[This article appeared in slightly different form in Simon-Maeda, A. (2004) The complex construction of professional identities: Female educators in Japan speak out. TESOL Quarterly, 38, 405-436.]

The Complex Construction of Professional Identities: Female EFL Educators in Japan Speak Out

Andrea Simon-Maeda

Nagoya Keizai University

This article reports on the life history narratives of nine female EFL teachers working in higher education in Japan. An interpretive qualitative analysis of the stories suggests that gender cannot be viewed as a free-floating attribute of individual subjectivities but rather as one of many components in an ever-evolving network of personal, social, and cultural circumstances. Consequently, this study does not provide a unitary description of the intersection of gender and language teaching and learning. The intention here is to offer a more complicated version of female teachers’ lives and in so doing challenge and expand prevalent TESOL education theories which do not fully address the confusions and transitions in teachers’ career trajectories. The in-depth, open-ended life history interviews allowed optimal opportunities for a dialogical authoring and understanding of work identities. Significant to this examination is how the participants engage with sociocultural circumstances in the face of ideological constraints, construct their educator identities accordingly, and mobilize available resources to contest oppressive forces in their professional lives. Bringing to the fore through narratives the interrelationship of local social actors’ interpretations of work contexts and hegemonic ideologies can inform the field by reminding us how far we have yet to go in reconceptualizing the goals of TESOL and by providing access points for approaching this task.


     I teach English at a conservative Japanese university in Osaka. I’m full-time and have tenure and I’ve also gotten, over about 12 years, promoted to full professor. I’m already known as a feminist, union-member, etc. “trouble maker,” and am liked by some faculty for that reason and disliked by some, so in some ways I have nothing to lose now, right? Over the last couple years of working there I gradually came out to selected professors and small classes of students. So far it hasn’t caused any problems and it’s made me feel much closer to those I’ve come out to. They seem to find it interesting and admire my courage in telling them, but I haven’t come out to those who I think of as jerks or those who I’ve been in conflict with. I’ll probably continue slowly coming out to students and teachers when I’m in the mood and the right occasion arises. My goal is that eventually everyone at the school knows, though I’m still afraid of the bigshots at the school hearing that I’ve actually said “I’m a lesbian” in the classroom. (participant quote, 2002)  


The stories in this study provide a rich site for the examination of the striking range of possibilities and constraints in the careers of female EFL educators in Japan. Although employed in the highest rungs of the educational hierarchy in what is considered by most observers to be an advanced country, Western and non-Western participants speak out in the sections below of serious encounters with professional discrimination. Gendered discrepancies are most visible in the Japanese political and educational sphere where men constitute an overwhelming majority in the top posts of national and local government, school administrations, and academic departments, and women remain underrepresented as political leaders, ministry officials, and university students and professors (Japan Almanac, 2001). Local contextual factors (classroom culture, curriculum, job conditions) as well as more macrolevel phenomena (sociocultural ideologies, institutional and national policies) impact the situations of female educators who encounter a variety of work circumstances which differ from and at times overlap with the experiences of their male counterparts. The unsettled relationship between women’s professional and personal lives, gendered and racial inequalities, sexual orientation, ageism, cross-cultural norms, and socioeconomic background are intricately involved in the participants’ narrativized constructions of their individual, multifaceted identities.

The narratives are told from myriad standpoints, but taken together there are commonalities which have not been sufficiently addressed in TESOL education programs. Teacher training has traditionally laid more importance on instructional methods and proficiency measurements while ignoring the realities of teachers’ lives in and outside of the classroom (see Freeman & Johnson, 1998; Johnson & Golombek, 2002). A socially-situated perspective of teaching then speaks to the necessity of including in teacher preparation programs a more holistic consideration of actual work contexts located within broader socio-political circumstances. Beyond the practical implications for teacher education, female EFL educators’ stories can help us further explore and re-work our understandings of how hegemonic ideologies operate in the lives of marginalized individuals attempting to challenge and change the educational status quo through local teaching practices.  


Since the “interpretive turn” [1] in the social sciences, analyses of storytelling have been used to observe how speakers display a particular version of Self and come to understand their everyday worlds. The value of life history interviews as an investigative procedure in feminist research projects has been well documented (e.g., Gluck & Patai, 1991; Olesen, 2000; Reinharz, 1992). The education field especially has benefited from the insights gained from personal narratives of schooling processes as told by teachers (e.g., Clandinin & Connelly, 1987, 1995). Postmodern feminist educationists (e.g., Britzman, 2000; Davies, 1993; Lather, 1991; Weiler, 1988) have used narrative methodology to “deliver voices that have been previously shut out of normative educational research” (Britzman, 2000, p. 35) and to highlight the ways that female teachers negotiate subjectivities with/in the dominant discourses of gender and education.

Narrative inquiry is gaining increasing recognition in the TESOL field as a means of depicting language learning experiences (e.g., Bell, 2002; Harklau, 2000; Kanno, 2000; Pavlenko, 1998) and how teachers construct their professional identities (e.g., Casanave & Schecter, 1997; Freeman, 1996; Johnson & Golombek, 2002; Johnston, 1997). Representing a bottom-up approach to exploring the knowledge-base of teachers, narratives are particularly attractive to critical researchers concerned with ways of including the voices of women and other marginalized groups in academic discussions of teacher practice (e.g., Canagarajah, 1996; Pennycook, 1989, 1999). Although still relatively few in number, some notable examples of the use of narratives are Duff and Uchida’s (1997) ethnographic study of teachers’ sociocultural identity formations, Johnston’s (1997) study of teacher careers in Poland, and the following edited collections: L2 academics’ literacy experiences (Belcher & Connor, 2001) non-native educators in ELT (Braine, 1999), teachers’ reflections on their language classroom practices (Johnson & Golombek, 2002), and language educators’ professional development (Casanave & Schecter, 1997). Drawing on work in this vein, the current study adds to our understanding of how educators’ identities are shaped at the nexus of local practices and larger ideological influences, and thus contributes to recent trends in teacher-directed professional development and research.



Modeling my study’s methodological approach on the above sources, I felt that life-history interviews of female EFL educators would provide some interesting insights on the special circumstances of women working in higher education contexts in Japan. I anticipated that my interviewees’ experiences would not only share some similarities and differences with male EFL educators in Japanese colleges (see, e.g., Haig, 1999, McVeigh, 2002) but also with women working in different high-status educational positions elsewhere (see, e.g., Smulyan, 2000; Skrla, 2000; Chase, 1995 for life history approaches to examining the complex role of gender in male-dominated school leadership positions in the U.S.).

Not adhering to a strict interview protocol with standardized questions, I instead used a more open-ended style (cf. Atkinson, 1998; Holstein & Gubrium, 1995) to maximize opportunities for a “dialogical authoring” (Bakhtin, 1981) and co-constructed understanding of work identities. Initial interviews conducted separately with each participant at coffee shops, school offices and private homes lasted approximately 2 1/2 hours and generally covered topics concerned with family and academic background, entry into the EFL teaching profession, work environments, and pedagogical practices. Preliminary insights were clarified and expanded through follow-up interviews which provided a fuller view of the participants’ multiplex identities. I coded the transcripts of the oral data and other textual material (researcher memos, email messages) with a qualitative data analysis software program (NVivo © ) and noted recurring patterns. Key links were then established between conceptual categories which became the thematic strands in the interpretive commentary.


To enhance the transferability of the findings, I interviewed women of various ethnic, racial, religious, national, socioeconomic, cultural, family backgrounds, with diverse levels of EFL teaching expertise in different geographical areas and tertiary-level institutions in Japan, and each at different degrees of intimacy with me. One of the participants was a close friend who introduced me to two other participants I had never met before, and the rest of the participants I knew casually through various academic and teacher networks. The interviewees represented a diverse range of personal attributes (see Appendix A for participant profiles), and of the nine participants one was Japanese and one a second-generation Korean born in Japan. The other female educators were not from Japan -- another important aspect of their “outsider” identities which I will elaborate on in later sections. As a long-term resident of Japan and American expatriate with a Japanese husband, while interviewing the participants, I could not help but reflect on my own life and EFL teaching experiences, which thus became part of the negotiated reality of the research.

In this study, the conceptualization of identity as “emerging from an individual’s different sorts of relationships with others” (Litosseliti & Sunderland, 2002, p. 15) is in line with current language and gender theories which emphasize the dialectical relationship between identity formations and social interactions. Consequently, the feminist stance this study adheres to must now briefly address those hegemonic contexts in Japan which define the parameters of women’s accounts of their work experiences.    


Sociocultural Context of EFL Women Educators in Japan

There is extensive research literature on the general situation of working women in Japan [2], but to my knowledge there have been no feminist qualitative studies published in widely distributed international journals which focus specifically on the lives of professional female EFL educators in Japan or, for that matter, in other countries as well. The paucity of information in this area speaks to the field’s continued preoccupation with mainstream (male-centered) approaches to investigating educational contexts through the lens of “phallocentric knowledge systems which militate against women in the academy” (Luke & Gore, 1992, p. 193).

Teachers’ professional identities develop within a network of ongoing microlevel, private and public interactions in and outside of the classroom and macrolevel sociocultural circumstances. The ramifications of this last point are crucial for female educators who, like their male counterparts, contend with conflicts between their own idiosyncratic backgrounds and local conditions, but additionally must grapple with prevailing institutional ideologies and practices which limit women’s full participation in higher education teaching contexts. This situation was brought to the fore in 1995 with the establishment of a professional support network in Japan, WELL (Women Educators and Language Learners), to help Japanese and non-Japanese female language educators “cope with the isolation and sexism they personally experience or are personally sensitive to as women” (McMahill, 1998, p. 41). At the university and junior college level in Japan, women still make up only 13.5% of full-time faculty positions (Monbusho, 2000), and the following comments from an opinion survey (McMahill, 1998, p. 42) administered to WELL’s membership depict what many women experience in a male-dominated work situation:

I don’t have a voice.

      I feel like a symbol or decoration.

      I was sexually harassed at my former university and realized that I had few people to turn

      to for support. The colleagues whom I approached about the sexual harassment generally

      treated it as a joke or refused to talk about it.

      I feel I have to work three times more than male teachers to be recognized that I am working.

      At my university, women have no positions of power . . . a feminist proposed a women’s

      studies course the year before I arrived. It was refused as irrelevant to language learning.

      At my former university, I was only one of two full-time women and the only non-Japanese

       instructor out of some 35 faculty members.

The above quotes illustrate a key concept of this article, namely, women educators remain in disadvantaged positions within Japanese higher education contexts not simply because we all share the biological attribute, female . Our everyday interactions as women operate within an elaborate network of power relations (Foucault, 1980) of which gender is only one component. Although the elimination of sex discrimination in the workplace continues to be an important goal of feminist activism, we cannot assume a homogeneous reaction to hegemonic forces. In other words, the specific circumstances of each woman’s experiences of oppression intersecting with her class, ethnicity, nationality, and innumerable other variables preclude a wholesale application of essentialist notions of “woman” or “women’s oppression.” As Donna Haraway states, “There is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual discourses and other social practices” (1990, p. 197). The stories of the participants in this study demonstrate that identity categories of race, ableism, class, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so forth may at different times over the course of one’s life become as important as the category of female due to the transitory, unpredictable nature of our ways of being in the world. Therefore, we must examine the microdynamics of the myriad meaning-making and coping strategies that women of various backgrounds resort to when confronted with professional disempowerment. For this purpose, life-history narratives served as a window into the multidimensional lives of women who use the linguistic, sociocultural, and personal tools at hand to construct their teacher identities within and against prevailing hegemonic ideologies in Japanese society.



Based on an analysis of the life history narratives, several themes emerged to indicate the participants’ understandings of what it means to be an EFL educator in higher education in Japan; however, due to space limitations, I will focus below only on three major aspects which seemed to be particularly salient factors in the construction of teacher identities. I should make clear from the outset that, as mentioned above, gender was only one of several dynamics, albeit a powerful one, which played a part in the discursive fashioning of professional lives. More specifically, it was the interface of gender and the following themes which contributed in significant ways to narrativized perceptions of becoming and being a female teacher in a sometimes hostile traditional environment:

personal biographies (sociocultural/family background, previous

      teaching/learning experiences)

ways of dealing with (cross-cultural) conflicts in work environments

attitudes towards students and professional practices

Personal Biographies

At the beginning of each interview [3], I asked each interviewee to talk about her family background, past and present, and the influences, if any, on her career trajectory. Across the interviews, there was a clear pattern of participants quickly pinpointing a specific juncture or state of affairs in their early years which they felt has affected their evolving self-definitions in relation to the EFL teaching profession.

I always pushed myself forward.

Consider the following account from Celine, a 30-year old White American with a serious visual impairment who was in the process of upgrading her educational qualifications in order to obtain a full-time, college level teaching position:

Andrea:   So, you told me before that you wanted to continue on to the doctoral program.

Celine:    Right now it’s a completely greedy situation. I want the most money possible, so

give me my Ph.D., yeah, I would like to be called doctor, but I mostly want to go

back to Montana and show all those people that said I would not graduate from

university. People flat out told my folks, “Your daughter will not graduate from

university, she won’t be able to get a Bachelor’s,” because I couldn’t read.

Because in elementary school they told me I would fail, even teachers, halfway

through elementary school they said, “Your daughter’s not going to finish,

or the percentage of students that went to that elementary school didn’t graduate,

and I  was going to be one of them,” kind of thing. So I kind of want my Ph.D.

to go back and say, “Excuse me, [chuckle] I did it [said in a sarcastic voice].”

Yeah, I just want to show off and punch them in the nose, but even my mother’s

aunt and uncle said I would never graduate, our own family said I wouldn’t.

Being a recent doctoral graduate myself, I admired Celine’s determination to pursue a long, arduous academic journey which, in light of Japan’s current sluggish economy, will not necessarily lead to a lucrative employment outcome but is nevertheless a necessary requirement to moving up the ranks of the teaching hierarchy. The idea of wanting to show off or proving one’s worth through academic or professional achievement appeared throughout other participants’ stories as well but with a kaleidoscopic array of different motivating forces due to the particularities of unique biographical backgrounds. Julia, an American expatriate fluent in Japanese, spoke about trying to overcome her feelings of academic inadequacy:

Julia:   So, as I got into this then about writing and politics, and then my own experience, how marginal or how I feel in Japan as an academic, I always feel that I’m not, I don’t measure up to the standards, the Western standards. I had a Scottish professor at [name of university in Japan] who said because I was an American, I didn’t know how to write. I didn’t have my last year of high school English in the States because I came to Japan, and I haven’t gone to, you know, a Western academic university, so right along the way I feel like I neve r measure up to what the Western academic standard is. So when I started writing my Master’s thesis for a British university, I kept coming up against this. I felt that I had to prove myself academically, I want to prove that I can do what an academic is expected to do and do it well and to really prove myself.

A second-generation Korean born in Japan, Se-ri told her story of racial discrimination and then added how she specifically chose English education and a career as an English teacher as a means to “fight back”:


Se-ri:   You know, my father, he wanted to send me to a private women’s junior high and

high school, pretty famous one, and he went to one of the teachers at the school he had consulted about his daughter’s future and told the teacher the plan that, “I’m gonna have my daughter challenge taking the entrance examination to the school.” And that teacher said, “No she can’t because she’s Korean and that school will not accept Korean students’ applications.” And my father got really pissed and he just told her that, “No matter what you say, I’m gonna have her take the entrance examination.” So I couldn’t get a recommendation from her and I passed it, and when I got news from the school many of my classmates came to me and said, “We heard that your father paid money to the school.” And I said, “What the hell, who is spreading that kind of stupid rumor?” and they said, “The teacher.” My father said that in order to survive in society and also in order to fight back against Japanese discrimination, education is the key. If I were an ordinary Korean, just living like an ordinary Korean housewife they [Japanese] don’t respect me. But if I say, “I speak English fluently and I was in the States for 6 years,” then their way of looking at me is completely different. My motivation was exclusively instrumental, if I master the language of the people [Westerners] who Japanese admire, then I can be equal to their [Japanese] rank, and they eventually have to respect me because I will be speaking their [Westerners’] language, that was the only reason I became an English teacher.

Mariko, a Japanese EFL teacher-educator, also expressed the idea of attaining the prestige which she felt she was deprived of as a child because of her family background:

Mariko:  So, I was a kind of good student since maybe 5 th or 6 th grade. I had a consciousness

I want to be good especially after that bullying incident [Mariko had previously re-

lated how she had been bullied in elementary school by students who wouldn’t talk

to her because her father “works at night”]. I decided, I told myself, “Well, I’ll nev-

er be beaten by those regular girls,” you know, normally brought up girls, so that

was a kind of competition I wanted to win over. If I could speak good English I

thought I could get some jobs. So, then I decided to get a degree, so I have to be the

                    same with other women, to be prepared for the real job which will give me lifetime assuredness. I started kind of organizing my life a lot and then that was the first time I thought about being an English teacher because I thought about my background and then being a Japanese woman in Japan, what job can give me good enough money with some social respect, that’s a teacher. I always pushed myself forward and forward just because I don’t want to be defeated.

