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Saturday, May 25, 2013

JETs Going To Japan? - Read This First

So… congratulations! You have been chosen by the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme to go to Japan and become either an AET (assistant English teacher) or CIR (Coordinator of International Relations).

That takes some doing, and obviously people out there think you do yourself, your country and Japan proud.

Don't be fooled. Once you are in Japan, you are indeed a representative of your country (and of JET, of course). Your course of action will impact greatly on them and you.

I think the best way to look at this whole experience is to consider yourself an ambassador of whatever country you are from. Yeah, go out and have fun, but be respectful of where you are.

I didn't always do that - thank you alcohol - but no one ever complained. That I know of. And trust me… someone would have let you know if you screwed up.

The ambassador thing… I am from Toronto, Canada, and even though I first arrived in Japan back in 1990—and things have changed—the stuff I am about to impart on you is still applicable.

In my new hometown of Ohtawara-shi (Ohtawara City), Tochigi-ken (Province of Tochigi), Japan… a smallish city then of a bout 50,000 people… there was a small dark place called the London Club.

It was about a three-minute drunken stagger from my apartment - a massive three bedroom LDK (living room-dining room-kitchen) with two balconies that few of you will ever have the luck to reside in—the London Club sat sunken into the ground… four short steps down to a blue-painted wall with a door that blended in to almost make it look like it had a hidden entrance. I think there was even a sliding panel that could be opened up from the inside to check out the would-be visitor, or to get a password (Walt Sent Me). It was a windowless place that held… I had no freaking idea!

I never bothered to ask anyone, but I was curious… after all, I was born in London, England, and wondered if this place was some secret homage to Queen and country.

(Background) Okay... I left England when I was three. Despite my parental units' India-background, I am more Canadian than most. Whatever that means. I named my son Hudson (after the trading company that founded the country, for cripes sake!).

So… I'm in the Ohtawara Junior High School (affectionately known as Dai Chu - aka Big Middle), giving a self introduction to a group of third-year, 15-year-olds (I did 77 self-introductions to classes over three years)… when I mentioned that I was born in London.

Immediately, a young man throws arm his arm up to apparently ask a question. I stopped talking, and said: "Hai, dozo (Yes, please…)". No one ever asks questions DURING a self-introduction. I always got plenty afterwards, though... usually complex enough that the teacher would have to translate from Japanese to English for me.

It freaked me out with his question - done in English! He asked: "An-do-ryu sensei… do you know London Club?" Actually he said Rondon Crub, but I know the Japanese have difficulty saying the 'L", as it simply does not exist in their language - no matter how they name their brand of cars. You'll see.

Well… since I had seen the London Club when walking to the 4C drinking establishment I frequented, I answered: "Yes, I do."

Cries of "Eeeeeeeeeeee! (pronounced Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhh!)" erupted from the whole class.

I may have only been in Japan for five weeks (at that time), but I knew that sound. It was the sound of shock. Now what did I do?

 I looked toward Inou-sensei, my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), and asked him: "?" without actually saying a word.

Inoue-sensei was a cool guy… maybe 50-years-old, but possessing the swagger of someone who was in the original Rat Pack… kind of like a Japanese Sinatra, but minus the Yakuza. He smoked (you could do that in the teacher's lounge) and drank (after work - he was a Scotch man), and loved women….

He said, smiling while really squinting up his eyes: "... I have heard…"

Hah! I knew that line!

"… that the London Club is a place you don't want to know about."

Hell… now I do want to know about it!

"?" I looked at him again.

He continued, albeit reluctantly: "It's a sukebe club."

I'm just going to Copy & Paste this here: Cries of "Eeeeeeeeeeee! (pronounced Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhh!)" erupted from the whole class.

Now, although I had already heard myself called that some 30 or 40 times in the past five months, I was never around anyone who spoke English enough to tell me what that word means… and trust me… if you are a guy, you will probably hear this word in reference to yourself, while you women, you will hear this in reference to, well… you'll see in a line or two.

"A sukebe… it means… pervert."

(It can also mean 'dirty old man')

"Oh," I said.

Hey! I screamed in my head! Geez… just because back in Toronto I was dating three women at the same time: Neapolitan dating: A Blonde, Brunette and a Redhead. Don't worry. I wasn't getting any. Ever. The Japanese didn't know that, of course… and me bringing in photos of my so-called girlfriends… well… I was an instant superstar to the males and apparently a sukebe to the females… which was both good and bad.

"So… it's an adult club? Alcohol. Women?"


"Naked women?"

"I think so," he lied.

Damn. Now I definitely wanted to check the place out.

After school was over for the day, I rode my over-sized (for Japan) 18-speed bicycle home, pedaling through the narrow alleys where even in the bright light of the afternoon September sun the London Club still looked dark and horny… er, I mean ominous.

As I stopped to look at it, some of my students shouted out: "Konichi-wa An-do-ryu-sensei (Hello Andrew teacher)!" while bowing low.

I Konichiwa-ed back at them and bowed, too.

