Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tomodachi: Making friends with Japanese

One of the toughest things you can ever do is leave your family and friends back home, to start all over again in a foreign country. It isn`t for the faint of heart! It will test you mentally and physically. You will learn a lot about yourself,your country of origin and the country you go to in the process.In the end it will all be worth it.

Writer Neal Stephenson referred to living in Asia as like stepping into one of the classic comic books, and perhaps that was why so many Westerners ended up settling here. I can relate.

Still much of Japan and Asia in general is very exotic. To me my wife is stillexotic even after 15 years of marriage. My children look exotic. My dinner looks exotic, especially if it moves! Low level forms of sea life, quivering on my plate are always exciting, and fun for the whole family!

I think we can all be comfortable and successful anywhere we want. Japan may seem unfathomable to you, but to me it is just home. I have two homes now--Japan and Canada, but really the world is my home.

Wherever you live, I`m sure there are places or circumstances that are special to you. For me, one of them is my tennis class. I have known some of the members for many years now.

Satoru has just had a baby girl! When I expressed surprise as heshowed me Takako`s photo withhis cell phone, he joked, "what, didn`t think I could do it?""No but viagra is miraculous," I should have replied. He is 48 so webug him about his age.I`m so happy for him.

It wasn`t long ago that we were all wearing black and going to hiswife`s funeral. She died of leukemia at 40, the age I am now. Masami`s sister was asked to donate bone marrow in a last ditcheffort to save her,but being a Jehovah Witness she refused to help her sister. That has always been one part of their religion I really don`t agree with.She was a good friend of my wife. My wife cried many tears for her,as did Satoru. For a few years he was not himself. I can`t imagine what it is like to lose someone so close to you.

Yet today he has had a baby! He remarried a few years ago and now heis a pappa. It is funny how life works out, or fate I would suggest. I think everything is meant tobe. It may seem terrible at the time,but in the end there is a reason. There I have revealed my buddhistbias to you. Satoru is such a great guy that he promised to take care of his former wife`s parents, sohe and his new wife and baby, live withhis previous wife`s mother. I`m sure it all works out well. Japanese are even surprised when I tell them this story. I can`t even imagine living with my current wife`s mother, thewildebeast! I hope she doesn`t read this! She`s probably grazing as we speak.

Takahashisan is a funny man! If he hadn`t gone into sales he could have been a comedian. There are a lot ofpeople like that. Often the funniest people you know, live rightnext door. Takahashi is one of them. He and I like to joke around with each other. Although he is almost50 and I am grudgingly 40, we act like elementary school boys. The other day, while waiting for our turn toplay tennis, he put his head on myleg and pretended to sleep. I called for the tennis coach tocomplain that Takahashi was bugging me again.This seems to be our pattern. He will throw balls at me and hit mein the leg. I do the same. Seeing this itis hard to believe that I own a business and manage people. How oldare they? I`m sure people are thinking. He and I are still such kids, I think that is why our wives married us. I think when I am 80 I will still be a child in many ways. Don`tmean to brag! My wife`s friends tell her it must be hard raisingfour children (I am the third boy).

Hiroaki is an example of what a man should be to me. He is gentleyet strong. He is humorous and willingto laugh at himself. He is the worst player in our class but hecomes, has fun, and doesn`t seem to worry about it. He always has something funny or good natured to say.About ten years ago he was worried hewas going to die. A doctor said he had cancer. After many more testsit was found that he was in good health.He quit smoking though, and still doesn`t smoke till this day. Myfather, a former doctor says the testsare so good now, they catch everything--from unimportant to lifethreatening. Often what theycatch can`t be explained but it won`t kill you. "What`s this on myarm?" "We don`t know, but don`t worry about it!" Doctors don`t usually say this, they will say "Nothing."And that`s what you pay them for.

Mr. Yamaki talks to me about bushido and the samurai spirit. He is60 and old enough to be my father.He has a teenaged daughter and his wife is 40. He lived in California for 6 months picking (and mostly eating) strawberries. He recently ran for the town council and lost. I would have voted for him had I been given the chance. He tells me I shouldget my haircut at Mr. Osada`s barber shop. I think he means my hairis too long now. He also wants to get across to me that in Japan loyalty is very important. Mr. Osada is the team captain of our Tuesday tennis group, and bybeing a member of that group, I really owe it to him to have my haircut there.

In Japan there are all of these reciprical relationships that are sometimes hard to understand in the West. A friend calls them the three circles. In the first circle is your family, friends and co-workers. In the secondcircle are potential people you may have a relationship with at somepoint--neighbours, or other employees at the same company forexample. In the third group, are people you really don`t need togive a damnabout. Bang their head with your briefcase on the train "forgetabout it!" You don`t need to be polite or kind to these schmucks, you will never need them. You will never have a relationship withthem so why bother. That is the thinking here. That is why the rate of charity is so much lower in Japan than in the West. I won`t give to them, because I don`t know them. Homeless people-- I could never be like that. Forget about it!

