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Asakusa-Gate © Stéfan Le Dû

Tokyo, Japan:
Not Such a Small World After All

By Annette Greene

Ikebukuro Street Scene © Stéfan Le Dû

Ikebukuro Street Scene © Stéfan Le Dû

House for rent in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, in exchange for 8 hours of English teaching per week.

The day after my husband, James, and I arrived in Tokyo, we spotted this ad in one of the few English newspapers available in the country. This situation seemed like the perfect fit for us, so we arranged to meet the owner of the house, Mrs. Komatsu, who ran the Sunshine English Academy, a private school offering children's classes. A short, well-dressed woman in her early sixties with a bouffant hairdo, Mrs. Komatsu spoke excellent English and was full of advice. We walked together for twenty minutes from the train station to the house she had for rent.

“How long have you been in Japan?” she asked as she hurried along the street.

“About two months,” I replied.

“You have a lot to learn. If you are going to be teachers, you must do things the way we Japanese do.”

“For example?” James asked.

“Don't eat while you are walking down the street. If you buy a snack or ice cream you must stand and eat it next to the shop. It is considered bad manners in Japan otherwise.”

Looking for adventure, James and I had quit our jobs in Seattle and flown to Japan. We stored all of our furniture in a friend's basement and didn't know when we would return. James's Japanese mother helped us connect with cousins, aunts, and a grandmother who welcomed with graciousness and patience two gaijin (foreigners) in their late twenties who didn't speak any Japanese. After a bit of travelling and visiting relatives, we arrived in Tokyo determined to stay and look for work as English teachers.

At the end of a dead end street sat a little two-storey house with a stucco exterior. Mrs. Komatsu pointed to a rusted, old bicycle leaning against the side of the house.

“You can use this bicycle, if you like, to get to the train station or to go shopping, especially if you are running late. It goes with the house.”

One by one, we removed our shoes in the small entryway that the Japanese call a genkan.  It was then one short step up to the first floor. With the three of us inside, there was barely room to turn around. A staircase on the right led up to the second floor. The kitchen to our left consisted of a sink, a small countertop with cupboards below, a two-burner hotplate, and a small refrigerator. The three doors off the kitchen led to a toilet room with a Japanese-style squat toilet, a bathtub room, and a bedroom that was rented to a young woman from the Philippines whom we would share the house with.

“Where's the bathroom sink?” I asked.

“There isn't one,” said Mrs. Komatsu. “Japanese houses are very small and sometimes we just don't have room for everything that you gaijin are used to.”

We quickly figured out that the only place to brush our teeth and for James to shave would be the kitchen sink.

Asakusa Hoso Mon Gate.jpg © Stéfan Le Dû

Ikebukuro Street Scene © Stéfan Le Dû

The second floor of the house turned out to be much nicer than the ground floor. It consisted of two rooms separated by sliding paper doors; the smaller one had a wooden floor, while the larger one was covered in tatami (straw mats). Furnished with futon beds, zabutons (floor cushions to sit on), a small television, bookshelves, and even a dining table, the place had everything we would need. Big windows looked out onto our neighbour's rooftop garden only a few feet away, but when shut, they offered privacy because the glass was frosted.

“I feel like I'm living in a shower with these frosted windows,” James said.

“It's not good for your neighbours to see into your rooms, so you will be happy your windows are like this,” explained Mrs. Komatsu. “Now, all you need to do is teach four hours each for me on Saturdays. The classes are for children so it's very easy. You will have the rest of the week to work at other jobs.”

We agreed to rent the house and pay for it by teaching. Our roommate, Sophia, who worked as a hostess in a bar when she wasn't teaching for Mrs. Komatsu, was easy to live with and wasn't around very much. What we didn't know then was that all of the Sunshine English Academy classes were out in the suburbs and this involved at least one hour of travelling time by train each way. Mrs. Komatsu's school was set up in rented spaces all over the Tokyo suburbs and James and I ended up teaching at different locations. A half-day's work quickly stretched to six hours and ended up taking up most of each Saturday.

On my first day of work I met Mrs. Komatsu at the school in Chiba, an eastern suburb of Tokyo, where she taught the lessons with me assisting her. The class was an hour long and had half a dozen four- to six-year-olds. The boys and girls were enthusiastic but didn't have long attention spans. We used flashcards with pictures of everyday objects and the children repeated the words in English after us.

There were other types of games involving the cards as well as activities where the children got to move around the room. Another part of the lesson involved playing a recording of “It's a Small World,” a song made famous by Disney. The children had memorized it and seemed to enjoy singing along, even if they really didn't understand the meaning of the words. Mrs. Komatsu wanted me to play this every week because at the end of the year we were to have a special “Christmas Concert” and the children would have to sing in front of their proud parents.

After this first class, I had an hour and a half with children who were a little older – ages seven and eight – but I basically followed the same lesson plan. At the end of the afternoon, I asked Mrs. Komatsu what I should do with the groups the next week.

“Oh, just do the same lesson over again. They don't remember much from week to week so they need the reinforcement.”

She then told me that, unfortunately, there were only two and a half hours of work for me at this Saturday location, so I would also have to work another hour and a half during the week to cover my share of the rent. I was rather put off by this revelation but agreed to teach a small group of junior high school students after school at a different location. It was a more traditional class with reading, comprehension questions, and conversation supplementing their English studies at school. Again, with a long commute, the one and a half hours of work meant another commitment of at least three additional hours.

James and I started working for the Sunshine English Academy that summer and soon found other language schools that wanted us to teach for them, so our schedules filled up quickly. The six-day workweek was hard on top of all the commuting plus the long walks to and from home to the train station each day.

mini temple.jpg © Stéfan Le Dû

Mini Temple © Stéfan Le Dû

I continued with my Saturday classes and tried to add variety to the lessons by devising new games and activities. I often brought a small box of cookies or candy as a prize for the winner of a special game. That child would then share their winnings with the others. In the months to come, I got to know the lyrics of “It's a Small World” by heart and still think of those Japanese kids today when I hear the song. At the end of the year we had a little concert and my students sang, much to the delight of their parents.  It was around this time that James and I decided to move and also to stop working for Mrs. Komatsu.

We found a studio apartment in an area much closer to a train station in a different part of the city.  Although the space was smaller, it was private and we didn't have to share with a roommate. The rent was also cheaper. Given the hourly rate we were paid to teach English, together we only needed to teach five hours a week to earn enough to pay the rent.

James and I stayed in Tokyo for seven years and all of the other classes we taught were with adult students. We needed a different lesson plan for each class and these did not involve flashcards, games, or songs. Later, James left teaching when he got hired to work for a publishing company selling textbooks, and I settled into a job at a private language school where I did administrative work along with teaching.

Our time in Japan was more than just about our jobs. We travelled around the country and saw the cherry blossoms in the spring, the beaches and hot spring resorts during the summer, and even the Sapporo Ice Festival one winter. We learned to speak some Japanese and spent many evenings with friends sampling the food and drink in local restaurants and pubs. Many of the people we got to know well were fellow teachers and expats, but we also met ordinary Japanese—the “salarymen” and women who were a part of the working class.

As difficult as it was, I'm grateful to Mrs. Komatsu for helping us get a start in Japan. When we left, I realized that our world in this small country had actually become very large in terms of the working experience and our exposure to many aspects of Japanese culture. Most importantly, though, our world grew because of the people we met – both Japanese and gaijin – many of whom became our lifelong friends.

Annette Greene is a freelance writer and educator from Vancouver B.C. She lived in Asia for 18 years and currently lives in Washington D.C.She writes on a variety of topics including health and wellness, education, travel, and cross-cultural communication.

All images © Stéfan Le Dû You can enjoy more of Stéfan Le Dû's images here.