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.
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?).
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.