October 01, 2005
Japan, 1985 - Conclusion
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This is not the conclusion to my looks back to twenty years ago, but rather the conclusion to the story of how I came here in the first place. As you'll recall from my previous two posts, I found out about teaching in Japan during a summer trip in 1985, and later was contacted by the YMCA, who then sent me the wrong info about how to get a visa.
So on Monday, October 7th, I set off on my journey. I would rather have taken a direct flight to Seoul on Korean Airlines and then a quick jump from Seoul to Tokyo (Korean had no direct SF-Tokyo flights), but the ticket I had bought was non-changeable. (It had to be Korean because after the 1983 downing of Korean Air flight 007, their prices were very low and their service great, so I preferred that airline.) I had, in fact, paid more for the multi-leg ticket, on the YMCA's advice.
So the airplane trip began, the longest I have ever taken, and an outstanding example of why I now demand direct flights. The first leg was not even Korean Air, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I'm pretty sure it was PSA, the fun airline that used to paint smiles on the front of their planes. I recall the pilot cracking jokes before take-off ("I'd like to request that the flight attendant move out of the aisle so I can see out the rear window"), and on landing ("If you enjoyed your trip, remember you are on PSA flight 274. If you did not enjoy your flight, then remember you are on South West flight 781").
At Los Angeles, I switched to a Korean Air Flight to Seoul with a layover in Anchorage. By the time we arrived at Anchorage, I had run out of reading material and still faced many hours ahead on the trip. I went to the kiosk at the airport (it was late at night, so the regular fully-stocked book store was not open), but could not find much that I would like to read. The only thing I could find was a Playboy magazine with articles that seemed of interest. (It was a near-empty flight, no adjacent passengers to offend.) Now, I'm not saying I never bought that particular magazine for the pictorials, but I swear to God, this time I really, actually did buy it for the articles. In fact, I didn't even think of it as pornography, but as reading material--which is why I took no special care hiding it deep in my carry-on. When I was finished reading (stop snickering), I just laid it on top of everything else in the bag and closed it.
And so set up my rather interesting entry into Japan.
You see, Japan has always had rather interesting pornography laws, in that you could show bare breasts on prime-time television, but you could not show pubic hair anywhere. It was strictly verboten. And don't even ask about genitalia. Severe violence and sexual situations were all fine in practically any media, but that one specific place always had to be airbrushed out. Now, Playboy was no Hustler in those days, but even it was in excess of what Japan's laws would allow.
So by the time I arrived in Tokyo, after more than six hours sitting in Seoul Airport, and after the trip that lasted more than a day, I was dead tired and still had quite a bit of traveling left to do. I had put away the magazine when we were pulling into Seoul maybe 8 hours earlier and had completely forgotten about it. And so I sauntered up to customs unaware of the trouble I was about to get into.
Sure enough, the customs agent asked me to open the carry-on, and out popped the Playboy. As the agent picked up the magazine, I remembered the Japanese laws and realized I was in trouble. So I automatically switched to stupid-gaijin mode with the agent, who could not speak English. Kore wa dame! he told me, holding up the magazine. I played dumb, as if not understanding that he told me the magazine was not good. I hoped he would just take the magazine, put it into a drawer, and wave me on. But this guy was insistent. When I feigned ignorance, he wanted to show me exactly why the magazine was no good. So he opened the magazine and started looking for a photo with the offending patch of hair.
Comically enough, he couldn't find one. He tried the centerfold, no luck; he riffed through many pages, landing all too often on pages with text or photos that would not serve as an example. Meanwhile, a line started backing up behind me as the agent searched more and more intently through the Playboy. Finally, he found a page with what he wanted. Kore! he exclaimed triumphantly, pointing at the model's nether region. Kore wa dame! This part is not good!
It took every ounce of my self-restraint not to switch into my basic Japanese and tell him that it was, in fact, very good! Somehow I kept a straight face, nodding sagely, saying, "Ah!" to show I now understood. Then the agent got his assistant to take over while the agent walked me to the men's room at the back corner of the luggage claim area, where he showed me a trash can styled like a mail box, so that you could not reach in and get anything out. He then handed me the magazine and gestured for me to drop it in, which of course I did. Crisis resolved, and he let me go.
So I left the airport, got to Ueno station by the Skyliner (a different trip back then), transferred to JNR to get to Shinjuku, from where I caught the express train to the Japan Sea coast, and Toyama city. I seem to recall that I arrived there early evening Japan time, and after my bags got stowed, the gang immediately took me out to have yakitori at Akiyoshi, a restaurant chain from Fukui which I still frequent today.
Soon afterwards, I was introduced to my apartment (a bare-concrete-walled 6-mat room with a unit bath and a hallway kitchenette, with no windows except the balcony doors, and was soon to be overcome by mold) and my job. It offered a minimal salary--210,000 yen a month, plus 40,000 yen for the apartment rent. And the Y never compensated me for the extra few hundred bucks that the longer-flight ticket cost me, despite the fact that they not only caused me that excess expense but very nearly cost me much, much more. I wanted to rant at them, but it being my first time living and working in Japan and wanting to build a good relationship with my employer--not to mention that they made it clear they would never pay--I decided not let it go. Alas, that was not my last problem with that particular branch or its management at the time. Like when they ripped me off on the apartment's key money (they said I would pay "half," but didn't tell me that I was paying the non-refundable half while they paid the refundable deposit--though they made me move when I left their employ, retaining ownership of the lease), or when they essentially stole $700 I made teaching on a side job ("Thank you for the donation"), or when they threatened to deport me when I complained about the lost wages. I could make a whole other blog post about it, but I probably won't.
After one and a half years with the Y, I left to go full-time (if only for six months) with evening classes at a local 2-year public college, and company classes. Though I worked only a few hours a day (the YMCA had me on morning to night, with lots of idle time with nothing to do), I made a lot more than the Y ever had paid me. But I couldn't get local visa sponsorship after the end of the second year in Japan, and so went to Tokyo, where I found a job for the next three years. It was after the fifth year that I decided it was about time I went back to get my A.A. and my B.A. I had also found out from my first few years in Toyama that if one could get a job at a university, the salary and working conditions were excellent--and thus began my initial interest in living in Japan permanently. That, more than anything else, was the life-changing part of that first few years in Japan, which stemmed from the initial offer to work there.
I got my B.A. in 1992, went back to Japan until 1995, when I returned again to get my M.A. in TESOL. In 1998 I came back for good. There's another story about my arrival, but it's not a 20th anniversary thing, so maybe later.
In the next post of this series, I'll get back to the original topic, which was about what things were like in Japan back then--don't worry, I didn't forget. I just thought it would be appropriate to preface that with the story of how I got there. Seeing how this story has fleshed out, I'm beginning to think that the original post idea will not be nearly as meaty... but I'll try.
Posted by: Sean P. Aune at October 1, 2005 05:10 PM
Posted by: ykw at October 2, 2005 04:06 AM
Posted by: Claus at October 4, 2005 11:32 PM
Posted by: David H. at October 8, 2005 12:19 AM
Posted by: Me at October 8, 2005 02:15 AM