The following morning, there was a panel discussion where 4 current and ex-JETs spoke and shared their experiences with the programme. They spoke a lot about the challenges they faced, how they dealt with and slowly overcame those challenges, and basically the love and lifelong relationship they had developed with Japan and it’s people. It was a great discussion, and I really hope that maybe one year, I can get onto that panel for one of the orientations and have something of value to share with all the new JETs.
They also talked about careers people have gone into post JET, and it made me excited to think about where this opportunity could lead us in the future. Right now I aspire to pursue career in the field of International Relations, so it will be quite interesting to see where my adventures with the JET Programme take me.
The rest of the day was a blur of workshops on various topics. At this point, I was starting to feel the effects of JET lag as the adrenaline started to die down, and I was getting quite exhausted. I found myself unable to concentrate and was falling sleep at one of the workshops, so I got up to get a drink of water and walk around. However I actually never made it back to the workshop because when I walked past the elevator, on a whim I decided to see what was at the top of the building. I travelled 47 stories up, and when I exited the elevator, there was a large window where I was greeted with the following stunning view:
After admiring the view and snapping pics for a little while, I went back to the hotel room to get changed. Some of the JETs were planning on taking the train to Shibuya, one of the trendy wards of Tokyo which is known for its youth fashion, and I was thinking of going with them. Sadly there was a huge rush for the elevators so by the time I got down, either I missed everyone or nobody was anywhere close to the meet time. I ran into one of the toronto JETs though and she and I walked to a combini to get some food. We had a nice meal outside along the cobbled walkway of the business plaza opposite the hotel. After a nice chat, we were wrapping up to explore some more, and it was here that I discovered one of the Awful Truths About Japan.
Awful Truth About Japan #1:
There are no garbage bins ANYWHERE. This may sound like hyperbole but it is completely true. Trying to find a garbage can in Tokyo is like trying to find an invisible needle in a field of wheat. In the dark. Paradoxically, despite the lack of garbage cans, Japan is extremely clean. There is not a single piece of garbage strewn about the gutters and on the sides of the streets. There is nary a candy wrapper to be seen anywhere. People just do NOT litter. The reason for this is because in Japanese culture there is a strong focus on personal responsibility for taking care of disposing your trash properly. So if someone accumulates some trash in the course of their day, there is a good chance they will hang on to it until they get home, where it can be disposed of properly in one of several different categories of trash.
Interestingly however there are always receptacles for bottles and cans beside vending machines. This is why Japanese people will almost never walk around while drinking their beverage (it’s also considered slightly rude). They’ll buy the drink and finish it in front of the vending machine so they can get rid of the bottle right away. Very interesting. And that concludes ATAJ Lesson #1.
Vending machines everywhere!
Anyways, in the intervening period where I was trying to figure out where to put my garbage, I ran into some of the other JETs who were going to Shibuya and my (now) good buddy M (also a Toronto JET) who was planning on exploring Shinjuku some more alone. Due to my experiences the previous two nights being firmly ensconced within the JET bubble, I decided to instead just walk around with M and actually experience the culture some more. This would turn out to be the best decision I made in Tokyo.
M is Japanese-Canadian and is pretty fluent in Japanese. He had done stints before in Korea and had been to Japan in the past so I got the impression that he really knew what he was doing. M carried with him the same attitude that I hope I’m able to foster and develop; one of total confidence in his ability to adapt to any situation, borne from the conscious decision to place himself in situations outside his comfort zone. Trial by fire. We had some great talks as we walked around and I was glad to find a friend that I could confide in and learn from.
Walking around with M also made me realize just how unbelievably dense and impenetrable the JET bubble was. So what exactly is the JET Bubble?
THE JET BUBBLE
The JET Bubble is an invisible field that grows in strength and magnitude in proportion to the number of JETs inside it. The JET Bubble can be activated with as few as two or three people, depending on how obnoxious they are, but most JET bubbles have four or more individuals projecting the bubble from all sides. The JET Bubble tends to form at social functions where JETs tend to gather. It’s primary distinguishing features are:
1. individuals within the JET bubble tend to use very little if any Japanese within the bubble. English-only within the bubble is even sometimes enforced
2. the bubble forms an invisible boundary between the individuals within it and the Japanese people within close proximity
3. the bubble has special social dynamic altering properties; individuals within the bubble can and are encouraged to act as loud, western, and touristy as possible
4. the presence of the bubble automatically puts you into ‘tourist in japan’ mode. You become an observer of the culture rather than interacting with it directly.
Walking around with a bunch of foreigners (all of the JETs) the previous two nights put me in the mental frame that our comparatively obnoxious behaviour was more acceptable since we were a bunch of travellers in a foreign country all out looking for a good night. Basically your brain flips a switch that tells you – you’re in tourist mode; the normal rules don’t apply.
But as I walked with M, I became acutely aware that there were unspoken rules of social etiquette that everyone is expected to follow. I found myself in a state of culture shock as I realized that despite reading through books on social etiquette in Chapters the weeks before I came to Japan, I had very little idea what to do in any given social interaction or situation and absolutely no practical experience.
For the most part, my prevailing attitude and outlook towards life is that I do what I want and what makes me happy, and I do not care what other people think of me. I rationalized that when I got to Japan, I wouldn’t be bothered too much by not knowing how to act in a given situation and would just go “eh, whatever. I do wut I wantt.” So I was really surprised when I felt the pressure and anxiety of not knowing how I should act. In Japan there is a saying; the nail that sticks out will be hammered down. Basically it means that individuality is frowned upon and people are expected to go along with the crowd. People are basically expected to be sheep. I have no desire to be a sheep, but I had a moment of clarity where I realized that I’m representing the JET Programme, Canada, and people of my ethnic background. Basically I’m an ambassador of Canada and am tasked with upholding the image and reputation of many different groups. It was eye-opening moment #1.
Culture shock and eye-opening moments #2 occured when M and I were inside a clothing store and I was left to wander the store by myself (still holding on to my garbage from before like a chode) while M tried on suits. I freaked out when it dawned on me that I couldn’t really read anything and that barely anyone spoke more than a word or two of english. So not only did I not know how to act around people, but I was basically mute, deaf and illiterate. For a few moments, I was genuinely terrified, which is a sensation I’m sure everyone who’s ever been a JET or moved to another country to live for awhile has experienced at least once. I was really thankful that I experienced this early on and while I was hanging out with M because he told me what I needed to hear – basically, just live and learn, it’ll be okay.
As we walked around for the next couple hours, we got lost but saw a lot of interesting and contrasting sights in Tokyo.
tokyo youth street fashion juxtaposed against traditional Japanese garb
hundreds of salarymen walking in one direction as one pretty and stylish girl walks against the crowd.
traditional paper lanterns attached to rolling ramen food stalls, juxtaposed against the glow of the neon lights
$200 tiny square watermelons. Only in Japan would a fruit be considered the ultimate status symbol. Japanese people are obsessed with impermanent beauty (hence the cultural fascination with such things like cherry blossoms and youth), so if you think about it, it actually makes sense in a uniquely Japanese way.
Eventually we found our way back to the hotel and hung out at the ground level lobby where there was yet another combini (yeah there WOULD be another combini, this being Japan where they are as ubiquitous as vending machines). While hanging out, we ran into some friends and soon found ourselves back on the 47th floor.
For the rest of the night we all just hung out and enjoyed each other’s company one last time. It was the perfect way to end the orientation weekend; just kicking it back over a couple beers and hanging out with some of my favourite Toronto JETs who I had grown really close to over the past couple month. Very bittersweet.
Finally everyone said their goodbyes and started heading back to their rooms. I dragged myself back to my suite, kicked off my shoes and undid my tie. Before I flopped onto my bed, I gazed out the window one more time.
As I watched as the city just kept going and going, bursting with life and energy at 3 in the morning, I had a brief, fleeting, serendipitous moment. It was almost indescribable; such a strong sensation that radiated throughout my core, and I don’t know how else to articulate it, but it was just a feeling, an overwhelming sense that the universe was in alignment, and that at that moment, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.