You know that scene in Titanic where it’s just struck the iceberg and people are playing soccer with the ice chunks? That’s the kind of the spirit of this post. Since my last one, cases in Hyogo prefecture have trickled up to just over 100. I have a bad habit of underestimating/making light of disasters, and this one seems to be no exception either. A lot of the world is shutting down now, and it became more real when recently one of my closest friends here (together with two other people) all decided on Tuesday to quit their jobs, with four days’ notice to their schools, to move out of their apartments and fly out of the country on Sunday.
Japan, God bless it, REALLY hates change, and it is really resistant to corona-chan’s attempts to affect day-to-day life. Schools did close a week early for spring break, but they are still stubbornly going ahead with opening school as normal in April. Just yesterday, we had a sort of orientation for the incoming freshmen, with hundreds of kids running around the school all day. And as a “compromise” between exposing kids and closing schools, the usually-daily club activities have resumed practice, but *only* four days a week (instead of 6) and no more than two hours a day. Wowee! “Social distancing” has not yet even been recommended here, though the government does still come out to say “don’t travel between this and that prefecture unless necessary” every so often. A second motivator is that Japan really does not want to postpone the 2020 Olympics, so rumors are that the government is undertesting to keep numbers low. I have heard thirdhand (so take that with a grain of salt) of two JETs being told by doctors “you probably have coronavirus, but we won’t test you. Just stay home for two weeks,” and whatever reason for that your guess is as good as mine. UPDATE: As I wrote this post, it looks like Prime Minister Abe did admit they’ll have to postpone.
So, almost three months since corona began, Japan still isn’t shut down, and cases still haven’t exploded exponentially like they have in, say, Italy. As of writing, Japan has about 1,000 cases spread over the country. Businesses are all still open. Markets haven’t run out of anything, although toilet paper has become quite scarce and face masks disappeared since the beginning of this epidemic. Other than that, if you just totally ignore the news you’d never know this thing is going on in Japan. However, it’s only a matter of time until things really go south, given the total lack of any significant response or widespread quarantine practices, and the fact that around the world “it took 67 days… to reach 100,000 cases, 11 days for the second 100,000, and just four days for the third 100,000.” (source) Either that, or we find out that the quaint Japanese tradition of totally eschewing hand soap actually builds mega-immunity. I’ve already tempted fate once, because my trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival may very well have been ground zero. As I have said to many people in the ad nauseum conversations about it, what a crazy time to be alive. So, to the one person reading this, be thankful the ship hasn’t started leaking yet, but it DID hit that iceberg and it’s probably better to be padding those lifeboats than kicking ice around.
With the last blog post, I had a startling realization, that had I not recontracted and this were my first and only year on JET, then all I would have to show for my experience is 20-some travel-guide-esque blog posts. The concept of just blogging about *me* and my feelings, etc. is so difficult to me that I only feel comfortable writing instructional-esque material, and even have personal posts in their own category. Although, I suppose, technically all my posts still fall under it.
Anyways, as my one-year anniversary of my arrival in Japan approaches, I thought I should dedicate a post to the city that so graciously houses me and to whose children I am “teaching” English, Akashi City. I know that in the past it’s been a little confusing as to where I actually live, but again, my school is in the town of Inami, despite it being called East Harima High School. I live, however, in Akashi. It is on the south coast of the Hyogo Prefecture, pretty much smack-dab in the middle between Himeji to the west and Kobe to the east.
Nearly every city in Japan, be it Tokyo or a countryside town where trains run only once an hour, has some random claim claim to fame or some other kind of specialty. For example, Akashi’s neighboring Awaji Island is known for its onions, as well as the place where the gods pulled Japan out of the sea. I have a friend who lives in a modest rural town of 40,000, and their claim to fame is being located in the geographical center of Japan, as well as having connections with the Australian Olympic ping-pong team (no idea why). Tokyo, besides being the capital of Japan and all that, is also apparently known for its bananas, because the special souvenir snack you can only buy there is always “Tokyo banana,” despite the fact the amount of Tokyo banana plantations may be close to zero.
As for Akashi, we have three! First and foremost is Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. Funnily enough, when I was visiting my girlfriend in 2017, she took me to this bridge as a day trip. It was a 2-hour drive from her place in Osaka, and at the time I thought it was, well, pretty neat. It passed out of my mind and I never imagined I’d be back one day.
Secondly, and in fact the thing I pull out the most when people ask where I live, is that Akashi is where the national time of Japan is set, at the Akashi Planetarium.
Thirdly, Akashi has its own special dish called Akashiyaki, which is a fried ball of batter, heavy on the eggs, with a piece of octopus in it, dipped in dashi, a light fish broth and the base for nearly all Japanese soups, from miso soup to ramen. It is, in fact, the precursor of the now much more famous takoyaki that was invented in Osaka.
With that out of the way, I want to dedicate this post to some of the negatives of living in Japan. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll have to take everything with a grain of salt because I think I am pretty positively biased towards Japan. Nevertheless:
Asian in Japan
The experience of being a foreigner in Japan is probably talked about and blogged about more than the weather. Is being a foreigner in Japan indeed like being in the seventh circle of Hell, where instead of a lake of boiling fire it’s constant passive-aggression, or is it a land of infinite friendliness, hospitality, and adventures, of being invited to carry a sacred shrine at a festival, just for being a cool foreign dude who happened to walk by?
For me, it’s not really either. I’m stuck in between the two worlds– I’m not Japanese, but I’m not the *cool* or *interesting* kind of foreigner either. I can’t help but feel some kids were a little disappointed to hear they were getting an American JET, only to find out that it’s some Asian dude. In fact, when I sent a self-intro video to a fellow JET for his school’s intercultural project, his kids had apparently reacted with just “he’s American?” and not much else. The general image of Americans in the Japan is still the good ol’ all-American Joe Football, tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed. Either that, or to a lesser extent, African-Americans. Outside of major cities, my foreign friends who fit this bill still get a lot of attention, like getting free food at restaurants or excitedly asked for pictures of with drunk salarymen. I, on the other hand, am free to blend in and stand out as I please, which brings me to my next point.
Can Asians tell other Asians apart? Yes, they can, to a certain degree. However, most of the time, I blend in– restaurant staff always look to me as the group’s interpreter, despite the fact that I am often the one with the lowest Japanese ability among everyone. People don’t stare at me on the train. I see cashiers occasionally switch to English for my friends but speak in Japanese to me. After all, in a country that’s 98.1% ethnically Japanese, it’s pretty safe to assume that any light-skinned Asian person is most likely Japanese too. Other times, though, people can tell I’m not Japanese right off the bat, or they find out from the moment I open my mouth. The problem is, when people find out I’m not Japanese, they usually assume I’m Chinese.
Six months into the program, there were still teachers at the school who thought I was Chinese, despite having mentioned my Thai heritage in the many self-introductions I had to do when I first arrived. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with getting your ethnicity confused; it happens, but the problem is that if people in Japan are prejudiced, the most commonly disliked group is the Chinese. Perhaps it stems from the history between the two nations (fuel for the older generation) and the huge amount of tourists, who often are seen as having horrible manners (fuel for the current generation). The hate is so mainstream and fairly accepted that I once saw a TV show all about “look at what those Chinese are doing!” featuring things like people dumping trash in public or jaywalking and almost getting hit by cars. Pretty crazy that something like that could be allowed to air on TV at all. in the screencap below, an expose on Chinese manners, the captions say something like “They bought some dango, touched it, ate it before paying, and then said they didn’t want two anymore!”
