What Japan Has Taught Me

I came to Japan somewhat on a whim. After I finished 5 years at University studying business, I had done plenty of talking about manufacturing in Asia and how many companies were outsourcing. I’d done case studies on companies that did it and I recommended other companies do it. But I had a lot of questions. Why did I do that? Because it was cheaper? Why was it cheaper? Is this a good idea? What is Asia? Why haven’t I been there? Is it different from the US? How?

I asked myself all these questions, I googled it, I did some research. Then I decided I should go there before I specialize my career. Before I zero in on something specific I’d like to start with the widest possible lens.

I guess this is where my friend Brad comes in, who was teaching English in Japan through the JET program at the time. He was posting pictures of his time in Japan and he was having fun! Things were new and strange and I liked that. I asked him some questions and heard about a few options. I looked into the JET program and then I looked into a private education company called AEON.

I flew out to Los Angeles during my last year in University, interviewed, and spent my birthday with my friend Craig. I got an offer in January, had two weeks to clear it with my US employer to go, and 5 months later I was on a plane here. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Japanese People Work Hard

Possibly harder than any country I’ve ever been to. In Japan, everyone works hard, men and women. The only exception is maybe high school kids, but even a lot of them have part-time jobs. Now when I say work hard, I mean they put in time, if not always effort. Most of my students work 12 to 13 hours a day and can have 60 hour weeks for several weeks in a row. This is normal; no one is surprised, no one complains, it’s just the way it is.

I think this is why Japan’s credibility is so high. Just look at the JPY/USD exchange rate over the past 10 years. Japan works hard and gets things done and the world is recognizing it. I’m glad to get paid in yen because it seems like each day my savings is worth more in dollars.

People listen to their bosses; they respect their teachers; and they are genuinely afraid of shame, which motivates them to perform. Young, unmarried people live with their parents without shame and spend their money on whatever they want. Healthcare and pensions are government-managed so most of people’s take-home pay is disposable and able to be saved.

Japan Is Surprisingly Western-friendly

Japan is like a gateway to Asia for any Westerner. Signs are in English, clear and easy to follow, and people will bend over backwards to help you.

When I had been in Japan for only a month, I took a corporate contract in a city about an hour away. One week, I was 300 yen ($3.50) short to take my train home. At that time I didn’t have a bank card or bank book or anything except a credit card. I explained all of this to the station attendant. He barely spoke English, but when he realized that I was actually pretty screwed, he took me to the ticket machine and paid the difference on my ticket! I literally wouldn’t have been able to get home if that didn’t happen. I brought him and the other workers bottles of tea the next week and paid him back, but for all they knew, they’d never see me again.

There’s Something For You Here

I remember thinking in high school that people who were overly obsessed with Japan were just a little weird. Now, to be fair, some of them were super weird, but in retrospect, I’ve done some “weird” stuff since I got here. Nothing too crazy, but just things I never thought I’d have the opportunity or interest to try. I ate dinner at a prison-themed restaurant and posed in an anime poster which now seems all-too-normal to me.

The Work You Do Is A Reflection of Your Character

Every place I’ve ever been in Japan I am always treated well. I’ve been here for a year and I can’t recall an experience where I wasn’t treated professionally by someone who was working. For Japan, this spans ALL jobs. If you work at a convenience store or a law firm you treat people well, you do your job well, and you take pride in what you do. When I walk into a convenience store, I’m greeted and bowed to, my things are packaged up, and they say goodbye and thank you as I walk out the door. They do all of this in Japanese, as if I knew exactly what they were saying. I’ve honestly never seen anyone give anything but the best service while they’re working.

Bow, Don’t Shake Hands

It kind of makes sense when you live in a dense city with 2 million people. People pick their noses on the train, sneeze, cough, rub there noses and eyes, and then they reach out to shake your hand. That’s kind of gross. Bowing stops common colds – and epidemics too.

Mind Your Own Business

People here are very tolerant of others. Moreso than America. I see people dressed in the weirdest clothes and fashions and nobody says anything. Young girl wear clothes that would be innappropriate in America, but most people don’t see it that way. Old women have purple hair, or pink, or blue and that’s all ok.

