic conference circuit for a bit, so it was nice to go back and hear conversations that included words like “alterity” and “intersemiotic.” Did that thing where I saw some people that I knew from way back when but didn’t remember their names, so we just kind of made half-eye contact and then went about our business.

All in all, a good time–friendly people, a student-run falafel kiosk, and a really gorgeous location (International Christian University, near Musashi-Sakai in the western part of Tokyo, a campus that seriously has more stunning greenery than Shinjuku-gyoen). Some interesting points from a few panels:

Beverly Curran, ICU. “Convivial Comics! Intersemiotic Translation and Multi-Dimensional Reading”

An examination of three comics: the Japanese manga “Death Note,” Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” Specifically, the ways in which language and translation play out in those comics. “Death Note,” for example, features a notebook dropped from the sky that’s ostensibly written in English, but even the name scrawled in English on the cover, “Death Note” is a Japanese-English word (the proper English would be “Death Notebook”). “Maus” features an older character who speaks a kind of broken English that uses strange words here and there–for the Japanese translation, they rendered his speech simply as “oyaji” (old man) Japanese. And in “Persepolis,” various countries made slightly different choices about how to handle the multiple languages featured in the comic. Ultimately, an interesting look at how the comic format deals with both the translation of words and the arrangement of images.

Larissa Hjorth, RMIT University. “Co-Present and Ambient Play: A Case Study of Mobile Gaming”

While this wasn’t the primary focus of the talk, what really fascinated me was the way in which mobile phones have essentially become an extension of human bodies, particularly for young people. And the ways in which the constant recording and “capturing” of images and video is an attempt to turn the temporary into something permanent, or to “own” and control other people (particularly when it comes to social media, where a lot of young people place so much value on the number of “likes” an image or video receives). And the fact that, of course, people are recording HUGE amounts of random stuff that HARDLY ANYONE is looking at.

Fascinating fact: in South Korea, when two young people form a couple, it’s apparently common for the girl to commandeer the guy’s phone and cover it in little stickers and reminders of her. Hjorth met one young woman who’d taken a close-up photo of her own eye and saved it as her boyfriend’s phone screensaver. Just so he knew that SHE WAS ALWAYS WATCHING HIM.

Tomoko Tamari, Goldsmiths, University of London. “After Fukushima: The Question of Co-Existence in Contemporary Architectural Tendencies in Japan”

A really interesting look at the history of Metabolism, the architectural movement that saw cities as organic entities and envisioned a world of “cities in buildings,” and how catastrophes like the Greater East Japan Earthquake have changed the way people think about living spaces. With the exception of the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Shimbashi, few Metabolist visions were realized (it’s always been more of a philosophy than a practical architectural style),but the images of their utopian visions for cities are pretty incredible.

nakagin int

Nakagin Capsule Tower, interior



Nakagin Capsule Tower, exterior


Helix City


City in the Air

For a full list of presenters and events, visit the Cultural Typhoon 2014 home page.

Book Tribes

Wandering through the English language section of a Japanese bookstore a few years ago, I came across an English category marker labeled “chick lit.” I think it included half a dozen or so books, most of them with pictures of a high heel or a large pair of lips on the cover.

Long before that, I was in a bar with a guy and told him that I loved science fiction. He laughed and rolled his eyes. “Chicks don’t read real science fiction,” he said. I asked what the hell he meant. “You know, hard sci-fi,” he said. “The real stuff. With computers and robots.”

In a lot of Japanese bookstores, there’s still a section for “joryu sakka”–literature written by women. Said literature doesn’t necessarily stick to a particular theme or style, it just happens to be written by women, and therefor seems to deserves its own category.

On the subject of covers, NPR’s wonderful Pop Culture Happy Hour recently devoted a segment to the coded language of book covers, a language that’s kind of dying out in the age of e-readers. Author Maureen Johnson,  frustrated with the way that labels like “fluffy” or “insubstantial” are much more often assigned to books written by women, recently asked Twitter to do a gender-swap of famous book covers, and the results were illuminating.

I was thinking about all this–the strange way books and genres are categorised, the way that we categorize ourselves and other people based on what we read–in the wake of Ruth Graham’s article in Slate about how adults who read YA literature should be “ashamed of themselves.” I’m not going to pick that article apart–it was clearly meant to provoke (the author even tweeted that she was “working on something that will make a lot of people mad” right before it was published). Plenty of other people have come to the defense of YA literature and the people who read it, and the defense of everyone to read whatever the fuck they want and not feel ashamed.

