To Be Rather Than To Seem

“Be yourself,” we always say in America. Uniqueness goes a long way in our culture, be it university admissions, tryouts for Broadway musicals, or national politics: John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama distinguished themselves with their personalities rather than their records. Kids hear from both teachers and media that they should be genuine, and noisy personalities like Donald Trump and Terrell Owens get more media attention than their more accomplished and introverted peers. Hypocrisy is the greatest sin a politician can commit – it seems better for one’s reputation to always be an evildoer than to do evil while claiming to uphold good.

Variety is the spice of life, and a heart full of love, freely expressed, warms everyone who gathers around it. But what if what’s inside you is bad? If your true feelings will hurt others, should you still express them? If your heart is twisted, wouldn’t it be better for everyone if you tried to be someone else?

The fathers of Japanese society must have thought about this a lot. Social interaction, especially between strangers, is heavily constituted of set phrases, language, and rules which create a minimum floor of courtesy only encountered in high society in the West. Every radio interview sounds exactly the same, from the words to the tone of voice between the host and the guest. In fact, Japanese-level politeness is linguistically impossible in English because there are five modes of speaking the language: plain Japanese between friends and family, which often follows the local dialect; polite Japanese between associates (this is the kind taught in textbooks), honorific Japanese addressed toward social superiors (service workers are drilled into treating their customers as social superiors, for instance, which shocks Westerners), humble Japanese used when talking about oneself to social superiors, and finally, imperial Japanese, which you get to use if you’re the Emperor. Americans can try to express these degrees of respect through their bearing, their tone of voice, and so forth, but it’s more difficult without the natural cover of the language. Even if you know nice and polite things are said to everyone, not just you, they’re comforting to hear.

Young people, especially girls, learn that being shy is considered attractive. Various love songs, even in rock music, praise women for their “quiet smiles” more than any other endowments. Class clowns are sometimes quietly disliked by the rest of the class for taking attention away from the teacher. You’re more likely to teach a group that’s too quiet and introverted in Japan than one that’s too rowdy and impolite, and when I run into my students with their parents at the grocery store, they’re always too shy to say anything, even if they talk a lot at school. Instead of asking them how they’re doing, I should just read them their Miranda rights.

Of course, artifice can only hide so much of a telltale heart. In Japanese, there are several ways to say you couldn’t help doing something, or feeling a certain way. Not coincidentally, negative feelings are often held inside, and problems are not mentioned, until they either disappear or explode. One of the section heads at the Board of Education had been having financial problems for a while. No one at the office offered to lend him money, so he got it from the yakuza instead, and he got so deep that last week, he was arrested for breaking into and robbing an old neighbor’s house. Polite as public servants may be, they’ll still steal from the people; deferential as children may be to their parents, there will still be family murder cases in the news.

The dark side of Japanese society is well-documented by Western journalists. If you know anything about Eastern pop culture, chances are good you’d heard of “otaku.” Otaku are super-fans of anime, manga, and video games: not those who enjoy them an hour a two a day, but rather those who spend all their time consuming pop art, hentai (animated pornography), and online games, never leaving their parents’ basements or producing anything of value – besides those who are paid to write reviews and run web sites for the rest. Shows, pop idols, and now even politicians pay lip service to this demographic to drive their own sales. Before he became a widely hated Prime Minister, Taro Aso was an avowed anime and manga fan who went to Akihabara and addressed the crowd as “dear otaku.” However, the existence of so many indolent youth in a country that already can’t replace its present work force is a problem. Otaku spend all their time embracing their own interests, and the language of “being yourself” and personal independence imported from America helps them stay comfortable with choices that violate Confucian ethics of hard work and sacrifice for past and future generations.

More worrisome than the young men is the unbalanced relationship between work, school, and family evident in the country’s demographics. Schools and families drill children to work very hard, to be competitive, and to try to finish projects no matter how long it takes. They grow up, go into the work force, and pull extremely long hours without complaint. For this reason, Japanese schools and companies are extremely successful, and an island nation with no natural resources has the second largest economy in the world. However, family life is suffering. These workers are often too busy to get married, or too tired to have children, and so the country has to get more and more production out of fewer and fewer people. Because most jobs are in the city, the modern family is more often than not split apart, with the elderly living alone in the countryside they love too much to leave. “Tokyo Story” is Japan’s classic movie about this, but for a more commercial example Yakult, a probiotic milk company, has been making a lot of money in the countryside because its delivery people hang around their elderly customers’ houses and chat with them for a while. If the Japanese do have children –there are plenty of perfectly domestic couples who don’t – there often isn’t the time to properly raise them, so the schools have to carry more classes about morality and home ec, distracting the kids from academic subjects and forcing them to go to cram schools at night to get ahead. The teachers become superheroes, often covering both the parents’ emotional and PTA volunteer-type duties. The children write diaries every single day for their homeroom teachers, who read them and discuss problems with the kids. In all cases, whether there are family fights or students committing crimes, things are kept as private as quiet as possible between teachers, parents, kids, and victims to avoid reflecting badly on the community.

