A Thread Runs Through It

From 1990-92 my wife Elisabeth and I lived in Sweden. We moved from the UK and ‘the idea’ was to be settled for a while in my wife’s homeland. By living in the country I would hopefully improve on my Swedish and get to know her family and background. With over 30 years of hindsight ‘the idea’ looks to us like something that fitted into place. A part of some pre-planned progressive journey through life. In reality at the time we didn’t know where this was leading. We had no idea that it would be for 2 years, we didn’t know that this would subsequently lead on to us going to Japan for 2 years. Maybe it is an illusion to look back and think we can see life fitting together like some sort of jigsaw. It is a comfort to me to know that Abraham, a man of faith, when called from the familiar “went without knowing where he was going”. Hebrews 11 vs 8.

My wife’s family had a business that was in its 3rd generation of making shirts. Her grandmother had started the business in her kitchen. I was amazed to discover how family chats with Elisabeth’s siblings could go on for hours where they would passionately discuss the finer points of shirt collars, cuffs and various types of fabric. Cotton and linen most definitely in and nylon or polyester totally out of the picture. The family took great care and pride in the quality of its product. A company motto was ‘The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten’. It challenged my more pragmatic and pseudo utilitarian approach to things. Their approach bore fruit and the firm had an international distribution network selling to the most prestigious retailers. 

To pay the bills I got a job in the shirt factory as a warehouseman. It certainly was a steep learning curve learning the many variations of shirt. This was in the days of not so much automation. Every order hand picked from shelves and packed in boxes. To avoid time and effort roaming around the aisles of shirts you needed to remember where things were. The latest seasonal collection, the various collar types, sizes and colour ranges. Short arm, long arm, business, recreational etc. I was helped by two long term staff who had decades of experience. None of the staff spoke English so I was immersed in Swedish. To add to the linguistic intensity Swedish national radio was played factory wide all day. All good you might say. One of my work colleagues however had a very strong local dialect and she was given to using slang words. I was duly corrected by Elisabeth if too much influenced. I also needed to be careful when a certain delivery driver would call to pick up consignments. Every second word it seemed was a swear word. He wasn’t the best tutor.

There was a very stable workforce and a few had even worked there 50 years. Living in the surrounding villages most also knew one another outside of work. Whether it was in church, community or sports clubs people’s lives seemed integrated with one another. I now live in a large city where anonymity is prevalent. There is an attraction to the idea of community that village or small town life appear to engender. Perhaps that is another illusion!

The factory work routine was similar most days. Occasionally though there was a need for an urgent delivery of shirts. The job would involve driving a car or van load of shirts north to somewhere in central Sweden. It was an adventure to take off into what for me were unexplored parts of this large and scarcely populated country. Especially in the cold of winter it was special to traverse great swathes of forest. The stark, still beauty of a winter wonderland. The wonderful pallet of deepening blue as the weak sun sets through the trees. And yes the solitude. Stopping for coffee in a remote countryside café and practicing my fledgling Swedish was the ‘icing on the cake’. No pun intended but coffee usually goes with cake in Sweden and is called ‘fika’. 

Sunset over Lake Sämsjön

These journeys were not all serene as also needed to keep an eye out for elk (moose) crossing the road. There was the danger of maiming or killing the animals. Their large weight and size could also do serious damage to a vehicle.

Swedish employment laws were generous so as a foreigner I had the right to some paid time off each week to study Swedish formally. My learning included attending an adult education centre in the town. The people in my class of about 20 consisted mainly of political refugees from lands that most other western countries did not give asylum to. A second category were people of Finnish descent whose families had migrated after the 2nd World War. Despite many years in Sweden or even being born there some spoke poor Swedish and wanted to improve. And then there was me, an outlier. I seemed to be the only one who hadn’t experienced political oppression or family migration through war. 

What struck me most about the class was how small the world can seem to be at times. One lady remembered me visiting her town in the southern Philippines several years earlier. Another Sudanese woman knew a family I knew when I stayed in Khartoum in 1982. Two connections in a random class of 20! It is said that if we could trace through all our relationships we would only be 5 or 7 people away from anyone in the world.

Day’s end.

Once Upon a Time There Was… 

In the following story I have not indicated places, names or dates.

Once upon a time there was a young ‘line up man’, hereafter known as ‘line up man’. He was ‘lining up’ for the world’s first floating bookship. The job involved preparing for all aspects of an upcoming ship visit to a port. Arranging official permissions for public to visit the onboard ship exhibition, customs, immigration, appointing shipping agent, organising concerts, conferences, and all kinds of meetings onboard and onshore. In addition all manner of things that what was home for 140 crew from 25 nations might be needing.

Usually those who did line up went in small teams of 2 or 3 for mutual support. However on this occasion said line up man went alone. He was excited. It was a small, remote island nation the population of many mid-sized towns in the UK. Line up man arrived and found accommodation with some young people from another Christian organisation. One of his first tasks was to find and set up an office. Upon being introduced to the Crown Court Interpreter (hereafter CCI) he kindly said line up man could use his office facilities. The office also seemed part of the Ministry of Information. The arrangement proved fortuitous as the CCI was a mine of information. Anybody who was anybody he knew and could fix or arrange most things. 

