Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Favorite Places and Spaces: My Top 12 Breathtaking Views

Bonus #13: Cherry blossoms at the Uji tributary canal in Fushimi. Everyone visits this place south of Kyoto city later in the morning when the tour boats (cute traditional ones) start chugging up and down the canal. I was sad to miss them since I had to hurry to work, but then I realized boats make waves...I was glad I went early in the morning with the stunning reflection unruffled 

Inspired by a recent photography blog post that was getting shared around Facebook, I decided to make my own list of some great places I've been able to visit in Japan. These are the places that felt like another world, and that will stay in my memories for a long time even if I don't get to visit these places again. 

You've heard maybe of the very famous 10000 torii gates or bamboo forest in Kyoto. But I think what a lot of people don't realize is that the beauty of a many places is seasonal. Cherry blossoms do not bloom all year around, and since a lot of Japan has pretty extreme temperature differences (below freezing in winter, reaching above 100F/37C in summer), your view is going to be radically different depending on the season you visit. In a popular TV show that follows around foreigners sightseeing in Japan, every so often some bug-eyed foreigner comes rattling on about cherry blossoms in a mountain village in February, or goes all the way to see tulips blooming in Hokkaido in November, and is bummed when they get there and find nothing in bloom. It pays to look things up well beforehand. 

Anyway, here are my top 10, arranged in order of the season starting from Winter around New Year's time, when Kyoto is most likely to get a first snowfall. 

1. Kinkakuji in the Snow 
This temple is popular in any weather and season, but seeing it gold-on-white in the snow was really something special. I went on New Year's Eve in 2011. At the time I thought it was crowded, but when it snowed this past winter on a Sunday and I attempted going there again, the river of people takes about an hour to wait through. I decided I'd be content with my old 2011 photos and gave up! 



2. The Bamboo Forest in the Snow
You've probably heard of or even been to this famous tourist spot in Kyoto, but have you been there at dawn after a snow dusting? It was unbelievably quiet, cold, and still. I'll never forget the beauty of Arashiyama waking up to snow. I went in February this last year. Getting up early and being floored by it all actually inspired me to start using a better camera. I felt a bit sad I was in such a stunning place but without a camera good enough to capture it well.










3. Nikko in Late Winter
3 hours train-ride from Tokyo, as far northeast as I've ever been in Japan. I went by myself for two nights in late February 2011. It was so cold, quiet, and pristine. I spent a day wandering over a snowy mountain of cedar forests, meeting no one except a friendly stray cat. I walked along a lake ringed with snow-covered mountains, watched tiny ice crystals glitter in the spray of its giant waterfalls. I rode a bus farther into the mountains and across a birch-covered plain, stark like a black-and-white photo. I soaked in an onsen bath near a steaming valley of natural hotsprings while the wind roared in the pine trees, as loud as jet engines. I'll never forget that trip.




4. Plum Blossoms at Jonangu Shrine 
The cherry blossoms that bloom a month or so later attract more crowds to Kyoto, but this place during plum-blossom season (around the end of February and beginning of March) was just magical. It's popular among Japanese photographers who come from all over Japan to photograph the mossy garden covered in weeping plum blossom trees. The best part of the garden is near a grove of camellia trees that drop their flowers whole onto the green moss among the pink plum blossoms. It's such an artistic garden, like nothing I'd ever seen or imagined before. We went to see it on our wedding anniversary, Yuya took a day off just for us to be together and enjoy going out on a weekday afternoon! 






5. Cherry-blossom Illumination at Toji Temple
The Japanese love of cherry blossoms is at least a 1000 years old, but ways to enjoy them are always being reinvented with new technology. Many temples in Kyoto hold nightly illumination events during cherry blossom season when the trees are illuminated by carefully-placed lights. This place was a little crowded when we visited in 2014--we had to wait about 20 minutes to get in--but inside the expansive grounds it felt more open. We went just as the blossoms were past their peak and starting to scatter. I remember feeling I was inside a living postcard, with petals blowing across the view of the pagoda like snow. 





6. Haradani-en Garden 
Two words for this place: Flower. Overload. This privately-owned garden that sprawls over a hillside was almost overwhelming. First of all, the weeping cherry trees were some of the tallest and fullest I'd ever seen, and there were a lot of them. The garden had also been planted with many many other varieties of flowers growing at different heights but only kinds that bloom all at the same time as the weeping cherry trees at the end of April, apparently. I went on a day it poured rain (after huffing and puffing up a mountain road that winds from behind Kinkakuji temple) and there was still plenty of people there. It seems to be popular with locals, certainly I'd not seen it advertised anywhere in all my 5 years in Kyoto, though it's getting more well-known thanks to social media. It's hard to access and there's no parking lot, so you have to take a taxi or hike there, but WOW. I had never seen anything like this place before. PARADISE. 





7. Kawachi Wisteria Gardens in Kitakyushu
Wow, does this place live up to the hype, or what! I'd seen photos of it around on Pinterest, and managed to look up where it was located--it just happened to be an hour drive from a friends' house we were planning to visit just as the flowers would hit full bloom in the beginning of May. It happens smack dab in Golden Week (a string of national holidays) so when we drove there we found the narrow mountain road slowed to a crawl for miles. We ended up leaving the car with our friend's very kind brother who drove us, and who never got to enter the park unfortunately. We enjoyed a beautiful walk along a dam and lake before arriving at the gardens. It boasts two main wisteria tunnels, two wisteria domes, and at the top of the hill overlooking the rest of the garden, a whole wide lawn curtained with endless wisteria. The crowd was thinned out up there and we spent an hour or so just drinking it all in, the sparkle of the wisteria in the sun and humming of a thousand bumblebees and the SCENT. Even though a lot of people were there, it never felt crowded or rushed. No one could do anything but walk slowly and smile and breathe deeply. It almost felt sinful (especially when I remembered our poor friend in the car). Now, for crowd control a certain number of tickets per day are sold in advance through convenience store ticket machines. 



 





8. Senjoujiki Park in Yamaguchi
The same friend who took us to the wisteria garden in the same first week of May said he wanted to show us "a place near Heaven"--and that's just what it was! What an expansive, high view, so high over the ocean one could just barely pick out the tiny wrinkles of waves. I almost cried when I saw this view open up before us and again when we had to leave. After so long of living in a city of tall buildings and narrow streets, it was just so liberating. We picnicked on convenience store sandwiches on the grass. I thought, "If I died right here right now, I wouldn't even be mad." It's nearby unique and beautiful Motonosumi Inari shrine, though I didn't know it at the time, or I might have asked to visit, though it's a bit awkward asking Japanese Christians to take you to a shrine. 








