When can you blame Japan for your problems?

June 6, 2018

I don’t think of myself as someone who lets himself gets hampered by excuses, but I’m sure I would have some friends who disagree. Do you think if I were passionate enough about getting a job in the US, that I’d have one? Passion, or grit, doesn’t take into account a high unemployment rate, a dearth of high-paying jobs, and the advantages of having a network (not that I don’t know a few people…).

The Mirror of the Japanese is not the Gaze of the others

In Japan, I am a white, relatively young (de-facto discrimination by age is allowed in this country), male without any physical disabilities. None of those factors are in my control, save not paralyzing myself by doing something stupid as a kid. While they most definitely provide an edge when looking for employment (or just living) in the United States, they are exponentially more valuable in a country like Japan, where native English speakers are the minority and the job market isn’t as saturated.

I recently had a falling out with a female acquaintance who lived in a nearby town and worked at a children’s eikaiwa. If you’re not familiar with teaching in Japan, it takes a special kind of person to work at one of those; while assistant language teachers may have a lot of downtime during the day, eikaiwa employees are hardcore, having 1-2 days of teaching nonstop for several hours and other days still cramming in back-to-back lessons.

Needless to say, she wasn’t exactly thrilled with the situation, but endured for the sake of staying in Japan and – to put it simply – “living the dream”. I was still getting to know her, but from what she had told me, she had had a rough go of things coming to Japan. She didn’t have much savings arriving the first time around, and moved from eikaiwa to eikaiwa, city to city, house to apartment, to shared apartment, for some time. She moved into a tiny tatami mat studio with a Japanese guy (who didn’t take too long before hitting on her) to save money, but was so uncomfortable with the situation that she quit the school, moved out, and rented a room in Tokyo. The last time we spoke, she was still renting that room (less of a creepy flatmate this time) and commuting down the Chuo Line every day to work at another eikaiwa.

Sadly, stories like hers aren’t the most uncommon to hear when teaching ESL abroad. What I say next may come across as privileged and tone deaf, but it is based on the experiences I’ve heard from a variety of nationalities and races teaching in foreign countries: to move forward living here, there is no point in blaming the difficulties you face on Japan, and especially not on Japanese people.

I say this not because I’m unaware of the prevalence of racism and sexism that exists in the world, and with the hiring policies of ESL schools in Asia in particular (my Korean boss balked at hiring an Indian American until I persuaded him). I’m just saying whether or not that is the case during your experience working in Japan, focusing on the factors working against you won’t help you get out of the situation. Any constructive approach doesn’t involve complaining, but fighting until you find yourself in a comfortable place. There will always be something to legitimately complain about, even if you like your job and your accommodations.

In the case of my “friend”, at least from my perspective, she was more inclined to go on rants vilifying all Japanese people than seeing what she could do better. Rather than escaping one situation, she made it worse for herself by getting rid of her privacy – some of us can endure a job we hate if we have a nice place to call home – changing jobs without giving herself time to get a full paycheck, and then moving to an area where she didn’t have a good network.

Imagine you’re living in the states and you want to quit your job. Even if your boss is excessively demanding (but not abusive), would you first move out of your apartment to a dump, then just quit without even two week’s notice, and move, sans savings, to a big city where rent is higher and you don’t know anyone?

Some people do this, of course, but it’s very shortsighted. When I left Japan in 2008, I seriously considered coming back for years. I spent a few days each year looking for jobs that I knew wouldn’t compel me to leave after a week, and most importantly, I only wanted to accept one that was extremely informative about their housing – I had seen far too many expats in Korea completely miserable with their accommodations. One of the reasons I left Peru early was the lack of privacy and warmth; despite being in South America in the summertime, my room was chilly and had no natural light.

You could make the argument that my experience teaching abroad is in and of itself a privilege, and that I knew enough to not make mistakes others would. I might grant you that. However, even when teaching in Japan for the first time with no experience living abroad, when I was being worked to death with eikaiwa hours with coworkers who didn’t care for me, I didn’t make my situation worse by jumping without a net. I considered breaking my contract or being reassigned, but never thought about just telling AEON I wouldn’t be at work the next day, or forcing their hand by refusing to pay for an apartment I didn’t want.

Bad things are going to happen to you in Japan whether you like it or not. Your boss might be a douche, your paychecks may be late or just forgotten. Your accommodation may be flooded because someone didn’t do his job. None of these things are your fault; even with due diligence, you can find yourself in a financially precarious situation in a foreign country with no apparent hope.

However, that is not the point. How you handle situations like these is what will determine your future. You can stand around blaming Japan from now until the end of time, but that won’t get you a job you want, or an apartment with a roof that doesn’t leak. Even if there are legitimate factors working against you – racism because every school to which you applied in Japan has turned you down, no reason given; sexism because your boss doesn’t see the need to pay you when your husband is working too – focusing on complaints over action doesn’t help. Becoming a racist yourself certainly doesn’t help, going on and on about “Japanese people…” this and “Japan…” that.

We all know someone who is like this. If you want to be really existential about it – tangent coming – the entire world is rigged against humanity, no matter your race, nationality, or economic background. That billionaire you saw on the news may be able to fly to his private island every week, but nothing can stop him from getting old, weak, and eventually dying. Even those of us who may be notable in today’s world may be forgotten as the years and centuries past. “Fuck you, reality!” might be fun to scream at the night sky from time to time, but never is it a means of moving forward.

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