Friday, September 17, 2010

Teresa D. Lee: Imperfect in Japan

Japan is a very embarrassing country.  Not the country itself, but living there provides one with many ready sources of personal shame.  This is a country where "different" and "wrong" can be expressed with the same word (chigau) and personal differences are very discouraged.  I myself was wrong on three counts -- foreign, outspoken female with weak personal grooming skills, and disabled.*

The following are a few of my most imperfect moments.


From my Live Journal, August 24th, 2005:

"The other two classes I missed were missed by all the new students staying in Akasaka because we went together to the Minato-ku ward office yesterday for our Gairoku (Alien Registration cards), and were thwarted by the Japanese bureaucracy. We got there at 9am, and most of us were there until 5 when the office closed. Some (like me) still didn't get applications processed because there was only one worker processing all 70 of us. But shouganai -- 'there's nothing we can do.' That's just how it happened to work out this year, no explanations for why only one person could help us when in the past Temple has had smaller groups processed by more than one worker.

Some of the others were complaining, but I really don't see the point of ranting because it isn't going to change anything. Japanese bureaucracy takes care of everyone eventually, there's just no flexibility or efficiency. Symbolic of this, I noticed the waiting area had a full snack shop (where I bought both breakfast and lunch), a crying room for babies, and a cradle with tiny futon where a baby could take a nap while his mother waited to be processed.  The main source of agony must remain, but otherwise everything will be made as convenient as possible."


I didn't stay in Akasaka for long because the walk to school from there was too hilly and difficult for me to do.  I can't ride a bicycle.  So, my disability forced the school to move me into a hotel only ten minutes away from the school instead of 40.  This was a half hour walk to school for me.

From my Live Journal, August 30th, 2005:

"And I was just very publicly sick in front of Japanese strangers, one of whom had been very nice to me, moved me in here and took me to dinner. What a night. I thought I could eat that last chicken/plum croquette, and she thought she was being nice to me by asking me to take it, since I didn’t really have lunch today after being late to school because I had to learn the hard way that I cannot walk to school from Akasaka for three hours everyday. I guess she learned one lesson and I learned two."

It's very dangerous to sacrifice yourself for the sake of politeness.  And very important to learn how to politely decline offers in a foreign language before going to a place.  Good thing the meal came with broth I had eaten eagerly and could return to its special little covered bowl after the plum/chicken croquette disagreed with my travel anxiety. 

The woman I was with made a joke reference to the episode at my expense a few days later in the school office, but I didn't see her again after that.  I like to think the administration found out the meaning of the joke and fired her.  Or she resigned in shame.  But it's petty of me to think her leaving was at all related to me.  Pettiness just brings a bit of schadenfreude to a stressful event.

I lived in a hotel with a nice restaurant, but I ate 7-11 carryout meals for the rest of the


There was a neighborhood festival outside the hotel I was living in.  I was nervous but wanted to watch from the sidelines.  They had a taiko drumming group, which was especially exciting to me since I played percussion in my high school's marching band.  As I watched the dancers act out a festival dance about the god of fortune in time with the music, an 8 year-old boy came over and started talking to me.  His name sounded like "Atadaima" and he said basic sentences, like "Do you speak Japanese?" and "Where do you live?" so quickly I barely understood. Then he brought me some candy from his collection, which I politely refused then accepted when he insisted. I declined again, though, when he and his brother came back with bigger snacks that looked like they might cost more.

They weren't buying my, "Iie, kekko desu" (No, I'm fine thank you), so I motioned and said "Daijoubu" (I'm okay, you're okay, no one's offended). This wasn't exactly the right expression, and it confused them, so they ran back to their dad. Then they came back and said "Daijoubu da nai!" (No, you're NOT okay!) and laughed as they kept offering me food. After I went to the street booths for some okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza-- pancake/omelette with eggs, cabbage, onions, ginger, mayo and something fishy), Atadaima sat next to me and asked me if I was having trouble using chopsticks. I told him that sushi is pretty easy to eat with chopsticks but okonomiyaki is hard. A few minutes later he asked me how old I was (22 at the time) then he and his brother offered me one of his dad's beers -- "Do you drink beer?"

