Now, here’s a conundrum for you: let’s say that you’re working in a Japanese office, and it’s the end of the day. Of course, all the Japanese folks are typing like mad, as they’ve done since dawn. You want to be a team player but Hey, it’s 6 p.m., and let’s add that it’s Friday and you’ve been at work since 8:30. What to do?
A reader named thompson recently put it like this:
Everyday, after 8 hours, can I just stand up, say “sorry for going early” and then “HAHAHA, time for japaneseruleof7!!!” while walking out with big steps while ignoring that feeling that someone wants to stab you?
And maybe the bigger issue is: are you going to move to Japan and be a perpetual outsider, or not? Not be “that gaijin,” and try to actually fit in? Let’s see what Magic 8-Ball has to say.
Reply hazy, try again
Well, considering the last thing I asked was “How ’bout you eat a magic bag of dicks?” it’s a wonder old 8-Ball’s talking to me at all. But whatever, because the real answer about Japan comes from the school system.
Working in Japanese Schools
My first day at an elementary school, I arrived at 8:14. In Japan, you’re supposed to arrive 15 minutes before work, and I showed up a minute early, because I’m diligent like that. Then promptly at 8:30, all the male teachers stripped off their shirts and walked out. The female teachers went too, out to the dirt school yard, but much to my disappointment kept their shirts on. Everybody was barefoot. A couple hundred children lined up in formation. They also had no shoes, and the little boys were bare-chested. I was like, Should I get naked? What the hell’s going on? I went outside and stood next to a gray-haired man with no shirt.
“What the hell’s going on?” I asked.
“This school. I went here sixty-five years ago,” he said.
“Good morning!” the principle screamed into a microphone. The sound reverberated off the neighborhood houses.
“Good morning!” the children and teachers screamed back.
“Today too, let’s work hard together!
“Let’s work hard together!”
Then music blared from a massive speakers and everybody took off running like crazy. For ten minutes they ran round and round, barefoot in the dirt, including the old man. Every day started like this.
Military School in Japan
Japanese school resembles nothing so much as a military school. By the time they reach junior high, all children are indoctrinated into sitting stoically in class, roasting in the summer and freezing in the winter. You know, they say Japanese folks are yellow, but in my experience most of them are frosty blue. Every day in middle school, there’d be half a dozen troops shivering on the dirt field, standing in the snow at attention under the watchful eyes of class leaders. The leader would shout commands, and everyone would shout back, then start doing jumping jacks, push-ups, and sit-ups, until their backs and fronts were covered in snow and brown mud. Then they’d take off running, chanting in unison. I worked at a total of nine schools, and eventually this became normal. Imagine 12 years of that.
Japanese Flight Attendant
So I recently had dinner with a Japanese flight attendant, who told me “You’ll never be Japanese.” We were sitting at a table outside a small restaurant, sipping white wine and eating salmon with eringi mushrooms sauteed in butter.
“Well, I don’t mean ethnically Japanese,” I said. “But wherever you live, eventually that’s your home, right?
“To be honest, we’ll never accept you, because of how you look,” she said.
“Gee, thanks for the encouragement. Glad I spent a decade learning your language.
“Sorry, but Asians are racist as hell,” she said.
“What about people here who don’t look Japanese? I mean, your mother’s Filipino. Even you don’t look ‘Japanese’ Japanese.
“Well, unless you go to school here, you’ll never fit in.
“I thought you went to school in the U.S.?” I said. “And weren’t you born in Seattle—Doesn’t that make you American?”
“I’m Japanese,” she said.
“Right, then so am I.
“That’s not how it works,” she said.
Going to School in Japan
And this reminded me of something my gay Japanese roommate once told me: going to school in Japan is what makes you Japanese. Interestingly, he was half-Filipino as well. Well, whatever, I get what he meant. Because years of marching in line, bowing, and responding in unison can’t fail to leave a mark. And then a few years later, in the workplace, nothing’s really changed. Except suddenly there’s you, the “foreigner.”
Imagine you work with the Army, surrounded by a bunch of G.I.’s who now have desk jobs, only you’re a contractor. You’re sitting there, doing roughly the same work, but although you may feel part of the team, you’re still an outsider. Because Maki’s a Lieutenant, Hideki’s an Airborne Ranger, and Kubo-san drooling in the corner never made it beyond Private. To you, they might all look the same, but they know who’s who. And that’s work in Japan. It’s just an extension of the militarized school system. They know you’re not a soldier, and never will be, no matter how much you salute or recite the Military Code of Conduct. And—God forbid—nobody wants you to see you in uniform. Because you didn’t put in the years of marching in formation, following orders, and making the sacrifices they did. You just breezed in, and can peace out whenever you want.
So, working in Japan, should you play the foreigner card? I asked my friend Miwako. She’s in HR, and presumably knows about such things.
“Hell yeah,” she said. “I wouldn’t spend one minute at work I didn’t have to.
“But what about my coworkers? I mean, I feel bad leaving early.
“Screw that,” she said. “They wouldn’t help you. Maybe in America, but that’s not how Japan is.”
Which got me thinking. Because one of the things Japanese folks pride themselves on is hard work. Almost like it’s the only thing they have. So the sooner you leave the office, the sooner they can feel proud of how great they’re doing. By staying around, maybe you aren’t helping. You might actually be making things worse.
And there’s your answer. Working with the army doesn’t make you a soldier. There’s no poster saying Uncle Hirohito Wants You. So cruise in with a smile, speak Japanese with a terrible accent, leave early, and everybody’ll love you. It seems that’s how Japan works.
Edit: I stumbled across this video, which provides some context for what working in Japan can be like. It’s a bit dramatized, yet not off base.