9. The Beaches and Farmland of Iki Island in Nagasaki
Some people say, "we'll always have Paris" but we say, "We'll always have Iki." Looking for a place to spend the last days of our long Golden Week (longer than most folks, which turned out to our immense benefit since the island's beaches were empty except for us) I stumbled across the island on Google maps and thought its shape looked interesting. What a gem it was! No big resorts, not even a convenience store. One main road. Rolling green farmland (ah, that smell of flowers and growing things mixing with a salt tang! The whole island smelled so delicious!), pristine white beaches and brilliant blue water, almost tropical. We visited an uninhabited island by a little ferry as the only passengers. We ate a lovely modest hotel dinner (though one of the best on the island apparently, and our room was next to the one Emperor Hirohito had stayed in). Yuya's job was at its peak of terribleness. We were extremely stressed. We rented a car and drove around from beach to beach slowly, soothed by a guitarist friend's newest CD. I almost cry to remember those two precious days we had together, just the two of us in a new, beautiful place where unlike in the city no one is in a hurry and yet works hard fishing and farming. The love of the locals for the land and the sea was strongly felt. One day, I'd like to go back there again.









10. Mino Falls in Early Summer
You might not believe this lovely falls and walking paths through forested hillsides is only a few train stops from the heart of Osaka, but it is! I visited in early summer (early June, and again in early July another year) twice, and the first time, I think it impressed it me so much because I was living rather isolated in Kobe, with not much going on around me to mark the seasons by. Leaving the city all behind for a living breathing GREEN forest made me so happy. This place is famous for autumn leaves when all the maple trees turn color, but honestly (just judging now from photos I see in promotional material) the new green of the maple leaves still small and delicate in summer is better. The green is so soothing, and there's more water so the falls are fuller, it's never crowded in the off-season. It's a refreshing way to enjoy the Japanese idea of shinrin-yoku, "forest bathing" of enjoying a walk in the woods to rejuvenate. 





11. Shojiji Temple in Autumn
However, we can't talk about spectacular places in Japan without mentioning fall foliage, loved almost as much as the cherry blossoms. Again Kyoto is especially famous for them, and people have been going to the most beautiful and popular "autumn leaf temples" Eikando and Tofukuji to see the leaves turn for centuries. These and other popular spots in Kyoto see extreme crowds every year, even before the number of foreign tourists started rocketing up a few years ago. They are very beautiful to be sure, but so crowded, like policemen standing around shouting in megaphones to keep moving and not take photos kind of crowded, my least favorite. I stumbled across Shojiji Temple on the outskirts of Kyoto City last year, when I'd done my Tofukuji and wanted to see someplace quiet and peaceful. The photos I found online were beautiful but not all that impressive. It seemed to be more famous as a cherry blossom spot in the spring so not many people seemed to visit in autumn. It completely blew me away. First of all, the ride there in the train and bus and then walking 20 minutes through cute little farmland was so peaceful, there was really not a soul. The temple was old, and blending into the surrounding forest, with that classic Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic. And the LEAVES. There was a colorful carpet of them all over the temple grounds, but who knows where they fell from, since the trees still seemed to be full of them! I went on a weekday, and there were only 4-5 other people in the temple grounds with me. I couldn't believe it, that a place of such beauty would be so left alone by the crowds. I spent an hour or two longer there than I had planned. That night when I went to sleep, the crisp smell of leaves and their warm fall colors were still there fresh in my mind. 








12. Soni Plateau in Nara
This is a place I found through Instagram. I couldn't not go. It was 2015, I was sick of the fall foliage crowds all over Kyoto, and sad that the year was a bad one for the leaves anyway--many simply faded and fell without ever turning yellow or red. I had time off at the end of November and we decided to get out of the city and see some susuki grass (another symbol of autumn in Japan). Due to a limited number of buses per day that reach this place, we left super early in the morning, around 5 a.m. We got lost for a time in Osaka trying to find a tiny local train line that started just short of the main hub at Umeda (why Japanese people??) and then hours later on a bus into the heart of Nara prefecture, it started to snow! We had not come prepared, and luckily it stopped by time we arrived, so we go to see the lovely plateau and hillsides covered in brown susuki grass dusted with snow, as autumn became winter before our very eyes. What a dynamic landscape of wind, clouds, sun, snow, and blowing grasses--in some places taller than us--it was! I was disappointed we never got a chance to go last year, so I'm hoping for this year! I don't realize how cramped and plastic I feel in the city until I get out of it. Did you know only about 30% of Japan's land mass is inhabited? The rest is very wild (but not so rugged or high) mountains. You can find anything a human heart might desire within that 30%, which includes one of the world's most populous metropolises, if you have money. But the other 70%...that's soul-food right there, and you won't find it in any kind of city. The wildest places are hard to access, and we don't even get to nice parks within the reach of public transportation like Soni very often. It was a real treat. 









***

So, there are my top 12. Japan is an extremely picturesque country with so much to be seen--from the super popular to little out-of-the-way spots only locals know about. One day I know I'll wish I'd explore more of it. But I'm very happy and grateful with the memories of the places I have seen that blew me away. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Spare Me the Drama: How to Negotiate for what You Want in a Japanese Company

Japanese business practices.

Mountains of books and studies have been done about them. Most people in the West know at least in passing of booming postwar "samurai spirit" business styles and most recently of karoshi "death from overwork" which was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002.

Most manuals on the subject for Western business people interacting with Japanese counterparts is about things like how to bow, how to exchange business cards, how to treat superiors. None of the ones I read were, in hindsight, very useful to me, especially when it comes to getting my voice heard and getting my way. 

I know that sounds like the worst employee ever, but let me tell you, even the most hard-working go-the-extra-mile American worker that you know falls far short of the Japanese standard, myself included. The reasons, if I tried to condense them into one sentence probably too simply, is that as a culture Americans are getting their religion elsewhere than in the corporate world. This post goes into why Japanese people work this way--long, often unpaid hours.
Not every Japanese company is this sticky and manipulative, and more often than not, foreign employees are given a pass to avoid it all even if it's how Japanese employees are treated. However, these business practices seem to be especially strong in the Kyoto companies I've experienced, and I thought this post might be useful for someone who runs into them.

