Chapter Five: Baptism by Napalm

Kitakata location

To Sendai

I had been notified prior to leaving the UK that I would be living and working in a city called Kitakata, located to the north of Honshu, Japan’s main island, and in the west of Fukushima prefecture. Although training had begun, there had been no mention of when I would actually travel to the place I was to call home. On Tuesday I made a tentative inquiry as to when I might be departing, expecting the move to take place that weekend. “Oh yes, you’re going up on Thursday, aren’t you?” was the response.

Bidding farewell to the others, I left training early on Thursday morning to catch an uneventful shinkansen (bullet train) ride to Sendai city, where I met John, the region’s Managing Consultant. When I walked up to him in Sendai station he was listening to music on his phone, and didn’t put much effort into greeting me. We walked together to Communicat’s offices, as I lugged three bags, which were collectively very heavy, in the afternoon heat. John said he felt guilty that I should be so burdened while he carried nothing, but did not offer to relieve me of any of them. Normally I feel somewhat feminist when it comes to luggage, and resent the implication that women might be too fragile to carry their own crap. But on this occasion, in which I was sweating and fatigued and damaging my shoulders, it would have been a welcome gesture.

We reached the branch office and the five women who work there made noises of delight at my entrance and came over to greet me. They were all extremely friendly, and I was complimented by several of them on my apparently sunny disposition. I was placed in a white windowless meeting room while members of the office came in, one after another, to talk me through paperwork about various aspects of the job and living arrangements.

The one-to-ones ran on for a while, but luckily I didn’t flag too much. Lastly John took me through my contract. This was an awkward meeting because John was extremely self-conscious and wanted to come across as the ‘cool’ manager. He spoke in a flirtatious low-pitched tone, couldn’t seem to decide exactly what accent he wanted, and threw in a couple of profanities, all of which made him appear fairly unprofessional. At one point he was warning me about the issues of publicly criticising the company and other employees on social networking sites. This is a legitimate concern for businesses, but he continued to illustrate the point with an instance of an English teacher complaining about him on Facebook. He said he found out about it because he’s ‘quite popular’ (only unpopular people call themselves popular) and said that the person in question ‘doesn’t exist anymore.’ Like he was the fucking godfather.

Eventually John walked me to the hotel where I would spend the night (guess who carried all her belongings), and I checked myself in. John commented that had he approached the hotel staff, he would have made a mess of it. I found this worrisome because not only has he lived in Japan for years, the Japanese for ‘check in’ is ‘check in.’

To Kitakata

Early the next morning I was put on a coach bound for Aizu station. The journey was several hours and we were due in about 10:20am, where I would be met by a man called Miyahara. We drove across the mountainous countryside, through many tunnels boring audaciously into the hills, and past many rice paddies that looked like unremarkable meadows until the water beneath the green blades shimmered as we sailed by. A little after 10am we started approaching a city and I got ready to alight. We stopped, and a number of people disembarked, so I joined them. After the coach pulled away and the passengers dispersed I started to realise I’d made a terrible mistake.

There was no station, just a bus sign at the side of a duel-carriageway running between a remote shopping park and some rice paddies. I frantically scanned the bus ticket and bus stop sign for information, realising that I was standing somewhere six minutes’ drive away from the station. Initially my plan was to stay where I was, assuming that when the bus pulled into the station and I failed to appear, Miyahara-san might make inquiries, at which point the driver could comment that the only white woman on the coach alighted some time ago. I continued to wait and freak out. Coming to the realisation that my plan was considerably flawed, I eventually decided to walk to the station, hoping that should anyone be attempting to find me, a bedraggled Caucasian by the roadside would be noticeable enough. This plan also had a major drawback in that I didn’t know where the station was. I began walking along the unpopulated road, and when I saw a middle-aged woman on a bicycle a few minutes later, accosted her for directions. She drew me a map, for which I thanked her sincerely.

It was hot, my bags were cumbersome, and I was marching as fast as I could. This was not how I wanted to arrive at my new home or the impression I wanted to leave. After this fifteen minute ordeal I reached the station. I couldn’t see anyone waiting for me so went and asked for the payphone. Pouring my change onto the counter and frantically interpreting how to operate the telephone, I rang the Sendai office and apologised profusely. They then rang Miyahara-san and told him where to find me. When he showed up I bowed deeply and gave the best apology I could. He chuckled at me. Although I had been instilled with an impression of Japanese people as sticklers for time keeping who do not suffer fools gladly, he didn’t seem at all phased by my total idiocy.

