Everyone has been exposed to at least some form of Japanese culture. Be it in the form of famous anime like Dragon Ball, Naruto or Pokemon; Sports like Judo, Sumo or Karate or even foods such as sushi, tempura or ramen. Many people have heard of or may have even visited major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, however most of us never get the chance to see the ‘real’ Japan.
Behind the gloss and bright lights of the bustling streets of Tokyo lies Japans rural communities, that for centuries have functioned as the homes and agricultural backbone of the Japanese islands. These rural areas known collectively as the Inaka, also form an important part of Japanese identity and hold a bounty of historical significance that is awe inspiring.
Being able to immerse oneself in another culture gives you a new perspective to work with and learn about.
It was only five months ago I received a letter of acceptance offering me a position to live and work in Japan. I remember the sense of excitement coupled with fear and uncertainty of what the future would hold. As hard as it was, I took the plunge and accepted the opportunity to become part of a rural community in Japan’s northern most prefecture, Aomori. Hopefully these articles will inspire more Australians to ‘take the plunge’. This is particularly relevant now with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe hinting of a movement towards greater import of skilled foreign workers to make up for a decreasing labour force and ageing population.
I currently live in Sannohe, a small town on the eastern side of Aomori prefecture with a population hovering around 10,000 people. As part of the JET Programme (Acronym of the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme) my role is to teach English and work as a member of my local community. I work in both junior high schools and middle schools, which essentially spans the equivalent of Australian schooling grades one through nine. My day varies based on which school I teach at.
Basically I teach at three schools. One combined Elementary and Junior High School five minutes from my house, another elementary school 15 minutes by bus and a small school of only seven students in the mountains near my town. This takes about 55 minutes by bus. One of the coolest thing (figuratively and literally) about living Aomori is that it is one of the coldest places in Japan. Aomori city, the largest and capital city of Aomori Prefecture is one of the snow capitals on Earth.
It is not unusual for them to be on the receiving end of three metre overnight snowfalls, with many days people having to walk to work on paths cut out in the snow. This is only a small problem for many though as the strong culture provides blissful counterweight from the weather’s harshness and unpredictability. If one is asked about Japan and what they think, the most common answers are samurai, sushi, sumo and sake. However amazingly enough these are only just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to life in Japan. Festivals known as “Matsuri” occur frequently with a full serving of energy and fun. The photo of the glowing float at the top is just one of the many hand crafted floats pulled through the streets on summer nights in Aomori city.
This festival is called Nebuta, one of Japans most famous for being loud and lively. It is held in the summer. Kindness seems to be integral in all interaction. One of the more intimidating things for the foreigner like myself to learn, or at least get used to, is the differing levels of speech and interaction, based off context and social heirarchy. An example of this is in the Japanese office. When addressing people with higher social status or rank, it is expected that one use Japanese of a very polite level and bow at correct angles. This in itself is not difficult to comprehend, however knowing which level to use is.
If you are not careful you can come across as rude to a company official. This is also true in reverse, if you speak formal Japanese all the time it may sound quite unusual to your Japanese friends, whilst also making it very difficult to make strong connections if you sound very formal. Japanese food and dining culture is one that is sure to amaze and delight, whilst sometimes baffle and confuse the foreigner.
Japan is a country that for hundreds of years has dined on vegetables. For a significant portion of their cultural history Japanese people were religiously against eating four legged animals. This is why Japanese cuisine is heavily influenced by fish, vegetables and various fermented products like pickles, tofu and Natto. You can go out with friends and get the freshest most authentic Japanese foods like sushi, sashimi, ramen, and miso. The quality and price of the food is a little hard to believe coming from a country that charges you around $3 for a bottle of water (its around $1.20 in Japan.) With that said fresh fruit and produce can often baffle the Australian traveler or newly arrived resident, with prices sometimes as much as four times what we are used to.
All in all living abroad as a foreign worker certainly has its advantages and disadvantages, however one of the things that is a clear to me is that this is a life changing experience. Growing up my exposure to Japan and its people was restricted to the few Japanese exchange students that stayed at my house. Being able to immerse oneself in another culture not only gives you a new perspective to work with and learn about, but it also makes you question your own culture.
You even begin to adapt certain elements of the culture like you would never imagine. This is best described by a recent trip back to Sydney I had for business. I found myself bowing when meeting new colleagues and feeling uneasy having my shoes on in a friends house.
This is certainly an amazing place to live.