Paul Snowden came to Japan 40 years ago — thinking that his visit here would only last for two years, after which he would go back to his native England and settle down as a grammar school teacher.
Instead, he has found himself settling here permanently — and pursuing an academic career, leading to his current position as dean of School of International Liberal Studies (SILS) at the prestigious Waseda University.
Snowden, 62, who grew up in Essex County, had four job offers when he graduated from university four decades ago — in Germany as a translator, in Libya as an English teacher, in India as a Russian teacher — and in Japan as an English teacher.
He chose Japan simply because it was the farthest away, he said. “I had just graduated from university in England and I saw myself in the future becoming an ordinary grammar school teacher,” Snowden recalled.
“So I thought, before I settle down to a boring life, I deserved an adventure.”
The first job Snowden had in Japan was at the language school chain Berlitz, which had just opened its Shibuya branch. After teaching English conversation to a wealthy clientele for several years, he was transferred to the company’s branch in Osaka, which coincided with the opening of the Osaka World Expo — of which he has fond memories.
“I went there at least 10 times,” he said, noting that the 1970 expo — which was Japan’s first — has been the best. “It was sort of a turning point (for Japan). There were hopes and expectations and sometimes it was not efficient — but it was some of the inefficiencies that were actually attractive.”
It was about this time he met the woman of his life, a Japanese woman, and he married her.
After going back to England for about five years, the couple returned to Japan in 1977, when Snowden was given a teaching post at Tsukuba University.
He moved to Waseda in 1983 as he was offered a tenure position. He has played an instrumental role in Waseda’s creation in 2004 of the SILS, where classes are taught in English and where a third of all students hail from overseas.
Based on his longtime experience in Japan on and off work, he says that he has never suffered serious discrimination or prejudice against him.
“There are some people who constantly perceive a kind of institutionalized isolation of foreign residents,” he said. “Some people even accuse the Japanese government or society of being almost racist.
“I’ve never really experienced that.”
One thing that needed adjusting to for him is that, in the old days, strangers would often come up to him, asking him to serve as their “English-speaking experimental toy,” he said.
“People would come up to you in the street and say, ‘Excuse me, may I practice my English?’ — and maybe even thrust a microphone in my face and ask me some fixed questions,” he said.
“That used to be sometimes uncomfortable, but on the other hand, I now miss it.”
What remains very difficult for him to understand, on the other hand, is the lack of spoken communication among people here, Snowden said, citing the case when customers pay for their purchases at convenience stores.
“Let’s say the price is ¥116 and they take out a ¥1,000 bill, take out the purse and they start looking for the extra ¥16. They don’t say (to store clerks), ‘please wait a moment,’ or ‘I wonder i f I have the change.’ I find that depressing.”
Meanwhile, he said he likes Japan’s convenience, efficiency and punctuality. “I don’t like the attitudes of customers in shops, but of course the service provided by the assistants is really excellent.”
Through his years as a university faculty member and as editor of several language dictionaries, he has acquired a well-rounded Japanese proficiency. In fact, he said he now feels more comfortable chairing meetings in Japanese than in English.
The father of two daughters and grandfather of three says he has also adopted a Japanese lifestyle, living in Higashikurume City in western Tokyo in a very Japanese-looking house with a big gate.
He advises foreigners coming to Japan to realize that Japan has elements of old and new mixed in its cultures. “My advice is, don’t have preconceptions about Japan,” he said. “Don’t come having read Lafcadio Hearn, believing that everything is mysterious, exotic and the opposite to the West.
“On the other hand, don’t come believing Japan is simply a lot of Western-style concrete buildings that happen to be on the other side of the world — because that’s also not true.
“If you come with an open mind and then you slowly discover charming parts of the country, you will want to stay.”