Tonoharu: Excellent graphic novel about an English teacher in Japan

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57 Responses to “Tonoharu: Excellent graphic novel about an English teacher in Japan”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Lived there 18 years after I went there to teach English. I think Tonoharu depicts a very selfish , one sided picture of Japan. It is a beautiful country with a lot of nice people and has its share of problem just like any place else.

  2. Flying_Monkey says:

    It seems to me that are two kinds of posters on this thread: those who recognise their experiences as theirs, can see their limitations, and are happy to learn from the experiences of others too; and those who seem to think that their experiences are general or universal and therefore that other experiences are bound to be ‘wrong’ or result from a lesser knowledge of Japan.

    Most of the experiences we have are at least partially dependent on the position we occupy, and we are seen to be. Now I am a professor and researcher who does work in Japan, I am in a totally different social position and have had very different interactions and experiences than back when I was a JET teacher. If I was a factory worker or a nighclub host or doorman, they’d be very different again. They’d all be experiences of Japan, but not remotely generalisable to the others.

  3. Anonymous says:

    These two posts from a language blogger who has been living in Japan (not as a teacher) for 4 years might be of interest here.
    http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/life-in-japan-1-year-on-looking-back
    http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/racism-in-japan-人種差別大國日本?

    His post on racism offers a somewhat different perspective than the typical white-guy-English-teacher, since he’s a black guy in the tech field.

    This “Gaijin 12-Step Program” post is also relevant:
    http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/the-gaijin-12-step-program

    Personally, I’ve gotten kind of sick of reading about Japan and Japanese people on the internet, because most of it is either “alienated westerner in the Far East” type stuff, or the ridiculously numerous “look at dem wacky Japanese” articles and posts.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I thought I might as well add a quote from the FAQ section of that site I linked, since it sums things up nicely:

    Are People in Japan Racist?

    No. In general, intensely ignorant of certain things you might take for granted, and about as culturally sensitive as a sleep-deprived elephant with a hangover but absolutely not actually racist. It’s easy for us to forget that a lot of the cultural sensitivity that people from other parts of the world often display is entirely due to active, deliberate social training, not ethical superiority, and sometimes does not in fact extend beyond superficial behaviors.

    Such training does not yet exist in Japan but it’s on its way up. Although, arguably, Japan doesn’t need it. The reason countries like the US have needed largescale, active “de-racism training” is because they had active racism on a massive, society-wide scale, enshrined in law and propped up by shady theology and even shadier “research”. Japan has never had that kind of thing. If the US is a self-righteous recovering alcholic, then Japan is just a guy that drinks sometimes. To go teetotal might be nice, but either way, the alcoholic has no moral authority to preach. My substance-abuse metaphors suck, don’t they?

    Whatever. Anyway, speak nice Japanese and it all smooths out. The people of Japan mean you no harm — quite the opposite in fact. For one thing, I’d like you to try walking alone in the middle of the night in a more “cosmopolitan”, “culturally sensitive” Tokyo-size city anywhere else in the world, and compare results.

    More broadly, we need to realize that there are jerks in Japan. In fact, there are jerks everywhere in the world. Or, people who act like jerks for some or much of the day. But, for us to take that out of context and say “therefore, the people of Japan are jerks” is itself an idea that smacks of racism. So we need to be careful not to take those sour encounters for more than they’re worth. I believe that best medicine is to [acquire Japanese and use it to] make more close friends who are Japanese.

    • Anonymous says:

      “The reason countries like the US have needed largescale, active “de-racism training” is because they had active racism on a massive, society-wide scale, enshrined in law and propped up by shady theology and even shadier “research”. Japan has never had that kind of thing.”

      What about the institutionalized racism experienced by Koreans who were born in Japan but still get treated as aliens? Or the Ainu? That’s simply not true, though Japan would have you believe they’re a homogeneous society. As for shady research, look up “Nihonjinron”.

      • Anonymous says:

        That was part of a quote that I quoted from someone else, so I can’t be responsible for the content. I know Japan has been racist toward other Asian countries and toward native people for a long time. However, that doesn’t mean it’s ok for white people to complain about racism in Japan and compare it to how black people were treated in 1950′s America, when there’s obviously nothing even close to that going on. Even towards Koreans, there was never that sort of segregation (separate water fountains, anyone?).

  5. Anonymous says:

    “You can become a master in the Japanese Language, you can become a master in Japanese Etiquette, but despite that effort, you can never look Japanese.”

    Dear whoever originally thought up that quote.

    I’m gonna take a bet that you are a master neither of Japanese nor Japanese etiquette, and have few to no real Japanese friends.

    Yes. You will always look different, and to people who don’t know you you will be a ‘foreigner’.

    And?

    So… f##ing… what?

    Would you rather _be_ a Japanese person? Live in a shoe box and work a sixty hour week? Constantly pay attention to what people around you are thinking about your behavior? Go to a foreign country and find it impossible to fit in/ripped off by dodgy education outfits/sleezed onto by every other loser barfly? No?

    Perhaps you would rather just be treated like a Japanese person then. You know, expected to strictly follow social protocol and ostracized if you don’t. Doubt it.

    So what you would really like then, is all the benefits of being a white person in Japan (the attention, the ‘its OK because he/she is a foreigner’ get out of Jail free card, the job opportunities, the free love… but also with all the social inclusion and acceptance of a native.

    Even then I dare say you would complain about the place… Perhaps you would like it better in another foreign country. But then again, Japan is probably the only foreign country you have spent some significant time attempting to live in/adjust to.

