Archive for March 2017

Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese Part 5: Conclusion

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to the United States after 5 years spent living abroad, mostly in Kyoto Japan. To mark this anniversary and to explore what I learned from my experience I will be posting articles focusing on my experiences there.

Part 5: Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese – Conclusion

We lived in Africa for a year and returned to Japan. I got my teaching job back and the Wife worked on writing up her thesis. For our first few months we lived in a Japanese professor’s apartment taking care of his cat while he and his wife were in Africa, and while there we saved up enough money to rent  small apartment in a building where the landlord only let to foreigners in a neighborhood that was shabby and run down by Japanese standards but worked for us. Soon we learned a baby was on the way and we began to entertain an extended life in Japan as the Wife’s advisor said she had a good chance to get a fellowship to continue her research on chimpanzees in Japan. We envisioned making Japan our home for years to come.

When things fell apart they fell apart quickly. On Jan 5, 1997 after submitting her thesis she learned that the post-doc had fallen through. Her advisor had failed to pull the strings necessary for her to land it. Such positions are treated as favors among scientists, so I don’t know if her advisor, one of Japan’s eminent primatologists, had used up his chits with other scientists or if he had simply forgotten to ask. Regardless, her scholarship was finished with the thesis submittal, and it would be another year before she would be able to find another fellowship. The loss of the scholarship halved our income at the very time when we needed money more than ever, and with a newborn it would be impossible for her to make up the difference editing scientific papers or tutoring English.

And I was burned out as a teacher. The lessons taught at Nova were extremely regimented, based around a textbook American Streamline. American Streamline was designed to be taught by any native speaker, teaching experience was not required. 20 years later I still dream about it, finding myself in a crowded teacher’s lounge, struggling to find the manila folder containing the student’s record, my heart sinking to learn that I’m stuck with a 7C alone – the least capable of students. It’s then off to find the blue edition of American Streamline, a book that I have memorized. 20 years later I can still recite Lesson 25, prepositions of location: “Pete’s standing outside the movie theater. He’s waiting for his friend Betsy. He’s looking at his watch because she’s late.” The bell-tones sound and I see the high school student forced to take the class by her mother waiting for me. Her face shows a smile at first then her eyes fall ever so slightly as she realizes that handsome Greg or Steve are not her teacher for today, but me. It’s going to be a long 40 minutes “man to man.”

And what about our newborn? Was it fair to him to grow up in a place far away from his grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins? What would life be like for him, an American child growing up in Japan? Growing up for anyone is tough. Growing up in Japan is even more difficult. But growing up a foreigner in Japan? We decided we couldn’t do that to him.

Besides, after completing her degree the Wife was having a change of heart, something that I noticed during our stay in Africa. She really wasn’t interested in becoming a primatologist. She was interested in medicine. So within days we formulated a plan. We would return to the US and live near her parents. She would take care of our child and take some required courses needed for medical school. By the time they were complete she would apply for medical school, right around the age our son would start school himself. I would get a job and build a career, supporting our family alone until she finished medical school. It was a crazy plan and would take almost 10 years to fulfill. But we stuck to it and it worked.

So what did I learn?

Living in Japan was nothing like I expected. I had studied the place in college and read everything I could on it but wasn’t prepared for the reality of what life in Japan is like and who the Japanese are.

I have said this many times and only because it bears repeating: I have traveled the world and the most unique people I’ve ever run across are the Japanese. Everything they do they do differently than other nations. In fact I don’t really consider the Japanese just a nationality: they are more of an ethnic group or even a religion. Being Jewish or African-American shapes your thinking and determines how you react to the world. It determines what you wear, what you eat and other aspects of daily living that we really don’t consider.

The same is true with the Japanese. Being Japanese determines what you eat, how you speak and relate to others, what you wear (depending on age group and sex), even how to laugh. Cultures are different, and the Japanese culture is one of the most different of all.

Just as importantly I learned about what it meant to be an American. I saw the US through the eyes of not just the Japanese but the Canadians, New Zealanders, Brits and Australians I lived and worked with. I realized that outsiders think they understand the US, and believe they know how to fix us. Some see us as the root of all evil, yet when disasters strike or wars start abroad no one wonders how New Zealand is going to react: they look to the US.

I realized that being an American I had to accept the shame of our mistakes, such as slavery and the treatment of African-Americans after the Civil War. But I also could accept the wonderful things the US has done in the world, like helping Japan, a former enemy, to rebuild and encouraging it to grow into a peaceful unique society true to itself and not becoming a clone of the US.

Living in Japan humbled me and made me a better citizen of the United States while making me realize that the people in the world are much more different than we expect – and that’s actually a wonderful thing. Why travel if the people on the other side of the planet are just like you, they just speak a different language? How easy it must be to solve the world’s problems when everyone is the same, sharing the same outlooks, perspectives and values, divided only by language.

It’s a naive view, and one I see infecting today’s political discourse on topics as varied as Chinese actions in the South China Sea to the threat posed by radical Islam.

When I returned from Japan I started my IT career and although teaching and IT don’t have much to do with each other on the surface, I view my experience working in Japan as critical to success in my IT career.

