Work and Play

“What do you do?”

Ever since I’ve started doing this Japan freelance thing, this question has become a minefield.

There are two answers I give. 1) “I’m a harpist, who does some other stuff on too.” This answer gets some searching looks and questions to determine whether I’m a ‘legitimate musician’ by that person’s standards. Sometimes I pass the legit test (I have a music degree, I earn money with the harp), sometimes I fail (I don’t play in an orchestra, I have other jobs).

So I don’t like giving that answer because I don’t like facing this scrutiny in the first five minutes I meet a new person. But the other answer is… sort of insufferable.
“There are several things I do to make money and the proportion of my income they makes varies from month to month. These include playing the harp, music teaching, English teaching, modelling, English checking, writing and leading ‘English through Musical Theatre’ workshops. (Ok, the last one happened a grand total of twice but it was really fun, I want to do it more!)”
You see the problem? I’m not arrogant enough to think that a stranger wants to hear that much detail about my life.

People like to pigeon hole, I get it. Pigeon holing saves a lot of time. And there are people for whom things are very simple; they have a ‘profession’ such as doctor, lawyer, vet, teacher, and they go to work and then they go home. Good for them. But haven’t you noticed that, in our late capitalist dystopia, the boundaries are becoming blurred? Certain jobs are ceasing to exist, new ways of making money pop up, what was once secure and now predictable has become uncertain and random. What even is ‘work’ anyway?

Sometimes it seems there is almost an inverse correlation in how difficult a job is and how much I earn. One of the times I worked the hardest in my life was a year doing an internship in classical music PR and the pay was below minimum wage. Sometimes I feel guilty calling that position a ‘job’ because the pay was so low. But of course it was! I had responsibilities, I achieved things, I performed a service. I was a damn sight more productive than in many of the ‘real jobs’ I’ve had. On the other hand, sometimes I’ve played harp at wedding receptions for £50+ an hour and I feel like a sack of potatoes could do the job as long as we put it in a nice dress and sat it behind the harp. No one is listening, everyone is drunk and talking super loud. Sometimes I’m sure that I could just play scales and no one would care. I don’t of course, because I try to be professional, but chances are I would get away with it.

And it’s not just me. I have friends with well paid, respectable jobs who have admitted to me that on a normal 8.5 hour day they do about 3 hours of actual work. I’ve done temping in offices too and I’ve got so bored on occasion that I learned basic coding and a lot about the autonomous constituent country of Greenland. A friend started a translation job in Japan and spent a month being paid for absolutely nothing because his managers didn’t know what to do with him. The office had some manga hanging around of franchises they had translated for so he ended up being paid decent money for spending 3 weeks reading manga, which was encouraged by his employers because they felt bad for not giving him any work.

My point is that we all know that the links between productivity, skill and how much you earn is kind of bullshit. And yet, and yet if we can’t put our finger on someone’s ‘profession’ it makes us uncomfortable. And sometimes, if we can’t name a defined profession for ourselves, we get uncomfortable too. But I’m done with that.

I’m not much of a leftist but I studied some leftist thinkers at university and their thought is really useful to me in how I conduct my life. Why should the thing that earns us the most income be defined as our ‘profession?’ Ok, I’ll admit, I’m not earning the majority of my money from performing harp at the moment, but practicing, performing and networking still take up more of my time and passion than anything else so why not call myself a harpist? Capitalism tells me that I should want to make all of my money from my playing, and if I don’t I’m not a ‘real’ musician. Maybe that would be nice, and I haven’t turned down a paid gig yet but to be honest I’m not completely sure I would even want to be a 100% full time harpist. I’m a curious person with a broad skill set who enjoys variety in their life and my various income revenues allow me to life flexibly and comfortably. But still, sometimes I feel like society wants to make me feel like if I can’t pigeon hole myself as a 100% professional harpist, I’m a failure.

As much as the gig economy probably isn’t the best thing, I think while it’s here I might as well make it my bitch. At least for now. I’m not pretending that there may come a time when I want simplicity, security and simple tax returns. But for now, I’m loving life.

If you’re say, an oil painter, who’s never earned a quid for your art in your life, but you think lots about oil painting, you spend lots of time oil painting, and oil painting is what you love to do, then feel free do answer the “What do you do?” question with, “Oil painting” instead of your so-called “day job.” Whatever you want. And if you’re a lawyer and lawyering is your jam, and that is how you make your money, great! Call yourself a lawyer. Call yourself anything. Do what you want, I don’t care.