  6. davejenk1ns says:

    Hi,

    I am the anonymous poster from #1 above– sorry for not giving my ID earlier. Please let me clarify some points:
    1. I completely agree with the emotional detachment one can get from being a Westerner in East Asia. I’ve actually noticed that it gets worse with increased fluency in the language/culture.
    2. I was never a JET, but I hung out with plenty of them– it’s Ia lonely life in the styx for them.
    3. I can completely relate with what is described in the book.

    Having said all that, please understand my critique was toward this as a literary theme, not the actual experience. I just think we’ve seen this story so many times before, that I’m not getting anything out of it. I know the story all too well– that’s the point.

  7. Spoon says:

    Ugh! I wanted to write an intelligent post to contribute to this discussion, but I ended up writing way too much in an attempt to cover my ass against reprisal from Japanese culture zealots. (You DON’T know who you are, and that’s the problem…) I decided to give up and offer a very inflammatory viewpoint which I think is funny.

    I’m a white American and my wife and I have lived and taught in Japan for over a year. In that time I’ve come to believe that Japan is 30-40 years behind the west in it’s views of racial diversity and sexual equality, and that’s probably being generous. In Japan…

    If you’re white, you get to feel what it’s like to be black in America today.
    If you’re not white and not black, you get to feel what it was like to be black 20 years ago.
    If you’re black, you get to feel what it was like to be black 40 years ago.
    If you’re a woman, you get to feel what it was like to be a woman 60 years ago.

    I work with children and see the progress being made, but it’s a generational thing and takes time. Feel free to disagree or give your own breakdown, as I don’t hold these views too seriously. Thanks for all of the thoughtful response everyone else!

    • turn_self_off says:

      not surprised, as the nation went from feudal via militaristic (is there really that much of a diff?) to something of a democracy and industrial powerhouse (largely thanks to much the same structures that powered their feudalism and militarism) within the last 100-150 years.

      that is barely 3-4 generations. Not at all enough time for attitudes and social norms to water down and adapt. Sure, there may be lip service done when in public. But behind closed doors?

    • Mark Frauenfelder says:

      When my wife and I were in Kobe in 1987, a cute little girl (about 6) came up to us and asked if we would play with her on a nearby swingset. (A Japanese person we had become friendly with was translating what she said). We ended up playing with the girl for about 20 minutes. Then she looked hard at us and said something without smiling. Our friend seemed embarrassed to tell us what the little girl had told us, but after we begged her to tell us she said the girl had said, “My parents told me that non-Japanese are not real people. They are animals. You don’t seem like animals.” We burst out laughing, and the little girl laughed, too.

      I wonder how common this is.

      • benher says:

        Some foreigners do behave like animals – wrecking the parks in which those kids play. There are almost weekly reports of terrible things in Okinawa (hit and runs, robbery, rape, etc.) It’s no wonder that there are negative stereotypes of foreigners here.

        But these stereotypes are not universal (thankfully.) I worked with about 200 kids on a small island for about 2 years. The people were kind, friendly, and above all curious about life outside their island. Some people (esp. those with little language ability) misinterpret this curiosity as racism.

        I had a friend here with a daughter your age – sometimes the kids at the playground would come over to play with her (she is half Japanese half Australian) and later the parents would come and tug her away. Maybe it was because my friend is huge, and covered with tattoos. Maybe it was because he was a foreigner. But at school, in the PTA circle, she and her father have befriended many families and incidents like the one you describe, while not rare are still uncommon.

        Spoon: Unless you are black, that comes off as an awfully ignorant comparison. I sympathize with you and your situation, but I have to ask, how much command of the language do you have here? I’ve lived here for 10 years and, like anyone who has spent prolonged periods in a foreign land there are period of peaks and valleys – there are some regions that are more friendly than others… and for every situation of ‘drunk harassment’ I’ve had here, I experiences easily 10 times as much of it in the country of my birth. I hope your situation improves. I hope I’m not too much of an ‘apologist.’

        • Spoon says:

          “Unless you are black, that comes off as an awfully ignorant comparison.”

          Funny man! I don’t quite get what you mean though, as I stated that I was white in my post. So you must mean…

          A. My statements would only be valid if I was black.
          B. If I’m black, anything that I say is beyond questioning.
          C. You’re honestly asking if I’m black, even though I stated that I wasn’t.

          How’s YOUR command of the language? (I’m talking about English, just so you don’t get confused.) And as I stated before, I’m just playing buddy! Don’t go all cultural warrior on me. By your own standard you shouldn’t be making any observations about Japanese culture since you aren’t Japanese. Ouch! Here’s another burning comment to crank up your righteous indignation.

          The black comparison isn’t fair? Here’s some fun observations.

          “Gaijin” is basically the N-word for foreigners. It’s not allowed on things like news broadcasts and is considered politically incorrect and would make anyone in a formal conversation flush with embarrassment, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t used in everyday conversation! Kids will never call you the polite “gaikokujin” upon meeting you. Usually mortified parents and teachers have to remind the children not to call us by that name to our faces.

          Also, look up “reverse racism” as it applies to black people in the US and see if you find any parallels to your time in Japan. “You can speak Japanese? Wow! You’re doing so well for one of your people!” (Spoken with gracious helpings of insincerity and pride for being socially progressive.)

          And of course it’s okay to hang signs in store windows that say “No foreigners allowed!” That’s just a misunderstand on our part! We should just be happy that we can use the same restrooms!

          Seriously though, I’m really happy where I am and I have a good understanding of the concept of cultural relativity. I’m just responding for laughs. It’s fun to see all of this contortion being done to forgive behavior that is undeniably backward. If I really wanted to express ill will, it would be toward the weeaboos that live here and do the most damage for Japanese’ impression of foreigners.

