Why we had a yen to swap Northern Ireland for a life in Japan
As fans converge on Japan for the Rugby World Cup, Linda Stewart talks to three people from Northern Ireland who have made new lives in the Land of the Rising Sun.
‘English is not so prevalent and you can feel a little isolated if you don’t know the language’
Philip Moore (45), from Lisburn, manages the Asia sales team for Northern Ireland company Andor Technology and has been living in Japan for more than 20 years. He lives in Tokyo with wife Yoko (45) and son Thomas (9). He says:
I moved here in 1995 after I got a job in a Japanese Ministry of Education-funded programme teaching English. I was teaching English for three years in rural Japan and following that I got a job in Japan with IDB. After that, I joined Andor in 2001 — I’m based in Japan but my work takes me all across Asia.
When I came here, it was very different. It’s been said to me that Japan is one of the places that really does still feel foreign and it has done, even up until the last few years. English is not so prevalent and you can feel a little isolated if you don’t know the language.
I found it was very, very different from growing up in Lisburn. I moved out here in the middle of the summer and the heat and the humidity were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. There’s no daylight saving time so it gets dark at 7pm in the summer.
After that, the thing that struck me was that everything seemed to work, from the buses and trains running on time to all the processes that you need in your day-to-day life. Everything seems to flow smoothly. When you’re coming from an environment where you expect something to go wrong, it’s disconcerting but reassuring.
We moved to Tokyo in 1998 and again there was that culture shock in moving from the country to the city in Japan. Tokyo is a city that really is vibrant — it’s always on the go.
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Whatever you are looking for, you can find in Tokyo — whether it be a different restaurant for every day of the year, or a different bar for every day of the year, it’s a city that is a joy to live in. It’s really crowded, especially on the train in the morning, but for a city that is so large, that it functions so smoothly is something that surprises everyone who lives here.
People here study English in school for six years and it’s studied in the same way you study maths and geography and you do tests but you don’t have to speak it. So even though everyone around you has studied English, very few people actually speak it.
The main culture shock is when you don’t speak Japanese and you have very little understanding of what’s going on. When I came out here, I didn’t speak Japanese so I thought, as I’m not going to change the country, I’m going to have to learn Japanese.
The biggest thing I could say to visitors from Northern Ireland is use your common sense — if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Be nice and polite, and pretend that you’re at your grandmother’s.
If you make a mistake, just politely say you’re very sorry and all will be forgiven. Good manners go a long way in every culture.”
‘If you are patient, calm and willing to let things unfold, everything is going to be okay’
Stuart Cunningham (48) from Bangor lives in Kobe with wife Yuki (46) and daughter Sophie (10). He teaches English at Kwansei Gakuin University and has lived in Japan for 20 years. He says:
When I graduated from university in England, I went to work in London in a couple of sales and marketing jobs — and I hated every day I had to wake up and go to that job. I couldn’t stand being in sales and marketing, it was awful. So I cashed in every penny and I went backpacking for a year and a half and met a whole bunch of people who said I should try teaching English.
I went to Spain and did the course and I intended to teach my way round the world, but I came to Japan and met my wife — and that was it.
I really enjoyed being in Japan and I decided to settle down and do a Master’s degree. And now I’m about two months away from finishing my PhD in epistemics.
At first I was living in what’s called a very small town in Japan which had about 180,000 to 200,000 people. It was such a small town that many people in Japan hadn’t heard of it!
I was one of three or four foreigners living there and people would stare at you in the street — little boys’ eyes would pop out of their heads looking at you! But there was never any hint of unpleasantness, just surprise. I’ve never experienced anything unpleasant in Japan. I lived there for a couple of years.
I really wanted to join a rugby team and there was a foreign team in Kobe, so we moved up to Kobe and I started playing for the local expat team.
To be honest, I found it really easy to settle. As soon as I started teaching I thought, ‘This is a job that I really want to do.’ It was a big change to be waking up to go to a job and enjoying it.
And I’ve backpacked around the world, visited Egypt and India, and many stranger places than Japan. It’s stable, it’s safe and it’s clean, so it’s kind of easy in that respect.
My wife is a flight attendant so sometimes we would pop over to Bangkok or Guam at the weekend — a weekend trip to Guam is definitely more exciting than a weekend trip to Donaghadee!
One of the things that surprised me the most is the town planning in Japan.