Anyways, as a result of that, I am always hyper-aware and paranoid of breaking any social rules, be it as minor as standing on the wrong side of the train door or putting money into someone’s hands rather than on the table at stores. I never want someone to look at me and think to themselves, “Oh look, it’s one of those BAD kind of foreigners,” especially since I’ve already lost my chances on being the cool foreigner from the cosmic lottery. For this reason I try to hide the fact that I’m a foreigner as much as I can in most situations, for example never, ever defaulting to English first and responding “that’s okay, no problem” to questions when I have no idea what they said. Yeah, that’s my life, I am way too caught up in the opinions of strangers.
But to conclude, although I still will never feel like the “good” or exciting kind of foreigner, at the end of the day, I am happy to blend in. I’m also happy that even when I don’t, I can give Japanese people an opportunity to learn that Asian-Americans do exist, and yes, they can be pretty cool too!
There’s more to the signage in Japan than just poorly translated English. There’s also Japanese signs in perfectly-translated JAPANESE, warning you about the strangest things or otherwise just being really cute. All captions are translations/rough translations, not my commentary:
To see the heights to which the concept of convenience can reach, look no further than the humble, ubiquitous konbini— the Japanese convenience store. To avoid saying konbini 800 times, I will just namedrop all the chains I’ve ever seen. Here are 26 things you can see/do should you ever find yourself in one:
American dogs. Konbinis feature both American and Japanese junk food. At the hot food section, you may be able to buy an American dog, i.e. a corn dog.
Bento boxes. They’ll heat it up for you, too!
Cash withdrawal. Every konbini has an ATM, which are necessary in the land where banks close at 3 PM on weekdays, are not open on weekends, and are much less widespread than 7-Eleven and friends.
Dine in. Some konbinis have small dining areas so you don’t have to wait another moment to enjoy that steaming bento box!
Erotic literature. Are you, too, a Harvard-educated man/woman who still enjoys the high-class art of printed pornography? Then support your local giant-boob artist and head down to Lawson’s today.
Fried chicken… for Christmas. Did you know that traditional Christmas dinner in Japan is… Kentucky Fried Chicken? Reservations open weeks in advance, and if you miss the deadline then it’s okay, you can still go with the equally-as-good konbini versions.
Get your Amazon package. You can order things online and have them shipped to your local Sunkus for pickup instead. This may be beneficial because deliverymen will not leave packages if you are not home, you have to deal with the dreaded redelivery notice instead.
Hot bottled drinks. In addition to cold bottled drinks, there will also be a hot bottle section to get your portable tea/coffee fix.
Instant ramen. If you weren’t really a fan of it before, you’ll probably become one once you’re here. From seafood to curry to Pringles, the possibilities are limitless.
John PlayerSpecials. Likely one of the coolest-named cigarettes ever, konbinis also offer an outside smoking area where you can enjoy it. Unlike the US, where smoking is allowed nowhere indoors but in practice is allowed EVERYWHERE outdoors, Japan is the opposite. Smoking on the street is a kind of no-no, but there are many designated outdoors smoking spaces and indoor smoking rooms.
Kit-Kats. It’s popular to bring back strawberry or green tea kit-kats as a souvenir for people back home. But, that’s only the tip of the iceberg– there’s flavors that we in the States cannot even fathom, from pumpkin to miso and wasabi.
Lemon Coke. And to round it out, there’s peach and even coffee Coke!
Mail packages and letters. Screw the post office, come to Daily Yamazaki instead!
Nigiri sushi. I believe American 7-Elevens also sell sushi, but for some weird reason I can’t figure out, there’s just something about sushi in Japan that seems less shady. And would you believe, in general I have found cheap sushi in Japan to be just “OK,” not much different from cheap sushi in the US.
Utsunomiya City omiyage. These are rice crackers in the shape of gyoza dumplings, which they are famous for.
Omiyage. Omiyage are regional souvenirs, usually in the form of individually-wrapped cookies, rice crackers, pastries, etc. with a flavor/design unique to that region. It is a societal expectation to bring back omiyage for your coworkers whenever going somewhere. For this reason, many konbinis in touristy/well-traveled areas will sell such souvenir boxes.
Postage stamps. You can buy stamps at the konbini too, how exhilarating!
