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Interview- Svetlana- US version

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Dear readers,.
I am returning to the cycle of interviews with people who can, through their thoughts and experience, give us perspectives. . …
Svetlana, a psychology graduate and sociology doctor, is currently a lecturer and teacher for graduate students and doctoral students at the Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. .

Can you tell us about your journey before arriving in Japan?
The trajectory of my life is unusual in that I was not born in New York, Paris, or Geneva, where I lived for many years, but in a small town at the foot of the highest mountain in the Caucasus, during the Soviet era and at the height of the Cold War. Two hundred years before my birth, the Russian Empire had exterminated most of my ancestors during the long Russo-Caucasian War, burning their villages to the ground and killing and displacing the indigenous population in order to gain access to the Black Sea. Before coming to Japan, I lived for eight years in Geneva, Switzerland, where I studied French at the University of Geneva and then worked in one of the United Nations agencies. Prior to that, I lived and worked in New York for many years and in Paris for two years. .
What languages do you speak?
I grew up reading Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky and listening to Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. I am in many ways a product of the Russian culture, so I speak Russian far better than the language of my Circassian ancestors. In addition to these two languages, I also speak English and French, and I have been learning Japanese for several years, but it is an extremely difficult task, so I am still a long way from speaking it fluently. .
What brought you to Japan?
When my contract with the UN came to an end, I was faced with a choice: look for a new job in Europe or return to the USA or Russia. None of these options inspired me. At that time, I realized that I could finally pursue my dream of immersing myself in the culture and life of a country that had always fascinated me, yet was out of reach. I was first invited as a senior researcher at Keio University and later started my teaching career. At the University of Tokyo, one of the most prestigious in Asia, I taught training programs on communication skills and academic presentations, and at the Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, where I currently work, I give lectures and seminars for graduate and doctoral students on writing research and policy papers. My training in psychology, my doctorate in sociology, and my diverse multidisciplinary professional experience help me in my work, which gives me incredible satisfaction. .
Tell us about your life in Japan and what you observe about Japanese culture…
I have been living in Japan for seven years now, half of which was during the pandemic. Looking back at how differently countries in the world handled that unprecedented global crisis, I can’t help but admit that I was lucky to be here rather than in Europe, Russia, or the USA. One must understand certain traits of the Japanese people in order to appreciate my statement. Their discipline, sense of duty, unconditional and universal respect for laws and regulations made the transition to a new mode of life in coexistence with the virus almost seamless. The government did not have to impose draconian rules or fines in order for people to stay home and abstain from gathering in large groups. .
This is not to say that Japan is a carefree dreamland, where everyone is perfect and all social mechanisms work smoothly – it is not. But the overall sense of safety and mutual respect, the calm and panic-free handling of problems big and small, and the deeply rooted attachment to their culture and traditions are the qualities that I find highly admirable and attractive. .
Which cultural differences are the most remarkable?
Cultural differences are palpable in Japan. Whether you come here as a tourist or as a long-term transplant, you are bound to say at least once: Japan is another planet! What prompts people to say this usually lies in the realm of technology or everyday comfort, like for example, the extremely punctual public transport system or the omnipresent vending machines that sell everything imaginable. .
Japanese are the most religiously tolerant people I have ever lived with, in a sense that they embrace many different religious traditions and incorporate them in their lives. Their birth and death are accompanied by a Buddhist monk, their marriage is celebrated in Christian chapels, and their deepest prayers are pronounced at Shinto shrines. It was not always this way, and I am well aware of the persecution of early Christians in Japan, but in today’s society, religious hate crimes are virtually non-existent. .
Can you tell us about Ikigai?
I admire people who live their lives with ‘ikigai’, no matter how small or insignificant their work might be, while we, the non-Japanese, are plagued with depression in our endless quest for the ‘raison d'être’. The Japanese concept of ikigai teaches us to find happiness in little things, and that life’s purpose is not necessarily measured in money or titles but rather – how useful you are to the society at large or to one particular person. Understanding this brings an immense sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. . What cultural adjustments did you have to make?
For me, the most difficult adjustment was to accept the fact that the Japanese do not adjust. This is not a tautology. The very quality that I admire and appreciate in Japanese people – law obedience and respect for instructions – makes them extremely rigid in unpredictable situations, to the point of absurdity. They are lost and frustrated when something goes off the tracks or calls for a creative approach. Ask your waiter in a restaurant to remove bacon from your Caesar salad, and you will know what I mean (the recipe calls for bacon, removing it equals breaking the law, and even if they did – how are they going to charge you for the food you didn’t eat?). This rigidity causes a lot of frustration to foreigners who cannot comprehend why something so simple cannot be done without consulting with all upper echelons of the hierarchy, but it would help if you put your momentary situation into a larger cultural context. .

You give courses and conferences in a prestigious institution in Tokyo, what relationship do the students have with teaching?
First of all, we have to separate Japanese students from the students I teach at the graduate institute. The latter come from all over the world, so one can see many different culturally contextualized attitudes towards the learning process and the professors among international graduate students. The West and East styles stand in stark contrast to each other when it comes to expressing opinions, entering into debates, or challenging a professor’s authority. .
As for the Japanese students, they are highly reserved, passive, silent, and (as they say themselves) shy. It takes an enormous amount of effort and creativity on the part of the teacher to make these students comfortable – or willing – to engage in class activities. But the reserved and shy nature of young Japanese people is not the only challenge. The Japanese higher education overall suffers from several drawbacks, some of them being high tuition costs, outdated curriculums, and a rather lax attitude towards attendance. To my great surprise, I learned that students almost never proceed to working in the field of their studies after graduation. Instead, they receive on-the-job training from the companies, once they secure an employment. You can imagine how senseless for them is any effort of learning things they will never need or use in their future careers. .
What differences do you see between the communication approach in Japan and that in Europe and the USA?
A significant number of academic studies is devoted to this topic. The differences were observed in the approach to apologies, complaints, refusals, compliments, and many other aspects of communication. I experienced firsthand the infamous Japanese trait known as “never say no”, when you never hear a loud and clear “no” for an answer. It confuses foreigners to no end, until they learn to read between the lines. This is closely related to another interesting aspect of communication in Japan that has to do with Japanese being a listener-responsible language (as opposed to speaker-responsible, which most Western languages are). It is an endlessly fascinating topic, and I wish I had another life to study it, but the bottom line is – we need to educate ourselves on these differences before we sail on an adventure in a foreign country, especially if it is for work. .

What recommendations would you make to someone moving to Japan to work?
Management styles are undoubtedly affected by culture and communication styles, and being aware of these differences should be a prerequisite for any expat. My advice is hardly new or original: before moving to a new country, get acquainted with its culture and traditions; learn the local taboos; understand non-verbal cues; reciprocate gestures of kindness and gratitude; be observant; be kind to the people who accepted you for who you are and shared their land with you. .

How do you see your future?
My work visa has just been renewed for the third time, making it clear that I belong here in Japan. Contrary to the stereotype that this country is xenophobic and hostile to foreigners, I can testify that the Japanese welcome and appreciate professionals willing to work and bring value to their country. It makes me feel welcomed and useful and, for the first time in my life, happy with my job and my role. I don't know what the future holds for me, but for as long as Japan needs me, I will serve this country and its people with enthusiasm and dedication. Ikigai is not simply a concept, it is a reality for me. .

As a conclusion, I would like to suggest a quote from a letter by Leo Tolstoy to the future Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland. :

“The most important of all sciences man can and must learn is the science of living so as to do the least evil and the greatest possible good. .”

It is simple, clear, and profound; it sums up my yearning and my life principles. .

Thank you, Svetlana. . …

Lettre GCCG- English version- December 2023-