Japan Virgin Adventures

A conversation the other day prompted me to recount some experiences of my first days in Japan, so I thought I would share.

What? No NEX?

When I was “fresh off the boat” at Narita way back in 1987, I gathered up my suitcases, met one of the daughters of my host family, and schlepped my too-heavy stuff onto the JR Yokosuka line, which was already full. Japan Rail had no Narita Express yet, so it was stop-by-stop the whole long trip to Zushi, an hour south of Tokyo. Unfortunately we hit rush hour at Tokyo station, so there was another sweaty, smelly hour on an absolutely packed train. Sardines! With two large suitcases. And a backpack. And a total lack of experience on trains at all. This made for a bumpy, crowded, jolting, lurching ride, and kind of sowed my hate for rush hour trains, I think!

When I finally got to Zushi, it was early evening, and we were met at the station by my host parents. I was grateful just to be released from the train, but I almost did not get off, with weak Japanese for saying something like “I’m getting off. Make way!” and way too much stuff. We hauled everything up to my host family’s palatial house, and got me situated in a beautiful room overlooking their garden. I thought I would put up with anything to live in this beautiful room.

Gamblin’ Vending Machines

Later in the evening, wired from the trip, I took a walk with the host family’s daughters, and some friends. I saw a vending maching with a lot of blinking lights, which my cohorts told me were like a slot machine. You put the money in, they start blinking and moving around quickly, and if you can “catch” them when they are in a specific position by pressing the button for your drink, you get a free drink. Well, I won one on the first try, so I got two for the price of one. Surely auspicious, yes? No, just ironic, because I’ve never won at that since then.

The Ugly American?

One thing I did not want to be was the proverbial “ugly American” so I swore to myself to eat anything that was put in front of me. The first test was at breakfast on the first morning after I arrived. If you’ve been to middle America, you’ll know that it’s possible to get some pretty boring food (I’m spoiled now, by Tokyo’s cosmopolitan and eclectic food scene). And get it repeatedly. Where I am from, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, with two hard-working parents, we were eating what I would call typical “meat and potatoes” fare; pretty standard and fairly easy to prepare; by necessity. As I remember, the potatoes and veggies would stay the same, but the meat dish would rotate between burger, pork chops and chicken, usually.

So despite the incantations, I was completely unprepared for this Japanese breakfast. The first morning, I smelled something wafting up to my room that was not exactly appetizing to me. But I repeated my silent pledge. “I’m not going to be the whining, ugly American. I’m going to eat this!” So I trundled myself downstairs, where everyone was awake and busy (busy is pretty typical too, in Japanese houses especially with students around). It was a huge spread of Japanese food. White rice, miso soup, dried seaweed or laver, small smelts (fish) called shishamo, pickled cucumbers, a fried egg. Well, nothing except the egg was familiar, though the rice was easy. I ate everything. I learned that shishamo are meant to be eaten whole, how to wrap some rice in a square of nori, and to have some rice with the pickles because they tend to be pretty salty. Well, I managed to get it all down, despite not feeling so well after the four shishamo fish, heads, fins and all. Grandpa said “calcium!” when he saw my grimacing after the first shishamo assault.

When Grandma asked if I liked the food, I said in my halting Japanese “Hai. Oishii desu!” Afterwards, the daughters were grousing at me, saying “you hated the meal; why did you say you liked it!” I told them my promise not to be the ugly American, but they said “you watch; she’ll make it every day now and we’ll never see cornflakes again!” Cornflakes!? Anyway, my words must have made Grandma happy because she made that meal, or variations thereof, every morning for the next year, with some exceptions when the whining from the daughters for bread and cornflakes became too much! I came to really love the tastes of Japan, with this experience.

Would you like some Stodgy with that Formal?

One of the primary reasons I came to Japan, was to go to graduate school. Armed with recommendations from my fourth year advisor at Allegheny College, Dr. Wurst, I enlisted my host mother to call the two people I might be able to intern under. The first person was the VP at Chugai Pharmaceuticals. Host mom kindly called this guy up, and he took the next 10 minutes berating her for calling in the first place, and for not having a formal letter of introduction from Dr. Wurst, in the second. She gallantly put up with these hysterics. She told me later about what he said, but I could hear him really hollering at her during the conversation. Strike one of two. So much for that, and I guess a jerk is a jerk in any language.

