Habitat Japan the expatriate experience
Sue Conolly (editor)
Published by: H&R Consultants 8F, Nakato-Marunouchi Bldg. 3-17-6 Marunouchi, Naka-ku, Nagoya 460-0002 Tel: +81 (0)52 973-3957 Fax: +81 (0)52 973-9293
President: Steve Burson Edited by: Sue Conolly Chapter Authors: Louise George Kittaka Heather Fukase Mary Sisk Noguchi Sue Conolly Mike McCann David Stones Jillian Mickleborough-Sugiyama Rebecca Otowa Sheri Love Yasue Christina Moorehead
Photography Credits: Susanne Bund Sue Conolly Toshio Matsushima Robert Moorehead
Cover Image: Susanne Bund
Acknowledgements: The editor would like to thank the following people for invaluable support throughout the writing of this book. C h r i s t i n a Mo o r e h e a d , Jo y Conolly, Helen Braithwaite, Jim Braithwaite for endless editing advice and support. Susanne Bund for her excellent eye, and work on formatting images.
ÂŠ 2009 H&R Consultants www.hrconslt.com email@example.com Websites: www.JapanHomeSearch.com www.JapanResidence.com www.ReloJapan.com www.LeaseJapan.com www.JapanDriversLicense.com www.JapanInfoSwap.com H&R Consultants and Sue Conolly, along with the chapter authors have made every eďŹ€ort to ensure the accuracy of the information in this book. The book is intended for use by expatriates as they embark on a life in Japan, short or long term. Ho w e v e r, t h i s b o o k i s n o t intended to take the place of professional relocation advice. H&R Consultants encourages readers to take the reigns of their own life here in Japan and enjoy their own experiences. However, in times of hardship H&R Consultants strongly recommends seeking the help of relocation professionals, counselors, fellow expatriates, and helpful Japanese friends. H&R Consultants shall not be liable in the event of incidental or consequential dama ges in connection with, or arising out of, the use of information in this book. Online links and references for further reading have been provided for reference purposes onl y, and H&R Consultants accepts no responsibility for their content, management, pricing or presentation.
Contents Seeking Habitat
Before you Arrive
Dealing with Food
Beauty in Small Places
Surviving Hard Times
Best Foot Forward Louise George Kittaka
The Japanese Table Heather Fukase
Language Matters Mary Sisk Noguchi
The Flexible Family Sue Conolly
Working Life Mike McCann
Eye of the Beholder David Stones
Fertile Ground Jillian Mickleborough-Sugiyama
Harmony Rebecca Otowa
Alive and Kicking Sheri Love Yasue
Keeping Japan Christina Moorehead
Tales from the Bath Sue Conolly
Seeking Habitat Journey to Find Home Sue Cono!y I am trave!ing by train into the dark winter night. I have an overnight bag with me - the kids are with a babysitter. My husband wi! meet me later tonight, and we wi! stay in a sma!, run down business hotel near a house that we might consider buying. It’s a big investment, not just in terms of money but also in our life here. It’s time to make the decision - can I be happy here in this habitat? I alight %om the train. Coming out of the ticket gates, I am immediately greeted by a little waiting area in the station that doubles as a community art ga!ery. The current display is one of a local artist, who has le& a pile of %ee postcards to publicize her next exhibit. The postcards are very pleasing to my eye, so I take a few of them. Next to the public art ga!ery in the station is a busker. He is se!ing homebaked CDs of his original music. The title of the CD is “Are You Happy?”. I buy a copy, and head out into the cold dark air, sprinkled with the tiniest feathery snowflakes. The snowflakes dance around me in the wind. It is cold. Very cold. My breath immediately leaps %om my mouth in a strong white stream. My hands are in the pockets of my coat. It is a coat that I bought the last time we visited this area. It is a particularly cold winter this year. I walk in a straight line %om the station. There is a cafe I have wanted to visit, having passed it by car on our many home-finding trips. I walk with purpose. My feet are taking me there, no stops along the way. Buildings and vending machines line the street either side of me. They are my standing sentinels - my oﬃcial guard as I walk the red carpet to my new life. I arrive at the little cafe with the wooden deck and the twinkling lights. As I enter, I hear the sounds of a cocktail-dressed long-haired beauty at a grand piano playing romantic tunes in the candlelight. This is unreal. I sit at one of the tables, and in the candlelight and live music I write poetry on the postcards. I write about how I have found home.
For many people, Japan is a temporary and not a permanent home. For others, Japan is a permanent home and yet people are reluctant to really call it home with all the aﬃnity that suggests. How then, can one have more than a surface existence? Is it possible to dive deeper - to accept that if home really is where the heart is, bringing your heart to Japan you will always leave a tiny piece of it behind? In the last twenty years, Japan has become an easier place to live for Westerners. You can buy Western products online from within Japan. English books are at the click of a fingertip. International calling is cheap if not free. If you live in a larger city, there are English-speaking doctors and dentists, hairdressers and yoga teachers - and local publications in English to help you find them. If you have trouble finding the particular English-speaking service that you need, there are companies dedicated to this purpose. It’s easy enough to put yourself in circles of people where you will never have to speak Japanese. On the other hand, all this convenience creates a special challenge. How does one come to Japan and not lead a largely Western existence? This project came into being after years of my working with expatriate families and seeing the various ways in which they acclimatized to their new “habitat” in Japan. Some came to Japan with a voracious apetite for adventure and learning by experience, absolutely unstoppable on the roller coaster that was to become their life here. Others came begrudgingly at the strong request of their company, for whom they held responsible and accountable for every detail of their personal comfort. Cable TV was arranged, remote controls translated, and mobile phones converted into English, while individual family members struggled to work out their best and most convenient way of “being” in this country. As you can imagine, the more adventurous the expatriate, the deeper the experience and the more the heart is left behind. Being adventurous doesn’t necessarily mean sitting down to a meal of raw horse meat (basashi) and fermented soybeans (natto). It can be as simple as leaving your house and walking down the street, when you are new to Japan and don’t feel brave. Being adventurous can mean accepting the invitation of the old lady next door to attend the festival in the park. And it can also mean sitting with your child in hospital eating a rice-ball, wondering when you might get your next shower.
Not everything that you experience will be picnics and roses. In fact, it’s likely that the more troublesome (or mundane) life experiences will be your greatest opportunities for learning and living life to the full. When I set out to write this book, it was a project very close to my heart. Having built my “habitat” in Japan much in the way a bird builds a nest, straw by straw, I wanted to encourage others to do the same. I wanted to share the simple truth that for every foreigner living in Japan, there is a diﬀerent road to be travelled. It soon became clear that to really tell that story, I needed to borrow from the experience of other expatriates. Some of the authors who have helped me compile this book still live in Japan, others have moved back to other homes. Some live in big, bustling cities, while others live in tiny country lanes. Some have Japanese people in their family, while others experience Japan only through their intrepid travels. A special mention must also go to friend and photographer, Susanne Bund, whose keen eye for Japan and great generosity has provided many of the photographs throughout this book. Each person involved in the production of this book has a diﬀerent voice, and diﬀerent things to say with that voice. The glue that binds the pages, however, is the depth of experience that all the voices lend. Whatever you find in Japan, and however you like to place yourself among the pages of your own book - you are the author of your own story here. It is my strong hope that you find what you need, not in the pages of this book, but outside in your Japan.
Best Foot Forward Taking the First Steps in Your Japanese Adventure Louise George Kittaka So you’re Japan-bound! There are one hundred and one things on your mind and you’re wondering just how everything is going to work out. Take a deep breath, exhale and - stay right where you are. Set those one hundred and one details aside for now. In other sections of this book you will find excellent suggestions and expert advice for making the most of specific aspects of your impending Japanese adventure. But first, here are some ideas to consider before you jump into all the practical arrangements. Your relationship with Japan begins before you even leave your own country, and it starts with your mindset. Think of this as your own personal starting point for the exciting journey - both physical and mental - that you will soon be making. How Do You Feel? Take a minute to consider how you feel about the upcoming move. You’re certainly excited, and probably somewhat nervous, too. Perhaps you’re coming to a new job or to an educational program, and you’re feeling justifiably proud of your eﬀorts to secure this opportunity. Maybe you caught the travel bug and Japan seemed like a good place for the chance to make some money to fuel further travels. You’re looking forward to the 7
new experiences that await you. If you made the decision to come to Japan, then you are likely to be viewing this whole thing in a positive light. But what if the decision is not one you made, but instead was made for you? Maybe your company is sending you over on an assignment and you didn’t really have much choice in the matter. Or perhaps your partner is coming to Japan to work (or already lives here), and it was just assumed that you would naturally want to tag along. Mixed in among the excitement and nerves, there may be some frustration and even resentment about the career, friends, family and lifestyle you are giving up in order to come to Japan. I’ve been in this situation myself and sometimes it is not an easy place to be. I met and got engaged to my Japanese partner when I came to Japan on job training. At that time, it was completely my own decision to live and work here and I felt in control of my own destiny. That hasn’t always been the case since. Over the course of our marriage I’ve followed him around Japan, through the USA and back to Japan again. Wherever he went, he had a job or a university program waiting, so the road ahead was clear a n d w e l l - m a r ke d . In m y c a s e , however, each move meant putting on the brakes and readjusting my internal navigation system before I could get a clear sense of my own direction. It was never easy and at times I felt quite resentful that my career plans and life goals never seemed to be the priority in the equation. The hardest time was when his company decided to send him to Buﬀalo in Western New York. If I was American, I may have thought of it as “going home”, but I am from New Zealand. During a “look-see” visit to the US to check out housing for the impending move, I was shocked when the HR manager at my husband’s firm casually informed me that I wouldn’t be able to work on my visa.
Changing the Agenda At the time I had a rewarding job at a Japanese publishing firm and was just beginning to feel I was getting somewhere. I had friends, hobbies and a good life in Japan. I was none-too-pleased to find out that I was about to become “a trailing spouse”, making me feel about as important as the tail on a dog. It didn’t help when one of my American colleagues jokingly said, “So you don’t like snow and you don’t like American Football? Oh boy, you’re gonna hate Buﬀalo!” I decided that if I couldn’t work in the USA, I might as well have a baby instead. I arrived in the middle of a snowy Western NY winter. Complications with the pregnancy saw me spending my first few weeks in the US confined to a hospital bed - miserable, bored and thoroughly lonely. Then, one day I noticed a small advert in a community newspaper for a women’s social group in the area. I had nothing to lose, so I called the representative. Within days I had some visitors, and by the time the baby was a few weeks old, I was attending a mother and baby group and a book group. I was on my way. When the baby was a year old, I made a major decision to go back to university. It wasn’t easy to combine this with parenting a young child (and with another on the way by the time I graduated), but it was extremely rewarding. Moving to the US was never on my agenda. However, in the long-run, I went places, met people and had experiences that would never have happened if we had stayed put in Japan. So, even if moving to Japan was never on your personal agenda, the reality is that you are coming. Keeping an open mind and allowing yourself to be open to new opportunities will go a long way to allaying your mixed feelings about the journey ahead. The Ones You’ll Leave Behind The attitudes of your friends and family are bound to have some impact on your feelings, too. Hopefully, they are excited for you and support your decision to come to Japan. However, they might also be worried about whether or not you’ll be able to make it in Japan, particularly if you are still young. It can help to reassure them that Japan is one of the safest
countries in the world. Elementary schoolchildren go to and from school by themselves and women usually do not hesitate to walk alone at night. Friends might oﬀer “helpful” advice or dredge up anecdotes that they happened to hear from a friend of a friend, or see on the Internet. Although that story about what happened to your next-door-neighbor’s cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s roommate in Roppongi might be very entertaining, it is unlikely that the same experience awaits you. Those of your friends or colleagues who have already experienced living in Japan may be particularly keen to share their knowledge with you. While much of their information can be very useful, bear in mind that this isn’t about them - it is about you. No two people will experience Japan the same way and you will be writing your own story, not rehashing theirs! Your friends and family are going to miss you while you’re away. Of course you’ll miss them, too, but it is often harder for the ones being left behind than the one who leaves. Bearing in mind that you are probably going to return to your home country at some point, it is prudent to keep some regular form of contact with your nearest and dearest. It is quite natural to experience reverse culture-shock upon returning to your home country, so having a network of people to support you will go a long way to making a smooth transition back to your former world. Fortunately, the Internet, Skype and an array of competitive overseas calling plans now mean that staying in touch from Japan is a breeze. You may find yourself playing host to visiting relatives and friends once you’re established here. This can be a mutually beneficial situation! They will be able to save on hotel bills if they stay with you and will have a built-in guide. As for you, after repatriating back to your home country, you’ll have a circle of people who “get it” when you talk about your Japan experience. Finally, don’t forget to pack a selection of photos of the people, pets and places that are important to you. Many Japanese love taking photos, showing their own photos oﬀ and looking at other people’s. When you start making Japanese friends, they will probably be very interested to see pictures of your home country and the lifestyle there. 10
Great Expectations What are you expecting your Japan to be like? You probably have some pre-determined images, influenced by TV shows, movies or novels. Some foreigners have a somewhat romantic view of Japan, perhaps hoping to see bonsai trees and pools full of golden carp at every turn. While there are many beautiful gardens in Japan, most of them are not to be found in the average person’s backyard. A vast number of city-dwellers live in apartment or high-rise condominiums. Even those who can aﬀord a house in t h e c i t i e s d o n’t h a v e g a r d e n s a s Westerners know them. My yard in suburban Tokyo has exactly enough room for two cars, five bicycles and one Harley Davidson motorbike - my husband’s pride and joy. However, we had to get rid of our children’s old plastic slide in order to fit the motorbike in! Modern Japanese cities are, for the most part, singularly unattractive. And yet, Tokyo and other major cities are not the concrete jungles that some overseas visitors are expecting. The Japanese are well-known for making the most of even the tiniest amounts of space. Even busy commercial hubs will feature traditional temples, pocket parks and green oases tucked in among the jumble of buildings. The eclectic nature of the urban landscape means that, quite literally, you never know what you might find around the next corner. Japan is diﬀerent enough from your home country to be exotic, but it is similar enough to be comfortable. You are going to one of the major economic powers of the world, where heated toilet seats with built-in bidets are standard in new homes. And yet smaller train stations may still feature squat toilets, with only cold water and no hand-drying facilities. (I recommend following the local custom of always carrying around a handkerchief for drying your hands.) No doubt about it, Japan is a land of contrasts. Take shopping, for example. You’ll marvel at beautiful displays in upscale department stores 11
where impeccably-groomed, uniformed staff hover at a respectful distance, waiting for you to express an interest in something. And at the other extreme, you’ll encounter Mom and Pop stores with dusty shelves, presided over by a great grandmother bent with age who licks her finger as she counts out your change. Within reason, it is possible to pursue pretty much any kind of lifestyle you could wish for here. If hanging out at restaurants and bars with English menus and English-speaking staﬀ is your thing, then you can certainly do that in the larger cities. For daily necessities such as commuting, shopping and dining out, you can get by without knowing the language (you will, however, only scratch at the surface of Japan if you never attempt to master even basic Japanese). On the other hand, if you wish to escape to a rural locale with no other foreigners for miles around, then that is doable, too. You can eat grilled fish and rice with pickles for breakfast and soak your cares away at the nearest sento (public bath) with the locals. Rest assured, the chances are extremely good that somewhere out there in Japan is a niche where you’ll fit in. It will probably take some time and eﬀort to find that niche, but it will happen. Japan can be many things to many people, including you. Meet the People Few nations are as homogenous as Japan. Since Japan was closed to the world for many centuries, people took pride in their “uniquely Japanese” national identity. Even today, when visitors come from all over the world and intercultural marriage and births are on the rise, this mindset persists. Japanese people themselves may tell you that they are all diligent, courteous and rather shy. Certainly, in general, these traits do describe Japanese character rather well. Ho w e v e r, y o u r d e a l i n g s w i t h Japanese people will not be with some composite image, but rather with individuals. As you forge relationships with colleagues, friend and neighbors, you will start to find similarities and parallels with people you know back home: There is the section manager at work who gets flustered under pressure just 12
like your cousin Carlos, or the classmate with the same flair for fashion as your best friend Vanessa. Once you start making these connections, you’ll find that your relationships with the Japanese will transcend cultural and physical diﬀerences. Instead, you will be seeing your new acquaintances as the unique individuals that they really are. Oranges and Lemons Let’s fast forward a little and assume you’ve arrived and are safely installed in your new accommodation. It might resemble a shoebox in size, but it is your shoebox, so make it into a space that works for you. Once you’ve unpacked your belongings, then it will hit you: “Wow, I have to start dealing with life now!” One of my father’s favorite phrases is, “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.” In other words, make the best of the situation you find yourself in. Now, I’m not trying t o i m p l y t h a t y o u r Ja p a n e s e adventure is going to turn out to be a lemon - far from it! Many people have found their Japan experiences to h a v e b e e n m o r e p e r s o n a l l y rewarding than their wildest expectations. There will certainly be times when the going gets tough, and even the most ardent Japanophile will have some bittersweet moments here. But don’t let bumps in the road sour the overall experience for you. Remember that one frustrating incident or one annoying person does not define everything about Japan and the Japanese. I often think that Japan is more like a mikan, a variety of citrus fruit similar to a mandarin orange. In a country where fruit tends to be quite expensive, mikan are cheap and in plentiful supply during the colder months. A bowl of these cheerful little oranges on the table brightens up long winter evenings, and makes for a delicious and nutritious snack. When I came to Japan for the first time, I ate mikan the same way most Westerners would: I pulled the peel oﬀ willy-nilly and then stuﬀed the fruit into my mouth, several sections at a time. End of process. However, when I visited a friend’s home, I noticed that the Japanese approach to eating a mikan was quite diﬀerent. First, the fruit is carefully turned and 13
peeled bit by bit until the naked mikan emerges, shedding its skin all in one neat piece. Next, one section is chosen and carefully inspected for strings of pith, which are removed. Only then is the section of mikan actually eaten, before the whole process is repeated again. The contrast in how to eat a mikan is akin to the Western and Japanese approach to tackling tasks. We tend to want to jump in right away “getting to the heart of the matter” - while ignoring the process of getting there. When we have identified the major issue at hand, we want to see the “big picture” and risk missing the minor details involved. The Japanese, in comparison, tend to like to examine things from every angle before planning a course of action. When they are satisfied, they implement their plan in a calm, methodical style. In the end, either of the two approaches will work - you get to eat the mikan regardless. However, my advice for getting comfortable with life in Japan is to emulate the Japanese mikan approach.
Start with the first layer - the skin of the mikan - and find out all you can before you dig deeper. Next, select the section of Japanese life that is of most importance or interest to you right now. Examine it from diﬀerent angles and perspectives until you feel comfortable enough to devour it and move on. Savor each section and don’t be in too much of a hurry to start on the next one. There is no need to try and accomplish everything in one go - the slow and steady approach works very well in Japan. Let’s say your immediate goal is to find the quickest way from your place of residence to the nearest station. This isn’t rocket science - you can soon work out which route takes the shortest time. But what if you take the chance to make a few detours, to explore alternative routes and get to know your new neighborhood? Japanese streets can seem like a maze, winding here and there, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. There is rarely more than just one way to get somewhere and getting lost is all part of the fun! Take a new route and see what you can discover - maybe a little patisserie with delectable cakes, a quaint shrine, or a canal replete with a 14
few ducks. On those days when you sleep in or when rain is bucketing down in torrents, sure, you will want to take the most direct route to the station. But on other occasions, taking the “long way round” can definitely be more rewarding. You’re a Gaijin Now One word you’ll hear a lot in Japan is “gaijin”, which is the commonly used form of “gaikokujin” (outside person). The term gaijin refers to you and anybody else who is not a native-born Japanese. It dates back to the days when Japan was closed to most of the world, thus anybody who wasn’t Japanese was most certainly an “outside person”. Some foreigners in Japan are uncomfortable with the term and its implications of “us” (the Japanese) and “them” (anyone else). However, it should be noted that the vast majority of Japanese use the term without any intention of discrimination - it is simply the standard phrase to describe a non-Japanese. There are certain advantages to being a gaijin in Japan. The locals will be ver y understanding and forgiving of the inevitable blunders you will make as you come to grips with life here. So don’t worry when you walk out of someone’s toilet still wearing the special slippers provided specifically for use in the smallest room in the house. Don’t fret when you get oﬀ at the wrong station, inadvertently keeping your Japanese friend waiting because you mixed up two similar-sounding station names. And most importantly of all, keep your sense of humor! Being a gaijin allows you to sample the delights of life in Japan without being expected to fully master the complicated moors that govern Japanese society. Naturally, this is not an open invitation to flagrantly break the rules and indulge in behavior that would be unacceptable or illegal at home. But, if Japan is a mikan, then being a gaijin in Japan is a bit like being able to have your cake and eat it, too. That is a sweet situation to be in!
Meet the New You On a deeper level, coming to Japan as a gaijin is a chance to discover a whole new side of yourself. You are coming to a culture where nobody has any preconceived ideas of who you are and how you should act. In eﬀect, your time in Japan is like a blank canvas waiting for you to fill it. You have the chance to paint yourself in new colors - if you so choose. As a child and young teen growing up in New Zealand, I was extremely shy and found it hard to reach out and form relationships with people. Coming from a country where most people are gregarious and sporty, I never felt like I fitted in. With two years of study under my belt, I decided to come to Japan on a working holiday during the New Zealand university summer vacation. My Japanese tutor had arranged for me to stay with a friend of her parents, a single working woman. To their great credit, my parents never expressed any doubts about my ability to cope, even though they were worried about sending their naïve 18-year-old oﬀ to the other side of the world. My homestay host was amiable but hardly ever home, giving me the freedom to come and go at will. I found a job waitressing at a ritzy coﬀee shop in the heart of the Ginza and something just “clicked”. I made many friends with the young Japanese I worked with, and for the first time in my life, people thought I was fun! That working holiday sowed the seeds for my metamorphosis, but it wasn’t until after my marriage that I really developed into the confident, outgoing person I am today. Many opportunities landed in my lap that would never have happened in New Zealand. In an eﬀort to gain more self-confidence, I started entering Japanese speech contests for foreigners, one of which was broadcast on TV. Following this, I was asked to sign up with a talent agency, leading to 16
occasional appearances on TV shows when they wanted a gaijin to comment on something. I think I surprised myself the most when I entered a karaoke singing contest a couple of years ago. I’ve always loved singing, but as a child it was all I could do to even audition for the school choir, let alone try out for a solo part. For the Japanese contest, I was one of 12 acts chosen from among 800 to sing on the show. Singing live on national TV is not for the faint-hearted and I can’t pretend that I wasn’t a bundle of nerves. Although I didn’t win the contest, however, I certainly felt like a winner that day. Remember the mikan? As the skin is methodically removed, little by little the sweet fruit within is gradually revealed. Making your way in Japan, you may also find yourself “shedding your skin” from your previous life, just as I did. If you are open to the possibilities, you will begin to see new sides of yourself, and that can be an exciting process. Try new activities, eat new foods, make friends with people who you would never have met back home. Try to let go of that Western inclination to want the big picture all at once and enjoy the process as much as the result, and then you’ll be well on your way. Your mikan awaits. Good luck on your personal Japanese adventure!
About the Author: New Zealander Louise George Kittaka has called Japan 'home' since the age of 20. A freelance writer and editor, she has co-authored two books for Japanese parents about using English with children. She also teaches students with learning disabilities in the public school system. Louise has firsthand experience of coping with the challenges of being a 'trailing spouse', following her partner around both Japan and the USA for his job. She lives with her Japanese husband, three children and three cats in Tokyo. When she has a rare moment to herself, she enjoys scrap booking and collecting "Aliens" movie memorabilia. Recommended Resources: Living in Japan The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan Living in Japan: A Guide to Living, Working, and Traveling in Japan Joy Norton & Tazuko Shibusawa Lonely Planet Japan Or another really good guide book for travel Japan Health Handbook Meredith Enman Maruyama, Louise Picon Shimizu & Nancy Smith Tsurumaki http://www.japan-guide.com/
The Japanese Table Incorporating Japanese Food into your Everyday Life Heather Fukase The 19th century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Food and eating are an integral part of the culture of a country. Think Spain and tapas, Australia and BBQ, China and yum cha. To come to Japan and not try Japanese food is to miss out on a lot of what Japan is. Learning to prepare and eat Japanese food gives you the chance to really participate in Japanese culture the way the locals do and not in the special guest role of foreigner. Japanese food. You know, each meal consists of a dozen or more tiny morsels of elaborately arranged seafood and intricately prepared and delicately flavored vegetables served on seasonally themed, toy sized fine china. Oh and then there’s teppanyaki where the crazy chef throws food at you from behind the BBQ plate.
Well, the good news is you don’t need a culinary degree with a minor in interior decorating to cook Japanese. Oh and you probably won’t have to worry about people throwing food at you, either! Both elaborate kaiseki dinners and teppanyaki are Japanese cuisine. But that’s only a crumb on the plate of what Japan has to oﬀer. Firstly, there’s an important distinction to be made between ‘Japanese food’ and ‘food modern Japanese people eat.’ The latter includes the former but is not limited to it. Just as we enjoy cuisines from around the world in the West so too do Japanese people enjoy food from a range of countries. ‘Western’ food is so popular among younger Japanese that many children’s favorite foods are not traditionally Japanese ones. I say ‘Western’ as the Japanese term many foods Western that are truly Japanese inventions. I bet your mother never made you Omu-Rice (an omelet wrapped around ketchup-fried rice with chicken), for example, and the Japanese version of “curry rice” bears no resemblance to what you would find in India. During your stay in Japan you are going to encounter ‘food modern Japanese people eat’ so that’s what we’ll look at. Rice The staple of the traditional Japanese diet. The word for breakfast in Japanese is ‘morning rice’. Lunch is ‘midday rice’ and dinner is, you guessed it, ‘evening rice’. Not just any rice. Basmati? Arborio? Long grain? Oh no. Rice in Japan means short grain, white and, when cooked by the absorption method, slightly sticky. And it seems there’s nothing that doesn’t go with rice. Refreshing bowl of cold buckwheat noodles? Have that with a bowl of piping hot rice on the side. Not eating your rice can create problems, too. In hospital, I was pleasantly surprised to find the meals were not just well balanced but tasty, too. But rice three times a day was too much for me so I stopped eating it. On day two of this plan the hospital social worker came to visit. ‘Are you depressed? You keep leaving your rice.’ I was eating everything else on my plate. Just not the rice!
All this white rice can be a shock to the system if you’re not used to it. How on earth do you choose from ten or more varieties of what looks like exactly the same product? And at five, 10 and 20 kg bags that’s a lot of rice to get through if you buy one you don’t like. Well, shhhh, I’ll let you in on a secret. Cooked well, even the cheapest rice gets past my rice-snob Japanese husband. Does he notice it’s not this year’s harvest’s premium rice? Sure. Does he find it unpalatable? No. If you’re new to the absorption method, pre-washed rice (musenmai) is a real find. It alleviates the time and waterconsuming job of rinsing the rice until it loses its starch. This is necessary to avoid your rice coming out like glue. A must have for cooking rice is a rice cooker. The cheapest ones just have an on oﬀ switch while the expensive ones (up to 100,000 yen) will make jam and cakes for you, too! Of course you can cook rice in a saucepan but once you experience the convenience of a rice cooker you’ll love the ease and the rice-on-demand factor. Bread If you don’t eat your rice, be ready to be oﬀered bread, another “staple” food. (The Japanese are big on staples, there simply must be one at every meal.) There is a huge range of unique doughy delights here to tempt you. Rye, wholewheat, honeywheat or pumperknickel? Not a chance, but how about curry-filled, deep-fried, mayonnaise-topped or red bean? Entering a Japanese bakery can seem like you’ve stepped into Willie Wonka’s world but, if you’re a little adventurous and don’t mind surprises (‘why I do believe there’s a whole baked potato inside my bread roll!’) you can have a lot of fun exploring Japanese bread. Beware though, that addictive sweetness, that slightly gooey texture? That is the extra sugar and butter in Japanese bread and that can really add to your calorie intake. Regular sliced bread comes in 4, 6 or 8 slice packs. The slices range from thick, to ‘Oh my, is that really one slice?’ slabs. None of these really lend themselves to sandwiches as your jam gets lost in all the fluﬀy white nothingness. Most Japanese bread eaters eat their bread toasted which explains the slab like portions but doesn’t help if you’re dying for a PB&J sandwich. For that you need to find a baker who will cut your bread to order - most oﬀer this service but you need to ask.
Noodles The third staple carbohydrate is noodles. I’m using noodles here to mean what in Japanese is called men-rui. A category that includes buckwheat soba noodles, thick udon wheat noodles, ramen egg noodles, cold wispy somen noodles and even spaghetti. In the debilitatingly hot and humid summers cold noodles reign supreme. Whether it’s egg noodles topped with omelet, vegetable, and ham matchsticks, clusters of cold somen noodles served with a refreshing ginger infused dipping sauce, or a bamboo basket of cold soba, the sound of summer from Hokkaido to Okinawa must surely be the slurp of chilled noodles. Chilled noodle salad is a really easy and refreshing meal to make at home. Simply cook and chill your choice of noodles and mix with vegetables, cold meats and your favorite dressing. The cooler months see noodles served in hot broth. Toppings can be as simple as a sprinkle of nori (dried seaweed). They can be as elaborate as char siu pork, seasoned egg, cabbage, bean sprouts and negi (welsh onion). For athome winter cooking a kind of chicken or pork noodle soup with lots of seasonal vegetables and udon noodles makes a hearty, warming and, above all, easy meal. If you enjoy instant noodles Japan will amaze you. A whole aisle of most supermarkets is reserved for dehydrated noodles in every shape, flavor and variety. Impressive processing technology brings you dehydrated pork slices, wontons, whole shellfish and a baﬄing array of soup, sauce, fragrant oil and seasoning sachets. It can be more complicated preparing your instant noodle fix than cooking from scratch! Fish Having chosen your carbohydrate it’s on to proteins. You can’t get much more ubiquitously Japanese than fish. And not just fish but all varieties of seafood. If it lives in the sea you will probably find it staring back at you from the fish section. Literally staring, as the fish are often displayed whole including head and eye. If you’re used to your fish filleted (or worse - filleted, crumbed, frozen and boxed), the fish market can be pretty intimidating. I 22
discovered only last year (oh to have known sooner!) that as well as giving advice the fishmonger will de-head, de-tail, de-bone and even fillet your fish for you if you ask. Haven’t found one who’ll crumb it for me yet but I’m still looking… Sushi and sashimi are the most famous Japanese fish dishes but raw is not the only way fish is enjoyed in Japan. Some of the simplest preparations include salting and grilling (Japanese stoves tend to have two to three burners and a deep, narrow fish grill) or pan frying. Beware that not all the fish are fresh. Don’t panic - I don’t mean it’s rotten, rather that salted fish (in particular salted salmon) is very popular. Choosing fish sounds daunting but trial and error is part of the process and can uncover some real finds. Pricing in the supermarket fish section seems to have been devised by the same person who invented sudoku puzzles. There is a seemingly random division of fish into those sold by the fillet (kire) the fish (o or hiki) by weight (guramu) or by basket (ko or mori) Your best option is to just remember the phrase ‘ikura desu ka?’ (‘how much is it?’). This and a good dose of body language can really help you survive the fish counter challenge! Meat Other proteins in Japan are (thankfully!) far more familiar. Beef, chicken and pork are all readily available. Beef and pork can look confusingly similar as mince or shaved meat. Learning the shapes of the diﬀerent kanji goes a long way when it comes to sorting out your pig from your cow. An added frustration for pork and beef alike - they are sliced in a mindboggling line-up of shapes and slice-thickness, none of which resemble the great big thick steaks from home. All you need here is a little imagination or a simple Japanese cookbook (see references). Boil thinly sliced pork for a salad, throw in strips of beef for a stir-fry - and when you find a meat that works with what you cook, keep the label for later identification. A lady I know took a little notebook in which she stuck labels of foods she would like to find again. With this weapon in her purse she was invincible.
When buying meat beware - the prices are in yen per 100 grams not per kilo. Before you buy that total bargain remember to multiply the price by ten to avoid a nasty shock at the register! Soy One protein you may have overlooked until now is soy. To say that most Japanese people eat soy every day is no exaggeration. Soy is consumed as tofu, soy sauce (shoyu), miso, fresh as edamame beans and as the food famous for polarizing the foreign community - sticky, smelly, fermented natto. Tofu comes as kinu (silk) or momen (cotton). Kinu has a smoother, ‘silkier’ texture and, often eaten cold in summer, it lends itself to salads, desserts and sauces. Momen is coarser, contains more calcium and protein and holds up to more vigorous cooking methods. The other easy way to get soy protein is edamame. Cooked in the pod until al dente and served chilled and lightly salted, they are a summer staple and serve as a bar snack. A far healthier option than crisps! You don’t eat the furry pod but rather pop the beans out and (hopefully!) into your mouth. You don’t realize how moreish they are until you are confronted with a mound of discarded pods in front of you. Fruit and vegetables Whoa! Walk into the supermarket fresh produce area and there’s writing everywhere, a lot of unfamiliar products and it’s not immediately obvious which price belongs to which food. At this point I can’t stress strongly enough how beneficial it is to go shopping with a local. A friendly neighbor, a shanghaied colleague, a language exchange partner - anyone! Getting the lowdown on shopping and having someone on hand to help you find your next meal is the antidote to shopping stress. If you’re shopping alone though here are some pointers. T h e p r i ce s i g n s h a n g i n g a b o v e t h e vegetables include masses of information: product name, origin, price, brand and even recipe ideas. Shape matching the writing on product and price is a good start. If you are still stuck, find a friendly face and ask - many a good samaritan in the supermarket has saved 24
the day and taught me my spinach from my ruccola! Most of the vegetables you use will be available but there will also be some unfamiliar finds. There is a staggering array of leaf vegetables and mushroom varieties available. Many are interchangeable when sautéing with garlic or adding to soup or stir fry, so the culinarily adventurous are oﬀ to a great start. As with other food items, a reference notebook in which you can stick price stickers or labels is recommended. Dairy For a country not known for it’s dairy consumption the milk aisle is brimming with diﬀerent products. Non-fat, low fat, 1%, 2.7%, 3.6%, 4%, 100% fresh milk, reconstituted milk, UHT and ESL, JUHT, the list goes on. Many milk lovers find Japanese full fat milk has a strong and not very enticing smell to it. This is to do with the milk preservation techniques used. Trial and error is really the only way to find a milk that suits you and your all important bowl of cereal. If you want to avoid stronger smelling milk try low fat. Dry goods Most dry goods are relatively easy to decipher thanks to the pictures on the boxes. Some items you may not be familiar with but are great standbys are the roux and Chinese flavour mix selection. In cream stew, hashed beef and curry roux you sauté some meat, onion, carrot and potato, add water and, when cooked to your liking stir in the roux cubes. Voila! Stew. The Chinese flavour mixes are even easier, stir fry your meat and vegetables and add the flavour sachet to have dinner on the table in minutes. The big pictures on the box help you choose the menu. Tea Hot, cold, green, amber, dark, dried or roasted, tea is everywhere. It can be an acquired taste so it’s reassuring to know that it is quite alright to leave your tea untouched. On the other hand it has many noted health benefits that make it worth trying. Unfortunately it is also quite common for your host to decide what you will drink. This is done out of politeness - to force you to make a decision would be to inconvenience you - but takes a bit of getting used to if you have a preferred beverage. 25
Visiting in summer you will often be served cold barley tea (mugicha). Not really a tea, mugicha is a tisane of roasted barley. I was horrified to find a babysitter feeding my 10 month old “tea”, but mugicha contains no caﬀeine and is the standard drink at Japanese daycares and kindergartens. But I want my mac and cheese... Cold noodles, raw fish, soy beans? Is this all getting a bit too adventurous? The culinary equivalent of climbing Mt Fuji in a kimono while reciting haiku poetry? I’m not suggesting you try everything the day you step oﬀ the airplane. Confession time - nine years here and I still haven’t eaten soy caramelized grasshoppers. Or baby bees, fish eggs, sea slug or horse meat. People assure me that all these things are rare delicacies and that’s wonderful. They are welcome to savor my portion as well! Maybe I’ll never eat these things. Maybe I will. I like to take my cultural adventures slowly. When you are settling in to a new country, new house, new language, new lifestyle the last thing you need is to add to the sensory overload with a barrage of new flavors. Take your time and adjust at a pace you feel comfortable with. In most parts of Japan it’s not too diﬃcult to access many of the foodstuﬀs you’re used to. There are also specialist foreign supermarkets and online import stores. If you know your Japanese address before you arrive you can send yourself care packages. Especially if you have children, a box or two of their favourite snacks or breakfast cereal will not go to astray while they get used to new tastes. Making adjustments With all these options for getting the flavors of home right here in Japan why not just continue to eat the way you did back home? One reason may be the limitations of your kitchen. The average Japanese kitchen presents it’s own challenges. With no built in oven, and either a convection microwave or a diminutive toaster oven you will have to be a bit inventive. Can’t roast a whole turkey? How about cooking it in a slow cooker or ordering a precooked turkey? Lack of a full sized oven presents challenges to the baker, too. 26
I can’t bake a full sized loaf of bread or it adheres to the top of the oven. So I cook two medium sized ones instead. Pie sheets are sold half as big as I’m used to but overlap them and voila! - pie plate sized pastry. Cooking times can also be a bit diﬀerent. I find my microwave’s oven function takes longer and my oven toaster shorter than I’m used to. A little experimenting, though, and you’ll be wowing your friends and neighbors with your baked goods in no time. It’s good for you The traditional Japanese diet is low calorie, nutrient rich, high in fish and vegetables, low in red meat and transfats, high in complex carbohydrates, uses small portions and places great emphasis on variety, freshness and seasonality. Eating healthy is very easy to do in Japan with access to a huge variety of fish, leafy vegetables, soy products, and comparatively healthy convenience foods. Living in a foreign country where you can’t read the labels in the supermarket can be conducive to taking up residence in a familiar fast food chain. But, you will quickly discover that while Japanese food has a reputation for being healthy, unfortunately just eating food in Japan doesn’t make it healthy. A double cheeseburger does not magically halve in calorific value because you consumed it in Japan. Too bad! Fortunately for your waistline there are plenty of healthy options out there in the most unexpected places - your local convenience store. Rice balls (onigiri), salads, noodle dishes, fruit and tofu based desserts; many of these quick-fix treats even sport the calorie value written on the label for the diet conscious. Convenience stores and the ready-made section of the supermarket can be a great way to eat Japanese foods before you have the confidence to make them yourself. One thing you might notice the moment you enter a Japanese supermarket is the little bitty trolleys that look like they would fit one sliver of sashimi and a chrysanthemum leaf. Plastic shopping baskets fit neatly inside these trolleys, but even two baskets don’t hold the amount of food that Westerners are used to buying at one time.
The reason for this is that Japanese women are used to shopping every day, or at least a few times a week. Kitchens are small, but another reason to shop often is that the food prepared each day is at its freshest. Learn to shop the Japanese way and you’ll find that you’re naturally eating better, wasting less, and learning more about how to prepare food that does not come in a box. Eating in Season Growing up in Australia I had no idea there was an apple season - apples were available in the supermarket year round. Now, I live among people who would never eat an apple after the end of winter. It’s true, fruit, vegetables and fish do taste better in season, and you will notice that some items magically disappear from supermarkets the minute the season changes. One of the best ways to know what is in season is to head to your local farmer’s market. In country areas, small shops or stalls known as morning markets (asaichi) or direct selling points (chokubaisho) are an opportunity for ma and pa farmers to sell their produce direct to the customer. In cities JA, the National Farmer’s Union, have their own supermarkets, known as ACoop, outside which you can often find the farmers discounting their freshest wares. Prices are often ridiculously cheap and as everything comes in fresh each morning it is super tasty, too. If you travel to the countryside farmer’s markets are a great way to stock up on the local produce. Dietary restrictions If eating in Japan is a challenge it can be even more so for those with dietary restrictions, be they religious, ethical, or medical. Vegans and vegetarians will need to check labels very carefully. There is an online health food store that prints up pocket size decoders with the kanji for pertinent food additives and their English equivalent. Not drinking, especially for men, can be awkward in social situations as it goes against the group ethic. You may need to be quite insistent and ask for Oolong tea (often the only non-alcoholic option available). Allergy consciousness has improved greatly in the time I’ve been here but caution is still advised. Asking very direct questions is necessary. ‘Does this dish contain seafood?’ may get a negative response even when the stock is fish based. I have found exaggerating the seriousness of the allergy is useful for communicating that I don’t want any of the allergen in what I order.
