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Thursday, May 8, 2014

ESID - A Few Simple Rules To Surviving Japan

So... we've spent three day's worth of blogs and we've only covered half a day of my first visit to a Japanese junior high school. You can read about the Introduction speech HERE; My first self-introduction HERE; and my first time eating lunch with the students HERE.

Now... I should state right off at the start that I am currently reading a book on teaching in Japan, written by Bruce Feiler who lived in Sano-shi, Tochigi-ken - some three years before I arrived in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken. That book is the famous "Learning To Bow", that has the subhead of "Inside the Heart of Japan."

Bruce's book covers a bit of his first days at school as well... and well... ESID (every situation is different), though it feels as though Bruce over analyzed things and forgot to have fun.

The two cities of Sano and Ohtawara are virtually polar opposite one another in the province, and after reading about Bruce's adventures, it seems like we had polar opposite experiences.

Bruce is a far better writer than I am, and his book and his adventures mirror that... by that I mean, it's a fine story. Dull and informative, but fine.

My story is anything but dull, though perhaps because I lacked Bruce's language abilities, I may have missed out on a lot of things, and thus had way more wacky adventures than he.

Like I said... his life in Japan seems a tad... well... boring relative to my own. But... his book is highly informative, though I question whether it is completely true.

Now, now... how dare I question a dude who has umpteen well-received books published under his belt?

Simple... he makes statements about Japan and about Tochigi as though they were gospel for everyone or every AET in Japan, and that simply isn't the case. It's not even the case for everyone in Japan or everyone living and teaching in Tochigi-ken.

Point #1... Tochigi is famous for its winds, he says.

Really? Famous by whose standards? All over Japan? In Ohtawara where I lived for three years... longer than his one year in Sano, I did NOT find Ohtawara particularly windy, nor did I find it so when I traveled around the prefecture.

I think I know where the wind is coming from, however.

Point #2: Bruce tries to reinforce the point that the Japanese do things as a group, and that interlopers aren't welcome. Perhaps that is true, but perhaps it is not.

He makes that point by saying that students in different school homerooms never mix with each other... that during a class baseball game, students from other classes are shooed away.

This is to show that the Japanese think and work and live and exist as a group... and that anyone not a part of that group is beneath notice. The implication is that THIS is why the Japanese aren't so open with the rest of the world.

That's partially correct... but, I take exception of him saying that all schools are like Sano Junior High with their 'no mixing' rule.

In Ohtawara-shi, not only did I see classes from the same grade play against each other EVERY day at lunch, I also saw different grades play each other.

The key for the kids at - oh any of the seven junior high schools I visited on a regular basis - was that they did not truly mix with kids from other schools... they maintained their individual group mentality by being proud to be students from Ohtawara or Nozaki or Kaneda Kita junior high schools.

Having said that, there was no animosity towards any of the students at other schools. I saw them together at the same shops and stores in downtown Ohtawara, sometimes casually talking with one another about a video game, but that was them being friendly - not friends.

Do kids become friends if they are at other schools? No idea. Bruce says that is not likely by his inference that not even classes at the same school mix... so I'll give him this point, but I still think he is making too broad a generalization.

Point #3... lunch time... he says there is a correct way to eat one's lunch... that one must eat some rice first, then some meat and then some salad - having all three in the mouth before chewing and swallowing anything.

Yes... that MIGHT be the proper way to do things in Sano-shi and maybe everywhere in Japan, but I'm proud to say that in Ohtawara-shi, the junior high schools students ate any damn way they wanted to. They had a bit of freedom here.

The girls, for example, ate one small bite at a time, with their free hand over their mouth so as to demurely hide the open mouth or the whole chewing process. The boys - the boys didn't give a crap, and shoveled in as much food as their tiny chipmunk cheeks could handle - and then an extra two chopsticks more of rice for good measure.

My students in my city were not dumb hick savage animals... in fact... if I might say so, and hope none of them will find it offensive... I found them to be just like kids in Canada. It was refreshing, to say the least.

Bruce has made it seem as though kids everywhere are screwed by strictness - and they are, but not every school is as strict as Bruce's.

