in a Japanese Pond

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Extracts from my an unpublished book on my cultural experiences in Japan.

Still Learning

My life here has been rich, but the country seemed determined to make me regret leaving. I was drafting a letter - which would form the basis for this chapter - in my head one afternoon on the way into Sannomiya when, on boarding the train, I found that the driver had left the blind up between his compartment and ours. I'd never seen this before and spent the trip watching both the driver and the person standing beside him, who appeared to be a trainee. Every twenty seconds or so, the driver would raise his gloved right hand, making a gun beside his ear, then drop it down to shoot at some undefined target. I might have thought that he was doing it for fun, but the man next to him was only fractionally behind in doing the same thing. As I watched more closely, I thought I could see some pattern - they were doing it whenever they passed a numbered yellow sign on the side of the track. After every third time or so, the driver would check his watch, run his finger down a schedule taped to his window and snap his finger at the air as if mentally checking an item off a list. This, I realised, was their method for keeping the train on schedule, and perhaps to keep the drivers awake. I wondered if they'd opened the blind for my benefit. It was as if some higher power said "we'll make him realise he doesn't know everything about this country!"

By |November 20th, 2001|Categories: in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments


Towards the end of my stay, I came home to find a tent set up in the empty block next door. "It's Takeshi's punishment," I was told, though not what the crime was. "He has to sleep outside for three nights." 'Cool,' I thought. 'Not much worry about curfews if you're sleeping in a tent.' It was set up quite comfortably with a futon and a cassette deck, but apparently Takeshi didn't like it. When I came home the following day, the tent was gone. "He was too scared to stay outside," Okaasan told me, laughing, "so he came inside at one o'clock this morning." Which meant that they'd left the door unlocked for him as well.

By |October 20th, 2001|Categories: in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments


I pulled up at a set of traffic lights - red, yellow and blue lights laid horizontally - and waited until they turned blue, then began to pull out. Another car screamed across our path, horn tooting, and I remembered that traffic rules in Japan are considered more as guidelines than obligations. Nagoya is famed as the city with the highest rate of car accidents and I recall cowering in the back seat on a number of occasions when Okaasan drove through lights up to thirty seconds after they'd turned red, or drove down the wrong side of the road rather than waiting for the traffic to move forty metres so she could turn right legally. I took the next few intersections carefully and finally we were out on the coastal road winding along gorgeous cliffs, looking out at an opalescent blue ocean.

By |August 20th, 2001|Categories: in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments


"It's so unfair," said Kayo, breaking the silence. "It's not my fault that the economy is bad at the moment." "You've been with the same company for seven years. Maybe it was time to move on, anyway." "That's not the way it works in Japan. We've been brought up to be loyal to the company. It's like joining a new family, and we're supposed to be part of it for life. We work hard for the company and it looks after us." That attitude was changing. When the bubble burst in the nineties, many companies and businesses were shut down, leaving people on the streets. Japanese employers had started to accept the new reality and were less loyal to their employees, but the employees hadn't lost their loyalty to the companies. It was a harsh reality for many people.

By |July 20th, 2001|Categories: in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments


The rock walls rose steeply on either side of us, and the river gently pushed us towards the rapids ahead. There was time enough to get back to the raft and prepare for those when we got closer. For now, the members of the hiking club were free to float in the clear, blue water, looking at the sky, the rocks and the sandy riverbed. "So this is what a river is supposed to look like." I turned to see Okada-san's wistful expression, and felt my own eyes brim. "You know," she continued, "I always wanted to travel overseas, just to see a real river. I didn't realise we had one just a few hours from home."

By |June 20th, 2001|Categories: in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments


I had little patience for cyclists. Most people have mamachari - the ladies bikes with baskets on the front - just for getting to the station or shops and back. So cyclists have all the rights of pedestrians as well as the rights of vehicles, but most people stick to the footpaths. I'd been hit stepping out of a shop one day, and gained only mild satisfaction at the fact that the culprit fell off his bike and then had to bow an apology to me in the middle of town. Worse were the mama who rode their chari through crowded shoutengai, arrogantly ringing their bells in a command to let them past. I tried to lead by example and ride on the streets, but the drivers don't expect it and I was nearly run down on a number of occasions - once by a large truck. I retreated from the cities and decided to only ride my bike up the mountain for exercise, but Japanese mountains aren't for the unfit. Even after doing that climb three times a week for a few years, I was still in granny gear and had to stop every five minutes to rest. That didn't leave many places for a fun ride.

By |May 20th, 2001|Categories: in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments


Chauvinism is only the visible surface in the Japanese culture. Outwardly, it's a very male dominated society where men work and women look after the home. In a traditional relationship, the women walk behind the men. My father had seen an example of this at the station where he watched a man, seemingly oblivious of his wife, arrive on the platform and place his bags down. His wife stopped obediently beside him, but he picked up his and walked further on, then back to where they'd originally been. Uncomplaining, his wife trotted behind, out of sight. However, if my father had looked more closely, he would probably have seen that the man carried all the bags, or at least the heavy items, while she carried little. Underneath the chauvinist facade, there is another layer where the woman shows her power.

By |April 20th, 2001|Categories: in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments


Pride is the factor that makes it impossible for a gaijin to really integrate into Japan. Most Japanese take pride in having a gaijin friend, but we're usually seen as a kind of pet - a mascot. We're proof that the Japanese are superior because we make mistakes and fail to understand the Japanese culture. But gaijin that can show that they do understand - as I managed to achieve occasionally - are feared. We understand the culture of two countries, which most Japanese will never manage, so we serve only to shame the Japanese and the avoid us.

By |March 20th, 2001|Categories: in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments


All the men and boys wore business suits, most of the women were in elegant western dresses and older ladies and girls wore kimono. "Which is the couple?" "They don't come until everyone else has arrived." As if on cue, the groom entered the room in a commanding short, white kimono with divided martial hakama covering his legs. The bride followed in a white kimono decorated with flowers and fruit. Her obi was a wide floral red sash, red and white being happy colours in Japan. They made a short lap of the hall before sitting in the only chairs. We all remained standing while a man representing both families stood on a stage at the side of the room and introduced the bride and groom, giving some details of their family and career backgrounds. Once this was over, the couple were lead to a barrel of sake and given a large wooden hammer. They broke the seal, then used a bamboo ladle to scoop sake into square wooden containers. While we clapped, they drank from these then left the room again.

By |February 20th, 2001|Categories: in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments


A couple of hours later, we were in a ski shop in Osaka where Kayo was trying on various boots. The shop assistant was very knowledgeable and helpful, explaining how long the board should be, what shape she'd need for downhill as opposed to freestyle, and the benefits of 'step-in' bindings. Typical of the Japanese though, even the expert put form before function. "What colour is your skiwear?"

By |January 20th, 2001|Categories: in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments