Here is a partial list of arbeit I have done in Japan:
Ah, the staple of most westerners…I started various English teaching jobs my first year of university, in Tenri. Teaching friends of friends on a private basis was the very first paid work I did in Japan. Luckily, some were nurses from a local hospital and could afford about $40 an hour. Never got enough hours, though. Later, I had a heart surgeon from the same hospital as a student, and he shelled out $90 an hour. Better yet, he paid whether he showed up or not, and he only showed up about 7 times out of 10. I only taught him twice a month, though. I also taught at a cultural center near T’s house for a half year (I rode the 35 minutes there on a 50cc scooter and that was a cold ride in winter), but got fired for not having the gaijin looks – a chronic problem I encountered in finding English teaching jobs, another one being that I hated teaching English.
I worked construction and with road crews, digging ditches and forming manly man bonds with the gritty working class of Japan all throughout college. I’m not knocking those guys, either – they taught me how to speak thug and fight with a shovel, for which I am eternally grateful. I’m just saying they were doing those shit jobs for a reason – they were, for the most part, alcoholic, gambling losers in a state of self-perpetuating desperation. I think I kept doing this type of work for the cultural experience more than the money – usually around $8 an hour, but as high as $15 on rush gigs (the pay for day laborers in Japan is notoriously low; being a college student in a small town with no jobs didn’t help either. Before you point out that $8 an hour isn’t bad, remember that a dollar probably goes a lot further where you live.)
Errand Boy – Delivery Service
T got a job at a local delivery office of Pelican Bin and hooked me up with one, too. The main problem was that I didn’t yet understand very much Japanese, and the staff had a hard time believing I was a foreigner, again because of my typical Japanese looks – I couldn’t catch a break either way! There was also a problem because the job was boring as shit. Moving boxes from one pile to another and clearing crap out of the path of forklifts all day, followed by faxing daily reports to the home office and making phone inquiries (this is where the lack of Japanese skills screwed me) to make sure the faxes actually got there, at night. Mostly, though the job was just boring as hell. If you ever wonder how a package you sent by a delivery service got damaged, it was probably because a couple of college slackoffs hired for part-time work were playing soccer with it. We quit this job after a few days, without telling anyone – a fact that still bothers me. I guess it was too embarrassing or just a pain in the ass to deal with. What was even more embarassing was going back for my paycheck after quitting like that – walking in the big office and speaking to the manager – no, actually having T speak to the manager while I stood there and wished I wasn’t such a predictably shameful young shithead – but in the end, financial necessity won out. The paycheck was for like a couple hundred bucks, which was a pretty huge amount of money for me at the time.
Automotive Part Factory
This is a job I got through my Kenyan sempai, Jeff. It was at a small factory that made various mechanical parts for Daihatsu cars, located near Tenri Dam. It was pretty much the most consistently dangerous part-time job I ever did in Japan, so the pay was pretty good. Maybe $12 an hour or so, and the owner apparently gave 50 cent raises every six months. We manned machinery that drilled holes or cut shapes into solid metal parts, and I never saw a functioning safety guard on the equipment. In fact, most of the emergency stop buttons were non-functional (I tried), and there were at least a couple injuries involving loss of fingers, etc., every year. The worst part about the factory was the air. All the machines used a green chemical coolant that was sprayed on the bits and blades, and after a while, it started to smell like a broken car transmission mixed with the sweet, cloying scent of apple juice. It was a truly sickening stench, and it killed your sense of smell for a few hours after. Then there were the metal shavings, which got into every nook of your clothing and hair, and probably in your brain, too, if you were stupid enough not to wear a mask. When I developed a chronic, wet cough after working there a few months, I quit.
My Aussie sempai, John, hooked me and a bunch of other guys at the dorm up with a job at a lumberyard in Sakurai – he was close pals with one of the owners, to whom he also taught English. That area used to be famous for lumberyards, but they are almost all gone now. Anyway, this job was only for the summer, and my main memories of it were: Hot. Fucking hot. Damn fucking hot. The job mostly consisted of stacking loose pieces of wood onto pallets so a forklift could move it to the next stage, but sometimes we got to use the humongous circular saw to cut shit up, which was about the happiest you get in 120 degree heat and 500% humidity. You know, I don’t remember what this job paid at all. It was tough just being out in that yard, though. When one of the guys from the dorm won $700 at pachinko one day, he swore off the lumberyard job forever, and I was sooo jealous.
