Japan – Anyone for English?

Lake Nojiri, Nagano Prefecture, Japan. A popular resort area.

For almost 2 years from 1992-94 my wife Elisabeth and I lived in the city of Nagano, Japan. We were there working for an international Christian organisation. Both of us had visited Japan previously for shorter visits and had enjoyed getting to know its people and culture a little bit. This time however was to be different as we would be there for much longer. Aside from representing our organisation the work included working closely with a Japanese pastor (minister). He led a church, Grace Chapel, which we got involved in. There was also an English language school he had started.

During our time there we found the cost of living was much higher than western Europe. In order to make ends meet we both taught English at this school. This was sometimes in the school itself, a log cabin on outskirts of city. More often though it was in people’s homes and workplaces. Our students were a very varied demographic. 3 year olds (yes 3!) whose mothers were keen for their children to get ahead by learning English. Japanese tech company executives wanting intensive crash courses before being sent on assignments to the UK. The lessons were at 9pm at end of their workday. Lessons at train stations for Japanese Railway staff. My wife had a similar eclectic range of pupils which included Japanese housewives and World War 2 veterans.  

Every now and then I would drive 2-3 hours in a 4×4 pick up truck to a town in the mountains. It was to visit a traditional ‘onsen’ (spa) hotel to teach its employees. Entering the hotel lobby I would be greeted by rows of staff bowing. On occasion the welcome would include being presented with a cup of tea sprinkled with gold leaf. Yes it made you feel special but can’t say the taste was great. I usually had lunch after the lesson. The break was only 5 minutes so you ate very fast. One example of the incredible work discipline.

Another regular teaching assignment was to the staff of a nightclub bar before they started their evening shift. It was more just chatting as a group in English than any lesson.

All these varied interactions gave us an insight into the life and culture of ordinary Japanese. We did not have special qualifications to teach English but it seemed enough that we were from overseas. Unlike more cosmopolitan Tokyo the foreigners (‘geijin’) in Nagano were few and far between. Even with a population of 400,000 it felt quite provincial compared to Japan’s mega capital city. Sometimes a week or so could go by without seeing another foreigner in the street. Indeed our presence could sometimes cause consternation. My wife recalls meeting a man who fell off his bicycle into a ditch, such was his shock at seeing a foreigner. On another occasion a husband and wife invited us to their home. We were the first non-Japanese to ever enter their house. The lady had spent 14 years learning to become a tea master. It was a special honour for her to perform a tea ceremony for us.

We lived in what was a very small terraced house. A typical family home in the district we were in. It became our home and gave us many happy memories. We were in the Miwa district of the city. It was walking district from the famous Zenkoji Buddhist temple, which millions of pilgrims visited every year.

Summer view from balcony
Winter

Despite the country’s embrace of technology and the modern world many Japanese homes did not have central heating. Most houses were still heated by paraffin heaters and cooking was done on bottled gas. Many urban areas also did not have centralised sewage. Our home was fairly traditional and we sat on tatami (straw) floors. The traditional way of sitting was hard on the back and knees. Instead we would mainly sit in armchairs that had no legs but would support your back. In winter during the night the paraffin heaters would need to go off to avoid breathing in toxic fumes. With the very thin walls and poor insulation any heat quickly dissipated. I slept with a towel wrapped around my head to keep it warm. The Japanese style duvet was super warm though.

The winter weather brought plenty of snow and skiing was popular in the hills surrounding the city. Nagano was to be the venue for the Winter Olympics in 1998. It was not all wintry. The summers in contrast were extremely hot and humid, especially in August.

The lazy man’s way of sitting on tatami!

Another way of keeping warm was to soak in a Japanese bath. We had a domestic one in our house. This entailed sitting in a deep, square shaped bath with only your head exposed. The water was far hotter than western baths would be. Heat was regulated by gas burners underneath. Same principle as when you use a gas hob to heat soup or boil an egg. Getting in this was a skill as too much movement meant pain. Trick was to slip in and be as still as possible. My fear was of nodding off and being gently boiled. An alternative was to go to a public bathhouse. Some non-Japanese friends felt this was a great way to get to know people. Everyone was much more talkative and informal than if you met someone in the street.

