The past year has been in preparation for an opportunity not only to visit Japan, a country I have dreamt of for years, but to positively contribute the socioeconomic difficulties faced by its citizens. With this in mind, the many, many hours it took in acquiring money and knowledge for this experience, were a pleasure when considering the experience I would gain.
My first week in Japan was the most traumatic of my life. This post comes with a certain level of shame, embarrassment and fear. However, I realise that my experience and the lessons learnt there from, may be enlightening for others in a similar situation. So, here it goes.
My job description with Kozmoz International, a registered NPO in Kyoto, included “staff photogapher”, “english teacher” and “food bank coordinator”. Unfortunately, upon arriving in Kyoto I very quickly realised, that the perception I had been given over countless emails and Skype calls was far from reality. The kind, caring and extremely accommodating director (“Barry”) with whom I had been corresponding with, was in fact the most heartless, vulgar and untruthful man I have ever met. HIs antisocial patterns of behaviour and attitudes I observed made him nothing short of a sociopath. What made matters worse, is that my accommodation was a bunk bed in a shoebox sized room in his home. I was shown up to my room, and opened the door to a look of sheer terror on my roommates face. Only in retrospect, after experiencing this man’s wrath personally, did I fully understand the thoughts and fears running through her head at the time.
Although my stay was brief, unlike my colleagues month-long trauma, I immediately succumbed to Barry’s racist and sexist outbursts. During the brief five minutes he “sacrificed” toward something resembling a conversation, he chose not to introduce me to the company and its operations, or answer burning questions of mine relating to the work I would be doing. Instead, he took the opportunity to mock “‘Saint’ Mandela”, and ridicule my home nation. In between this conversation one of his small children leaned over to hold his arm. He grimaced toward his son while saying “get your hands off me”. Followed by half a pancake for breakfast (as the rest of the food was for him), I needed no further interactions with him to know that I was in trouble.
After my mouthful of pancake, and being called a “failure” from Barry for not sweeping his house properly, I launched into my twelve hour day in which I did not take single photograph, but instead fried burger patties for 12 hours. Working with the other volunteers, all of which were kind, giving individuals, I learned of the atrocities they had witnessed and been subjected to from Barry. I will never forget the rising panic as I heard of stories of sexual harassment, emotional abuse and unimaginable deceit. Through a mastery of emotional blackmail, this one man has successfully been abusing honest, socially mindful individuals stopping nothing short of human exploitation. The gruelling work done by us interns was what paid for the food banks. It was Barry alone, of course, who would “save the day” and “fight poverty” through food deliveries in and around Kyoto. As I listened with horror to the other workers, I was faced with the terrifying realisation that I had to leave. I observed how my dear roommate had been subjected into enduring Barry for over a month, through fear tactics and threats.
After a 12 hour work day, and a 45 minute walk back to my accommodation, I packed my bags and left. I am very grateful and proud of my roommate that she decided to come with me. Hours of dragging luggage across Kyoto, with a deep fear that we would be chased after, and no sense of what lay in the coming few days, made it amongst the most traumatic hours of my life. At 2am we eventually found a place to stay the night. I phoned my parents and sobbed. I felt a strange mixture of relief, pride and disappointment, but most of all shock and disbelief. This experience is the type that you never think will happen to you until it does. I seethed with anger and confusion as to how such terrible people could exist, especially in a line of work which founds itself on selflessness and empathy. Furthermore, I refused to believe that I came all this way for nothing. There must be a purpose. For this reason, I resisted the urge to jump on the next flight home. The past week has felt frustrating, lonely and aimless. Realising that the potentially career defining experience I had envisioned failed to ever exist, makes me angry and disappointed. Furthermore, I received an email from Barry stating that he had “reported” me to immigration as I was now staying in Japan under false pretences. After being arrested I would be deported back to South Africa after a court hearing. After contacting the Japanese embassy in Cape Town and the South African embassy in Japan, it was confirmed that I am here completely legally. However, this was like salt on an open wound. He replied to my refusal to pay him back 200 dollars for “paperwork” with an attacking email true to the real Barry, rather than the kind prototype I had known while still in South Africa.
I do no know what the next few weeks hold. I am hoping get some or other volunteering position in an organisation where I feel my work is valued. In the meantime I am trying to give myself an unexpected holiday. I will keep searching for the bigger purpose and reason for this unfortunate experience. Through it I have have realised that our ability to love and value ourselves correlates directly with the interactions and experiences we are willing to tolerate. I walked away because I realised I deserved better. My original feelings of shame and weakness have started to fade as I remind myself of this. So perhaps the “reason” for this experience is just that: proving to myself that I’ve come along way in self-love. My hope is that those enduring maltreatment of any kind, come to realise that there is no shame in walking away from an abusive and poisonous situation but instead there is strength and dignity.