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t think gaijin is a bad word. The only reason people are careful and PC about it now is because gaijin got upset about it. It’s ridiculous to think that leaving the ‘koku’ in the middle makes it more palatable. If you think it’s the “N-word” that’s because foreigners made it that way. (Foreigner:
            for·eign·er
               /ˈfɔrənər, ˈfɒr-/ Show Spelled[fawr-uh-ner, for-]
            –noun
            1.
            a person not native to or naturalized in the country or jurisdiction under consideration; alien.
            2.
            a person from outside one’s community.

            Gaijin means the same fucking thing, except it usually has the added implication of non-Asian. Foreigner = outsider/alien, so you guys should stop whining that gaijin = outside person.

            The ‘no foreigners allowed’ signs are perfectly understandable. Not every establishment has staff members who speak English (or Russian or whatever) and there are plenty of foreigners who can show up expecting everyone to understand them as long as they speak loud and slowly, and who are generally a pain in the ass. Those signs don’t mean “We hate foreigners,” they mean “We don’t want to deal with things that weren’t in our job description.”

            Japanese attitudes toward race can look “undeniably backward” to someone who is used to living in a PC country where everyone is more careful about how their speech might be interpreted. It’s not a moral failing to be born in a homogeneous society, where your main exposure to people outside your race is movies and tourists. The way black people are stereotyped in western media as criminals, thugs, and gang members definitely makes it easy for a Japanese person to internalize racist stereotypes without meaning to.

            “Also, look up “reverse racism” as it applies to black people in the US and see if you find any parallels to your time in Japan. “You can speak Japanese? Wow! You’re doing so well for one of your people!” (Spoken with gracious helpings of insincerity and pride for being socially progressive.)”

            Do you even realize how SHORT the amount of time has been since there where only a few foreigners fluent in Japanese (especially reading/writing)? Of course it’s still a novelty. Also, the majority of Japanese people have a bad experience with a foreign language (English) being taught in a really bad way and with focus on the wrong things, (even those who major in it at college aren’t usually fluent), so they have a hard time understanding how someone could get to that level in Japanese.

            I’m going to refer you to post #29, especially the part “I’d like you to try walking alone in the middle of the night in a more “cosmopolitan”, “culturally sensitive” Tokyo-size city anywhere else in the world, and compare results. More broadly, we need to realize that there are jerks in Japan. In fact, there are jerks everywhere in the world. Or, people who act like jerks for some or much of the day. But, for us to take that out of context and say “therefore, the people of Japan are jerks” is itself an idea that smacks of racism. So we need to be careful not to take those sour encounters for more than they’re worth. I believe that best medicine is to [acquire Japanese and use it to] make more close friends who are Japanese.”

            Anyways, people like Spoon sound very bitter and have obviously been interpreting every interaction through their own cultural values. I can’t change his opinion (and I’m not trying to), and I’m not being an apologist either. But when you put this in context of other actually racist societies(where you might be in actual danger), this really is simply one of the characteristics of a homogeneous society. Even so, people in my age group (20) don’t seem to have any of the hangups that bother other people posting here, and they usually take my language ability for granted. So I definitely see things changing over the next few generations.

            Foreigners really shouldn’t be coming to Japan with the idea that their own countries are morally superior for being “cultural melting pots” and that anybody who doesn’t understand the value of that is backwards and a racist.

          • Spoon says:

            Not a bad response! I think your arguments are regrettably narrow and rely too much on the relevance of your own experience (almost as badly as mine do, and I’m just in it for lulz), but at least you put some thought into it.

            - “Those signs don’t mean “We hate foreigners,” they mean “We don’t want to deal with things that weren’t in our job description.’”

            - “Do you even realize how SHORT the amount of time has been since there where only a few foreigners fluent in Japanese (especially reading/writing)?”

            - “But when you put this in context of other actually racist societies(where you might be in actual danger), this really is simply one of the characteristics of a homogeneous society.”

            - “The way black people are stereotyped in western media as criminals, thugs, and gang members definitely makes it easy for a Japanese person to internalize racist stereotypes without meaning to.”

            This all seems pretty apologist to me. Like, laughably so. I wanted you to know that I read your post and appreciated the feedback though. That being said, I think I’ve posted enough on this topic. Peace out!

          • Anonymous says:

            I think you have the sort of personality that is hard to get along with in real life, so I’d be surprised if you managed to form any meaningful relationships during your time in Japan. I find it quite amusing that you think I’m being apologist and making narrow arguments when you were the one who made all sorts of false equivalency arguments comparing the situation in Japan today to America several decades ago.

            You’ve only been there a year, which is usually around the time that people get over the initial euphoria and begin to take a very negative view of things, heavily filtered through their own culture-specific values/biases. You interpret every negative interaction as racism or sexism and then attribute that to a failing of an entire society, rather than just accepting that you’ve encountered someone who is probably not a good person to humans in general.

            Saying you’re “in it for the lulz” does not make it okay to label everyone making explanations as crazy apologists. You might just be sick of weeaboos and people who are so enamored with Japanese culture that they think everything is perfect there, so you assume that anyone who doesn’t agree with you is either like that, or being an apologist. I suppose in a similar way, I’m sick of reading about English teachers having a sucky time in Japan, and then whining about it all over the place.

            Anyway, I honestly do not understand why someone like you would ever set foot in Japan. If you consider it culturally backward and find the experience of being a minority distasteful, then you shouldn’t have gone. I could understand if it was some poor developing country and you were there trying to make a difference, and thus willing to overlook the downsides, but that’s not the case at all.

