Wednesday, 2nd September 1987
The day of my departure to Tokyo finally dawned. It was, coincidentally, the 42nd anniversary of the surrender of Japan in 1945. The South China Morning Post had an article on the subject on one of its inside pages.
During my last few days at the hostel I had met Karen. Karen was a British girl and she was about a year younger than me. She had been working in Hong Kong for the previous few months as an English Teacher, but now she was also heading out to Japan to find work teaching there.
We had found that, by coincidence, we were both booked on the same flight to Tokyo. We had also discovered, by an even greater coincidence, we were both graduates of Hull University. Given that all these coincidences must mean something, we had agreed to stick together at least until we got through the first few days of being in Tokyo. I found Karen very attractive and I was secretly hoping the liaison would last a little longer than that.
We left the hostel at 10:30am got on an bus and headed for Kai Tak airport. We were accompanied by three of Karen’s old students from Hong Kong. After we had received our tickets from the tour group counter and checked in for the flight, the students gave us an emotional send off and wished us both well in Japan.
We passed through security, had a drink together and eventually boarded a Thai Airways Airbus A300. I took seat 28B; the first time I hadn’t sat in a window seat. It wasn’t that I had lost the desire to look out, it was just that I was being gallant and letting Karen have the window seat.
It was a very comfortable flight; we were given free orchids and received excellent service from the beautiful Thai stewardesses. The food was also very nice; veal cutlets, mashed potatoes and kiwi fruit cheesecake to follow.
Karen got slowly drunk on Cognac much to the amusement of the Japanese couple from Osaka who were sitting across from us.
I just sat there worrying about what I would find in Japan. I realised that this would be a homecoming for my Olympus camera, my Casio watch and my Toshiba Walkman, but I still wasn’t sure what it would mean for me. I still feared that expensive Japan would use up my money very quickly and I still doubted I would find a job.
We landed at Narita at 18:00. Karen and I stuck together and we made it painlessly through quarantine (where they asked you to stop if you had diarrhea – I didn’t), immigration and then customs. We emerged into the arrivals hall and quickly changed some of our money into Yen.
The next hurdle was finding a place to stay in Tokyo. We had each made lists of possible places and now we pooled the lists. We went to the airport information counter to try to get coins for the pay phone but to our surprise the lady allowed us to use her own phone to call.
We then took it in turns to call different guest houses. The cheap guest houses that specialised in taking foreigners in Japan were known as gaijin houses (foreigner houses). After 4 or 5 rejections we finally found 2 places at a gaijin house called Fuji House. The location, far in the northern suburbs, wasn’t ideal but we were running out of options.
The lady at the information counter had continued to smile but we thought she must now be worrying about her phone bill. After a bit of debating we decided to reserve the rooms and head into Tokyo.
We caught the shuttle bus to the Narita Keisei Line railway station and paid 810 Yen to get to Ueno Station in downtown Tokyo. The train was spotlessly clean and had comfy seats arranged facing each other like a subway. There were large paper advertisements hanging from the ceiling of the carriage and I took this to be the first evidence of Japan’s fabled low crime rate. In any other country, I thought, they would be soon ripped down.
It took us 75 minutes to reach Ueno. From there we got on the Yamanote line to Sugamo and then we went north, almost to the end of the Mita subway line, to a station called Shimura Sanchome.
It was about 10:30pm when we emerged from the subway station into what seemed to be a little suburb in north west Tokyo. We called the gaijin house but the instructions they gave didn’t make too much sense. The map at the station, which was in Japanese, made even less sense.
We set off walking but we were almost immediately lost. We sought directions from a taxi driver outside a pachinko parlour but that didn’t really help. Finally we called Fuji House again and about 10 minutes later we were met outside the pachinko parlour by an Israeli girl. The gaijin house was just around the corner.
