On Sexual Harassment in Japan (Part 2): For ALTs


In my previous post (part 1) I discussed the history of sexual harassment law in Japan, and the struggles women continue to face today. But in truth, this series was inspired by a report in The Japan Times about foreign workers in English-language schools.

The article collects information from women who work in private lessons for the Japanese English-education firm GABA. Teachers reported incidents of clients exposing themselves, making lewd remarks, spending 40 minutes staring at a teacher’s breasts during a lesson, and stalking. One client “leant over and looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘I want to drink your breast milk.’”

In all cases, the incidents were handled to benefit the client: Rather than being banned from their schools, the client was reassigned to another teacher. In one incident, the teacher was told to continue her lesson; in another, the client was allowed to meet with the same teacher while the incident was ‘investigated.’

JET and Sexual Harassment
At my Tokyo Orientation for JET, I was confused at how normalized the sexual harassment discussions were. I remember one session where a female ALT explained that discrimination was common in the office, and that, if you were a woman, men would expect you make the tea. Women, she suggested, should make the decision themselves whether they wanted to do it, but the context was clear: Not doing so would alienate you from your coworkers. Likewise, inappropriate behavior from teachers should be considered in context, we were told. There was a lot of talk about “putting your cultural experiences aside.”

Alanna, a friend of mine in Japan (who has written for this blog once or twice), had an experience with an aggressive older teacher at a party. When desks were rearranged, she actually ended up being assigned to sit next to him.

“I didn’t complain because I didn’t want to break the wa,” she said. “Stupid.”

(Wa is the vaguely defined social goal of harmonious relationships in Japan. It’s the reason why the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.)

Of course, it isn’t stupid. It’s one of the massive, weird failures of the JET program in its responsibility toward the people it brings to Japan. In orientation sessions and monthly meetings, almost nothing was said about sexual harassment, either by teachers or even by other ALTs (which is a whole other kettle of fish). The primary lesson of orientation isn’t that your rights will be protected. It’s that Japan is ‘different,’ and requires you to orient yourself to that ‘difference.’

As Alanna put it, “Just shut up and pour tea for them.”

I wondered if I was making this up in hindsight, so I took a look at 2014’s JET handbook.

I wasn’t.

JET and Sexual Harassment
In this year’s (2014) JET Handbook for new ALTs, there is a single, half-page section on Sexual Harassment. There are three subsections. The first, and longest, is ‘Prevention.’ The first sentence is this:

‘If it becomes an issue, discuss views of harassment with your supervisor and colleagues, as their ideas about sexual harassment may differ from yours.’

Immediately, sexual harassment is minimized as a cultural misunderstanding. Already lost in a sea of culture shock and now preyed upon by an aggressive coworker, the JET handbook suggests that sexual harassment is something you’ll have to learn to accommodate as a component of office etiquette and cultural adjustment: A miscommunication.

Weirdly, the JET handbook does not mention that, since 1998, Sexual Harassment has been legally defined, and that this legal definition is expected to be promoted in every workplace in Japan. I can think of one explanation: it’s a wa thing.

We’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s look at the second point:

‘Enquire about and take the same precautions Japanese people take, while realising that JET participants do attract attention.’

‘Realizing’ something is a weird step in this process. You’ve been sexually harassed, now what? Realize that your foreignness may have attracted sexual harassment. This seems like we’re moving into a blaming conversation. Then comes these two beauties:

‘Be aware that alcohol compromises your awareness and your ability to defend yourself.’

‘Be aware that inviting someone to your home, flirting, and the way you dress, move, or sit can be misunderstood and seen as an invitation to take liberties.’

These are orders for women to avoid men, and straightforwardly blame sexual harassment on the ALT. You should have stayed aware and defended yourself. The subtle undercurrent of this is, you drank too much. You flirted too much. You dressed like you were asking for it. You ‘misunderstood.’

In the next section, there is an outline of possible options an ALT can take. These include discussing it with a supervisor so you can decide how to ‘improve the situation’. There is no legal definition provided for helping an ALT to identify sexual harassment, even though definitions do exist. There are also no expectations or protocols for the supervisor to follow, presenting the ALT with tremendous uncertainty about what takes place if an incident is reported. For the record, any office manager is legally required to create a safe working space for women who feel that their position has been made uncomfortable by sexual harassment. But that is left out of the handbook, leaving the harassed with a total unawareness of their rights and any idea of what they can expect.

It then turns to weird threats that manipulatively avoid any acknowledgement of legal precedent: ‘Be aware that if you want some sort of action to be taken, other people, including the harasser, will likely be involved.’  This is directly contradictory to Japan’s Sexual Harassment law, which requests that the anonymity of complaints be respected.

