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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Tips For Newcomers To Japan

So... you've gone and done something incredibly stupid - you've left the comfort of your own home and have traveled all the way to Japan for fortune and glory.

Fortune and glory, kid? Fortune and glory?

Okay that last line was paraphrased from Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom.

Anyhow... welcome to Japan. Relax. You will have fun.

I arrived around this date in 1990 on the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme fully expecting to do a year in Japan (in Ohtawara-shi [City of Ohtawara], Tochigi-ken [Tochigi Prefecture] and then head back to Toronto to work as a reporter for The Toronto Star newspaper.

Three years later, I left. A month later, I went back for a couple of months and then did not revisit Japan until about this time in 2009 when I began writing my blogs.

I had always lived at home, had never, ever done anything for myself - I couldn't cook, clean, do laundry, iron, sew a button, spoke English - but that's all... but I always carried a smile on my face whenever I stepped outside of my apartment, and the Japanese always had a smile for me.   

In Japan, I had many highs and many lows, but no matter what, it was always interesting, and because of that experience I have made quite a few friends, been laid more times than I ever should have, and now have a hobby that consumes me in writing stuff like this often two or three times a day.

Yes... I survived Japan, and so can you. Despite me being so long removed from there, the 'helpful' tips I am going to provide here should still be relevant.

Okay - let's go! There's no order... just the order I happened to write these things back in early 1993.
  • The Japanese are just like anyone else in the world. They have crappy, low-paying jobs, probably love their spouse, love their kids, work too damn hard, don't work hard enough, like to drink, want to party, probably shouldn't party, and are probably more interested in you than you are of them because you are the only foreigner around for them to talk to. Talk to them first. Say Konichi-wa (Co-nee-chee-wa). It means hello. 
  • Always remember to remove tissues from your pockets before you do laundry, unless you like white specks all over your clothing.
  • Never answer the telephone in Japanese by using any phrase other than "moshi-moishi" (hello - only used on the telephone!, not in person-to-person conversation!). It's pronounced 'Mo-she-Mo-she'. On the telephone, if someone thinks you can speak Japanese, they will speak Japanese. It's perfect;y acceptable for the first month or so (until you get more comfortable) to say "Moshi-moshi-hello".
  • Foreigners who have been here longer than you will have begun using a lot of Japanese in their English conversations. Do not be alarmed. They are showing off - accidentally. It used to piss the hell out of me, too because I wasn't very good at digging the lingo. Still, one of my best friends, Matthew used to do that all the time... then again, he learned more Japanese in his first week than I did in three years. 
  • Please try and eat the local food and then make-up your mind - rather than listening to other foreigners! Other AETs (Assistant English Teachers) are notoriously adept at following the uni-mind philosophies. My friend Jeff refused to eat Japanese food - ate all his meals at 7-11 and Dunkin Donuts... then he married a Japanese woman, so I'm sure he ate Japanese. You will hear rumors of something called natto. I may have been the only AET on my programme to eat it. I survived. I bought packs to eat as my dinner three times a week. It is fermented soy beans and is very, very good for you.
  • If your apartment does not already have drapes in your bedroom - get them. The sun rises at around 4AM! This is not an exaggeration.
  • If smoke from cigarettes bothers you - you are screwed. Now... this was the case 20 years ago... damn near everyone smoked. teachers could in the teacher's office. Doctors smoked in the hospital WHILE examining you... I am unsure if this still occurs.
  •  If you don't have a sense of humor like many AETs - don't panic. They only think they have a sense of humor. If you want to have a great time in Japan - develop a sense of humor... quickly. The Japanese love a good laugh (just like most people on this planet!).
  • Japan is expensive.
