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Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012
THE ZEIT GIST
Teacher outfoxes board, exposes bid to fleece JETs
By PATRICK BUDMAR
English teachers on the JET program are often faced with the bittersweet moment when they realize their contract is ending and they will soon be returning to their home country.
However, for one former JET teacher, that moment turned out to be a poisonously sour one as he became embroiled in a conflict with the board of education (BOE) that employed him.
After having worked for two years on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program for the local BOE, the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for this article, decided it was time to return to his home country after his second contract ended.
While preparations for his departure were moving along smoothly, a contentious issue suddenly arose in what was supposed to be the penultimate official meeting with the BOE.
The supervisor from the BOE first ran through a few rudimentary items with the JETs before he stopped, chuckled to himself, gave everyone a big smile and went on to say that there was "another thing" he had to talk about.
That other thing turned out to be a tax that the teachers apparently had not paid yet, and the BOE was planning to take it all out of their final pay packet.
"We weren't concerned since he was smiling and very casual about it," the teacher said.
When he asked the supervisor what the tax was, he was told in Japanese that it was shiken minzei (residential tax), and that it would set each teacher back more than ¥200,000.
As the teacher's entire pay packet was to be about ¥270,000, he was stunned that this "tax deduction" would be so costly.
"We were shocked and I immediately asked what the tax was for," the teacher said, "but the only response we could get to anything was, 'It's a rule, so you must pay.' "
Why was it so much? How is it calculated? The supervisor would not give the JETs a clear answer, except to say that Americans were exempt.
The teachers found the logic that Americans would be exempt while an Australian or a British citizen would not difficult to swallow, though the supervisor refused to delve further, instead repeating the mantra that "It's a rule, so you must pay."
Frustrated by the lack of transparency from the supervisor, the teacher excused himself from the meeting to call his coordinator for international relations (CIR) in the prefectural office, who acts as a liaison between JETs in the prefecture and their BOEs.
The CIR at the time was just finishing up his first year and so was their Japanese counterpart, so they were both unaware of what shiken minzei was when the teacher initially contacted them.
He went back to the supervisor and asked why JETs had not paid the tax the year before but, to the teacher's surprise, the supervisor quipped that everyone in fact had.
After that failed meeting, the teacher immediately began making inquiries and found out that shiken minzei is a residency tax and that the amount a person pays is calculated according to the previous year's income.
"I went through my bank book and I found out that we'd been having the money withdrawn periodically from our bank accounts the previous year, but it was a really small amount," he said. "This was confusing until I realized that the Japanese financial year runs from January to December, so the first year for us that we were taxed on was really only five months."
The teacher also found it strange that he was being asked to pay in a lump sum now when he had paid it in installments over a full year before.
"I later found out that this was at the request of the BOE's accountants, who had decided that we would never pay the tax if we returned home, so they were going to charge it all immediately to avoid that potentially happening," he said.
To work out exactly what was going on with this tax payment, the teacher realized that he had to gather together all of his financial documents, so he went to the BOE office after work each day to liaise with the secretary there.
"I spent hours going over the documents trying to find how I'd been paid money to cover this massive tax over both years of my contract," he said.
Under their contracts, teachers on the JET program are supposed to receive a set monthly take-home salary, with BOEs paying extra into teachers' accounts to offset any taxes.
In his first year, the teacher found that his annual pay was a few hundred thousand yen over the minimum he was supposed to receive due to a rent allowance.
In the second year he was paid the exact same amount, meaning the BOE had not been paying in the extra funds to compensate for the huge residency tax bill that was now being deducted from his final paycheck.
Just as the teacher felt he was making some headway in deciphering the financial statements, the supervisor called him to deliver an update.
"It turned out that asking us to pay it in a lump sum was a bit much, so the BOE was going to let us pay it in installments," he said. "It wasn't really a concession because that's the way everyone else in Japan pays it.'"
