Shoganai: English Class, a Cokehead, and Friendship in Japan

May 20th, 2011 · 2 Comments

After graduating with a philosophy degree from Iowa State University, Servo Jefferson moved to Japan in the fall of 2006. There, he taught English with the dysfunctional and profit-hungry Nova Group before the school’s bankruptcy the following year. The following is an excerpt from the zine he wrote about his experiences. Its title, Shoganai, roughly translates to “nothing can be done” (so ride the waves, don’t swim against them), which Jefferson fits into his goal to “live life like it was art.”

Now, Jefferson is spending all of 2011 on the road exploring the United States. He blogs daily about his travels at his website,, where you can find details on how to purchase a copy of Shoganai.

I remember walking around my apartment in a state of some disbelief after I was deposited there by Nova’s germaphobic regional manager one early October night in 2006. The place was gigantic. It had a spacious living room, modern kitchen, laundry facilities, and huge bathroom with shower on the first floor. The upstairs had another toilet and three big bedrooms. The place was fully furnished, and tastefully so. Bookshelves were lined with books about travel and using psychology to get ahead—How to Make Friends and Influence People-type stuff with a sort of corporate twist. I could not help but wonder about my roommate. I was a little on edge, to say the least, when it came to the prospect of living with a superior who happened to be ten years my senior. About an hour after I arrived at my new place, my mind was allowed to wonder no more upon Steven’s sudden arrival home.

I have met very few men as physically intimidating as Steven in my life. He stood only a few inches below my own impressive six-foot-five frame and was much noticeably wider at the shoulders. Despite his business attire I could immediately tell this guy was ripped, something which my eyes shortly confirmed later upon a quick change of clothes on his part. He wore a serious, yet friendly enough look upon a sharp and distinct face that rested slightly below a completely shaved head. Throw a white shirt and a golden earring on this guy and he’s Mr. Clean for Halloween. At first he seemed pleasant. At first…

Steven was in his early 30s and from Canada. He had majored in psychology and had been with Nova for several years. He was (obviously) way into working out, and spent the rest of his free time working on inventing a system for teaching English that I cannot go into detail about because it is actually the only thing in my life for which I was made to sign a non-disclosure agreement. He was really nice to me the first couple days I lived with him. We drank together on occasion and just got to know each other. He refused to ever talk about work at home.

At the office, he was like an entirely different person. Steven trained me at Nova, and that was not a bad experience. But about a week after training had ended, the weirdness began. At first he started to comment about how I dressed, like how wrinkled my clothes were. Then one week he kept gearing into me about not having a belt, which resulted in a three hour shopping trip to Nagoya to find a non-leather belt. Eventually, he even erupted about my shoes not being dressy enough. My black New Balance cross trainers were the most professional-looking shoes that I could find in my size that were free of leather. He said if I did not get new shoes he would not give me my mandatory two-month raise, and that my continued refusal to do so was putting him in a bad position with the regional manager.

He was very passionate and irritated when informing me of all of this. He started to offer some serious criticism at my scheduled reviews, but it was delivered very angrily. I had received two student complaints about not talking enough and two about talking too much. I would have hoped these to cancel each other out, but it was not the case. Both were somehow handled very seriously, one after the other. He made the workplace environment seriously uncomfortable and would snap about trivial things. Thankfully he was only there a few days a week.

Life at home had gone seriously sour, super speedily. But it was a different kind of psychology at play from what I was getting at work. At home, Steven would just ignore me completely. Every conversation I tried to start with him was shrugged off after a few back-and-forth volleys. He was just straight cold to me, and it made being around him super uncomfortable. Every once in a while I would catch him after a couple drinks and he would kind of open up to me. I think would have been happier had he not.

Eventually, he ended up confessing to me that back on the other side of the world he was a huge fan of cocaine. He mentioned doing it on occasion over here, and it was later suggested to me that he was likely repeatedly going through withdrawal. He also happened to mention one day how he had come to be in the town we worked and lived in. Apparently, the first place he lived he got into a few fights. But the straw the broke the transfer camel’s back was the following, according to him: One night he was hanging out on the second floor of a bar, while a Japanese man at a table across the bar opened the window next to him. Steven asked him to close it, which he did, only reopen it shortly later. This got the two men into a brief loop of open-and-close, only broken when Steven got up, went over to the Japanese man’s table, and started dangling him out the window by his legs. Nova never fired anyone for anything, so Steven got a transfer out of the deal. This sort of penchant for violence would eventually come to seem par for the course.

I would have been alright had Steven just been a violent and antisocial cokehead, but to just about everyone else I ever saw him interact with he was amazingly charming and charismatic. Women absolutely loved him, and he seemed to sleep with plenty of them. Once he had let it slip to me that he tried to sleep with every attractive female he trained. I eventually heard some stories about Steven from others, the most interesting being that once an old roommate (all of his old roommates seemed to have been good friends with him) came home to find him crying on the couch because he was worried Nova was going to fire him as he had given chlamydia to two new teachers, and they were threatening a lawsuit of some sory. But in the end Nova never fired anyone for anything. That’s probably the one story about the guy that makes him seem most human.

