My Enlightening JET Program Experience in Niigata, Japan

10 Jun 2013 3:13 PM | Anonymous

The following JASPective is from JASK member Christopher Conner. Chris spent 4 years in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) in Niigata, Japan. 

As a senior at Indiana University in 1987, I was very excited when I was notified of my acceptance to teach in Japan. I had recently applied to the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Program, which was an ambitious undertaking by the Japanese government to introduce conversational English into its secondary school systems. Eight hundred Native-English speakers had been accepted from five countries around the world in the first year of this program to be assistant English teachers. The Japanese Ministry of Education considered the JET Program to be a very important step for the country in its effort to become “internationalized” and occupy a larger position on the world stage. I was told my assignment would be in a sparsely populated region of the country (Niigata Prefecture) in a small town of 10,000 people called Omi. This news stimulated my curiosity all the more. Knowing that I would be placed in the countryside rather than a big city like Tokyo meant I would truly be in a traditional area of Japan.

When I arrived in Omi, I received a warm welcome from about 20 officials gathered at the station. The JET Program was big news in Japan and all towns and cities hosting foreigners were determined to make their venture a successful one. I would be the first westerner to ever live in Omi, so the townspeople were just as curious about me as I was about them.

Lacking prior experience of foreigners, the initial impressions of my Japanese hosts seemed based upon movies and cultural stereotypes. Adults and children alike bombarded me with questions such as: Did I own a gun? Had I ever fired one? Had I ever seen a murder? Did I do drugs? Were the freckles on my arms indicative of AIDS? Could I use chopsticks? Was I unable to eat rice and did I need bread at every meal?

 One illustration of the Japanese perspective can be seen in their use of  “internationalization,” which was a popular word in Japanese educational circles during my stay. Our job description, as told to us by the Japanese Ministry of Education, was not only to introduce conversational English in the classrooms, but also to educate the Japanese people about our home country and its way of life. In theory, the aim was to expose Japanese people to outsiders and thereby broaden their worldview, which had been criticized by many people as far too narrow and xenophobic.

However, after spending some time in Japan, I realized that the effective application of this job description would be far from easy. On the one hand, Japanese were very curious about foreigners and wanted to know a lot about us and where we were from. I always felt like the people of Omi took a far greater interest in America than Americans took in Japan. However, I also noticed that the Japanese wanted to know and understand you and your country on their terms. Underneath the fascination with foreign people and culture was an intense national pride. The most common question I received throughout my four years was “How about Japan?” The way in which outsiders perceived Japan was nothing short of a national obsession. Best-selling books were often works by foreigners about their opinions of Japan. In short, the Japanese reveled in their perceived uniqueness. Many Japanese truly believed that unless you were born and raised a “pure” Japanese, you would never be able to understand their uniquely Japanese heart.

This strong sense of national tribal cohesion was partly responsible for their distinctive trait of non-verbal communication. Japanese believed that they shared a common knowledge that did not have to be articulated into words to be understood. The situation dictated the proper way to act and did not need explanation. Reading another person’s thoughts was a highly valued social skill that mothers tried to instill in their children from a young age. If you could anticipate another’s wishes or thoughts before he had to articulate them, then you were considered socially very skilled. Who, the Japanese reasoned, besides a “pure” Japanese person would ever be able to truly understand their uniqueness?

I eventually realized that to succeed I would have to “crack the club” and be accepted by the townspeople by first demonstrating my ability to be as Japanese as possible. However, only imitating them would not be the most effective way to expand their worldview and “internationalize” them. Within their framework and on their terms of adapting to group society and learning its inherent social patterns, I would allow the Japanese to see that one did not have to be a “pure,” “unique” Japanese to fit into their society and culture. Once acceptance had been gained, the Japanese would then also be more willing to learn about the differences we had. My goal was for the Japanese to not think of me as “the foreigner Mr. Conner,” but rather as “Mr. Conner,” who they would only later think of as someone who also happened to be a foreigner.

There were a few hoops to jump through in order to make this goal even remotely probable. The first would be to learn the spoken language so that I could communicate with as many people as possible and show that one did not have to be a “unique” Japanese in order to speak it. Since there were very few people in the town who could speak English, I knew that learning spoken Japanese was strongly related to how successful my residency in this town would be. So, over the course of my four years in Omi, I made a commitment to immersing myself in the town around non-English speakers to force myself to learn the language. The process was a lengthy one of trial and error. Gradually, however, as my ability in the spoken language increased, I was able to communicate with a greater number of townspeople more effectively, thereby removing language as a barrier to communication.

