I’ve actually been here for 6 weeks now, but the topic of the following piece is “My first month in Japan.” I wrote it for a contest that was connected with a social event this weekend: all of the Toyama prefecture JETs (and friends) went to a campsite high up in the mountains with plenty of beer and had some pretty sweet adventures. Had I won the contest, I could have gotten a whole 1500 yen (US$17-ish) off the price… but alas, it was not to be. Somehow, dear readers, I write comfortably for you, but when competition was involved, my recent stint in academia reared its ugly head and my writing got all stiff and cheesy. You can read the excellent winners here.
Anyway, despite its flaws, I’m throwing the mini essay up here because there are some fun anecdotes. I found out later about the belly button thing in the first paragraph: Japanese parents tell their kids during thunderstorms that the thunder god will steal their belly buttons. 😀
Since coming to Japan, I haven’t had any huge moments in which this drastic change to my life becomes clear. Instead, there’s been the occasional surprising minor event. The weather is one example. Obviously, sweating for the majority of each day, I had noticed that the weather wasn’t what I was used to. But somehow it didn’t really sink in until my Japanese teacher and fellow students (from China and Thailand) were discussing thunderstorms and all the ways thunder affected them: they felt scared, covered their ears, and there was something about belly buttons that I didn’t quite catch. “So, Melissa, what do people do where you’re from?” As I said, “We don’t really have thunderstorms in California,” there was a mini jolt: I really am halfway across the world.
Of course, some changes to my daily life are much more apparent. If you were to rely on the remarks of Japanese people, I have transformed into a deity since coming here. Everything I touch turns to gold; everything I do is jouzu*. The Western goddess appears to have only one flaw: she is oblivious to the fact of her own youth. Luckily, I have a supportive community of teachers, acquaintances and complete strangers (and some ALTs…) to remind me every day how young I am. If you made a list of most frequently used words in my Japanese class, at the top would be wakai** – said with that cutesy intonation that only the Japanese can pull off.
Although I’ve had plenty of bizarre and delightful interactions with Japanese people, I have spent the vast majority of my first month here in the company of other JETs. We’ve all been under the spell of what I’ve come to think of as the summer camp phenomenon. Nobody knows anybody else, so everyone is extra open to making friends. I think it’s beautiful. We’ve made a fresh start; all the habits and preconceptions that we carried around with us back home are gone. Friendships grow out of practically nothing. Spend a few minutes chatting with someone at a barbeque and you feel you’ve found your soulmate.
“Who are you replacing?” That’s a question I have become used to; it tends to occur very early in conversation with senior JETs. It reminds me of an article I read at university about rural Corsica, where it’s taboo to ask for someone’s name when you first meet them. Instead, you establish some point of commonality by turning up a mutual acquaintance. It’s like my predecessor is that tenuous connection between me and veteran JETs, an absent third party who helps us bridge the gap between being strangers and being friends. Maybe it does us some good to see the imprint that this person has left, the effect he or she has even after leaving Japan. I’m inspired to make the same kind of mark, however big or small, during my time here.