Sunday, April 10, 2016

How I was Totally Unprepared for Life in Japan + a Great Japanese TV Commercial

No, it's not about what kanji I did or didn't study or how I didn't pack any cold-weather clothing when I first came to Japan.

It's about education. Education should make young people ready to be well-functioning members of their societies, and Japanese education does a great job at this. My own education sure didn't help me adjust to life here at all.

I'm working these days in an 英会話学校 eikaiwa gakkou--English conversation school. They don't exist in America, because it's not quite ESL. My workplace is focused on kids so most of my students are under 10 years old. Eikaiwa is not cheap so a lot of their families are well-off. For most students, my weekly English classes with them are just one of many extra-curricular educational activities they're involved in. Husband Yuya works in a modestly-sized Japanese manufacturing company, in the factory's purchasing department (he transferred last year from sales department hell. Shopping, it turns out, is much nicer than selling).

I never thought our two jobs as different as they are would be so connected. At least, I was surprised when they fit like missing puzzle pieces into several questions I had about the Japanese work and education culture I found myself in.

In 2014, Yuya and I went through massive culture-shock thanks to his job in that sales department. Yuya's trauma was probably bigger than mine. We thought he was just unlucky, in a hectic section filled with unfortunate personalities. We were just beginning to recover in the spring of 2015 when his transfer was approved, until a couple friends around us started dropping like flies. The Christian friend who quit "because I already have a religion." Another male friend, whom I'd never seen emotional before, reduced to tears and unable to eat at a church potluck because someone asked "how's work?" Yet another friend who developed clinical depression after starting work. Every time I heard their stories, it didn't matter so much what I thought or what I went through. I'm not Japanese; it's obvious that I'm not going to adapt well to everything that goes around me in the new culture. But the tears of my Japanese friends gave me a great shock. They seemed to go deep inside me to join a boiling rage in my heart, anger at the injustice. Why? They are well-educated and "priveleged." Why does their own society treat them like garbage this way? Why are their bosses such psychopaths? Why don't they have time to take care of themselves? Why so much overtime? Why never at home? Why never free?

I knew the textbook answers, but it was quite another matter to see it all for myself. I took a good look at my students at the eikaiwa. They are kept extremely busy! "I don't have time to play" "After this I have to go to cram school" (uttered at 7pm) and then there is the absence of high-school students at the eikaiwa that spoke volumes in itself. Most of our older junior-high students quit the English lessons when they start high school. They get simply too busy with other cram schools and school sports 部活 bukatsu "club activities" to do anything else. Everything, not just the test-taking and after-hours cramming, but the sports too are taken very seriously. Yuya doesn't talk about his sports club--volleyball--very often. "It was the worst part of my life. I still get nightmares about that coach." Parents and other teachers don't get too concerned to a degree because it's supposed to toughen the kids up....toughen them up for what? For life in Japanese society, to endure a job with all-consuming, awful working conditions.

Why do Japanese people endure so much overtime at work, so much of what we Americans would call harassment? Perhaps because they are simply used to it. They've been putting in long hours of overtime since junior high at least. They all had the awful coach who made them wet the bed at age 14. They all went through the extreme guilt for letting down the team when they couldn't play as well as everyone else.

My education, on the other hand, was completely different. I was homeschooled. I never had peers to compare myself to. I learned at my own pace: too slow in some areas, advanced in others. I didn't do any sports, but spent two years loving and riding a horse I bought and kept up with my babysitting jobs. I went to a community college my last two years of high school. But somehow I don't remember feeling so busy, or that my time was not my own to manage. I remember spending long hours reading. Long hours locked in my room alone, drawing. Long hours writing novels. I never met a bully, my authority figures were fair and I was never even shouted at by them. My education did not prepare me at all to put up with what so many Japanese adults put up with in their working life. In that way I feel I am totally unprepared and unsuitable for living here, at least in this way as a (barely) functioning semi-member of Japanese adult working society.

It doesn't really explain why my Japanese husband and some of my Japanese Christian friends also seemed unprepared. Perhaps it's because they have different worldviews and values than the majority culture, perhaps because the younger generation does seem to be getting tired of the old way of doing things.

In any case, a major purpose of this blog was to show you this recent commercial for an energy bar that I saw on TV--I was riveted when I saw it because it confirmed quite clearly my little theory that the real purpose of bukatsu (a very large chunk of students' education in highschool) is to get students used to being "good workers." Yes! Clear evidence my guess was true! Well, it's just one company's idealistic commercial. But watch it for a cultural experience! It's easy to understand even if you don't know Japanese:


  1. You are so eloquent and calm despite it all! And for the record, Calorie Mate tastes terrible, lol.

    1. Thank you! At the time I wasn't really. We're just now getting the chance to process and analyze it all.
      I don't mind Calorie Mate actually! Haha


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