Aspiring to be “nothing special”

In the United States being called futsū or just ‘average’ is not a compliment. We are to always aim for the stars, be better than others, kagayaku, stand out, and/or get noticed. But if you’ve read anything about Japan you’ve heard the saying “deru kugi wa utareru” meaning that the protruding nail will be struck down. If you consider this literally, a nail does need to be struck down so that it can do its job properly so that whatever it is part of will work as it should. Imagine a bench with a nail sticking out of it. But this expression is not meant literally. Obviously. Right?

And once again, if you know anything about Japan, you know that the group is more important than the individual. That has been said ad nauseam but it certainly has been true, traditionally. For those of us who don’t particularly care about standing out and are happy to be part of a crowd Japan is a true refuge (though if you are kinpatsu that doesn’t work out very well for you). Being dark-haired myself, I was always amazed by the attention that my blonde friends would draw back in the 1970s and 80s. I was really happy to be more of a heibon type and not draw attention solely due to my appearance.

Miyako Harumi was a very popular singer back in the day. But in 1984 at the age of 36 and at the height of her career she announced her retirement saying that she just wanted to be a regular middle-aged woman saying “futsū no obasan ni naritai.” Her words caught on and it became a topic of discussion. In fact if you google this phrase the first thing that comes up is Miyako Harumi. For the most part, she was admired for expressing this sentiment. (By the way, it didn’t last; she announced her full fukkatsu in 1990 after having tentatively tested the waters for a few years.) So maybe futsū got boring for her or she realized she had options.

Miyako Harumi – One of her more popular songs

There used to be a popular magazine called Heibon or “Nothing Special.” Can you imagine a magazine like that in the United States? When I’d question the choice of title and express the idea that it was a weird name for a magazine, people would just look puzzled. Because being heibon was an aspiration for many. Not sure if it still is, though. I’m guessing the concept looked more attractive after the war when it would be an indication of upward mobility to be heibon.

After all, the magazine was first published in 1959 and went through several iterations before publishing the last issue in 1987. Coincidentally (or not) during the bubble era. The publishing house Heibonsha still exists. I doubt they’d ever see a need for a name change at this point.

I guess Japanese people see words differently than we do. It’s like how they named a drink “Pokkari Sweat” and saw no problem with it at all. Sure, it is combining a Japanese word with an English word and any English word can be fashionable. But when I explain that we don’t want to drink something called Sweat, I just get those puzzled looks. And they patiently explain to me that it is a sports drink, which I do understand. But, still.

I have digressed, but I have to admit that Japan impacted me to the point where I don’t mind being unremarkable in the world than most Americans would feel comfortable with. I’d rather be the brick layer than the castle designer. I’m happy not to stand out and to just play my futsū role in daily life and never get involved in a one-upping conversation! Futsū de ii desu.

  • futsū – 普通 average, normal, usual, regular
  • kagayaku – 輝く to shine or sparkle (verb). This is used for stars in the sky but can also be used for people. For example a bride on her wedding day (one hopes.)
  • deru kugi wa utareru – 出る釘は打たれる The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Every single Japanese person knows this one.
  • kinpatsu – 金髪 blonde hair
  • heibon – 平凡 ordinary, unremarkable, common
  • futsū no obasan ni naritai.普通のおばさんになりたい – “I just want to be a normal middle aged woman.” The famous words of Miyako Harumi when she retired from her singing career.
  • fukkatsu – 復活 revival, or comeback
  • Futsū de ii desu – 普通で良いです “I’m fine with [being] the usual.” A useful expression when you’re given too many choices or just want to blend in.

My Generation

I am from the generation who grew up with the mantra “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” (It was a little bit shocking when we all turned thirty and realized we could no longer trust ourselves! ) But I quickly learned that in Japan, oyako could be friends.

Generations at the Kamo River

Take Rie, one of my students who was just a year younger than me. She spoke Eigo well and I’d inquire about her weekend. One day she told me she’d been to a hosuto kurabu. I was immediately intrigued. Japan was pretty well known for hostess clubs where women in beautiful or sexy gowns would coyly entertain otoko as they plied them with drinks. They weren’t prostitutes but they weren’t lily clean either in some cases. Hostess clubs could be very expensive. They were the domain of business men who tended to entertain clients there.

