Headmaster studies layers of the Japan onion


When Timothy Carr arrived in Japan in 2003, the punctuality and caution he saw people investing in the maintenance of order immediately struck him as fascinating.

One of the first things his colleagues at The American School in Japan presented to Carr, the new headmaster, was a 364-day plan for building the school’s new cafeteria.

“In this plan they articulated what was going to happen exactly on that 364th day,” Carr recalled in an interview. “Coming from Latin America, I just started laughing and said, ‘What is this piece of fiction’ “

But to his astonishment, all work was completed according to schedule, and on the designated day he received the keys to the new cafeteria. “I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Carr said.

Six years later, this Japanese reverence for organization still leaves him in awe.

Carr, his wife and two children moved to Japan from Costa Rica, where he was employed as the headmaster of an international school located in a town on the outskirts of the capital, San Jose.

Before his stint in the Caribbean, the 46-year-old American had also spent time at schools in Brazil, Tanzania, Sri Lanka and the U.S.

“My kids don’t know how to spell home,” Carr chuckled, adding that this year would be their last in Japan. Their youngest child will begin attending college in the United States this fall. Then he and his wife will be moving to a school in Jakarta, Indonesia, next year.

Looking back at his time spent in Japan, Carr said one thing that appealed to him was the complexity of the society, which made it difficult for an outsider like himself to understand its underpinnings.

Carr used the onion metaphor to explain this sentiment. “You peel back one layer and there’s countless others that remain. And I feel like I’ve gotten down a few layers of onion in six years but I can see that there are probably dozens, or even hundreds left to go,” he said.

Carr said he developed a deep respect for the way Japan nurtures its traditions and history, and was impressed by the people’s reverence for the elderly. “I think that’s one aspect that I don’t think is necessarily shared in North America as much as it is in Japan, and I think there’s a lot that we have learned that way,” he said.

Another concept Carr said had intrigued him was that of honne and tatemae — one’s true feelings or desires versus a facade.

“How stark that difference can be in Japan — and the amount of energy that goes into maintaining both of those are interesting,” he said.

Specifically, Carr remembered how when he first arrived in Japan, he was told not to speak Japanese for fear that he would potentially embarrass himself and the institution by speaking it badly.

“I don’t know whether that was good advice or not at the outset, but that’s one of the things I was coached on,” he said.

Carr regretted not being able to master the language as much as he would have hoped — a disadvantage that he said “added to my sense of not understanding everything around me.”

“I’ve learned the language to a much greater extent in every other country where I’ve been, so I found that with a similar amount of effort, I’ve been able to make only a fraction of progress,” Carr said, adding that this impediment in language forced him — in his social life — to interact primarily with those who speak English.

Living adjacent to ASIJ’s campus in the Tokyo suburbs of Chofu, Carr gets around mainly on his bicycle — a hobby he said has been his primary source of interaction with the locale.

“I tell people that we live in a bicycle-riding community where we do our shopping and traveling around on mamachari,” he said, referring to housewives’ bicycles with luggage baskets attached to their fronts.

Carr said such a laid-back lifestyle would be fondly remembered once they left the country. “I’ll miss the aspects of just getting around, and a simpler life in some ways, which is an ironic thing in Tokyo for many because they picture the bright lights, big city, and an ultramodern, technologically driven society,” he said.

In the end, Carr said his relationship with Japan could be summarized as a “head connection,” rather than the “heart connection” he has experienced while living in other countries in the past.

“The unpredictability, the chaos, the grit of living in a developing world is something we actually like a lot,” Carr said. “And so moving to Japan was something different in that this was clearly a developed country and things work very well, and they are predictable and safe,” he said.

“And yet we’ve learned to appreciate those aspects.”