"What's a Gaijin?"
- "It's like being a black guy back home. Only there are less of us. "
- From the film "Mr. Baseball"
After I returned from Ireland in January 1991, I bought my bike. Many weekends were spent riding it. The Kanto plain is very flat, and there is a very well maintained cycling path along the local
rivers as part of the levee around them. A level surface with no traffic lights means that it is quite easy to clock up forty to fifty kilometres in an afternoon, which I did many times. On a
particularly long run one day I managed over 100 kilometres before the need for refuelling (i.e. beer) hit me. I have always been an avid cyclist, riding from Blackrock down to Bray many times
during the summer holidays when I was a teenager. During college I worked in a company on the other side of Dublin, and cycled there most days, a return journey of about twenty kilometres every
day. I managed to get into the city centre, to the south side of St. Stephen's Green, without seeing a single red light every morning, except on my very last morning working there.
So when I found myself here in Japan, presented with the great expanses of the Kanto plain, with the cycle paths along side the Arakawa and IrumaKawa rivers serving as my expressways to the little towns that surrounded Kawagoe, cycling was to become a weekend hobby I would indulge in regularly. I reckon I clocked up six thousand kilometres on that bike in the years I had it. I could travel twenty kilometres in pretty much any direction and not face a hill of any importance, and it was interesting to watch the local population enjoying their days off as well; fishermen squatted on tiny stools with a long thin rod sunk into the river, the buzz of engines from remote control model planes, cars and even motorbikes, musicians practicing their instruments on the riverbank, since it is the only place no-one will complain about the noise, moto-cross bikers, families enjoying barbeques and of course the metallic ping of the aluminium bats used by the high school baseball teams practicing on the pitches by the river.
Along most of the rivers around Kanto, there are tall flood barriers, like levees, to allow the water accumulated from typhoons and "yudachi", or spontaneous evening rainstorms, to flow out to sea without flooding the surrounding land. It is on top of these that the cycle paths were built, and since there must be enough room for the river to swell to several times its normal size when these rains come, there is usually enough room inside the barriers to build football pitches, gateball courts and baseball diamonds. While it is obviously dangerous to do so, many people use these areas for golf practice as well.
Another sport that brought me closer to the great outdoors was skiing. The first time I went, I borrowed the skiwear and rented the equipment, but I decided that if I was going to go a lot it would be more economical to buy some reasonably priced skis and boots. Since I did not own a car, I was pretty much at the mercy of others when it came to getting there, but luckily Damian had bought a car and was a keen snowboarder as well. Damian had moved into the apartment building next to mine when he left the dorm, living upstairs from Ronan, and Kevin moved in downstairs from me, so it was very convenient for us all to get together and set off early in the morning for the expressway north. In the peak of the ski season there are tailback some tens of kilometres long on the expressways leading into the Japanese Alps of Gunma, Nagano and Niigata, and snow falling on the south east side of those mountains would cause even more delays as everybody stopped to put on snow chains. So it became the ritual to leave as early as four in the morning, depending on where we were going, and stop along the way for breakfast in one of the service areas on the expressway. Excessively sweetened canned coffee and excessively re-heated corn dogs (called "American Dog" in Japan), were my staple diet for breakfast. We would arrive at the ski resort at about nine A.M., and get changed. Depending on the numbers of us and the layout of the resort, we would break up into groups of two or three after agreeing a place to meet for lunch.
Riding up the ski lifts has always been an enjoyable part of the skiing experience for me, with the view it affords one of the snow covered trees, and seemingly endless ridges of mountains in all directions. Falling snow makes the experience even more magically unworldly, blanking out almost all sound until you pass over one of the lift pylons which is carrying a speaker for the PA system, which inevitably blasts out current pop hits aimed at the young couples who make up the majority of the ski resort's target market. There is a sweet excitement in the short interaction with a total stranger who by chance sits beside you on the lift chair, which is made even more satisfying if the stranger is a young lady, as the exclusive opportunity for a flirt presents itself, or a child, who may stare at you for being a foreigner and be surprised enough to fall out of his or her seat when you speak to them in Japanese. The growth in popularity of snowboarding in recent years, with the inevitable shift to more grunge like rock and rap music on the PA, has killed this romantic atmosphere forever.