Accepting Different Cultural Assumptions: Working in Japan prepared me for integrating better in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic IT field. I learned that the same base assumptions we have don’t always hold, that there are fundamental differences between cultures and ethnicities that we have to consciously bridge. I realized I needed to approach people from other countries and ethnic groups with a broader, more open perspective. I couldn’t assume they would think like me, and that it was up to me to help understand their thinking and harness it for the benefit of our team and company.

Improved Communication Skills: Teaching English made me realize how we often speak using overly complicated grammar and syntax, and by using idioms that are useless to most non-native speakers. Not only did this teach me to communicate better with non-native speakers, it also helped me communicate more effectively with those outside of IT and to higher management by stripping out jargon and simplifying my speech (an ongoing challenge!)In Japan I taught ages 7–84, students with 0 ability to simultaneous translators. I got pretty good at understanding a wide level of pronunciation, something that comes into play everyday on phone calls with teams in Mumbai or in conference calls in rooms with acoustics like a bank vault.

It Sparked My Curiosity: I grew up in a monocultural environment in the American Midwest. I went from one monocultural environment to another, one that was in many ways its polar opposite. But living and working in Japan fed my curiosity and helped create within me a strong drive to see what made “things” like computer hardware, software and their systems work. It also made me intensely curious about the world around me, and that curiosity to learn about the lives of my colleagues from China and India, as well as to study systems and see where they succeed and where they fail, lays at the core of my IT career.

Would I live there again? Absolutely not, although I’d love to visit if only to sate my deep love of  Japanese fried food.

Do I regret living there? Nope, although I do wish I could redo the first few years with my current perspective.

When will I go back? I’m not sure. Japan is so far away and there are so many other places to see in the world that are just as far away such as India, China and Australia.

20 years on my love of Japan and the Japanese continues. You can take the gaijin out of Japan but it’s impossible to take Japan out of the gaijin.

Post script:

While the culture shock of living in Japan should be clear through these essays, what I haven’t mentioned is the culture shock I experienced after returning to the United States. Reverse culture shock is real, and the State Department has a good write up on it. For my first two years I had a rough time adjusting back to life in the US.

I remember being depressed riding the SEPTA trains in Philadelphia. The trains were filthy compared to the Japanese trains, and the train workers surly and uncooperative as opposed to the polite and cheerful Japanese train drivers and conductors. The neighborhoods the trains traveled through looked worse than anything I had seen in my travels in Japan or even Africa. Through the scratched yellowed windows of the train, Chester Pennsylvania looked as if it had been recently devastated by a war. It made me feel ashamed to be an American.

Then there was readjusting to family and friends. I had had so many unique experiences over the prior five years that I felt I would burst unless I shared them with others. But most people weren’t very interested in hearing about them. What I had seen wasn’t very interesting to them, and my experience became a conversation killer. “So what have you been up to?” “I just returned from Japan.” “Oh, that’s nice.” (crickets).

I found myself seeking out Japanese people, food and culture, and I was lucky enough to land a consulting job for a Japanese client in New Jersey, helping them protect their systems from the Y2K bug. Although I didn’t interact with them much, it was a comfort of sorts just seeing Japanese language on the computer screen and hearing snippets of it in the break room. I took to the Internet and advised people interested in Japan in various forums. It took some time but eventually the frustration of reverse culture shock went away. But those who were interested in my experiences were likely a bit overwhelmed by my overly eager responses.

Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese Part 4

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to the United States after 5 years spent living abroad, mostly in Kyoto Japan. To mark this anniversary and to explore what I learned from my experience I will be posting articles focusing on my experiences there.

Part 4: Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese

Within 3 weeks of my arrival I had found work as  English instructor at Nova Intercultural Institute. In 1992 the only qualifications I needed were a college degree and be a native speaker of English. My first assignment was at a school in the suburbs of Osaka. Nova once was the largest employer of foreign workers in Japan, but it suddenly went bankrupt in 2007 and now is only a shadow of itself. Work provided me the security I needed and my culture shock began to abate. In its place was the optimism that I had before I left the United States. I began to study Japanese, and explored Kyoto with the Wife on our days off. I made a serious effort into becoming a good instructor for my students, and pushed them to succeed. By spring of 1994 the Wife and I were settled in a cozy apartment in western Kyoto. I was working in downtown Kyoto and had been promoted to manager of a small school. The Wife had finished her masters at Kyoto University and had begun preparing the outlines for her doctoral research. To do that would require another move, and it was a big one: to Africa.

Journal entries

June 1992, Kyoto Japan.

We are still living together at a girl’s residence for foreign students. Being a man my presence in the dorm has to be hidden from the landlord, a wealthy middle-aged woman with 2 grown daughters who loves to pop in to visit her foreign renters. So each day I have to sneak out of the Wife’s room, catch breakfast at a coffeeshop in the neighborhood or on the way to work, then sneak back into the room after work after a visit to the public bath. The situation is a strain, but our attempts at locating suitable accommodation are hampered by our lack of money and more importantly our status as foreigners. Although the Wife speaks fluent Japanese and is a graduate student on a Japanese government scholarship at the prestigious Kyoto University, and I have a solid income and am fully aware of Japanese customs such as removing my shoes whenever I enter a room, landlords don’t want to rent to us. We are reaching a point where we would have to either split up or leave Japan.