The supervisor then suggested that if he "wanted to talk about it more," he should "call Tokyo," meaning the JET head office.
Shocked by the blunt reply, the teacher turned to his CIR again for advice, but it turned out that the CIR had run into their own hurdles.
"They had tried to call the local BOE and get an explanation from them, and instead were yelled at and told to mind their own business," he said.
What the CIR did find out was that the BOE's accounting software had been upgraded that year and they had somehow forgotten to remove the tax from the teachers' monthly salary, which explained the discrepancy between that year and the previous one.
Faced with dwindling options, the teacher called up the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) office in Tokyo, which oversees the JET program.
The CLAIR rep spent several hours poring over the teacher's documents and consulting with the people in the office before getting back to him later the same day.
"He said I was correct and that CLAIR would back me up," he said. "There's no words to describe how happy I was to hear him say that."
The following week, the teacher attended what was supposed to be the final meeting with the supervisor, armed with all the documents he had gathered, a simple breakdown of the maths, and a simple message: The BOE "tax deduction" was unjustifiable and potentially illegal.
At the end of the meeting, the teacher broached the tax topic and the supervisor's demeanor instantly switched to a mixture of annoyance and anger.
While the supervisor did his best to keep his cool, the secretary whom the teacher had received the documents from earlier was not quite as composed.
"She turned to the supervisor and asked in casual Japanese, 'Are they still asking about that? What's wrong with these guys?' with a disgusted tone," he said. "She was sitting right in front of me and saying these things, as if I didn't understand any Japanese."
As the secretary stood up and stormed off, the teacher calmly tried to explain to the supervisor that he had called the CLAIR office, just as he had been advised, and the numbers were accurate. "I asked him to look at the figures, and he kept insisting that we had to pay the tax," he said.
The secretary eventually returned to the meeting to announce that the BOE had called CLAIR earlier and been assured that they were in the right, but the teacher immediately asked whom she had spoken to and then contacted CLAIR himself.
"I told my CLAIR contact what they were saying and the reply I got was that the BOE had indeed called the previous week to ask about a particular situation, but it was not actually the situation I was in and were told something different instead," he said.
When the supervisor was relayed this message, he stood up and walked out of the office, presumably to contact CLAIR himself.
With the supervisor gone, the teacher found himself fielding accusatory questions from the secretary.
"What really threw me off was that she'd just been speaking to our mutual boss in casual Japanese as if I didn't understand, but when she spoke to me she was using keigo," he said. "It seemed she was deliberately being polite in order to be rude."
As the secretary left again to go and contact CLAIR, the supervisor returned to the meeting and reluctantly admitted that CLAIR was backing the teacher on the matter.
Despite CLAIR siding with the teacher, the supervisor did not change his position on the BOE withholding the money from the final paycheck to cover the tax.
The supervisor tried to convince the teacher that he had already received enough money over the two years he had worked at the school, and that if he wanted his money so badly, he should go and see a lawyer.
The teacher insisted it should not need to come to that, but any further attempts at discussion were repeatedly shut down by the supervisor, who instead tried to find other ways to justify the salary deductions, such as reviewing all leave applications.
When the teacher pointed out that he and the other teachers had been excellent ambassadors for their countries and the JET program, the BOE had never had any issues with them in the past, and the one time the teachers had to come to him with a problem he did nothing, the supervisor seemed to show remorse and finally admitted that the BOE knew that he and other JETs were entitled to the money that was instead deducted as "tax."
Shocked yet delighted by this admission, the teacher ignored the need to ask why the supervisor had spent the last two hours lying to him and instead inquired as to when he and the other JETs would get reimbursed for the phony tax deduction.
However, despite admitting to the error, the supervisor was adamant that no reimbursement would be forthcoming.
To the teacher's dismay, the supervisor confessed that the department had exhausted the budget for the year and that they had no remaining funds to compensate him with.
From then on, any attempt by the teacher to get the payment was met with the stock answer of "We cannot pay you" from the supervisor.