I'm not saying that Bruce is full of crap. Far from it.

The point I am making is that EVERY SITUATION IS DIFFERENT. ESID, man.

Through Learning To Bow, I have learned quite a bit more about Japan and about my prefecture/province of Tochigi... but I can tell you that it's not like that everywhere... and thus... when you go to Japan, regardless of all the wacky sh!t you have read here, I can guarantee you that your time in Japan won't be like mine... or like Bruce's... or like anyone else's experience.

Similar to my days in school in Toronto, in my Japanese schools I had nice kids, stupid kids, mean kids and smart kids, I had fat kids, skinny kids, tall kids and short kids... even kids with chicken pox (I;m rippin on an old American TV commercial)... and you know what... despite whatever rules that Japan has imposed on them, they are all very much individuals...

Each student had their own personality and each, if they worked with a group as Bruce says they do, each must have added their personality to the group to become a larger whole 'class'.

But... I bet you that the personality of each whole class was different!

I had classes in Grade 8, let's say, where some were more energetic, some were deathly serious, others had smiles and a fun personality... and excluding the last few months of the Japanese junior high school year when everyone got morose and serious as pressure began to mount as they needed to study and study hard to pass their high school entrance exams - up until that time, each GROUP had its own personality aided by the individual personalities.

I have no idea why people fail to see that while the Japanese might indeed have a group mentality, each group is based on the sum of the individuals. Each group is different because each person is different.

Why do you think some people vote one way and others another? Like nuclear power/hate nuclear power? Want to have sex with a gaijin blogger/don't want gaijin in their drinking or eating establishment?  

It offends me to think that some people believe the Japanese seem to have no mind of their own.

In the Japanese workplace... it's the same thing.

You'll see that while there is indeed a pecking order in any business (just like back home in whatever country you are from), it might be more pronounced... but the workers there, they are first and foremost people.

Yeah, Japanese people, but they are people.

They love, hate, laugh and cry. They are generous to a fault and evasive. They will offer aid when none is required and none when you need it, and vice versa.

The Japanese are just like you and me... except that the country has a different social structure.

One of the funniest things I read in Learning To Bow is Bruce saying that his Board of Education and doctors at a hospital he was interned at, were all afraid that Bruce would be unable to look after himself after being discharged with a cast on his sprained ankle because he had no family or wife to look after him.

I bet that's exactly what happened to poor Bruce.

But you know what? While my office was also caring enough to take me to a hospital and a doctor when I was sick because I though I had caught some nasty bug after doing something naughty with my girlfriend's a$$ during sex... they didn't treat me like a child or some dumb foreigner.

(Maybe it was because when I told everyone what I thought I had and why, they all developed a 'man' respect for me... and that male bonding crap outweighs any cultural barrier any day!)

I didn't need a babysitter.

Now... granted they knew I had a girlfriend and expected she might take care of me, but they also knew my girlfriend and knew that she wasn't going to look after me, because gaijin women are headstrong. That's a sterotype I bet Japan has.

Anyhow, my office knew I was probably adept enough to take care of myself and her and any other woman.

Guy bonding, right.

They knew because I kept my apartment spotless... that I always had ironed shirts and clean clothes... and the only other time I needed help was when I asked a Japanese home economics teacher to teach me how to sew.

I am becoming less of a guy in the eye of the Japanese male by saying all of that in the last paragraph... but I doubt it.

I taught myself a lot of things in Japan. I was like the prototypical Japanese man in his 20s... living at home, job, single, not knowing how to cook, do laundry, iron my clothes et al... but somehow, after living by myself for three weeks, I kind of figured it all out.

And yet, I'm no one special.

At least in my situation, I was allowed to live my life as I chose to live it. My bosses, my Japanese friends and community... they let me live as an individual.

Not all of you will be as lucky as me - I hope you are... but I also hope you have different adventures than me... and Bruce... and anyone else who has written about Japan.

If you like, in a couple of days I will teach you how to bow...

I have a bit of lying around to do first.

Cheers,
Andrew Joseph

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