Tokyo life part 1

I’ve moved to Tokyo!! ahhhh. Things are still crazy, my room is a complete mess, but my new job is really really great and I’m so excited about the idea of the career doors it will (hopefully) open up for me later. I have so much to say I don’t even know where to begin. First, I love editing again. I love doing a job I can do, that I’m skilled at and good at, that I was hired to do because I possess certain unique abilities (unlike teaching English which anyone can do), even if I’m editing subjects I’ve never touched before (science/medical topics). I also love having a desk job again, and not having to be “on” for a classroom of kids multiple times a day. I also really, really love not being the only non-Japanese person in a workplace. It gets really isolating! You feel like the last of your kind, always a curiosity, always a novelty to be commented upon by anyone, anytime – kids, other teachers and staff, whoever. But no, here I have around ten other native English speaking, non-Japanese people as my coworkers. It is really nice! Also, I am getting a lot of positive feedback from the person training me (the second-in-command of the department). It is a WONDERFUL contrast to the horrible experience I had with my incompetent, socially inept, micromanaging boss at the press release company. I am so happy. Also, the environment is similar to that and the financial printer I worked at, in that there are “jobs” we work on and send out to clients every day by deadlines, but unlike those places the environment is remarkably relaxed in comparison. Of course there’s a sense of productivity, of everyone working hard, but it’s not stressful or exuding an aura of “finish this now! Now! Now! Get it 100% right! Oh my god, you screwed up, I told you not to do that!” which I really hated and which had the opposite effect of making me more self-conscious and liable to make more mistakes. So, I love that aspect.

The other thing I’ve noticed… usually at places like this, there’s a hierarchy. There’s the people who bring in the work, and the people who do the work. And the people who do the work are always on the bottom, while the people who bring in the work swan around like they own the place. At the press release place I worked for almost three months, we were supposed to share kitchen cleaning duties equally. Everyone had a week where they were in charge of loading and running the dishwasher, etc. But there was one guy in sales who never did a damn thing when it was his turn. I guess at home his wife did all the chores and he considered this just not his domain, so he always got away with never doing it. Either his own BOSS (a woman) or an easily frustrated woman in my department would pick up his slack. Even though he seemed like a nice enough guy overall, it sent a pretty clear message: “I don’t have to do what the rest of you do.” It was also like that with the sales team at the financial printer, the first place I worked full-time (even just as a temp). We never even saw them, they sat up in their nice offices while we toiled away on “the floor,” a room filled with banks of desks and printers. In both cases, my department was doing the real work of the company, the backbone that kept it going, but we were the ones with the least respect.

Somehow, it’s different here. I’m not quite sure how. There’s the team of native English speakers – the editors/rewriters – as well as a few translators, and then the rest of the office is Japanese, and largely Japanese women. And maybe it’s because they have to trade vacuum duty but we never have to vacuum, or because they keep up with the typical Japanese office deference-among-coworkers thing and we don’t really, but it feels like they bow and scrape and we don’t have to, so we come out on top, even though they bring in the work and we do it. I mean, I’ve only been here less than two weeks, but that’s how it feels.

The other thing is starting from scratch on the whole “having my coworkers understand and realize that I speak Japanese” thing. Because usually, the assumption is 0 Japanese ability, based on one look at me, by anyone Japanese. Gradually over time at school, especially after talking to me at the dinner parties, my ability was largely recognized (but there was the one guy who’d call for an “interpreter” without even trying to speak to me first). Here, though… you don’t need Japanese ability to do my job, so it doesn’t even occur to anyone that I can speak it. And I’m pretty sure English ability is required or strongly recommended for all the Japanese people in the office, so they just start off with English. Today at lunch I was asked a question in Japanese, and even though I had already begun to nod my head yes, she still self-translated it into English without even pausing to see if I understood. The Japanese first was more like her mistake that she corrected without even giving me a chance! And if someone does start off with English, it feels weird to insist on replying in Japanese just to sort of prove myself. But there are times when I’m not sure if my English answer would be fully understood and I’d really rather just explain in Japanese to ensure mutual understanding. Oh well. And I guess it doesn’t really matter if they know or not. I should be confident in my abilities regardless, and not have to make sure everyone around me knows the full extent of what I can do. But, I just resent the assumption, never questioned, never even thought to be questioned, that I must be spoken to in English. (Also, I feel like I am going to lose a lot of my opportunities to speak Japanese; I have already lost my Japanese study time during the work day which I was really relying on. I suppose if I studied during lunch it would be two birds with one stone (they’d see my textbooks and comment and realize my ability) so I will probably start doing that.)

In terms of the assumption that I only speak English, I resent that in a lot of situations, actually. Going from Matsue (now that I’m gone I’ll say the name) to Tokyo has been a bit of a tradeoff in terms of irritations. In Matsue I got stared at. A lot. Almost everywhere I went, I was conscious of eyes on me at all times. I wanted to think it was in my head, but now I know it’s not. Because I don’t feel that sensation here really at all. Sometimes there will be a small child who doesn’t know any better, but the adults are very studied. They know not to stare at foreigners. “We’re Tokyo people living in an international city, we see foreigners all the time, we’re above staring.” I do think people are a little accomplished at stealing glances while pretending not to be looking (and if someone sees me and is surprised because they weren’t expecting to see a foreigner, they can’t mask that momentary look of shock), but there is at least little to no outright staring that results in the feeling of eyes watching you, which I hate. So I got rid of that… but… another unpleasant thing took its place immediately. Getting addressed in English right away. That never happened in Matsue, because it’s not a foreign tourist destination at all, so people aren’t practiced in speaking English to those who appear to be tourists, and don’t alter what they say to you at all (mostly). Not in Tokyo, though – in Tokyo (I also noticed this in Kyoto) people see a non-Asian person and switch to English, automatically. Especially if you’re at or near a tourist spot, but not even just then. While I know it must be nice and comforting for people who don’t speak Japanese (I remember thinking it was a relief on my first trip to Japan, even though I had a year and a half of Japanese study under my belt by then but was nowhere near practiced at expressing myself and my needs in daily situations), for me it’s been very frustrating. It shouldn’t matter, I shouldn’t need to prove my abilities to everyone I meet, I should be confident even if I’m constantly underestimated, but it still really bothers me. Just because I’m white, the assumption is that I’m a tourist or at the very least that I can’t speak Japanese. I mean, it’s discrimination, pure and simple. It’s like if I saw a Hispanic person and switched to Spanish without even giving them a chance to establish English ability first. If Japanese people see an Asian person, Japanese (even if that person is actually a Chinese or Korean tourist who doesn’t speak Japanese), and a white person, English. Automatically. It’s racism. I love how Japanese people think racism is something that only exists in the US. They have absolutely no idea that it can be a problem in Japan too, and even if they will acknowledge that, it’s still “oh, well, it doesn’t negatively affect the majority of people – the ethnic Japanese people – so who cares about your experience.” Great.

At Kyoto Station I went to consult the map of the bus stops; there was a man in front answering questions so I asked him, in Japanese, where the bus that went to Fushimi-inari Shrine was. He answered me in English and advised that the JR train would be faster. I showed him my Kansai Thru Pass, which does not cover JR. He asked me if I had a JR Pass. Because 99% of tourists in Japan have a JR Pass. I’m not eligible for one because I’M NOT A TOURIST!! I was really annoyed at the time, but actually, looking back on it, the Kansai Thru Pass is supposed to only be obtainable by tourists and their guides. I was going to get one as Kirk’s guide but they didn’t even examine my visa, just looked at my American passport and that was enough. So in the end I did show him a pass only obtainable by tourists (mostly) and then got mad when he assumed I was a tourist. BUT, why would I have both passes anyway? Well, whatever. From the woman at Tsukiji who called out “Japanese sweets!” when I went to get a closer look at a wagashi display (I know what wagashi are, that’s why I was looking at them!!! It soured me and I walked away) to the priest at Togo Shrine who said “Hello” to me as I was checking out the shrine’s array of charms for sale, I just hate being treated like a tourist who doesn’t speak Japanese just because I look white. Stop making assumptions!!!

