International Relations. The only legit answer you can give your relatives when they ask what on earth you’ll do with your East Asian degree. “Yes uncle, I have a long-term career-plan for my life and see myself being ambassador in 20 years” sounds much better than “I have no clue what to do after studying this country for 4 years and will probably just drown myself in sorrow, debt and alcohol.”
Just better stick to the fancy-sounding titles. International Relations Manager. Global Relations Officer. Foreign Policy Consultant. Japan Expert. Imagine having that written on your slick business card. Well, luckily, you don’t have to imagine anymore, because I am here to tell you every bit of utterly subjective truth about International Relations in Japan.
Having worked in this field for some time, suffice to say I have done some unimaginable things (as in, “I would never have imagined a pro like myself doing xx”). But to tell the truth, most of it is quite un-dramatic and just straight up difficult. I mean, think about it. Why should people care about promoting IKEA couches and Swedish work ethics? And even if they do, how do they proceed in a country where Foreign Places are so exoticisied and remote that they might as well be located on the moon? Yeah, welcome to my world.
The exchange event – your bread and butter
A typical international exchange event goes something like this: you arrive, shake hands with everyone (because that’s what foreigners do), and answer questions. And my friend, there will be a LOT of questions. In fact, your performance will mostly be judged on your ability to quickly rattle off the most shocking and cool facts about your country. Did you know that Swedes eat rotten fish? Did you know that Sweden pays high school students to attend school? Have you heard about this thing called gender equality? Ok, scratch the last one.
Anyway, the remaining time should be spent shamelessly flattering everyone in the room à la “Japanese hospitality is so unique and amazing” and “Kyoto is the world’s 8th wonder” while exchanging business cards at the speed of light. If you are lucky, they will leave the event and spread some anecdotes about rotten fish, and voilà! International exchange has taken place. Magic.
Back to planet Earth, hero.
But what happens after? Then we travel back to Earth, where the language barrier is a Berlin Wall separating us from them. Where foreign investment is not encouraged. Where Japanese working standards make qualified foreigners flee. Where it is difficult to study abroad. Where The West is the Far West and westerners are objects on TV. Where internationalism has very little space in the way of life. Now, even for an experienced International Relations Person, that’s quite a bad hand to start with.
So, how to deal? The only way is to accept this simple fact: you cannot save the world. I’m sorry Hercules, not even your glib tongue and flashy smile can melt the iceberg – let’s leave that for global warming. Time is the force of nature that will eventually defrost the status quo. Meanwhile, you might as well enjoy the ride, because Kyoto is amazing, and so is Japanese hospitality. And you can be sure that ever so often, you will meet genuinely cool people; diplomats, politicians, royals, scientists, and that guy who paints abstract things with his toes.
But let’s talk about those “this-was-not-in-the-job-description” moments.
In my career I have, in the name of International Relations, danced like a frog in front of 300 onlookers to demonstrate the finer points of Swedish culture. Sung Swedish drinking songs in broad daylight for 50 very silent, juice-sipping Japanese people (of course dressed up like this). Eaten rotten fish with a completely straight face for a TV show. Taught English swearing lessons entirely based on phrases from Pulp Fiction (the phrase “I double dare you motherfucker” was particularly difficult). Held a Swedish cooking class during which I managed to cut myself twice, in addition to squirting blood on someone’s shirt.
So please don’t worry – I can guarantee you will have a most dignified and fulfilling career.
But every now and then, there will be moments when you find out that an offhand comment you made about Sweden inspired someone to go there. Later you might hear how they fell in love with the country and moved there to study Swedish. Much like you did with Japan. Now that, is true magic.