"I only wish your mother could have seen this."
- my father, lamenting my son's lack of a grandmother.
As Japan enters the Golden Week holiday - a week in early May when three or more national holidays come in quick succession, many Japanese take the opportunity to travel overseas, resulting in ridiculously high prices for airline tickets around that week. It also means that ticket prices are reasonably priced in the opposite direction. We, and our guests, suffered from that when we flew to Ireland for our wedding, but my father and sister benefited when they flew over to visit us in May of 2005. It would be the first time that my father met his grandson, and he was giddy with excitement about it from months before.
I met them at the airport and took them by train to Kawagoe, where Naoko picked us up at the station. Aran was in his child seat in the back of the car, and was wailing to be let out. The sudden appearance of a big hairy man beside him did nothing to appease his hysteria, and he bawled deafeningly all the way home. My father appeared a little taken aback by this, but he told me later it was just that he realised that my mother would never meet Aran and he was suddenly very saddened by that. Once we got back to the house, Aran calmed down, and quickly took to his newfound grandfather. Since the main purpose of their trip was to see Aran, we did not plan many other events, but we did have a barbeque, a night at Simple Simon, dinner with our friend Osawa who had come to Ireland, and then had a family portrait taken with the three generations of both families.
The highlight of the trip, other than seeing his grandson, was when we took Dad to Kyoto. He had not had much time for sightseeing on his first trip here because of the wedding and the plane delay, so I took him around Tokyo for a couple of days, and then we took a "Shinkansen" down to Kyoto where he was totally overwhelmed by the temples and castles we saw there. As he pottered around taking photos and admiring the scenery, he gradually fell in love with the place, and swore that he would come back.
The two weeks he was here were probably the longest time we had spent together since I left Ireland, and we talked a lot. Two things became obvious to me during this time. One was that my father was getting old. He would repeat himself, forget what he was saying in the middle of a conversation, and was generally a lot slower in moving around than he used to be. Since I don't see him every day this change was noticeable to me, but I think my brother and sister do not notice it so much since they see him more regularly and have observed him growing old more gradually. The other thing that became obvious to me was that my sister, who at the time was still living with my father, was getting very stressed because of having to look after him, and because of his forgetfulness and slowed down demeanour. She talked of wanting to get a place of her own, and has since done so, and the change has done her good.
By the time their stay here was over, Aran had gotten used to his new found relatives, and would laugh and play with them just as with the rest of us he saw every day. My father remarked, almost offhandedly, as he bounced Aran on his knee, that being a father was the most satisfying thing he had ever done, and I knew what he meant. As I wished him goodbye at the airport, I told him that I was confident I would be a good father to Aran because I had his example to follow.
Within a week of their leaving, Aran stood for the first time, grasping on to things to steady himself. He seemed to enjoy this and smiled gleefully every time he achieved it, but one morning he lost his balance and banged his chin against the low table he was clinging to. This caused his lower teeth (he had two showing in his lower jaw, none in the upper jaw yet.) to cut into his upper gum, and the shock I felt was palpable when I saw a trickle of blood around his teeth. As a parent it is natural to want to protect your child from injury and pain, even though that is sometimes impossible, and I still find myself hating myself and feeling worthless any time Aran hurts himself and I am too slow to prevent it from happening. One particular occasion when Aran fell down the stairs while crawling around was particularly shocking, Naoko was still crying about it when I got home that evening, (she blamed herself for not keeping watch over him more carefully), and her just telling me about it caused my blood to run cold. We were still learning how to be parents, and it was sometimes tough. It was an amusing realisation I had during a leadership training seminar I was taking at work, that most of what they were telling us about being a good leader of a new recruit to the company was actually quite relevant to my parenting skills as well. June also saw my first Father's Day as a father. Naoko put together a handmade card to look as if it was from Aran, and even though it was not from him, it was nice to think that he might be thinking about me in that way. It made me wonder what kind of a card I would get from him once he was old enough to make it himself, and whether or not he would consider me worth the effort. I think it will become a ritual we carry out on Mother's Day and Father's Day each year, until he is old enough to help us do it, and hopefully he will eventually take over the task.
A couple of friends, Peter and Yuko, got married in June of that year, and when I arrived at their party Peter asked me to act as a translator for his parents. I told him I would do my best, but reflecting on my previous experiences of simultaneous translation, warned that it might not be very good. In the end I did better than I expected, probably because I was not the one making speeches this time, and thus was less stressed.
At the end of June, work brought me to Paris. Just as our plane landed in Charles De Gaulle Airport, a vicious thunderstorm poured down on the city, causing power failures in the metro and on the streets, causing chaos in the traffic system. We were prevented from leaving the airport by an apparent bomb scare, and found ourselves stuck in a bar for almost an hour. We eventually got a taxi, which took nearly another two hours to reach our hotel near the Eiffel tower, about forty minutes of that being for the last five hundred meters from the tower to our hotel. The taxi driver was visibly agitated, and nearly got into shouting matches with several other drivers as he tried to inch his way across intersections that were blocked by cars going in the transverse direction. I have learned from later trips that this congestion was not totally due to the rain, since Parisian drivers routinely will enter into an intersection even though the route out of it is blocked, and seem to have no qualms about blocking opposing traffic when they do so. In particular, the six lane roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe is almost worthy of being called a spectator sport, as cars weave forwards and even backwards between other stationary vehicles in their attempts to navigate the spaghetti like lines of vehicles that circumnavigate the monument. The last two days of the trip allowed us some sightseeing around Paris, much of which I had seen ten or more years before, (I could even still remember where some of the Irish pubs were. I spent the second of these days touring the Louvre, managing to visit every room that was open to the public in the course of one day, although it was a damn long walk, with some double timing and less stops towards the end. I must admit to being unimpressed by the Mona Lisa, expecting it to be bigger, but the lighting used to illuminate Michelangelo's "Venus" made it the highlight of the visit. Paris on the whole was in a festive mood as it was awaiting the announcement of the Olympic venue for 2012, for which it was a candidate, but it was soon to be disappointed. London, which won the nomination, had short lived celebrations of its selection that were bought to an end by the terrorist attacks on the subway the following week.
We bought a paddling pool for Aran, and in our usual enthusiasm to please him it was a rather large one, with an inflatable slide, basketball hoop and a palm tree to give it a tropical atmosphere. The down side to this, I realised when I started to inflate it, was that it required about as much air as a weather balloon. We picked a blistering hot day to set it up, and I found myself jumping up and down on a foot pump for over thirty minutes to get it ready, and once I had finished I gave myself a cold shower as I was filling it up. Once Aran was in, he loved it, and at our invitation, a few of our neighbours brought their children over to join him in it. It was much enjoyed by all, but the pool did not get used again that summer, since I did not have the energy for it.
Later in that summer, after much procrastination, the personnel department finally announced that they were going to cancel the benefits they had been giving myself and Chris. It would take them a further six months to actually formalise this and decide what they were going to give us in their place. I can only presume this was because they were having a hard time coming up with some alternative they thought we would accept, since I had made it clear to them that I would consider quitting if this happened. It was not an empty threat. Even though I loved living in Kawagoe, and, overall, enjoyed the work I was doing, the drop in income would be substantial, and given that the benefits I was getting were a significant factor in our calculations when deciding to buy the house, the decision was a shock. It annoyed me greatly that the company would try to renege on a promise made years previously, and would even try to deny that it had been made at all. Having been shown that the company would not honour promises they had made which had even been put down on paper, I found myself wondering if I could trust them at all after that, and it has cast a shadow over my work ever since then, greatly curbing my enthusiasm. Despite the fact that the work was still enjoyable and challenging and, even with the potential loss of the benefits, still relatively lucrative, I could not help feeling cheated, used, and taken advantage of.
But while work was going through a somewhat difficult phase, I had to admit that the rest of my life was working out very well. Aran's first birthday was celebrated with his parents, grandparents and Naoko's sister and her husband in attendance, along with a huge number of balloons that my wife got up early to inflate. I found myself close to tears as we sang "Happy Birthday for him. It was amazing to think that he had been with us for a year already. It was only a short time after this that he started walking.
Just before the company broke up for the summer holiday, I brought him and Naoko to the annual "Nouryousai", the summer party where the workers bring in their families to have a look around the office. I have always looked forward to this party, because a great many of the workers wives are themselves ex-workers, and it was always interesting to see who had got married to whom. (Indeed, inter-office marriages are so common that when I let it slip some years previously that I had a girlfriend, on co-worker asked me where she was from. When I replied "Kawagoe", meaning that she lived in the same city, he asked what department she was in, assuming I meant that she was from the same factory.) Many of my co-workers were keen to get a first glimpse of my wife, and most were even more taken aback when they saw Aran. One even referred to him as a "shukushou kopii" or reduced copy of me. In the summer holiday that followed, we visited the grave of Naoko's grandmother, since it was the first "Bon" festival since her death. I don't know if it was because we used to always visit my brother's grave every Sunday after mass when I was young, but having a grave to visit, a place at which to pay respects, gave me a sense of belonging, a connection to the place I was living that I did not have before. It was a strangely good feeling.