August 1992, Kyoto Japan

Mrs. N is the wife of one of my wife’s advisors. She heard about our housing predicament and stepped into action. Although 7 months pregnant she spent considerable time on the phone and visited numerous apartment realtors. Her task wasn’t easy: she faces the same problem we did on our own, a landlord willing to rent to a foreign couple. But Mrs. N was tenacious and within a week she accompanied me to the real estate agent’s office to place a down payment on an apartment sight-unseen. Then it was time for me to learn about “key money.”

Key Money entry in Wikipedia
In Japan, reikin (礼金?, literally, “gratitude money”) is a mandatory payment to the landlord that is often the same amount as the original deposit (shikikin). However, reikin can be the equivalent of six months (or more) of rent, but is typically the same as one to three months of rent. This money is considered a gift to the landlord and is not returned after the lease is canceled.

There are regional variations – in Kantō (Eastern Japan, including Tōkyō), a renewal fee (更新料 kōshinryō?) is typically charged at contract renewal, similar to repetition of key money, while in Ōsaka key money is instead deducted from a large security deposit, which is known as shikibiki (敷引き?), from “rental deposit” (敷金 shikikin?).[1][2]

The landlord was willing to rent to us, but we needed to come up with ¥500,000 ($4,000). After all the struggle finding a place, neither my wife nor I knew about key money. I didn’t say anything to Mrs. N, but she sensed something was wrong. Because of the language barrier between us I couldn’t explain we didn’t have the money. And I was also extremely embarrassed. I could name all the prime ministers in the Japanese government but I had never heard of “key money.” After meeting my wife I explained the problem, and she spoke to Mrs. N. About ready to give birth to her first baby which would likely stretch her own finances, Mrs. N lent us the money. We were complete strangers to her but she handed my wife a thick packet full of Japanese ¥10,000 notes. A professor at the African Studies Department would be our apartment guarantor.

On August 25, 1992 I met Professor K at his office. He smiled brightly from behind a thick cloud of cigarette smoke, and we exchanged introductions. Professor K and I then visited the real estate agent’s office, where he spoke on our behalf and filled out complex looking forms as I sat numbly sipping tea, feeling the weight of the money in my pocket. Not only did I have the key money from Mrs. N, I also had 3 months rent up front as well as a large deposit, our entire savings in Japan.

The real estate agent than drove Professor K and I to the landlord’s representative’s house in the Kyoto suburbs. For 2 hours we sat in a room full of smoking middle age men drinking coffee and exchanging pleasantries and watching my money be divided up among several of them. Each would then take the rental agreement and then add his honko, inked name block, to the document. By the end of the ceremony the rental document was covered in light red stamps, we are completely broke, but we have a place to live. Through the kindness of Mrs N and Professor K we are able to stay in Japan [Almost 25 years later I feel I owe them both a debt of gratitude for their help].

Kyoto November 2, 1992

Preparing for bed I can hear the horse-like clop-clop of the traditional wooden sandals called geta echo off the shuttered storefronts, the noise rising as the wearer approaches then descending as the pass in front of our 3rd floor apartment, probably off to the local bath for a a refreshing hot soak before bed. I can hear the distorted crooning of a singer in the karaoke bar two floors below as I spread the futon on the tatami floor, and laughter and light chatter as others pass. I crawl between the covers of the futon and hear a car, then a motor scooter, then nothing. Welcome silence. I begin to drift off to sleep.

The sound of bagpipes pulls me back. At first I think they are part of a dream but soon hear the sound bouncing off the shuttered store fronts in the neighborhood. I open my eyes and check the time. 1:05 am. As the sound creeps closer it rises in pitch and intensity, and I feel myself starting to get angry. I dare the frigid early morning air and step onto the balcony. It is a piercing sound but beneath it I hear the low putter of a small engine. I look up the street and see a pint-sized pickup truck slowly crawling towards me. As it gets closer I see that it is truck dispensing hot noodles behind heavy red curtains displaying the company name and the characters for ramen.

The noodle truck is a tradition in a country that even takes care of its drunks, providing them with something to sop up the alcohol in their stomachs so that their hangovers in the morning won’t be as bad. Failing that, it’s something for them to throw up before they head to work.

The late night noodle truck captured on video. Proof that I’m not making this stuff up.

Osaka, December 29, 1992

I’m sitting on a train platform in central Osaka waiting for my train, the 2nd of 4 I need to get home in my in my 1 hour and 45 minute commute. I’ve got 9 days of paid vacation which I hope to do nothing with except relax. If there was any doubt in my mind that I wasn’t a hardworker, the past 9 months have dispelled it. This company works us to death.

The author with his favorite students at the goodbye party at his first school at Moriguchi, Osaka Japan. Feb 1993.

As for this country, sweeping generalizations and summaries are impossible. It is so complex and secret because of the language and cultural differences that every time I try to come up with an observation something else comes up and undermines it.