For someone not educated in Japan and who does not share these values, it can really stink trying to do even "normal" things within your rights like leave work on time every day, take paid vacation days, or get out of pointless weekend events and meetings. Your bosses and co-workers may not be able to prevent you in a legal sense from doing these things, you probably won't get fired either, but they may give you a lot of grief and passive-aggressive drama for it.

The drama is something I really want to avoid. Ain't nobody got time for that, I think I like it even less than outright angry confrontations.

First, let's look at some of the things a well-adjusted adult Japanese employee would never do when making a request to a superior:

1. get openly angry 
2. talk about rights, labor laws, contracts
3. offer a reason/excuse that does not sound very serious (e.g. when asking for time off they will ask for "family issues" or "a wedding/funeral I must attend" NOT "going to a concert on Friday")
4. use words that suggest the boss is being unfair, unreasonable, or wrong
5. blab around the office about how they're looking forward to their vacation/weekend/time off

Foreigners often make the mistake of doing these kinds of things, and what they get for it is a lot of unnecessary drama--getting visits from kacho to talk about your work ethic, guilting you into feeling like you're doing something wrong, getting told "no" outright so going ahead with your plan means deliberately defying your superiors, etc. I have seen all these and more things happen to my foreign co-workers, but not to me after I started negotiating in a more Japanese way.

Here's how I do it, the naughty guide:

1. Apologize a lot
In America, this suggests a wishy-washy person with low self-confidence, but in Japan, apologies are power. What happens when you apologize is that it all stops being your fault. A situation has arisen that demands your absence, how very regrettable indeed. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak. "I'm sorry, I can't stay late today" is much better than "No I'm not going to do that because..." The American in me wants to present my case with arguments and reasons sometimes but that will only drag things out unnecessarily. Apologizing, instead of getting defensive about your rights or contract or whatever, will go much farther in helping you stand your ground. It shows that you're definitely not going to change your mind or be convinced of another course of action. Apologies beat logic, protecting your from being pressured into something you don't want to do.

2. Stay humble and lowly
Even if the problem is the manager's fault or perfectly within your rights, make it your mistake and your misunderstanding. Japanese businesses don't care so much about mistakes and human failings as long as your attitude is correct, "Thanks for letting me know, I'll try to do ___ better next time" is something bosses love to hear. If you get told random (often untrue) things like "you can't take days off in conjunction with the national holidays" just make it your fault for misunderstanding the rules and keep applying #1 above.
Also, it'll help reduce frictions if you make a show of meeting your boss halfway. When I said I'd have to miss a company event, I added, "but let me know if there's anything I can do to help with the preparations." This suggests I'm not just being a butthead and actually care. Suggests, haha.

3. Make statements, not questions for permission
If you ask for something, be ready to be told "No" most of the time, or be pressured emotionally into it when a clear "no" is illegal. From a manager's perspective, this is only natural. A young co-worker who's since moved on told me she asked for a week off in conjunction with a long weekend since her dad was planning to come to Japan, but she was told no. She got teary-eyed explaining how she and her dad decided to cancel his trip. I didn't know what to say. Just six months earlier I had successfully gotten two weeks off + a long weekend from these same people to visit home. The difference I could think of was that I stated my actions "I'm not going to be here for two weeks in May..." and apologized for the bother, instead of asking permission. If you just state the facts of what's going on "I can't make it to the meeting on Saturday" "I have to catch the 6:10 train" there's less they can say. It's usually better to apologize than ask permission.

4. Silence is golden
Another thing I have trouble with (and I'm not even a very talkative person) is keeping my mouth shut. But a little silence goes a long way. I've learned it's best not to spread gossip, or air your complaints, because everything you say can be used against you. Even if you really want to add that punchline "because that's what it says in my contract!" "I'm not spending my weekend doing that" "It can't be mandatory if it's unpaid" it's usually better not to. Managers are not dumb, and they already know these things. Bad ones will pretend they don't and see how far they can guilt and manipulate you into "un-knowing" them as well. Either way, pert statements of this sort would never, ever, be said to a Japanese manager by a Japanese subordinate. They will just result in unnecessary enmity on both sides, and open the door for arguments. I don't have a lot of confidence in winning arguments so I like to stop them before they start. Japanese managers also expect and appreciate a show of "subordination," as per #2, and saying these kinds of things, while not untrue or unreasonable in America, will just land you in a lot of drama in the Japanese workplace.

5. Timing is key
Sometimes, it's best to voice your requests right before they're going to happen. Big boss N was scheduling yet another (after hours, unpaid, transportation also unpaid) meeting at during the weekend. As a "senior" teacher she wanted to include, I knew if I said I couldn't go well in advance, she'd probably just do her darndest to reschedule the freaking meeting. So I told her I couldn't go the day before. But in other cases, sometimes it's best to explain where you stand. When I signed the contract this year, I said clearly "this year I'm only able to come in and work on the designated working days that it says in the contract." (thinking with a little wry smile somewhere that such a statement would hardly be necessary in the U.S.) That little explanation of "this is me" becomes your character or brand and then when you have to say "I can't make it..." no one has a right to be surprised at you. My manager knows I prefer to spend my Sundays going to church, so she cannot give me too much grief when I try to get out of work obligations on Sundays. It takes some wisdom to know when to make your voice heard, whether at the last minute or long before, but for one-time events, at the last minute might be best to avoid being asked, "Well when can you do it?"

6. Have a Japanese husband
Half-serious here. No, maybe all serious. The old Japanese expectations that brides have to serve their husband and new family over any other conflicting obligations can sometimes be redirected to work in my favor. It is one reason some companies are loth to hire female full-time workers for certain positions, why two female friends of mine were pressured into quitting after their marriages. I think it's also why my single co-workers and foreign male co-workers get much more flak for taking time off than I do.

The bottom line
The classic cultural dynamics going on are the contrast of 義理 giri (duty) and 人情 ninjo (human feelings/failings that prevent one from fulfilling giri). In Japanese corporate culture, the company owns you and your time. It is your giri to serve as best as you can in return for the company's care of you (allowing you to buy a house, have social status, etc. etc.) The only way to get out of it while ruffling as few feathers as possible is not by asserting your rights (remember, everyone around you is voluntarily forfeiting theirs) but by having a good ninjo reason.

It might feel crushing to apologize for doing something completely within your rights in a business setting, but I do believe it makes things simpler and easier in the end. More flies are caught with honey than vinegar!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

So You Wanna Teach English in Japan...

on the job

A couple times I've been asked by friends and acquaintances to share my experiences teaching English in Japan. It's what I've been doing here for the past four years.

