This is the conclusion of my series of memories based on working at a Japanese company for 12 years. It may not be the last memory of my experiences, but it will complete this series. The other parts are here:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18.
After my company was purchased by a Nova subsidiary, my work experience took on a new cast. Yes, there was a lot of uncertainty with the imported staff from the new boss's former company, but, when the dust settled, my working situation became much more stable and there was a good deal less drama and strife. Rather ironically, it also lead to a bout with what would likely have been diagnosed as clinical depression (or quite close to it) and my eventual decision to quit.
While the old president brought a lot of strife into the workplace with his power playing, idiosyncratic behavior, and obsession with every little detail, the place felt more "alive" while he was there. There were periods of constant adjustment in which we created new content, flirted with new areas of business, and tended to work together as a team. Having been through the golden age brought on by the economic bubble in Japan, the old president, Mr. O., was always trying to revive his dying patient with some new economic therapy.
One of the early attempts to expand the company into the modern age which I absolutely dreaded the thought of was the inclusion of video phone calls. This was back before every granny and her grandchildren could log on to Skype using a camera seamlessly built into their computer and have a chat. In fact, it was back when ISDN (for those who don't remember, this was a step up in speed from dial-up internet back in the old days) was the cutting edge in connection speed technology. Mr. O. hitched his wagon to NTT (the Japanese equivalent to AT & T in the U.S.), bought some clunky-looking web cams, and finally upgraded our badly aging PCs to something with a snowball's chance in hell of running the proprietary software that was supposed to make talking with students and allowing them to see us at the same time a reality.
On the surface, the idea seems just grand. However, the president wanted this to be a one-way street. They wanted the students to see us, but did not want them to have to be seen. What was more, our students often conducted their telephone lessons on the fly from poor quality (and camera-less) cell phones, office phones, or pay phones. The chances that they'd choose not to call and miss their lessons was exponentially greater if they had to sit down at a specific time in front of a special PC outfitted with the right gear and software to process a video signal.
There was another aspect to this which we also hated. The fact was that we had to enter a ton of data into the computer as well as fill out various feedback forms while we talked to the students. There was no getting around the fact that we couldn't possibly be looking into the camera lens most of the time while doing the job. At least half of the calls required the sort of paperwork that one had to attend to rather consistently like drawing directions on a map, filling in a schedule in a roleplay in which an appointment was being made, or completing a final evaluation form which required specific comments. All of this had to be done during the lesson because we didn't have a guarantee of down time between calls. We simply could not see the value in such an upgrade when we'd likely spend the call looking at paperwork on the desk or at the computer screen and not the camera perched above it.
In the end, the entire idea was scrapped because the technology just was not there. The president appeared on camera for a test call and the video was so sluggish that he appeared to be moving in a jittery Matrix slow-motion scene. It was also simply a fact that the students did not care to see the teacher badly enough to bother. Even now, I teach one of my former face-to-face students via Skype and she could easily have a video lesson with me but prefers to just do it as an audio call. It's just not that important to see the other person's face and it takes a toll on the quality of the experience if the connection on either side or the equipment is not up-to-date.
During Mr. O's reign, my manager, D., and I worked closely together to weather the upheavals and develop new materials for each passing fancy. The experience felt fairly dynamic, though it obviously could be very stressful as well. When the new guy took over, everything felt flat and lifeless. We moved offices and I was placed at the other end of the building because of the noise and air conditioning issues. The phone cubicles needed to be away from the office workers and the salesmen in particular as they tended to get loud and raucous without regard for the fact that we were doing telephone lessons and their behavior interfered with our ability to do our jobs. Putting me - the only full-time instructor left - at the opposite end killed two birds with one stone. I no longer had to fry in the summer because I didn't have to compete with the reptilian metabolism of the office ladies and the noise situation was greatly reduced.
Unfortunately, D. was no longer doing telephone call lessons or did them so little that I was totally alone all day every day. The new president, Mr. G., was concerned mainly with growing sales through setting up a system of quotas with increasing sales targets rather than expanding the business. He did not want to invest in trying new things or building up new materials. We did refine old textbooks and I actually wrote and laid out an entire new book on my own only to have it set aside and abandoned, but materials development was not something which was being pushed anymore.
My work situation was stagnant and isolated. While I once used my down time to learn how to do desktop publishing and taught myself how to use Adobe's big ticket software, I'd largely mastered everything to the level needed for my work and that work was no longer even of much use. Beyond this situation, I'd also been cheated, mistreated, unappreciated, and taken for granted at the company for so many years that I felt quite worn out by it all. There was nothing behind me to be loyal to and nothing ahead to look forward to. What was more, business was so bad that the prospect of my husband coming to work there during busy seasons was vanishing from a low commitment by the company of employing him for only three months to zero.
I've talked before about how life in Japan can be especially hard on women and that I knew no small number who became very depressed while living there. I saw it "break" more than one woman and I know how it happens because it broke me as well. It is a fact that women's brains work differently than men's. They process information and perceive the world differently on a neurochemical level. That tends to mean that they aren't missing much, especially if it has an emotional impact, whereas men tend to be more analytical and attend to less overall stimuli.
Women don't miss much and multi-task. Men do see less and single-task. This is actually of great benefit in complex environments in which there are many people and things. This isn't a choice on either's part. It's a function of biology. If you couple women's sensitivity to the environment with living in a metropolis in which you are constantly bombarded with emotional stimuli, objectified both as a foreigner and as a female, and are generally without any substantial support system, it is a recipe for emotional difficulty.
