When Nothing Lasts: What I Will and Won’t Miss About Japan

A JTE from my middle-school leaves a bag of oranges on my desk in December 2018. The oranges were from her home garden!

By Cassandra Mainiero

In her poem “Nothing Lasts,” American poet Jane Hirshfield writes: ” ‘Nothing lasts’—/ how bitterly the thought attends each loss. / “‘Nothing lasts’ – / a promise also of consolation.”

While Hirshfield may have not been speaking about the JET program, her words are applicable here. There are good and bad days in the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Program. There are things, people, and moments that you love as much as there things, people, and moments that you detest. You can be bitter that it doesn’t last. You can also be relieved.

As I reestablish my life in America, I am reflecting on Hirshfield’s words, and considering all the things I miss and don’t miss about JET. Here’s what I collected:

Things I Most Definitely Miss:

1. Cheap and Fresh Local Produce

A Fuji Apple (almost 1 lb!) from the local food market costs about 198 yen.

I hail from New Jersey (N.J.), America’s “Garden State.” In N.J., local markets offer an abundant variety of root vegetables, leafy greens, fungi, and cruciferous goodies. The veggies are often sold in bulk. Yet they are expensive (ex: 1 bunch of carrots (2-3 carrots) is about $2.49; 1 head of green cabbage is $3.47.) This is especially true if the veggies are pre-cut or organic. However, in Japan, local markets sell cheap veggies (ex: 1 bunch of carrots costs about 90 yen; a whole head of cabbage equals 100 yen). While there is less variety, and fewer per package, almost all their veggies are humongous and organic. In fact, you may live near the original garden.

Side Note: This does not apply to fruit. In America, fruit is cheap and small. In Japan, fruit is huge and outlandishly expensive. For example, I can buy three, small mangoes for $1.99 in New Jersey. In Japan, a single mango cost about 1800 yen. In N.J., I could buy a single Fuji red apple for about $1.00. In Imabari, that same apple (though double the size) would be about 198 yen.

In Imabari, though, the mikan (a sweet mandarin orange) is a common gift. You get bags of them—especially in the winter. For this reason, you hardly have time to think about buying fruit or have time to want it. You’re trying too hard to finish the bag of 13 mikan that you received from one kind co-worker, so that you can move onto the 26 in another bag from another co-worker. So, fruit? It may not be the first thing on the grocery list.

2. Security

Here is truth about living abroad: You will lose and forget things. It’s practically a rite of passage. I have left my bike key in its lock, my front door unlocked, my phone and wallet on diner tables, my umbrellas (yes, umbrellas) at konbinis, and my credit card at a station. In America, I would panic. I would have some existential crisis about the meaning of safety in this modern world. Then, I would have to call companies to cancel cards or report stolen items.

In Japan? Not so much. As a culture that views anger and stealing as shameful, the country has a strong affinity for security. Issues (such as gun regulations, stealing, drug use, and the unemployment rate) are not as common in Japan and is why it is often referred to as one of “the safest countries in the world.” This does not mean problems do not happen. They can and do. But Japan’s cultural emphasis on shame makes crime less likely.

For instance, I lost my credit card during a trip. I took the earliest shikansen from Hiroshima back to Osaka, where I remembered I left it at an ATM. I went back on a hunch and hope. Still, I expected to file paperwork, and call to cancel the card as I would do in America.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived in “The Lost and Found Office” in Osaka’s shinkansen terminal, and saw my credit card in a pile of others (like, an entire pile of cards). All I did was point to my card, show my ID (which they didn’t even ask for, but I showed), and it was returned.

Would that happen at home? I can almost guarantee you it would not.

3. Friends (Including JETs & Non-JETs.)

A group of ALTs from Imabari and Matsuyama gather together to watch an Imabari FC Soccer Game in October 2018.

When you are forced sink or swim in a different culture, you’re vulnerable. This vulnerability can make one susceptible to toxic people and dangerous situations. It can also force someone to be open and considerate, which can lead to new, lovable friends. These relationships are usually cemented by the dual desire to have new and challenging experiences, but equally have closeness, acceptance and familiarity. The result is often intense, tight-knit friendships made in a short span of time.

During JET, I made friends from different continents, places I’ve never heard about, met people from other states of my own country, and bonded with JETs from my hometown. I met old JETs, new JETs, and non-JETs that work at local eikaiwa schools. I also formed friendships with locals, who functioned like surrogate siblings and parents, who watched me crawl and stumble through their culture.

