Sour Apples – Part I
I went to a shindig in Tokyo last year I think celebrating the 20th anniversary of the JET Programme. There, I met a Japanese guy who said that he was the father of the JET program. According to him, the main goal of the program was simply to get more foreigners in Japan. Back in 1987, I don’t think Japan was as popular among the kids as it is today. I was only 6 years old back in 87, but I seem to remember the big things back then being Optimus Prime having DIED on the big screen, and Crocodile Dundee waving a big knife around. Neither of these things have anything to do with Japan specifically (unless you’re one of those people who insists on calling Prime “Convoy”, and if you are one of those people, just know that I hate you, officially). Japan, then, was simply the land of compact cars and super polite people. Maybe enough to warrant a visit, but there weren’t a whole lot of foreigners beating down the gates to get here.
So this guy and perhaps some other people (I don’t know the detailed history of JET) got to thinking “we need to get more foreigners into this country to live and work…but how?” What they eventually settled on was English teaching. And it wasn’t because of a great Japanese desire to learn English. It was because the main point was to just get people here – regardless of whether they could speak Japanese or knew anything about the country or not. Really, English teaching was the only option.
So that is how the whole “teach English in Japan!” sentiment started. I say all this to illustrate the point that English teaching was not made in mind for actually helping Japanese people with their English abilities. The foundation is built upon just getting foreigners here. Some 20 years later, that foundation hasn’t changed. It would be unfair to level the Finger of Shame solely upon English teaching – I feel the Japanese eduational system as a whole is flawed and needs revolutionary change. But I’m sure I’ve talked about that at length.
For a foreigner looking to live and work in Japan, English teaching is what gets you here. With any luck though, its not what keeps you here. At least for me, its not. Its a very dead-end profession – there’s no sort of advancement, and most English-teaching positions expect you to only work for a few years at best before going home. While working as an English teacher, you gain nothing that makes your resume look better for any other profession. I’d worked as an English teacher for three years. I’d burned out on it, and I wanted to work in a field where I didn’t have to be the English-speaking entertainment monkey. I’d been learning and studying and speaking Japanese – I wanted to work a job where I could put that to good use. Of course, entering the Japanese workforce is a frightening beast in its own right – most people are at least vaguely aware of the insane amounts of overtime that Japanese people regularly put in. Even with Japanese abilities, the foreigner still has to look for jobs that are aimed for foreigners specifically. That’s a narrow field in itself, and I had a lot of stiff competition – people who’d been here longer than me, spoke better Japanese than I, were probably better looking, lasted longer in bed, and could hold their breath underwater for 17 seconds longer than I could.
Despite the odds, after a few months of searching I finally found a job in January of 2007. The company specialized in exporting Japanese goods overseas, with the primary product being clothes and fashions. As many of you may know, I absolutely hate fashion (see “The Devil IS Prada”…), but aside from that, everything else about the job seemed great. I originally joined the company as a customer service representative, but quickly transistioned from that to translation checking, and then was entrusted with translations of my own. I was thrilled to have the chance to work a job with real responsibilities, and to be able to put my Japanese abilities to use. Aside from my personal gains, the company seemed like a great place to work. The president was still relatively young – in his mid 40’s or so. He’d started this company and worked his way up – it was still small, but he had big dreams for the future. I really respected him for that. He didn’t seem to be your typical Japanese salaryman – we didn’t have to wear suits to work, and he didn’t seem to care if we did insane amounts of overtime or not. The other workers all seemed like nice, good people as well. I imagined that, having found a good place to work, I could work this job for the next 5-10 years, perhaps even longer than that if things went smoothly.
But of course, as we all know, life never goes that smoothly…