There's a lot that can be said about English teaching in foreign countries in general and in Japanese eikaiwa (for-profit conversational English schools) in particular. A lot of it isn't very nice, because it's a common trope to be able to get employed easily just by being 1. a living breathing native speaker of English 2. white or otherwise properly "foreign-looking" --with no other qualifications besides (typically) a bachelor's degree in any field. Proper ESL teachers are incensed by this reality. I could talk a lot more on the issue, but I'm not going to now in this blog post.

So, here's my experience in Japanese eikaiwa, and some things to look out for. I don't have any personal experience working in other programs like JET or private ALT agencies so I'm not going to talk about those either.

I've worked in two very different eikawa companies. One was in the top 4 biggest eikaiwa companies nationwide, we'll call it A. The other is small and concentrated only in the Kansai area, we'll call it K. I'll compare the two in a couple different points: getting hired, housing, training, working conditions, and teaching.

1. Getting hired and getting to Japan
Some big companies like A only do their recruiting outside Japan. A was a very typical Japanese company in that it preferred to hire blank slates and train them in the A teaching style from zero, I also think they preferred foreigners with little to no experience in Japan to avoid people just in it for the visa, and also because people who don't speak much Japanese have "purer" English (something I was actually told at A) and, I think, are more dependent on the company. Anyway, if you pass the initial interview and demo lesson stages with the recruiters in the U.S. and the company hires you, they will help sponsor you to get a working visa. My recruiters were great and spelled everything out clearly, and it all went quickly and smoothly for my move to Japan. That's a benefit of working for a big company. They're used to the visa process and do everything legally and professionally on the up-and-up. Even after I quit A, when I needed paperwork from them to renew my visa years later, they were very prompt and professional about getting it to me.
K, on the other hand, only hires from inside Japan, and many similar small companies require that applicants already have the proper visa in hand in order to be hired. K has sponsored the visas of people who came in and were hired on a tourist visa, and then applied for a working one while in the country, but it never seems to go quite as smoothly for them as it went for me with A. Small/new companies are less likely to have experience and knowledge in this area so you have to be very careful to do the research yourself and ask for any paperwork necessary for visa renewal/residency processing well in advance, since it might not get handed to you automatically.

2. Housing
A provided me with company housing as well as a housing stipend along with my monthly salary. It wasn't bad. It was nice having the stipend and also not having to do house-hunting as well as new job stuff all at the same time all by myself, but it also means you can't move out easily while still under your contract, and when your contract ends and you find new work, out you go! The housing provided by a large company will also help you avoid the housing circus foreigners always complain about, reikin or "key money"--a present of a few months' rent to your landlord. It's not a deposit. It will never come back to you. It's seriously just a present to say "thanks for letting me live here"--and finding a guarantor, someone who agrees to answer for you if you suddenly disappear with rent or damages unpaid.
K provides no housing and really doesn't care where/how you live. There's more flexibility but no stipend and not much help in finding a place of course.
In both cases, be prepared to live in a much smaller space than is typical in the U.S.

3. Training
A big company like A will probably provide a period of formal training. In A's case, I was first sent to a week-long training session in Osaka before being sent to my branch school in Kobe, where I also had a week of "job-shadowing" with the teacher I was replacing. During the general training week I shared a weekly hotel room and all the training meetings with three other women hired at the same time. It was pretty bonkers. 8 hours of training all 5 days, with huge amounts of "homework" to prepare in the evenings for the next day. They had their brand and signature teaching method that we had to learn by heart and put in practice smoothly in demo lessons before being sent to our branch schools, as well as things to learn like the company's business etiquette and expected manners. Some trainers were fair, others were passive-aggressive; most were Japanese and some were foreign like us. It was mentally and physically exhausting but my experience was pretty typical of a large Japanese company and quite benign compared to Yuya's and other Japanese friends' experiences. K provided zero formal training. I had one day to spend shadowing the teacher I was replacing, and the next day I was on my own. Luckily I had experience at A to fall back on until I figured things out, otherwise I would have been up a creek. K has a less rigid teaching method so it's possible to learn it as you go through experience rather than through training (i.e., they are a small company and can't afford the time and money to train teachers as much, they don't mind new teachers being up a creek).

4. Working conditions
Both companies large and small followed a typical pattern. Since eikaiwa is English conversation lessons marketed for after school and after work, the working hours start and finish late, I think it's common to start around noon and finish at 8 or 9pm., it's also common for the work week to be from Tuesday to Saturday instead of from Monday to Friday. At both companies, the majority of their students attend classes on Saturdays, so that is the day most of their profit is generated. I think you'll be hard-pressed to find a for-profit English school that is not open on Saturdays. It is also the busiest day, and at both A and K I teach 8 classes in 8 working hours. Classes are typically 40-50 minutes long and have 5-10 minutes in between each one. During these few minutes you'll probably be expected to talk with parents/students, sell textbooks or special events, and somehow gather up your things and start the next class on time. It's nonstop until the end of the day. At some schools, every day of the week is like that, but at K, I average 6 classes daily. This gives me time to prep since at K lesson prep is more the teacher's responsibility. At A, all lesson materials came mailed from HQ ready to use, but at K, I plan and make a lot of the materials myself. Freedom means you have to do a little more work. I don't mind it though, because planning something interesting for the kids is one of my favorite parts of the job (how it goes in reality is often completely different from my expectations but that's part of the fun). Classes are on a weekly basis with a yearly calendar, and students usually sign up for the year/four classes a month. This means you can do all your prep for a week of teaching more or less the same classes every day, until the next week starts.

The late hours and days off on Sundays and Mondays have their pluses and minuses. For people who can't wake up in the morning, heading to work at noon is much less painful. However, especially when I worked at A, I found socializing outside of work very difficult. I couldn't meet up with friends so easily after work since I finished at 9pm, and most of my friends worked Mondays. Sundays I spent at church. On the other hand, with Mondays off I can do sight-seeing on a weekday which means everywhere is much less crowded. It's always sight-seeing by myself though!

A required maybe 2 working Sundays (six-day work weeks) in the year for events and training sessions, and followed the typical Japanese calendar of national holidays. K requires much more work on Sundays (paid) but also has strings of days off to make up for them where most Japanese don't in November, February and June as well as the typical New Year's and May Golden Week holidays. It might be best to consider the number of days off in the calendar. K provides 123 days off in the year, could be better but could be worse. My first year I got 5 additional paid leave days (not sick days, some companies will expect you to use these when you're sick) and now I'm up to 9 per year. If you're going to work in a corporation in Japan, also be prepared to work on Christmas Day. It's not a holiday for adults, and it comes at the awkward time right before the New Year's holidays when children are often out of school but their parents are still working, so the kids who attend eikaiwa and other educational businesses often spend their first few days of their winter vacation there. Businesses that cater to kids are aware of this and often schedule all-day events during winter, spring, and summer vacations.