One night in March a group of us went to Roppongi, and in one club I asked an American looking girl to dance. She refused, but came over a few minutes later and suggested I buy here a drink. It turned out she thought I had originally offered to buy her a drink, not a dance, and she refused because she already had one. The evening went well and we exchanged phone numbers. Her name was Amy, and we saw each other for several months. She was a missionary, originally from Chicago, teaching English and religion in Tokyo. This eventually got in the way, as she wanted to bring religion into our relationship, and I had no interest in that. Apparently she would also risk getting fired if she had a boyfriend, as the church she worked for did not reckon that meeting partners was part of their mission. However we had a few enjoyable months together, including a day trip to Nikko, the home of the "See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil" monkeys, but I lost touch with her completely, except for one chance meeting in Ikebukuro some years later, while I was on a date with another girl. While I was dating Amy, I happened to meet up with Susan again. She had come back to live for a year with her husband, and I saw them a couple of times. I always wondered how much Susan told him about our friendship, which made it sort of awkward to be around them.
During that summer, I gave up smoking. Japanese cigarettes use a charcoal filter which gives them a completely different taste to European ones, and as I was sitting in the smoking room at work one evening, I suddenly decided I didn't like that taste, and stopped. I had a short relapse a year or so later, but I have been firmly anti-smoking ever since. I also decided to buy a personal computer. Alex had bought a Toshiba laptop, and I liked the look of it, so I went to Akihabara and searched for the cheapest shop among the multitude that were there. I was always amazed at the range of parts that could be bought in the labyrinth of shops and stalls just in front of the station. I found the model I wanted in one shop for about 220,000 yen. When I took it to the counter and presented my credit card, they said it would cost more if I bought it by credit card. Determined to get value for money, I decided to come back the next week. (Going to a cash dispenser on a weekend costs money, and I was determined!) When I came back the following week, with the exact amount in cash to buy the computer, I was delighted to see that the price had dropped by a few thousand yen. My delight was cut short however, when I noticed that there was a model with twice the hard disc space that had just come out, and this was just 10,000 more that I had on me. At this stage, the train fair to Akihabara for a third time would have been too much of a waste, so I bought the model I originally set my mind on. In the weeks and months that followed I would borrow and steal any software I could get my hands on. Damian loaned me his disks of Windows 3.0, and after I installed it he came over to show me how to use it, and the first thing he said was "Don't you have a mouse?" I was off to Akihabara again the next Saturday. I also installed a Japanese word processor called Ichitaro, and a drawing program called Hanako, both of which were used at work. This meant that I could bring work home on the weekends, but I didn't do this very often until later projects made it necessary. Within a matter of weeks I realised the computer would be little more than a toy without a printer, so I bought one of those too, and played with it even more.
At this stage I had finished working on the BMW model, and was starting work on a more complicated model for a Toyota vehicle. Having met the challenges placed before me in the BMW work, I had proved myself capable of the work they were asking me to do, and that is what led to this more difficult product. Whereas in the BMW project I had been responsible for only the radio part, in this model I was responsible for the entire system, radio, tape deck control, CD control, CD changer control, DSP control and display control. This meant interaction with a lot more people who were working on each of these parts, and more work for me. This was also when I started doing serious overtime, as there were a lot of different modules I had to interconnect, and the documentation on them was sparse in some cases.