Quaff a beer or three outside. Public drinking is not against the law in Japan, so aside from perhaps a few glances, you are free to sit on the curb and slug one back with the tomodachi, unharried by policemen.
Rice balls. Onigiri (Japanese rice balls) are the grab-and-go equivalent of the sandwich. They come with different fillings from mere seaweed to salmon to bulgogi or pork and mayo.
Strong. Even better than beer is Strong, a vodka-based carbonated cocktail-in-a-can, boasting percentages as high as 9%. If you’ll be drinking in Japan, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be pre-gaming with a Strong or two. That’s the strength of two standard drinks for less than $2.
Trash cans. Public trash cans, like out on the street, simply do not exist. You don’t even find them in most public bathrooms (which is why many people still carry handkerchiefs). Even people climbing Mount Fuji are told to take their trash to the peak and back with them. Why so few trash cans? Apparently, they were taken away in response to a 1995 terrorist attack involving nerve gas bombs being dropped in places on the subway– it’s one less place for terrorists to plant something in the future.
Utility bill payment. Your utility bills come with bar codes that can also be scanned and paid for in cash at the local konbini. That’s how I keep my water, gas, and electricity flowing every month.
Verify your point balance. Every chain has their own rewards card, of course featuring a cute animal mascot. You can earn points towards future purchases, and even win prizes like stuffed animals during special promotions!
Warm up. Found yourself woefully underdressed for winter? Stop in FamilyMart and equip yourself with some gloves, a beanie, or a scarf.
Xerox a document. Most konbinis have printer stations.
Yogurt soda. Carbonated Yakult? Yes! Yes!
Zoo tickets. Concert tickets, sports tickets: anything you can buy online, you can also arrange to pick it up at the konbini.
Here’s a challenge for you: you need a Japanese phone number to sign up for anything. You need a credit card to get a Japanese phone number. You cannot get a phone number without a credit card. You can’t get a credit, or even debit, card until you’ve been in Japan for six months. What do you do?
It has been a month since my last blog post, and to be honest with you, the only thing of note that has happened is that did I finally get that freaking credit card. The thing is, it actually DID take a month– I can’t tell you how many hoops I had to jump through and just how convoluted the entire process was. Wait, just kidding, I can and I WILL tell you because you’re sitting here right now, with seemingly nothing better to do than to read my blog. You should be out with your friends.
Although it’s easy to navigate around Japan on a surface level with only the most basic knowledge of Japanese (train signs, asking for directions, ordering at restaurants), combine not-speaking Japanese with MOUNTAINS of paperwork and bureaucratic hoops for anything related to living, and you’ll find a plethora of articles on the Internet on things as simple as buying a used bicycle, which requires a registration and “deed of transfer” paperwork. As you can imagine, this also extends to getting a credit card.
For this reason, you conduct most of your business in cash, which is handy in its own way. I pay my water and gas bills at the konbini (convenience store); that is, I am mailed slips that can be scanned and paid for in cash. You can even make online orders on, say, Amazon, and get emailed a QR code that lets you pay in cash at the konbini.
But paying for non-Amazon things online, or transferring money back home, is a nightmare. I had to wrangle a teacher at my school to help take me to my bank (SMBC), withdraw cash, feed it back into the same machine, have the same incredibly nice teacher call the bank on the ATM phone, and then walk me through the right sequence of buttons. Though ATMs offer Japanese and English, advanced services like sending money are in Japanese only. If you can’t read it, then you either find a good Samaritan-san or go home defeated. Or, come back in a few years when you’ve mastered Japanese enough to navigate matters such as these.
I do have a card, featuring Midosuke the SMBC otter as seen above, but it is for ATM use only (i.e. no debit card function), and I can’t even use the online banking app until February either. The only way to check my balance would be to go to an ATM and get a physical receipt printed. On another trip, I had also tried to apply for the bank’s credit card, the paperwork for which is the picture at the top of this post. After about an hour of back and forth in broken English and my broken Japanese to painstakingly fill out the form, the result was that no, you can’t do it after all and to come back in February when you’ve been in Japan for six months. Sorry!
