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Feature - A land of paradoxes and reminders

A Whistler writer discovers the people and the customs in the land of the rising sun

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I have been living in Fukui for six weeks, not long, but long enough to have learned a few things about my new country of residence. Before I left Canada I heard various reports from some travellers who stated that Japan is a paradox. As a foreigner, a gaijin, you’ll never be truly welcomed. Yet Western influences can be witnessed everywhere: baseball, soccer, Disney Tokyo and Western weddings.

My first impression was a nation of suit-wearing conformists whose blind loyalty upheld the Japanese traditions of pleasantries that permeates daily life. Politeness supersedes sincerity, which is lovely, but it is difficult to know where you stand on any issue.

An American colleague of mine remarked that skiing and snowboarding, in comparison to Europe and North America, is much more pleasant because everyone is so polite on the mountain. He stated that the concept of "rude boarders" is virtually non-existent on the ski slopes of Japan.

Japan is an island (or more accurately, a series of islands), its culture influenced by its isolation. It is also a nation where one’s academic record determines one’s future. It is completely normal to put your child into day care by the age of three. It is a fiercely competitive system and the intensity follows students home every evening while they study late into the night.

I have one Grade 11 student who I tutor once a week. We spent one unit discussing world culture and societies; one of her homework assignments was to create the principles for a perfect society. The following week she read a loud to me that, "…the perfect society, is one where parents are rich and children study hard."

The stress on achievement, at all costs, prevails in Japanese society.

Last year approximately 30,000 executives committed suicide.

Traditionally, when the top guy cannot perform for those on the bottom, he does the honourable thing – he commits seppuku, a ritual method of suicide by disembowelment. Ironically, suicide insurance is big business here in Japan.

I walk past two homeless fellows every time I go to the gym. They live in cardboard boxes under one Fukui’s many bridges. If they’re ‘home’ when I’m strolling by, they always wave and call out, "kon nichi wa – hello."

Japan does not like to admit it has homeless people, or orphanages, or old people’s homes; or anything that deviates from the norm. Homes for society’s misfits are kept on the outskirts of town, where they are kept out of sight.

The president of my new place of employment is an American. In his youth he was a street kid in the United States. He has lived in Fukui for 18 years and has chosen to give something back to his community. After months of appeals to the local government, he was granted visitation rights to a small orphanage. Every second Sunday teachers from our school are allowed to visit and teach English lessons. We celebrated Christmas with those children and it was one spiritual experience I’ll remember for a long time.

Today, Japan must be one of the safest places left on this planet. One of my colleagues, a teacher from New Zealand, hasn’t locked her door in the three years she’s been here. People leave their car keys in the ignition while they go grocery shopping. I had an elderly lady follow me with a small coin I had dropped on the ground; she wanted to make sure I got it back.

Whenever I first arrive to a new country, I always feel quite vulnerable until I have the money sorted out and get my bearings as to where I’m going and how to get around. In Japan a huge amount of stress is eliminated because you know that you’re not going to be taken advantage of with every transaction you make. It’s so refreshing.

Fukui is a small city of 252,000, and I’m told safety is not the same in the big cities. However, integrity, honour and a rigid social etiquette are rooted deeply in the Japanese psyche.

On the wrong side

One of the biggest challenges I faced when I first arrived was learning to drive on the left hand side of the road. This job demands that I have a car. Part of the school’s service is bringing English lessons to outer areas up in the mountains and to local community centres. I was blessed to have a car given to me by a departing teacher from New York City.

Japan has extremely strict safety inspection laws on all automobiles. Once a car is three years old, it must go through a safety inspection, a "shaken", every two years after. The shaken costs a fortune, approximately Y100,000, ($1,250). As a result, there aren’t too many old cars on the road.

I asked one of my Japanese friends what happens to all the used cars?

His answer: "For years Russians, and car dealers from the developing world, have come to Japan to buy the used cars. Then they ship them to their countries and sell them. It’s a huge market."

The day came when I had to apply for my Japanese driver’s licence. A Japanese friend took me through the process. First we had to go to one office, on one side of town, and pay Y3,000, ($37.50) to buy the translated version of the exam. Then we drove to another part of the city where the city’s testing site is located. He told me not to worry, that the test is easy.

I didn’t share his confidence, it had been years since I wrote my driver’s test and over here even the signs are profoundly different.

We walked up to the counter, armed with my passport and all the proper documents, and after a few moments, the man said he needed proof that I had lived in my own country for the past three months.

I didn’t get it. I thought that something had been missed in the translation. I didn’t see the relation between that and applying for a driver’s license. Besides, my passport was issued at the end of August; this was now the end of November.

Then the chap realized the dates were okay and he shuffled me in for an eye exam and a photograph. "No smiling, Madame."

In half an hour I had my licence – without having written the test. My Japanese friend was most surprised. Apparently several of my American colleagues hadn’t been so fortunate. They were subjected to both the written test and the driver’s test; everyone failed the driving component a couple of times.

The expiry date on my licence is calculated in the Japanese imperial system, which calculates the years from the accession of the present Emperor, with each emperor assigned a special name. Currently we’re in the Heisei era. Official public holidays are dated to the Gregorian calendar that we use in the West, and traditional festivals use the lunar calendar.

Fukui is on the west coast of Japan. We get winter birds and winter weather from Siberia. It’s cold – and the houses aren’t insulated. I take a petrol can to the gas station, have it filled up with kerosene, haul it home, and pour it into a heater with hopes that I haven’t spilled any along the way. I’ve decided it’s a miserable way of keeping warm. I leave my toque and overcoat on until my place warms up.

One day, as I was whining to one of my American colleagues about the inefficiency of keeping warm, in a nation where efficiency is everything, she reminded me that Japan isn’t a nation of natural resources, and kerosene is much cheaper than electricity. I instantly felt quite ignorant about the country I had chosen to live in and it gave me one more reason to appreciate the country I come from.

Whistler writer Janet Love Morrison is teaching English at an international school in Fukui, Japan.

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