Japan · Memoir · Writing

Japan Memoir Part 5: The Comfort of a Known Noise

When I was a child, I knew when something fancy was happening because my mother would dress up. She would put on her earrings, curl her bangs higher than usual. Wear a dress, and high-heeled shoes that clicked when she walked.

That sound was the sound of grown-ups. At age five, I knew that some day my shoes would sound like that. Click click on the church hall floor, click click on the sidewalk. I would smell like hairspray and wear lipstick and have a box full of earrings in every color of the rainbow, with a dress to match each pair.

Fashions change, standards change. Shoes are not supposed to click anymore; it seems to have gone out of fashion. But mine do; they always do, because things might change but people don’t always. I don’t wear lipstick and I don’t wear earrings, but when I dress up, I click when I walk.

I clicked into the labor bureau in a pencil skirt and suit-jacket, neither suited for bike-riding, but that was what I had and what I’d done. I was sweating, shaking, had been physically intimidated by my employer and not backed down. I was resolved I would not.

I know now that I didn’t. It’s of some comfort to have been tested; I know my limits. But it is no comfort to know that testing does not make one stronger. Rather, it allows one to know which cracks will break first.

We must take comfort where we can.

Part 1: When the Worst Happens
Part 2: Streets that Live
Part 3: The Sound of Far Away
Part 4: What Can Be Bought

September Japan 139

The Comfort of a Known Sound

There are few things more pleasant or comfortable than buying expensive things in Japan. It’s a wonderful process that involves cups of tea and dainty little snacks, being called honored customer and having –sama attached to my name. That one’s hard to explain. It’s like instead of being called Ms. Smith you were called the honorable Ms. Smith, only less awkward. It’s like using real cream in coffee—it makes it that much richer.

When my fiancé and I bought our car we had expected a long, arduous process, filling out many forms and sucking air through our teeth in the appropriate manor whilst trying to figure out which official documents were necessary and which were mere formalities. Instead, the sales assistant nearly leapt high buildings to make us feel comfortable and welcome. He even gave us a discount on the car when he realized we had no idea that bargaining was possible. It was great.

Our car came clean within an inch of its life, plastic bags on the seat and covers on the floor as if it were the latest model fresh off the floor, rather than a ten-year-old 660 cc Daihatsu with a repaired back bumper and slight paint problems on the driver’s door.

Everyone bowed and waved hugely when we drove off the lot. There was not even a trace of irony to be found in the entire proceeding. The garage seemed delighted to have sold us the car, and we were delighted to have purchased it.

If there’s one thing Japan should never change, it is how they sell expensive things. Really, it’s like not only having your cake and eating it, but being served on fine china by a butler in a crisp uniform while violins play in the background. It really is that good.

cherry blossom

I tried to go shopping today. It was not successful.

I dislike crowds, too much noise, any situation where I am overwhelmed by too many visual stimuli. That, right there, is a symptom of my workplace in Okayama. Not only can I recognize this as a visual disorder, I can use the proper words for it. Neat trick, eh?

When I was a child I hated Where’s Waldo books. I could never find Waldo, and, worse, I could never see the fun of it. You find him, there he is, so what?

As an adult, I discovered that I can do the books, but only upside-down. Reduce poor Waldo from human to mere shape and it’s not very hard to see him. All I have to do, really, is eliminate the background noise.

Today was beautiful, the people plentiful. They moved at a snail’s pace down the shopping street, in no hurry to do anything but chat and point out the newest fashion item to their friends. To me it was akin to listening to a funeral march being played on musical saws. Or being presented with a room wallpapered in Where’s Waldo pages.

It’s surprisingly easy to be alone in this country; all you need is a broken down old street to hear nothing but the click of your heels on the tile. As you pass dirty windows and sad displays, you can be truly alone. In fact, I’d say it’s far easier to find yourself isolated than anything else here.

But not if you want something nice. There is a stark divide in Japan between two classes of stores. You have the traditional shop and business owners, who cram their dark interiors with everything under the sun and never let a broom touch the place. Over-priced and over-filled, or, worse, bare and dusty, those shops are the mainstay of many a back-street and dying arcade. Their owners are people who believe what has been will always be.

On the other hand there is the clean-cut, noisy culture of the shoppers. They want brightly-lit places full of trendy merchandise, plastic and glitz, prices that leave them enough money for a coffee at the end of the day. Oh, they’ll pay for overpriced merchandise, but only things that shine, things that have value beyond the mundane intrinsic stuff. This group cares about brands. This group cares about now.

I too like clean shops full of interesting merchandise. I too like prices that don’t leave me shocked. Yet what’s a reticent woman to do when faced with all the noise of an entire amusement park packed into a twenty-foot-wide tunnel?

Shop during the week, just like the rest of the housewives. Obviously.

cherry blossom

The people at the Labor Standards Bureau were not kind. They were just doing their jobs, after all. I received no sympathy, got not words of platitude. They spelled out the laws regarding my situation clearly and concisely, provided translation when necessary, and helped me take the steps necessary to the situation. The only comfort they provided was that they were, in fact, merely doing their jobs.

This was of great comfort.

The Labor Standards Bureau office I went to was in a large government building in the midst of two entire blocks of large government buildings. Bicycle parking was free. I arrived wearing a suit and feeling lost, which only increased when the security desk asked me where I was going. I didn’t know the name of the office in Japanese, only English, and showed him my paper, told him I couldn’t speak Japanese, at least not for that. He nodded and showed me where to write my name, which kanji to circle. When it was all said and done he handed me a card which let me through the gates. No metal detectors, only electronic passgates.

I arrived during lunch, thirty minutes before my appointment. Government buildings here turn their lights out during lunch. Supposedly this is because people leave to get their lunches, but really it is to save money. I wandered darkened hallways until I found a bench to sit on and a window to look out. Below on the street a normal day continued. Up here time had stopped.

No one is ever ready for the worst to happen. No one can ever be prepared enough. My legs were jelly and I thought I was going to be sick. It didn’t matter that I was in the right, or pretty certain I was, anyway. I clutched my work contract and every email I’d exchanged with the company, hoping one of them would be my lifeline. Hoping that there was something there to help me. Hoping I wasn’t a foreigner in a foreign country about to be cast adrift for my outcast status.

Sometimes the best thing in the world are people who do their jobs, and do them passionately not to help those they serve but because that is their job. Had I been wrong, I believe they would have helped me just as much.

That dedication, at the end of the day, was far more valuable than all the sympathy in the world.

Japan Memoir Part 6: The Dream of America


What sounds do you find comforting? Do you prefer silence? How much does your childhood image of adulthood match up with your reality? Share with us below.

In news of the odd, Thursday’s post twigged Facebook’s buttons and it went mildly viral. Do me a favor; don’t look at it. I’d like to be remembered for something other than Ed Balls.

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