Nine months here have given me a glimpse into the Japanese spirit. The Japanese are having a bit of an identity crisis right now. It’s like each one is asking himself, “Are we part of Asia or the West? Or are we something so unique we don’t belong anywhere?”The Japanese are a very orderly people. They instinctively order classify things around them: foreign/Japanese, man/woman, different/same. These classifications make it all but impossible to bridge. I’ve spent so much of my time trying to calm students down because they are terrified of speaking English to me. They’ve been taught to classify foreigners as English speakers and Japanese people as unable to speak English. The Wife has noticed the reverse is true. She speaks Japanese pretty well but often has trouble being understood because when people meet her they expect her to be unable to speak to Japanese. So when she does it’s like their brains can’t understand the words because they are coming out of a foreign mouth. It’s only after they become used to her that she’s able to communicate effectively. I read the Japanese have an “English complex” but tonight three of my students corrected me. They told me they don’t have an “English complex,” they have a “foreigner complex.”

Osaka Jan 8, 1993

Today the Keihan train line was a mess. It seems someone leapt to their death in front of one of the trains, thereby disrupting the entire line and the patterned lives of thousands of commuters. The train conductors are giving out small slips of paper expressing the line’s apologies for the delay in case our bosses demand to know why we are late. This is the third time in six weeks this has happened on a line I use to get to work. Last month a nurse was pushed, or threw herself in front of a limited express train as it ran through a station. She hit the side of the train as it was passing at about 60 mph, and her body was thrown into the crowd of people waiting for the next train. A few weeks ago another person killed themselves on the line, but did so at night and so few commuters were inconvenienced.

Suicide is acceptable here and since Japan has zero tolerance for guns, trains are a common way of getting the deed done.

 

 

Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese Part 3

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to the United States after 5 years spent living abroad, mostly in Kyoto Japan. To mark this anniversary and to explore what I learned from my experience I will be posting articles focusing on my experiences there.

Part 3: Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese

Within days of my arrival my Wife was about ready to send me back. I was absolutely petrified, afraid to speak even the rudimentary Japanese I needed to order at food stands and restaurants. Having grown up in the suburbs of St. Louis Missouri I hadn’t even left the country until I went to college and crossed the border to see bands in Tijuana Mexico. 25 years later it’s hard for me to describe the vertigo I felt as I explored Japan. Everything was different except for the presence of my Wife, and I was so desperate for familiarity that I smothered her. I was 25 years old but incredibly naive and “green” about the world. I had thought traveling in the United States and living and attending school away from home in California had prepared me for life abroad, but it hadn’t.

Although I had been sober for three years I took to drinking and found “courage in a bottle.” The Japanese are heavy consumers of alcohol and the “beer machines” outside liquor stores stocked with Asahi Super Dry, sake and even whisky became my first “Japanese friends.” After the Wife returned from a trip out of town, her friends told her about the numerous empty Kirin beer bottles I had kept by the door, disposing of them a few hours before her return. Alcohol would be a factor in my life for the next 8 years.

Morning Voices – Kyoto Fall 1993

I lay in the futon in a half awake state. I open my eyes and look at the curtained sliding glass doors and see only darkness behind them. I hear the clickety-clack of the Keifuku trolley nearby as it cuts through the cold dawn air. It begins its run at 5:30am and the darkness alerts me that I have only a few brief hours of sleep left. Beside me my wife’s rhythmic breathing and her warmth entice me to snuggle close to her and I quickly fall back asleep.

Soon she is awake and making coffee for us in the kitchen of our 3 room apartment: a living area, a bedroom and a dining/kitchen known as a 2DK. I begin to stir when I hear men singing outside. A chorus of middle C followed by C sharp sung by a different group. The song is faint, but it grows slowly in intensity. I notice that the different groups of voices act in opposition, but occasionally mix together. I brave the cold bedroom air and throw on sweatpants and a sweatshirt, open the sliding doors and step onto the balcony three floors above the narrow street.

Video I shot of the monks from my balcony.

I look down the street as the sun rises over the eastern mountains of Kyoto. Uzumasa, our neighborhood, is bustling already at this early hour. Two old women, backs bent at angles perilously approaching 90 degrees attend to the street outside their homes, sweeping it with straw brooms. The whisk-whisk sound they make on the asphalt adds percussion accompaniment to the men’s chorus.

One by one the Buddhist monks appear, dressed in black cotton cloaks and white linen trousers bunched up into their white knee-high boots, topped by wide-brimmed straw hats which hide their faces and serve as a primitive amplifier for their voices. They walk briskly in two groups of ten spaced a few feet apart on both sides of the road, their arms held before them, palms together in prayer with fingers straight except for their index fingers which are folded together.

The brooms stop as the old ladies bow deeply to the monks, somehow managing to avoid falling over. After they bow a monk stops and stands before the ladies and they deposit coins into a cloth sack around his neck. He bows deeply in gratitude before rejoining the group.

They continue down the street at a brusque pace. Each monk stops before a doorway of a house, sings briefly and, if a housewife fails to appear with a donation, he bows deeply and moves to the next house. I stand for a few minutes in the cold, leaning over the balcony and watching the monks as they work their way down the street, the chorus fading until it blends with the everyday sounds of the neighborhood.