I actually think the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’ can be very harmful, especially for the creatives amongst us. I know so many people who loved playing their instruments when they were in secondary school when it was ‘just play.’ Usually high quality play, but still ‘just for fun.’ Then they go to music college to become ‘professionals’ and suddenly it’s serious business.  It’s now work not play so they’re feeling the heaviness and they lose all the joy they used to get from their art. And ironically enough, often their playing gets worse because performance anxiety, muscle tension, exhaustion and conservatoire bitching isn’t the best recipe for a great stage presence.

I’ve done some of my best playing and songwriting when I’ve been light and playful about it. Same goes for a my other work actually, especially my teaching. Children are playful by nature so when I get it into my head that ‘I am going to be THE BEST music teacher and deliver a HIGH QUALITY LESSON because these parents are PAYING A LOT for it,’ it usually doesn’t go down that well. But if I take the pressure of myself, stop worrying if I deserve what I’m getting paid and just get really enthused about my lesson plan and the kids then I can deliver like no one’s business.

The work and play distinction is also harmful because it gets the idea into our heads that work = something we should try hard at, and play = anything outside of work; we don’t need to put in any effort because it’s ‘free time.’ No! Have you seen children playing? Have you seen how seriously they take it? Take play seriously! If you enjoy something give it your time, your attention and your passion even if you’re not getting paid. Show up on time for your band rehearsal. Learn a language, even if that means you need to get up early to practice kanji for 15 minutes every morning. Go to football practice even if you’re tired. Throw fantastic themed parties even if it’s ‘effort’ to clean up your house and make a costume. Do whatever is your jam.  And you will make things of value, form friendships and create an identity outside of your ‘work.’

People who don’t take play seriously are often in danger of becoming the most boring, passive consumers. Of course, sometimes you’re working long ass hours and you really don’t have any time. And if your job is fulfilling you, all of you, great! But to be honest, most of my most successful friends (and this time, I mean ‘conventionally successful,’ not a ‘are you fulfilled’ definition by a dirty hippy like me), are the ones who take play most seriously. The doctor who who plays the oboe. The boy-wonder academic who still has time to paint. The executive who cooks amazing food from scratch every night. Maybe life’s winners aren’t the ones who are martyring themselves, working so hard, but those who are curious and take life lightly.

In the words of Mother Teresa,
“Life is a game. Play it.”

julia mascetti freelance harp

Working out in Tokyo

Exercise is important for everyone but especially so for musicians. Like any occupation, playing the harp carries with it certain health risks such as RSI and other muscoskeletal problems, irregular sleep schedules, performance anxiety and many more barrels of fun. For me, exercise is a wonderful way to stay healthy and keep these issues at bay.

If you move to a new city, let alone a new country, it will take a while to find great new places to work out. I’m actually really happy with my exercise routine at the moment; it’s probably the best I’ve had apart from when I was at uni and I had access to an olympic standard fitness centre for next to nothing *sigh.* So I thought I’d share what I’m doing at the moment, if anyone else has any suggestions feel free to comment!

Gym
From what I hear private gyms in Tokyo seem very expensive and swanky. Personally, I’m not up for paying an arm and a leg for a sparkling equipment, mood lighting and a spa. If I want to relax I’ll go to the onsen.

Luckily there is another option. All across Tokyo there are public gym facilities or ‘sports centres’ where you can work out on the cheap. These centres usually have a gym (トレーニング室),  a pool and a room for classes, though depending on where you are you might get some other facilities too. Typically it’s pay as you go with no sign up fee and you may get a discount if you’re a resident of the ward. Granted some of the machines are a little old and the building of my local centre is on the shabby side, but for 440 yen (about £3) a day it ain’t half bad. It has everything I need plus some machines I’d never seen before moving to Japan. Use the search function on Sports Camp Japan to search for your local municipal gym. You’re welcome.

Climbing

Tokyo climbing
I think I’m confused on how to get down

Climbing, or bouldering, is having a bit of a hey day in Tokyo. Apparently, there are more climbing gyms in Tokyo alone than in the whole of Australia. I’m still kind of bad but I’ve definitely caught the bug over the past 6 months. Bouldering, which I believe is climbing without ropes or harnesses, is great for upper body strength but it’s a workout for you mind too. I get a real sense of satisfaction from working out how to do a new route. My local wall has routes coloured by difficulty and it’s kind of feels like a video game except you’re getting fit while having fun. Timeout has a great list of Tokyo’s top climbing spots.