Convenience Store Clerk
After so many sweaty jobs, I decided I needed a change. An air-conditioned environment sounded nice enough. I worked at a Lawson convenience store owned by an acquaintance for exactly one day. It was a good location for a Lawson since it was right near an entrance to the Nishi Meihan Expressway; it got a lot of business from truckers since there was also a cheap Chinese restaurant in the same lot. After so many sweaty day jobs, it took some practice for me to get the whole automated politespeak thing down, although this wasn’t why I quit. I quit simply because there were huge bags of 10,000 yen bills in the cash drawer, and I couldn’t bear to see them every time I rang up a sale, knowing that it would take me years to make that much money at minimum I-am-a-fucking-nobody wage.
Panasonic Car Stereo Salesman
This job was a total joke, in that I never should have gotten it. It was my second year in Japan, and my Japanese was still very basic. Yet I somehow managed to bullshit a recruiter into hiring me for floor sales at an Autobacs auto goods store on the Hanna-doro, in Nara. The thing is, I would have kicked ass at that job had my Japanese been better. I’m one of the few people I know who can design and install a car stereo system semi-properly, and I’ve kept up with the new products ever since high school. As it was, though, my Japanese was nowhere near the level it takes to bullshit people into buying Autobacs dreck. I quit the first week and told the recruiter he was a dumbass.
SHARP Cafeteria Worker
I’ve worked food preparation in Japan – at a company cafeteria. I mostly took this job because Nam was working it already, and as we had just started dating, I really wanted to spend all my time with her. She would sneak out of her Tenrikyo dormitory and ride a bike to the meeting place where a van would pick her and a bunch of other foreign students up and take them to the SHARP factory adjacent to the highway to Nagoya. After I started the job, I would pick everybody up instead since I had a microvan (an ancient Kei van with a 550cc engine). The job consisted of prepping meals for about a thousand workers who ate in three shifts, and cleaning up. They used these giant steel rice cookers mounted on axles so one person could upend them for cleaning. You could cook two full sacks of rice (40 kgs uncooked) in one of those pots at once. I think this was the only kitchen job I’ve ever worked where I never saw anyone spit in the food, or use food that was dropped on the ground. The old guys in charge, and their wives, ran a tight ship. Even though we worked the graveyard shift (maybe 1 to 5 in the morning), the pay wasn’t very good.
Car Counting for the City
This was the ultimate lax job for a student living in our decrepit dorms, and when I was in my third year, my turn came up. The job was to record traffic at certain intersections for city planning purposes, and the tools involved were clickety-clickety hand counters, a city-issued pencil, and a clipboard. There were detailed instructions for marking the different car classifications per license plate code, and we did fairly well at this about half the time. The thing is, it got pretty old after a few hours, and we mostly made up numbers after that. I’d like to think that this had an adverse affect on traffic signal timing or road repair rates, anything to validate the data we collected, but I tend to think it was just a typical waste of tax money. At least, at that time, it wasn’t a waste of mine!
