So You Want to Go and Teach in Japan

Written by Jasna M.

Good for you. Now why would you want to do something like that to yourself?

Think about it. Think really hard.

Is it the culture? Do you want to immerse yourself in the same atmosphere that the samurai breathed all those years ago, learn calligraphy and koto, or maybe martial arts?

Or are you interested in seeing the land of technology first hand? You want to see the place where the best electronics are made, where everyone has the latest gadgets and life is so high tech they have toilets that wash your ass after you're done.

Good thing you stopped to read this article because I have something important to tell you.

That's probably not the Japan you're going to encounter.


I've been here just a little over 6 months and this Japan here is everything I could have wished for and nothing I could have expected.

My daily life brings me in contact with people who are more similar in aspirations to the people I left back home than samurai or geisha, or any imagined Japanese person for that matter. The dominant cultural atmosphere seems to be more Disney and Hello Kitty than Murasaki Shikibu and Edo-period aesthetic. And the crafts and martial arts? They're there, present, integrated into the fabric of everyday living so much that you might miss them.

Here's a story for you: ten years ago I practiced a little judo, tossed myself around the exercise mats with other kids in my club, strengthened a back made weak by a growth spurt and heavy school books and earned myself a yellow belt. No big deal. Coming here I thought I could get some practice in, get back into it just to stay in shape. Let me tell you, there's 6 kids in the club at the Junior High School and *all* of them could kick my ass no problem. The oldest is 14, the same age I was when I started training. The kids have been at it since they were about 6!

The biggest irony is that they deferred to me.

If you come here you will be like a small god. A little local deity, children and grannies staring at you, someone venturing a loud "Ha-roo!" when you're passing by. It can be a nice high, until you get to your apartment and close the door or try to orient yourself around the supermarket trying to buy bread. It's defeating to be illiterate after 17 years of schooling, let me tell you, and illiterate you will be unless you've been studying Japanese for the past few years. These guys have 3 writing systems, two of them relatively simple and a third one that takes decades to master and, yes, most of the writing uses the difficult writing system.

Ok, ok, I can lick the loneliness and the tough language. No problem. But what I really had trouble with is the cold.

No, I am not in Hokkaido and I can't see baby glaciers out my window. I am, in fact, in southern Japan, pretty close to the southern most tip of the island of Kyushu. What is my problem, you ask?

Lets see, a few weeks ago, when I woke up the temperature in the room was 5 degrees Centigrade. I think I am getting over *frostbite* on one of my toes and the times I am not feeling like I live in a tent I am worried whether or not I'll choke on the fumes of my kerosene heater that, in addition to nice warm air, blows the combusion fumes into the room as well!

Land of high tech, eh?

Fuck that.

My sliver of Japan is a village of about 4000 people and most of their lives seem to revolve around the planting and harvesting of rice and other vegetables. The most use you see anyone taking of high technology is a small tractor about the size of a lawn mower! More often than not you'll see doubled over grannies with old fashioned hoes slung over their shoulder as they hie it to or from the field.

No, this is not the Japan I imagined, nor is it likely to be the Japan you might imagine if you are considering teaching English here. However, there's more of *this* kind of Japan than that mythical kind that only lives in your or my mind. Just as with any dream, it's always better with your eyes closed while you're still dreaming. When it comes to doing you discover that drains stink here too and that the hills are covered in concrete to prevent erosion.

But there are flowers here that we don't have in Canada and they smell really sweet. It's February and I could brave a t-shirt if I was a hard boiled Canuck -- it must have been 18 degrees at noon today.

My coworker, the woman who sits beside me, is a descendant of the samurai who used to rule this area. You can see it in her manner, language and the fact that she stays poised even when she's bawling out the phone company.

Yes the Japanese are harder to fathom and get close to than even those "have-a-nice-day" service trained Canadians who would happily stab you in the back while smiling but, occasionally, you'll be granted egress into the unimaginable depths of intimacy that they are able to create only because they are so closed and reserved in their every day lives.

You might get a glimpse of a raven feather in your colleague's desk drawer, tucked away among the photocopies, elastics and paper clips. You might get invited to your boss's house for dinner, on an impulse, and meet his newborn daughter, only a week old and still not tracking. Or, you might find yourself receiving gifts from school children who have never met you before but are still eager to hold your hand, peer into your face with the unruffled directness only the young can pull off and show off their English to you.

Maybe you'll forgive yourself if you expected a purer Japan than the one you found and allow the place to change you and adopt you. For you are their teacher, you belong to them and they belong to you.