Sunday, April 15, 2018

International Marriage Holidays and Traditions: How We Ended Up with Zero

No holidays, no problem!

A friend's recent visit during Easter reminded me of this facet of our lives. My friend was so sweet: "what do you want to do for Easter? I remember sharing holidays with foreign friends when I was abroad was so special" was her inquiry before arriving.

The reality was, I was not particular one way or another about doing something "for Easter." I have memories of dyeing eggs and doing Easter-y things back when I was a student away from home, but after a few years of being the only one around with knowledge of this day--special in so many countries, but not here--it stopped mattering so much, and now it's to the point where it doesn't bother me that it doesn't matter. This is the case with all the holidays. How did we get here? I can think of a few reasons: lack of children, lack of an expat community, our personalities, and our faith.

1. Lack of kids
I remember reading expat blogs back in the day in which holidays and traditions were spun as a big plus of international marriages: "You can enjoy holidays from not one but two different cultures!!1! Yay!!!11!" but now I wonder, how? In my experience, the two different cultures only really serve to cancel each other out, and we end up with zero!

I'm sure this would change if we had kids, and the doubling of traditions come into play when children are present. So many holidays in both Japan and the U.S. revolve around kids and doing fun experiences with them: Christmas presents, Easter egg hunts, Halloween candy, and all the rest. In Japan it's otoshidama New Year's cash gifts, mamemaki at the beginning of February, hinamatsuri doll festival for girls, 7-5-3 Day, and many more that childless adults simply have no connection with, international marriage or not. Our experience of dwindling holidays is probably one shared by adults around the world who simply don't have the offspring necessary to get involved.

2. Lack of an expat community 
I first realized expat communities were a thing about 2 years ago when I read the book The Good Shufu about a fancy NY lady who married a Japanese man. One of the first things she did was seek out a fellow foreigner friend, and several pages deal with the troubles of finding good foreign connections in Japan. Things were different as an exchange student, of course, because then I lived in a dorm full of foreigners, but since I came here for work the year before our marriage, I have had a grand total of 0 foreign friends who live nearby. I have a few foreign co-workers, but that's not really an "expat community."

So many American holidays revolve around "get-togethers" and potluck culture! Family and friends gather and each person brings a dish or two to share in a roomy house decorated for the occasion. It is very hard to have a Thanksgiving dinner with turkey (or chicken substitute), gravy, mashed potatoes, some kind of vegetable, bread, pies--all the fixings--when you have to make each dish yourself, and then there's just the two of you to enjoy it anyway. All of our local friends are Japanese, and their work and personal lives aren't cut out for these kinds of get-togethers. In Japan, people gather in homes once a year at New Year's, and that is typically a family-only affair. Ohanami (cherry blossom picnics), and summer barbecues are the instances I can think of where Japanese friends can have a potluck-style get-together, but they are not related to a specific holiday or having days off of work.

If there is no surrounding community to have a "get-together" holiday with other than your significant other--who, by the way, happens to share zero of your cultural expectations concerning it--the holiday shrinks year after year, until your nod to it is practically nil. For Thanksgiving, I like to roast green beans wrapped in bacon strips. They look Thanksgiving-ish and are very easy to make. And that is about all I do. For Christmas, even less. Last year, I sent a few Christmas cards to friends and family, and that was it. And we survived!

3. Our personalities
We are probably the type of couple least-suited to the preservation of holidays and family traditions. Husband seems oblivious to them, and dislikes the social pressures involved, especially in Japanese-style Valentine's Day and Christmas. "So meaningless," he grumbles, "why not just eat chocolate or fried chicken and go on fancy dates when you want, why wait for when everything's packed and sold out and you can't get a reservation?" He once told me of an essay he wrote in elementary school condemning Japanese summer festivals and Japanese celebrations of Christmas, the reasons being that if these gods were real, they surely did not have in mind carnal displays of commercialism when they demanded worship from humans.

