What Do You Think of Japan?

What Do You Think of Japan?

I used to think there were three possible answers to any question: yes, no, and whatever’s not covered by yes and no.  Like, when the waitress asks, Do you want another beer?  That’s a yes.  Isn’t it about time you thought about going home?  That would be a No, not until I get that beer I’m waiting for.  And, Would you at least please stop bothering the other customers?  That would would be a Well, if that’s how you feel about it, then I’m leaving.  Just as soon as I get that one more beer.

It’s interview season in Japan.  The weather is getting warmer, the ume buds are starting to appear, and maybe you could even see a bird.  Yeah, like maybe in a zoo.  But anyway, about this time every year I pick my two-sizes-too-small Japanese suit up from the floor of my closet, polish the front of my shoes, and head out with my resume.

My Japanese Interview

I went to this interview last week.  It’s for a job teaching English, so for some reason unbeknownst to anyone, the entire interview was in Japanese.  I walked in and there was this chair in the middle of an enormous room, and a panel of six people sitting at a long, white table, all staring at me.  I was like, Is this my chair?  Why is it so far away from everyone?  I sat in the chair.

Everything went pretty swimmingly.  My version of speaking Japanese is to toss a bunch of nouns and verbs in semi-random order into a sentence and then stick a -desu on the end.  And that’s what you get.  It’s not pretty, but everyone smiled and nodded at the appropriate times, so I guess they followed it okay.  Anyway it was better than this time I had an interview in the States and looked down to discover that the crotch of my old suit was riddled with moth-eaten holes.  In the middle of the interview I realized I could literally see my own balls.  True story.  Anyway, at least that didn’t happen.

They asked a lot of stupid questions.  Why did you want to become a teacher?  Hmm, maybe because I got tired of eating cups of noodles and instant coffee.  What’s the difference between teaching adults and children?  Uh, they’re older?  I don’t know.  Whatever, I made up some stuff and it sounded okay.  And then they asked The Question:  “What do you think of Japan?”  And they all leaned forward a little bit.

The 3 Ways a Question Can be Answered

I heard a little voice in my head.  It said, “Easy question, Ken!  Knock it out of the park and let’s get out of here and get a beer!”

I don’t know why God gave me the little voice, because I apparently never listen to it.  Instead, I had a Moment of Clarity.  Right there in the middle of the enormous room, I realized that there were not three possible answers, but rather three ways of answering any question.

Way 1:  Lies.  I love this because lies are super convenient.  You just tell people what they want to hear.  “Japan’s great.  Everyone’s very respectful and thoughtful of others.  People enjoy it when I speak Japanese and the language has helped me to make many friends.”  Done and done.  Now let’s go get that beer.

Way 2:  Naivete.  This is the answer I would have given a decade ago.  “I love Japan—everyone’s so friendly.  Everywhere I go, people say ‘hello’ to me and bow to me.  They’re very polite.  Such kind people you have here!”  Again, brilliant answer.  Expect an offer letter by the end of the week.

Way 3:  Thanks for the rope. I’ll just be a minute while I wrap it around my neck.
  Any time I start to answer a question with “Well . . .”, I really should just stop, because I know I’m about to dash my body onto the rocks.  In Japanese, this usually comes out as “Maa . . .”, possibly “Saa . . .”  Either way, I’m screwed.

“Maa . . .”, I said, “every good thing has a corresponding bad side to it, right?”  I paused and the six people nodded kind of slowly, transfixed.  I kept going.  “The things that I like about Japan are also the things I don’t like about it.  Like, seriously, what would I say about the U.S.?  That it’s great?  U.S.A. Number One?  Come on, that would be simplistic.  There’s a ton of good and bad, all wrapped up together.  Same thing here.  These are big countries.”  That’s what I said.  Then I looked up to see if everyone was following me, and they were all pale as ghosts.  Their mouths were hanging open and their pupils were the size of saucer plates.  And the little voice said, For the love of God, Ken, stop.

But I was on a roll.  For some reason my need for self-expression momentarily outweighed my aversion to sleeping in a box in the park.  I continued, “For example, I love how clean the toilets are.  But the seventy year-old woman who’s got to scrub the porcelain probably isn’t as thrilled by it.  Like I wouldn’t want to be her.  And I love Japanese sushi.  But I wouldn’t want to be the dude who’s standing in place all day long slicing up raw fish.  That would suck.”  Somehow it didn’t sound as bad when I said it in Japanese, I thought.