  • Japan is expensive (I know, I just said that), but if there is something you want to buy or do... just go for it. You only live once (maybe). What's the use of saving your money for a rainy day - you can't go out and spend it! Saving for your old age? Spend it now before you get old and forget why you wasted your youth being dull and boring. I wrote this in 1992. My mother died two years later at the age of 54. She and my father were saving money for their old age. As a heads up... in my last three months in Japan, I saved $10,000 (cash) by teaching a lot of English conversation classes to adults - under the table. I also had my JET job and had a girlfriend/fiance... so I also had a life.  
  • Be patient. Not everyone speaks English well or at all. You are in Japan. You should learn to communicate somehow.... and you will. It takes time and patience.
  • Boredom is only a state of mind. Every single day in Japan, you should discover or learn something new. If you don't, you have wasted the day... and trust me... it goes by a lot quicker than you think. 
  • Develop a hobby. Look up the word in the dictionary under  "L" for 'non-Japanese'. That's a joke... but a hobby will help pass the time. Reading. Model building. Masturbating. Studying Japanese. Drinking. Masturbating (worth mentioning twice). Aquariums. Blogging. Puzzles. Photography. Watching TV. Travel. I did it all. Sometimes three times a day. 
  • Turn off the gas for your water heater in your apartment. Double check!
  • Tired of your hobbies?  Get out and meet the locals! They are actually more interesting than the other AETs and probably aren't as cheap.
  • Get out as much as you can to the JET functions. Sometimes one really does NEED to hear and speak your native tongue.
  • Don't be afraid to tell the Japanese anything. In fact, anything goes. I was always completely honest with my bosses at the Board of Education offices. If I needed help, I asked for it. If I didn't understand something, I asked. If I wanted something, I asked. All they can do is say 'no', and chances are they won't unless your request is unreasonable. The only 'no' I ever got from my office was when I told them I had already bought a motorcycle and was going to ride it to my schools. They wisely told me I shouldn't do that. True. I had no idea how to ride a motorcycle. I got lost easily. And they didn't want to have to foot my funeral costs. That damn bike scared the hell out of me anyways. I sold it, made 5000 yen on the deal more than I paid, and my office (and I) breathed a sigh of relief. I should have asked if that was okay first. Don't assume. Ask. You're in your 20s or 30s. Don't be a punk ass kid.
  • If you are feeling lonely or down - don't effing e-mail or tweet anyone. Pick up the damn phone and at least HEAR that someone exists. You can actually hear more in a person's voice than you can in writing. I should know... I'm a writer, but a far better communicator. 
  • Be controversial, but not outrageous. Monbusho actually called me the AET Cowboy. Monbusho is Japan's Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture. It was NOT meant as an insult. Speaking my mind in an honest and open-manner, sharing laughs, concerns and drinks without being a dick or a bitch goes a loooooong way. 
  • You may be surprised, but many Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) do not speak English as well as you would hope. They learned in school, but have not had much opportunity to actually practice speaking English with a real foreigner. Not all, of course, but many. They might speak something called (sammu thinggu caw-ru-dough) Katakana-English. It can take a while to understand, but after three years, I can say it is possible for you to understand them. Maybe.
  • It's hot now... but in September and October it's typhoon season. This will be followed by the cold-dark season when the sun disappears for months. This may not be true for those of you in Okinawa. In April it begins to get warmer although it is still cloudy until June when the rainy season starts. The rainy season ends in mid-July when it becomes unbearably hot and humid for exactly 44-1/2 days. Rinse and repeat.
  • Never visit a Japanese dentist. Just don't.
  • Since the Buddha is supposed to be reincarnated as a spider, do not kill spiders in front of the Japanese. 
  • Be yourself, rather than some pristine person you think you should be. I think the Japanese really, really do respect honesty
  • Duck your head when entering a doorway. 
  • Don't wear slippers outdoors, unless they have officially been designated as 'outdoor' slippers by Japan's Ministry of Ugly Floppy Plastic Slippers.
Anyhow... that's all I wrote, and all I shall write at this time... suffice to say... if you are a newcomer and need some help, perhaps I can help. Perhaps I can't. Read the previous blogs - all 1,300+ of them. The blogs with a rock and roll title are about my life in Japan. The rest are news, advice, fact, fiction and encyclopedic.You'll know what's what.

Cheers! And welcome to Japan!
Andrew (I'm not in Japan!) Joseph

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