On the American side, I am most definitely not the get-together hostess type. I enjoy being invited to potluck events and bringing my one dish as much as the next person, but I have never dreamed of becoming the hostess. My introvert soul quivers in terror at the thought.

4. Our faith
We are Christians, and this causes us to second-guess the majority of Japanese holidays and traditions (all of which have unequivocal superstitious roots) and a few American ones as well. With the exception of New Year's, many Japanese traditions and holidays are simple affairs: there are no days off from work for a get-together, but a traditional dish is eaten on a certain day in a certain way for health or luck or longevity, with maybe a little display or activity for kids to enjoy. I don't think we will ever engage in any of them. As for American holidays, I have never been a fan of Halloween and don't miss it, though I have to put on Halloween parties for work. Christmas does not need a Christmas tree or lights or presents to be meaningful, and Christian Easter is wonderful without colored eggs. Living in Japan where these imported holidays exist in some form has made me question these trappings a lot. People complain about the commercialism of holidays and loss of meaning in the U.S. as it is, but in Japan, there never was any meaning to begin with, and commercialism is all there is and all there ever has been. At first the cheap tinselly Christmas tree displays were nice reminders of things back home, but then they became not-so-nice reminders, because they put me in mind of things I couldn't have (the get-together, and real Christmas things like food with cinnamon in it), then they were just silly. For all this display, no Japanese adults are actually taking time off work and enjoying Christmas, let alone going to church and participating in worship. Now I want to distance myself from it all a bit, the result being very little is done in our house "for Christmas."


At the end of the day, I think that's the question I come up against when it comes to traditions and holidays. The meaning of having to "do something for Christmas" "for Easter" "for Valentine's Day" "for New Year's" "for Setsubun." How much of the meaning is "for you at Christmastime" and how much of it is "for me/us so we feel normal"? Not that wanting to feel normal is bad, but as my time in Japan reaches the 6-year mark, I'm finding "normal" is pretty relative and fluid, changing with social status and life seasons, and it does not translate across international borders. This realization makes so many things I thought were important, and things I see Japanese people around me esteem as important, seem arbitrary. I don't mean that in a cynical way. Rather than serving to double our holidays and traditions, this realization cancels them out. My holidays do not have meaning here, and I do not share in the meaning of Japanese holidays. My husband is the mirror image of that same dynamic. For now, we have zero holidays, and for now, we're happy that way.

Related: New Year's in Japan and how we spend it 
              Christmas in Japan from a few years ago

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Food Post: Answers to the Age-old Question: "So What Do You Cook?"

To start things off, I'm not very much of a "foodie." I mean, I love eating yummy things as much as the next person, but aside from when I'm hungry, it's not on my mind, and when I am hungry, almost anything tastes good, right?

I don't have allergies and I'm not very picky. As a kid, it was drilled into me to  "eat at least three bites" of whatever we were served and to never, ever say "yuck!" or show on our faces what we thought. When I first came to Japan, I didn't really give much thought to the food I'd be eating. I already liked sushi, fish, and rice and could use chopsticks--thanks to living in the PNW--and I resolved to NOT be one of those people who goes abroad only to complain about how the food is not right or proper. It's like, what did you expect? If you can't go without your comfort foods for a period of time without making a fuss, you should probably just stay home.

I do miss things like bacon, bread that isn't white but is still sold cheaply in large loaves, dairy products and fruit that don't cost an arm and a leg, seasonal things like eggnog and peppermint icecream--funny how sometimes I get cravings for random things I maybe eat only once a year anyway when I live in this U.S.

However, cooking is another issue. It was maybe 2 months out from our wedding in 2014 that I realized "I'm going to have to cook and I don't know how to cook." There is definitely more social expectation for the wife to do most of the food work in a household, and I resent that my being female equates to having a duty to cook--I hate cooking and I hate supermarkets and I hate doing dishes--but since my being female and foreign in Japan also means I can get off work much earlier than Yuya can, I also have the most time to go shopping for food and prep it.