Here’s where I come into the story. The JET Program is nominally about teaching students English, but really it’s about internationalizing small towns, and the way to get foreigners there is to have them teach English. I didn’t know any Japanese, and I hadn’t taken any education classes in school, but I was accepted in front of a lot of people who had both, presumably because I looked bright, outgoing, and adventurous, which are the qualities an international exchange program would be seeking. I received a couple hours of training in teaching and Japanese, and no information at all about the Japanese education system and the rhythm of school life, before I was put in front of my students for my self-introduction lesson.

In a sense, anyone can be a teacher as long as he knows something the students don’t, so there’s nothing criminal about what the Japanese government did. The program has run for 20 years so in their estimation it’s a success. Some of the best education foreign teachers do here, I think, is unconscious. The Japanese value system on everything from art to beauty to language is extremely complex but also quite limited from a Western perspective. The easiest analogue is the language, which is over 2000 years old and has untold levels of depth but only five vowels and ten consonants. The vocabulary is greater than 20,000 but foreign words like “the” and “year” cannot even be accurately written in their alphabet. I am “Jehhh-mu-su Su-ma-ee-su.”

Because foreigners have been raised outside the Japanese value system, the way they look, talk, walk, play sports, and laugh (well, especially the way –I– laugh) are completely new, even incomprehensible to the students, or else something they’ve only seen portrayed facetiously on television. When I tell a teacher she looks good today, she’ll turn to one of her male counterparts and say, “See, the –foreigner– thinks I’m beautiful!” When I dressed as Santa Claus and surprised the kids at a kindergarten with loud merriment and presents, some were excited and jumped up and down, but most were shocked! They stared at me and received their presents shyly, so amazed were they by a white-bearded foreigner in red throwing his personality around. Most applicants hope for the city, but the most life-changing work is done in the places no one else goes because no one knows they exist.

Regardless, the distinctions between the responsibilities of the Alternative Language Teacher (that’s me) and those of the other teachers create tension. My job, contractually, is easy. There’s a 35-hour work week with 20 vacation days and a 3.6 million yen salary, which covers cost of living in the big cities but could cover three years of expenses when you live where I do. You’re teaching your native language, something you already have decades of experience with, and there is always a native teacher in the room with you, technically in charge and often literally so. You can’t grade or discipline the students. The Board of Education handles your legal paperwork and often your living situation. The responsibilities are intentionally played down in order to make the position more attractive and the application process more competitive. These ALTs, however, invariably share the office with the actual Japanese teachers who are running the school. Being a Japanese school teacher is hard. University education programs are competitive and challenging. When you get out, you become a teacher, parent, and coach at the same time. Everyone works until 5:30 every day, most until 7 around half the time, and the youngest one will have ridiculous hours, often ‘til 10. Not only that, the native teachers don’t make as much as the ALT until they turn 35, at least in my state. So there is a strong sense of camaraderie between teachers, and the ALT is often left out of it.

To begin with, ALTs, alone among adults in Japanese society, are referred to by their first names. I am “Mr. James.” This is friendly, and my social superiors have the right to call me whatever they like, but it also has a patronizing tinge that I’m not entirely comfortable with so I am really happy with the class of 7th graders that calls me “Mr. Smyth.” More crucially, there’s a lot happening at school that isn’t communicated to ALTs, and not necessarily for language reasons because the English teachers could translate for them. This goes from school activities (many a teacher finds himself abandoned in the staff room while everyone goes to the auditorium) to work parties, a central part of Japanese culture that the foreign teachers sometimes aren’t invited to. I alone among the teachers was left out of the math teacher’s wedding this winter, which was totally understandable because he had a lot of friends and not enough room but still a little awkward. Because teachers want to avoid conflict, feedback about ALTs goes up to the Board of Education, not down to the teachers themselves, so ALTs often don’t hear the complaints and criticism about them until much later, if at all. Everyone at my 200-student school seemed perfect. Then I learned Japanese and realized that when morning meetings go long, it’s because the teachers are talking about students’ mental illnesses, shoplifting, deaths of parents, fights between family members, and the like. They’re telling each other things to be sensitive of and deciding what to do about it, and awareness of these issues would help me do my job better, too, but they would never actually tell me. The communication gap even extends to the administration of JET. At a meeting for first-year teachers and their supervisors last week, in its concluding remarks about Japanese-ALT relations the coordinators held up a poster-board that said in Japanese, “Errors and difficulties are opportunities for growth.” They then turned the page to their English translation, which breezily stated “Enjoy the difference!” To understand your environment, you can’t just hear what Japanese people are saying to you: you have to understand what they’re saying to each other.

