The Only Gaijin in the Village: Chapter 2
By Iain Maloney
In May 2016, my wife and I moved to rural Japan. I am the only foreigner in the village.
A month after moving into our village, a time I’d been dreading came around: volunteer day. Four times a year, residents get together and complete certain tasks for the benefit of the community. This is in addition to standing guard over the garbage collection sites when it’s our turn (I’ve never been sure if we’re there to help people correctly dispose of their separated unnecessaries or to make sure nobody deliberately and with malice aforethought mixes a steel tin in with the aluminium cans or mistakes a brown bottle for green, and therefore ends the universe).
My first experience was the litter collection. Split into teams, the theory is that we cover a certain area picking up rubbish — man-made or acts of God — thereby bringing beauty and order to our pocket of Japan. In theory. As any economist, political leader or parent will tell you, the gap between premise and practice is big enough to handbrake turn a double-decker bus through.
Litter collection is designated a “man’s job.” Some jobs here are “women’s jobs,” like cleaning the meeting hall, guarding the aforementioned garbage sites (and cleaning them afterward), as well as serving snacks and drinks at the meetings.
Anything outdoors is a “man’s job.” We prune trees, clip the hedges with unnecessarily powerful but fun trimmers, massacre bamboo groves with Home Center-approved serrated machetes and walk the streets keeping it safe from stray tissues and cigarette butts. I haven’t seen this demarcation specified in writing, but it is… understood. It was, therefore, with much amusement that my wife waved me off at 7 a.m., barely raising her head from the pillow to laugh.
Anything outdoors is a “man’s job.” We prune trees, clip the hedges with unnecessarily powerful but fun trimmers, massacre bamboo groves with Home Center-approved serrated machetes and walk the streets keeping it safe from stray tissues and cigarette butts.
Our team consists of me, Maeda-san (the grandfather of the house is designated fulfiller of community obligations), Ikeuchi-san, a divorced man in his 50s who lives alone, and Okamura-san, who has three happy, highly energetic, noisy young daughters and leaves for work early, returning late. I am meeting Ikeuchi-san and Okamura-san for the first time. Okamura-san grunts an “Ohayo” before releasing a smoker’s cough that sounds like an IED going off under a tank. Ikeuchi-san gives me a nod and the last two syllables of an “Onegaishimasu.” It’s Sunday morning. We all work hard, none of us want to be doing this and — by the looks of things — I’m not the only one who indulged in a little light refreshment the night before.
Prepped in advance by Maeda-san, I have a pair of gloves and a plastic bag. Ikeuchi-san has a bag sticking out of his pocket and no gloves. Maeda-san has a pair of gloves tucked under his belt and no bag. Okamura-san has a can of coffee and a pack of Mild Seven cigarettes. We set off down the street.
The thing is, our area is spotless. Only residents and family come here, or people on business — delivering, fixing or selling things. There’s no through road. No one litters. Anything the wind brings in from outside is immediately picked up. There are no businesses that might inadvertently cause trash (there are literally no businesses: a local ordinance stipulates that the land here can be used for residential use or farmland, nothing commercial). So this is a waste of time.
We walk about 50 meters down the road. I find a PET bottle cap that seems to have been embedded in the ground since the Paleocene and prise it out. We continue on. Maeda-san fills the silence by pointing out what vegetables are growing in each patch. Each patch is the same as the one before. We pass another team with similarly sullen, “Ohayos.” Are they in our area or are we in theirs? They have empty bags as well. Maeda-san leads us through a shortcut by the meeting hall and loops us back home. Okamura-san drops his cigarette end in his can and that in the bag. We reach home. Maeda-san goes inside and comes out with four cans of coffee. We sit on his wall drinking them, him talking about the weather and the trees, us three silent but for slurps and sighs. Ikeuchi-san gives us another, “Itekimasu (I’m off),” and disappears inside. It’s 7:17 a.m.
“Is that it?” I ask Maeda-san.
“We were seen,” he says. “It’s enough.”
The reality of things rarely matches our trepidation. As I said in Chapter One: “all the roles and duties that come with joining a small community in Japan can be intimidating.” I’d been dreading having to take my place as a fine, upstanding pillar of society. As it turns out, everyone else dreads it, too. Duties are meant to be onerous, otherwise, we would call them something else.
To fit in, all it takes is some effort and to be seen to be making an effort. By 7:30 that Sunday morning I was out weeding and watering, just like everyone else in the village. Apart from Okamura-san. He sat for a while on Maeda-san’s wall, listening to the Sunday morning chaos echoing from his living room, enjoying a moment of solitude.
If this is your first time reading the “Only Gaijin in the Village” series, you can start from the beginning here.