So yes I do all the supermarket and kitchen stuff in our family. It's not easy to cook every day though when

1. the staple ingredients I was used to are imported in very small quantities and are expensive, or simply unavailable
2. with no car, I'm limited to buying only what I can carry home by myself per shopping trip (it's about a 10-minute walk to the nearest supermarket, so it's not a bad distance)
3. the only oven I have is a tiny microwave oven and we have no space like a "pantry"
4. after work the last thing I want to do is buy/make food

But one gets used to it, and in our few years here I've developed a system for feeding ourselves. Things are sold in small quantities (i.e. the largest container of milk you will find is a quart-sized carton) and it's considered normal for wives to make a trip to the supermarket every day. Whole lotta nope. So I strap on a roomy backpack and try to buy at least 3 days' worth of food at a time. I like to think it has some health benefits! It's physically exerting to go grocery shopping, it keeps me from buying things not on my list, and it effectively means at any given time, there is no food in our house except ingredients that are all going to be made into the next 2-3 days' dinners and breakfasts (ideally lunch is leftovers). This means no junk food, no snacking, and less food waste I think. At least, our refrigerator is always quite bare when I have to go shopping again. Yuya likes snacking and often asks "isn't there anything?" "uhh there's leftover rice and kimchi" so he often buys his own chips and things to snack on. I do keep a bit of flour and sugar on hand and once in a while I'll make pancakes, or banana bread, or cookies for fun. Baking or dessert-making is always on a whim and commences at around 10pm though.

Anyway, now that I have assumed the status of "wife" people are curious and ask me what I cook, and ask Yuya what his foreign wife cooks (poor bloke I bet he doesn't get any proper miso soup because he married a foreigner), is it Japanese food or Western food?

Well, I do use a lot more ingredients and things I never imagined using or eating when I was growing up in the U.S. Those things include

-white rice almost daily (some people think poor Yuya, because they are particular about having rice three meals a day, every day).
-dashi soup stock, made from little freeze-dried fish I boil myself
-the Holy Trinity of Japanese cooking: soy sauce, mirin (a sugary rice wine), and sake
-rayu chili oil
-random Japanese veggies like daikon radish, burdock root, goya bitter gourds, mushrooms of all shapes and sizes

But here is what a typical Japanese-style meal looks like:

This is actually considered a "Western-style" meal because the meat portion is tonkatsu, a fried pork-chop. A grilled fish or noodle dish would have slightly different side dishes to match, and don't forget the scripture, "to everything there is a sauce, and a tare for every purpose under heaven" --there will also usually be a specific dipping sauce or gravy depending on what the protein is.

And here is what my meals look like:

As these photos illustrate, I do NOT cook with these ingredients the Japanese way very often. A proper Japanese meal uses many little dishes of this and that, called okazu, to partner with the plain white rice which is the main staple. I can't really be bothered. For one thing, there's a whole lot of veggies to chop up small and I do not like tediously cutting up veggies. Most of the little dishes are also cooked separately from each other with different methods so it takes a lot of time and planning.

The Japanese way looks cute, it has the potential to be well-balanced nutritionally, and it's fun to eat. I had to laugh though at one of my Instagram followers who finally made it to her beloved Japan and was so excited to eat all the amazing Japanese food, until after a few days her comment was "it's not what I expected, it's always served room-temperature and it all tastes slightly of vinegar." Cracked me up, because I never thought of it that way before but it is true, especially if you're traveling and only eating supermarket bentos and fast-food-type chain restaurant teishoku (set menu?) places like Yayoiken or Sukiya.

