In September, I began a new teaching job. At the start of the third week (the middle of the month) I was at school in the morning as usual. However, I was asked by the Office Manager and the Academic Coordinator to go home because I had “pink eye,” also known as“conjunctivitis,” an eye infection common among children that is highly contagious. I felt badly because I thought it was a poor way to start a new job. But it couldn’t be helped, so by 9:00 a.m. I left the school and gone home for the day. (I had already seen an eye doctor the day before and had medicated eye drops for it.)
I must admit, though, how surprised I was to be asked to excuse myself on health grounds. I just finished working 14-years as an English Conversation teacher for a company. During that time I was never allowed paid sick leave and I was required to work regardless of my physical condition. I worked with pink eye before, with influenza and fever. I worked with a broken toe once, and even when suffering from nausea and diarrhea. English conversation work is sometimes compared with slavery, and some of the working conditions of my old employer epitomized it. But these were the only working conditions I had ever known - even in Canada - so I was surprised and happy to discover something different at my new job - an actual allowance to be absent from work for health reasons without debilitating financial penalty. Wow!
I felt fit to work, and therefore also somewhat guilty and depraved with indolence, sitting at home while my students studied at school. At 10:00 I thought, “They are swimming now while I am typing on my computer.” Then at 11:00 I knew they were in Math while I was watching a video. And at 2:00 when I knew they would be in Japanese class, I decided to take a nap.
In addition, the teacher who replaced me for the day just happened to be their teacher the previous school year, and I feared unfavorable comparisons. I worried that both parties might be too happy with the situation.
It seems to me that in Japanese culture there is still some connection in the imagination between one’s physical condition and one’s moral condition. In the West, of course, thinking like this was common in ancient times: beauty corresponded to virtue, and ugliness (and illness) to vice, or moral unreliability. I get the feeling that this idea still prevails in Japan from my wife. Her reaction to a condition like pink eye is to order the children away from me with such ferocity that it sounds comparable to ordering the children away from a known pedophile or something, and I feel offended.