Teaching Christmas in the Japanese Countryside

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Winter at one of my schools.

Many people often ask me what the most difficult part of teaching in Japan was.  The JET Program had a mandatory, two day orientation to teach us about the long, English teaching road ahead. They rattled on and on about isolation, language barriers, and cultural clashes.

Yet they forgot the most important thing of all:

Actually instructing us on how to teach English.

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Never showed this face to my students, but man did I feel like this many-a-time (especially during blizzards)

The most difficult part of JET for me was standing in front of 40 middle school students and entertaining educating them for one hour.  I was a journalism and Japanese major–I knew absolutely nothing about education.

I’ll never forget my first day of class.  I walked in, smiled, spoke very slow English and introduced myself.  I put up laminated photos of Utah.  I showed them a map of the United States and pointed to my home state.  I said we would do a quiz game about my self introduction.

“Ok, so where am I from?”

The whole class was silent.  No one raised their hand.  My palms started to sweat and my heart raced.  I didn’t know what to do.  The Japanese teacher instructing alongside me was also a 22-year-old fresh graduate, and we were like deer in headlights.  Our faces paled, the students lost their concentration, and we scrambled to keep them from talking with one another.

Later I learned a. Japanese students cannot comprehend even the most basic English and b. they do not raise their hands and answer questions like in the U.S., even if called upon.

Those first few months, going up to teach felt like a march up to the firing squad.

Sure, culture shock was hard.  Loneliness, isolation–it was tough. But damn, teaching stressed me out. My teaching days usually involved English curriculum from a rigid Japanese textbook written post WWII in a classroom where I had to obey Japanese instructors who forbade me from speaking Japanese.  It was tough to both pull off a successful English class while keeping the attention of my students.

But during the holidays, I took full control.  We played Halloween English games the last week of October, Thanksgiving trivia in November, and my personal favorite–Christmas lessons in December.

I’ll never forget my first Christmas lesson in Japan.

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Niigata = Snow Country

After pleading with the principal and the Japanese English teachers, my middle school finally allowed me to give candy to students at the end of my Christmas lesson.

“On one condition,” Sato-Sensei, the 45-year-old Japanese head English teacher, said as he eyed me with a cold stare.

I gulped.  “Yes?  What condition?”

“You have to do my Christmas lesson exactly the way I want it.”

I sighed a breath of relief, since that’s exactly what I do anyway, “of course Sato-Sensei.  What do you want to teach?”

“I thought we could listen to ‘All I Want For Christmas’ by Mariah Carey and the students can do an exercise where they fill in the blanks for the lyrics.”

Thank god, I thought in my head–that’s the easiest lesson ever! I don’t even have to talk!

“Sure thing Sato-sensei, let me get the fill-in-the-blank worksheet ready.”


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Santa-Mary!

Donning my Santa hat and wearing my famous red coat, I marched into my first class with a Santa bag full of candy in one hand and a stack of worksheets in the other.

I opened the classroom door to my female students shouting “メアリー先生、可愛い!!” (Mary-sensei, you’re so cute!!  Kawaii!) and my male students cheering, “それはチョコなの!?やった!!!” (Is that candy!?  YES!!!)

I smiled and waved to my students, but turned a suspicious eye to Sato-Sensei sitting at the front with a guitar slung over his shoulder.

“Pass out the worksheets, Mary-sensei” he said to me with a smile.  “And make sure to keep one for yourself.”

I already knew something was wrong.  Sato-sensei never smiled.  Ever.

“Today class, we have a very special surprise for you,” Sato-sensei explained to the students in Japanese.  “Mary has two presents for you… one is candy, obviously, but the other one is a surprise.”

Oh god.  He slung his guitar to performance position and started to strum a few chords.

“You know the song ‘All I Want For Christmas,’ right Mary-sensei?” Sato-sensei whispered to me.

“Um,” I gulped.  “Yes.  I know it, but…”

“Great,” he smiled again.  Two smiles in a day.  This was looking bad.

“Class,” Sato-sensei announced in Japanese.  “Mary-sensei is going to sing a Mariah Carey Christmas song for you!”

