On the Job

Black Holes or a Black Company

Reality is reality.  I have bills to pay.  Due to my family situation, I cannot work a 9 to 5 job full-time.  Working 11PM to 5AM part-time works for me.  I am now approaching 3 years working in the food processing division of a company voted 2 years in a row as ブッラク企業 Black Company of the Year.

It is not easy by any means.  For an entry-level job I feel the stress and weight of working nightly in an unhealthy, unsafe and hostile environment.  I never dreamed that after passing age 50, someone would have to work in such a difficult workplace.

In the nearly three years I have worked for their facility in Asakura, I have witnessed extremely cruel bullying and verbal abuse in the facility to people in the 60s for Gawd sakes.  But, fortunately the shouting and verbal abuse was not in my usual section.  My section is pretty civil.  Well, on the surface anyway.    I observed it in another section while the new facility was being rebuilt and we were helping by packing Styrofoam boxes with the next day’s menu.  So, I should count myself lucky that it does not happen in the cut section where I work.   I was shouted at once and it was pretty funny.   I had a co-worker get angry with me and start shouting but instead of shouting AT me, he shouted ABOUT me at the wall.  My crime was that my handwriting on the form was too sloppy.  When he turned back toward me, he was mortified that there I was smiling kindly at him and totally unfazed.  I did say something like, “Are you OK, there buddy?”  He was so shocked and disturbed by my lack of emotional reaction, he went home sick immediately after that.  In my section, the bullying and abuse I see and endure almost nightly takes a more passive form, but it is equally unhealthy.

Last week, the company distributed questionnaires on the work environment to be filled out by all workers.  For the most part, people just took a minute to circle the high scores and drop them in the box.  Not me.  I am so sick of this crap.  I am tired of constantly trying to convince people that I do not work for aブッラク企業 Black Company.  While I find the benefits offered by the company to be fair and the pay is exactly paid for exactly what I hours I work, I still feel this is a company that has serious issues that are harmful to their workers.  I wrote my answers very carefully and politely in Japanese, but by God, I told them the truth.  I may have even been a little too generous with my scoring.   I expect to be called in for a one on one soon, so I can be subjected to patronizing explanations on how it is my approach to the workplace that is defective.  I assure you, my workplace is abnormal and I’m sticking with that story unless I am proved otherwise.

Am I the only one in my workplace that is being mistreated, yet cleverly mistreated in a way that appears to be within social norms and policies?  I might not be.  I wrote on my questionnaire that the workplace environment has turned worse during the past year.  Hard to believe as a first year beginner messing up everything I touched would have been easier, but its true.  People have reversed course on me.  As I result, I am probably less prepared to perform my tasks now than when I was on the job my first two months.  The first year I worked, ZERO workers resigned.  ZERO.  Then after one year, a woman who came in a few days before me quit right at her one year mark.  She had hinted to me how she preferred to stay on the other side of room cleaning by herself than work with the other people.  I never really made a connection at the time.  After her resignation and at the same time the management who works in the office changed hands.  Right after that, I watched new people hired on and gone in months.  Most recently after just a week or two.  The difference in turnover has been very significant.  Pay did not keep people in the job.  After one year, every one of us got another 100 yen per hour raise.   Some did complain about others being part of cliques and downright lazy.  One man was with us for about 8 months told me every morning before the shift ended, his co-workers would not lift a hand to help him as he took out load after load of garbage.  I knew exactly what he was talking about.  We used to have three large carts capable of holding up to 200kg of clipping that I often took out.  I used to ask for help and my coworkers refused and smiled and just waved at me.  Pretty funny, huh?  Well, one night on the last cart of three, I got a little complacent and ran the cart over my foot outside.  I suffered an avulsion fracture to my left foot.  A twisting injury to the ankle and foot may cause an avulsion (pulling off) fracture of the base of the 5th metatarsal -the bone that the little toe attaches to. A small fragment of bone at the base of the 5th metatarsal is pulled off by a strong ligament that is attached to this part of the bone.  Hurts like hell but with a wrap for 6 weeks under your boots, you can still walk.  But cycling and going up stairs is really hard.

The company I work for has been in the news in recent years due to the tragic suicide of a young 26 year worker in Tokyo.  I really do not think it is fair to place the blame for her death on the CEO at the time.  People in that situation often feel alone and are without colleagues, friends and family nearby to use a sounding board.  What was made clear consistently in the news articles was that she found herself in a position of desperation.  Overwork or Karoshi was cited.   Was that out of convenience?  Certainly, one can prove on paper or by concrete observation how many hours one was on the job, and that is just what they did.  Workplace harassment, mobbing and bullying is not so easy to document, however.  The human resources, quality assurance or production departments clearly keep a log of manpower accounting.  Wouldn’t it be nice if they kept a log of how many times or how much time a worker was subjected to intimidation, alienation or any other hostile workplace behavior?

