Hey gang, as promised, this time I’ll talk about the things that shocked me once I got to Japan and got settled. Some of them might surprise you if you believe the media too much.
1) The bells!
We spent the first few days in Japan in a glorious haze of conferences in Tokyo. When we had the chance a few of my new friends and I would explore the streets around our hotel. It reminded me of Joburg, but like way bigger and with more people wandering around. My first interaction with the strange sounds in this place was when we came to a pedestrian crossing and the robots (traffic lights) belted out a bird song of sorts when the little man turned green. Technology! I thought as I marvelled at the strides that Japan had taken to be inclusive to the blind community. Accompanied by a backdrop of bugs screaming from the trees on the sidewalk, Tokyo sounded like an anime.
Fast forward to a few days later after I touched down in my new town, all set up in my new house and finally alone for the first time since arriving in Japan. The first night I didn’t notice much because I was exhausted from the trauma of spending a day flying halfway across the planet and having to live through the torture that was JET Programme Orientation. Unfortunately, as an early riser, the next day was an assault on my auditory senses from as early as 6 am. I didn’t know it at the time but I live pretty close to a temple and every morning they ring the temple bell (I have no idea about the how’s and why’s about this activity so I can’t say much about it). I didn’t mind this because new country new customs. But then a School chime sounded at around 8 am. It surprised me because to my knowledge, schools were closed until the start of term, which wasn’t for a few more days still. I blamed it on the school’s bell programming. At 12 another chime sounded. This time I was in the middle of town so I couldn’t blame my school.
The people I was with explained that the chime was to signal the start of lunchtime for the town. Strange I guess, but again, different country, different customs. At 6 pm that evening another chime rang out around the town. I can’t remember how I felt about that one but since then all these chimes have become significant markers to my day. Having asked a few different people what the ringing was about, I knew that it either had to do with signalling school start, lunch and home time for the kids or it had to do with testing out the emergency sound system in the town, or it had to do with a more obscure explanation about it all being part of an elaborate plan by the government to keep the citizens under a very subtle mind control….
The sounds of Japan have been the most overwhelming thing for me to process since coming here because, despite all the anime, I did not expect any of this.
2) Fax machines
Before coming here, I had dreams of looking into the tech industry here as part of my long-term plans. Thinking back now, perhaps the JET Programme isn’t the best route to go about getting a feel for such a thing because schools are usually the worst financed sector of our society as human beings (funny that). Apart from that, on this programme, you have no control over where you will be placed, so whereas I might have considered future prospects in the Osaka or even Tokyo areas, both on the main body of the island that is Japan, I ended up in the Kyushu area which sometimes feels like one of the long-forgotten parts of Japan.
To put this place in perspective, we are on the southernmost part of Japan, my town is in Nagasaki prefecture so that means I’m on the left-hand side of that southern part of Japan. No one cares about Nagasaki and yes there is a shinkansen (bullet train) route here but it is more of a nice to have (read as an expensive luxury) than a way to access the rest of Japan. Most times it’s cheaper just to fly out of my town and hope to reach civilisation soon. Anyway, so we aren’t exactly at the heart of the action here but because first world country, I expected everyone to more or less be on the same level (maybe they are – that’s even worse). When I got here, I was met by a distressing sight, the teachers’ laptops were old old. I almost fell over when I noticed the floppy and CD drives on them. It only took a few days for this shock to be superseded by another perception shattering event. The cry of the fax machine!
Now I’ve never personally owned a fax machine at home so it took me a minute to figure out what was going on. The sound was familiar and made me nostalgic about my childhood when I was about 10 years old (to put this in context, I turn 30 in a month) waiting in my dad’s office for home-time after enjoying an afternoon at the city library. Then it hit me, this soul-piercing noise was a sound from the ’90s. A whole fax machine in the year of our Lord, 2020! My dad’s workplace, a government office by the way – the last place to make expensive changes in most societies – changed over to email and internet communication for official business in the early 2000s. With this change came the removal of the fax machines. Okay yes, it’s true, some places still have a fax number listed on their list of contacts but most of them are using digital fax now, meaning fax to email services rather than an actual fax machine.
With my knowledge of how “rural” my placement is, I figured this situation was a by-product of that. Unfortunately, covid crushed this dream when the news reported that doctors were complaining about having to fax through covid numbers for verification and how this was slowing down the fight against the virus. I wish that the fax machines were the only thing that was holding this place back technologically but time and time again it has become clear to me that the image I have had of this great nation all my life was just not it.
