SPEECH TO HAJET (Hokkaido JETs)
FEB 27, 1999, HAKODATE, HOKKAIDO
JET SURVIVAL STRATEGIES,
AND HOW YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN JAPAN
(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, Friends, SIGNIF, and various JETs on March 4, 1999)
(Published in a JET Handbook sometime in 1999)
I gave the following speech under the auspices of the JET Program (Japan Exchange and Teaching), an organization managed by fhe Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs,and funded by the Ministry of Home Affairs, to sponsor young--under 35 years of age--overseas college graduates, contracted for up to three years (after which people leave Japan entirely, stay on in an entirely unrelated capacity, or find contracted employment in other government agencies), as English teachers in Japan's primary and secondary schools.
The group I was addressing was HAJET (Hokkaido Association for Japan Exchange and Teaching) at one of their semi-annual get-togethers. HAJET is Japan's most active JET chapter because members are often solo in tiny, remote, wintered-in villages scattered across Japan's second-largest island. They need meetings to provide breaks, contacts, and the chance to fulfill some basic needs (such as decent shopping; I am not being sarcastic!). The size of Hokkaido, coupled with the social disadvantages of youth in Japan, insufficient language training, temp status, and long institutional memories of their predecessors, makes HAJETs particularly vulnerable to cultural isolation and consequent mental instability.
Although I knew an insufficient amount about the JET program when I was asked to present, I found very trustworthy sources through which to tailor my talk, and fortunately managed to whip something up I thought HAJETs could use: advice on 1) how to keep from going nuts, and 2) how to make constructive changes in the community.
Adapted from a handout I gave attendees at the conference, this text has terse bits because I had to fit it within two pages A4. So I elaborate in between here as I did during the speech.
AND HOW YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN JAPAN
By Dave Aldwinckle, Landowner, Father of two, and Resident for over a decade
You HAJETs are here for a purpose. But sometimes due to destabilizing circumstances, one loses sight of it. This talk first elaborates upon those circumstances, describes survival strategies, and concludes with suggestions for making your environment a better place. This is important, because before you can concentrate on your goals, you must first deal with the constant mental barrage that is Japan.
PART ONE: CHALLENGES TO YOUR MENTAL STABILITY IN JAPAN:
(in no particular order, with elaborations below. Click on a phrase if you want to page down)
1) Isolation in a small village, 2) the "White Princess in the Castle" effect, 3) Sudden minority status, 4) Social glares and perpetual othering, 5) "Bug in a Jar" approach to intercultural social science, 6) Lack of responsibility, 7) Job tokenism, 8) "JAFET" Treadmills and lack of professional progress, 9) Lack of physical relief (enough said), 10) Constricting Gender Roles, 11) Contradictory signals on propriety, 12) Egregious unfairness, 13) Tradition overriding common sense, 14) Fatalistic resignation to your own ignorance, 15) Inability to trust colleagues, 16) Taking Culture Shock on the chin.
1) ISOLATION IN A SMALL VILLAGE
As I mentioned above, some HAJETs are in windblown, snowbound, or rice-paddied hamlets of a couple thousand souls, kanjied with readings that even Dosanko might not know, often without basic amenites like banks, shops, railway stops, or even video stores. Life there is not going to be the same as living in Sapporo.
2) THE "WHITE PRINCESS IN THE CASTLE" EFFECT
This is a phenomenon when you realize that you are the only one of your kind in a big institution, heralded as the harbinger of some sort of "Japan-is-changing" tide (until your novelty wears off). That may give you that gossamer feeling of importance for at least the first few months of your tenure, raising your expectations for empowered employment conditions. That is, until you try to do something you yourself find important. Then, stymied, disillusionment comes crashing in.