There are 14 people including myself in my section on my shift.  There is a young man who looks just like Jimmy Fallon who is basically over my supervisor and works in the office and is in and out of the cut section .  I wish I could say all my senior coworkers, or sempai as they are called in Japan have earned my respect.  But some below them have pretty much lost all credibility for a variety of reasons.  Of the 14, I would be ranked number 10.  Four people who survived the fiery entry into the workplace came in after me.   What is interesting to me is those I respect the most are exactly at very top of seniority list.  They do not engage in petty bullshit.  They tell me firmly when something is not done satisfactorily and explain when I ask for an explanation.  It goes perfectly right down the line.  The top five senior people in the section are the most sensible and professional.  When it goes from number 6 down, those people are the ones who waste so much of production time and have the most inane complaints about my work.  They just cannot keep their pie-holes shut.  One lady, I make an exception for.  She cannot keep her mouth shut about my work, but is in fact very kind and protective and sincerely believes I have no idea what to do.  I can never be angry at her.  Sometimes, when I don’t know how to explain why I am doing what I am doing, the way I am doing and why in Japanese, I just smile and say RYU GA ARU.  This just means I have a reason.  She just laughs and says OK.  So she is the closest thing to a Vegetable Mother I have there.

Although, I was initially trained prior to the line and layout being totally redone,  I was exempted from being trained and not being brought up to speed on the new procedures one year later.  They did not actually choose NOT to train me, they made significant efforts to UNTRAIN me.  The need for them to keep me in a perpetual beginner status is very real.  The typical term for this in a workplace is perpetual trainee.  But of course here, I do not fit the category of trainee because they make great efforts to ensure I am not universally trained at all.  When I am fortunate enough to receive a quality explanation to a procedure I ask for, my co-worker almost always suffixes it with a comment to others around, “Oh, I’m sure he did not understand any of that at all.”    I try my best to be pretty specific about what I understand and what I do not understand.    Especially, in this case I am subjected to daily condescending remarks.  My coping strategy has been to self-train when I can.  Some procedures, I had to learn on my own and in some cases it surprised my co-workers.  My coworkers are sometimes more than a little concerned when they catch me looking at a form or set of instructions myself.  If I know it already, it doesn’t give them a power rush by needing to tell me only what they want me to know.  I really refuse to believe that they are all ignorant enough to believe I cannot read katakana.God forbid, if I understand something and can perform it on my own, their plans will be foiled, HA HA!

Some of the above training procedures are based on ignorance, some on racial prejudice, some really  believe I could not possibly understand even the most basic fundamentals.  As far as I know, only one member has self-professed his racism, once inadvertently in front of Filipino worker from another line.  It is prudent to be careful as there are also likely some Chinese or Koreans working  behind Japanese name badges there.   This individual is clearly the worst.  Its funny when someone quietly pulls me away from my work table to lift something and takes my place next to him and he is oblivious still running his mouth.   What an ass he is.  He entered the company after me!  So much for seniority courtesy.    I am seriously criticized on everything from how I hold a bag or how good my aim is dropping my table clippings into a wastebasket.  If an onion rolls off the table, I am told, “Don’t throw!” Believe me, if I intentionally lob an onion, you would know it!

Communication or non-communication is big issue with me there.  I thought after several weeks, since I know basic Japanese grammar I would be able plug-in any new specialized production vocabulary I knew and I would slicing and dicing smoothly my Japanese speech.  Not true at all after almost 3 years on the job.  If they do not rotate me anymore into other tasks, I forget pretty easily.  It has been over a year after all since I have run a slicing machine. I have a pretty solid grasp of the Japanese language, but as it is not my native language, I have to think a bit more before I speak.  I have to read a set of instructions on the wall slower and ask questions.  But what do my co-workers do to accommodate for this weakness?  Not a hell of a lot.   My co-workers do gesture.  Yea for them!   Well…   No they stand in front of me and gesture and do not speak a word.  Cannot really understand that.  I ask a direct simple work related question from my co-workers and I am ignored as if I did not speak.  I ask again.  I am ignored intentionally. I cannot find anything more arrogant and rude than this behavior.

By preventing me from assimilating naturally, I in a perpetual puppet status with co-workers believing they have to direct me on even the most basic moves.  For my part, I could be better in Japanese.  In my birth country, we have a good phrase, “I got this over here, thanks.”  But because I don’t want to get in an argument, I say OK.  Thank you.  I see.

I have had a long time to think about my position in the work place.  I would like to think that I myself am capable of being self-critical and taking a good solid self-inventory.  In any endeavor, I want to be better tomorrow than I was today.  But do I blame the bullies of my workplace?  Should I blame the ignorant people?  Truthfully, I do not.  I look squarely at the man who wears the blue cap who is supposed to be responsible.  I look at those top 5 most senior workers, I rely on for sound advice.  I do not blame my immediate supervisor, because workers are extremely careful not to misbehave in front of her.  When she is cutting next to me at the table, people do not bully others.  Just last week she stepped away three meters and the biggest trouble maker in the place tried to start some shit with me.  Then when she came back, he and another guy tried to tell her I was cursing them out in Japanese.  She just shook her head.  I think she knows how shy I am and how much I hate to speak unless necessary.   I am confident that if she saw someone being abused, she would put a stop to it.

I have to take a very critical view of her immediate boss who although speaks very kindly to me seems to have created a fertile ground for a hostile workplace.  More people have left since he arrived than ever before.  I know when he speaks to me and older people, he speaks to them as if they were children.  Some of the older workers privately grumble about this and that but due to their culture do not challenge him.  So, I feel they take out some of their frustrations out on me.  Now back to the number 2,3,4 and 5th most senior workers.  I am bullied, disparaged and unfairly criticized often in front of them by others.  They say nothing.  They also are sowing the seeds for hostility to grow.   By condoning this behavior and standing silently by, they are saying it is OK.  that is depending on how expendable a member of their society may be.  My company needs to do a much better job of training their management and supervising their management.  I may be strong, but I know others are not and yet another tragedy could occur because serious problems just like this are ignored.

I have bills to pay.  Due to my family situation, I cannot work a 9 to 5 job full-time.  Working 11PM to 5AM part-time works for me.  I have grown-up responsibilities.  I am not going to let bullies, intimidation and those who refuse to let me become a full participant of the team call the shots.  Reality is reality.  As of this date, I am still here.   Get over it.  I work for ブッラク企業 a Black Company.



Exploring Work Outside English Education for Expats

Tired of the chalkface?  Need some extra income?  Is your pigeon-hole getting too crowded?  There are a number of reasons long-term residents pursue other types of work instead of or in addition to the traditional English teaching racket in Japan.  I am one of these.  I have been working in other fields in addition to teaching since 2010.   It can be refreshing and often exposes one to previous unknown knowledge of how Japan really communicates and runs their ship.

Hello Work ハローワーク  is the name of the Japanese employment security office. There are Hello Work offices nationwide including even smaller cities  If you become unemployed and meet the eligibility requirements, these offices also take care of unemployment insurance benefits for Japanese as well as foreigners.  Job skills and openings can be viewed by computer after you sign up and get a password number and card.  

I never thought of visiting an office for myself until several years ago.  I decided to return to Fukuoka after a year away working on a temporary project in Nagasaki.  The timing and the needs of my family made it impractical if not nearly impossible to immediately resume a full load of teaching as I done for most of my years in Japan.  I was seeking a position away from teaching in a production, warehousing or livestock farming environment that I could do between the hours of 10 PM to 7 AM.  However, as English education provides more generous wages it will likely always remain a significant source of income while I am in Japan.   Working at night and carefully managing my sleep schedule would permit me to be available or accessible during every possible time a language school client might need to contact me.

I had to do some thinking how to navigate and coordinate my time before I set out to find an extra job.  There were many specific requirements I needed to satisfy in my search.  They included:

1) Working in close proximity to my home because we were caring for a very ill family member.

2) Being able to pick up my youngest daughter at her preschool in the late afternoons.

3)Being available to handle any customer inquiries or step in as a teacher in my family’s language school, O’Leary Gaigo Systems.  Using call forwarding to my cell phone, I can take calls from 9 AM to 9 PM 7 days a week unless I am actually teaching.

4)Not work at a time when I could be earning more as a teacher or other professional.  That means not working the supplemental job between the hours of 9 AM to 9 PM.

5)Be accepted for work almost immediately in October which pretty much eliminates most of the teaching jobs that start in April in Japan.

I first visited Hello work in Kurume, a fairly large city in my area.   It was a disappointment as I was not really finding anything or somehow not communicating my needs well to the counselor.  Fortunately, I did not give up.  I had responsibilities and had to “git er done”  one way or another.  

One of problems we face coming from English-speaking countries and with our past experience only as teachers is that Japanese people seem to look at us as only teachers of English.  Consequently, out of hundreds or thousands of positions posted, a typical job counselor will hand us some obscure posting related to teaching English for 1000 yen per hour or maybe even an otherwise excellent posting for an associate professor at a university.  That is all fine and well, but we already have those networks in place outside of Hello Work to find a teaching position.  It is necessary to state once again, you are not looking for teaching positions necessarily.  Certainly, I would jump on an opportunity to teach if someone wanted to wake up at 2 AM in the morning to be graced by my motivating English instruction.  But, the fact is, those are not education hours.

Later,  I visited Hello Work in Asakura (formerly known as Amagi), a smaller city just to the north of me with pretty low expectations.  I did the same routine, signed up again, got a password card and waited to speak with a counselor.  When my name was called, I sat down with Mr. Kitajima. He was excellent and very keen to find a match for me.  I had about five possible night-time jobs to choose from after my first sit-down meeting with a job counselor.   I may have visited Hello Work at an advantageous time in August without thinking about it.  It is likely there were more opportunities opening as many university students were returning to their 2nd semester classes in September.  

The advice I would give to job-seekers looking for work outside of the classroom is make sure you can speak the language.  I would say at least at the Japanese business level.  Granted, you are going into entry-level jobs but you have to clearly state to your counselor what skills you can contribute effectively.  If your Japanese skills are not up to speed, it is not going to be easy to look for much less be taken seriously as an applicant and land a job.  I have spent a long time in Japan, so enough of the language has stuck to me that I can get around pretty smoothly with my level.  Reading and writing will always be difficult for me, but I have to do it regardless.  The matched job openings will be printed out in Japanese so you have to know what you are looking at.

The representatives at Hello Work have some influence with the employers so maintaining good rapport with your Hello Work rep is a good idea.  When you find a job you would like to pursue, it is a good idea for you to ask the rep to check with the company to make sure foreigners are okay with them.  Reality here is although you may have permanent residency or legitimate legal permission to work, some places just do not want to deal with non-Japanese applicants.  Sure, it does not match our cultural norms, but you ain’t in Kansas anymore, either.  If they are not comfortable with non-Japanese, fine.  Just leave it.  There is another posting matching your skills coming off the printer.  I got picked up right away working in a food processing plant for a large internationally known brand.  Only a few of us out of about dozen who showed up with our introduction letters from Hello Work got in.   My job counselor told me to make sure I showed the interviewer at the company that I had a food hygiene certification from a Japanese government agency.  It is kind of a thrill knowing my gaijin ass actually beat some of the natives out.  Part of it was that some of the younger women had restrictions on when they could work because they probably had small kids and the guy was not in the mood for that.  He has a production schedule to fill.

