The Unbearable Fairness of Being (in Japan)




“Life’s not fair” is in the running for my least favourite phrase in the English language, along with “Don’t forget to subscribe” and “Sir, that’s not the umbrella you came in with.” Obviously, I hate that life demonstrably isn’t fair– and I know that life is much more fair on me than on many people– but I hate that as adults we’re not allowed to point out when something is patently unjust or even to expect that people will try and make life as fair as possible. If we call out blatant examples of unearned favouritism or stigma or even bemoan completely random twists of fate that somehow cheat us, we’re labelled as childish, petulant or somehow unworldly for not realising that’s just how it is. And that’s awful.


That being said, I’m now going to object to life being made fairer. When I was in school, the teachers were massive bloody hypocrites: the Health teachers smoked outside the bike shed, the English teachers couldn’t spell and I’m pretty sure our Physics teacher believed in ghosts. The most egregious example of this was when we got a new Assistant Head halfway through my time there: he apparently had a background in business, the same way you might say the Boy who Cried Wolf has a background in sheep-herding. Even if you fail massively at something and have to run away with your tail between your legs, you’ve still technically done it. I think. Anyway, this new Assistant Head was apparently upset that people didn’t prostrate themselves before him in the corridors– he kept complaining about a “culture of disrespect” while adamantly refusing to do anything to earn our respect in any tangible way– and he decided that the problem was our schoolbags.


Yep, you read that right, our schoolbags were somehow akin to red kryptonite, turning good children bad, changing order into dirty chaos and driving down property values in the area. So, he decided to ban the bag. No joke, he put up posters to that effect. Of course, everyone ignored his suggestion, as we are taught to do with counterproductive ideas like “jump off that bridge” or “lick that socket” from a young age. This only made him more enraged and he used to stalk the school halls, shouting at people carrying schoolbags, all the while a plump, bulging bag, no doubt ripe with chocolate bars and Wall Street journals to remind him of his failed dreams, dangled from his shoulders. This was the crux of the problem: he expected us to carry our not inconsiderable amount of school supplies in our arms while being entirely unwilling to do this himself. He’d berate and plead and hold assemblies accusing of us of being, I kid you not, “delusional anarchists” – he’d do everything to try and corral us except act in the way he expected of others. He refused to do as he would be done by.


This is not the case in Japanese schools– I was asked to stop bringing apple juice to school because the children are only allowed water or tea, I have to wait to say grace to eat and I’ve had to sneak to the toilet to use my phone because the kids can’t even bring them into school, let alone whip them out in the corridors. There is no special consideration for teachers.


Nowhere is this more apparent than during Sports Day. I hated Sports Day as a child– sitting there, baking in the sun, every single adult and child I knew gathered, watching, just waiting for humiliation and shame to be wrought, with no way of stopping it. I thought as a teacher, what with their water bottles and their fold-out chairs and their copies of the Guardian, that the experience might actually be bearable.




The children aren’t allowed parasols, so neither are we; they can’t bring their books, so neither can we; they only go to the toilet during designated breaks, so really so should we. I mean, the nerve of it! Having to do as we preach! Ugh!


Of course, I understand deep down that this is a good thing and it’s exactly what I wished for as a pupil: for the teachers to actually have to experience the conditions they were pushing on people who had no means of legitimately fighting back. And I genuinely think that were this the case, a lot of school policies in England, for example those regarding uniforms, would change– certainly that Assistant Head would have had to drop his insipid “bags cause delinquency” routine. But teachers in Japan seem able or willing to withstand a much greater deal of discomfort. They will work fourteen hour days and wear full business suits in thirty five degree weather and come to school even if there is a literal typhoon in their way. Naturally, they can then ask as much from the students with a clear conscience.


I admire this approach immensely but just want an exemption for me because I’m special and it’s hot and I want to check if anyone has liked my latest hilariously witty comment on Facebook. But no such exemption came. I had to endure with the rest of them. And, as I stood there on the top field, the sun bearing down on me like I was a rabbit on a racetrack, trying to pay attention to the students’ marching, all I could think was that I’d had the worst of both worlds– I’d had to watch cackling, tyrannical hypocrites enjoying every privilege that they denied to us and now I had to suffer to prove that everyone is indeed equal. All I could think was that this was really unjust for me to be on the losing side both times through mere geographic dictation, and no fault of my own. All I could think is that life isn’t fair.


Rory Kelly



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One Comment

  1. Did your principal and vice-principal also have to suffer under the hot sun? How often did the principal come out of his or her air conditioned office for practice? How about the event itself? Did the important people get to be protected by a tent and offered cold water whenever they pleased?

    Let’s not be naive here, the hierarchy is real and in fact quite visible. That the average Japanese teacher is not given as much privilege as the “western” one is a reflection of a society forged by harsh conditions. A chain of volcanic islands prone to food shortage and natural disasters and which suffered through some rather tumultuous times will breed people who value the ability to endure above all others.

    Still, as one moves up the great ladder of success (which is said to be based on your level of endurance, but we all know better), one gains more privileges to a point where you are allowed to sit in the shade, cover your skin in order to keep its pristine whiteness (and have a boy carry a parasol over your head during graduation ceremony), and you don’t have to exert yourself physically.

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