Miyahara-san drove us to Kitakata and spent the next two days helping me set up my apartment, alien registration, insurance, bank account, phone and general living needs. Jamie HewlettDuring the lengthy wait for official documents at the city hall, I was entertained by the face of an office worker that strikingly resembled a Jamie Hewlett drawing, with a countenance that was simultaneously regal and endearing. The endearment may have stemmed, however, from his youth and air of uncertainty, as he seemed constantly in search for things to do and ways to please.

On Friday afternoon we met up with Miyahara-san’s wife and they treated me to lunch, and on Saturday I met his daughter when I took so long deciding what phone plan to have (they don’t do pay-as-you-go) that Miyahara-san had to leave before I was finished. The three of them teach jyuku (supplementary school) and between them cover the subjects of English grammar, history and mathematics. They are also absolutely lovely.

The Assistant Language Teacher that I was replacing was an English guy called Oscar and there was a single evening in which we were in Kitakata at the same time. We had arranged previously that he would sell me a bunch of practical miscellanea, such as bedding and kitchen equipment, and I inherited the rental car he had been using. He dropped of the car and homeware, and I went for dinner with him and the other local ALTS; Richard from London, Warren from Minnesota, and Jared and Allan coincidentally both from Michigan. Afterwards Oscar came back to the apartment to talk me though the detailed notes he had made and answer my many fervent questions. He clearly cared a lot about the kids he had been teaching, which was rather heartwarming. It was dark and raining heavily when Oscar went to leave, so he reasonably asked for a lift back. I had been pretty apprehensive about driving over here, and when I had asked the company on previous occasions if any lessons or general guidance would be provided upon arrival I was told nonchalantly that I’d be fine. To compound my nervousness about setting out onto Japanese roads, the car was an automatic, which I was unaware of until I got into the vehicle and noticed there was extra seat where the gearbox should be. Seeing my obvious panic, Oscar asked Jared, who lives in the same apartment block, to join us as backup for the return journey. The drive was terrifying. In theory, automatics are easier to operate than manuals (one pedal for go, one pedal for stop), but the break was so sensitive that every time I engaged it all of us were sent flying forward, and my hand kept instinctively groping for the clutch. It took some practice in the car park that weekend before I had any kind of confidence in my ability to control this machine.

To School

On Monday I was scheduled to go around the four schools I would be teaching at, to be shown their location and generally introduce myself. I was told to be at the city hall for 8:20am. Although I had the car, it was a ten minute walk, so I headed out at 8am with a paper map as GPS was not working on my phone. I felt serenely calm heading out, but after walking for a while I began to suspect I was lost. Seeing a convenience store in the distance, I rushed toward it to ask for directions. The lady behind the counter pulled out a city plan and highlighted our location and that of my destination. I had been travelling in the opposite direction. 

I was going to be late and began to panic. I walked as fast as I could while swearing regularly and cursing my very being. I genuinely do not understand how I get lost with such invariance, as though someone has blindfolded me and spun me thrice before I begin every journey. Once again I found myself sweating profusely in my business attire. To add to my distress, my phone kept ringing but each time I answered it there was no sound. I knew the caller would be whoever was waiting for me, so at one point I breathlessly explained my situation to the mystery number, should they be able to hear me. I was later to discover that I was right; my voice could be heard, but my phone was broken and would not omit sound unless on loudspeaker. It had to be sent off for a week to be fixed.

I was about five minutes away from the city hall, and looking exceptionally haggard, when a car driving towards me beeped and pulled over. It was a woman called Yumi who had been waiting for me. I grovelled my apology as I threw myself into the car, but she didn’t seem too concerned and beamed a smile at me, apologising and saying she should have come to pick me up. She told me to smile and apologise to the people we were meeting and all would be fine.

When we arrived at city hall, Yumi-san and Ishikawa-san from the Sendai branch took me around the office floor to meet lots of people who I didn’t know and still don’t. I can only assume they have something to do with the Board of Education for the area. I was asked to present myself to a group of people who stood while I wittered my brief introduction and politely applauded when it was over. The three of us then sat in a small room created by partitions talking to a gentleman who was introduced to me as the ‘man in charge.’ We were there for quite some time, and although I caught less than half of what was actually said, I managed to keep up with quite a lot of the conversation. I was told the man had seen the demonstration lesson I had done for my interview (it had been recorded) in which I sang Tom Lehrer’s ‘Silent E,’ because Tom Lehrer is a god. He complimented my singing and said I had the “best smile,” so there’s a possibility he watched the wrong video.