I looked up again, and I was like, Oh . . . My . . . God.  Everyone was terrified.  I thought the one lady was going to cry.  Like there was a tiny tear in the corner of her left eye.  They all looked at each other, like, What should we do?  And I was like, No, it’s cool.  Really.  I don’t mean I don’t like Japan, it’s just if someone tells you only good without the bad, they’re either waxing you on, or they haven’t thought about it much.  And I gave some more examples of good and bad, but somehow the more I said, the worse everyone looked, which I found strange.  So finally, I stopped.

And then the man in the middle took a deep breath and said “Maa . . . Thank you for your honesty.  We’ll contact you within three weeks with the result.  Thank you.  Okay.  Thank you, thank you.”  And I was like, Oh.  So I stood up and bowed, and suddenly it seemed like the door was really far away.  But on the way out I thought, Well, that didn’t go too badly really.  I mean, I gave a complete answer and even my grammar was pretty good.  Plus the nice man in the middle thanked me a lot and bowed in return.  Such an excellent country, and the people are awfully kind, really.  I’m pretty sure I got the job.



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31 Comments

  1. Your personality would be a bigger hit in Korea I think. Then again, the awkward Japanese response to your vibe is hilarious, so maybe you should stay put (for the blog lulz). Besides, it really is an excellent nation with the most kind and gorgeous hearts.

    • Yeah, I know, huh. I spent almost a decade getting my Japanese good enough to really understand people and then realized, Hmmm, I can only use this language in one place. Kind of the opposite of Japanese people who learn English. Once they do, it opens the whole world for them. But oh well, too late now. Guess I should have thought about that before I started on this magical journey.

      • Well I learned the hard way to lie in interviews. After losing out on a job at a large company,because I was honest, I did some after interview research. I found out that these days when you face a “hiring”panel they have a set of questions thought up by some Nancys in the HR field that are used to winnow out applicants. The people on the panel are supposed to represent various departments in the company, often they are just people the departments figure they can spare for a winnow out board. You don’t get to the real interview(s) until you get past the execution panel. The people on the panel are not doing honest questions so you don’t owe honest answers. “Where do you see yourself in five years from now?” Why firing your useless ass, because I know if you were any use to the company you wouldn’t be on this panel.” That is a wrong answer. The correct answer involves how you hope to be contributing to the success of this wonderful company, and you stare at the crotch of who you figure the stud duck on the panel is and lick your lips and wink.

        • It’s funny and true that often people in companies are selected for committees based upon their availability, not competence. It’s like picking a train because the doors happen to be open, without caring about the destination. Actually, come to think of it, I did that once. It was late at night and I was in a hurry and just ran down the steps and jumped on board this train. Then the doors closed and it seemed like we left the station really fast, until we were going like the speed of the Shinkansen, and I thought, Yeah, this looks bad. Like somehow all the people looked weird too. It turned out to be the express to Saitama, way outside of Tokyo. It was also the last train. I had to take a 50-dollar cab ride back to town. But anyway, yeah, Japanese people don’t seem particularly pleased to hear anything but good things about Japan. Reminds me of the U.S. in that regard, actually.

        • Ive probably been to at least, well I cant remember, these kind of interviews over the years. One company that had an operation in the U.S. told me they couldn’t ask me my age nationality and other personnel questions in the U.S. but are allowed to in Japan. They proceeded with the usual stupid questions about why did you quit this job, gaps here and there, etc. I started to yawn and said lets get to the real, why you want a gaijin for your operations?. Ive found any place , outside of ALT that hires a gaijin, well theres an “issue” Having been around that track too many times, I want that upfront before I join that mess.
          So they proceeded to talk in circles and hide their intentions, just get mad and tell me I must gambaru etc I got all the info I needed from that and told them I could find any job I wanted in the U.S. and to stick the offer up their ass and left

  2. aa, good stuff, ya, thanks for the laugh(and fun insight) you have to stay in Japan -because you like it- but also you’re pretty Japanese now. Though you must know the honesty is usually appreciated by those who you are accepted to be honest with, not in formal situations, ne. But, hey you rocked out with your true self and that gets you somewhere in life.

    • Honestly, there’s nothing like honesty for making a mess of things. So for about three years, my default response in Japanese was to say nothing heavy. I’d just give an answer about as deep as Anpanman. “Japan? Love it. It’s great.” Now tell me how sweet and delicious I am.

