"It looks like she's not going to last the day."
- my wife, warning me to take some time off for the funeral of her grandmother.
Naoko had started working for a company called Benesse, which ran cram schools and other educational services, as an "Akapen Sensei", correcting test papers sent to her by fax and computer. It
didn't make her much money, but it was good for her to have an activity other than childrearing so that she didn't go stir crazy being in the house so much. Household chores and caring for the
baby took up most of her day, and she only occasionally got time to herself. I was busy at work, but helped out as much as I could on weekends. At the end of December, I got a rather bad throat
infection, and for the first time ever in Japan I went to a doctor. I was not impressed. At the company health checks every year there was a consultation with a doctor, which in my case usually
consisted of the doctor getting a chance to practice their English conversation skills, while they spent more time looking at my chart than at me.
I don't think the two events are related, but it was only a week or so after this that I made my first visit to a Japanese hospital. After celebrating New Year's Eve with my wife and child at home, I woke up the following morning with a slight hangover, but still had a beer with lunch as it was a special occasion. My wife then went alone to the local temple to get the "Hatsumode" New Year blessing, and while she was gone I began to feel progressively worse, to the extent that I had to interrupt feeding the baby to go and throw up. After Naoko got back I went to lie down, and continued to throw up regularly even after I had emptied my stomach. I could not even keep down the water I was drinking, and in the evening decided medical care was required. I took a taxi to a local hospital, and was probably the only patient there. A doctor prescribed something to ease my stomach, and they gave me a saline drip to rehydrate me. I lay in a room for about an hour listening to the radio as the bag of salt water seeped into me, and felt a lot better after it. I had to walk through the snow to the local station to get a taxi home, as the company who operated the taxi service at the hospital were closed.
In January I had what my company calls the "Refresh Break”, a special ten day holiday allowed to all employees at a certain age. I spent all of it at home playing with the baby, and helping my wife to look after him. Time after time I was close to tears from the wonderful feeling of having him look up at me and smile. It was a quiet uneventful month, with one exception. I had been getting a lot of spam mail on my mobile for what are known as "DeAi" sites, where men and women meet up for whatever liaisons they desire, and more nefarious sites offering "tosatsu" video and photos of naked or scantily clad women. Some of these mails even include teaser photos. In the course of deleting one of these, I accidentally accessed the site linked in the email, and within days I had received about a dozen requests for payment of my "membership fees". This is a well known and much publicised scam, so I ignored them, but it was slightly entertaining to watch the progress of their content, from polite requests to stern warnings to outright threats of legal action. A change to my email address, and registering the numbers they used in my phone's rejection list, meant that they never bothered me again.
It was also around this time that I had to apply for a new passport, as America required machine readable passports. I got the forms from the embassy, and had a hell of a time finding some one to act as a witness. The requirement for a witness is a non relative who is a member of one of several professions, all of which were hard to find around me. In a previous attempt I had gotten the IDA representative in Tokyo who was a friend of my father and provided this favour to all the FAS graduates in Japan, to do it, but this time he had been transferred so I couldn't ask him. I tried phoning local lawyers but they bluntly refused to do it, one even claiming it was illegal, and the embassy was unsympathetic. In the end I had to get the company doctor, whom I had never met before then, to do it. I later heard from a friend that in reality anyone who can provide a business card is usually acceptable.
In February, Naoko’s grandmother, who had managed to live to the age of ninety one, finally passed away. Naoko called me out of work, and I took a couple of days off to facilitate her attendance and involvement. I had only been to one funeral, so I let Naoko guide me through it, but generally took a back seat anyway to look after the baby. Aran slept through most of it, but when he started crying I took him out into the hallway for a stroll in his pushchair. Other relatives and friends took over from me when it came to Naoko's and my turn to pay our respects. Towards the end, everybody was placing flowers in the coffin before it was to be sealed, and I suddenly realised that Aran should also be a part of this. I picked him up out of his chair and carried him in to where the coffin was, and manipulated his hand to place some of the flower petals in the coffin like everyone else was. I knew he wouldn't understand it, but I felt it was an important gesture. The coffin was closed, and taken out to be loaded into the hearse. There was no cremation facility in our town, so everybody had to go to nearby Omiya. I would take Aran home at this point, and Naoko would go on to the cremation. As the hearse pulled out, I copied the people I had seen on numerous television reports of funerals, and bowed with my hands clasped together. Naoko's mother noticed this, and thanked me, tearfully, the next day. Although it was not in any way a motive for my actions, I had scored a lot of points with her that day.