            You would probably enjoy your time there more (and get a better experience out of it) if you could drop the moral superiority and try to assimilate a little. I know, I know, they won’t let you because you’re a foreigner. :(

  8. ameca says:

    Yes, Japan is definitely homogeneous compared to any nation in the Americas, however it is still a massively complex and fascinatingly varied society. The foreigners who come here are also very different from each other and all of them have their own totally different experience.
    After living in Tokyo and Niigata (aka “the countryside”) for 13 years I feel like I can say that all of the stereotypes about Japan and the foreigners here are simultaneously true and false.
    Does that clear everything up?
    I imagine this graphic novel will be very different from my personal experience in Japan, however I’m always interested in how other foreigners perceive this weird and wacky place.

  9. flowerofhighrank says:

    I owned and ran an ESL school in SE Asia in the 90s. I learned that the best teachers could handle challenges like missing books or unknown students. I hired the best by paying more; it’s pretty simple. I never hired new arrivals. If you wanted to work for me, you had to prove you could survive diarhea, anti-American attitudes from the authorities and the many temptations of Jakarta. New teachers were given a set of books and the biggest cell-phone you’ve ever seen. They were told to keep the phone on and with them all the time so I could reach them if another teacher called in sick/drunk/horny. Invariably, they used part of their first paycheck to buy a sexier phone. I’ve often thought a good novel or screenplay could come out of those years. I’m gonna check this out.

  10. Anonymous says:

    The level of apologising for the failures of Japanese society on here are laughable.

  11. rberlin says:

    Getting back to the original post, I agree with #2′s accurate critique. You nailed this one Mr/Ms Anon#2.

    I grabbed this book from the public library the afternoon this item posted. It is a flop IMHO. The protagonist is a total nerd loser, and not worth reading about. I’ve forced myself through half of the book, and will not be finishing it. Part II, oh hell no.

  12. Patient says:

    I taught Conversational English in rural Japan (Omi-Imazu – Shiga) around 1998 through a language exchange program and absolutely loved what I have seen so far of the Book and also the comments here.

    I can relate to a lot that I have read, but my experience was a bit off-base compared to the JET/NOVA types. I had a host family, was unpaid and was quite young at the time.

    Never the less, some of the experiences described really rang home with my memory of the entire chaotic endeavor. Especially the alienation, the loneliness and the obscure on-the-surface xenophonia of the older generation. The attempt to immerse myself in the culture was equal to collective pursuit of constant inebriation to cope with it all.

    There are so many situations that I wish I could describe visually. The Gaijin that completely detach themselves from you because it interferes with their immersion, the old man that would sneak outside my bedroom window to “Investigate” my presence there, the grandmother that told my Japanese Girlfriend to only date her kind, strangers fondling my long blond hair in the train. It really got to you after a while and a year in I was ready to leave.

    The local Gaijin watering hole was really responsible for my decision that Teaching English in Japan was perhaps not rewarding in the long term. There were several stationed foreigners (Many of them JET) on the brink of madness slumped over their drinks. I think the real turning point was one evening escorting a post-grad British Friend I had met there back to his home that ended in an outburst of screamed racial and hateful slurs on the last train out of Kyoto towards everyone on the platform. That was it for me.

    There is this frustration that is hard to describe, but a friend there did so well with this statement:

    “You can become a master in the Japanese Language, you can become a master in Japanese Etiquette, but despite that effort, you can never look Japanese.”

    I am sure it is a lot different there now, but when I was there being 1 of 2 foreigners in a small farming town was definitely a mixed blessing.

  13. MrsBug says:

    I thought this was going to be about Fried Chicken and Sushi, which is pretty funny and not depressing.

  14. Variable Rush says:

    I plan on trying to join the JET Programme again this year.

    I totally enjoy reading the accounts of people who have been there.

    Another good book on this subject is “My Mother is A Tractor” by Nicholas Klar.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Maa, ne.

    On the one hand it’s nice to see someone finally debunk the myth of “Teach English in the Mysterious Far East!” down to what it is: boring low-level work just like any other boring low-level job.

    On the other hand, I am wary of the motifs that look like they still continue here: standoffish Japanese, language barriers, trysts with native women, etc.

    I’m still waiting for the book about a Westerner in Japan or Korea where cultural differences never even come up. To me, Tokyo is no different than Chicago or Seattle (maybe better food, but anyway). I’d like to see a story that revolves around interesting characters, some of whom happen to speak one language, others speak another.

    • Mark Frauenfelder says:

      “To me, Tokyo is no different than Chicago or Seattle…”

      All three places are wildly different to me. That’s why I enjoy traveling.

    • Nadreck says:

      You’ve obviously never been to Asia, let alone Japan. I’ve known smart people who’ve spend 5 or 6 years in Japan who feel they’re just beginning to understand the basics of the culture. The first time I wandered off on my own to Tokyo a Japanese friend of mine told me that, although they would seem to hate me and avoid me, at the next level down the Japanese would mainly be acting like that because they’d be worried that I’d come up with some strange Foreigner emergency that they wouldn’t know how to deal with and they’d end up looking like bad hosts. At the next level down they really do sort of hate you because you’re causing this tension and because you might force them to use their high school English. I inquired if there were more levels. He said “Sure, but you won’t be in Japan long enough to need to understand them.”
      And of course, racism against foreigners in Japan is just as bad as it is anywhere else.
      Instead or pretending that there are no cultural gulfs, some of them unbreathable by most people, I wish people would acknowledge their reality so that they can work with or around them. I hate the (racist?) assumption that we’ll all turn into rednecked Klan members if we deal with the fact that there are many fundamentally different kinds of people. If you try and do business in Japan on the assumption that, deep down, they’re all just like folks at home you’ll bomb out fast.

