Teaching Abroad: what’s it like living in Japan?

Brent Thomas and his daughter

Japan’s grasp on English is lower than it would like. In the most recent release of the EF English Proficiency Index, Japan ranked 49th of the 88 countries surveyed. The Ministry of Education has set national targets in schools in an effort to raise the overall level on comprehension. With a competitive salary and the phenomenon of Japanese culture working to its advantage, the land of the rising sun remains of the most popular places in the world to teach English.

Brent Thomas has lived in Japan since 2004. He has held a number of jobs relating to the subject of English including teaching, administrative, and advisory roles. He says adjusting to Japan can be difficult for the English teachers coming from abroad but that some have more trouble than others. Interestingly, the people who seem to struggle most are the ones who have visited the country before.

“I used to be the ALT advisor, which is the big brother figure to the other assistant language teachers. I was there for crisis and counselling support and setting up different seminars and things like that. One of the things we talked about was how to adjust to it. Strangely enough, the group of people who always had the most trouble adjusting to living in suburban and rural Japan were folk who had done study abroad in bigger cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. That set their framework to what living in Japan would be,” he says.

Thomas, who now lives in Tokyo with his wife and two kids, had never left the United States before accepting a job to teach English through the JET Program. Landing in Tokyo served not only as his first experience in Japan, but as his first international experience in general. A whirlwind of seminars and activities transpiring over the course of a few days delayed the initial culture shock, which didn’t set in until Thomas got to his placements in the region of Gunma.

“Basically, you hit the ground running. The first couple of days here, they put you up in what we now know as a really nice hotel for about three or four days of seminars. Once the night comes, you’re released on your own but there’s activities and plans. During the day, you’re wearing suits and dress shirts and going to all these seminars one after the other trying to fight off jet lag. After three or four days of that, we got on a chartered bus all going to Gunma,” he says. “You’re meeting people who you’re going to become incredibly fast friends with even if it’s only for a few days at a time.”

Thomas’s first teaching jobs were in Kiyru, a small city of 70,000 people. Dividing his time between two schools, he describes one as unwelcoming and the other as warm and friendly. The contrast between the schools underlines the effect a placement can have on teachers from abroad not yet familiar with their new surroundings.

“[The first school] would have work parties and never invite me. I still have one of those memories of me pulling a long week because we had a special English program happening. It was Friday night and I still remember the English teacher going ‘okay, well we’re going to have to stop working at this around five today, we can’t work any later.’ I was like ‘really? What’s going on?’ and then them turning to the math teacher and in Japanese, which I could understand well enough at this point, being like ‘did you invite him to the gathering tonight?’ They just kind of looked at me and were like ‘there’s a thing tonight if you want to go to it?’” he laughs.

“Contrasting it with the other school with one of my other favourite memories, the history teacher, within a month or two of my working at the school calls me over and is like ‘hey! Tonight! Five o’clock, yes?’ and everyone around just kind of giggling as this really gruff social studies teacher is doing his best to invite me to the party [in English].”

A welcoming workplace is more than something to be desired. For Thomas, it’s a necessity which establishes a sense of belonging in a culture vastly different from his Florida roots. Japan’s mixed reaction to immigration puts an added emphasis on the importance of a friendly workplace and Thomas credits his current job at an Anglican school in Tokyo as playing a big role in why he feels so at home.

“My current workplace, one of the reasons I’ve been there for so long is because it’s got to be one of the warmest, most welcoming atmospheres of any place I’ve worked. So that helps, when that’s your daily routine, that does help me feel like I do belong a bit more.”

Japan is often described as a closed culture. This blanket terminology is used so often in international media to describe Japan that the country and insularity may seem almost synonymous at times. For Thomas, this is where it gets a bit foggy. He does not deny facing small prejudices here and there but believes the overall statement is unrepresentative of the many of the country’s individuals.

“I think one of the mistakes when people have the conversations about Japan, and probably any other country, is there’s a habit to paint it [with] one brush. ‘Japanese people do this.’ Sometimes I feel even more so with Japan because there’s already that media output from other countries that kind of want to push it all into one group of people, but I mean, there’s so many masses of individuals that I just want to make sure when I start speaking about Japan I’ll be more talking about macro rather than the individuals. Because once you start breaking it down to individuals, there’s so many varieties of people that it’s just like any other country,” he begins.

“I do feel, and I’ve been called too sensitive because of this, that I have to continuously be wary of making sure it’s known that I can function in Japan. Sometimes it’s little things like going to restaurants and, it doesn’t happen all the time, but there’s still a lot of people who, even if I’m ordering, they don’t want to talk to me. They want to talk to my wife. I’ll say something and then they’ll look to her for confirmation.”

Thomas says the prejudice he experiences is minimal when comparing to other ethnicities living in Japan. Being both white and from the United States, he is at the top of the immigrant social hierarchy and is quick to acknowledge certain privileges that come along with this status.

“I will have an easier path in Japan than almost any other group of foreigners. It’s going to be a lot easier for me to get a job teaching English and I’m not going to be looked down upon as one of the bad foreigners. Sadly, in Japan, it is true. If you’re darker or if you’re southeast Asian, whatever little discriminatory events I’ve had, they’re going to have a lot harder of a time,” he says.

Living Japan is a podcast run by Thomas and two other hosts hailing from Japan and Mexico. The trio discuss various topics surrounding Japan and share the common goal of developing a well-rounded perspective on the complex nature of Japanese society. Currently on hiatus, Thomas says they do their best to approach each topic from an unbiased perspective.

“I think that of the material out there, we are one of the few that really try to find a balance in how to discuss Japan. We didn’t want to be critical of something just because it was the Japanese style of doing something, nor did we want to be overly congratulatory of it. We really wanted to shine a light. That’s one of the reasons we made a good voice. We had three different people from three drastically different backgrounds, including someone who is Japanese to give a bit more of an analytical stance on whatever it was we were discussing,” he says.

In addition to the podcast, Thomas writes a blog called, Deadly Troubadour, which touches on his life in Japan. What was meant to be a couple years abroad has slowly become the backdrop of his adult life, a reality that hits him on some days harder than others.

“It trips me up, being a little southerner from the middle of nowhere in north Florida originally, the town where my fundamental memories were based on has less than 5,000 people in it. Then to think ‘this is where I live now. This is where both of my children are born.’ It feels so different.”

Unsure if Japan will be his home forever, Thomas says returning to the United States isn’t off the table. For now, he is happy to call Tokyo home.

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