To Japan and Back (Part 2)

This post is about my first 2 years teaching in Japan and its challenges and rewards.

In March 2002, I went to Japan to teach English. At the time, I knew nothing about Japan or teaching. I was heading for a series of shocks.

Everyday things that came naturally to Japanese people seemed immensely difficult. I could not sit on the floor without my knees screaming in agony. I couldn’t use chopsticks to eat properly. I couldn’t even greet people properly as I did not know how to bow without either headbutting somebody or falling over.

Language was also a shock in an unexpected way. In Japan even English did not make sense. Place names could be particularly confusing. For instance, the convenience store chain called 7-11 was open 24 hours, and the chain called Lawson never had anyone inside it who could possibly be called Lawson.

Then there were things like toilet slippers. In Japan, people wear toilet slippers in the toilet. It took me many, many years to accept this fact. As with curry doughnuts and strawberry sandwiches, I could understand the words, I just could not understand what they were doing next to each other.

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Right from the start, the Japanese language fascinated me. It was so different. In my first Japanese textbook, I had learnt there were no exact translations for Yes or No. How does a society function without being able to say no?

Of course, I later learnt there are ways of expressing yes and no in Japanese but they aren’t as straightforward as a simple substitution. How boring languages would be if it was simply replacing word for word.

Even more surprisingly, I read ‘there is no exact translation for the word I in Japanese’. I stared at that sentence for a long time. If there is no word for I, then what am I? Could I choose to be whatever I wanted?

To a certain extent, I could. Not only could I choose which word I used to refer to myself in Japanese such as WATASHI (general), BOKU (polite, male) or ORE (informal,male), I could also become a different person. In Japan, I had no past, no expectations or pressure that I would behave in a certain way.

I would later notice how Japanese people could become like different people when speaking in English, as if they were freer. I guess newly learnt words are lighter and fresher, not weighed down by past-memories.

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My first guide to Japan was an Australian man I was sharing a flat with. He had only been in Japan a couple of months but compared to me, he seemed to know everything. I soaked it all up.

One day, he said he had even felt confident enough to start talking to the girl working at Lawson. He had tried to ask her if she was well (Genki desu ka). Except he forgot to say the word for well, (genki). Twice, with a growing queue behind him, he had asked the girl, “Are you……..?”

I enjoyed hearing this story. It made me feel making mistakes was fine. It took away some of my inbuilt fear of getting things wrong or being laughed at.

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My job was teaching English in a small school a 40 minute train ride out of Nagoya. Working with 4 other teachers, our students were a mix of housewives, office workers, and youngsters preparing to travel overseas.

Some teachers found talking to the students boring, but I found this part of the job fascinating (bear in mind though, my previous job to this was operating a cheese grating machine in Devon).

Until I began teaching, I had seen Japanese people as a group with very similar personalities. But in class they were all so different. There were introverts and extroverts, quiet and loud people. The dynamic could be really interesting. I remember teaching a class of 2 students, a talkative 15 year old schoolgirl and a shy 60 year old nuclear scientist.

The little things stood out. A gentle, grey-haired man insisted on calling me Tom-san (Mr Tom). Students were not supposed to use Japanese words in class at all, but the fact he used one for me made me feel special and valued.

Two housewives were well known amongst the staff for different reasons, Masako was always smiling and never stopped talking. Keiko would never smile, and only spoke reluctantly. Managing these different needs and interests in a small classroom was a constant challenge.

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The Japanese staff in the school reception were the model of how to behave. In the same building, only a wall away from the teacher’s room but theirs was a different world. They dressed smarter, bowed deeper, and worked much harder – for less money as well.

Some teachers, and I include myself in this, could make a suit look scruffy. A British teacher at our school regularly wore shirts so transparent you could see the Iron Maiden t-shirt underneath. The staff never let him teach the free trial lessons for fear of scaring the new student off.

Looking back, I think many of the Japanese staff looked at us with some amusement. We could not help but do the wrong thing. I once bought a single banana for lunch from the supermarket, when she saw it the school manager almost cried with laughter. “You can’t break one off the bunch you know”, she told me. I felt like I had broken an ancient taboo.