In the UK, all the houses in the street are the same — a developer would buy the street and build all the houses. In Japan it’s not like that — a plot of land is bought, an individual house is built on that land, it’s there for 30 or 40 years and then the next person that buys it knocks it down and builds a new house.
So it looks higgledy piggledy and it’s as if it’s not planned, but it’s just that the approach to town planning is different. In terms of everyday routine, it’s so easy.
Public transport is very fast, never late and really clean.
If your train is one minute late, there’s a public apology for your train being one minute late and it almost never happens. If your train is late, you tend to think your watch is wrong. In the summer it’s 35 to 39 degrees every day with 80% humidity, so you need cold water. Air conditioning is vital — you can’t survive the Japanese summer without air con.
I find there’s always someone who is willing to help me if I come across a problem. My neighbour at the minute used to work for a trading company and speaks fluent English — and he’s always happy to help.
To be honest, Japan is a place where if you are patient, calm and willing to allow things to unfold, if you’re willing to accept that the other person is trying to do their best to make sure both sides come out on top, everything is going to be okay.
Mostly when foreign people come to Japan and they shout at someone, trying to push things through, that style doesn’t work at all here.
In Japan, being confrontational is detrimental. Perhaps that is why I like it so much — I am a laid-back kind of guy and that suits me.”
‘If you’ve been in the Botanic glasshouse in summer, that’s what it was like outdoors’
Damien Okado-Gough (50), from west Belfast, teaches English in the British and American Studies Department at Aichi Prefectural University outside Nagoya, and is doing a PhD at Doshisha University in Kyoto on the role of memory in ethnic conflict and its resolution. He is married to Yuko (47) and they have three children, Abigail (14), Shosuke (12) and Fumino (9). He says:
When I was 24, I went to Magee College as a mature student to study peace and conflict studies and that’s where I met Yuko. I was an undergraduate and she was doing a Master’s in peace studies.
We met at the Guildhall at a big Sinn Fein meeting, of all things. They were doing a ‘preparing the base’ roadshow ahead of the signing of the Downing Street Declaration and a friend of mine who was a PhD student asked me to go along to this — like a peace studies field trip — to check out what the Shinners were up to. Afterwards, we all went to the pub and ended up back at my place for a big pot of chilli. When everyone else had left, Yuko was still sitting at the kitchen table and we had another cup of tea and the rest is history.
We got married when we were both still students, nine months after we met. We went back to the Guildhall where we’d met and got married very quietly.
We stayed in Derry for about 10 years — she worked for Seagate and I went to Strand Road to do a journalism course. Then we emigrated — after Yuko had Abigail in Altnagelvin hospital, I applied for a job here and got it. That was 14 years ago.
It was a massive shock with the heat — I arrived on July 25 and I had to go to an orientation in Tokyo and it was 36 degrees and 85% humidity — unbelievable. If you’ve ever been in the glasshouse in Botanic Gardens in summer — that’s what it was like outdoors. For a wee man from the Falls it was like, ‘Nobody told me about this!’
It has just been an absolutely fantastic adventure. Teaching at high school over here was a tremendous introduction into the work culture — you can see how the children are socialised and you can see why Japanese society is so ordered, so clean and so peaceful.
Within the classroom, you can see how the group dynamic is much more prominent than in the west. Individualism here tends to be frowned upon, whereas the group dynamic is what Japanese society is based upon.
The Japanese are a quiet and reserved people and that suited me right down to the ground. I find that they are a very easy people to live with. Coming out of journalism in Derry and having grown up in the lower Falls, it is a radically different society in terms of how people deal with conflict. People let go of a lot of interpersonal stuff here. You don’t see very much road rage here — people just let it go and everybody goes about their business. You don’t hear anybody screaming and shouting or anything like that — it’s very different from back home.
But I would say the similarities are much greater than the differences. The Japanese sense of humour is a bit different from our own. For a very reserved people, when they all get together to have a laugh, they can get a bit goofy and that is fine — there is almost a childlike quality about their humour.
People here take whatever they’re doing very seriously. They’ve a very focused and hard-working culture. You kind of fall into that way of operating and that is not a bad thing. I tend to be a bit of a slacker at home but over here I’ve become very conscientious!
My advice to visitors would be to tone it right down. Boisterous behaviour is frowned upon very much here. Courtesy and being respectful of other people’s space is very important in Japanese society.
My advice to the Irish is to speak very, very slowly and very, very clearly. Generally people here don’t speak much English, but many will understand English if it’s spoken clearly and slowly and with no colloquialisms.”