Plus there are… ‘talented male climbers’ who sometimes take their shirts off, if that’s your thing.

Yoga
This is going to sound gushing (and I’m honestly not sponsored by them) but I can’t recommend Yoga Jaya enough. The founders have adapted various yoga styles to create their own system, Baseworks, and it really works for me. Baseworks focuses on foundational strength as well as flexibility and I have noticed a big improvement in my body awareness and alignment in the year since I joined. Positions aren’t held for too long which is good because that can be dangerous for musicians and those prone to RSI. Generally, I feel really safe and that the teachers are understanding of my needs and supporting me on the way to achieving my goals. There are a mixture of Japanese, English and bilingual classes and actually I’ve found that I’ve learnt a lot of new words through practicing in Japanese.

Yoga Jaya is in Daikanyama, which is where I teach Kindermusik, so that’s perfect for me. Every Monday I start of the week with a 7am yoga class and feel refreshed and ready. I always go from Yoga Jaya to a cafe where I have a coffee and some toast and plan the week ahead before walking to work. Honestly, it’s one of my greatest pleasures and I always feel so at peace in the morning light.

Have you tried any of these options in Tokyo? Where do you like to work out? Please feel free to share in the comments 😊

 

Tenshoku Part 1 – Quitting my Job in Japan

I felt good yesterday. One of those days where you walk down the street humming Nina Simone and the world just seems like a wonderful place. I had no particular reason to be happy –  it was just a normal day.

Admittedly the weather was stunning but I think the main reason I was feeling happy was because of my job. I’d just had a hard but satisfying day at work and I had a moment when I realised how lucky I am to be able to have a job I enjoy in Tokyo.

In December 2015 I started the long process of changing my job and visa status. I trained as an early-years music educator during this time and for the last few months I have been teaching music to young children in a lovely studio in Daikanyama as well as other locations such as Tokyo American Club.

This decision was one of the best I’ve ever made but I can’t deny that the job change process was painful. I have a strong internal locus of control and freak out when I have to put my fate into the hands of bureaucratic processes over which I have no control. I feel like a bit of a drama queen going on about it now, but honestly at times I really did struggle. In case anyone else is going through the same thing I thought I would write about my experiences.

This is part 1 of 2 in which I discuss quitting my job. I want to make clear that I am not an expert in immigration and can only speak about my own experiences and the resources that helped me through.

Why I quit my previous job

As you may know, I came to Japan on a contract with a English teaching dispatch company. In many ways this job was a great introduction to Japan. I taught English in schools in the day and in companies in the evening. I experienced so many aspects of Japanese society, from kindergartens to hospitals, to major Japanese companies and Tokyo Metropolitan Government. I learnt many things – including that I actually liked teaching and was sort of alright at it, both of which surprised me.

I’m not really motivated by money so I believe that, at least in your 20s, a job should be one of two things: either it should be related to your interests and further your career progression or it should have the kind of hours and stress levels that don’t interfere with your lifestyle.

My job wasn’t ticking either of these boxes. I was working long and unpredictable hours, sometimes leaving the house at 7.15am and not getting home until 9.30pm. I could have handled this if this was a job relevant to my interests and ambitions but it wasn’t. I like teaching, yes, but my passion is music and the arts – if I was spending so much time teaching I wanted to be teaching these. In addition, although I liked many of my colleagues as individuals, there were several aspects of the company that made me uncomfortable. I was making good money but I had come to Japan to experience Japan and I didn’t have the time to do this. When the long, unpredictable hours and the company’s harsh policies on sick leave started to aggravate a health condition that should be manageable the job became not worth it. After 5 months, I decided I wanted out.

Handing in my notice

転職 (tenshoku – changing jobs) can be a bit of a taboo in Japan. In a country where lifetime employment is still common, quitting your job can be seen as a betrayal. I’ve known Japanese people who have faced harrassment after handing in their notice, been denied leave they were entitled to or even been told they were ‘not allowed to quit.’ Of course the situation is different for foreign employees who usually have yearly contracts rather than lifetime employment, but still, ending a contract midway as I did can be really frowned upon.

