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Saying Hello and the Fear of Failure

I’ve seen how the students address Japanese teachers in the halls. They stop, straighten up and stand with arms locked to their sides, bow to a near-perfect 30-degree angle, give a quick “ohaiyougozaimasu” or “konnichiwa” and keep walking. It’s strange and a little militaristic, but Japan is all about the formalities.

With other teachers, they know exactly what to do. But with me, it’s a test.

I can see it in the kids’ eyes as I pass them in the hall. The deer-in-the-headlights expressions on their round little faces used to be amusing. That novelty wore off a long time ago.


It’s just one word, two syllables. But usually it’s enough to make their little shoulders seize up in terror at the thought of having to speak English outside of the classroom.

 I’m not a teacher, at least not on paper. My official title is “ALT.” It’s an acronym that stands for Assistant Language Teacher - the word’s right there, in my job title, but most teachers don’t know what the acronym stands for. So, even though technically I am a teacher, I’m not recognized as one.

And in a lot of cases, I’m not treated like one, either.

I think that’s why the kids don’t know what to do with me. “She’s not a teacher,” they think, “she’s just a foreigner that shows up occasionally to read passages from the book with perfect pronunciation, what do I do?

I’m an enigma. A blue-eyed, red-headed enigma.

I know why the kids are so afraid to talk to me. They’re afraid of messing up. And I completely understand.

"Japanese people are very polite," a young teacher in his late twenties explained to me the other day, "and many are very shy. They don't want to make mistakes."

And with that in mind, it all makes sense.

People here are conditioned to fear failure. If they know, or expect, to fail at something, they simply won’t do it. And honestly, who can blame them? Success has so much weight. And so does failure.

I’m not saying the whole system is flawed; it’s not my place, as someone born and raised somewhere else, as someone who only teaches at six of the thousands of schools in this country, to say that the sink-or-swim mentality of education in Japan is in any way “broken,” and anyway I genuinely don't think it is. And it’s certainly not my place to call this system of checks barbaric; America has its own slew of academic problems, and hey, at least the kids in Japan aren’t getting shot in their classrooms.

But the kids are still afraid.

The fear of failure is a universal thing that stalls progress at every age. It manifests in many ways, with many resulting behaviors. But sometimes I feel like failure in Japan is especially damning.

If you fail at anything, you fail at everything. No one will catch you if you fall, and they’ll tell you it’s your fault for jumping.

Some kids default to the teacher greeting when they see me. They stop, bow, say “konnichiwa.” I say it back. We go on with our lives. It’s easier for them, and I don’t want to fight it. These are the kids who don’t know me, because I’ve never taught any of their classes or I haven’t taught their class in months.

There are some kids who see me and never stop, but greet me with an enthusiastic “Hello!” as we pass each other. I return with a “Hello!” of my own and keep going. These are the kids who know me, and to be honest I prefer this. It feels more natural.

Then there are the kids who know me, and don’t like me. Maybe they don’t like foreigners. Maybe it’s because I don’t speak Japanese and they think I’m stupid, and no one’s corrected them yet. Maybe it’s because they’re 15 and think the world revolves around them. At best, these kids ignore me.

But there’s one student who gives me the same "greeting" - here I'm using the term loosely - everytime I see him.


He just shouts my name in a very aggressive, slightly-alarming tone. It's not enthusiastic, either - he sounds like a stern parent calling their kid’s name when they wander away in a store.

For the longest time, I didn’t know if he was genuinely greeting me and didn’t know how to do it, or if he was making fun of me.

Then I heard his two friends, snickering cartoonishly over each shoulder.

I realize now I'm teaching none other than Draco Malfoy, his loyal henchmen Crabbe and Goyle by his side.

I’ve been bullied by teenage boys before. I know what it sounds like, know what it looks like. Only last time it happened, I was an awkward teenager.

Now, I’m a slightly-less-awkward adult.

I return the strangely-aggressive greeting with a smile, nod my head, and go on with my day. 

There’s a lot of things about being a foreigner in Japan that wear on my nerves, but I refuse to let a 15-year-old boy attempting to bully me be one of them.

I used to resent the students who treat me like a subhuman, like the aforementioned kid who shouts at me in the hallway or the kid who flips me off during class. But in the end, they’re still kids. I hope they learn better. I wasn’t exactly a sweet summer peach at 15, either. My life outside of school was in turmoil, and I let it eat away at my heart, and it manifested in behaviors I’m not proud of. I hope one day these kids think back on how they laughed at me when I tried to speak to them in Japanese and feel a little shame, and wish they could go back and do better. I hope they realize the world is bigger than the tiny bit of space they occupy.

I don’t just love the kids who talk to me in complete, perfect sentences and can carry on a conversation with me. I love the kids who try talking to me and fail just as much. I love when they say things in English that are incorrect or incomprehensible or make no sense. They’re trying, and I never want to squash their enthusiasm. If they say a complete sentence, I act like they just gave me a handful of solid gold. And in a way, they did.

Failure is a many-barbed monster that swallows you whole, but only if you let it. I don’t want my students to be afraid to fail. I want them to be excited to try.


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