Cultural Gap: Gogatsu Byo

Congratulations – if you’re reading this, you made it through the cold, wet Ishikawa winter and are most of the way through the crazy spring weather.  Summer is almost here (not sure whether to celebrate that or not…)

To many Westerners, spring is a time of new, fresh things and pleasant weather.  We have the term “Spring Fever” to describe the times when we don’t want to go to work/school, instead wanting to call in “sick” and go for a bike ride or toss the frisbee.  Here in Japan, however, there’s a more sinister fake illness afoot – Gogatsu byo (五月病), or “May Sickness.”  Unlike its cutesy, fun-loving Western counterpart, Gogatsu byo is a serious situation, not to mention a serious downer.

Have you noticed the symptoms of Gogatsu byo among your co-workers?  They include (but are not limited to):

-Heavy sighs right before class starts

-A lack of focus on tasks at hand

-Frequent references to the way things were at their previous school

-A distinct lack of spring in their step

-A reply of “no so good” when asked “how are you?”

I'm "fine," thank you.

I’m “fine” thank you, and you?

Simply put, Gogatsu byo is the lack of enthusiasm and/or feeling of depression that usually comes in early or mid-May every year in Japan, after the buzz of the new school/financial/business year fades.  There are a few contributing factors to this illness.  In April, everyone gets new schedules, new co-workers, new staff rooms, new students, and so on.

For the first few weeks, everything’s a bag of laughs.  You’re getting to know the ropes, giving self-introductions a-plenty, and watching every day as the weather improves.  The caboose of the gravy train is, of course, Golden Week, when you can take that four-day weekend and have a grand ‘ol time.

…Then there’s that Wednesday after Golden Week.  The new students stop tittering excitedly when you walk into the room, your self-introduction has been filed away in your desk drawer, and the weather’s already getting too hot.  Things aren’t as great as they seemed a few weeks ago, and you look at your calendar only to realize that there are no public holidays in June.  Harsh!  (Also, sorry to the avid fans of the “Know Your Holiday” segment…)

This reality, while certainly a factor for us JETs, hits our Japanese coworkers (and students!) even harder.  After all, they’ve been through the cycle their entire lives.  It’s important to remember that when dealing with particularly, — how shall I say it — deadbeat coworkers this time of year.  It’s possible they’ve just caught a little bit of the Gogatsu byo, so you made to be a little extra-patient with them.  It’s also helpful to keep this in mind when dealing with students.  They may find these next few weeks difficult to stay motivated in their English studies, and enthusiasm will certainly take a nosedive.  Don’t take it personally, you’re still the ace English teacher you always have been.  If you have the responsibility of lesson planning, it’d be a good time to bust out some active games that’ll get students on their feet and using their creativity.

Although there is no known cure for Gogatsu byo, we can take heart in knowing that it usually needs but a few days to run its course.  If you, yourself are suffering from this illness, know that you’re not alone by any means, and that you’re just particularly well-adjusted to Japanese culture… practically a 日本人 yourself!

Blending in like a champ.

You chameleon, you.

If someone you love (or have to team teach with every Tuesday and Thursday…) is exhibiting symptoms of Gogatsu byo, keep in mind that you may just need to let them be for the week or so that it takes to get back on the horse.  You could try cheering them up, of course, but remember you don’t have to take the responsibility squarely on your shoulders.

Knowing is half the battle, after all.  Now when your star student schleps into class in the morning and stares blankly at you, or when you ask your teaching partner a question only to have them blink silently back, focusing on a point behind your head, you’ll know what’s to blame.  がんばって.

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