3) SUDDEN MINORITY STATUS
"I never understood how an African-American felt in the States until I was a gaijin in Japan", several of my Caucasian friends have said. HAJETs going to the other side of the Looking Glass after a lifetime as a coopted White are in for a lot of surprises. Likewise:
4) SOCIAL GLARES AND PERPETUAL OTHERING
Finger-pointing from kids (I still get edgy amidst a gaggle of grade-schoolers), stares on public transportation (especially if accompanied by a person of the opposite gender), and facing the frustrating "you're not the same as us and never be" sentiments no matter how how hard you try to fit in and learn The Japanese Way. Often due to the:
5) "BUG IN A JAR" APPROACH TO INTERCULTURAL SOCIAL SCIENCE
There is the distinct tendency for people here to see a foreigner as a cultural representative, effectively equivocating a person with a country, and study him or her as such--particularly in search of a map of differences. Problem is that the person in the petri dish is going to feel watched all the time, feel the need to be perfectionist and faux-pas-free in personal behavior, and feel more stress at any public appearance. For whatever they do wrong, they worry, will tar every other foreigner.
6) LACK OF RESPONSIBLITY
In a professional sense, often JETs are plunked down in an office by Monbushou or Gakuchou fiat and its up to the recipient department to make use of them. But that department often has no clue what to do with them, consequently giving them a desk and little else. Idle hands make for isolated minds working overtime.
7) JOB TOKENISM
On the other hand, plunking the JET in a situation only because he is a foreigner, such as on some international panel on somesuch, often uses people as images to justify an end without any particular goal of input or effectiveness. This greatly reduces job satisfaction. Likewise:
8) "JAFET" TREADMILLS AND LACK OF PROFESSIONAL PROGRESS
"JAFET" means "Just Another English Teacher" (the F is silent). JETs are sometimes brought over regardless of degree-in-education qualification. Educators here know that full well and don't always take JETs seriously as professionals. So once relegated into the JAFET category, the JET gets fed busywork or shuffled between classes without regard for their professional needs, such as letting the JET see students' progress under his or her tutelage.
9) LACK OF PHYSICAL RELIEF (enough said)
Some women in the front row at this speech laughed aloud while most men in the audience blinked in noncomprehension. This, as we discussed last year on Fukuzawa and ISSHO (see debate enshrined at http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#genderissues), has a huge impact upon self-image.
10) CONSTRICTING GENDER ROLES
Women and men have different ways of being assertive and dealing with difficulties in Japan, often dipolar from overseas ways. Those rules and roles, when conveniently applied by the hand-wringing or obstructionist, can make it tough for non-Japanese women in particular to say or do much at all in an office. Especially when the younger coworker women toe the bosses' line, and the Westerner gets mentally hamstrung by cultural "who-am-I-to-say-my-way-is-better-when-this-is-Japan-and-it-will-get-along-just-fine-without-my-meddling" relativity.
11) CONTRADICTORY SIGNALS ON PROPRIETY
You have a question about how you should handle a situation. A-san says you should do this. But B-san says you should do just the opposite. So what should you do? You need a huge sampling of opinions before plotting trends and mindsets accurately. But with the limited number of people inside the office, plus millions outside who will say, "It depends on the people, and I don't know the people", you're not going to get anywhere. Who are you going to rely on for failsafe people-management strategies? Makes you unable to determine confidently something as simple as "right" or "wrong".
12) EGREGIOUS UNFAIRNESS
Life's not fair. We all know that. But sometimes it just seems like unfairness is gerrymandered to be in your face, especially in office politics. Why don't people answer back even when they are in the know or fully-convinced of their righteousness? Why was that person bullied/transferred/fired just because she got married or he got on the wrong side of the boss's ego? Et cetera. Hard to come to terms with is the fact that Japan's strict hierarchy is not in the name of fairness--it is for the sake of keeping the chain of command clear. Moreover, like it or not, the sense of "fairness" is not so highly-prized a cultural value here. That will begin to grind your gears.