Many Japanese I saw seemed so serious and stressed, but working with them showed a different side. When not in work mode they would laugh and smile so easily. I wanted to communicate better with them. So I memorized phrases from the dictionary – a flawed technique for beginning a friendship perhaps.

Memorising phrases like “Anata wa tsukare o shiranai hatarakimono,” (You don’t know the meaning of the word of tired) did not suddenly enable me to fluently converse with the Japanese staff, but it did at least make me feel I was making progress with my Japanese.  And delivered at the right moment in a thick Devon-accent, it was guaranteed to get a laugh.

Learning Japanese was nothing like I remembered learning French at school. It was fun, and it felt alive, learning a word could make a real difference to the quality of our lives not simply an exam result.

Growing up, I had struggled in formal education socially and academically. Looking back, the main thing I learnt at school was what I could not do. In Japan I started finding out what I could do.

Whereas at school in England, I could not compete with my classmates and I got left behind; in Japan I didn’t need to compete; we were all on the same side. Fellow teachers from Canada, USA, New Zealand, Australia and the UK became friends and a vital source of support.

In Japan I felt free from social and academic pressure. I did not need to answer other people’s questions anymore. The only questions I wanted to answer were the ones I was making myself.

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The actual teaching could be extremely hard. How do you teach somebody to do something you never learnt to do yourself?  

One day a student asked me the meaning of ‘find out’. My mind went blank and I panicked as I suddenly realised I had no idea of the meaning of what was coming out of my mouth. It was a scary, hang on, what-the-hell-am-I-moment.

We had only been given 3 days on the job training. I wanted to know more about how to teach. A 1 month holiday between contracts gave me the chance to fly off to take a Teaching Course in Thailand. On the course, we learnt how to teach conversation-focused classes. We even went into a Thai school to do some live teaching practice. The experience gave me the confidence to stand up and try new things.

Returning to Japan after the course, teaching became more enjoyable. I looked forward to lessons rather than feared them.

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My interest in Japanese was growing. The writing system now fascinated me. Japan uses 4 different systems to write words:

漢字(kanji) the scary-looking Chinese-origin characters common in newspapers and notices.

カタカナ (katakana) the blocky-characters common in western-origin words that cover menus.

ひらがな (hiragana) the curvy characters that knit words together into sentences;

Romaji (roman letters – the alphabet) used to urgently attract attention to things like toilet slippers.

Both katakana and hiragana are phonetic alphabets of 46 characters. Learning katakana and hiragana early on made some aspects of life easier and enjoyable.

The 2,000 kanji in common use took a lot longer, many years longer in fact. In my 2 years in Nagoya, I learnt a couple of hundred kanji. Even without knowing the pronunciation, just knowing the characters 肉 (meat) and 魚 (fish) made choosing from a menu less of a gamble, and knowing 出口 (way out), 入口 (way in), 女 (women) and男 (men) made it easy to get out of the train station or into the correct toilet.

Learning Japanese has begun as a hobby with my own very amateur approach. To really improve, I needed structure. I signed up for a course of evening classes which helped me pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test N3 exam. After 18 months, I felt I had reached a real milestone. I was no way near fluent, but I knew my way around the language.

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Once I had gained confidence in teaching, I became a bit more creative. Although we had to use a textbook in all our classes, we had some freedom. One day in class with silent Mayumi, I reversed the seating arrangements and she suddenly started speaking. It was as if she had been switched on. From then on, she did not stop speaking, and she began smiling as well. It was like magic, and I felt a real joy in being a part of it.

There were parts of the job I did not like though. I didn’t like wearing a suit for one thing. I had never had to wear a suit to grate cheese – the tie would have got stuck, and I couldn’t understand why I needed to wear one to teach English.

The constant changes of students also meant it was hard to build a relationship and oversee their progress. With the school, the emphasis was on profit – getting more bookings, rather than genuine education. I wanted to try teaching somewhere elsewhere in the world.

So after 2 amazing years, feeling I needed a new challenge, I ended up leaving Japan. My last home in Nagoya was right outside the train station, in an ageing 20 story tower block called Free Bell (also known as the gaijin house – the foreigners house). 

I had been living in Japan, but only really on the edge of society looking in. I was going back to Europe, but I was taking a lot of Japan in my head with me. It never left me and 2 years later I would find a way back to Japan, and in a lot deeper.  

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