Sunday, September 03, 2006

"August/September 1984/2006"

I crossed the Pacific in mid-August of 1984 - and many things happened in the early weeks and months I was here.  The impressions and drama of the first few weeks in fact was so strong that it comes back to me powerfully from time to time, particularly in late August and - this year - early September.

Last night - September 1st, 2006 - I went stright from work to Shinagawa, where I stayed for my second week in Japan.  .......  Sigh... I guess I have to write this down in sequence.  I was only intending to mention a part of it, but it all came back so powerfully yesterday, and the images and memories are still strongly lingering today, so I suppose this is the time to put it into words.

The moment of walking off the 747 into Narita Airport in August 1984 - I was immediately struck with the realization that I was walking into something very different from what I had left behind.  Different radio waves in the air, different smell and different general feel....

In the regular Keisei Line train (not the reserved seat Sky-liner) with Tokoko (a high school student - one of four pen-pals I exchanged letters with before coming here) on the way into central Tokyo, I looked around, noticed that I seemed to be the only non-Japanese person in the train and wondered at Tokoko's having written "There are many foreigners in Japan...".

Standing off to the side in a very busy station with people rushing about everywhere, watching Tokoko asking a station worker how to get to Kanda after she had put us on a wrong train (probably she got on a Keihin-Tohoko Line train going away from Tokyo instead of into it).

Walking down a street in Kanda (on our way to the Kanda YMCA), I looked up and noticed the utility poles were indeed the unusual type I had first noticed in a Japanese movie at the Kokusai Movie theater in San Francisco.  I spent enough time watching Japanese movies and reading books about Japan, that - for most things - I was not surprised about too much; rather is was a feeling "Oh yeah - that's what I saw in that movie!" or "Oh yeah - that's what the book said!".  A huge exception was the (ongoing) experience of dealing with other foreigners in Japan!  Nothing can adequately prepare you for that!  Psychosis 909!

Jaywalking across a street with Tokoko to get to the Kanda YMCA building (an old brick building, built in 1928 and - unfortunately - torn down in 1988; the old building had a lot more character than the new one does), as we crossed, a policeman blew a whistle and yelled at us - Tokoko bowed an apology and we were allowed to proceed under the fierce gaze of the policeman (jaywalking was very rare then - it's become more common over the years).

Walking into the Kanda YMCA and meeting Tokoko's father (who had made a reservation at the Kanda YMCA for me - at Y5,000 a night, not the best option when there were "gaijin houses" at Y1,400 a night) and a translator friend of his (who claimed he had translated for President Carter when he visited Japan).  I stupidly paid for a week in advance (meaning that, with food costs, I would be out of money at the end of the week!), and we took a creaky old "Made in USA" Otis elevator down to the time-slip dining room in the basement with "Made in USA" silverware!  After getting used to practically everything being "Made in Japan" when I was living in the US, it was amusing that the first elevator I got on in Japan was "Made in USA" and the first spoon to go in my mouth was "Made in USA".

Making a (very expensive!) semi-local call to Kathy in Saitama, my Japanese-American girlfriend, who had flown over with me.  Where was she staying?  At a former boyfriend's apartment!  (I was BF#3 who was Japan-bound, so she decided to tag along this time, meeting up with BF#2 in Saitama and BF#1 in Kyushu.)

In a Shinjuku department store, going from floor to floor via escalators with Kathy and a local friend of hers (who was the new girlfriend of BF#2 I think) - no non-Japanese anywhere....  Again, I remembered Tokoko's "There are many foreigners in Japan" remark and thought "Where?!" (remember I came from San Francisco City, where there is no clear majority of any race).  Later, when I was about to head back to Kanda, I was feeling a bit lost and scared in Shinjuku Station as I was about to set off alone, so I asked Kathy's friend which platform I should go to and she told me "Take the Yamanote Line", so I said "Yeah, I know, but in which direction?", to which she flippantly told me to take it in either direction - it would get me to Kanda.  I walked under the tracks within the station, darkly thinking "Thank you for your rudeness and thank you for your disregard for my time!  I'd like to take the shorter/faster route..."

Day three or four - I meet Tokoko and a friend of hers, Kibijin.  They take me around Kamakura to the temples, and Kibijin refuses to go past the gates of anything not specifically her version of Buddhism (the newest, strictest version of it).

Probably the same day as the temple visits - I visit Kibijin's house with Tokoko, and Kibijin's mother takes a liking to me (no, not in *that* way!).

Day four or five - I wake up early in the Kanda YMCA (jet-lag/supercharge and in-wrong-time-zone Tokyo effect), open the windows and look down at the street below (from something like the 7th floor, I can't remember exactly).  I ponder the fact that I have a few more days before I'm out of money and out of a place to stay, look at the people walking along the street, realize that I can't talk to them (no Japanese language on my side, little English language ability on theirs) and break down for a minute beside the bed in the closet-sized room "What am I going to do! Sob!-Sob!".  But I snap out it, and take on the "March into it man!  Do what you can!" attitude necessary for survival if you're a freelancer in this life, without connections.

Day... five or six?  I go into a barbershop for a haircut and the oldest barber there that I immediately think "No... not him... please...." jumps up and indicates a seat.  I sit down, hold up my thumb and fingers, indicating that I just want a centimeter or so taken off.  What happens?  The bugger takes off everything in a flourish *except* a half-centimeter!  I may be wrong, but it sure did seem deliberate and that guy did seem to be sadistically enjoying my extreme discomfort at having all my hair cut off!  It took three months before I wasn't ashamed of my appearance and was a contributory factor in my eventually swearing off barbers of all kinds - I've been cutting my own hair for ten years now, saving money, time, frustration, and all to better effect.

And now, finally, Shinagawa enters the story.  Strangely, I can't remember how it was set up at all.  An initial phone call?  A question in person?  I have no recollection at all, but - in one way or another - as my time at the YMCA was running out, Tokoko let me know that Kibijin's mother had put in a good word about me to her husband, who owned his own company in Shinagawa.  All this is conjecture of the obvious - I had to be informed and it had to come from Tokoko or Kibijin, but the memory of the actual event is gone.  Now - back to memory video clips, which are clearly remembered:

I'm sitting in one of the cushy customer seats by the window on the fifth floor of Mr. Shacho's (Kibijin's father - President and owner of his own business) company in Shinagawa, looking out the window at the many trains going by - the Yamanote Line, the Keihin-Tohoku Line, the Tokaido Line, etc.  I notice that not all of the Yamanote Line train cars are air-conditioned (they got all the trains air-conditioned about a year or two after that), with the non-air-conditioned cars having dry roofs with round cover/intakes for the ceiling fans inside the train, and the air-conditioned cars having large air-conditioner units mounted in the middle of the roof, with much of the roof wet from the water taken out of the humid air by frigid coils.  I sat there feeling a combination of nervousness and ease.  Nervousness at the sort of interview situation, and ease at sitting there in the air-conditioned office in the comfortable chair, with a cold drink and a view out the window of the passing trains.  Smiling Mr. Shacho sits opposite me, and the memory fades....

It's decided that I will work for Mr. Shacho, helping with English correspondence and also handle phone orders in Japanese(!).  A series of memory video clips:

Mr. Shacho takes me over to an apartment he rented just behind his company's office.  He explained that he had a heart condition and rented the apartment so he go there and rest from time to time during working hours - a quick escape from the stress and noise of the office.  The apartment doubles as storage space for things from the office, with boxes piled up in the bathtub and no hot water as the gas was shut off.  He says I can stay there for a while (and take showers at another place that he'll show me) and takes me to a nearby shop where he buys a new futon, sheets, blanket, and pillow for me.  I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable that he was laying out cash for me before I'd done anything for him.