13) TRADITION OVERRIDING COMMON SENSE
All too often, situations arise where things are done just because they have always been done this way (esp in the bureaucracy, where JETs work), and that's that. Even when situations shift to the degree where adapting seems to be the obvious choice for 99% of humanity, the bureaucrats may yet remain obdurate, trapped in a "chicken-or-egg" do-while loop of "no precedence". No amount of entreaty will remedy that, it seems, and after a while it is enough to make the JET throw up his or her hands and say, "crash upon the rocks, Japan; see if I care!"
14) FATALISTIC RESIGNATION TO YOUR OWN IGNORANCE
This is deadly. After months hitting the kanji cards yet watching your language fossilize or worse, its all too easy to say, "I'll never get it" and stop trying to understand what goes on around you. This is precisely the wrong thing to do. No effort means no progress. Full stop.
15) INABILITY TO TRUST COLLEAGUES
Even deadlier. Perhaps the source of all those prewar "devious Japanese" ethnographies, the inability to understand either the language or your colleagues' mindsets sets you up for conspiracy theories and increased paranoia. The cultural phenomena where truth seems to shift with the group, where telling the whole truth does not seem to be an esteemed virtue, where ten people in a room give you eleven different opinions if they will even impart with them at all. This wreaks mental havoc on those who thrive on effective communication--the very thing JETs are supposed to be teaching here in the first place!
16) TAKING CULTURE SHOCK ON THE CHIN
The deadliest of all. Short-circuited by cultural relativity and "I'm a guest so shut up" mentalities, yet assailed by things you know should not be happening, JETs have the tendency to swallow culture shock instead of making any noise about it. This, in the long run, not a sustainable strategy. More in Part Two (g) below.
Be aware of these possible factors and prepare a survival strategy (I call it "mental software"), or else you will be so busy dealing with yourself you can't deal with your town.
PART TWO: SOME SURVIVAL STRATEGIES
a) Learn Japanese. b) Expect "off-days". c) Cultivate relationships with the trustworthy. d) Avoid "Gaijin Negativity Pools". e) Respect your inchoate need for personal space. f) Learn what others are thinking. g) Don't take Culture Shock on the chin
a) LEARN JAPANESE.
There is no way around this. Watch TV, crunch kanji with an electronic dictionary, read signs, be curious about the media around you. Converse, travel, don't be friendly to a fault but don't be adverse to partying, either. Don't settle for English-bubble isolation no matter what the supposed advantages are. Learning the Japanese language and availing yourself of its knock-on effects is the key to everything. Everything.
b) EXPECT "OFF-DAYS".
Hangovers? Biorhythms? Sunspots? Whatever the cause, you will be tongue-tied and twisted some days no matter what you do. Solution? Don't be hard on yourself. It's not fossilization. Just tedium. Let it go and go to bed early. Tomorrow will be better.
c) CULTIVATE RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE TRUSTWORTHY.
You need confidantes to survive, and only the trustworthy will do. So distance yourself from Japanese flakes (those who say one thing and do another constantly), culture vultures (those who latch on to you as a means to study culture), or groupies (those who latch for reasons you can guess). Rule of thumb: If ever they don't do as they say, stay away. Japanese generally follow the same rules themselves.
d) AVOID "GAIJIN NEGATIVITY POOLS".
Group gripes may serve as temporary stress relief, but inevitably they will crystallize your abstract feelings into indelible points of view, tainting your tenure. Don't stay away from your friends entirely, but try to get them to tone it down, or steer conversations into more constructive waters.
e) RESPECT YOUR INCHOATE NEED FOR PERSONAL SPACE.
Even the most public of figures needs solo time. Every so often, shut the door to your bedroom, watch a Hollywood video, eat a big pizza, even go for a hike. The bottom line is that every now and then you must escape Japanese people. That's not a shame--that's a fact of life. Don't equate immersion with self-sacrifice or anti-culturation. Forsaking your culture is not what it's all about anyway.
f) LEARN WHAT OTHERS ARE THINKING.
