Thursday, February 28, 2013

Teaching in Japan

Banners hanging at the school gates for bunkasai
I talk about a lot of cultural things on this blog, but many of my posts are not so much connected to my career in Japan as they are my after-school life. However, teaching seems to still be the #1 method people use to get started in Japan, as there are lots of companies and exchange programmes to get you there, take away some of the headaches of getting established in the Land of the Rising Sun.

I taught English in Japan as part of Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme. JET is a fantastic programme sponsored by three Japanese Ministries and serves not only as a way to educate schoolchildren in English, but also as a grassroots cultural exchange effort. ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) are recruited from all over the world via a lengthy application process, followed by an intense orientation session in Tokyo, and are then dispersed all over Japan to their new schools. Junior high and high school are the most common placements, though elementary schools are slowly taking on more JETs.

When I was accepted, I received one of the most coveted placements - Osaka. Osaka no longer hires prefectural ALTs via the programme (only municipal ALTs, now), so I was very fortunate to have gone when I did, as Osaka was my first choice and has since become my second home. My three years living there were some of the best years of my life.

The JET application process is very extensive. The paper application was enormous, and required a number of documents that took time to put together. A medical self-assessment, proof of Canadian citizenship, university transcripts, a copy of my degree and letters of reference (one of which had to be from a teacher or professor) are just some of the items that had to be included for the application, due in November - to go to Japan the following August!

I had a lot of tutoring experience, which I'm sure is what pushed me to the next stage - I'd spent the summer in my third year of university doing a work experience program very similar to an ALT's job at a local school. However, I was certain I'd blown the interview when they asked questions I hadn't ever considered a possibility, like Canadian census information. Luckily, my personality seemed to make some impact, and I even managed to answer the question about location so well that I received my first choice of destination. I gave the interviewers an explanation of how my hometown dialect was so different from most Canadians' that I knew I'd feel right at home in Osaka, where the people speak in a relaxed and easy way. 

I was determined to broaden my cultural awareness - I initially hoped to join a few clubs at my school, but I felt like I would make them uncomfortable by being there, or be unable to commit the kind of time needed. My students were often at their club practices until evening - every evening! As an ALT, though, I was a de facto supervisor with the ESS (English Speaking Society), and made that my only school-related extracurricular.

In my spare time, I tried out aikido, ikebana, and yosakoi dancing for a time, and stuck with aikido for about a year, as I'd always been interested in martial arts. I returned to yosakoi after returning to Canada, as well. Through school and JET seminars I had opportunities to try out glass bead making, Noh theatre, and tea ceremony. I saw many Takarazuka theatre shows in nearby Hyogo Prefecture. I participated in holiday rituals, including setsubun, tanabata, and New Year's hatsumoude every year.

The cultural divide was very tough at points. I struggled a lot with the Japanese work ethic - work long hours, socialize with your co-workers, and keep busy even when there isn't anything to do. I was free to go at 4:30 as per my contract, but I was always the first person out the door when I did so - it was tough to stay in the office and look occupied when I was itching to go, but I felt bad saying "see you" and strolling out two hours before my co-workers. Besides the work ethic, I was the youngest person by far in the office for most of my time there. I got along well with the students because I was young and approachable and quite media-savvy - but it did set me apart from many of my co-workers.

Aside from that, I really disliked being such an obvious cultural outsider - one of the things that really did bother me about Japan was that no matter how hard I tried to understand, the sense of being "other" was always there. Fortunately, it got better with time!

The most important thing I learned about communication was that insecurity wasn't going to get me anywhere. For a long time, I didn't have the courage to try starting conversations or even going someplace where I'd encounter words that I didn't know - even the grocery store was frustrating at times.

It wasn't long before I realized my Japanese wasn't going to improve unless I used it, though, and that I didn't need to be afraid of talking to strangers - all of my best encounters came as a result of taking a chance with people. City-dwellers often keep to themselves, so many seemed unapproachable at first, but Osakans are some of the friendliest people in Japan!

By far, the thing I missed most about home was familiar foods. Even though I love Japanese food, I found myself craving "comfort food" when I was feeling down - not just my mother's home cooking, but even food from restaurants I almost never visited back in Canada! At one point, I was bringing home McDonalds 2 or 3 times a week - even though I had probably only eaten it a couple of times in the past decade. I craved the familiar, and took what I could get when it came to the selection. 

I also missed the friendliness of Canadian people, and the tendency toward helping strangers - the Japanese showed their friendliness in somewhat of a different way that I found, at times, to be quite a lot more detached. The people of Kansai (including Osaka, and Mie, where I had a wonderful local experience) are somewhat more open, but not in quite the same way as the town I'd been raised in.

Toward the end of my exchange, I visited nearby Mie Prefecture, an area I had been to just once before, despite it being so close to Osaka. It was the first time I truly felt the "small-town values" so many rural JETs speak of. While my visit to Mie was supposed to have been a day trip, a local festival prompted me to make very last-minute plans to stay the night, even though I had only the contents of my purse (a book, a pen, a Netbook and less than 6,000 yen in cash) to work with. Thanks to the attention and generosity of a local hostel owner, I had a place to rest my head and a way back to the train station at 5 o'clock the following morning in order to make it to work on time. Even though she had other guests to attend to, the hostel owner graciously made up a bed for me, a surprise guest, and offered to take me to the station by car, so that I wouldn't have to call a taxi so early in the morning. I will never forget that hospitality.

Teaching in Japan made an immeasurable impact on my life. When I returned to Canada, I knew I had to stay connected to this experience in some way - it really shaped my career aspirations, which until then had been very vague. I moved to Toronto and began working with a youth exchange program, at first as a volunteer and later as a part-time coordinator, helping high school students considering spending a year abroad. Japan is one of the most popular programs we offer, so I feel extra-confident sharing my advice with these students, since I've seen "life in a Japanese high school" first-hand!

As for my travel plans, going back to Japan to visit is in the cards for me in the next two years, I hope. I'd also like to visit Scandinavia, Europe and other parts of Asia - being abroad really opened my eyes to how many different people and cultures were out there. I want to see them all!