      But the better my Japanese became, the more I realized the Japanese people around me were expressing their opinions, and sometimes strongly too. Contrary to what I’d read about Japan, after a while, the people here didn’t seem any more polite or deferential than anyone else. They just expressed things differently. And so, since I live here too, I figured I might as well say what I gotta to say. Okay, so maybe an interview wasn’t the place to say it. But they asked! Jeez, I’m an idiot. I knew I shouldn’t have had giant cup of Starbucks right before I went in there.

  3. Good work Ken and awesome on choosing way 3! I would answer it in way 2 and eagerly wait for my job offer letter! I kind of find it funny that they were in shock. It’s like why bother ask the question if you are not expecting a negative response!

    In interviews, it feels more like “don’t be yourself” more like “give them the answer they are eagerly waiting for” which is way 1 and 2. Another way I like to think of interviewers is like a date. You get on well with the person, you get the job

    Nice post, keep up the interesting posts;)

    • And for my next trick, I will attempt to literally turn an interview into a date, as I ask out the lady on the other side of the desk . . .

      Yeah, my big thing isn’t to be negative or positive, but to show how they’re flip sides of the same coin. Like Japanese people do it too, right? They’re all, “I love America because it’s so free,” but then like, “America is scary because of all the guns.” Well, guess what? They’re the same thing. The two things are related, perhaps not directly, but rather as part of a large, circular system. They impact each other.

      Same thing in Japan. Like nobody likes the stress, but everybody enjoys how clean and efficient things are. Hey, you can’t have one without the other. Everybody wants to be the customer, but not the worker. Somehow things have a way of balancing themselves out. Life’s weird like that.

  4. I probably would have gotten stumped at eto…. Loved your description of the interviewers’ horror… I bet it would be a fun bit to recreate and put on youtube.

    • I was thinking more like the Big Screen. Like maybe a full-length feature film. But yeah, it’s pretty easy to mortify people in this country.

      But what I really like best is when you tell a Japanese person that you like Japan, and they say “Thank you.” That always kills me for some reason.

  5. So, did you get the job?

    • To everyone’s surprise including my own, yes. Must be my subtle charm and rugged good looks. Either that or there weren’t many applicants. Nah, definitely my good looks and subtlety.

  6. I think many people who doesn’t know true Japanese things. Even their religion, someone is thinking they are a Buddhist or Shinto. But I can say it is not. Of course, some Japanese would a Buddhist. You should be see this movie.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0lizzqOxuI

  7. Do you think the shock was just due to someone not expecting honesty, or do you think you might have opened some eyes that day?

    There are certainly a large number of Americans who say the USA is #1, but I don’t think it’s a crime to say it’s not perfect.

  8. Great blog. Please post more on your statement:
    ” Contrary to what I’d read about Japan, after a while, the people here didn’t seem any more polite or deferential than anyone else. They just expressed things differently.”

    I’ve always suspected this when I’m in Japan but can’t put my finger on it.

    • Here’s the way I look at it, and thanks for asking:

      Americans have a volume dial that goes from about 6 to 9. When they meet you, they’re hugging. If you’re driving badly, then they’re honking. If they’re angry, then Take this job and shove it. If they’re happy, it’s Party like it’s 1999. Then they hug you again. They’re insanely loud. They wear cologne. Then they get tattoos, so even if you can’t hear or smell them, you still get their message. Everything’s exciting, surprising, amazing, frightening, over the top—out in the open.

      Japanese folks have all the same emotions, only their volume goes from about 0 to 4. So like a dog whistle, if you’re American you don’t even hear it. If someone liked you—and not fake-liked you, but actually cared about you—would you know it? Conversely, if they were being incredibly rude, would you know?

      I suspect you’re fairly perceptive, and what you’re sensing when you’re in Japan is your inability to properly read people. Trust me, the same caring, uncaring, kind, and cruel people exist in Japan, in proportions equal to the U.S. It helps to speak Japanese. And to spend a few years chatting with folks.

      • Many of the things you highlighted about America is why I want to move to Japan. More and more, people are becoming assholes because of the current political atmosphere. Also everyone on the internet, whether it be Facebook, forums, Twitter and so on, is rude and create conflict for the sake of it. You are surrou ding by negativity all the time and it drags you down after so long. It may not be much better in Japan but you cant beat new scenery. I plan on getting out there in time for school to start in April in 2018. I do have some questions i would like to ask you over email if possible about getting a job teaching english and also about the teaching part in general.

