One of the first experiences any foreign teacher has the privilege of experiencing in Japan is the infamous "kancho."
It's basically a physical gag where a school child will sneak up behind you and wait till you bend over to wash your hands or drink from the drinking fountain, and then, placing their hands together, their index fingers pointed toward your nether regions like a gun--they jam their fingers into your anus with as much force as possible.
Many foreigners yelp out in shock at the first time small probing fingers try to enter their asshole. If you're a guy, sometimes the little kids miss and mash your balls, which really smarts. If you're a girl, sometimes they hit you right in the glory hole. Either way, none are immune to this childish prank.
During my first week in Japanese public schools, I got kancho-ed no less than seven times. Each time I felt myself getting angrier and angrier. I eventually complained to the vice principal of the school who informed me it's simply something children do.
When in Rome, I thought to myself. And sure enough, the antics of the school children blew over once they got to know me. As a matter of fact, I later found out that many school kids do this to new teachers to "test" them and see how they'll react. And being a foreigner in a strange land, I knew that they were taking advantage of the situation. But this isn't a case of sexual harassment since, in most cases, school kids six and seven years old aren't even aware of what sexual harassment is. To them, it's just a silly prank.
What came as a rather big shock to me, however, was when my 14 and 15 year old junior high school students did the same thing my first few weeks of school.
Again, as a new teacher, I got the sense they were testing me. But the guys also liked to swat at my balls in the bathroom when I was taking a pee--as a joke. And if you've ever listened to pubescent teenagers of 15 talk, you know they are all entering their hormonal stage where everything becomes about sex for them.
After my second year teaching, several of my third year students (the equivalent of freshman in high school) decided to play a naughty prank on me.
As it turned out, I achieved the thing I was aiming for--familiarity with my students. I went through great trouble to learn each and every one of the names of my graduating students. I wanted them to like me and think of me as a cool, hip teacher. And to that effect, I succeeded. Also, being the token foreigner amongst an all Japanese staff, many of the students would approach me with questions asking about the difference between their culture and mine.
I was always happy to answer such questions except when they were sexually explicit and entirely inappropriate.
Once a boy student asked me, "Are Japanese girls' pussies tighter than American girls' pussies?"
I was taken aback by the bluntness of the question. I merely replied to him in Japanese, "I can't talk about such things at school. It's not appropriate."
He laughed and wandered off with his friends. Another time, a different boy student asked me how big my penis was and if he could see it. I didn't know whether to be flattered or traumatized.
I politely apologized, as is custom in Japan, and informed him it wasn't appropriate to talk about such things and shrugged it off and went about my week.
But the more familiar my boy students became with me as their teacher the more emboldened they got and, soon enough, began asking me all kinds of lewd questions.
Granted, they were curious and I was technically the only one who could answer such questions about the "cultural" differences they were interested in, except for the fact that it would have been entirely inappropriate. So, as always, I deflected their questions or did my best to change the subject to something that would hold their attention--such as sports.
As the boys kept me preoccupied, I never saw the real threat of the girls--who were equally curious and perhaps a little more aware of their own sexual maturity. Whereas with the boys it was just a game, the girls approached their sexuality in a more up front sort of way. A way which snuck up on me. Quite literally speaking.
In Japan, the students all have a cleaning hour at the end of the day. They all work together to clean their school. Which is why Japanese schools don't have janitors.
One day while cleaning, a couple of girl students of mine rushed over to tell me that their friend had fallen down and hurt her knee. They were adamant that I should come right away. Worried that a student of mine was actually in trouble, I followed them to the stairwell.
One of the girls pointed to the dark area behind the staircase, which was merely a storage area, and stepped to the side as I leaned in to see what the matter was. Without warning, from behind, both girls shoved me into the nook behind the stairs.
I reached out as I fell forward and my hands mashed into something soft. When I looked up I found one of my girl students, her shirt and bra pulled up over her chest, laying under me as she stared up at me with brown eyes and flushed cheeks.
I looked down to find my hands firmly pressed upon her small budding breasts and I quickly recoiled, pulling my hands away. But as I tried to clamor to my feet, the two girls behind me leaned into my back, practically hopping on me piggy-back style and forced me back down onto the third girl.