Increasingly processed foods are labeled with a grid at the top of the packet listing whether common allergens are contained. Finding your culinary self Japan oﬀers much to the gourmand and the home cook alike. Traditional delicacies honed over thousands of years of craftsmanship and the very latest technology provide you with tasty shortcuts to a crowd pleasing, easy meal. And when you need a dose of comfort food there really isn’t much you can’t get here. You can also have the best of both worlds making foods you know and love with local ingredients. Think chicken noodle soup with udon noodles, or chilli con carne with thin sliced Japanese beef. Or put your spin on Japanese food; how about a mixed greens salad with silken tofu and balsamic dressing, baked mochi rice cakes with honey and ice cream? I’ve made cabbage rolls with Napa cabbage, added tomato and garlic to a traditional fish hot pot for a boui!abaisse style soup and even tofu lasagna. Experimenting with flavors opens up a whole new culinar y experience and will enrich your life in Japan as you learn more about where you’re living through what you’re eating. How far your eating habits are influenced by Japan is something only you can decide. But learning to eat local has benefits for your health, ease of food preparation and wallet. Start slowly, find your culinary groove and be prepared to wow your taste buds. Be it an original fusion meal at home, pointing at pictures to order from a menu, or a rice ball eaten under the cherry blossoms; sit back and enjoy your culinary journey!
The To-Do List of Japanese Food Hanami Party: Okonomiyaki: Whether in a family style restaurant where you make it yourself, or at a counter where you marvel at the technique of the master, the Japanese version of a savoury pancake is both healthy and delicious.
The staked out reserved areas, the beer, the tiny portable BBQ, the crowds, the beer, the cherry flowers, the beerâ€Ś
Pick your own fruit:
Farmers open their gates wide so you can pick apples, grapes, strawberries, nashi - all you can eat in a set time.
Izakaya: Bento: A nutritious, delicious and good looking boxed lunch that can be purchased cheaply, or created easily.
The drinking hole where you also eat food, all dishes are shared and passed around, as are the drinks, which flow liberally.
Tachigui soba: Eat a bowl of noodles standing at the counter in a seatless hole in the wall noodle shop while besuited men slurp noisily all around you.
Sushi bar sushi:
Formal or informal, having a native walk you through a couple of recipes will not only add to your culinary repertoire but provide an insight into differences in food preparation.
Sit at the counter watching a master at work turning slabs of fish into elegant and flavorsome morsels.
Kaiseki dinner: Beer garden:
Spend the night in a traditional Japanese inn and have a kimono clad server place an amazing array of dishes to treat all your senses in front of you.
Sit on top of a department store roof on a sticky summer afternoon and drink ice cold beer in huge pitchers and watch everyone let down their hair.
Department store basement food tasting: Aisle upon aisle of Japanese delicacies and very generous taste samples...
The Handy Food Glossary MEAT
SOME POPULAR FISH
Meat - 肉 Pork - 豚肉
Tuna (Fresh) - マグロ or 鮪 (maguro)
Beef - 牛肉 or ビーフ
Tuna (canned) - ツナ or シーチキン (tsuna)
Beef & Pork - 豚牛
Salmon (fresh) - サーモン (sahmon)
Chicken - 鶏肉 or 鳥肉
Salmon (salted) - 鮭 or サケ (sake)
Lamb - ラム肉 or ジンギスカン
Sea Bream - タイ (tai) Yellowtail - ブリ (buri)
Liver - レバー
Bonito - カツオ (katsuo) Mackerel - サバ (saba)
DAIRY Milk - 牛乳
Horse Mackerel - アジ (aji)
Low Fat Milk - 低脂肪牛乳
Squid - イカ (ika)
Non Fat Milk - 無脂肪牛乳
Octopus - タコ (tako)
Imitation Milk - ミルク or 乳製品
Shrimp - エビ (ebi)
Cream - 生クリーム
Clam - アサリ (asari)
Imitation Cream for whipping - ホイップ
Freshwater Clam - シジミ (shijimi)
Butter - バター Margarine - マーガリン FLAVOURING NOODLES and RICE
Vinegar - 酢 Salt - 塩 Sugar - 砂糖
Ramen - Chinese wheat noodles, mainly hot Somen - Thinner wheat noodles, usually served cold Udon - Thick wheat noodles, served cold or hot Soba - Buckwheat noodles, served cold or hot
Mirin (Sweet Rice Wine) - みりん
Pre-washed rice - 無洗米 (musenmai)
Soy Sauce - 醤油
Brown Rice - 玄米 (genmai)
Reduced Salt Soy Sauce - 減塩醤油
Cooking Sake - 料理酒 Dashi (stock) - だし Miso - 味
Grains to mix and cook in rice - 雑穀 (zakkoku) BAKING NEEDS SOY PRODUCT
Flour - 小麦粉 or メリケン粉
Momen (Firm) Tofu - 木綿豆腐 or もめん豆腐
Cornstarch - 片栗粉
Kinu (Silk) Tofu - 絹豆腐 or ソフト豆腐
Baking Soda - 重層
Edamame (Soy Beans) - 枝豆
Baking Powder - ベーキングパウダー
Soy Milk - 豆乳
Yeast - イースト
Natto - 納豆
Gelatin - ゼラチン 31
From the Author: Living in Japan for more than ten years in total as a high school exchange student (staying with a host family and eating my host motherâ€™s home cooked food), a University student living on 80,000 yen a month (buying cheap, cooking for myself and making every yen stretch), a JET Programme teacher (cashed up but living a forty minute bicycle ride from the nearest supermarket and only buying what I could carry), and now as a wife and mother cooking for my Japanese husband and our children. These experiences have taught me a lot about shopping, cooking and eating in Japan under quite varying circumstances. Recommended Resources: A Guide to Food Buying in Japan Carolyn R. Krouse Recipes of Japanese Cooking Yuko Fujita & NAVI INTERNATIONAL Stone Soup Setsuko Watanabe A Dictionary of Japanese Food Richard Hosking http://www.fbcusa.com/eng/ Foreign Buyersâ€™ Club - online supermarket http://www.theflyingpig.com Costco products delivered to your door http://www.alishan.jp/shop/nfoscomm/catalog/ Tengu Natural Foods http://www.japanese-food-for-health.com/ Recipes and Glossary of Japanese Food
Language Matters Learning Japanese and Living Life Mary Sisk Noguchi Whether you plan to make Japan your permanent home or to stay for only a year, learning to communicate at some level in Japanese will enrich your experience in the Land of the Rising Sun in ways you are now incapable of imagining. If your current plans call for a short stay in this country, and it hardly seems worth the eﬀort to dive or even to dip your feet into Japanese, I strongly encourage you to reconsider. The advantages of knowing even a bit of Japanese are endless: Greeting your new neighbors with a friendly “Good morning. It sure is hot today!” in their native language may inaugurate a friendship destined to endure even after you have left Japan. Becoming familiar with the few simple kanji written on your combination air conditioner/heater wall unit will allow you to keep your apartment at just the right temperature and humidity. If you have the elementary language skill of asking a store clerk where an item is located, and can point to the name of the item on the screen of your electronic dictionary, you will not have to ask a Japanese person to accompany you on shopping excursions. You can query another passenger - on the train you have just managed to squeeze yourself onto - as to whether it is actually going to stop at your destination. You get the picture… 33
Before you pack your suitcases Don’t be put oﬀ by naysayers who warn you that Japanese is one of the most diﬃcult languages for English-speakers to tackle. In fact, unlike many other Southeast Asian languages such as Chinese, which require challenging tone changes within words, Japanese possesses few sounds difficult for native English-speakers to mimic. Japanese grammar, while utterl y different from that of English and other European-based languages, is surprisingl y systematic with few exceptions like irregular verb endings. And the openness of Japanese to incorporating foreign words, mostly from English, means that you already know a lot of Japanese words - besides sushi, karate, and kimono - without even being aware of it. The real reason Japanese has a bad rap as “diﬃcult” can largely be traced to its written language, but there is good ne ws on this f ront a s wel l. The Japanese writing system is a sumptuous mix of meaning-based Chinese characters (known in Japanese as “kanji”), two sets of home-grown phonetic characters (hiragana and katakana), and a sprinkling of the Roman alphabet. Learning Japan’s 2,000 general-use kanji is a timeconsuming endeavor, but you can easily master hiragana and katakana in less than a month with a good pictorial system and a bit of dedication. So my first suggestion, before you pack your suitcases and board the plane for Narita Airport, is to master hiragana and katakana. You can find a wealth of textbooks available at online book stores and free online learning materials at www.sabotenweb.com/bookmarks/language.html. Embarking on your Great Japanese Language Learning Adventure before leaving your home country will reap huge motivational benefits when you 34
arrive. You will already be invested in the language learning process and primed to open your eyes and ears to the tsunami of Japanese which will engulf you when you step oﬀ the plane. If your children or non-Japanese spouse will be accompanying you, turn learning hiragana and katakana into a family aﬀair. On the ride from the airport, see who can spot the most hiragana and katakana on billboards. When you venture into a restaurant the next day, try to figure out the names of food items, many of which will be written in katakana. You are now oﬀ and running, tackling the language of your new home country! Aaargh!! Japanese, Japanese, Japanese everywhere! Even though they may be aware that English is a required subject for all Japanese junior and senior high school students, many newcomers are shocked to discover how little English is actual l y written and spoken in everyday life in this country. There are many reasons why you should bother to make the eﬀort to learn a little - or even better, a lot - of the local lingo. Towards Independence As competent adults in our homelands, we depend heavily on the printed word in everyday life. The unfortunate fact is that residents of Japan who do not speak or read Japanese, regardless of whether they have been here for a week or a decade, will be forced to constantly seek assistance from English-speaking employers, friends, relocation companies, and Japanese spouses in order to perform the most elementary of everyday tasks. Every step you take towards developing spoken and written Japanese language skills moves you closer to functioning as an independent adult in Japan. Of course you will need to depend on English-speaking Japanese people and other expats who are willing to help you as you flounder through your early days in Japan. But the longer you subsist in making do without Japanese, the harder it will become for you to see learning Japanese as a priority. You may even become conditioned to close your ears and eyes oﬀ to the language altogether, much as you do when you move to a large city 35
and eventually tune out annoying traﬃc sounds. But you would then be closing yourself oﬀ to a glittering range of opportunities which hold the potential to turn your time in Japan into much more than a tourist vacation. Enrich your time in this amazing country For those of you who are people-lovers, having even a modicum of spoken Japanese language skills will allow you to communicate with a wide range of Japanese people, of all ages-- not just those who happen to speak English. You can become friends with your neighbors, join in the local park clean-up, get involved in planning the neighborhood summer festival. If your children attend Japanese school, show up at a PTA meeting and chat with the parents at the school’s Sports Day. Spend time in the park with parents of small children, which is a great way to hear the simplest phrases Japanese has to oﬀer. It’s often said that the best way to learn Japanese is to find a Japanese boyfriend or girlfriend, but you don’t have to take it that far to have friendly and meaningful relationships with Japanese people. Even a ten-minute conversation with a colorful taxi driver can be a highly entertaining and memorable experience. Talk to as many friendly-looking people as you can, and remember that successful language learners have the ability to put their adult egos on hold as they make childlike mistakes in their target language. If you aim for perfection from the beginning, you will never open your mouth to speak, and then your Japanese Learning Adventure is doomed never to get oﬀ the ground. Many Japanese language newbies feel patronized by Japanese people when they are complimented for the excellence of their language skills, even when all they can do is manage to string a few sentences together. But remember that the Japanese are trained from birth to be polite and in particular to shower compliments freely. The comment, “Oh, your Japanese is so good” is a social lubricant comment. They are genuinely chuﬀed that you are making an eﬀort to learn a language (theirs) which they do not consider to be of much use in the international scheme of things. As you progress in your language skills, the compliments will begin 36
to fall oﬀ. This is a positive turn of events, an indication that native speakers no long feel you require encouragement. You will have truly arrived as a competent speaker of Japanese when your language ability ceases to be an issue with the person you are communicating with. Take full advantage of Japanese technology Technology buﬀs with some written Japanese skills may feel they have died and gone to heaven during their time here. The advanced functions on mobile phones in Japan are phenomenal: you can look up train schedules, make theater reservations, find a map of where you are right now and how to get to your destination, track where your children are by monitoring their mobiles, and even pay for things sans cash or credit card. Don’t be stuck relying on the small percentage of Internet resources that happen to be English-friendly. If you can read some Japanese you will be able to use the Internet to make travel bookings, look up the weather, find quick and easy recipes for tonight’s Japanese-style dinner, buy a secondhand car, find a street address by inputting the zip code, send emails in Japanese, research yakitori restaurants, and so much more. You will be able to get benefit out of manuals for unfamiliar appliances, such as toilets equipped with adjustable warm seats and bidets, one-unit washer-dryers, and rice cookers with a dizzying array of functions. And you don’t have to have knowledge of 2,000 kanji in order to accomplish this. In fact, with a working knowledge of a few basic kanji, a “recognition” knowledge of others, and the ability to use a kanji dictionary, you will be able to plow your way through a surprising amount of written Japanese material in your everyday life.
Experience Japanese culture the way the Japanese do Enjoy Japanese animation and manga in the language in which it was originally written; take a karate, aikido, judo, or kendo class, going through all the formalities the Japanese do, from a non-English speaking teacher; learn Japanese cookery not from an English recipe book but by watching cooking shows on Japanese TV; learn the art of Japanese flower arranging so you can teach it to your friends when you return to your home country. Go to karaoke and try a few Japanese songs instead of sticking to the E n g l i s h s e l e c t i o n s . Re s i s t t h e temptation to get cable or satellite TV and watch Japanese dramas and whacky game shows instead. Eat, eat, e a t , a t a l l k i n d s o f Ja p a n e s e restaurants without being intimidated by the menus. Roll up your sleeves and dig into Japanese language study A decision to make the eďŹ€ort to learn some Japanese while you are here requires the determination to take your language learning into your own hands. Here are the considerations: 1. Goals: First, set realistic, concrete goals. How much time do you have each week to devote to language study? Do you want to tackle the spoken language first and postpone serious attention to the written language, focusing for the time being only on survival kanji, or do you have the time and energy to go at both full guns? How many vocabulary items or kanji do you aim to learn each week? Do you plan to prepare for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, given at four levels twice a year throughout Japan? 2. Learning style: Success in learning Japanese, as with any foreign language, does not come in a one-size-fits-all formula. Take a bit of time to consider your own learning style. Do you learn best by listening (an aural learner, who remembers something by hearing it several times), or by seeing (a visual learner, who needs to see a word written down in order to remember it)? Do you prefer an intellectual approach, where everything 38
you learn fits into a clear system? Or are you a more intuitive learner, who can deal with the cognitive dissonance of not knowing “the rules,” learning more by acquisition than formal learning, the way you learned your native language as a child? Your answers to these questions will determine not only the kind of materials you find enjoyable and useful but also your decision on whether to join an organized Japanese class. 3. Learning plan: The first decision about your learning plan will likely be whether or not to join a Japanese class, intensive or weekly. Many cities oﬀer free Japanese classes taught by well-trained volunteer native speakers. Before committing to a class, tell the teacher you would like to visit the class to see if it fits your needs. Avoid classes which are taught in English. A competent Japanese teacher should be able to convey grammar points and vocabulary items without resorting to the students’ native language, even at the introductory level. Does the teacher focus on drills and memorization of dialogs, or more on communicative activities? Is the class at your level and move at a pace that is comfortable? These are all important considerations. While many Japanese learners find organized classes motivating, others benefit more from using the world around them as their “classroom” and meeting with a language mentor or language exchange partner weekly. A language mentor is a native speaker who provides answers to the questions you have garnered during the week about the new language you have seen and heard. A mentor is your sounding board for trying out grammar points you have studied at home. Again, avoid a mentor who speaks to you in English. A mentor could be someone you pay or someone who volunteers because they want to practice teaching Japanese without the stress of managing a class. A good mentor is someone who has the knack of speaking to you in language that is authentic, but filtered to a level a bit beyond your current level of proficiency. A language exchange partner situation can also work, (i.e., “You teach me Japanese and I’ll teach you English”), but only if there is a strict time limit for each langua ge. Mixing the two languages over the course of your time together is a recipe for 39
disaster because the person with the stronger target language skills will get the better end of the deal. Because there is no money exchanged, an exchange partner must be a person who truly enjoys speaking to you in Japanese at your level and is not just in it to practice their English. As you build your learning plan, make friends with Japanese learners coming from non-English speaking countries, who tend to already have mastered more than one language. Since they possess the tools necessary to tackle yet another linguistic challenge, it may be worthwhile to observe and emulate their approach to the study of Japanese. Practice your conversational Japanese with them, as well as with native speakers. Learning materials The next aspect to consider in your learning plan is the materials you will use. Find a Japanese bookstore with a wide array of textbooks and browse through them. Sophisticated online self-study resources are also increasingly enabling aspirants to Japanese proficiency to take charge of their own learning at home. Google “learning Japanese” to discover online learning materials, including audio podcast lessons, pronunciation aids, flashcard software, sophisticated kanji dictionaries with easy look-up tools, and much, much more. Gone are the days when foreign adult Japanese learners had to rely on Japanese children’s folktale books for reading practice. These days there are Web sites that allow you to enter the URL for any other site - or cut and paste any text, like emails - and the pronunciations (in hiragana) and meanings for every kanji in the text will pop up on your screen as you move your curser over them. An equally amazing Internet tool returns your desired Japanese URL in printable form with furigana (mini-hiragana written above the kanji) to indicate pronunciation. DVDs now come with both English and Japanese subtitles, so you can improve your reading skills with the Japanese ones. For listening practice, watch a Japanese movie first with no subtitles and then check your understanding by watching a second time with English subtitles. Good old-fashioned eavesdropping on the train is also a highly recommended and cost-eﬀective way to hone your listening skills. 40
Whatever materials you decide to use, I recommend getting a comprehensive grammar book for reference, as well as an electronic dictionary which translates words from Japanese to English and vice-versa. Make sure the electronic dictionary you purchase features a memory function allowing you to test yourself on the words you look up. A word about kanji learning Even if you decide to postpone serious kanji learning, I encourage you, from your first days in Japan, to befriend them. Keep your eyes open to kanji all around you and start looking at them as the sum of their parts. Avoid “whole-kanji” learning methods used on Japanese school children. The learning needs and strengths of busy English-speaking adults like you are diﬀerent from theirs. You are extremely likely to give up before acquiring literacy in Japanese unless you can satisfy your deep need to see order, not chaos, in kanji. Kanji-induced headaches can be alleviated by using materials that break kanji into manageable parts through a rational, logic-based technique known as "component analysis." Several excellent, widely available kanji self-instruction books employ component analysis, and reviews of them can be found at www.kanjiclinic.com. Keep a journal A journal is useful for language learners at all levels of interest, but absolutely essential for serious learners. Make a chart in your journal of the hours you are spending weekly or monthly on the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. When you hear a new word or phrase, jot it down in your journal in hiragana. If you hear it again place a tick beside it and assume it is worth committing to memory, a keeper. When you learn a new grammar point try writing a couple of sentences in your journal and run them by your language mentor. Every time language prevents you from saying what you want to say, make a note of it and ask your mentor for a solution. Write down kanji you see repeatedly in your everyday life. Practice hand writing your home address in your journal. If there are multi-stroked kanji you cannot reproduce yet, simply put those in 41
hiragana. You will be called upon repeatedly to hand write your address in Japan, and taking the necessary steps to do it early on like the Japanese do will serve as a powerful symbol of your desire to be proficient to some degree in Japanese. Keep experimenting until you look forward to learning Speaking from my own experience, Japanese is not a language you can simply “pick up.” Aside from a clear understanding that the numerous mistakes you will encounter along the way are in fact your friends, mastery of the language requires countless hours of dedicated attention. And that is why you must find a way to keep your studies enjoyable, to turn them into something you actually look forward to! If you dread studying Japanese, you are doing something wrong, so stop and take stock of your plan, experimenting with diﬀerent ways of learning. Thanks to the wonders of cyberspace, Japanese language learners have never had so many options. Finally, there is one more thing that your study of Japanese desperately needs: a personal dream, a scenario involving success with Japanese. What would you love to be able to do using Japanese? Read manga without constant reliance on a dictionary? Understand half of what your karate instructor barks out in training sessions? Obtain your daily news from Japanese websites? Write your Japanese New Year’s cards out by hand in kanji? Or simply answer simple questions posed to you by the friendly person sitting next to you on the train? Whatever it happens to be, your “Japanese dream” will be what propels you forward in your linguistic quest, whether it be minor proficiency or near-native perfection. Write that dream on the first page of your journal, hold it in your heart throughout your stay in this remarkable land, and watch y o u r Ja p a n e s e l a n g u a g e ability take flight.
