I used to think the United States had problems with vacation time from work (“I still do, but I used to too” -MH).
Now that I have been able to experience Japan's take on vacation time, or 年休 (nenkyu), I have realized that things could be far worse in the States of United America.
Now before you go on to read (and become infuriated), know that the scope of my expertise in this area is limited to my own personal experience: the observations of a foreign teacher in a public Japanese middle school (junior high school) in Fukui Prefecture.
Let's say you want to take a vacation. Great! Let's see how much vacation time you've got. Ten days? Fantastic! That's sixteen days when you include weekends. Plenty of time to get away from work and forget that you're trapped in a sad and terrible place.
But you're a teacher in Japan, you can't just take time off. That's alright though, because you'll make up for it when you get all of summer, winter, and spring vacations off. No you won't. During breaks when class isn't in session you are still required to be at work doing teacher things (like staring blankly into a computer screen – or tirelessly working on your blog).
Instead of using their vacation time for actual vacations, Japanese teachers use their vacation time hours, or even minutes, at a time (as opposed to taking days off. For example, I am currently looking at corner of a staff room whiteboard that I just today realized is for listing which teachers are taking vacation time and for how long (because you must be shamed for missing work).
So what does this board currently say?
- TEACHER 1: 1 day
- TEACHER 2: 2 hours
- TEACHER 3: 4 hours
- TEACHER 4: 3 hours 45 minutes
Wait, what? Two hours? Four hours? Three hours and forty-five minutes?
What were these times on the board for again? Vacation time? Three hours and forty five minutes of vacation time? Yes, three hours and forty five minutes of vacation time. Why? Well that's a complicated question.
You see, teachers in Japan generally arrive at work before eight each day (how long before eight I am not sure since I have yet to arrive more than fifteen minutes early) and stay until into the evening (until eight, nine, or later – I suspect some stay the night).
Apparently teacher working hours officially end much earlier than this (at four?), but teachers “volunteer” their time beyond what is asked of them in their contracts to stay and assist with the school's various club activities and sports teams (I LIKE SOCCER / I WANT TO BE A SOCCER PLAYER / SOCCER IS ENJOY). Many teachers also work at least one day each weekend with their extracurricular activity (if not both days).
This means that teachers don't have time to do things such as go to the bank, visit the post office, see their doctor, or take care of their children. So how do they make time for these things? They use vacation time, of course!
That's right, vacation time (for teachers) in Japan basically exists as a way of allowing them to miss work only when they absolutely have to (i.e. to take their child to the hospital or go to the dentist). The vacation time allotted to teachers in Japan is more of a bureaucratic loophole for missing work than it is an actual attempt at allowing time off.
Here are some examples of times it would be acceptable to use vacation time:
- The students all have a half day and go home at noon. You may use a half day of vacation time to leave at noon in lieu of sitting in the office the rest of the day.
- You have the internet installers coming to your house at three. You may use an hour of vacation time to meet them and allow them to install your internet.
- Your mother is coming to visit you and needs a ride from the train station to your house at one. You may use an hour of vacation time to pick her up and take her to your home before returning to work.
- It's spring/summer/winter break and there are no classes. Vacation time may be used to avoid coming in and doing nothing all day.
This is in no way an exaggeration or misrepresentation of how nenkyu 年休 is used in Japan (that means vacation time if you haven't been paying attention). Teachers can basically only use it during times they wouldn't otherwise be working (but would still have to be at school because of “working hours”).
So if you're thinking about applying to the JET Programme and coming to “educate” Japan's youth into speaking your native language, just remember that you will be entering a strange and irrational world where logic and reason are axed in favor of strict adherence to rules no matter the circumstance.