This year marks the tenth anniversary of my first journey to Japan, as a Rotary Youth Exchange student going to school and generally getting in trouble in Osaka.
Since then, I have flown a hundred thousand miles, earned three diplomas, and have seen my Japanese high school closed down and stupidly renamed while my American high school gets shuttered due to the swine flu.
I still have many memories of that first year, and for the next eleven months, will be sharing some of those memories here on the blog. (Those of you who don’t care can simply avoid the jump, and Adamu will still regale you with tales of the Adachi-ku ballot).
I left Miami on August 19, 1999, said goodbye to the US at Dallas/Fort Worth, and took off for Japan, landing at Kansai Airport on August 20. Although I had flown to Europe many times before, this flight was the longest I had ever taken up to that point, and I could not get a wink of sleep to save my life. The thought of being on a new continent, living a new life, was that exciting.
Arriving at Kansai was surreal. The airport itself wasn’t. Before I left, I had looked up Osaka in Microsoft Encarta, my only handy reference in the days before Wikipedia, and the arrivals hall at Kansai was one of the only pictures they had of the city.
The view that didn’t surprise me
By the time we landed, I was half-asleep and the world was moving several paces faster than I was. I had checked two suitcases, one containing all my clothes, the other empty for whatever I happened to pick up in Osaka. Naturally, the empty one showed up on the carousel and the full one didn’t, so I had to file a report with the JAL attendants and wander out of customs, with no more than the clothes on my back and a carry-on full of CDs. By the time I finally got out, my welcoming committee was also tired and indifferent (the banner they had prepared was halfway on the floor), but they welcomed me anyway, and then my host family drove me home.
My first real memory of Japan is the smell of the air outside the Kansai Airport terminal. It smelled different–I can’t say why or how, but it did. Then I remember riding up the Hanshin Expressway, watching the endless steel walls zip by my window and wondering how much ore they had to pull out of the ground to smelt the things. At one point, we took an off-ramp, drove through the city for a bit and then got back on.
I took a shower in the family’s eerie Japanese bathroom. I knew the proper bathing procedure but didn’t expect every aspect of the room to be so different, from the faucet to the tub to the towels to the humidity of the air inside. They let me borrow a T-shirt, shorts and socks designed for a person several sizes smaller than me, all of which I gratefully accepted. Then I went to bed. Thus ended my first day in Japan.
Anyone who has been in Japan for a while knows that the “international” circles of this country contain a fair share of weirdoes, people who apparently unnerve their fellow Japanese to such an extent that they have to rely on foreigners for social support. Fortunately, when I look back now, I realize that Rotary could not possibly have given me a more orthodox example of a Japanese host family.
The father was a short, tanned, balding, rather muscular fellow who was the president of a dental supply company based out of a rather shoddy-looking office in Osaka. The mother was a needlessly patient housewife who broiled fish for breakfast (the cornflakes were a one-time free pass), cleaned the house in the late morning and napped by the TV in the afternoon. The daughter was in middle school and had joined the “folk song club;” playing guitar was apparently the only thing she did outside school besides homework, TV and manga. There was even a small annoying dog to complete the picture. The son, who I only met once, was on exchange in Canada, and I had effectively taken his place in the household. It was like something out of a prime-time animated sitcom.
Most importantly for me, none of them spoke English. The daughter could piece together a passable English sentence given a dictionary and a lot of effort, but otherwise everything was done in Japanese. So I learned very quickly, and they never failed to correct my mistakes, up to and including the improper use of formal language. My host father was always “Otousan” and my host mother was always “Okaasan.”
The family lived in the Senri New Town north of Osaka proper. Senri is the oldest example of large-scale government-planned suburban development in Japan, dating back to the early 1960s (the 1970 Expo was held just a few clicks to the east). It still has the feel of that era, with roads winding between giant apartment blocks, and odd shades of mustard and lime strewn about the walls of public buildings.
The family’s house was in a sort-of American-style plot of single-family houses in neat curving rows on one side of a large park. To go to the nearest station, Senri-Chuo, I would walk through the park (cicadas blaring in my ears the whole way), then down a long walkway between two columns of office buildings, then across a skybridge spanning the Shin-Midosuji expressway, and then through the giant terraced shopping center surrounding the station. To my eyes, it was almost as if someone had taken the suburbs of Miami and run them through a trash compactor, or perhaps stuck a black hole in the middle which drew everything closer together.
A couple of days into my stay, one of the program administrators called my host family and told them my lost suitcase had been found. Some confused lady had mistaken it for her own and took it home. Another couple of days later, the suitcase showed up at my host family’s door, neatly wrapped in plastic with a takkyubin tag hanging off it. I didn’t think very much of this at the time, and in retrospect, I have trouble understanding why I was so nonplussed: it was a very early snapshot of how Japan works.
In fact, three or four weeks in, one of my friends back home e-mailed me asking “Has it hit you yet?” At that point, it hadn’t: the world around me still seemed familiar enough, even if every minute thing was slightly off. The hammer of culture shock didn’t whack me until I was starting to get used to Osaka. But that’s another post.