I’ve shot the communication gap because I learned Japanese so quickly. I don’t need anything to be translated for me so lack of communication isn’t a problem, and I have a more normal working relationship with my teachers and faculty than the other ALTs might. I’ve worked until 6:30 several days since I came here so I have a reputation for work ethic. Since I work at exceptionally friendly schools, the kind I’d like to stay in forever if my calling were primary school teaching, I probably would have been accepted regardless of language ability. However, I’ve also been exposed a lot to the other foreigners, too: one weekend with 200 new teachers out of the Chicago consulate, Tokyo Orientation with a thousand more newcomers, two 2-day seminars for my state, the 120-person Halloween party at my house, and seemingly weekly get-togethers with the teachers in surrounding towns. So I’ve been watching the other foreigners react to things quite a bit. That’s been interesting itself.

As an ALT, you’re teaching your native language at a basic level, you’re educating others by expressing yourself – the perfect job for Americans – and negative feedback isn’t given in order to avoid conflict. What this all means is that after the frantic move-in, the job can get very, very cozy. Like other teachers, you can repeat the same curriculum year to year, but you don’t have all the other responsibilities they do. Some ALTs treat the job as a vacation or as an extension of college and fill their leisure hours with partying and traveling. The re-contracting deadline is halfway through the contract year, before locking up future employment is even possible for most people, so people who applied to the job because they were aggressively seeking adventure are encouraged to be defensive and cautious; the combination of adventure, decent pay, and low stress creates a mantra of “You don’t know how lucky you have it here.” One year becomes two, three, four, or five, all blissful but not necessarily funneling toward a higher-paying opportunity or a marketable skill. (Most JETs leave the program without literacy in Japanese.)

Another problem the Japanese have with some foreigners is in their attitude toward institutions. Many Westerners, in contrast with Japanese, react to institutions with hostility and to moral authority with cynicism. Only the worst ALTs let these feelings interfere with this job, but one of those bad eggs was in my county the last two years. He was the type who always wanted to see how much he could get away with at work. He regularly showed up late for school, watched “24” in the teachers’ office, went to Thailand without telling anyone, had a shouting match at the Board of Education, got in trouble with the yakuza, fought another teacher over a girl and let his depression over her into the classroom, and on his departure brought two 14-year old girls to America with him, with the permission of their parents but without the permission of their school. The BOE over-retaliated by making things difficult for all the other teachers, too. They refused to give legal help to my predecessor when he got in a car accident, and they didn’t give any of the foreign teachers the mandatory annual physical. The Americans joined the problem teacher in opposing the Board, and eventually the year was ruined for everybody.

Now we have mostly new teachers in the county; everyone has good intentions, and there is peace and happiness. My reverse culture shock was benign, and it came from a Thanksgiving party. The meal was a potluck, and all the traditional Thanksgiving fare was eaten, including turkey ordered from a Costco a couple hours down the road. There were too many people to sit around a table so we stood and ate from paper plates, luncheon-style. After the meal came a good-natured drinking party. It was a pleasant evening, but I laid down to bed that night and realized we hadn’t said a single prayer, and indeed we hadn’t expressed anything we were thankful for at all, besides thanking individuals for bringing certain tasty dishes.

Thanksgiving, the Founding Fathers, Christmas, the Church: all are flawed, but if you cut down everything that tries to embrace higher concepts, you’ll be left browsing in the grasses for food, shelter, and sex, like everything else that lives on this earth. Because customs and traditions are so carefully guarded in Japan, there are rarely debates about whether people are losing “the true meaning” of a festival day. Newspapers, without commentary, run haiku submitted by readers. The country’s history, language, and culture are taught confidently but also truthfully, at least at my school. Japan’s Emperor was humiliated in war and thrown down from his seat in Heaven by the United States Military, but the Royal Family is still greatly respected and has the loyalty of the people. Genji looks like a womanizer to today’s reader, but the novel about him, now celebrating its 1000th anniversary, is still greatly revered. Sarcasm is one of the strong points of American writers, but perhaps we would benefit from a little more reverence.

To be, rather than to seem, “esse quam videri,” is the motto of North Carolina, where I went to college. So much of what I’m facing now revolves around it. I have to reserve judgments about people, knowing that each day as I understand more they could be completely different. I have to keep pushing myself to improve in an apparently consequence-free occupation, remembering Father Time will hold me accountable even if no one else does. Most importantly, I have to be Christ in an environment where many are too afraid to express themselves at all, and remind myself what that means when no one else can provide an example. To seem faithful without having to be so: that is the lotus that is offered to me every day in this foreign land.

This Friday, which would be the middle of the night on Thursday for most of you, I have to tell my Board of Education whether I intend to re-contract for August 2009-July 2010. Please pray for me to choose wisely!

Explore posts in the same categories: Education, Interesting Places, Japan, Philosophy, Politics

One Comment on “To Be Rather Than To Seem”


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