One month later since it was still a few months until April when teaching was opening up, I went back for a 2nd supplemental job to do from  6 AM until noon or so.   I was full of confidence since I already cracked the bamboo ceiling with my first job landed.  I was introduced to a bakery and ended up working there for just over a year.  The store hours changed and I had no interest in coming in a 9 AM and messing up my sleep cycle, so I had to give it up.  But after almost two and a half years, I am still going strong at the food processing plant.

My decisions were the right ones.  I matched my family needs, my income needs and have a sense of satisfaction.  In a production environment, I see concrete results of my efforts.  This is much different from teaching, where our success is in such abstract form we do not know in a timely fashion whether we are making progress.  I have job satisfaction and with that I feel like a lucky man.

Today, in early 2014, I divide my time between working the graveyard shift at the food processing plant, sleeping in two sets of 3 or 4 hours each and taking care of my responsibilities as EVP at the O’Leary Gaigo Systems language school.  I am good with it all.

Working for a Japanese Food Facility: Seen Through Round Eyes

cartoon veggie

I think this piece could be of use for a potential worker in a Japanese organization to get a glimpse into situations they might encounter.  I have been employed part-time at a well-known Japanese company in their Fukuoka Food Processing Facility for more than two years now.  I work from 11PM to 4:30AM.  Firstly, I applaud my employer for being one a few companies who has opened positions for foreigners.  In addition to myself, there are workers from the Philippines and Nepal also there.  I do not work with any of them.  I am the only foreign member of my section known as the Cut department.  I am often asked if I am subjected to racial discrimination and prejudice on the job.  Am I treated differently than other workers in training?  My answer is resounding, YES.  It is an ingrained part of my everyday working experience.  Does this make the company a racist organization?  Certainly not.  This place as a company and employer is excellent.  I am proud to be a very tiny part of this well-known organization.  I plan to continue working hard for them well into the future.

It is important to avoid approaching discrimination in the same way we see it North America.  Racism in our own terms is not so easily defined in Japan.  Japan is for Japanese.  Japanese believe strongly in their exclusivity.    I am not a member of their group and I likely never will be. This is not hate.  This is not blatant racism or even bigotry.  Japan does not fully recognize the norms that my people were raised and indoctrinated with.  As a collectivist society, the ownership of values belong to the group not the individual.   Ayn Rand once described collectivism and racism.

“Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.   It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or  political significance to a man’s genetic lineage – the notion that a man’s  intellectual and character traits are produced and transmitted by his  internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged,  not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a  collective of ancestors.”

This is true as I see it in the Japanese workplace today.  Thus, without ever being brought completely into the group, I will always be treated differently than others.  I will be treated as I have a much shallower grasp of understanding the goals and tasks of the group.

Let’s look at some examples in the life of Kevin on the job.  I am subjected to a variety of less than ideal situations on a daily basis.  On my first evening on the job, an older man in a soft voice kept beckoning me, addressing me as  Gaijin-san, Gaijin-san the word for foreigner or literally in written character form “outside person.”  I thought it was kind of strange and made me think, “What the hell did I sign myself up for?”  I was not angry about it at all then.  To one lady’s credit, she tapped him on the arm and gave him a light scolding for using that form of address.  He readily apologized.  Later, I was surprised to find him in the parking lot waiting for me.  He kept bowing and apologizing over and over.  I really felt bad for him, because I did not feel hurt at all by it.  He was very anxious to teach me a lot tricks of the trade with sincerity and just did not have global social skills to know any better.   Afterall, because it was my first couple of nights, I was too busy being overwhelmed by learning all my new tasks than to worry about improper forms of address or even bigotry.

As the months went on, it seemed that several of the other men would call me Ore-ri-, which is my last name as pronounced in Japan.  Like North America, it is exceedingly rude in Japan to ever call someone by their last name only.  Americans customarily use first names and Japanese customarily use last names when addressing others.  But neither culture’s etiquette rules condone last name without a suffix (san) in Japanese or prefix (Mr) in English.  In Japanese, this is known as yobitsute 呼び捨て or literally throwing away one’s name.  I would not mind if they called me my first name even if I was the only one addressed that way, but I do not like my last name used like that.  I do not feel it is hatred for foreigners, but merely ignorance.  I feel a small sense of victory every time I move closer to some sort of successful assimilation or acceptance.