The classroom erupted in gasps and the famous Japanese noise of, EHHHHH!!!  へええええええ!!!!

I was right there with them.  I took a step back in disbelief and looked to Sato-sensei in hope that he would say, ‘just kidding’ and play the stereo already.  Instead, he just kept on smiling.

My students looked up to me with a twinkle in their eyes.  Everyone’s concentration was on me.  I felt my heart pounding, my palms sweating, my mind racing.  Although I wanted to run out of the classroom crying like a talent-show gone wrong, I knew I couldn’t let my students down.  I couldn’t ruin Christmas for my beloved Japanese kids!

I smiled, stepped up to the front of the classroom with a confident hand on my hip, looked back to Sato-Sensei and said: “Ready when you are.”

And holy shit people, I sang ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ acoustic on the fly to a room of 14-year-olds.  I even did cheesy gestures and pointed to a few shy boys during the ‘you’ parts at the end of the chorus.

After I finished the song, there was a haunting silence.  Followed by applause.

“I didn’t know you could sing like that, Mary-sensei!”

“Sugoi (amazing), Mary-sensei!”

“Can we get candy now?”

I looked back to Sato-sensei and he met my gaze with a smile.  This time, it wasn’t mischievous.  It was a warm.

“Wasn’t Mary-sensei great everyone!?”  Sato-sensei announced.  “And so you can finish your fill-in-the-blank worksheet, she’s going to sing five more times!”

This time, I gave him the stare of death.  He laughed.

“Just kidding!  We’ll have the real Mariah sing to you,” he continued to laugh as he prepped the stereo.  I tried my best to hide a scowl.

I sang Mariah Carey five more times to the other classes.  All of them enjoyed it, and I’m sure none of them have forgotten their crazy foreign teacher who sang Mariah Carey on that snowy Christmas week.

At my elementary schools I played Christmas games with the little ones, donned my red hat and coat, and gave out candy at the end of my lessons (with cheers of joy from my little ones).  In fact, they were so happy they all stampeded me with hugs at the end of class.  As they tackled me to the ground in a hug and cried, “we’re going to tickle Mary-Santa-Sensei to death!” I could only think:

I love these kids.  I love this town.  And I love Christmas.


My time as an English teacher in Japan was almost ten years ago, but I still often think back to those strange, yet memorable holidays I spent in middle-of-nowhere Japan.

Much like last year, I’m spending Christmas with my small family of four in Utah.  Although it may seem ‘boring’ compared to my holidays spent abroad, it feels good to curl up in a blanket, drink tea, watch the news with my parents and simply relax (and recover from water poisoning… oh god, it hurts so bad).

From the Ruby Ronin… Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas!

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16 thoughts on “Teaching Christmas in the Japanese Countryside

  1. Todd says:

    I admit I used to look down on English teachers in Jaan, thinking they didnt know the real Japan, just a bunch of college kids ith no real life exerience like IT, retail, etc and were insulated from all the sucky real Jaan, clowning all day long and getting bank for it. After I got to know some of them, very isolated and alienated way out in some inaka town, my perception changed 100%. no costco or US base to run to and reconnect to your world, just one store in a very isolated place, very rare occasions to connect with somebody that looks like you. Some of them in large cities have a decent life but what you described is hard time. it does make you think about the Japanese that grow up in those incredibly insular laces and perhas thats why many of them are so xenohobic.

    • Norwegian farmer says:

      Rubyronin’s blog is awesome and it’s too bad your racist comments are everywhere. Quit whining about Japanese people. Every single post just had a comment by you bitching about Japanese people, saying nasty things about Japanese people, and wanting Japan to be like America.

      YOURE The xenophobic one here. Why are you even in Japan if you hate Japanese people so much and if you just want to connect with somebody who looks like you and reconnect to your world? Japan isn’t YOUR World and doesn’t have to adapt for you. Yet you accuse the Japanese of being xenophobic.

      Just GTFO if Japan is as awful as you claim it is, go home where everyone looks like you and where you can ‘ reconnect to your world’.