During the summer holiday of that year I decided not to shave, to see what I looked like with a beard. This was inspired by Sean Connery's appearance in "The Hunt for Red October". When I showed up for work after the break with a beard, several of my co-workers were surprised, as beards are not common in Japan. The first reaction I got was to be compared to a bear, but at least one of my colleagues later referred to me as a "crumbled Sean Connery" (using the word crumbled in the sense of the low cost broken "senbei" cookies that are sold in supermarkets.) I was moderately pleased. One morning in September, a tooth filling that I had put in by a dentist in Dublin when I was in college collapsed and fell out. When I was having it put in originally, the temporary filling he put in kept falling out as well, usually when I was eating or drinking something. This would usually cause me to gag, and it happened so often that I ended up having nightmares, which continued for several years, where I would find myself choking on broken teeth and fillings. Sometimes I would wake up from these to find myself still in a dream, and still choking. This meant that I became, and still am, not very fond of dentists. However I found myself with a pain in my mouth so intense that I was constantly drinking cold drinks from the vending machine so that I could numbify my mouth by sucking on the ice. With the help of Ronan I arranged a dentist visit for 4PM that afternoon. When I got to the dentist I presented my health insurance booklet (which I would not use again for a decade!) and was told to wait in line. I was very surprised to find that the dentist had three chairs lined up beside each other in his surgery, and was working on three patients at once. When one patient was rinsing or waiting for a cement to harden for example, he would wheel his chair over to the next one and do some part of their procedure. I did not think this was very hygienic, but there was no pain involved at all. After about three visits I had a metal crown put on, and it still holds to this day. He suggested that four other teeth would need work soon, but I said I would come back another time.
Towards the end of that year, several people left Pioneer. Steve, one of the English who joined the same time as myself, left the company, Tim got transferred back to an Ohio plant (he is still with Pioneer to date), and Ronan, who had been growing progressively bored doing basically the same job on a succession of models, eventually quit after several failed attempts to get transferred back to our European plant. He was eventually hired by the European plant directly, and is still with Pioneer in Belgium. Another departure around this time was Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was ousted by Boris Yeltsin.
In early December it was time for the Japanese test again, and I took and passed a higher level this time. It was even harder than before to concentrate this time around, because the kid sitting in front of me was reading the questions to himself sotto voce, and I was about to jab a pencil up his ass when one of the stewards warned him to keep quiet. That was only a slight improvement, because the unseasonal heat meant that the stewards had opened all the windows, and the sound of the amateur bands playing in Harajuku was seeping into the room.
By this time there were eight foreigners in Kawagoe, and about forty in the company overall. The company used to print a newsletter for all employees, and since it was at the forefront of Laserdisc technology, it also put out a bi-monthly laserdisc called LD-COM as part of its corporate communications. (This was, remember, the bubble era in Japan!) For their December issue that year it was decided to include a special report on the foreign employees. Myself, Damian, Kevin, Grant and Jason were asked to cooperate with filming. The storyboard they had in mind was for me to leave work on my bicycle, go home, show them around my apartment, then pop in to visit Damian and Kevin. After this we were to go shopping for supplies for a "Nabe" party that evening. I had been asked by the General Affairs department to be the liaison between the film crew and the other foreigners, and I did what I thought necessary to get the job done. Filming went reasonably well, although Damian was a little petulant that I was, as he put it, bossing him around. One of the topics discussed in the video was how we foreigners did not like being called "gaijin" which means "outsider", and how people should refer to us as "gaikokujin", which means people from an outside country, and is apparently considered less offensive than "gaijin". I don't know why this was an issue for them, but it may have been Damian who complained about it. I personally see little difference in the terms, as neither is of itself offensive. Depending on the surrounding sentence, either term could be used to offend. Having had little success over the years in getting people here to see the point of view that finds "gaijin" offensive, I have found that explaining to people that someone who is a "gaijin" (outsider) is implicitly not a "nakama" (insider, or friend) convinces them most effectively not to use the term.
The day after the video shoot the factory manager called all to his office to explain how he was going to refer to us in future as "Gaikoku kara kita Shain", or "employees from other countries". I think this factory manager, who had just taken over the post, was trying to be friendly with us. When we first met him and I told him I was from Ireland, he espoused that he had just been there horse riding some weeks before. In the coming months he would invite us to play tennis, which he eventually cancelled, and to a Japanese Tea Ceremony at the house of the company president, which was an enjoyable experience. In mid December, I travelled down to Kobe, where Niall was getting married to his Japanese girlfriend. Although I only got to stay one night in the city, I was impressed. The location they had chosen for the ceremony was a particularly eye-catching temple located near a maritime observatory. I did not get to see any of the city though, for after the reception I had to rush back to Kawagoe the same evening, as I was scheduled to fly home for Christmas the following day.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
Copyright (C) 1997-2011 A.Keyes All Rights Reserved.