Another small stumbling block with me is their approach to training.  Here the appropriate term is prejudice, as it is to pre-judge.  I have a very difficult time getting the proper instruction and practice to perform the tasks in the workplace with proficiency.  Although I can communicate at an adequate conversational level, the workplace specific vocabulary and names of machines are new terminology for me.  Instead of answering my direct question regarding my job, I am often given very vague unrelated feedback.  For example, I need to ask one time and one time only, “What is the name of this machine?”   This new vocabulary will become part of my daily speech from that day forward.  I need it and I need a direct answer.  Unfortunately, my co-workers being unfamiliar to working with non-Japanese cannot seem to grasp this.  Instead, they pre-judge or make assumptions on what I am able to understand and what I am not able to when they communicate with me.  I receive “advice” that about 75 percent of the time is totally unnecessary, yet receive far too little information to complete a very simple task.  I have had to do my best to self-train myself.  Non-native speakers in workplaces all over the world employ multiple strategies to learn their jobs when spoken or written language fails to convey the information needed.  I am not different.  I listen much harder.   I frequently look at my co-workers as they complete slightly different tasks.  I constantly look at the work environment and the production control boards.  I ask questions even though I know there is only a 50 percent chance I will get the simple answer I want.  Most of all, I am in deeper concentration than my co-workers.  If there was a written training manual in Japanese, I would request or download one from the net and painstakingly study it with my electronic dictionary on my day off.  There is none, so I do my best to survive with what information I can get daily.

What kind of advice do I hear that is a total waste of time 75 percent of the time?  On a daily basis I am being constantly subjected to advice that is more appropriate for a small child than a person in the workforce for more than 30 years.  I have to stop and ensure I am understanding instructions correctly.  Besides not being as good at Japanese, I am also slightly hearing impaired in my right ear.  I frequently stop the machine to listen to something that turns out to be stupid stuff.  Very exasperating.  One lady who I think looks like the most intelligent in the workplace does give me excellent advice and guidance.  I like to listen intently to what she says.  But she often suffixes her great advice with a comment like, “I doubt he understood what I said or I wonder if he got it.”  This is certainly condescending for a North American because we respect people who ask when they don’t understand and the burden is on the trainee to tell the person they got it or did not.

My co-workers and supervisors are very grateful to me that I remove 200 kilograms of vegetable peelings to the outside refuse cage area almost every night.  It’s nice they often thank me and they think I am just a super nice fellow for it.  Truth be known, initially as I was not getting much information to transition from task to task, I would find myself not knowing what to do next.  I noticed my co-workers really hated to do the garbage task, so I thought well at least I know what to do with this.  I have been the garbage man ever since.  I like it.  It is an essential part of keeping a work space organized and sanitary.   I do not have people commenting on it and telling me how to toss garbage.  I can lift 50 kg from a squat position and those clippings can be heavy, so I am happy to do it.  I can now have a smoother transition from task to task now.  I was trained pretty decently the first couple of months to do a variety of tasks and worked on getting better every day.  However, one year ago our  plant had many changes.  A new building, new cutting blades and a lot of new management.  When the procedures changed, all of a sudden there was a clear effort not to train me on anything new.  I was oblivious to it at first.  I had sometimes cut, sometimes operated the slicers, sometimes weighed and dried the vegetables.  With the new changes, I only cut.  There were 16 people in our Cut department.  The manager came down with 15 disposable ball pens attached to a nice neck string.  The even had a label on them with the name of the worker.  I did not get my little pen.  It was only then that I learned I no longer do any weighing or paperwork.  Assuming I had nothing to write, I needed no pen.  Well, Whoop Tee Doo!  Guess they never thought that I use a ballpoint when I sign out my knives or mark the excess vegetables I return to the cooler room.  A big duh, there.  I am pleased that I was part of saving them  some money there.  38 yen for the pen, and about 12 yen for the string holder.     It was after that I opened my eyes and saw that actual efforts were  made to keep me in a remedial station for my entire term with the company.  This is where I remain after 2 years.  I do not blame the management.  I am sure my peers have expressed the idea that most of the tasks would be too difficult.

So, after writing this, many would wonder why I speak so highly of this company.  The truth is, because I have chosen not to complain and go with the flow.  You have to pick when it most beneficial to raise issues and when it is better to wait.   Even if I brought up instances of being marginalized because of my perceived limitations of my race, they would not understand it the way most Westerners do.  I am not being hurt badly by this.  I have a lot of mettle.  I have been through many stormy working environments.  My mind is more in line with a Japanese than an American.  Afterall, I have earned more yen than dollars in my years in the work force.  I am more concerned that this behavior toward foreign people can hurt production potential.  Isn’t it strange that after more than two years, I probably have to ask someone who has only been there two months where something is or how to do something?  Why do my peers view me as being mentally retarded and someone who needs constant looking after?  Why would any production facility want a worker who really is only about 55 percent trained to come to work?   I do not think I am the one who is suffering the disadvantage.  It is this company.  In the future, this company and other companies will need to use foreign-born workers.  Young Japanese people do not want to work nights there.  The older people are too physically small to lift as much.  The people I work with sometimes need to think just for a few seconds why I got the job in the first place.  It was because I had relevant experience.  Experience that my peers are totally unaware of.  For example, I have a Japanese Food Hygiene Certificate 食品衛生 some experience in the USA as an assistant manager of a family restaurant.  Japanese food service as well.    I worked in a Japanese bakery.  Here is a link to some of the fun I had there. http://wp.me/p2eVlP-L   I also could probably grasp a few new tasks because I was smart enough to further my education a bit.   All these do not say I am smart, but it should indicate that if left alone for 5 minutes, I won’t piss on myself.  I’ll be Okay.  I can do it.     They need to get over my foreign birth, and just let me do a better job for them.