What struck me about the article, though, was the way that we’re quick to label ourselves and others based on both what and why we read. YA, sci-fi, fantasy, romance–genres all seem to have their own tribes.

I seem to remember a time when “young adult” was not a cut-and-dried category. There were books with youthful protagonists and a lack of extreme sex or violence that nonetheless were not marketed as “YA,” even though they might have been popular selections in elementary and junior high school classrooms. I recall one of my favourite Maurice Sendak quotes, when Stephen Colbert asked him why he wrote for children: “I don’t write for children. I write…and people say ‘That’s for children.’” Jim Henson was similarly reluctant to label himself and his Muppets as children’s entertainment–he argued that good work can appeal to people of all ages. Personally, I tend to enjoy a lot of animation, film, and literature that might be designated “for children” simply because it’s beautifully designed and full of a sense of wonder.

These days there are still plenty of child-friendly entertainments that adults can thoroughly enjoy, though the description “fun for the whole family” still makes me cringe, conjuring as it does images of bland, saccharine, Disney channel fare–TV shows and films that kids watch because there’s nothing better on and that adults eye-rollingly tolerate. YA, however, is a publishing juggernaut that adheres to fairly strict standards of style, characterization, and plot. As Graham’s article indicates, plenty of adults read it, but it’s designed specifically with teens and pre-teens in mind. Where it seems easy to defend a love of creations like the Muppets and Fantasia, being an adult fan of YA fiction is a little different.

I’ve come into frequent contact with YA fiction for a lot of reasons. One, anything that gets young people reading gets me excited, even if it’s a book I really don’t care for (Twilight). Two, I’ve been a teacher of one kind or another for fifteen years, so I’m always looking for things to recommend to new readers, or things that I can use in my own classroom. Three, some YA books are just…books, and fairly good ones. Books that don’t immediately make me imagine a teen or pre-teen reader.

That said, I’ve found the bulk of the YA fiction recommended to me by friends and enthusiastic bloggers to be, well, boring. (I have a similar reaction to most romance novels–they’re not as hilariously bad as a lot of the jacket descriptions would have you believe, they just tend to put me to sleep.) With YA fiction, I struggle to stay engaged with a book when a) the writing style is overly simplistic, b) the world-building is thin, c) the characters don’t feel three-dimensional,  and d) the narrative flows along and eventually ends just a little too predictably and neatly.

This is not, though, to say that YA literature is BAD. It’s just written with a different audience in mind, one that generally comes to the page with a different set of expectations and experiences. And though they’re often dismissed as such, teen and pre-teen readers aren’t “dumb” or naive. They’re just young, and they read with young perspectives, and YA novels are written with that in mind.

There are, though, YA novels that cross over. I found Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books to be entertaining reads in their own right–a little simplistic, sure, but with rich world-building, complicated characters, and not-always-predictable plot twists. Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina was, at its heart, a painful story of a teenage girl’s struggle to live in a world that wanted her dead. It might have appealed to younger readers, but it had plenty of appeal for me as well. And then there’s Lois Lowry’s Giver trilogy, sort of the grandmother of YA dystopian fiction, with its sparse prose and refreshingly unsentimental plot lines. Re-reading those books recently, I realized another reason why some adults embrace YA fiction–to remember that wide-eyed sense of wonder that your teenage self had the first time you were genuinely moved or agitated by a book.

The question of what we read–non-fiction, genre fiction, fantasy, pulp, literature, YA, sci-fi–is of course linked to the question of WHY we read. Adults who read YA fiction tend to get lumped into the “reading for escape / nostalgia” tribe, definitely a notch below the “reading for intellectual enrichment” tribe. There’s also the “fiction is frivolous” tribe (people who read non-fiction almost exclusively). There’s the “fangirl / fanboy” tribe, people who read certain series and fixate on certain characters obsessively, which frequently overlaps with the “sci-fi” tribe, quick to distinguish itself from the “fantasy” tribe (boys read sci-fi, girls read fantasy, according to some boys who still believe in cooties).

A lot of this conversation also centers around authenticity–who’s reading “real” stuff and who’s just being a poser or a wannabe. “Soft” sci-fi (sci-fi sans robots / computers) often gets derided as watered-down when compared to “hard” sci-fi, which focuses more on the “science” aspect of science-fiction (yet again, the fake stuff is supposedly read by women and the “real” stuff by men). Readers of high literature may look down their nose at “genre fiction,” and any “literature” that makes it onto a bestseller list is immediately suspect.