        • I feel you, I really do. Reminds me of my Dad, ’cause he used to say the same thing years ago. He saw Kennedy assassinated, a war in Vietnam, Nixon impeached. The world was going to hell.

          Now is no different. Because the root of the problem is always the same: people. Specifically, other people. What’s destroying the U.S.? Republicans. Unless you’re a Republican, and then, Democrats. What’s messed up about your job? Your boss. Unless you’re the boss, and then it’s your employees. What’s wrong with your relationship? Your girlfriend/wife/boyfriend/gay lover/sheep/whatever. Don’t even get started on religion. People are basically messed up, except for the few folks we like.

          Japan’s not gonna fix that. Although based upon the principle of Ignorance-is-Bliss, you’ll love it for a while. But you might want to consider how people fare when they’re alone, and minorities in a foreign country, and plan accordingly.

          As for teaching English, if you want to ask a couple of brief questions here, by all means do. I try to respond to comments when I can, but I might not be able to give the in-depth answers you’re looking for. Hope you understand. Cheers.

          • In a way I relish the chance to be a monority and thrown out of my comfort zone. It may be ignorance on my part but it is something I want to experience. Ive always wanted to visit japan but I dont want the tourist experience, I want to actually experience it. I may end up hating it or end up loving it or something in between but I wont know unless I try.

            The questions I had were about the hiring process and actually how your expected to teach.

            You have stated before that you have been on the panel of people who are interviewing candidates and since you have also been the one being interviewed I was wondering basically what the do’s and dont’s were and what they are generally looking for in a candidate.

            My second set of questions is once/if you do get hired how do you actually teach the class. Is there a cirriculum and do you have some freedom in how you teach? I’ve wanted to be a history teacher since Highschool or before and I know exactly how I would teach history but teaching english seems much harder because you have to try and explain the english language which is confusing to native speakers.

            • I gotta admit, those are pretty good questions. Let me try to give some pretty good answers.

              Yeah, having interviewed a lot of folks, I’d say employers are basically looking for 3 things: 1) That you’re normal 2) You can do the job 3) You don’t think you’re too hot shit. Let’s look at each a bit closer.

              So right away, most places just want to hire a normal human being. If you’ve got a neck tattoo, mohawk, long beard, or wear a bolo tie, right away you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Do a Google image search for “man in suit,” and look like that guy. Maybe that doesn’t apply if you’re a girl, I dunno.

              Do you speak with a funny accent? That ain’t good. If you can just be a well-spoken, well-groomed, and pleasant individual, you’re off to a great start. Don’t wear cologne. Ever.

              Next, it helps to have qualifications. Remember, you’re competing with 50 or 200 other people for that one job. A degree in History is pretty good. The same degree plus a CELTA certification, even better. Some experience teaching, even if it’s just at a summer camp or the local Y, is gonna look good. You don’t have to have a 3-page resume, but maybe you don’t want to list “lawn care” and “shoveled snow” either.

              Lastly—and this is the part a whole lot of folks forget—is that employers need employees to simply obey the rules and do the job. Do the rules always make sense? No. Is the job being done the best possible way? No. Are you smarter than everybody else? Possibly. Doesn’t matter, you still need to do the job, even if it’s backwards and makes no sense. We don’t live in heaven, only Japan.

              So here’s what happens. After a few months of being a teacher, maybe you decide you suddenly “know better.” They told you to use the CD for listening practice, but in your wisdom you’ve decided it sucks, so you don’t use it. They tell you to take out the trash, but you’ve decided it’s not in your job description, so you grumble about it. Now Houston’s got a problem.

              So when the job description uses words like “flexibility” and “enthusiasm,” that’s what they really mean. Why do you have to teach this way? Why do you have to correct homework when no one ever looks at it again? Why do you have to do a neighborhood trash cleanup? Because it’s a job. You don’t do it because it’s fun. You get paid, and you do what you’re told. So if you can communicate willingness to do that during the interview, that’ll go a long way.

              As for how you teach, you’ll probably have some sort of curriculum, and receive some training. Your best friend is a good textbook, because that serves as a skeleton for a class plan. You might figure on covering two pages out of it every day, and then add some activities for students to practice what they’re learning.

              Remember that most of your time and effort as a teacher happens before class. Preparation is what determines the outcome. With good materials and a solid plan, anybody can conduct a decent lesson.

              In a nutshell, when you plan, you divide the class time into 5 or 10-minute segments, and then work out what you’ll do in each segment. Or when all else fails, just play a movie. Everybody likes movies. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.

