Fitting In

Clearly, I wasn’t going to fit in. I looked around the room miserably. The two other students, David and Carl, were way ahead of me in Japanese. I didn’t belong in an advanced class, but the other class was filled with students starting their second year of Japanese. I was ahead of them, but behind the advanced students. I was beginning to regret the intensive summer I’d spent at the Middlebury Japanese Summer School. Not only had I not fit in there either, but I’d hated every minute of it. I’d been in a class with a group of people who’d all used the same textbook and knew what itanda ebi were. 

Clark Hall, home to the AKP of 1976

In 1976 there were just two choices for college level Japanese kyōkasho. My college used the less popular Nakajima and Young series. The vast majority of colleges used Eleanor Jorden’s books. Though we might have learned most of the same grammar points, the two texts seemed to have used entirely different vocabularies. Only one other student had used Nakajima and Young. He was an older man from Switzerland. Japanese was his fifth language and he wasn’t having the same adjustment issues as I had. In other words, he was having no pain.

To make matters worse, we were only to speak Nihongo, even outside of the classroom. This was a Middlebury rule, but the other language students were required to have three years of the language under their belt to even apply for summer school. It made sense for them. For us, not so much. My roommate and I cheated like crazy to stay sane.

Our director that year was a hard-nosed Japanese academic and she was determined to run things the Japanese way. We would all need exercise and she declared that volleyball practice was mandatory. I don’t do sports. I skipped. And she put her foot down. I immediately jammed my yubi during the next practice. It swelled up and a faint purple line appeared. Naturally, I asked to go to the clinic and naturally she told me it was fine. The next day she succumbed to the obvious and indeed my finger was broken; no more volleyball for me. 

There was just a week between the end of Japanese summer school and the Associated Kyoto Program that I’d be participating in. I knew I wouldn’t fit in because I was not a student at any of the elite schools that made up the consortium. However, one of my sensei had served as a director for the program two years previously and he, well, pulled some strings. On the flight to Kyoto, students from each college sat together. I sat alone. 

Still, though, I hadn’t anticipated that there wouldn’t be any other student at all at my level. I thought I’d finally be in a class where I could dig in and learn. No more “thirty kanji a day” memorization like I’d struggled with during the summer. I’d study hard, but it would be at a more normal pace. Meanwhile, David and Carl were already deep in discussion with our Sasaki-sensei, who was practically drooling over their linguistic magnificence. I hardly got a second glance. The textbook was boring. Did I really need to know how to say “feudal system.” (Unfortunately I still remember this word. See below for proof.)

I wasn’t fitting in at my homestay either. The Inoue family was nice enough, but they had two small otoko no ko and had always preferred to have young men stay with them. They ended up with me because at the last minute I got nervous about getting motion sickness during a bus or train commute and asked to be near campus. They were just around the corner and being able to walk to school in just a few minutes was great. Oddly enough, I never got motion sickness on the buses or trains of Kyoto, but I loved the neighborhood. The little boys were like aliens to me as all I’d ever experienced were my three younger sisters.

I had gotten sick though, the moment I arrived in Japan. It could have been the heat and humidity, the totally strange food, or the long plane ride. Before I knew it, I hadn’t really eaten in over a week and I ended up in the hospital. Looking back, I know there’s a word for it. Natsubate is what I had. 

After spending a day or two in air conditioning and a day or two under the care of my director’s wife—who was Japanese-American, but knew darn well that chicken noodle soup would cure me—I moved in with the Inoue family. My director’s wife had kindly hinted to them that I could do with some American food to start with. 

For mayonnaise, it didn’t taste all that bad. But still.

That first dinner I was served two small hamburgers and a side helping of frozen peas and carrots. And given a pair of ohashi. I looked around the table to see how I was supposed to manage the vegetables. Luckily I was an old hand with chopsticks so that wasn’t the problem. But was I to eat one pea at a time with them? The answer to that was, no. And for the first, but definitely not the last time, I was introduced to Kewpie mayonnaise in its convenient tube. Apparently we squirted it onto the vegetables and mixed it up a bit. It was then possible to eat the vegetables more easily with chopsticks. Unfortunately, I hate mayonnaise. I somehow ate the vegetables. Maybe I was offered a small fork. I don’t remember. But what I do remember is that there was no way I could eat two hamburgers. So I ate one of them and apologized and said I simply couldn’t eat them both. Mrs. Inoue was unfazed.

“That’s fine. You can have it for breakfast tomorrow morning.”

I smiled. Nice joke, I thought.

The next morning I got a piece of toast for breakfast on my plate next to the hamburger. Which was stone cold. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Who eats cold hamburgers for asagohan? Friends later declared my homestay family as weird. But dinner leftovers often appeared at breakfast at any temperature. Eventually I even learned to eat curry for breakfast. 

Mrs. Inoue was determined to have me eat a good breakfast. I’d come downstairs in the morning and cheerfully greet her saying, “No egg for me this morning, please” and go into the bathroom to wash my face. When I walked back into the kitchen she’d have a plate waiting for me. With a barely cooked fried egg on top of some even less cooked bacon. It was an impossible situation. It made me gag everyday. I got up earlier and earlier hoping to sneak out of the house without eating her breakfast. Yes. We were in a battle. 

  • itanda ebi – 痛んだえび Apparently this was taught in the textbook written by Eleanor Jorden that was more popular than the one I used. Itamu is the verb for spoiled (when applied to food) and ebi means shrimp. Itamu is in the past tense here and modifies (OMG, I’m doing grammar!) ebi, so the sentence was about getting food poisoning from shrimp at a restaurant in Ginza. Seriously? Ginza? The most high-class restaurants are there. Why not Shinjuku with its wealth of cheap eateries? I consider this a Jorden fail.
  • kyōkasho – 教科書 textbook
  • Nihongo – 日本語 the Japanese language
  • yubi – 指 finger
  • sensei – 先生 teacher. It’s also used as a suffix after the family name for teachers, professors, doctors etc.
  • kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters. If you learn them, it will help you slightly in a Chinese restaurant, too
  • hōken seido – 封建制度 feudal system. Make sure you memorize this entirely useful phrase.
  • otoko no ko - 男の子  boy or boys
  • Natsubate – 夏バテ A special word used to describe suffering in the summer due to the oppressive heat. When you get natsubate you don’t feel like eating and you can quickly succumb to the heat. Natsu means summer and the bate comes from the verb bateru which means to be exhausted.
  • ohashi – お箸 chopsticks
  • asagohan – 朝ご飯 asa means morning and gohan is meal, so together it means breakfast.

An Inauspicious Beginning

Your first year in a new place, you’re bound to get sick. New environment, new baikin, more exposure in some cases. In my case, I spent my second week in Japan being byōki. Let me explain.

I had arrived in Japan along with my 20 odd cohorts for a year of study abroad. It was hachigatsu and we landed at Haneda Airport a little too late to catch our connecting flight. So, we took a basu into the city to stay at a huge modern hoteru. For me, the problem was the erebētā. It was one of those swift and silent types that immediately makes me feel nauseous. Not an auspicious beginning.

The next day, we flew to Osaka and took another basu to Kyoto, to the youth hostel that would be our first home in Kyoto before we met our host families. I remember passing gasorin sutando that looked like something out of outer space to me. Possibly a space shuttle would fly in to fuel up!

This style was prevalent when I lived in Japan. I always found it so New Age-ish

Though I was coming from Kansas, which also has hot summers, this heat was more oppressive. I lost my appetite what with the heat and the unfamiliar food. And that led to a whopping episode of natsubate. I lost ten pounds in ten days and ended up with a visit to the Kyoto Baptist Hospital where Dr. Alice Cary, the savior of foreign women in Kyoto, admitted me to the heavenly air-conditioned patient ward. The hospital itself looked like something out of the fifties, but it did the trick and I was restored to health.

One view of the hospital

I ended up living just around the corner from the Cary family and appreciated the chance to get to know them. They played no small role in Kyoto history. You can read about Otis Cary here.

  • baikin – バイキン germs
  • byōki – 病気 sickness
  • hachigatsu – 8月 August, literally 8th month
  • basu – バス bus
  • hoteru – ホテル hotel
  • erebētā – エレベーター elevator
  • gasorin sutando – ガソリンスタンド gas station, or gasoline stand
  • natsubate – 夏バテ A special word used to describe suffering in the summer due to the oppressive heat. When you get natsubate you don’t feel like eating and you can quickly succumb to the heat. Natsu means summer and the bate comes from the verb bateru which means to be exhausted.

Didn’t your mother ever teach you to do laundry?

That was the question my homestay mother would ask each time I needed to do laundry. And I was at a loss to explain to her how different her sentakki was from what I used in the United States.

Doing laundry in that house was a big production from my point of view. You had to take a hose from the sink, connect it to the sentakki and fill the machine with mizu from that sink faucet. I was not allowed to touch the yuwakashiki at the sink, so I washed my clothes in cold water. My homestay mother had attempted to teach me how to turn on this tank-less gas water heater safely, but it had too many steps and directions for me, and we’d both given up. The washing machine looked nothing like machines in the United States, and it had two different compartments.

The smaller compartment was the spinner.

You’d load your laundry into one barrel along with the senzai to agitate it. You’d set a timer for how ever long you wanted to wash it. When it was done, you’d move the soapy wet clothing into the smaller barrel next to it which was the spinner. After placing what looked like a strainer on top of it, you’d spin it for about three minutes, and then move it back into the wash barrel to rinse it. Then after that was done, you’d give it another good spin. It worked quite well. When one-barrel washing machines first came out, many housewives were not impressed and said the two-barrel ones worked better. And, I agree! There were no kansōki in Japan back then, and even now many people hang their laundry outside to dry. So after washing my clothes, I’d take them outside and hop off the beranda to the very small yard to our multi-tiered clothes line.

It was not a line, but rather bamboo poles. Trucks would go around the neighborhood selling laundry poles, which were then mostly made of aluminum rather than bamboo. You’d use a fork like tool to lift them down from the tiers. The highest tier was about fifteen feet from the ground, and thus in view of the neighbors. You’d load up the pole and then hoist it back up. My homestay mother was shocked one day when I thoughtlessly hung my shitagi on the highest tier for all the neighbors to see. She gave a stock comment that I heard from her quite often.

My homestay family had a three-tiered bamboo pole set-up just like this one.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you to [hang laundry properly?”]

This family was slated to spend a year at Amherst College in the future, and I could not wait for her to find out why I didn’t know some of the things that she took for granted that any capable young woman would know. We also struggled with language since she spoke very little Eigo and my Nihongo wasn’t yet up to speed. I was never able to explain myself to her.

One day she said to me, “You’re Jewish. Explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to me.” She’d get me every time. I couldn’t even explain that one in English, let alone Japanese. Again, I felt like a dummy.

At the end of our first semester in Japan we had the option of leaving our homestay families and finding different living situations. It was no coincidence that all the young women chose to move out, and all the men were happy to stay. Being men, their homestay mothers did their sentaku for them and they weren’t asked to do any kaji. This was the difference between being a son and a daughter at that time in Japan. And maybe, still.

  • sentakki – 洗濯機 washing machine
  • mizu – 水 water. A general word for water, but hot water has its own word – oyu お湯
  • yuwakashiki – 湯沸器 tankless hot water heater
  • senzai – 洗剤 laundry detergent
  • kansōki – 乾燥機 clothes dryer. In all my years in Japan I never had one. Other than the rainy season, that worked fine for me. During the rainy season I’d hang the wash inside…sometimes for days.
  • beranda – ベランダ veranda
  • shitagi – 下着 underwear
  • Eigo – 英語 English language
  • Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language
  • sentaku 洗濯 laundry
  • kaji – 家事 household tasks

How Not to Start a Fire

Kyoto is a beautiful city with many wooden structures nestled closely together. In 1976, it was imperative that I not start a fire. Which is why my homestay okāsan wouldn’t let me use hot water.

Let me explain that. See, it wasn’t a matter of turning a faucet. To get hot water, you had to turn on the gasu and light a pilot light. Or something like that. How would I know when I was never allowed to do it? All I could see were switches, dials, and blue tubing. Ditto for the gas renji. The only way I’d ever get to mess with gasu would be to dive for the turn-off valve should there be a jishin. (Nowadays there are cell phone alerts for earthquakes; I have no idea how that works.) Back then you’d start to feel the shaking and then immediately run to turn off any gasu valves, hesitate for a second to gauge intensity, and then depending on how it felt, you’d take cover in an oshiire or a doorway, or simply go on with life.

Typical sink situation of the late 1970s

Luckily, Kyoto is not very earthquake prone. 

But fires were still nothing anyone was taking lightly. In front of my homestay dwelling were big red buckets. And once a month the whole neighborhood got together for practice drills with these buckets which meant lining up and passing them down the line. Being a wimp for neighborhood stuff and still not knowing much nihongo at all, I’d try to be elsewhere when they were scheduled. Usually they were on Sundays.

On winter evenings in Kyoto you’d need even more of a reminder to be careful to not set a fire because most people were using heaters of some sort. They all got turned off when you went to bed under those layers of futon and blankets. The house would be ice cold, but leaving a gasu, kerosene or even an electric space heater running while sleeping would simply be too dangerous. So, one did not. 

Back to the reminder, which was very quaint and charming… but also effective. Each night someone in the neighborhood would be in charge of walking the streets with two plain wooden blocks attached with a string. Every ten feet or so, they’d bang them together while intoning, “Hi no Yōjin” or “beware of fire”. The minute you heard the clacks, you’d do a mental check to be sure you’d turned everything off. I did the walk just once with my boyfriend of the time who managed a beat coffee house. And he took it very seriously.

The clackers one wore while on Hi no Yojin patrol

In 2016 when my daughter and I traveled to Kyoto, on our very first night we heard the clacking and the Hi no Yōjin call. Yes, still. I couldn’t believe it and would have thought I was imagining it, but my daughter heard it as well and we were both thrilled. And that was the only night we heard it. Why, remains a mystery to us, but on that night it felt like a “Welcome home to Kyoto and while many things have changed, some things have not. Oyasumi nasai.

  • okāsan – お母さん mother
  • gasu – ガス gas. Used primarily for the utility, not passing gas or gasoline
  • renji – レンジ range. A shortened way to refer to a kitchen countertop gas range.
  • jishin – 地震 earthquake. Though Kyoto is not as earthquake prone as other places in Japan this is one word you should learn no matter where you are in Japan. They happen.
  • oshiire – 押入れ traditional style of double-decker closet found in older homes. It is big and deep enough to hold futon. It’s considered to be a safer place during an earthquake and mothers would often shove the children inside of it when an earthquake began.
  • nihongo – 日本語 the Japanese language
  • Hi no Yōjin – 火の用心 the chant that reminds people to turn off gas and electric heaters and appliances before going to bed so as to avoid starting a fire. Often translated as “beware of fire.” It’s more like “be careful not to start a fire”.
  • Oyasumi nasai – おやすみなさい Good night

Thank you for the Bath

After my study abroad group arrived in Japan in August 1976, we spent a few days in a youth hostel in northern Kyoto for some orientation. After all, sending us in blindly to live with our Japanese host families could be a disaster… right? So, first things first, we had lessons on bowing. It’s not that bowing itself is difficult, but the placement of the hands is important as is the degree of the bow. And it is different for women and men. But after you’ve lived in Japan for a few weeks, ojigi comes naturally whenever you say arigatō or apologize for something. And Japanese say thank you a lot.

The youth hostel that was our home for a week or so.

For example, in my homestay family, I would say thank you for the bath each night. It might sound strange, but heating and preparing the ofuro in 1976 was a certain amount of work and cost. So it was proper etiquette to thank the family. My host family lived in a very traditional small wooden house. Strangely enough, both the toilet and ofuro were located outside of the main house. I suppose they’d been added later, but you had to open the sliding glass doors to the beranda at the back of the house, and then walk outside to the edge of the beranda where you’d find the toilet in a tiny closet-sized room, and then separately, the bath (another tiny room). There was a curtain that created a cubicle in front of the door to the bath, and this is where you’d get undressed and dressed. Yes, in the dead of winter, you’d be undressing outside to get into the bath. I found this a little daunting. Once in the bath itself, you’d stir it to make sure the heat was even, and then you’d wash outside the bathtub, and hop in to soak. Of course everyone in the family used the same bath water. 

After you finished bathing, you’d cover the bath tub to keep it warm for the next person.

On my first night there, I was honored to be the first one to use the bath. After that, I was treated like family and the order was: Otōsan, chōnan, jinan, me, okāsan. It was the mother who did the work of filling the bath, heating it, draining it each night or two, and cleaning it. I directed my thank you ojigi to her each night. Writing this now, it would seem absurd NOT to thank someone for the bath in Japan. When I visited my husband’s family I’d do it there as well. Note: My own parents would have thought I was crazy if I’d ever thanked them for a shawā I took at their home. It’s all about culture.

  • ojigi – お辞儀 a bow
  • arigatō – ありがとう casual way of saying thank you. There are many levels of politeness in greetings. One general rule of thumb is the longer they are, the politer and the shorter they are, the more casual.
  • ofuro – お風呂 the bath. Note that the honorific “o” is attached because I wouldn’t dream of saying it without honoring it.
  • beranda – ベランダ veranda. There is no equivalent to the “v” sound in Japanese, so when they borrow an English word like this, v usually changes to b. Usually….
  • otōsan – お父さん father
  • chōnan – 長男 oldest son
  • jinan – 次男 second son
  • okāsan – お母さん mother