In our time together, we leaned on each other, drank and ate together, ran half- marathons, went on vacations, formed “family” traditions, studied together, shared stories, as well as sat on each other’s couches while watching the final episodes of Game of Thrones. We also vented, argued, analyzed our own foreignness, and unfolded dreams and insecurities in ways that we may have not done in any other circumstances. I fell in love with these friends. They became like family.

These friends know me. They know a time in my life that cannot be easily translated to my hometown friends. It was hard to return to America, but it was heartbreaking to leave those friends, uncertain if our paths will ever cross again. I know that modern friendships can be bolstered by social media, LINE and email. However, seeing these friends on a regular basis is a level of connection that social media cannot replicate. I miss them.

4. The Students

Whether they loved or detested English, my students made JET worthwhile.

I enjoyed seeing students learn English and practice it with me. I remember the sheer shock on my first-year middle school student’s face, when I heard her practicing (in English) “Do you like BTS?” Without thinking, I turned and said “Yes. I do.” She smiled, surprised. I imagine this was not only because she not only found out a common interest, but discovered it via English. (Ah-ha! The class is working!)

I also simply enjoyed seeing students grow as people. It was endearing to see my first-grade elementary students try to memorize the aisatsu and navigate the school. In the same way, it was enjoyable to watch my cheeky sixth-graders transition to middle school, and find them bashfully standing in their new uniforms—like puppies that haven’t grown into their paws yet.

Some Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) can keep a composed and professional approach with their students. I am not one of those ALTs. I was shamelessly attached. I still worry about their confidence and studies, as well as remember random facts about their interests (ex: Soma plays baseball, Akari does judo, Kaito wants money for a Nintendo DS, etc.)

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I miss them.

Things I Will 100% NOT Miss

1.  The Endless Dance with Honne/Tatemae

Honne and tatemae is a concept that I understand and was raised by.

It’s also a concept that I hate.When I entered the American workforce, a lack of directness hindered productivity and relationships. A failure to share opinions led to failed projects, co-workers leaving, bosses being yelled at by higher headquarters, passive aggressiveness and paranoia, as well as entire departments being eliminated.

I was encouraged to be direct with everyone, including my superiors. This started in my early 20s, when a mentor explained that confrontation can be helpful. This mentor taught me how to not take criticisms as personal attacks and form an assertive opinion without being aggressive. As a result, I felt more reliable and confident in groups. I became more certain of myself. This confidence is what led me to take a risk and move to Japan.

In Japan, I felt that I had to un-learn this lesson. Suddenly, questioning decisions and addressing conflicts head-on felt rude and inconsiderate. I would be encouraged to share my feelings. Yet, I wondered, if my opinions or feelings didn’t align with the group, how to approach it. Even the simplest of truths—like wanting to skip a social event to decompress at home—felt challenging.

At school, I wanted to be polite, but also give opinions on textbook lessons, games or worksheets, and teaching methods. There were some teachers who approached classes in ways that I thought were ineffective and detrimental to English learning. I didn’t always agree with their approaches or their general character. So, I oscillated between wanting to respect honne/tatemae, but also give helpful, albeit blunt, feedback. I was uncertain how to tackle the situation, and often wondered if a lack of directness was helpful for our classes.

2. The Low, Slow, or No Technology in Classrooms

As a goodbye gift, an elementary student draws my picture.

Before I arrived in Japan, I had heard nothing but praise for the Japanese education system. I imagined all the classrooms as gigantic, technological powerhouses, equipped with top-notch projectors, drones, webcams, and interactive learning games.

This was far from true.

In the inaka, my access to technology was limited. In elementary school, I had a smartboard, which could be used for the show the textbook, but had limited access to the internet and programs. In middle school, I had to sign out projectors and use a blank sheet of butcher paper as a screen. Most of the time, though, I used a chalkboard, laminated and hand-cut cards, or team games.

I had to learn how to keep classes engaged without my PowerPoint knowledge and training. I stretched my acting skills to make interesting dialogue and voices that made skits interesting. I leaned heavily on my own ingenuity to create new games that allowed students to escape the incessant interview games.

I still wonder if interest in English would increase if teachers had better access to technology and could regularly show clips, play music, or illustrate concepts on a screen. I’m not sure. However, though I did grow as a teacher, I will not miss the caveman classrooms.

