TEACHING AT MEYSEN > LIVING ABROAD IN JAPAN
LIVING ABROAD IN JAPAN
Mention Japan in conversation, and images of uniformly dressed businessmen squeezing into crowded subways which carry them to their jobs in a high-tech glass and steel metropolis tend to come to mind.
On the surface, Japan can feel like a space-age world with its talking elevators, capsule hotels and high speed bullet trains, but the people that live in this futuristic setting are people who still maintain a mindset that was formed thousands of years ago in tight-knit rice farming communities. Japanese people feel connected and protected by their local communities, and so have placed a higher value on conformity and collectivism that persists even through today.
The western ideals of individuality and personal growth that have taken so much of the world by storm are known in Japan, but the value placed on traditional collectivist ideals is still far greater.
Ideal vs Reality
It’s difficult not to allow the fantasy of what one’s experience in Japan should be to influence an applicant’s decision to pursue work and a life abroad. It is only from a heart of concern and care that MeySen Academy ask applicants who are, or who have, struggled with depression, anxiety or other similar conditions to seek advice from their physician(s) on whether an international move would be a healthy choice.
It’s easy to see an opportunity in Japan as a “fresh start” – an opportunity to begin anew and reinvent oneself; however, once here, foreign nationals often find themselves struggling through periods of isolation and loneliness, and struggle with their loss of independence and easy communication.
Conditions which were managed healthily via medication, therapy, pets, family and friends may resurge in the absence of these resources and tools, which can create an unhappy or even dangerous situation.
Core Western Beliefs that Contrast with the Japanese World view
The majority of western thought is infused with a belief that a better tomorrow awaits us if we struggle against the injustices of the world. This view is expressed in Christian thought through the belief that a home in heaven awaits us in the afterlife through faith in God, and a desire to shed our sinful nature.
This philosophy has a secular version as well, which can be seen in progressive socio-political projects which set out to make the world a kinder, friendlier place -- essentially building heaven here on Earth. Westerners, no matter what their particular religious leanings, tend to believe that they are on a path of transcendence. Westerners are much more likely to put stress on personal relationships or restructuring group dynamics if some greater good is perceived. In contrast, interpersonal harmony and rigid group structure is paramount in Japan, so any perceived greater good would take a back seat to group dynamics. In the west, struggle, stress and failure are all a means to the end goal of transcendence.
World View and Religion in Japan
For the most part, Japan is a rather secular country where the majority of people are quite skeptical of organized religions. While Buddhism has a very visible presence, with its temples and statues dotting the countryside and its black-robed monks praying on street corners, the average Japanese person doesn’t actively practice Buddhism or adhere to its tenants in terms of a worldview.
Confucianism is the belief system which has gained the strongest foothold in Japan, and it permeates nearly everything that this article will examine. Under the Confucianist worldview, people bring meaning and grounding to their existence through their relationships with one another, and through the ritualistic fulfillment of duties to those around them, and through playing various roles for their communities. It is this philosophy that guides the minds of the Japanese on a day to day basis.
When it comes to the observance of the traditions found in organized religious faiths, Japanese people can be so detached from the core beliefs of those religions that they can appropriate several different religions to suit their own ceremonial needs. They will give buildings a Shinto blessing, say good-bye to loved ones in a Buddhist ceremony, and conduct Christian wedding ceremony without any sense of conflict.
Maintaining the Wa
Wa is the Japanese concept of harmony. It is considered ideal to always be in a state of harmony with one’s fellow humans, with nature, and with one’s own mind and body. Of course, throughout the course of a normal human life, the balance of things is upset by conflicts of one sort or another; the goal is always to put things back into a state of harmony.
There are a number of concrete ways that maintaining the wa manifests in everyday behavior. When disputes arise, primary attention is given to calming agitation rather than ferreting out the crux of the issue. Apologies are quickly dispensed at the slightest notion of another's discomfort.
Japanese people don't wait to sort out who is truly at fault before they apologize. There are even entire industries devoted to producing little packaged snacks and towels to be given as gifts to apologize for an absence, or to repay a debt!
This idea isn’t entirely alien to westerners. Even westerners tend to be slightly indirect when placing demands on other people, but Japanese indirect communication happens far more frequently, and it does require a bit more “telepathy” than western ambiguity. Westerners soften requests, whereas the Japanese omit them entirely!
Better to be Nice than to be Right
In Japan, the concept of right and wrong is firmly rooted in the feelings of others. Right is what makes others happy, and wrong is what harms or upsets other people. The Japanese don’t really separate a person’s ideas and actions from the person themselves. So, they tend to avoid lengthy debates in order to avoid insulting other people.
The School System
Japanese children are required to attend public school for a minimum of nine years – six years of elementary school, and three years of junior high school. Secondary education is not compulsory, but roughly 98% of junior high school graduates go on to attend high school. The majority of classroom instruction at the elementary school level is conducted by a single homeroom teacher. These teachers not only teach academic subjects, but are also able to teach music, art, and physical education. Typically, elementary students have an hour or so of homework every night, which usually consists of math drills, Chinese character practice, a reading assignment, and a daily diary entry. There are some after-school programs, but for the most part, the elementary school day ends in the afternoon when classes are over.
Junior high school is a stark contrast from elementary school. The majority of all junior high school students are required to wear school uniforms, and adhere to strict rules that apply to the students’behavior inside of and outside of school. Before the start of every summer vacation, for example, the students are assembled in the gymnasium and reminded of how they are meant to behave. One example is that they are not allowed to visit video game arcades, as they are thought to attract the wrong crowd, and distract children from their studies. Throughout the summer break, teachers actually patrol local game arcades to enforce the rule!
There are no concrete punishments in place if children are caught breaking the rules. In the western legalist framework, bad behavior is often met with some sort of concrete consequence; however, within the Confucian framework, a student is reminded that he or she has brought shame to themselves, the school, and their family that they may have to carry with them for the rest of their lives.
This is a very potent method of behavior correction for students who see themselves as part of society; however, this approach has little or no effect with students who already feel like they are on the outside of society as a whole.
In contrast to elementary school, each subject in Japanese junior high is taught by a different teacher. Teachers move from class to class, and the students remain in their homerooms. The teachers cover material that is all approved by a central Ministry of Education, and they must cover every page of the text books. The high stakes entrance examinations are based on this content, so the pacing is extremely regimented; in fact, it is so regimented that students who go to different schools often talk about what page they are on, and poke fun of students whose teachers are lagging behind in the text book.
In recent years, classroom discussion, presentation and debate has seen wider integration into the Japanese classroom; however, the vast majority of classes are still characterized by a teacher at the blackboard lecturing while writing on the board. The students are meant to sit quietly and dutifully transcribe the notes on the board into their notebooks.
These habits can cause difficulty for Western English teachers when teaching abroad in classrooms where students are not normally required to participate in classroom discussions or debates.
Another point of difficulty for Japanese students and Western English teachers concerns the handling of mistakes. In Japan, wrong answers are generally seen as a bad thing. Students avoid speaking out in class for fear of being wrong. Japanese exchange students are often shocked, and perhaps a little horrified, when they enter American classrooms where students sometimes gleefully shout out incorrect answers!
This may be a good reason why your Japanese students are quiet, even when you try to instigate a group activity or discussion; they are unaccustomed to expressing themselves in an open forum.
Club Activities and Hobbies as Central Markers of Identity
Junior High school students, while not required, are more or less expected to participate in an after school activity. There is a wide variety of activities spanning from brass band to soccer. The majority of students chose to participate in a sport, and will usually stick with that same activity for the entire duration of junior high school. This is in stark contrast to American schools where athletic students commonly play different sports during different seasons.
Practice can go late into the evening on weekdays, and go through most weekend days and through all of the school vacation periods. This after-school club program requires students and teachers are at school nearly every day for most of the year.
This schedule would be beyond daunting to most Westerners who perceive a stark line between private and public life; however, since the Confucianist mind derives meaning and identity through these group duties, not having this busy schedule would bring anxiety. Well into their future, when the students are working in their careers, a common opening question is: “Which clubs were you involved in during junior high school?” This is as much a marker of identity in Japan as occupation is for people in the west!
