Naked Japanese

Guest post by Akita Ben

Well, wish I could say I’ve been too busy enjoying life in Japan to write any updates, but that depends on whether you consider spending the better part of February binge-watching The Sopranos as being busy. Or Japan. Nothing like watching an American drama about Italians to make one really appreciate living abroad.

I survived the long snowy winter, which coming from California, was my first real experience with freezing cold. Actually not so bad, though I was lucky since this year was exceptionally mild by Northern Japan standards. Still, any amount of snow is a lot to me, but I was able to endure it and drive in it without incident. I’m actually quite proud of myself. I even enjoy the snow – though, not gonna lie, I’m thrilled that spring is coming. I’ve now been in Japan for half a year and have come to discover a bit about myself and the place in that time . . .

Working as an ALT in Japan

Although working in Japanese public schools as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) can be unstimulating, and I often find myself for hours with nothing to do, my students are great. They’re good kids, and while not exactly thrilled about English class (which makes two of us), I’ve no complaints with them. Some even seem to like me and try to initiate conversations. They also work extremely hard – well, outside of my class, anyway. Some of this is good, especially compared to what passes as the work ethic of many American students (procrastination was my favorite subject). But it can also be bleak.

School is Life, School is Work, Work is Life

For Japanese students, school’s their life. They have so much pressure, so many demands placed upon them. While it’s beneficial to learn the values of hard work and discipline, they also don’t get to be kids. They constantly have to juggle homework, studying for exams, going to club activities, practicing for sports, and more studying.

With whatever else they have going on in their personal lives, it’s amazing that they have any time to sleep. Many say they go to bed at midnight, and I’ve seen white hairs dotting the heads of a startling amount of kids, who spend class time picking at their scalps and gnawing their cuticles raw.

For the ones going on to high school this spring, there’s the added pressure of competing with everyone else; and the competition can be even more intense in a small town like mine due to the limited options. If they don’t score high enough on the entrance exam the first time, they get one more chance. If they don’t make it that time, well, my Japanese teacher trailed off at that point in his explanation but it sounds like a lifetime of part-timing at Lawson.

Japanese Teachers

The teachers also work incredibly hard. Everyone’s there when I breeze in at 8:30 and remains when I breeze back out around 4:00. Most won’t go home until 6:00 or later, despite not getting paid for working after 4:30. There’s work to be done and they simply have to do it, regardless of what the clock says. At least the retirement plan is good, or so I’ve been told by envious private sector employees.

In Japan, teachers aren’t simply teachers. They’re also in charge of clubs and other school activities. If their clubs are active on Saturday, and they usually are, then the teachers have to work. They essentially live at the school, and while this is admirable, in a way, it’s also disheartening and a great recipe for burn-out. Add to that workload the stress of having to change schools every few years. Japanese teachers can’t even settle into their schools before they have to pick up and start all over again. They’ve little time for their own families and lives outside of the school, which brings me to my next topic: loneliness.

Alone Together

I’ve met many Japanese professionals in their mid- to late-thirties who are single, childless, and yearning for marriage and a family. Most are women and it’s especially hard for them, since their chances at having kids get slimmer with each passing year. These ladies are attractive, decent people, with good jobs and financial stability. There should be nothing holding them back. And yet, they’re simply incapable of meeting potential spouses, even though they try.

Part of the problem is the long work hours. They simply don’t have time for romance and child-rearing. But there’s also something deeper at play, something sad and amorphous within the society that makes it so people can’t connect on an intimate level with one another. So, they watch their youthful years pass by in solitude as they plug away at their jobs for no extra pay because that’s what’s expected of them and that was the primary objective of their education, to do what’s expected.

Standing on Ceremony

Speaking of expectations, rigid seriousness and decorum are the norm, which can be tedious. Everything must be a ceremony complete with standing at attention, bowing, and the delivering of formulaic speeches by both teachers and students alike. Of course, it doesn’t help that I can’t understand what’s going on, but even if I did, I’d still feel like bashing my head against a wall. Nothing can ever just be casual and relaxed. Everything’s a big ordeal. Even parties with fellow teachers have a formal structure complete with robotic speeches, and the binge drinking involved seems more like a social obligation than actual mirth.