3.  A Poor Work and Life Balance

Prior to JET, I worked six years in corporate America. I worked nine-hour days (7:30 AM – 5:00 PM), but I had every other Monday off. I was encouraged to take sick and vacation leave. Additionally, I could leave my work at work, which allowed me to could join activities like kickboxing classes and ESL tutoring. From time to time, I stayed late, but I always received overtime for it. In six years, I stayed late twice. 

My life as JET was not that different. My working hours were standard (8:00 AM – 4:30 PM). I was not discouraged from taking vacation or sick leave. If I stayed late at work, I didn’t receive overtime but I rarely stayed late. If I did, it was usually by my own accord to study Japanese or lesson plan. 

Nevertheless, my JTEs and co-workers stayed late. Sometimes, they stayed until 10 or 11 PM only to return at 5 or 6 AM. They rarely took vacation. They also apologized profusely whenever they took sick leave. In some cases, HRTs and JTEs arrived to work with fevers in the 100s, busted hands or lips, and voices barely above a whisper, preparing for classes as if it were any other day.

This gave me a sense of remorse. I felt guilty for leaving teachers behind as they attended clubs or finished grading. I felt uncomfortable asking for anything, knowing that I was adding onto a list of duties. I wanted to maintain my work/life balance. However, I also felt that my job was to assist and create strong relationships with my co-workers. Leaving them behind at work felt rude.

Other JETs assured me that prioritizing work was a cultural expectation, and not one that I was expected to abide. Some JETs questioned if it was productive to stay late. A few JETs explained that many young Japanese teachers are beginning to question the culture of busyness.

Still, I felt like I had to tip-toe out of work. It’s a feeling that was subdued by the fact that I was a foreigner and a JET, and thus not contractually or culturally obligated to follow this madness. However, it’s a feeling that was not soothed without some sense of guilt and frustration.

4.   Lack of Vegan/Vegetarian Options

Before Japan, I was a vegan for about a year. I liked this lifestyle and it had a positive effect on how I approached the world, and my connection to my own body.

However, I understood (from traveling to Japan as a kid) that it was rude to refuse food or request substitutions at restaurants in Japan. I wanted to be accommodating, and was afraid that being vegan would annoy my peers and co-workers.

So, I ate meat. Then, I realized that I wasn’t feeling well. I jumped between vegetarian and carnivore for a few months. I ate kyuushoku, cancelled it, and brought a bento. I binged on omiyage and sweet bread and rode the blood sugar crashes. I ate omurice, fried chicken, sushi, and rice, and would feel bloated. After about seven months of this food frenzy rollercoaster, I returned to my old habits. In my final two months, I returned to veganism.

Being vegan/vegetarian in Japan is possible. However, it’s challenging. It requires planning ahead, questioning ingredient labels, cooking on your own, and ordering from sites like iHerb.com.

Although vegetarian is common, Japan is still learning what is meant by vegan. This may not be as true in major cities like Okinawa, Tokyo, and Kyoto, where vegan restaurant and options are more accessible. Nonetheless, the term is definitely new in the inaka.

***

Four ALTs take a silly picture together before participating in an English Spring Conversation School in July 2019. The theme of the conversation school was traveling around the world. By focusing only on English-speaking countries, each ALT developed games that allow local middle school students to practice their English skills. In this photo, from left to right: Justin, Cassie (me), Laura, and Emmanuel. These four ALTs were all 1st-year ALTs.

Hirshfield’s poem, “Nothing Lasts” ends with the image of two daughters wearing dresses—“one wears a dress of wool, the other cotton.” I always view this final line as a summary that “nothing lasts” has two connotations: negative and positive. However, I also feel that the line serves as a reminder that one’s personal view on “nothing lasts” is entirely up to them; you can pick the dress you want.

I choose to look at JET in a positive light. I am mindful of all the great friends and memories that it gave me. I am also grateful to escape all the cultural challenges and struggles living abroad can bring.

For example, I miss hot and humid summer nights in Japan, walking past the overgrown renkon fields on the way to my friend’s house. I do not miss the summer’s screeching cicadas.

(I mean, seriously, cicadas. What’s with all the yelling?)

Cassandra Mainiero was an Imabari JET from 2018-9, working at one middle school and one elementary, with the goal of gauging if she was interested in pursuing more education and eventually becoming an English teacher at an international school. She is a New Jersey native with a masters in Writing and now has a career where she supports an educational and wellness program. She also studies Krav Maga, kickboxing, Japanese and writing in her spare time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *