Health, Physicality, and Mind Space – not necessarily in that order

Well, I haven’t blogged for awhile. If you’ve been reading Ed’s blog you know we’ve been insanely packing and dealing with all the paperwork that comes with leaving Japan. I’ve been going to work for half days and whipping through what I think may be the last of the paperwork. Now – cleaning, packing, cleaning, and more cleaning. I hope that everything we have left fits into our suitcases!

Ed and I are having very different experiences regarding leaving our jobs here. I can’t wait to leave – it’s definitely time for me to get back to my creative work and to having a brain. There are too many things in a Japanese office that go counter to my ideals for me to stay another year. Ed has said he’d be happy to stay another year, but not with me being so miserable.

I had some very low points this past year – applying for graduate school was a psychological challenge as nearly everyone I worked with seemed to think that graduate school was a good idea, but that doing it in theatre was a bad idea. A very bad idea. It actually got to the point where I was hiding my application at work instead of working on it, when the main powers-that-be for the Fukuoka branch of the JET programme say that ALTs working on their grad school applications at work is totally acceptable. A number of ALTs even start online Masters programs while they are here and work on them at work.

It is extremely difficult to write a personal statement about why you want to study theatre at the master’s level when almost everyone around you is discouraging you from doing so. But in the end I was accepted to two of the three programs I applied for and am really looking forward to diving deep into creative and academic work again at Dartington. I am also looking forward to an environment where physicality, health, and “mind space” is encouraged.

Mind Space

In this job there is a lot of cyclical down time. Some weeks I taught 15 classes, but other weeks I had none. I knew that I’d have free desk time when I came and had plans for writing. Writing writing writing. Grand plans of “O! I can finish that 40 page short story that is turning into a novella.” and “Perhaps I can piece together the mess that Gray’s Tala has become.” and even “oooo. I could do another chapbook!” What no one told me was that the office would be constantly noisy, and that there would be people wanting to keep tabs on where I was at all times. This meant if I went to the library to write (in quiet) I would arrive back in the teacher’s room to questions of “Where were you?” even when I left a note on my desk. None of this was conducive to clear mind space. I think I have done less writing in the past two years than I have ever done. Maybe I did less writing when I was in Kindergarten, but only because I didn’t know how to write yet. Frustrating? yes. Depressing? definitely.

I did manage to win an essay contest and publish a few articles. Poetry was difficult though. I had times where I had the peace of mind to jot down a few Haiku. Usually after a good yoga practice. I sent a few of my Haiku to a JET-related periodical to find that they were looking for humorous ones (not my style) but now the same Haiku are awaiting design & printing at another JET/Japan-related periodical that has a much more funky and artistic bent.

I have yet to understand how anyone can work in the environment of the teacher’s room. People are talking constantly, phones are ringing, fights are ensuing, copy machines are going. When the teachers talk on the phone they use this strange nasal overly polite tone of voice, and they do it at amplified levels. Thinking while at one’s desk does not tend to happen. I don’t know how anything gets done!


The mindset regarding health here is so different from the community I was involved with in Canada. People in Japan come to work horribly horribly ill – and then brag about it. I’ve had more than one teacher say “I have a slight fever today, but if I don’t come to work it will put too much work on the other teachers.” And I’ve seen those same teachers get the same fever off and on for 3 weeks because of it. Miraculously, when they take a day off because they can’t move, they regain their health.

Part of the reason they do this is that there is no substitute teacher system in Japan – unless you have to go on a month or longer sick leave. There is no short sick leave – they have to use their holidays. However, most of the teachers don’t really have a chance to use their holidays so they may as well use it for sick leave.