The CCI was also a Christian and decided that one of the most important things would be to get line up man to speak at a Bible study he was involved with. This was quite normal as line up man would usually seek spiritual and material support from the churches in whatever port or country the ship was planning to visit. So it was that at appointed time line up man went along to the meeting. As was the custom everyone sat cross legged around the edge of a large room. What was not normal was that the Bible study was in the home of the prime minister of the country (hereafter called PM). It could be said that line up people should be ready for anything. This was such a case. Young line up man said his piece in front of the PM and rest of the gathering. Line up man had been urging the importance of prayer and that there was a ‘spiritual battle’ involved in bringing the ship into the country. Line up man was very surprised at the response. Those attending took the message to heart in an unexpected way. A spokesman for the meeting said that not only would they pray. They would also partially fast for the next 3 or so weeks before the ship arrived! Everyone appeared in agreement including the people line up man was staying with. Whether it was the immaturity of youth, potential embarrassment in front of the PM or more likely pride the line up man felt obligated to join in this proposal.

Now one thing line up man liked was his food and line up was not a relaxing or easy going job. A lot of energy was involved in going round government offices getting permissions, church visits, arranging publicity, dealing with port authorities, ship chandlery etc. etc. Cutting back on food for 3 weeks seemed a bleak prospect. After a few days of eating very little line up man was getting quite faint. He recalls sheepishly going to others fasting to ask if he could break fast and start eating breakfast. It was no problem. However line up man felt a bit shameful when others were not doing this. A few more days passed on this one meal a day regime. Yes you’ve guessed it, line up man was still feeling very weak. Anticipating further embarrassment he then asked if he could also eat evening meal. This was again no problem but did nothing for his sense of letting people down. Nevertheless line up man did enjoy low key visits to a local hamburger place. The two meal a day arrangement proved sustainable (just) till the ship arrived. 

One day while the above was going on line up man got a message from the PM. He wanted to see him and was waiting outside line up man’s office in his chauffeur driven government car. Line up man wondered somewhat anxiously what issue of import would cause the PM to personally come and see him. Had he caused offence in some way? Duly going out he joined PM in the car. There was no problem, rather the opposite. The PM wanted to have a time of prayer with him. The PM was a man of faith and left an impression on line up man. Despite wielding authority he was humble. At other times it became known to line up man that his wife (a princess) and two of his daughters shared his faith. Indeed his wife helped with line up by creating an invitation list for the opening reception of the ship when she arrived. 

On another occasion during this line up time the king of the country had to go overseas to represent his country. Now the PM was of royal lineage and a close relative of the king. When the king was out of the country the PM became the acting king. 

One day line up man got another message from the PM during the time he was acting king. Would line up man like to visit him while he sat on the throne? Not a normal invitation but an offer he was excited to take up! In retrospect it was probably an offer he would be ill advised to refuse. As it was had he not met the PM on several occasions. The offer almost felt like from a friend so this should not be that different. So the time arrived and line up man duly turned up for the appointment. He felt quite grand signing visitors book while waiting. The person ahead of him on the list was the Canadian ambassador.

The time came for the meeting and he was ushered in to the Throne room. The acting king (PM to me) was enthroned at the end of a very long table. Line up man sat at other end of table unsure of what the protocol should be. Impression was his chair was at an angle so there was no direct ‘face to face’. The natural focus was the view from a big window looking out to the ocean. A single tanker ship lay at anchor a few km offshore. They appeared to be alone but there may well have been inconspicuous aides nearby. Exact details of conversation are somewhat lost to line up man’s memory. He does though recall his feelings. The king spoke of his country and its needs. The challenge of representing a small country in a big world. Not really feeling he could relate to such matters line up man responded with what he did know. He began to speak of how they had met previously at meetings and thanked him for this interest and enthusiasm for the upcoming ship visit. At that point line up man was reprimanded for becoming too personal. Did line up man not know that when on the throne the king (or PM, line up man was confused) would only speak of matters of state? Line up man had not shown respect to the office. At that point it was good to be able to focus out to sea and try and forget where line up man was. Why had he not been trained in the art of speaking to kings on thrones?

The time in this small country was not all drama. There was also the mundane. One need was for line up man to have a haircut. Without much thought he went along to a local barber. What he didn’t see before it was too late was the use of the trimmer on top of his head instead of scissors. He was now almost a ‘skinhead’. More humiliation! 

So the great day came when the ship sailed into port. Standing on the quayside to welcome the vessel’s arrival into port line up man’s lack of calorie intake and shaven appearance shocked his fellow crew. One even thought he had spent time in jail. 

Despite what seemed blunders by line up man the ship visit went well. Many visitors from all sectors of society were welcomed on board. Friendships made and people were touched. The international crew had many opportunities to share their lives with the people. An opportunity in part made possible by a man with authority yet who was humble. At end of the visit the PM felt the time had been a great blessing to his people. He assured the ship crew of his prayers and was on the quayside to say goodbye as the ship departed. As for line up man he flew off to his next adventure.

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.