Fuji House was located in a back street full of coin vending machines. It was nothing more than a largish Japanese house. It had capacity for about 20 “gaijins“. The place was fitted out Japanese-style; the rooms had sliding doors, there were tatami mats on the floor and there were futons instead of beds. The toilets were all in the squat Japanese style.
Karen and I checked in and were eventually shown to two separate rooms. I was shown to a twin room on the ground floor. The other occupant was lying on his futon listening to a CD-player with headphones. I apologised for disturbing him but he didn’t seem to mind too much. He introduced himself as Andrew, a Canadian from Vancouver.
Andrew told me he had been in Japan just over a month and had lived in Fuji House all of that time. He had already found a job at an English school shortly after arriving and he assured me that I would be able to do the same too.
I learnt from Andrew that also in the house were: Christa, an Australian girl on holiday, Kate, another Aussie from Melbourne, who was working as a language teacher, and Alexia, a Dutch girl working as a Hostess. The rest of the residents were Israelis, Sudanese and Iranians.
He told me that Fuji House wasn’t the cleanest or most hygienic place he had stayed at. For one thing, they kept frozen meat in an open freezer near the reception and it was forever attracting the attention of Jiro the dog.
It sounded a bit worrying but I was too tired to care. It was just great to find a place to finally unpack the rucksack.
Thursday, 3rd September 1987
I woke at 10:00. I suspected that was a lot later than most of the rest of Tokyo.
The plan for the day was to get on with the serious business of job hunting.
I sat in the little common room drinking coffee and wondered where to start. There was an amazing cooking programme on the little TV but I was sure that, at least for now, the ingredients would be too expensive.
I knew that I needed as near to a full-time teaching position as I could find. This was not just to boost my finances but because I needed a place that could sponsor a working visa. I had received a tourist stamp in my passport at the airport the previous evening, but that limited me to a 3-month stay. To be able to stick around longer I needed sponsorship. Most of the larger English schools offered sponsorship so the plan was to get a place at one of them.
First, I rang Gregg’s, the language school where Andrew worked in Jiyugaouka, and I was both surprised and encouraged when I got an interview for that same afternoon. Andrew, who was getting ready to go to work in the afternoon, reminded me that he had said it would be easy and looked forward to hearing I had got the job later.
I set off towards central Tokyo on the Mita line again. I was accompanied by Karen and Christa. We passed by Hibiya and took a look at the Imperial Palace and the Bank of Japan together. I ate at Dunkin Donuts with the girls and then I went off on my own on the Hibiya line to Jiyugaouka.
Jiyugaouka really introduced me to the maze that was Tokyo. It had lots of narrow little unnamed street fanning off in all directions. All of them were full of shops and businesses. Everywhere was bustling, brightly lit and teeming with life. I found the language school easily using the instructions that Andrew had given me. I was feeling confident.
The test they gave me was harder than an English A-level and I failed it miserably. The subsequent interview was with a Japanese person and I pretty much failed that as well. It was pretty clear my English didn’t meet their standard. I left in total shame.
Friday, 4th September 1987
I arranged two interviews, one for Monday and one for Tuesday, but I did little else except talk to Kate, Alexa and Christa.
Karen had already found herself a teaching job and went out to meet her friends in Roppongi to celebrate.
She had invited me along but I had lost my confidence and stayed in.
Saturday, 5th September 1987
It rained again.
Andrew and I went to the local Ringer Hut noodle restaurant for a lunch of coffee and gyoza (Japanese dumplings). I was surprised to see that Andrew was already good at ordering in Japanese. I thought the guy was obviously a genius. He was excellent at English, having passed that difficult Gregg’s test, and was now on the way to being bilingual after only a few weeks in town.
Karen returned and announced she was leaving for another guest house in Shinjuku.
I started to miss Hong Kong.
Sunday, 6th September 1987
Carrying Karen’s heavy bags, I traipsed along the Mita Line, through the various subway connection tunnels, onto another train and finally up into Shinjuku. She had certainly found herself a nicer, if smaller, gaijin house.