Love Hotel Sheet-Changer
The border of Tenri and Koriyama on route 24, on either side of the highway overpass, demarcates a kind of sin city – aside from the convenience stores and gasoline stations that line all national roads in Japan, the only storefront businesses are love hotels and pachinko parlors – shitloads of both. I worked at one called Cats with a bunch of Korean (and later, Chinese) guys who I went to school with. The job called for doing hotel maid duties at a superfast pace. I’d like to say I did this job only for the cultural experience, but I was broke as hell at the time. In all, I continued doing it for a year, before I led the legendary Christmas revolution (to be explained later). The question people always ask when they hear I worked at a love hotel is, “are there really hidden cameras in the rooms?” The answer is, “only in some of the seedy hotels that are owned by gangsters or Koreans” (read: All). The other question I am always asked is, “What’s the weirdest thing you ever saw working there?” That’s a harder question, because over the course of one year cleaning other people’s love nests, you see some pretty weird shit. Also, you have to quantify “weird.” The sickest shit I ever saw was a room used by shit-players. They were kind enough to restrict most of their play to the bathroom, but the shit streaks left on the dessert plates and spoons also suggested they were shit-eaters. Hey, to each his own, I guess. You get pretty numb to people’s perversities doing a job like that, and luckily, that wasn’t a room I had to clean (by the way, if you think they closed that room down for proper disinfection, you just don’t understand the love hotel business model). The funniest shit I ever saw was this old guy, maybe in his seventies, who pulled up in a Bentley with 4 hot chicks, demanded to talk with the manager, and worked out a deal for all five of them to use the room for a few hours (usually there is a limit to 2 people per room and an extra person will cost more, but nobody comes in with four other people). Holy shit! We wondered if the old guy could actually get it on, but there was no way to find out because when we walked by the door, all we could hear was the karaoke machine turned way up, but no singing. Another funny/gross time was when this totally normal-looking mid-aged couple forgot two tackle boxes full of hardcore sex toys when they left. The wife later called the hotel whe we were on a break to ask about the “boxes” they had forgotten, and the old lady that worked the switchboard gave her a hard time, making her describe exactly what kind of things were in the boxes in great detail. When the old lady hung up the phone, she yelled “stupid ho,” and we all laughed our asses off. In the end, though, we were all fed up with the inhumanly long shifts over the holidays as well as the horribly shitty pay (and that’s saying a fucking lot for a bunch of Koreans and Chinese), so I led a revolt against the scary Korean mafia-ish owner, and we demanded a raise. He threatened us with painful death (“Do you know who you’re fucking with?”), and slapped one of the Korean guys, Kim, across the face. We all jumped in and beat the owner to a bloody pulp, then gang-raped him bulgogi style. Nah, just kidding. We quit on the spot and keyed his big black Benz on the way home.
I did this job for a company that was illegally bringing American carpenters over on tourist visas to build prefab homes in the Daianji area of Nara. It was my senior year in college, and as other job prospects at the time were quite grim, I was interested in possibly working for this firm after graduation, as well. They paid the first decent wage besides English teaching (which I’d completely abandoned at that point) that I saw in Japan. I interpreted instructions from the bosses at the Japanese construction company to these carpenters from Oregon, and translated mostly complaints in the other direction. Of course, this company was doomed to fail from the start, and the entire operation disappeared in the space of a week, taking two months of my pay with them. Ouch. I needed that fucking money. Graduation was coming up, I was flat broke, and I had no job prospects. However, I got a hold of the company manager’s house phone number in Oregon, and laid the biggest guilt trip on him over the course of a few months. I kept calling and calling and calling. And you know what? THE MONEY CAME THROUGH. Five large, baby. By that time I had found a job, started working, and had even drawn my first paycheck, but boy did that make me feel good. That was the first time someone tried to fuck me out of a paycheck… It happened once more, but I got paid that time as well. What the fuck is wrong with people these days? EVEN IF YOUR COMPANY GOES BANKRUPT, YOU HAVE A MORAL OBLIGATION TO PAY SALARIES (a previous boss claimed otherwise!).
My bartending stint was the longest part-time job I had in Japan. I think I did it for almost three years. Good times, they were. Lotsa crazy stories, too, in fact, too many to recount here. The name of the bar was Rumours, it’s still running and located on Sanjo-dori in the center of Nara, and since my pal Nara Bill quit as manager there, the owner has run it into the ground by placing, respectively, dumbshits, fuckheads, and otherwise business-challenged family members in charge. Alas, it was once the best (the only!) gaijin bar in Nara, but it is no longer even worthy of that moniker.
Working at a variety of jobs while learning Japanese was extremely valuable, culture-wise as well as language-wise. You know what? Maybe I’ll sell papaya salad at a roadside stand for a while to start my new studies of Thai.
Here is a partial list of arbeit I have done in Japan: