Life on the Last Train

Yokohama | 2002 | 25 years old

In the land of super efficient transport, the train and subway system was my indispensable peephole into Japan. Like most others there, I depended on the reliable trains that crisscrossed the urban metropolises and connected cities and the countryside. Indeed, without it, I would not have been able to regularly disappear into the crowds in Shinjuku, visit my host sister’s newborn son in Kanazawa, or witness the New Year’s bell ringing at a Kyoto temple.

Yet, in addition to their function of getting me to my destination of choice, the trains were cultural journeys in and of themselves. As a foreigner, each ride held the promise of glimpses into the everyday lives of a wide swath of Japanese society. Depending on my luck that day, I might have the chance to eavesdrop on the giggling chatter of uniformed school girls. Or I might be able to watch from across the aisle, the interactions of a mother and her two rowdy, carefree young boys. Each train ride was unique, providing intense snippets of insight into the subtle intricacies of behavior in a country dominated by relationships and mannerisms.

One experience stands out in my mind – it happened during a ride that I took on the last train of a Friday night in Yokohama. I shuffled on, riding the crowd’s momentum into a car that was already crammed with other riders who, like me, had timed their plans to end exactly when the last train would take them back to their homes for the night. Scanning the car, I saw that it had packed in its usual late night crowd – teenagers and 20-somethings who had spent their night at karaoke and salarymen and office ladies who had shared several rounds of Kirins. In particular, I recall seeing a 20-something guy who looked the worst for wear. Held up by his clan of three friends, the guy hung heavily like a puppet. He had obviously graduated from Kirins to sake that night and seemed on the verge of losing it. And five minutes into the ride, he did. Before we knew it, all of us were privy to the gastronomical delights that he had partaken of earlier that night. What happened next though was what surprised me most. Immediately, one of his friends asked for tissues, and soon passengers in the car reached into their purses and pockets, passing dozens of tissue packets to him. He and his friends then began to wipe up the mess, and within five minutes, it was cleaned up. Then to top it off, one of the friends made a short speech of public apology to the train and thanked everyone for their tissue and understanding. When the train came to a stop, the three friends helped the staggering fourth off.

Amazed, the first thought that crossed my mind was that this never would have happened in the U.S. At best, the mess might have been cleaned up, but more likely, it would have been left there for the train staff to discover. Certainly, there would not have been a public apology made to the other riders. If nothing else, this experience solidified in my mind the value of responsibility, social cooperation, and consideration in Japanese society. It also demonstrated the strength of bonds of relationships in Japan. How many of us can say that we would mop up our friend’s vomit on a train?

Mistaken Identity

Kanazawa | Summer, 1998 | 21 years old

Smiling, nodding, and running away was one of the early sets of skills I developed during my first trip to Japan. Because I am Asian, I was often approached by Japanese strangers who erroneously concluded that I too was Japanese and similarly fluent in their native tongue. Little did they know that my grasp of Japanese was basic at best. Thus arose the need for my simple but cowardly three-step solution of smiling, nodding, and running away. I developed and perfected this technique during my visits to department stores and shopping districts where I was frequently approached by friendly salespeople eager to assist a potential customer. Unable to understand the salesperson or find the vocabulary to respond, I was left with two options: 1) attempt to respond in Japanese and watch the salesperson go through the typical progression of reactions: annoyance (What is wrong with this girl? Is her brain fully capacitated?), confusion (Why is her Japanese so bad?), realization (Oh! She must be a foreigner), and finally, awkwardness or curiosity; or 2) smile, nod, and run away. Since the latter was less daunting and involved, I often chose to take this route, giving the illusion that I was a polite but aloof shopper who was one of them.

Despite burdensome expectations that I be fluent in Japanese, being Asian allowed me to feel a strange sense of belonging in a world where I was constantly reminded by my cultural or linguistic struggles that I was a foreigner. Oddly appealing, it was (as long as I kept my mouth shut) a reprieve from the alienation a foreigner cannot help but feel. In crowded urban streets, I was easily swallowed up in waves of Asian faces. I was never approached by friendly strangers eager to practice their English but rather by those who were lost and asking me (of all people!) for directions.

In contrast, my non-Asian friends were not expected to be proficient in Japanese and often received praise for knowing even the most basic of Japanese greetings. Although I imagine that this type of response could become tedious over time, it was one that I admittedly longed for, particularly in situations when my language ability was inadequate.

