On a remote Japanese island, a tall gaijin might as well be from another planet.
There are some places in this world where one can go and feel completely at home. Where the locals’ arms are open and hearts are warm, welcoming new visitors as if they were old friends.
As I walk out of the small convenience store aptly named (and incorrectly spelled) My Condenced Store, amidst the odious stares from Grannies bent over at 90 degree angles, their backs nearly broken from years of torturous farm labour, who seem to sincerely believe that I alone was the cause of World War II, I laugh to myself that Japan is just not one of those places for me.
My apartment is essentially plunked into a giant salad”I am surrounded by fields of onions, cabbage, carrots, radish, and garlic. It is a smell no amount of Febreeze can extinguish from air dried clothes (and dryers are rare commodities here).
There is so little to do in my town that the locals’ big weekly event is a trip to Jusco”Japan’s answer to Walmart.
Should you be so inclined (or simply drunk enough), there are plenty of karaoke bars, favored by stressed out, cooped up salarymen who just need to let it all out once in a while.
I do occasionally feel like I am in the 1800s, like when I am stuck behind a tractor full of onions, sat upon by a bonnet-clad woman and her well-worn, leathery-skinned farmer husband, crawling at five kilometers an hour on a one lane (note that I didn’t say one way) road. Japan’s own Ma and Pa Kettle.
But it is not them who are the strange ones in this seemingly backwards country”it is me. It is anyone whose hair and eyes aren’t so dark brown they shine blue; it is anyone who is more than five foot eight; it is anyone who can properly pronounce their “Ls” and “Rs”; it is anyone who doesn’t bow and apologize after nearly every sentence they utter.
Japan doesn’t take well to oddities. And I, with my golden-brown curly hair, bright green eyes, and towering stature (five foot eleven), am as odd as they come.
I often feel like I am walking around in a portable glass cage: a tourist attraction in the zoo of Japan. People point, laugh, whisper, and oh the staring. People will actually stop their cars in the middle of the road to get a better look at me. And it’s not the kind of flattering attention that a young girl expects and sometimes even enjoys”it is more the kind of staring you might expect if you had two heads or lobster claws for hands.
There are certain rules that one has to follow when walking down a street in Japan. One must never walk down the street eating an apple or any other fruit. This is for two reasons. Number one, Japanese people never eat and walk at the same time. Eating is a big production and even coffee is sipped sitting down (imagine”no Starbucks on the run!). Number two, Japanese people peel all their fruit”from the skin off grapes to the membrane off an orange. There is little difference to them between eating the skin of an apple and the peel of a banana.
One must also be sure to never bear their shoulders in public. It is ingrained into the Japanese genome to automatically ask a shoulder-bearer if he or she is cold. Even if it’s 40 degrees. It is, however, perfectly acceptable to prance around in shorts as tiny as underwear; Japanese girls do this all the time. But show your shoulders and you might as well be naked.
One must also be very careful where one walks. Beware the gaijin traps: the sudden and deep foot-wide gutters lining every road. Presumably, these act as some sort of irrigation system for the farms, but are more like a menace to drunk stumblers Japan-wide. The sidewalks are sporatic and often end abruptly with no rhyme or reason. Gigantic trucks spill into the other lane and tower ominously over pedestrians while dutiously beeping their horns as they thunder by”yeah, thanks, I heard you. One must watch his step when walking Japan’s roads.
Lastly, one must not stare inquisitively when passed by an old woman who’s not-so-subtle purple hair is gleaming in the sunlight. What, at first glance, appears to be a dye-job gone wrong, is a sort of right-of-passage into old age for some Japanese women”why dye your hair black when you could dye it purple? I think it’s their rebellion against all their years of conformist culture.
The vast majority of my time is spent at the local junior high school”I teach English there.
Imagine a class full of Japanese students who don’t speak any English. Now picture trying to teach those students when you don’t speak any Japanese. That has been my task over the past year. It’s a toughie. The only English words my students know how to say to me are “You are pretty”, “Good Morning!” and they have developed a strange affinity for the word “Yo!”
Sometimes my schoolwork-averse students will come and sit with me during clean-up time (in Japan, there is no janitorial staff”all the students clean the school for 15 minutes every day”what a concept!) and when I try to speak to them, they wave their hands and say simply “English, no”.
The strangest English songs are popular in Japan. I know, because we sing a new one at the beginning of every class. Have you ever heard a song by Freddie Mercury? Neither have I. I couldn’t even find his songs on a Google search. But all of my students can sing along to it. The reason is, Japan loves songs with slow, clear lyrics. For this reason, John Lennon is uber popular, and there is a bizarre obsession with The Carpenters.
Meet the teachers I work with daily.
First, there is Miyo”the stick-thin, full-lipped beauty who I thought was my age when we first met. Turns out she has a son older than me. Miyo is my best Japanese friend. Though I thought it odd seeing a woman of her age squeal and jump up and down like a schoolgirl the first day I met her, I have since learned that this is just the way Japanese women are. Where in the West, we covet chic maturity and independence in older women, in Japan, women idolize young, cute girls with high-pitched voices. Sometimes I have to do a reality check to make sure I’m not actually in a Sailor Moon cartoon.
Then there is Mr. Oda. Mr. Oda, whose first name is Yasuhito, writes me notes of what he has planned for class each day, and signs them Y.Oda. He’s not trying to be cute, but I think it’s hilarious. His English is excellent, but our conversations are often mired by long, awkward silences, where he is thinking and planning his next sentence, careful to never make a grammatical error or misconjugate a verb.
There is Mr. Mori, a singleton in his late 40s, living with his mother. He is the sweetest of men, bless his heart, but how is he ever going to meet anyone working 10 hour days in this farming town, where his weekends consist of coaching school sports teams, helping his 80-year-old ailing mother on her farm, and watching movies with his nephews?
I’ve met many characters throughout my travels in Japan, but this is not a book so on we move.
A note on foreigners in Japan. They say when women come to Japan, they get fat (Japan is a carbohydrate nation) and when men come to Japan, they have sex.
Imagine walking into your favorite store and finding that you can have your pick of anything you like at no charge. That is sort of like what Japan is for foreign men. Total losers can come to Japan and be treated like kings by the most beautiful Japanese girls. Some want a foreign boyfriend because they will treat them better than Japanese men will (foreigners don’t make them pour their tea and do the dishes), and some want free English lessons. I’m sure that SOME genuinely like them. They must…right?
Luckily for me, I did not get fat. Let’s just leave it at that.
I left Japan after one year a much different person than when I arrived. Japan does that. It changes people. I was emotionally stronger, more respectful, slightly girlier (it rubs off on you), and damn could I drink a pint of cold Asahi.
Looking back on it, if I had known before the year began all the challenges that faced me, I may not have had the guts to go. But that’s the great thing about life: you never know what lies ahead.
It was a rare opportunity that I had, to live in a small town on a tiny island no one’s heard of in isolated Japan. So few foreigners are let in to the culture the way I was. And though it was at times a struggle, it was also incredibly rewarding. Though I was never given the opportunity to step out of my glass case (few foreigners are) I am so thankful that I was given the chance to experience that little piece of intense Japanness.
So, if you ever find yourself on Awaji Island, the epicenter of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake (its only claim to fame, and locals never let you forget it), drive down past “bustling” Sumoto City to a tiny town called Mihara. Walk by the junior high school, where all the students will run to the fence to gawk at you and yell ‘How are you?’. Pop in to My Condenced Store and grab a stick of sushi (don’t bother to cut it up, just eat it like a wrap). Say hi to Ms. Ishigawa at the checkout for me. Then take a second to breathe in that fresh onion-scented air. I doubt you’ll choose to stay – there’s not that much to do or see. But if you do, it will change your life.