This article first appeared in Critic Issue 25, 2017.
Time is a wheel. Being someone of Korean descent who represents New Zealand on the JET Programme (Japanese Exchange and Teaching meant to improve international relations), living in Japan is a surreal experience. On one hand, their ancestors conquered mine and instituted an oppressive police state in the 20th century, doing things like gunning down school children for singing the national anthem in public. On the other hand, their descendants’ taxes now pay my salary and I teach their children’s children English in an effort to show them the international world. I try not to get caught up in ancestral grudges.
Japan is a country of extraordinary paradoxes. It has some of the most advanced technology in the world casually on display everywhere, and yet holds onto some of its most ancient traditions. Their emperor, supposedly the descendent of the divine sun goddess Amaterasu, remains the longest continuous dynastical monarchy (that is a single family’s descendants continuing to rule as monarchs instead of being killed off and replaced by usurpers who become the next legitimate dynasty, only to be replaced a few generations down the track and so on) in world history. At the same time, Japan is one of the youngest democratic countries – with the declaration of the Japanese Peace Constitution in 1947, going so far as to renounce their sovereign right as a nation to declare war in Article 9.
Japan is a country where land was traditionally measured not in size, but in the amount of rice it could yield (石 - koku) – as it served as a direct representation of how many soldiers you could support and field. When warring Samurai clans were finally brought to heel by military oligarchs like Oda Nobunga (who realised that peasants with guns and steel ships trump Samurai armoured in tradition and bits of wood) and the mascot of my city, Ieyasu Tokugawa (currently experiencing a rebirth from brutal, bald, warlord to fuzzy, kawaii, symbol). Despite this modern anti-militaristic attitude, school uniforms are still modelled off navy uniforms and there is a great emphasis on regimentation and group work across all sectors of society.
Japan is a country that has talking toilets with more buttons and options than your average television, and magic internet boxes that somehow work without an Ethernet connection, but where many banks don’t believe in online banking and prefer to do things in person between the extremely inconvenient (for those who work fulltime) hours of 9am and 3pm. It’s a country where the term convenience store, konbini (コンビニ – ‘convenience’), is taken more literally – being able to act as a post office, bank for international money transfers and small supermarket complete with ready-made meals and daily necessities; instead of just being a place to get drunk fried food and darts at 3am. But if you want to get a new phone, or set up your internet, prepare to spend about four hours politely nodding, signing away your firstborn child, and going through so many security checks you’ll feel like you’re being screened by the CIA instead of getting the latest iPhone at a shopping mall.
In many ways Japan is the exact antithesis of New Zealand. It is the most homogenous and insular developed nation in the world, with census reports showing 98.5% of the population are Japanese citizens (that being said, ethnicity is not factored in the census and there are nine distinct ethnic minority groups in Japan that are swept together under the blanket term of ‘Japanese Citizen’). Plans are made weeks in advance, and kept to the letter; a reservation to a popular nomihodai (飲み放題 - an all you can drink restaurant/bar – something you couldn’t have in New Zealand for fear of the place going out of business, or needing to haul out bodies) for a large group can take up to two to three weeks, instead of a cheeky jaunt down George Street to the nearest byo on a Thursday night. Punctuality is so important that the director of the Shinkansen (新幹線 - bullet train) will write and sign a letter that you can show your employer if it is later than a minute.
I discovered why such a letter would be necessary when I missed a traffic light and was a few minutes late, being met with a frenzy of phone calls inquiring if I was okay, if I had missed my bus / train / been in an accident, or otherwise been waylaid during my twenty minute walk to the school. Coming from a country of “yeahnah mate she’ll be right,” our different attitude towards time was a jarring culture shock.
One of the predecessor JETs had a different encounter with Japanese hyper-politeness when she was chased down a street by a large Japanese man yelling at her. Fearing for her life, she sprinted away until the consequences of neglecting leg day became painfully clear. It wasn’t until he’d caught up that she realised she had left her wallet behind and he was trying to return it to her, oblivious of the language barrier. Walking around and seeing bikes unlocked everywhere and no litter in sight still continues to boggle the mind when you’re used to the glitter of broken glass and the occasional smashed car window of studentville. I hadn’t realised how overtly polite and civil Japanese society was until I was at a store, three weeks in, discovering that I knew at least five different ways to apologise but I didn’t know the word for no.
A large part of why there is such an emphasis on punctuality, structure and civility is the mindboggling amount of people that live in a country not much bigger than ours. Tokyo alone has almost double the entire population of New Zealand (9.27 million to 4.69 million) jammed into an area twice the size of Auckland – you can’t really afford to have buses arriving late or people littering everywhere without riots and anarchy. The city where I’m placed, Hamamatsu, is a ‘small’ city of only 800,000 people. For context, Auckland has just over a million. Conversely, many other JETs are in the ‘inaka’ (田舎- the Japanese boonies) where you might have a few hundred to a few thousand people in between rice paddies, not too different from rural farming towns in NZ.
