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.