We then walked back towards the station and he took me to another apartment he was renting as his overseas division.  One woman named Minami was working there alone (for another three months, at which time she was going off to Australia to get married), and other people would pop in from time to time.  Mr. Shacho introduces us and after he's gone, Minami looks at me with a wondering look and asks "So you're going to work here?"  I nod, and we end up talking a lot about things in general as she shows me the work she's doing and I begin to help out.  A few days later, she gets that wondering look on her face again and asks "So you're really going to stay here and work?".  Maybe we were talking about general things too much or maybe she was thinking about how I didn't speak Japanese, but I would need to speak it in order to take over her job when she headed to Australia.  A couple of times, she followed up her "Are you really going to stay here?" questions with the question/statement "Don't you think that it doesn't matter where you live?  I think everywhere is the same."  I found that a strange sentiment at the time and just looked at her as I pondered the concept that everywhere is the same, but in hindsight, I wonder if she was trying to convince herself of that, as she was about to move to Australia to live.  (She had spent a couple of years there studying, so she spoke English fluently, and presumably she met her soon-to-be husband while living there.

Walking into an expensive restaurant at the top of the Hotel Pacific [newly opened in 
1971 - closed on September 30th, 2010] in front of Shinagawa Station with Mr. Shacho.  A group of women bowed as we entered and we were shown to a table by a window with a great view, but as we were talking the whole time and I was giving Mr. Shacho my full attention, I wasn't able to take in the view much.  I remember him telling me that his ancestors had been wealthy, but his father had spent all the money, so by the time he came along, he had to work hard to make a living.  He also mentioned how he took the "Green Car" (1st class car - of which there are generally two on a 15-car Tokaido Line train) up from Fujisawa every day.  As we walked back towards the elevators, several women at the entrance to the place bowed to Mr. Shacho's departing back.  (I thought it rude at the time, but I've gotten used to the idea of just marching out of a place like that with my head held high and the staff thanking me and bowing to my departing back - that's just the way it's done here.)

Standing in front of the apartment building containing the export branch office/shower spot in the August heat with the cicadas making their summer noises overhead - a sound I had never in my life heard before.  After all these years, when I hear the cicadas, I remember that moment in Shinagawa in front of that apartment building, waiting for Mr. Shacho to get a car out of the parking lot.  Whether that was the first time I met Mr. Shacho's son, I'm not sure, but I distinctly remember him on that occasion - positively radiating doubt and irritation in my direction.  I had been told by Mr. Shacho that I would only need to know numbers and some set phrases to handle orders on the phone, so I had set to memorizing numbers right away, and he asked me in the car to read the numbers of the license plate on the car in front of us.  I slowly, but accurately, read the numbers out in Japanese, and Mr. Shacho turned smilingly to his son with a "See?" expression and the son tilted his head to the side and gave a "Hmmm.... I don't know...." look.

In a car (the same day as above?) as it passed the US embassy, which Mr. Shacho pointed out.  We then ate in a restaurant near the embassy, where I was introduced to an acquaintance of Mr. Shacho's.  All I remember is being looked at skeptically and feeling uncomfortable.

Meeting another business acquaintance of Mr. Shacho's in a restaurant in a five-star hotel.  I sat there not understanding what they were saying in Japanese, and so there was nothing to interject and nothing to do but dumbly wait.  The acquaintance at one point turned to me and said something bland, like "So you'll be working for Mr. Shacho then?" to which I responded, and then they set to discussing things in Japanese again.  The only word I remember catching was "telex" (as in "He'll be useful in sending and receiving foreign correspondence - he can run the telex machine", or something to that effect I imagined).

Back in the export office alone while Australia-bound Minami went out for some reason or another.  An older man came by and he came in and sat next to my desk - talking to me in Japanese.  He would say "Nantoka dokonanka dareka" ("???") etc. etc. and I would say "Wakarimasen" ("I don't understand."), and he would then say "Desukara, dareka donadesho" ("???"), to which I would say "Wakarimasen".  I don't remember how long that went on, but I eventually called the main office and put the man on the phone to them.  Who he was or what he was visiting for I hadn't - then or now - the slightest clue or idea beyond that it was probably business.  He seemed like a friendly and calm person though, so I wish I could have been able to talk with him....