From Wikipedia Club district in Kyoto

But what the heck was a host club? I’d never heard of them, and Rie was happy to fill me in. She said that these clubs were for women and had handsome young men who would dance with them and shower them with attention. Rie then casually dropped the bomb that she had gone to the hosuto kurabu with her mother! Her mother!

Picture me really shocked at age 22. I went nowhere with my mother if I could help it and I couldn’t imagine hanging out with her outside the home and, well, a host club? I was startled by Rie’s casual comments and dug for more. Rie said she liked her mom and they hung out regularly, like friends. Unheard of; her mother was over thirty, after all.

After some time in Japan, I began to see the relationship between parent and young adult child was totally different. Japanese parents respected their young adult children and saw them as complete adults–adults who sometimes knew more than they did. To my own parents, I was a “kid” until the day they died. In fact, they always said that I’d always be their “child.”

Popular in Japan, even today

Post-war Japan brought so many changes and at a high speed. One of the more difficult ones for older folks was the profusion of “katakana words” or English words for things. New things often had English names and the older generation couldn’t keep up. So it would be the younger generation that would help them with the bombardment of change and new words such as: shanpū, nekutai, makudonarudo, arerugī and hundreds more.

I’m close with my own daughter now like Rie was with her mother. It’s a different relationship from the one I had with my mother. I wonder if it is because of the technology boom that has made her sedai the ones with the—for example—phone knowledge. I do turn to my kids sometimes with questions about my overly-intelligent phone. To me, they are fully adults and have knowledge that I do not have.

So here I am comparing the relationship between generations citing post-war Japan and new-tech America. If this makes any sense at all. Dō omoimasuka?

  • oyako – 親子 parent and child. There is also a rice dish called oyako donburi, which is chicken and egg on rice. Get it?
  • Eigo – 英語 English language
  • hosuto kurabu – ホストクラブ host club
  • otoko – 男 man or men
  • katakana – カタカナ syllabic alphabet. Compare with hiragana. It is used primarily for borrowed words like the ones below.
  • shanpū – シャンプー shampoo
  • nekutai – ネクタイ necktie
  • makudonarudo – マクドナルド McDonalds (hamburger chain). It’s a mouthful in Japanese! Which is why it gets shortened simply to maku マク these days.
  • arerugī – アレルギー allergy. I bet it took you a minute to get that one!
  • sedai – 世代 generation. Used to specify a certain age range.
  • Dō omoimasuka - どう思いますか? “What do you think?” A question hardly ever asked in Japan.

August and Favors

I knew I was in for a hot summer, but it would end… soon.

Hachigatsu is always a poignant month for me when it comes to Japan. Both my first and second trips began in August.

That first trip was August, 1976. I don’t remember what day it was, but it was with the Associated Kyoto Program (AKP). As a group, we traveled from New York City to Tokyo—with a surreal layover in Anchorage—and then missed a connecting flight to Osaka and spent the night in a classy Tokyo hoteru, possibly courtesy of the airline? I was the odd loner from a daigaku that was not a member school of the consortium that ran the program, but my professor had led the program a couple of years previous to my year so I was permitted to join. The other students knew each other since there were five or so of them from each school. I did know two of them from my summer at the Middlebury Language School. That wasn’t nothing, thankfully.

My second trip, I made alone. It felt like a do-over because I’d ended up dropping out of the AKP program due to…well, I’m just not going to tell. But I went home to Kansas in April instead of June. And I was frustrated that I hadn’t done Kyoto very well. So after sotsugyō I worked hard to save okane and flew off on my own on August 14.

Keep in mind, this was 1978. No internet, not much information. Because if I’d known, I would have realized how baka it was to fly into Japan during Obon when everyone and his brother would be traveling. Sure enough, I landed in a VERY crowded Haneda Airport. What the heck? I had thought I would just be able to saunter over to a counter and get a kippū to Osaka. The lines were very long, though. It was not looking good.

Suddenly a middle-aged otoko approached me. He’d seen me eyeing the line for Osaka. He asked me if I needed a ticket. I said that I did. He said that he’d take care of it and he somehow got us on standby. That was nice. It was still looking dim, though.

