A few years ago, I had the good fortune of going on the JET Program to teach English in Japan. I lived in a small town in Shiga (滋賀) called Takatsuki (高月). After about a year, I decided to leave the gorgeous little town with its empty streets ideal for bike riding through peaceful rice fields, and move to a city where the last train was much later than 9PM, Kyoto. That year and-a-half was not what I expected. It was still full of exciting adventures and each day offered new challenges, but my first year in Japan in the country-side was still the most vivid, much like a first love, unshakably hard to forget. Perhaps because it contained memories of a lot of “firsts”, the most prominent being the first time living on my own which I tried to take full advantage of.
I had a dream last night about the first junior high school I worked at in Japan. In my dream, all the second-year teachers were crowded around me, gossiping about something I can’t remember. One of them was Mr. Soga, a guy a year younger than me whom I taught with the most frequently and had a desk right beside mine. Single, quiet, and an older brother to two, his superior English and age inevitably made him my confidant. He was a typically reserved Japanese man who spent his weekends in pachinko parlours, which were gaudy and noisy places businessmen, and women, frequented to play metal ball machines (aka Plinko?) for money, much like the mind-numbing effects of a slot machine.
Our relationship was on a strong foundation that could be explained by how we addressed each other: him, by last name, and me, by my first. I had no qualms in sharing practically every detail of my life, which he would respond to most genuinely, but never shared much about himself outside of the office.
Soga was taller than most Japanese men, and had handsome features: large eyes, prominent nose, dark skin, the works. He was nice to look at, but beneath what would’ve been the window to his soul was emptiness. His stare was always a little placid, and made him an interesting subject for psychoanalysis and set a framework on understanding all other Japanese men I encountered thereon.
I moved to Japan in the fall of ’06. I remember receiving the phone call that changed the course of my life when I was shopping with my dad at Rona, a hardware store. I had a month to pack up my bags and say good-bye to my family, friends and my then-boyfriend, who was suspicious of the survival rate of a long-distance relationship. I didn’t feel unprepared, after all, I thought I knew all that I could about its culture through the language I had invested four years majoring in. I was so wrong. It was as if all this time I had been reading a fairy-tale version of this foreign country, and at other times, the reality of Japan was more surreal than anything I had ever imagined.