So, the JET guidelines for sexual harassment, in summary? Blame the victim; manipulate the victim by denying information designed to empower her, and then turn to vague threats of public shame. All of this would be bad enough, but the section on sexual harassment is one half-page in a massive book which details how to handle problems in the office. The overwhelming message in these sections are strongly oriented toward shutting up.

Defend us from the Wa
Consider this section from the classroom FAQ, which advises ALTs on how to answer inappropriate questions:

Even though this type of question is often innocent, the idea of sexual harassment is well established in Japan, so you can teach them that sexually offensive questions are to be avoided if they want to build positive interpersonal relations. Other approaches include telling them that it is none of their business, laughing about it, or changing the subject.

Full stop. At no point is there any suggestion that because ‘sexual harassment is well established in Japan,’ the student should know better, and the teacher should know to intervene. Individuals are capable of standing up for themselves, but the guidelines once again begin with a defense of the harasser, and suggest that the proper response is to ‘laugh it off’ because the question was probably ‘innocent.’ This is the textbook case of minimizing an incident in order to persuade someone to tolerate it.

And just one example of how the JET handbook is oriented toward solving all problems on the side of wa. On the next page:

An important aspect of Japanese society is the “gaman” spirit. Gaman is a Japanese word meaning ‘endurance’ or ‘perseverance’. Part of being considered a responsible adult in Japan is the ability to ‘hang in there’ in a less-than-pleasant situation instead of drawing attention to yourself by making a lot of noise.


How you respond to a situation, regardless of who is in the wrong or where the misunderstanding lies, can greatly affect the success of your office/school relations and your time in Japan. You need to be determined to make this experience a good one for both yourself and the others in your group.

Taken as a whole, the message of orientation and the Handbook create two themes of manipulation and intimidation. Sexual harassment is a cultural misunderstanding, and you may have invited it by drinking, flirting, dressing inappropriately, or being a foreigner. Laugh it off, or endure it, but if you take action, everyone in your office will find out what happened.

Shut up and pour the tea.

‘Don’t blame yourself’ is the 12th bullet point on the list, by the way. It stands alone without the context of an explanation.

Ideal Worlds
In many sexual harassment incidents I’ve heard about being reported — and it seems like every female ALT I knew had an incident, but few reported them — the supervisors have actually reacted appropriately when the case was brought to their attention, and it was only a matter of time before a teacher is subtly discouraged, or outright isolated / transferred.

The more common scenarios were like Alanna’s. People were made really uncomfortable by a persistent creep, but didn’t believe anything would be done about it, so they didn’t say anything. Here’s Alanna again:

“To be honest though… there ISN’T a lot you can do. If you make a formal complaint, all you will accomplish is getting the staff to hate you for disturbing the peace, or at the very least making them see you as a kind of workplace imperialist, coming in and thinking your foreign ways are superior and imposing them. You have to work with the system to battle harassment; you can’t use American tactics (which would be to make a statement to HR and possibly pursue legal action.)”

When we discussed this, both of us had been JETs for three years: Three years of monthly professional development meetings, three years of contact with other ALTs and three years of working in the same office. And neither of us knew that we actually had every right to use ‘American tactics’ in the case of sexual harassment. But the JET program was so bad at explaining the legal rights of ALTs that we literally could not imagine there was any recourse for being harassed at work.

Pour it Yourself
When you arrive in Japan you’re generally clueless, unmoored, illiterate, and essentially helpless. You develop a dependency on everyone around you. Over time, this dependency becomes part of the social pressure ALTs feel– that ridiculous, culturally inappropriate and impossible desire to belong. We internalize, and combat, the encroaching group orientation of our identities. Most of us go just a little bit crazy.

It appears, to me, that JET almost uses this cultural disorientation to its advantage, by indoctrinating us into the wa as docile employees. I don’t understand why the JET Handbook would deliberately leave information out of the hands of the people it hires, but by doing so, it perpetuates this weird myth of Japan as a land of inevitable sexual harassment. By not telling us what our rights are, it presents the illusion that we don’t have any rights at all.

The JET Programme needs to take some responsibility for education among JETs. The current approach cynically and manipulatively mystifies sexual harassment as part of the disorientation of culture shock. Conveniently, this prevents pesky disruptions of workplace harmony that might reflect poorly on the program. This is transparently dishonest, and does a disservice not only to the victims of sexual harassment, but also to Japanese men who do behave professionally. They are nonetheless lumped in with 30-year-old stereotypes of boorish office behavior.

It could be said that the JET handbook is merely practical, and that’s a solid argument. Situations can be frustrating to deal with and offices are unlikely to want to disrupt things on behalf of a temporary ALT. Sexual harassment issues may be too big for Prefectural Assistants to really handle (most things are, another problem with the program: representatives that lack any form of power).

Nonetheless, the role of JET is to offer resources for the teachers it recruits and ships off to God-knows-where. If the guidelines suggest that the lack of response is a problem, it needs to do more than acknowledge that: It needs to work to improve the conditions of its employees, and guarantee that foreign teachers have the same awareness of rights and recourse that Japanese workers do. At the very least, it needs to inform ALTs of their legal rights and protections from sexual harassment.

Update: Some excellent comments (and fiery debate!) below, which I encourage you to read, and I would also direct you to part 3,  a very modest proposal for revamping the JET Programme’s sexual harassment guidelines in the General Information Handbook.

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45 Responses to On Sexual Harassment in Japan (Part 2): For ALTs

  1. Pingback: On Sexual Harassment in Japan (Part 1) | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  2. gaylehume says:

    Thank you for this post. I completely agree with your points on the JET Handbook. It is extremely dismissive and I remember reading it before I left for Japan wondering if I was doing the right thing.
    One point I would like to add (from my own experience) is that the lack of support, knowledge of legal rights and the struggle to keep wa not only allows for Japanese men to be sexual harassers but also male ALTs. I know of an incident last year where a male ALT in my prefecture was reported for sexual harassment and violence toward both Japanese and foreign women. A total of 14 women came forward with some pretty awful stories ranging from inappropriate touching to near rape. There were more women who had been affected but they were too scared to speak out. The complaints were sent to the prefectural office and after 8 weeks of ‘discussions’ the end result was…..nothing. Nothing whatsoever. The male ALT continued to work in his school, live in his community and carry on his behaviour without any issues. On the flip side the female victims were told nothing could be done and were left helpless and afraid. They were offered no support whatsoever other than a phonecall from a female PA. It was and still is an utter disgrace. There is nothing in place to help women in such a situation. I lost a lot of respect for some of my Japanese colleagues and I couldn’t believe they were willing to send the male ALT back into a school full of young girls.

    Support needs to be in place and women need to be sure that they’re safety will not be compromised before coming into this country.

    • owwls says:

      Agreed; the post “On not being a creep in Japan” tackles that subject if you’re interested. A quite ‘popular’ ALT in my cohort was notorious for his behavior but nothing was said socially because he was a ‘fun guy’, ie, he screamed a lot and showed people his penis or whatever, “ha ha.” The minute I called him out the full force of social pressure hit me, he tried to make it look like I was mentally unstable, other people told me I was socially awkward, that it was not my ‘job’ to call him out, but you can only take so much toxic bullshit before being compelled to call it what it is. Or shout about what it is. I know I did the right thing at the wrong time, but meh. Some friends supported me, but yeah, it’s disillusioning. If a real system was in place for handling complaints in a human way, they’d have been taken out of Japan before I ever even got there.

    • I was aware of that situation. It gets even more disgusting once you know that the individual had also been reported several years earlier and nothing was done. After all that time, any sane person could see that it’s obvious the bastard was lying, since it’s highly unlikely a cabal of women from a variety of different countries conspired over a period of three years to launch a smear campaign.

  3. Doe says:

    JET really should make an effort to distribute information about and receive complaints of sexual harassment. Maybe try it at the prefectural level? My school has a questionnaire and meeting about sexual harassment every year, but I’ve only been given the questionnaire once (full Japanese with no translation help or even explanation, but I still filled it out) and I’ve never been invited to the meeting.

    I was regularly harassed by another JET coworker my first year on the program. At the time, I tried to ignore it because I considered his behavior to be the result of social frustrations of living in a country where he couldn’t speak any of the language. I directly told him to stop countless times. He would either apologize or call me a prude, then continue it at another time. I eventually just left the room anytime he said sometime inappropriate, which cut him off from practically all socialization. It made my first year almost unbearable. Really, his desk was right by mine. All of the Japanese teachers ignored us and rarely included us in normal conversations. I think they just assumed that the two foreigners were friends and would prefer their own company. Nobody ever seemed to notice that something was amiss even though he did it fairly openly in a room where there were at least 8 people who could speak English, including an extremely fluent head teacher.

    This same JET was also “found” in the back room of an ALT party where a passed out girl had been left to sleep. He claimed she consented and, as far as I know, nobody reported any wrongdoing, but it could have easily counted as a rape by most standards.

    Although these examples are about interactions with another JET and not Japanese teachers, the fact remains that we need to be given more support for sexual harassment.

    • owwls says:

      The old “I was drunk and she was sleeping whoops!” routine has happened once or twice in my day as well. Of course nobody says anything; it’s always their word against his. Thanks for sharing. Agreed, ALTs are a major part of the problem- even just addressing that alone in the JET ranks would be a huge step.

  4. It would be curious to know who exactly writes these JET guidelines. Are they written just by the Japanese, or are some foreigners involved, who have these misguided understandings of wa and gaman, or even are positively interested in maintaining the status quo?

    • owwls says:

      I believe it is written by non-Japanese working for CLAIR, but under strict control by MEXT. The guidelines for sexual harassment are at least 5 years old now.

  5. ikinone says:

    “These are orders for women to avoid men, and straightforwardly blame sexual harassment on the ALT. ”

    Not really. It’s not blaming the sexual harassment on the ALT. It’s simply telling people that actions which they may consider meaningless in another culture can have a meaning in this one. It does not make sexual harassment okay. Ideally everyone will recognize that a foreigner behaving in a certain way does not have the same implications as a Japanese person behaving in that way. Unfortunately, the world isn’t ideal.

    It’s not saying it’s the fault of the ALT, it’s simply saying the ALT has power to avoid problematic situations through understanding the culture better. It’s not the ALTs responsibility to do this, but if you can do it, why not? Sure if someone sexually harrasses you, it is their fault, but it does not mean you shouldn’t try to avoid situations like that to begin with if you can.

    Your attitude is like complaining about someone warning you not to go into a dangerous area of a city at night. People *should* certainly not attack you, but if you can avoid it, why not? It seems a lot of people expect other cultures to adapt to their ideals. Every culture has shitty aspects to it, and people who will not understand that foreigners are not aware of cultural implications, or even that the behaviour is restricted to their own culture to begin with.

    “The subtle undercurrent of this is, you drank too much. You flirted too much. You dressed like you were asking for it. You ‘misunderstood.’”

    No it isn’t. It’s quite clearly saying that inviting someone to your house under certain circumstances in Japan can be the equivalent of asking if they ‘want to have a wild night of fun’ in another country. It does NOT say you should laugh it off or endure it. It is simply giving you advice on how to avoid it to begin with – which is very valuable advice. It does not say ‘avoid the opposite sex entirely’, it says ‘please understand that flirting is different in different cultures’.

    How exactly would you write this section of the guidebook if you were required to? What would you change exactly?

    • owwls says:

      I said what I would do: Emphasize that sexual harassment is illegal; explain the legal rights and protections that the law implies; and establish a very clear process for handling the complaint with supervisors or PAs.

      The rest of what you are saying seems really absurd to me: is going to work really the same as going into a dark alley at night? Is a work-required Enkai / drinking party dedicated to drinking really a place that a female employee should be told to ‘be aware’ rather than being told what to do if a male coworker crosses the line?

      Also it quite literally says to laugh off sexually aggressive questions, and quite literally says to endure unpleasant conversations. Did you really read my post?

      If the guidebook is trying to make cultural misunderstandings more transparent, it would say “here are some cultural misunderstandings that may arise; in Japan, X, while in America/England/NZ/Australia, Y.” This doesn’t do that. It says flat out that drinking, flirting and being foreign are potentially ‘invitations’ to sexual harassment and then implies that there is no recourse once it happens.

      You’re satisfied with these guidelines? How? How does anyone think these are appropriate guidelines? They literally don’t say a word about actual rights or responsibilities of the supervisors. Why?

      • ikinone says:

        “I said what I would do: Emphasize that sexual harassment is illegal; explain the legal rights and protections that the law implies; and establish a very clear process for handling the complaint with supervisors or PAs.”

        I agree, that is great. However, the part of the JET guide which you quote is still very relevant information.

        “is going to work really the same as going into a dark alley at night?”

        Going to work in a different culture? Potentially, yes. For example, if I went to work in Saudi Arabia and ignorantly proclaimed that Mohammed was a douchebag, I don’t think life would go very well for me.

        “Is a work-required Enkai / drinking party dedicated to drinking really a place that a female employee should be told to ‘be aware’ rather than being told what to do if a male coworker crosses the line?”

        YES. People should be very, VERY aware in situations like this even in their own culture. They should ALSO be told what to do, but being told to be aware, and understand the differences in culture is sound advice.

        “Also it quite literally says to laugh off sexually aggressive questions,”

        Yes. That does not mean that you laugh off the problem. It is simply an *immediate* way of dealing with the situation in a manner which does not escalate things for the worse.

        The quote from the guide you mentioned:

        “Part of being considered a responsible adult in Japan is the ability to ‘hang in there’ in a less-than-pleasant situation instead of drawing attention to yourself by making a lot of noise.”

        This does not imply that you should simply endure unpleasant situations. It says very clearly that you are not considered a responsible adult if you simply make a lot of noise about something. It does not mean you should do nothing. It just means that suddenly reacting to sexual harassment in the same way you would in a different culture will not necessarily be productive. I completely agree that sexual harassment should be stopped, and making a lot of noise may well be successful in achieving that. In some situations it is certainly the best way of going about it. In many situations it is not. You can do a lot without making a lot of noise. If you can stop sexual harassment in a manner that gains you respect rather than losing it, surely that is more sensible? For example, if someone asks a woman to pour them some tea, rather than making noise about it, it could be taken as a good opportunity to explain to them the differences in culture, which is a significant aspect of the JET program to begin with.

        “It says flat out that drinking, flirting and being foreign are potentially ‘invitations’ to sexual harassment and then implies that there is no recourse once it happens.”

        No it doesn’t. You are quite literally changing the words (and meaning).

        Quote you linked from the guide:

        “while realising that JET participants do attract attention.”

        Your interpretation of it:

        “Realize that your foreignness may have attracted sexual harassment.”

        It says attention. Not harassment. There is a vast difference. Let’s check your next interpretation, on drinking. The quote from the guide:

        “‘Be aware that alcohol compromises your awareness and your ability to defend yourself.”

        Your interpretation:

        “The subtle undercurrent of this is, you drank too much. You flirted too much. You dressed like you were asking for it. You ‘misunderstood.’”

        No. That is not it at all. It’s very, very sound advice. Don’t drink too much unless you are very confident that you are in a safe environment (and guess what, there are scummy people who will abuse a severely drunk person almost anywhere in the world). This is not just advice for Japan, it is advice the world over. It is not your *fault* if you are sexually harassed when drunk, but if you can take a reasonable step to prevent it ever occurring, you sure as hell should do. If you want to get wasted, make sure you are with friends. Actually considering how often people have been sexually harassed by people who they thought were their friends, it’s probably just best to avoid ever getting too drunk to begin with. Some people are just shit. Don’t give them the opportunity.

        “Be aware that inviting someone to your home, flirting, and the way you dress, move, or sit can be misunderstood and seen as an invitation to take liberties.”

        Again, sound advice. Entirely true. These can invite people to take liberties. Something you don’t seem to understand here is that what can be a natural progression of flirting to one person can be interpreted as sexual harassment by another person. It does not mean it is your fault for the harassment happening. It does mean that you should be aware that misunderstandings can easily happen. If you can avoid misunderstandings, you should. The people you are interacting with should also be aware that foreigners might interpret things differently from the way they do. Many people in Japan do recognize this. Some people do not. Some people will even maliciously exploit the fact. This is quite simple. Learning about body language in other cultures is as important as learning about spoken language. If your body language is saying “I wanna do you”, it’s crucially important that you understand you are sending that message to people, and then stop sending it if you don’t want to send it.

        “then implies that there is no recourse once it happens”

        Now i agree that would be a problem, but I don’t see how it implies that at all.

        Finally, this seems to be the stem of a lot of complaints:

        “Immediately, sexual harassment is minimized as a cultural misunderstanding. ”

        Because it can often be a cultural misunderstanding. It is still a problem, and should be dealt with. However it should not necessarily be viewed in the same way as someone who is sexually harassing someone and is quite aware of the problem they are causing. Certainly some incidents involve some really horrible/malicious people and should be dealt with in the most immediate and productive manner possible, I think a great many incidents (such as being asked to pour tea) are not in quite so dire need of attention.

        Inevitably, you will try and lump this issue together with the kind of idiots who say “women wearing slutty clothing deserve to be raped”. People with that attitude are absolute scum. No one on the planet deserves to be raped. No one on the planet deserves to be sexually harassed either. However, when you are visiting another culture, it is crucial to consider the actual differences in that culture.

        “The overwhelming message in these sections are strongly oriented toward shutting up.” is the way you interpret this guide. I interpret it as “Understand that other cultures can be very different to your own, don’t be an idiot and get drunk in a situation you are not familiar with.”

      • owwls says:

        OK you clearly found the guidelines to be an amazing resource, but everyone saying otherwise is interested in making them better so I’m gonna stick with that. Thanks for the input.

