I often think about the JET programme (the programme that appointed me to my job) and what exactly it is that I am doing here. What is my job. It is a difficult question.
On one level, I am just a simple English teacher. But this is not why I am here, this is merely the explicit mask of practicality for the logical minds of myself and my employers to cling to to make sense of what I should be doing on a day-to day basis. I am not here simply because I have a pure native dialect and a good apprehension of my language. I am here because I am from the other side of the planet and because I possess a worldview and a set of experiences that are radically different from the people I am living amongst. I am here so that the locals of my community can interact with me, to experience a different kind of thinking, and if they are open to it, to learn.
Japan is one of the most culturally-homogeneous countries on the planet. Although it would be incorrect to say that there is only one mode of thought in Japan and that there is only a single lens creating the Japanese worldview, this statement is not entirely false. In many ways, homogenous patterns of thought have been instilled throughout the country intentionally. From the time they are born, all of the Japanese are taught how to comply with the Japanese template: a template that they re told to believe is different from all of the other templates in the world. Something special and unique.
in 1987 the JET program was created. There was a movement of people who saw homogeneity not as “Japanese-ness,” but as something holding the country back from learning from the rest of the world and being a true participant in the world. Since then, thousands of foreigners from all around the world have been sent into the Japanese boondocks to act as ambassadors of their home countries.
At the time of writing this, I have been here for 8 months. I have learned an incredible amount from those around me, and this is not a surprise, as I came to my little village with an open heart and a desire to absorb. But has this been a true exchange? Have the locals gained from me? Do they want to gain from me, or even see me as a resource that can be learned from? These questions, too, are difficult to answer, and I ask them to myself every day.
Surely, we cannot just mass all of the people of an entire community together and put them in the categorical box of “locals” to be evaluated as a whole. Everyone is different. Some people want to experience other cultures, some want to keep them at a distance, and some are just busy picking vegetables from the ground and couldn’t care less either way. I am not here to be an American hero and forcibly spread my culture throughout this country, and if people don’t want to interact with me, I am fine with that. I have had some very powerful transformative experiences with some of the locals here though, most of them occurring on accident with individuals who I would least expect to see change from.
The most fulfilling interactions I have had have been with people who showed a noticeable amount of apprehension towards me when I came here. Maybe even hatred. “Hello! Nice whether today, isn’t it!” (in Japanese) Blank stare. “Good morning!” Nothing.
Through time, many old grandmas and grandpas who used to just stare at me as I walked by them on the street or said hello to them have become my friends. They come to my house and ask me what I’m planting when they see me gardening. They wave and smile when they see me jogging, and sometimes even stop me in the middle of my run and demand I drink beer with them!
Many people who think they are interested in other cultures are just interested in food dishes and tourist attractions. You don’t see real transformation in them. Their interest is often just topical. The people who gain the most are the people who have their vision of an “other” transplanted into the mental compartment of “one of us.” Their hearts are changed. They remember the arbitrary nature of cultural boundaries and experience what it is like to view all people as one. They show that change is possible, and that no matter what history lies behind us, each moment is a continual unfoldment of opportunity for a new way of living. They show that there is hope.
This is why I am here.