Other Differences at School
While much of daily life at school is similar to western school, save for some differences, Japanese schools hire very few custodial staff. At the end of each day, the students are responsible for cleaning the school.
There are qualifying examinations to get in to high school. Public schools tend to be more difficult to get into because they are free. Students often attend private night courses, or cram schools, to study for these high-stakes qualifying exams.
Since fathers tend to work long hours for their companies, a majority of the day-to-day child rearing falls to the mother. Fathers are not entirely absent, as they do tend to put in a lot of parenting hours on the weekends.
While the father is the breadwinner, it is the wife who holds the household “purse strings,” and comes up with the family budget; she gives her husband an allowance.
Japanese parents tend to avoid the more authoritarian parenting approaches used by their western counterparts. Where an American might explain how to accomplish a task while detailing the thinking behind each thing, a Japanese mother would be more likely to demonstrate the preferred behavior, while her child copies her actions. This same method of learned behavior applies to other members of society who assume a quasi-parental role over children, like teachers and police officers.
Japanese parents also tend to minimize the sensation of overt authority in the hopes that the children will chose the right action out of sensitivity for others. In fact, sensitivity for the feelings of others comes with such a high value in Japanese culture that Japanese mothers will even scold children who kick walls or doors by telling them that the door is in pain, rather than that it is against the rules!
Families are not large these days, and it is not uncommon for grandparents to live with their son or daughter’s family. Children may not have their own bedrooms, regardless of the size of the house, as some families prefer to sleep together in one room.
Baths are commonly taken at night before bed in order to stay warm in homes that are barely insulated. The family hierarchy is also in play here, as usually the most honored member of the family you get into the bath fist, and the last person is expected to drain it.
Japanese people tend to socialize through the medium of activities. There are innumerable hobby circles all over Japan where people can come to do anything from traditional taiko drumming, cooking or football! The activity serves as a hub where people can gather, but it also helps deflect some of the anxiety that could arise from direct interaction. One of the sad side effects of this mode of interaction is that if a person leaves a hobby circle, they tend to lose all of the friends that they had made there.
We always advise new teachers to try to get themselves involved in some sort of hobby – it’s the best and easiest way to make Japanese friends!
While entire volumes have been devoted to Japanese cuisine, it may be best to simply provide a reminder that the daily Japanese diet is extremely varied and goes far beyond the items generally found on the menu of a local Japanese restaurant. While most Japanese kids adore sushi in much the same way that American kids love pizza, one dish that is almost unanimously loved is curry!
Japanese tend to eat much more seasonally than Americans do. They eat bamboo shoot rice in the spring, roasted corn on the cob in the summer, chestnuts in the fall, and oranges in the winter. It is harder to ﬁnd vegetarians and vegans in Japan than it is in western countries. The most common ethic concerning diet is to eat a wide variety of food, and not to over eat.
Sempai-Kohai and the Hierarchical Life
Age and rank are fundamental concepts of Japanese culture that are rarely, if ever, ignored. The Japanese language even has a unique grammar for expressing things humbly, or with honor. While Americans like the idea that all people are created equal, the Japanese believe that all people have their place, and that their “place” ﬁts neatly into a complex hierarchy.
One of the first questions to be asked upon meeting a person is the person's age. This is to discern how to properly address the person from that point on. This hierarchical view of life is instilled from early childhood, but it is emphasized to a far greater degree in junior high school, where students must address their seniors as sempai, and where older students are expected to care for and train the younger students in the daily routines at school. After-school club activities are organized just as much by senior students as they are by coaches and school staff.
In the family, older sisters are meant to manage younger sisters, and younger siblings are meant to obey their older siblings (more or less) the same way that they would their parents. Older siblings generally enjoy more preferential treatment from their parents, but younger siblings are given much more freedom. Older siblings almost always inherit the family estate, but it falls to them to care for their parents as they age.