But miraculously, some hours later, both of our numbers were called and we were able to get on the hikōki. I’m not sure why this was, but neither of us had gone through customs yet. So when we arrived in Osaka and before we went through customs, my new “friend” had a request. He himself was coming from Taiwan, he said, and he said he’d bought too many cigarettes and would I mind holding them and taking them through customs for him.

Popular brand of the time

Naive as I was, alarm bells went off! What was going on here and was I going to be smuggling? But he’d been so shinsetsu. Readers, I could not say no. (I am and always will be a total wimp.)

So, I agreed. And felt like a nervous wreck as I went through customs. What was really in that bag?

After we got through customs, I found my “friend” and said, “Here you go. There was no problem.” (I was probably still quivering.)

He laughed and said, “Oh, you can just keep them. I really do have enough of them.”

So… what was that all about? I will never know. But it was a stupid risk to take and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone do what I did. But maybe, just maybe, he really was just a helpful guy!

  • Hachigatsu – 8月 August
  • hoteru – ホテル hotel
  • daigaku – 大学 university or college
  • sotsugyō – 卒業 graduation. Note that in Japan entrance ceremonies are a bigger thing than graduations. That is, it is harder to get in than to get out!
  • okane – お金 money
  • baka – バカ stupid or stupidity. This is the word that my five year old son taught to his kindergarten classmates in New Jersey so that they could understand Japanese. He refused to learn English for awhile and had a language crusade going on. American mothers would come up to me and ask, “Oh, is baka a word in Japanese?” What does it mean?”
  • Obon – お盆 an important holiday in July or August (depending on the region) where ancestors are honored… and everyone takes a vacation back to their hometowns or Hawaii etc. Google it.
  • kippū – 切符 ticket
  • otoko – 男 man
  • hikōki – 飛行機 airplane
  • shinsetsu – 親切 kind

The Carrot

This is a story I have told often. It is a story that brought an aha moment. Not just an aha moment, but an aha moment when I realized that I’d wronged someone else. Most aha moments seem to be about a self-realization, or an intellectual or philosophical revelation. This one was an aha moment with deep remorse. Those are the ones that stay with you.

Kyoto is a university town. It is often compared to Boston, and they have a shimai toshi relationship. Kyoto values the students because so much of their income comes from these students. The school I was teaching at catered mostly to college students, but had a unique set-up that brought in all types of people, mostly mavericks. There were no real classes at REC. We taught conversational English through having conversations. There were kyōkasho, but the teachers were free to go off on tangents, and only used the kyōkasho with very low level students, or when met with a wall of silence. Students came in anytime during the day, signed in with their names and English level, and then took a seat in the waiting room. REC was first come, first served. We teachers took a look at the sign-in sheet and took in either one student or a group up to four, if they were at similar levels. A lesson with just one student would last for 20 minutes. The time increased depending on the number of students one teacher took. All lessons were together in a big room with round tables. It looked a little like a kissaten without coffee or snacks, and there was a comfortable noise level.

Sakamoto-san and I at a holiday party.

Sakamoto-san was an unusual student. Most of our students were college-age, or college graduates. We had shūfu and older women coming in early in the afternoon or morning. We had a few elementary school age kids, and some very enthusiastic junior and high school kids. They were mostly onna no ko. And we had some otoshiyori, who amazingly had learned their English solely from watching NHK public television English lessons and broadcasts. Sakamoto-san stood out purely because of his educational background. That is, he appeared to have almost none at all.

In 1979 English was a mandatory subject in junior and senior high school. Anybody who had graduated from high school would have had six years of English. This did not mean they could speak it but it usually meant that they had a rudimentary grasp of bunpō and we could—by speaking slowly and writing down words—communicate with them. I suspected that Sakamoto-san had gone to a technical school, or had stopped his education after graduating from chūgakkō, which is when gimu kyōiku ends. He was in his late twenties and he usually came in after work, still wearing his suit. Yes, a suit, but a cheap one. I guessed he worked in some kind of service industry.

Sakamoto-san’s English level was the lowest of anyone I had taught. Though I would try to make conversation with him, it simply wasn’t possible to get very far. I would usually give up after five minutes, and turn to the kyōkasho. He simply needed practice and repetition. It was interesting that he’d chosen to study at a school like ours which was geared towards conversation, because he wasn’t at that level.