I was then taken to the three elementary schools I would be teaching at. At each I met the respective principle and Ishikawa-san spoke to them at length about, I think, what my role involved and what the company needed, particularly in terms of schedules. Although I phased out during most of the longer discussions, I felt pretty proud of my Japanese. I was a little struck by the way these conversations were preceded by moments in which no one spoke. Either they were contemplating what to say or the cultural character of appreciating silence really does exist. As this was a formal trip, Ishikawa-san bowed frequently and showed much deference. I did my best to mimic the length and depth of his bows but I’m sure I got it all wrong and looked like a bobbing fool.

Lastly we arrived at Daini, the Junior High School at which I would spend most of my time. While the other meetings with principles involved silences, the pauses in conversation here felt like we were making time up before someone else appeared. Eventually the principle left and Nakano-sensei, the head English teacher, appeared. She was just as lovely as Oscar had described and gave me as much attention as she could despite being insanely busy. Ishikawa-san left while I stayed for the rest of the afternoon. The whole school was having an assembly during which I was to be introduced to the students. As everyone was herded into the gym, I saw the vice-principle reciting my name over and over again, in practice for my introduction, although he wasn’t taking it particularly seriously.

Some kids saw me in the hallways before the assembly and failed to conceal their reactions of surprise and bewilderment. Although I was being stared at like a rare zoo animal giving birth, the responses were generally positive, so I didn’t feel too nervous about getting up on stage. However, when I stood facing the entire school I saw only cold, blank stares. I delivered my introduction in English and Japanese, and both were brief. I then exited as quickly and elegantly as I could manage. When I reached the side of the hall where the other teachers stood, however, I was told I would have to go onto the stage again. The vice-principle was currently addressing the students, and for a few long and horrifying minutes I thought I was going to have to do the whole thing all over again. I floundered as to how to ask if I needed to speak again, and dutifully returned to centre stage when instructed.

It transpires a boy had been nominated somehow to give me a welcome speech in English, which he tried to duck out of at the last minute by half-heartedly attempting to fleece his notes onto a teacher as he made his way to the stage. He stood in front of me with his back to his fellow students and struggled through his lines. He was clearly frustrated with himself for not remembering it well, but his pronunciation was pretty good and I tried my best to look encouraging.

Many students said hello to me afterwards, some bounding up to greet me, others waving like crazy. I was called ‘kawaii’ (cute) an awful lot, which was to continue in all the schools for some time. While obviously complimentary, I think it reveals a lack of diversity within Japanese adjectives. I have also been called beautiful (in English) a number of times. No need to worry about the inflation of my ego, however. In this context, ‘kawaii’ and ‘beautiful’ are very much synonymous with ‘strange’ and ‘unusual.’ I have also been told on several occasions that I have a small face. I first heard this from a Junior High School girl who was already in such a fit of giggles that she was on the floor. When she ran off out of earshot, Nakano-sensei said “She’s a third year. A weird third year.” On another occasion a very cute and sweet girl with frizzy brown hair was fixated by my apparently tiny face. She started taking my wrist and holding my hand up to compare the size, showing other people down the corridor just how miniature she thought my head was. While I’m sure my face is normal size, I have disproportionately big hands, so this did not help my cause. The ‘small face’ comment was not as clearly flattering as ‘kawaii’ or ‘beautiful’, and at best seemed to be a neutral observation. I began to become paranoid that this was some bizarre concerted effort to give me a complex, but have since been informed by reliable sources that small faces are considered attractive in Asia. Moreover, although people say ‘face,’ they actually mean the entire head, and I was surprised to hear, in a video Rose sent me, that people of Asian heritage on average have larger craniums than Caucasians and possibly other ethnic groups. Cranial measurements were once a big part of anthropology, known as anthropometrics, but had fallen out of vogue because a primary objective of this data collection was to rank races according to their superiority. Although it would be easy (though not necessarily correct) to argue that a larger cranium directly correlates to greater intelligence, apparently Japanese people don’t like their bigger than average heads.

The image below is an excerpt from the school’s news letter which circulated a couple of weeks later. It introduces me as a new member of staff, says my hobbies are travelling and needlework, and that ‘Keep moving forward’ is my motto. It was difficult to think of a personal motto, especially as Oscar had already taken ‘Be the best you can be,’ and other teachers had things like ‘Always smile.’ The photo to the right shows the boy giving his English speech at the assembly. It’s not a clear image, and yet the awkwardness is still apparent.