Every 6 months or so an unusual event would happen. A notebook would drop through our letterbox. For 2 weeks the Grants were now responsible to arrange and report on the neighbourhood’s general rubbish collection. A shared responsibility for everyone living in the area. I would excitedly rise to the challenge of filling in the logbook ‘rubbish’ report. As I’ve indicated in a previous post (‘Becoming Like a Little Child’) we did try to learn a bit of Japanese. Filling in the log book report was indeed a challenge with my very limited range of Japanese characters. Fortunately it was not too complex. A least it was a lot easier than my other written challenge – filling in Japanese tax returns. The ‘rubbish’ report included a description of the weather at time of pick up (cloudy, wet, sunny etc.). Also note if rubbish collectors had omitted to pick up anything. Usually nothing to report as job was so well done, everything was spotless. Occasionally there was something small like a cigarette butt. It was expected to be reported and guiltily wondered if I got some rubbish collector in trouble. Practical tasks when we were on rota also included putting down a board on the roadside for people’s rubbish to be laid on. This was to only be done in early morning exactly 30 mins before bin men arrived. Then promptly removed immediately after they had been. During that short time period everyone scurried out to deposit their general household rubbish on the board. Once these 2 weeks of civic duty were done said logbook was plopped through letterbox of our neighbour. This task exemplified to me the tremendous collective responsibility and discipline of the Japanese. Speaking of rubbish the recycling was more advanced then (nearly 30 years ago!) than it currently is in the UK!

Most of the time we drove a Toyota van. 8 year old vehicles, whatever their model, had no resale value, and often were then exported to other countries in East Asia. We had a good 8 year old plus vehicle for which the only cost was the road tax. Most vehicles were built to last 12 years so the van still had many miles in it. Several vehicle models I had not seen elsewhere, made only for the Japanese market. They often tended to be narrower to fit the roads better. Driving was often a stressful experience. Unlike Tokyo where road signs were often both characters and phonetic the Nagano signs were only in Japanese characters. This meant you had to memorise how they looked even if you didn’t understand. Traffic was nearly always very heavy and on small roads. The sheer weight of traffic made for rutted carriageways in many places. The incessant traffic made the roads like sunken railway tracks.  

One place where Japanese manners and service orientation excelled was filling your tank. Pulling into the garage forecourt you would sit in the vehicle and hand over your keys to an assistant. While you sat in the car or maybe perused the forecourt shop the assistant would fill your tank, take the footwell rubbers out of the car and powerwash them. He would also wash your front and back windows. When all was done you would be handed back your keys and the said assistant would then wave you out to the road by flagging down the traffic so you could leave. It made you feel special and a bit more relaxed to hit the traffic again! 

Relationships with people, however brief, often entailed the giving and receiving of presents. How much we as foreigners were expected to partake in this was difficult to gauge. We did try to a degree but had to be careful of the perceived value of gifts so as not to get into an escalating sense of obligation! Often the gifts themselves were not really expected to be used. It was funny to find homes with cupboards full of gifts that would be recycled on to others. Receiving presents also was used in subtle ways to influence behaviour. One time a local builder came to our house and presented us with a gift of towels. This we were told was because he was going to be making a noise doing construction work nearby. On the surface it felt a kind, considerate gesture. However enduring all the noise that was to come was a different matter. It made it harder to complain having received the gift!

A short blog does not do justice to 2 years of dwelling in what for us was a very different world. I haven’t touched on the main reason we were there for which was working with churches and Christians. Maybe another blog sometime. These experiences and others gave us a little window into this ancient and, at times, inscrutable culture. I recall once a Japanese telling me that foreigners are 20/80 people. They will partake of about 20% of the culture and ways but are excluded from 80%. Whether that is true or not is a moot point. It is certainly correct that many things happened around us that we could not understand. There were also times we were not understood. Japanese people taught me to look beyond a western worldview. There are other valid and sometimes wiser ways of perceiving the world we live in. Respect for elders and the individual’s responsibility and commitment to the group are a few that come to mind. The practice of bowing when meeting people became strangely familiar. So much so that on returning to Europe for a while it felt quite disrespectful not to bow.

The language school we taught from was called ‘Logos’. This was the same name given to the ship that had been my home for many years. Logos means ‘Word’ in Greek and is used by the apostle John to describe Jesus’ coming to the world. 

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”.

John 1 verse 14.