But if you are a member of the first circle, they will go to bat foryou. They will help you if in need. You are one of the group,congratulations! You belong! Be you black, brown, Korean orcaucasian, you are member of the first inner circle and you havemade it.

So if you need a haircut, you come to me, if I, or my mother, or myneighbour need English lessons, we go to you. "Do ya get it?"

"Yes I do. A little off the sides please. Can you cover up thatannoying grey?"

Times are tough now, I will get my hair cut at Mr. Osada`s. Hopefully I can gain a student or two through the relationship. I am still small town Canadian, when I bang someone on the train I say sorry. Some Japanese do too, but often in Tokyo it gets ignored. Ihave been bodychecked and not heard a sorry. That`s big city Japanand sometimes small town Japan too if the relationship is one of the third circle.

In the West we pride ourselves on how we treat the most pathetic people. In Japan they don`t. It is all about relationships and connections. If there is no relatioship between you, you are on the outside lookingin. It is all the more tragic to be homeless in Japan. I flub my backhand and send it into the net. I have gotto concentrate on tennis I tell myself.

Mr. Yamaki is another comedian. He frequently tries to embarrass me in front of my tennis mates. Unfortunately for me, he usually succeeds. I enjoy being the centre of attention though. As usual he speaks a very rapid dialect of Japanese I can`t understand and then asks me if I agree with what he just said. I either answer "yes I do," or "I don`t understand what the hell you are saying," both always get a laugh. When I make a great shot, "He yells out, samurai spirit!" or "Lasto Samurai!"--the Japanese pronunciation of the English name of the Ken Watanabe, and Tom Cruise movie. I wonder if I have ever lived here before? As a youngchild, I really wanted to go to Japan. "Bushido," Mr. Yamaki yells before a big point for me. He was born in China during the war. But emphasizes that he is Japanese.

Naoto takes another drag on his Lucky Strike. He is my tennis instructor and philosopher. He is my friend. He`s a few years older and wiser than I. He seems to hate his own country. At first I found it refreshing that a Japanese could actually say something negative about Japan. It is rare to hear a Japanese put down Japan but hedoes so often. In fact that is almost all he does these days. I worry that he is depressed. His mother died a fewyears ago and maybe that is still affecting him. Yet I remember he has always put down Nippon. I myself have been criticized for being too negative about this country at times, and ironically I findmyself defending my adopted homeland from my tennis coach! Life is acomedy! Never doubt it! In my case a comedy-drama starring moi! Japanese are rude, Naoto will start. He tells me the story of how a Japanese assumed he was Indonesian and banged on the back of his chair during a flight to Tokyo. Instead of politely asking Naoto toraise his economy class seat because it was driving his legs into the cargo compartment, he chose instead to pound Naoto`s seat to send the message. Naoto turned around and in perfect Japanese said, "What the f--- are you doing?" The man astonished said, "Oh you are Japanese, sorry!" Naoto took this to mean that, if he hadknown the person in front was Japanese he would have been more polite. I think he`s right. Some of the Japanese are like that unfortunately. Asians are one rung lower than us elite Japanese folk is the feeling of some. But many Japanese are not like this I will add.

You learn a lot about yourself and your own country by living elsewhere. Japan is a good place to grow up. I am still working onthat. It is also a great place to live and work. Japan has given meso much. In spite of the complaints I have at times, I have much tobe thankful for. I better stop, Takahashisan has a ball in his hand,I had better defend myself! Ouch!

Advice on Making Friends in Japan:

Be proactive. You have come to a new country, you presumablyhave no friends in japan or few friends, so you will need to get out and make some new friends. Find some local clubs you would like to join by visiting your local city hall and communitycentres. Ask them for the list of circles in your area. Japanese clubs are usually refered to as "circle," pronounced in a Japanese way.

Making friends in Japan can be made easier by taking the initiative and putting out some ads yourself. Metropolis a Tokyo magazine has a classifieds section and you can put somepersonal ads for friends, or a partner. You can also start a club. In my case I started a basketball club. Just put out an ad and you will find others who are interested in the same thing.

Another option is Misti. Misti is a friendship registry. You describe yourself and your interests and find others with thesame hobbies. It is all in Japanese so you may need a Japanese friend to help you get set up. Both of the sites mentioned are free! Doing a search at yahoo.com or yahoo.co.jp should allow you to find the above mentioned sites. Good luck!


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