Rising Sun or Middle Kingdom?

After a year in China, a year or so in the states, and a few months in Japan, I’ve decided to move back to China. I’ll work for at least two years as an English teacher at an international school in Jiangsu province. At the end of July 2017, I’ll fly from Tokyo to Shanghai and begin my next chapter.

When I tell people about my impending move, reactions range from astonishment to excitement to keen interest to shocked anger. I’ve mustered piecemeal attempts to explain my motivations but I usually fail to express what’s inside. Here I’ve done my best to sum up the advantages and disadvantages, based only on my perspective which is laced with subjective value judgments, of life in China and Japan.

Westerners typically have a more positive view of Japan than of China. Japan’s government and economy are organized roughly along American lines, so the ideological divide is relatively small. The perks of daily life in Japan — cleanliness, polite citizenry, delicious and healthy food, beautiful natural environment, and technological development — are highly visible and easily perceptible. Japan has been an ally of the liberal West since the early days of the Cold War and its image is enhanced by positive media coverage.

By contrast, China’s governmental and economic organization does not meet Western standards. Its image is stained by air pollution, uncleanliness, and a distinct lack of political freedom. China is often perceived as a threat because it undermines American financial, political, and social hegemony. Moreover, most of the news stories that reach the West deal with human rights abuses and environmental problems.

Japan just might be the best country in the world for a tourist. In the Land of the Rising Sun, food is delicious, crime is low, people are polite, architecture is unique, public transportation almost always runs precisely on time, and nature constantly radiates iridescent beauty. Meanwhile, its disadvantages are virtually invisible and mostly irrelevant for tourists. The colorless, unyielding professional life takes a massive toll on Japanese society and negates the possibility of a healthy work-life balance. There’s a lot to unpack when analyzing the working environment in Japan. For the purposes of this article, suffice it to say that Gary Jules’s “Mad World” is a tragically accurate depiction of day-to-day life in Japan.

Unlike 20% of the Japanese workforce, I’m not at risk of karoshi, “death by overwork”. I devote less than 60 hours per week to work and I don’t have a wife or kids. Yet the system places immense stress on virtually everybody around me. Palpable anxiety permeates the entire society, and I am not totally immune to its depressing effects.

As a teacher in a small Chinese city (population between one and three million, small by Chinese standards), I can devote far less time to work, earn roughly the same salary, and take advantage of a drastically lower cost of living. I’ll work fewer hours, live a richer lifestyle, make bigger monthly payments on my student loans, and save more money.

Another disadvantage of living in Japan — at least, from the perspective of a foreigner who earnestly wants to understand the true opinions and feelings of men and women from a radically different culture — is the set of Japanese customs which inhibit open expression (e.g., honne to tatemae and enryo). Silence is critically important in Japan, and masks are perhaps the highest form of symbolic expression. It’s incredibly difficult to get beneath the surface and explore people’s true feelings. I would never characterize these Japanese customs as “bad”, per se, but they put a foreigner who wants to engage in meaningful, emotional conversations at a significant disadvantage.

Comparatively speaking, Chinese folks are much more open and willing to talk about themselves and their country. Both cultures have a tendency to communicate in a rather indirect fashion and avoid negative perspectives, and there are some topics which are strictly off-limits in China. It’s challenging to delve inside the minds of people from either country, but it’s significantly harder in Japan.

The communication difficulties in Japan are compounded by low average levels of proficiency in spoken English. Aside from the aforementioned cultural issues at play, the biggest factor, from my perspective as a teacher, is the fact that none of the seminal examinations in the education system assess spoken English. Japanese students take mega high-stakes exams to enter high school and university, and there is another English exam (TOEIC) which many aspiring professionals take, but none of these exams assess spoken English. That’s right — the biggest English tests in the country don’t require test-takers to speak English. As a result, students are not incentivized to improve their spoken English, and teachers are not incentivized to teach it. I don’t blame teachers or students for neglecting spoken English because the examinations place them under immense pressure; I blame the movers and shakers in Japanese education (i.e., the government).

Of course, it is my responsibility to learn the language of my community, and it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to know English. Yet compared to the Chinese, who are often ridiculed for their heavy accents, fewer Japanese folks (in relative and absolute terms) are capable of having a conversation in English. This makes it more difficult for me to make friends and build meaningful relationships in Japan.

For over a decade, Japan has been gradually closing itself to the outside world. Japanese students are studying abroad less (down about 50% since 2000), and the private English school market has been stagnating for years. A number of my students have confessed that they’re simply not interested in the world outside Japan. Theirs is a clean, safe, high-tech society with a beautiful natural environment and polite people; it’s reasonable that many people don’t want to leave. That’s fine for the locals but it’s destructive for me, a young American man who aims to become a leader in a globalized world. If Japanese people continue this trend, proficiency in the Japanese language will gradually become less important in the Western world.

China, on the other hand, is overflowing with people who yearn for the world outside the Great Wall. It’s a fascinating dynamic: the Chinese government censors foreign ideas whereas the Japanese government is relatively open, but the opposite is true, generally speaking, of the citizenries. Japanese people have more political freedom but they are constrained on a day-to-day level because differences are shunned and individuality is suppressed. Chinese people lack political freedom but they can do virtually whatever they want in their private lives. Since I’m just a foreigner who has no intentions of making waves, the daily freedom of China is of greater importance to me.

I’m not an expert on either China or Japan. I’ve read more than my fair share about each country but my ability with the Chinese and Japanese languages, while good enough to make life a bit more convenient, is insufficient for raw emotional communication. I’m only speaking from the perspective of an English teacher who likes to connect with people, unabashedly sing out in the open, live comfortably, and help people who want to explore the flattening world. The Western world is pivoting toward Asia and I’m blessed to be a part of the transition.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Daniel Mikesell’s story.