Overall I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to respect others. Not that I didn’t know this before, but I think Japan is one of the most amazing countries at doing this. It’s unselfish, and it’s really generous. I’m excited to incorporate these into my life and I’m glad I’ve gotten to experience it.

If You Want To Do It, Do It

During my trip, I read The Alchemist. I’ve never read the book before but since I spend a lot of time on trains and planes I’ve been devouring books. There’s a quote in there I especially liked between the main character, the boy, and an old, wise man:

They were both silent for a time, observing the plaza and the townspeople.
It was the old man who spoke first.
“Why do you tend a flock of sheep?”
“Because I like to travel.”
The old man pointed to a baker standing in his shop window at one corner of the plaza. “When he was a child, that man wanted to travel, too. But he decided first to buy his bakery and put some money aside. When he’s an old man, he’s going ot spend a month in Africa. He never realized that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”
“He should have decided to become a shepherd,” the boy said.

I loved this, because the old man will one day realize that instead of opening his bakery to “put some money aside”, he could have been doing that, or something much better, in Africa.

Never be afraid to ask simply because the answer might be ‘no’. And certainly don’t think that you’re the only one who has taken a step or two into the unknown. The fact is, of every country I’ve visited that’s been rumored to be “dangerous” or “unsafe”, there’s a group of people there – including mothers, children, and young women – who have been surviving there for generations. You are simply becoming one of them.

As I wrap up this extremely long and reflective post I’m happy to say that I’m learning the answers to a lot of these questions. I’ll carry them with me for the rest of my life.

Golden Week 8 – Tokyo 3

My last day in Tokyo was possibly one of the most amazing days there. We went to Shiba Park, which is very close to Tokyo Tower and holds Zojoji Temple, which is really pretty. You can see the juxtaposition of the old and the (relatively) new with the Tokyo Tower rising up behind the Temple.


Zojoji Temple is full of some interesting things. In a smaller temple off to the right there’s a place where people can take stillborns for burial services, which I think affected me the most.

At the entrance there’s a place to wash your hands, as is custom when entering temple grounds in Japan.

This is the temple. It was really beautiful. It looked brand new.

Behind the temple there were all of these little stone babies lined up on the wall. Each doll had a hat and was decorated by the family who had lost a child. There were hundreds of these dolls. I didn’t realize the purpose until I walked up to one of the stone babies and around it’s neck was draped a clear necklace, with a picture of the would-be parents. Some were dressed in the baby clothes that would never be used. It was incredibly moving and sad, but at the same time there was a beauty to it and each doll seemed to take on the distinct characteristics of the family that had put it there.

They lined the path – hundreds of these little stone dolls. It was astounding and made my heart sink into my stomach. It almost made me want to cry, thinking of all the people who had come there at some point to decorate a statue of the child they might have raised. It definitely took the luster away from the beautiful temple in front.

I had a short walk to shake off the emotions that were felt in the memorial and arrived at the Tokyo Tower, which – until the Tokyo Skytree opened – was the tallest tower in Tokyo.

The first viewing platform is about 500 feet high. The second is over 800 feet high!

The tower was built in 1958 but it still looks and feels new. It’s incredible how long it’s lasted. On the first viewing platform, they have a glass panel built into the floor. You can stand on it and look down to the street 500 feet below.

The Tokyo Tower was the last thing for me to see that day in Tokyo as I had to catch a bullet train back to Nagoya to get ready for work. Golden week is an amazing time. It’s a great opportunity to see some amazing things; things I don’t think you can see anywhere else in the world. Tokyo is one of the places that you should definitely add to your bucket list. I hugged Kathy and Trev and wished them a safe flight home since they would be flying out of Tokyo to return home. I missed them almost immediately as I left. It occurred to me though, that as I left the Tokyo Tower, that I’d been living here by myself for 9 months. I barely speak any Japanese, but I’ve been ok. I’ve been without seeing my friends every day, but I’ve been ok. I’ve slept through earthquakes and been woken up by a few more. I’ve seen people dressed as Elvis and Anime characters. I’ve been asked for photos just because and I’ve been approached by people from all over the world who are doing the same thing I’m doing. It’s an amazing place and one can’t help to think what an amazing life we have to be able to experience it all.

With the Koi flags of boys’ day blowing in the wind, I took one last picture of Tokyo Tower and headed off to the station.