Likewise, Diana, a Black South African, juxtaposed an account of an early ostracizing experience at an English boarding school with her current educational philosophy:

Diana:   And there were lots of girls who had never seen a Black person. So for them it was a

different sort of racism, it wasn’t racism, but it was, I was really something that they

had never seen, they had seen on TV, but never had they been up close. So it was ig-

norance rather, so that, “When you would have a shower does your skin rub off?” and when they looked at the palms of my hand, they couldn’t believe that they were white. I was 16 years old and I go there, they had their own little cliques, so here I came in the middle of the term and it was very difficult to make friends and I was trying to please. So suddenly in this group I was really the outsider and I was Black and I mean just all these things, and the nuns had this thing that I was from Africa and so I was dumb, and they would say to me, “But you’re from Africa and you know how you are so you won’t pass the exam.” They would say things like that to me, can you imagine?” So it was very hurtful and I cried a lot. People try to pull you down, I found that in life, but I never listen to them and that’s always my message to my students, whatever you want to be you can be if you believe in yourselves. Why do we always assume like teachers at Japanese high schools or universities that these kids are incapable, you know, because they aren’t, you’ve got to push them to do it.    

Janet, a White, 50-year old British woman brought up in various ex-colonies, linked her awareness of the ethnocentric tendencies of EFL education to her antagonistic opinion of her father’s racism:

Janet:   I later discovered that my father was very racially prejudiced, and that continued

                  until he popped off. So that’s certainly probably a part of the consciousness that

has made me a little doubtful about what ESL does. I mean how much of EFL out-

side of English-speaking metropolitan centers and ESL inside, how much of it is

colonial intent, not intent necessarily not conscious intent very often, but in effect.

I have to say I don’t think I consciously theorized about it at all until, oh, probably my

30s. I was already in Japan by then, I was aware of it of course, I was irritated by it, I

mean every time my father said something racist it irritated me. So it wasn’t really un-

til I got into Afro-American studies, cultural studies, post-colonial studies that I could

reflect on this part of my background.    

In diverse ways, participants recounted how family or previous schooling experiences were intertwined in a complex set of relationships to their views on education, teaching, and self-identity. These women drew on multiple subject positions as daughters, expatriates, racial minorities, or socioeconomically disadvantaged in the act of working out an understanding of what differences their personal backgrounds made to their own learning contexts and how they experienced the EFL teaching profession.

I’m the man in the family.

Six of the nine participants were married, and there were various perceptions of the role played by spouses in career paths. Conventional gender ideologies in Japan are such that married women with professional employment aspirations may be, as Liddle and Nakajima (2000) contend, “required to bring with them higher levels of economic, social and cultural capital than comparable men if they are to convert these capitals into symbolic power in the form of recognition and respect as legitimate players in the field” (p. 222). Thus, sociocultural priority is given to male professionals who are expected to be the main breadwinners with supportive wives who adhere to a ryousaikenbo (good wife, wise mother) norm at the expense of either giving up their careers or attempting to juggle career and domestic duties. For Julia, whose Japanese husband was unemployed, her professional EFL teaching identity evolved from a different set of circumstances which did not follow the cultural mandate for working women in Japan but yet were in conflict with Julia’s personal ideals concerning married life:  

Andrea:  And after you got married, I know this is a sensitive issue.

      Julia:      I have been the breadwinner from day one. So, when I was working part-time I

                     became pregnant and I had 6 classes so that was a really solid, stable income. But

                   it wasn’t solid, stable as far as long term, and especially having a child and a hus-

                   band who didn’t look like he was going to be working. And there’s a problem with

                   me because, my hope, my ideal I think was to be a support to a man who had a ca-

reer. Not that I wouldn’t have my own but I see myself, my makeup, as I have a very strong desire, it almost feels innate to be supportive, to be helpful, I like doing it, I mean, being supportive. Like doing housework, if my husband were out working all day, then it would be a delight to be the head of the house so that he comes home and feels he can relax, but maybe now because I understand what it’s like to be outside, working and coming home to a house that’s dirty and dinner isn’t ready, just makes life unpleasant. So I understand the value of housewife duties.

      Andrea:  So you understand both, being professional and coming home, but also being at

                     at home and being supportive for someone who’s out working.

Julia:      Right, but I like to stay home and bake cakes and clean and do the stuff, the kind

                     of traditional women’s stuff.  

Julia’s concern with having a “solid stable income” was quite understandable, due to Japan’s economic recession and high unemployment rate (“5.4% jobless rate,” 2003). Despite her own ideal of being a supportive wife at home, Julia was actively pursuing a professional EFL career by upgrading her teaching credentials in order to maintain her college teaching position and support her family, but not without a considerable amount of ambivalent feelings:

Andrea:   So you made the decision to do the Master’s and you did it.// Julia: Desired results

but // Andrea: Can we talk about that?// Julia: Ah, gee, depress me. It’s just that

I’m not good at doing two things at once and I like to do what I do well so it was

a very frustrating experience for me. And I still feel a kind of bitter taste in my

mouth because I don’t feel that I did, I mean, it was a good experience and I’m so

glad I did it and I learned a tremendous amount, the difficulty was that I expect myself to do well, and I want to do well and I couldn’t do well because I had priorities and it wasn’t my first priority. I couldn’t make it my first priority, my family was my first priority, my job was my second priority, and the Master’s was my third, and I couldn’t change that and it was tremendously frustrating. My whole Master’s thesis was trying to come to grips with my own identity in Japan, and my whole identity in Japan, trying to be a professional is that I feel like a fake because I don’t have the, here you’re getting the self-confidence stuff, boy you’ve got one big lack of it right here.  

In contrast to Julia’s ambivalent attitude, Celine elaborated rather straightforwardly in an email correspondence on her views concerning the domestic/career expectations of husbands and wives vis à vis the opinions of her female Japanese friends:

I remember writing that I was the "man" in the family. Hee hee. Many of my Japanese friends say so because [husband’s name] does all the shopping and holds the money, "purse strings" takes out the garbage and hangs the laundry, so they say I'm the man in the family. This has made some of my friends uncomfortable and as I mentioned they have criticized me. When we went into our relationship I made sure I was clear about who I was. Of course I didn’t know I was going to further my education but my goals and dreams, no one could stop. In fact, I’m probably the “man” in my marriage because we live by my standard.

For unmarried female teachers as well, traditional societal ideologies served to constrain professional discourses:

Andrea:   Tell me what it’s been like for you as a single woman.

       Janet:       Well, in fact our present dean still says, “Janet, kawaikattan da yo ne .” [You used to be cute]. So there’s that. There’s a very fatherly older teacher who’s now retired who used to make a great effort to find a husband for me. We’ve done that. I think we’ve probably all passed it now because I mean obviously, at this point, as one of my Japanese male friends tends to say, “ mou uren yo omae .” [You can’t be sold anymore.] [laughter]. So in that sense, I’m sort of over that hill. Most of my female colleagues in my department are indeed married, uhm, there’s one exception.

Before getting married, Celine was also subjected to sexist remarks when her contract at her previous job ended:

Celine:    They don’t care where you go or what you do, in fact everyone thought I was going

back to the States to get married, it was so funny, ughh. This Japanese guy, he was

young, he had perfect, beautiful English, native-speaker level of English, right down to the idioms and everything, even cultural understanding, really good grasp of everything. And when I left, and it was at my sayonara party that my school had given me, he said, “So Celine, you’re going back to get married, right?” I was like, “The contract’s making me go back. I was like “Whoa guy, we’ve been teaching together for 2 years now and I can’t believe you’re asking me this question.” I just wanted to smack him, “What the hell’s wrong with you, of course not.” And I told him that flat out, and he’s like, “But you’re 24 now.” And I’m like, “Yeah so, what’s your point.”

Participants’ presentations of themselves were thus inscribed by normative Japanese expectations regarding a woman’s personal circumstances. Similarly, in her report on woman teachers in the UK, Tamboukou (2000) comments on the frustrating dilemmas that professional women face:

[T]he ambivalent persona of the female educator is invested by the accumulation of a series of layers that emerge from the gaps, rupture, and interstices women have slipped into, as they have tried to avoid being positioned in the social structuring of a world that recognises them only as belonging subjects, usually wives, mothers, daughters or sisters of enclosed spaces, like those of their families. (p. 470)


In sum, the EFL teachers in this study have struggled to resolve conflicts inherent in the (re)negotiation of their subject positions, forged from personal backgrounds, within work environments which were not always conducive to enhancing their professional identities.  