"I couldn't seem to communicate to the BOE that they had to find a way to pay me because they'd signed the contract," he said. "It was as if the contract meant nothing at all."
Finally, the supervisor caved in and said he would consult the department head to see if they could somehow pay the teacher. He then stood up and left the room again.
After waiting awkwardly for over half an hour for the supervisor to reemerge, the teacher asked what the verdict was from the department head, only to be told that he was not in.
As for the supervisor, he had left the building and was not returning, which brought the meeting to an abrupt end.
The teacher reached out to his CLAIR contact again, but even they admitted there was very little they could actually do for him beyond call the BOE again and ask them to pay up.
"CLAIR had done as much as they could have, if not more, but their hands were tied at this point," he said.
A trip by the teacher to the local labor office turned out to be fruitless, as the department was only able to help private companies, not those employed by the city.
"I asked the person at the labor office who I would need to see in order to get paid, and he told me there was only one person who can pay me," he said. "That person turned out to be the mayor of the city."
While anyone else in the same position might have been incredulous at the suggestion of trying to meet the mayor of a city of over 150,000 people, the teacher was lucky enough to have met the mayor in person over a year earlier at a party.
"Since then I'd met him almost half a dozen times, the last time being the week before when we'd done our farewell speeches," he said. "His English was excellent and we had several mutual friends."
Imbued with renewed hope, the teacher went from the labor office directly to the mayor's office and recounted his story to the reception staff, who then immediately contacted the BOE and told them to send someone to the office.
The teacher once again found himself in a meeting with the secretary, who this time submitted a list of items that the BOE had purchased over the two years for his accommodation.
"Two curtains, a pair of plastic chopsticks, a bed sheet and some other small items were listed," he said, "and she was now going to try to charge me for all of them."
The mayor's assistant quickly disregarded the document, which caused the secretary to begrudgingly admit that they owed the teacher money.
When the meeting finally moved into the mayor's office, an official interpreter also joined them, and all of the documentation from both sides was scrutinized one final time.
Once again, the BOE representative left to call the department head, but when the teacher pressed them over how they would convince the head to overturn his earlier judgement, he was told that they were going to "tell him differently" what they "told him before."
It turned out that the BOE secretary and the supervisor had spun the numbers for the department head so that the first year's additional rent allowance covered the second year's shortfall in payments to teachers, even though the JET contracts operated on a yearly basis. In other words, the secretary and supervisor had fiddled the books to defraud the JET teachers in an attempt to hide the fact the BOE was essentially broke.
When the teacher made this accusation, the supervisor could only offer a mumbled reply to puncture the embarrassed silence, in effect confirming that the BOE had not only lied to the teacher, but also to the head of department.
The department head soon joined the meeting after being informed of the deception, and immediately bowed and apologized to the teacher for not having looked into the matter more thoroughly from the start.
"I felt like he was going to take the blame for something that was clearly not his fault, but I didn't know how to tell him," the teacher said.
After much wrangling, the teacher would finally get reimbursed for the amount that was fraudulently deducted from his salary.
According to the teacher, the entire city was blacklisted by JET in the aftermath of the dispute and would never again receive new teachers from the program.
"We were the last ones there at that time due to budget issues, but even if they have the money in future, they'll never see another JET again," he said.
To maintain his anonymity for this article, the teacher declined to name the city where he was employed.
After the matter was resolved, the teacher encountered the supervisor one last time when he came to take all the furniture from the apartment as he was moving out.
While the teacher expected the supervisor to still hold a grudge against him for what had happened, the man instead broke into a smile and wryly told him to forget about the matter because he "won and got paid."
"I looked at him and realized that he'd worn a mask for two years, not the one that we all wear in our dealings every day, but the mask of a liar," the teacher said. "The fact that he could stand there in front of me and pretend nothing had happened after lying and deceiving disgusted me."
Light Gist offers a humorous take on life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send all your comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org