Life in Japan, Part 1: “The Good Soldier”

Into the blogosphere I go…

Aside from my normal blogs about fandom of all sorts, I also wanted to write about my experiences here in this great country I’ve called home since 2011. From its ups and downs to its various challenges, to give those who dream of living in the Land of the Rising Sun a chance to see what it’s like to actually be here; to breathe the air, to eat its food, to love its women and everything else in between. It’s everything you have ever dreamed of, and then some, while at the same time being the most horrible place on Earth; at least, if you live in Tokyo. I’ll go into why these two concepts, though they may be complete contrast opposites, they are harmonious, fundamental truths about this powerful and dominant nation.

Japanese society is, traditionally speaking, very uniform in terms of social roles. This could be seen in studying its history. Everyone had a part to play and it’s only on very rare occasions (reassignment or promotion) when an individual would be tasked with doing something else. Current era Japanese obey the same lines and very seldom change lanes.

The phrase, “jack of all trades,” is something that few are ever allowed to be. One must be a master of one trade or that person is seen as useless, aimless and won’t ever jive with Japanese society, as a whole. The only exception to the rule is language ability. The rest of it is just “hobby.”

It’s normal, in countries like the United States, for police officers, for example, to also have firefighting and paramedic skills. Thus, they would frequently serve with the local fire department if there was a need. Moreover, it is easier for a police officer to move on to serve in the judicial system as a prosecutor. This is not something you will ever see in Japan. A cop is a cop. They’ll never enter the legal field or join the fire brigade. Ever.

Likewise, a teacher can never be a programmer. A travel agent can never be a hotel concierge. In Japan, your job defines you, no matter what other skills you may have. Unfortunately, for many English-speaking foreigners, stereotyping as “English teacher” is one more hurdle to overcome.

I’m not an English teacher, by any standard of the imagination. However, I was one for six years. Each time I tried to break out of it, Japanese society would kick me in the junk and proclaim, “Know your role!” In mid 2017, I joined a company that offered me a way out of the vicious cycle of English teaching (more on that in another blog). That was my ticket to finding my true “Japanese Identity.” That company was not a great place to work, but they gave me my ticket out, so I’ll be forever grateful that they offered me the chance they did.

The way of the warrior (bushido) is straight with no deviation. Obstacles and enemies, yes. But, you don’t attack enemies head-on if you’re a ninja. Likewise, as a samurai, you don’t assassinate from the shadows. Even if the ninja trained in various forms of Mortal Kombat (TM), they’re still spies and assassins. Samurai don’t poison generals; they stab them in the battlefield. Thus, this is the view Japanese society has of its individuals. More so than the socialist nature of contribution to society as a whole, each individual is expected to travel the road they have started for themselves, and never deviate from that.

That segways to the conclusion of this analysis: initiative.

In America, taking initiative is seen as a way to show higher-ups you’ve got the abilitiy to be a leader by anticipating what’s needed and going forward with meeting those needs. This includes menial tasks like taking out the trash before being told to do so, or creating the next page on a spreadsheet to ease record keeping and forecasting.

In Japan, if you take out the trash in your office, someone will ask you, “Who told you to do that?!” Even if it’s full and everyone will benefit from an empty, fresh trash bag, if you’re not told, your superiors will be very angry with you.

Why is this?

Why would the samurai poison the general to demoralize the troops even if it will benefit the clan? Is it time to take out the trash? Is it a waste to always change the bag? Or perhaps it’s not overflowing just yet? What could you be working on for your company instead? How much money are they wasting on you for doing something else?

The higher-ups see initiative from lower-level employees, not as ambition, but as someone who is trying to subvert their authority. Thus, what you may think of as helping out your fellow colleagues and showing your superiors that you’re a team player, they see as an affront and will want to put you back on the task at hand. If it’s not your time to do it, nor if it’s not your job, you will not be expected to do it. If it’s not time to clean, don’t take out the trash, no matter how full it is. Don’t try to poison the enemy general if you weren’t ordered to do so (and to be honest, if you’re a samurai and you were ordered to poison someone, you’d either need to be trained as ninja as well, or he’s sending you to die).

My advice is this: when you are in the Japanese office setting, stick to the job you’ve been given. If you’re on a project, focus on that. Don’t think outside of the box or think too hard about the problem. If you think your boss would appreciate the extra work, trust me, he won’t. You’ll have plenty to do to keep you busy with just your general orders in the office.

Do your Japanese office experiences differ than the above? Leave a comment or make a blog about it and link it in the comments below. I’m interested in hearing other experiences.

Next: J-Girls: Tokyo vs. The Rest of Japan
(or, “Why Can’t I Get Laid without Paying For It?”)

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