In order for society to function smoothly without things catching on fire, especially given Japan’s knack for earthquakes and tsunamis (the entire country is a geographic hot spot), you need a greater emphasis on group collaboration, politeness, and civil responsibility, and this is where schools play such an important role.
From a young age children are socialised to work in groups, be aware and considerate of others when they do things (from small things such as picking up your rubbish and taking it with you when you leave, to sorting and recycling your rubbish every week), and to perform all tasks to a perfectionist standard – a double edged sword that creates a culture of shame and a fear of doing poorly. While New Zealand might have the individualistic bootstrap mythos of the self-made man, that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, Japan has the attitude that the nail that stands out gets hammered down, stressing group cohesion, consensus, and modesty.
Students rarely speak up on their own and will be flustered when called upon individually, but put them in pairs or groups and they’ll come up with surprising results. While not practiced as much at my placement school, the vast majority of Japanese schools do not hire cleaners and have all students and staff clean for 15 minutes each day to maintain their facilities. No matter how high you are on the hierarchical pecking order, for those 15 minutes everyone is equal and performs the mundane tasks many of us view as beneath us. It’s a remarkable way of building a sense of humility and teaching a lesson about civic responsibility – we all must take part to keep things running smoothly and the more hands there are the lighter the work.
Teacher, or sensei (先生), is as much an honorific suffix as it is a job title, with the same level of respect as doctors and professionals. Instead of being regular ol’ Isaac-san (Mr Isaac) who writes funnies for Critic, Isaac-sensei is used by colleagues and students to convey respect and deference. The term sensei translates to ‘one who was born before’; instead of viewing a teacher as a mere instructor who regurgitates knowledge into the mouths of young minds (who will hopefully retain enough of this knowledge to regurgitate back out on to their tests) as we do back home, a ‘sensei’ is viewed as a moral guide and mentor figure who has achieved mastery in their field. To an extent teachers perform a surrogate parent role; students caught misbehaving outside of school hours often result in their teachers being called and brought in before their parents.
As a result, they are held to a much higher standard by the community in order to be worthy of the title, manifesting in little ways like not being seen by the students smoking. The emphasis on personal accountability for those with esteemed positions is somewhat refreshing given the last few weeks of scandals involving our leaders this election cycle.
There are cracks and flaws with any system, and the Japanese insistence on perfection manifests in long work hours, high job stress, and staggering suicide rates. When one of the most common forms of death, karoshi (過労死 - translates to ‘death by overwork’; when a salaryman’s heart gives out after another 100 hour week) it raises questions about just how far you can push people before they break. One of the earliest phrases I learned, osaki ni shitsurei shimasu (お先に失礼します), translates roughly to, “sorry I’m leaving work before you,” and is a part of my leaving ritual at the end of each day, while my co-workers (some of which arrived before me) are still slogging away at their desks. A common work faux paus is to leave before the vice-president (or vice principal) does; fortunately gaijin (外人- foreigners) are exempt.
The extreme emphasis on group consensus and collaboration creates a culture where people are afraid to stand out, or to be too strongly opinionated. This manifests in the cultural phenomenon of honne (本音) and tatemae (建前); the true self and the public façade. There is a very clear and sharp demarcation between how you act in public, around your coworkers or superiors, and how you act with intimate friends and lovers in private. As a result, one of the biggest complaints of gaijin living in Japan is the perceived ‘fakeness’ that makes it difficult to form lasting relationships with your Japanese coworkers – you don’t know if they are saying things or doing things out of politeness or if they are genuine.
In many ways there are parallels with this in the West in countries like the United Kingdom or Finland, which tend to have a more introverted culture that emphasises civility and politeness – and Japan has the same solution to break the ice: copious drinking or ‘nomikai/enkai’ (飲み会 - work parties). Kind of like Vegas, what happens at an enkai remains at an enkai, with you greeting your coworkers the next day with a discrete nod – both of you tactfully avoiding any mention of the prior night’s revelry. It serves as an outlet to let your hair down and be more open and honest about things; an almost ritualised group therapy session with drinks instead of shrinks.
While still a bit of a challenge grappling with the monolithic language barrier, having no prior language experience outside of Miyazaki movies, living in Japan is a hell of a lot easier than 30 years ago, when the first JET members arrived. Having smartphone apps to teach you the letters of the three alphabets (Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji) or to translate in a pinch, being near other JETs and expats to help you acclimatise, and living in a country where people are generally exceedingly friendly and polite so long as you make some small attempt to speak Japanese and meet them halfway, things could certainly be worse. It’s not exactly a glamorous vacation overseas where you get to carouse around snapping photos for your ‘gram all day before jaunting back home to show off how ‘cultured’ you are, and yeah you are expected to work 35 hours a week. But at the end of the day you get paid to live in another country and learn how they do things. You get to teach young people to be curious about what lies outside the world they’ve known. All it takes is a little courage to take the first step and go somewhere you’ve never been.
Born somewhere between the old world of Korea and the new world of New Zealand Isaac is an award winning writer, teacher of literature and nomad currently residing in Nanjing.