Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Cry for Culture

They [English teachers] are exempt from most of Japan's rules and obligations, provided they at least pay lip service to societal conventions. They get paid for little more than speaking a language they grew up with, and they rarely even have to prepare a lesson plan. But they are also looked down upon by the average Japanese. I remember Genji's comment one evening at the dinner table: "The English teachers that you send here, in your country they're not good for anything more than pumping gas." It was unlike him to be so blunt unless he thought he was stating the obvious.
A Year in Search of Wa

I hate it when I've slipped into such a routine here that I find quotes like that strike quite a nerve. Why? Because it's more or less accurate for the foreign population. What percentage of foreigners in Japan work as English teachers? 80%? And of those, what do you associate with them more - being a fully integrated member in a Japanese community or being the stereotypical foreign dog who goes out drinking every night and coming home with a Japanese girl?

BHL. Back home loser. We've all heard it before; sorry to surprise those of you who didn't know. It's the more common term among Japanese girls used to describe foreign men in Japan. We didn't have any social grace or applicable job skills, so we turn to the land of the rising sun, more out of desperation than interest.

I want to dispel this notion among those of us that at least try to become part of this culture. I'm just as guilty, and I know it - I learned more about Japanese hospitality during my moments of crisis than my everyday life (e.g. the end of my adventure to Irori Sanzoku), and this upsets me. I had originally planned for my Golden Week holiday to be filled with western-style relaxation in a large city; after realizing I haven't had enough contact with the people I came here to understand, this will not be the case.

I issue to you, readers, Japanese or otherwise, a call to culture. Tell me everything you've done that is decidedly un-foreignerlike. If you're Japanese, do you hear from your friends about foreigners? Are we really considered disrespectful louts? No better than les miserables?

I've reached an impass in my Japanese study, due mostly to my arrogance and cold logic - so many Japanese people understand English. So many. And those that don't are at least trying. English is the international language of business. I had two encounters just this weekend with Japanese people that refused to speak Japanese to me, even when I answered their questions in anything but my native tongue. I know Japanese will open additional doors for me, but English has already eroded the floodgates in this country.

Tell me your stories, and after you read this, do something decidedly Japanese. I don't care what. Visit a Shinto shrine. Go trek the 88 temple pilgrimage in Shikoku. Read the story of Kaguya Hime. Set out for an adventure relying on the kindness of strangers. If we stay in our own little world within Japan, then everything we have done since arrival will have been a waste. Traveling on the weekends isn't enough - being the tourist is detrimental. Fight to understand. I will do the same. Send me your thoughts.


Brit in Hokkaido said...

When I was at home over Christmas I attempted to settle every dispute with a quick round of "Janken", just like we decide every important decision in business meetings here in the office. Everyone thought I had lost the plot. Especially my brothers when we were arguing over who got the turkey wishbone...

I couldn't eat my Mum's turkey curry with a knife and fork, preferring hashi instead and every single picture of me is of me making the peace sign a la ubiquitous Japanese female...

I still haven't been to a shrine in 2007 so I'll make the trek to the end of my road and go to Hokkaido shrine tomorrow. Does this count?!

Durf said...

My guess is that only about 1% or 2% of the foreigners in Japan are English teachers, just because most of the foreigners in Japan are Chinese or Korean.

Just seeing your site for the first time . . . The ski resort shots make me jealous. We're having a crap winter up north and my skis are getting rusty.

ターナー said...

My apologies about the statistics - I really have no clue about the percentage of English teachers.

Still, if there is such contempt for English teachers in this country, it makes me want to change my resume when I apply for different positions in Tokyo.