This was an eye opener for me! After having found the working environment
very structured in the way that you interact with Japanese people, I was
not prepared for the huge differences that I encountered when I started
to socialise in circles outside of work. I found I had many things to
get used to.
In work, interacting with the Japanese was always polite and pleasant.
If I ever started conversation it would be politely and sometimes enthusiastically
returned. Otherwise, usually I tended to find myself left to myself and
few would venture over to my desk. Not an uncommon observation or applicable
to just myself either. In the Japanese teaching system, teachers are moved
from school to school every few years and so the Staff Room atmosphere
is like what you can sometimes find in big companies where staff in different
departments will only know each other by face despite sharing the same
large office area. I the same way, the English department may not interact
greatly with say, the Science department. Perhaps this is due in part
to the semi-transient nature of most teachers time in the school.
My first experience of socialising outside of school with the Japanese
came with my attendance at series of Enkais. They are a type of work or
club related or formal party. At these parties, various formalities would
be performed, and often, as I was seen as being a cultural representative
of sorts, would be required to give a short speech on some aspect of my
home Scotland or UK culture. After, and as the evening progressed and
people continued to drink and relax, I soon found the that although people
in general would not approach me during the day, in a social environment,
lots of people would be very interested in asking all sorts of questions,
about my opinions of the Japanese or about what things were like at home.
As the nights would go on and more Sake and beer was consumed, inevitably
the questions would get more and more daring and outrageous, with a huge
amount of interest in how strong a drinker I could be!
After I started making friends with colleagues, I soon found myself invited
to the occasional work or English department get together. Almost always,
these would be completely men-only events. It was in fact only at the
larger Enkais that I ever saw women from work. On these nights, which
seemed to be the norm, we would go to "Hostess Bars". In comparison
to western pub culture where all the mixed customers will socialise in
their groups in often large and loud bars, a huge amount of local Japanese
bars were small and discreet with low lighting. The men would sit together
and a Japanese female would sit with the group, chat to them and pour
their drinks at the table. Someone described the hugely widespread occurrence
of these kinds of bars as a modern throwback to the days of the Geisha.
On my first visits to these places I often wondered if there was more
that was behind the scenes that I never saw. Eventually, I accepted that
this wasn't the case and that these places were the norm. I found it easy
to relax quickly, especially as they all had karaoke equipment which everybody
would enthusiastically take part in.