That night, we struggled to have a friendly conversation. I liked Sakamoto-san. He seemed nice and funny. I thought I’d enjoy his company if only we could communicate. I think he was amused by my efforts to communicate with him, and appreciated the effort. But soon enough, we got to the textbook.

After checking the notes on his records, we started a new chapter. I was happy to see that it was on colors. Everyone knew colors. This couldn’t be too difficult a lesson and I knew how I could jazz it up. So we started out with some sentence repetition, and color identification. Then it came time for me to ask him questions:

"What color is the sky?” I asked.
“The sky is blue,” answered Sakamoto-san. 
“What color is grass?”
“The grass is green,” came the answer.

This was going well, and I continued in this vein. When I came to the color orange, I asked an obvious one:

“What color are carrots?"
“Carrots are red,” said Sakamoto-san, stammering a little over the r sound.
“No, carrots are orange,” I said, since they are. (This was 1976.)

I wondered why in the world he’d said red. That had seemed like an easy one, but after correcting him, I moved on to another question.

The thing is, I remember something in his eyes. It’s something that others probably saw in my eyes over and over again, as I struggled to learn Japanese. It’s a reflection of the inner struggle and frustration that a person feels when they have something to communicate but realize that they are unable to do it because they don’t have the necessary language skills. I saw that moment in his eyes but I ignored it. Had to get through the lesson. And so we continued.

A couple of weeks later, on a free shūmatsu, I was riding my jitensha through a yet unexplored area of Kyoto. Kyoto is one of the easier cities to explore in Japan. It’s flat, and it is built on a grid. Even without a map, it is hard to get lost. I simply started out on a big street near my house and went north.

Eventually I came to what looked like a big farmer’s market. It was right on the street, so I hopped off my bicycle, and walked through it. I was always interested in finding new take-out foods, since I wasn’t doing much cooking in those days. And markets usually had take-out stalls.

The market was crowded, but not so crowded that I couldn’t leisurely stroll and stop to look without blocking the way of busy shūfu who tended to rule in these places. I was struck by all the yasai. So many shades of green, and they all looked so fresh. I couldn’t even imagine what kind of vegetables they were. Living in Kansas had given me no great wealth of knowledge to draw on, and I wasn’t any kind of cook at all. As I walked and marveled at the variety, I suddenly saw something red amidst all the green. In fact, it was no wonder I was drawn to the baskets of ruby red vegetables. The color and brilliance of it is almost indescribable. Ruby red said it best. Ruby red carrots.

When I returned to Kyoto in 2016, I made sure to take a photo of the red carrots

The minute I realized that these ruby red vegetables were carrots I stopped dead in my tracks. I was looking at red carrots for the first time in my life. And I was mortified. All I could think of was the look on Sakamoto’san’s face when I blithely corrected him about the color of carrots. Why hadn’t I stopped to give him the benefit of the doubt? Why hadn’t I asked him why he thought they were red? And mostly, who was I to assume that everything in Japan was the same as it was in the United States? I was deeply embarrassed and felt like the biggest fool in the world. I’d thought I was a relatively sensitive person.

Obviously I was a total idiot.

Packaged curry made with Kyo-yasai

So, the red carrots are something I have never forgotten. That moment of seeing them, and the aha moment when I realized that I’d made a wrong assumption. Years later, I was still wondering. Red carrots were a specialty of Kyoto. They are in a category of vegetables native to Kyoto called kyo-yasai, or Kyoto vegetables. Orange carrots are the norm in Japan, too. So, why did Sakamoto-san say red? Had he grown up on a Kyoto farm that grew red carrots? Was he from a traditional family and was he proud of kyo-yasai?

Back at work, I anxiously awaited Sakamoto’san’s next visit. It took a while before our paths crossed again, and we sat down together at a table to begin our lesson. I was eager to tell him that I knew why he said carrots were red, and I knew that I had been presumptuous to tell him he was wrong. I wanted to apologize to him. I needed to apologize to him. And as I sat there, I realized that there was no way to explain this to him in simple English. I could only give it my best try. And, so I did. I told him I’d seen the red carrots. I told him I was sorry that I didn’t know that carrots could be red in Japan. I told him it was the first time I’d seen a red carrot, and that I was so very sorry for presuming that carrots were orange. I explained over and over again. Sakamoto-san smiled. He wasn’t understanding a word of it. But he was smiling because he could see that something was important to me, and he wanted to give me some assurance that he was listening. It was a moment that I could not undo, nor make up for.