To immediately clear up a widespread misconception: yes you can change your job in Japan. It is not ‘work for us or go home.’ Your former employer may make threats but your working visa is valid until it expires, even if you change your job.  Take care however, because you cannot renew your visa without an employment contract so if you are changing jobs be sure to leave enough time to arrange everything before your visa expires. Additionally, you have to notify immigration within 14 days of quitting your job and from that point I’ve heard that you can only stay in Japan for 3 months without working.

Japanese labour law states that, ordinarily, workers are required to give 2 weeks notice to their employers before leaving their job to avoid paying damages. However, I’ve heard of contracts that demand 30 or even 60 working days notice. Whether these are in fact legally enforceable is a grey area so if you need to quit in a hurry I would encourage you to seek support from a union (the General Union are good) or a legal expert. My contract asked for 30 days notice and and I chose to give this and a bit more. I wanted to make things easier for my company and I also cared a lot about my students and I knew if I didn’t leave enough time they was a chance they would lose out.

Handing in my notice was stressful. I timed it really badly and did it at a point where almost the whole office was listening in to the tense conversation (no private meeting rooms for me). My company tried to make me stay longer and asked searching questions about the precise reason I was leaving. My advice would be to anyone about to do this is to be polite but assertive. You don’t have to give a reason why you’re going and they do not have the right to make you feel guilty about your decision. You are probably not being selfish or hurtful, changing jobs happens and your company should accept it. I got through this stage by being on it with the paperwork (give a signed and dated letter of notice, make multiple copies) and by standing my ground even while I tried my best to make everything as convenient for my company as possible. Ultimately, it’s an uncomfortable conversation but your company can’t actually do anything to you. This too will pass. If in extreme cases you are experiencing violence, psychological abuse or power harassment of course please get help. I recommend the General Union as an excellent first port of call who can help you get the services you need.

I don’t want to tell people what to do but I see so many people working in Japan who seem stuck in a job that’s making them miserable, because they feel they have no options or they are scared that things could get worse. You do have options. Yes things could get worse, yes the transition process can be rough. I certainly do not recommend jumping into the unknown unprepared – do your research and do not take my word for it. But often the risk and short term pain leads to long term gain.

For me it was definitely worth it.

Check back for a post on changing my visa status soon!

What’s great about teaching English in Japan – from someone who never wanted to be a teacher

Teaching is in my roots. My dad is a teacher. My mum has taught. Several other members of my extended family are music, dance, early years and classroom teachers. My Grandma was a University lecturer who taught teachers to be better teachers for goodness sake. So I have always said that I never want to be a teacher. Nothing against the profession, it’s just I wanted to do something different. I like children well enough but I don’t want to spend all my time with them and I don’t have that magic ‘vocation’ towards moulding the next generation. Through my family, I’ve seen the benefits of teaching, but also the crap that they put up with. And when people ask whether I want to follow in my insert family member’s footsteps, I’ve always firmly said that I want to put up with different crap.

So now I’m teaching English in Japan. Ha ha.

The main reason that this happened is that I wanted to be in Japan. Seeing as I’m not one of the 1%, not working or volunteering is out of the question. Jobs that aren’t English teaching are few and far in between for those without fluent Japanese, even in Tokyo. In this sense, I guess I didn’t have much choice in my current profession. But now I’m here it turns out there are actually some pretty good things about teaching English in Japan. So if, like me, you want to experience living in Japan but have misgivings about teaching, here are some positives from someone who never wanted to be a teacher.

Kids are cute/funny

We all know people who adore children. Their faces light up when they see a pram, and if they don’t have kids of their own their queuing up do babysit the little darlings belonging to their friends and family. I am not one of these people. I like playing with kids but I like handing them back to their respective owners when I get tired so I can stop watching my language and go to the pub. But even I find my elementary school students adorable and sometimes they utterly charm me. Teaching a class of seven year olds the hokey pokey (really recommend it for lessons on body parts and left and right) and seeing them loving it is a great way to put a massive grin on your face when you’re having a bad day. My kids do so many quirky things. Like the time one of my 12 year olds made a dirty joke and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him off because it really was funny and he had done it in pretty impressive English. Or the kid who made the class ‘jump’ and ‘sit down’ over and over again in a voice which could command battleships when I let him be Simon in Simon Says until I had to tell him to stop almost five minutes later. And there’s the super enthusiastic first grader who yells ‘nice to meet you too’ every time she sees me in the corridors and I haven’t the heart to correct her because her little face looks so happy. They’re beautiful little people and it’s so exciting to watch them grow as you never know what they’re going to do next.

