Tokyo | Fall, 2001 | 19 years old

Before going to Japan, I was taught that social disapproval carries a much higher stigma in Japanese culture than it does in the United States. It was a recurring theme in the culture lessons in my Japanese language and history classes in college that social approval and approbation play a very important role in Japanese society. I was taught that group approval as an aspect of Japanese culture was markedly pronounced and considered quite important. I found the Japanese attitude toward drug and alcohol use of great interest to me during my stay there for reasons of cultural comparison.

When I first visited Japan in 2001, the sale and/or purchase of psychedelic mushrooms was legal. In fact, there were entire stores devoted to selling mushrooms and other drug paraphernalia, and low-level criminals often sold mushrooms off of folding card tables at night in the streets of Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s largest business and entertainment districts. However, despite this apparent air of permissiveness, other mind-altering substances, such as cocaine and marijuana, were regulated with strict efficiency. A number of Japanese people told me that penalties for the use or possession of these substances were very severe, and I did not know of a single person who risked using them. On the contrary, mushrooms seemed to me to be very popular among students, and I knew of many people who used the drugs before their sale was made illegal in 2002. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that it was legal to buy, sell, or possess mushrooms, it was illegal to use them for recreational purposes, or for shopkeepers to dispense advice regarding the drugs. Through conversations with my host father, I learned that mushrooms were originally protected because of their potential for use in traditional Japanese religious ceremonies, and they became criminalized because they had in recent years acquired the stigma of a recreational drug with the potential for abuse.

My encounter with Japanese peoples’ attitudes towards alcohol was also of great interest to me. With very few exceptions, it seemed to me that people adhered very strictly to the laws regarding minimum drinking age, which in Japan, was twenty. For instance, despite the fact that clubs that served alcohol in Tokyo rarely if ever carded, I almost never met an underage Japanese person who went out to bars or clubs. Unlike in the United States, where students frequently purchase fake IDs and often drink underage if they can get away with it, in Japan, such activity was almost unheard of. In fact, it was my experience that, while underage students in the U.S. often sought to subvert the system in Japan, it was not only expected that underage persons would not drink, it was self-enforced. I remember one instance when I tried to get my language partner to go out to a club with me. “I can’t,” she replied, “I’m not twenty yet.” When I pointed out that no one at the clubs actually checked on that, she still refused. On top of that, at one point my host mother offered me a drink, then caught herself, saying, “Oh, that’s right, I forgot. You’re only nineteen – you don’t like beer yet.”

September 11th

Tokyo | Fall, 2001 | 19 years old

During my stay in Japan, I lived with a host family in a lovely three-story home in western Tokyo. Despite the three generations of Morimoto family living in the same home, and the ultra-traditional connotations of such an arrangement, my host family was actually acutely aware of Western standards and ideals of individual life and privacy. My parents never minded if I stayed out late and came home in the wee hours of the morning. I was never questioned as to how I had done on tests in school, or what kinds of girls I was interested in, unless I first volunteered that information. I was even given the entire furnished basement to use as my bedroom. That was why it was such a surprise when my host mother entered my room, having never before even come into the basement while I was in it, to tell me that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

It’s sometimes hard to remember what the world was like before nine eleven, but when I heard this news from my host mother, I could only assume that she had made an error in translation. Honestly, it was hard to believe. I am not a skeptic by nature, but this woman whom I had only just met came into my room to tell me that a plane had crashed into an iconic building in my home town. I was, at first, doubtful.

“Okay, I’ll be up in just a minute,” I told her.

And I was. And what I saw was mind-blowing. A building on fire. Smoke. Nonsense noises – I still didn’t speak Japanese very well by then, so the running commentary on the news only added to my confusion. We switched between CNN and Japanese news coverage, and I watched as a second plane flew towards the towers. At first I thought that we were watching a taped replay of the original footage, but then I realized that it couldn’t be because the first building was already on fire. There was another crash. Another gigantic explosion. I watched as the second tower was hit, and kept watching through that night as the towers continued to burn, and then eventually fall.

I was a half a world away, powerless to do anything, yet being forced to watch these events as they unfolded. I tried to call my father, who worked downtown near the towers, but couldn’t reach him because all the phone lines were in use or down. It was nighttime in Japan, not early morning, as in New York; this only added to my dread and sense that I was living out some kind of horrible nightmare. I think now that if I had been by myself, I wouldn’t have known how to handle it… but my host family was there. My host dad suggested that I use his computer to send an email to my dad’s PDA. My host mother stayed up with me to talk until I felt well enough to go to sleep. The next day, we all ate breakfast together (a rarity, since my host father generally had to go to work well before the rest of us even rose in the morning). The next day, I heard from my family in New York that everything was OK. The personal worry, at least for me, had ended. But on that day, I was shaken as I had never been before. To me, what had occurred was nothing short of a crisis, but my host family came together to support me. On nine eleven, my host family and I became just that – a family.


Tokyo | Fall, 2001 | 19 years old

“I’ma Wario! I’ma gonna win!”

– Wario, Super Mario Kart 64 (N64)

When I was growing up, my mother warned me against playing too many video games. More than the fact that every hour behind a controller was an hour not spent studying or playing outside, my mom was afraid that if I spent too much time playing video games, I would stunt my social development and grow up having trouble connecting with other people. How wrong she was.

When I first learned that I would be living in a homestay during my time in Japan, I worried that I would have trouble connecting with the members of my host family. In addition to the language barrier, I feared that I would encounter cultural roadblocks that would prevent me from becoming accepted as a member of the family. What if I forgot to take my shoes off inside the house? What if I didn’t like what we ate for dinner? What if they just didn’t like me?

One day, I came home from school to find that my little host brother, Masa-kun, had already taken my customary afternoon seat on the couch. Masa, it turned out, had stayed home sick with a cold, and was watching Yu-Gi-Oh!, one of many cookie-cutter Japanese anime shows that existed primarily to sell product tie-in toys to young viewers. While I’d never seen Masa turn away from a TV show before, this episode was apparently a repeat, because it didn’t hold his attention for more than five minutes before he turned to me and proclaimed, “Eric, I’m bored.”

This, to me, was a little bit of a shock. Up to this point, young Masa-kun had hardly talked to me at all, except to say, “excuse me” whenever he walked in on me in the bathroom without knocking, which was all the time. I had no idea how to respond to Masa – I wondered if it would be OK for me to take him over to the park across the street – but as it turned out, I didn’t have to. Before I could even respond, Masa looked right up at me and asked, “Eric, do you know how to play video games?”

A better icebreaker couldn’t have been scripted. Masa fired up his Nintendo – it was a little more advanced a game system than the one I had grown up with, but I could manage – and plugged in Super Mario Kart 64, an update to a classic go-kart racing title. The two of us instantly connected over the game, and we spent the rest of the afternoon shooting koopa-turtle shells at each other, dropping banana peels in front of our opponent racers’ paths, and spouting each character’s catch phrases, in both English and Japanese.

Masa and I would become very close over the course of my homestay, and as silly as it seems, I really believe that playing video games together contributed greatly to sowing the seeds of our friendship. Of course, I still did encounter other cultural barriers during my time in Japan. For instance, I still don’t understand those cartoon television shows. But I find it ironic that in this instance I was able to overcome a barrier and make a strong and lasting friendship, in part due to the one toy that my mother feared would hinder my ability to foster social relationships: the Nintendo!