Recently all the machines in the schools have been upgraded. We all have i5 machines that are running Windows 10! Joy! The CD drive is still there, but the machine is wayyy thinner and actually fast when paired with the WiFi. The most unfortunate part of this upgrade has been having to watch an “IT technician” come in and take notes on a notepad when teachers began having problems. The same “IT people” also struggled to set up printing alongside the teachers’ network and WiFi on the machines so the teachers have been told that they will have the problem fixed sometime next year. So now everyone works with two machines, the old and the new because clearly, IT is a concept here. Honestly, I wouldn’t complain but as someone who studied in an IT-related field, and also grew up with a natural affinity for tech, my soul is cringing so hard at this situation that it’s hard to ignore my uncomfortable reality. And the fact that I could fix all the above issues and also change my machine to English sans language pack, or the ability to read the Japanese on screen or even an internet connection within one afternoon, makes me mad on behalf of everyone who has to deal with this sham of an IT environment.
3) Conservative af!
Moving right along. Having heard of the hectic work culture and conditions, I expected to find people overdressed for jobs that required a T-shirt and jeans, but that’s not exactly what I found. People mostly dress however they like unless it’s a formal day or they work in “IT”.
Unfortunately, what I noticed over time is that the dress culture is very conservative. I didn’t realise it at first, but when I was cautioned about off the shoulder tops and low cut v-neck tops, it felt like being in a conservative black church all over again.
I remember growing up and going to church conferences with my parents. I liked road trips, so I didn’t mind tagging along. The part that always used to irritate me though is how much my mother would police my sister and me about dress code. She would always tell us to keep our skirts below the knee and to avoid tops that showed our shoulders. We’d get head wraps too if we were heading to a funeral or other traditional family gathering. It would irritate me because I didn’t see the same policing for girls our age. My friends and cousins could get away with dressing mostly however they wanted as long as the clothes where not too tight or revealing. My sister and I were dressing like young brides. I hated it!
So imagine my shock and distaste to find that this unsavoury part of the patriarchal society that I had hoped I had left behind, was here in my utopia too. The patriarchy is strong across the world and I think it’s prime time we tackle the conversation around policing of women’s bodies. But that’s a discussion for another day. This is just a thing I was naive enough not to expect here even though I knew I was heading into a highly patriarchal society.
4) The humidity!
Perhaps a favourite question or remark since coming here has been about how hot South African weather is. I usually tell people that South African weather is perfect because it is. Our summer is cool and breezy whilst our winter is just the right amount of cold to encourage you to go out with friends to soak up the winter Sun. During the flight over from South Africa a year ago, I knew something was wrong the second we stepped off the plane in Hong Kong for our layover. The air was hard to breathe, and it made our skin sticky even though we weren’t doing any exercise.
When we got to Tokyo, it was worse. And after that, when I finally got to my city it was even worse. In the first few weeks, I would turn to liquid by just being alive. And every day people would ask me if Japan was cooler than South Africa and as I looked at them through my sweating eyelids, it took everything in me not to laugh out loud at the thought of there being a place on this Earth more hot and humid than this. (if you live in such a place, I’m so sorry. You need to slaughter a chicken and ask for forgiveness or something because this is not normal!)
5) Cleaning time!
Of all the things I imagined when I thought of the Japanese school day, cleaning time was never on the timetable. In South Africa, I grew up in schools that hired people to clean the school and grounds. These were very important members of staff (even though their pay doesn’t match this statement), who were loved by all students and acted as our school aunties and uncles for some of us. School was the second cleanest (second only to my mama’s house) place I knew because of these wonderful people. Fast forward a few decades and life choices later, I now sit in a Japanese school where such people do not exist. And are schools filthy as all heck? I’ll reserve my full comment and give you a tentative noybe! Why? Because we use child labour!
My mother used to make us clean the house extensively every weekend, and she expected us to clean up after ourselves during the week when we got home from school as she had usually cleaned while we were away (circa the years when mom retired from working and owning a shop). During the holidays, the cleaning would become more intensive and involved things like packing out the wardrobes to sort through clothes and bedding to get rid of the old and tattered and repack the usable. She reserved June and December holidays for window washing and painting the house. So you could say I am no stranger to giving children responsibility.
Cleaning time here reminded me of this time and made my heart happy because I now cherish the lessons I learnt from knowing how to clean up after myself. It was cool seeing that the education system here included it as part of school time. That said, the definition of clean at school is very loose and that’s the only thing I would change. No one seems to believe in soap and I worry about the effectiveness of the little grass brooms here. Perhaps one day we will get soap and proper brooms and my faith will be restored.
I hope you’ve learnt something unconventional about Japan. Let me know if there’s anything else you would like to see me take a deep dive on. Thanks for reading.