A funny thing about K: there are all-day field trips with the kids on Sundays 6 times a year, and a 3-day camp once a year. For spending 36 hours with the kids on the camp you get about $40 token of gratitude. The field trips usually involve 4 hours or so of overtime. It is not paid, and nothing will come of it if you say nothing (like the Japanese staff do). However if I complain, my manager allows me to take the extra hours off to make up for it. It's a grey area because there is only my manager and I keeping track of it unofficially, but I know it will be allowed because there is no way K will agree to reimbursing us monetarily. Smaller companies may want to go under the radar, under the table about things like this, but they also have more flexibility for you to negotiate a compromise to your advantage, if unofficially. 

Most people who come to Japan and get hired by eikaiwa are not here just because they love teaching--usually they want to see Japan, or further some hobby or study of their own. In that case, I'm not sure working full-time in a corporation is the way to go. Work can be all-consuming and it can be hard to make time to do what you really want.

As for salary, A's was considerably larger than K's. I went with K anyway because I liked its low-stress, more free atmosphere and location. With greater salary comes greater responsibility, but both salaries are larger than an entry-level Japanese worker or American worker back home. You can have enough left over to put away into savings or pay off student loans if you're careful.

Once you join a company, you'll be automatically entered into Japanese National Health Insurance. It's not so expensive and it makes medical care very, very cheap compared to the U.S. I can get seen and get a prescription filled all for about $15. I paid about $80 for an endoscopy once. K also provides a free basic health check every year. No complaints there from me.

Most eikaiwa hire foreign teachers on a yearly contract that can be renewed for additional year(s) if both parties are willing. You should get a transportation stipend, bonuses may or may not be provided. You might be surprised at how short and vague contracts are compared to ones in the U.S. K's is only 2 pages long. It's good to know your labor rights and clarify expectations beforehand, if you want to be American about it, since in Japan contracts are more like a formality, and unspoken expectations, we might say the company's "vibe" or "culture," can carry more weight than a contract. If you're staying a long time, be aware that in the past companies were only allowed a certain percentage of contract workers, and after keeping a worker in a contract position for 5 years, were legally obliged to turn the position into a full-time one with all the benefits of lifetime employment. However this law has since been overturned and seems to change a bit every year, now the number of contract workers is on the rise and companies are not obliged to grant them lifetime benefits no matter how long they're hired. Career advancement in both A and K seems to depend on Japanese ability as well as professional factors, most eikaiwa teachers I know remain just that for years though.

5. Teaching
This could either end up being the longest, or the shortest, part of this post. In both Japan and America, I'd say teachers are given a lot of respect. But education here is simply different, a lot more focused on classic lecture styles with rote memorization and passing exams. Eikaiwa are apparently to fill the gap by providing what schools lack--English conversation with a real live native speaker, more focused on practical language use and having fun with such interesting teachers from different countries. Eikaiwa are not schools. They are for-profit businesses. The theme is education but they're selling dreams: it makes for good business in which the customer's need is never quite there, never quite satisfied. Language acquisition never stops and there's always something to improve, isn't there? Students are also customers. If you join eikaiwa taking yourself very seriously as an educator you might find yourself frustrated. Classes have to be smart and have substance to keep students interested and working towards their personal goals or they will quit, but teaching is not all you will be expected to do in many cases. At A, I had to actively participate in the business side as well--selling textbooks and extra classes, handing out pamphlets at the nearby train station, keeping track of goals for monthly student numbers--and while at K I'm not expected to do that as often, one should be aware your branding is different here than in the U.S. In the U.S., your professional value is determined by qualifications, years of experience, passion for your work, etc., but in eikaiwa, your non-Japaneseness is a big part of your value as an employee. Lessons with you are the product being sold, and like any zoo is more popular with an elephant, eikaiwa cannot attract students without a foreign face, since that was the branding established when eikaiwa first started as a business in the 1980s. I notice in both A and K's promotional material (pamphlets, websites, posters) the line isn't "we have teachers with this-and-that qualification and this many years of experience!" but most often, "we have teachers from many different countries!" It's always good to study that promotional material and be aware of how you're being marketed.

I think if you can understand that the company's first goal is to generate profit you'll be happier as a teacher in eikaiwa, because you'll know why things are done the way they are (one common pet peeve: curriculum decisions being made by business people who have never taught before) and won't have expectations of being a sacred pure educator as we'd think of in the U.S.


In conclusion
Another factor I have heard is that it can be hard to translate teaching experience in an eikaiwa to a job back home in the U.S. I haven't yet tried repatriating and job searching again in America so I'm not sure how it really is, but there is a population of foreigners (self included?) here who seem to get "stuck" in eikaiwa. They don't gain many marketable skills to sell back home, and get content with living on a modest steady income, even without any real career advancement or salary increase, so that's where they stay, working eikaiwa in Japan for years. Some foreigners who climb the corporate ladder or work in universities sneer at them, but you know, whatever floats your boat. Eikaiwa have not died out for a couple decades now so that must mean they are fulfilling some needs in Japanese society.

Eikaiwa can be an "easy" way in if you can get hired by a company like A that will sponsor your visa, but it's definitely not for everyone, and every eikaiwa business is different. It's been good, bad, and ugly for me but mostly good, and I haven't run into any of the nightmare stories you can find online. I hope this post shed some light on the subject for anyone considering teaching English in eikaiwa in Japan.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Geisha in Kyoto? Probably Not: Five Ways to Tell Real Maiko from Cosplayers

Sorry, if your photos on Instagram are any indication, you didn't see geishas on your recent trip to Kyoto. 

It has to be said.

The reason I'm saying it here is because it's not socially acceptable to go around peoples' Instagram photos on the #travelgram tag and burst their bubbles with a comment saying “No, that's a tourist in a costume, not a real geisha” (though there is an account I follow dedicated to that very thing).

A bit of background: I'm addicted to Instagram. I follow a lot of people who travel. My Kyoto account falls into the popular "travel" category as a destination for globe-trotting folks. When they make it to Kyoto they sometimes upload photos like this with the caption: "I saw geisha!!!1 #inlovewithjapan" 

These are not real geisha, but ordinary folks in costume
No. Nine times out of ten, you did not. You saw, wait for it, dressed-up Japanese (and non-Japanese!) tourists. This flub seems to be coming up more and more often as "maiko for a day" costuming experiences are becoming more popular.

