Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Nail That Sticks Out

If you’ve studied about Japan, then you’ve probably know the saying 「出る釘は打たれる」 (deru kugi wa uchitareru) or, in Inglés, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” This suggest that deviancy in Japanese society is met with resistance and ridicule. It could stem from Japan’s seemingly homogenous society, ingrained Confucian ideology, or something else altogether. However, I wanted to discuss a couple “nails” I have met this past year.


With the new school year came a new set of kindergarteners at my Tuesday/Wednesday school. My eyes were immediately drawn to a Japanese girl with mocha skin and soft, Shirley Temple curls. Her name was Chihiro and she seemed like a living doll, but I quickly realized that looks can be deceiving. During our first English class, I asked the kindergarteners to introduce themselves in English, but Chihiro just cried. This isn’t a rarity; younger kids cry all the time, but Chihiro completely checked out - she lied on the floor, face down, for the entire 45 minutes of class. When a teacher or classmate would try to speak with her, she would lash out, striking anyone within arm’s reach. I would love to say that this was a one-time occurrence but this happened every week for an entire year.

I tried to rig games so that she would win, but the results were the same. Any form of attention, whether good or bad, resulted in her lying on the floor for 45 minutes. I regularly apologized to the kindergarten teacher, but she informed me that Chihiro acted this way during other activities as well. As the year progressed, Chihiro’s condition worsened but I ignored her behavior and focused on the other students. I couldn’t help her and I know my solution of “tough love” would not be welcomed, so English playtime continued with or without her.

During our final class, Chihiro participated with the help of her friends, but threw a tantrum when she lost at musical chairs. She ran to the corner of the room and started kicking and punching the wall. When the kindergarten teacher tried to stop her, she burst into tears and ran away from school. I finished the class but cringed as I watched the kindergarten teacher chase Chihiro around the yard. I hope her family can find the help she needs. 

6th Grade

Here’s an interesting fact: Students cannot be held back or fail a grade. Seriously! If you’re a terrible student and miss 90% of school, you will continue to the next year and eventually graduate elementary school (6th grade).

I had no clue about this until I was told that one of my 6th grade students, a boy named Maru, was illiterate. Japan uses a mix of kanji or “Chinese characters” along with two separate phonetic alphabets called hiragana and katakana and although Japanese literacy requires all three, kanji is the most essential and difficult; Maru could only ready hiragana and katakana.

I wasn’t sure if Maru had any specific learning disabilities, but he was assigned a supporter teacher to aid him in all subjects. Even though Maru could not read his native language, he knew the English alphabet better than most students and seemed to enjoy English class. Nevertheless, I noticed cliques forming amongst the boys that eventually correlated with Maru’s behavioral deterioration.

I first noticed an issue when I saw Maru frequent the nurse’s office. Every day, he claimed to have a terrible headache would stay in the nurse’s office until the bell rang for lunch. It was a miraculous recovery, but teachers weren't fooled. Then, Maru stopped coming to school altogether. I heard the boys in his class would go to his house in an attempt to convince him to come to school, but Maru just stayed in bed. On the rare days Maru would come to school, he and the supporter teacher would bake and cook various foods in the home economics room. If he was forced to join a class, he would become completely lifeless or fake an illness – even during English class. Ouchies!

His mother came to the school and donated books on autism but when I asked his supporter teacher if Maru was autistic, he just shrugged. The entire staff seemed to be miffed by Maru’s behavior, but they dealt with it the best they could. During graduation Maru said he would do his best in middle school. I hope he can overcome!

5th Grade

I have a soft spot in students who are bullied. Why? Because I too was terribly bullied as a kid. As a foreigner in Japan, it is sometimes difficult to understand the class dynamics and identify the popular kids from the evil little shits, but the target for this 5th grade class was clear - a short, thin girl named Riko.

Here's what I know about Riko: 
  • She was abandoned by her mother
  • She lives with her father and grandfather
  • She is teased for being poor and foul body odor
    • I've "smell checked" her - nothing
  • She's shunned by her classmates
  • She has no friends
I fould out about Riko's situation when I came across her crying uncontrollably in the nurse's office. Apparently, her father had bought her a new pair of red-framed glasses, but her classmates said that her father bought the glasses at Daiso (the dollar store).  Little Jerks! I was later told that her only escape from bulling was to fake an illness.

One afternoon, as I made my way to the 5th grade classroom, I heard the homeroom teacher yell in a form of Japanese I liked to call "Yakuza." It turns out that one group of students decided to play in the rain while another group of students tormented Riko. English class was canceled, but I was brought into class where the homeroom teacher announced that the English Halloween Party would be canceled if their behavior did not change. Oh no, not the English Halloween Party! Their behavior improved and Riko's seat was moved to the front of the classroom so that the homeroom teacher could keep an eye on her. I've also kept my eye on her during English class and scold any students who attempt to bully her. She seems happier, but she still has not made any friends. As a result, I make it my mission to say hello and speak with her before English class. One day, I hope to set aside time in order to tell her my story and reassure her that things will get better.

What's the point of this post? You never know what your "nail" students are going through.

"You Is Smart, You Is Kind, You Is Important"

Names have been changed


  1. Good one, I enjoy reading about your teaching experiences.

    There's a 40 minutes long documentary called Children full of life on YouTube where a teacher deals with the same subject matter. It's worth a watch, grab some tissues before though.

  2. Oh man, good post. It can be really tough to work with kids who are going through a lot of crap that you can't really help them with. Sometimes all you can really do is smile and try to talk to them.

    When I was an ALT in Hyogo, my part time school was this "last chance" part-time high school. Some of the students there had disabilities (learning or other), some had social issues, and I think a lot of them had family problems. When I first started working there I didn't really know how to interact with them. But just trying to talk to them and being upbeat in class; knowing when to ask them if they're ok; acknowledging a strength or building them up a little bit - you can really see how much of a difference it makes sometimes. Even when you can't see it and you wish you could do more, just try to remember it helps.

    I agree with Louis-P on that documentary - it's worth watching if you haven't seen it!

    1. I agree! That's what I try to do with my classes as well. I don't know their home lives, so I try to remember this and stick to English lol

  3. Saying someone is smelly is the Japanese passive-aggressive way of insinuating you are lower class(burakumin.) I didn't think Okinawans would do at so much though...

    1. I'm not 100% sure, because the nurse said that she does not bathe regularly. I just know she has a weird home situation, but it wouldn't surprise me if the kids were just being foul. Right now, she has a really strict homeroom teacher, so I think this year will be better for her.