After I return inside and rejoin the wife for coffee we hear another man’s voice, this time distorted by a loudspeaker mounted on a recycling truck. As the small truck putters slowly down the street people bring out their old newspaper and comic books – some as thick as telephone books – for recycling. Although the tape recorded voice is incomprehensible to me I have grown accustomed to it. It differs from the recycling truck of our old neighborhood across the city. Every morning that truck would awaken us with a recording of a woman’s voice warbling “konnichiwa” followed by a request for paper overlayed on a background of organ music. In Osaka I have heard a paper recycling truck using a man’s voice on a background of incoming artillery shells. I found that particular truck interesting considering that the neighborhood it collected from had been flattened by American bombs during World War 2.

This is video of the second recycling truck described in the paragraph above. The Internet never ceases to amaze…

A few minutes pass and I grudgingly leave the warm bath area and step out into the cold air of the bathroom. Central heating and cooling is rare in this part of Japan, even though we are at the same latitude as North Carolina. As I towel off I can clearly see my breath before me and the steam rising from my body. I pad down the hallway, my skin numb from the shock of the cold, and step onto the tatami matted floor of the bedroom.

As I dress I hear a faint sound outside which gradually intensifies into a woman’s voice shouting two clipped syllables answered by a chorus of children’s voices. It reminds of a chant one might hear in a military-style bootcamp although devoid of all masculinity. I throw open the sliding door and take advantage of my stunned skin to weather the cold.

I see two lines of six year old children jogging somewhat in unison, all wearing yellow caps, red shorts, shoes of various colors and nothing else, following their athletic-suited teachers. Although it around freezing temperature the children seem oblivious to the cold. I am told that such exercises are common in elementary and junior high school to build group identity and individual fortitude. The chant rises and falls as the lines of 60 or so children pass beneath our balcony. At the end of the lines I notice the children seem to be playing with other more than running and chanting in unison. Another teacher dressed in shorts and a thin white blouse chides them and corrals them onward.

It is time for us to join the morning’s activities, my wife to the lab at the university and me to the office in downtown Kyoto.

On my way in I walk passed a pachinko parlor. Imagine taping all the sounds of all the video games ever made. Add to it all the sounds of a pinball arcade and the flat tones of a touch tone telephone. Speed up the tape to 3x normal. Add the amplified chanting of a carnival barker and garnish with the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip, then cram it all into a building the size of a 7-11 and you have a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a game of upright pinball in which people purchase steel marble-sized balls, load them into the machine and shoot them to the top where they cascade down, hitting pins and targets along the way. Some targets release more balls into the loading tray and the fortunate end up with more balls than they purchased. These can then be exchanged for prizes such as food or cheap electronics or for a receipt which the winner can redeem for cash at a small kiosk located near the parlor, thereby getting around the laws prohibiting gambling in Japan. The lucky few can win several hundred dollars in a few hours. The not so lucky can lose those sums in minutes. The din of the machines, electronic music and announcements bursts out of the parlor whenever the sliding doors open.

At the office I slide open a window to let in some air. Behind the office building there is a small cemetery. Stone monuments composed of 3 stacked marble slabs stacked pyramid-like are engraved with the funerary names of those whose ashes are interred beneath the base. Behind the grave stones are metal racks which hold long thin wooden stakes painted with the “death names” of the deceased, dates and short prayers. Each year on the anniversary of the death a small ceremony is held and the family places another stake into the rack. Most of the graves contain several of the stakes with the newer stakes light tan with dark black Japanese kanji and the older various shades of gray. Today a cold drizzle-laden wind blows and the prayer stakes rattle, a chattering which sounds like the murmuring of a large crowd of people outside of the office, building to a the sounds of applause with the rising of the wind. At other times on windless days the prayer stakes sound like soft tapping at the office window, a gentle reminder that the dead are still there.

 

Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese Part 2

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to the United States after 5 years spent living abroad, mostly in Kyoto Japan. To mark this anniversary and to explore what I learned from my experience I will be posting articles focusing on my experiences there.

Part 2: Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese

I had always been fascinated by Japan. Growing up in the early 1970s I watched Godzilla and Ultraman on the local independent TV stations. After I learned to read I noticed that many of my toys came from Japan. And then there were the stories that my father told me as I snuggled up against him in his recliner, about the vicious Japanese who never gave up as he fought as part of General MacArthur’s forces in the Philippines. Children’s minds are sensitive and extremely “sticky,” meaning that you never know what idea is going to embed there and guide their paths in Life. This is one reason why I believe they should be treated differently than adults, a fact which seems obvious to me but not to everyone it seems.

By the early 1980s my father had passed away and America felt under siege from the Japanese electronics and car companies. The perception of Japan had gradually shifted from one of harmless ally against the Communists in East Asia to a silent adversary that was “hollowing out” the American economy. When it came time to consider what I wanted to study in college,  I knew my degree would be in political science and while most of my peers continued to study the Soviet Union I focused on East Asia and the rising economies of South Korea, China and most importantly, Japan. For several years I studied everything about Japan, its history, culture, government and society. When I finished my Bachelors degree, I was confident that I knew about as much about Japan as was possible to learn from books.