Adults are interesting

I genuinely look forward to most of my adult lessons because they’re chances to interact with interesting and successful people. Amongst my students are nurses and senior government officials. Just the other day I was proofreading one of my students’ speeches for work, which was about his views on city planning for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. It’s great that what we study together has a real world application for him. Personally I enjoy my one to one lessons the most as the interaction is like a conversation. You can develop real learning relationships with your students and it is rewarding to watch them improve and see them overcome their boundaries.

You learn a lot about Japanese culture

Like it or not, a significant proportion of our personalities are shaped during our school days. Therefore, for anyone who’s interested in Japanese culture, watching the differences in how life is structured for children at this formative age can lead to wider understanding of the differences between Japanese culture and their own. Instead of being served lunch in a refectory, Japanese school children take turns serving lunch to each other, fostering a sense of independence. I was taken aback at the beginning of my first lesson when the children gave me a sort of greeting/thank you speech in unison, complete with bow. This kind of ritual demonstrates the Japanese seniority system – respect and deference to those older than you, regardless of competence – and doubtless prepares the children for the complicated etiquette of Japanese corporate culture. During discussions with my adult students I learn what working in Japan is like from those actually experiencing it. This is infinitely better than hearing it from a buzzfeed article, a documentary or even an academic article and much of what I’ve learned has been really eye opening.

Your understanding of English improves

I love words. I love speaking them, reading them, writing them, and the ways in which we wind them together to communicate fascinates me. Teaching English really gives you a better awareness of your own language. It’s really surprising how little most English speakers know about English grammar for instance. I’m a geek and I genuinely enjoy reading up on modal verbs, but for those less sad than me who want to become more proficient wordsmiths, I recommend stepping into the shoes of a non-native speaker. You’ll be surprised what you learn about your native tongue. And those good ol’ ‘communication skills may look good on your CV. Who knows, I’m not about bothering with that right now.

It’s easier to stay healthy

When I have worked in offices, I sometimes sat hunched at my desk for 9 hours straight, only getting up to make coffee. I stuffed my face with chocolate and cookies (the female majority office) or doughnuts (the male majority office). My back hurt, my eyes hurt from staring at a screen all day and I was often vaguely jittery from the caffeine and the sugar. Obviously part of this was down to my own bad habits but the office environment certainly didn’t help. As a teacher I am on my feet for 5+ hours a day, I climb many flights of stairs getting to my classrooms and you don’t know how tiring doing 20 rounds of heads shoulders knees and toes can be until you try it (so much bending!). With the help of the excellent new yoga school I’ve joined my back, RSI and caffeine addiction are better than they have been in years.

The pay is pretty decent

Whatever you say on your CV, however much you love your job, for most of us the main reason we go to work is not to ‘develop skills’ or ‘contribute to society.’ We go to work to get paid, and attempt to get paid in the most fulfilling way we can. Whilst you’re not going to get rich English teaching, the pay is pretty good for the amount of work you do, especially if it’s your first job out of University. I believe the JET programme pays ¥3,360,000 a year, which is roughly £18,300. My company pays by the hour and so I will earn slightly more or less than that, depending on how much work I do. These figures are actually better than they first appear when you consider that the yen is weak at the moment and the way pay is in Japan. I was shocked on how little some Japanese companies pay. Low paid work can be really low paid – I’ve heard of adults serving food for 800 yen an hour – about £4.40. Even up the ladder pay is lower than you would expect – an Australian friend just left Japan after a seven-year stay, in no small part because she could earn far more for the same, quite prestigious job, back home. Granted, teaching English is not the doss some believe: it takes skill and energy, and I do work outside of my paid hours such as lesson planning and writing reports but, speaking as someone who worked their arse off in an internship for less than minimum wage, I’m pretty happy with the ration of work vs. pay. I stay quiet about this in front of my Japanese friends who work harder for less.

I still don’t want to go into teaching on my return to the UK. But, as jobs go, English teaching is a great way to pay the bills while I explore this incredible country.

Ginza
Ginza last weekend. This photo has absolutely nothing to do with my job (pictures of my students are streng verboten, obviously).