      • Todd says:

        come and connect, and lets build ). I like truth and speaking on reality, and I would like to thank you for your post.I love this about truth, its gold ) I see here that peole like you and others here have commented on the state of the US, and I agreed that is is in deterioation. It seems however any time somebody suggest something positive about their native country and “negative” about Japan, it triggers something in some peole, like something fanatical, perhas it upsets or challenges a fantasy that you might have. You dont seak on or contribute to the truth, but instead react, but its this reaction thats the indicator Sorry friend, I dont live in a fantasy world, but instead I reside in the real, thats why need you to be here before we can build ) I can feel in your post you hate something about the US? OK fair enough, but before I start taking notes, I need credentials. How long have you lived in Japan and in what capacity? for example, if I take a calculus class, I dont want a high school drop out teaching me, even if they were home schooled. I cant build with you or even engage in a basic conversation if you havent obtained the basic credentials. I need boots on the ground ). I could tell and show you how wonderful Japan is, even monetize that and make a good hustle, I thought about doing that because many peole are. IMO thats a bit disengenious, but I guess all business is,. In contrast, this blog seems to just tell it as it is. So I see you andothers got uncomfortable with my share so I must bend my truth to fit your feelings. But what for? then its no longer truth , (unless Im making money off it) Now look what I just did, I didnt insult you, use bad language, I just resectfully asked that you ut more life equity into it, then lease share so we have a foundation to start ith. I guess you remember from school that you cant go from basic algebra straight to calculus, you got to have some trig and other foundation material completed. Just make sure you got the foundations covered before e start our build, thanks and I hope you learned something ))

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      I wish there was! Way back in the day when I performed this solo piece, the world was still using flip phones and the iphone was not yet invented… Nowadays it’s so easy to record something!

  2. Cat (talkingofchinese) says:

    Wow, no way I could sing all of all I want for Christmas (let alone impromptu infront of 40 students!). Hope you are enjoying the festive season, all the best for the year ahead!

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      I’m sure you could! I didn’t think I could do it either… nothing like the power of pressure.

      I’m enjoying my lazy time in Utah! Ahhh… relaxation. I hope you’re having fun in Korea, I love your photos!

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Haha, thank you! I wish I had a video, too! Back then there were no smart phones so it was harder to make a video, since it was a million years ago in the stone age of flip phones.

      Hope you had a Merry Christmas too!!

  3. Lani says:

    Merry Christmas! and at this point, here’s hoping you have a wonderful New Year!

    Thanks again for sharing your stories, you remind me of things my bf tells me about teaching in remote China. Those lessons, those teaching moments, all that damn culture shock = memories 4evr and so much more.

  4. Todd says:

    well I would like to thank you for allowing me to post on your blog. Im going to ull back on my posting as I can see the reactions may not be so favorable, and its not my blog, but this as not my intention, so apologies. I did once have a blog, but I just got tired of being like a tour guide, and showing only what sells, it did nothing at all for me. Once you bring out the real though, watch them come. want to get traffic to your site, just post anything about reality of life in Jaan. I once invited some friends over from a nearby country who I had known for years, and showing them the usual Tokyo sites. They were of course in sensory overload mood but there as a Japanese woman on the train giving them the dirty eye. I know that eye; she as like why you think this is all fun? we are u at 5 am and go home at 10 m, we struggle and your here to enjoy our misery? I just looked at her and smiled, and she softened a bit, because she knew I was connected. That unspoken seaks volumes, but hard to reveal to the uninformed. . Ive seen so many come into Japan with that “filter” only to leave a few months latter, but always giving the same scripted exit interview. It as there in front of them the whole time, but they couldnt see it, but when they did, they always run to their default self, the same self that many foriengers in Japan try and stay connected too, it alays comes full circle, every time. Just like that Japanese woman on the train, I sometimes dont get what others see, it seems naive, but we were all once at that level. so just like many foriegners I know in Japan, you just have to share which each other, but know when to turn it off so as not to offend. Im not insulted by their hate, because its just ignorance, and very interesting to observe.

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