Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What do you consider to be a human right?

One of the teachers I assist takes a few days away from school every month, to attend seminars and receive training on the subject of Human Rights. I had a positive reaction the first time she told me she would be gone the following day for this reason. (A) It meant I wouldn't have to go to the classes we would otherwise be teaching together on those days. And (B) it was the first time I've heard anyone mention Human Rights since I came to Japan. Now this, I thought, was a teacher who was really looking at the big picture. Not enough with having her students learn English and math and science, she wanted to help them learn how they could really make a difference in the world.

I wasn’t so impressed, however, a few conversations after she came back. I soon realized that my idea of "human rights" is quite a bit different than hers. To her, it's the right of our students to have their uniforms adjusted to a precise degree or to say the daily greetings in a loud (but not too loud) voice, or the right of the teachers (namely, her) to be referred to by their full last name + sensei.

"Ohhh," she heaves a great sigh as we walk down the hall after class, "I have spent two days at a seminar for human rights – "

"Thanks for your hard work," I say neutrally.

" - but it is hard to teach the students about such things! Look at all my third-year girls, they roll their skirts half-way up!" She chases after one, pulling on her hem. "Miss, Miss, please correct this!" And I am left with my head swimming, wondering why she thinks the two things were related.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of things I appreciate about Japan that some might consider out-dated or unnecessary. I'm in favor of the neat uniforms and the honorifics attached to everyone’s name and the complex set phrases used in all sorts of situations. I’ll be a bit disappointed if these things are fazed out, if one day I teach junior high school students in street clothes or call a coworkers by their first name as they do me.

But while I think they're important, they're nothing to what I consider a right to be. A right isn't how one behaves at school but having the ability to go to school at all. It's not how one wears the uniform but being clothed, not eating everything on one's plate but being fed, not how one calls a teacher but being able to speak.
I worry about how much she focuses on things that seem, well, trivial. Does she really think our students not being respectful is the worst thing that can happen in the world? If so, does the rest of the staff think the same? Is this the level on which the mysterious "moral education" class is taught?


Said teacher has pictures of various Korean celebrities taped to her desk and the locker behind her. I am slightly weirded out by this - I make no secret of being a Kinki Kids fan and will cheerfully talk about them with anyone who asks, but to keep pictures of them on my desk where most teachers keep their children doesn’t seem quite professional.

One day she had a new face taped there, a Japanese man. I asked if he was her new favorite actor.

"Ohhh, this is a famous singer-songwriter. He will give a live concert at our school next month. He will also talk about Human Rights."

I looked at the poster askance. Isn't he just a Johnny's?

No, I didn't ask that (it would have been a purely rhetorical question as I know every member of that agency by heart, a fact I'm neither ashamed nor proud of). But he had that sort of skinny young man, decently good looking, decently stylish, look that is plastered all over Harajuku.

Would he really talk about human rights? Wouldn't he just strum his guitar and sing a love song?


So Ohno Yasuyuki came to our school and gave his live. His music was pretty, his talk was fun, his backup drummer was lively. I didn't enjoy it as much as I could have, being a little on edge waiting for when the subject would turn serious and the students would lose what interest they had.

He started talking about how he refused to go to school because he just wanted to play music.

"Ah!" I thought, "Now he'll talk about how some children can't go to school so we should appreciate our privilege – "

But, he continues, his mother yelled at him and he found a school where he could both do music and the usual academics. Then he started singing again, and the live ended shortly after.

…What? Was that it? No deeper moral lessons?

Of course I am in no position to talk, seeing as how I teach English and nothing but English. But I also don't claim to teach anything but English, or to be anything but an ALT. I don't claim to be anything but the spoiled youngest child of a white, Christian, Pacific Northwest, middle-class family, who has never been deprived of anything. But I'm also aware of what I am, and from there I can make steps to help those who aren't so fortunate.


Perhaps I am being too skeptical. Perhaps it is merely a difference in definition, and there is a word that is being translated as "human rights" that actually means something more like "human manners." Perhaps the teacher knows what truly important Rights consist of, and just thought it would be fun for the students to have a concert one day.

Well… I am skeptical.

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