I spent my first night in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, alone.
My apartment was on the top floor of an 11-story building and it was very, very hot. I sat on my inherited couch in my underwear, my toes catching on the old tatami on the floor, and stared out across the mountains that bordered the city. For dinner, I ate Frosties and chicken, the only items in the huge supermarket across the road that didn’t intimidate me. I drank tiny 50mL cans of Sapporo beer, struck by their size. I learnt later that they were supposed to be left as offerings on shrines.
I’m another one of the many, many educated but directionless New Zealanders,Americans, Canadians, Singaporeans, Brits and South Africans who took a step into the unknown post-graduation and joined the JET programme in Japan.
It’s been nearly two years since I left Japan, and the fact I lived there is still the most impressive thing about me, if the general reaction of nearly everybody I meet is to be believed.
It’s a strange reaction when you consider the facts: Japan is a first world nation; it has very low crime rates; it is well known for its politeness.
And yet my brief residency there gives me some kind of status, simply because so few foreigners have experienced anything like it.
There’s an alien-ness about Japan that isn’t shared by Europe. And it is other – no other nation manages to maintain its island status, whole unto itself, quite like Japan. When I got a new class of students – clever, scientifically-minded 14-year-old boys and girls – I would usually set them this assignment: they had limitless time and money and could go anywhere in the world that they wanted; write me 50 words on where you would go, and what you would do. Some wanted to go to England, to “meet The Beatles”. Others wanted to go to Italy to eat pizza. One stand-out opted to go into space.
But the vast majority, 20 from a class of 30, wanted to go to Tokyo, to visit Disneyland, or to Kyoto to see the temples, or to Otaru – a city a 30-minute train ride from Sapporo – to go to the aquarium. When questioned why, the answer was simple: I love Japan. They’re not afraid, or ignorant, but they don’t see the point in abandoning what they see as the perfect place to live, even briefly.
They like One Direction, and they love Lady Gaga but they don’t want people like me, the confused over-large specimens who talk too loudly on trains and ask for directions in baffled and broken Japanese, to stay.
A country that feels that way about itself, unassailable certainty in its own unassailable superiority, is a country that does not welcome foreigners, who come to represent change.
They like One Direction, and they love Lady Gaga but they don’t want people like me, the confused over-large specimens who talk too loudly on trains and ask for directions in baffled and broken Japanese, to stay. My students liked me – some of them loved me – but they didn’t want me be there for long.
“When will you go home?” was a question I was constantly asked, because there was no contemplation of the fact that I might come to consider Japan to be home, that someone might make a home somewhere that wasn’t theirs originally. This part of the experience is an easy part to focus on. Being both alienated and watched is a sensation that I still have not shaken – I avoid eye contact everywhere because I assume that if I do look up, every pair of eyes will be on me. In London, that’s ridiculous. In Sapporo, that was simply my life.
When people imagine living in Japan, that is what they’re picturing. Standing out like a sore foreign thumb dressed in the wrong clothes. Trying to convey an instruction at a post office, or an order at a restaurant, or a compliment and failing. Being watched. Being laughed at, or over-sexualised. I experienced all of these things, particularly where men were concerned. The first time someone took a photo down my top on the subway, I was affronted and angry. By the end of my time there I simply wore high-necked tops and scarves, and refused to look up.
But what most people don’t realise and can’t understand, even when I repeatedly and honestly express it, is that most of my two years was easy. Easier than finding my first flat in Wellington, easier than university, and much, much easier than moving to London.
The Japanese Exchange Teaching programme is run by the Japanese government and is widely considered to be one of the safest and best organised exchange programmes in the world. It lasts for a year, though you can extend your time in your city by up to five years if you want to – and if your school wants you. You are generously reimbursed for your time spent on the programme.
Many participants do not have to pay rent; others, like me, have their rent subsidised. If you live in a big city, your transport costs are covered. And, upon entry, you find yourself not only part of an extremely well-oiled machine, but also a family. An estranged ex-pat family clinging to familiarity in the shapes of English speakers and nervous faces. And Frosties.
My time in Sapporo was not only some of the best of my life, but also some of the simplest. However, my JET experience does not speak for all JET experiences – some participants are placed in the loneliest parts of the country, where they have no interaction with other English speakers and no access to home comforts.
Others end up in far northern Japan, where racism towards foreign faces – stemming from and exacerbated by interactions with Russian sailors and dock-workers – means that they are banned from most restaurants because of the way they look. American JETs are still not welcome in Hiroshima. Still others are over-worked or simply bored – and many find the latter to be the worse experience.