Japanese life is constantly corralled by rules and regulations, most of which are unspoken because they have been drilled into the people since childhood, and there is typically only one right way of doing something. Society has its script, everyone has their role, and everyone must follow this script. Or else.

Personally, at times I’ve found Japan a challenging place to live. Maybe if I spent more time learning Japanese things would improve, but I don’t always want to make the effort to talk with Japanese folks. Either they’re not interesting, or I’m not. Fortunately, I do have a few friends who are cool, but the majority of Japanese people don’t seem to have many life insights, deeply-held beliefs, or even opinions. Not that your average American is the most interesting person on the planet, but, if nothing else, Americans are full of opinions.

Japanese people sure do care about work though, which is what gives their lives meaning. And even though most people I encounter have been kind and helpful, I feel that they aren’t particularly interested in me, either. Of course, I recognize there’d likely be more of a mutual interest between us if I actually attempted speaking with them more in their native language. But, like I said, that would require motivation and actual studying. So I spend much of my time alone, in my apartment. Thank God I’ve got a good WiFi connection. I really only go out to go to my local onsen (hot springs) or the supermarket.

Naked Friendship

Japan is beautiful though. It promotes itself as being a land of natural beauty, with four distinct seasons, and it really does live up to that. And with this natural beauty comes a particular appreciation for nature that the Japanese have. Contrary to much of the marketing surrounding Japan, your average Japanese person isn’t sipping green tea, composing haiku, and gazing out at a rock garden in blissful Zen tranquility.

As Ken described, they love wrapping things in plastic and then wrapping that plastic in plastic, which seems oddly counter-intuitive given how OCD they are about sorting their trash. I have so many plastic bags that I use them instead of packing peanuts to send packages back home.

The Moon and the Flowers

So, they’re not necessarily environmentally conscious and as consumeristic as any American. But they do have a general appreciation for and connection to nature that’s woefully lacking in America.

Like, they have a day just for appreciating the moon, and the students were served a special moon-themed lunch at school (school lunches in Japan are excellent, by the way; it really puts American “lunches” to shame and goes to show how, even though the school system does overwork the students, the health and well-being of students is valued as a necessary and essential part of their education). Currently, the news is tracking the northward progression of the cherry blossoms. That would never happen in America. Flowers? Who gives a hoot? And where the appreciation for nature really shines is in the onsen.

Japanese Hot Springs

I never thought it would be so nice to scrub up and soak next to a bunch of random strangers but it really is the height of civilization. Going to Japanese hot springs has become my favorite pastime, and I’m blessed to have an amazing one just ten minutes’ drive from my house. I go there almost every day to sit in the outdoor pool and gaze out at the mountains.

I’ve watched the same ridge go from the deep green of summer to the red of fall to the white of winter. And even though I was extremely anxious about sitting cheek and jowl next to a bunch of naked old Japanese guys when I first started going, I’ve come to accept the nudity as simply a natural part of life.

Naked Japanese

Maybe the nude male body isn’t as beautiful as the trees on the hillside, and believe me, there are moments when I’ve turned my head and seen something that I wish I hadn’t seen straight on. But I’ve come to accept the human body in all its forms. There’s something humbling about being so exposed, putting all your flaws and hidden parts out there. In fact, the Japanese have a saying for it: hadaka no tsukiai or “naked friendship,” which sounds like a very tame adult film title. But it speaks to the equalizing effects of nudity. At the onsen, regardless of who we are, we’re all naked together, there’s no hiding our unsightly blotches and bulges, and in this naked state we can all enjoy some scalding hot sulfurous water and watch the snow fall on the cedars.

It’s weird that, given how private the Japanese appear in everyday life, this public bathing is such a popular thing. But it’s probably necessary for them to let it all hang out once in a while for their own sanity. Likewise, it’s no wonder that they harnessed the relaxing energies of natural hot springs. They need some way to release all the stress of those 12-hour work days, otherwise they’d all keel over.

The Promise of Spring

While I enjoy the onsen, Japan has been a lonely place. I understand that a lot of this doesn’t have to do with Japan or the Japanese themselves but with myself. I came to Japan because it was my dream since high school to live here and teach English. For years, I had very little going on in my life, couldn’t figure myself out, and was miserable in my stagnant state. So, I finally made it here in the hopes that this experience would finally give me what I needed in order to make sense of my life and reach that state of fulfillment I was yearning for.

Well, that hasn’t happened, and I wouldn’t recommend coming to Japan for anyone with the goal of “finding” yourself, or if you have, like me, a melancholy disposition. Also, I would advise against trying to maintain a long-distance relationship while in Japan. In some ways, that only magnifies the loneliness.

Life as a Foreigner in Japan

I’ve definitely grown in many ways, namely in my job, adapting to a new climate, and just generally living as a foreigner in a strange new land, but I haven’t been able to answer any of the big existential questions of what I want in life or who I am.

In terms of self-improvement, I’ve largely doubled down on all my usual bad habits and personality flaws, isolating myself from others and wasting time on social media and Netflix that would’ve been better spent exploring and taking the initiative to change my situation. I thought uprooting and changing my environment would provide clarity, but, of course, I just ended up moving here with a suitcase full of problems and compounding them with the challenges that come from living in a foreign country.

That said, by and large, this has been a great experience and I don’t regret coming here. I recognize that the ways in which it has been trying are mostly due to my own thoughts and behaviors, and that it’s up to me to make the most of this opportunity. Japan’s an amazing, beautiful, confusing, and maddening place. However long I end up here, I’ll always be grateful for the experience and Japan will never cease to have a hold on me.

After honestly appraising myself and Japan, I’m hoping the coming months will enable me to be more open-minded, optimistic, grateful, and adventurous. I’m anxiously awaiting spring, so I can lay back on the grass, sipping nihonshu and one or two malted beverages, while watching the sakura petals fall.

32 Replies to “Naked Japanese”

    1. Hey Gaurab,

      For Christmas/New Year’s, my girlfriend actually flew out to visit me. We went to places in and around my hometown in Japan, notably an onsen with no electricity that is illuminated only by oil lamps, which was beautiful and romantic. Then, we took the shinkansen down to Tokyo for a few days and did many of the main touristy things there. We even visited a hedgehog cafe, which seemed a bit unsanitary but was fun.

      I actually just came back from visiting Tokyo again during my spring break, this time with a friend from back home. We went to Kyoto/Osaka for a couple days and spent most of our time in Tokyo checking out the cherry blossoms at the various parks and eating/drinking among the crowds of people there. It was very relaxing and I’m a bit sad to be back in my hometown, especially since it’s snowing here again and it will take a few more weeks for the cherry blossoms to make their way up here. C’est la vie.

      1. On the upside, you get to see cherry blossom twice in the same year.

        Actually, your post had a tinge of hollowness which comes with living in Japanese countryside, that resonated with my own early experiences of Japan. During those days, I found solace in going around other parts of the country, usually west and south to Hiroshima, Kagoshima and the lot. So, I was just hoping that you weren’t cooped up in your “mansion” with some cans of beer, corn soup, and coffee, like someone we know here. Glad to know you are doing well. Keep us updated.

        By the way, where is this oil lamp lit onsen that you speak of?

  1. Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed reading it, and I felt very connected to you, learning about Japanese life first-hand like that, and imagining your life in a strange land. Perhaps knowing about the connectedness that your writing creates will help you with the search for meaning that you talk about.

    It also helps me appreciate life in America more (I’m in San Francisco) and all the opinionated Americans. I am myself from Brazil and came to the US 20 years ago for grad school and stayed.

  2. Nice post!
    “I haven’t been able to answer any of the big existential questions of what I want in life or who I am” Well, I doubt a lot of people know, it’s a confuse question that has different answers depending on your perspective.
    You may want to be an english teacher today but tomorrow you and Ken decide you should open an izakaya, who know?
    For now, try to make the most of it!

    1. Thank you for the praise and the encouragement. I need to take that to heart and truly just make the most of what I have now and enjoy the moment. And since you mention it, maybe opening that izakaya was what I came here to do all along.

      Did you catch that Ken? Looks like we’re going into business together. Now to think of a name for our izakaya…

  3. Very much appreciate your posts so far, Ben. They’re a great deal candid and “naked”. Perhaps you compose these thoughts while in onsen?

    Looking forward to more content from you and seeing how your writing and perspective evolves. Don’t know what you were doing before Japan, but would you say it has given you something worthwhile to write about?

    Take care.

    1. I’m happy to hear that you appreciate my posts. I do think a lot while I’m in the onsen, so perhaps you’re right. However, my goal at the onsen is to try to clear my mind and focus on the experience of the moment itself instead of being in my head as I most often am. Still working on that.

      And yes, I would say that I definitely have something worth writing about now that I’m in Japan. I hope to keep more content coming for you. Again, I’m glad that you enjoy it.

  4. Hi Ben,
    Great post. I can really connect to what you are experiencing. Japan has had a grip on me for the longest time too. Until a couple of years ago I had a rather naive image of what life there would be like though but even after the reality check of this blog (cheers Ken :-D) I would still like to try and live there at some point.
    As for the big questions I think going abroad and having these new experiences is definitely a good thing. For me looking back at what points in my life I was happiest helped me decide on what I wanted to do with myself. So maybe the more you try out new things the better.
    Looking forward to your next post 🙂

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and that you felt connected to me through my writing. It means a lot, truly. While writing this, I didn’t really think anyone would want to read it, let alone feel a sense of connection. So, maybe you’re right. Maybe I need to write more and share my experiences with others to find that sense of meaning that evades me.

      Japan is definitely attractive and maybe even “better” than America in many ways (notably, being able to drink and picnic under the cherry blossoms in a public park without incident and everything being relatively clean and orderly – no brawls or pools of vomit everywhere), but I, too, have come to appreciate America more as well, since I’ve been away.

      Happy to hear that you stayed in America and I hope all continues to go well for you in that great country of ours.

      1. Seems like this was a reply to my comment (since you mention appreciating America more and staying in it). Just so you know I still got it, thank you! 🙂

    2. Hey, Daniel.

      Sorry about the earlier mismatched reply. Thank you for your kind words. I’m glad you find my writing enjoyable and edifying. Like you, I yearned to live in Japan for many years before actually coming here. And I’m glad I did it. No regrets.

      You’re doing the right thing reading up on Japan and learning about the benefits and drawbacks and the simple reality of living here. Ken’s writing was immensely beneficial to me before I came, as well. If I can continue that favor by helping you and others who want to come here, then it’s the least I can do.

      There are many ways to come and live and work in Japan, especially if you don’t mind teaching English. When you’re ready to make the move, come on over.

  5. Mid to late 30s is the main impediment for women in Japan; guys in Japan say women are like Christmas cakes, old and stale after the 25th. Good pickings for you, though.

    Capice?

    1. Yeah, I suppose if I was looking, it would be a good opportunity for me to meet an “older” Japanese woman (I’m not that much younger than they are). But, since I’m not, I just feel sorry for them.

      I sincerely hope that they can find love and companionship.

  6. Great post Ben!
    Thought provoking.

    In past I have snickered when hearing Japan boast of uniquely having 4 seasons. I guess really they are just missing a word – they uniquely (or more than average) Appreciate all 4 seasons.

    Regarding the seeming lack of opinions, I think its a topic worth deep consideration. I’m thinking that the public facing persona (the tatemae) is carefully curated, almost to a paranoid level. Only ‘safe’ thoughts and preferences are allowed out, for fear of being perceived as not following the rules, or offending some third party.
    For example, what do Japan people tell you is their hobby? One of the most common I have heard stated is Golf. Really? Or maybe Golf is just an expected safe answer, when some otaku variation would only be revealed to a very close friend.
    A related factor is the expected duration of foreigners in Japan. Everyone knows you are expected to VISIT for a few years and then return to your home country. Japanese people just dont have much experience with foreigners being allowed to stay long enough to actually learn the language and become important members of the community. So, no need to invest any effort in the relationship beyond ‘give the foreigner a nice impression of Japan’ so that they send their friends to visit and shop too. Maybe it’s just hard for them to see any upside to telling you a real opinion.

