In the 1970’s we were roughing it. Or, we were living the life. I suppose it depends on how you look at it. For me, I think the 1970’s in Japan were the golden era for foreigners. I say that despite having no AC, sometimes no flush toilet, and always no bathing facilities of my own. No phone either. But things were quieter and we had opportunities that no longer exist. Off the top of my head, these are the things that came most quickly to me when I thought back on those days.
ALT, JALT and other convenient opportunities to get set up in Japan teaching English
I think if you wanted to go to Japan and support yourself by teaching English, you either had to rely on kuchikomi or The Japan Times which had the most ads on Mondays. So you’d leave your cheap lodgings and ride your jitensha downtown (or take a bus) and go to one of the big hotels to find a copy of the Japan Times. Then you’d have to find a public phone to make calls on because nobody could afford their own phone back in those days. You’d call, a real person would answer, and you’d set up a mensetsu. You’d bring your resume (if you had one) to the interview and hope for the best.
The Japanese language proficiency tests
There were no national tests let alone different levels. If you were job hunting to teach English, nobody wanted you speaking Japanese anyways. And the only other job around for English-speaking foreigners would be for women, hostessing. So, there was no way for you to prove you spoke Nihongo fluently or semi-fluently. People would pretty much die of shock if you could carry on a conversation in Japanese. Oddly enough, or perhaps, predictably, my spoken Japanese elicited less shock than my blonde friends. Appearances played a big role on how you were viewed and my dark hair and eyes somehow made me “less” foreign.
When I first arrived in Japan there really were no laundromats. You needed to have your own washing machine or share one with a neighbor. They were simple (but wonderful) machines and hanging laundry out to dry was the norm. If you were starting from zero in Japan, you’d want to purchase: futon, a small table, small fridge, a gas range and a washing machine. When you rented a place, nothing was included and back then it was all tatami, i.e. life on the floor. People have dryers now. At least some of them do. Probably very convenient to have them during the winter and rainy season, but not a necessity. In fact, hanging laundry to dry inside during the winter helps increase moisture in the air and serves as a natural humidifier. A nice pharmacist gave me that little piece of advice after he’d seen me through several winter bouts of kikanshien.
One room mansions
First of all, a manshion is not a mansion. I once lived in a place called Prince Heights that was a sunless falling down hole of a place where I could hear every sound my neighbor made. A manshion is a modern style of housing and that’s all. And the one-room mansion is what an apartment would be like if it had to be on an airplane. Tiny and functional. Especially the bathroom. The closet is half the size of the old closets and it probably doesn’t have tatami. What it does have is its own bath–thus the demise of my beloved sentō. It’s economical and affords privacy but totally lacks in character—and isn’t that what you really came to Japan for?
Well, duh. No internet in the 1970s and 1980s. You had to discover things yourself, rely on monthly tourist magazines, and other foreigners who might have been there longer and know things. You had hand drawn maps and asked directions constantly. You walked into restaurants not having researched the menu online, but possibly aided by plastic models outside of them. I could go on. Maybe I will later on. Because crucially, there were definitely no bagels in Kyoto in the 1970s.
- kuchikomi – 口コミ “word of mouth.” This is actually a really cool word and one I often use as an example of language oddities. Because it is a combination of Japanese and English. Kuchi means mouth in Japanese. But “komi” comes from the English word “communication.” So, kuchi gets written with kanji and komi in katakana as all borrowed words are. There aren’t a lot of commonly used phrases that act like this, so it always tickles my fancy.
- jitensha – 自転車 bicycle
- mensetsu - 面接 (job) interview
- Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language
- tatami – 畳 bamboo mats that used to cover almost all floors in houses and apartments. Sadly, they are disappearing in new construction. There is nothing like the smell of fresh tatami.
- kikanshien – 気管支炎 bronchitis. The curse of many foreigners who spend their first winter in Japan with inefficient heating.
- manshion – マンシオン a type of apartment. Someone should investigate how the heck this made it into the Japanese language. Aspirational, perhaps? At any rate, trust me… it is definitely not what you first think!
- sentō – 銭湯 public bath. I will probably talk a lot about it in this blog because it was my life for many many years.