Sakamoto-san continued to come to REC to study English. He didn’t improve much at all. But he was a constant reminder to me to slow down and take the time to listen and ask questions. I tried to throw my
presumptions out the window and I think I became a better person for it.

***And as I write this in 2022, I see all kinds of carrots; my Trader Joe has purple ones, white ones, etc. But at the time, it was as surprising to me as it would be to see a purple hamburger…. (which I hope I never do see….)

  • shimai toshi – 姉妹都市 sister city. Kyoto has a number of these relationships. For the US, it is Boston.
  • kyōkasho – 教科書 textbook
  • kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop
  • onna no ko – 女の子 girl, young girl
  • otoshiyori – お年寄り senior citizen
  • bunpō – 文法 grammar
  • chūgakkō – 中学校 junior high school or middle school
  • gimu kyōiku – 義務教育 mandatory education. In the USA, it is until age 16. In Japan it is until the end of junior high school. This makes a lot more sense, right? Think about it.
  • shūmatsu – 週末 weekend
  • yasai – 野菜 vegetable(s)
  • kyo-yasai – 京野菜 a term for the speciality vegetables grown in Kyoto which include round eggplant, red carrots and much more. Google it.

The Bus Driver

One dreary evening in Kyoto, I tiredly got on a basu home. I’d gotten to know the bus system pretty well and there were a number of different buses that would stop near my home. After checking the number, I got on this bus jishin tappuri. I did not notice that the sign on front with the final destination was a different designation. If it was the right number, that was enough for me and Kyoto place names are diverse; the final stop was no concern of mine.

This is what a Kyoto bus looks like

I snagged a seat by the mado and as it began to rain, I closed my eyes and just felt happy I had a seat. This was not always the case, especially on a rainy day. I dozed a bit, woke up, felt the scenery was a little unfamiliar, but after all, it was the right numbered bus. I still felt fine.

The jōkyaku were weeding out now and soon there were just a few of us left. The bus made a stop and the scenery was totally unfamiliar to me. What the heck? Suddenly I was the only jōkyaku left on the bus! The untenshu kept going and then pulled into a big lot with other buses and stopped. Now I was really on alert. And the untenshu had noticed me on the bus.

Okyaku-sama, where are you going?”

I said I was headed to Hyakumanben. Had I missed my stop?

He explained that this bus wasn’t going there because it was shako-yuki. And I learned a new word. Oops.

Example of a bus route

So, what do you think happened next? I had no idea where I was and how far away I was. It was now dark out and it didn’t seem like an area where taxis would be found.

The bus driver was untroubled. He just started up the bus, turned around and drove me home! How embarrassing. I still wonder if he would have done this for anyone else, but at that time there weren’t that many foreigners in Kyoto and a Japanese person would have paid attention to the numerous announcements stating that the bus was SHAKO-YUKI. Live and learn…. And what a sweet guy, right?

  • basu – バス bus
  • jishin tappuri -自信たっぷり “with plenty of confidence.” jishin means confidence and tappuri means plenty of
  • mado – 窓 window
  • jōkyaku – 乗客 passenger
  • untenshu – 運転手 driver
  • Okyaku-sama – お客様 This is the polite way for someone to address a customer, be it in a store, hotel, or in my case, bus.
  • Hyakumanben – 百万遍 A district of Kyoto where Kyoto University is located. It’s good for cheap dives and has a real student vibe to it.
  • shako-yuki – 車庫行き the sign on the front of a bus (in this case) announcing it is heading for the garage and not necessarily doing the regular route since many routes are circular. Shako means garage and yuki in this case indicates the destination

Decisions, Decisions

One thing I love about Japan is that you often can get out of making a decision. Going along with the consensus makes you a peace-loving proper participant in life, i.e. not a wimp. I am, by nature, kind of a wishy washy type. Last weekend my son wanted to treat me to lunch for Haha no Hi, but he wanted ME to decide where. There were a couple of caveats; he didn’t want Mexican and he didn’t want to eat at the resutoran; COVID is still a concern. Even though I live in a small town, that still left me with too many possibilities and I was hopeless at making this decision. I would have been fine with anything.

