Cultural Gap: Jinji Ido

Hello all, and welcome to the very first post in a series called Cultural Gap, wherein we’ll discuss those fun, fascinating, and frustrating cultural differences we all face living and working here in Ishikawa (and Japan in general).  With this series, we hope to examine, explain, and discuss some of the cultural quirks we encounter on a daily basis in Japanese schools, with input from JETs and Japanese teachers alike.

The topic for this inaugural post is, for some, the ray of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, and for others, the stormy clouds building on the horizon.  They come every spring, and are without fail the source of both silent triumphal fist-pumps on your commute home, and bitter tears over your bento.  That’s right, we’re talking about Jinji Ido (人事異動), or personnel transfers.

See you!                                              [Found at blog.art21.org]

Every spring, usually in the second half of March, Japanese teachers at most public schools are told where they’ll be teaching during the next school year.  Many are told with as little as two weeks to make preparations.  This means they have to pack up their desk, say their good-byes, move to their new school, set up shop, meet their new co-workers, and begin preparing for lessons all before the new year starts in April.  The process for who goes where is infamously difficult to predict, and cards are kept close to the vest by those in charge of making the decisions.

Pretty reliably, though, the longer a teacher has been at a particular school, the more likely they are to be transferred.  If they’ve only been around for a year or two (and it wasn’t their first year teaching out of college) they’ll probably not be picked for the transfer.  If they’ve been around longer, their chances increase.

These transfers where something that really surprised me when I first came to Ishikawa with the JET Program.  When I was in high school, there was a science teacher who said to my friend on the first day of classes, “Hello Mr. Patterson!  I’m excited to have you in my class – I remember teaching your parents when they came here!”  She’d been teaching at my high school for over thirty years (and, last summer when I went through to visit, she was still there!)  Though this is just an anecdote, it seems to be generally true that teachers in countries like America, Canada, and Australia will stay at a school for as long as they like, if they don’t do anything crazy and they like their position.

Not so in Japan!  I asked a few Japanese teachers at my school about the tradition of Jinji Ido, and one mentioned that teachers here simply can’t refuse.  “Especially if you’re young and unmarried like me, you just have to go where they say,” one teacher explained. “Personally, moving takes a lot of effort so I would like to avoid [it],” she later explained.  She did add that “Of course if you’re married and you have kids in the local schools, you probably won’t be moved very far.”

A few teachers mentioned this disappointingly short notice when discussing the transfers.  “At [my last school], I was told that I would be transferred to [my current school] on the last day of the term, after I had left from work.  So, I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye to any of my students,” a teacher recalled.

It also seems a little unfair to the students, who want and sometimes need a strong teacher role model during their school days.  “Looking after the same students throughout their time at school is needed sometimes, right?  Especially with problems or [students in] need of special care,” one teacher pointed out.

What, were you getting attached to this teacher? Transferred to the mountains!                                           [Found at dannybaggs.wordpress.com]

Of course, it’s not all bad news – there’s a healthy amount of merit in this practice.  “[Personnel transfers] bring some new ideas into schools I think,” one teacher I talked to said, “not just ‘new’ but some successful cases at other schools, and new to this school.”

Of course, the Jinji Ido tradition can be a real saving grace, by making those teachers who are awkward or sometimes difficult to team teach with disappear over spring vacation.  Also, it’s great to see some new faces in the staff room, and have new people to work with while team teaching.

That last point brings me to one of the original reasons for the Jinji Ido practice, and that is it serves to make better, more rounded teachers.  A website full of really great Japanese cultural information points out that this practice originated from postwar Japan with the idea that an employee should, through their lifetime at a company, learn how to do every roll in that company.  This makes a lot of sense in the public schools context, if you’re trying to create really well-rounded teachers.  Stick them in a high academic school for a few years, give them some time at a tiny school in the Noto, let them “teach” at a “sports school” for a while.  At the end of their career, they’ll have a lot more experience, flexibility, and adaptability than the teacher from my anecdote, who’s been teaching kids in the middle of the desert in America her whole life (no offense, Ms. Moreda…)

And heck, it’s not just the Japanese teachers who are benefiting from the Jinji Ido practice.  For the ALTs out there, it’s certainly enjoyable to have a crack team of all-star JTEs you get to teach with, and it’s great to have the “fun machine” on your class schedule.  You know the type: “Now, we’re going to learn about the past perfect ten– Oh!  Bob-sensei’s here!  Everyone, close your textbooks!  Let’s play an English game!”  [cue cheers as you enter the room].   However, isn’t it those “difficult” teachers that really cause us to hone our skills?  Our creativity and professionalism grow when we’re forced to work with teachers who are more adverse to new ideas or different styles in the classroom.  Touché, Japan.

Making me a better teacher? Very nice.

At the end of the day, Jinji Ido will be sticking around for the foreseeable future.  So, we’d better get used to the idea.  Remember to savor and/or keep white-knuckling it these next few weeks.  Soon, the announcements will come in and you’ll start to get a better picture for what next year will look like.

What have been your experiences with Jinji Ido?  Have a good anecdote?  Feel free to share in the comments section below!

If you have a suggestion for something you’d like to see discussed in the Cultural Gap series, feel free to comment below or email us at IshikawaJET{at}gmail{dot}com.  Thanks for reading!

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4 thoughts on “Cultural Gap: Jinji Ido

  1. There is always a crazy flurry of texts between ALTs in Oita at transfer time… “Who is at Naninani? I’m getting one of their teachers…” “Dude, I’m so sorry, you’re getting Dare-sensei and she is THE WORST.”

  2. I remember when I first experienced this as a JET I was super shocked as well. To be honest, I also thought it was a really bad idea, or at least completely unfair to the teachers. But I do suppose people know this going into the system and people learn to adapt to new lives in jobs, which in the end makes us stronger and more well-rounded like you said right? Yes! Great post. Look forward to reading more about your experiences in Ishikawa. Kanazawa is by far my favorite city in the country, and it’s also full of great mysterious inaka in the mountains, beaches, and of course the Noto Penninsula.

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