The Foreigner-Japan

This is a light piece. In the anthropological sense it fills the gap between 'Dreams on Hold' and 'Japan, My Neverland.' A friend of mine was an editor at this now-defunct website. He spiced my work up with some off-the-cuff humor that's a little outside my normal style, but I think the overall product is stronger for it, though it feels a little bit like a surrogate child.

The Foreigner-Japan, February 2006 (Now defunct; it seems the URL has been eaten by an online casino)

Signing On

by Mike Kanert

There are many ways to get to Japan after graduating university, but the best known by far is the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program.


JET expects its applicants to have a justifiable interest in living in Japan and a demonstrated ability to communicate with children. This may seem simple, but one should never take anything for granted.

The first step in the process is acquiring and assembling the myriad JET application materials, including a medical report, an essay, original transcripts and several letters of reference, which can all be a bit of a scramble. In spite of this, the initial application itself is of nominal importance.


It's the interview that really counts.


I walked into a wood-panelled classroom on the University of Toronto campus to find three people sitting along a table nearly as wide as the room. Opposite them was a single chair behind another boat-like desk, where I sat with my back to the blackboard feeling like a garden gnome in a blazer jacket.


A middle-aged Japanese man and two former JETs peered down at me in pincer formation, spaced out just far enough that I couldn't look at all of them at the same time. And so the interrogation began.


“Why do you want to go to Japan?” they logically asked as their first question. Even now, having spent over four years teaching in Japan, I still haven't been able to concoct an adequate answer.


When I stripped away all the foaming enthusiasm, my fascination seemed to boil down to nothing more than a healthy appreciation for anime and samurai, and that didn't sound like much of a reason to entrust me with a nation's children. So I aggrandized a little and told them that I had a longstanding interest in Japanese culture and history.


"What aspects of the culture and history?" they asked, calling my bluff.


"Um... anime and samurai?" I ventured sheepishly. Then I got to spend several painful minutes trying to convince the Japanese interviewer that I did not believe that Samurai were still running around the Osaka subway system. The next obvious question was, “What do you expect from your experience in Japan?”


Discarding evasion in favour of foolish honesty, I told them I didn't really have any expectations; I just wanted to see what it was like. My inquisitors didn't seem to think this was acceptable, so I explained that I thought it was best not to have expectations so as not to be disappointed.


They were still unimpressed. I fumbled with awkward addendums and half-truths, becoming less and less intent on giving a good impression than I was in just getting them to stop staring at me.


With my sense of foreboding increasing, the questioning duties were handed off to the next interviewer. “Who is the leader of Japan?” he asked. I promptly told them that it was the Prime Minister, and then, with a little encouragement, I added that he was technically subservient to the Emperor. Apparently, a ceremonial figurehead who is explicitly banned from participating in politics is the right answer in these situations.


"And who's the leader of Canada?" they asked.


"Well, of course, it's the Prime Minister,” I answered, wondering why I was getting such a softball question.


"And above him?"


"Above him?" I repeated dumbly. He was elected by the people, so we were theoretically in charge, but not in any practical way. I was confused. "Nobody," I said at last, immediately noting the grimace I received in response.


"Well, we tend to bandwagon with the US,” I offered glibly.


This still seemed to be the wrong answer. "Oh... well... right, there's the Governor General, I guess, but she doesn't really have any power...” I was clutching at straws now.


Alas, this was still wrong. Taking pity on me, the triumvirate finally gave me a hint. "And in England...?"


"What? Oh—the Queen? Well, yeah, right, we're a constitutional monarchy and all that, but I mean, you know..." I trailed off. She’s so removed from Canadian politics that I'd forgotten she was technically our head of state, and I had successfully muddled a question any ten-year old could have answered correctly. Maybe their next question would be easier.


“How would you explain the difference between Canadians and Americans?” was the next gem.


I was about to dig my own grave. Since I believe this comes down to little more than a bunch of petty variations in attitude, I was in trouble again. I mentioned the idea that, since America has had to fight for freedom since its inception, many Americans are ingrained with the attitude that they must be prepared to defend themselves from any perceived military or ideological threat.


On the other hand, Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism has encouraged us to resist targeting other nations with hostility unless it’s out of self-defence.


“Now how would you explain that to a six-year-old with no knowledge of English?” they asked.


"Um...Canadians don't like to fight?”


Finally moving on to more situational questions—the ones I most dreaded—they asked me, “What would you do if a student asked you an embarrassing, personal or otherwise inappropriate question?”


I froze. Now, this is a sticking point for me. In over three years of teaching at Japanese elementary schools, I have never once been caught out by an embarrassing question—and yet I was stumped when asked how I'd theoretically respond to one in an arbitrary situation. They should have asked what I'd do if ten elementary kids made a game out of trying to poke me in the privates. I do that every week, and it’s far more difficult.


I also would have appreciated the warning.


Admittedly, I could have prepared answers to all these questions, but the problem is that I never know what I'll do in a situation until I encounter it. Perhaps I should have just told them as much rather than allowing the pain to continue.


Then again, if I'd just thought of three objects I'd bring along to define Canada, I could have answered at least one question with a small degree of confidence. In my mind the interview was over by the time they said, “Please demonstrate a self-introduction for six-year-olds who've never studied English.”


I got up, drew pictures of countries and arrows on the board, said "I'm from CA-NA-DA" very slowly and with great emphasis, felt like an idiot, and sat down again. There might have been other questions, but I’ve blocked them from my memory.


I thanked the interviewers, circumnavigated the giant desks, stepped out the door, and felt the bottom of my chest fall out as I realized that I'd just completely flubbed my shot at going to Japan. As an added bonus, I had to go back five minutes later to pick up the notebook I'd forgotten.


I gave up on JET entirely. If all I'd seen were that interview, I wouldn't have hired me either. When the first round of offers was made to everyone but me, I called and confirmed that I was in the lower half of the waiting list, so I figured they'd never get around to me and started looking for other ways to get to Japan.


It wasn't my first choice, but I sucked it up and interviewed with a private English conversation school, had a good interview, and signed a one-year contract in mid-June. And one day after I gave them my diploma to ship to their head office in Japan, JET called to offer me a position.


I would spend my first six months in Japan trying to find a job like the one I'd just let slip through my fingers.


EDITOR'S NOTE: After a six-month diversion, Michael Kanert is now teaching English at public schools in Japan.