When I was living in Tokyo in a small apāto (Just six units and a similar building next door) I often hung out with the other mothers and sometimes we’d go shopping together. None of us had kuruma, so we’d ride our jitensha down to the market by the train station. Or we’d take a taxi or train to a nearby small city. When we were out together, we’d function as a unit.

If only we’d had a small fish market like this, my neighbor might have had more options and still gone with the crowd choice!

One evening, we were shopping for bangohan at the market. One mother asked another what she was serving for dinner. She replied that it would be sakana, so we all drifted over to the fish department together. We were all on a budget so the obvious choice would be aji or sanma. I preferred sanma and there were two of them packaged together. Perfect size for me and my husband. Two other women chose the package of sanma, but the fourth woman hesitated. Her family was bigger. She had three children and though two were still baby age, the other one was not. She looked at the package of aji that had three fish in it. That would be the perfect size for her family. But she looked at all of us who’d gone with sanma, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t be the one who didn’t conform… so she took the sanma as well–and probably cooked some extra dish to supplement dinner.

Fish wrapped up for purchase at a supermarket

Unthinkable for the American mind! The aji would have been the logical choice, but decisions are not necessarily about logic in Japan. She wanted to be part of the group and not be different. I saw this over and over again, but to me, it was simply another sign that I was meant to be in Japan where I could happily go along with the crowd!

  • apāto – アパート apartment or apartment building
  • Haha no Hi – 母の日 Mother’s Day. Celebrated similarly in Japan. Note that Haha is how you refer to your own mother. Someone else’s mother is okāsan.
  • resutoran – レストラン restaurant
  • kuruma – 車 car, automobile
  • jitensha – 自転車 bicycle
  • bangohan – 晩ご飯 supper or dinner, i.e. the evening meal
  • sakana – 魚 fish
  • aji – アジ a type of fish, mackerel
  • sanma – 秋刀魚 a type of fish, (Pacific) saury. Though available all year long, it is associated with autumn.

An Unusual Friend

One day when I was browsing in a honya-san, a young man struck up a conversation with me. It appeared he was new to Kyoto and started asking me for recommendations. Seriously? He was Japanese and why on earth would he ask me, an obvious foreigner?! I guess he figured I must speak Japanese since I was browsing books written in Japanese.He seemed harmless, teinei and earnest. And a friendship began.

Kenji was not looking for English practice, unlike many Japanese who approached me. He didn’t speak a word of eigo and wasn’t interested. He was a member of the Jieitai stationed near Kyoto. He came from a small town and was honestly overwhelmed. We started to meet on nichiyōbi and indeed I ended up guiding him around Kyoto.

I will never forget taking him to the grounds of Gosho. He was awestruck by being somewhere related to the Emperor. This was the 1970s and most young people I knew were hippie types and had no interest in the Emperor. But Kenji practically fell to the ground and bowed. It turned out to be the most meaningful place I ever took him. Seeing these grounds through his eyes did make it seem more sacred.

Kyoto Imperial Palace

He sometimes brought me small gifts, the most impressive being my very first digital watch… because he’d noticed I didn’t wear one. It was a Seiko of course.

Very similar to the watch he gave me, though mine had a blue band.

Eventually he was transferred elsewhere and we lost touch. But I’ve always treasured the sightseeing we did together each Sunday.

A photo he kindly took of me when we visited Ota Shrine to see the irises in bloom. I wish I had a photo of him, but if I did it is long gone.
  • honya-san – 本屋さん bookstore
  • teinei – 丁寧 polite
  • eigo – 英語 English
  • Jieitai – 自衛隊 Japanese self-defense force, also known as the JSDF. This is a post WW2 military only for the purpose of self-defense. You should google it if you’re interested.
  • nichiyōbi – 日曜日 Sunday

The Ideal Husband

I’d made a best friend during my time working at the restaurant. She was the same age as I was and she spoke some English. We had fun hanging out together. She had been a ryūgakusei in Mexico, proving to me that she was a real maverick since most girls studied abroad in America or England. She was studying to get her tour guide menkyo (a doozy of a test) and wasn’t looking to settle down anytime soon.