"Telegraphing", as I put it, is where you do your best to think like the other side in an interaction. Invaluable for predicting pitfalls, this will serve to explain away even the most confounding situation, particularly bureaucratic. When the timing is right, ask people to explain why things are the way they are. You won't always get satisfactory answers, but it's far better than the alternative of wallowing in ignorance. And, as your language skills improve, elaborate explanations will come to make more sense and help you make more sense of Japan.
g) DON'T TAKE CULTURE SHOCK ON THE CHIN.
This is going to be hardest for JETs with "guestism" mentalities to accept. I say: Be vocally angry at the impolite shopkeep, demand the waitress speak to you if she turns to your Japanese friend, get answers in Japanese in the face of English answers if that's what you want, ask Japanese friends to stand back while you deal with an annoying situation, disagree with the pedant who requires race for cultural understanding, don't allow cultural overgeneralizations to stand without even a polite snipe. Actually, letting people know your feelings might be just what they wanted; Japanese are not always wilfully shutting you out or trying to sound racist. Often they just don't understand your side, and often do appreciate criticism phrased properly. Describe your discomfort constructively. But above all, don't allow the residue of resentment build up inside layer after layer and drive you out of Japan.
PART THREE: HOW YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN JAPAN
Now once you feel more on an even keel and can look more outward instead of inward, consider ways you can improve things around you. Nothing is impossible, even in Japan, and we are actually in a better position to do something due to less constriction through Japan's tacit social compact.
A JET'S SYSTEMIC ADVANTAGES, giving you some leverage in your position:
1) You are here on government monies and (nominally) your post exists for a reason; use this as a justification for goals, 2) You often have the social dignity accorded to a sensei, 3) People don't expect you to follow Japanese rules fully unless you have an Asian face, 4) Chances are that you will not be fired.
I do not wish to elaborate on these for fear of giving the game away. Just bear in mind that these advantages do not mean carte blanche. Although your bosses will find it next to impossible to make you leave, they can take measures to make it impossible for you to want to stay. Like denial of vacation time and driver licenses, constrictions on private freedoms and living space, and workload hazing. Tread with care.
The rule of thumb is: Whenever you want something, look earnest and constructive and not obstructive.
THE KEY TO BEING A SUCCESSFUL JET IS STAYING BUSY, moreover busy with good projects. Advice on how to secure good projects:
1) Do the projects that you like. 2) Exercise your right to say no. 3) Arrange situations so you too gain from the exchange. 4) Remember that you owe nobody the truth. 5) Do not settle for "This Is The Japanese Way" explanations. 6) Try to extricate yourself from inferior status. 7) Remember that respect is not automatic; actively cultivate it.
1) DO THE PROJECTS THAT YOU LIKE.
Plum projects are not handed to you on a plate--more likely they are half-baked ideas with vague goals that you are told to make the best of. Don't always settle for that--sometimes you will have to take the initiative and get a proposal out that YOU really want. Who cares if superiors claim its unprecedented or it won't fly in Japan? Keep it constructive-sounding and it just might. If then approved by your superiors, bravo, but don't be discouraged if it isn't (because it probably won't be). Then find ways to do it in private. The point is that you must do the things you want, as well as the things you are required to do, or else job satisfaction will be harder to come by. Your initiatives may make your stay feel more productive, moreover even engender respect in your peers.
2) EXERCISE YOUR RIGHT TO SAY NO.
If projects are demeaning, meaningless, or just plain silly (such as being the token gaijin shown off at a local old farts' international association meeting), consider making a case for how busy you are. In any case, feel free to at least try to negotiate for better conditions and activities, suggesting alternatives as per 1) above. Do not let yourself become merely a pet gaijin or a dancing bear, which is, experiences dictate, all too likely given the parameters of JETdom.
3) ARRANGE SITUATIONS SO YOU TOO GAIN FROM THE EXCHANGE.
You are not here just to be milked--even Monbushou would prefer the relationship to be mutually beneficial. But you must often finagle that yourself. If teaching, get the students used to talking to you in Japanese after the class. If in an old-farts' meeting, find ways to push your projects in the community or practice your social soapboxing. If they are using you, use them back. Be professional but seize opportunities. The time being used is your time, too.
