Gaijin – A Life in Japan Part One

Punk Noir Magazine

I’d always had itchy feet. Never really feeling at home anywhere. One morning I woke up in the crappy flat I was sharing with a then ex-girlfriend and realized that I didn’t like my life or who I had become in London. I didn’t feel like myself at all. I felt more like a character I was playing out. Rehearsing scenes and dialogue from an old script I had come to dislike. I was depressed. In a rut. Dissatisfied. I drank myself to oblivion on weekends just to be able to cope with the prospect of going to work on my shifts the following Monday. More often than not, waking up covered in vomit and wondering what the hell I was doing with my life?

Basically that one scene from Team America… A lot…

A catalyst. Fate. Serendipity. Whatever you want to call it. Everyone has that something, that moment in their life that changes it all completely.

I’ll remember mine until the day I die. It was a poster on the wall of the Embankment subway in London that stated:

If you don’t like your life, then change it.”

I didn’t, so I did.

The best advice I ever got. My whole life. And it was on a wind-torn poster.

Six months later I was stood outside of Osaka KIX airport with a suitcase, an old leather jacket and a few hundred bucks in my back pocket. Unaware that I was at the first step of starting the rest of my life.

The end-plan was; Hong Kong: living out the rest of my life on a house boat in Victoria harbor.  I planned on a year in Japan, just a year. Then a year in Vietnam. Taiwan. A year in Argentina. A year in Mexico. I’d travel to all the countries I’d only ever heard about. 

The idea of staying in the same place for too long seemed insane to me. Those that don’t move, don’t grow. Like a shark, I thought I had to keep swimming or die.

So here I found myself in a country whose language and culture were completely unknown to me. I couldn’t speak a lick of Japanese and only knew about Japan from Beat Takeshi gangster movies (which turned out not to be helpful at all). KIX was my Ellis Island. Or so I liked to think. The start of a year that would turn into my whole life. But we’ll get to that later on.

Arriving in a country as a complete stranger, no family, no friends, no associates, no expectations, feels like real freedom. Almost like a religious experience. I shit you not. As though I found God in between the buses, taxis and hustle of human traffic and rolling suitcases outside the airport. It was just me alone, starting from scratch. A modern day monk. Or something. I don’t know.

In Japan the word for foreigner is

外国人。

外 Gai – Outside

国 Koku – Country

人 Jin – Person

Or the less politically correct terminology – 外人 – Gaijin – which translates as Outside Person but basically means Outsider.

 

I liked it. I liked it a lot. I was Pony Boy in Japan, dammit.

 

That’s what I was when I arrived. That’s what I am still as I write this fourteen years later.

Not liking the Outsider status as much anymore, (now that I have two Japanese/British daughters and am struggling to give them as good a life as I can. Being an outsider is cool when you’re young, partying your way around Nippon. Making new temporary friends every other weekend. But not so cool when you’re looking to lay down solid roots for your family in the country you now call home. Screw you Pony Boy!) I’m accepting it as just something that is what it is.

My beautiful daughters

The Japanese have a great phrase which they use with a shrug in all manner of situations from the convenience store being out of milk, to someone dying:

仕方がない – Shikata ga nai – It can’t be helped.

Anyway, I’m getting away from myself again. Rewind. Back to the beginning.

We’ll return to that kind of stuff in later installments.

Starting afresh in a new country meant teaching myself how to read and write all over again. The Japanese language has three alphabets that they use together.

漢字           –  Kanji (the symbol alphabet)

ひらがな – Hiragana (the simple alphabet)

カタカナ – Katakana (the alphabet for foreign words)

A usual sentence may look something like this;

明日はデイズニーランドへ行きましょか?

Tomorrow shall we go to Disney Land?

That easy run of the mill sentence has all three of the alphabets used as one. 

As someone that failed high school French and is a dumbass, it was starting to look like I was shit out of luck. As I wandered the bustling streets scratching my head at signs and staring helplessly at restaurant menus I wondered why I had decided to pick up sticks and move to a country that had one of the most difficult languages in the world to master.

I spent the first six months only eating at restaurants that had pictures of the dishes on the menu. Yep, pathetic, I know. But it’s all I could do.

from Wikipedia

Throwing yourself into the deep end. Stripping away all the comforts of your home country. Your language, your culture, your race, your way of thinking is a big fucking test. Something that’s an easy, mundane task in your home country like mailing a parcel at the post office, getting a new cellphone or getting a prescription filled becomes a titanic, mind boggling, draining task. It’s a constant hustle to just get by. I met other expats that just disappeared. Here one day, gone the next. A lot of people I grew acquainted with threw in the towel after six months in-country and went home. Knew a Canadian girl who only ever ate at MacDonald’s. Taking aside the military, or a life altering illness, living in a foreign country has to be up there as one of the most challenging feats you can attempt in life and I’ve nothing but respect for those that try and start fresh in a new country with a different language and culture. Especially all the folks who come to new countries and actually start businesses. This is where you find out what you’re made of.

At Sugar Loaf Hill doing research for my novel Always the Dead

Luckily the Japanese people are extremely kind and patient in most cases and I had a lot of people going out of their way to help me out as much as they could. Me. A stranger. I made a lot of great friends who would listen patiently as I babbled nonsense at them for hours.

I studied hard. Everyday. Learning the alphabets, the same way children in kindergarten were. I got quite a few smiles on the subway when people saw me revising my phonics cards and murmuring to myself like a mad man.

By the end of my first year in Japan, I could just about hold a very simple conversation. Needless to say, I must have sounded similar to Borat. I didn’t care. It felt amazing to be able to say the most simple things. To be able to order in a restaurant and ask for the check after.

Learning and living in Japan was…

It was tough. Tiring. Stressful, BUT…

simply walking down the street was a magical experience. Out of this world. The lights. The buildings. The smell of the air. The foods. The people. The beauty.

I was falling in love with Japan.

Head over heels, in fact.

It was going to be a tumultuous relationship, like most of the relationships in my life at that time. However, as those other kinds of relationship so often prove to be; one of the most rewarding, satisfying and one helluva growing experience.

Part One 終わり

読んでくれてありがとうございました

Comment if you have any questions!

Cheers

Steve