In the end, I filled out an online application for the foreigner-friendly Rakuten credit card, and to solve the phone number problem I bought one from Skype. One week, one approval, and one failed delivery attempt later, I can finally conduct online financial business without needing to bike a few miles and/or strong-arm a harried teacher into helping this foreigner dude press some Japanese buttons in the right order.
This week, I finally started teaching. School officially began on Monday the 3rd with the opening ceremony, where I gave a speech in both Japanese and English to the entire school, i.e. hundreds of students and dozens of teachers. That was the first time in my life speaking to so many people at once, but it actually went better than I imagined it would.
Typhoon 21 (aka Typhoon Jebi) hit on Tuesday and threw a wrench into the school schedule. It did nothing to the Hyogo prefecture where I live, but unfortunately, it absolutely devastated Osaka to our east, tearing roofs off buildings, throwing a tanker ship into a bridge and shutting down KIX Airport, flipping over trucks, spinning Ferris wheels, and smashing rubble into power lines.
Wednesday was my first day of class. It started horribly, with me losing my shirt on the way to school. Incredibly luckily, I have the nicest vice-principal on Earth and he let me borrow one of his spares, lest this disgustingly underdressed man be allowed to teach young, impressionable Japanese youth. I taught two periods, and also led my first of ESS Club’s (English Speaking Society) weekly meetings. My only task was to introduce myself, so I prepared a PowerPoint presentation about myself that was also a game.
The kids at my school are very shy (at least when it comes to English), but they are also very friendly and at least somewhat enthusiastic about me. As is the culture, I was almost always given a respectful bow and konnichiwa whenever a student passed by me. After the opening ceremony where I introduced myself, however, in addition to konnichiwas I am now getting hellos, usually accompanied by giggling if they’re girls. Anyways, like my previous post about things I’ve noticed, here’s some things I’ve noticed about school culture specifically:
Students clean the classrooms and teacher’s rooms. It’s done around 3 PM every day at my school, presumably before the last period starts. Look anywhere and you’ll see kids pushing around brooms and armed with washcloths.
Kids have VERY long days. The school was active even during summer vacation, because club activities and sports practices still run in summer. When school’s in, extracurriculars are Monday to Saturday for them. Students may even sleep at 1AM regularly, because they have club activities, after-school programs, and then homework.
Every single door in the school is a sliding door. Whether a classroom, the staffroom, bathroom, or someone’s office, it’s all fusuma, baby! Hey, it saves space, after all.
You wear indoors-only shoes when inside the school.I know I already mentioned this, but c’mon, nobody reads all of my posts. We have guest slippers with the school name in gold lettering for any visitors. I have my own shoe locker at the entrance and change every time I arrive.
Napping at your desk is allowed. It’s not celebrated, but when even the vice-principal is napping at his desk, you bet that your beauty sleep will be left undisturbed.
You use special office language. When you arrive, you say good morning to everyone as is the norm. When you leave, you say osaki ni shitsureishimasu (sorry to be leaving before you), to which the standard response is otsukare sama deshita (lit: “you must be tired”, but figuratively it means “hard work today!”). It’s actually not awful banter, it’s polite and respectful language that is standard in Japanese offices.
The left seal is my name in Japanese, which I use for most things, and the right seal is in English, which I use for things like letters and postcards.
You use a seal (stamp) instead of your signature. Instead of signing on official documents, you use a stamp of your name. It may have an intricate design so it’s not easily copied, and you may own different ones for different purposes: perhaps one for casual things, and another for super-official things like getting a mortgage or signing contracts. Every day you come in, you are to stamp your seal in a sign-in book so your school knows you showed up that day.
No one says bless you. This is not unique to Japan– it just isn’t done in Asian societies. Sneezes are followed by silence. The lack of blessings may eventually lead to death.
