All the ways I’ve made it impossible to have friends in my Japanese office

September 18, 2019

At first glance, there is absolutely no difference between the dynamics of starting a new job in Japan and those anywhere else in the world. Cultural differences exists, but in those first few weeks, everyone is more focused on job responsibilities, meeting coworkers, and finding the flow of the office.

This was certainly the case for me two years ago. Though I grew bored fairly quickly only “teaching” five classes a week, I got compliments from coworkers who praised me “always sitting at my desk” (NOTE: there was no mention of working, just sitting), and found my and my supervisor’s rapport to be commendable. I had someone at the alcove next to mine who liked to discuss biking. Even though the conversations stayed superficial and rudimentary due to the language barrier, they were numerous.

A few things changed once my contract was renewed. One of the younger teachers with whom I shared at least 1-2 talks with every day left our department and moved to another building. Two older gentlemen who can best be described as gregarious in every sense of the word were similarly displaced: one moved one floor up and was nowhere to be seen for months. The other had apparently fed off his good nature and became much less outgoing as each day passed.

The office environment in which I now sit is not the same as when I first started working in Japan, but the reason it continues to stay that way is entirely my own doing. I’ve made it difficult if not downright impossible for my coworkers to form the kind of rapport we had at the beginning of my time here with the following:

1. Directly glaring at someone for making disgusting (by any standard) noises

Mainly unnaturally clearing one’s throat, sipping tea or coffee and smacking their lips, and talking while eating. Surprisingly, I don’t really have a problem with slurping ramen, because I know that is a cultural trait.

2. Shutting down conversations at inappropriate times

I’ve had coworkers approach me literally ten seconds after entering the building when I’m soaked in sweat, or still dressed in full rain gear after getting poured on, wanting to discuss something that could easily wait until I’m at my desk. Secondary to this is colleagues who think it’s appropriate to have conversations at the urinal… why?

3. Leaving the room and being unable to work due to noise

The teacher’s room is usually fine, but once in a while 2-3 coworkers will start having a loud, long-lasting conversation right over my head. I don’t mean that figuratively – they keep talking even when I’m sitting between them, oblivious to my discomfort.

4. When I do address any of the above with them discreetly, nothing changes

I’d also feel petty to keep bringing it up, despite the fact it really does infuriate me. I try to go by the Buddhist idea not to let a fly bother you from meditating, but I don’t think the Buddha would have achieved enlightenment in this office.

5. I eat lunch alone, and not at my desk

Every time I have tried to enjoy lunch sitting surrounded by my coworkers, someone rushes over with a question or request. No one eats outside, even on beautiful days and despite the fact there are places to sit in the courtyard; it boggles the mind. At my school, like many in Japan, there is no cafeteria or designated place to eat lunch. Both students and teachers sit and eat at the same places they do all their work. I guess that’s one of the reasons lunchtime isn’t considered to be off limits.

6. The nature of who I am, a square peg in a round hole

I don’t mean that I feel discriminated against in any way while working here, but that doesn’t change the fact I am different and I will always be considered different. Familiarity and stronger ties can come from shared suffering, but I refuse to suffer for no reason. I’m not going to work unpaid overtime for office solidarity, or go above and beyond on my days off when it won’t affect my job performance as a whole.

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