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A Fragile Gaijin in Japan

I feel fragile and glassy.

Outside the rain is falling down and tattooing on the Arrivals Hall. I feel like the next person to jostle me is going to fracture me into a million serrated splinters. I feel so delicate that any moment I am going to cascade spectacularly across this Arrivals Hall at Natira Airport and leave behind a trail of detritus seventeen time zones wide. I just hope that someone will sweep up the fragments and ship them home to my son.

The queue shuffles forward a fraction.

The Arrivals Hall used to be my favourite place in Japan. Everything I love about Japan can be seen contained in this small area. There are Dowager Empresses in silky kimonos, school girls in tartan mini-skirts and big-socks, salary men leaning on No Smoking signs whilst puffing on filter-less Lark cigarettes, Buddhist monks, with shaved heads, resplendent in purple robes and worried looking mothers dabbing their brows with lacy handkerchiefs and fretting about their lives slipping by. I used to love getting off the plane and thinking: My god, Alice is through the looking glass again. But today, after crossing the Pacific, I just feel like bits of me are rubbing against themselves trying to make some kind of unlikely connection. I need to emotionally ground myself but it seems hard to do. I am standing on the edge of a chasm of fear and longing.

I am also desperately searching for a pregnant woman.

The queue shuffles forward a fraction more. The helpful marker post tells me that I should be at the immigration desk within several hours. I wonder why no-one has hung prayer flags on the markers the way walkers pile rocks on cairns in the Highlands.

Japan emphasises my inherent loneliness. Each time I come here it affects me more profoundly and I find myself questioning, continuously, who I am. Maybe the jet-lag I suffer or the sheer, gut-wrenching level of frustration which comes from working with a Japanese company. Or perhaps after all these years, I do really want to conform and be a part of something greater than myself, which sends my head reeling. People all around me are living their lives whilst mine seems a vague world of shadows and emptiness.

We shuffle forward a few paces. I finish the first half of War and Peace.

The young couple in front of me have just returned from their first trip to the States. To kill time, because today time is something we all have in excess, I try to draw them into conversation. Slowly, shyly, carefully they come them out of themselves and begin talking about their trip. They are beautifully shy, painfully self-conscious and wonderfully conservative. They visited something like seventy-four cities in six days. Their heads are still spinning but they are pleased to be home. After much prodding and gentle questioning they tell me that the most surprising thing for them was that you could eat McDonald’s in America. I ask if they realise that McDonald’s is an American company and they blush sweetly and look at their shoes. After a little more prodding they produce a mega-pixel digital camera and show me snaps of them enjoying a meal under the Golden-Arches. They typify modern Japan: charmingly naïve but with a rough techno edge.

We shuffle forward a few more paces ,and I think: Even death must be more pleasurable than this. If I squint I can just make out the front of the queue. It’s just beyond the curve of the earth. By the time I reach the front I will probably be a grand-father and my passport will have expired.

Behind me is a smartly dress middle aged lady who is part of a subdued tour group. She is busy mopping her brow with a delicate lace handkerchief and will, I think, be difficult, to engage in conversation. I smile at her and she looks back blankly at me. So instead I muster my most polite Japanese and ask her, with a wink, if she has any ways of avoiding jet-lag. She doesn’t but she does want to talk about my country and about me. I tell her about my home, my adorable son and girlfriend and how I ache every minute I am not with them. I imagine my son splashing around in his bath, or flicking food, sputnik like across the room, or giggling gleefully at the football on the television.

She nods her head. I can imagine her life all too easily: husband working all hours or out drinking and having affairs, children left home and now attending good universities and her all alone with her afternoon television and only the occasional trip away with the woman’s Rotary Club to brighten her days. We are both living lives we probably wouldn’t have chosen and are powerless to do anything about it.

She tells me about some distant relative who was a fisherman. His wife used to wait each day on the sea shore for his boat to come home. One day it didn’t and so she, too, took her own life. ‘Today’, she shrugs, ‘we just wait here where there is no remorse or dignity.’

We move forward a few more inches. This queue is almost an exquisite pain. And I am still keeping my eyes open for a pregnant woman. I feel vaguely nostalgic for the old days when the room was filled with the noxious fumes of a thousand unfiltered cigarettes. I always used to smirk when I got off the plane: Okay, let’s get the passports stamped, collect our luggage and then get cancer. In those halcyon days there wasn’t a single sign in English and I saw more than one world-traveller reduced to tears by the sheer complexity of entering the country.

I am still keeping my eyes open for a pregnant woman.

Last time I was here I found one as soon as I got off the plane and in return for carrying her bags she let me fast-track the queues. I think we cleared all the formalities in something like 17 hours.

We inch forward a little more and I add queasiness on to my list of ailments. Perhaps my mind is drifting back to the last time I was in town and dined on raw horse-meat and sea-slug or perhaps old age is settling in. Perhaps, I ponder, my circadian rhythms are just so out of sink that I am just imaging this and I am actually curled up at home with a Murakami book and a glass of scotch.

At that moment a pregnant woman floats by. But she already has an entourage of cocky-looking high-school boys. I feel exceptionally ill-disposed to them and hope that they all get terminal acne. I want to call someone I don’t like and abuse them in English but of course cell phones aren’t permitted here and even if they were Japan uses some bastardised 3G system which isn’t compatible with any other phone system.

We shuffle forward another few inches and I suddenly realise that I have no fear of death anymore but the thought of another few weeks in this queue makes me shudder.

Hours later I am almost into the home stretch. I can see the desk where I will engage the immigration officer in some inane conversation (‘Job what is, eh?’ To which I will reply, ‘Housewife.’) and finally be allowed to formally enter Japan. Beyond the desk I can see chaotic throngs of expectant people waiting for friends and family. In the west we associate Japan with a calmness and methodical attention to detail but when you see the super agitated crowds waiting at Narita you wonder if people just come down to the airport once in a while to act in a most un-Japanese manner and blow off some steam. It’s worse then any African market or Middle Eastern bazaar I have ever seen. But, secretly, I find it all little bit heart warming.

Finally I reach the front of the queue. I exchange small talk with the immigration officer. He enters my profession, housewife, into his big leather ledger, and stamps me into Japan.

When I have finally collected my bags and eventually cleared customs I shoulder my way through the throngs of happy families and bemused tour groups and stumble out into the rain. I take big gulps of clean Japanese air and feel rain drops exploding on my head. I say a silent prayer of thanks and then, overcome with a longing to hear my son’s gurgles, I head off to find a phone.

Philip Blazdell

Philip Blazdell has been travelling since 1989 and would like to stop now, thank you very much.