The first few months of life in Japan


The day I arrived in Tokyo, the weather was terrible. Endless rain poured down from the sky and, though it was June or July, the air was a bit cold. Ryosuke had told me that his parent's house was in the best part of town, an area called Setagaya. His father was vice president of a Japanese mining company. I expected the place to have a large yard and spacious interior. Instead, I found a narrow wooden structure propped right next to Kokushikan University. After I arrived at my friend's house, I climbed a very narrow and steep staircase to my room. It was a small cell with just enough space for a bookshelf, a desk, and a bed. For the first few days, I could not move from that bed. I had come to Tokyo without a plan. There wasn't a job waiting for me or any sort of program I could fit into. I was in a foreign country. I could not speak the language. Beyond my friend's house, I had no idea where to go or what to do. Although I was in touch with some of the exchange students, no one could provide me with leads to work. I had to find that on my own.


Two friends from college also came to Japan around the same time. They were Vince and Lynn. Vince came because he was close to our friends Yumi and Ruko. They had both been exchange students at John Carroll. Lynn was madly in love with Vince and, even after finding out he was gay, wanted to follow him to the ends of the earth. They arrived just a few short weeks after I did, I think. I don't remember the exact timing. They had also come to Japan without much of a plan. We all decided just to go and see what we could find.


Looking for work in a foreign country during the rainy season was one of the most depressing times of my life. In those days, we found jobs by checking the English newspaper, The Japan Times. Every Monday, they posted help wanted ads for foreign or bilingual job seekers. The vast majority of jobs available were for teaching English. There were also a few specialized job offerings but nothing that any normal person who had just graduated from college and flown to another country on a whim would be able to do. Every interview I had ended in rejection. Vince and Lynn were getting offers left and right. They had so many choices they were confused about which offer to take. I couldn't understand it at first. We were all from the same university, the same country, and town. Our credentials were all equal, and yet I could not get hired. My money had quickly diminished. I was living off of the food my friend's brothers were willing to share, though the oldest was growing tired of me being there.


I am an optimist. I always believe that no matter how hard life gets, somehow, it will always work out. Those first few months in Tokyo tested the limits of my optimism. Inside Ryosuke's small room, I began to doubt myself. Perhaps I had made a mistake in choosing to travel to Japan. Maybe I wasn't as capable as I had believed myself to be. As the rains fell endlessly outside of the window, I began to feel the creep of hikikomori settle over me. I lost my desire to leave the house and wallowed in self-pity and fear.


One day Mr. Shimizu, the house's patriarch, announced that he would be coming for a visit. I didn't want to be seen as a loser. I certainly didn't want him to think that the generosity he had shown me was going to waste. So, I put on my best face and greeted him when he arrived. He asked how everything was going, and I told him that it was going well. He decided to take me out to dinner. Near his house, there was a famous sushi place. It was the pride and joy of the neighborhood. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I had never tried sushi and was disgusted by the idea of eating raw fish. When we arrived, Mr. Shimizu picked a spot for us by the counter. Behind our seats was a large fish tank full of fish. For a few seconds before sitting down, I wondered if the fish knew their fate. "You're gonna love this sushi. It's so fresh and delicious!" His eyes were gleaming when he said it. He ordered some things that I didn't understand, and a few moments later, a platter piled with hunks of fish flesh was on the counter in front of me. I thought I would hurl. My hand was almost shaking as I forced the slices into my mouth after dipping them in soy sauce and wasabi. "See! Isn't this the best sushi you've ever had?" My mouth was full when he asked me. I just nodded my head and said, "mmm, hmmm." I ate every piece of raw fish that was set before me. I drank every glass of beer and sake too. My disgust faded with the rise of my intoxication. I pat myself on the back for not puking it all up. Strange as it was, I found myself craving sushi a few days later.


Mr. Shimizu always came to town with a suitcase full of cigarettes, Chivas Regal, and meat. He brought fresh steaks, beef jerky, sausages, hams, and bacon. His treasures were hidden underneath a single layer of shirts. Although it was against the rules to bring such items into the country, he somehow managed to get them by customs every time. Whenever he visited the house, I feasted. Between those visits, I ate the bare minimum. My daily meals consisted of rice and whatever scrap of meat or vegetables Ryosuke's brothers would let me have. From time to time, Mr. Shimizu would ask how my job search was going. I tried to look as positive as I could. I always lied and told him it was going great.


After a month of searching, I finally got a lead on a job in Utsunomiya. The town was about 90 minutes by train away from Ryosuke's house. It was an English teaching job at a small private school. I was 22 years old and ready to take any work that I could get. I didn't know anything about teaching, but I was willing to learn as long as they were willing to pay. I commuted from Ryosuke's house to Utsunomiya. The train fare was ¥2,000 or ¥3,000 one way. Because I was so poor, I really couldn't afford the fee. Although I am ashamed to tell you this now, I sometimes cheated by pretending I had lost my ticket. I told the conductor I had gotten on just a few stops before. Once in a while, the train conductor would look suspicious. A few times, I was ordered to pay a fare higher than what I had claimed, which meant I wouldn't be able to eat that day.


My tenure at the English school was very short. I was only there for a little over a month. The first teacher I met treated me very badly at first. He was extremely rude and racist. He made some comments about black people and how he doesn't associate with them. I didn't know what to do with that information, so I told him it was his problem and not mine. I think it was some kind of weird test because he later went out of his way to become friends with me.


The English school usually provided apartments for its teachers, but there wasn't one available for me. I had to stay in the apartment of the owner. He had a spare room that he let me use. I was grateful for the offer because the cost of commuting was killing me. Those feelings of gratitude were short lived though. Every day he asked me if I wanted to bathe with him. I was traumatized. I politely refused and told him that I was straight and wasn't interested in bathing with other men. He just laughed. A few days would pass, and he would ask me again and insist I would love it. Although he ran an English school, he really couldn't speak English very well. At the time, I didn't know about Japan's onsen culture. Utsunomiya is near a town called Niko, which prides itself on its hot springs. I didn't know any of this, so the English school owner just seemed like a creepy old guy.


Once in a while, some of the foreigners in the town got together to drink. I remember being with a group of them. They were from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the US. I was invited to go out with them one day after school had finished. They all had bicycles, and I did not. They insisted that I grab the first bicycle I found on the road. That mortified me. Until that point, I hadn't stolen anything except a sandwich from the deli of the supermarket I worked at in high school. Even then, I didn't exactly steal it. The guys were anxious to get going. "Come on! Just grab one!" they shouted. One of the guys found a bike that wasn't locked and gave it to me. I fell to the peer pressure, got on it, and rode to the pub. If my mother were there, I am sure she would have smacked me hard in the back of the head. If I had been caught riding that bike by the police, I probably would have been arrested. When the night of pub-hopping was done, I rode the bike to the only train station in town and left it where it could be easily found. I hope it made its way back home.


Eventually, I couldn't stand being asked to share a bath with the owner of the school. He was relentless. I went back to Tokyo without a job. I know now that it was all just a misunderstanding. He was trying to be kind to me but all I could hear was "naked in a hot tub".





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