While my non-Asian friends benefited from these stereotypes, they could never truly escape being identified as a foreigner. One Caucasian friend remarked that because of his appearance, it was as if he permanently wore a camera around his neck and shouted, “I’m a tourist!” Every day he would pass the tissue ladies on his way to and from class, oftentimes plotting his path in hopes of receiving some free tissue. The tissue ladies, as we referred to them, were the ladies who would pass out free packets of Kleenex with advertising printed on the packaging. Yet, some ladies routinely ignored him. Here was a willing, almost desperate, recipient and still they did not take advantage. We hypothesized that perhaps it was because they assumed that he could not read the printed advertising. Or perhaps they viewed him as a guest in their country and did not want to thrust junk advertising on him. In either case, it was apparent that the reason for his special treatment was because he was obviously not Japanese.

While I am not convinced that my friend got the harder end of the bargain, I realized then that my plight was not so bad. At least I could get all the free tissues I wanted.

Sitting in Seiza

Kanazawa | Summer, 1998 | 21 years old

In Japan, kneeling in the “seiza” position is the traditional and proper way to sit on floors. While it is not required in informal settings, it is still used by women, though to a lesser extent nowadays by younger generations. For instance, women often sit in seiza when dining without chairs around low tables. What perhaps began as a necessity for kimono-clad women continues to be considered feminine and similarly necessary for contemporary Japanese women who frequently don skirts. Personally, this was reason enough for me to almost stop wearing skirts altogether; it was, in my mind, a form of punishment… literally.

During my childhood, kneeling was used as punishment by my parents, saved for our naughtiest moments. Instead of spanking or sending me or my sister to stand in a corner, my parents chose to have us kneel on the floor for what seemed like hours on end. In reality, the kneeling probably never lasted longer than a half an hour, and the floor was thickly carpeted, but the pain of trying to stand or walk in the aftermath… Long minutes would pass before the numbness disappeared and muscle capabilities returned. After my sister and I outgrew this form of punishment, I never revisited this posture except in passing. That is, until I went to Japan.

In trying to learn the language and culture, I often attempted to act Japanese by behaving in a way that was considered socially-acceptable for Japanese women, and my attempts to sit in seiza fell into this category. Yet, despite my intentions to act properly feminine like all the other women around me, five minutes of sitting in seiza inevitably led to hours of shifting to the left, then to the right, then back to the left until finally I gave in to the comfortable but masculine crisscross-legged style. Fortunately for me, I was often excused from sitting in seiza due to my foreigner status. Although this reason would typically spur me to disprove any preconceptions about foreigners and their ability to do “Japanese” things, in these instances, I quickly and eagerly played my foreigner card.

On the whole, I managed to avoid the seiza position. In formal and traditional situations, however, I was not so fortunate. During a class trip to a local temple, we were kindly given the chance to meditate with the monks (which was a great opportunity at an inopportune time, since it followed an exhausting morning and a substantial lunch). To begin our meditation, we were instructed to sit in seiza style. Not surprisingly, after only a few minutes, circulation ceased in my legs, and I struggled to fight waves of pain along with bouts of drowsiness. One would think that my sleepiness would dull the pain or that alternatively, the discomfort would douse my urge to dose, but somehow I was not so lucky. I knelt there quietly, waiting, wanting the chanting to end. I only managed to stay awake out of fear that I would involuntarily cave into my desire to stand or lay down.

Supposedly, it is said that one can increase one’s ability to sit in seiza through practice. That challenge, however, I left to my fellow exchange students. I opted instead to wear pants and choose tables at restaurants with chairs. I am a foreigner after all!

Doing Laundry

Kanazawa | Summer, 1998 | 21 years old

Ah, laundry, the weekly ritual of lugging bulging sacks of soiled clothes to the washing machine and the tedium of sorting by color. One might think that with all of Japan’s high-tech advances, doing laundry would entail putting clothes into a Jetsons-like contraption that would sort, wash, dry, iron, and fold. But sadly that is not the case. Laundry in Japan is like it is in the U.S.- still a chore… with a couple of extra wrinkles.

As expected, I was responsible for washing my own laundry at my host family’s house. Just before I went to wash my first load, my host mother explained which box held the detergent and what buttons I should push on the washing machine. I memorized the design of the box and the differently shaped and colored buttons like I was preparing for a Japanese vocabulary quiz, nodded, and went upstairs to sort my laundry. Finally! Something I could do on auto-pilot. This, I thought, I could handle.