Christa was heading to the airport to go home and, to send her off in style Karen, Kate and I had agreed to go with her to Harajuku.
Visiting Harajuku was a Sunday favourite thing to do. It was where the youth of Tokyo seemed to let their hair down and it was quite an amazing sight. The whole of the street was closed off and the place was filled with Japanese teenagers dressed in 50’s type gear dancing and roller skating to Elvis Presley music.
It was a really good atmosphere with lots of gaijin watching them. We walked around and I had okonomiyaki (Japanese omelette) with prawns and onions and a Kirin Beer. We met up with Andrew, two of his English friends and another American guy.
At about 4pm I escorted Karen back through the maze of Shinjuku Station (the busiest in the world) to the door of her gaijin house. I said goodbye and promised to keep in touch.
I then got on another train and headed to Ginza to try to search for Nakiniki Dori where my Monday interview at a school called ACA was supposed to be. I couldn’t find it in the maze of streets. I gave up and returned home. I knew the school was located over a restaurant called Tempura Daiichi, so I figured someone would know where that was if I asked them the next day.
That night Alexia, Kate, Andrew and I went to the sento (Japanese bath house). It was located close to Fuji House and it was aimed at many of the local residents who didn’t have baths in their own homes. It cost us 270 Yen to get in. The sento was segregated by sex, so the girls went in one entrance and Andrew and I went in the other.
There was a changing room to undress and after you had put your clothes in a locker, you took a small towel to cover your modesty and entered the large steamy bath hall. You went first to the side of the hall where you sat down on a small plastic stool facing a mirror on the side wall.
In front of you was a shower head apparatus and bottles of soap. You washed yourself thoroughly and then when you were sure you were clean and had no remnants of soap left on your body, you climbed into the large communal bath in the centre of the room for a soak. The large bath had room for about 25 people at one time. It was very hot but it was relaxing as well.
Monday, 7th September 1987
I was back on the Mita line. It was fast becoming the “bloody” Mita line. It was a long mole-like ride all the way down to Hibiya.
I asked at the Tokyo Information Centre for directions to the Tempura place and thus the ACA language school.
I found the school above the restaurant and was interviewed by Peter, a London University graduate. Peter asked me some very tough questions on US foreign policy but otherwise he gave me a pretty easy ride. He explained that his questions on politics were to prove whether I actually had the politics degree I was claiming I had.
The school was offering 25 hours a week, quite a reasonable salary and sponsorship. He told me that I would get the result on Wednesday.
I went to Tokyo post office next and then to Tokyo Station where I had a sandwich.
I had arranged an extra interview in the afternoon at Nova School in Shinjuku. As I had a bit of time to kill I circuited Tokyo once on the famous Yamanote loop line and then went across from Tokyo to Shinjuku on the Chuo line.
The Nova school was situated over a golf equipment shop (golf was a rich hobby in Japan). The interview was easy and I almost got offered the job on the spot. The only problem was that it was for less money than ACA and it was a compulsory 40 hour week. I said that I’d ring back but hoped I wouldn’t have to.
Tuesday, 8th September 1987
Alexia and Kate moved to California House and left Andrew and I as the only native English speakers in a house of Israelis, Iranians and Sudanese and of course Jiro the dog.
Andrew also had plans to move out of Fuji House as he was looking at moving into a flat with some people from work. I wondered if it might soon be just me and Jiro left.
I went back on the Mita line once more, and this time I headed for Shibuya. I waited at the the statue of Hachiko the dog. The statue was a monument to a loyal dog of the 1920s and one of Tokyo’s most famous places to meet people at.
At 1:00pm I was met by a very nice Japanese lady who led me through the streets of Shibuya complaining all the time about the heat and high prices of Tokyo. We finally arrived at a small office building and she showed me into a tiny room on the 3rd floor. She told me that it was her own language school, it was new and there were no teachers working there yet.