    • alschubach says:

      “Sure if someone sexually harrasses you, it is their fault, but it does not mean you shouldn’t try to avoid situations like that to begin with if you can.”

      I would love to know how I could have avoided the teacher who harassed me after the school administration seated me directly beside him in the staff room. The idea that harassment is something that can be either sought out or avoided is very naive.

      • ikinone says:

        I didn’t say you can always avoid the situation. I said if it can be avoided it should be. Some cannot. Some situations can certainly be avoided. Stop failing to read perfectly simple English sentences and responding to me in a hostile manner due to your own mistakes.

      • owwls says:

        I’m quite afraid that you’re the one who seems to be mistaken. Your arguments have been based on one idea – that each isolated sentence has a value in preventing cultural misunderstanding of sexual harassment, and therefore is valid in that specific purpose — while denying that language has context. I have been discussing the context of JET’s sexual harassment guidelines as a whole, in a way that ignores very crucial legal information in the favour of a few sentences on ‘prevention.’ You have ignored that all of those sentences on prevention are set in a context which a) immediately suggests a woman’s concerns are a cultural misunderstanding, b) frames sexual harassment in terms of actions the ALT should take to ‘avoid it,’ while c) minimizing the seriousness of sexual harassment by offering no language which suggests the offense is serious or that women have legal rights not to be harassed.

        You have overemphasized ‘prevention’ and ignored the massive gaps in the guidelines without asking why these guidelines have been written as they were written, and which purpose they were intended to serve. You have focused specifically on what has been said, with one specific lens — that of ‘prevention’ — and determined that therefore, the guidelines are useful. Let’s follow that logic. The guidelines are useful in telling women how to prevent sexual harassment. So, if a woman is sexually harassed, what should she do? The answer is vague to the point of meaninglessness. Instead, the emphasis is on prevention.

        So, what if I say, over and over again to a woman, to use your metaphor for going to work, ‘don’t dress that way and go into a dark alley in Saudi Arabia screaming about Mohammad.’ And I say this many times, and then one day she goes into an alley, dressed conservatively and without blaspheming anybody, and she gets attacked. She comes to me and asks what she should do, and I respond according to the JET guidelines by telling her, once again, what she could have done to prevent the attack. Sure, she says, I didn’t dress weird and I didn’t shout about Mohammad, but I still got attacked, what can I do? Well, I say, you should have done x and y to prevent the attack. She says OK, OK, I get it. But do I have legal rights? And I look at her, stone faced, before repeating what she should have done to prevent the attack.

        This is what you’re doing, by emphasizing that the guidelines for ‘prevention’ are ideal, and that therefore the JET handbook is ideal. It shows an almost deliberately short-sighted and naïve idea not only of sexual harassment, but of the idea of context in the English language. A woman can understand not to get drunk with strangers, can understand not to dress in certain ways, can speak fluent Japanese and still be sexually harassed without it being a ‘cultural misunderstanding.’ Aside from the fact that sexual harassment is the responsibility of the harasser, not the harassed, even women who have done everything according to the norms outlined in the handbook can still be harassed, and there is no recourse provided for in the handbook. The emphasis is entirely on prevention, which shifts responsibility from punishing the victimizer to making the victim accommodate the victimizer. You will say that’s not the case, but we will have to disagree, because you’d be completely, without a doubt, 100% wrong.

  6. Jordan Weibelzahl says:

    This is a really big problem. Reframing sexual harassment as a “cultural difference” is not in any way acceptable, especially when there are laws in place to protect against it.

    However, there’s two suggestions I would make after reading this. One is how to address/confront vicarious sexuaul harassment. That is, as a male ALT who works with several female JTEs, sometimes I have to go to class first and hold down the fort (eg. She’s in a meeting). My male students have said things directed towards her in her absence, (eg. From a student “What do you think about — breasts? I love them. I want to squeeze them. What about you, —.” but there is no mechanism to report this in order to correct behaviour. It reminds me of “locker room” talk. This is an area where such attitudes need to be confronted & stamped out as well. Reporting anonymously is impossible & in my case, my level of Japanese isn’t sufficient enough to lecture, reprimand, or stamp out such behaviour. Students need to learn that it’s not okay to speak that way anytime.

