On My Own In Japan


I have always been fascinated with Japan.  I think it started when I came across some comic books my great uncle brought back when he was stationed there after the war.  They were called Silver Bells, written in English, with old-style Japanese cartoon drawings.  They were filled with Japanese stories, legends and folk tales.  Japanese people that I have talked to are amazed and amused that I know about Momotaro, the peach boy, or the “little one-inch” hero who fought the blue and red demons.

That was about the extent of my interest for years.  I started to get really involved in Japanese culture in my 20's when I started practicing Aikido.  That’s a martial art with a lot of philosophy integrated in it.  It was just my cup of tea, seeing that I have books of Zen and Sufi tales on my headboard and I have habitually confused myself to sleep every night as long as I can remember.  I developed a kind of romantic fantasy relationship with Japan as and country and culture.

I've been on business trips to Taiwan, Korea and Germany.  I always learn a few phrases in the language, usually "please," "thank you" and "one more beer."  In the hotels and restaurants where I went, enough people speak English that I could get by with just enough to be polite.  For me though, Japan was different.  I wanted to enjoy Japan socially, outside of the business and tourist communities.  I thought I should be able to eat what the people eat, shop where they shop, and get around without a guide.

The first time I visited Japan was on a weekend stopover after a business trip to Taiwan.  I remember being awed the first day, taking in the architecture, the landscape, the unfamiliarity of the writing and trains and toilets.  People were often overwhelmingly open and friendly.  I rode the train from Narita with a family who had come to meet Papa at the airport.  He was relaxed and happy, shoes off and lounging in the Express car.  The daughter, a pleasant 20-something, looked my way and asked me out of the blue if I knew my way to my hotel.  She actually got off the train with me and took me through the maze that is Tokyo station, just to make sure a visitor didn’t get lost.  She got on another train to meet her husband and family somewhere else down the line.  I found this kind of consideration to be commonplace.

I ran into walls however, like when I checked into the hotel after my subway adventure.  The desk clerks were haughty and seemed affronted that I was illiterate.  I felt grateful that they even gave me a room.  The bagboy, however, was a cheerful and animated old man who spent wide-eyed minutes trying to figure out how I had rigged my luggage.  I have since learned that you should not try to take suitcases through the subways and then drag them up the hill to the hotel.  That's why they have cabs.  At the time, though, I had double-wrapped the strap of my satchel around the pull handle of my suitcase to make the load manageable.  The porter was clearly delighted at the clever job of organization.  He made me feel human, and taught me that there is great freedom when you are not trying to fulfill a role.

After three days in Japan, it was another story.  People would help me, and I found a few that were anxious to show off or practice their English, but I didn’t know anybody.  It was rainy, and I was tired of being alone and lonely.  I missed the simple human contact of casual conversation and exchanging pleasantries. 

Martial arts didn’t help.  I knew the names of all the body parts and what you can do to them, but I didn’t know how to ask directions or order food or shop or comment on the weather.  I felt helpless. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and back with people I could talk to.

A few years later I attended a swordsmanship seminar in Victoria, Canada.  I combined the trip with a vacation, since my wife was not going to let me leave her at home this time.  So we compromised.  We went whale watching, spent a wonderful day in Butchart Gardens, and climbed fog-shrouded Mount Stanley to get a glorious view of, well, fog.  In between all this, I got to attend three sessions at the sword camp.

The teacher was a gracious gentleman, as has been every teacher I have met in my style of swordsmanship.  This is the best recommendation for pursuit of any art – are the people who do it decent, happy, impressive people?  These people are.  So I was truly embarrassed when I had to leave early and could not even say goodbye.  The teacher and I had connected non-verbally, and I’m sure he knew my regrets and appreciation, but I felt rude and impotent.  This finally motivated me to actually learn Japanese. 

My next step to functionality was at the University of North Texas.  I've been working on my degree, and I needed two years of a language.  I could have faked my way into second year French, but I wanted Japanese.  Four semesters later, I was almost at 3rd grade level.  This is for reading and writing, since I hadn’t grown up imprinting the vocabulary and sentence patterns.  But I had enough to try. 

I went back to Japan for two weeks this time.  The first week was another sword seminar, this time in Tokyo.  I was with a group of Americans, all enthusiasts for the same obscure hobby as I.  We were guests of the entire martial arts school and several of the teachers adopted us.

We were in for a treat of Japanese hospitality.  Our hosts spent literally thousands of dollars on us.  You cannot out-give a Japanese; they consider this a challenge.  We would have to fly them to the Alamo and the Grand Canyon, with a stop at a dude ranch, to match the trips and shows and sightseeing they arranged for us.  My alienation never had a chance to show up.

The next week I flew my wife in and the two of us went to Osaka.  A friend of ours is Japanese, and we stayed with her aunt.  We were in for more boundless hospitality.   She cooked for us and took us sightseeing and worried over us like a mother when we finally went out on our own.  This is where UNT paid off.

Osaka is a huge town, at eight million almost as big as Tokyo.  Like all big cities there, the subway system can take you anywhere you need to go.  We visited an underground department store mall where we found the Pokemon Center my daughter told me about.  Osaka is famous for its food, and we sampled some of their finest cuisine.  Finally we came to Shinsaibashi, a covered shopping street where the Osaka locals shop for discounts.  That is another Osaka specialty.

I had a chance to prove myself, and I found that making the effort paid off.  Just being able to make simple conversation, shopping for a child’s kite in a store, brought smiles and cooperation from the storeowners.  I could follow the street signs and maps that were a blur on my first trip.  I'm not saying I was fluent, not even close.  But just a few words and grammar let me bargain with a shopkeeper in a used clothing store:

Me:                  "Takasugiru."  (Too expensive.)

Shopkeeper:     "Takasuginai." (Not too expensive!)

Me:                  "Zembu, Nanasen-yen" (All together, 7000 yen.)

Shopkeeper:     "Hassen-go-hyaku-yen." (8500 yen.)

Me:                  "Hassen-yen." (8000 yen.)

Shopkeeper:     "Yoshi!"  (All right!)

I just haggled two jackets and a sash down to about $70.  The merchant seemed happy, and I felt comfortable doing it.  So I made my way through the streets, restaurants and markets, not at home, but not completely alien. 

Courtesy has two sides, and the outgoing generosity of the Japanese people is balanced by the expectation of the same effort in return.  Why should other people have to go out of their way to compensate for my ill preparedness?   It may be true in every country, but speaking slow English here does not impress people, and never got me very far. 

I got the impression that people were amazed as well as gratified that I could speak a little, and writing their characters was an eye-raising bonus.  Getting comfortable with a language means learning all the pieces.  This includes listening, speaking, reading and writing. 

University classes are a great way to get all this in a structured environment.  I've seen some excellent tapes and book sets, but you'd have to be hyper-disciplined.  I like to find Japanese movies and news shows, but actually talking with a native speaker is essential.  Contact the local chapter of the Japan-America Society and see if they have a conversation group and cultivate friendships.  Friendship is the gate key to the country, and it is really the main reason to go places and meet people.  Learning the language shows respect and equality.  It can form the basis of friendship, and meanwhile save your pride and comfort.  It's worth the effort.



Copyright © Jack Bieler, 2002