About the Author: Recommended Resources: Kodansha's Furigana Japanese Dictionary: Jap-Eng / Eng-Jap Kodansha International A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar Seiichi Makino Japanese for Busy People Association for Japanese Language Teaching (AJLT) The Kanji Learner's Dictionary Jack Halpern, Editor Remembering the Kanji I James Heisig Kanji ABC Andreas Foerster and Naoko Tamura Kanji Isn't That Hard! Yoshiaki Takebe http://www.sabotenweb.com/bookmarks/language.html Everything for online Japanese language learning, including hiragana/katakana http://kanjialive.uchicago.edu/index.htm Introduction to all aspects of kanji http://www.furiganizer.com/ Easy-to-use furigana service http://www.rikai.com/ Online kanji translator, with cut and paste function for emails, etc. http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jwb/cgi-bin/wwwjdic.cgi?1C Online kanji dictionary, with a variety of look-up functions
Mary Sisk Noguchi has been living happily in Japan for nearly twenty-five years and now considers herself an immigrant. She and her Japanese husband have two teenage sons. Now retired from university teaching, where she taught English as a Foreign Language for two d e c a d e s , Ma r y h a s a l s o taught Japanese in her native No r t h C a r o l i n a . S h e i s particularly passionate about kanji, and has been writing the Kanji Clinic column for The Japan Times since 2001. Vi s i t h e r w e b s i t e f o r frustrated kanji learners at www.kanjiclinic.com.
The Flexible Family The added dimension of children in your Japanese adventure Sue Cono!y There is no doubt about it. Living in a foreign country as an adult makes you flexible. I can remember as if it were yesterday, arriving in Tokyo as a “know-it-all” nineteen-year-old. The biggest city I’d ever lived in was Brisbane (in Australia) and I felt like an ant in very tall and unfamiliar grass trying to make my way among the skyscrapers in Shinjuku. There is no doubt about it. Having a baby in any country makes you flexible. I had my first child in Australia – her birth planned for one hospital but then carried out at the last minute at another. Ideas that I thought underpinned my cement-like moral code of motherhood went flying out the window, one after the other. Living in a foreign country makes you flexible. Having kids makes you flexible. And the icing on the cake for you moving to Japan with your kids – is that children are born flexible! It takes years of eﬀort and education to make children into the all-knowing narrow-minded teenagers that they
become. In practice, living in another country gives your family the gift of a collective open mind. If this time you are spending in Japan was your own idea, then chances are you already have some idea about flexibility and how you want to express it in your life. However, if you’re being sent here by a company or have accompanied a spouse (long term or short term), whether you like it or not, you’ll be learning a thing or two about flexibility. If this is a work trip, then the company has another agenda for you that has little to do with the mental health and well being of your family. However if at all possible, it is much more productive for you and your family if you enter this new phase in your family life with your head held high. This is one of the best things that could happen to a family – living in a diﬀerent culture can be the very definition of “quality time” spent together. While everything might not always be picnics and rose buds, you really get to meet your family face to face in a way that you’ve never known them before. Whatever happens in life from now on (and however your roads may diverge as the kids get older), you will always, always have this shared experience. Albert Einstein once said “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle”. If you’re one of the believers, then you might start to ponder what miracles might await you here in this foreign land. Once you start looking out for them, they will come thick and fast. A kind stranger will chase after you in the street with your wallet left on top of the public phone. An elderly neighbour will ask you for English lessons and before you know it she’ll be your adopted grandmother who babysits your children. A sudden illness will throw you into the chaos of a Japanese emergency room and there will be a kind nurse who speaks English and lends you her own cell phone to call home. Everything in Japan will not be sweetness and light, but if you go into this experience looking for the goodness in life, it is goodness that you will find. And since your attitude is the very first thing to rub oﬀ on your kids, you’ll be the author of a happy family episode in your collective life.
Schooling Having made the decision to accept this move, many will be immediately concerned about schooling. Won’t this disrupt the kids’ education? What if they fall behind? How can we make sure the kids are still learning? The really brilliant news is that by coming to Japan, you are ensuring your child is still learning, in so many ways that they could never learn at their home school. They are learning what it is to be the new kid at school – and how to navigate personal relationships. They are learning about diversity – either by being the “diﬀerent one” in a Japanese class or by being in a classroom full of “diﬀerent ones” at International School. Even if you home school your kids may participate in extracurricular lessons (such as music lessons) where the teacher will most likely be Japanese and your kids will learn so much more than the planned curriculum. Just by walking down the street your kids are finding their place in the world, and there is no better education available. Your decision about school might be coloured by the following things: The age of your children – Little kids pick up languages very quickly, and so if your assignment is a temporary one you might choose to take this opportunity to allow them access to the Japanese language. Even though they may quickly forget upon their return, their brains will always be imprinted with the forms and timbre of this foreign language. Picking up this, and other foreign languages will be much easier later in life. Your own language learning goals – Necessity is the mother of invention, and it’s also the mother of eﬀective and speedy language learning. Put simply, if you do have kids in a Japanese school with Japanese teachers and Japanese peers with Japanese mothers, then you’d be surprised at how adept you become at using Japanese (even imperfect Japanese) to do the things you need to do to participate in your kids school life. Your kids current school track, and goals – Parents are much less likely to choose a Japanese school if their kids are at a critical stage of their 46
education in regard to certain goals and life stages at home. For instance, if a middle school child who really struggles with reading but works hard toward a certain educational goal at home, that educational goal as well as the issue with literacy may sway the parents away from Japanese school. The personality of your kids – Kids are flexible, but there are always personality issues to consider. An extroverted child would find it hard to thrive socially being home schooled. A wildly creative or very introverted child may find it hard to conform to Japanese school. Similarly a child who has a strong sense of who they already are, may not be immediately happy in a new learning environment. If at all possible it is a good idea to take a trip to the target community before making the move to see the diﬀerent school environments up close and personal. If that’s not an option, try to get in contact with other parents from the various schools through the PTA associations, or through other parenting organizations you can find on the internet. The Outside World Part of the beauty of living in another culture is that it’s not all about school. In fact, the borders between school and the outside world get awfully hazy when your kids are picking up a great deal of their useful world knowledge outside of school hours. If you limit your kids time outside – keep them on the educational “track” and spend more time doing homework than you spend living life, you are eﬀectively limiting their education so that you may as well have stayed at home. As a parent, this is your ticket to take it a bit easy on “goals” and “achievements”. You only need open your eyes to y o u r c h i l d r e n to s e e w h a t amazing creatures they are when given the chance. Friends If your kids are going to a local Japanese school then the upside of this will be that their friends are within easy striking distance of each other for play dates. The parks are filled after school hours with little kids from schools who gather for impromptu soccer games and a twirl on the tyre 47
swing. Japanese gardens are just not big enough for big kids to play – and this results in a good system of neighbourhood parks, most of them patrolled by good citizens who keep out a watchful eye. This said, there may be a certain amount of cultural diﬀerence between how much freedom Japanese parents allow their kids and how much you’ll want to be involved in this park process. If you do want to go with your kids then take a book, so you can allow your kids the freedom to play with their friends in their own way. Also, you might like to bravely set your house up as the regular meeting spot where kids “come over” to play. If your kids go to International School then be careful where you live – as it’s not always the case that the majority of the school population live near the school. In fact, some International Schools are a school bus ride away from their main population (who prefer to live convenient to work or to town). It’s not necessary of course to live right in the middle of all your kids International School friends (in fact it’s not possible, since you don’t know who your kids’ friends will be), but just be prepared to drive! If you are considering home-schooling, or your choice is International School but you still do want to be involved in the local community, then you’re going to want to make friends with your neighbours and other Japanese. Some experience diﬃculty making friends with Japanese people, but often it’s just a matter of your criterion and expectations for a “friend”. Of course, it’s not going to be like it is at home where you meet someone you like and immediately fall into a pattern of talking and delving deeper. For a start, it’s harder to talk on a deep level if there is a language barrier. For another thing, Japanese are not really used to “delving deeper”, in fact it can be quite uncomfortable for them. On the other hand, there are Japanese who really do enjoy the release of both speaking English AND delving deeper, sometimes delving deeper than you would normally feel is comfortable. This is all just the stuﬀ of friendships – the dance around each other to find what is possible and what is not. It’s OK to have diﬀerent kinds of 48
friends – meet-in-the-park friends, or language-exchange friends, or deep conversation friends, or help-me-out-in-a-tight-spot friends. And the truth is, when you have kids in Japan you naturally meet more people. My advice for you if you have kids, and you want your kids and yourself to make friends in the neighbourhood, is just to get out there. Join the neighbourhood association (chounaikai), attend neighbourhood clean-up days, do NOT miss the local neighbourhood festivals around the place (there is virtually one for every largish-sized park in Japan!), and don’t be shy when people talk to you. It’s easy to get jaded when people come up to you and speak English if you feel you are only being “used” for English practice, but try to remember that these friendships may have something to oﬀer you, too. After School Activities There really is everything (and more!) available for your kids after school. Swimming lessons, soccer practice, music lessons, langua ge schools, martial arts are of course available, but there are so many other things you may never have considered. Join a taiko drumming group with your kids for an instant rush of driving rhythm, and strong camaraderie with other drummers in the group. Take painting or pottery lessons with a local artisan. Join a Japanese festival dance group for an easy way to get invited to those neighbourhood festivals. With any of these activities it is the same – the more you get to know your neighbours, the more you find what is available. There is a whole world out there it would be just so easy to miss. Not All Picnics and Roses You’ll have your good days and your bad days in Japan – here as anywhere else. Because there is the expectation that things will be diﬃcult to some extent with the language barrier getting in the way, you can quite easily look ahead to these hard times, and not be surprised when they pop up.
However, when bad stuﬀ happens, in a way it always whips the rug out from under your feet. One minute you think you’re doing OK, and the next moment the story has changed and you’re just on the survival line. For medical emergencies, it is best to have someone you can call for help and advice. Whether this is a relocation consultant, company colleague or neighbour makes absolutely no diﬀerence in the situation where you want translation between yourself and a medical professional. There are also volunteer organizations about who will provide a medical interpreter if you only pay their transport fee to where you are, but of course in an emergency situation it is better to have someone immediately close at hand. For children with special needs, the best thing to do if possible is to find a community of people (or even one person) who has gone through a similar experience. There are of course support groups in Japan for people with kids who have various special needs, but finding someone who speaks English within such a group would be largely hit and miss. It is an issue for school as well, since private schools have the right not to accept students for whom they have no facilities to help. Japanese public schools do accept special needs kids and there are also special needs schools, but again, language is a factor. A word about babysitting here would also be prudent. Although some International School teenagers do help out with babysitting for a fee, the babysitter-for-hire concept is not very strong in the Japanese culture. It does exist as a business, but you have to drop the child oﬀ at a minding centre and it is quite expensive. Japanese people tend to rely on their families or good friends, and it is seen as a rather enormous favour in certain cases if you ask someone to babysit. On the other hand, I’ve heard of cases where foreign mothers have made an older Japanese mother-type friend who has “adopted” them as their surrogate child – and for these women babysitting is just second nature, they enjoy doing it and don’t 50
feel like it is a task. In cases where babysitting is really needed (one child is in hospital and the other one too young for regular hospital visits) there will always be a kind soul who steps up to the plate in true “it takes a village to raise a child” style. However, babysitting for trivial fun matters like a parents night out is sometimes another story, as there is a strong feeling that a mother must always prioritize her child first. Flexible as a Brick Having said that children are the perfect little flexible cultural ambassadors that we need them to be, what should we do when they most certainly are not? Kids, for their own reasons, may crunch down on a certain idea and simply refuse to be flexible, if only on principle. To avoid this happening, make sure that you give your children adequate notice and discussion time when you’re going to change something. Devote enough family talk time to the topics that most concern your seemingly inflexible one, and you might be able to dig out the root of their worries. Instead of being the big mean parent, trying to enforce your will, you’ll become the person who always has their best interests in mind. For kids, the timing of the move can be everything. If it is possible to let your children finish out one school year with their class, they will have closure with their own friends. If they start the new school year at the same time as the new class, similarly they will be at an advantage. However, sometimes when it is not possible to do either, just make sure your children know all the reasons for the move, well in advance, and also let them know that whatever hardship they come up against, you’ll always be there for them. Just as you would with any good behaviour in a child, make sure you give lots of praise where it is due as the kids adapt to their 51
new environment. When my children moved from Japanese school to International School my oldest found it easy to lose hope when her language skills prevented her from getting what she saw as a “good mark” in her science test. However, when she plucked up the nerve to join the drama club and go on stage, I was right there in the audience with my heart bursting with pride, and I let her know it. The Bottom Line When you raise your children at home, many things are taken for granted. Kids whose parents always attended private schools might always attend private schools because that’s what is familiar. Friends and family are always at hand to help make decisions. Music lessons, learning to swim, and debate club at school… these things may happen more or less automatically, as they did for Mum and Dad. The bottom line raising children in an unfamiliar environment, is that you have to learn to experience these things from scratch. Without direct access to your trusted friends and family, you are often reliant on the advice of strangers around you. However, viewed in the right light, this might be a golden opportunity for your family to get to know each other on a whole diﬀerent level. A strong and flexible family unit is the biggest fringe benefit you can expect from your time overseas. Welcome to your family home in Japan – as wonderful and as unexpected as you always dreamed it would be!
About the Author: Sue Conolly came to Japan when she was little more than a child herself, and has since clocked up about fifteen years of experience. Having worked in relocation helping families settle in to their new lives, she has also raised her own family in Japan. With one child born in Australia and the other born in Japan, her children have experienced local Japanese school, local Australian school over the summer holidays, and now, International School in Japan.
Recommended Resources: Japan for Kids: The Ultimate Guide for Parents and Their Children Diane Wiltshire & Jeanne Huey Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds David C. Pollock & Ruth E. Van Reken http://www.tokyowithkids.com Not just for those based in Tokyo, this online parent community features information and links to other resources. http://web-japan.org/kidsweb/ Aimed at school children, this informative website is a good way to get your kids enthusiastic about living in this cool culture.