      • davejenk1ns says:

        Nadreck,

        I am the anonymous to which you accuse of “never been to Asia, let alone Japan.” I tried to give you a hint in the first line “maa, ne.” I’ll try to sum it up for you:
        I’ve been to Japan a dozen times since 1987. total time in-country is over 6 years now. My wife is Japanese (her pic is the wikipedia article for ‘kimono’). We speak Japanese in the house every day. I speak Korean and Chinese besides Japanese.

        This is exactly what I hate everytime the land of Rice and Fish comes up on a US blog– it turns into a pissing contest about who understands ‘gaijin’ experience the most.

        FWIW, I think many of the language teachers who go to East Asia have a mixed experience from a mix of factors:
        - lack of fluency upon arrival, which makes things awkward for those around them (think about it– in the US, could you really socialize with your Russian neighbor if he didn’t speak English?)
        - poor pay, which means poor living style– small apt, not many nights out, etc.
        - teachers generally disrespected. Yes, yes, yes– “sensei” is a position of reverence, but I’ve found that it’s just as much lip service there as it is here in the US. In the end, a high school teacher is treated at the same respect level as a teacher in the US. This may actually be worse for an English teacher– some may think that “they’re just teaching their own language, where’s the challenge?”

        If you can get the JET program, then great! welcome to Japan. But please understand that “English teacher” is closer to the bottom of the social order of things for gaijin in Japan. This becomes very clear at the International parties they throw in Shibuya every month: as soon as someone introduces themself as an English teacher, people move on to someone more interesting.

        • pato pal ur says:

          If you can get the JET program, then great! welcome to Japan. But please understand that “English teacher” is closer to the bottom of the social order of things for gaijin in Japan. This becomes very clear at the International parties they throw in Shibuya every month: as soon as someone introduces themself as an English teacher, people move on to someone more interesting.

          For someone who disparages the pissing contests amongst foreigners in Japan, this is a particularly nasty and unnecessary comment. First of all, most English teachers are well aware that in Tokyo there are many more sexier jobs than English teacher, no need to rub it in. Since you connect JET with this, you should know that the closest JET to Shibuya is VERY far away – like far outside the Tokyo metro area, where people see foreigners less commonly (which is really the point of JET). Finally, believe it or not people can be interesting regardless of whatever job they do.

        • Mark Frauenfelder says:

          “‘English teacher’ is closer to the bottom of the social order of things for gaijin in Japan. This becomes very clear at the International parties they throw in Shibuya every month: as soon as someone introduces themself as an English teacher, people move on to someone more interesting.”

          That never happened to me. I guess a willfully ignorant ass would “move on” after learning someone is an English teacher without knowing anything else about them.

          • davejenk1ns says:

            Mark,

            Hrmmm– as usual, things get taken out of context on the intarwebs. Please understand that I was merely trying to describe what I saw in Japan at the International parties.

            Personally, I worked as a recruiter for gaijin in Japan. I merely comment on the social ladder aspects as something I saw in the marketplace of human capital. As someone who taught English as a part-time job for a few months years before, it saddened me to see how English teachers were ignored– but they were ignored nonetheless. I was merely trying to describe reality in Tokyo, not my own personal feelings.

            In a similar vein, I would hope that the ‘arrogant ass’ comment was not directed at me personally. I don’t think we know each other well enough to express such labels, yet.

        • Antinous / Moderator says:

          her pic is the wikipedia article for ‘kimono’

          Your wife is Jimmy Wales?

          Oh, never mind. I guess they changed the picture.

          • davejenk1ns says:

            haha– you got me with that one. I think the Japanese version of the page still has Jimmy’s pic…

    • holding_rabbits says:

      i understand your “imagine there’s no countries” sentiment, but for me at least, my experiences in korea are characterized by standoff-ish koreans, language barriers, trysts with native women (not so much these days). to live in an incredibly ethnocentric/homogeneous culture is to constantly be aware of your “otherness.” i’ve found myself not going to mcdonalds or western chains because i am too embarrassed to play to the stereotype of a westerner eating western food. crazy, right? but the fact that i don’t like to eat piles of fermented cabbage is something that people really take issue with. how do you explain to someone that you think kimchi tastes like death? unless you’re fluent and even once you are, myself and all the other foreigners i’ve ever met are constantly trying to maintain emotional solvency. that sounds so pathetic…but it’s really great here and i love it! but that’s the reality of living in a place like korea or japan. assimilation is impossible and you are constantly being made aware of that…but you take the good with the bad and the good outweighs the bad. any other korea or japan dwellers agree?

  16. Anonymous says:

    Sorry Mark, but I couldn’t disagree more on this one. I found Tonoharu in a $5 bin and, since I also taught English in Tokyo, I thought this would really appeal to me. The artwork and writing are both very well done, but the main character ruins the book. He is so shallow (admittedly has no hobbies), lifeless (talks about how he’s always ‘so tired’ despite doing seemingly nothing), and awkward (ruins his potential friendship with the other foreigner because he is completely unable to hold a conversation) that the entire theme of the book – the discomfort a foreigner can feel – is ruined. It wouldn’t matter if he moved to Japan, Paris, or Boise, Idaho – after reading the book, it’s clear that the main character (author?) lacks the social skills to connect with anyone anywhere. I couldn’t really appreciate the book’s merits because everything the main character said and did made me angry.

  17. Jesse in Japan says:

    That’s the JET Programme for you. It’s really a terrible affront to taxpayers. The city board of education has to pay the ridiculous salaries of unqualified teachers whom the teachers at the school do not know how to, and often in fact flatly refuse to, put to any kind of meaningful use.

    • narrowstreetsLA says:

      That is SO TRUE. I spent a single year as an “ALT” (teaching staff) where I got so bored I busied myself by translating work (that one story about the sheep-man and the twisty donut twins) by Haruki Murakami into English. For fun.

      As soon as I could, I switched over to the “CIR” (city hall translator) position. It was still tinged with the absurd, but at least I could get some real work done.

      Never had an affair with any of my teachers, but that’s only because of my own reluctance–it’s not like I didn’t have opportunities. It really was an odd little world of ennui in miniature.

    • Anonymous says:

      Unused and bored ALTs may be a common occurrence in the JET Programme, but it is worth saying that it is definitely not the only thing. I just came back from two years as a high school teacher on JET and was far from bored and unused at my job. The teachers were not only happy to have me, but they also knew how to put me “to meaningful use” In fact, many days I had to stay late in order to complete all the responsibilities of my job.

      So while I understand where you’re coming from, to simplify the entire JET Programme down the way you did, would be to neglect the opposite experiences that also do occur.

    • Rob says:

      Well, that’s a hugely insulting over-generalization.

      Having spent five years on JET, and friends with other folks having done 4-5 years, and they stayed past that to work private ALT gigs – I’ve known some outstanding teachers who were really dedicated to their kids and their jobs and who worked with some really locked-on JTEs [Japanese Teachers of English] and Boards of Education.

      The cliche’ on the program is “every situation is different” and that’s the truth. I’m sure there are some dirtbags who are on JET, and working as company ALTs as well, but that’s a really broad brush you’re tarring everybody with.

      • Jesse in Japan says:

        I’m very curious to know what, exactly, it was in my comment that made you assume I was talking about “dirtbags.”

        I said the word “unqualified” and I stand by that. A JET ALT makes 300,000 yen per month. A starting Japanese teacher, who has a lot more responsibility and work to do (you don’t see them going home at 4:00 very often, now do you) makes about 2/3 of that.

        Also, I realize that there are ALTs who design curriculum and plan and implement lessons pretty much on their own, but what percentage of ALTs do you think that might be? Being dedicated to their schools and their kids is nice, but do they really deserve to be paid 40,000 dollars a year for the work that they do? When even veteran educators are barely getting paid more than that?

        • Rob says:

          Wow, just now realized you’d replied, so I’ll put this up for posterity.

          “I’m very curious to know what, exactly, it was in my comment that made you assume I was talking about “dirtbags.””

          Let’s see, you talk of ridiculously overpaid and unqualified foreigners who suck on the govt teat and don’t *really* earn what they make… how could I ever draw the conclusion I did as to your opinion.

          “I said the word “unqualified” and I stand by that…”

          And I stand by the idea that you hugely overgeneralize. Serving as cultural ambassadors and team-teaching partners is actually, not all that difficult. I wasn’t there to be a grammarian, and felt, if anything overqualified. But extremely satisfied to take part, contribute and engage. And my JTE’s seemed happy to have me.

          As far as salary goes – “A JET ALT makes 300,000 yen per month. A starting Japanese teacher, who has a lot more responsibility and work to do (you don’t see them going home at 4:00 very often, now do you) makes about 2/3 of that.”

          Wow, how patronizing. Nope, they didn’t leave at 4. But I did see teachers gossiping in the teacher’s room, hanging out in the smoking room and making pretend with imaginary busy work to know that the appearance of staying late mattered far more than

          “…do they really deserve to be paid 40,000 dollars a year for the work that they do?”

          Due to the vagaries of the international economy and exchange rate, it does work out fairly nicely, recently. But given that the salary hasn’t changed in 20 years… and the bureaucracy sees fit to not change it… likewise, you’d argue when the American economy was crushing Japan after the bubble burst, ALTs were getting what they “deserved?”

          What’s more, 30-40 grand a year, while moving halfway around the world and leaving your family, friends and social support network doesn’t seem unreasonable.

          And the “starting teachers” you’re referring to [typically] haven’t passed their teaching certifications, still live at home and have few expenses, so I think your comparison overlooks quite a bit.

          “When even veteran educators are barely getting paid more than that?”

          So are you talking “a starting Japanese” teacher or “veteran educators?” Or both? What’s more, factoring in yearly bonuses, pension contributions, etc… you’re just wildly incorrect.

          In your response to Anonymous it sounds as if you had a fairly crappy experience on JET/as an ALT, where you were undervalued and underused. That sucks and that’s too bad. But to extrapolate from your personal experience to all JETs/schools/JTEs is just plain… wrong.

  18. benher says:

    I sympathize with the feeling of being underutilized. I learned enough Japanese during my free time in the JET years to pass the JLPT level 1!… and the Kanji Kentei level 5…

    The frustrations of ALTS (JETs and non alike) have been laid bare before the net ad nauseum over the years, but I like the fresh approach of this graphic novel. It’s something I think/wish I could/should have written myself. Especially being so far out in the country side.

    Still, for all the whining you hear about JET, I had a great 2 years on that program. I had a great salary, vacation, learned tons of Japanese, transitioned myself to a better occupation, and made a lot of wonderful memories and a home in the countryside. The situation is what you make of it.

  19. Spoon says:

    Hey Mark, did you ever have people automatically assume that your wife was Japanese if they had never met her before? It’s been over a year and not one person believes that my wife is non-Asian when they meet me! It’s what we come to the country for, right?

