Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Looking Way Back

Since I've been in Japan for so long, I've seen a lot of changes, both big and small. Some of these changes are the result of technological progress and others a result of the encroachment of more western culture and business. While the rest of the world has simultaneously experienced some of these changes, a lot of them are more dramatic when viewed from the perspective of being relatively deprived of the comforts of home in a foreign culture and then being greatly less deprived nearly two decades later.

Here are some of the changes, both big and small, comparing nearly 18 years ago (when we first arrived) to now.
  1. Spoken communication abroad was extremely costly and difficult when we first arrived and is now virtually free due to internet services such as Skype and GoogleTalk. When we first arrived, not only would phone calls back home cost a dollar a minute but a lot of foreigners chose not to have a telephone at all because NTT (Nippon Telephone and Telegraph) required a hefty deposit for the privilege of having a phone installed. At that time, the deposit was in the $500-$600 range.
  2. Diet sodas were rare to impossible to find. The best you could do was a Japan-only beverage called "Coca-cola Light" which had reduced calories relative to regular Coke. Pepsi was completely off the radar. Now, you can get both diet Pepsi and Coke though you can't always get both at any particular shop and other types of diet soda can only be purchased at places specializing in imports.
  3. Tokyo was a smoker's paradise. All coffee shops and restaurants allowed smoking and the non-smoking areas, when present, were relatively small and not the least bit shielded from wafting smoke from the smoking section. Nowadays, Starbucks is a smoke-free coffee shop option (the only one, I believe) and restaurants are expanding non-smoking sections relative to the smoking areas. Additionally, some streets are smoking-prohibited in Tokyo. That is, you cannot walk and smoke on them at the same time.
  4. Foreign entertainment was strictly in the form of videotape rental or limited pay access to services which are the Japanese equivalent of HBO (Wow Wow being the biggest). The selection for these channels was pretty poor and the relative cost for the quality high. Access to U.S. television was only possible through the largesse of relatives who were willing to tape shows and send the tapes abroad. Now, there is cable television which shows select T.V. series as quickly as one year behind the U.S. and more channels seem to be dropped in every few years. Currently, "Lost" is airing about a half season behind the U.S. on AXN. However, comedy is still pretty hard to find except for "Friends", "The Simpsons", and other Fox-produced shows (since Fox has its own channel on Japanese cable).
  5. Access to foreign food was limited to the odd item here and there at some markets and the expensive supermarkets in the "gaijin ghetto" areas of Tokyo. I use the term "ghetto" in the sense of it being a pooling of a certain type of person, not as any indication of poverty. The people living in those areas are quite wealthy compared to those of us living in Japanese communities. These days, you can get more foreign food consistently at local markets compared to the past, go to Costco (though only far from central Tokyo in a relatively long day trip), and order from the Foreign Buyer's Club though this takes a month and a half to deliver items.
  6. Getting English language books was very expensive. The main way to get them was through Kinokuniya bookstore where you were charged double the cost of the books back home. A secondary way was through one of the used books stores that kept starting and going out of business like restaurants in bad locations. In both cases, selection was limited. Nowadays, we have a stable used book store to visit (Good Day Books) as well as any branch of Amazon. Both Amazon U.S. and Japan will allow you to buy English books. From the U.S., you can buy anything you want at U.S. prices but the postage can be a nasty bite. From Amazon Japan, the price tends to be higher than Amazon in the States because they don't apply the same discounts. However, selection is far better and overall prices much cheaper than 18 years ago.
  7. The salary structure for foreign employees and working conditions have changed and are far less favorable than they were 18 years ago. The minimum amount a foreigner can make and still qualify for a working visa is 250,000 yen a month. In the past, you could make 250,000 yen in 25 hours of teaching work. Now, that has shifted to 30 hours for the same salary. Additionally, teaching children was a specialty and relatively uncommon as part of the average teacher's workday. These days, because of the shrinking population, almost all major language schools require some teaching of children. This is a way of increasing the market even though there are fewer and fewer people to teach. Finally, most schools have shortened class times as well as teacher break periods and schools that once offered paid national holidays no longer do so.
Some things have actually gotten worse rather than better. For instance, I used to be able to buy more English language computer software and hardware from Cyberian Outpost (now Fry's before Japan jumped whole-heartedly into the tech boom. Once Japan's market bloomed, restrictions on imports seemed to be more wholeheartedly enforced and getting English software became very difficult without the help of a third party back home. This is somewhat off-set by the ability now to download and buy software rather than having to buy it in boxes at shops though you still can't get major releases from a download.

All in all though, it's a lot easier to live in Japan than it used to be. However, it's still not home.


James said...

I have a work visa and my company pays me less than 250,000 yen a month to teach English. Does that mean I am illegally being given a work visa?

Shari said...

Does your contract state that you make less than 250,000 yen?

AFAIK, the legal minimum is 250,000 yen per month but companies can get around this by stating that amount on the contract which is given to immigration in application for a work visa and then having the teacher work fewer hours than the contract states or arbitrarily lowering the salary after the visa is procured.

The other thing they can do is pay you less in cash but claim a higher total because of other benefits, such as supplemented housing. For instance, if your apartment is set up for you by your employer, they can add something in to your total claimed salary based on making this provision.

There may be exceptions but I've never heard of them. When I was making 280,000 yen a month, immigration questioned my ability to live on that with a husband on a dependent spouse visa. They expect you can't get by on less than a certain amount of money and 250,000 yen has always been that number.

James said...

I'll have to check it when I get home, but I think my contract either states it as a total: 235,000 yen or so a month, or as a daily wage. The contract states I am allowed to take part-time teaching jobs as well.

Roy said...

You've covered most of the things I would have mentioned. And I have to say that Amazon saved my life.

Something I observed from when I was teaching English in 1987 and then came back again in 1991 was the dramatic change in the atmosphere of the English teaching crowd. In 1987, most of the people I worked with were a merry bunch of travelers with no skills in teaching ESL whatsoever. Some of these guys came to work drunk or stoned and did all kinds of stuff in the classroom that would constitute a lawsuit in this day, but they were a fun bunch.

When I came back in 1991, it seemed like English schools got serious and hired people who had come to Japan specifically to teach. While these people were more intelligent and professional they also complained more about the conditions and pay etc because they intended to stay for a longer period of time as opposed to a few years earlier when most gaijin would leave in 6 months to a year.

Shari said...

James: I can't speak to your situation because I don't know if the contract you have is the same document given to immigration or just the paper you happened to sign. I can say that anyone can get a work visa with a mixture of jobs that total 250,000 yen. This is, in fact, how I learned about the minimum figure. People my husband has worked with can "self-sponsor" by cobbling together enough documented part-time jobs to prove they make 250,000 yen or more in total.

Roy: I think I've seen that transition as well though not quite as clearly as you since I worked with a much smaller pool of people and worked in an office. I think the schools themselves are responsible in large part for this change. Most of the big chain schools went from recruiting off the street in Japan to recruiting in offices in English-speaking countries. A lot of them also went from relatively free-form teaching centering around a core text (which was loosely followed at best) to having a strict method teachers had to follow. The type of free spirits you used to encounter likely would not tolerate such a work situation nor likely be hired by places with rigid work environments.

Overall, I think that has really had a bigger impact on the working situation for teachers than the money/hours ratios. It's deadening to follow a method strictly and squashes the teachers' desire to innovate and be creative in lessons. Nova is the biggest place to change in this way but I'm pretty sure others have changed as well.