Luckily, JETs have sick leave in their contract – but it often requires extra effort because the Japanese teachers don’t have it, so the paperwork is different. Some schools always require a doctor’s note if you are sick, others only if you miss 3 days or more. I had to use sick leave twice – once because an old back injury acted up and I couldn’t walk, once because of a fever. I treated these the same way I would in Canada – rest and very very gentle yoga for the back injury, and Yin Chiao for the fever. All the teachers thought this was strange. They immediately wanted to take me to a doctor, even though I could barely crawl to the bathroom let alone walk down 4 flights of stairs to a car. I did end up going to a physiotherapist once I could walk, which was helpful for my back (screwed up my menstrual cycle really badly though! I think it was the weird electroshock machines they attached to my sacrum.) Yin Chiao always does the trick for a fever for me. I’m allergic to Tylenol so didn’t want to risk other fever-reducing medication. My fever was gone after a day of rest and Yin Chiao and I was back to work (with extra paperwork for sick leave of course.)

One thing I have found extremely strange here is the lack of access to natural medicine. I mean, it’s Japan, an ancient culture. Macrobiotic cooking came from Japan, Japanese people boast one of the longest life-spans in the world! I asked when I first got here about acupuncturists and shiatsu and the answer I got was “only old people use that.” The same answer holds true for wearing traditional Japanese garb (which is why I will wear my geta sandals and gouk clothes more in the West than I ever did here. But I think that is another rant. {stick on topic Lia!}). Japan seems to have become so enamoured with the West to the detriment of their own culture. I’ve read articles that the Japanese diet has changed so much in the past 30 years that people are having the health problems inherent in it. Popular foods here: marbled beef, white pasty bread, mayonnaise on everything and deep frying – lots of deep frying. That paired with the fact that fruit and vegetables are horribly horribly expensive and that almost all vegetables are eaten pickled or cooked does not bode well for maintaining the health of the population. Smoking is a big problem here as well. My personal oddball theory is that all the green tea they drink here offsets some of the health problems they are bringing on themselves by avoiding their traditional diet of fish, rice, and vegetables (which is what we eat at home).


Here physicality is all about sports. sports sports sports. Everyone here plays sports. That’s cool. Sports keep you in shape. Some people enjoy watching sports. I am not one of those people. Almost every conversation I have had in Japan contains the question, “What sport do you like?” Well, I don’t. I’ve never really liked sports. Ever. I do yoga to keep in shape. Through elementary and high school I did ballet and modern dance. I am in fairly good shape (though I’d be in better shape if I did more yoga – that rant to follow). My doctor in Canada is always impressed at the shape I’m in and it has caused her to finally give in on her “yoga cannot contribute to cardiovascular health” argument that she used to give me thanks to my healthy blood pressure and heart rate.

The thing about sports here is that if you don’t like them you are either ostracized or they are pushed down your throat. In Canada I attended a “jock school”. The football team was popular and I was a goth nerd. Not a good situation. But at my 10 year high-school reunion I was still in shape and most (but not all) of the football players were overweight and smoked at least a pack a day. I was ostracized in high school because I didn’t like sports, but mostly only in gym class. I excelled in other subjects and that was seen as my strength. All was well, especially once I left high school.

Here, every time I answer the “do you like sports” question, I am greeted with a look of sheer you-don’t-belong-to-the-group horror. And then they start trying to convince me to like sports. I have saved myself many times by saying that I like to watch gymnastics. What I don’t say is that the gymnastics I like to watch are the ones that are performed on cirque du soliel. If they keep ragging on me about sports I get thoughts in my mind (not spoken out of pure politeness for respecting another culture, even if my culture is not being respected at the moment) like: How about I put you in a yoga pose like utthita parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose) and watch you sweat? How about I try convincing you to like Kabuki or Noh theatre? (That last one belongs in the same rant as the traditional Japanese clothing….)

So – sports are really really important here (group dynamics, work work work, and all that) but everything at my office runs counter to almost everything I have learned about ergonomics. This isn’t only because I am taller than everyone else. The lack of ergonomics is bad enough that a number of teachers have begun to bring their own office chairs to school. Perhaps a story will outline this best:

After being here for about a year, and after about 6 months after re-injuring my back, I decided that I couldn’t stand my chair anymore. The chairs in the teacher’s room are heavy grey metal with vinyl seat covers and a non-adjustable backrest. I had bought an obusforme which made a huge improvement, but the seat of the chair was about an inch lower on the right side.

I don’t want to bitch and complain about my health problems, but some spinal history is called for here. I have scoliosis. It runs in my family. My doctors said the only reason I wasn’t in a back brace was because my ballet and piano training helping my posture. The yoga helps a ton as well. I have a “C-curve” type of scolisis which means my mid-spine curves slightly towards my right shoulder blade. This also puts my hips out of alignment, especially on the right side. I injured the right side of my back about 4 years ago when Jarrod was showing me a karate move, and then again in a car accident 6 months before we came to Japan. In the car accident I also injured my right iliopsoas, which is the muscle that holds you upright. And I re-injured that almost one year to the day later when trying to move our kotatsu table.

Suffice it to say that despite my best efforts to keep my spine healthy, there are a few small challenges I’m working with. Sitting on an uncomfortable chair that accentuates the misalignment of my spine and hips for a minimum of 5 hours a day and then being too exhausted to do a yoga practice at the end of the day does not contribute towards my spinal health. (insert long mental lecture about the relationship between spinal and nervous system health and psychological strength and mood paired with the yogic energetic system of the nadis.)

So – I wanted a new chair. I needed a new chair. Not a brand new chair, just a less bad chair. In Canada my chair was one of those fitness balls, which was great! I considered going that route, but decided I was already freaking the office out with my obusforme so didn’t want to go any further.

After making sure I had the psychological strength to do the deed, I approached my supervisor about fixing or replacing my chair. He thought I was talking about the fact that the right arm on the chair was loose (which I could have cared less about because I never use the arms). I very slowly and clearly explained to him it was about the levelness of the seat. He acquiesced to talk to the caretaker, who came and looked at the chair and declared one of the ball-bearings in one of the wheels was gone. He said he’d have to order a new wheel but (tooth-sucking sound) it might be a little expensive. I could understand most of what he was saying so interjected that if I could just get a different chair that no one was using that had a level seat I would be happy. More tooth-sucking ensued. And then I heard something about the first ALT at the school being a “big person” and that they had to get a larger-sized chair for her. And if I were to get a regular-sized chair would I fit in it? I understood this and was more than a little insulted. I felt very sorry for the embarrassment that first ALT must have gone through too! My supervisor tried to explain this to me without putting his foot in his mouth and asked me if I thought I could fit in a regular-sized Japanese chair. I am not a big person. I take a size 10. I am 5 feet 7.5 inches. I am very average-sized. I wonder if he enjoyed the taste of his foot?

I assured them both that I could fit into a regular-sized Japanese chair and a chair that wasn’t being used was brought over. Of course I fit into it no problem, but had to raise the seat a bit. The seat, though, it was level, and that was what counted.

Through this whole experience I felt like I was causing a huge problem by asking for a more ergonomic workspace. My workspace is still far from ergonomic, but the seat is level. Other teacher’s chairs are falling apart even more than mine, and they do not say a word. But there are 3 teachers who have brought their own chairs, and one teacher who has forgone his chair for a stool. Kudos to them! I’m looking forward to using an exercise ball for a chair again!

So, health, physicality, and mental space – 3 things that are so important to me ripped suddenly from my grasp as soon as I arrived in Japan. Two years is too long to be without those things. I couldn’t stand another year without them. I just hope that through my yoga practice and being out of this noisy environment I will regain my brain and body.

You’ll be updated on that, I’m sure! Plans for health, physicality and mental space in Canada include: a regular yoga practice (Iyengar, Jivamukti, and Ashtanga styles), a yoga workshop and teacher training weekend in August, a massage from an amazing friend and massage therapist, fresh organic vegetables in profusion from my mother’s garden, easy access to chinese medicine, and locking myself in a room in my parent’s house to write write write and write some more.