Working Life Living in the Corporate Family Mike McCann Since returning to the UK, many people have asked me "What was it like to work in Japan"? To answer that question easily, I ask the reader to imagine a plate of fish and chips. A nice, stable meal that is neither spicy nor sweet nor sour, to me fish and chips is not necessarily delicious, but easy and satisfying. Fish and chips is akin to life at home. Now imagine Japanese food. Japanese food can be intensely delicious - it can have the sting of wasabi or the spice of a hot pepper, it can take your breath away with the intense aroma of yuzu, or it can disgust you with the shocking textures of raw liver, bee babies, or bird intestines. Life and work at home (the fish and chips existence) is settled, comfortable, predictable, rarely exciting and rarely horrendous - not much in the way of peaks and troughs. Life in Japan is often the exact opposite: there are frequently moments of absolute desperation and culture shock, but equally there is a richness of experience to counteract in abundance. When I was to leave for Japan many years ago for an initial contract of three years, I was given two very similar pieces of advice, the delivery of which gave me insight into Japanese culture. A visiting Japanese director 54
told me sternly "Unless you have patience and tolerance you will not last more than one year in Japan". The Japanese wife of a friend at home told me to remember "Japan is not better or worse, it's just diﬀerent". Both statements were similar in meaning, but diﬀerent in the delivery. The rather harsh words of the company director were a portent of how managers work in Japan - paternalistically reminding you that your attitude is directly related to your success or failure. Conversely, the softer advice that I got from the Japanese lady allowed me to see that everything can be seen from diﬀerent perspectives. That Japanese feminine trait of putting oneself in the other person's shoes has served me well over the years - both in Japan and back at home. Welcome to Our Family Many people will tell you that being part of a Japanese company is like being part of a family, and this is certainly true, with the "father" of each section being the manager who makes sure that the needs of his workers are met. When you arrive, you will be introduced to the departmental general manager (shitsucho) and possibly the powerful divisional General Manager (bucho). You may be pleasantly surprised to see your desk set up immaculately with all of your necessary oﬃce supplies. Depending on how busy your oﬃce is, you might also notice that all the cogs in the wheel are in place for your integration into the company - medical examinations, bank accounts, commuter passes, and explanations of company procedures. Most likely you will be treated to a welcome party (and a farewell party when you leave) and you will find people willing and open to introduce themselves to you. Typically when you are being introduced, Japanese will tell you that their English is poor, which is often false modesty. In return, you introduce yourself and say that your Japanese is poor (perhaps true if you haven't had any Japanese lessons!) and that you look forward to learning more. These are the words that grease the cogs of the wheel of your introduction to the Japanese company family. Fitting In You might be worried that in Japan you’re going to be the equivalent of a square peg in a round hole. Perhaps so, but one point is good to remember. The Japanese will neither want nor expect you to become Japanese, which does let you oﬀ the hook to a great extent, especially if 55
you are here for a shorter length of time. That said, there are things you can do to make life easier for yourself and for your Japanese hosts. One concept with which you should be familiar, is that of groupism. In the West, individual talents and achievements are celebrated. If you’ve ever walked on an elaborate mosaic floor, you may have noticed that each tile is a thing of beauty within itself. Even though the tiles work in a team to make up the picture, some tiles stand out more brightly than others. In Japan, the corporate team is more like a tatami floor. Straw is bound together, all moving in the same direction. No one strand of straw is any more remarkable than another. Patterns may exist within the straw mats, which are often bound by beautifully coloured fabric. This fabric is the decoration, like the reputation of a company in the public, but it’s worthless without a strongly bound workforce working together toward a common goal. What this means for you, is that there will be little or no appreciation of grandstanding techniques which seemed so appropriate in your home country. While you might be wanting to put your best foot forward and show your colleagues in Japan how very clever you are, it’s likely you’ll be seen as boastful or self-serving. Corporate Family Relationships As mentioned above, the oﬃce or section manager acts as a father figure in the Japanese oﬃce. The management of the department looks after not only employee’s job progress, but also personal matters, including attending weddings. I recall attending one party for foreigner visitors to Japan. The female staﬀ played their role as hosts very well, being pleasant and bombarding the visitors with insincere compliments. One guy mistook the compliments for flirting and put his arm around one of the female staﬀ. My general manger discretely called me over and asked me to separate them by sitting between the female staﬀ member and the amorous foreign guest. This was my introduction to the paternalism of Japanese company life. Another relationship worth mentioning is that of sempai (roughly translated as “mentor”) and kohai (roughly, “trainee”). The Japanese 56
concept of sempai and kohai is often depicted in movies about Japan, and one imagines that the kohai rushes about at the sempai’s feet, never able to express themselves freely because of the iron-clad rules that surround such a relationship. This is not entirely accurate, especially in the case where the visitor is foreign, however the concept is essential to know if you want to work well in a Japanese environment. For instance, when you arrive in Japan you will be assigned a supervisor who will become your sempai, it is to this person you should turn if you need advice, and it is this person you need to be most careful of oﬀending. It is especially rude to do anything that may be seen as upstaging your sempai during your time in Japan. You will learn a lot about Japanese company relationships from your kangeikai - the welcome party, which always seems to start at exactly 7pm, and finish at exactly 9pm (you can set your watch by these times). Other groups may also participate in this party, which may serve as a welcome to other newbies, or a goodbye to those being transferred out or retiring. You will be given the best seat, flanked by the most important people in the section who will be proposing the toast. A word here about alcohol - never pour your own, as this is your host’s chance to serve you. It is also your chance to serve your host. Filling each other ’s glass is the Japanese way of being hospitable, and there is a strong feeling that noone should have to pour their own beverage. Your drink will be constantly refilled, and you will constantly be oﬀered food. Flexibility in what kind of food you will eat will go a long way to show that you are willing to try new things and be culturally flexible, so try not to refuse things without trying them. Management especially will want you to drink and be merry, as it gives them the chance to assess your character, cultural flexibility, and likely suitability to your assignment in Japan. If you have had your fill of alcohol, however, it is a relief to know that even though your glass will always be filled up, it is not impolite (as it is in the West) not to drink all of what you have been given. If you are trying to slow the pace, simply drink small amounts from the top of the glass, never letting the glass near empty. This is far more appropriate than refusing the top-up. 57
In Japan parties fueled by alcohol are like stress safety valves and provide opportunities for group colleagues to resolve diﬀerences, apologize or resolve misunderstandings. Once the party is over (precisely two hours after beginning), part of the group will break oﬀ for a second party, called a nijikai. This gives those who need to go home early an acceptable “out”, while providing the honoured guest with even more merriment (and more alcohol). While the fun continues you can be sure that management is observing the personal relations that are taking place. Please be aware of the concept of TPO (Time, Place, Occasion). Japanese reserve chit-chat for lunchtime, the tearoom, or parties. The talkative foreign worker m u s t t h e r e f o r e l e a r n to c o n t r o l h i s o r h e r expressiveness during work hours. This comes as a shock to some who have been drinking with colleagues the night before, only to get “back to business” the next day with no mention of the party. Japanese workers tend to compartmentalize their lives - work, home, friends and hobbies all fall into diﬀerent categories. While you may be comfortable talking about any and all of the things in your own personal life, don’t be surprised if your Japanese colleagues don’t volunteer information about themselves. As previously mentioned, the concept of group is intertwined in all aspects of Japanese culture. Decisions are made within these groups by consensus or nemawashi (digging around the roots), not by individual opinion. The best translation we have for nemawashi is “laying the groundwork”, but in fact digging around the roots is a much better metaphor. Just as one would dig around the roots of a plant to prepare it for transplant, so will Japanese management prepare a company for change by quietly gathering support and feedback and moving the team toward consensus. Two more words with which you should be familiar are tatemae and honne. Tatemae (literally, “facade”) refers to the pleasantries that are used in daily communication to promote harmony, or “wa”. Honne (“true tone”) is the person’s sincere intention, which may be the opposite of what they have just said. In Japan loss-of-face, angry outbursts and direct confrontation must be avoided. Words are not intended to be taken at face value. One good example of this is the phrase “Please come to my 58
house”, often heard when a new boss acquaints himself with foreign workers. Be aware that “Please come to my house” is not an invitation and should taken simply as a pleasant greeting. Unless the person gives a definite day, date and time, this is not an invitation. While this may seem insincere, it is actually a sincere attempt on the part of the Japanese person to keep surface level harmony (wa) in the relationship. If you ever get the feeling that you have grown another head, or that your nose has mysteriously turned blue, it is likely that you are speaking to one of the Japanese for whom talking to foreigners is uncomfortable. Don’t worry - for every one of these there will be several more who don’t. Despite Japan’s growing foreign population, there is still the notion that Japan is a mono-cultural, mono-racial society. The Japanese who feel uncomfortable around foreigners use the word iwakan (discomfort), which when you break it down into its kanji characters implies that the all important wa (harmony) is missing from a relationship they don’t fully understand. In addition to this, all foreigners are not treated equal in a company environment. David from the USA whose company is ahead of the world in sales will be treated better than Tama from some small pacific island with a struggling economy. Of course, the concept of iwakan diﬀers between people, so it should be your aim to meet each person at their own level of comfort and work from there. Procedures and Rules In your first days at the oﬃce you may notice that if you need a red pencil, a blue eraser and an A4 sized folder there will be a form, a process and an exact delivery time. Japanese are world leaders in establishing standard operating procedures (SOPs) and outstanding customer service. However, along with respect of due process, foreign workers need to understand that respect for the law or any figure of authority is part of the Japanese culture. I recall one incident at the regional immigration oﬃce, where I observed one American yelling about his individual rights to an immigration oﬃcer. The louder he yelled in English the louder the immigration oﬃcer would yell back in Japanese. I approached the man and told him to calm down, apologize first and provide whatever documents the oﬃcial requested, otherwise the oﬃcial would wrap him in 59
so much red tape, that he wouldn’t be getting a visa extension and could be deported. He listened and complied. Within the oﬃce as well unspoken rules may apply that you had never before considered. In my UK oﬃce nobody thinks twice about somebody working with an iPod for background music - in my Japanese oﬃce this was considered extremely bad form. Although it may not aﬀect the quality of the work, it’s considered to be shutting yourself oﬀ from the group, and mixing your work and play “worlds” inappropriately. On the other hand, it is not necessarily frowned upon to sleep in meetings. Sometimes the rules can be baﬄing to understand, but with time and experience they can become more familiar. Working hours vary; generally most people start work at 8:30am and are at their desks by 8:25am. Some companies work on a system of flextime, especially in the case where a lot of international teleconferences require an early morning start. In the current economic climate, overtime hours have been reduced dramatically. While it is still true that Japanese workers work later than their Western counterparts, it is no longer the case that late nights are an assumption of working in a Japanese company. To get a sense of how late you will be expected to work - look to the boss, who traditionally goes home later than other workers, and who these days may be given the task of making sure his group does not work overtime. The appraisal / performance review process is very diﬀerent to that in the west. Whereas we are used to a process of active feedback, guidance and praise for our achievements during the year, this is not the style in Japan, where direct comment on performance seems to be completely avoided. Even though I specifically requested constructive feedback, the best I got in my first appraisal was 60
'you've done well to learn to use the new software'. Nothing was forthcoming about my actual work, my integration into the company, relationship with colleagues, or overall performance. In regard to rules outside of the company, you should know that every time you put out the trash, ride the train, or get into your car, you are making an impression. This means that if one foreigner in the street puts the trash out the wrong way, foreigners in the street will get a bad name. It also means that if you get a speeding fine, your company will lose face as you are part of their “team” in Japan.
Homeward Bound In many cases the foreign ICT will return to his or her home company and deliver the training, or implement the process that he or she was sent to Japan to study. Often the foreign worker will be used to pilot test new programs, methods or procedures in multiple countries. During these overseas business trips the Japanese mentor will take a backseat role and encourage the ICT to deliver the goods to overseas distributors or corporate aﬃliates. From my observations there are two reasons for this pilot test delivery by foreigners. The main reason is, if the program or strategy fails, especially in advanced Western markets such as USA, Australia, and the UK, since it was delivered by a foreigner the Japanese will not lose face and can learn from the experience. Secondly, the pilot test provides practice for the foreigner to improve his skills and knowledge so that on return to his home country he will be more eﬀective as a “lever” to implement and sustain practices learned in Japan.
Other foreign ICTs will not be part of any pilot program on their return. Depending on the length of stay, your time in Japan may not have even scratched the surface of whatever you were there to learn or observe. In this case, the experience itself is seen as important, where any specific knowledge or skill actually learned is icing on the cake. At the end of your stay, depending on the attitude of your superiors you may or may not be asked to prepare a formal closing presentation on what you’ve learned and how you’ll continue to work in your home country. Whatever your goal was and how successfully you achieved it, it’s likely that at this stage you are in two minds about your return home. On one hand, you’ll soon be reunited with familiar friends and loving family from home, and you’ll be in a country where the words that you speak are automatically understood. On the other hand, things will have changed for you in your time overseas. You’ll have to get used to no longer getting the “special” treatment, and it may come as quite a shock to know that not many people are really as interested in Japan (and other cultures) as you might have become. For your friends who have never left the fish and chips of home, it’s hard for them to understand where you’re coming from. In the oﬃce, you may find your colleagues think of you as “too Japanese” as you apply your new way of working to the old establishment. However, whenever Japanese workers come to visit, or live and work, you are in a unique position to understand their frustrations. Expanding your horizons in Japan - the other foreigners you meet here as well as the Japanese make you finely attuned to the viewpoints of foreign nationals working in your home country. Cultural flexibility is its own reward upon your return - life will never be quite the same as before, and hopefully you’ve internalized your experiences in Japan, taking what you’ve learned far into the rest of your life.
About the Author: Mike McCann is the pen-name of a combination of two chapter authors involved in the writing of this chapter. Both from different English-speaking Western countries, the chapter authors between them have lived more than 20 years in Japan. Both work in middle-management for major Japanese manufacturing firms, and both have experience raising children in Japan while juggling work life in a Japanese oďŹƒce environment.
Recommended Resources: The Blue-Eyed Salaryman Niall Murtagh www.niallmurtagh.info Working for a Japanese Company Robert M. March www.japan-guide.com/e/e2195.html Guide to doing business in Japan www.jetro.go.jp Japan External Trade Organization www.accj.or.jp American Chamber of Commerce in Japan
Eye of the Beholder Japanese concepts of beauty David Stones
Yomogyu. Our village name – which I first mistranslated to mean “a wasteland” – did not immediately conjure up the rural space most artists seek to live in after leaving the city behind. I was searching for the ideal big picture of green rice fields, clear streams and a permanent escape from endless concrete. Even the house location, where I planned to create my woodblock prints, also needed complex directions for me to find – up a broken path ending at the only vacant building in the village that could again be made habitable. My big picture started to change from then though – to become both a daily insight into nature’s often minute changes and cycles plus a very long construction project. In the narrow valley, from where this chapter is being written, I also thought I had experienced most of what “country life” can throw at the newcomer. I was wrong. 64
A freak rainstorm, lasting almost five hours, pounded my Japanese hometown area in the very early morning of one August, and then abruptly departed but not before it had caused a large section of a 100year old stone wall behind my farmhouse to collapse from the saturated earth and overflowing stream. At first light, in the narrow space between buildings and fallen wall, large stones and buckets of mud were hauled by hand back to the upper field from where the downpour had washed them. On the second day, at almost dusk, while resigned to more of the same the following morning, a small circle of white fluttered through the dimming light. It was, I later found out, a Firefly Moth. A deep brown, almost black shape with a white semi-circular bar on the topmost wings which, as they beat the air, give the illusion of a flying, pure-white circle. Vaguely similar to actual Fireflies, of which I have made several prints. For some moments, there was a quiet respite from the endless buckets, thanks to this visitor – soon joined by other white circles – weaving patterns over and around where the wall had been. Many people might have ignored these and just looked at the pile of earth remaining, only thinking through the narrow eyes of self. But, as one of the circles settled on my muddied shirt, a splash of bright red on the top of the head could also be seen, creating a perfection of form, color and balance. Nature’s art. My musing on this example of the real art that can be discovered here – whether amongst the human-made chaos or nature-made devastation – showed that just a speck of beauty can always be found if we look… and can revive the viewer by showing an alternative part of our world, one probably often ignored even by the local people. The opportunities to see such aspects, irrespective of the situation, cover many areas of life and places in Japan so, if the clock can be ignored for awhile, it might be wise just to take a second look as you pass on your way to somewhere. It may be the only time you pass that way too… “Yes, o.k., but so what?” some newcomers may say. We can do this in our country too. Then they might add, “How can I change my hectic life in present-day Japan for the better? With millions of people squeezed into the narrow plains next to a wide ocean or under the shadow of towering 65
mountains, where is real Japan now for me? Its art? Its nature?” And conclude with “Hasn’t all been lost below the layers of highways, the forever being rebuilt cityscapes or the always-bigger-than-the-rival theme parks?” Some of these questions were perhaps in my thoughts on arrival too, as the first sights of Japan passed by the ship I was on, as it entered the grimy docks of Yokohama. But, over time and without knowing it, I’ve lost my English viewpoint of looking at only the big picture altogether – often with its obsession, both in art and business, of deciding that what is big is best. I’ve turned my sights more to what is always here in Japan yet which few make the time or take the trouble to try to discover. I see the details, either of natural or created art, that can be found in small, yet often very refined places, which provide a subtle key to knowing what can be enjoyed and what may also help counter the stresses formed within Japan’s crowded spaces. My print subjects have developed in a similar, small-is-also-beautiful, vein. At first came complaints – f rom non-Japanese f riends – “Why don’t you ever draw the whole scene?” or “Where’s the rest of the building?” This is because I only focus on, for example, the lantern at an inn’s entrance or just the corner of a h u g e s t o n e w a l l . It i s n o t necessary to show everything to my Japanese viewers, as they can mentally add what is not there if they wish. They often know the traditional block-size limits and the earthy texture of finished prints too; even the physical size of a work ceases to be important. They also know where to find the art works they prefer and it can be this search that takes you to unexpected places… a few words of history might help understand the concept. 66
As may be known, woodblock prints were mainly for the mass market of a feudal age – a time when the high-ranking elite could invite the fine art masters of the day to paint directly onto screens or doors, while the working classes had art only from the publisher’s marketplace. The process of carving and printing from wooden blocks also resulted in such prints being classified as craft, despite the fact that the original paintings were created by highly-talented artists, but ones who did not usually carve or print anything. Working for publishers, they recorded their era in painstaking detail – whether it was the fine kimono design of a courtesan or the individual blossoms of a knurled tree. Moving on to the present-day marketplace, while I’m unconcerned about being called a craftsman, a printer or an artist, people can still be swayed by the past designations of the Edo period, and so seek Japanese art only in ostentatious galleries or in department stores of the cities here – unaware that quality works, of modern craft or fine art, can also be found in small art shops on unobtrusive side-streets. It may take a little time and attention to find these shops, but look out for them on your next visit downtown... In a similar way, and returning to those visiting Firefly Moths mentioned at the beginning, the discovery of other things that are there but never really noticed can make a memorable diﬀerence to a trip, be it near a famous temple or through seeing a roadside stone-carving that was long ago erected either as a memorial or at a place of an escape from misfortune. These discoveries, and the stories behind them, can change personal perspectives leading to an inner calm or just plain pleasure at finding what there actually is, half hidden, wherever one may travel. An example is the four kilometers from the main road to the end of my village lane, along which there are over 15 small stone carvings of guardian deities, or Jizo, a few now in a sad state of decay through age. What I always note however, is that there are often fresh flowers placed with some of them – by someone. People still care or consider that even those now often anonymous Jizo have a place in modern life. On a walk down an old highway, along its winding route for travelers on foot, you can still come across such deities by the roadside. But, did I say flowers? Once again, we may see a vast diﬀerence from the bunches of color used to decorate houses and shops outside Japan. Here, by my lane side, there may be only one flower to accompany a deity. It is the same within a house, where one fresh and neatly arranged bloom with a little greenery, is carefully set in its miniature vase for the 67
appreciation of residents and guests alike. Whether it be in a room for a grand tea ceremony or on the counter of small traditional restaurant, the same care and thought are given to season and to the choice of just one flower. Observe when you can… Visiting well-known shrines or temples is usually included as part of a Japanese tour itinerary, but if there is time to escape the souvenir stalls or the tour guide’s pressing need to force as much into the day as possible, it is a contrast just to slip behind the buildings and search for what lacks in any guidebook. Look upwards at the layers of trimmed bark creating some roof curves, or take in the nearby roof-tile work, noting the family crests molded into some of the tiles – feel the weatherworn, grained wood of a veranda floor. It may take luck to find what is never advertised but it could be around the next corner. The hustle and bustle of people can be overwhelming at tourist sights too, yet it is possible to sit down and look at things in relative quiet. Just by stepping away from the guided crowds and walking in the opposite direction for awhile, one can return in imagination, or to actually see in some places, the view of a time before the air-conditioned tour buses came. From an artist’s standpoint, this is the only way to visit anywhere, on or oﬀ a tour route here. Should you take up one of the myriad of arts that still thrive in our computer-addicted age, this might also require a change in both attitude and patience. A first lesson could come as a surprise and the gradated pace of learning will soon show there is no quick way to becoming an instant clone of the master. It can be a long haul, yet just like searching for the smaller wonders along a path, gaining an artistic skill can be satisfying as well as a good way to see actual art c r e a t i o n . Fo r m e , w h o f i r s t t o o k a s i x - y e a r apprenticeship and then worked at the trade of typesetting for mechanical printing in England, I found that for woodblock print subjects I needed to re-learn how to draw directly from nature. And, the first subject when given this chance to study from a traditional Japanese watercolorist, was a dark green pumpkin… followed by a Chinese Cabbage cut in half. Such challenges were not just artistic but also informative as I began to find out what the teacher, sat in formal 68
style on the floor across the table, was seeing – and what I was not seeing at all. At times, pencils, eraser and re-drawing were replaced by brushes, to show that a whole design can also be done in a few careful strokes. Therefore, to take up an art, after being forewarned to have a wider view of things (plus a good amount of patience) is one way toward understanding so much besides the medium itself. Choose carefully though, and most importantly, ignore the hands of the clock. My print-teacher’s workshop was littered with the unfinished blocks of previous non-Japanese students – some fine cherry wood, left warping into waste. Why did many give up? “Too big, and in too much of a hurry,” were the cryptic comments of the full-time apprentices. These Kyoto-born artisans were disciplined to print a high number of impressions of the studio’s art each day, before concentrating on their own, usually smaller pieces; they also had to remain silent while working, plus not ask many questions to their seniors – just observe, and gradually master what was needed. “Too big” therefore meant the would-be printer had started with the biggest blocks available – instead of postcard-sized study-pieces. “In too much of a hurry” indicated that the drawings had not been well thought through or the impatience to actually start printing had taken over. Both these errors resulted in disaster. My own brochure, that introduces my art and describes how to visit where I work, states “trial and error gave much experience” which is very true – but it also trained my eyes to look at things from completely diﬀerent angles. At times I caught sight of what could not be taught and then became able to seize on those few seconds of a certain view that both give the clear idea for a work as well as 90% of the details that will add life to a piece of printed wood. How all this information is mentally absorbed in such a short time is a question for others to answer, but for me the experience happens often. With so much artwork here that has been created through a long history of cultivating subtle observation, and with so much input from the natural world, everyone may be just a few steps away from both excellent art and interesting contrasts. The skill is to learn how to spot a great exhibition from the seemingly mundane and to see the seemingly mundane as a great exhibition, one that must be visited. 69
With that in mind, and for those on a quest to find things never included in any big picture here, I must add that even though all experiences will be diﬀerent, the basic idea might be said to try to absorb more from the immediate surroundings or people instead of trying to project oneself onto them. It has been my good fortune to meet and talk with not only local artists but also with probably some of the nicest country folk, in the figure of the farmers now gone. I didn’t need a tour guide to help me see the real Japan – these people were my real Japan – as I found out through both diﬀerences and understandings of our points of view. Whether it was the re-covering of paper doors (in their eyes just an annual chore anyone could do, but which I grandly described as a skill in creating subtle contrast between aged wood and crisp white paper) or chiding me for complaining about the view ruined by ugly utility poles (which they thought a wonderful addition, the ugliness balanced by electricity and light). Conversations started whenever we met, whether in front of an idyllic, wood-frame farmhouse (which they dismissed as uncomfortably cold and drafty) or next to some discarded hanging lamps (interesting print-subjects to me, messy and hard-to-clean memories to them) stored in a traditional earth-walled and tiled storehouse (which they would like to demolish as it “might be troublesome” for future generations to repair – but which I sketched in the hope that the very same future generations might conserve it)… So many diﬀerences and contrasting aspects, ones not recorded in photos or prints, have been added to my days just through observation, often in obscure places. An on-going journey with much still to be found…
More words from the author: Maybe I was lucky... Before coming to Japan, many years ago, I travelled alone overland from country to country, and then by ship, to places hardly mentioned in my native England. Leaving Europe, border-crossings presented the urgency of finding where to eat or where to stay. Language skills were replaced by observations soon becoming sharper and more detailed. Along the way, a little of the local cultures was added. An image on a sign, a statue, a window frame. Fascinating and absorbing but also the way to retrace steps to find somewhere... experiences that became reflected in my printwork. The "big picture" of seeing things is long gone - replaced by noting the "small" images, found almost everywhere... if we take the time to look.