      • Actually I’ve been going to Japan (from the US) for the past, oh, 20 years doing business with them at management level. Things always went well for me because a) I did not try to ingratiate myself by attempting konbanwa stuff and b) treated them politely but coldly. No bowing, handshake only. Business is one thing though. Recently I’ve been going there for pleasure and tourism. When taking out Japanese women on dinner dates I was unable to pierce the tatemae no matter how many times I wined and dined them. Rock solid! So I kept wondering “What the f. does she want? And why does she keep accepting invitations?” Is it just the free meal? Is it “I want to be seen with the gaijin?” What is this feeling they are trying to express differently? Fascinating mind games…no hard feelings. Just curiosity.

  9. You don’t know how much I appreciate you taking the time to answer all my questions. Thank you seriously.

    Forgive me for asking another question but how do you go about getting a CELTA certification? Is it a course/class?

    If I did manage to land a job I wouldn’t fret over such things as taking out the trash or following the rules to the nail. Those type of things are part and parcel of any job. But from my understanding it is a much more serious responsibility and expectation from what I have read on your amazing blog and have seen in media, movies and so on.

    Another question came to mind as well? Is the cirriculum and the books you mention provided by the school or is it something you pick up on your own? Also what is the CD you mentioned for listening practice? Is it for learning japanese or something else?

    Not to engage in too much flattery, but hey you deserve it…this blog is honestly the best writing I have ever come across. Ive read through it twice, including all the comments and it has solidified my desire to live in Japan and convinced me that I need to learn japanese. I always wanted to, well maybe not learn Japanese, but this blog has made it my priority in life so thank you, it really has changed my life so to speak. Now I just need to power through the rest of college and land a job.

    • Reading this reminds me of a war correspondent who describes in no uncertain terms how ghastly life is on the front, and through his talent only ignites the passions of those who want to sign up.

      • You know, and I hate to say this, but sometimes I feel like I can see the future. Ah, but it’s so glorious to die for a cause.

    • My pleasure. So to follow up, you can find details about CELTA here: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/teaching-english/teaching-qualifications/celta/

      Curricula are, typically, loosely defined by some governing body. Depending on who you work for, that might be the government, a company, or a university. The books will probably be chosen for you, especially since you’ll be a new teacher. Some jobs, you’re free to do whatever you want in the classroom. Other jobs, it’s stand here, say this. Each has its advantages.

      The CD I mentioned…okay, I didn’t explain this well, but…often a textbook for learning English comes with a CD. So in class, you can read the book and/or listen to the CD. And for some reason, the CD is often not very good. If that’s the case, you may be tempted not to use it, which may or may not be a good decision. That’s all I meant.

      As for learning Japanese, I know I sometimes poo-poo it, but I will say this: if you aspire to be a language teacher, then it’s tremendously helpful to study the language of the country you’ll be working within. If for no other reason than it gives you great empathy for your students, and reminds you how freaking hard it really is to learn another language.

  10. The CELTA certificate is much more involved than I anticipated. Thanks for link.

    Now I have one more question if you don’t mind.

    You have talked about the different ESL programs; eikawa, ALT and JET. Which is the best one and also how hard are each one to land a job with?

    All of these questions are just me trying to gauge realistic expectations, so any information is very helpful and highly appreciated. It sounds easy to land a job teaching english but once you start digging that facade washes away fairly quickly. Don’t get me started on Japanese. I can’t hardly sing along to songs because the pronunciations are just to difficult and songs are at like half the speed of spoken Japanese.

    Anyway, thanks again for everything.

    • I’d apply to the JET program, if I were you. They’ll support your transition over here, provide some training, and likely place you into an authentic Japanese environment. I’d suggest applying for the program after, or just before, you graduate, and then if they reject you, go back and get a CELTA qualification and a bit of work experience, then apply again the following year. How’s that for a plan?

      • Solid advice. Thanks a million. I will try for it. If I make it out there, or rather when I do, I’d love to have a beer with you to show my appreciation. Besides you seem like a cool person to be around. Good company is hard to find these days.

  11. Oh man, you got a sense of humor that cracks me up every time I read your posts!

    People should stop asking why I applied for this job at xx company. Really, isn’t it obvious that I need money to survive? Lol.

    In reality, I would have sugarcoated my response to such a question using BS and a revised anecdote straight from a medieval fantasy story.

    I really enjoy reading your blog

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