As I work part-time with those vegetables at night, what I learn about communication there is relevant to my daytime job.  After a few hours of sleep, I get up and I teach at Japanese companies specifically how to interact in international environments.  Heck, I did not even discover really how to communicate until I got out of my teaching cocoon.  My experience with  gives me a of ideas on how communication fails when people pre-judge the capabilities of their foreign co-workers.  What really happens is my co-workers response is formed often before I utter a word.  All that vocabulary and listening work is not enough.  Global divides in everyday communication still exist even with my Japanese ability.  I am not a speaker on their level, which is clear but I will attempt to get my JPLT First Grade when I muster up a bit more confidence.  Learning other languages is useful, but we cannot forget to make our first language more understandable for practical communication.   Japan needs to recognize and work to change the nation’s image as an exclusive society.  It is my hope that this way of thinking  will someday be passed down to their finest corporations, especially the one I work for.

Memories of 20+ years in Japan

classroomtowaThe past couple weeks have been spent moving all my language school material from my home to an office in the center of the city. At one point in time, O’Leary Language Systems had 150 individual students, a dozen client on-site programs and a total gross income of over 13,000 $USD per month. That was is in the crazy rip-roaring 90s.

Looking back and assessing everything, I could without hesitation classify myself as truly poor in the years 2008 though 2011. I simply could not possibly earn enough in the economic climate to pay my most basic obligations. Downsizing and decline is never a painless process. I can remember back in the day, my computer would go a fritz, and I would say, “Oh dammit, now I have blow my whole afternoon at the computer shop buying a new machine.” Imagine the luxury of only worrying about how much free time you are going lose by shopping and not worrying about the 2500 dollars coming out of your wallet that afternoon for a new computer. Today, I never spend more than 700 dollars on a replacement machine but it is real financial burden compared to back then.

During the course of my move, I am laying my hands on teaching materials, equipment, office supplies and furnishings I haven’t touched in a decade. A box of teacher sized flashcards cost 100 dollars, my fold away conference tables on casters were about 500 dollars a piece. Nearly every one of my well over 200 English textbooks in my library cost about 25 dollars a piece. I never gave it a second thought back then. Even in my school’s heyday, I did not teach a full load of classes. It was not practical for me to do so because I had to keep my full-time teachers on a 20 lesson per week schedule. My pocket-money always came from teaching company classes and culture classes for other companies. The concept is simple, OPM. Other people’s money. I really never owned anything privately because everything I needed in my daily life could be attributed to my business. My mini van was owned by my school, my school was on the first floor of a three floor home. Life was good but it did revolve around my school 24/7.

For more than a decade, I always thought how I would rebuild from the ashes of destruction. I hoarded useless objects and outdated teaching materials in hopes than someday hundreds of students would fill my classrooms with excitement and broken English chatter. In reality, that never happened. I could not part with my “treasures.” But, it was not because of strong sentimental value. It was out of practicality. As a newly minted pauper, I just did not have spare change lying around to purchase a new Disney Song CD, a colorful vocabulary poster or even replace those flashcards that had been repeatedly ripped and sneezed on by 5 year olds.

With life changes, new doors are also opened.  As a successful entrepreneur, my personal education background was not a pressing issue while the cash is flowing in.  I simply hired people who were a whole lot smarter than me, with thick credentials to maintain the sterling reputation of my language school.  Now, it was me who needed to hit the pavement with a pretty thin educational background and make my self appear employable.  Since I still had a sizable enrollment in my school during the downsizing, I reinvested in myself.  I wrapped up the final requirements of my bachelors degree and entered a Masters program through the University of Leicester.  My long time affiliations with teacher training and development and my friends who stood by me helped me a great deal.  As I worked through my graduate school work, I was able to gain part-time lecturing positions at several universities and even taught at two high schools part-time as well.  However, ever year the income would decline lower than the previous year.  Finally, after two of my universities offered me a schedule that was not going to work out well, I decided I needed a break.

In April 2007, I left Japan to work in the United States.  I worked for the Lowe’s Regional Distribution Center in Rockford and operated Stateline Realty Solutions in Freeport, IL.  I did this for one and half years and then returned to Japan.  April 2007 is also when I officially ceased being the president of O’Leary Language Systems and turned the operation over to my son who had come of age.  Under his leadership, the school survived and since last year has basically turned the corner.  There is lot more to go.  The business is not big enough to use as an exclusive source of income.  I teach a little and my son teaches a little.  We both have to maintain OPM.  For him, he is a paraeducator for special needs students with Okawa City School System.  I work with food and lots of it.  I work for Watami Merchandising at their distribution facility doing cutting.  I also work for a local bakery in the early mornings.  I still have a lot of pride in teaching.  This is one reason when I fail to find enough teaching opportunities, I still refuse to give away my expertise for small compensation.  I do not mind earning entry-level wages as long as I am not teaching.  If people want Kevin the teacher, I still charge a fee commensurate with my preparation time and experience.  Private English lessons are 5000 Japanese yen per hour.  Group lessons are only 4800 yen per month but if the group is not full, my son and I close it with little regret.

What do I hope to achieve after more than 20 years in Japan?   The answer is simple, relevance.  I am experienced.  I am loyal.  I am dedicated.  I will leave no page unturned for my students.  I will work tirelessly for my students whether they are part of another school I am employed by or my son’s school.  As an experienced teacher, I want my skills recognized and used to help others become better English speakers.  I have kept my competions advertising flyers in my desk drawer since the beginining.  And I don’t mind inviting skeptical people to try them instead because we know we are good.  If they want to spend their education money elsewhere, it is their loss and not ours.  We know we can find students who will come to understand and embrace our system.

After backbreaking work moving 20 years of history downtown, there are at least 10 boxes of treasure in the closet that I will not have time to go through for many months.  But seeing things for the first time in more than a decade, I discovered something.  I am truly a man of great wealth.  I am generous man and I hope I can help others find prosperity through proficiency.  I don’t know what the younger generation thinks of me putting all those old things on the wall like pictures over the past 20 years.  Maybe some of my fellow old salty expatriate teachers will stop over for a Dr. Pepper with me gazing at the walls of the O’Leary Museum and reminisce about the great Japanese Bubble years.

Inside the Land of the Rising Dough

-By Caoimhín Ó Laoghaire

In the fall of 2011, I began working in the early mornings for Biggareau Bakery.  I think the name means the Big Cherry in Italian.  It is part of the Shiraishi Bread Company of Hita.   Breaking the great bamboo ceiling in Japan is  quite a victory for me.   The opportunity to work in a relaxed fun environment  and to joke in Japanese does wonders for my mental health.  For once, I am not confined to the classroom.    At the bakery, we all really cut up  in the kitchen and its not just the sliced bread.   We have to be careful to keep our laughter contained which is not easy.

I work with many interesting people.  There is Mr. Jojima, the king of the ovens.  Nobody touches the ovens but him.  There is a nice jumbo sized wood fired Italian pizza oven and many other types of ovens that line the wall and he rules that kingdom.   The people of Biggareu are great to work with.   In addition to Mr. Jojima the the oven master, there are about 4 people working in the kitchen rolling, kneading and filling.   Last but not least, we cannot forget the sales staff out in the shop.  They are all young ladies and they are all hotter than the hot crossed buns out of Jojima’s inferno.

It seems to me some of the young ladies are doing a lot of educational reading in their free time.  I get asked quite frequently to explain difficult questions about something they have seen in American movies or have read.   I have not come across these types of inquiries in my English teaching, nor have adequate ELT textbooks addressed this essential part of western culture.  Consequently, I really do not know the answer to many of their questions.   For example,

” Do all American women shave their pubic area and sport Brazilian Waxes?”

” Why do Americans have sex with the man standing in the doorways carrying the woman?”

“What does S & M stand for? ”

Really!  How the hell should I know?   I have been involved with exclusively Japanese women for the past 30 years and have been completely baffled for about 27 of those years.  Boy, do I have some questions for them about the Japanese!    Let’s be fair and have a fruitful cross-cultural exchange.  I may not be the best coach for them as I have always been an introverted dull boy and it is beyond my area of expertise.  I just tell them, “Let me email the only woman I know in the United States that won’t slap me and I will try to get the answer to your questions.”  Afterall, my area of expertise is researching the unknown and like a good salesman saying, “Golly gee, I don’t know.  But I will investigate for you and get you the answer.”  It sure is an education for me too.  Darn shame creeping close to 50, I am to old to do much field research on the subject and learn a few things myself.

We have quite a large menu in the sandwich area where I usually work.  I really only involve myself with half of the menu.  I’m not really the best at cutting the different types of bread and putting out some of most attractive sandwiches.  In a typical day I will make  Ham and Cheese Oven Baked Breakfast Sandwiches, Cheeseburgers, Tarter Fish Filet Sandwiches, Pork Cutlet Burgers, Shrimp Patty Sandwiches,  Croquette Sandwiches, Teriaki Chicken with Burdock Salad, Hot Dogs, Oven Baked Chili Dogs, Oven Baked Mentai Dogs and 3 varieties of Italian Panini, BLT and Bagel Sandwiches.  I start these up at 7AM and get most of them done by about 9:30 as long as the only person older than me, Miyoko, shuts the hell up so I can do my sandwiches.   If she starts fondling my cabbage bed on my hot dogs and stuffing, tucking and suggesting this and that, I will be lucky to finish by 11AM.  She is in her 60s, means well and is kind, but damn lady, go back to your paninis and let go of my wieners!

I do a fair amount of prepatory cooking for the bakery.  I make Chocolate Cream filling, Custard Cream filling,  and help with making the Curry for the famous Curry filled bread, Secret sauces for sandwiches, spice mixing.  These are all original recipes which I will not be sharing the secrets here of.  I am not mad at boss so his set up and ingredients are are safe with me.

I have also been cross trained to help out in the, bakery kitchen if there is a sudden emergency or absence of key people.   In this event, I would be seperating and cutting dough.  making loaves of bread, putting together two varieties of handmade pizzas,  Teriaki Chiken and Pepperoni.  They really are good pizzas from the time I make them from scratch until they come out of the oven.  From there it is all downhill.  I sometimes want to rush the kitchen and save these poor pizzas when they exit the oven.  For land sakes, ladies why do you squirt mayonnaise on the top of a perfect creation and sprinkle it with seaweed?   Yes, we know we are in Japan, but give the customers a real pizza already!

I am far from being a pro even after seven months and I make more than my share of mistakes.  I always know when something isn’t right, when my super hot supervisor Aya says, “Ah, Kevin, Kevin.”  When my name is said twice, I know I made a mistake that I have to go back and correct.  If I hear my name once, I know I am OK and she just has another question about western style intimacy customs.

