A Storied Life In Japan
By Anthony Joh
On March 1, 2015
People come to Japan for all sorts of reasons. Food, culture, sports, anime, robots or even to pursue a romantic relationship. Our goal with the GaijinPot Blog is to bring you stories and advise about living in Japan to make your transition here a little easier.
We recently posted our 500th post and to celebrate I asked our writers to tell us about a uniquely Japanese experience that they have had.
A Japanese Welcome
Just after I arrived in Japan it happened one evening that my housemate and I were leaving our apartment building and heading out for dinner. Near the door of the building there was an old man leaning on a walking stick, grey haired, with a sort of Karate Kid mentor look about him.
“Hey,” he called out as I walked past. “Why did you come to Japan?”
“What a friendly place this new neighborhood is turning out to be!” I thought, but as my reply commenced the man held up his hand.
“No,” he said, “you came here to die.” Then he turned and hobbled off, laughing like a movie villain.
The scary thing is that the fellow may yet turn out to be right!
It’s the People
As someone who has been living in Japan for a few years, I am often asked why I chose to stay here. By now I should have a perfect, rehearsed response to the question, but each time I’m asked, I give a different answer. There are hundreds of subtle reasons too difficult to explain in a casual conversation. However I will admit to using one of the more common answers other expats give. I love the people here.
When I first arrived and stepped off the airport limousine bus with my ridiculously heavy luggage, I started rummaging carelessly through the insides of my cluttered suitcases in search of my prepaid phone. My sloppy, last-minute packing made it nearly impossible to find, but what I did find was something very sharp. I quickly yanked my hand out, and my finger began to bleed like I had never seen it bleed before. I panicked a little as I realized I was in a new country and there was nothing I could do but stand there squeezing my bloody finger with my half open luggage lying on the ground.
Suddenly a kind stranger came over and handed me some tissues. Then, as if that weren’t nice enough, he returned just a minute later with a box of bandages that he bought from a nearby convenience store. If I could ever meet him somehow to thank him again in proper Japanese and he would probably be surprised that I survived this long. There is still a mark on my finger from where I was cut, but unlike most scars, this one makes me smile.
12 Things That Keep Me In Japan
When I’m asked what my reason for coming to Japan was, I feel my answer disappoints. There was no underlying reason. I wanted a challenge and sought a life abroad to satisfy my curiosity. So after qualifying as a teacher I secured my first teaching role in Tokyo. 5 years later I’m still here. It’s not always been easy, there’s been a lot blurry eyed skype conversations to my parents, but despite the tears I’ve never muttered the words ‘I’m coming home’. I miss my family dearly and the home comforts of England. So why have I been here 4 years longer than I intended? I even struggle to answer the question myself.
In theme with GaijinPot bloggers Grace Buchele Mineta “12 things I love about Japan” article; I’ve compiled a list of 12 things that have kept me in Japan:
- The blue sky. I hail from Cheshire in England, in weather terms, it’s grey and miserable, Japan however, boasts beautiful bright blue skies on a regular basis.
- Green tea on tap; I was a fan of green tea before I moved here and am an avid one now.
- Traditions are a respected and fundamental part of daily life. I always smile to myself when I see ladies in kimonos.
- Japanese: I enjoy studying Japanese and have made a life long commitment to master it.
- Travelling: I’ve managed to visit a fair few places in my time here, but there’s still so much more I want to see, Hokkaido in particular is on my hit list for this year.
- The people, I’ve been shown an uncanny amount of kindness and a insignificant amount of hostility.
- Food. In 5years I’ve had one bad meal dining out, the rest were fantastic.
- Being within Asia has allowed me to easily travel around the continent.
- Builders: rather than crossing the street to avoid unnecessary lewd comments I’m met with bowing and polite warnings to watch my step.
- Karaoke rooms; I can sing as bad as I want without offending anyone.
- My friends. I’ve made best friends for life here, we’re having a ball.
- My boyfriend. As much as I don’t want to admit it, he’s been a huge anchorage in me staying.
The Little Things
Every once in a while, I find myself on a lunch break waiting in the endless teller line at my local bank. These student loans don’t seem to be going away anytime soon, so here I am; getting ready to send a big chunk of my paycheck back to the States.
Finally my number is called and I’m invited over by a teller. I explain to him what type of transfer I’d like to do and show him my forms. Without hesitation, he immediately sets up everything I need: pen, hanko ink, etc., on the left-hand side of my forms. Oh, and did I mention that I’m left-handed?