I caught myself with my hands, my face hovering dangerously close to the third girl's face. As she looked up at me, she asked me in a deliberately sensual tone, "Do you like me, Mr. Vick?"
One of the girls from behind said in a loud voice, "Mr. Vick, please touch my breasts next!"
The other girl from behind quipped, "I want him to touch me someplace else."
All three girls snickered and giggled excitedly. I remember one even snorted and that made them laugh all the more.
Angered, I pushed myself up and shoved the two girls behind me out of my way. I retreated to the hallway when, turning to the right, I saw Kanda sensei making his way toward us.
I knew that if he caught wind of anything that had just transpired, I could get in huge trouble. I might even lose my job. And the girl students, for their crime of adolescent naivete and sexually immature antics, could get expelled.
Flustered, I didn't know what to do. My heart raced with nervous embarrassment and fear gripped me. I remember panic set in and I began to have trouble breathing.
Meanwhile, the girl beneath the stairwell pulled down her clothes and casually stepped out into the hall with us. All the girls turned as Kanda sensei approached and when he saw them giggling he ordered them to get back to cleaning. Without even batting an eye they took off, giggling amongst themselves down the entirety of the school corridor.
Seeing that I was without a broom, Kanda sensei opened the broom closet underneath the stairwell and handed me a bristle broom. I thanked him and moved on. He immediately turned to see boys throwing rocks at each other outside and rushed out to chastise them and order them to get back to cleaning.
As I stood in the hallway, sweeping the same spot over and over again, I tried to wrap my brain around what had just happened. Of course, I never mentioned it to anybody. I was too scared.
I knew that if I came clean with what had actually happened the girls could team up against me and lie about what had occurred, claiming that I attacked them and molested them. I knew they were all close friends and so would protect each other--if push came to shove--and being minors I could lose my job.
And even if it was deemed that it wasn't my fault--that I merely was a victim to their adolescent antics, at the very least it cast suspicion on me as a potential sexual predator. Which was practically just as bad as actually being falsely accused as one. Because then everyone would be wondering whether the rumors were true and this would give rise to new rumors--none of them bound to be good.
At the same time, I didn't want the girls to be unfairly disciplined, and from my short time in Japan I had seen first-hand how harsh some of the school's punishments were for things that, by my American standards, were trivial non-offenses. I didn't want to get them suspended from school for a one-time offense. Moreover, I didn't want my relationship with my students to become strained to the point where they didn't feel like they could trust me or be themselves around me.
So, I did the only thing I could do. I kept it to myself.
Was it the right thing to do? I think so.
I couldn't change what had happened. But at least I had some small control over what happened next.
I went the rest of the year without another incident. If it would have continued, I would have certainly mentioned it. But instead, the girls just blew me kissy faces, batted their eyes at me, and giggled the rest of the year long. They were only teasing.
But, in retrospect, I think their big prank was perhaps a little too much. And because it was overly sexual and placed me in an awkward and potentially problematic situation, I sometimes grow anxious whenever the memory should resurface. Which is why I have never talked about it till now.
That said, this account showcases only a mild case of sexual harassment. These students all acted out of innocent ignorance and out of a sense of fun and wanting to get to know me better. And, as the saying goes, no harm no foul.
In fact, all three girls stay in touch with me to this day. And if that should sound weird, consider that they're all college graduates now, and are the age I was when I first taught them (25). Two of them are married with children and they send me pictures of their families and tell me that whenever they get together they reminisce about the good old days and tell me they always talk about how I was such a fun teacher for them.
Sexual harassment is a sensitive subject matter because it's also a highly personal subject matter--and because people will undoubtedly respond differently to it. Most assuredly, there are cases far more severe and damaging than what I experienced, so please don't feel sorry for me. Everything worked out well enough in the end. Nobody was hurt by it, other than a bit of awkwardness it may have caused me.
Needless to say, I was on my guard around young adolescent people from there on in, and I most certainly never followed students blindly into dark corners of the school ever again.