It’s been exactly 20 days since the anniversary of my first arriving at my apartment in Akashi to begin the JET Program. In that time– you know, I spent a long time sitting and staring at the screen, wondering what highlights to put to make it sound like I’ve had the experience of a lifetime in Japan. You know, “in that time, I’ve loved and lost, danced the night away in the neon streets of Dotonburi, watched the sun set over the hills of the origin of the world, and made relationships with people whom I’ll remember for the rest of my life.” Even then, I had to try really hard to make it sound like I really made the most of my time here. I didn’t. I also didn’t love and lose either, just wanted to sound poetic. But I still enjoyed this year more than any other out of my entire life. Instead of another wall of text let’s make a list of more things I’ve learned about myself, and about Japan, in my 365+ days here:
Nobody uses soap. Ever since I first noticed a teacher not wash his hands with soap after using the bathroom (rather just running water over their fingers for a few seconds), I can’t stop noticing it among everybody– in train stations, bars, homes, everywhere. It’s the exception rather than the norm to see someone actually use soap when washing their hands. Some bathrooms, like at temples or older train stations, don’t even have hand soap at all. Why not have a bottle there, it’ll last years anyways.
Japan can still be pretty dirty. For example, our school, over three decades old, has probably never been deep-cleaned aside from the daily dry-broom-pushing from the students. The toilets, including the teachers’, are also cleaned by the students, but that is done probably once a month or less. And since students clean them, well, how thorough and diligent would you be about school toilet cleaning if you were 14 years old? A lot of places are like this, with the idea that they are “ritually” clean (outside shoes have never made it in) rather than literally clean. Some districts, especially the nightlife ones, are absolutely filthy come morning time, with trash strewn all over the street. Nevertheless, outside of these old buildings or happening places, are still just as the stereotype of Japan is. Kirei!
I still can’t speak Japanese. Immersion helps a lot, but I have been too lazy all the time. I was hoping to make JLPT N3 by this last July, but, well, I have no excuse other than that I’m worthless. I can mostly order at restaurants, but I’m hopeless in any kind of conversation.
I have barely traveled at all. All the blog posts in the Travel category is actually all the travel I’ve done, with the exception of Kyoto. I have no good reasons for why I haven’t done it. Various things have kept me lashed to the Hyogo area, and although I know I won’t be here forever, I got settled in and comfortable pretty quickly. That shall change this year.
Students are still incredibly well-behaved. The “worst” in-class behavior I ever witnessed was a group of boys who would purposely be out of sync/louder than everyone else when the class was repeating after me from the textbook. That’s it.
I still feel the same about teaching. Before JET I had only the barest minimum of experience– just a few weeks here and there of volunteering. But when I did do it, I always enjoyed it, and I’m lucky enough that being in a teaching position has never made me nervous. A year later, I have a better grasp of what activities to do in class that work with the kids, and of what doesn’t, but my core approach still hasn’t changed: be confident, make the kids like you, and try your best to make English fun.
I still feel the same about Japan.Studying at Osaka University in the summer of 2014, being in Japan for the first time ever, was one of the highlights of my college career and indeed life. As I said in my personal statement for JET, hokey as it is, “I was awed by people’s friendliness, by the culture of mutual respect, and a rich history that spans thousands of years.” I still see evidence of it every single day.
Without language, you’ll never know people’s true feelings. Of course, people hide their true feelings all the time, in all cultures. There are people who put on a public face and hide what they are really thinking and feeling, to the detriment of themselves and of forming potential intimate relationships. In Japan, it is widespread and prescribed as the correct course of action, as the two concepts are very clearly defined, named as honne (what you are really thinking) and tatemae (what you present to society, in order to preserve its harmony).
Social interactions are all about “getting the hint.” For example, there is a teacher who I know for a fact dislikes me. Though they teach classes with me, they avoid speaking with me as much as possible, so I do my part to also avoid putting them in such a situation– for example, volunteering to go unlock the classroom first and wait for them there, so we don’t have to walk together. Before this, there had been a lot of subtle signs that I wasn’t able to pick up until a few months in, to be able to unequivocally conclude that they are not a fan of me.
Even with language, you probably might never know people’s true feelings. After all, the concept of honne and tatemae reaches beyond merely a language barrier. It is a way of life and a way of keeping society running, in a collectivist nation where 98% of the people are Japanese. Even with Japanese friends who speak very good English, it’s really difficult to ever get them to admit anything negative.
Many friendships are fleeting. I’m not just talking about with Japanese people. Being in a big, unfamiliar place, people tend to stick together with people like them, in order to feel safe, secure, and socially supported. You see this when first moving into the college dorms, or during study abroad programs. People are brought together by the context and excitement of where they are, which is why I feel you’ll often find yourself hanging out with people in Japan, Italy, Peru, or wherever that back home, you usually don’t hang out with or even get along with. I am fully aware that many people I meet here, I will probably never see again upon leaving this country. Nevertheless, I am always searching for genuine, deep emotional connections, but having a fun night out with strangers and acquaintances is always fun too.
Foreigners are still foreigners. Being from America, many of my students, and people at large, may still think of me as a Westerner. Japanese people have occasionally still expressed surprise that I am so deft at using chopsticks, or that I am capable of sitting seiza, on top of your legs tucked under you. They don’t seem to realize that Asian cultures still share a lot of similarities.
I’m glad I came here with more experience. Most JETs come straight out of college, and with that, I feel that among some there is a sense of entitlement and the idea that “the world should conform to ME!” It is a common complaint that we have to work during the summer, even when there is no class. We still get paid, yet people either want to get paid for not working, or pass up on free money by getting summer vacation like the students. Coming from a hustle-and-bustle, fast-paced industry as Hollywood, I’m incredibly thankful for how lenient this job can be. Yet, for many it’s still not enough. Complaints abound of working too much, working too little, or even about being so strictly expected to arrive on time.
Coming here at all, and then recontracting, are two decisions I have zero regrets about. Though I still vaguely worry about what to do after this program, I am happier than I’ve ever been before. I don’t dread waking up in the morning– perhaps for the commute, yes, but for the actual job, not at all. I’m wholly satisfied with the work-life balance, of the workload, and the amount of interaction I get to have with the students. I only wish I could travel more, but that could be fixed at any time. I certainly have the freedom to.
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.
So sorry for the lack of updates, dear readers. I wish I could’ve given you a play-by-play of my arduous journey to Tokyo (where I am now), but alas it’s been a whirlwind these past two days.
After a lot of packing, very little sleep, and actually not that much panic, I successfully boarded my flight to arrive in Tokyo at around 3 or 4pm local time on Sunday the 29th. This is for the initial orientation, which lasts until Wednesday.
Since then, I’ve gotten lost at the massive Shinjuku station, been to a rooftop DJ party at the Tokyo Intercontinental Bay, watched a katana demonstration by the guy who choreographed Kill Bill, and learned some non-zero amount about my duties and responsibilities as a JET participant. It’s been back-to-back workshops and lectures these past few days covering topics from our health insurance, to lesson plans, to special needs education.
On Wednesday, I’ll be making my way to my new home in Akashi in the Hyogo Prefecture. Until then, I get to worry about how I’m going to manage with only the cash in my wallet plus $14 in checking, and not having a freaking computer. Stay tuned!
I’ve made a huge mistake… with my blog! Googling Japanese stuff, in English, is not as easy as Googling American stuff in English, as anyone (except me) could guess.
I’ve given you wrong information, I’ve misled you all– I will NOT be living in, or even teaching in, the town of Harima. The school itself is still called Harima-Higashi High School, but it is in the town of Inami, which is north of the town called Harima, where Harima-Minami High School is. I hope you can see where the confusion came from, and forgive me. My fact-checking staff will be promptly dismissed and replaced come next month. Meanwhile, my apartment will be in the city of Akashi.
I’ll not go through the same schpiel that I did with Harima, not only because it seems disingenuous, but also because there is actually very little information I could find about my new town of Inami. All I can tell you is that it also has a small population, of 30,000. Take a page from the Harimans’* book, update your Wikipedia article, you crazy Inaminese*!
* I made up both of those just right now. Don’t call them this.
What better way to start a first post than with the title “Finally?” I was accepted into the JET program in late March 2018. Schools and boards of educations and contractors had a full THREE months, until June 21st, to notify their future employees where exactly they’d be working. And here I am, on the night of the 23rd. I finally got my placement: Harima-Higashi Senior High School!
Here’s where I pretend to be an authority on Harima, even though everything I’m telling you is just from Wikipedia. To wit, it HAS a Wikipedia article; that’s a good start. It’s a small town, population of about 30,000. It’s on the south coast of the Hyogo Prefecture, which is also home to Kobe and Himeji Castle. Its sister cities are Heping, China (wow!) and Lima, Ohio (breathtaking!). It is known for its “cutlery and fabric,” the latter of which I admit I’m very much into– wearing it, at least. They don’t get snow because of mountains to the north protecting it, so they get “mild winters.” But when one’s idea of a mild winter is 70° (21° C), I eagerly look forward to my expectations being totally shattered. And I also eagerly look forward to a white Christmas. See Australia for how I handle temperature:
I have some contracts and paperwork to sign, and I feel like my first post is already too long, so good night!
P.S. In case you’re wondering, -20° C is a picture of Otzi, a caveman mummy found in the Alps. Look him up, it’s pretty interesting!