Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Enkais: All in a Day's Work

An important feature of JET life that I haven't talked about yet is the enkai (宴会). Literally, meaning 'banquet' these are equivalent to a workplace office party. I don't really have a choice in the matter concerning payment for these big parties. Even if I expressed that I didn't want to go (perhaps in the interest of saving money), it would still be taken out of my paycheck. Even if I couldn't go for a legitimate reason like being sick or having another commitment, it would still be taken out of my paycheck. My attendance however is optional. Actually in most companies, attendance isn't required, but in Japan, a lot of things are "not required." However, as a foreigner, it isn't actually expected that I must go.

All enkais follow a general format of encouraging speeches, flowing alcohol, and lots of laughter. There's always a "kampai! (cheers!)" at the beginning which is led by the principal and a "banzai! banzai! banzai!" (hip hip hooray! or hurrah!) at the end. There's also the common practice of going around with bottles of beverages and filling each other's glasses. At an enkai, one should avoid pouring for themselves but instead pour for a coworker and wait for them to return the favor. In this case, seniority doesn't matter like it does in other aspects of Japanese culture. The only things that change are associated with the reason for having the enkai. i.e. holiday parties, beginning of the school year, farewell/welcome parties. Some special features I've seen at enkais so far include karaoke, speeches by honored individuals, giveaway games, special recognition given to individuals, and a game of London Bridge - with a twist. To elaborate on that last one, the teachers made a long chain of London Bridge with the teachers who were being recognized going under it. At the end, some of the stronger male teachers hoisted them up one at a time and tossed them up in the air. I was definitely surprised to my proper coworkers THAT loosened up, haha! But it really is great to see them relax and take a well-deserved break.

I don't know about other workplaces in Japan, but at my high school, a ¥3,000 (USD 37.00) enkai fee is taken out of my paycheck every month which goes towards paying my share of the party. This goes for everyone at my school, so considering we have two major enkais a year, I estimate about ¥12,000-21,000 per person. It's quite pricey if you think about it, but at least it holds its weight. With almost 80 staff members, my school has to rent out a large dining hall to accommodate us all. ($$$) Either this includes a bus service or they pay extra, but this bus takes us to and from school. ($$$) This is provided 1) for convenience and 2) so that people can drink to their heart's content (since Japan has a 0% tolerance policy on driving and alcohol). Also, so far it's been the case that the food is top notch even if I'm not a fan of everything. ($$$)

At my first enkai in December, right before the winter holidays, the organizers used part of the money to go towards gifts for everyone which they then made a game out of for entertainment. Everyone received something. ($$$) The game was to have our seat numbers chosen at random and then the person selected one of the wrapped gifts at the front of the room. The most expensive gift in the pile was an iPod and the cheapest couple of gifts at the end were boxes of fancy chocolates. To everyone's amusement, I picked out an electric shaver for men and acted like I was thrilled. Later, I traded it with a male teacher for a personal massager - win/win.

At my second enkai in April, after the start of the new school year, we had a 12 course sit down meal. In reality it was too much food, but I wanted to try everything. (I later paid for my gluttonous ways, but I regret nothing!) Unbeknownst to me, this was also the farewell party for some of my teachers who were being transferred to new schools (I'll explain this shortly). Usually if this were the case back home, some sort of goodbye card would have been passed around beforehand for everyone to sign or we would have pitched in for a surprise farewell gift; thus when I realized what was going on, I was lamenting the fact that I didn't get anything for some of my favorites. But then I was saved by the enkai fund! Each of the teachers who were leaving received a bouquet of flowers, a plaque of recognition, and a gift card that they knew came from everyone's pockets. ($$$)

So this farewell party came as a surprise to me because it is commonly known in Japanese schools that in the short time between the end of the school year in March and the beginning of the new term in April, several teachers will be transferred and new arrivals will come in. I was away for a week during the spring break and in that week, my teachers had been replaced with new ones. We also switched desks around in the staff room and I'm not particularly fond of my new place, but oh well. I was extremely uncomfortable for a about a week with all of the changes. After eight months of adapting to a new work environment and becoming confident with my place in this Japanese school, I suddenly I felt unsure about what was expected of me all over again. Once more, I gave my self-introduction, met the new teachers, and adapted to the classes. I also was sad to say goodbye to people I basically just met and really liked. They had helped me get settled in and were friendly, familiar faces that I may never see again. At least I got to say a proper goodbye thanks to the farewell enkai! 

I intend to find out, but at the moment I still don't understand why teachers are transferred - do they put in a request? Is it random? Can they say no? From the speeches at the enkai, I know that all of them had been at my school for different amounts of times. The shortest was two years and the longest was twenty-two years. So it's not a matter of "your time has come." Also, many of them seem to be really inconvenienced by where their new school(s) are (sometimes up to two hours away from their home). So better said, I don't know why certain teachers are transferred, but I do know what the thought process is behind this madness. It's considered a way of spreading the talent. Japan isn't an individually competitive society, but instead likes to make sure there's more of a mutual benefit going around. The theory is if there's a bad teacher you can hope that they'll be replaced by a good teacher soon thus sharing everyone's strengths and weaknesses in the education system and making sure no one becomes complacent. I see a lot of flaws in this but have been enlightened to the benefits as well. 

That last part was a bit of a rabbit trail from the original purpose of this post, but relevant all the same...Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! 

Here are some pictures that I snapped with my phone (Already being a gaijin in a sea of Japanese people, I didn't want to stand out more with my shiny red camera, hehe)