Teaching English and living in Japan has been a life-changing experience. Not everyone gets a chance to spend a few (or several) years in another country while exploring new a culture and cruising around to some cool place. Sometimes I have to remind myself, "Hey man, you're living in Japan!"
Since I'm a few months into my final year of teaching English, I figured it was a good time to look at some of the things I've learned over the past four years.
Being an ALT isn't a bad gig, but it's not for everyone
When people ask me how I like being an ALT, I usually don't have too many complaints. The learning curve in the first year is a bit tough, but once you get used to the culture and the way English is taught here it's not too bad.
As I've told many of my friends, I've done WORSE jobs that pay A LOT less.
While being an ALT isn't a bad gig, it's definitely not for everyone. I think the big problem is that there really isn't any room for advancement. The working conditions between schools can also vary based on the school and your employer.
To me, it seems most problems between ALTs and other teachers come from personality clashes.
As ALTs, we're always expected to be friendly and outgoing. If you don't have this type of personality, it can be tough to please your co-workers and bosses.
Also, some aspects of the job just get kind of boring. Some of the questions the teachers ask you and some of the things the students say/do can get old after a while. If you're not allowed a lot of freedom in how you teach or if the students just aren't interested in your classes, it can be tough!
Japan is a pretty safe country
One of the things that really shocked me about Japan is how safe it is (I know what you're thinking, "That took 4 years to figure that out?"). I used to be a security guard back in the US so I got used to looking out for danger.
If you forget something in a store, the staff will try to find you (I've had a lady chase me down the street to give me my water bottle that I left in a restaurant). If you lose something on the street, on a train, or in a station, there's a chance you could get it back!
I say that Japan is "pretty" safe because it still has crime (and it seems mostly personal vs random).
However, the crime rate is still much lower than it is in other countries. Also you don't usually have to worry about getting mugged or having your things stolen if you go out for a night on the town. The general vibe is pretty chill.
Japan has some "interesting" people
Whenever I go out, I always tend to hear some cool stories or meet some "interesting" people. I put the quotes here because it kind of goes both ways.
On the one hand, I've met some really cool people. I have a friend who is a fireman that drives race cars as a hobby. I've also met a guy who was from Japan but worked in rural California exporting hay to Japanese companies. I'd have to say my favorite acquaintance is a guy who runs a jazz club in Nagoya with his family and lets his dog run around the joint while he sips on fine cognac and smokes the occasional Cuban cigar.
On the other hand, there are some who are interesting in an "unusual" way.
I have come across a few people that just seem a little off (but that can happen anywhere), but I've also heard a lot of stories from others. It can be anything from just weird to downright creepy.
Here's one of my favorite pick-up lines I've heard a Japanese guy use on one of my friends: "Hey, wanna see my Gundam collection?"
Japan is ruled by rules
Before coming to teach in Japan, I studied Japanese for 4 years in college, spent 5 months in Chiba for study abroad, and practiced Japanese martial arts for 6 years. With all of my exposure to Japanese culture, I figured I was ready for life in Japan and what that entailed. That was kinda true.
When I got to Japan, I found out that all of the rules I learned in Japanese class and in the dojo were just the basics (like greetings, when to bow, how to address superiors, etc).
It was like I was learning how to learn rules.
Outside of that, there are even more rules governing everything from which side of the escalator is for standing or walking to how you should hand money to cashiers.
I think this is part of what makes Japan, well ... Japan. The good manners that Japan is known for are baked into the rules.
So as a rule in Japan it's expected that most people behave politely in most situations. So you can't really get the good manners and excellent customer service without rigid conformity (and the expectation that you conform too!).
So what do you think? Do you agree with what I've learned? Did anything surprise you? Drop a comment below.
Check out my other posts:
The 6 Books You MUST READ Before Coming To Japan