Rainy season is supposedly upon us, but it’s been gorgeous as of late. I’m not complaining one bit. We had a few hard downpours this past week, and I was sure that we were officially in the thick of rapid bathroom mold growth and never drying laundry season. But after one day of biking home with puddles in my shoes, shoes which now smell permanently of trench foot, it’s been rather pleasant. Still, I know too well how deceiving the weather can be here in Kyushu, and my full body rain suit and dehumidifier stand ready. Some days the air is muggy and heavy with water that hasn’t decided yet if it should become a cloud or just hang there a little longer. Inevitably the indecision will break, and we’ll all be wet again until the end of June. Predictably, I will lose another umbrella. I’m sure of it. Sigh. All this is coming from a person considering a move to the west coast of Canada, where it doesn’t just rain for a month, but for an entire annual season. I’m going to have to check my sanity meter sometime soon.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine called me up and asked if I wanted to pay a visit to a Japanese missionary and her American husband one evening. I’d met the wife a year ago when she was here on her last Japanese tour, so I thought it would be nice to see her again. It was an interesting evening to say the least. I found myself in a stranger’s living room sitting around a low table and chatting with various other Japanese people I didn’t know. The evening progressed from chit-chat and snack eating into a sort of a mini church service. We sang a couple Japanese worship songs, thankfully ones I was familiar with, and then the floor was opened up for people to share anything that was on their heart or mind to share. It was quite amazing to sit there and listen to people talk very openly about the challenges they were facing and trying to overcome. One woman was in conflict with her siblings and they hadn’t talked to her for a very long time. Another woman shared about her daughter’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, causing her to overly worry about cleanliness and hygiene to the point that she washed and showered multiple times a day. The evening ended with me talking in depth with the American husband about his life growing up with an alcoholic father and then about his son who also had drug and alcohol dependency issues.
It was an amazing night of candid and open-hearted conversation, something that all too often feels missing here in Japan. Maybe spilling our guts comes more naturally to us North Americans. ‘The more information the better’ seems to be our modus operandi. It’s easy to be personally oblivious to this until you’ve spent a bit of time in a place like Japan, surrounded by a culture of few words, words that are spoken softly, not to mention delicately chosen. I find myself tuning out of fast paced fluent conversations when I’m with large groups of English speaking friends, as if my mind can’t connect with the quickly changing subject matter or absence of pauses for reflection.
The Japanese, so far as I can tell, are very private people. I learned quickly to keep my questions and conversations neutral lest I wander into a who-can-win-this-blank-stare-and-uncomfortable-silence competition the quickest. Matters of love and politics are best avoided. Food, however, seems to always be a safe topic in the office, and it’s usually what I hear people speaking the most passionately about. Sadly, I tend to find out personal details about people by accident through other colleagues (read: office gossip). And often, because I’m the foreigner, I’m the last to know about pretty much everything.
My work mates seldom bring up loved ones in conversation. There is of course nothing wrong with keeping your work and home life separate, but I can’t tell you the number of times I have discovered that a teacher was married after a few years of knowing them, or that they have kids. Again, it could be the language barrier that is keeping me from hearing the tell tale “My girlfriend thinks that…” or “This weekend I took the kids to….”, lines that I was so used to in other jobs. Silent hints are also few, like family photos or cute kid drawings on their desks. Instead, you find pictures of their homeroom students, or screensavers with shots of their dog. Personal photos tend to be kept on cell phones where full control of who sees them can be exercised. As an aside, I usually discount the times that male coworkers have drunkenly referred to their wives as ‘the devil’ as actually talking about family.
Thinking back, I remember very specifically during my first year at our school an announcement was made at one of the morning meetings. Two teachers had just gotten married. One had married an office worker from our school and another a teacher in another school. No one really had much idea that these individuals were in dating relationships up until that point. In another case, a colleague whom I’d known for all of my stay in Japan was transferred. It was well known that she was married, her husband a teacher in a school across town. After she transferred we learned that she had in fact been divorced for a number of years. Even her closest friends at work had been oblivious.
Outside the workplace this same personal code of conduct exists as well. Just last week I went to my favorite salon in town. The owner of the shop is headstrong, honest and always gives me a great cut for a great price. I find myself in her establishment at least 3 or 4 times a year. This time I spent 5 hours there because I wanted to try out the infamous Japanese straight perm that so many of the women here subscribe to. I spoke on and off with the owner of the shop throughout the process. She told me she’d recently gone to Hawaii. I asked her if she went alone or with a friend. She said, with a friend. We covered all the bases and talked about the people, the beach, the shopping, the hotel and particularly about the low quality of the food. A couple days later I was out to lunch with the Japanese friend who had actually recommended the salon to me in the first place and who has known the owner for a long time. Our conversation led to the owner’s trip to Hawaii, and I was a little surprised (and also a little not surprised) to find out that she’d recently been married. The trip to Hawaii had been her honeymoon. It was the only detail she’d left out from our conversation that day.
I think this whole phenomena of privacy creates an illusion to some foreigners here that Japan is a sort of utopian society, where there is no violence, no conflict, no personal problems suffered by at least the people that we encounter in our own daily lives. It’s easy to think that way at first. Sales people are always happy and never seem to be having a bad day, colleagues never seem tired, neighbors are always smiling and giving you mystery fruits and vegetables from their gardens that you have no idea how to prepare or eat. It all seems so perfect. But the longer you stay, the more Japanese you pick up and the more time you spend with local friends, you realize that it’s all a sort of a kabuki performance, or a dance that is played out without missing a beat. It’s so real, so lifelike, but at the end of the day you know that all the characters are just actors and their lines have been memorized. The sales people are high school drop-outs, your overworked colleague is recovering from a mental breakdown and your neighbor drinks too much. Here in lies the truth about the Japanese, that they are a beautiful, stoic and proud people, but they are just like the rest of us.