Some background on Kyoto and "geisha" or geiko as they are called here. Kyoto has been a center for the traditional arts for a thousand years, going back to when the Emperor moved his court there from Nara (in the 1800s the imperial palace was moved to Tokyo where it remains today). It has been a "tourist destination" for at least as long. Japanese people have loved Kyoto as a beautiful travel destination for at least a thousand years. Businesses to serve and entertain travelers have a long history here, and the 花街 kagai or traditional entertainment (red-light?) districts in Kyoto are remnants of them. Geiko and their apprentice counterparts maiko are professional entertainers and masters of several traditional arts including dance, musical instruments, tea ceremony, drinking games, and conversation. Are they basically high-end prostitutes? People with connections to the kagai will be offended and say no to such a question. Have they been so in history? Most likely. But who knows. A lot of things here are not allowed to be as black-and-white as in Western countries. The kagai is a very closed world even to the average Japanese person, that since WWII especially has worked hard to improve its image. The idea is that mastery of traditional arts (even those whose basic purpose is to entertain men) deserves respect and preservation, not criticism or divulging of sordid stories. I'm quite sure the kagai has its share of darkness going on, whether it's any better or worse than the typical hostess bar or even typical Japanese company practices is anyone's guess. 

But in any case, I find maiko—the real ones—stunning. They have made becoming a symbol of ideal female beauty from another time and culture into their full-time profession, starting apprenticeships from when compulsory education ends around age 16 (now there's a hairy human rights question foreigners love to bring up). At this stage they are called maiko and wear the high chunky wooden okobo shoes, long trailing obi sash, and dangling hair ornaments most people think of when they hear “geisha”. At age 20 they become full-fledged geiko or recognized masters of their arts, and they switch to wearing more subdued kimono, flatter shoes, a shorter obi, and wigs in a more elaborate style rather than their own hair, though with less accessories. Geiko are less often seen in the streets. The young, bright-colored maiko draw everyone's attention, I think they also have to go out more often to various functions and music and dance lessons. It's hard not to be fascinated. But this is an exclusive world where personal connections are more important than the money you're willing to spend (and you would still need a lot for a dinner with a maiko in attendance). In recent years this public fascination for the inaccessible has resulted in a booming business: maiko makeovers! 舞妓体験 in Japanese. These fancy photo studios concentrated in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto will apply the white makeup, dress you up in rental kimono, wig, and accessories, and arrange photo shoots for a day as a maiko. I think social media has contributed to the boom, as young people are on the prowl for cool photo op experiences. There's a very, very high chance the “maiko” you caught a glimpse of on your trip around Higashiyama are just normal Japanese girls out for a day of touring Kyoto, just like you!

Here are five ways to tell the difference, in order from easiest/most obvious to more subtle.

1. Location

Yes, the Gion area of Higashiyama is part of the old kagai there. But it is also the main tourist destination in Kyoto, especially the routes to Kiyomizu temple. The area is always very crowded. The real maiko know this and do not use these streets. If they must go through the tourist attractions they use the maze of tiny little back streets, or simply take a taxi. So if you see a maiko walking around the tourist attractions, she's probably not the real thing.

"Off-duty" maiko in Miyagawa-cho on a spring afternoon. I didn't get a shot of their faces but they weren't wearing the white  makeup. Their hairstyle is what gives them away as real maiko!

2. Time of day


The maiko's typical day is made up of lessons and the occasional ceremony or event in the morning. She goes out at this time in a simple kimono without the white makeup on her face, so you might mistake her for simply a well-dressed Kyoto lady (there are many women in Kyoto who wear kimono when making formal social calls, or when practicing traditional arts). Her youth and her hair done up in traditional fashion will give her away to the practiced eye though. The afternoon is spent in preparation for the night's work: donning the giant obi sash and white makeup we all know and love. Real maiko start ducking out to work--to restaurants, hotels, and dance theaters—in full maiko ensemble between 5 and 6pm. If you see a maiko walking in the street with all her white makeup on in the morning or afternoon, she is probably a cosplayer.

3. Behavior

A maiko has to hold up yards of fabric to walk
A maiko's clients pay her okiya (boarding house?) for the time she spends commuting to the restaurant or bar. So she doesn't dwaddle around gazing at the sights, chatting with other maiko, or posing for pictures, and she most definitely does not eat or use a cellphone or camera en route to her destination. Maiko doing those things I can say with 100% certainty are tourists dressed up. Real maiko dash quickly, almost running, and usually ignore requests for photos. The typical Japanese girl is not used to wearing kimono or the traditional footwear and most cannot manage a graceful dash like the maiko, nor are they often in a hurry.
Also, a maiko walking with both hands free is not going to happen either. Instead of a purse they will carry small cloth and straw baskets, and they will also be holding up their kimono train. This something the photo studios miss. Maiko wear their kimono so they trail behind in a long train, and when walking they have to gather this train to the front and hold it up with one hand. Pardon the silly clipart but it shows what I'm talking about. Most kimono in most situations are not worn in this way but extra fabric is folded and tied up at the waist, so most Japanese people are not used to walking around holding onto a train. To allow unpracticed customers ease of movement (and probably also to minimize damage to the studio's property) customers are dressed in kimono tied up at the waist like a normal kimono. They can walk around without holding up yards of extra fabric, and their ensemble does not trail on the ground. If you look again the first photo I posted you will see this is the case for the two girls enjoying maiko style costume in Kyoto.

4. Age

As I noted previously, maiko are most likely teenagers, with an age range of 15-20 years old. After age 20 they either choose to retire from the kagai world (not so uncommon) or become geiko, and their kimono and hairstyles change completely. You will never see a real maiko older than 20. But, the photo studios cater to all ages. If you see a little girl in the costume, or a lady obviously older than 20, she is not a real maiko. Also, as a general rule, if the maiko has a figure similar to that of Matsuko Deluxe (Google him) she is not a real maiko.

5. Makeup and Accessories 
   
Maiko makeover studios boast about giving their customers an authentic experience, and some do get close, even fooling Japanese people unfamiliar with maiko. But they make mistakes in the makeup and hair ornaments. The dangly hair ornament on the side of the face is only worn by first-year apprentice maiko. During this year, they do not apply rouge to the upper lip, but just the bottom one. Here's a photo I took at an event some years ago: note her white upper lip and dangling flower-blossom hairpiece. The older maiko color both lips, but never again wear these dangling hair ornaments.
First-year maiko Umeraku. Note her lipstick and dangling hair ornament.

Older maiko Umeyae. 
However, maiko makeover studios and their customers don't seem to be aware of this. So if you get close enough to notice the all-too-common but incorrect full lipstick+dangling hair ornament combination, you'll know she's not a maiko. There are other more subtle differences as well, such as floral motifs in the kimono and hair ornaments that maiko change according to the season. The photo studios do not change their stock so much depending on the season, so the practiced eye will be able to instantly recognize a plum-blossom print being worn in summer, for example, a wardrobe malfunction a real maiko would never make. The quality of the white makeup is apparently different as well, real maiko won't look “ thickly painted” but the white makeup is incredibly smooth and in a way transparent—showing the natural quality of the skin underneath. Maiko hairstyles are also done using the maiko's own hair, but most makeover studios provide wigs instead, so if you get close enough to notice an odd hairline or smeary makeup, she's a tourist and not a real maiko.


***


So there you go, now you know how to tell real maiko from the tourists dressed up, and burst your own bubbles, should you come visit Kyoto. Let me know if you do, we can smirk at tourists who don't know any better together and then bum around the places where real maiko may be seen in the evening, if we're lucky...

A living symbol of ideal beauty from another time. The red on the back of the collar is also typical of a real maiko, a detail the photo studios often miss.


P.S. I don't actually know a whole lot about maiko. I've seen the real deal a grand total of three times in 6 years here, and only once was I able to get photos. A lot of the info and the names of the maiko whose photos I got were provided by some kind knowledgeable people I've connected with on Instagram. Hey, I learn things, so it's is good for something!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Done with Common Sense: In Search of New 常識


3/1/2014. We didn't hug or kiss for the last two years of dating/engagement so our pre-wedding photos were a bit awkward. 
In Japanese, people use the word usually translated as "common sense" or 常識 joshiki a lot, though more often and in a wider variety of contexts than we use the English phrase. 

You might recall the idea of a "high-context" culture from that college course Intercultural Whatnot 101. In contrast with low-context cultures (America is often held up as a textbook example), high-context cultures rely less on clear spoken or written communication to enforce behavior, and more on concepts like joshiki  "it's common sense, everyone knows you're supposed to do/be ____" In three years of marriage and three years as 社会人 "employed members of society" in Japan, we've had an awkward dance with this joshiki, and I'm thinking it's time for a new dance partner. 

First, how we tried to be normal:

We both went to college, Yuya got his Master's, then we started looking for jobs. We didn't question it at all. After education, one must work, and work=being employed. In Japan, this joshiki is narrowed more strictly to being employed full-time by a reputable company for life. Yuya pursued this and after a long two years job searching was finally employed by his current manufacturing company. He is what the Japanese call a salaryman, a white-collar employee of a company. We continue to put up with horrible working conditions without complaining all that much because "it's par for the course here, a lot of people are much worse off." As it turns out, the culture we found ourselves in pulled some mean punches that woke us up a bit. 

Here's how it all fell apart:

Punch #1: You're Doing it all Backwards
Our falling out with Japanese common sense started when we got engaged and announced our wedding date. Japanese friends and acquaintances were less concerned with our international marriage and more shocked at the fact that we were marrying before Yuya's job started. The Japanese way requires the man to be an established employee with a happy savings account before getting married. It didn't matter that I had graduated and was working full-time, that Yuya had completed his Master's degree (all that was left was the graduation ceremony two weeks after our wedding), or that he had accepted a formal job offer from the company and his job would be starting exactly one month from our wedding. We were committing "student marriage." For Japanese salarymen, marriage is not traditionally a private matter but you have to invite your boss (who comes to the wedding to give a speech saying thank you to the parents for raising a son with potential as a worker, though he does nothing but make mistakes and is useless in the office, hahaha, however he can greet people correctly so I'm happy to help raise him to be a real adult, blah blah blah) and give and return expensive presents from your workplace. We knew we didn't want to bother with all that and wanted to get married in my hometown, so we purposely decided to tie the knot before all those other obligations came into play. Over and over in the coming months we'd be so glad we decided to marry when we did, but we really had no idea how bad the next punch was going to be. 

Punch #2 It's for Your Own Good
I still remember that June evening in 2014, when Yuya came home from work one Monday after midnight, in tears. I work from Tuesday to Saturday, and Yuya the traditional Monday to Friday, so on Mondays since I have time I usually cook something nice while waiting for him to come home. Our newly married life was going pretty well. I'd recovered from a bad case of influenza I contracted right after returning to Japan from our honeymoon, and was enjoying cute little details of our life together like having to buy two icecreams for dessert instead of one. Yuya usually came home from work at 6pm. That day, I made his favorite hamburgers and even put together a colorful salad. Like, way more food groups than I usually bother to cook for one meal. I had it all out on the table and ready to go by 6:15. Maybe Yuya had stopped by a convenience store. 6:45 came, and I put saran wrap on our food. At 7pm I put it all back in the refrigerator. At 8pm I tried calling him, no answer. I forgot all about the dinner I'd made. I knew something had gone very wrong. When he came home at last at around 12:15 am, he explained through tears what had happened. He had suddenly been given an impossible amount of tasks to do, berated for not doing them faster, and when he finally finished at 9pm, he was treated to a 3-hour "training lecture" from his boss, an absurd performance that included screaming, dehumanizing insults and personal attacks, slamming hands on the table and kicking the walls. Watch the movie Whiplash, by the same director of the current hit La La Land. The "professor" character in it has a lot in common with a typical Japanese manager (usually without the physical violence however). This after-hours lecture was to become a weekly ritual and the work load was not diminished. Yuya never came home before 10pm after that. The hammer had come down. We were now true salarymen.