One morning I awoke to find Steven downstairs making coffee with something like a dozen pimples on the top of his head. Or that’s what they looked like to me. Shortly after noticing me, he kind of chuckled and said something to the effect of “How about my head, buddy?” in a this-is-a-funny-story sort of voice. What had happened, on his account, was this: He had been in a cab the night before and told the driver to make a turn or something and the cabbie refused. Steven told him to stop the cab but he kept going. After they stopped at a light, Steven got out of the cab and walked behind it and the cab driver backed into him, sending him to the ground. The cab driver got out and Steven got up, swinging at him. According to him, he caught the cabbie’s glasses and they scratched his face open, spilling blood everywhere. And I will never forget what he said next:

“So I’m standing there; this guy’s on the ground, face all bloody and I’m panicking. The cops are gonna come and I’m gonna be in some serious shit. So I do the only thing I can think of. I grab a pen out of my pocket and stab myself in the head a bunch,” he said while miming the self-head-stabbing with a huge grin on his face. The cops came and since they were both bloody, nothing really came of it, even though Steven did have to go to the police station. I guess he called one of our students at like 4 a.m. to smooth things out for him.

So, here I was, living on the other side of the world, away from every friend I’d ever had, with my boss, whom I was terrified of. I cannot for the life of me remember a time Steven directly threatened me or tried to physically intimidate me, yet I could not help but feel constantly afraid of him. This was one of the worst periods in my life. I simply woke up every day and went to work. The job actually became the highlight of my days for a few months. I’d get home at night and would hate it so much. I had stopped hanging out in the common areas and spent all my time in my bedroom existing on two thin mats on top of a hardwood floor, eyes buried in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky for stretches that lasted hundreds of pages.

Oh, and our place didn’t have internet, which was a huge blow. Steven refused to get it as he kept saying he was moving soon. There was nothing else to do most nights than allow the Russian masters access to my soul. The town we lived in was big in theory – the population was over 300,000 – but there was absolutely nothing to do. I think Steven and I were the only white dues living there. Some nights I’d head out with my skateboard, perhaps to get drunk very publicly and climb billboards, until a broken foot and a fast-approaching winter put those nights to an end quite quickly, and I was left with no option but homebound misery.

My despondency would be abated on my days off: Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Monday nights I would often ride the train to Nagoya after work to hang out with my coworker Jeremy and his roommate Brett. Jeremy was the only other American at the Nova branch that Steven and I were in, and my friendship with him has become one of the most interesting and influential story arches of my life.

In many ways Jeremy and I were compete opposites. He is the jock type, big into sports, whereas I’m just sort of this nerdy punk rocker. We really took a liking to each other. I don’t think it is lost on either of us that, had we met in college, in America, there would have been no friendship between us. However, being Americans in a land where we were a mind-bogglingly small minority, we took the time to get to know each other. It was one of the better things to ever happen to me.

Jeremy lived with another American named Brett. When I first met him I was wearing my Everything Sucks shirt. He smiled and showed me his Milo Goes to College shirt. Needless to say, we were tight from the get-go. He was a pretty rad kid, and way into punk. I loved hanging out with him. Brett and Jeremy were quite a pair and I will be forever grateful for being pulled in as a third member of the group.

They were two of the best people I met in Japan, and I was able to meet a lot of other quality people through them. If it hadn’t been for the friendship the two of them showed me, I probably would have been even more miserable while living with Steven, and likely would have packed my bags and moved back to American within a few months. One day Jeremy asked me if I wanted to move in when Brett left in February. I jumped at the chance. Some point shortly thereafter, Jeremy said to hell with it: I should move in sooner. I was about to go from living in a total nightmare to living with my best friends and it felt so great.

All the worst parts of my life have been transitory. All the horrors that seared themselves upon my soul have passed. And so was the ultimate nature of my time with Steven. The important part is to always look forward to the future. Things will get better and we all have the power to actualize it. Stay posi. Things may suck, but not forever.

One of the last days I lived with Steven I got a frantic phone call from him. The whole time we were living together he had this Japanese girlfriend who was always nice enough to me. I didn’t think she was that hot, but she was literally a professional model. Naturally, he cheated on her here and there. So one night he calls me up in a panic, because his girlfriend is going to be coming by any minute, and asks me would I please run up to his room and make sure his bed is clear of hair that may have been deposited there as a result of sex with other women. What should have been a slight annoyance turned into a major production, as right after he asked me to clear his room of evidence his girlfriend walked in our front door. I told him she was there and he said, “Okay, okay. Sit her down! Get her a drink! Do not let her go into my room until you can get in there!” I really wanted to just not even try, but fear kept me in line. Two awkward drinks and one quick sprint out of a bedroom clutching half of a fist of human hair later, and I knew I was more than ready to move out.

I moved in with Jeremy and Brett in December. I slept on the living room floor most nights until Brett moved out in February. It was cold and cramped, but I was infinitely more comfortable.

Tags: 2011 · AP Issues · Features · May 2011

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