What am I doing in Japan?
I am in Japan to live. That’s what I’m doing here. I live here. I am not here to teach English. Teaching English is only one of the things I do to facilitate living here. (I do other things, as well.) But that is the opposite of how almost every Japanese sees it. For Japanese it is ‘natural’ that, because I am a native English speaker who teaches English in Japan, teaching English in Japan is therefore my reason for being here. But I learned long ago not only to disregard but openly to disrespect what most Japanese consider ‘natural.’
It is clear that in Japanese culture work is the purpose of life, not the other way round, and that this association is ‘natural.’ But for me it is typical of the illogical thinking and non-sequitur jumps that I have come to associate with Japanese.
The desire to live here rather than merely work here makes Japanese uncomfortable because it means that I will stay for my own convenience, not theirs, and I will not simply go away and disappear when the English work is finished. The discomfort is manifest in the government’s immigration policy. Japan is not an immigrant-friendly place. Instead, as a strategy for meeting their workforce deficit - almost a crisis now - they think up different schemes to allow foreign workers to enter the country for short periods of time with the understanding that they are to leave at the end of a specified visa validation period. This shows how they are confusing immigration with worker migration. In fact if I point it out to adults as a talking point they don’t get it. They don’t get the point and they don’t get what I’m saying about it.
Japanese confuse immigration with worker migration.
When I return to Japan from a trip abroad and I have to fill out the Japanese Landing Card for Customs and Immigration I cannot - I dare not - write “to live” as my reason for coming, even though I really do live here. Japanese are conservative workaholic types, so it is better to write “work” as my reason, thereby ingratiating myself with their conservative workaholic disposition. That is something Japanese can respect. Not life. Serious labour easily trumps something as existential as Life.
In my English teaching work I am under constant and tremendous pressure from Japanese employers to work more, work more, work more, work more! My schedule is always irregular so my ability to accommodate one employer hinges on my other work schedules. One week is never like the next, and my income is correspondingly irregular. I am an honest chap with an outrageous tendency to respond truthfully to others, so my responses to requests to work more are inconsistent as a reflection my irregular schedule. Sometimes I can work at a requested time. Other times I cannot. In the summer time I have great swaths of available time (as opposed to ‘free’ time). But the problem is that once I agree to a lesson at a particular hour on a particular day Japanese employers take that as a promise and commitment. They simply DO NOT understand what “irregular” means when I tell them that I have an irregular schedule. Similarly, if I eventually agree to be available at a certain time Japanese are apt to respond with incredulous confusion,
“But you said you couldn’t work that time.”
“My schedule is irregular.”
Surprisingly, they tend to keep track of my responses so I sometimes have to deal with, “Oh, you said that you couldn’t do this time,” or “But you said that you could do this time.”
I repeat it so often now - “My schedule is irregular” - that it is what some people remember me for. But they remember it wrongly. For example, in July 2014 a high school teacher E-mailed that he was not offering me a one-day summer time job because he knows that I am “so busy.” I immediately wrote him back that I was not at all busy, that I had lots of available time, except that my schedule is irregular making logistics a problem but not an absolute obstacle. Of course he didn’t get it.
Japanese employers always ask “Can you do this? and “Can you do that?” to which, honest fool that I am, I say, “Yes, I can.” They never ask if I want to do something, only if I am able. So slowly over the years I have learned for my own good sometimes to dishonestly deny my availability. The reason is that my availability often depends on my irregular schedule. So my ability to work extends only so far within a certain time frame after which things will change again. But that’s not how Japanese imagine work. They imagine a rock solid and enduring situation. If I resist or protest schedule requests it is taken as a sign of foreign laziness. Oh, well.