We had a laugh and he invited me to sit with his family.  We watched the drummers and my festival family offered me some celery with sesame paste.  I'm sorry to say they got the impression I didn't like the snack, but the truth is I love sesame paste!  I just had never tasted it before, and the stuff looks kind of like peanut butter but tastes different. It caught me off guard and I made an unintentional face.  I was struggling for the right Japanese phrase to explain, and my hesitation before the lame phrase, "Salty flavor!" convinced them I didn't like it.  No more celery for me.

After a few performances, the band invited all the neighborhood children up to play the drums, plus me, the friendly neighborhood foreigner!  At first I was reluctant, but a woman whose English was better than my Japanese convinced me that it was okay and I should join in.  I was nervous at first but managed to focus enough to be exactly with the Japanese children on the other drums.  I played with proper technique and picked up the rhythms fairly quickly.  They asked me to play a second time and gave me prizes for participating.  Yet I declined when the crowd of adults applauded and asked me to play again a third time.  I loved Japan and wanted to befriend its people, but I am not a performing monkey. 

Atadaima's family continued to be friendly to me, asking me about my art major and just generally being nice.  He told me he loved Crayon Shinchan, which was kind of like hearing an elementary school student telling you he likes The Simpsons back in 1990 when not everyone's parents let them watch.  We laughed and his dad gave him a "Why, you little..." but indulging look. 

The festival broke up when it started to rain, but a lady named Hiruko walked me back to the door of the hotel.  I had an umbrella.  We exchanged names, I said, "Yoroshiku onegaishimasu," which literally means "please kindly take care of me.” It’s the second phrase of Japanese one learns to use on new acquaintances, but is used colloquially to mean something more like "nice to meet you."  "Onegaishimasu" is also a good phrase to use when you want someone to do your laundry for you (Japanese is all about context). When we reached the door, I said "Goodbye" and her face froze. 

I realized, after returning to my room, that I had just turned a new friend into a new enemy.  I was supposed to give her my umbrella!  She had kindly walked me to the door, and I left her to walk home in the rain, which other Japanese citizens I met later said was acidic and would make you go bald.  I sentenced this poor woman to BALDNESS because my umbrella was a special purse-sized one with a push button release and I wasn't sure what I would do if I didn't get it back!  Hey, it was a nice umbrella!  But this happened in a country where plastic umbrellas are only 100 yen (about a dollar) and people generally return them even to total strangers who left them in train stations. 

I saw Atadaima again a few months later as I squeezed against a wall while he and his peers carried a child-sized festival shrine past me.  We exchanged wide eyed looks, and I wondered if he was as embarrassed as I was.


From my Live Journal, September 3rd, 2005:

"I think I know just enough Japanese to get myself into trouble. I prepare one or two sentences, so people might think I know what I’m doing, then they start talking and while I mostly understand them, I can't usually continue the conversation. Which is what happened the other night at dinner when I stumbled through the doorway curtains of a sushi bar at the top floor of a Shinjuku mall.  Making matters worse, I couldn't read enough of the menu and even when they brought me an English version it didn't help.  I also think they didn’t believe I knew what I was talking about when I ordered sashimi.

The chef kept laughing and I think the two businessmen at the bar were taking bets on whether I could eat what I ordered or not.  The experience eventually devolved into me naming a fish, the chef pretending not to understand me until I pointed to a picture of it and repeated the word, and the chef finally making a single roll of it.  This was all wrong, but I was afraid to order one of the nice sets in the pictures because some of them cost 50,000 yen and I might have to specifically name each fish and I didn't know how to form the list grammatically.