Since it was clear for several weeks before her death that Naoko's grandmother was getting weaker, Naoko's parents had been giving some thought to a burial site. They had purchased a site some years before, but wanted one that was closer. They now had to consider the possibility of me going in there too. Having picked a temple out in nearby Higashimatsuyama, we all went out to take a look. The priest of the temple was a delightfully cordial man, well versed in English and very eager to practise it on me. He basically told us that I could be buried there as long as I satisfied their single requirement, which was; to be dead. They decided on a plot there, and it was a few days before I got my head around the idea that the place I would be buried had actually been decided upon. I had been discussing the idea with my family (I reassured them I was not in any hurry!), and they had no objections to me being buried over here. It even made my siblings think about their own future resting places, as the family plot we have in Dublin will be full once my father joins my mother and brother.
On the way back from the cemetery we visited the Koedo brewery, a local microbrewery and restaurant in Kawagoe which Naoko's mother took us all to after my mother died to help cheer me up. I guess she was needing it herself this time. It was Aran's first night out, and the attention he required meant than both Naoko and I could eat and drink little. But it was fun to get out as a family, and Naoko needed the change of scenery. I had much more opportunities to socialise, including a reception for the Irish President who visited for St. Patrick's Day. There was a long line of people waiting to greet her so I decided to mingle a while until it thinned out. By the time I went to join the line I was told I was too late, as the President would be leaving soon.
At the beginning of April of 2005 I was called to my department manager's desk, and told that I had been promoted to a level known as "Shuji", which in my company is the highest level below what is officially referred to as "management", where pay is determined solely on performance, and the highest level at which overtime pay, union membership and the right to apply for patents are allowed. I had been passed over so many times (by which I mean I watched people who joined the company after me getting to that rank before me.) for this that I had given up hope of getting it, and had actually forgotten about the possibility of it happening. (Normally, getting called to your manager's desk on April 1st is enough to tell you that you have got a promotion, but I did not realise what it was about until he gave me the official notification.) My manager apparently knew I had been overlooked a few times, as he said "Sorry this took so long." I can only presume from him saying that that he had recommended me for it in previous years but had been shot down by personnel. In the weeks prior to this, Chris, an English colleague who is the only other survivor of the foreign trainee program, had been in discussions with the general affairs department about the benefits we were getting, as he wanted to buy a house but could not do so without taking permanent residence, which would have meant losing those benefits. As a result he was asking them to change the rules, and since in my opinion he handled it very badly, (he was demanding something in return, but even he did not know what he was demanding), personnel turned around and changed the rules, effectively stripping both of us of those benefits. They even tried to imply that a change that had been made years previously, to guarantee the benefits even if we get married, had never been made and that we should pay back years worth of benefits since we were both married, but I shot this down by providing a copy of the rules which they apparently did not know I possessed. This all left me with a very bad impression of the company, and this promotion was just in time to quench a resentment that was growing within me that was leading me to consider quitting the company. It was in the rules that the benefits would be lost if we reached the level of management, and the promotion would both ease in part the financial impact of losing the benefits and make the possibility of their eventual loss more likely anyway. The whole affair was a two edged sword, about which I am still undecided. I sometimes even find myself wondering if the promotion was a quid pro quo from the personnel department in return for the loss of the benefits.
Traditional Shinto teaching tells us (apparently) that after death, each soul must face seven tasks, one every seven days, before it can enter heaven. For this reason it is traditional in Japan to wait 49 days before interring the cremated remains of loved ones. This time came for my wife's grandmother in mid April. Another tradition in Japan is to erect "Koinobori", or carp streamers, in the spring to bring good luck and health to households with a boy child. We had been waiting a while after Naoko's grandmother's death before erecting ours, in deference to the fact that her mother was still in mourning, but once the remains had been interred she gave us the go ahead, and I was out on our veranda the next day erecting the flagpole. I had often seen these decorative streamers in gardens and on balconies and was always impressed by the way their wafting in the wind seemed to resemble the carp swimming upstream. There are usually three carp of increasing size and an uppermost streamer representing a dragon, into which the carp transforms after completing its journey, according to the legend that forms the basis for the tradition. I had opted for a rather large set, intent on standing out in the neighbourhood. We purchased a smaller set and sent it to my father so he could do the same thing in his garden, and he set up a huge pole on which to fly them in his back garden which could even be seen from the front of his house. I found myself taking a few minutes to stare at the carp above our house every time I came home from work, filled with pride that I had a healthy baby and a happy family. It felt good to know that my father might be standing in his back garden doing the same thing.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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