Me as a ryūgakusei with my homestay family

However, her parents were of the exact opposite opinion. They thought it was high time she married and they had already put her through a number of omiai meetings.

“How many have you done?” I asked out of curiosity.

“I don’t know. I lost count. Maybe 20?” (!!!)

So, I could see that an omiai wasn’t a done deal and was almost more like a blind date. Keiko certainly was treating them that way.

One day, her parents had had enough. They announced that the next one was for real and she WOULD marry him. Keiko’s response to this was to run away to my geshuku where there was no phone and they couldn’t reach her. But she admitted to me that she was resigned. It was going to happen.

Thanking their parents for arranging the marriage?

It did. Beneath all the rebellion Keiko knew that her parents had her best interests in mind. She told me he looked old enough to be her ojisan and that he was stodgy. But she married him and they are still married to this day with grandchildren now.

There’s a Japanese expression that goes “teishu wa genki de, rusu ga ii.” It means that the best husbands are healthy and not around too much. I’m pretty sure that most women my age still hold this to be true.

  • ryūgakusei – 留学生 study abroad student
  • menkyo – 免許 license. You can use this for driver’s license, but there are also licenses for teaching flower arranging, calligraphy etc. Just about anything in Japan seems to require some license or another and the tests are usually quite rigorous.
  • omiai – お見合い arranged marriage. Usually what happens is that photos and written profiles are exchanged and if there is an interest, a meeting is arranged. Better than perhaps?
  • geshuku – 下宿 boarding house. Rare, these days, but poor students usually lived in these. It would usually be one room, a shared toilet area and a nearby public bath.
  • ojisan – おじさん uncle
  • teishu wa genki de, rusu ga ii – 亭主は元気で留守が良い Teishu =master of the house, genki=healthy, rusu=not home, ii = good. Wa, de, and ga are particles that hold the expression together.

The Doshisha Girls

After the restaurant owner pulled a yonige and absconded into the night, I gave up waitressing and started to work teaching eikaiwa at a school that a fellow waitress had attended. It was a popular school called REC Kyoto and catered mostly to young women in college. It had deep ties with Doshisha University. It also had a unique cafe style of teaching; small tables filled the room and students could drop by any time and have a twenty minute conversation. We’d go out to the waiting area and pick up 1-3 students of similar levels and work from there. There were textbooks, but we often just conversed.

Me teaching English at a REC seminar in Izu

Of course the first questions were getting to know our students. Ninety percent of the female students seemed to be majoring in English Literature. The rest, perhaps some sort of social science. If they weren’t in school or had graduated they were usually doing kaji tetsudai or hanayome shūgyō, i.e. getting ready for marriage.

I’d often perk up when a student would tell me her club associations. The first time a young woman told me she was manējā of a soccer club, I was duly impressed. This was different! And then I met one that was manējā of a baseball club. Wow! These girls were cooking. And then I asked what a manējā did. It turns out that the manējā of the team did the boys’ laundry. And not much else.

In preparation for marriage many of them were mastering the arts of ikebana, oshūji, chadō and Japanese dance. The marriage was almost always going to be an omiai kekkon. And needless to say, all of these students lived at home with their families, during college and after college. Yes, they were young women of a certain class and they were ubiquitous in Kyoto. I used to look out of the window of the building and watch prospective students enter and immediately know which of them were Doshisha girls. They had a certain look to them.

My study-abroad program had been located on the Doshisha campus, so I myself could be called a Doshisha girl which thrilled the owner of the school. And Doshisha has a strong relationship with Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts where I live now. I suppose I’ve made a bit of a full circle in life….

