This is the last and most profound lesson I absorbed during my time in Japan. It’s something that wasn’t really expressed verbally but more so- an observation and a feeling. Whenever I do talk about Japan with folks who’ve never been to Asia, one of the many remarks made repeatedly is that ‘it must’ve been a cultural shock to live there’ and although it sounds correct it isn’t. The culture shock hit me when I returned home to Toronto. It took some time to process the difference and it also took time to flow again with what I’d known my whole life, how to navigate where I was headed once I got home and how to reject what people around me suggested I do.
Let me tell a story as I did with the first 3 travel stories for context. Every morning, when I first arrived to Osaka-I’d take the train to work. When you (a foreigner) arrives to Japan, you stand out (as you’re not them.) It takes awhile to get used to so the people around you seem like a blur because it’s a new environment. I’d head into the office-a whole multimedia centre, to teach English modules by webcam (pretty much what Zoom is like today!) *13 years ago we taught by webcam…..anyway during breaks, between classes, lunch time, no show classes and home time I’d sit around the centre talking to other instructors, operations staff and sometimes even the cleaning staff. Lemme focus on the cleaning staff. You know the saying we see as meme posts which I discovered comes from Albert Einstein, who was quoted as saying, “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.” I think about that quote a lot but I think about it in reverse. It’s hard for me to explain this in a way that doesn’t sound short sighted.
As teaching staff in that office we did our best to keep it tidy and clean up after ourselves-it never seemed disrespectful against the cleaning staff. After seeing 2 cleaning staff members almost everyday and talking to them here and there within the office space; there’s an observation I made as I navigated the city for my next 2 years there. Folks in all areas of the society worked hard, happily and with purpose. Please click the link that follows later in this paragraph. I use the term ‘happily’ very carefully. I observed the way different societies placed types of work in a category and then I observed those that worked them; they worked with a kind of esteem and I also looked at (the way workers interacted with each other, the people in the cities they worked for- as well as public exchanges and cultural interaction between them) It was different. When I observed two city workers one night on my way back from a DJ gig, both were bowing to each other after their shifts. It was something I’d never seen before. I looked at the way a city like Toronto places heavy importance on the stature of an individual whether it be the ‘look’ and ‘show’ of class, wealth, clout and/or the outward keeping of appearances to exude (being worthy of respect solely based on luxury and/or materialism) and then the hush, hush nature of being support staff and/or performing ‘blue collar’ work. A very unique thing to keep in mind also is that education is quite intense in Japan- so no matter what your future looks like, by the time you choose a career path (most young people would have studied ALOT.) Everyone is well learned and fierce with the books.
Let’s step away from my intricate observations for a moment. This is the transitional part of myself I want to share here: One morning I was on the train-a few months before I ended my contract and came home. The train was packed. Typical of what you see on TV with Japanese urban centres on television. I held the bar tightly preventing myself from tipping over on to other passengers. As I stared out the window of the train I felt someone looking at me. I was so used to it by then-being taller than most,having dreads and then later a little fro (I chopped them off) and the the obvious (being black LOL-anyway) I looked to my right and then my left and saw a couple standing together both smiling and waving at me; for a second I thought they looked so familiar. They waved and greeted me. I then realized who they both were, dressed to the nines and headed to work. I didn’t recognize them because I’d only seen them in their work uniforms for almost three years. I didn’t know they were husband and wife-she had a beautiful Prada jacket, handbag and hat-he was decked out in a beautiful and VERY expensive suit. I don’t know why it hit me differently at that moment. But the resonance for me hit in waves and it said ‘it’s necessary to have self esteem with whatever you do-no need to be fake about that shit, provided it’s safe, legit and works for you, NEVER FEEL ASHAMED for where you are NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO.
I know it sounds like a judgement against them (the cleaning staff couple) for me seeing them dressed up and then later dressed for work, but it wasn’t just them at that very moment that made me think like this- but a series of events and observations of them at work that led me to embrace this message so strongly. It prepared for the next decade in Toronto with no shortcuts. It was a culmination of things: I was headed back to Toronto with all types of plans for the way I wanted life to go and leaving the Canada and returning after sometime is very much a ‘from the ground up‘ process. I’ve worked at many places to get by, to get through school-again (Humber PR) and to literally, make it! And even I was made to feel like what I was doing was beneath me at many intervals in the last decade. Depending on where I was in certain groups or environments or classist circles that attempt to stamp that permanent mark of ‘less than’ on your back or forehead, I remind myself about what I had come to know after setting foot back into Toronto and understood after observing what I described to you up top.
Looking back at the last 12-14 years, I realize there’s so much I had to learn by going through all types of experiences to get what I wanted and it wasn’t easy. I don’t think I would’ve had the grit I have today to sustain my goals! So after all this extra descriptive language and explanation-I formally discovered ikigai a few days ago. I also realized that I observed it in action. It’s definitely a strong cultural mindset (even though I embraced hard work most of my life with diligence-I grew up with that at home!) I worked jobs in spaces and places I never thought I should or could do-THAT was my cultural shock. Here’s a paragraph that explains the concept and how it should ideally work:
‘Pride and camaraderie are more difficult to define and obtain. These two values are different in that they depend on each individual person’s character and needs. They are reliant on the relationship between the employee and his or her job (pride) and the relationship between the employee and his or her coworkers (camaraderie). What each person needs to be proud of their job is personal and unique and it’s crucial to ensure that everyone is in a role that satisfies their goals. The quality of relationships between coworkers depends on the personalities and different preferences each person has as well as the ability of the team to match them. Pride and camaraderie can be related back to the concept by ikigai when you think about appreciating others for their personal reason for being whilst valuing yourself for yours. This will create a harmonious work environment composed of successful individuals.’ See more about this concept.
Naturally it was easy for me to work retail, wash n fold laundry service, cashier, bartending or server jobs after experiencing ikigai. No shame in the game-you learn a multitude of things and are exposed to dynamics you’d never see, know or understand otherwise. It’s humbling yes, it might even feel like punishment. But having a sense of pride, esteem and full comprehension of all angles of work makes you know shit very well. So, this wasn’t something I picked up in one trip-but over the course of my stay in Japan. It’s something that’ll always be a part of me. I know how to put in the elbow grease with no complaints-I know in my mind where I’d like to be. Lastly, I judge no one.
For ambitious folks, this lesson 4 is:
what you do for work isn’t your final destination