    The second thin that I would add to this discourse is that male teachers (both Japanese & non-Japanese) are also recipients of sexual harassment from both female and male students. Possibly also from teachers. Perhaps the frequency is lower, I can’t comment on that, but I have frequently been harassed by students (predominantly female). For example, I was unable to complete an oral speaking test because the student kept moving her chair so that her knees would pass mine. She would then try to kiss me. I’ve also been asked about all of my body parts, groped by male & female students, had them try to remove my wedding ring while yelling “your wife, go away,” been flashed, and so on. I think the discussion should really focus on empowering anyone who has experienced sexual harassment, regardless of gender. My complaints have been laughed off with words like “oh, they’re just girls. They love you. They mean nothing bad” or “boys will be boys.” Both are inappropriate responses.

    • owwls says:

      Sure yeah. I used ‘she’ but of course it can happen to men too. The law is gender neutral, anyway, though. And I’d not say the protection of me is the biggest problem facing Japan right now; the fact that women are hugely and overwhelmingly secondary in social status is honestly a much greater concern for me on a national level. I do understand that male ALTs are also in a weird status category though, as are all foreigners.

    • alschubach says:

      There’s an important distinction, though, when harassment comes from underage students (as opposed to adult clients, like in the GABA story.) The power dynamic is completely different. As a teacher, you have the authority to shut it down through disciplinary actions. If a co-worker or boss harasses you, though, the odds are higher that they could physically overpower you and/or do serious damage to your career if you object. Of course a student’s advances are awkward and uncomfortable, and I don’t want to minimize it too much, but I think it’s a pretty different situation.

  7. TS says:

    Would you be interested in writing about assault to foreigners in the workplace? contract violations. Breaking laws with foreign workers? If so let me know.

  8. TS says:

    Little or no rights for someone who in not a citizen; the hard thing is I honestly think that if it did happen to a woman who was a citizen, it would be similarly addressed. Maybe this is just wasted breath or energy but again if you would like to address other law violations within civil liberties, labor, power harassment, and other issues, please let me know.

  9. Rachel says:

    You are kind of making me feel insecure about my goal to go teach English in Japan. I have read about 5 articles now and I haven’t seen anything too positive. Is it worth it?

    • owwls says:

      Like any other country, a lot is positive, and a lot is hard. Just remember that going to teach English in Japan is a challenge! And that challenges are good things! This blog focuses on ALL POSSIBLE PROBLEMS, so may be a bit gloomy, but with any luck you won’t face any! Japan is lovely, I stayed for three years. But it’s also hard.

      • Rachel says:

        Thanks. I just spent the past month there studying abroad and I really enjoyed it, but a friend of mine who has been in JET for the last 1 1/2 was saying something along the same line as the posts. On the upside: I have never had a problem being an outsider so disrupting the wa won’t kill me inside if I feel the situation is important.

    • Before I came to Japan, I also read a lot of articles that weren’t positive, as well as message boards, and I was starting to regret my decision as well. And at first, it was really difficult, especially since my Japanese knowledge was extremely limited and I was sent to a small rural town where I was the only foreigner. But now it’s six years later and I’m still here. I even stayed on past JET, finding a great job that’s proven far more rewarding than my work as an ALT.

      It’s definitely a challenge and there are a lot of things about Japan that I wish would change. But even with the frustrations, I still love it here.

      • Larien says:

        Can I ask what your new job is? :)

      • I do a few different things. My main job is working at a private one-year liberal arts school that teaches subject classes in English. I teach classes on literature there and I also do some business English classes for a dispatch company, plus I’m a writer.

  10. el34ax7 says:

    Reblogged this on Mild Musings from a Mediocre Man and commented:
    Being a bloke living in Japan and having a wife on the JET Program, I feel it almost as my duty to share this post. If anybody reads my blog and is interested in teaching in Japan (most likely finding my blog through looking for ex-pats in Japan, please take heed and read this article. Sexual harassment is not OK; it’s not part of expected “office culture;” and it’s not your burden to endure this type of abuse.

    Japan can be an amazing place filled with exceptional people and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but it is a country like any other. There is racism. There is sexism and misogyny. This is sexual harassment. Most importantly, it is not your duty to stomach it. It’s important to have realistic expectations about the land we love, and it isn’t all rainbows and unicorn farts here. :)


  11. el34ax7 says:

    I apologize for reblogging this without asking, but I found it to be pretty spot on. As a blogger who lives in Japan and has a wife on JET (her second time), I felt compelled that should anybody be interested the program and read my blog that they have a more “holistic” view of the program and life here.

    Excellent post and thank you for doing the work to make it!


  12. kanzensakura says:

    And because of this, years ago, I let my Samurai return to Japan without me. I knew he would lose face being married to me and that any job I obtained, I would be like a “free for all”. An amazing country, but extremely male oriented and pressure to meld into groups and become part of the “borg collective”. Status is even more touted than in the US. Amazing but true. Glad you posted this.

