I realized long time ago, no matter what I did I would never be considered as ‘one-of-us’ by Japanese people (nor that I ever had any intention to, I guess I like being myself too much, lol). The conundrum of being an ‘alien’ in the J-land often causes tumults among foreigners, however, even though it did cause me some ‘discomfort’ (like being stared at at a restaurant, some minor discrimination, etc) I decided that I would try my best not to waste my energy by being upset about it. Instead, I take the advantage of being a Non-Japanese (NJ) in the J-Land.
So here are the things that I could get away from, just for being an NJ:
I mostly use signature, instead of seal
Japanese don’t use signature for most things, they use inkan/seal/stamp instead. The seal can be made of rubber (for less-important purpose like work attendance) or hard wood (for more important purpose like legal documents, bank account, contract, etc). You can get the rubber seal from 100 yen store, but for the hard seal, the cost range from 1000 JPY ($12) to 100,000 ($1200), the expensive one being carefully hand-crafted, unique and officially registered.
Example of a Japanese inkan (picture taken from here)
The idea of a stamp instead of signature kinda freaked me first :D. What if someone stole my seal, brought it to the bank and stole my money (not that I have THAT much money in the bank, lol..), and it is so easy to forge! And here is my biggest problem: I am the most forgetful person I have ever known. So if I forget to bring my seal say, to the bank, I can’t make a withdrawal? So, forget it, and I used my ‘gaijin (foreigner) card’ (no pun intended :p) : I asked to use a signature instead of a seal. And even though some banks refused this idea (buhbye M**** Bank, see ya!), others are OK with this since I am an NJ (hello Iwate Bank! hello Japan Post Bank! Love, your gaijin customer :p). I also got away with signing my apartment lease instead of sealing it, also phone contract, internet etc etc. My Japanese friend Hiroko was shocked when she found out I never had any inkan until two years ago, lol (I kinda had to when I became a full time staff at the University, but I only use it for my attendance and whatnot). Up until now, I still use my signature for banks, contracts, and so on. (PS. I also refused to have kanji characters for my inkan, and I use a katakanized form of my surname :D)
I use all of my paid-leave and take long vacation
There is actually no rule about how long you can take your paid-leave at one time, but there is an unwritten consensus that you shouldn’t leave work too long (unless someone died), and I have never seen any of my colleague take a more than 3 days vacation outside the common holiday season (like Obon festival in summer and New Year where the WHOLE Japan is traveling to places and trains are SUPER CROWDED not to mention expensive. A good reason for me to avoid traveling during this crazy season). However, since I am not Japanese, they never gave me any trouble when I take 2 weeks of vacation at one time. Well, some might frown upon me and thought ‘oh well, she is not Japanese, that’s why..’ but so what? I am NOT Japanese, I don’t break the rule, and I want my two-weeks-vacation! :D. And I use ALL of my annual paid-leave days. All 20 of them, including the 4-days extra summer vacation (the blessing of working in a University), and the other extra days. Mottainai nee…doumo, 😀
I mix work with pleasure
And they are used to it, lol. You see, Japanese usually don’t mix work with pleasure. When they go somewhere for work, usually (of course, with some exceptions) they travel there, do their work, and come back. Once, I was in Toronto for a conference, and I asked my Japanese colleague (not from the same University) if he wanted to go to Niagara Falls on the day after the conference (when there’s nothing to do but wait for his flight back to Japan in the evening). First, he refused by saying it was too far, and when I kept saying it wasn’t that far, he finally gave me his final answer: he didn’t feel comfortable going to Niagara, and if he wanted to go there, he would go on a separate time, on his vacation time. Ooops. OK, well, he might be right, and I truly admire his dedication, but for me, it was not just about the money, but also the 23 hours we spent on the plane from Tokyo to Toronto, might as well visit some places while we were there. (In the end, I went to Niagara Falls with some conference participants from Indonesia :p)
With my Indonesian senior colleagues in Toronto
Being an NJ member of the University, I always (yes, always hehe) take some personal vacation time when I have to travel abroad for work. I love traveling and seeing new places, and as long as it doesn’t bother my work, why not? The people at the University’s administration office wasn’t used to this idea before. But I explained to them (I even made a separate explanatory letter to the Dean) and made my explanation in writing, that: 1) the cost of the airfare is the same if I go back to Japan right after the conference or a week after 2) I will take my personal paid-leave days for the extension 3) I will pay my own hotel, meal, etc during the extension 4) I fully understand that I am not getting any per diem stipend during the extension, and they finally said OK (well, my boss, The Prof, helped by calling them and the Dean :p, bless him!). Now, they are used to it. I still have to write the letter each time (that’s OK though, I have the template ready on my computer :p), but I never have any trouble anymore. The lady at the Administration office even asked me where would I go this time the last time I submitted my work trip form :p.
Working in a University/Hospital where more than 99% of the staff are Japanese (there’s only 6 NJ staff out of more than a thousand employee here) can be very tricky sometimes. And I admire the work-ethic of the people here, I am learning to adapt to their discipline, hard work, and custom, and so far, I am making the best out of it, and the best out of being different 😉