Dealing with conflicts in work environments

In addition to a host of ongoing career obstacles confronted by all the study’s participants, some of which have already been alluded to above, there were additional cross-cultural complications which the non-Japanese educators encountered in their host country. What was striking across the interviews was the oftentimes uneasy coexistence of descriptions of disempowering experiences as women or a sense of alienation because of our gaikokujin (foreigner) status and stories of individual solutions to these problems. As Susan Chase (1995) puts it:

[S]tories about power and accomplishment through professional work have been the

      prerogative of middle-class, or upwardly mobile, White men . . . women, particularly

      women of color and women raised in working-class families – have not had access to

well-paid, prestigious, professional jobs and so have not had access to discourse that

is culturally intelligible within that realm. (p. 48)

In other words, as women in a male-dominated work environment in Japan, our accounts of successful careers are inevitably interwoven with stories of inequity -- a disjunctive narrativization process in which interlocutors must work especially hard at constructing viable professional identities.    


I’ve felt like a second-class citizen

In Sandra McKay’s book, Teaching English Overseas: An Introduction (1992), expatriate teachers are advised that their role in their host country “is not to effect change in its social and educational structure but rather to attempt to increase their students’ proficiency in English as best they can within the existing structure” (p. ix-x). The reader is then presented with alternatives to undesirable EFL teaching situations which include leaving the country, changing institutions, or negotiating with the administration and students over matters such as language policies and curriculum. In light of the increasing cases of intermarriage with Japanese (Japan Almanac, 2001), many educators are contemplating long-term employment and/or permanent residency in Japan, and so the first two alternatives above do not seem practical. Additionally, in the case of non-Japanese couples, if career-oriented wives do not take a proactive stance in maintaining their jobs, they not only risk being further excluded from the dwindling pool of EFL teaching positions but also may find it more difficult to enter Japanese society. Celine elaborated on how establishing a professional identity as a college EFL instructor was intimately related to her becoming a “respected” member of Japanese society:

Celine:   So within XYZ [private language school where Celine was previously employed]

              I did see that there were limitations, that in a sense no matter what I make of myself

              I was still being labelled as just an eikaiwa [English conversation] person and that it

wasn’t taken too seriously in the community. And when people would ask me,  

oshigoto wa ?” [What do you do?] if I wanted to tell them I would, but they always

assumed that I was an eigo no sensei [English teacher]. That didn’t bother me, I hap-

pily admitted I was an eikaiwa teacher. But when I went to immigration, and would

go, “Well, I would like permanent residence, and you need permanent residence to

get the bank loan to buy a house, that we would like to live here forever like the

house that Jack built,” he [immigration officer] basically told me to go out the door.

There was nothing sound or substantial or serious that he was going to take from me

when I said I was an XYZ teacher, like, “We know the eikaiwa turnover rate, we’re

not going to accept your application for permanent residence, come back when

you’ve got something more secure.” If I can show them I have a salaried contract,

tenure preferably, I have the greater chance of getting it. So in that respect, yeah I get

a lot of respect.

To make her point concerning her determination to become a professional higher-education teacher and achieve the attendant symbolic capital, Celine embedded within the central narrative a complementary story concerning an interaction with an immigration officer. A foreign instructor’s work status is highly contingent on larger socioeconomic factors as well as different educational institutions’ employment policies, some of which are not always favorable to foreign instructors, as Janet explained:

Andrea:  You’ve been here for how many years?  

      Janet:      Twenty-three, this will be my twenty-third year as a full-timer plus two years


      Andrea:  And always on this kind of renewable contract.

      Janet:      Absolutely.

      Andrea:  What are you on now?

      Janet:      One year.

      Andrea:   Gee, I just assumed because you’ve been here so long that you had a very secure


      Janet:      Well no, like I said, there was this big broohaha about “Oh, you’re gonna stay for

                      ever.” And I even got, “ rokujugousai made kanou ” [It’s possible for you to stay

                      until you’re 65]. The idea was that, “You’re tenured and we will keep you until

                      you’re 65,” and also the pension thing is tied up in this. And then suddenly at the

                      end of 1995 it was, “All foreigners will now have the same length of contract, it will

                      be 6 years and, we can’t make an exception of you so understand the economic

situation is such that we don’t want to hire any foreigners over the age of 35 because they’re too expensive, and therefore you and your aged colleagues will go at the end of  6 years like everybody else.”

      Andrea:   This is just for the gaijin [foreigners]?

      Janet:      Yeah. And I don’t want to end up so bitter about this, I mean Japan has been a

                      home for, really, I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived in any country, and to end up

                      feeling bitter is not what I want.

In addition to unfair work-related conditions which are a concern for many teachers worldwide, there is a different yet related set of issues which restrain non-Japanese college educators from developing a sense of professionalism on a par with their Japanese colleagues. EFL teachers from Western countries are commonly perceived as being a privileged group entrusted with teaching a subject matter of considerable sociopolitical value. Notwithstanding the high-prestige status of the English language as seen from macro-social perspectives (see, e.g., Crystal, 1997; Kachru, 1989; Phillipson, 1992), the microlevel experiences of teachers at work reveal a complex transformation of global factors. Julia explained the difference between the sense of “community” she felt with the Japanese staff at her former college as opposed to the atmosphere at her present job:

Julia:     At ABC [name of former school] they had really accepted me as part, I mean, I didn’t     feel any sabetsu [discrimination] in the sense of, uhm, I really felt a part of the community, a part of the staff, we were treated equally. But when I came to XYZ [name of present college] I have felt like a second-class citizen.

      Andrea:  Why? Even after getting the degree [Master’s]?

      Julia:      Yeah, probably it’s more of the academia, probably if I had come in with a Ph.D. or something, you know, “Wow!” there’s that kind of attitude at XYZ. And also English teachers, I think they have a low evaluation, you know, anybody can teach English. The Japanese faculty in the English department think that anybody, foreigners, native speakers, that, you know, teaching English, is, you know, you’ve got to have an MA, but basically when it comes right down to it, anybody can teach as long as they’ve got an MA. We all feel that the Japanese feel that way.

Janet also expressed a similar interpretation of Japanese administrator/faculty views of the role of the foreign EFL teacher:

Janet:   When I was first hired I taught the seminar in education in English for the juniors and   seniors who were going to be teachers. Now there is no gaijin [foreigner] teaching any seminar class because that’s not what we’re here for, we’re supposed to be teaching English and, you know, we’re not up to that academic shit.

The seminar class in most Japanese colleges and universities is usually taught by Japanese professors and is accorded more academic prestige than courses like English Communication which are reserved for the foreign instructors. In light of this situation, Janet later expressed the sentiments of many non-Japanese EFL teachers who feel that “we are only there to be parrots, walking tape recorders.” This one-dimensional view of the role of the foreign teacher also surfaced in Julia’s account of her college teaching job interview:

Julia:  “Well, we expect you to be 100% American when you come here” [laughter]. And I just remember I didn’t say anything, I just said “ wakarimashita ” [I understand] or something, because to me it was such an affront to my whole experience. And what does it mean to be a 100% American? In fact, what they did, something they liked [Julia’s Japanese fluency], but they didn’t want to face that up front, that, yes they knew that my Japanese would be a real advantage, but they didn’t want that up front at all, like, “On the surface we want you to be 100% American.”

From Se-ri’s unique insider/outsider position as a second-generation Korean born in Japan, she talked about the discriminatory situation she saw as existing in her college English department:

Se-ri:  They [college administrators] want to have fresh faces because they only look at you as an object, like a kazari [ornament], akusesarii mitai ne [like an accessory, right], native speakers, White Caucasian, with blonde hair, blue eyes is the symbol of internationalization. So once they become older [laughs] they want to switch. That kind of attitude should be really changed. That’s like, you know, I keep calling these Japanese, many of the Japanese English teachers are racist .

Just as Janet alluded previously to job discrimination on the basis of age, Se-ri also mentioned above how the work status of foreign instructors depends on criteria which do not apply to our Japanese colleagues. Se-ri then insisted later on during the interview that one’s English teaching capabilities should not be judged according to ethnic/racial background and that “one day we really should erase the categorical names like native or non-native.” In the same vein, Mariah recounted an experience with racial discrimination in Japan where Filipino women must contend with the negative stereotypes ascribed to japayuki (female Filipino entertainers/sex workers):

      Andrea:  Tell me about when you were hired, I guess you went for an interview, or how

                     did you find out about the job? What was that like?

      Mariah:   Maybe I could start by not directly answering that one. I have another experience

                      when I first came to Japan. Because I’m very active in the Philippines and I want

                      to work right away, I tried calling a school. But that man, I never met him, I think

he’s biased.

Andrea:   What  happened?

Mariah:   Because the announcement said native speaker, but I tried. I mean, in the Philip-

                pines English is our official language, so everything is in English, policies,

                newspapers, etc., and they don’t particularize native speakers.

Andrea:   So, in Japan you’re not considered a native speaker?

Mariah:   Uh uh, as capable of teaching English, I don’t know, this is my judgment. And I

was thinking it’s not a matter of color or race or religion it’s a matter of how effective you are as a teacher. If you are Black, Brown, or White, small eyes, big eyes, it doesn’t matter.

Andrea:   Is there anything that you can remember specifically about what that man said

                that made you feel that there was a kind of bias about native or non-native?

Mariah:   So, in the hiring announcement itself, I already felt there is a bias. And when he

asked me over the phone, asking me about my country’s name, so there I remembered the announcement, what was written there. Though I wanted to tell him that, “Why don’t you just give me a chance to show if I’m capable or not. And if you think I’m not, then I’ll give up.”


Although born in a former British colony and educated in a boarding school in England, Diana nevertheless faced a similar problem as Mariah in pursuing a professional EFL teaching career:

     Andrea:   Do you feel when you apply for a job that there’s some sort of competition with

                     the White male or female Westerner?

     Diana:     I don’ t feel competition, what I feel is the Japanese are going to look at me, and  

                     I have to send a photo and they’ll just chuck it to the side when they see, first,  

                     South African, she can’t speak English, yet English is my first language and, I  

                     mean it is my first it’s not my native, but it’s my first language, you know what

                     I’m saying?

     Andrea:   I know exactly what you’re saying.

     Diana:     So it’s not so much that I feel competition, I feel they are going to look, they al-

                     ready have their stereotypical, you know, this teacher should be Australian or  

                     American or New Zealander or British or Canadian and then, you know, “You

                     can’t teach,” or “What are you doing applying.”

The participants’ sentiments above echo current discussions on “the professional hegemony of center-based ELT institutions” (Canagarajah, 1999, p. 127) in which native speakers of English are considered to be the sacred dispensers of “standard English.” Women of color from Outer Circle countries like Mariah and Diana therefore have an additional hurdle to leap in establishing their professional EFL teaching identities in Japan, not only because of their “non-White” status but also because of the “native speaker fallacy” (Phillipson, 1992) which privileges speakers/teachers of center-based Englishes. At every educational level from private language schools to junior and 4-year colleges in Japan, hiring preference is given to “native speakers” of English, as gleaned from a survey of 50 EFL job advertisements in the newspaper ( The Asahi Shimbun ) over an 11-month period (February – December, 2002). Of the 50 positions advertised, only 10 did not specify “native speaker” as part of the necessary qualifications, whereas the majority explicitly stated a preference for “native English speakers,” “British nationals,” or “North American English instructors.” Job opportunities in Japan for EFL teachers from non-center countries are severely limited due to ethnocentric attitudes towards English education.  

What am I afraid of?

For lesbian educators, the homophobic atmosphere prevailing in Japan (see Summerhawk, McMahill & McDonald, 1998) also constitutes a major obstacle to obtaining/maintaining a job as an EFL instructor. Because of this situation, Nicole, a lesbian employed at a university in southern Japan, after reading the transcript of our first interview, chose to withdraw from the study:

       Nicole:  I mean, I don’t, professionally knowing that I’m here in Japan I’d rather not slit

                    my throat. I’ve never had any problem but, I know my days are limited here, but

                    still I’d like to make it a pleasant experience, and also thinking about the future, I

don’t want to have any problems here that might continue someplace else.

Recognizing the importance of my research and wanting to help out, Nicole later suggested that I post a message on the Nihon dykenet asking lesbian/queer EFL educators to share some of their work stories, and the following is a composite summary of the responses:

Since coming to Japan, I am not out in my daily life, and it's pretty strange for me. There are a few teachers that I'm friends with, but beyond them, I just don't have much interest in revealing a lot about myself. Maybe my shyness and reluctance to talk about my personal life is related to my having been a lesbian all my adult life. Maybe I hate hearing people talk about their personal lives at work because I know that, even if I do, it won't be received in the same way. Why am I so closeted? That is a question I sometimes ask myself because in theory I think it would be better if more and more lesbians and other sexual minorities were out. What am I afraid of? That people's attitudes towards me might change. That my contract might not be renewed. That I might be laughed at. That I might become a more public figure. That I might always be viewed only as "the lesbian" rather than the multifaceted person I am. That I might be seen as a controversial person. I think it is much more difficult to come out as a university professor or teacher in elementary through H.S., especially if it is for a Christian school. Among my foreigner friends and in the EFL teaching community in general, I am very out. I think that being out among the foreigners here does make it easier to be closeted at work, even if nearly everyone around here is het. We'll see if things change, but as I'll only be here another year or so, I may keep to the status quo.

The personal/professional interactions of educators with different sexual identities therefore need to be adjusted to heteronormative societal norms in Japan in order “to keep to the status quo.” In this case, pedagogical ideals and practices may become divorced from one’s lesbian/queer/bisexual subjectivities creating a sense of isolation for the teacher and depriving students of the opportunity to reflect on sexuality issues, a situation which, as Stephanie Vandrick says, “could make an enormous difference in the academic atmosphere for all teachers and students, homosexual and heterosexual” (2001, p. 31).

The participants in this study are struggling against the grain as women in a male-dominant society, and, at the same time, straddling multiple and shifting realities of cultured/classed/raced/sexually-oriented “borderlands” (Anzald ú a, 1987) with/in which we all live. In a positive light, this border crossing or sense of “hybridity” (Bhaba, 1985) can be an empowering force not only at the level of an individual woman’s consciousness but also across diverse communities of marginalized people constructing new interpretations of a world in which difference is respected and not relegated to the borders.

Attitudes towards students and professional practices

The third aspect of the participants’ self-definitions as educators has direct implications for EFL teacher education. That is to say, biographical and sociocultural factors, together with ways of interpreting and dealing with career obstacles, as developed in the sections above, are intimately related to pedagogical practices and perceptions of the female educators’ role in EFL education in Japan. In his insightful book, Values in English Language Teaching (2003), Bill Johnston presents an alternative view of language education by emphasizing the moral dimensions of our teaching contexts. Particularly germane to the present study is Johnston’s analysis of teacher – student relationships and the legitimization of teachers’ knowledge-bases in discussions of teacher education. One very significant manifestation of the “value-laden nature of our work” (p. 5) is the philosophical attitude towards students and the act of teaching itself that educators adopt when describing their professional practices. Across all the life stories in this study, there was a recurring pattern of participants framing the mundane aspects of teaching (choice of textbook, curriculum, teaching methods, etc.) within an overarching moralistic stance towards EFL education vis à vis the personal, holistic needs of students. Norah, a single, 35-year old White American, explained it this way:

Norah:  I think English takes a second, a back seat, I think it’s really second place in my goals. They’re just opening up, just beginning to realize that there’s a world out there, and to offer them other viewpoints, to let them see that there are other people, other cultures other ways of doing things, other ways of thinking that they haven’t experienced before, that’s more important to me than English. If I can do that through English, terrific . Then they get two for the price of one.

In addition to her teaching job, Norah was an AIDS activist/educationist in Japan concerned with ways of creating a more meaningful EFL curriculum through a reconsideration of textbook choice:

     Norah:  Most textbooks that you find on the market paint a rosy picture of life and don’t deal with any issues at all, and really, in life the number one thing you deal with is problems and it could be as simple as, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying,” or you could take it up to the level of “I really don’t understand where you’re coming from,” or “Why is this problem happening in the world.” It’s just different degrees of it, so yeah, I think using social issues is a really good way to think in English and honestly discuss things with people rather than just practicing a dialog. How do we light that fire under the students to take the responsibility to do something about it, not that we have the solutions because we are not Japanese we’re not in this culture, we don’t have their experience, but what is it to motivate them to make change. And it’s nice to see people think about things, and I know Afghanistan had an effect on them, well, New York, the terrorism, and the aftermath of that. To know that these are people who someday might be in the UN representing Japan, or in some capacity, I don’t know, but it’s just so nice to see them being concerned about other people, it’s great.

As an Asian teacher of English in Japan, Se-ri also viewed the EFL classroom as a site for students to explore issues beyond their immediate language learning needs:

     Se-ri:    So, even though I’m an English teacher, I am very much interested in sociology and

                   I don’t think I can avoid the Korean issues. Since they’ve been talking about interna-

                   tionalization a lot in Japan, I think they should internationalize internally, to focus on

                   the foreigners living in Japan first.

     Andrea: Is there a large Korean student population here [at Se-ri’s university]?

     Se-ri:     Yeah, of course they are using their Japanese names and they are a very invisible

                   group. But once they have a Korean teacher, they might get encouraged, and the Japa-

                   nese students, they will change their views about Koreans. So I really owe something

                   to this school [for hiring me] and I can make a big contribution to this university.


Se-ri’s concern with making a comfortable learning environment for Korean students evolved from her own schooling experiences:

     Se-ri:   At the age of 18, I disclosed myself as a Korean. At the graduation ceremony, I asked the teacher to call me by my real name. At that time at our high school there were 20 Korean girls, but I was the only one who took the choice, the other Korean students said, “No way,” they didn’t want to lose their friends or something. And I went to [name of a prestigious college in Japan] and my GPA was very high and I was the top student, but the teacher told me that “I cannot introduce you to a bank because the Japanese municipal banks don’t hire Koreans.” So that was the first blow at my face of social discrimination. I was experiencing some kind of discrimination at the individual level, neighbors were giving us cold language like “dirty Korean.” That kind of thing is more on an individual level, but my job hunting experience was the first time for me to experience social discrimination.

Until elementary school teachers and family members surmised that Celine’s academic underachievement was due to a visual disability, she was, as she said, “shuffled off with the mentally handicapped group into a special education class.” This experience of being mislabeled as a child with a learning difficulty resurfaced in Celine’s approach to understanding students’ different learning styles:


    Celine: But when I look at that [slow learners] I think OK they could have had some kind of disability, so there’s all these different things out there that I’m aware of now, knowing mine, and just even the way someone learns a language, we have different ways of learning, some people learn by reading some people learn by listening some by taking notes. So I’m aware if a student’s not, it drove me nuts when I would hear other teachers say, “Well you better write this down.” “No, I don’t have to write this down. Just don’t bug me about it.” So, yeah, I don’t want to put that onto someone else. If they don’t take notes, great, that means they’re a listener. If they’re looking down, fine, that means they’re a listener, if they’re looking up at me, OK, then  they’re a visual, so I know there’s different learning techniques and hopefully I accept all of them, or at least acknowledge them.

Julia, who was in charge of hiring EFL instructors at her college, explained her reasons for explicitly seeking non-Western teachers of English:


     Julia:   I felt for our students, it’s risky, I know, I’ve taken a big risk and I don’t know how it’s going to go, a teacher from Afghanistan. I want the students, this is where I get idealistic, naïve probably, to see a model. I’d like to have a Japanese actually teaching listening, speaking. It’s ingrained in the Japanese students I think, that Japanese don’t speak English. What I want to do is break that, I want them to feel that whatever English they’ve got, they can use and to feel good about it and to work from there, to go from there. I feel that really strongly, they don’t have to sound like a Brit or an American. I’m trying to get them to use the English they have in order to communicate, and the people they’re going to be communicating with in most instances are going to be non-native speakers.

Julia then made a link between her “idealistic” views on students’ making English their own with her resistance or “writing back” (see Pennycook, 1989) to Western academia:


     Julia:   But when I was doing my thesis, at the same time I had this real personal reaction of wanting to write back, I guess from my own experience. And then I realized that, as a woman, I started writing about the politics of writing, you know, some of the things that have just come out about gender in academics, especially in academic writing. And my own feeling, of reacting against the West, reacting against Western, male academics that I was going to have to follow in order to get this thesis accepted, and it was a protest in a sense, I couldn’t write the thesis as an academic like I knew I should write it, I couldn’t do it, so I didn’t.


Mariko elaborated on her being “bullied” by male professors in her department, her reason for getting a doctorate degree, and the position she took in a teacher/student sexual harassment case at her college. Her account also portrayed the interconnectedness of the ideological and professional aspects of work contexts:

     Mariko:   Getting the doctorate was a way to establish myself, an indirect way of fighting a-  

                     gainst those guys [her male superiors in her department]. Because those teachers who taught before me, they were the ones who taught communicative English, that was their territory. So looking at me talking better than they could with native speakers, they felt jealous. And one day, one of those teachers told me, “You’re English is so vulgar.” And so I was careful not to speak [English] in front of him, even up to now. So, getting my doctorate changed me as a whole person I think. Just a kind of, uhm , it’s hard to put in language but I feel if something wrong happens, if something gets on my moral code, I’ll stand up and fight, like during the sexual harassment case involving a student. I had to do something, this is again a moral code, if I just go straight and ignore it, do nothing, that hurts me as a person. So I became the head of the sexual harassment committee and we succeeded in having the male teacher who was harassing students fired.

     Andrea:   Great. Why do you think you became the leader of that group?  

     Mariko:   Yeah, why? I’m different, you know.

     Andrea:    What do you mean? Are you older than the other teachers [on the committee]?

     Mariko:    No, I think I’m the youngest in a way. Actually, status-wise and seniority-wise I was the youngest and the lowest and, more than that, I was working in a different department. So whenever I talked to the teachers, “I feel kind of strange to be here and talking to you, but I can’t take it any longer.” Ah, because I’m the liaison person, that’s one thing, because those students trust me and disclose their bad experiences to me so I thought I had to stand up for them. But more than that, I don’t want to let it go, mou yurusenai [I  tolerate it any longer].

A teacher’s personal set of values, an integral part of one’s identity forged from a lifetime of social interactions, shape educational beliefs and professional practices which in turn affect students’ learning contexts. This is not a new finding in the TESOL field (see, e.g., Hall & Eggington, 2000); however, what was compelling about the stories in this study was the way in which participants articulated the different dimensions of their gendered/raced/classed/disabled subjectivities at the same time that they seemed to be dialectically engaged in an evolving redefinition of constraining discourses both in their own lives and in the lives of their students. Mariah eloquently expressed what I am attempting to develop here:

     Andrea:   So you feel that teaching English is one way of helping Japanese people?

Mariah:  Yeah, it’s very important for me. It’s an entry point. If my students will be very capable in using English in communicating with many nationalities or colors, they can come to be more open and flexible in any situation. They can also improve their image in society. I don’t know if this is a universal perspective, but in the Philippines, we have this perception of Japanese people, they are so closed, they don’t want to welcome other countries’ peoples. So maybe by learning the English language maybe that will help them open their shell, because they can communicate, so it will lead to many positive things. I think I have the ability to share something, I hope they can get something. I try to ask my students, try to think about something you did that you feel very proud of and maybe that will be the beginning of your feeling proud of yourself, this kind of feeling would help you in learning to speak English and expressing yourselves. And maybe I can help them express themselves by also expressing myself first. So I try to tell them, uh, the things that I did which I felt very proud of and made me feel happy, and it built my confidence.


For Janet, her experiences of being raised in a British, post-colonial family in India and then later on coming to grips with the ethnocentric tendencies of EFL education seemed to have played a part in shaping her pedagogical choices. She infuses a strong cultural studies component into the curriculum to encourage students to rethink, as she herself has, culturally embedded influences on identity formations:

     Janet:   You’re born into a historical time and that is going to influence all kinds of expectations you have and you’re also born into a gender, and you’re born into a family and your sibling rank is going to influence things. Your specific culture influences family and relations, you’re born into a region, and so on, the concentric circles go out. And I use that model with the freshmen as a way of looking at identity because of the whole business of “we Japanese are all the same.” Because what you end up with is, OK, you’ve got all these concentric circles but, and these things are all like influences or onion skins around you but affect the identity you have. But none of those skins is going to have a uniform effect on you and that’s what allows individuality to appear, to whatever extent it does. And so we go through this thing step by step and, uhm, “OK, so you were born into what historical time, what have been the key influences, what expectations do you have?” I mean I usually have to get it started by saying, “You know, when I was born we didn’t have refrigerators” [laughs].

     Andrea: Really?

     Janet:   Really. Listen, I was born in the third world, that was Britain, you know, we didn’t

                   have fridges, we had this little box I remember punching my hand through it to get at   the cheese and we were still on rations when I was born you know, so I do that. Of course the students all go, “Oh my God, she’s even older than we thought she was!” Or, even the expectations of going to college and careers and that sort of thing. And then we get to gender and what kind of expectations that have been placed on them, and they’re not always aware of it but with a little bit of thinking they get there. Particularly as we’ve had people with slightly different identities appearing here recently.

Mariah and Janet’s descriptions of their teaching practices reflect postmodern feminist educationists’ theories concerning “deconstructive” (Lather, 1991) or “engaged” (hooks, 1994) pedagogies. Both teacher and student subjectivities become transformed when personal histories are used as teaching tools to explore both how prevailing discourses shape our identities and what alternative discourses are available to reinvent ourselves in more empowering ways.

Ultimately, in constructing their EFL educator identities the participants drew on personal experiences which have mediated the reciprocal relationship between interpretations of self and pedagogical practices. Put differently, the stories that teachers tell and live by are discursive displays of professional and personal beliefs situated in specific social worlds and realized through interactions with others.



A close look at teacher narratives can enhance an understanding of our membership in a “TESOL culture” (Edge, 1996) wherein the sole aim is not to discover the most effective techniques but rather to explore how “the theoretical, the professional, and the personal intermingle” (p. 25). More specifically, through an examination of our own and other female EFL educators’ lived experiences, teachers and teacher educators can begin to realize

how female teacher identities are discursively constructed,

why professional discourses and identity formations are inscribed by gendered/sociocultural inequities, and

what progressive transformations are needed to allow alternative, more empowering discourses to become a part of female educators’ “professional knowledge landscapes” (Clandinin & Connolly, 1995).

     The above points hold direct relevance to administrative decisions on what constitutes EFL/ESL teacher education policies and goals which have historically depended on (mostly male) theorists’ interpretations of (mostly female) practitioners’ experiences (Pennycook, 1989). This does not mean adopting a “just add a feminist perspective and stir” approach, but rather initiating a bottom-up reconceptualization of how best to prepare prospective (male and female) teachers to politically address restrictive or inequitable societal conditions in their teaching contexts.

In addition to the implications for teacher education, the stories in this study speak to an ongoing need in the TESOL field to better understand how ideologies of marginalization and discrimination work and how to confront them through our professional practices. The stories both include and go beyond gender issues by examining the complex interaction of hegemonic ideologies, identity constructions, and ways of being in the world. For example, Diana and Mariah have struggled, with varying levels of success, against White, native speakerism and ethnocentric protectionism in Japan. Se-ri has managed, after considerable perseverance in the face of ethnic discrimination, to use her prestigious position as a college professor to fight back on both an individual and institutional level. Having experienced marginalization in the EFL profession and their personal lives because of skin color and racial/ethnic origin, these educators have chosen to challenge the system in their own unique ways. Diana and Mariah encourage students to consider alternative ways of expanding their self-images beyond the confines of conservative cultural values and practices of educational institutions and society as a whole. Se-ri has extended her personal battle against discrimination in the EFL workplace by speaking out in both local and international professional forums on behalf of “outsiders” in the Japanese higher education system.

The situations of White educators reveal a more subtle and complex interaction of ideological forces and teacher identities. For a variety of reasons, White native speakerism is valued by educational institutions; however, many educators who fit the preferred stereotypical “young, White, blue-eyed, 100% American” category most often find themselves prevented from becoming full participating members in Japanese academic and social spheres. This convoluted inclusion/exclusion mechanism has resulted in employment policies which reproduce ethnocentric attitudes towards the role of EFL in Japan and sustain a myopic vision of intercultural dialogue wherein boundary maintenance rather than crossing is the norm. Reacting to this stifling condition, the participants in this study have attempted to change the ideological status quo by exposing their students to alternative perspectives on global and social concerns. Julia has taken a proactive stance against racist practices by recruiting non-White, non-native EFL teachers in order to re-align the imbalance in hiring preferences. In so doing, she has elevated the status of educators in disadvantaged positions in Japan and has provided Japanese students with non-native English-speaking models who more accurately represent the state of English language use throughout the world. Janet’s cultural studies program is aimed at raising awareness of how a homogeneous version of  “we Japanese” leaves little room for students to explore the multiple layers (gendered/classed/linguistic/sociocultural) of their own unique identities. Norah has combined AIDS education and EFL instruction in her classroom to impress on students the fact that English learning should not be seen as an activity useful only for going abroad to buy a pair of designer shoes. In Japan, individuals with AIDS/HIV and people who identify as gay-lesbian  are highly stigmatized groups whose only chance for legitimate recognition and understanding lie in socially aware educational policies aimed at replacing an overemphasis on decontextualized subject matter with curricula more attuned to the concerns of a society’s marginalized members. Through discussion on the above issues, foreign and indigenous educators together can create a powerful vehicle to contest oppressive ideologies in our own lives and in the lives of our students, as the female educators in this study are attempting to do through their EFL teaching philosophies and goals.  

In closing, this study contributes to a small but growing body of TESOL research projects which adopt a narrative inquiry methodology to “present experience holistically in all its complexity and richness” (Bell, 2002, p. 209). The dialogically constructed nature of a life history narrative moves it far beyond the realm of narcissistic navel gazing to a theoretically informed approach which allows us to “better understand how the stories are being told, why they are being told in a particular way, and whose stories remain untold – or, for that matter, not heard – for a variety of reasons” (Pavlenko, 2002, p. 217). Through a close examination of teachers’ stories, the political and ideological underpinnings of the TESOL field can be uncovered and re-worked towards more progressive ends, as Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot explained in her plenary address:

      We will only begin to recognize the limitations and distortions of narrowly constructed analyses and policies when we begin to accumulate rich and various stories, and when because of their increasing number and power they begin to shape a new public discourse (Baltimore, 1994).


[1]Usually associated with the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973) and the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner (1990), this multidisciplinary movement encompasses a wide range of methodological approaches of which narrative inquiry is one strand. For the current study, I have adopted Polkinghorne's (1988) concept of narrative in its various forms (biographies, autobiographies, oral and written stories, myths, diaries, life histories, testimonios) as "a scheme by means of which human beings give meaning to their experience of temporality and personal actions" (p. 11) and, more specifically, Ochs and Capps' (2001) notion of storytelling as "social exchanges in which interlocutors build accounts of life events . . . . a tool for collaboratively reflecting upon specific situations and their place in the general scheme of life" (p. 2).

[2]See, e.g., Fujimura-Fanselow and Kameda's (1995) collection of essays by female Japanese scholars who present a comprehensive picture of the status of professional Japanese women within the confines of traditional educational, economic, cultural, and political norms. Liddle and Nakajima (2000) sum up their case study investigation of 120 professional women by suggesting that Japanese women have been denied, in both overt and subtle ways, the right to move beyond established societal ideologies that define them "primarily by their relationship to domesticity, reproduction and the family" (p. 317).

[3] In interview data, except for the researcher, the names of participants and places are pseudonyms. The following transcription conventions are used: italics (English) = emphasis marking via raised voice pitch, quality, and/or volume; a short overlapping utterance is indicated within the embedding utterance, enclosed by slashes. For easier readability, punctuation marks have been added and speech dysfluencies removed or restored. Brackets are used to enclose laughter and other noises, nonverbal actions, or any explanatory material.


I sincerely thank my participants for allowing me a window into their complex lives. I also thank the special issue editors, Kathryn Davis in particular, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments. Christine Pearson Casanave and Stephanie Vandrick provided encouragement on early versions of this article. Conversations with Dwight Atkinson about postmodernism and narrative inquiry helped me design the study’s conceptual framework.


Andrea Simon-Maeda is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Nagoya Keizai University (Junior College Division) in Japan. She is a White, middle-aged American who has been teaching college level EFL in Japan for the past 29 years and is a fluent Japanese speaker married to a Japanese. She recently completed a doctoral program in Japan, and her research interests include critical ethnography in educational contexts and postmodern feminism.


Anzald ú a, G. (1987). Borderlands/La frontera: The new mestiza . San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

Atkinson, R. (1998). The life story interview . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays . Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael

     Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Belcher, D., & U. Connor. (2001). Reflections on multiliterate lives . Clevedon: Multilingual


Bell, J. S. (2002). Narrative inquiry: More than just telling stories. TESOL Quarterly, 36 , 207-212.

Bhabha, H. K. (1985). Signs taken for wonders: Questions of ambivalence and authority under a tree out-

     side Delhi, May 1817. In H. L. Gates, Jr. (Ed.), “Race,” writing and difference (pp. 163-184). Chicago:

     University of Chicago.

Braine, G. (Ed.). (1999). Non-native educators in English language teaching . Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Britzman, D. (2000). “The question of belief”: Writing poststructural ethnography. In E. St. Pierre &

     W. Pillow (Eds.), Working the ruins: Feminist poststructural theory and methods in education (pp.

     27-40). New York: Routledge.

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Canagarajah, A. S. (1996). From critical research practice to critical research reporting . TESOL

     Quarterly , 30, 321-331.

Canagarajah, A. S. (1999). Resisting linguistic imperialism in English teaching. Oxford: Oxford Uni-

     versity Press.

Casanave, C. P., & Schecter, S. (Eds.). (1997 ). On becoming a language educator: Personal essays on

     professional development. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Chase, S. (1995). Ambiguous empowerment: The work narratives of women school superintendents .

     Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (1995). Teachers’ professional knowledge landscapes: Secret, sa-

     cred, and cover stories. In F. Connelly & D. Clandinin (Eds.), Teachers’ professional knowledge

     landscapes (pp. 1-15). New York: Teachers College Press.

Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1987). On narrative method, biography and narrative unities in the

     study of teaching. Journal of Educational Thought, 21 , 130-139.

Crystal, D. (1997). English as a global language . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davies, B. (1993). Shards of glass: Children reading and writing beyond gendered identitie s. Cresskill,

     NJ: Hampton Press.

Duff, P., & Uchida, Y. (1997). The negotiation of teachers’ sociocultural identities and practices in

     postsecondary EFL classrooms, TESOL Quarterly, 31 , 451-486.

Edge, J. (1996). Cross-cultural paradoxes in a profession of values. TESOL Quarterly, 30 , 9-30.

5.4% jobless rate for 2002 is highest in a half-century. (2003, February 2). The Asahi Shimbun, p. 19.

Foucault, P. (1980). Truth and power. In C. Gordon (Ed.), Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and

     other writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books.

Freeman, D. (1996). Redefining the relationship between research and what teachers know. In K. M.

     Bailey, & D. Nunan (Eds . ), Voices from the language classroom: Qualitative research in second

     language education (pp. 88-115). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Freeman, D., & Johnson, K. (1998). Reconceptualizing the knowledge-base of language teacher educa-

     tion. TESOL Quarterly, 32 , 397-418.

Fujimura-Fanselow, K., & Kameda, C. (Eds.). (1995). Japanese women: New feminist perspectives on

     the past, present, and future . New York: the Feminist Press at The City University of New York.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures . New York: Basic Books.

Gluck, P., & Patai, D. (Eds.). (1991). Women’s words: The feminist practice of oral history . New

     York: Routledge.

Haig, E. (1999). Do foreign EFL teachers at Japanese universities have careers?. Unpublished Mas-

     ter’s thesis, Birmingham, Aston University.

Hall, J. K., & Eggington, W. (2000). The sociopolitics of English language teaching . Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters, Ltd.

Haraway, D. (1997). A manifesto for cyborgs: Science, technology, and socialist feminism in the

     1980s. In L. Nicholson (Ed.), Feminism/Postmodernism (pp. 190-233). New York: Routledge.

Harklau, L. (2000). From the “Good Kids” to the “Worst”: Representations of English language

     learners across educational settings. TESOL Quarterly, 34 , 35-68.

Holstein, J., & J. Gubrium. (1995). The active interview . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom . New York: Routledge.  

Japan Almanac, (2001). Asahi shimbun Japan almanac 2001 . Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun Publishing


Johnson, K., & P. Golombek. (Eds.). (2002). Teachers’ narrative inquiry as professional development.

     Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Johnston, B. (1997). Do EFL teachers have careers? TESOL Quarterly, 31 , 681-712.

Johnston, B. (2003). Values in English language teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Associ-

     ates, Inc., Publishers.

Kachru, B.B. (1989). Teaching world Englishes. Indian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 15, 85-95.

Kanno, Y. (2000). Bilingualism and identity: The stories of Japanese returnees. International Journal

     of  Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 3 , 1-18.

Lather, P. (1991). Getting smart: Feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern. London:


Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1994). Plenary address at the 28 th Annual TESOL Convention, Baltimore,


Liddle, J., & Nakajima, S. (2000). Rising suns, rising daughters: Gender class and power in Japan.

     London: Zed Books.

Luke, C., & Gore, J. (1992). Women in the academy: Strategy, struggle, survival. In C. Luke & J. Gore

     (Eds.), Feminisms and critical pedagogy (pp. 192-210). New York: Routledge.

McKay, S. (1992). Teaching English overseas: An introduction . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McMahill, C. (1998). A look at Women in Education and Language Learning (WELL). The Language

     Teacher, 22 , 40-43.

McVeigh, B. (2002). Japanese higher education as myth . New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.

NVivo (2002). QSR International Pty. Melbourne, Australia.

Ochs, E., & Capps, L. (2001). Living narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Olesen, v. (2000). Feminisms and qualitative research at and into the millennium. In N. K. Denzin &

     Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research, 2 nd edition (pp. 215-266). Thousand Oaks:


Pavlenko, A. (1998). Second language learning by adults: Testimonies of bilingual writers. Issues in

     Applied Linguistics, 9 , 3-19.

Pavlenko, A. (2002). Narrative study: Whose story is it, anyway? TESOL Quarterly, 36 , 213-218.

Pennycook, A. (1989). The concept of method, interested knowledge and the politics of language teaching,

     TESOL Quarterly, 23 , 589-618.

Pennycook, A. (1999). Introduction: Critical approaches to TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 33 , 329-348.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Polkinghorne, D. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences . Albany, NY: State University of

     New York Press.

Reinharz, S. (1992). Feminist methods in social research . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Skrla, L. (2000). Mourning silence: Women superintendents (and a researcher) rethink speaking up and

     speaking out. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education , 13, 611-628.

Smulyan, L. (2000). Feminist cases of nonfeminist subjects: Case studies of women principals. Inter-

     national Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education , 13 , 589-611.

Summerhawk, B., McMahill, C., & McDonald, D. (1998). Queer Japan: Personal stories of Japanese

     lesbians, gays, transsexuals and bisexuals. Norwich, VT: New Victoria Press.

Tamboukou, M. (2000). The paradox of being a woman teacher. Gender and Education, 12 , 463-478.

Vandrick, S. (2001). Teachers’ cultures, teachers’ stories. Journal of Engaged Pedagogy , 1, 19-39.

Weiler, K. (1988). Women teaching for change: Gender, class and power . Westport, CT: Bergin &

     Garvey Publishers, Inc.

Appendix A

Participant profiles


Celine is 30 years old, White, and has worked her way up the EFL teaching hierarchy -- private English conversation school, high school, part-time college instructor. Presently teaching full-time college EFL, both Celine and her husband, also an EFL instructor, are American. Celine has developed various reading and writing strategies in her academic and personal life to compensate for her visual disability and feels that this has made her more aware of students’ different learning styles.


Diana is a 40-year-old Black South African who, in addition to her part-time college EFL job, works part-time as a singer in a hotel. Married to a Japanese businessman, Diana previously worked at the local United Nations Development office and taught high school English. Having lived in Africa, the U. S., the UK, and Japan, Diana has a very cosmopolitan view of life and has decided to send her son to an international school in Japan to avoid what she perceives to be a stifling Japanese educational system.



Janet is a single, White, 50-year-old British woman whose mother’s family was in colonial India from 1800-1947. Janet was brought up partly in various ex-colonies and then educated at UK and U. S. institutions. Janet has taught EFL in Japanese universities for 25 years and has led teacher training workshops in Japan, the U. S. and Thailand. Due to her age, Janet is worried about finding an equivalent job when her current contract expires. She makes a point of incorporating cultural studies material in her EFL classes in order to encourage students to reflect on their own culture and identities.


Julia, a 48-year-old expatriate White American, is married to an unemployed Japanese man and they have one child. Having lived in Japan for 29 years and having received her undergraduate degree from a Japanese university, her Japanese fluency is highly valued by her university as it enables her to help out with administrative duties. However, Julia feels that the school has placed more emphasis on her being, as she described, “100% American.”  


Mariah and her husband are both Filipino, and they came to Japan with their two children 5 years ago because of her husband’s research. An active NGO worker while in the Philippines, Mariah, 33, is now a part-time college teacher. Although hoping to find a full-time EFL teaching job, she is unsure of her prospects because of the negative image of Philippine women in Japan and her “non-native English speaker” status. She and her family have decided to return to the Philippines in the near future.


Mariko, a Japanese from a lower socioeconomic background, is both a full-time EFL college teacher and teacher-educator married to an American. At 45 years old, Mariko is a full professor, but she maintains that the sexual harassment in her department has constrained her professional life. For this reason, attaining a doctorate degree was her attempt to re-align the power asymmetries she sees as existing between the male and female teaching staff in her department.

Nicole and the composite participant

A 28-year old White lesbian educator working at a well-known university, Nicole chose to withdraw from the research in order not to jeapordize her future employment chances. From the information Nicole gave me during our interview and also from several messages received on the Nihon dykenet from lesbian EFL educators, it is clear that the homophobic atmosphere in Japan makes it difficult for these women be open about their sexual identities while job hunting and at work in the classroom.



Norah is White, American, 35 years old, single, and an AIDS activist/educationist who includes a social issues component in her college EFL curriculum. Having recently received her Master’s degree through a long-distance course, Norah would like to continue on to a doctoral program to secure her college teaching position. However, because she is on a non-renewable, 2-year contract at her college and supporting her mother who lives in the U.S., Norah feels that pursuing a costly doctorate degree is not financially possible at this point in her career.



Se-ri is a second-generation 48-year old Korean married to an Iranian and received her Master’s and Doctorate degrees from U.S. institutions. She is active in TESOL’s Non-native English Speakers caucus and is openly critical of the racist treatment that Koreans living in Japan were subjected to after World War II and the continuation of discriminatory practices in Japanese society. She feels that her own experiences have made her more aware of the unfair treatment of foreigners living and working in Japan.