Technology is an eclectic mix of old and new. This is unique neither to the countryside nor to schools. Most schools still have chalkboards in the classroom. We have chalkboards in the teacher staffroom. Our computers are on Windows 7, everyone is on Internet Explorer and Yahoo!, and we still use fax machines. But then again, we also have HDTVs in the hallways. A lot of things still done on paper, which leads me to…
I have been there for one month. Since then, I have received 33 handouts and 3 booklets.
PAPERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The amount of paperwork is ludicrous. You still get the class schedule for the week on paper, announcements on paper, warnings about flu season on paper, the school newsletter on paper, and so on and so on. If you want to do anything administrative-related at all, you better believe there’s a form for it. Basically, imagine if every single email in your work inbox was instead individual pieces of paper.
No AC or heating in the classrooms and hallways. It comes partially from the mentality of conservation. Although for some reason, during winter, kids aren’t allowed to wear gloves and scarves inside either.
You can’t drink or eat while walking through the hallways. This includes water.
To remind everyone again, I am in Japan as part of the JET Program, which stands for the Japanese Exchange & Teaching Program. Its key objective is to promote cultural exchange between different nations and Japan, which in practice means: “yo, go teach some English.” So let’s walk you through an average day!
Morning (7:00 – 8:15 AM)
My day begins like any other: filled with a vague sense of dread and difficulty getting out of bed. Ahead of me is a brisk 5-mile bike ride, passing by rice paddies, farms, neighborhood vending machines, tiny Japanese cars, and also the Statue of Liberty. She welcomes the tired, the poor, and also the sweaty because it’s freaking 90 degrees every day and 70% humidity.
Arrival at School (8:15 AM)
I usually arrive 15 minutes early, as school starts at 8:30 AM. I change my shoes– you must wear a pair of indoors-only shoes to go inside the school. Same goes for the students, so despite the famed Japanese school uniform with loafers, they’re actually wearing indoor sandals when they’re in school.
Actual School (8:30 – 4:15 PM)
Summer vacation is ending soon, so it will soon be a lot busier. I haven’t been given too much to do aside from a few menial tasks, so I spend most of my time doing nothing. Interestingly, you’re either supposed to look busy, or you can nap. What you cannot do is be obviously screwing around, like on your phone with your feet up. I’ve caught quite a few teachers sleeping at their desks, even in front of the vice-principal (who is in charge of the teachers and sits among us). Just the other day, I caught him napping too!
That isn’t to say I have done absolutely NOTHING. I’ve prepared my self-introduction lesson (a PowerPoint), made quizzes from some basic English books, corrected essays, and compiled a list of English-learning games to play in the class. But there is still a LOT of down-time, especially for a dude who’s an assistant teacher, rather than an actual teacher. Until school starts next week, I guess I’m just office eye candy.
A Marathon Return (4:15 ~ 5:15 PM)
The modern-day 26-mile marathon originates from a Greek messenger named Philippides, who ran 26 miles from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to deliver news of a Greek victory. He died from the physical exertion, but not before announcing with his last breath, “Joy to you, we’ve won!”
My bike ride home is exactly the same, if not worse, except I don’t usually die at the end. I once fell inside (bike and all) of a rice paddy, ruining two of my shirts for the rest of time. You’d think Philippides had it bad.
Doing Nothing: Home Edition (5:15 PM – ???)
For lunch and breakfast, I mostly subsist on konbini (convenience store) food. For dinner, I try to cook most of the time, to mediocre results. Groceries can be almost comically expensive here. Oranges are $1 (100 yen) each. A bunch of grapes will set you back about $12. If you really want to live it up like the bourgeoisie, you could buy a $30 watermelon and have, I guess, a watermelon party while spitting on the poor. There’s even a game where you smash a watermelon like a pinata, which at one time went so far as to have officially-sanctioned rules. Cantaloupes are expensive too, to the point where you can buy one in a gift box. I know what I want for Christmas!
I go to sleep around 11 or 12, and a new weekday begins. And what about weekends? Stay tuned!