But me? I found myself in a heaving cosmopolitan city, where I had access to all the comforts of home in the form of Starbucks and McDonald’s and bars run by Australians, and where I was constantly in the presence of at least 30 other foreigners who, like me, had time to kill and money to burn. My apartment was large and inexpensive and situated in a complex with a number of other English speakers.
And – best and rarest of all – my school was foreigner-friendly, respectful and willing to let me experiment in the classroom. Though I am not a teacher by vocation or inclination, I was able to learn skills like public speaking, presentation and the ability to entertain whole classrooms for 20 minutes with the story of how I fainted at a Lady Gaga concert. I was engaged and involved and my co-teachers treated me as something more than a mouthpiece for an outdated textbook.
If something went wrong with my apartment, I called my supervisor. If I misunderstood a bill, I went to my head teacher. If I accidentally ate prawn custard in lieu of dessert, I put it down to experience.
I never feared redundancy and I never ran out of money. I was able to pay off loans, and my working hours were short. Japanese lessons were arranged for me, and careful maps with English directions and instructions written for me. The JET family constantly organised events – camping trips and karaoke nights and performances and dinners – so my social life was taken care of. Many JET participants wrap themselves so utterly in this family that interaction with members of the Japanese public is limited to work and necessity.
My decision to move to Japan was never a risk. It was simply a lifestyle change. It required adjustment; it required the learning of another language and, in my case, another vocation. It meant moments of loneliness and moments of fear.
Standing in a stationary train underground, listening to the word “earthquake” repeated again and again and again over the loudspeaker, while the earth shook beneath and around me, is not something I’d repeat. When 15,000 people died in the tsunami that followed that Fukushima quake and the threat of imminent nuclear disaster spread, I wished myself anywhere else. My mother shared that wish. But with the security of my contract and my employment accompanying me like totems, I was never in a position to regret my decision to leave the country I knew. And I met very few other JET participants who regretted theirs.
Even amongst the New Zealanders living in London, there’s a sense of solidarity, as if we’re facing some alien force that we can tolerate – but only together.
New Zealanders glorify travel. Where Europeans treat it as part of a functional existence, we tend to view it as a mountain, even when passports and cheaper airfares and the internet and Lonely Planet have made it a molehill. Perhaps because we’re so isolated, and because it’s so expensive, or perhaps because our lifestyle is so forgiving, anything beyond the classic OE Contiki jaunt or a 10-day sojourn in Fiji is viewed as a leap into the void.
And at least with travel you’re likely to have a return ticket – uprooting yourself from the city you grew up in and the culture you know so well is positively indecent. Unless, of course, you’re moving to Sydney or to London on a two-year VISA, in which case you’re just another drop in that clichéd bucket, another example of the brain drain we’ve been hearing about since we were 15. Even amongst the New Zealanders living in London, there’s a sense of solidarity, as if we’re facing some alien force that we can tolerate – but only together. The proliferation of New Zealand pubs and the suburbs that are loaded with Antipodeans are testament to our desire for something to tie us to home, a lifeline we can tug on to haul us back when the months are up.
To go further afield than those approved Kiwi hotspots, then, is to eschew that lifeline and cut the ties.
Looking back on it, I’ll never consider my decision to move to Japan, nor my decision to remain there for two years, as brave. It was financially sensible and it was an indulgence that my attachment-free lifestyle enabled me to enjoy. The real risk these days would be to turn down an opportunity like that, when employment opportunities for English Literature graduates are scarce, and moving somewhere traditionally safe like London opens you wide to the risk of unemployment and a shamefaced return to New Zealand.
I’ll admit to a certain pride in my own interesting life when people start at the news that I’ve lived in Japan. I am, after all, yet another New Zealander living in London – it’s nice to have something about myself that breaks the mold. And I’ll never grow tired of answering questions about the language, the culture, the food and the earthquake. As a JET participant, you’re expected to be a cultural ambassador as well as a language teacher, and I carry that still.
But something has failed in globalisation, in our melting pot of a universe, if temporarily relocating somewhere as safe and secure and eminently first world as Japan is still considered a daring move. For my part, I hope the real risks in my life are still ahead of me – because if the most audacious experience of my life turns out to be trying to persuade 30 Japanese students that I was born with this hair colour, then I’ll consider that pretty damn sad.
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