Through serendipity as well as some shrewd choices I found myself on a plane to Japan to catch up with my wife who had arrived 6 weeks earlier. I had about $2,000 in my pocket, a college degree, no job and no Japanese language skills. On the airplane I removed the last connection to the Goth subculture that got me through college, having cut off my long hair prior to the flight: a hanging silver earring of the Egyptian cross. I arrived in Osaka, jet lagged and exhausted.

The author in a Japanese graveyard in 1992. After all I was still a Goth at heart.

Would Japan embrace me after all the books I read, all the goods I bought, all the term papers I wrote about her?

Of course not. This is a story about kataomoi.

Originally posted as The Watch

The following was written by me on August 22, 1996 while living in Kyoto Japan. I refer to this event in the About Me page of this website.

I witnessed the pathetic end of a rather sad life today. A young woman killed herself beneath the wheels of a commuter train. Her life ended this afternoon at 12:33, and now some dozen hours later I cannot think of anything else.

Leaping in front of commuter trains is a common method of suicide in this part of Japan. In other parts it is relatively rare from what my friends tell me. Most suicides choose a station with a beautiful view and near a bend so that the train drivers have no warning. As some stations are only served by local trains, these are also more popular as the express trains fly through them – often at speeds approaching sixty miles an hour. On stations where the bullet train pass, they do so on outer, inaccessible rails with tall fences constructed to deter the jumpers.

The young woman chose Tofukuji station on the Keihan line – a station on a bend affording a pleasant view of the eastern mountains of Kyoto. It is also served by local trains only. So at 12:33pm, just before a Kyoto-bound train was to pass through the station and pass my Osaka-bound express train, she threw herself onto the rails. I’ve heard that when the suicides jump, they instinctively land on their feet. I wonder if this girl did the same. Did she stand and see the train driver’s stunned face? Or was she looking at the eastern mountains?

There is a wall of air that surrounds any fast moving object, and hitting this is the equivalent of hitting concrete. The would have sucked her body under the train carriages, dragging it along for several hundred yards until the train stopped. Supposedly death is quick, though I’ve often wondered whether that last instant of life stretches for the doomed, turning into infinity. In all the dangerous scrapes I’ve survived time seemed to become quite elastic, with seconds stretching into minutes before reality snapped back on itself and the flow of time resumed once the crisis was over.

My Osaka bound train had been scheduled to pass its Kyoto-bound counterpart at the station. Her leap changed all that. Both trains stopped, with mine halting a car length or so from where she laid beneath the wheels. Any commuter knows the rhythm of her train or bus, and the sudden slowing down of the train broke me away from my newspaper and awakened numerous dozing passengers. A group of high school boys at the very front of the train began chattering, and as the train came to an abrupt halt, I knew there was trouble. The driver scurried between a window and a telephone and the high school students along with some curious old people stood up. I moved forward expecting the worst but drawn forward nonetheless by the irresistible force that draws strangers towards the site of a tragedy.

She laid face down on the tracks beneath an axle, her body covered by the shadow of the passenger car  above her. The high school students and the old people began asking each other, “Is it a man? A woman? From the heap laying on the tracks we couldn’t tell. The driver of our train left and trotted to her body, putting on some latex gloves as he did so. I noticed some station attendants appear, each removing his white gloves and replacing them with purple-colored latex ones. One of the station attendants carried a green tarp which they spread on the ground next to the body. They lifted her gently from under the train, and I was surprised by how limp her body was.

I understand that there are those such as paramedics, firemen, and police who know how a dead body looks when it is moved, but to someone whose experiences of death are thankfully few and far between it is quite stunning. When dead bodies are moved in movies, they never look like that. To me it looked as if the station workers were picking up an odd shaped sack of cement. There was no muscle control or rigidity to the body whatsoever. She was completely, impossibly limp. It may have looked like a sack of cement to me but it wasn’t. What those men laid gently onto the tarp had moments before been human, and I suddenly felt sick.

As they arranged her body on the tarp we saw the gold watch on her arm. It was a slim watch, obviously a woman’s, and the students and the old people said almost in unison, “It’s a woman.” For having a five hundred foot long train run over it, her body was surprisingly intact. The head and all the limbs were all where they were supposed to be. She wore blue jeans and was barefoot. She probably had been wearing shoes which had come off during her death since no one walks barefoot in the street of Japan. To be honest I forget what top she wore, but I can see the watch clearly. It was a gold watch, a slim woman’s analog. Had it been a gift or had she purchased it herself? How often had she looked at it, and had she used it to time her death?

As they carried the body across the rails in front of our train the Japanese boys twittered excitedly among themselves as an old woman gazed upon the scene solemnly. The station attendants and our driver hefted her body onto the train platform and blood gushed upon the concrete, eliciting shouts of “Gross!” and “Disgusting!” from the high schoolers. I found myself shaking and noticed that some old people sitting on the train station platform turned their bodies away from the scene only a few feet away from them, gazing up the tracks and waiting for the next train to come and take them away from the little human drama unfolding nearby.

They were not alone. I noticed that quite a few people remained in their seats on the train throughout this little drama. Some of them were reading newspapers or the ubiquitous comic books which occupy the time of so many Japanese when they aren’t working or sleeping. Others simply stared into space, off in their little worlds seemingly oblivious to this scene. Others waiting in the train which had hit the woman looked annoyed as they looked back and forth between their watches and the station attendants, as if their fidgeting would send the body quickly to the morgue and get the train back on schedule. Their train conductor no doubt was making the same train announcements as ours throughout the ordeal – apologizing for the inconvenience and promising we would soon be underway.

And soon we were as our driver returned, removing his latex gloves as he entered the train. The train conductor announced his thanks and appreciation for our wait. The woman’s body laying covered by the tarp, station workers beside it, slowly slid past outside our windows as our train continued on its journey. Next stop Fushimiinari, famous for its Shinto shrine dedicated to prosperity.

We returned to our seats, the students still chattering excitedly. I stared at the newspaper and at the article I had been reading but couldn’t concentrate. At this paragraph the woman had been alive and I hadn’t known it; at the next she was dead, and that I knew.

No doubt some would scoff at my apparent naivete and sensitivity regarding this woman’s suicide. My wife and I are expecting our first child in two months, and we were warned that parenthood would make us more sensitive to certain events and stories in the news. Perhaps that explains why I have spent the past hours thinking about that watch and that girl, imagining the future.

Somewhere a person was living their life and received a phone call that changed it forever. Their lives, along with those of her family, were now part of a very ancient play in which loved ones are mourned and their bodies consigned to oblivion. The funeral would last several days, and from what I know about Japanese funerals, they are quite extraordinary affairs. Given the state of her body, the family may forgo the usual dressing of it and placing it in a futon, as if the dead were asleep at her family home. On the next day she would lay in an open wooden casket with a large portrait of her hanging above as a Buddhist monk chanted and incense filled the air. Later she would then receive her death or spirit name, the name which would appear on her gravestone. This practice where the dead are given different names makes tracing ancestors by searching headstones in cemeteries impossible. But the Japanese maintain meticulous family histories, some of which go back a thousand years. Finally on the third day she would be cremated.

Funerals are always bizarre affairs in any culture, so perhaps what I’m about to describe isn’t as strange to some as it was to me. But I find the custom of Japanese cremation to be downright spooky. The Japanese cremate their dead at a much lower temperature which burns away the flesh but leaves the bones. Afterwards the bones are removed from the oven and laid out before the family members. Each member then uses a pair of large wooden chopsticks or tongs to pick up a bone and place it into a special ceremonial box. The rest of the remains are then added to the box with the skull placed on top. The box is then covered and carried home where it remains for several days until the family gravestone is opened. One student told me about her grandfather’s funeral. She mentioned the smell and the warmth emanating from the box as she carried it home. Small ceremonies where a Buddhist monk chants, burns incense and rings a bell are then carried out forty nine days, one year, three years, seven years and thirteen years after death. Each year during the Bon holiday in August her relatives will come to her gravestone and pour water over it as they offer a prayer to her soul.

And so it shall be for this girl whose broken body I saw on my way to work today. I will never know her name nor what drove her to a death which mildly inconvenienced several hundred passengers on the Keihan line for a few minutes on a hot summer day in Kyoto Japan.

Post script: There was no mention of her death in the local media.  I don’t know whether this omission was meant to protect the family or because such acts are relatively common here.

Update: The woman has been dead almost 18 years now. Her broken body has faded into shadow, but the raw emotion of this scene still stirs within me. The watch remains clear.

Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese Part 1

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my return to the United States after 5 years spent living abroad, mostly in Kyoto Japan. To mark this anniversary and to explore what I learned from my experience I will be posting articles focusing on my experiences there.

Part 1: Kataomoi – My Unrequited Love for Japan and the Japanese

20 years ago this week my wife and I loaded up a taxi with a 5 month old child, 3 cats, and several suitcases and headed to a train station where we caught a series of trains, followed by several long flights, that returned us to the United States. Aside from the luggage, kid, and cats we arrived here with $12,000 in savings, no job prospects, and a square meter of stuff packed in a shipping container that would take 6 weeks to arrive at the port of Philadelphia. Fast forward 20 years, and we still have 1 one of the cats, a kid ready to explore the world on his own and in a very big way, two successful careers and a comfortable life in the rural American South. As our nest empties we have begun to travel more and have visited Europe several times with an even more adventurous trip in the works.

But Japan still pulls at me. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet I am able to stream all the Japanese animation and sitcoms that I desire. Two of these sitcoms, Good Morning Call and Mischievous Kiss: Love in Tokyo, have a common theme. Known as kataomoi or “unrequited love” they center around a teen-age heroine who is cute and somewhat goofy who yearns for the high school hunk who complete ignores her. Everything the heroine does to capture the guy’s heart fails, but she ignores the boy who loves her in order to pursue her dream match. Kind of creepy in some ways and masochistic in others, the heroines persevere and inevitably win. Kataomoi is a common theme in sitcoms as well as the popular graphic novels (manga) that spawn them.

20 years later I realize I have a serious case of kataomoi for Japan, and Japan couldn’t care less if it tried.

From the post, A Trip to Mt. Hiei, Kyoto Japan.