That's another funny thing about Japanese cooking. It's the idea connected with bento boxed lunches that it's ok to leave food out at room temperature for a length of time and then eat it without reheating. It generally seems to work for people here but once in a while you do hear about a school-wide food poisoning epidemic caused by ickies in field-trip bentos. At college I was working part-time in the kitchen, so I got (a bit) strict about food safety. Things are defrosted fast and it gets frozen or refrigerated within minutes after cooling down from cooking, and is reheated to piping hot again before eating, and any bentos I make or buy I reheat thoroughly before eating. So far, neither of us have had any food-poisoning incidents in our years here...but for the grace of God!

***Story time***

My company has field trips "picnics" with the kids 6 times a year. Last summer we had a "barbecue picnic." The selling point was all-you-can-eat beef and sausages for the kids and staff. Whoopee! We staffers could at least chow down on as much barbecue beef as we liked, and get paid for it! But when we got off the bus and headed to the barbecue area, I was dismayed. Our staff that had arrived early to start prep was cutting up the meat with their bare hands. They were tossing it into big bowls that were sitting out uncovered in the sun. By time we got the kids settled and the fires started and their meat on the shishkabob sticks to start roasting, the raw meat had been out in the sun for 20 minutes. I resolved not to eat a single bite of it. Afterwards, a bowl or so of meat was left over. Our big boss walked by and glanced in it. A Japanese staff nearby dithered, "Oh don't worry we'll make sure there's no leftovers, right Leah?? Let's eat it all, yay!!" By now it had sat out in the hot sun for close to an hour. Nope. I'll help my coworkers do a lot of things but this was not one of them. Sure enough that poor co-worker had to take two days off of work from food poisoning the next day. I didn't hear of any kids getting food poisoning so I guess 20 minutes in summer heat was ok but an hour was too long and bacteria took over?

***end story time***

The way I cook involves 3 principles: 

1. the meal has to take less than 30 minutes to prepare from start to finish
2. it must require only one pot/pan to cook in and preferably one dish to serve it in
3. never use a whole package of meat for one meal

I didn't start out this way. At the very beginning of our married life, I was still stuck on cooking a more American way, i.e., that a main dish consisting of a big chunk of protein was essential. I was cooking up a whole chicken breast per person, or a whole hamburger patty, but found it difficult to stay in our food budget. Yuya told me, "Japanese people use a little meat at a time, mixed in with veggies and stuff, and with rice to fill up the corners."

I don't think he meant a stir-fry/donburi style but that's what happened, since that's what fit with our budget and my "cook as fast and simply as possible after work" lifestyle. I put an extra cup of rice in our rice cooker to help fill us up and reduce the amount of okazu. Now a package of two chicken breasts lasts for two meals instead of just one, and likewise a package of ground beef can provide for 2-3 meals. I generally just chop up the meat small, freeze what I don't use right away, and stir fry it with whatever veggies were on sale, using the Japanese Holy Trinity and other spices, curry powders, ginger and garlic etc. to change up the flavors. Tofu is super cheap and wonderful when the meat supply is running low but I still want some protein in the stir-fry. If I'm feeling fancy I might make a salad to go with in the summer or bowls of miso soup in the winter.

Poor Yuya? Well, he doesn't mind. There's a whole trope about Japanese husbands being very picky about their food, and insisting the miso soup is made the way his mother made it, etc., but Yuya isn't like that at all, and is happy with whatever gets served, especially if it's spicy. Everything tastes more interesting and allows you to eat more plain white rice without getting bored of it if it's hot and spicy. Curry powders and chili peppers are my best friend! My dishes are probably a good bit spicier than the typical Japanese housewife's.

So that's how I cook, or how I don't! It's not Japanese food really but it uses a lot of Japanese ingredients, since they are cheaper and more available than Western ones, in my own style to take the least amount of time and produce the least amount of dirty dishes as possible. Perhaps my idea of food is too practical. Food is fuel and energy, not a source of comfort or fun since it's not fun or comfortable for me to make it! My cooking (or lack thereof) probably reflects this philosophy. I wonder how our habits will change if/when we change countries...

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.