Photo: すしぱく on Pakutaso

More Than English Teachers – The Kinds of Foreigners You'll Meet in Japan

"Will I be able to master the language?"

"Can I adapt to Japanese culture?"

"Will Japanese friends and colleagues ever accept me as an equal?"

These are just some of the existential questions that most if not all foreigners are forced to wrestle with in their minds prior to coming here. 

Indeed entire books have been written (though not always from a balanced viewpoint) on these very issues. However, there is one area of assimilation into Japanese society that seems to have largely escaped such scrutiny, and that is the way in which we interact not with the Japanese, but with those from other nations. 

Photo by Taichiro Ueki on Flickr.

I won’t use the term "expat", as that seems to be an outmoded manifestation of white privilege. Instead I prefer to call it as it is and use the term immigrant. 

As an immigrant in Japan, I have noticed the foreign community here is quite different from other countries I have lived in, such as Hong Kong. Good luck trying to join a cricket team or arrange a meeting of your local yachting club in Japan! Such things are commonplace in Hong Kong, but you won’t find them here. 

Likewise, there seems to be a greater diversity amongst the foreign working populous in places other than Japan. 

Photo by Luca Sartoni on Flickr.

In Japan, probably about 80–90% of the foreigners I encounter here are English teachers. Again, this could be my own bias as a white male that perhaps somehow limits my social scope, but I will confidently bet that English teachers make up a far higher ratio of foreign workers here than they do in the likes of Hong Kong. 

However the term "English teacher" has a pretty wide ranging meaning in Japan. Whilst the bulk of teachers do still seem to come from the US and Canada, smaller populations such as Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia and of course Scotland are well represented too. In recent years, in an increasing number of positions it is becoming clear that one does not necessarily even need to be a native English speaker to work in some schools in Japan. This has opened the gateway to people from places like Brazil, Malaysia and the Philippines. 

Photo by Radek Kucharski on Flickr.

With such a proverbial melting-pot of cultures, creeds, languages and ideals, the term “foreigner” really doesn’t do this societal group justice. Therefore, with such a diverse group of people, communication and social interaction can, at times, be somewhat fractious. 

I should add at this point that I realize that not all foreigners in Japan are English teachers, however I can only go on my own experiences, and having worked as a teacher here for several years, that is predominantly the group in which I have operated. 

So, what are the potential flash points when dealing with other non-Japanese in Japan? Let’s look at a few examples:

1. Religious Beliefs and Faith Ideals

Photo by ジユン on Pakutaso.

This group refers to the missionaries or church builders of the country.

I have encountered some Christian organizations here that take on an almost cult-like appearance. All these people ever seem to talk about is their idea of God and it seems to control every facet of their existence. Though I must admit, they do seem make up a very optimistic and pleasant community. Good for them, but please count me out. 

However, this is as much an issue of culture as it is religious observance. Evangelical Christians are commonplace in certain parts of the US, but not so much in Scotland. 

2. Politics

Photo by ニュース 2016 NEWs on Wikimedia Commons.

Much like religion, I also do my best to avoid people who are overly political, especially in the case of right wing extremism. Thankfully such people are rare in Japan, as they seldom possess the necessary education to qualify for a working visa here!

Joking aside, politics, especially UK and US politics are best kept off the table when you are meeting new people here, as would be the case in most countries. 

3. Working Conditions and Salaries

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

This is a particularly divisive issue amongst teachers in Japan. There seem to be two distinct camps to this debate. 

On one hand there are those who are so in awe of finally realizing their dream of coming to work in Japan, that they will seemingly accept anything that is given to them. They work all the hours given them, they do all they can to serve the customers and the company, and they never ask those awkward questions about their missing pension payments, health insurance or the like. 

Then there are the “old-timers” like me. Newbies may think I am being overly negative in my criticism of companies who employ such teachers. However, as I see rights being abused, entitlements denied, I cannot help but feel that these admirably enthusiastic young people are being taken advantage of in a very cynical way. But then again that’s just my opinion. For these less-experienced teachers, I can totally understand their point of view, indeed many years ago I wasn’t so different from them in my opinions. 

The important thing to remember in all of this, is that, regardless of your personal, political or social differences, as immigrants trying to better yourself in Japan, there are far more things that unite us than divide us. By building friendships, cooperative partnerships and support networks we can all make our wonderful lives in Japan even better!

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