The second obstacle would be to pass what I call the “lionization test.” I experienced this situation quite often during my first year in Japan. This is typically the first stage of a westerner’s exposure to Japan and it was no different for myself. I was treated like a king and constantly told how wonderful my country and I was. The potential pitfall was to let the exaggerated amount of attention and deference go to your head. Doing so would indicate the lack of humility necessary for long-term survival in a group-oriented society. So, during my first year I tried hard to remember that the inordinate amount of attention I was receiving should be treated with humility and returned with equal deference. There were times when dialogue resembled a mutual admiration society.

“You and your country are wonderful.”

“No, No. It is your country and its people that are to be commended.”

In general, this period can be characterized by its honeymoon phase, in which the outsider loves the adoration he receives and is overwhelmed by the exotic aspects of the new country. Like many new relationships however, the honeymoon period sooner or later diminishes or disappears altogether. What is important is that the relationship itself not go sour.

This brings me to the next stage of my time in Japan, the “frustration factor.” This period usually occurs during the second year, after the “newness” of the country has worn off. I recall becoming increasingly irritated at differences that never used to bother me. Why was the concept of “face” so important? Is that why people were always required to respond with a “correct” answer for a given situation, regardless of whether it was the truth or not? Why was work more important than family for so many people? Could I tolerate the loss of freedom that was inevitably a part of being so closely associated with any group? Would I ever stop being asked the same questions like “Can you use chopsticks?” or “Do you like to eat fermented beans?” Knowing that the answers to most of these questions were related to the group concept of the Japanese still did not ease my irritability. Many foreigners become frustrated and lose patience, thereby dooming themselves in the eyes of the Japanese with their inability to endure. Patience is a highly prized virtue in Japan because a person who possesses it is sure to fit in well with a group by preserving its harmony. Although it is true that I was temporarily frustrated, I knew that the reasons for my frustration could not allow me to become cynical about the country or its people. Many foreigners were never able to overcome this cynical stage, and were often the ones who complained the loudest about the aloofness of the Japanese.

What I considered to be the third and final stage of my adjustment was the realization that I had to accept that there were advantages and disadvantages to living and adapting to a certain culture. To be successful over the long term in Japan I would have to be patient with the differences. The patience exhibited would further ingratiate myself with the townspeople and allow me to more effectively live a day to day life with them.

By living a daily existence among the townspeople that they approved of and communicating in their language, it allowed them to see that I was a human being with similar feelings and emotions much like their own. I shared the basic human emotions of happiness, sadness, sympathy, love and pain as much as they did.

This also allowed me to see that one of the stereotypes of the typical Japanese as an unfeeling robot was wrong. I learned that once a person was inside their group, he could see that in fact the Japanese were a highly emotional people, often forced to suppress their feelings in the context of a group. However, in certain accepted situations like parties, where there is usually an abundance of liquor, it is considered okay to freely express oneself. Even the Japanese realize that in a pressure-cooker society, certain release valves are necessary. Although there were basic cultural differences such as the issue of the individual vs. the group, we were all humans with similar emotions.

This is what I hope the Japanese were able to learn from me besides English language and American culture, while my primary lesson from the Japanese was the concept of humility and self-sacrifice for the common good of the group. Sometimes American ideas of individualism reach selfish proportions in an “every man for himself” attitude.

Of all the relationships I had in Japan, the closest I had was with an elderly couple that “adopted” me as their son. They only called me their “son” after I had shown the qualities necessary to be “Japanese.” I remember being scolded for being late (bad for the group), making excuses (unwillingness to admit irresponsibility to the group), forgetting to say ‘thank you’ more than once (repetitive thanks shows more consideration), and failing to act on other people’s unspoken desires (lack of sensitivity to other members of the group). In return, I hope that they learned from me about the advantages of what I perceived to be American ideals, such as the importance of family over work, and increased verbal communication to articulate feelings to one another (not everything is “understood,” and some emotions are better expressed from time to time).

The “family” connection I made in Omi also was a metaphor regarding relations with all Japanese. I realized that for all the talk and complexity about group dynamics in Japan, relating with the Japanese was much like the interaction between a guest and a family in most any country, including America. As a guest invited over to a family’s house, the hosts go to great lengths to make sure you are treated very well. There is an abundance of food and drink and you are entertained and made to feel welcome. At the same time, the family has formed certain impressions of you that they probably do not need to articulate to each other because of their mutual sense of understanding. Even if you and the family were to relate fabulously, it is still highly unlikely that the family would be willing to accept you as one of their own, no matter how hard you were to try. Only in unusual circumstances or after a very long period of time is there a chance of acceptance as an equal family member. For the most part, polite formalities will be exchanged at the end of the evening and you are expected to return home. The difference in Japan is that not only is this type of relationship typical when relating with a family, it is true when interacting with the entire nation, which is the biggest family of all.

My four-year stay in Omi was not without its difficulties, but even 23 years after leaving it is still the most unforgettable and rewarding cultural experience I have ever had.

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