More art as seen in this chapter can be found at David Stones’ website: http://home1.catvmics.ne.jp/~dvs4hanga2/ or by searching “David Stones” on this website: http://www.uniquejapan.com/ Photographs in this chapter and some in other places in the book come courtesy of Susanne Bund. More of her work can be seen at: http://web.me.com/subund
Fertile Ground Growing your way when things arenâ€™t going your way Ji!ian Mickleborough-Sugiyama Welcome and Yokoso my fellow explorer! While I hope this chapter finds you nestled in a cozy place of contentedness and belonging, I know you might be frantically flipping though these pages because something about your life situation has become intolerable. This challenge might be related to your being in Japan: Without a doubt an international move coupled with adapting to a new culture can be extremely stressful. On the other hand, perhaps your struggle has nothing to do with your physical location. The hardships of life such as health issues, relationship breakups, the loss of a loved one, and financial crunches are without borders. Rather than providing you with a list of resources to contact or randomly picking challenges you could be facing, Iâ€™ll describe an approach that, with some self-observation, you can rely on wherever and whenever you are feeling discontent in your life. To illustrate how this approach has unfolded for me, I will use some of the personal challenges I have experienced while living here. This framework will help you to determine what type of action will be authentic and reflective of your integrity, the values and principles by which you live your life. My sincere hope is that this simple approach helps you to take root and flourish where you now find yourself planted even if it presently feels like a harsh and infertile terrain. I replanted myself about 20 years ago when I left a promising but deeply unsatisfying career as a lawyer to move to Nagoya. My motivations were to seek adventure and to finally feel at home with my self. I will never be 72
sure whether it was a premature mid-life crisis or an extremely delayed adolescence. I do know I yearned for wanderlust and a place to live the life I yearned for rather than the life I had learned as a child. Something within me knew that through exploring the world I would be exploring myself and I would eventually feel the sense of belonging that accompanies a strong self-connection. During one of my last dinners in the lawyer’s dining hall I had an existentially tinged conversation with an associate a few years senior to me. With deep resignation he confided, “I am so envious of you. You are living out my fantasy. But unlike you I’ve got way too much responsibility to just pick up and leave. You know, a mortgage, married, and, hopefully, a few years from being oﬀered a partnership here at the firm.” I bravely queried, “Perhaps your sense of responsibility is mislocated. If it isn’t you, exactly who is responsible for your life?” Equipped with courage as my motto, my Frankl-like attitude, and two suitcases, I boarded the plane for a one or two year adventure that has since become half a lifetime. I wonder, what brought you to where you are right now? What philosophy or guiding principles toward life did you pack alongside your toothbrush, clothing, and mementos from home? Do those principles continue to work well for you? Is it time to revise or refine them? Perhaps, as it eventually did for me, Japan can pro vide you with an entirely new perspective from which to use those principles. It wasn’t too long before I realized that alongside my Frankl-like attitude some hardy weeds of self-doubt had also found their way into my suitcases. Within weeks of arriving in a cold, wet January I lay freezing inside my futon, paralyzed with a combination of fear, regret, and guilt. “Have I done the right thing? Did I actually just chuck a career that promised to pay the way for a lifetime of retail therapy? Will I actually find what I am yearning for here? What the heck am I yearning for anyway?” There was the echo of my distraught mother’s voice, having witnessed the chaotic results of yet another childhood eﬀort to satisfy my insatiable curiosity, demanding to know, What the hell have you done now? This time around, rather than answering my mother, I was left with 73
answering my own question, the one I had posed in the dining hall not too long before about who was responsible for my life. And so the real journey began. It wasn’t just Japan that I would be exploring. If I were going to get myself out from under my futon I would need to explore in more detail than I had anticipated the very question that initiated my journey. It doesn’t matter whether you spend a lifetime in therapy or have a brief yet profound insight toward a current struggle; if you want to take responsibility for your life there are only three options. You can choose to either change the situation, remove yourself from the situation, or accept the situation in its totality. While it can be said for any physical location, which of these three approaches you adopt will result in an entirely diﬀerent experience of Japan. When I think about these three options, I often recall the first verse of Reinhold Niebuhr’s popular Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the diﬀerence. As you contemplate your current struggle and how you might best approach it, take some time to evaluate if the situation involves something you realistically can or cannot change. During your evaluation keep in mind that while your ego might fantasize about everyone else changing in order to meet your needs (e.g., thoughts such as “if only she would…” or “ if he would just…” or “if the Japanese would just…”), true self-responsibility involves recognizing that you can only change your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and not those of others. You might want to consider tackling this evaluation with a trusted friend, spiritual advisor, or counsellor. What you are looking for is a new perspective, not a confirmation of an existing one that no longer works for you. Your evaluation might result in you trying a new approach to a familiar problem – something you may not have done before, or examining the origins of an approach usually taken and no longer found to be meaningful or eﬀective.
Remember there are always options. The brilliant family therapist Virginia Satir noted that you need three options in order for there to be real choice otherwise you place yourself in a dilemma inherent in either/or choices. When tapping into your creativity and coming up with your three options, notice if you find yourself using the words “I can’t …” and see if they might be better substituted with “I am not willing to …”. Ask yourself if this unwillingness demonstrates a lack of flexibility or whether it is reflective of your integrity. If your answer indicates a lack of flexibility you might notice areas that deserve further exploration. For example, what is it you are trying to protect? Would it be possible to try something diﬀerent? What might happen if you did something diﬀerently? What would you be risking? Conversely, if the unwillingness speaks to your integrity, what value are you seeking to preserve? Either way, you will get a better sense of who you are at this particular moment in time and whether or not the challenge you are currently facing is something within your power to change. Several of the initial challenges I faced in Japan were related to things I simply could not change. There were so many cultural adjustments to make, be it learning Japanese, adjusting to a new set of behaviors, deciphering unfamiliar non-verbal cues, or not being able to find the tastes or scents of home. It never occurred to me that I would get so homesick! Given how much I prided myself on being adventurous, admitting I was homesick was equivalent to a failed expedition. For me, a middle-class WASP, what paled in comparison to all of these adjustments was the humbling experience of finding myself a part of a minority culture. I was acutely aware of this when I was either immediately disliked or conversely the object of adoration based not on my reputation, good or bad, but on my culture of origin. I was also frequently shocked by the wild-haired, wide-eyed, ghostly appearance that was reflected back at me in mirrors. It seemed so unpolished and clumsy compared to that of my more refined Japanese sisters. Of course, walking around my friend’s house in toilet slippers didn’t make me feel particularly sophisticated either. But there were nuggets in all of this for me. Accepting that it was unlikely that I could ever convince the Japanese to give up their language or kanji in favor of English or romanji, I challenged myself to learn enough of the written and spoken language to describe myself as semi-literate. Along the way, all those social and verbal blunders contributed towards 75
making me a reformed self-perfectionist. It was very liberating to once again learn how to laugh at myself - something I could never do in my Junior High School French class. Living here has presented me with many opportunities to draw on courage as a starting point for changing my situation. I soon discovered that loneliness and isolation, which I had not intended to pack in my suitcase, had become my unwelcomed traveling companions. What was it that I kept repeating in my thought patterns or in my personal relationships that resulted in these two less than inspiring companions joining me in my journey? This process involved a lot of self-exploration and discovery and I am grateful to say that when these two grim-faced fellows show up on my doorstep I am much quicker at sending them on their not-so-merry way. It is really challenging to ask oneself, How it is that I am contributing to my own misery? There is always the risk that such an inquiry might lead to further self-blame. However, if you can successfully avoid that pitfall you will find very fertile ground for new approaches to the challenges you are experiencing in your relationships with others. For myself, I noticed how some of my verbal and non-verbal communications had the tendency to give others the impression I was not interested in getting to know them better. I also realized that many of the very things I did to maintain the illusion of connection to others, such as people-pleasing, pacifying, and denying my feelings actually made it impossible to create any real connections with anyone. It eventually occurred to me that I epitomized the Western ideal of independence and self-reliance. Much to the discomfort and shock of my Japanese acquaintances I did almost everything alone: live, travel, work, and eat. Until I got here I thought my focus on individualism, independence, and separation from the group was synonymous with health and well-being. My time orientation was also decidedly future-focused unless of course I was lost in the quagmire of my p a s t . L i v i n g i n a co l l e c t i v e l y b a s e d c u l t u r e t h a t v a l u e s t h e interconnectedness of people and has a time orientation that is often focused on being rather than doing has provided me with wonderful opportunities in which to learn and grow. 76
Lucky for us, most Japanese are incredibly generous when it comes to providing non-Japanese with a warm welcome and greatly appreciated living assistance. These same people are usually delighted to introduce and share Japanese culture with you. I finally started accepting some of those invitations my Japanese acquaintances made. This process helped to reawaken the curious and adventuresome elements of my true nature, the ones that brought me here in the first place. For those who feel reluctant to depend on others, Japan is a wonderful country to rediscover trust in humanity. Most Japanese take their commitments, even minor ones, very seriously. A Japanese will rarely leave you in a lurch. Reconnecting to what has always been personally meaningful is crucial when life throws us a challenge. I found trips into the mountains were particularly refreshing for my nature-loving Canadian soul. Gradually, I began to explore more of what the foreign community had to oﬀer other than drinking at the local gaijin bar or complaining about all those cultural adjustments. While letting off some steam and having an empathetic listener has its benefits, too much whining and moaning can result in a negative frame of mind becoming the narrative of your life. Once this script is written it becomes hard to see or do anything diﬀerently. I recall going through such a period during my third year here. This is the exactly the time I needed to evaluate what I could change, what I must leave, and what I needed to learn to accept. Lastly, don’t forget there is also a great deal of talent and oppor tunity within our smal l community. What is it you are interested in doing or have to oﬀer as a service or as a volunteer? Start asking around and I am sure you will find some interesting and rewarding opportunities. While being here I noticed my habit of relying on the more active approaches to a struggle: change it or leave it. I was confounded by the Japanese ability to so readily accept situations. The expression shikata ga nai (“nothing can be done about it”) would release a torrent of rage or frustration in me. I understood acceptance or surrender as a form of weakness or resignation. At some point I began to see a Western, and might I add masculine, bias in my thinking. I had a clear preference for focusing on action and devalued the other half of that duality, namely surrender, as a potential resource. All too often this resulted in the launch point of my course of 77
action being one of negativity. It did not allow me to explore the rich learning terrain surrendering to a situation oﬀered. My “aha” moment came when I finally understood at the very core of my being that accepting something doesn't mean liking it. It means recognizing that taking action may not always be possible or in my best interests and when choosing to take action I must first be confident that I am not doing so from a place of negativity. One of the most diﬃcult moments in my life here involved the stillbirth of my son’s twin, Naomi Joy. Sixteen weeks into my pregnancy things began to go seriously wrong. I ended up being hospitalized and on bed-rest for nearly all of the remaining 20 weeks of my pregnancy. For most of this period I knew I would be bringing home my son in a reverse-facing child-seat purchased from Toys R Us and my daughter on my lap in a yellow lace-frilled casket supplied by the hospital. I was acutely aware that this was the most unbearable moment in my adult life. Through this segment of my journey, on a train I hadn’t planned to catch, I would have to find some balance between the polarities of joy and sorrow. I would have to learn to surrender to my suﬀering. Earlier on in this chapter I quoted the first verse in Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer as a way of illustrating the options you have to life challenges. The second verse in the prayer is less well-known but no less important: Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; In the hardship I was facing I knew there truly was nothing I could do to change my situation, nor could I remove myself from the situation. I could only accept my here and now totally by dropping all resistance to it. In dropping the resistance to it I did not feel miserable, resentful, or sorry for myself. Instead I surrendered to the moment of great sorrow and accepted that sorrow in its entirety. During that very painful period I became acutely aware of what was of great importance to me, particularly becoming more present in my daily life. I learned gratitude, compassion for myself and others, the importance of self-care, and that life is always in a state of flux. I also clarified my values and my commitment to my 78
children. At our ohaka, family gravesite, we now have a jizo, a bodhisattva who is the protector of children. Each visit to our ohaka provides me with a reminder of what I learned through my suďŹ€ering. It may be that you have received some devastating medical news about yourself or a loved one, or perhaps a special person is now gone. I urge you to accept the torrent of feelings you may be experiencing in their totality. Name each one of them. Let yourself know it is okay to feel the way you are feeling right now. Accepting rather than resisting your feelings will help you move through this period of transition and enable you to eventually arrive a place where there is valuable learning, growth, understanding, and peace. I sincerely hope your time in Japan provides you with numerous occasions to explore the richness of your human experience. Keep your eyes open and you will discover opportunities where you can think, feel, and do things a little diďŹ€erently. When you do experience a situation as unbearable, remember only you are responsible for your life. Gently remind yourself of your three options: change the situation, remove yourself from the situation, or accept the situation in its entirety. Grasp those opportunities to make choices that accurately reflect these options and the learning, growth, and understanding inherent within them. In doing so, your sojourn in Japan will result in unearthing new seeds of wisdom or causing a shift in perspective that enables you to tend to your struggling garden in a refreshing and life-aďŹƒrming way. Taking time to nourish the learning that exists in every lived experience will result in knowing that any ground can be fertile - and you will indeed have arrived home. Blessings in your journey!
About the Author: Jillian Mickleborough-Sugiyama, is a Canadian citizen and long-term resident of Nagoya. She spent the beginning years of her career working as a lawyer and later consulting with culturally diverse clients of all ages, before completing her Master of Counselling and establishing herself in private practice. Her goal is to provide her community with services that facilitate change through competent counselling, group therapy, organizational consulting, and social advocacy. Jillian lives with her Japanese husband, two children, and loyal canine companion Chester. When she isn’t learning more about what has recently peaked her curiosity, you’ll likely find her enjoying the outdoors with her family. Details about Jillian’s work can be found at her website: www.lifematters.jp
Recommended Resources: Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, is an inspirational gem. This quick read oﬀers an amazing account of Frankl’s life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Drawing from his own experience, Frankl concludes that our primary drive in life is the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful. He proposes that while we cannot avoid suﬀering we always have choice: We can choose how to cope with suﬀering, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose.
For an entertaining and accessible approach to dealing with your nemesis, I highly recommend Taming Your Gremlin by Rick Carson. Another wonderful resource is Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns. These self-help classics provide easy to understand and incorporate techniques for living your life free from anxiety, guilt, pessimism, and low self-esteem. Both books are excellent resources for monitoring and finally coming to terms with negative self-talk. If you have been feeling despondent for more than two weeks or are currently struggling with suicidal thoughts, I urge you to speak to someone you trust, or contact the Tokyo English Life Line (03-5774-0992) to speak to a volunteer crisis counsellor, or better yet to ask for a referral to someone in your area for face-to-face counselling. The remarkably sensible book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges is an excellent read for coping with the inner reorientation and selfredefinition caused by life transitions. Bridges describes the three stages of major life changing events and how to gain the most from the process of transition. The message in Ekhart Tolle’s profoundly accessible and insightful book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightment is simple: Living in the now is the gateway to enlightenment, happiness, and joy. In a clear writing style, Eckhart describes several tools for getting connected to this moment in time and freeing yourself from the thoughts and emotions that get in your pathway to peace.
Harmony Moving in Circles Rebecca Otowa
No man is an island, entire to himself. John Donne
Japan is like a huge ocean of the unknown to a gaijin (foreigner) who has just come to live here. Society, culture, customs are as weird and inexplicable as the language, and life can seem unbearably diﬃcult. But take a deep breath – within this ocean of weirdness is something we can understand, if we know how to grasp it: the continent of the human heart. We are surrounded by people just like us; they suﬀer and rejoice and endure and relax as we do. These points of common experience can help us to scale the wall of diﬀerence, let in some new ideas, and find a deeper understanding of them and also of ourselves. In this way, becoming friends with people in Japan can be especially rewarding. What are the forces that drive the human heart? They are probably diﬀerent for every person; in the same way, we can imagine diﬀerent forces driving diﬀerent nations and cultures. For example, countries like the United States and Australia are founded on rock-bottom ideals like 81
freedom, justice, and individual accountability, while in countries with a long history, like Italy and China, the sense of antiquity, nobility, and immortality lives on in the heart of every native, and colors national experience. In my thirty years of living in a rural village in central Japan, I have noticed how the people around me deal with the universal conundrums of human life. I’ve concluded that the heart of the Japanese people is based on a search for harmony. (One of the ancient names for Japan, Yamato, may be translated “Great Harmony”.) What is harmony? It is the resonance created when two or more elements contribute and blend their unique qualities. Think of a violin – the strings are all tuned to diﬀerent notes, but when two strings are played together, something entirely new and wonderful arises – a product of these very diﬀerences. If we are making a conscious eﬀort to think of Japan as home, we might begin by exploring the deep importance of harmony to those around us. It results in a very diﬀerent type of society from the ones we might be used to. The harmony at the core of the Japanese heart has four main elements that lead into each other in a kind of circulating energy. First, there is harmony with the gods. The ancient Japanese believed that many gods resided in nature, and that these gods were well-disposed to humanity, providing welcome gifts such as bountiful harvests. Even today, the people instinctively respond to nature with gratitude for a good, rich and peaceful life. Gratitude fuels the second element of harmony, which is the energy to make an eﬀort for the good of the group, among family, friends, or fellow workers. When people are exerting themselves in a common cause, they come to feel each other’s problems and pains, leading to the third element: harmony with other individuals, such as sympathy or fellow-feeling. When the exertion is done, people seek to renew themselves with pleasurable activities such as eating, drinking, bathing and so on. Comfort, bringing the body once more into equilibrium with the environment, is the fourth element of harmony. From comfort and pleasure arise gratitude, and the cycle begins again. Of course, we must remember that harmony is an ideal, and as such can never be wholly realized. I think that unhappiness and frustration for Japanese people 82
arise largely from the failure of harmony, much as our unhappiness may arise from a sense of confinement or injustice. As a foreigner living in Japan, if you find yourself part of a Japanese group, in the workplace, neighborhood, or learning establishment, you may notice and wonder about some behaviors like the following. Inexplicable as they may seem at first glance, when we add the insight of harmony, they are more easily understood. Why don’t they express themselves more confidently? It can be irritating to us when our Japanese colleagues seem to look around almost guiltily before airing opinions. These people don’t like to put themselves forward in group situations. In a meeting, the leader may ask if there are any questions, but the questions will be asked not in front of the group, but later, one-to-one and oﬀ the record. Also, it’s not unusual for a group of people eating lunch together to all order the same thing, to minimize diﬀerence and thus potential discomfort for any individual. Why don’t they acknowledge my emotions? It’s almost a cliché that Japanese are stoic and unemotional. I don’t think so – in my experience they are quite sensitive – but they conceal their emotions for fear of being the one to upset the harmony of the group. Emotions, like questions and opinions, are not for public display. There is a certain mild, polite way of beha ving in group situations which everyone relies on to keep the peace. This is called tatemae, or “wearing the mask”. Gaijin can only rarely experience the other side of the coin, which is honne, or “real feelings” – commonly understood to be negative: frustration, anger, meanness, etc. Once, after a bad day in my teaching job, I gave vent to tears at my desk in the teachers’ room. Not one of the other teachers expressed sympathy of any kind – they totally ignored me. How cold and cruel, I thought then – but later I realized that they were unsure how to handle this outburst, which they would never have given vent to because it would damage the feeling of workplace harmony. Why are they always bowing, reeling off set greetings, and exchanging gifts? Every Japanese person carries two ledgers around inside his head. One is the ledger of hierarchy. It’s vital to them to know 83
where they stand in relation to others – the entire language is laced with words that elevate the other and debase the self. The social hierarchy is based on criteria like age, experience, education, standing in the workplace, and gender. Most societies with a long history have these systems, which are eroding only slowly as the modern world takes over. The other ledger is the ledger of balance. Your Japanese colleagues must keep track of everyday human give-and-take, to preserve the balance of relationships. This can be hard to get used to for more free-wheeling, impulsive Westerners. E v e r y f a v o r, e v e r y g i f t , m u s t b e remembered and returned. There is also the matter of greetings. You may notice that your neighbor or colleague greets you in exactly the same way every day. These set greetings (aisatsu), and there are dozens of them, are a medium of exchange and balance. They may seem boring, unvarying or even insincere to us, but these “polite noises” comfort them and assure them that the situation is manageable. Making the eﬀort to learn and use these greetings yourself shows them that you are willing to contribute to the group harmony. Bowing is a little trickier – there are many diﬀerent levels of bow – but again, your sincere eﬀort will be appreciated. A few words about being a good neighbor in Japan might be useful here. First, know that there is no word in Japanese for “privacy”. Since they don’t have such a concept, they tend to use physical barriers, such as frosted glass, walls, and shrubbery, to protect their own privacy. They are often openly inquisitive about others, however. There is no concept of “mind your own business” here either. To say such a thing would be considered the height of rudeness. Don’t be surprised if your neighbor knocks on your door to inform you that it’s raining and you’d better take in your laundry. How nosy, you might think – but it’s helpful to interpret it as that they are trying to include you in the circle of neighborhood harmony. Next, take neighborhood obligations seriously. Know the rules pertaining to your trash collection, and observe them. Keep the noise down, especially in the evening. Respect boundaries and keep your own property tidy. You will be surprised at how much time your neighbors will spend sweeping and tidying the visible parts of their house and yard, not to mention participating in organized general cleanups of public spaces. 84
Without succumbing to paranoia, you will make a good impression if you do your part. It will pay dividends later when you may want your neighbors to do something for you. Now let’s talk about relationships with individual Japanese people. Making friends here can be diﬃcult, because expectations of friendship, especially at more superficial levels, are very diﬀerent from those of Westerners. Of course, once we go deeper, these friendships are just as rewarding and lasting as any we make with people of our own culture, with the added bonus of being able to glimpse an entirely diﬀerent worldview from the inside. But at first, there are those troubling diﬀerences to overcome. In a budding friendship in our own culture, we may expect to shine, to put for ward our individuality and have that applauded and appreciated. In contrast, Japanese base their friendships on what makes them the same. General topics such as favorite restaurants, movies and TV, and common experiences such as childrearing and work, will form a much greater part of conversation than, for example, politics, religion or personal opinions. Even jokes are not often exchanged – I’m not sure why, unless it is because they don’t want to exclude anyone through misunderstanding. The flip side is that every Japanese lives in terror of being excluded (nakama-hazure) from their group. In order to avoid this they will sacrifice their own feelings and opinions to a degree we can’t really comprehend. Pay attention to these points in a friendship with a Japanese person: * Don’t expect to share confidences right away. * Preserve balance – do the greetings, keep track of favors and gifts. * Don’t brag about your life. It’s considered polite to belittle one’s own achievements or family. * Be aware of diﬀering priorities. If you are miﬀed that your friend didn’t attend your party, consider that they may have had a family funeral and felt shy about telling you. * Laughter can signal nervousness as well as humor appreciation. * It’s more polite to accept invitations and cancel later than to bluntly refuse.
