A 21st century multicultural Japan is here in some ways.

A second post in the series.

For just under a year, I have been associated with an English-teaching cooperative run by a corporate worker who likes English. All of his time in during the week is uncompensated—it’s volunteer work. The kind that back in America gets you a smiling picture with the mayor, or maybe featured in a company bulletin/advertisement. You know, about how the workers of X corp. are real people and leaders in their individual communities. I think Johnson and Johnson did that a lot in New Jersey, for instance, and it wasn’t made up corporate B.S. So it had a lot of credibility.

I was mentioning about focusing on the positive side of Japan, since many expat blogs tend to veer off. So this is one about Multicultural Japan.

Teaching English is a rough business, here. A rough activity, let’s say. Many people want to learn English, but there aren’t very many affordable, well-organized groups for people to rely on. And because the government cedes this activity to the private sector, whatever does get organized tends to have a profit motive lurking somewhere in the business plan. It isn’t so much that the people actually learn English as it is that the people running the business get the yen in.

So this is where the Eikaiwa cooperative is a truly remarkable thing, and, I believe a sign of positive developments for the future.

The format is simple: a nonprofit is set up in a local community hall. People pay a modest fee, per session, and paid staff or volunteers help people learn English or practice it in a lightly-structured “free chat”. Now, is this in some ways hardscrabble? Yes. But only because some local governments don’t acknowledge the value of what is going on. It’s basically the “college extension” or community college format that you saw take off in places like New Jersey and California in the 1960’s. People can use after-hours time to learn more things and grow intellectually as a person.

I don’t like to talk about my friends through the blog format, but I meet so many wonderful people through my work in the circle. They are the people who let the world outside Japan in, and who open up non-Japanese to see what a class act many Japanese are.

You wonder why expats stick around Japan, and want to. Well, it’s people like these. You see?

For non-native Japanese speakers, you know how challenging it can be to make sense of the Japanese language. There are some Japanese who are focused on English, and they face the same challenges working backward (from our view) to English. A lot of the blog world that focuses on Eikaiwa (英会話 – English conversation – “ay kigh wa”) zero in on the negatives of it. How difficult it is to make a living teaching English. The many ways, since it is business, that the element of cheating comes in—both against the employees and against the customer-students.

But this is a happy post, right? So sure, the criticisms of Eikaiwa are legitimate. But when the profit motive comes out, and the spirit of intellectual curiosity is allowed to grow and thrive, wonderful things happen.

You get to share and help people to see things about the English-speaking world that they really want to see. In turn, you get to learn something about the best side of the culture here—because the English learners are very much in the Japanese tradition of valuing knowledge and scientific curiosity. You know? Learning and understanding for its own sake.

Edo was a peaceful kingdom for 250 years, with only minor disturbances, and a few riots—usually around food in a famine. So all that peace of centuries went into developing arts and culture. While waiting for the rice to grow, the people put the time to good use and created a remarkable place.

It was simply the shutting off of Japan from outside influences at the same time as the European Renaissance, and later Industrial Revolution, that set Japan back a bit, and then on a trajectory that created a very tempestuous history.

Arguably, the very non-jingoistic, curious, seeking–as I said–and intellectually rich influences of the culture of the people here have been there all the time. Westerners, who don’t spend a lot of time by definition in Japan, are mostly clueless to these features, sounds and feelings. You may be hit by them in your early days here. Then, reality sets in, of course. Life comes back to its normal ways, and everything seems a little gritty and hardscrabble. But then, if your lucky, you get the chance to fall in with people who really show you that the mirage you came to believe you saw at the start has a solid backing to it.

This is why I think a lot of people try to stay in Japan who come here. No one takes the census for it, but you can meet so many remarkable people, even if you sometimes feel they are only few and far between. People who are solid friends, people who are class acts, who really show you the best of what life is about.