  13. This standard belies a much deeper problem in integrating foreign residents of Japan. Before blogging in Japan was mainstream (or maybe I just didn’t pay attention to them) and different stories from ALTs and eikaiwa teachers were available, I grew to suspect the reason there was such a high turnover among foreign instructors and why few older and experienced teachers were hired was the system was set up to indoctrinate fresh graduates, susceptible 20-somethings, and spit them out when they had enough time to realize what needed to change. The fact that sexual harassment policy is penned in the official handbook proves that not only is this stance counterproductive for education, but downright dangerous for some.

    • I think this makes a lot of sense. JET only allows participants to stay for a maximum of five years and though the private ALT dispatch companies don’t have that same limitation, I don’t know of any that have offered any sort of benefits to those who have stayed longer (in terms of raises, benefits, etc.).

  14. Pingback: On Sexual Harassment in Japan (Part 3): A Modest Proposal | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  15. Your posts are always spot on. Thanks for writing this. I don’t have much to add to what’s already been said above aside from that I think the number of ALTs (mostly female but also male) who experience sexual harrassment in the workplace/at enkais is pretty outrageous.

  16. devilayu says:

    Reblogged this on The New BLAQ and commented:
    Really important read, especially since I and many friends (female AND male) experience workplace harassment in Japan.

  17. Lauren says:

    Reblogged this on Ladama Does Japan and commented:
    This post looks at what is told to ALTs and what’s expected of them in regards to sexual harassment at work in Japan. I never felt harassed by or uncomfortable around coworkers (male students, esp. at junior high school were another story), but I do remember the recommended course of action for most conflicts was to “maintain the wa”. I am disappointed at the wording of the (very brief) sexual harassment section of the JET Program General Information Handbook. Yes, cultural differences do come into play but that’s not a reason to for the handbooks to dismiss sexual harassment as a miscommunication and to offer JETs very unclear recourse if they are had been harassed.

  18. Sexual Harassment is entirely (and I think, should be) depends on what the victim perceived on what happened to her. If she feels uncomfortable with remarks that was given to her, regardless if they are just jokes or innocent remarks, by all means, she has a right to be uncomfortable simply because she is the one who received the remarks.

    We had a sexual harassment incident in our office. The man sneaked out his cellphone and secretly recorded his colleague who was wearing a uniform skirt. The man was fired from work and was even escorted by guards out of the building. Why. Because the victim believe that she was violated against her will. Empowerment also comes from the superior. Their superior said that if the victim don’t sue the man, he will himself dismiss his subordinate because he believes no harmony can be achieved from compressed rights.

  19. Himenikki says:

    I’d also like to note that the supplementary comics that are often linked to for new JETs ( http://www.lifeaftertheboe.com/ ) and everyone I ever met during the orientation and preparation phase, made light of groping. “Teachers will grope you, students, old ladies, your principal, ha ha ha how funny, crazy Japan right?”

    Great article. I really wonder if JET is just trying to keep itself from scrutiny or an international incident blowing up because they advised a victim to have the audacity to stand up for his or her personal rights.

    I have never been in a bad situation, thankfully, but I think everyone knows an ALT who has.

  20. Pingback: Misogyny in Japan – an ALT’s perspective | Hibari-sensei's Classroom

  21. Pingback: Linkies July 11th | Charlotte Steggz

  22. stalkedinjapan says:

    I was a 2014-15 ALT. I was stalked by a schizophrenic coworker when I first arrived in Japan. The entire office saw what was happening, and no one told me he was actually sick and in psychosis until his wife messaged me warning me about my safety. I brought this to my JTE coworker and Vice Principal. My stalker coworker was subsequently hospitalized for several months. Despite my protests with Human Resources and extensive evidence, I was told he would return to work anyway and I would have to resume work with him. I broke contract after over a year of work and requested airfare home due to uncontrollable circumstances. I was told that I was ungrateful, an inconvenience, and they then tried to cover up the stalking incident. JET is bullshit. CLAIR and JET offered zero support. I was alone, being stalked by a 50 year old married coworker in psychosis in a country where I didn’t recognize anything. The JET Handbook offered me no information, besides slut shaming. Being a foreign woman in Japan — best of luck, you’ll need it.

  23. Pingback: Creeps in Japan | Gina Bear’s Blog

  24. Rachel says:

    I was looking into the JET program to be an ALT but after reading this I am really concerned. Is the sexual harassment that bad and common? Is it worth it in the end? I am a female from America. I am very small and petite which I am afraid would make me an easy target.

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