She explained that the pay was low, there was no sponsorship available but I wouldn’t be bored because the hours would be nice and long. It wasn’t really a viable proposition, but she amused me with her comment on the low price of celery (her mispronunciation of the word – salary) in Japan. “Everything in Japan is expensive except celery” she said. I made polite excuses and left.
Next I went off to the “Bilingual School” only to find my appointment had been for 12pm and not 2pm as I had written down. The American girl who interviewed me didn’t mind and she asked me to come back for induction training on Thursday. The conditions were better than Nova but it was still less money than ACA. I promised to let her know my decision the next day.
Tuesday night passed quickly and I watched Love Story on the bilingual TV till 3am.
Wednesday, 9th September 1987
As instructed, I rang ACA at noon. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had got the job. I was asked to come for an induction lesson at the Shinjuku branch of the school the next day.
It was a real weight off my mind.
I told Andrew and he seemed pleased for me too. He was just setting out for work, but we had a lunch of ramen (Chinese style noodles) together at Ringer Hut to celebrate.
I spent the afternoon and early evening in Ginza looking around. I walked up to the Kabuki theatre and finished up in the Jena bookshop where it was quite easy to browse English language books for an hour or so.
In the evening I went off to the sento again with Andrew.
Andrew was great company. He had family connections with the UK and could do a very decent impression of a broad Yorkshire accent. He was constantly saying stuff like “Hey up Lad” “Cup of Tea for you then?”
I felt glad to have the first week in Tokyo out of the way as I had been dreading it for quite a while. I hoped the fun would now begin with the teaching, the money and everything else it would bring.
It was all due to start the next day at 3.30pm.
Thursday, 10th September 1987
I spent Thursday morning with Andrew and Alexia touring Shinjuku in search of a pair of pants for Andrew. There was an amazing selection in lavish department stores.
The amount of japlish (strange Japanese English) everywhere amused us quite a bit. The best example we found that day was the inscription “happiness is a drink of warm milk tea” plastered across a packet of underpants.
We had lunch at Shakey’s pizza parlour. They had all-you-can-eat pizza and potatoes for 550 Yen. The crispy pizza didn’t taste bad either especially when it was doused in Tabasco.
I did more shopping by myself and then it was time for work.
I found the school just around the corner from the south Exit of Shinjuku Station. I was joined by a Canadian from Toronto, Richard, and two Americans; all new teachers. After a brief introduction to the school I spent the 5 hours from 5pm till 10pm observing lessons at different levels.
I was relieved by the whole experience. The teaching looked okay and I thought it was something that I could get the hang of. As I had expected quite a few of the students were shy and didn’t speak too readily.
How the School Worked
ACA had schools in the three main sub-centres of Tokyo: Ginza, Shinjuku and Shibuya. Each school had about 40 teachers and taught upwards of 300 students every day. The ACA students were mostly businessmen and office ladies but there was a smattering of younger university students and even a few teenagers as well.
The students didn’t pay per lesson but instead paid for a membership based on a number of months. Basically, it was the same as a gym membership. There was a high up-front fee but then the freedom to come each day whenever you liked. The trick of course was that, just like a gym, most people would pay thinking they would attend daily and then in fact wouldn’t.
The big selling point of the ACA system was the fact that, once signed up for a contract, a student could turn up any time everyday between 2pm and 9pm and be guaranteed a lesson with no more than 3 other students. The maximum class size was 4.
The teachers were a mix of British, Irish, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans and Canadians. They were almost all in the 22 to 35 age bracket. The vast majority were under 25 like me, most if not all were graduates but very few had ever taught anything in their lives before arriving in Japan.
Nevertheless, the teaching staff was quite professional and most of the teachers took their job seriously. There was a rigorous training system that comprised of observing other experienced teachers, intensive teacher instruction and then finally a programme of being observed and evaluated whilst teaching yourself. This helped ensure a minimum standard.
