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Deborah Lea

Why Japan?
By Deborah Lea
Feb 6, 2005 - 10:56:00 PM

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Japan had always held a certain intrigue for me. While I would like to attribute my move here to mystical motivations, the base truth of the matter is this: It was money that drew me here.

I needed to find a job. There are, at any given moment, about a billion and forty jobs teaching English outside of the United States. Thailand held enormous appeal to me - or it did until I saw that the wages I would earn there. These would sustain me but would not enable me to pay more than four dollars of my enormous law school debt every month. Thus it was that Thailand, where I had first contemplated spending a year or two teaching English, was moved from my list of possibilities to that of "impossibilities." I could, I told myself, always visit Thailand if I had a job that paid more than a pittance.

Further research led me to conclude this situation was mirrored in most countries which would allow me to teach without an ESL teaching certificate. Most of them offered a wage which, had I enormous and independent quantities of money flowing directly into my bank account, would more than satisfy my vocal inner idealist. This this wasn't the voice I was concerned with as I searched. I was rather more concerned with the letters from lenders cheerfully informing me that, on graduating, I would be responsible for paying amounts of money I'm still not actually capable of comprehending. Much as it pained me to ignore the sweet protests of that inner idealist, I had to lock her away and gear myself up for a job search whose parameters involved a) having enough money to pay my creditors and b) me neither living in prisonlike conditions nor wanting to jump off a roof at every opportunity.

That had been my experience when, four years before, I sought my first escape from my hometown. With much less experience then in the real world, I leapt straight into the first ESL job I saw advertised in South Korea ...

... and almost directly into a shack atop a six-story building. The owner of the school lived one floor below, and monitored teacher coming and goings with more senses than actual human beings possess. Some speak of a "sixth sense," but to this day, I remain convinced that school's director had at least eighteen or nineteen senses. Sneaking past her was well nigh impossible, and when I was not subject to inquisitions regarding my departures, I was either followed or examined thoroughly to ensure I wasn't giving private lessons when I left the building. Attempts at explaining my awe at being in a foreign country and wanting to actually explore and experience it consistently fell on deaf ears.

With every passing day, my depression grew. I truly felt I was in a prison, and my optimism slowly began dwindling to the point I realized I had to get out. I could not live like that. I could not conceive of how others had lived like that for a year - sometimes even more. Perhaps their compositions were sturdier than mine.

This I will never know. All I do know for certain is that, after two months that felt like as many centuries, I gave my six-week notice. Even had the pay been quadrupled, I could not have much longer withstood my depression at having intentionally brought myself under this small-scale, semi-dictatorial regime.

Recalling this experience, I knew I would not soon be returning to South Korea. Research indicated that South Korea and Japan paid the highest wages to their instructors while requiring little more than a university degree. South Korea, after my prior experience, was no more an option than taking up a reception job on the moon.

With less than ten weeks remaining until I would graduate from a program entirely unsuited to my detail-inattentive personality, I began applying for jobs in Japan. I did this with appropriately short attention, taking the mass attack approach: cutting and pasting my resume to every company whose advertisements showed up on the dozen or so active job boards I had found.

I sent these resumes out with very little in the way of real conception what the end result of that would mean to me, to my life. It gave me an outlet for my panic, a channel for all the manic energy that came with realizing my whole life would be undergoing extraordinary changes in little more than three months. As long as I was sending out those resumes at speeds beyond human cognitive ability to process, I didn't have time to be distressed about the thought this life I had come to love would soon be ending.

That was what it felt like to me: an end. Anyone who suggested it was simply a change, a point of transition, was greeted with disbelief or outright, irritated skepticism. For all that law school fit me about as well as, for example, a receptionist on the moon, the life I had led while in law school was comfortable. Life in Los Angeles had provided me opportunities I could literally never have found in my hometown, and had beyond that granted me easy, practically instant access to the beach. The power of the waves and the foam between my toes to soothe me was without limit.

I could only keep these things I had come to love in my life by taking a job ill-suited me. Alternatively, I could accept one which would not pay enough to keep me from prematurely graying hair from nasty collection letters alone. Neither of these options was appealing, and together they were enough to assure me the current bent of my job search was a good one for me.

Within three weeks of having begun my job search, I had two outright offers and other tentative ones, as well as numerous scheduled phone interviews remaining. Two other positions would have been mine had not gaikokujin (people from foreign countries) with visas shown up and whisked them away. I accepted the second job offer, having felt instantly at ease with the interviewer and liking the job specifications.

That is the long and short of it: On a whim, because I wasn't sure what else to do, I applied for TESL ("Teaching English as a Second Language") jobs in Japan, the country that paid the highest wages. I was hired and signed the contract that brought me temporary peace a month and a half before I graduated from law school. It had all been an abstract search, a distraction, and one motivated out of pragmatic considerations more than any desire to immerse myself in the Japanese culture.

I am glad for the way that search turned out. It has now been more than eight months since I moved to Japan, and if the journey has not been what I expected, I came here because I did not want the expected. I sought something else and different, and I have surely found it here. The beauty of this land and my respect for the kind yet complex people who occupy it sometimes blind me to the fact my decision to come here was - shockingly, for me - a practical one.

For all it began that way, the things I have witnessed and learned here have brought me to such a different understanding both of my life and this country. Every day I awaken with the joyous realization I am in Japan, and I am happy pragmatic considerations led me to this place.

If it is now more ethereal, idealistic ones that keep me here, that is another story.


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