About a half an hour later, I heard the washing machine’s melodic chime, which signaled the end of the wash. Having seen laundry hanging in the balconies of houses and buildings during my long train ride from the airport to Kanazawa, I was prepared for what came next. Like in many other Asian countries, homes in Japan do not have clothing dryers, and clothes are hung outside to dry. So with my basket of wet clothes in one hand and a handful of hangers and clothespins in another, I went outside to start the next phase of the chore.

As each weekend came and went, the routine of doing laundry became established. What did change, however, as the weeks went by was the size of my clothes. Without a clothes dryer, my all-cotton clothes grew larger and larger from the weight of being hung to dry. As my clothes stretched and expanded my longing for a clothes dryer also increased. What I would have given for a dryer to shrink my now-too-big jeans and t-shirts back to size and give it a fluffy dryer smell!

Depending on the sun and gentle breeze to dry my clothes also meant that laundry required advanced planning. Doing laundry in Japan inevitably involved watching the weather forecast and timing the drying phase to fall exactly during the calm between the frequent storms of the rainy season. On the weekends where heavy rain poured nonstop, all of us had no choice but to wait until the next sunny day. Unfortunately for me, that often fell on a weekday which also meant that I wouldn’t be around to hang my laundry. So on those days, my very kind host mother and grandmother took it upon themselves to hang my laundry for me. As if having my unmentionables on display wasn’t embarrassing enough, the fact that my host family would be hanging them up made it even worse… Had I known, I would have packed only my Sunday best!

Needless to say, I kept this in mind when I packed for my following trips to Japan. I filled my luggage primarily with fast-drying, non-wrinkling clothing made with spandex and other synthetic materials, not to mention unmentionables suitable for public viewing!

The Family Toto

Kanazawa | Summer, 1998 | 21 years old

As a Taiwanese-American growing up in a city with a large Japanese population, I probably suffered less of a cultural shock upon my arrival in Japan than some of my classmates. Eating rice and tofu regularly, using chopsticks, taking my shoes off at the entry- those were all things I grew up with, so probably to the dismay of my Japanese host family, I was at times neither traumatized nor mesmerized by the novelty of it all. That is not to say though that I didn’t suffer from the usual cultural shock and homesickness. Despite my familiarity with some of the daily rituals and customs of Asian culture, I often found myself in situations where I was at a complete loss.

The day I arrived at my host family’s house in Kanazawa, my first trip to Japan, one of my earliest challenges was the family Toto. No, I’m not referring to Dorothy’s lovable canine companion in The Wizard of Oz. This was a completely different beast altogether. And in this family’s case, the beast was pink and contained in a room of its own. It was- the family toilet, manufactured by a company named Toto. As I entered the little toilet room, where there is literally only a toilet in a small 4-foot by 8-foot enclosure, I immediately committed a cultural faux pas; I walked in wearing the same slippers I had been wearing throughout the house. It wasn’t until I sat down on the (surprise!) warm seat and saw a set of slippers marked “Toilet” across the top that I realized I was supposed to have changed my slippers. In line with the Japanese ideals of cleanliness and sanitation, one is supposed to wear only toilet slippers in the toilet room and the house slippers throughout the rest of the house (except for the tatami room, of course). After making a mental note about the slipper switching for future visits to the toilet, I noticed that to my left were two neat rows of buttons marked with a few characters or pictographs. Now, without going into detail, sitting on a toilet is probably one of the most vulnerable positions that a person can be in. I was not about to push some strange looking buttons that would do who-knows-what while I was locked in this tiny space. Plus, if any harm were done, either to me or to the toilet, how could I explain this to my host family? I had a hard enough time making idle conversation with my limited vocabulary and knowledge of Japanese. I decided to stick to the basic flush button and ended my trip to the bathroom uneventfully.

During those three months and the following summer with the same host family, I never did summon the courage to conquer that beast. Even after consulting with fellow exchange students and learning that washing and drying were common features of Japanese toilets, I wasn’t sure that it was something I wanted to try. Give me natto or give me more vocabulary to memorize but an automated toilet? No thanks. It wasn’t until my third and most recent trip to Japan that I finally ventured into this unknown. I decided that I couldn’t have the full Japanese experience without it. Also, I couldn’t use the excuse of not being able to read the characters as a valid justification anymore. So how was it? Not bad. I can’t say that all those extra functions became part of my daily ritual. But the seat warmer… Ah, sitting on a warm seat in a bitterly cold Japanese house where there is no central heating… Although I still prefer central heating to an electric toilet seat, I now understand why these toilets are so popular in Japan!