The Three Parables: the Chicken, the Architect, and the Dog

Reflecting on Early Fall in Saitama

Adjusting to Japanese cultural norms and expectations has been extremely difficult. I want to simultaneously respect my own individuality and rebelliousness and still respect the culture. Perhaps that is partially why I have had a hard time with my current work situation.

About the Japanese workplace…

In Japan, being overly friendly in communication with coworkers and superiors is taken as rude, as if the person is trying to pick a fight. There is also a popular managerial style where bosses micromanage their workers, and allow them little-to-no personal life. (The work-life binary is not espoused here, and there is actually a term here for people who die from overwork.)

But my ex-boss is American, Japanese is not spoken at work, and my coworkers are also foreigners. So it has been difficult to understand why there has been such a small amount of leeway for me to acclimate to Japanese expectations for the work environment, when they are so drastically different from the way workers interact in the American work environment.

Folks, study up on workplace dynamics before you move to another country to work!

Otherwise, you might sorely regret it. 

Working on the island will be such a welcome respite from my current situation in rural Saitama. I read about scientific management in college, where workers are treated like nothing more than dispensable machines in one massive assembly line. And I found something akin to that horrid system, in Japan. Some may argue it is part and parcel of the capitalist system but… I should hope not.

My work situation was toxic, as my ex-boss quickly morphed from someone I thought whose life I admired, to someone who was an overreactive abusive bully in the work place. My coworkers are ruled by fear, and often stammer “___ is going to kill you if you ___”, etc. And boy, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Because of this director, the school has had a history with a huge turnover of teachers, within weeks to months of their arrival.

The Three Parables

In the backyard, there is a filthy chicken coop, leftover from the golden days when my boss’s husband had a flourishing egg business. After a snowstorm devastated coops and killed nearly all of his 5,000+ chickens, only 12 remain. Understandably, it has been sorely neglected: stuck in a small 7×7 foot coop 24/7, the chickens shit in their water, never get fresh hay, and have barely laid for weeks. Under such miserable conditions, they pick on each other endlessly. Recently, one chicken has been suffering especially. Sure, maybe it is common for chickens to be treated poorly, and perhaps it is a common occurrence for animals to single one particular weakling out when stuck together in tight quarters. But I can’t help but feel so sad when this chicken wails so piteously, almost like a human child. Spots of blood well up from its exposed neck. When the other chickens start to peck and it, it run and hides behind the water bucket. I just say to myself: “I’m not that chicken, I’m not that chicken,” and when I go to feed the chickens, I give it its own food in the corner and hiss at the other bullies like a cat. A week later we find it dead.

And I’m not that chicken. To be very clear- the situation is not that bad. It’s only that sometimes I feel like that poor chicken. I’m really hard on myself and there is some element of the truth to the endless criticism I receive. Things can get crazy in my head. I was talking to a Tokyoite about work dynamics and heard some insane real life stories: 33 year old chefs made to kneel for hours in the corner at work and “daily debriefings” where 40 employees had to sit in a circle and bear an endless stream of insults and threats from their overseer. Last but not least, the story of a miserable architect who would repeatedly drink himself silly, return home, and mistake his laptop for the toilet.

My (Freudian) friend mused that he was probably fulfilling an unconscious desire to leave his job.

In my opinion, Saitama has been Carrie in real life but in this case, Carrie didn’t steep in the bright red blood of vengeance.

At the crux of the bullying, I sought my father’s advice. In regards to the overwhelmingly negative side of my job, my dad gave me an amazing analogy. He asked me to remember this one day in high school when I was walking a squat old dog named Lizzie. At the park, Lizzie started to roll around in what we thought was a melted chocolate ice cream bar. My dad insisted it was ice cream. But I knew it was shit. And we had to clean the stuff out of the dog’s fur with a hose and a couple old toothbrushes. Now, we’ve switched and my dad knew this was going to be shit while I was convinced I had stepped in the most glorious of ice creams, in my fantasy candy land.

Not only did I step in it, I even danced and pranced around with crap on my shoes.