* Men – be prepared to drink. Alcohol is the lubricant of male society. There is no social stigma attached to drunkenness. * Remember they may be a bit scared of you. You are an unknown quantity, and nothing fills them with more trepidation. Who knows what you’ll do? Give them time to decide they can trust you with deeper friendship. Since you are an unknown quantity, they may be apt to put you into a pigeonhole of their own. “English teacher” is a common one. You may find yourself entering into agreements with Japanese people eager to practice their English, such as “swapping” lessons (I myself used to swap English lessons for piano lessons). Sometimes real and lasting friendships begin in this way. Finally, a few words about making friends with other gaijin may be in order. A lot has been said and written about the various levels of understanding of gaijin vis-à-vis Japan. For example, you may have reached a level that allows you to enjoy a visit to a hot-spring public bath with your workmates, whereas your new gaijin friend, just “oﬀ the boat”, may think that is really weird, and that makes you weird by association. Conversely, you may meet a foreigner who thinks that only he can really understand “his” Japan; he might be standoffish, thinking you are trespassing on his turf. These kinds of diﬀerences must be taken into account if a friendship is to go smoothly. It’s not for nothing that most foreigners begin their conversations with “And how long have you been in Japan?” – and the most easygoing foreigners will often be the ones who reply, “Oh, going on thirty years.” Why do gaijin want to be friends with other gaijin? To remember their own culture and feel comfortable with people who speak their language and behave and react in familiar ways. But foreigners have a kind of psychological freedom in Japan (it even has a name, “gaijin ticket”) and a lot of them feel drawn to reinvent themselves for the duration of their stay here. Finding the “real” person underneath the living-in-Japan mask may take some doing. On a day-to-day basis, be aware that life in Japan is, for most people (Japanese and gaijin alike), crammed full of incident and obligation. Free time is at a premium, and your friends will likely have to juggle priorities to schedule time for fun. Everyone is so busy!
We may wonder how long our friendship will last. Most foreigners are not planning to stay here forever; in fact their time here may be limited and indeed already decided. It can be a real wrench when a good friend leaves Japan. In some cases, the shared life in Japan may be the most intense part of a friendship, and that will likely fade if one of the friends no longer experiences it firsthand. If we leave ourselves, it may be that our friendships will undergo a sea-change, much as the Japanese language will fade, ever so stealthily, from our tongues and minds. Of course, that need not happen; and the intensity of life in Japan can produce friendships that stretch across thousands of miles and last for years. No man is an island. Living in Japan takes an awful lot of energy; we should remember to devote part of our energy to forging links with those around us, and creating beautiful harmony with the hearts that touch ours. Nothing is more rewarding in the long run.
About the Author: Originally from California, USA and Queensland, Australia, Rebecca Otowa has been in Japan for 29 years, 23 of them in the countryside near Kyoto. She married the scion of a 350-year-old farmhouse in 1981 and brought up two sons, sharing the household with an old-school mother-in-law. She now divides her time among University English teaching, writing, illustrating, caring for her house, garden and cats, and sneaking fixes of Western civilization in the form of Starbucks coďŹ€ee. As the only foreigner for miles around, she finds that the quest for harmony occupies a large part of her life.
Alive and Kicking Finding the fun in the free time Sheri Love Yasue
What do you do on your day off ? Whatever reason you find yourself in Japan, whether you are here as a Japanese language student, expatriate worker, student of Japanese culture or simply to teach English for a few years, you will most likely eventually end up with some free time on your hands. How you decide to spend that free time can aďŹ€ect not only your whole outlook and initial perceptions of Japanese society, but will leave you with some special, unique and lasting memories from your time in the land of the rising sun. Japanese companies are famous for their mercilessly long and exhausting working hours routinely imposed on their workers. Do Japanese workers even have time for personal extra-curricular activities, interests and hobbies? In Japan, the appropriate adage may well be â€œwork hard, play harderâ€?. This phenomenon can be easily witnessed on any given night, 88
after working hours, when the bars, clubs and karaoke parlors begin to fill up with overworked and bleary-eyed salary-men, oﬃce ladies and students trying to undo the days’ stresses. However, upon closer examination, Japanese workers add up to more than the sum of their stereotypes. . Yoga gyms, flamenco lessons and pottery studios also experience a booming business with the after-hours crowd and are filled by many diﬀerent types of people. Any quick research into your intended activity should soon unearth a full schedule of lessons oﬀered not only during the weekdays, but also until late on weekday evenings and always a full array of weekend courses, to suit even the most erratic of schedules. If you are determined to involve yourself in a certain activity, there will likely be a school somewhere, somehow, willing to accommodate you. Being involved in an activity during your downtime will not only fill your free time in a useful and fun way, but will also help you to network and to come in contact with a wide and varied assortment of people. If there is one important theme to this chapter, it’s to put yourself out there, anywhere, and do the best to “bloom where you are planted”. What does Japan have to offer you? What opportunities does Japan have on oﬀer for foreign residents? Why should you be excited to have a chance to live in Japan? Japan is a very interesting. geographically isolated country with an equally long history, and as any Japanese will be itching to tell you, has four distinct seasons. But perhaps Japan’s most recent fame has come from the fast pace of modernization in the last half century. Japan is the world’s 5th most peaceful nation and is the only large industrialized first world nation in Asia. Japan is routinely placed in a high ranking, surrounded by other industrialized Western nations by the United Nations for measuring human development. Yet, Japan is decidedly not a Western nation. What set of characteristics and criteria exist that sets Japan apart from it’s Western friends and Asian neighbors? The scholars today still ponder the question of Japan’s arguable uniqueness in the world. The important question here is, what 89
advantages does this have for the foreign resident in Japan? The first step to finding the right activity for you will be to look into your past and interests, and then to keep your eyes and mind wide open after arriving in Japan to take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way. Japan is a country of tradition, and where there is tradition, there are bound to be plenty of opportunities for learning in culture, the arts, or simply discovering a new way of experiencing life diﬀerent from your own. Although many of the activities geared towards foreign guests will be of the traditional variety, if your tastes lie in the modern and eclectic, Japan will have something for you! Excuse me, can you speak Japanese? Japanese is not the impossibly diﬃcult language that it’s cracked up to be. Must one speak Japanese to participate in extracurricular activities in Japan? Great Japanese skills do come in very handy in Japan, but the first half dozen or so activities that I attempted were undertaken during my initial two years in Japan, when I was still single and only barely managing in Japanese. In many cases, I was the only foreigner in my class and this has proven, in my case, to be undoubtedly the best surefire way to improve one’s Japanese language and social skills very rapidly! Many people say that the best way to learn a language is to learn it while doing something else. Foreign Language learning as an adult can be tedious and repetitive, even for the most dedicated and enthusiastic student. However learning Japanese while creating beautiful pottery or learning new and exciting dance steps is fun! Though famil y and professional responsibilities keep me busy, I try to never shy away from opportunities that will benefit me purely for my own selfish enjoyment, personal growth and chance at becoming a more interesting and accomplished person, with a larger Japanese vocabulary. I do admit that many of the activities that I personally embarked upon would not have been on any to-do list before arriving. Yet each one has affected me in unexpected ways or by simply opening up the door to other future and more personally alluring ventures. 90
Where to look? No matter where you end up geographically in Japan, the first way to begin looking for available opportunities (even before your arrival in Japan) for most traditional, dance, cooking and orthodox type of activities, will be through the internet. Most monthly publications, many of them free of charge, will list a plethora of activities that are on oﬀer in your area. Remember that these sites will be in Japanese with very limited English searching opportunities. There are many places to help you get started such as local International Centers Websites (most mid to large towns should have sites), or simply do a Google search for your preferred activity and location and see what comes up. Typing in romanized letters may bring up an all Ja p a n e s e s i t e , b u t d o n’t d e s p a i r, t h e r e m a y b e a connecting “English page” link, and if not, then save it and you will be able to explore it again after your arrival in Japan. Local “International Centers” will be the best option to get your hands on information for local English friendly eateries and pubs, which in turn often have publications, maps and event information for international residents piled at the door. If you have school aged children, international schools will be your best bet for finding children and family centered activities. The second way to find an activity in Japan is through more informal and personal networking channels or through the international community. This method will require a bit more outgoing and courageous behavior on your part, but could be considered the quickest and surest. Personal recommendations of exciting opportunities and outstanding (read: English speaking) teachers by veteran foreign residents and English speaking Japanese friends is practically a guaranteed chance for success. Most of the research and groundwork has already been done for you and if your friends find it enjoyable, chances are you may too.
The last and most adventurous way to locate an exciting class is by taking a leisurely stroll around any residential neighborhood. With some luck you may discover small and sometimes partially hidden, weather beaten signs or placards on display outside of private homes. These signs are advertising the services of private teachers, in some cases cultural “masters” who teach a variety of things from calligraphy to tea ceremony to flower arranging. It is a pleasure and a very special experience to visit someone’s home on a weekly basis, a great way to get to know the locals, many of them whose family may have lived in your area for generations. This will help you to meet some of the locals, but also at the same time, giving the locals a better chance to get to know you! In some areas local neighborhood associations and groups are active in Japan, and choosing to participate in the local community, and economy is definitely an advantage to you and your hosts. No matter which of the roads you decide to travel on to find an activity, you will most likely come across ones that cater to learners of traditional Japanese arts such as flower arranging, tea ceremony and certain martial arts or popular sports. However, the top five current classes after my investigation were, in order of popularity: Hawaiian Dancing, Yoga and Pilates, Belly Dancing, Classical Ballet and Tennis. Other activities t o c o n s i d e r a r e Wa s h i p a p e r making, yukata (cotton kimono) making, Shibori tie-dyeing, martial arts (Judo, Karate, Aikido), Japanese Buyo dancing, Ikebana flower arranging (again, harder than it sounds), tea ceremony (sadou), Ja p a n e s e c a l l i g r a p h y ( s h u j i ) , “ S ha k u ha c h i ” w o o d e n f l u t e , Japanese Taiko Drums (on my own personal list of things to do…), local dancing in seasonal festivals, "Enka" folk singing, and even learning how to make handmade fireworks for summer festivals, and the list goes on. My Japanese friends are currently taking classes in nail art, aromatherapy, Aikido, Thai kick-boxing and pet grooming. The sky is the limit! Location, location, location Since most of Japan’s native population, around 66% can be found in urban and semi-urban areas, as such, the majority of the most unique 92
opportunities are going to be concentrated there. There is also a good chance that you, as a foreign expatriate, will also be situated in or near these areas. Perhaps you may find yourself living in a remote area of Japan’s countryside or smaller towns, probably surrounded by a sea of green rice paddies. All is not lost! It can be argued that even better and more unique opportunities for learning may be the ones lurking in the countryside and found oﬀ the beaten path in rural settings. Foreigners are still an uncommon sight in most rural areas and, if you are willing, you could be in a position to discover some unique people and great networking possibilities, just by participating and being part of a smaller close knit community. You can become a sort of “international ambassador” in your locale neighborhood and again, the sky is the limit to what you can achieve. Being part of the group or neighborhood, in especially smaller more traditional communities is important in Japan and being seen as a team player is definitely to your advantage. Japan has so much to oﬀer and many Japanese will jump at the chance to introduce their culture to visiting foreign residents. Bloom where you are planted Some people that I have met here told me they have been waiting their whole lives for a chance to visit Japan, while others made the trek specifically to hone the skills already mastered in their home country such as Karate, Judo or Japanese style pottery making. I am always surprised by the sheer contrast and wide variety of people who do arrive on Japan’s shores. Others may have found themselves in Japan as workers or managers on one or two year contracts and who never, ever entertained the notion that they would end up in Japan. Japan is naturally a great place for people who are interested in the culture, society and history, but what is there for those individuals and families who are suddenly, and sometimes unexpectedly, placed here on assignment? There is an expatriate group based in Paris, France that publishes monthly magazines called “Bloom Where You Are Planted”. The idea behind the magazine is very similar to this chapter. Learning how to make the best of where you happen to be living, wherever that may be, is a learned skill that is as valuable, if not more so in many ways, than learning the local language and 93
culture prior to arrival. Realistically, if you are only here for 2 or 3 years, it could be quite a tall order to expect one to master Japanese in such a short time, especially with no previous language skills. Whereas learning how to thrive and grow in a new and exciting country, as opposed to feeling lost and out of place, is a skill that will not only help you during your time in Japan, but is a gift that “keeps on giving”. Not your cup of green tea? Don’t despair! You find yourself in Japan, but to be perfectly honest, sumo, sushi and shamisen does not yet personally spark your interest. Not to worry. When nostalgia for the familiar starts to set in, remember that Japan is a land where all things foreign, including languages, cultures and people are revered by Japanese for their non-Japaneseness. Especially in urban settings, it is possible to find an overabundance of unique opportunities from European, Latin American, African, Asian dancing classes (not to mention belly dancing), all kinds of foreign cooking classes, gospel choir groups and even French chansons singing classes. If you have an avid interest in whatever, chances are, there will be a group of people in Japan who share your interests. Why not put yourself in an Italian class (with an Italian teacher) or ballroom dancing lessons (with a teacher from Argentina)? Immediately you transport yourself to a level playing field with the native population. It may be possible to even excel more quickly than your Japanese counterparts and will boost your self confidence to be in a situation where your previous international experience will be useful! Join an activity that you already excel at and, voilà, for a few hours each week, you can cease to be the illiterate and socially confused member of society! The Italian language classes that I took as an expatriate in France were strangely stimulating and took the daily stresses oﬀ of being constantly in a total immersion environment. Professional teachers in Japan usually have personal high standards bordering on perfectionism, and I have noticed whether it be a Flamenco dance teacher who studied in Seville or the African dance teacher who studied in Nigeria, if you look for the right class and do your homework, you are bound to get a high level of instruction and enthusiasm from your instructor.
Search, and Ye Shall ...stumble upon something interesting! Stumbling upon a new found love of art or culture can be hiding where you least expect it. Shy or outgoing, you desperately want to do or learn something extraordinary while in Japan, but simply don’t know what to do. How do you go about finding the right activity? The keyword here is networking. I never intended to start painting ever again after some interest in high school, but the father-in-law of a woman I met at an international club, invited me to come and observe a class. They lived nearby, and the teacher a purported master in his 90’s, and thought it may be worth a look-see (if only for the chance to be oﬀered some green tea and Japanese pastries, as is often the case when invited to someone’s home in Japan). Despite my enthusiasm for art in high school, I had unfortunately lost touch with anything to do with art other than looking at it in a museum. This reintroduction into the art world by way of traditional Japanese Yamato-e painting was more than I have ever hoped for. This is not simply a regular painting class, it is a history lesson, poetry lesson, Japanese language, culture and etiquette lesson all rolled into two short hours. The subjects in every painting, the clothing they are donning and hairstyles they wear all have unique and interesting explanations. I never imagined that learning about medieval and pre-modern Japanese fashions and attire could be so interesting. The hue of a woman’s kimono and the selection of fruit on her tray all signify something special about a particular season or simply her mood as she gazes up at the full moon. Each scene has a story behind it, and whether the story was passed down as fantastical ancient legend, from a historical scene or real historical personages, every story is exciting. Even more satisfying is the fantastic feeling that comes when showing my work to friends and family and retelling the short story that helps to explain who this person or animal is, what they are doing and more 95
importantly why they are doing it. Our teacher is a master of social etiquette and long forgotten cultural traditions hidden in Japanâ€™s long history. Blindly learning the many rules and regulations in Japanese society is standard, but actually learning the reasons for adhering to strict stroke order when writing Chinese characters, how to properly wear Japanese Kimono appropriate to age, season and occasion and why specific colors or foliage were used in specific painting can be very eye opening and mysteriously satisfying. Attending class at the home of 94 year old teacher, learning skills and secrets of his ancient trade, not only satisfies my curiosity for rich cultural knowledge but leaves me feeling elated all week. Have Courage, Will Enroll So whether you are in Japan for only a few short months or many years, be prepared to bite the bullet. Enroll with a friend if you must, but buck up some courage, try a few free introductory classes and see what whets your appetite. It may take some time, and a few tries, but with perseverance, you are bound to discover something that really tweaks your interest. If nothing jumps out at you right away, you can always take up the tried and true, always popular hobby in Japan: Photography. Japan must be one of the most photogenic countries in the world. The sheer number of eclectic and traditional regional festivals, wacky pop culture and funky fashion trends will never leave you with a lack of interesting subject matter. Better to take the bull by the horns, be the author of your own personal travel journal and see what exciting and surprising experiences await you in the land of the rising sun.
About the Author: Sheri Love Yasue first came to Japan in 1991 and, despite a five year stint in Paris, has been living, working and studying here ever since. Sheriâ€™s favorite pastimes are organizing social events for the Tokai Japan Canada Society and frequenting local clubs and pubs around town to catch some new vibes and soak up Nagoyaâ€™s very eclectic and international scene. She is currently enrolled in post-graduate studies in international relations at Nanzan University. She lives in Nagoya with her husband and three children.
Keeping Japan Returning home, reinventing home Christina Moorehead
When my husband and I first went to Japan, it was just the two of us. We expected adventure. We expected cha!enges. We expected to see new sights and to meet new people. However we never rea!y expected to gain a second home. But that is just what we gained.