Related: Overwork in Japan, and my view of the education system that creates it

Punch #3 Married Couples Spending Time Together? How Dare They.
So here we were in 2014 and for half of 2015, in no good emotional state (Yuya getting the brunt of it before he managed a transfer to a slightly better division), hearing "Oh isn't it great he's got steady employment and already married at his age, you lovebirds must be happy" from all sides, and mostly from our church. No, it's not like that, I wanted to say. It's not material happiness in "beautiful Japan," it's a wasteland. Maybe you see the tiny, shiny gold nuggets but what I see is just that ugly monster No-Face (if you get that reference, let's be friends). We asked for prayers sometimes. But our church has a lot of wealthy people in it, bosses and managers and even presidents of companies, people who've "been there, done that" the whole length of the corporate ladder, and given their youth to their beautiful Japan they love so much. I was shocked to tears in front of everybody when it was decided by vote that Yuya had been chosen as a deacon. Apparently in our denomination, one can't say no to something decided by popular vote. Being a deacon meant long Sunday meetings with Christian salarymen from the end of the church service until evening. "Being young is tough, but he's married and an employee now, it's time he took on more church duties. Isn't that what a pure faith demands? It's God's will." I was extremely angry, actually. They knew our only day off together was Sunday. They knew his workplace was toxic. They asked for our prayer requests but they obviously didn't care a fig about them. They assumed that to be young was to suffer, to suffer was to be made holy, that as a matter of course married couples didn't need to have much time together, that we were interested in being unselfish people who put the needs of the organization over our personal ones. I had always thought church was a safe place and that a shared faith transcended cultural differences, because that's how it had been when we were children (i.e., unemployed students) and between Yuya and me. Now that was shown to be a delusion on my part. In the years since then I've been invited a few times to the Ladies Fellowship. "I don't have time," I'd growl to Yuya, "Even if I did, why would I want to spend it exchanging pleasantries about what a good woman Ruth was, after what they've done? They don't even like their husbands. We have nothing in common." My own sin is I haven't yet figured out what forgiving our church looks like. It will definitely not entail going along with their salaryman family value system. It probably means I should swallow my hurt and pride and spend a bit more time with them, listening to them. 
Recently, I was "head-hunted" and invited for an interview with an executive trying a new business venture. I explained I wasn't seeking new employment but I'd consider it if the conditions were better for me than my current employer, and that most full-time English teaching jobs require work on Saturdays but that left only one day off with my husband, so ideally I need a job with Saturdays off. The exec and her cronies burst into squeals. "Aww, lovebirds!" "How sweet!" "Newlyweds? How long have you been married?" When I said, "Three years," the room went silent. Shrinking ice cubes tinkled in lipstick-stained glasses. "Well dear, you'll find out life isn't like that. The only thing you should care about is if your husband is healthy and employed!" The cronies laughed uproariously, but I couldn't find anything funny about her comment. Apparently any lovebirding beyond the first year is socially unacceptable.

Related: How I experience Collectivism in Japan

Punch #4 We're Not Alone
Our Japanese friends from college days started working and getting married around the same time we did. Just like us, they started dropping like flies, running into similar and even worse problems in their churches and workplaces. I'd thought Yuya had just gotten stuck with a really rotten (but rare) psychopath boss, but more and more it looked like his methods were being employed in varying degrees across all industries and work environments. Turns out, it's joshiki to "train" new blank-slate employees with what would probably be labelled harassment, hazing, and bullying in America. Our female friends experienced rampant sexual harassment and sexist discrimination as well. One friend was hospitalized for extreme work-related stress. Another frequently got tears in his eyes when we asked about his job. The younger generation is changing, however. Most have quit at least once, some have started their own businesses or joined NPOs. One shocked his company by reporting a supervisor who "jokingly" waved a box-cutter at him (no one had ever bothered considering such a thing criminal before), resulting in the supervisor getting fired, also rare in Japan. The bottom of the totem pole is getting fed up. 
Since dating and getting married, we've met and come into contact with many couples like us: foreign wife, Japanese husband, living in husband's country Japan. One day I mentioned to Yuya, "Come to think of it, not one of the international couples we know is doing the salaryman thing here, except us!" It was a lightbulb-floating-over-our-heads moment. 

Punch #5 "I Had to Work with a Bunch of Foreigners!" "お疲れ!”
As much as I try to be normal and respect the Japanese way of doing things here, my very different value system means I'm often blind to expectations of me, or simply unwilling to fulfill them (not a legitimate excuse here at all). I will never attain native-level Japanese language and communication skills. My non-Japanese body is in itself a disqualification from true membership in society. It's not like in America, where foreigners are praised for becoming American and integrating into society. It's expected here that foreigners are different and "not one of us," nor can they ever be. I am made to think my own company considers me a nuisance that must be borne to make a profit, since one can't really compete among English schools without a foreign face. One of my students is working for a company that in cooperation with an NPO has hired some adults with various disabilities. She often complains about how hard it is to communicate with them, how frustrating they can be, how very lacking in joshiki and the most basic skills. "They sound like foreigners in a Japanese company," I thought to myself, shocked at both the offensiveness of the thought and also the implications of it I could see played out in the society around me.* The words of an activist for universal rights made me think long and hard: "Disabilities are not in people, but in the environment." What if, for example, there was a society made exclusively for and by people in wheelchairs? Or one for blind people? Those of us considered "able" now would be at a disadvantage there. Another lightbulb was flickering on. 
*note: I don't mean to compare foreigners in Japan or myself to people with disabilities. I don't have any at the moment, and I'm aware my status both as foreigner and as abled grants me many privileges from society. 

Conclusion: Maybe We Don't Have to Be Stuck
Our American friends are shocked to hear these things and say, "If you don't like it so much, why don't you move/quit/leave? It's your life, you can live it your way and do your own thing," unaware of how that concept just doesn't exist in Japan and how hard it is to actually do, once entangled in various webs of obligation and expectations that come with being a member here. But we are realizing, since I'm not Japanese, we are forgiven much. The crushing burden of duty and joshiki that irks Yuya so much, he already cast aside long ago in choosing to become Christian (a foreign religion) and marrying me (a foreign wife). Maybe we don't need to keep trying to force square pegs into round holes and keep doing what everyone else is doing. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" --maybe, the hand holding the hammer was of our own creation-- "but the nail that sticks up too much is left alone." We have to stop kidding ourselves and realize we started off abnormal here, and if our plans and dreams for the future work out, we are tumbling toward entropy, at least as far as "normal" is concerned. If we succeed, our sweet revenge on common sense will be less sweet because "Oh well foreigners and the Japanese weird enough to marry them are always doing wacky stuff" will be the excuse made for us. But on the other hand if that's the case, why in the world are we not doing the wacky stuff, like married date nights, starting our own business, or living in a third country, or adopting? That escalated quickly, I know. But maybe, the wacky is closer to our true joshiki, which in the end for us as Christians must be in submission to Christ, not to the cult of the American Dream or of Japan the Beautiful Country, or even of Millennials Changing the World. I'm getting tired of feeling stuck, anyway. Time for some new 常識。