Everyone who visits Japan has their own story of superior customer service. Yet after I thought I had seen and experienced it all, this happened. This bank teller probably deals with hundreds of customers on any given week. I only come to the bank about every other month, and half the time he’s not my teller. Yet he still remembered that little thing about me. For a lefty living in a right-hander’s world, small gestures like this really make my day.
I usually finish teaching classes by around 2:30pm most days which gives me a bit of time to make sure I have all my materials prepared and my lesson plans completed for the following day. On one Tuesday afternoon almost a month ago, I was doing just this until a polite teacher from the school I was visiting asked me to help her with something and beckoned me to follow her to her class room. As we got to the outside of her classroom I found that I was not the only person she had asked to help; there were three other teachers there waiting patiently… all of whom were wearing monster masks. One of them handed me a mask and said ‘You are monster!’ before flinging the door open and pulling me into the classroom.
It was a warzone. They attacked us in waves of what felt like thousands. Everywhere seven year old children expertly bombarded us with their weapon of choice: peanuts. I took a peanut to the eye early in the skirmish, severely impairing my monstering ability, before taking several more key hits to my armour-less throat and hands. I was in trouble, and my monster compatriots were too. I looked over to see two of them cowering under the barrage of peanuts whilst another was surrounded on all sides, visibly pleading with two little boys to stop putting peanuts down her top. The battle was clearly lost.
We retreated on mass back into the hallway, before one teacher thankfully closed the door on the carnage. After the battle was over the polite teacher came over laughing happily to herself and said “This is Setsubun.”
Whether it’s Setsubun or something else, for me Japan is a place where even a sleepy Tuesday afternoon can lead to a new experience and a chance to do something you never would have imagined even ten minutes before. Sure you may end up with a peanut to the eye from time to time, but it’s always an interesting place to be.
Living and Breathing History
What does Japan mean to you? This is a very interesting question and not one that I can easily answer. Why? Because Japan means many things to me. Japan is my home and where my family live. Japan means family to me. It also means culture and history as it is an ancient land full of traditional customs and culture. Living in Gifu City, I experience these customs and traditions on a daily basis.
It starts in the morning when I open up my curtains to the sight of Gifu Castle perched atop Mount Kinka. This is where samurai warlord Oda Nobunaga realised his dream of a unified Japan. And lasts until night, when the daily fireworks signal the completion of the ukai (cormorant fishing) on the nearby Nagara River, a tradition that has taken place for over 1,300 years now in Gifu.
Gifu is a place of living and breathing history and I count my blessings every day that I can live and call this place home with my family. I am truly a lucky man.
A Celebrity Life
My husband and I visited Okinawa two years ago on a spur of the moment trip. Everyone always said that we had to visit at least one of the beautiful Okinawan islands, and they were right. It’s funny, though, they were also right about Okinawan people being very different from mainland Japanese. In some ways they were much more relaxed and happy, which I’m sure had a lot to do with the sun’s warm rays beating down most of the year.
One thing I’ll never forget about the Okinawan people in Naha is their fascination with us foreigners. I don’t know if the Tokyo area has more of a “head down and keep walking” mentality or what, but the people in Naha were hilarious and talkative everywhere we went.
The funniest moment was when we were walking down the main street near Kokusaidori, the famous shopping area, and an older Japanese man shouted out, “Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise!” I looked around, and then realized he was yelling and pointing at us. This white-haired man was convinced that my husband was Tom Cruise; and in his defense Mark did have on aviators. Then the ojisan looked at me and said “Katie Holmes ne?” We just broke out into laughter and told him, “No no no, not Tom Cruise! Not Katie Holmes!”
Learning About Traditional Underwear
Living in Japan has taught me that cultural exchange comes in many forms. On my very first visit here, I volunteered on a farm in rural Nagano. After a hard day of picking apples, everyone was excited to go to a party held by one of the neighboring farmers that evening. The party was my very first experience drinking in Japan, so while I was busy trying to figure out what I was drinking, somehow the topic turned to a fellow volunteer’s sewing projects. She was pretty handy with a needle and had decided to make some “fundoshi.” Before I could ask what a fundoshi was, one of the farmhands asked a little too enthusiastically, “Did you say you’re making fundoshi?!”
With a mad twinkle in his eye, the farmhand declared, “I wear mine everyday!” He proceeded to reach into his pants and whip out a long green strip of cloth over the waistband. Several other men also decided that this was an opportune moment to show off their own, so the rest of the party, we were lucky enough to be able to gaze upon some fine examples of the wonder that is the fundoshi.
I can’t say I was inspired to make my own fundoshi after that, but I did learn about one small aspect of Japanese culture: the traditional underwear.
