I sleep through my alarm but it doesn’t matter much because a tremor measuring 3.2 on the Richter scale gets me out of bed in no time. I’m the only person in my building to panic. Tremors are so common in Japan that they fail to elicit a response in the locals. Eating breakfast leads to another challenge. Which bin do I put my rubbish into? Rubbish is separated into burnables and non-burnables. Non-burnables are then separated again into cans, glass and anything not a can and not made of glass. If you’re not a morning person then this can be a nightmare. I don’t put my shoes on until I’m literally leaving my flat, as you can only wear slippers on Japanese tatami mat floors.
The students must clean the school – cleaners are not paid to do so. Why pay people to do it when the students can? This is an example of Japanese resourcefulness. The toilets are definitely one of the first culture shocks. Japanese toilets do not have seats, they are simply a hole in the ground. On many occasions a sink is attached to the back of the toilet. When you flush the cold water pours into the sink, and you use it to wash your hands before this water fills the toilet tank up. This is a fine instance of the way the Japanese make use of resources. Although Japanese homes are very small there is room for everything: the futons we sleep on are folded and put away in the morning.
Japan is a very group-orientated society. The word ‘volunteer’ is apparently not part of the Japanese vocabulary. Outside the classroom groups of students fall over each other to speak, either in English or Japanese. In part, this is because, with students spending at least 10 intensive hours a day at the school, the English class itself is an opportunity to rest (and sleep on the desk). Also, it goes against the cultural grain to be an individual – which includes standing up in front of other students in the classroom.
Perhaps this is changing. The students are not all as passive as I expected them to be. I think Japan’s young people are terrified of becoming ‘salary men’. Japan also has its own home grown musical, movie and TV talent now. It no longer appears to be a consumer society of Western pop, fashion, and so on. Younger people are developing their own tastes and attitudes.
As I learn more about Japan’s culture, my Japanese language skills continue their fitful progress. I once got lost and told a fast food clerk that I was a bicycle, and last week I told the school secretary that she looked cheap, when I actually meant young. That’s the last time she takes me to Kyoto. Before arriving in Japan the JET programme informed me of the culture shock I would experience out here, and although much of the information was correct (for instance, ‘prepare to stand out in a crowd like a grain of rice in a jar of Marmite’) nothing can ever prepare a person for the actual experience. I love these differences and, suitably enough, I had to travel to the other side of the world to find them. Sayonnara.
Sheila Daly is a University of Leicester politics graduate.
The JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Programme offers UK graduates a year’s paid work in Japan, as an Assistant Language Teacher.