Of course none of this matters to the voracious readers of YA, romance novels, sci-fi, fantasy, or any other genres that routinely get labeled as frivolous or shallow. With the popularity of e-readers, which have effectively made book covers (and the stigma that’s often attached to more “female” covers) obsolete, no one even has to feel self-conscious about reading Twilight or The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl.

There is, of course, a smug satisfaction that comes in being part of a certain, exclusive tribe, even (or especially) a maligned one. It’s one of the factors that drives huge attendance at events like Comic-Con and Anime Expo. But does the tribe-forming have to come at the expense of sneering at the outsiders? Can we still maintain the joy and integrity of our own little I-love-this-thing-and-you-love-this-thing groups without denigrating members of other groups?

Maybe not. Groups thrive on distinction, defined as much by what they’re NOT–what they’re cooler than, better than–as by what they are. At the very least, though, we can get to know the other groups before we write them off, actually READ a decent amount of manga / romance / YA before we decide that those particular genres aren’t our cup of tea. And thanks to e-readers and those lovely little paper covers that they give you in Japanese bookstores, we can all go on secretly  or publicly reading whatever the hell we want to read, whyever we want to read it, without feeling ashamed.

I remember my first day and evening as an English conversation (eikaiwa) teacher at AEON, way back in the summer of 2000. There was a welcome party for me (and a farewell party for the departing teacher) at the school. People drank a lot, I tried to remember everyone’s names, and I was excited to begin my first post-college, grown-up job.

Toward the end of the evening, a particularly drunk student started announcing that he was going to drive me back to my hotel. I just smiled at him, not wanting to be rude–the main thing I remembered about my crash course in Japanese etiquette was not to be too direct with people. As the party wound down he began repeatedly grabbing my shoulder and telling me we needed to leave. I gently shook him off every time. Finally, he grabbed my suitcase and beckoned me toward the elevator. Thankfully, the other teachers and managers had my back–they not-so-ceremoniously took my suitcase back from him, shoved him into the elevator alone, and shut the door.

That incident came rushing back to me as I read this lengthy piece in the Japan Times on sexual harassment of teachers by students at Gaba, one of Japan’s large, national English conversation chains. When I think about sexual harassment in Japan (or anywhere, really), I tend to imagine superiors harassing inferiors, or equals harassing equals. I don’t really think about clients harassing service providers–if a client’s being especially difficult, just don’t do business with them, right?

Of course it’s not that simple–small businesses often can’t afford to say no to a client, even a revolting one. I’ve had more than a few private language students that I didn’t care for, but I needed the cash, so as long as their behavior wasn’t utterly heinous I usually kept teaching them. And in the English conversation industry, young, inexperienced teachers are often forced to continue teaching students who have harassed them because a) students equal money, and the schools don’t want to lose a single one, b) Japanese corporate culture, despite advances and changes in laws, still has an “oh, he’s just being friendly” attitude toward sexual harassment, and c) a lot of schools see their teachers as disposable and don’t care much about their safety or comfort.

The examples from the article are disgusting. One teacher had a student masturbate during their one-on-one lesson, and management got angry when she complained. Another teacher was told that she was just “being too nice to the clients.” Other teachers complained of students who used any excuse to initiate physical contact. One male student told a female teacher, “I want to drink your breast milk.” Again and again, when teachers complained to their management the staff were either indifferent or hostile, and the teachers were often made to continue teaching the offending students.

Thankfully, my three years at AEON were nothing like this, mostly because I was blessed with very supportive management. With AEON, as with many conversation schools, teachers live and die by their management. Good managers mean a good working environment, and bad or even mediocre ones can turn the workplace into a nightmare. AEON also tends to shuffle its managers and assistant managers frequently, meaning that if you’re at a school for more than a year you’re likely to get a bad egg at some point.

Three out of my four AEON managers were great, and one was mediocre, though thankfully not bad enough to do any real damage. Amazingly, they took complaints about creepy students seriously. One incident involved a man who was harassing a Japanese teacher AND other students in a weekly class–management not-so-delicately told him that he’d need to transfer to another school and he eventually left (this was probably because the students also complained, not just the teacher). As much as possible, offending students were assigned to classes taught by male teachers (this option often isn’t available when there are few or no male teachers in a school). When one of my co-workers was repeatedly harassed (not by students, just by men on the street) while walking home from work, management moved quickly to find her a new apartment in a different neighborhood, put her up in a hotel until the move was finalized, and gave her taxi vouchers so that she wouldn’t have to walk alone (she later found out that they’d paid for the taxi vouchers out of their own pockets).