    Here’s a recent anecdote… I had a drunk older Japanese man harass my friends and I in a park a month ago. “What are you doing in my country? Asshole! Shithead!” Completely unprovoked. It was four American guys with seven Japanese women. A real “stay away from our women” moment.

    I’m not really angered by it all, more confused and just plain appreciative of the opportunity to have this experience. A British buddy made the observation that it’s one of the only places in the Asian world where you can live and work and it’s not assumed that you have an income higher than the average native, or the social standing that comes with it.

    Remember, gaijin doesn’t mean foreigner, it means outsider!

    • Mark Frauenfelder says:

      “Hey Mark, did you ever have people automatically assume that your wife was Japanese if they had never met her before?”

      No, not really. But when we were in Japan, a lot of Japanese people asked her is she was part-Japanese. (She’s not)

  20. Anonymous says:

    I taught English in Japan from 1989 to 1994 and as I read all of these postings, it all rang true. Everything good and bad said about Japan matches my experience over there.At the end of the day, I always felt that the good outweighed the bad and that Japan was a marvelous place. However, I also felt that I stayed about two or three years too long.All of the major things I did while I was in Japan happened during the first portion of my stay there. It was pure magic. By the third year I was bored, the fourth year found me miserable and by the fifth and final year I back up to a fair to middling range.Japan ‘t belong to us and we shouldn’t try to change it or blend with it. Two years a decent time frame and then you move on. I was a lecturer at an American university before my Japanese jaunt and I have been a professor at a technical college since the start of the 21st century. I did think that teaching English in Japan was rather a joke and essentially a profitable shell game. Many of my colleagues were global bums, drunken cowboys or uptight nerds desperately trying to find a profession while transforming themselves into respectable salarymen. I had friends among all of the categories and at times I felt I a part of all three categories. After five years, I had reached the conclusion that I was lost between two continents and becoming a loser. It was time to leave. I later spent one year teaching for an oil company in Saudi Arabia. Japan was better.

  21. pato pal ur says:

    That graphic novel sounds like it could have been my own story.

    I have to disagree with the previous two comments though as I spent four years as an ALT on the JET Program and I loved every bit of it. Even though I was out in the sticks I got involved as much as I could and tried to help out as much as I could at school and in the community. If you’re not much of a self-starter or don’t have a natural inclination to help others, then it’s true, you could easily get bored (though there’s some truth in the criticism stated in the first comment above).

    As to the salary, that’s actually a small investment by the Japanese government to make me an advocate of Japan and Japanese things for life. Though unfortunately the salary is paid by the usually cash-strapped local municipality, while the country as a whole reaps the future benefits. In any case, I did my best and I feel confident that they got their money’s worth with me.

    • Jesse in Japan says:

      You were allowed to get involved and help around at the school. I was discouraged, even harshly reprimanded, for doing anything that I was not specifically instructed to do.

      What I was specifically instructed to do was read aloud from the textbook and even then I was yelled at for pronouncing the T in the word often (and by a person who couldn’t speak a word of English herself).

      So don’t give me that crap about being a self-starter or motivated to help people. If the school itself is hostile to the very idea of having you there, that just doesn’t work out.

      Also, what national benefits? These kids aren’t actually learning English because the JET ALT is there. Hell, they aren’t learning English at all.

    • narrowstreetsLA says:

      Yeah, that was the thing about the ALT situation: the unevenness. Some were totally involved in their kids’ lives, and got to teach at only one school. Others (like me) had to rotate among four schools for only 2-3 hours at a time at each location. Kind of a crapshoot!

      But yeah, my CIR experience was pretty friggin awesome. Led foreign delegations around, toured facilities, got pretty damn good at Japanese, and used the whole thing as an excuse to teach myself web & interface design. And yes, I’m now pretty much a lifelong advocate of the Awesomeness of Japan. It’s true.

  22. Anonymous says:

    My 2cents.
    -Yes, I think unfortunately English Teacher is one of the lower rungs on the hierarchy of westerners in Japan. Maybe because that’s the easiest job to get, maybe because English teachers usually haven’t been in country for that long.

    -I think Japanese and westerners find different things rude and different things polite. It’s not that one society is more rude or polite that the other. When the Japanese do something they think is polite or neutral that we think is rude (smoking, invading your privacy, being helpful to the point of obnoxiousness) problems can arise…and pointing out the things that we do that they don’t like is something they think is rude.

    -I’m noticing that Japanese put high value on the social network, while westerners put value on individualism (I’m not saying this is a new revelation, just that recently I’ve really been able to grok it). They are often doing little things like coming over to visit, inviting out, giving presents, making dull small talk, to build and maintain the social network. Westerners can find these intrusive, annoying, and sometimes even rude, but I think if you want to be successful in Japan it’s a good idea to play ball as much as possible. (Go out drinking even if you don’t feel like it and everyone is smoking. Meet someone at a dull coffee shop and have an inane conversation.) If they see that you are not making these similar overtures to them, the network will -like censorship- route around you, and you’ll be sad and alone in your apartment and bored at work.

    So from what I’ve read, I think the guy in this comic would have had a much better time if he had reached out more and tried to be part of the community. However, maintaining the social structure requires constant effort and can be a major hassle. What they do for you is not necessarily you want done; what you need to do for them is not necessarily something you want to do – or something they want done.

  23. AllisonWunderland says:

    Yeah, try ESL in Saudi Arabia . . .

