When I moved to Africa from Japan as a teenager, I was young and going through a typical “angry teenager phase”. I wasn’t happy at all at school in Japan. Before I hit this phase, I used to love studying and learning new things, making new friends although my father’s job required us, as a family, to move from one city to another within Japan every couple of years. But as I was starting to be taken over by the social pressure as a junior high school student in Japan, I felt suffocated and desperate to death at the age of fourteen. The school asked me which high school I was aiming to enter before I was in my 9th grade. Teachers arranged meetings with students and parents about “your/your child’s ideal career path plan”, which I scoffed and tossed away thinking, who on Earth has an idea of the whole career AND one’s life path, which were to be determined and decided by choosing the “right high school and university”? And they would lead to any teenager’s happiness or even success? Why do I have to be “decided” and “destined” only at fourteen years along my long life? I couldn’t be feeling more fooled than then by such a social norm at the time.
No gap year is perceived as an advantage in a youth’s life for a “proper social being to contribute to other fellow Japanese” in Japanese mentality. You have to be young and in good health, immaculately straight-forward and smooth on your resume without much transfers or moves from the elementary school to the university, then to a company or two. Any experiences in more than three companies is not welcomed at job interviews, if lucky enough to remain after sorted on documents, but at least considerably frowned upon and interrogated at the interview as if the interviewee has a “mental disorder” or “social incompatibility” in most companies. Why? Because they desire naïve and ignorant youths who would never question or complain to work overtime for free, to be quiet and obedient slaves for the coming years, if the contract is not just for a few months. To them, employees are like disposable contact lenses, or paper dishes you throw away after the party is over.
Of course, not all the companies in Japan are like that “old-minded”. However, especially those cities and towns outside large urban areas like Tokyo and Osaka, tend to be more conservative in their company philosophies and thus leads to excess concentration of population and industry in the metropolitan areas.
Now, I have to explain about my background and current situation here.
I lived in Africa and went to a British International School for three years from grade eight to ten. The international environment with students from different backgrounds woke my true self-esteem and made me treasure the richness the world can offer us by being just “yourself”, and that is the key to happiness and peace for the world. The Japanese education that I had been suspicious to obey to when people around me put pressure on me saying, you have to just “listen” to the teachers and “don’t ask questions because it delays the course of the curriculum the teacher is intending to complete” went out of the window in a week or two since I started mingling with my Indian, European, American, African, mixed and other Asian students and teachers in Africa. I felt so silly and frustrated for I couldn’t communicate in English freely at the beginning, nevertheless, I had never felt so alive in the exciting, free and self-responsible learning environment the international school offered. I was so happy, and I treasured each moment I was there, for I knew that once I go back to Japan, I again had to be immersed in that suffocating, conforming schools and social stress. My beginning was in Africa, where I felt alive for the first time in my life.
The dreamy years in Africa passed, and I got back to Japan. Then I entered and graduated from a national university in Japan specialised in agriculture, and studied Arabic as a foreign language for a year in the Middle East. I then continued studying Horticulture for my Master’s Degree in one of the privileged universities in England for studying agricultural subjects. I studied hard and obtained my MSc with the help of my family, friends, boyfriend at the time, and supervisor’s great support and encouragement. It was not easy, but I finally made it. I felt so victorious and content. I wanted to contribute to the people and the society that encouraged and appreciated me, which were mostly located in the UK and Europe, rather than Japan. I knew if I were to get back to Japan, I would be too old (26 years old) and have multi-faceted educational background so that Japanese companies would not hire me. So I preferred to stay in the UK to look for a job. But to do so, I needed to get a work visa from my potential employer. I was not an EU citizen, nor one from the Common Wealth, neither was I a native English speaking person or a person with certain amount of cash in my bank account so that I could be legally living in London to look for a job at my own pace. So I was told from those companies in the UK I applied for a job that they would be happy to hire me if I had my own visa for working in the UK, but unfortunately, they couldn’t offer me one for I was just out from the university and didn’t have any professional skills that were ready to be practical in the field, or skills that remarkably surpassed the competing applicants who did not require work visa application procedures.
My living expenses flew away so rapidly even before my master’s course finished, and even as I worked as a part-timer as a student, I had to ask my parents to wire me the money to buy a ticket to return to Japan. I had to leave England. Or I would be an illegal resident, which I absolutely wanted to avoid. I respected England and its people, and didn’t want anything to harm my good relationship with them, so I left England in snow after Christmas in 2005. My eyes went blurry with tears welling up as I watched snow falling down on runway. The snow was rare in London, but it kept snowing and the special snow melting procedure had to be done on my plane. My flight was delayed for an hour or so with passengers already on board. I felt as if London was comforting my crying soul, hugging me in the snow saying it didn’t want me to leave either. But eventually the plane took off, as I closed my eyes after seeing London from above for the last time for how long? I never knew.
I had good times and bad times after I got back to Japan. But always this feeling lingered in my mind that I did not fit into this nation, the “fellow Japanese people”, and the vague and unclear rules and languages this whole Japanese culture had to throw at me and surround me like the intolerable humidity of Japanese climate. The lack of moral, ethics or the eerie absence of God in people that is different from any of those countries in the world with people who have some sort of faith or religion. I worked, managed to find happiness and fun times with some great people and grew as a person. However, I was a foreigner in Japan always. Just because I speak Japanese fluently doesn’t mean that I have those Japanese “common sense” and average way of thinking and/or behaviours as an immaculate, pure Japanese, which most of the Japanese people who never lived outside of Japan expect subconsciously to the fellow Japanese. How dreadful this is, do you want to know? For example, if I find something that is inefficient at work place and I can suggest some different, better ways to solve or improve the situation, I just friendlily tell my boss or colleagues about it. I tell politely, I confirm here. But their reaction may be totally out of proportion. They start to tell me to be quiet, and just keep doing the current way, or I would be considered as “rude” to the elder members of the office, etc. I say it’s ridiculous, it’s just to improve the work flow! And they go, “Listen, just do what we say.” I reply, “No, sorry but in my opinion, the way I suggest would save 2 hours that’s currently wasted now.” And they finally tell me “Look, I know you are a WESTERN-STYLE woman, but you are a JAPANESE woman to begin with. So don’t just play stuck-up and westernised and do what we say. Aren’t you a proper Japanese?” I either go laughing and respond in sarcastic but honest way, saying I am just me, Japanese or whatever is none of their business and I am just talking about the efficiency of work simply because I don’t want to waste two hours and work overtime with those people who never mind getting home at nine or ten at night. They go quiet, ignore me, and silently force me to work with them overtime, or leave the company forever soon at my own will.
This is just an example, but basically, it’s usually in this pattern that I can’t stand the social pressure on me that says “let’s suffer together, because I’m in pain means you should be in pain too!” As much as I can’t take this negative attitude, the “average Japanese people” can’t take my “let’s be happy by making changes and being efficient” attitude. It’s a mystery and the reality of the Japanese mentality. Why suffer more when life is already hard without particular obstacles? Life is too short to my eyes. Those energy wasted on moaning how horrible their work and bosses are should be used to make the world a better place. But my way of thinking is considered cheeky and snob, and an unwanted maverick of the community…