Even at my school, though, management was reluctant to confront problematic students directly. More than a few made comments about my appearance, asked me out for drinks, or repeatedly asked if I had a boyfriend. Thankfully they seemed to get the hint when I gave curt replies and changed the subject. One gave me an expensive fur bag out of the blue–not what I would call harassment, but it felt weird. (I was luckier than a female student at a neighboring school, who was given a gift by a student at a party and opened it [in front of the students and staff] to find a pair of sexy underwear.)

My good experience at an eikaiwa school seems to be in the minority, though. The English conversation industry has a shady reputation in Japan, to the point that when people complain about any aspect of the working conditions, the response is usually, “You knew what you were getting into, don’t whine” (I saw more than a few comments like this at the end of the Japan Times article). Eikaiwa is seen as something that young, fresh-out-of-university newbies do for a year or two before moving on, and if the working conditions suck, at least they’re temporary. This also works in the company’s favor when it comes to handling sexual harassment issues–they know that their employee pool is transient, so they’re not too concerned about collective resistance or protest.

There’s another, even creepier factor at play here. Plenty of English conversation schools exploit the idea of the one-on-one lesson and the exotic foreigner, essentially selling the idea that you can pay a few thousand yen for an hour of an attractive person’s company. Gaba, the company profiled in the Japan Times article, famously ran a series of print ads in the early 2000s featuring Japanese women and white male teachers with tag lines like “Since it’s just the two of you, you’ll do a lot of talking.” More than a few sexual predators seem to have learned that English conversation schools are great places to harass women with impunity.

It’s a well-known fact that plenty of English conversation students have no interest in actually learning English–they’re lonely and they’re paying for company. Some are also looking to meet potential partners in class. Some women are looking to spend time with foreign men (my school’s teaching staff was heavily female, and when potential female students found out there were no male teachers available, they sometimes abruptly lost interest in signing up for classes). Some men are looking to spend time with foreign women (without harassing them). And some serial predators are clearly taking advantage of schools’ reluctance to turn anyone away and are seeking out teachers to harass.

(I should add here that, while the majority of what I myself have witnessed and the stories that I’ve heard from friends involved male students harassing female teachers, the reverse also happens. I had one male co-worker at AEON who asked to no longer teach an older female student because she had repeatedly asked him to become her “kept man.” I heard another story of a female student who wanted to set up a marriage of convenience with a gay male teacher because her parents were pressuring her to marry, and she grew hostile when he wasn’t receptive to the idea.)

There’s a perfect storm at play here. English conversation teachers are often young, inexperienced, short on cash, and reluctant to make waves in an unfamiliar culture and working environment. When you’re new to Japan, it’s often hard to distinguish between cultural differences and flat-out bad behavior. (When the drunk guy kept pawing me at that party I was 23 and very polite. Now I’m 37 and I would tell him to back the fuck off–though as the JT article indicates, even firm rebukes don’t always make a difference.) Additionally, Japanese corporate culture does not take sexual harassment seriously and places a very high burden of proof on the teacher. At places like Gaba, student evaluations are also a huge factor in teacher salary and contract renewal–a teacher interviewed for the Japan Times piece said that out of thousands of lessons, her only two negative evaluations came from students that she had refused to go on a date with. Enough negative evals and you can lose your job or take a pay cut. Finally, the predators in question are often smooth, experienced operators who will move from school to school and teacher to teacher, sometimes using the “Oh, you must have misunderstood me, my English isn’t so good” excuse when a teacher complains. (Fuck this. They know exactly what they’re saying.)

So what’s to be done? I think the Japan Times piece and others like it are a great start, because this sort of harassment thrives on silence. Several commenters pointed out that schools like Gaba that offer one-on-one lessons should record all lessons on video. Schools obviously need to devote a lot more time and energy to actually developing clear, concrete policies on how to deal with predatory students. Most importantly, though, I’d say that young people coming to Japan for the first time and starting a job at an eikaiwa school need to be as informed as possible about the working conditions–in particular, what they might just have to tolerate (low pay, long hours) and what they should never put up with (verbal and physical harassment by students or co-workers). The eikaiwa industry probably won’t be an oasis of great working conditions and egalitarian values any time soon, but it shouldn’t be so difficult to make the workplace safe for teachers.

Thoughts on life after the PhD

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life


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