The Best Feeling in the World
When I tell Japanese friends that I have been around the world, it is only a matter of time before the inevitable question arises: which is your favourite country?
It’s a toughie, that one. What do I answer? Is it India for its vibrancy and spirituality? Is it Vietnam for its ribald insanity? Or Sweden for its staggering scenery and the friends I love there?
When I answer ‘Japan’ they nod with gratitude and understanding, expecting the usual platitudes: the food, the culture, the blah, blah, blah.
But that’s not it. The reason I love Japan is that a few weeks ago one of my 5 year old students came up to me and said “Marku, come here. Can I have ball please? Pink ball please?” I feigned indifference, picked the ball from the shelf, and chucked it at her head.
But as she ran giggling away after the soft rubber ball that had twatted off her nose, I swelled with pride. Three sentences. Together. In a row. A few months ago she said nothing and now…
Now I was doing backflips and clicking my heels in my mind! She was the most amazing thing I had ever seen: better than 12 Reclining Buddhas, 43 Duomos or 112 Taj Mahals put together.
And quite frankly if another country wants to compete with that, then it better come with something impressive. Because that’ll take some beating.
The Perfect Splash
One of the most famous poems in the world is the frog poem by Basho. The story goes that the poet sat beside a lake and watched a frog jump into the water. When the tiny amphibian hit the water, the splash was so perfect that for a second the sound encompassed the ‘everything’ of his existence. It was a simple noise that was perfect in that moment that he had to capture it in a piece of writing.
I never fully understood the meaning of that concept until I went up to Inunaki-san. At the top of the mountain is a small temple that few tourists visit. You can smell it on the way up because of the aroma of incense. I always think that there is nothing more uniquely oriental than that fragrance. Having spent a large part of my life traveling through Asia, some vague, undefined olfactory memory flooded into my head as soon as I smelt it. I became dizzy with a nostalgia for the hundreds of places and images from my past that rushed into my mind from that one source.
Still reeling from this, my hiking partner and I continued up the mountain path into a main hall where the monks had been meditating for the entire day. Now the same vague, indefinable memories were stirred up by the sound of the holy men chanting. The sound of so many people vocalizing in unison seemed to make the air itself vibrate.
As we came down the mountain the chants had increased to the point that they almost had a rhythmical quality. The monks were so deep into the sounds they were producing that they had changed from words into vocalizations, a blended stream of noise that spoke of the depths of the faith of those chanting.
This remains one of my favorite memories, because for a second, I understood exactly what Basho was trying to say. Often the most amazing memories are the ones that only last for a fraction of a second and are meaningful for us, but would be standard or mundane for anyone else. For Basho this meant writing about frogs and lakes and risking ridicule for these deceptively ‘mundane’ observances. For me, it was a realization of why I love Japan: these little moments of beauty, just waiting to be unearthed by a chance encounter.
Although my husband and I moved to Mie seven years ago, we regularly commute to Osaka. This involves a lot of highway driving.
On the night in question, we have no idea how the deer made it onto the highway. The sides of the highway have very high barriers, so the police speculated that it fell from a mountain ledge. Anyway, as my husband drove through the darkness toward home, a dark shape charged toward us. BANG! A mess of brown fur kamikazed our car, taking most of the exterior paneling with it.
We were both freaking out, but as the passenger, I felt it was my duty to try to calm my husband down. I usually speak with him in English, but I figured he’d want reassurance in his own language. I was aiming for “Shikata ga nai,” which means “It can’t be helped.” Instead, I very calmly delivered the phrase “Shika ga nai,” which ironically means “There’s no deer,” with the implication that the deer is dead. Realizing my gaff, we both ended up in hysterical laughter until the highway patrol turned up. At least I was able to lighten the mood.
Dedicated Customer Service
One time I was buying lunch at my local 7/11 and after the customary round of questions that I responded to with a random yes or no, the clerk excitedly pulled out this cardboard box, covered in pictures of an ageing boy-band all with gravitationally implausible hair, and held it up to me expectantly.
I had no idea what he was saying to me but I knew that somehow the box was involved. So I did what any normal person would do and dumped all the change he had just given me into it. I remember after I dropped that 230 yen the air became incredibly still, like the moment right as a car falls off the edge of a cliff, and me and the clerk just stared at each other in acutely painful awkwardness.
After, I quietly picked up my bag loaded with free utensils I didn’t need and left. It turns out that there were prize tickets inside that box and I was supposed to pick one and get an ageing boy band sticker collection or something equally useful.
The incident was never referred to by the clerk or me again. Since that day we forged an alliance; no words were exchanged at the counter and we deliberately avoided eye contact at all times. Now that’s customer service.