    I also wonder about the safety net. I think the theory is that if a Japanese person follows the rules and expectations, society will take care of him or her. If the person tries something different.. well, they better succeed – because no one will give a second chance to a failure. But how much does society really reward the rule-follower? Lifetime employment with national healthcare perhaps? I’d like to hear some Japanese thoughts on the risks and returns of innovation among regular people.

    I think in today’s society of any public speech having the potential to be broadcast globally, more and more discourse is formulaic. Speeches given at schools, at companies, and by politicians (in any country) are basically worthless in my opinion – time is better spent looking at actions. I actually found the speeches in Japanese less head-bash inducing than those in English, since I could use the time to work on language study.

    Well, expat round 2 starts for me next week. Thanks to both you and Ken for sharing your experiences and maturing my thinking. yoroshiku!

    1. Hi, Yukita. I’ve tried to post a reply to comment a few times but it doesn’t seem to be going through. Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. I’ll try to post my full comment again later.

    2. Hey Yukita, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I’m probably just more impressed by the four seasons because I come from California where we only have two seasons: sunny and less sunny.

      I think you make a good point about the lack of opinions. I figured that the Japanese simply aren’t used to expressing opinions, especially not with foreigners. That said, even though I didn’t mention it in my post, I have exchanged opinions with one of my Japanese teachers. She’s actually opened up quite a bit about politics, society and her personal life. So, clearly, Japanese people do have opinions; maybe, I’m just not in the position to hear them.

      However, I have noticed that Japanese society/education places little emphasis on critical thinking and developing/expressing original ideas. I knew about this going in, but it’s different to actually experience it. Again, my lack of Japanese language skills is likely a major factor here, but it just seems that, generally speaking, many Japanese don’t seem to know about or care much for politics, world events, social issues, etc. Or if they do, then it’s information that’s not meant to be shared.

      But that’s also not entirely a bad thing. I sometimes wish that Americans cared less about politics and kept their opinions to themselves more often (and I include myself in that desire, as well). That’s been a nice benefit of living in Japan – I no longer care so much about all the political/social shenanigans going on back home. It’s refreshing to be in a place where all the cacophony that clogs my social media simply doesn’t matter and where few people get bent out of shape over politics or whatever pet causes they have. Nobody’s out to save the world here. But some critical thinking and an opinion or two wouldn’t hurt.

  7. Ben.
    Great piece on many levels,well written.
    It’s almost with relief I find you coherent,thoughtful and insightful,your early posts before your arrival had me genuinely worried for your welfare should the reality of Japan hit you too hard from the wrong angle.It appears you have been dealt a glancing blow and have enough mental fortitude to cope with both the reality of Japan and the “adjustment” to your previous perceptions,congratulations.Now get out of your flat and do something,even if it is by yourself.
    Cheers Craig.

    1. Thanks a lot for the praise and encouragement. I don’t how Ken would feel knowing that I’ve upstaged him as your “favorite” but I’m happy for the sentiment. I have had some difficulties, of course, but thankfully I have been able to struggle through them. You’re right, I simply have to get out more. Once I’m done commenting here, I think I’ll go for a walk. It’s another snowy day, but perhaps it’s the last. I had better enjoy it before it’s gone.

    2. Woops, sorry. I don’t know how this keeps happening, but that part about being your favorite was meant for another person’s comment. Sorry!

  8. Thanks Ben.

    Your posts are quickly becoming a new favorite feature on the site for me, and as I’m currently awaiting the results of my JET interview in a state of nervous flux, they portray a more concrete view of the great unknown I find laid out before me. You’ve isolated a few key points I can relate to a bit too well, namely the idea of conquering a default speed of “melancholic” with the idea of a “life-altering journey”, and I appreciate your frankness in admitting that the mere change of scenery won’t do all the legwork in magically reinventing yourself. That said, the onsen are my number one priority despite all the glitz & glamor that others regale, and you’ve painted a perfect picture of exactly what I anticipate will be my favorite way to unwind — a face full of foreign junk at a tepid boil. I’m greatly looking forward to more of your posts in the near future, and I hope your time on the program will continue to enlighten my own misconceptions & doubts as I slog through the remainder of the waiting game. Keep it up, champ.

    1. Thanks for your praise and kind words. Glad that I could dethrone Ken as your favorite on his own website. 😉 I’m happy to be helpful to you, and I wish you luck in your JET Program application results. The onsen really can’t be hyped up enough. They are simply spectacular. I will miss them when and if I do go back home to the States. I hope to keep sharing my experiences and reflections with you and everyone else, and I hope that you continue to enjoy them. Hm, maybe I’ll go to an onsen after my walk in the snow…

  9. Ben,
    I found your experience very nicely conveyed.
    It sounds to me like there must or at least should be a huge flock of Christmas cakes to run through.
    I personally could not go hang out at the onsen.
    I cant even do it here in merika.
    I still don’t like the idea of working 12+ hour days. Perhaps the Japanese have discovered that all work and no play keeps the citizens more in order…
    I hope you enjoy the cherry blossoms , also not every cake is stale it just depends on the recipe.

    1. I’m happy you enjoyed my writing. And while I haven’t been looking for any “Christmas cakes,” I actually haven’t encountered the flock of opportunities you might think there’d be. I think it’s likely due to the fact that I, as an English teacher who won’t live in Japan permanently, don’t have much to offer them, as desperate as they may be. They’re not looking for a “good time,” they’re looking for companionship and stability, a husband and a father to their children.

      The onsen was really intimidating at first, but now I can’t get enough of it. Who knew? And I did have a chance to enjoy the cherry blossoms during my spring break in Tokyo. It was great. Drinking under the pink and white blossoms with crowds of likewise inebriated Japanese people – young and old – was an amazing experience. When it comes to onsen and enjoying the cherry blossoms, Japan truly is the most civilized of countries.

  10. Hi Ben,

    thanks for sharing all this with us here, really appreciate it. I think your comments towards the people and society in Japan are very good (or at least they are in line with what I can see and thus I think it is correct, right 🙂 ).

    At first I wanted to comment your post here, than thought of not commenting from fear of sounding too much like mentoring you and finally after I discussed your post and my idea with a precious friend of mine, I decided to comment 🙂

    Now my point is, it is actually possible to “find yourself” in Japan. Been there, done that. Yet as you can find yourself in Japan, you can do it anywhere else; Japan has nothing to do with it. I found myself up on Hokkaido, where I am spending my winters working as a mountain guide and I found myself through doing something I love with people I like. Was I into another type of activity than mountaineering, I could have found myself in Argentina, Nigeria or pretty much the same in my backyard.

    1. Hi, SkiGaijin.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my writing and I’m even more pleased that you commented. I’m always open to advice and mentorship. You’re right. In terms of finding yourself, the place where you are is secondary to what you are doing and who you are with. Maybe I am in the process of finding myself here, I simply don’t realize it yet.

      However, I do know for a fact that my self-discovery will not involve skiing. I tried that for the first time here in Japan and I just couldn’t do it. Small children glided effortlessly by me and tried to give me helpful tips; a woman tried to guide me down by letting me hold onto her skis but I kept falling and almost collided into her and brought her down the mountain with me. Eventually, I ripped off my skis and walked down the mountain in shame. But I’m glad I at least tried it, and I’m happy that you seem to enjoy it and that you found yourself in mountaineering.

      Thanks a lot for your comment!

  11. Hi Ben,
    quite the intimate self analyses. But also rather spot on in how you describe Japanese society. This has actually been the reason why I always knew I wouldn’t want to live and work in Japan, rather I keep it as my far-away paradise that I travel regularely.
    I plan on being in Tohoku mid-April to early May, so in case you want to spend a day or two discovering the area you chose to live in rather than binging yet another netflix series, let me know. You (or Ken) should be able to see the email adress given to post this comment =)

    1. Hi Alex,

      Thank you for your compliments and for reaching out to me. Ken sent me your email address and I will definitely get in touch with you and see if we can plan something.

      Why are you coming to Tohoku? What do you plan on seeing?

      1. Hi Ben,
        I plan on coming to Tohoku as it’s one of the areas I haven’t been in much so far. Just that the current amount of snow is somewhat discouraging…I hope it’ll be warmer in 2 weeks.
        My plans are not fully set yet, basically I wanna est Ramen in Kitakami, Jaja-men in Morioka, and enjoy the nature around Tono. But there is way more to discover I hope =)

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