In summary, I have to reccommend this place to anyone living in the Asakura area.  It is a very good bread shop and when you come in, you can get complimentary coffee when you buy bread.  It has a great atmosphere and there is even a kiddie corner with books for the kids so Mom and Dad can take their time selecting their baked goods.   I personally reccomend the curry pan, American style cinnamon rolls and any item that has our original custard or chocolate cream.

Inside a Japanese Production Facilty From A New Guy’s Perspective

In October 2011, I took on a job at Watami Takushoku’s Fukuoka Processing Center.   Prior to that, I spent my many years in Japan as an English teacher.  After leaving teaching in 2010, I was in executive managment at a small start up company which employed foriegn staff on temporary projects according to event schedules.    For the first time ever, I am employed in a purely Japanese work environment and I am the only one of my breed here.   My former collegues reacted to my new choice of work in a variety of different ways.  Some were envious and hoped I had magical powers and could somehow get them connected up.  Some were  condescending that I would, God forbid, stoop to taking on an entry level position.    There were some former subordinates who did not care for my management style at my previous job and downright ridiculed my new position on public forums..

“Who goes from management to dicing onions in a factory?  This proves that there must be something seriously wrong with him.”

Most of the people who have a deep level of knowledge about the situation in Japan over the past decade were supportive.    No, there is nothing seriously wrong in my head.  My judgement is intact.  I have more that 30 years work experience a degree or two.   I know what I got under my belt.   It doesn’t mean I have to forget how to use my hands and it is a honest way to pay some bills.  Entering the Japanese workforce from the more traditional English teaching roles foreigners usually do is quite a big deal for me.    Let’s face it, teaching will always be available to me in Japan in one form or another.    It is not an easy thing to walk on the other side of the job market and requires proficiency in Japanese language skills.   It just makes sense to me to give it a shot at this point in my life.

At Watami’s Fukuoka Processing Center, food is processed and then loaded on trucks for over the road delivery across Japan.      I was all psyched up and a bit nervous going to my first day of work.   I walked in just before 11PM and gave the people I saw a hearty,  Konban wa(Good evening).   They smiled, looked a little uneasy and gave a soft konban wa in response.    Later in the evening, I learned although it was 10:45 in the evening, the traditional greeting there is Ohayo gozaimasu(Good morning).  Perhaps that is because I will work from 11PM to 4:30AM.  Nothing like botching my first on-the-job Japanese test.

I dress in all white from head to toe.  Nothing exposed except my twinkling eyes.   I look like a nuke plant worker or maybe a beekeeper or worse a klansman who lost his pointy head.   Excellent hygiene and keeping sanitary is a must to enter the work area.  We enter a room and run a lint-roller over our uniforms for 60 seconds, don a face mask, scrub our hands and take a spray of hand sanitizer.

I am assigned to the Cut Department.  Once inside, I put on a pair of disposable latex gloves and go over to a table and find my name on the shift work assignment.   Typically, there are three main stations to process each work station.  I will either be cutting, running produce through the slicer or washing, weighing and and stowing the finished product in the walk-in refrigerator.  Last week, I saw the biggest order ever which was 1500kg of cabbage.  That’s 3,300 pounds in my measuring system.  When finished and cleaned up, we will go to area that we are not assigned by name.  It might be peeling Japanese Daikon, cutting pumpkins or putting tiny food items into little baggies.  I hate the baggie job especially when the quantity per bag is so small like 2 grams.  It takes a long time and is the most boring thing I can think of.

The atmosphere in the place is okay for me. There isn’t time for chit-chat and I cannot hear what is said easily anyway.  At 48 years old, I am one of the young kids.  I work with a lot of retirees with time on their hands.  Sometimes, the old geezers get on my nerves because they seem to assume I do not understand anything coming from another culture.  I get advice overload.  They need to shut-up and not worry so much.  I got this.  They mean well and I always thank them.  I have an excellent working relationship and would even venture to say it is one of the best cooperative environments I have seen in many years.  I speak Japanese, but I do not really want to because many of my coworkers might assume I know no Japanese and become anxious trying to communicate a complex idea.  I have been interrupted more than a few times while I filling out my report and be asked if I can write hiragana.   I am not fluent and I also have anxiety about making a cultural mistake or selecting less than polite Japanese when speaking.  Additionally, I am so locked in to concentrating on the specific task, I don’t want to deal with more stress.  Consequently, I have taken a liking to dumping huge amounts of peelings in the dumpster outside because I can do a good job, do it alone and everybody is happy.

There is drama sometimes.  For instance, some knuckle-head swept a knife into the waste can and it wasn’t discovered until the next morning.  Now, we have to sign and out our tater peelers and knives all night.  Another time a screw came up missing on my slicer blade when I inspected it.  I had to shut everybody down.  At first, my coworkers weren’t grasping what I told them and kept working.  I had to be more assertive and say, “Did you hear me, Stop the machines now!”  We had to sift through bags of shredded cabbage until the screw was found.  My manager was pleased that I discovered the screw missing and took action.  I felt very unlucky because the thing had to wiggle loose on my watch.  I want to work silently and not be noticed.

I do feel happy because I am accepted as part of the team.  I do not detect any willful predjudice toward foreigners at Watami.  But of course I work with rural people that might not know how to react to foreigner in the workplace.   I salute Watami for being one of the few companies to give someone like me a chance to prove I can perform with reliablity and speed.