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.
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.
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.
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.
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.