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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

First Impressions At The Board Of Education

When I first arrived in Japan, I was lucky enough not to know a damn thing about Japan.

Well, that's not quite true... I did know there were geisha in Japan - ninja, samurai, too and it was the home of the Godzilla and Gamera movies... not to mention crappy Japanimation cartoons that always looked... 'cheap'.

I also had a decent view of Japan from my readings of World War II - and knew all about the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki back in August of 1945 that hastened the end of the war and eventually caused the Emperor to renounce his godhood... or divine status.

I had previously built model kit planes of the Enola Gay bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima... and had also built a few Mitsubishi Zero fighter planes. Nothing earth shattering as far as knowledge of what life in Japan was like nor what the people of Japan were like in 1990 (when I arrived).

Aside from that, I had a pretty open view, in my mind, about Japan. Pretty much zilch as far as preconceived notions.

Sure JET in Toronto had given us advice about so-called key money that might need to be paid for the rent of an apartment.. which I didn't have to pay thanks to an overly generous BOE (Board of Education) in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken.

As well, JET warned us - or rather advised us - that upon reaching Japan and meeting our bosses for the first time at the BOE, it would be a good idea to be armed with omiyage... presents from Canada... that were meant to show the bosses that we respected their decision to allow us to be part of their company... that they would also help take care of us... and for that, the omiyage would be presented in advance to ensure good will...

It's not a bribe, or anything like that. Omiyage is a thank-you. Thanks for looking after me in the upcoming year. Thanks for allowing me to be a part of your team... your culture.

To us... such things carry little weight... but when we do give gifts, it's usually to thank people after the fact for their generosity or kindness.

Japan, if you will, does it backwards. As such, we are left to pay it forward....

I arrived in Japan carrying as many 40-ounce bottles of Canadian whiskey as I was legally allowed to carry.

I believe it was three bottles. One of which I gave to the Superintendent of the BOE, and one each to the two men who would be my bosses... who would physically look after me to keep me safe and happy... who would do all the paperwork required to ensure I had what I needed... to get me a bank account, a hanko for legal signature of documents... to take me to a doctor when I was sick... to ensure I learned about the city, had a clean apartment with everything I needed... had someone to talk to if things got rough... to be my friend.

They did all of that and far, far more... and did so with a smile on their face... without complaint... and probably without any extra remuneration.

If you didn't bring such a present for your bosses... do yourself a favor and buy something for them immediately.

It may not mean a lot to you... but in Japan... omiyage means a lot.

And... you will find that a little bit of money spent by you at this time will go a long way to you having a more enjoyable experience in Japan.

To tell the truth... those booze bottles I carried were heavy and I was cursing them every step I took with them from Toronto to Ohtawara... but the look on their face... they cherished it.

I made their day.

For everyone else... I didn't have any more alcohol... but I brought along knickknacks from Canada... snow globes, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (mounties) statues, moose carvings... stuff that cost $10 to $30 bucks... but was priceless to my BOE friends. My mother was smart enough to have me bring silk scarves for the office ladies... and I was smart enough to give them one each.

I'll be damned forever for not knowing their names now... or perhaps not even knowing their names then... I'm sure you will come across this problem... you will meet so many people... and if you are like me and had never heard Japanese spoken before you had a bitch of a time not only saying their name, but remembering it.

I didn't do this... but ask your boss - the one who speaks some English... to give you a diagram of your BOE office... and have him write out the English spellings of all of the people and where they sit. Learn their names. And always make it a habit of greeting each person individually... Hanazaki-san or Kanemaru-san... always add the 'san' - and don't call anyone by their first name unless they offer you that right. Or if you are dating them.

In Japan... if you didn't know it before, respect is everything. Not only for the people you interact with... but for the country and for its customs.

Never say their way of doing something is odd... just say.. "in my country we do this... what do they do here in Japan?" Now you are sharing.

Omiyage... backwards gift giving... stupid? Naw. It's just the way they do things in Japan.

If you can always recall that statement - it's the was they do things in Japan - and not judge - you will have a wonderful time in Japan.

Yeah... I think somethings Japan does things are counterproductive or odd... but I respect their right to do it.

You should too.

Good luck.

Oh... and welcome to Japan.

Andrew Joseph
Special thanks and cheers to Vincent for today's topic. Thanks, brother!

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