The other thing about my job is working pretty hard with just a lunch break. It’s not exhausting work, and there’s been no overtime (yet?? It’s in my contract that there could be), but I am used to frequent breaks throughout my day. It really helps to refresh your attention and act as a motivating reward. “If I finish this, I’ll have a break, and then come back to it with fresh eyes when I do the final check.” As a teacher, any class period I wasn’t teaching was mine to use as I wished, and even if I had grading to do I would relax with a cup of tea or coffee and some snacks/sweets pilfered from the teachers’ room supply (another thing I miss – no public candy stash like at school), and when I finished that I could study Japanese or read or play on my phone. As an editor at the book publisher, as long as I got my work done, I could keep one (or several) browser windows open to “fun” sites and email links to my coworkers, go chat for a while in someone’s office, go for walks around the nearby neighborhood, and generally enjoy a lot of freedom. But here… like I said, it’s more like how things were at the press release company, EXCEPT there are no structured 10-minute morning and afternoon breaks like we had in order to comply with American working regulations. Nope, those breaks aren’t required in Japan. There’s just a one-hour lunch break, and from what I can gather some/most (?) people don’t even take the full hour! They just eat, relax, and go back to work. My trainer, for example, takes ridiculously short lunches! You have a full hour and it’s your only real break, use it to the fullest! I have started feeling a little lazy because I take my full hour. This isn’t even a Japanese people thing, like you’d expect, these are the native English speakers too, and yet no one is pressuring them to keep up these appearances, so I really don’t understand it. Everyone works very efficiently and doesn’t appear to have a crushing workload, there should be no need to cut your break short to stay on top of things or anything.

There is a Japanese office culture thing that bothers me though, or actually it’s not just office but in general. Japanese people are trained from childhood to brush their teeth after meals. This means that they have a toothbrush kit they bring to wherever they eat lunch – school or work – and diligently brush their teeth after eating lunch. This means that after most people are done eating, the bathroom sinks are crowded with people accomplishing that oh-so-important task of the post-meal teeth-brushing. In my office, the women’s restroom has two stalls and one sink. It’s pretty small already. When at least three women at a time are in there brushing away when you just want to do your business and have a place to wash your hands? IT GETS A LITTLE RIDICULOUS. Like, is this all REALLY necessary?! It’s not like Japanese people are known for having great teeth. I don’t see what the need for post-lunch tooth brushing is, I really don’t. If you’ve eaten something pungent, sure. But every day??? Also, research has shown that it’s not actually good for your teeth enamel to brush immediately after eating. It’s the same with gargling: people do that here too. It’s supposed to ward off colds and illness, so gargling happens A LOT especially in the winter. Unless you have a sore throat and you are gargling with salt water, it is not going to be effective at all. So immediate post-lunch tooth brushing and gargling to “stay healthy” are two Japanese cultural practices that actually have no basis in science, but every single person is trained from childhood to believe this is right and do it regularly. It’s silly.

All that would be fine if the bathroom was bigger. But the traffic jams are just sooooo annoying. At least at my school where I worked the female staff bathroom had three sinks and wasn’t a tiny space the size of a closet. Also, it had no real door (just a curtain), so there wasn’t any knocking on the door to the COMMUNAL BATHROOM WITH TWO STALLS when someone is going to come in. I don’t understand the knocking. People would knock on the door to the locker room at the gym too. I should probably be knocking on the closed door to the kitchen in the sharehouse before I go in, come to think of it. It’s the kind of unnecessary extreme politeness that is so prevalent in Japan and that I just don’t see a real need for. I guess I’m just a brash, rude American! And I’m happy that way thank you.

I will continue my thoughts later! I am in no way done, and I haven’t even talked about Kirk’s visit here at all!


4 thoughts on “Tokyo life part 1

  1. Rob says:

    >and I’m so excited about the idea of the career doors it will (hopefully) open up for me later.

    We in Japan believe that career doors should open only to senior people, regardless of competence or incompetence. So, just wait 10-20 years, and the doors will open for you.

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