If you are a TEFL teacher living and working in Japan, chances are that this is not your first teaching position. In days gone by, travellers could make money as language teachers without any qualifications or teaching experience on their CV. These days it’s a different story – a TEFL teacher’s first position will often be determined by the level of their qualification. It’s well known that getting a teaching job in Japan is more difficult than in other Asian countries – Japanese companies often require higher qualifications for entry level staff, or a couple of years worth of teaching experience, which is why many TEFL teachers in Japan have taught before in other countries.
If like me your first teaching position was in China, and you have since hopped over the narrow waters to Japan, you are probably being bombarded with questions from friends and family such as “So are Japan and China really similar then?”, “Which of the two do you prefer?” and “What are the differences between China and Japan?” As a child, I was certain that Japan and China were pretty much exactly the same – I mean, they were both on the other side of the world to me, therefore both completely alien to life in England, right? Wrong! Although there are of course some similarities, there are also some pretty noticeable differences between these two Asian countries – some of which I will outline here based on my personal experiences.
It’s no secret that the big cities in China are some of the most polluted places in the world, and it wasn’t that long ago that Japan could have boasted the same thing. However, one of the things I notice most about coming from China to Japan is, comparatively, how clean the air is in Japan. There are still times when the air is clogged with pollution – mainly on big roads in big cities – but on the whole, the clean atmosphere is one of the things I enjoy most about life in Japan.
General cleanliness is also of a far higher standard in Japan. In China, you can hardly walk down the road at any time of day or night without bumping into a road sweeper who is clearing the filth off the pavements. I rarely see road sweepers in Japan – people make a big effort not to litter and to recycle all they can and so there isn’t so much need for them.
As a developing country, China is noticeably cheaper on all frontiers – rent, bills, eating out, groceries, technology… it’s all a lot cheaper than in Japan. However, deals can be found in the land of the rising sun, and it all depends on where you live. Tokyo life will empty your wallet far quicker than living in a small city or town.
I didn’t get on well with the food in China. Not that I thought it wasn’t tasty – it was often delicious – but more often than not I just couldn’t stomach it. Even without living in Sichuan province, I found that Chinese food was frequently too spicy for me to eat. On top of that, drowning your food in oil seemed to be the go-to method of cooking, and a penchant for using poor quality ingredients just made eating out a bit of a nightmare. But oh, Japan. Land of amazing food. Not only do I adore sushi simply because it’s delicious and amazing, but what I really value in Japan is the quality of the food. It’s all so clean, so fresh, well prepared and beautifully presented. No slop slapped on grubby plates here – even in cheap eateries it’s like fine dining all the way. Best of all is going to the local Chinese restaurant in Japan – Chinese food, but with good quality ingredients prepared in a clean, healthy way. Heaven.
The Chinese are a rambunctious bunch. Not just noisy – a never-ending chattering of rowdy joyfulness, of boisterous socialising. The Chinese like to have fun, and loudly. They party like it’s the end of the world, like they’ve saved all their Yuan for this one moment to go completely wild and have the best time of their life. China is a loud place – there is no two ways about it. Japan is noisy in a different way. While the people tend to conduct themselves in a quieter way, you are still surrounded by sound. Traffic lights that bleep tinkly tunes while you wait to cross, vending machines that sing and rattle in time to their flashing lights, brightly lit emporiums of consumerism that are constantly flooded with bizarre combinations of soft jazz and modern pop.
But on the whole, I find Japan a quieter, calmer place. While there are artificial sounds being pumped out of every shoe shop and on every subway platform, there are moments of escape, and my ears are not on the receiving end of a constant auditory assault. So, to answer the question that I’m so often asked – which is better? Well, aside from the points highlighted above, there are so many reasons to love (and hate) both Japan and China. I could pick a favourite, but I think it’s easier to say that there are things to admire about both countries – it all depends on your personal preferences.