In the early 1980s I was working for a kaisha that provided English learning materials and lessons for Japanese speakers. I was teaching classes but I was also responsible for writing an original lesson for each weekly class. In order to do this, I’d work in their small jimusho in Ebisu alongside the department responsible for this. I hear that Ebisu is now known as a trendy area, but back then it was kind of a nothing-burger. There were five of us who worked there. Or rather they worked there full time and I came in twice a week.
They were a fun bunch of people. They all spoke some eigo having studied abroad at a time when it is less common than it is now. They were all interested in getting to know gaikokujin but were very relaxed about it. Gender roles were not especially important in that office and the men were fine with serving ocha along with the women. Our desks were arranged in a way that made conversation easy. And best of all was our osanji.
This was not a new concept to me. In fact, coincidentally, growing up, in my own home we called our snack “the three o’clock.” Note that sanji means three o’clock and in this case it takes the honofific ‘o.’ And it was serious business in that office.
Sometime between 2:30 and 3:00 PM someone, possibly our kachō, would say, “Osanji ni shimasho ka?” or “Kyō no osanji wa?” And then someone else would mention that we had cookies that a guest had brought the day before or that we had mikan someone had brought from home. But most of the time someone would head next door to the department store basement to buy some treats. Cake was a favorite of course.
When it was my turn I’d agonize over the many choices, how much I should spend, whether I was taking too long to decide, and if a variety or the same for everyone was a better idea. And then I’d make my request and get a beautifully wrapped box to take back to the jimusho.
The osanji is really a lovely idea. We’d all put down are work and talk about the news, our lives, the season, or anything else. It helped us bond, I guess you’d say. And it helped set the rhythm of our day as well.
kaisha – 会社 company, business
jimusho – 事務所 office (in a company or other place of work)
eigo – 英語 English (language)
gaikokujin – 外国人 foreigner, non-Japanese
ocha – お茶 tea, or more specifically Japanese tea
osanji – お三時 the honorable three o’clock, i.e. snack time
kachō – 課長 department head of a company
Osanji ni shimasho ka – お三時にしましょうか。 ”Shall we take a break and have a snack?”
Kyō no osanji wa? – 今日のおさん時は？”What are we having for a snack today?”
If you want to know the deep dark mysteries of Japanese bunka and all of the intrinsic intrigue of the Orient, just look to a piece of tōsuto.
No… I’m just joking. But I do have another toast story to tell.
When I worked as a honyakusha in Tokyo I had a myriad of small jobs to do, some more interesting than others and some more fukuzatsu than others. There were the instructions for building a bridge in Malaysia. That was a terribly mismatched ask. What do I know or understand about engineering? I had no business working on that translation. Then there was the hon I translated called Dead Speak of War which was a book of wartime photos of… you guessed it… dead bodies. I was to translate the captions. They were pretty simple captions like “Dead man under a tree” etc. But they said they weren’t going to give me the photos… just the text. This was a huge problem because the Japanese language has no plurals. I needed the shashin so I could know if it was one body or more. It may have been “Dead men under a tree” for all I knew. Atama ga itai!
In comparison, the job for Nikko Hotels seemed relatively kantan. I was to translate memos between the head office in Tokyo and the newly opened branch of Nikko Hotel in New York City that was owned by Japan Airlines. Memos… how hard could that be? And indeed it was one of my easier jobs until…. tōsuto.
A translator is supposed to be invisible. The translator’s job is to faithfully transmit the contents of a document just as it is. Now, a literary translator has some latitude. They can even use footnotes… judiciously of course. But a business translator has no business doing any interpreting of the content. The facts, ma’am just the facts. And this is how I got caught squirming in the Great Toast Debate.
It started with a complaint. Japanese kankōkyaku in New York City said that the toast at the hotel was burnt. Consistently, burnt. Headquarters sent a memo ordering the kitchen staff in New York to stop burning the toast. New York replied that the toast most certainly wasn’t burnt. But monku kept coming from the Japanese tourists. The toast was burnt on BOTH sides, they claimed. Headquarters sent yet another request to the kitchen staff. New York was annoyed. And, adamant that the toast was properly toasted. (And delicious.) They were not receiving a single complaint from any American patrons of the hotel. They rested their case.
Tokyo was not happy. They demanded to know exactly how the toast was being toasted and why they were toasting it so it was crisp on BOTH sides. New York was baffled. Because… because…. IT IS TOAST!
The thing is, I could have solved this in a second. The New York staff had no idea what Japanese expectations of toast were. And Tokyo had no idea what American expectations of toast were. (And there was no Google around back then.) But I was a young translator and did not think I had any options. I tentatively wrote a note of explanation and included it with one of my translations. There was no response.
So, I’m finding it amusing that Americans are now discovering Japanese “milk bread” and the joys of Japanese toast.
I will now spare you a Toast – Part 3 about how my American (a New Yorker) mother learned that she could order toast in Japan easily by putting an “o” at the end of the word—and then proceeded to put “o’s” at the end of every English word any time she felt a need to communicate while in Japan….
bunka – 文化 culture
tōsuto – トースト toast
honyakusha – 翻訳者 translator
fukuzatsu – 複雑 complicated, complex
hon – 本 book
shashin – 写真 photograph
Atama ga itai! – 頭が痛い Literally, “my head hurts.” Also used for “What a headache!”
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.
In haru of 1979, I went to work at a small Eikaiwa School called REC (Recre-Educational Center). The foreign staff once had a smirky laugh over the name when a student got up during a Q&A gathering and asked with a serious look on his face, “How did you come to this REC?” But REC was no wreck; it was a classy joint with classy students for the most part. In fact, Nitani Hideaki, (family name first as is Japanese custom) a famous haiyū, had started the school and had even taught there for awhile. You can read about him here. Located directly across the street from Nijo Castle, it was an easy bike ride for me from any location, i.e. no hills. I’d work either an eight-hour or a four-hour shift.
During ohiru or bangohan breaks, I often went to a tiny resutoran around the corner called Mugi-Tei. It was popular with a lot of factory and small business workers in the area. When you become a regular customer in such places, you often get to know the owner/chef. Eventually he would cook me my favorite dishes. In fact, he put my favored meal on the wall menu as “The Sara Special.” It’s a good pun, because my name in Japanese can mean plate. The Sara Special would have an tamago-yaki with a Japanese spinach salad and whatever else, I forget now. I once asked him if anyone actually ever ordered it and he laughed and said a few people had.
So, after awhile, I started to hang out with him after hours and then to pitch in as a waitress in my free time. The owner of the school I taught at absolutely hated having his gaikokujinsensei doing this. But it gave me new opportunities to meet less classy people. I was all about meeting the average jūmin and not just the people who were trying to learn English. As you can see in the photo, I was a very absent-minded waitress!
About a year later, I took a trip back to the US for a couple of weeks, and when I returned the resutoran was gone and the owner had disappeared into the night. They’d had a fire in the kitchen, and this is cause for huge disgrace in Kyoto where buildings were still mokuzō and close together. Reopening the resutoran would not have been an option. I remained friends with many of his customers, but we all had to find another place to eat in a neighborhood with few good options.
haru – 春 spring
Eikaiwa – 英会話 English conversation
haiyū – 俳優 actor
ohiru – お昼 noon, but often used to mean lunch
bangohan – 晩ご飯 dinner
resutoran – レストラン restaurant. There are many ways to say restaurant in Japanese depending on the type of food it serves. You would not use this for a cheap Chinese joint or an eatery that serves only soba. It implies Western-like food and probably came into popularity due to the 1970s invasion of “famirī restoran -ファミリーレストラン” like Big Boy and Dennys. Shorter still, famiresu (ファミレス)
tamago-yaki -卵焼き Japanese style omelette
gaikokujinsensei – 外国人先生 foreign teacher. If you’re a Western foreigner you get a special status as a teacher, i.e. higher salary than your Japanese counterpart. We call this privilege.
jūmin – 住民 resident
mokuzō – 木造 made of wood. Tokyo burned so quickly during WW2 because of all the wooden structures. And since homes and buildings are so close together in many cities, it’s important to know what your building is made of and if it is wooden or has some steel support, etc. Fire spreads when you live and work in tight quarters.
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.
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….
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.”
After doing what was once called a “Junior Year Abroad” in Kyoto, I knew I had to go back. Not because I loved it, but more because I was so frustrated by what I didn’t understand. I needed more language and I needed more experience. So that’s what I got during my last year of college by taking any Japan-related course I could possibly find at the University of Kansas. This often meant I was in a class with just one or two others. I was the only one who graduated with a major in Japanese Language and Literature that year. And after a summer of saving, I blithely took off for Japan in August just assuming that I’d figure things out. Yep. No plans, no job, nowhere to stay etc.
Back then there were two possible places to stay in Kyoto for foreign travelers who were young and poor. I picked Tani House near Daitokuji. I slept in a room with a bunch of other foreigners. It was the cheapest way to go and you met interesting people. However, I was the only one who was planning to stay. The others were world travelers just passing through. Through luck and ignorance, I somehow found an apartment in Midorogaike. So, then I needed a job.
One night, at around 9:30 PM, I was waiting for a bus to get back to my apartment. I’d been waiting a while. A man pulled up in a car and asked where I was going. I told him, and he said he’d take me–and that buses were done for the night. I suspected that was correct, so I decided to get in his car. Note to young people. Just don’t do this sort of thing; times are different now.
He did drive me home and also mentioned that he owned a restaurant near where I’d been waiting for the bus. He gave me his meishi and said he would hire me as a waitress if I needed a job.
Back then there were two jobs for Americans. You could teach eikaiwa or if you were a woman, you could be a hosutesu. Both were very lucrative. And I had no idea how to find either of these jobs, so the next day I walked into Mr. Kobayashi’s small restaurant and told him I wanted a job. (That led to other adventures.)
Let’s face it. I was the worst waitress ever. Each day there was a daily special and every customer would want to know what it was. And unfortunately, it was usually a mix of foods as pictured below. So I had to learn what it all was, how to say it, and memorize it. I could not, most of the time. The customers were amused by me as a waitress at first. Then, I think they found it annoying that I messed up so many orders. It was just an average workingman’s type of restaurant and the lunch hour needed to move quickly.
Mr. Kobayashi paid me the same kyuryou as the other waitresses, i.e. no favorable treatment because I was a foreigner. I could have been making triple those wages if I’d been teaching English, which eventually I did do. But he did do me one favor. It turns out he was a bit of a chinpira (yes, he had a panchi paama which was the first clue) and he’d won the money to open the restaurant by gambling. And he accrued more debts and absconded into the night a few months after I started working there. The favor? He stopped by my apartment very late at night on the night he disappeared and paid me my wages. Nobody else got paid. Most of his waitresses were students who still lived at home with their parents and were working for spending money. He knew that for me, this was my livelihood.
You could go ahead and google that restaurant. It was called Himorogi and it was on Teramachi Street. But you won’t find a trace of it. Like its owner, it vanished into thin air that night.
Daitokuji – 大徳寺 a major temple in Kyoto that doesn’t get as many visitors as others. It’s really a temple complex and also has a restaurant on premises. If you’ve done the major sites in Kyoto and have time, it’s quite nice. Also, at times they have had foreign monks and some of their monks speak English quite well.
Midorogaike – 深泥池 an area of Kyoto to the north. Rents were a bit lower there because it was a hangout for ghosts. Really. More on that later.
meishi – 名刺 business cards. Fair warning. There is a whole etiquette that revolves around the giving and receiving of these cards and if you’re doing business in Japan, it behooves you to read up on this.
eikaiwa – 英会話 English conversation. Note that there is a complete difference between studying English and studying English conversation in Japan. Somebody needs to write a book about that.
hosutesu – ホステス hostess… but Japanese style. Not someone who guides you to your table, but a woman who sits with you, fills your drinks, and charms you. (I’d totally fail at this job.)
kyuuryou – 給料 salary. In Japan, in every job I ever had, it got paid monthly and not weekly or biweekly.
chinpira – チンピラ low ranking criminals in Japan
panchi paama – パンチパーマ punch perm. A tightly permed hairstyle that was popular for members of the Japanese crime world back in the 1970’s. For some reason, older singers also like this look so you can’t say someone’s a criminal for sure if they wear their hair like this. But, if they aren’t a singer, it might give you pause.
Himorogi – 神籬 The name of Mr. Kobayashi’s restaurant was a mystery to me. I’m still not really sure why he chose this name. My best translation is “sacred area” but what am I not getting here?
Teramachi – 寺町 Literally temple town. It’s a famous street in Kyoto. Part of it is an arcade, but the northern part of it is a lovely street filled with old shops and temples. Mostly. There are now two conbi on the street as well, but it is still charming to me.