4) REMEMBER THAT YOU *OWE* NOBODY THE TRUTH.
You will have to justify your projects. How? Spin doctoring. One of the most refined tactics in Japan is portraying your projects in ways that your superiors will like. If questioned about your motives, don't bald-face lie but don't feel compelled to bare your soul. Actually, avoiding "baka-shoujiki" (stupid honesty) is considered mature in Japan. Tell them what they want to hear and settle for Macchiavellianism.
5) DO NOT SETTLE FOR "THIS IS THE JAPANESE WAY" EXPLANATIONS.
"This is the Japanese Way" excuse justifying the status quo is used so often it becomes a mantra. Although there is not much you can do to change the close-minded who use it, or get them to explain things when they are prisoners of sacerdotal code, dig deeper in the face of brick walls. Crucially, beware of possible abuses whenever The Way is invoked: the unscrupulous often utilize it as a means to shut you up or justify exploitation. To be sure, there are Ways that are culture-specific, with tendencies and concepts rooted in centuries of Japanese experience. But really there is no *one* Japanese Way. The way things are chosen to be done depends entirely upon your boss's interpretation. Find out for yourself how things are done, then decide for yourself what you want done; the limits are generally what you accept. This is one of the hardest things for the culturally relative to get over.
6) TRY TO EXTRICATE YOURSELF FROM INFERIOR STATUS.
Given the aforementioned dissing "JAFET" factors (coupled with"JAF-JET" if there is a long institutional memory), you may be seen by your bureaucratic brethren as about as tolerable as a pet and as useful as an appendix. But you can do little things to ameliorate this. Get people to follow the same rules they enforce upon you: have them call you by your last name with a "san" attached, have them give you the same kairan to read as everyone else, ask for reasons for the way things are done in a well-timed prudent manner. On your side, learn how others play by the rules--learn the language of ire, of humor, of entreaty--to deploy whenever you want something. Defuse situations with jokes and sunny dispositions. But try to nudge people away from gaijinizing you. Nonconfrontationalism and acclimatization should not entail being Uncle Tommed.
7) REMEMBER THAT RESPECT IS NOT AUTOMATIC. ACTIVELY CULTIVATE IT.
This is extremely difficult for many to understand, because respect is not something you can command, yet you are not there long enough to earn it. Just remember this: Japanese bureaucrats like productive people as long as they are not underfoot. Perseverence is respected, earnestness endearing, and attempts to understand the rules and work within them commendable. Build up a base of credit. When you've developed your mental software and you realize it's time to get goal-oriented, cash in your kudos. But remember that it takes a hell of a lot longer for respect to stick to the meek or the gormless.
THIS IS ALL ADVICE FOR SHORT-TERMERS.
If you plan to stay longer and assimilate, some social problems that one should consider working with.
a) the gaijin bipolar view of the world (see http://www.debito.org/activistspage.html#kumepartthree),
b) the legal ambiguity of the juuminhyou (http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#juuminhyou),
c) the canard that Nihongo is inpenetrable (http://www.debito.org/nihongo.html)
d) systematic discrimination of foreign academics (http://www.debito.org/activistspage.html#ninkisei),
e) closed economic markets and cartels (http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#BUSINESS),
f) police Gaijin Card checkpointing (http://www.debito.org/activistspage.html#checkpoints)
g) "Japanese Only" exclusionary establishments (http://www.debito.org/roguesgallery.html)
a) Non-Japanese as an official minority,
b) dual citizenship and relaxation of naturalization rules (http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#naturalization),
c) acceptance of accents and differences as Japanese as well (http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#youchien).
d) a "sense of community" amongst non-Japanese residents (http://www.debito.org/TheCommunity)
But these are tasks for the lifers like me. More information at the URLs. I hope we can count on your support.
By the end of your JET tenure, remember that your efforts make inroads for the JETs who follow. Those who leave behind a post made meaningful for all will heighten the next JET's experience and benefit the program in general. Those who treat this as a temp job or a sinecure will doom future earnest JETs to pathetic indenture.