Now pretending to tie my shoes (I had slip-on loafers), an older couple walked by and said: "Konichi-wa gaijin no sensei (Hello, Mister foreign teacher)." (It's a strange country sometimes, but they sure are polite!)"

I have no idea who they are, but I Konichiwa-ed them too and bowed extra deep to show my respect for those older and thus more wise than me. I don't know if you are supped to do that, but anytime you can bow - bow. When in the downward position, look at their shoes. If their shoes are better than yours, hold the bow longer. It's just that simple.It also works is they have more grey hair or wrinkles than you. The older generation gets off more on the show of respect that you might believe. They will also tell everyone that you know how to 'Japanese bow.'

Having finally managed to do up my loafers, I got back up on my bicycle and rode home, changed and rode back out to the supermarket, where not less than 12 people - strangers all, I think - greeted me - one even said in English: "Welcome to Japan. I hope you will enjoy yourself." They all bowed and acted as though they knew me.

That was really the first time that it dawned on me… I'm not anonymous. People seem to know me here.

At that moment of self-realization, every desire to visit the nudie bar or sex bar, or opium den (for all you Teddy & The Pirates fans out there) went right out the windowless window.

(I later found out that newspaper articles and radio broadcasts were put out on me - complete with background history - as they sure were proud to have a new foreign teacher. A young Indian chick from England - London, in fact! - was the first AET, though she only stayed a year.) I suppose there might be Internet news and Pod Casts nowadays. You can let me know if that's true.

Anyhow... what would happen if word got out that the city's brand new gaijin (foreigner) was spotted pulling up his fly, smoothing his disheveled mullet (I had a mullet??!!) while stumbling out of the London Club?

I'll tell you what - nothing good.

And that's what you should always ask yourself when in Japan. Will nothing good come of my action here? If yes, simply don't do it.

I know it sounds ridiculous to even have to consider hearing all this crap, but trust me… this is Japan. Honor and respect is earned by age and heritage in Japan… two things you don't have as a gaijin. It's worse when you are a gaijin, because they know you don't have the same morals as the honorable Japanese (I'm being sarcastic here. You may have good morals, but they don't all believe that).

You only have what you have, and once you lose their respect, you aren't much use to people there.

I can't confirm this, but I have heard that some JETs have been kicked out of Japan by the JET Programme for conduct unbecoming a JET.

In fact… it really boils down to whether or not your BOE (Board of Education) feels you are living up to whatever societal ideals they have. You fail, you may not be asked to sign on for another year. You screw-up, and they could fire you, which means you are sent home. Immediately.

Look. There's nothing wrong with being a drunken, lecherous pervert. Been there, done that. May even do that again. But… pick and choose when. If some adult is flirting with you from the school or office, sure… go ahead. Especially if it's at a bar and everyone is drunk. You'll notice, of course, that everyone is acting like a sukebe (but usually after the Superintendent or Principal leaves the party).

But getting drunk and breaking into a place like some military personnel have done in Okinawa - that's stupid.

Breaking bonsai tees - really - the damn things are 100 years old. The same with stealing them? Why? You will kill it anyway…

I did a few crazy things while in Japan… I got drunk and broke into a taxidermy forest scene at a hotel during a JET conference… waking up under the solemn stare of a deer - I quietly broke out again (the glass exhibit was mysteriously unlocked). I also illegally entered a pottery museum with some Japanese friends, because the place was closing… no excuse… that was stupid… I perched myself on my balcony edge and read for hours in the sun… not stupid, but I could have slipped off if I wasn't careful. See that photo above? I took that flag from a festival celebration in town. But, I told my BOE about it, and no one cared.

Also, I would haul my butt up onto the roof of my seven-story building by standing on my tip toes on the hand railing of the seventh floor and jumped up to pull myself up… all so I could get a better photograph from the tallest building in my city. Not illegal, but stupidly dangerous, now that I think of it.

And that's what I remember off the top of my head. There's more, but maybe some of those will come out in other blogs.

It's why I'm telling you this now. Being young and in the JET Programme can create an indestructible ego for you. Be careful. Enjoy the scenery. Be respectful of people, ideals and the country. You are a guest. You are an ambassador. Act better than I did, if you can. Stay safe. Have fun.

Sounds like it's impossible to do all of that, but yes you can.

I used to recall an old US Marine pledge: Death before dishonor.

Even being Canadian, I can see the value in that advice. I did try to follow it.

And hey... while looking up the origin of that pledge... I found out that it actually originated with the ancient samurai. A Bushido code - the way of the warrior. That makes it even more fortuitous, doesn't it?

At the very top... that image of the samurai... that is: General Akashi Gidayu writing his death poem before committing Seppuku (ritualistic suicide). There is no need for you to follow suit. Ever.

It's an 1890 ukiyo-e wood block print drawn by artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. It is from his series Tsuki hyaku sugata 月百姿 (One Hundred Aspects of the Moon).

If you have something you would like to know - please ask.

Andrew Joseph
Up next, Another long-winded anecdote. And, to quote Bill Cosby when he introduced the Fat Albert cartoon: "If you aren't careful, you might learn something."

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