I wrote the following while living in Kyoto Japan in 1993. Noise pollution in Japan remains an issue today.

Kyoto is a city of a million people lying about 35 miles north of Osaka. Although mass transportation and urban sprawl have turned Kyoto into a suburb of Osaka, Kyoto has retained its identity as being the cultural and historical capital of Japan, even managing to retain its distinctive dialect of Japanese. It sits in a broad valley with low mountains to the north, east and west with a thin and shallow concrete banked river running north-south through the eastern half of the city. The city is a mixture of residential, commercial and industrial spaces with the edges predominantly residential and the southern part of the city industrial. Centuries old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dot the city. Although Kyoto escaped the bombings which leveled other cities like Osaka during the war, most of the temples and shrines in Kyoto were destroyed in the various civil wars which raged in the area between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries or by accidental fires which periodically spread and laid waste to the city.

Late one summer the Wife and I  decided to escape the heat and city life by visiting Mount Hiei in Eastern Kyoto. Hiei is a cone-shaped mountain rising about 3,000 feet above sea-level at the northeastern edge of the city. We chose Hiei because we were craving outdoor activity after months spent living and working in the city. Plus Hiei’s history is irresistible to any serious Nipponophile.

In the 12th century monasteries of the Tendai sect of Buddhism were established around the summit of Mt. Hiei. Thousands of warrior monks lived, prayed and trained at the “Enryakuji”, the great monastic headquarters of the sect. As the power of the rulers in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto ebbed with the general collapse of centralized government during the period, the warrior monks caused problems. At various occasions during the next three hundred years the monks would descend on Kyoto to rape, pillage and generally wreak havoc in the city and the surrounding areas, returning to the safety of their heavily fortified monasteries before an organized defense could be mounted. Weakened by corruption and the shift of power to the provincial nobility, the central government could do little to combat the raids and the threat the monks posed to feudal society.

Oda Nobunaga was the first of three great leaders who unified Japan in the 16th century. He was a provincial lord from the east of Kyoto who, using diplomacy and force, began the unification of Japan which his successors Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Tokugawa Ieyasu completed in the early 17th century. In 1568 Oda seized Kyoto and for 3 years worked to control the various sects of warrior monks living in the mountains surrounding the city. In 1571 he laid siege to Mt. Hiei in an attempt to subdue the monks of the Enryakuji. With the failure of various diplomatic overtures and military attacks and no sign that the monks were suffering from the siege, Oda installed archers at the siege line circling the mountain and the set fire to the trees. The heavily forested mountain of cypress, fueled by dry summer winds created an inferno which trapped the monks at the mountain’s summit, setting fire to their wooden fortifications. In desperation the monks ran through the flames and were picked off one-by-one by the archers. Thousands of monks were killed and at a single stroke he power of the warrior monks was destroyed. Only in 1992 did the monks of the Tendai sect begin to include Oda Nobunaga in their prayers at their annual memorial of the event.

We took a city bus to the foot of the mountain then a cable car which ratcheted up the side of the mountain on geared tracks. Halfway up we switched to a rope-way which lifted us above the cypress-covered valley and carried us to the summit. As we exited the car and stepped on the broad summit of the mountain, all thoughts of a quiet hike in contemplation of nature and history were blasted out of our skulls by a barrage of Japanese pop music blaring from loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles and trees around the summit. Expecting to find quiet Buddhist temples and hiking trails we found a miniature golf course and game center with a grass-ski lodge where one could strap on roller skis and ski down the mountainside while being serenaded by Japanese pop stars. Searching the woods for an escape from the cacophony we stumbled upon a broad asphalt parking lot flanked by small open air kiosks selling souvenirs and fast food such as fried octopus and squid omelets. We crossed the parking lot and ignored a chain across a trail head and set down the path strewn with soft drink cans. cigarette butts and even rusting refrigerators. Although quieter the noise echoed between the ridges and trees to become an even more annoying din.

The trail zig-zagged down the mountain but try as we might we could not escape the noise. Just when we thought we had found a place where the noise was blocked, the wind would shift and we would be assaulted by the noise again. After half an hour of hiking down the mountain, the litter and omnipresent noise were too much and we decided to leave.

As we turned and began the hike back up the trail we heard the sound of a distant temple gong. Behind a thicket of trees we could make out a Buddhist monastery. The gong sounded again and for an instant I imagined the how the valley must have looked hundreds of years ago during Oda’s siege. The encampment and bamboo barricades at the foot of the mountain. Oda’s banners flapping in the summer breeze. The smoke and advancing wall of flame. But the gong stopped and the din from above muscled out the thoughts. We slowly made our way up the trail and left the mountain.

2014 Update: Beat poet Gary Snyder once said of Japanese Buddhism, “They got the message but didn’t open the envelope.” While living there I was never able to bridge the dichotomy between what the Japanese present and what they really are. Pollution was everywhere, and noise pollution in particular made it impossible for one to ever be alone with his or her thoughts. There were even speakers at the famous rock garden temple of Ryoanji that never shut up. The idea of tranquility never became reality, and the Japanese couldn’t understand it because they had grown up with the noise pollution and so couldn’t understand why foreigners complained. They just didn’t get it.