I got nervous, so I asked about the bill (expecting a rough estimate). All the chefs huddled together and did the math, pencil and paper, fish by fish. I turned red, but was relieved to find it was only about 1,500 yen. So I ordered two more things and then left after paying and getting fussed at by the older hostess to not forget to close both buckles on my purse. "

Another situation in a sushi bar happened towards the end of the trip.  I stayed out all night with my friend Michael in Roppongi until the trains stopped and then started running again at 5am.  We knew we could never get up that early, but we wanted to see the Tsukiji fish market so we pulled an all-nighter.  You have to be there well before 7 to get the best sushi breakfast in the world.  It was well worth standing in line for half an hour outside the restaurant, and even worth the embarrassment of causing a scene because you don't understand why the chef and cashier want you to exit through the kitchen in back rather than using the front door you came in through.  With a few cries of "Demo -- d-demo -- DEMO!" ["But but BUT!!!"], I was taken by the shoulders and forcibly ejected into the back alley as Michael paid for our food.  I now know how Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp felt, but I'm louder and more obnoxious.


The final week of my year abroad was spent in Kyoto, and I was lucky to be able to go on a tour through a medieval samurai mansion which was built with many counter-espionage devices like trapdoors beneath a Noh theater stage, wall panels that flip to conceal guards, and ledges where guards can hide to catch intruders from above.  It was the most interesting place I saw in Japan, but the second half of the tour took place upstairs.  The stairs were steep and had no railing, so I couldn't follow the tour group, and I was frustrated because there was at least an hour left on the tour. 

My friend's boyfriend Ryu said I should climb on his back, and he would carry me up the stairs to catch up with the group.  He went quickly, and we were halfway up the stairs when -- RIIIIIIP!

My elbow was sticking out, and busted right through a historic paper window.  Just like in every cartoon ever about foreigners in Japan.  Didn't Cato bust through a paper room divider in one of the Pink Panther movies?  But I wasn't thrown; I just stuck out an elbow.  I gasped, "Oh no!" and Ryu froze for a moment.  "We break those all the time.  We just won't say anything.  It'll be okay." But I will never know whether it was still ok after I returned home.


I love Japan, but I think I’m too clumsy and self-centered to live there.

* I have a rare form of a common neuromuscular disease, thank you for asking.  Let's just say I'm one of Jerry's kids and a lifetime member of the Ministry of Silly Walks.

** 7-11 is a bit healthier in Japan than it is in the US, selling full bento boxes with meat and vegetables over rice or noodles. And stranger things like hot dogs with soba noodles wrapped around them or spaghetti with squid ink... but meals, you know? It's not a gas station pit stop so much as a neighborhood family support post.

Teresa D. Lee is alternately proud of and embarrassed by her Wapanese heritage.  When she isn't found volunteering at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco or fangirling it up at comedy shows, she jokes on Twitter and is rebuilding her website at while planning for new adventures.


  1. Great stories Theresa. Well done. I've lived through the same types of embarrassments in Japan. At one awkward party, a geisha said I couldn't leave unless I kissed her. I was only 19 and she must have been 50! I convinced her that in America, men kiss women on the hand, And I escaped that way.

  2. So *that's* what happened to Hiruko! I was wondering! The previous Monday, the streets were alive with calls of "Lookin' good, Hiruko-chan!" By Friday, people would shamefully avert their eyes and wonder why they were suddenly thinking about Lotney Fratelli.

    I always enjoy reading your stories about Japan. My favourite, of course, being the strange hypnagogic vision of seeing yourself on television. I like to imagine that, if it were a film, the television station's watermark in the corner of the screen would contain the stylized TDL letter E or sum sign you use.

    It makes me feel awkward to speak in slogans like "Keep writing!" or "Huzzah for creativity!", but these *are* what I feel, and I am happy to see this page!

  3. Aww, thanks guys! Yeah. I want to come back to these and expand on them. And re-write the tv story that isn't here. And add another omitted one about an encounter with a jazz singer visiting the hotel I was living in.

  4. I lived in Japan for a year myself and really enjoyed returning in my head through your piece, Teresa. Going to send this one along to my Mom -- she'll enjoy the trip back in time herself!