Kanpai to an amazing year in the Land of the Rising Sun

By Sonya Pickervance

How do you sum up a year in Japan?’ `One hell of an adventure’ would be my first choice of words! I have met so many incredible people and had so much fun. While on the plane over here I remember thinking I would be happy if I could learn a little Japanese, try calligraphy and travel in Asia. The reality of course, has far exceeded my expectations: climbing Mount Fuji was a blast; watching half-naked guys chase after a stick was even better. Getting naked with my my colleagues at an onsen was… interesting; visiting a mixed mud bath was quite something else! Admittedly there have been the odd arrrrrrgh moments. Adjusting to a new culture that is so far removed from my own is not easy, but Japan has definitely grown on me. It’s like a quirky old relative: quite insane at times but you just can’t help loving it to bits. It has come as a surprise to me to realize which parts of Japan’s varied culture I have become particularly attached to – I certainly didn’t expect to become so enamored with bowing and cleaning!

I remember an ex-JET telling me that he had got so into bowing that he would find himself doing it on the phone. I can now totally relate to this (having bowed on my bike and nearly driven straight into a telegraph pole more times than I can mention!). The bowing culture is definitely one of my favourite things about Japan. Sometimes it looks like a bowing contest and it’s hard not to be a little amused. Both parties are waiting for the other to stop, but neither do. When I first arrived I used to look on amused, taking silent bets as to who would stop first.

When I first experienced soji, or “cleaning time” I couldn’t believe my eyes. I remember thinking that it must reduce the status of the teachers to have them cleaning alongside the students. Now, I think it in fact does the opposite – it encourages a great deal of mutual respect. The fact that the jobs rotate and everyone has a chance to clean the toilets is unbelievable. I always expect to see students hiding to get out of cleaning but I’ve only seen this once. He was a particularly daring 1st year junior school student actually waved at a passing teacher from the roof of the school, clearly indicating that he was hiding from his duties – boy, was he in trouble later! I saw him after school with the said teacher cleaning all 350 shoe lockers.

Another day, I was eating lunch with all the teachers and something was spilled on the floor. Within two seconds a young male teacher, dressed in a smart suit, was on the floor with a cloth wiping up the spill. It was an incredible sight (not least because he is so beautiful to look at, but that’s another story).

I learnt early on in my time in Japan – and to my cost – that it is not a good idea to joke around with students during cleaning time. A 3rd year junior high school student was cleaning the floor on his hands and knees and I pointed upwards and said ‘window’. I then continued brushing the floor only to turn round in horror to see him cleaning this huge window with the floor cloth, leaving dirty streaks all over it! To make matters worse the principal walked over and gave him a real good shouting at. I was mortified and rushed to apologise to him. Unfortunately for me, the principal was nearby at this moment and saw me apologizing. If looks could kill! Later the student saw the funny side of the incident and whenever I saw him he would smirk and say, ‘No window!’

The teaching has certainly proved to be interesting. My pre-arrival perception of Japanese students as meek, shy and compliant turned out to be way off the mark. One of my schools feels rather like a monkey enclosure; if they sit still for a minute it’s a miracle. One student takes great delight in appearing out of nowhere and thumping me. It was funny the first time… The students have certainly surprised me but, moreso they have impressed me. During my final lesson with my junior high school third grader’s in March, I asked them their dreams for the future and was blown away by their answers. I was expecting them to say they wanted to be rich, or to become a famous baseball player. In fact, most of them wanted to get married, and make their friends happy and their mothers proud. I can’t imagine a group of students back home giving responses like this.

Spending a year in Japan promised to be both fascinating and challenging but I didn’t expect to be quite so impressed and inspired. It truly has proved to be an opportunity of a lifetime. I have made some wonderful new friends, and I want to thank them all for having made this such an incredible year for me. To those of you leaving Japan this summer, good luck for the future. Take care of yourselves and remember this: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all!”