Book Review: This Japanese Life

One of my favorite blogs written by a sojourning ELT was This Japanese Life, which seems to be now discontinued. Fortunately most of the blog has been published into the form of a book with the same title. Eryk Salvaggio is the author, and I got his book for Christmas. The purpose of this post is to explain why I like his blog/book so much.

This Japanese Life book cover

Reflective Practice of Cultural Learning
Eryk provides a great example of a sojourning English language teacher who practices extensive reflection of his cultural learning on a regular basis. Not many bloggers do this regularly, but Eryk goes into great depth exploring how his experiences in Japan affect his personal and professional growth.

In Chapter 9, Eryk makes reference to the phases of culture shock (U-curve or revised W-curve), and then writes this gem of a paragraph: “I was living in phase two for months. Some people adapt, others don’t. Either way, along the way of rejecting everything and heading home, or adopting the culture and staying forever, you’re gonna get really effing cranky.”

Chapter 11 he provides a great example of the struggles in cultural learning, which he aligned with former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns speech. He juxtaposes the known unknowns of Japanese culture—not knowing what to say when someone sneezes—against the unknown unknowns—listing people in hierarchical order in an email cc. The reaction of his Japanese colleagues helped Eryk learn the difference between these two types of cultural learning in that his colleagues expected him to know how important the unknown unknown was, especially in contrast to the low importance of the known unknown. If you respond or don’t respond to a sneeze, nobody really cares. But if you list contacts in a non-hierarchical order in a cc, then that causes problems.

Eloquent Writing
I assume Eryk has a background in writing. His “about me” page claims that he has written for several journals and news media companies. He is able to engage his readers by not being overbearing about his knowledge about Japanese culture and judging himself more harshly than others he writes about. Many bloggers run into these issues: finding the host culture so fascinating or “odd” that they write in length about how much they are learning about the culture or how funny/strange/different the other culture is. I don’t find this type of othering as apparent in his writing. Eryk usually writes about this awareness of this othering, which I believe takes a lot of editing and/or self-restraint.

An example of this is in Chapter 12, when he describes the phenomenon of having an empty seat next to him, the “Gaijin Forecefield” as he calls it:

“Among the expat bitterness brigade, this superpower is a go-to example of casual racism in Japan. Japan apologists say it is simply hospitality run amok, the generous Japanese spirit toward foreigners runneth over into giving Westerners the space that they are said to want. The answer is somewhere between—it’s just one example of the constant hum of ‘otherness’ that buzzes around foreigners, a frequency off-kilter from what I presume are the bright harmonics otherwise felt in a train car full of Nihonjin.”

For the next few paragraphs, he wrestles with the concept and perceptions of racism, which is a popular topic among sojourning ELT bloggers. And in my previous post, this perception of discrimination can slow down or prevent cultural learning. Eryk ends the chapter by indicating that we need to deal with immaturity (such as racism) around us and within ourselves, which is more of an example of personal growth than cultural learning.

Likeness
Of course, there are selfish reasons why I like this blog. He’s a lot like me, an American white male who taught English in Japan. However, we differ a lot as well. It seems that he went to Japan with a more mature outlook on life and a better understanding of the adjustment process. I wonder how many sojourning ELTs come to Japan with his level of maturity. He also worked for the JET Program, which allowed for him more personal time to reflect deeply. From what I have read, many more JET teachers have this opportunity than sojourning ELTs in higher education and in the private sector, such as eikaiwa gakko.

Eryk also seems to be somewhat of an introvert, which may contribute to his high level of reflective practice. As an introvert for most of my life, I would like to believe that introverts are more prone to self-reflection and perhaps better writers, especially in the genre of self-reflection. Although I haven’t been specifically targeting introverts, I have come across more of them for my studies and through casual blog reading. However, my personal experience has revealed a great number of extraverts who have been sojourning ELT. In Japan specifically, this extraversion is the key to success as a genki teacher. Reading through Eryk’s book has caused me to wonder more about the number of introverted bloggers in proportion to the number of introverted sojourning ELTs. This is especially important to me as a few articles have looked into the big 5 personality traits and teaching success and/or sojourner success. One of them was the article I mentioned in the previous post (Wilson, Ward, and Fischer, 2013).

Finally, I like this book/blog because it supports my theories and models about sojourning ELTs and their cultural learning.  Because I highly value the scientific method, I would like to find sojourning ELT blogs and books that provide evidence that challenge my theories and models.  I’d like to avoid getting stuck in the murky swamps of confirmation bias.

Conclusion

If you are interested in teaching English in Japan, specifically the JET Program, this book may help guide your own cultural and professional learning.  If you are a researcher like me, Eryk provides detailed thoughtful reflections mainly as a sojourner with a few details of his English language teaching experiences.  I recommend this book to TESOL graduate programs that tend to graduate many students who immediate go overseas to teach English.  We need more blogs and books like these from a diverse group of teachers in a wide range of TESOL contexts around the globe.

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