At the end of my second week, I explained to Mr. Shacho that my Japan Rail Pass was good for three weeks and I was hoping to do a little traveling on it before it ran out, so he said "Where do you want to go?", "Hokkaido" I answered, and he told me I should go and gave me a few days off and some money as an advance on my salary.

I took the Shinkansen (super-express or "bullet train") north, thinking of Kathy, who had headed in the opposite direction - to Kyushu to stay with BF#!.  The plan was to go to Hokkaido where another of the four pen-pals I had been writing to was from and where she told me I was welcome to visit.  Very unfortunately, I got to thinking of Kathy down in Kyushu, and when I got to Morioka (the terminus of the Shinkansen then - it's further north now), I got out of the train, looked around at the city down below the elevated Shinkansen platform, and then walked back into the train, intending to go all the way down to Kyushu.  Unfortunately, the Shinkansen I eventually took south from Tokyo went only as far as Osaka and then the system shut down for the night.

I spent the night in the cab of a small truck in a... junkyard?  Construction site?  In the morning, a man appeared and - nervous that he's be upset about me being in the truck - I opened the door to get out.  The man looked up in shock, emitted a stream of sparks from his hair standing on end, and practically ran out of the area.  Maybe he thought I was a ghost - or maybe he wasn't supposed to be there either....

I met the third of the four pen-pals the next day who was - conveniently enough - from Osaka.  She and her friends took me to Osaka Castle.  There was something uncomfortable about my time in Osaka.  I think I was supposed to go to Hokkaido and the gods of travel were frowning down at me tossing mini-lightning bolts - "Idiot!  Why did did you turn around?!"

For two decades I have kicked myself for not having gone to Hokkaido that day.  I finally made it up there this year (to Hakodate), but still I regret not going up in 1984.

I can't remember for sure, but I think I actually took the Shinkansen down to Kyushu the next day - what I do remember very clearly is:

On a Tokyo-bound Shinkansen, sitting in one of the non-reserved seat cars.  The train was very crowded and somewhere along the line, I looked up to see Mr. Shacho's son leering at me from the end of the train.  I thought "Great... I was given time off to go to Hokkaido, and here I am seen by Mr. Shacho's son in southern Japan".  I looked up a few times, and each time, Mr. Shacho's son practically doubled over in laughter.  At the time, it was mortifying, but if that happened now, I'd go over and talk to him - explaining what was what.

Later, back in the office, Mr. Shacho's son came by and talked with Minami for a bit and she turned to me and said "Did you go to Hokkaido?".  "I went up to Morioka, but then changed my mind and went south instead" I told her.  She looked thoughtful, and looked off into space for a moment - I think she understood what was happening on both sides and also understood there was no point in trying to explain anything to the hostile son of Mr. Shacho.

The following Friday evening, Kathy - being back in Tokyo, came to visit, so I showed her the sleeping apartment behind the main office, and since it was without hot water and half full of boxes, we went over to the export office.  It was Friday night, so I figured no one would be using the office on the weekend, so we spent the night there on the sofa, awakening early on Saturday morning to the sound of a key in the door!  Kathy dove into the next room and I stood up with only a towel on as Mr. Shacho's son walked into the room with a "What-what-what...?" look on his face.  Kathy then made her appearance (with her dress on backwards) and he fell into a "You devilish foreigner you!  Preying on the local woman are you?!!" look on his face.  I didn't speak Japanese and he didn't speak English, so I couldn't explain to him that she was actually American and was my long-time girlfriend from the US who had come over with me.

As I got dressed, he went into the next room and made a phone call somewhere - speaking somberly into the phone - explaining the "terrible" situation to someone I imagined.  I imagined Mr. Shacho's wife and felt like she's be shocked and disappointed in me.  Feeling shamed by the whole thing, and also painfully aware that I was going to need more than three months to learn enough Japanese to actually do my work there in the export office alone, I left with Kathy (I think we stayed at BF#2's place that night - he was out of town for some reason) and I came back on Sunday to get my stuff together.  I put a few things together in my smallest bag and packed everything else into a bag that I stuffed into the space over the unsued (and thus cold) water heater in its closet, which was behind an unlocked door beside the entrance door to the apartment, accessible without any keys.  I figured that no one would look in there and it could sit there for a week or two untouched (luggage lockers were - and are - a bit expensive here).