So, after a little break after calming down from getting screamed at, host mom tried Dr. Sugiyama at Tokyo University. He turned out to be the nicest person, and invited me up for some talk and some evaluation. In the end, he let me in his Masters program, telling me frankly that my Japanese was awful and I’d better do something about it. So this fresh-off-the-boat gaijin committed himself to studying Japanese and Pharmacokinetics hard, and I am really fortunate to have had the chance to study under him. In fact, I think I’m fluent now because of his frank words then.

These experiences gave me some insight into Japan. First, with the case of the VP at Chugai, I’ve met intensely formal people like that in Japan since that time, and I would say that Japan is probably generally more formal in daily matters as compared to the US. But like the US and like any country, it depends upon the circle you’re in, the school, or the company.

Dr. Sugiyama was rather the opposite of the Chugai guy; relatively relaxed and informal. Ironically, while there was a clear hierarchy in Dr. Sugiyama’s labs, there was continual confusion over what was the right way, because of the mix between Japanese and other cultures (there were students from Korea and China too). In Japan, and apparently especially in Junior High School, students create and more importantly are allowed (encouraged?) to create hierarchies. Sempai-kohai, senior-junior hierarchies abound, and you don’t break them or their influence easily. Sometimes, these things really get out of hand and lead to some serious bullying especially in Junior Highschools. When a Doctoral student, let me call him “Koji”, befriended me and insisted that I speak English to him, “Let’s speak in English; call me Koji”, I was continually corrected by the other students. “No, he is Tanaka Sensei to you.” So, I learned to call him Koji, quietly, when speaking English but to call him Tanaka sensei any time else and especially in front of the manners police. I have to say, I’m not a very formal person myself, and so was always kind of bemused by this insistence to go against the guy’s wishes by his kohai.

Only after a few drinks, ok?

It’s said that the Japanese are inhibited and “shy”. Well I’ll tell you: not after some drinks, they aren’t. I’ve had several interesting experiences here, but I’ll relay three that happened to me when I was in my 20s, early in my stay in Japan, and one later one. The first was when I was wandering in Asakusa. I went to see the famous Kaminarimon, and was walking around the area when this old and drunk guy approached me. He haltingly introduced himself, and immediately started running his hands through my then-long hair. This was when I had a lot of hair. While I squirmed, trying to get away in the crowd, I left this guy saying “so nice” and “so soft”. Shudder.

The second interaction was a few years later, on the train in the heat of summer. A really, really drunk guy named Kimura, told me that he and his buddies were firemen, and wanted to make sure I understood Japanese culture. Kimura san slurred “Ith Japanese culchaa, bunka, you see, to givea GIFT to VIZtaa.” He thrust out his fan, and would not hear of my trying to give it back. I still have it today. It has “Kimura, 1st Fire Brigade” handwritten in Kanji on its spine. He probably wonders where the heck it went.

The third run-in with Japanese drunk culture was with a guy who took it upon himself to give me money. Said he: “You must be having a hard time. Japan is hard. You take this money.” I kept trying to explain to him that I have a full time job, and am doing ok, but I appreciate the gesture. Again, he would not hear of it and stuck a 10,000 yen note in my shirt pocket on the way out the door. But he was drunk, and I knew his wife would be pissed finding out he’d spent some of the family fortune on a random gaijin, so I stuffed the money in his departing back pocket.

Yakuza Ramen Noodle Projectile

I’ll leave you with this recent story. A friend and I were working together on a project, and he was here visiting from the UK. We went to a couple of bars after visiting a potential distribution center, and after we were sufficiently sauced, we decided to get one for the road at the train station. Standing right there in front of the kiosk was this older guy dressed in a gaudy white kimono. He had “Yakuza” written all over his face, but we said Shitsurei and went to grab a couple of beers from the kiosk fridge.

Just as I’m trying to pay, and praying for no interactions from him, Mr. White says “what are you drinking…” in slurred English that I could understand being used to the accents here, so I answered him in Japanese. He complimented my language skills, and then insisted on buying our drinks and snacks. The typical refusal-insistence-refusal-insistence dance ensued, and we ended up accepting his hospitality.

That was nice of him and all, but in the middle of our brief conversation he coughed, and a piece of ramen came out of his mouth, and proceeded slow-motion (at least it felt that way to me), to spin end-on-end toward my friend’s chest, where it landed with a splat after a few revolutions in mid-air. Our Mr. White was oblivious, but we sort of wiped it off, and got the heck out of there with our Chuhai’s and snacks.

A nice introduction to Japanese culture for my friend, wouldn’t you say?