The students were divided into colour-coded groups by their level of English. Blue at the top meant almost native English speaker, yellow was advanced, pink meant upper intermediate, white was lower intermediate and purple was beginner. Each colour level was further divided into 3 sub groups; 1, 2 and 3. The students thus progressed from purple 1 to purple 2, purple 3 and then white 1 etc..
All of the three schools had three different floors in the office buildings where they were located. Typically the purple students were on one floor, white on another and pink and above on the third.
Each floor was identically laid out. As you exited the lift there was a reception area with seats for the students to wait. There was a desk for students to check in and it was always manned by about 4 or 5 receptionists. Beyond that, behind a partition, there was a staff room for the teachers and a little area for the Japanese salesmen who were constantly on the phone selling.
All the actual teaching was done in one big room beyond the reception area. It was laid out “cafe-style” with about 20 small tables each surrounded by five seats.
The teachers were theoretically assigned to a floor for a day. Normally that was decided the night before, so when you turned up you knew to go directly to the purple floor, the white floor or the pink floor. Each floor had a level supervisor teacher and each school had an overall teacher manager.
Teaching would begin at 2pm and students for the 2pm lessons had to arrive before 1:45pm, check in with the receptionists and then take a seat in the waiting area. The receptionists would then retrieve the student’s file from their filing cabinets. The file contained a list of all the classes they had done before with comments on how well they had done written by all the previous teachers.
The receptionists then began to assemble classes of up to 4 students each based on level. So if they had 32 students they would try to divide them into 8 groups of 4. In theory all the white 1 level were together, all the white 2’s were together and so on. Finally when the girls had assembled the files they would place a laminated sign with a teacher’s name on top of the files.
At 1:50pm the teachers were finally allowed to pick up the files of their students. There would then be 10 minutes to choose a lesson based both on the student’s level and on the lessons they had all completed before.
For each sub-level there were 20 prescribed lessons that were theoretically all supposed to be completed before the student could progress to the next level. At the lowest levels the lessons were nothing more than a few laminated shapes that showed pictures of things like the members of the family or items of clothing or food. For the other levels there were printed A4 sheets, normally copied from English language text books, with instructions for the teacher on another sheet.
At 2pm the teachers would go to the reception area and shout the names of the 4 students and lead them to one of the free tables in the big salon. Then, sitting in a large room with up to 80 people in it, the teachers would attempt to teach the 4 students they had sitting in front of them.
At 2:50pm a buzzer would go and the students would leave. The teacher then had to write notes on each of the student’s files before handing them back to the receptionists. The next lot of files were then picked up and a lesson was chosen for the next hour and the students called for the 3pm lesson. With the whole process repeated every hour until the school closed at 10pm.
The peak hours of the school were 5pm to 10pm. It said something about the level of Japanese overtime that the busiest hour of all was 9pm because that was when people had finally finished work.
The number of teachers rostered depended on how busy the school usually was. It would start out at 2pm with just 3 or 4 teachers and then slowly build up to about 20 teachers at 9pm. Most of the new teachers, including myself, were only offered work from 5pm to 10pm at first. Only after a few months could you expect to be asked to teach all the way from 2pm to 10pm with a forced break of 1 hour somewhere in between.
In theory the system sounded good. In practice there were major flaws:
The student was constantly with a different teacher and set of co-students. There was never any time to build trust or confidence. In other cultures this might have worked, but the Japanese were usually shy to speak out before they knew the others in the group.
The 10 minutes between the lessons wasn’t enough time to write the notes up and choose the next lesson. The comments on each file were always scribbled quickly, often illegible and always next to useless.
The students were theoretically expected to complete a series of 20 separate lessons at each sub-level. In practice this was impossible and many students completed the same lesson 4 or 5 times and missed others out completely.
It was also virtually impossible to guarantee that the students in one class would be anywhere near the same level. You could easily get a class made up of totally miss-matched students.
As a way of improving people’s language ability I don’t think it really worked that well at all.
Still, it paid the rent.
Friday 10th September 1987
I rushed out to Hachigaya for an interview with the Japanese president of the school. He had a quite a reputation for being fierce, especially with new teachers, so I wasn’t really looking forward to it.
Fortunately he couldn’t make the appointment so we were left with Marco his rather slimy American assistant. Marco interviewed us and then rubber stamped the contracts. After 2 hours I returned to Shinjuku to open my bank account at the Taiyo Kobe Bank and begin my first night’s teaching.
The teaching went well; 2 lessons giving directions and a few on the different words for members of the family. I made a few cock ups but nothing too serious.
ACA always laid on a plate of sushi when you finished at 10pm. It was a nice touch.
I returned to Fuji House to find that Andrew had received bad news concerning his flat and would not now be moving out quite so soon after all. He also introduced me to a new arrival, Laura, a Scottish girl who was just fresh from Narita and London.
To celebrate my first night of teaching and to drown Andrew’s sorrows we elected to go to the nearest pub. We dragged bewildered Laura along too. We promised her that it would help with her jet lag.
Andrew explained that the little Japanese pubs all had red lanterns hanging outside and thus the word for red lantern (akachochin) also meant pub.
We went just around the corner and found an akachochin opposite Ringer hut. The tiny pub was only big enough for about 15 people. It was already after 11pm and it was my idea to have one little drink. We ended up having 8 bottles of Sapporo and emerged onto the street at 3am.
In the meantime Andrew had got semi-molested by a Japanese woman who later turned her attention to Laura and finally to me. She asked me if I was important. It actually came out as “Are you impotent?” Laura and Andrew thought it was funny anyway.
We never poured our own drinks, and we were bought quite a few by the locals in the pub. We also had lots of lovely snack food ordered by Andrew in his impressive Japanese and presented lovingly by the friendly bar tender. I remember eating edamame, sashimi, squid, baby octopus, a beautiful bowl of miso soup and lots more besides.
Saturday 11th September 1987
Needless to say, Saturday morning wasn’t.
Nobody got up until well into the afternoon.
I got the Mita line to Ginza and then took my hangover round a few department stores and again to the excellent Jena bookshop where I bought a novel by Yukio Mishima – “Thirst for Love”.
I also got a copy of the English language weekly for Japan, “the Tokyo Journal”. Andrew and I had decided we would look for a new place to live together, and the Tokyo Journal had comprehensive listings of all the gaijin houses.
A quiet night in followed.
Sunday 12th September 1987
Armed with the Tokyo Journal, Andrew and I set off to check out a few places.
First we gave the strange sounding “Ali Baba’s Happy House” a ring and boarded the Saikyo line to get to it. The house was set in another part of Itabashi-ku. An Australian guy showed us around and we found it to be clean, modern and friendly. The only trouble was it was four to a room. We also waited ages on the platform for the train to Shinjuku. The bullet trains on the adjacent line seemed to be more frequent. We crossed it off the list.
Eventually, we got to Shinjuku and before heading to Gotanda for our next appointment we chanced on another advert for a house in Ikebukuro and decided to give it a try first.
We called the number from a pay phone and eventually we were met at the west exit of Ikebukuro Station by a middle-aged Japanese woman. She introduced herself as Chieko and then led us through the bustling narrow streets of Tokyo’s fastest growing sub-city to a small gaijin house called “Marui House” located in a back street about 10 minutes away.
The twin room she was offering us was a little small, but the other residents seemed okay and we realised that we were bang in the centre of Tokyo on the Yamanote line. We quickly agreed to take the room and we laid out the 10,000 Yen deposit and promised her we would be back with 43,000 Yen for the first month when we moved in the next day.
The long journey back up the Mita line didn’t seem too bad at all now. We knew it was the last time. We visited the local sento for the last time too and then spent the rest of the time packing.