  24. Anonymous says:

    I spent two years on the JET programme, 1989-1991. I was assigned to a single school and I brought my 10 year old son with me. This was a life-altering experience for both of us. Yes, there were moments of extreme boredom and much isolation (pre-Internet). However, I really felt part of the “family” of my school. The people I worked with were great. Maybe it was an age thing (I was in my 30s; most JETs were right out of college), or the fact that I’m an introvert but I just didn’t feel excluded by the Japanese. In fact, it was difficult to feel solitary or independent of the group.

    If my students learned even a fraction from me as I did from them, I’d be so pleased.

    mss @ nipponDAZE (still trying to figure it all out)

    #20 “Remember, gaijin doesn’t mean foreigner, it means outsider!”

    Err…foreigner means outsider too.

  25. ackpht says:

    Been in Japan for a couple hours to change planes. My impressions were that the airport was spotless, there were lots of doormen, every employee wore a uniform of some sort, and they were doing their best to be friendly and efficient towards a rumpled and sleepy planeload of Americans.

  26. Flying_Monkey says:

    I was also a JET, and in an ‘inaka’ (back country) area (Toyama ken). My experience was culturally a bit like Tonoharu, but on a personal and professional level, nothing like the first few posters. Like pato pal ur and rob, I also got involved in all kinds of things apart from just the teaching at school which was quite rewarding in itself: doing english drama with 5-year olds at a local community centre, teaching a local singing group how to pronounce the words in The Sound of Music properly, styudying Japanese and shodo (calligraphy), taking part in festivals and spending plenty of time skiing in the winter… I was quite isolated socially and did feel lonely, but I didn’t take up the sexual opportunities that came my way because I had a girlfriend waiting for me back home at the time (and that was the reason I spent only one year on the progamme).

    Fastfoward several years later and I am married to a Japanese woman, whom I met through work, and got to know largely thanks to that year and the fact that I could speak Japanese.

  27. dangeroo says:

    I have to agree with #29 and others, and say that I really don’t understand where everyone’s trouble comes from. Granted, I only lived in the country for one year, but I learned some Japanese in advance and I had no such problems; in fact, I know for sure I could go back next year and pretty much make a life for myself there without any problems, that’s how good my impression of the people was. It may have something to do with the difference between the city (I was in Kyoto) and the countryside, but I can’t believe the difference would be insurmountable.

    I think a lot of these problems just come from people having a different starting point in the way they think about interpersonal relations — when you have these strange experiences with Japanese people, it’s just because they’re nervous around you, and they’re nervous because you _make_ them nervous. I’ve experienced first-hand what it’s like to be a thoughtless buffoon for the first few months, and I felt like I was horribly insensitive for all of it. But once you get used to that different, subtle way of paying attention to what the other is thinking, these problems just go away — and you can really start to enjoy knowing people in a more face-to-face kind of way. You just have to be careful not to jump to conclusions, and be patient and attentive. It’s just different, is all. You’re having a hard time, but so are they. If you’re aware of that, it’ll work out.

  28. Anonymous says:

    Some interesting comments. I am really in agreement with Anon above with the AJATT quotes (no surprise there perhaps, because I am an AJATTer).

    Five years back I did a year of exchange in Japan aged 22. My classes sucked. My teachers were crazy. And I didn’t make any real Japanese friends, so I pretty much hung out in English all the time bitching about things and being critical. I studied hard, learnt a lot, and got something out of it, but long story short, I developed a serious anger with Japan (although I liked a lot of stuff too of course). Mostly it wasn’t personal stuff, although I ran into a jerk or two I was more generally annoyed at the way people thought/behaved in general, the incompetence of the teachers, sexism, etc.

    Anyway, here’s the thing, I _still_ hate a lot of these things, but I no longer see them as the whole picture. When you are a foreigner, by which I mean, when you are somewhere where the culture is foreign _to you_ you not only lack an understanding of the reasons behind things (and the subsequent risk of misinterpretation), you lack a huge swath of shared experience assumed by the natives of that place. You are not in the same country as they are. Sure, you might physically be there, but its not the same. There is no objective answer to the true form of any country, because it is different depending on your standing point. Yes, there are truths. It is true, for example, that Japan has a high suicide rate, many people are terribly sad, and half the country is covered in concrete. However, if you then say, ‘therefore, for those reasons, Japan is a bad country’ you are making a general claim that just can’t follow from your premises.

    As an example, think about your own country. Now imagine you were coming to it as a foreigner who has very little linguistic/cultural familiarity. What would you see? You can only half imagine. When you talk to people you don’t start from a shared assumption about how to relate with each other, and you don’t have much common experience. You look at what people do and find a lot of either incomprehensible, gross, or a mixture of the two. Everywhere before you are barriers to communication and understanding. The things that jump out at you are going to be comparisons made (inevitably) between this place, and ‘back home’. Unsurprisingly, ‘back home’ wins. Of course, for nice and objective reasons! You know, you don’t even need to imagine yourself as a foreigner in your own country, perhaps. If you are a man, you might even just imagine yourself as a woman! My sister tells me she regularly gets cars of dickheads shouting sexist rubbish at her when walking down the street (it goes without saying that this is not part of my experience of my country at all).

  29. tiamat_the_red says:

    Ok, I’ve never been in the JET program nor been to Japan, but I feel like I need to speak up for the introverts here! If I had done this program and been put into a situation where I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, I would probably get very little out of it. I would not be able to reach out and get involved because I do very, very poorly in groups of people I don’t know and I am pretty bad at meeting people socially. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to do that, it’s just that I couldn’t. Extroverts won’t get this, they never do. Introverts will.

    And to #1, it’s culturally jarring to go from, say, California to Texas, how are these stories NOT going to be about an outsider looking in?

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