Japan crept into our hearts and souls slowly. And as we became more successful at navigating subways and distinguishing sugar %om salt in the grocery store, in our hearts we felt less and less “gaijin”, even though our faces remained so foreign. When we returned to our home country %om Japan, we found that we looked at our old world through diﬀerent eyes. And as much as we loved returning home to family and %iends and the roots that secured us, we also sorely missed Japan in a thousand little ways. I returned to teaching in the fa! a&er returning home %om Japan. Just as I sprinkled Japanese mementos throughout my house, so too did I sprinkle tiny pieces of Japan through my classroom. Windowsi!s held daruma and manekineko, tea cups and sma! boxes decorated with carved flowers and kanji. A corner window had a sma! iron furin that pealed so&ly when a breeze blew. One day in the fa!, when the leaves were blowing down %om a! the trees, one of my Kindergarten students rushed in %om the playground. Her tiny hand was clutched tightly around something - a young child’s discovered treasure. She opened her hand to reveal a sma! sakura petal. Just one. She tipped it into my hand and rushed away again. I marveled at the existence of a sakura petal in the fa!. Even there in California, sakura did not bloom in the fa!. How did this single petal make its way onto our playground, and into the hand of my sma! student? But there was the petal. In my hand. Barely pink and perfect. Reminding me of temple incense and ohanami parties and a land so far away. I walked over to one of the windows in my classroom and opened one of my sma! boxes. Inside I placed the sakura petal. Sometimes it is the sma!est things that remind us of our bi-est adventures. In remembering Japan, you do not have to spend a lot of money or even go to a lot of eﬀort. You must simply find those tiny, perfect petals that embody your time in Japan, and keep them close.
Food The most basic and accessible way to keep Japan alive is through food. It has been over said that the way to our hearts is through our stomachs - a saying that is as worn out as it is true. You will find that a huge number of your Japan memories feature food as the leading character. Preparing or purchasing Japanese food can not only reawaken fond memories for you, but can oďŹ€er you a way to share just a bit of your Japan experience with the folks at home. Depending upon the location of your home country and city or town, purchasing good quality and authentic Japanese food can range from the incredibly easy to the insanely frustrating. If you live in a fairly metropolitan area, locating stores that sell Japanese food products is not a big problem. Most Asian grocers sell a variety of Japanese ingredients, even if their main clientele is from another Asian country, such as Korea or China. At these small neighborhood import stores, you can usually buy nori, furikake, Japanese curry, sake and other beverages, noodles, various pickled vegetables and a wide variety of rice crackers and snacks. If you are very, very lucky, there might be a large exclusively Japanese grocery store within driving distance. Inside these Japan-away-from-Japan superstores, you can dizzily careen from aisle to aisle, overloading your shopping cart with long-missed goodies. Of course, if you live away from a major city or area where Asian folks are living, you might need to get a bit more creative. And here is where our modern, technological society is at its best. Use the internet. While you will not be able to procure fresh or frozen items, you will be able to order snacks, crackers, candies, tea, and some non-perishable seasonings, food items and sauces. The internet also oďŹ€ers a wide variety 99
of websites with Japanese recipes. With a credit card, patience and the willingness to experiment a bit, you can bring a taste of Japan to the most remote and inaka home town. Even if you are not exactly a prize winning chef when it comes to cooking, there is always the option of treating yourself to a meal at a Japanese restaurant. The quality and availability of Japanese restaurants generally mirrors that of Japanese food stores. The bigger and more diverse the city, the better the chances of being able to find a high quality Japanese restaurant. Sushi has become almost too available in most Western countries, especially the varieties of sushi that have no roots in real Japanese cuisine, such as California Roll. You will find that Japanese restaurants in most Western cities cater to Western tastes, with an overabundance of cooked ingredients and strange combinations that would most likely make Japanese diners wince and gag. The same is true for teriyaki, shabu shabu, tempura and miso soup. Finding a good quality Japanese restaurant takes time and a certain amount of financial investment. But it can be done. Culture As a foreigner living in Japan, I discovered over time that there were two kinds of Japanese culture that I knew I’d want to keep alive in my post-Japan life: what I call “deep culture” and just good old “pop culture”. By “deep culture”, I refer to the tangible and intangible aspects of Japanese culture that are embodied first and foremost in the Japanese friends and acquaintances a person gains when living in Japan. “Deep culture” is more broadly found in temples and shrines, in older neighborhoods, in the smells of incense and roasting green tea, in neighborhood festivals and time-honored seasonal traditions and celebrations, such as Obon and Setsubun. These are, admittedly, harder to keep alive when one returns to the home country. However, it is possible. On the other side of the culture coin is “pop culture”. For me, “pop culture” includes aspects of Japanese life that may seem more frivolous 100
and transitory, but are just as much a part of Japan as a bamboo enshrouded temple. Television programs, popular music, fashion, magazines, timely trends, snack foods and sports are all a part of life in Japan. In many ways, these aspects of Japanese life may be easier to keep alive than the “deep culture” aspects. Some ways to keep both “deep culture” and “pop culture” in your life may be: Go where the people are: If you can find a shrine or temple in your geographical area, you can be certain that they will have celebrations. The most notable celebration celebrated outside of Japan is Obon. At these celebrations, the Japanese community comes together to share food, Taiko drumming performances, dancing and art. And while attending these celebrations may not totally ease the ache in your heart for Japan, for a short while you will be surrounded by comforting sights, tastes, smells and sounds. And this is good. YouTube: with a bit of searching, you can find everything from clips of Japanese game shows to home movies of Oshogatsu (New Year) bells ringing. Movies: Japanese movies of all genres are increasingly available to purchase or rent. With persistence and some detective work (for both larger movie rental stores as well as smaller, neighborhood stores can surprise you with their oﬀerings), you can find comedies, music videos, dramas, documentaries, Anime and the time honored samurai movies. Books: If you are an internet-savvy type, you can find just about any book on Japan that you can think of. Even if you cannot write or read Japanese, there are many fine books written in English, Spanish and a variety of other non-Japanese languages, including wonderful tomes by travel writers, coﬀee table books, children’s books, and fiction and non fiction by both foreign and Japanese writers. Magazines and Newspapers: As with books, a bit of internet searching can turn up a wealth of reading material. In the case of newspapers, on-line versions of Japanese newspapers written in English (such as “The Japan Times”) are very easily accessible. 101
In the case of magazines, some fancy footwork might be needed. Some larger cities have Japanese bookstores, such as Kinokuniya (which has oﬃces on both coasts of the United States, as well as other places around the world) where you can have easy access to your favorite Japanese magazines and books. If you are a smooth talker and a good negotiator, you might even be able to convince a good Japanese friend, way back in Japan, to send you some favorites now and then. Bringing Japan Home Each time my family and I returned home from Japan, we immediately festooned our living space with our t r e a s u r e s . No r e n we r e h u n g i n hallways. Smooth silk obi, purchased a t t e m p l e f l e a m a r ke t s i n o u r neighborhood, were draped over long shelves. Upon the obi-draped shelves we balanced daruma, Buddha statues, tiny sake cups. Our treasures from Japan were rarely expensive, nor were they large. But we spread them throughout our house. One of my passions in Japan was to collect tea cups—usually gleaned from second hand stores and temple flea markets where their uniqueness, their quirkiness or their age intrigued me. Likewise we bought several used silk children’s kimono, which we braced with wooden dowels and hung upon our walls. One of the most wonderful ways we were able to bring Japan into our home, aside from food, was to use our own photos. We selected several photographs of our favorite scenes from Japan and had then blown up to poster size at a local photo shop. These were not staged pictures. Nor were they family photographs. They were mostly very small things that symbolized, for us, so much more. A close up picture of a collection of hanko. Glowing rice paper lanterns at night.
The hills near our home in Japan, brilliant and awash with fiery fall colors. We framed each of these “memories” in black poster frames. The fact that we remembered each detail, each place, made them so much more than mere posters. They were bits of ourselves, writ large. Of course, if you are seeking larger (and of course pricier) mementos, there are a variety of sources (both in actual stores as well as on the internet) where you can buy wonderful Japanese furniture. Beautiful items such as low heated tables (kotatsu), Japanese style hardwood cabinets (tansu) or woven grass mats (tatami) add long-lasting beauty to your home along with lovely Japan memories. People The most meaningful way to keep Japan alive is to maintain the friendships you made while living in Japan. All too often people allow distance to slowly dissolve friendships that might otherwise have thrived. Keeping long-distance friendships alive requires patience from all the people involved. Long-distance friends must acknowledge and accept that life can be an incredibly busy and complex thing. Simply working and caring for one’s family can leave little time to write letters or emails. However, modern technology has made longdistance friendships oh-so-much easier. The miracles of email, computer-to-computer chats, social connection programs such as “Facebook” and ‘Myspace” and personal web pages all make keeping in touch a matter of simply pushing a few keyboard keys. You will find that the Japanese friends you left behind are totally committed to keeping your friendship alive, and will send seasonal gifts, holiday cards, nengajo, snacks and treats and photos. Many times they will even save up their yen to visit you in your home country. I have Japanese friends who still email, still call, still send goodies and treats and still fly halfway around the world to visit us - and these are friends we first met 11 years ago during our first stay in Japan. In a world that at times
seems disconnected and cold, these testaments to friendship warm the heart and re-ignite the faith in people. Equally important is to keep in touch with your fellow foreigners. Whether they are from your own country or from countries many miles away, they have shared your experiences. Their return visits or moves back home are fraught with the same challenges, the same joys, the same eyebrow-raising moments. And during those moments (and there will be those moments) when you are feeling misunderstood or homesick for Japan or simply out-of-sorts, exchanging some emails with some friends from your second home might just be the pick-me-up you need. Language While many foreigners living in Japan never make it past “ G o m e n Na s a i ” i n t h e i r Japanese language eﬀorts, just as many others pick up much more. Whether you learned just a little Japanese or a lot, whether you took formal Japanese courses in Japan or simply learned it for survival, you should be proud. Simply living abroad is a challenge. Taking the first step towards bringing your host country into your heart is a whole other challenge. And the best first step in bringing a host country into your heart is by learning the local language. Most likely, if you tried to learn Japanese, you did it by making many, many mistakes, and sounding, much of the time, like a toddler. Still, you should be proud of yourself, for it has been well documented that learning a foreign language as an adult is MUCH harder than learning it as a child. Once you return to your home country, maintaining your Japanese language skills is a challenge you may or may not decide to undertake. However, learning Japanese was a gift, and there are steps you can take to keep that gift alive. Take a class: Most community colleges have at least a beginning Japanese language course. Some oﬀer several levels of Japanese that culminate in an advanced course that includes mastery over kanji, 104
hiragana, and katakana, as well as a focus on advanced speaking skills. A once or twice a week evening course oﬀers you a formal language learning environment, and can open the doors to friendships with other likeminded Japan loving folks in your area. Language exchanges: If you live anywhere near a university or college, you might discover Japanese people undergraduate students or visiting graduates students with or without their families in tow, who are eager to learn English and (in the case of graduate student spouses and children) are at a loss as to how to take the first Englishl e a r n i n g s t e p s . Tr y l o o k i n g f o r international student associations or groups, Japanese student groups, or call your local school’s equivalent of an international student oﬃce. The worst that can happen is that they can’t help you. The best that can happen, however, is that you might find a new set of Japanese friends, just as eager to learn from you as you are to learn from them. International groups: Tangentially connected to seeking out Language exchanges is to seek out international groups. While these groups are often centered in college or university towns, you may also find such groups connected to local churches or neighborhood associations. Your local phone book, the internet, your city’s parks and recreation departments, cultural dance or music groups or instructors or simple word of mouth are all resources to explore. Some international groups’ members gather for simple socialization, planning pot luck dinners or picnics. Some groups center on one specific cultural group, others oﬀer an international blend of many cultures. A Return Trip A more extreme, and perhaps obvious way to keep Japan alive is to make a return trip. Expensive? Yes. Extreme? Perhaps. But if living in Japan has truly touched you, then you will hunger to return. You might not even be totally conscious of this hunger. But it is there. 105
For me, I had no idea I was hungering to return to Japan until I stepped oﬀ the airplane the second time my family and I moved to Japan. I breathed in deeply. All around me I could hear people speaking Japanese. I came out of customs and found myself staring at a Japanese vending machine selling Pocari Sweat, Meiji Koohi, and Hot Beef Consomme. All around me were signs in hiragana, katakana and kanji. And I knew I was home. And I realized how much I had missed it. But be careful. Your carefully budgeted two week vacation to Japan might just turn into years. All it takes sometimes is a hint of an available job in Japan to throw your life into wonderful, wonderful turmoil. Nurturing Your Inner “Nihonjin” Perhaps the most challenging part of returning to your home country is to keep your new self from turning back into your old self. After living abroad, you inevitably change. You have touched another culture. You have struggled and most likely succeeded, in overcoming challenges in language, customs and rules. You have most certainly questioned and doubted yourself along the way. Your world has broadened. Your mind and heart have opened to the world. The friends and family you left behind in your home country won’t fully recognize you when you return, any more than you fully recognize them. In some cases you might have grown past them, and find them hopelessly small minded and closed. You might find it diﬃcult to talk about your 106
experiences in Japan when your listeners canâ€™t join your frame of reference. When a person goes through a life-changing experience, such as living abroad, returning home can be an isolating experience. However, one does not have to live in limbo. With patience you can slowly help your friends and family at home glimpse a bit of the Japan you knew and still love. By sharing photos, by easing them into sharing Japanese treats and meals, by arranging visits by friends from Japan - by either fellow gaijin, Japanese friends or Japanese home stay students - you can ease your home country loved ones into better understanding the changes you have gone through, and the country that helped you change. Along with helping the people at home understand Japan, you must also have your own outlets that allow you to keep Japan alive, and to help you process your own changes in tastes, attitudes or beliefs. To this end, I encourage you to take the time to keep in touch with Japanese friends, with fellow Japan expatriates, to build your Japanese cooking skills, to rent those Japanese movies and to watch silly bits of Japanese game shows on YouTube. Take a taiko class or search out an Obon festival at a local temple in your area. Whether you invite Japan into your home country life only once in a while or do it every day, you will be helping yourself reinforce the experiences and lessons you learned while living in Japanâ€” your home away from home.
From the Author: My name is Christina Moorehead. If you were to ask me what makes my life meaningful, I'd have to say family, friends, teaching, writing, reading and....Japan. Over theÂ 4 years that my family and I lived in Japan, I discovered that Japan has become a part of me, and keeping it alive in my heart has become second nature. Thus writing "Keeping Japan" was a project near and dear to my heart indeed. Our first 2 years in Japan - between 1995 and 1997 consisted of just my husband and I blundering around, trying desperately to learn and grow into gracious, if not graceful, guests in our host country. In 2005 we returned for another 2 year stay with our 2 children - Patrick, who was born in 1997 in Nagoya, Japan at the end of our first stay, and our daughter, Aya. The challenges in integrating our children into Japanese life were many, but the rewards were far greater. Keeping Japan alive thus not only keeps sweet memories from fading, but helps our children stay in touch with the global citizens they discovered inside themselves.
Recommended Resources: www.japanorama.com www.2jpn.com Links for the Japanophile www.asianfoodgrocer.com online Japanese goodies www.cdjapan.co.jp/magazine Japanese magazines subscription www.orientalfurniture.com Upscale tansu, tatami, and and futon. www.jlifeinternational.com kotatsu and links to other Japanese items
Tales from the Bath and Lessons Learned Along the Way Sue Cono!y I go to the bath when I want to be brave. I go to the bath when I want to escape. Today I my mind is set on escape mode, and I need to feel braver than I rea!y am. I take oﬀ my clothes hoping that no-one is looking. I wash myself %om head to toe hoping that no-one is noticing. I put up my strongest anti-social forcefield, and am flanked on both sides by empty stools. I skip the inside bath, because today there are too many people. I head to the outside bath, and as I sink into the glorious hot water, steam rises around my face and I look at the sky. The sky is cloudy, but too bright for me today. I cannot look up, so I look down, and retreat once more into my own personal fog. “Excuse me, can you speak Japanese?” In that one moment that my guard was down a middle-aged Japanese woman had taken her chance. Oh no! This is not what I want. Sti!, what choice do I have? The barbed wire sarcasm I had saved for these moments seems inappropriate. I keep my answer deliberately short. Speak only when spoken to - do not engage! “Yes....” I respond in the positive only because I feel I do not have enough energy for the conversation in faltering English which I suspect to be coming. Oh, why couldn’t she just leave me alone? “Oh! Your Japanese is very good!” What are you talking about, woman? You’ve only heard me say the word “Yes”! How can you possibly know how good my Japanese is or isn’t? How can you possibly understand the years I took to get here? What can I do to make you go away? Short answers - do not engage! “No....” 109
Something in her face twitches, and my prickly spines melt into the steaming hot water around me. I increasingly find it is taking energy to keep up my guard. I a!ow myself to be drawn in, only slightly. I can get out of the bath at any time. Any time. The conversation starts. She is a Japanese middle-aged housewife. Now living in a big city in central Japan, she was raised in a vi!age in the far North. She te!s me when she first came here, the miso was diďŹ€erent. The language was diďŹ€erent - subtle nuance conveyed according to an alternate %ame of reference. The people were strange and unfamiliar, their ways of behaving in the world as unfathomable to an Aomori country girl as bananas to a polar bear. I slowly realize that she has come to help. Far %om fulfi!ing her own need for conversation, she has come to me because she sensed that I needed her to do so. We talk about marriage, we talk about foreign lands. We talk about living simply in an o&en bewildering environment, and about doing the best we can. Weâ€™ve been in the bath for about twenty minutes now, and our bodies are wrinkled. Water-lo-ed and fi!ed to the brim with unexpected gratitude, I feel light as a feather. I look up at the sky, and the wind above is moving the clouds swi&ly and urgently, with purpose. I feel something shi&.
When I first came to Japan everything was new and exotic. One by one, I let the experiences happen to me, to change me. One day, almost two years after arriving I took my first public bath. Far from being the mortifying experience I thought it would be, it was a watershed. When everyone is similarly bare, the lack of clothes ceases to be embarrassing. Free from brand-name clothes, washed clean of perfume and the thirty year mortgage waiting at home, we all play on an equal field. I cease to be a gaijin in that moment. I am simply me, and you are you. From that first time I was addicted, not just to onsen (hot spring) travel, but also to the humble public bath, the sento, which you can find in virtually any built-up area. The hot water, the relaxing steam, and the separate-but-togetherness you feel with the other bathers is something else again. Putting together this book has been a lot like that for me. I am naked and shameless. I am together but separate from the other chapter authors 110
who each have something to say. It seems that each of them has a personal message for me, one that resonates with lessons learned that day in the bath. Louise George Kittaka has written about the brave-new-world attitude with which an international assignment can be undertaken. We all must start naked, start with something that makes us feel uncomfortable and make it our own. Heather Fukase has talked about opening ourselves to unfamiliar tastes and experimenting with new ways of cooking. Mary Sisk Noguchi tells us that we each start learning a language by being prepared to sound like fools. Mike McCann has described the intricate dance that is played out in the Japanese oďŹƒce, while David Stones tells us about the Japanese habit of finding beauty in the details, something from which we can well learn. Jillian Mickleborough-Sugiyama urges us to accept our reality, and to rethink the strategies we use in our lives. That day in the bath, my kneejerk reaction to the woman complimenting my Japanese would have been a sarcastic thorny comeback. Alternatively I could easily have removed myself from the situation by getting out of the bath. However, by changing my modus operandi I opened myself to a defining moment. Rebecca Otowa tells us that harmony is everything, and so it is in the bath where all people are levelled to the same position as they move around each other in the hot pools. Sheri Love Yasue has encouraged us to try new things as a way forward in our life. And Christina Moorehead urges you not to lose what you have gained here in Japan. Living in Japan, whether or not you decide to take your clothes oďŹ€ and dive into the onsen, you are opening yourself to being vulnerable. Under all these clothes we are but human. Beyond the colour of our passport, we are more the same than we are diďŹ€erent. May your experiences in Japan teach you all this, and more.
For many people Japan is merely a temporary home, while living here on assignment. For others, Japan has become a permanent home and yet man...
Published on Jan 20, 2011
For many people Japan is merely a temporary home, while living here on assignment. For others, Japan has become a permanent home and yet man...