To Westerners, who believe that all people are created equal and should be treated as such, this may feel seem rigid and almost backward; however, for Japanese people, a fixed social hierarchy is viewed as a fact of life that in many ways takes much of the discomfort and complexity out of human interaction.
Most people are largely unaware of their own culture until they are pushed into a completely new and different environment. When people leave the comforts of their own culture, they tend to go through predictable stages as they adapt to a new culture.
First Stage: Honeymoon
This stage is characterized by joy and excitement over all of the new discoveries they are making. New teachers at this stage tend to be fascinated with every detail of Japanese life.
Second Stage: Homesickness
After a few weeks of dream-like happiness, the second stage sets in as homesickness and the stress of everyday life begins to take its toll. The initial negative feelings of shock begin to set in.
Teachers will show negative moods during this period, and be sulky and desire to call home more often. Good experiences -- like a night out with friends -- will remind them of the positive aspects of their experience, and they will begin to feel more settled.
Third Stage: Superficial Adjustment
This stage often brings a renewed sense of shock as more complex cultural conﬂicts arise.
Fourth Stage: Isolation
The fourth stage is usually characterized by a strong desire for isolation. Teachers may want to spend more time alone in their apartments. It is good during this period to make sure that there are fun activities to do, good food to eat, and that teachers are getting enough rest. This phase does usually pass, and then a more settled sense of integration ﬁnally can set in.
Stage Five: Acceptance
The fifth stage brings a gradual adjustment to the new culture, and a gradual disassociation from the original culture.
Culture shock can be difficult, and each teacher will handle each phase differently. Things that tend to help a person experiencing these feelings are meeting with friends who share their culture, participating in shared activities, and gaining access to some foods and products from home. Care packages from mom can really work wonders!
Culture shock will tend to be at its most acute when the teacher engages in activities characterized by culture and ritual. Weddings, funerals, and seasonal observances may bring more stress than a trip to the mall. Many of the daily experiences an American person may have, such as getting into a car or going shopping for shoes, are fairly similar to those experiences in Japan.
Teachers can often be lulled into a sense of calm and security during those times, but can become upset when they do things that are highly ritualistic and deeply rooted in the other culture. This is not to say our Western teachers should avoid these sorts of activities. Quite the opposite! It is precisely to have these world-view broadening experiences that our foreign teachers work at MeySen Academy. It is just good to know where potential culture shock landmines may exist so that our foreign and Japanese staff can proceed together naturally and kindly.
So, what does this mean for our teachers?
Adjusting to a new life in Japan will be difficult. Westerners, in particular, may not feel as free to be themselves at work, or in their personal lives, and will feel the societal pressure to conform to behavior deemed acceptable and right. Foreigners are always visible, and curious eyes are always watching.
Being a teacher in Japan is an honored and respected role. Teachers are seen as a model and guide for society; therefore society reserves the right to correct the behaviors of its role models, even when those role models are “off the clock.” The title teachers receive – Sensei – places teachers at the same professional sanding in society as a lawyer, police officer or doctor, so the amount of scrutiny teachers receive would be much greater than what an American teacher would be used to in the United States.
While this reality comes with many negatives, and can be difficult to live with, it also gives our teachers a unique opportunity to be “global ambassadors” of sorts, and make a lasting impact on the local community in Sendai as representatives of Western culture, MeySen Academy, and Jesus Christ.
What do our teachers do?
We want our teachers to be themselves! This information is not intended to make our foreign staff question themselves so much that they can’t function properly. After all, our teachers have made the journey abroad to experience other ways of life, but sometimes meeting each other’s culture halfway is the right way forward for everyone, foreign teacher and MeySen Academy alike.
We tell our teachers to talk a lot about ideas and opinions like a westerner, and eagerly engage in activities and hobbies together to deﬂect some of the anxiety which can arise from direct interaction. Be honest and direct, but still keep in mind that that will be hard for Japanese people to understand sometimes.
And above all – be patient, and keep a sense of humor. Love, respect, and humor are universal ideas that are able to untie some of the most difficult knots.
Any more questions?
Please contact any MeySen recruiter if you have any questions not covered in this website page; we are happy to share our life-tips and experiences in Japan!