At the end of August, Naoko again informed me that her period was late. After a home test gave a positive result, she went to the clinic but they were not so positive. The foetus did not show up on the ultrasound, so the doctor reckoned that it may not have lodged correctly in the uterus yet, and urged us to take a "wait and see" approach. Ominously, she chose not to give Naoko the care package of information leaflets and other goods that they usually gave to those confirmed pregnant. The following week I was in America on business, and when ringing home asked if there had been any more definite information given at her follow up examination. Naoko was evasive, and said that we should discuss it when she got back. I hung up the phone and thought for a moment, facing the conclusion that she had lost the baby. I didn't want to admit this to myself until it I could confirm it, as it felt like I would be abandoning our potential child. Naoko did confirm it when I got back, and my sadness at what was not to be was tempered by the thoughtful way in which Naoko broke it to me, waiting until she could tell me face to face rather than telling me over the phone. We also had to be grateful that there were no long term affects for her. As often happens to me for some reason, world events coincided with my own tragedies to show me how they were not so significant and how lucky I was, and should consider myself, compared to others in the world. As I wondered about the health of my wife and the fate of my potential second child during the latter days of that trip to America, from the safety of my hotel room in Detroit I watched the city of New Orleans being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. CNN and other stations showed us people losing their homes and families in real time, and in the following days the internet gave us the hell that was the Astrodome. Thankfully many of the horror stories that were spread around proved to be unfounded urban legends, but there was still enough tragedy to remind me that my own life, as it was, was still very, very good.
September saw the election called by Prime Minister Koizumi to test the public's loyalty to his reform policies. Considering the way he threw members of his own party out for voting against his postal privatisation law, and ran new candidates against them, I could not fail to be impressed by his commitment to his ideals, (or the appearance he presented thereof), and his political expediency in choosing young and mostly female candidates to contest these seats. In one fell swoop he exerted his authority with clarity, rid his party of a number of rebellious and disloyal members, and brought in a whole new brood of young political talent that would generate massive tabloid and television interest in his party. While little had really changed, he had created an impression of a party reborn, and a government that was revitalised and closer to the people it was supposed to represent. It was a pre-emptive coup d'etat, that effectively terminated any potential challenge to his leadership until he declared his intention to surrender the leadership at the end of his term the following year.
October saw the Kawagoe festival come around again, and on the first day Naoko had a hairdresser's appointment, so I took Aran out in his baby stroller to see the festival. He obviously did not understand what was going on, but enjoyed the attention that many of the festival revellers showed him, as well as the dancers on the floats, who were disguised as foxes, monkeys and young maidens. On the second day, the Sunday, I joined the festival in earnest, wearing my kimono and helping pull the float with my friend Ippei and the group of friends with whom I had taken part some years previously. Naoko and her parents followed us around, shooting videos and showing Aran his daddy in various states of tiredness and drunkenness. Each time I took part in this festival, I found myself respecting my city and its residents more and more. My participation with Ippei and his friends was not casual. He had started a group he called the "Wakabakai" to attract younger citizens of the city to take part in the festival, as he sensed it was becoming more and more a festival for the elder generation, and the younger population, while willing to watch, were less and less willing to participate. For this reason he wanted to attract interest and participation from younger members of the community, so that there would be sufficient numbers interested in the festival when the current leaders and active members reached and passed retirement age, and gradually withdrew from participation, to ensure that the festival could continue to be operational. I found this long term attitude to the continuation of the festival to be remarkably forward thinking on his part, and it was partly my respect for this attitude, along with my unchanging enjoyment of the festival, that led me to support him in any way I could. I enjoyed this festival, but I also wanted to ensure that it remained active until my son was old enough to take part. I also enjoy the respect that my continued participation has earned me myself, both from friends and family, and even from total strangers.
In or around this time I started writing this book in earnest. I had started it some years before as an update to the homepage I had made to showcase my photography. I had hoped that my experiences living here, and the lessons I have learned from them, could be of benefit to other foreigners who come to live in Japan. Having completed the first four or five chapters, I found myself with less and less time to write it since I had started dating Naoko, and my life was becoming too busy to have time to sit down and record it. Now that I was no longer going to Simple Simon every night, not only did I have more time, but I found myself become slightly more disciplined in my lifestyle, and I started devoting lunchtimes at work to this book. I carried it around with me in the memory card of my new mobile phone, so that I could edit it at work or at home. Having taken a more structured approach, and outlining the whole story before I started writing it in detail, meant that once I had the main ideas of what I wanted to say down in print, it was a very easy job to expand them into what I have written so far. It has also helped me to assess my life, and realise how much I have to be thankful for, and to relive the memories of the past experiences I have enjoyed. This filled me with an even stronger urge to write, so that I could complete this history coherently, and tell my story, and my message, to others, especially my children. I have even branched out into experimenting with fiction writing. And the techniques I have learned from this have shown themselves in this book, which is now much easier to write than it was when I started, and which is now a much deeper and more insightful study of my life here than it was when I started out. Hopefully, this will show through in the final edit.
That same October was marked by another festive event. Naoko went to the doctor for what she thought was a cold, and was told that she was pregnant again, and this time all the signs were for a healthy baby.
If you dropped in by accident, the story starts here;
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