Becoming Like a Little Child

Make sure you get these strokes in the right order! **

Over the years part of my journey has been to learn some basics of the languages in the countries where I have worked. My schoolboy French was useful when I spent time in the south of France. It surprises me to think that for a time I was even reading from a French Bible. 

Living in East Asia gave me an appetite to try and learn a bit of Mandarin and did do some basic night classes. When living in Japan my wife and I had a convenient arrangement with Atsuko, a Japanese lady. She would come to our home in the morning and until mid-morning coffee break she taught us some basic conversational Japanese. After coffee we spoke to her in English. No money changed hands and the setup suited us all well. Helped us get our food from the store, buy petrol etc. I did try some more formal Japanese study by trying to memorise and write ‘kanji’ characters. Think I managed 100 or so. Each character needs memorising as to their different meanings in different contexts. They also have to be written in a certain stroke order, otherwise they don’t look right. Really an art form. When you need about 2,000 to read a newspaper it seemed way beyond my abilities. Add on to that the 2 syllabic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) of 47 characters. It amazes me that Japanese children learn to read and write. However I did persist for a while. Even went to Tokyo to take a Government graded exam. It was the lowest level and I failed. 

How did we function during our time in Japan? Am so thankful for the help of Kazunari who helped me as a translator and became my eyes and ears. Ever patient and cheerful with me. One way we earned a living was teaching English to Japanese. Customers ranged from 3 year old kindergarten kids sent by their parents to octogenarian veterans of the 2nd World War. Their thirst for English was astonishing.

Also spent a year in what at the time was West Germany. Dabbled a bit with some basic, conversational German but never really progressed. Despite spending 2 years in the Caribbean and Central America I never even attempted to learn Spanish.

Marrying a Swede one language which has been a consistent backdrop has been Swedish. I remember initially reading textbooks and practicing basic conversation with my mother-in-law who was very patient with my mistakes. Like the other languages mentioned textbook and formal learning classes only got me so far. 

For nearly 2 years my wife and I lived in Sweden and during that time I worked in a factory. Hardly anyone spoke to me in English. Although it was often a lonely experience my understanding slowly grew. Many months of silently observing, not saying much. Mainly listening. My participation in a fast moving group conversation would often be out of step. By the time I understood what had been said the conversation had moved on to another topic. Laughter or bemusement would follow if I tried to contribute at that point. All very humbling. One to one conversation was a bit more forgiving. All in all the whole experience was like becoming a little child again. Limited vocabulary also meant I expressed myself in limited, childlike ways. 

This immersive experience was strengthened by the factory piping out music and chat all day from a popular Swedish radio station. Elisabeth’s family only ever spoke to me in Swedish. This was even though most had quite good English. I am grateful for this. 

With more fluency came appreciation and respect for the culture and it’s people. A rich, learning experience. I started to read books in Swedish and gain insight into another worldview. The Anglo-American English speaking one I grew up in had dominated my cultural perspective despite travelling a lot. I started to discover Swedish Christian writers who have blessed me in a truly, refreshing way. This has added to my understanding of the depth and wisdom of God at work through other cultures. 

To learn Swedish took time and effort. For me the journey has been humbling, frustrating and at times isolating. It was worthwhile and has taken me out of my own small world. New and refreshing perspectives on life and relationships have opened up. More practically I can converse with my relatives. 

I didn’t get far in French, German, Japanese or Chinese. Despite this multi-lingual experience don’t think I have any particular aptitude in languages. Nowadays if you were to speak to me in these tongues it would seem as if I know next to nothing. One of the things in life that doesn’t seem to add up. The time, effort and any progress in languages seem to be lost if not used over time. This even applies to my Swedish, the one language other than English I have some proficiency in. It gets rusty until a visit to Sweden gives some badly needed oil and maintenance to my brain cells. Despite forgetting much the process keeps opening up your heart and mind to think and express yourself.

Most of us that have English as our first language seem to struggle acquiring another tongue. To us the widespread use of English worldwide is a two edged sword. You are falsely lulled into thinking you can make yourself understood with all kinds of people. Paradoxically you become less likely to understand the people and culture. Being bi-lingual (or more) is a blessing worth celebrating. I might discover some truth about myself that would never be realised by remaining in the silo of my own language.

If you are not bi-lingual and don’t mind becoming a child again then a new language might be just the tonic!

**Pages 16,17, "A Guide to Reading and Writing Japanese" (Tuttle, 1990)