Doshisha Campus
  • yonige – 夜逃げ literally night running away or absconding into the night. This is, unfortunately, more common in Japan than you can imagine and is usually due to debt or being unable to support one’s family.
  • eikaiwa – 英会話 English conversation – which has always been challenging for many Japanese, particularly the ones who are my age.
  • kaji tetsudai – 家事手伝い literally “helping with household work.” Women use it to describe that period when they are not working outside of the home and just sort of waiting to get married. It is probably outdated at this point.
  • hanayome shūgyō – 花嫁修業 the kind of training a young woman does before marrying. It used to be flower arranging, tea ceremony, possibly cooking school or calligraphy. Depends on the family.
  • manējā – マネージャー simply means manager, but if it is a woman manager of a sports team she’s probably just doing their laundry.
  • ikebana – 生花 flower arranging
  • oshūji – お習字 traditional Japanese calligraphy
  • chadō – 茶道 tea ceremony
  • omiai kekkon お見合い結婚 – arranged marriage. This is in contrast to renai kekkon 恋愛結婚 which is a “love marriage.”

Ghost Town

My first apartment was in a ghost town. No, not like an American ghost town. It was a ghost town because it was located on the Ghost Line that runs through Japan. You see, in August, during the Obon season, ancestors return to visit. They take the yūrei sen and my little area of Kyoto happened to be a stop on the line. It had a pond and of course ghosts get thirsty so they would stop by the pond to drink. I am not making this up. It’s what I learned from everyone when I said I lived in Midorogaike.


Reactions would vary. Many people would shiver either involuntarily or dramatically and say, “Oh, aren’t you scared to live there?” I wasn’t… but I was beginning to understand why the apartment rent was cheaper than other places.

Kyoto took its ghosts seriously. I started to learn the stories. For example, one of the popular ghost stories was about a takushii driver who picked up a woman downtown. She asked to go to Midorogaike and when they got there, he turned around and the woman had disappeared leaving just a damp spot where she’d been sitting. In fact, that story was so well-known that sometimes when I would try to catch a taxi home from the same downtown area, the taxi drivers would refuse to take me when they heard my destination. I am really not making this up. Take a look at this.

Every day I’d leave my apartment and walk to the bus stop to get into town. I’d walk past the same gentleman each morning. He sat ramrod straight in a kuruma isu with a fine red and grey woolen blanket draped carefully across his lap. He had a stern look on his face. Dignified, maybe you’d call it. He was older. I’d calculated he was just the right age to have fought in World War II and here I was, an American, walking by him each morning. I never dared to say a word. Should I apologize for the war? Surely the injuries that had put him in that chair were from the war. What did he think when I walked by? Did the sight of me bring back bad memories? There was no other way to get to the bus stop. And he was out there every morning. I just didn’t know what to do. (Let’s all keep in mind that I was just 22 and had a vivid imagination.) I felt like I had to do something. Our two countries had fought each other.

So one day, I summoned up all of my courage, looked at him straight in the eye and said, “Ohayo gozaimasu.” And made a tentative bow.

And to my great surprise, his stern demeanor crumbled up into a warm smile and he responded, “Ohayo-chan.”

Ohayo-CHAN? What the heck was that? Ohayo-san was a Kyoto version of “good morning” but why was I getting the ‘chan‘ treatment? I still do not know, but chan is what you’d use, instead of san, when speaking to a child. From his point of view–and age–maybe that was warranted. The other reason could have been an indication of warmth or affection.

From that day on, we greeted each other. I regret that I never had a real conversation with him, but my Japanese ability was very limited and I never dared try. I figured I’d done my bit for world peace and left it at that.

My route to the bus stop. Every morning.
  • obon – お盆 a holiday in August (or July in some areas) where ancestors return. So, many people travel back to their own home towns to greet them. Basically it serves as a summer holiday break.
  • yūrei – 幽霊 ghost, or spirit. More spirit than ghost.
  • Midorogaike – 深泥池 The name of a pond in Northern Kyoto, but also serves as the name of the area around it. It literally means ‘deep muddy pond.’ And it is.
  • takushii – タクシー taxi
  • kuruma isu – 車椅子 wheel chair. Isu itself is chair and kuruma is car or a wheeled vehicle
  • ohayō gozaimasu – お早うございます good morning. This is a very polite way of saying it. WIth friends you can just use ohayō .
  • ohayō san – お早うさん The Kyoto way of saying good morning. Used widely in the Kansai area (Western Japan).
  • ohayō chan – お早うちゃん The Kyoto way of saying good morning to a child