I then went over to the export office/shower spot, took a shower, slept on the sofa, and early on Monday morning before anyone came in, I wrote a note to Mr. Shacho, and then dropped it and the keys to the apartments through the door mail slot after locking the door.  (I wish I remembered what I wrote in that note!  Hopefully I explained about Kathy, but I'm not sure what I said.)

I then went down to Kyoto, where I stayed at a cheap place (how did I find it?) and explored the city, going over to Osaka to look for work.  I even found a job towards that end, but after the man said I was hired, I said "Thank you, but please wait for a few days for my answer, I have business to attend to in Tokyo first.  The man looked none-to-pleased and I - indeed - ended up getting work in Tokyo and not returning to Osaka.  I suppose if Kathy hadn't been in Tokyo, I would have started working in Osaka - maybe I'd be there still?  I suppose I can both blame Kathy for ruining my Hokkaido trip and thank her for bringing me back to Tokyo.  (I'm assuming that Tokyo was the better choice of the two - that's how it feels anyway.)

I saw Minami one last time in Tokyo - she was walking the other way down the street (in Harajuku I think) on the arm of a foreigner, presumably the Australian guy she was to marry.  She pretended not to - or maybe really didn't - see me, and I didn't call out, because I sensed that she didn't want to make the man jealous and get any mistaken ideas.  I would love to meet her today to talk about that brief time we spent working together in that Shinagawa office.  From her side, I think she was aware of what was going on all the way around, but I was somewhat in a fog - my first time overseas and all.  I would also like to hear some details about what happened after I left and also talk to her in Japanese about that time!  (I wonder if she's still in Australia?)

Fast forward 22 years and I visited the old export office apartment in July - minus the company's name on that apartment door (on the 4th floor), it seems not to be there anymore.  And then on September 1st, I walked over to the main office - or where it used to be in any case.  I looked at the company name plates for the building and the fifth floor was blank.  I almost just walked away, but I decided to take the old elevator up to the floor for the experience of riding that era elevator again (which tends to have the lights for the floors shining through number cutouts in an aluminum panel and also tends to have noisy large fans right in the center of the elevator) and see if I recognized anything.  In getting off the elevator on the fifth floor, I was surprised to see the door to the empty office open, so I walked in and found myself standing in front of the same windows I had looked out on the passing trains from back in July 1984.  It was a strange feeling.  I had often - through the years - thought I would someday go back to the office and meet Mr. Shacho to both thank him for helping me out at a critical point in my life and also apologize for whatever embarrassment I may have caused him in the company and at home.

How to describe it... standing there in the empty space and remembering how I felt when I was there before.  Aside from the expected melancholy feeling you would expect, there was also a feeling of... not futility, but maybe... loss?  Regret?  Nostalgia?  All of the above?  In writing this down, I realize more clearly now than I did at the time that the situation held both promise and danger.  I was non-verbally aware of the threat of Mr. Shacho's son, but I didn't properly realize that the hostility from him was directly tied to the opportunity that Mr. Shacho was offering me.  All in all, I suppose it wouldn't have worked out, but maybe it would have.  Maybe if I'd stayed there and hadn't invited Kathy over, it would have launched me into business here instead of into the wild and unstable world of freelance work.  But then I would have missed meeting the many people I met?  Who knows - but when I think of it now, it was a pretty cool setup -I would have been working in an office in an upscale apartment building alone, without having to deal with too much office politics... maybe?  Naw... you can never escape office politics!  And Mr. Shacho's son was a determined foe!

Anyway, Mr. Shacho - thank you!  It was a critical time for me and that job may have saved me from disaster.

PS - My bags were still sitting (where I had left them) on the unused water heater about three weeks later when I found a semi-long-term place to stay.  I felt somewhat nervous going to the apartment to pick them up, but didn't see anyone coming or going....

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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