If you don't know the difference between being "depressed" and suffering from "depression", I'll tell you that a big part of it is energy. You lose the energy to go out and do what you have to do or struggle to get through the day. What is more, you often can't or don't enjoy things that you used to enjoy (in psychological terms, this is called anhedonia). As time went by, I became anhedonic and listless. You cannot "cheer up" because you lose the capacity to be happy about anything. It is not a choice to be sad or down in the dumps. It is a state which you cannot change by force of will.
I'm a strong person who is very disciplined. The fact that I write eight posts a week for two blogs regularly should speak to that. I can push myself in ways that most people cannot even when I am sick or having problems. It was that which kept me going to my job through depression for far too long.
Over the course of a year, I started to feel more dead inside every day and it got harder and harder to go to work each morning. I took the longest vacation I could and came back feeling no better for having gotten away for three weeks. I knew it was long past time that I quit, but it was incredibly difficult to walk away for many reasons. The primary one was that I wasn't sure that I'd ever get a job in Japan which didn't involve face-to-face teaching again and I really believed that I didn't want to do that anymore (this ended up being a mistaken impression). I also felt an attachment to D. and my company which was hard to simply let go of. I think that, mainly, I was just afraid of making such a big change after having been in the same place - the same rut, really - for such a very long time.
During the vacation that was supposed to give me the boost I needed to go on, my husband and I talked and I finally decided to do what he'd been encouraging me to do for years - quit. I came in to work after that vacation and told D. that I didn't want to leave, but felt I had to. He said he understood and asked if I'd stay on for a little more than two more months rather than the one month I was contractually obliged to remain after giving notice. I agreed because I knew they would find it difficult to replace me and I also knew that he was looking at hiring as a lead up to the busy season. D.'s acceptance of my news reflected the fact that he knew I should have quit long ago as well, though I also knew he also wanted me to stay on some level.
For a month, I cried every day because I was leaving. It may sound silly, but a lot of my identity and sense of stability was wrapped up in my job and company. It was like a family - an awful one that took me for granted and didn't always treat me well, but was always there for me. In Japan, where I had little else other than my husband to offer a sense of grounding, it was a lot to give up.
After the first month, I cried myself out, but I was still sad to go and had moments in which I became emotional. I also started to train not one, but two successors. It seemed that I couldn't be replaced by a single party, especially when they'd been planning on dumping more responsibilities on me shortly before I left (though, honestly, that had nothing to do with my leaving - I was fine to do more work). Neither ended up lasting very long at the company after I left.
One left within a year and the other within two. Neither was very good at the job and I knew this for a fact because one disappeared for over a month and I was sent the work at home that could not be done. It turned out he got arrested for getting into a fight at a soccer game and was being held by the police. Sometimes, even while he was there, I was sent some of the work he simply couldn't get done. While I was there, I did everything that was there no matter how large the load. It was difficult at times, but it could be done if one tried hard enough. My successors simply didn't care enough to try.
Later, he would just bug out and I was sent his work again until they replaced him. I wonder in retrospect if the company appreciated the stability and work I did after the series of unstable employees who had no dedication to getting the work done. My best guess is that they never gave it a second thought. The chances that they suddenly had any regard for me or what I did after I was gone were pretty slim.
The final time at the company was hard as much because of the depression I suffered from as any real loss, but the last day finally came. Mr. Saito, who was there the day I got hired, said he never thought I'd actually leave. Both D. and I had been there so long that he figured we'd be there when the lights were turned out or when we were both old and gray (D. was already gray, and I was well on my way).
The story that the office workers were told was that I was leaving to become a housewife. Only D. knew the truth about how I was just too mentally ill to go on there any longer. They bought me a nice set of dishes in line with this story and kindly shipped these heavy objects to my apartment rather than make me schlep them home. I gave a great goodbye speech which emphasized the aspects of working there that had me sobbing my way through so many final days and skipped over the negative parts that had ground me down over the years. There was no reason to burn bridges or grind axes at the end.
I can remember what it felt like to stand in front of everyone and give that speech. I can't remember what it was like to get on a train for the last time and head home. I can only remember that the next year was spent in a state of depression in which I'd spend hours talking to my sister or playing Guild Wars or Diablo II with her and a friend of mine in the U.S. Besides that, I learned the ropes for how to shop in our local neighborhood at the cheapest places and how to become a better cook. I also started picking up private students one by one from ETC and my depression slowly lifted. It was also around that time (2006) that I started doing my first personal blog and I think a lot of the posts that I made at that time were a reflection of my state of mind.
My views on life were certainly more negative then, but I think the writing was a way of trying to sort things out. That being said, once you have been seriously depressed, it alters your brain forever and you are inclined to be that way again and again. To this day, I continue to struggle, especially when times are hard as they have been since returning to the U.S.
It took nearly two years before I started to substantially find my way out of my depression and another year to make the next step and think seriously about leaving Japan. In retrospect, I think that my job was a trap that I stayed in of my own volition. I both wanted out and to stay in. I felt secure staying in it, even as it was taking away my sense of self-worth and represented living at a dead end. Having that job kept me in Japan which kept me from facing the scary prospect of leaving and trying to find my way in the U.S.- a place that had become more alien to me as the years went by and remains so to a great extent now.
Part of me knew quitting that job meant in some respects that I'd be "quitting" Japan. If I hadn't gotten depressed and become so dysfunctional, I'm not sure that I wouldn't still be there now. It's a sad truth that many people, including myself, are only motivated to change when they are miserable. It turned out that my life and mental health got greatly better between 2006 when I quit and 2012 when I left. I learned to love Japan more in the last three years than I had in the first 20, and that made leaving all that much harder when the time came. Those years are a story for another time, and possibly another place.
(Yes, this is the end of this series, finally. However, more random memories from different points will be along. Thank you for reading this long-winded series!)