Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Gaijinanter

Gaijin (or 外人) is the Japanese term for a foreigner, though the more politically correct term is gai koku jin (外国人) or “foreign country person”. This is a word we’ve heard muttered distantly, sounds stolen from the midst of simmering Altaic chatter, in many of the places we’ve been. The G word is not so much an expression of disdain, but of simple surprise. 
Japan is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries on Earth. The Japanese islands are something like 99% ethnic Japanese, with the rest made up of Chinese, Korean and, perhaps surprisingly, Brazilians. Down here in Kyushu, white-boy gaijin, as Tipples once put it, are few and far between. Indeed, we’ve only seen one other white guy in the week we’ve been here.

The first place we overheard ourselves entering the Japanese mind was the first time we went in the onsen, the communal baths in our building. Some of the sportier lads in the building (it’s a wonderfully reassuring element of humanity that, the world over, we fall into the same stereotypes: “jocks” and “nerds”, “hearties” and “arties”, &c.) were bantering about having a water fight. They looked over at us, and quickly returned to their as-yet unfathomable conversation, where the G word did indeed come up. The Japanese, I’ve noticed, have a wonderful flair for facial expression, the pained, I’m eating something really sour, being a particular forte of theirs. Clearly we had soured into their mouths that night, since that was exactly the flavor that accompanied the G word.
As an aside, we had our second trip into the onsen last night. It was less fun, it must be said. We went considerably earlier than we did the first time (around 6:30), and found that the showers were ice cold and wouldn’t warm up and that the man at the desk had no idea what was going on. Still we managed to get Dom in this time, and it was ultimately agreeable.

The second place the G word was uttered in our vicinity was when we decided to head down to our local. I say our local, I have no idea about anything when it comes to positioning things; I can’t really say with certainty what town we’re in, as our address sheds no light on the matter and I receive conflicting reports. In any case, the place was on the strip that leads from Asakuragaido station up to our street. We were attracted in by the ginormous picture of a pint of beer. And that pint of beer was also the only thing we could understand on the menu and so it was Suntori all round, much to the consternation of our lady friends who don’t like beer. In my defence, I had no idea what was going on, and they made no protests when I ordered 8 birru.
The place was extremely atmospheric: as you come in, there’s a little pond with fish and some sea snakes (less good for Ina, who has snake-o-phobia). Then it’s like the films: paper walls, little cushions, sitting cross-legged around a little table, Japanese-shouting, Japanese-smoking. They brought us little nibbles (mostly fish, I think). Laurie, or Rory-san as I like to call him, decided it would be shameful not to order something from their menu and so, just to ram home the sour taste of Gaijin, went for フライヅポテトウ[1] (=furaidopotetou =chips !).
After the beers, Henry, Rory-san and I had some 日本酒 « Nihon-shu », or what we in the West might call sake. In Japan, sake is the generic term for all alcoholic drinks.
We’ve been having a bit of banter with Henry about the Japanese thinking him to be of “lower rank”. The first example of this came when, at dinner one night, he kindly offered to go and get us all some tea from the machine. Rory-san wondered, “do you think the Japanese guys will think Henry’s of lower rank than us”. Then, inexplicable, in the pub, they gave him a considerably smaller flask of 日本酒than the rest of us. May the Japanter continue.

Yesterday was our orientation day, and so the first time we were actually confirmed in our official Gaijindom. We had to go and register for our “alien cards” at the town hall. Sub-urban Japan is, in many ways, a pretty ugly place. The first way, is that there seems to be little in the way of aesthetic effort put in. It is simply a series of more or less uncoordinated apartment blocks and commercial spaces that are not particularly beautiful, and there is gaudy advertising everywhere. Secondly, more effort seems to have been put into making theatre out of the electricity network than in any place I’ve known. Electric pylons cut across the skyline, at night they dance with twinkles as does the Eiffel tower on the hour, and, through the day, one becomes aware of the miles and miles of cables that slice through the air at all levels. There are telegraph poles, pylons and substations all over the show. Thirdly, nothing really looks like anything: apart from half being able to work out whether a building is commercial or residential, functionality rarely manifests itself aesthetically. The hospitals look like the schools look like the office blocks and so on. I was particularly struck by the decided blandness of the town hall, where we went to get our Gaijin cards. We hung around for about an hour, all was done and we received our certificates of having applied for gaijin cards but not yet having them: so we still can’t have bank accounts or phones. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I’m feeling warm waves of familiarity: I’m seeing a city, it’s in Europe, it’s a capital city, there’re shit trains and rude people, there’s a big tower, and some lovely architecture, and I see a flag with blue, white and red vertical stripes and… No, no, that’s rather unfair. Bureaucratic Japan might be, but by god at least they’re polite and apologetic about it.

We had the orientation for our Japanese lessons too. Three hours a day of hardcore, you-know-the-score, learning. It all seems very school like in fact: we have set periods, there’s a bell to announce the beginning and end of those periods (there are bells everywhere in Japan, it seems), we have a gentle and sympathetic teacher who wants us to do well, and they’ve handed us lots and lots of textbooks. I’m extremely game for this language learning business, though am Japprehensive that I’ve perhaps taken on too much private English teaching and won’t have time to devote the attention that learning Japanese requires. No two ways about it, there’s going to be a lot of memorising (I’m seeing a city, it’s in Europe, it’s a capital city…)
Ikeihara sensei is our teacher. She’s very small, but has a calm and graceful air that is ethereally beautiful. This is something that I have begun to notice about women in Japan. Women, not girls. They hold themselves with fierce pride, their faces are stern and gorgeous, they dress extremely well. Dignity. As Cambridge House is mostly LADS, we’ve not come across many girls. I think Ikeihara sensei is going to make us work hard, if only because we’re going to fall in love with her and want to impress her.

Today is Wednesday and we have the day off. I’m going to meet Chie, another employer, at the Dunkin’ Donuts at You-Me Town (a sentence I never thought I’d ever write) at 1:00, and then have a meeting for another job I might do, teaching legal English to judges and lawyers in Fukuoka itself. Fingers crossed, my fellow Gaijin!


[1] Those are probably not the right katakana; I’m just trying to evoke the scene. Do excuse me. 

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