Two and a half years ago, I began to write my memoir.
It was a strange time in my life. Husband and I were still engaged, and we had just moved from our separate homes in Okayama, Japan, to a shared apartment in Nagoya. We made this move because I had been employed by a preschool there. We moved because job prospects in Okayama were limited, to say the least. We moved so we could live together, because Husband was ready for something new, because I wanted to live in a city.
We moved for a lot of reasons. In the end, it turned out it didn’t really matter what they were, because things go wrong sometimes. You can eliminate every risk you can think of, be as safe as possible, and they can still go wrong.
My job was due to start in September. The fourth day of it, I quietly began searching for a new one. Ten days after that, I was locked in a struggle with my American employer, who refused to follow Japanese employment laws, honor his promises, or act in any way that could be considered decent, fair, or lawful. I remained in that struggle for an entire month.
During that time, I spent my days in a strange twilight of half-employment, neither here nor there, dreadfully alone and increasingly anxious. To keep myself from losing any grip on real life, I began to write about what was happening.
It was a quiet sort of writing, so melancholy to me now that it tugs my heart, yet full of the Japan I knew and loved. It was how I truly felt, and yet detached from the rage, the helplessness of the legal struggle I was in the midst of. It was a reprieve from real life.
My memoir petered out as I began a new job late October, my hectic schedule leaving me no time to reminisce. Until now it sat on my computer, untouched and unread. a perfect preservation of myself two and a half years ago.
I have decided to share it. A few hundred words every Saturday, with a bit of a post beforehand to lend context to what was happening as I wrote those pages.
I would say I hope you enjoy it, but it’s not very cheerful, so instead I will say I hope it makes you think, and wonder, and be content to be where you are. That is what the me who wrote this would have hoped for the most.
Part 1: When the Worst Happens
My neighborhood is quiet. Cars go down the main street, turning here and there, but once you leave the wide sidewalks for the twisting neighborhood one-ways all noise fades, like entering a vacuum, or a natural park, or an old church. It’s hushed. You can almost strain your ears to listen for the birdsong.
I live in a city of three million, in a metropolitan area of twelve million, in a ward of three hundred-thousand souls. As I bicycle down my street, the only sound is that of my bike chain as I coast into my building’s bike shed.
Once there I pass a chain through the spokes and lock it with a key. Climb four flights to my apartment, where I hadn’t bother to lock the door just to do a quick errand. Put down my bag, put down my keys, feel the breeze through my open windows as sunlight streams in on this beautiful day.
In this city twice the size of London, all I can hear are the crows.
Welcome to Japan.
I was fired or I quit my last job, depending who you ask. I’ll leave you to decide which was the case. Ask my boss and he will say fired for being uncooperative and uncommunicative. Ask me and I will say quit because the boss was an asshole who hired me to be a warm body, not a thinking teacher. Ask the labor bureau office if you want further details from there.
All I will say is beware of people who ask why you are making the act of being fired so difficult for them. Firing, like taking on a new employee, should not be easy. Easy things are subject to abuse.
For now, that’s all that need be said.
There’s a skylight in my apartment. I feel quite privileged to have it. To be honest I’m not sure how often these occur in Japanese apartments, though I suspect they are rather rare. For all I know this is common in top-floor apartments, a standard feature, and is as normal as having a clear shower door or a place to wash your hands on top of the toilet. For all I know, skylights are mundane.
I feel privileged anyway. In the middle of the city it is a pleasure to be assured there is still a sky.
Japan is big on appearances. Your appearance should fit your life, and vise-versa. If you are tattooed, you’d better be a gangster with rough speech. If you are tall, you should be athletic. If you want to get a good job, you must wear a suit and speak quietly and respectfully and have somewhat conservative views.
I am young but look younger still, female, and cute. I have big eyes and curly hair. I am short, with a penchant for wearing skirts. According to the narrative I am an ideal schoolteacher.
Luckily for me, that was the idea anyway.
My apartment has five plug-socket-plates, for a total of ten plugs. This is a small number for three-and-a-bit rooms, in these modern days. The building was built the year I was born, which was not that long ago, but nevertheless it conforms to a much older standard, one of a lamp and a TV and not much more. Even that confuses me, though. Didn’t people twenty years ago have small appliances? Toasters and blenders and rice cookers? Didn’t they have alarm clocks and radios? Atari’s? Fans?
My apartment, like most here, is a little bit out of the 1950’s. Japan had a housing boom for cheaply made and expensively rented, and has never quite come back from that ideal.
For this apartment I had to pay one month of rent in “key money” to the landlord. This tradition is a gift, not a deposit. I will not see it back should I move in one month or ten years.
One month is not bad for this apartment, I feel. Perhaps I am turning Japanese.
Time is both a gift and a curse. Time to think is time well-spent, but too much time weighs on the mind. Questions come to bear which have no answers—at least, no comforting ones.
Why am I here, in this country? What do I want from it?
Why do I stay?
Will I stay here forever?
There is a terrible catch-22 involved in living in Japan, as anyone who stays for long will know.
Stay for a year and you’re fine. Two is okay, you wanted to travel. Three? Wow, you really enjoyed yourself. Four, five? You must have had great coworkers. More?
Why did you bother to come back at all?
Of course, for some the question is moot. Stay too long and there’s nothing to go back to.
Part 1: When the Worst Happens
Part 2: Streets that Live
Part 3: The Sound of Far-Away
If you enjoy hearing about Japan and want something a bit more cheerful, you might like my post This Thanksgiving I’m Grateful For…, a humorous post on the joys of central heat.
If you’d prefer to continue reading melancholy things, try my free short story “The Foreigner’s Loneliness,” about an isolated English teacher coping with Japan.
I hope you will join me here next week for Part 2. Thank you for reading.
2 thoughts on “Japan Memoir Part 1: When the Worst Happens”
YES! I’m keen to read all of these instalments as you post them. Thank youuuuuuu ~ this is real life in Japan.
“… things go wrong sometimes. You can eliminate every risk you can think of, be as safe as possible, and they can still go wrong.” Resonates so much right now.
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Oh, geez, yeah I bet. Life is a jerk sometimes.
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