My hellish commute takes me to an even more hellish workplace. Photo by Ton Koene/ CP Photo
Tokyo - Welcome to my working holiday in Tokyo. As I write this, I'm lying in my room, which is about three times as big as a coffin.
With the futon, desk and chair, there is literally not enough space to sit on the floor. My bed is covered in the discarded plastic wrapping of convenience store rice balls, the only meal I can afford.
I'm living in a gaijin house, one of the overpriced guest houses where many of Japan's starving English teachers reside. Now I'm one of them. I'm working seven days a week to pay for this cockroach-infested dirt hole, commuting on packed rush-hour trains.
Sometimes I travel for an hour and a half to a Mitsubishi car factory where the air is filled with solvent reek and a metallic screeching reminiscent of a robot slaughterhouse. Here I teach a two-hour class to mechanics and the quality control team, who both look like they're on the verge of karoshi (Japanese for "death by overwork," a condition common enough here that there's a word for it.)
Don't ask me why I decided to search for work abroad in the midst of a global recession. Instead, ask why I decided to teach English in Japan. Foreigners who've lived in Tokyo for a long time are saying that English teaching in Japan is dead. But that's not quite right. More foreigners are teaching English here than ever before. What died is Japan's English-teaching gold rush.
The rumours still circulating in North America about English teaching in Japan sound a lot like old frontier tales. You can rake in big yen, travel in Asia, soak up Japanese culture and have amorous relations with foreigner-bedazzled locals, all while working less than 30 hours a week. And teaching English! Bah! That's not work! It's kind of like chatting with people.
Recent graduates and young professionals shout "Banzai!" as they fly across the Pacific in their thousands every year, just as would-be miners shouted "Yee-ha" as they rode trains to their doom in the gold-drained Yukon.
Like their cowboy predecessors, wannabe English teachers often return from Japan empty-handed, having zeroed their bank accounts in a frantic and unsuccessful job search. I feel blessed to have found any work at all, even if I'm just scraping by working four part-time jobs. Eating rice balls and breakfast-special soba noodles every day gets boring fast, but it sure beats begging my friends to lend me money for a plane ticket home.
As I listen to the man in the next room mumbling through the paper-thin walls, I dream about fruit. I can't help it: apples here cost about $1 each and strawberries close to $10 a basket.
Sucking noodles out of their styrofoam bowl, I imagine all the recent graduates like me heading over for riches and adventure, abandoning friends, not to mention affordable fruit and real apartments that you can actually stand up in. I want to smack the gold stars out of their bedazzled eyes .
If Japanese culture is your passion, join the local karate club or download some anime from the Internet and think about visiting Japan as a tourist. But whatever you do, ignore the hypnotic tail end of Japan's English-teaching bonanza.