You have to make the best of your situation. Nobody else will.
Thus finished the speech. Over forty people attended the talk and there was much animated discussion. Some important feedback:
A) WE JETS ARE GUESTS. THAT IS OUR PROSCRIBED ROLE IN THIS SOCIETY. JETs are supposed to be cultural emissaries--that is the reason we were hired and that limits our right to make noise in our host's house. JETs are high-profile vessels of nationality in a society which has no other opportunity to avail themselves of foreign exposure. We are at their disposal, so taking culture shock on the chin is just part of the job description.
My answer, in brief, was wondering if JETs could ever go off-duty, or do they have to be at the beck and call of every ojisan who even wanted to do some "language banditry" (http://www.debito.org/residentspagehtml#languagebeggars). That is awfully tiring and hardly a workable strategy, in my opinion. The audience had mixed answers to that.
B) WE JETS HAVE TO PUT UP WITH THE GRAND IMAGING DOWN OF FOREIGNERS THAT OCCURS WHEN BULLS-IN-THE-CHINA-SHOP LIKE DAVE ALDWINCKLE GO AROUND MAKING MESSES. JETs work hard to establish good links with the local community, and here goes Dave spoiling it all whenever he gets angry at a waitress. Like it or not, Japanese have trouble seeing foreigners as individuals, and what Dave does undoes whatever progress we make.
My answer was that I couldn't live here if I were so self-conscious. Others members of the audience came in with an observation: how dichotomous is the viewpoint between the temporary guest and the full-time resident!
However, I did relate a cautionary tale of my bullishness in a sushi shop, where a young itamae-san so annoyed me that I walked out vowing not to return until he was fired; and he WAS fired. I shan't relate that story here now, as this essay is long enough, but a similar tale can be found at http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#bullies. The point is that a person like me can take things too far, in many people's opinion (except mine, of course), to the point where the benefits to society are questionable.
C) WHO ARE WE TO SAY THAT OUR WAY IS BETTER THAN JAPAN'S? WHY ARE WE FOISTING OUR VALUES ON THE JAPANESE? All this talk about changing things when what right do we have to change things at all? Japan will get along just fine without JET input, thank you, so keep your values at home.
My answer was that there was unwarranted attribution. Just because an idea comes from overseas does not make it invalid or necessarily nonapplicable. Any society can do with improvement, as can any system. The lessons we have learned overseas are not better because they are from overseas, but because at least a couple of them can better human society in general, why not at least suggest them? Besides, keep in mind the first sentence of this speech: JETs are here for a purpose. In fact, part of Monbushou's scheme was to internationalize the education system at the lower levels. Internationalization is precisely the injection of overseas ideas. Thus it is in fact part of your job description. I am just suggesting more effective strategies for inclusion.
There were many, many other points in a wonderful discussion, probably the best I've ever had with non-Japanese in Japan. I realized just how seriously JETs took their role in Japan and what earnest people get involved in the program.
This speech has been a rough draft. I will be giving a richer version at the Kobe AJET Annual Conference, Saturday, May 29, as keynote speaker to the one-year renewing JETs. Since Monbushou officials will apparently be in attendence, I intend to try to give more JET-Program-specific advice, including:
1) Elimination of the 3-year limit on Monbushou contract-renewals (for
indeed, the longer the JET stays, the more investment the Board of Education will
make in the individual, and the more effective and fulfilled an educator the JET
2) Elimination of the 35-year-old age capping of JETs (we need more seniors--one JET-affiliated grandpa I met was able to go golfing with a JETophobic headmaster and convince him to join the program; younger JETs just can't do that).
3) Elimination of guestist mentalities (guests by definition cannot tell the host to clean house; help the JET feel more comfortable making a contribution with better incipient training on how to do it).
I'd like some more ideas. There are a few months to chew this over. I look forward to feedback from those more in the know about the program out there in cyberspace. Thanks for reading this far.