Japan Spring & Summer '92: Idiosyncrasies

May 12, 1992 Kurashiki, Japan

Greetings One & All:

I've been getting so many letters lately from family and friends that I'm starting to feel guilty for not writing back. So, today, I decided I'd better start another letter and tell you what's been happening the past few months (I started this letter on May 12!).

One thing about Japan is that it sure is noisy! I often wake up early (6:30 A.M.) because of trains rumbling by; or people going to work; or getting up in the apartment next door (the walls are quite thin); and often on weekends there are small trucks with big loudspeakers that drive by and want to sell you something--at 8 A.M. Sunday morning I am not amused. Sometimes there is an airplane flying overhead, with a loudspeaker, advertising a local department store--talk about noise pollution! Anyway, this morning I woke up early (again) (6:30 A.M.)--read for a bit, had some kiwi fruit for breakfast and turned on the TV. Watched Japanese TV for 1/2 hour and didn't understand a word--the frustrating part is I've been studying Japanese for the past 4 months--and can't understand anything on TV! I'm quite surprised as to how difficult it is to learn a new language. I greatly empathize with my students and the difficulties they have in learning English--muzukashi desu nel (Difficult, isn't it?)

Last week was a week long holiday called 'Golden Week"--so called because there are 3 national holidays in a 7 day period--and if they straddle a weekend (like this time), it makes for a nice long holiday. As in the West, manly people here take extra time off so they have a long holiday. I decided not to travel anywhere but most Japanese take advantage of this time and go on a holiday. One of my students went 6 days to Castlegar, 2 days to Vancouver and one day to Victoria. In Japan, the trains are packed with people holidaying and all the hotels are booked way in advance. This time of year is also a very good time for traveling as the weather is very nice. It's now Spring--the days are warm, the nights a bit cool and not too much rain. In one month--the rainy season starts (6 weeks) and then the Japanese summer--which is very hot and muggy--so now and the Fall are the best times to travel in Japan. I stayed home and played local tourist. Kurashiki is actually a tourist centre and there are many things to see in this area. A friend loaned me his motorcycle and I rode around to the beach and to neighbouring towns. I had a nice holiday and now I feel ready to tackle work again.

It seems I'm always very busy. I teach for Interac about 15 hours per week, plus about 8 hours traveling time. Then I have 6 hours per week of private lessons. After that, I spend a lot of time learning Japanese. What with normal living chores, etc., it seems I have a very busy life. However, I enjoy being busy and find the challenge of living here and learning a new language quite exciting and rewarding. Oh, I forgot to mention I play at a Japanese steak house ‘San Dial' on Friday nights. Thin slices of steak are brought to the table on a red hot cast iron plate and the patrons then cook the meat themselves. They also put on lots of garlic. So every time an order comes out the place reeks of garlic. I have to take a shower when I come home because I reek of garlic also.

I'm finding myself slowly getting quite settled in here. After starting with nothing, my apartment is becoming a home--furnished with all that makes life a bit more bearable over here. I bought myself a stereo for my birthday--CD/radio/cassette--and it's been so nice to listen to English music. From time to time, I become starved to hear music I'm used to--so the stereo provides definite moments of sanity. Similarly with TV and movies. There are many American movies available in the video stores (with subtitles for the Japanese) and also in the theaters. However to go to a movie costs 1600 yen (about $15)--very "takail” (expensive). So, this week I'm getting a used color TV and VCR from someone who is leaving ("Sayonara Saleff). So, I'm now at the point where I have all the toys I need and can start to save some of my money for travel, etc.

July 21, 1992:

Well, I started with good intentions two months ago and so I guess it's time to finish this letter and send it off(It seems I keep saying this!). We're now at the end of the rainy season and it's quite warm and muggy. Rainy season wasn't as bad as I thought--I think it rains a lot more in Victoria than here. However, it seems one Japanese characteristic is to exaggerate the weather--which leaves us foreigners slightly surprised when it doesn't materialize. Japan is also very musical--and most of the music in English. At Mitsubishi Kasei (oil refinery) where I work at 7:30 A.M., the men are told it's time to go to work by an electronic version of 'Greensleeves." At 8:30 A.M. they have exercise time which starts with a Japanese marching song and finishes with an electronic version ("EV") of "Home on the Range.' In Fukuoka the stoplights/crosswalks all play an "EV" of Robbie Burns, "Comin' Thru The Rye." At a vending machine the other day, I bought a pop and the machine played an "EV" of "Camptown Races" while I retrieved my pop from the machine. The coup de grace however is a back-up signal that plays (you guessed it) an "EV" of Beethoven's “Fur Elise”

Last Sunday I went to "Hanabi"--fireworks. They were held over a nearby river and there were over 250,000 people all sitting on the banks of the river watching. They had about 5000 fireworks and we watched for a solid 90 minutes. No breaks--continuous fireworks. I really enjoyed it. I went with some Japanese people and some other foreigners.

Two weeks- ago 1-went for a visit to Fukuoka and also Omura--a small town near Nagasaki. Last summer while attending UVic, I met Japanese student-Yoshi-from Omura. He was studying in Victoria for the winter but was home for the summer to visit his family. I went down to visit him and his boss decided this was a good excuse for a Japanese barbecue party. So party we did. Someone showed up with a guitar, so I did some singing, and then later we went to Karaoke and finally got to bed at 4 A.M. The next day Yoshi took me for a drive along the ocean--we found a nice beach and I went swimming. Stayed in Fukuoka a few more days visiting friends and then back to work in Kurashiki.

Last month I got a 250cc Honda motorcycle and it's been great. It's so nice to have transportation to get to some of the out of the way places. This summer I plan to travel a bit off the beaten path and see some rural areas of Japan.

While living in Japan is both exciting and enjoyable, one of the things I also find is that it's very frustrating. Frustrating because I'm not used to being illiterate. I can't read and I minimally speak. Certainly one can get by with gestures and minimal common language, but I can't go into a restaurant and read the menu, or read the traffic signs or direction signs on the highway(although some are in roman letters), or more importantly, have a conversation with someone where you can talk about thoughts, feelings and opinions. Present communication is very limited; something that leaves me quite frustrated at times--and also at times feeling lonely because I can't communicate with my fellow man.

I'm planning on staying here a few more years. One of my objectives is to become fluent in Japanese--I think this would offer many employment opportunities both here and in Canada. Besides which--I enjoy it here. It's definitely an interesting place and continually challenging. Learning a new language and customs is a continual challenge. It is also quite easy to live here. Everything from food, restaurants, stores, to travel are very convenient and at your fingertips.

Speaking of food here--it's expensive--especially if you want something more than a staple diet. Like fruit for instance: half a cantaloupe (my breakfast today)--about $4.00; a large handful of cherries $4.25; apples, $2.50 each; 5 small potatoes $1.00; 2 large carrots, $1.00!

Last month was rice planting time. So often I wake in the morning to the chugging sound of a rice planter (like an over-grown Rototiller). I have two small fields I can view from my balcony. The fields are very small--less than a square block--often about 1/2 a square block--and they're scattered everywhere between the buildings. Any place there's a small patch of bare ground, they plant rice. Now, the plants are about 18 inches tall and everywhere you look you see small patches of lush green rice plants waving in the breeze. I was at San Dia on Friday. It has a beautiful view over the city--and when I looked out over Kurashiki it was like a patchwork quilt with gray buildings and bright green rice paddies.

Summer is also a great festival time. On Saturday I went to our local Kurashiki festival. They had many booths set up along the Bikan (tourist area). Food: corn-on-the-cob, sausage on a stick, yakitori (small pieces of beef/grilled chicken pieces on a stick), yaki-soba (fried noodles with bacon/cabbage/carrots), tako-yaki (small pancake balls with pieces of octopus), flavored ice, lottery booths, coin toss, used clothing,bands and a Miss Kurashiki beauty contest (They wouldn't let me enter--or be a judge!) Bands.

Saturday night they had a parade--girls were carrying small portable shrines and later there was a street dance--lines of 6 people all doing a ritualized slow-step dance down the street. Line after line down 4 blocks of the main street. This went on for almost 2 hours--and to the same music. Each large company--all the workers wore special costumes (yukatta--like a summer kimono) all identical and danced down the 4 blocks together.

One of the things a person notices in Japan, and that most foreigners comment on, is how safe it is in Japan. No one, men or women, worries about walking home late at night. People often leave their cars running while they quickly go into the store; and generally speaking if you loose something, a great effort is made to return it. That's not to say there isn't crime of any sort--it's just that when there's murder or robbery, it seems so unusual that it's a news topic for the next week on national news; whereas, in North America, it would only receive a small notice in the local news. Although Japan has some of the same crime problems Canada has, it seems the incidence is much lower here.

In Japan, English is cool and very fashionable (which is one reason why I have a job) and so are products which sport English words. As you walk down the street, all around you are people with English labels on everything imaginable--hats, T-shirts, pants, sweaters, handbags, backpacks, sports bags, purses, etc. The problem is that usually it's translated English--that is translated by a Japanese for the Japanese market--and no one has bothered to give these translations to a native English speaker to make into correct English. But in a way, and this is bizarre, they don't want to consult a native speaker--because the English they use is understood by the Japanese--and may not be understood by the native English speaker. In many cases, the Japanese have taken English words and pronounce them in Japanese fashion--it's not English and it's not Japanese--it's what is called "Japlish"--and it's both disconcerting and frustrating--especially when you say the word in English and no one understands you--and then you say it in Japlish and everything's OK:

orange juice becomes orenji jewsue
MacDonald's becomes Mac-u-do-nal-do
coffee becomes co-he

Favorites on the T-shirt scene--today I saw: "Hair Fitness Club Coaching Staff"

Another: "Now is not the time for the serious professional to make risky new choices--Excellence through conformity."

My all-time favorite is the 10 year old boy wearing a sweat shirt with various sports scenes and sports-related comments--the one that cracked me up was under a hockey picture: "Are-you having trouble with your period today?"

My backpack says:

"Go-outdoor Tastefull fashion Off with you."

More gems in the next issue!

Well, that about wraps it up for this missive from Japan. Have plans to come back for a visit some time in the late Fall. Hope everyone's doing well. Please write and let me know how you're doing. I'd love to hear from you. Bye for now. . .


Copyright©2003 Braden Corby