Category Archives: Tokyo

It’s hot

Japan has four seasons. The rainy season is called a season, but does not impact the fact that Japan Has Four Seasons. A vehement shaking of the head.

In winter we remind each other as often as we can that it’s cold. Yes, it’s cold today. It was cold yesterday. Yes, it’s cold. Is your country this cold in winter? Well . . . probably a little colder, but then, we do have central heating, and that makes getting up in the morning a completely different experience.

The rainy season . . . it’s raining. Yes, I know, it’s the rainy season. Oh, the humidity has started. It’s humid today, isn’t it? Is your country humid? No, not like this. Ah, I thought so.

Now, I know that this is an important part of social interaction; we exchange non-threatening small talk about the weather, we agree, we feel better for having agreed and we go on our way.  But in all this, I am reminded of a scene from years and years ago on Fawlty Towers, when Sybil is badgering Basil about something, and he goes away muttering about Mastermind, and ‘Sybil Fawlty, subject, the bleeding obvious’. I do realise that if you’re not British I may have lost you with that last cultural reference, but anyway, moving swiftly on . . .

It’s hot. It’s humid. And while we may be taking part in the great social interaction and confirming widely-believed facts, part of me wants to say, yes, I know, and talking about it just draws our attention to it, surely? Except, I am feeling so wrung-out in the heat that I don’t have the energy to point that out.

It’s hot and humid, did I mention that?

Just as in winter, there are a number of nifty little ideas that Japanese people have used for many years to try to keep cool. Of course, most people have air conditioning at home, and certainly in shops and on trains the AC is quite ferocious, but there are other ways to try to keep cool too.

Wherever you go you will see people fanning themselves. Many people carry a folding fan in their bag or pocket, shops and other businesses often give out the non-folding type as promotional goods, and where neither are available people will use whatever they have to fan themselves; a book, a newspaper, a small towel or their hand. I first starting using a fan in summer when I lived in China, and remember taking several back to the UK because I liked the designs so much. Once I put one in my bag and on a particularly hot day pulled it out to use it and was met by incredulous looks from the people around me. I put it back in my bag and decided that was behaviour best confined to Asia. These days I have a fan in my school bag, one in my handbag, and at least one more at home. When my students pick up their textbook and employ it as a fan instead of the teaching tool it is meant to be, I don’t bat an eye. Go ahead, student! You keep cool any way you can. It’s hot and humid today, isn’t it?

While almost all of us enjoy sitting around in air-conditioned comfort at home, conventional wisdom dictates that sleeping with the AC on is A Very Bad Thing. No good will come of it, you will catch a cold and we shall all roll our eyes knowingly. The appropriate way to sleep on a hot summer night is to use an electric fan, which is surprisingly effective. There are cooling ice pillows (‘cooling’ seeming to be an understatement, what do you think is going to happen if you sleep with your head on a giant ice-cold gel pack?) and the excellently-named towelket. This is the hybrid offspring of a towel and a blanket (I’m sure you’d already figured that one out for yourself), which you use instead of a duvet in summer. I must admit that I don’t use all these things; I have a fan, but sometimes I wake up around 4:30 when the sun is coming up and switch to the AC. No good will come of it, I’m sure.

Summer in Japan also means insects. In most places you would think that that is obvious; hot weather bringing out all kinds of creepy crawlies which we dispose of in a variety of ways. If you’re thinking of mosquitoes and cockroaches, of course, we do the same in Japan. But there are other insects which are greeted with delight. Children go out looking for these mini beasts and carry them home triumphantly. Failing that, you can buy one in a department store, along with its own plastic box and the strange gel it likes to eat.

Last summer I was in Yamanashi on a school trip. On the last day, the Japanese teacher and I found some kind of stag beetle which we knew her young son would like. Between us we picked it up, carried it back to the cottage we were staying in, put it in a plastic box with a slice of Japanese pear, gerry-rigged a net used to catch organic waste in the sink over the box to contain the beetle but allow it to breathe, secured said net with dental floss, and at some point on the bus journey between Yamanashi and Tokyo even named it. It made it back to Tokyo, where my colleague continued to feed it and tend to its needs for several days. It expired before her son returned from his grandparents’ house, but not before she had put considerable energy into its care.

stagbeetleThe cicadas also are an important part of summer, their incredibly loud noise being part of the soundscape. In the last few days I have heard the first ones start up, and they will continue until some time in September.

cicadaAdding to the soundscape in my neighbourhood, of course, is my neighbour’s fondness for wind chimes. We have already had the great cacophony that is the full-on five-chime experience. Friends on Facebook have suggested a variety of remedies but since I do not possess Spiderman-like skills to scale the front of their house and make it up to the second floor to cut the things down, nor can I legally arm myself and take potshots at them (either the chimes or the neighbours) I can only close my windows, turn the AC on and try to ignore the sounds that I can still hear. How they find it relaxing I just don’t know.

The are other traditional Japanese responses to summer. I was in the supermarket today and saw a lot of people buying giant wedges of watermelon. A mobile phone shop was tempting people to stop and find out about some new service by offering free bottles of ramune, a traditional Japanese soda. I saw variety packs of small fireworks on sale in a local shop, which seems to me to be all wrong, since fireworks to a British person mean November 5th, Guy Fawkes, baked potatoes and bonfires, but I suppose to American and French people do mean summer celebrations. There will be giant firework dispays put on by different wards in Tokyo over the summer and people will buy these variety packs to have fun at home, which again creates alarm in me, a British person raised on public service announcements every autumn about the dangers of fireworks and why you should be very careful with them at home.

I have twice seen people at the station or on the train wearing yukata, lightweight summer kimono made of cotton. A few days ago I saw this teenage girl waiting for a train at my local station

stationyukataand today I sat across from this man as he snoozed gently.

summergarb2Alternatively you could go for this all-pink ensemble I saw this morning:

summergarb1Here I sit in air-conditioned comfort (though I must say I am being ecologically responsible and have it set at 28 degrees). I feel a little hypocritical writing of the long, hot, humid summer stretching ahead of us, no relief until probably the end of September. I fly back to the UK on Tuesday. When I get back in August the heat, humidity, insects, will all still be here, but I will have a break from it all.

But have you heard about the British summer?  Sometimes it rains all the time and it isn’t very warm. Then again, it’s been too hot recently. But in my country? No, there’s no humidity, the insects are smaller and we certainly don’t keep them as pets.

I am looking forward to my summer holiday, but I shall miss Japan too; my life is here. It will be good to have a break, visit family and friends, re-charge my batteries, remind myself again just how lucky I am to be European and be able to hop around to other countries easily. But it will be good to come home again.

Wherever you are, I hope you have a wonderful summer.


My neighbour Tokyo

neighboursTokyo is a huge, crowded city. Not so enormous that you can’t walk around it in a day, but full of millions of people. It’s easy to feel small, isolated, lost. It can also take a long time to make Japanese friends. I’ve written about this before; I don’t think it’s unreasonable on the part of any Japanese person to take their time getting to know someone, and in fact think that British people are exactly the same. Neither culture displays the same ready friendliness someone from North America would. It’s easy to think this is some kind of closed-off, unfriendly attitude on behalf of Japanese people in general, especially when you first arrive and really want to get to know people.

I came to Japan after living in China, where the business of making friends is completely different. In Chinese it’s quite normal to announce the formation of a friendship not long after meeting someone: 交朋友吧? (Jiao pengyou ba? Shall we be friends?) Together you agree to a friendship, you are now friends.

In most countries it doesn’t work like that, and certainly not in Japan. I have a lot of wonderful Japanese friends, but I’ve been here over twenty years. That is not to say that Japanese people haven’t always been friendly, but friends? That took a while. I’ve made this point before, but I will say it again; Japanese people are the same with each other. In cities, houses and apartments are small, it is not common to invite someone into your home. People meet in cafes, bars or restaurants instead.

My nearest neighbours are not friendly at all. In fact, I would categorise them as Not Friendly and also Somewhat Antisocial. Although our buildings are only a couple of metres apart, someone plays the piano after 11pm quite regularly, I can often hear someone using a hairdryer at 2am, and I have seen their adult son try to start a fight in the street because a delivery truck was trying get past his parked car. Now that summer is here, they delight in wind chimes. One wind chime can be a pleasant sound, an occasional gentle tinkling on a hot day. My neighbours work on the principle that more is more, and quite regularly line up five or six to ring manically in a strong breeze. The man of the house likes nothing better on a Sunday afternoon than to go out into the narrow road and practise his baseball pitching by bouncing the ball against the wall. They appear to love loud, repetitive sounds. It can be annoying, but since I have seen evidence of their very un-Japanese willingness to be confrontational I have never said anything. By contrast, the family who live at the end of the road are always friendly and greet me whenever I walk past. When one member of the family inadvertently watered me along with her flowers one day she even spoke English to offer a mortified apology.

The shops in my neighbourhood are always friendly. If I go into the small drugstore next to the station and buy cold medicine I will receive a handful of cough drops too. The employees in the tiny post office are more helpful than their counterparts in my local post office in the UK. Even the people in the convenience stores, working early and late shifts and sometimes not seeing me for weeks on end are  smiley and sometimes stop for a chat. I know it’s not the same as other countries. Most shops in neighbourhoods, even in a city like Tokyo, are still locally-run, and apart from the convenience stores they are not usually part of a chain. They all know their customers.

So this is my neighbourhood. The shopkeepers are friendly, but my neighbours are a mixed bag. Some greet me, others do not. I don’t know their names, they don’t know mine. Apparently the police will have checked with them when I applied for permanent residence, and no one torpedoed my chances. I must be doing all right separating my rubbish and have not alarmed anyone with overt displays of antisocial behaviour (unlike my immediate neighbours, I may add).

My brother lived in an apartment in London for a number of years, and every summer I stayed with him for a few days. I saw other people in the building but apart from a nodded hello I never spoke to them. I don’t know how much my brother knew them either. This is big city life in a country where the people are naturally reserved. It could be Tokyo, but it could also be London. People are busy, they spend their days on crowded trains and working hard. Of course we all want a little space, somewhere we can retreat to.

It takes time to make friends here, but the ones I have made are truly wonderful. I’m happy in my neighbourhood and with my neighbours, although I am slightly wary of the ones right next door. I appreciate being allowed to have my own little bubble in the heart of this great city.

The train stopped suddenly and . . .

On Monday I wasn’t working and had arranged to meet a friend in Komagome. The easiest way to get there was to take the Yamanote line halfway round Tokyo; a chance to watch the city whizz past for thirty minutes. I was plugged into music and enjoying the view, when the train  stopped suddenly just outside Tokyo station. Within a few seconds the conductor made an announcement that someone had pressed the emergency button on the platform and we had to wait until we could continue. We waited a few minutes and then another announcement was made; this time the conductor said that we would continue into the station. He added that the reason for the delay had been someone getting their bag trapped in a train door. As the train started to move I heard two men standing behind me say that they had thought there had been a suicide. I’m sure most of the passengers had the same thought; I know I had.

The awful reality is that the suicide rate in Japan is very high, and jumping in front of a train is one of the ways people use to end their life. The statistics are heartbreaking. Last year the statistics dropped just below 30,000 for the first time in years; the population of Japan is about 126,000,000. The rate is one of the highest in the world. It’s easy to track down all kinds of statistics on the Internet, but rather than focus on them I would like to write about how my life has been touched by suicide in Japan.

When I first came to Japan in 1991 I worked at a small language school and while I was there I became friends with one of the Japanese women who worked in the office. She told me about her father. When she was in her teens her father got into financial difficulties at work. One day he went to a station where only local trains stopped, managed to get off the platform and wait by the tracks, and when an express train came through he ran out in front of it. She told me that not long after the funeral the train company approached the family requiring compensation for the disruption to their business. She didn’t know how much it had been, but her mother told her it was ‘a lot of money’; I assume that meant millions of yen. She also told me that for the rest of school and college she had to use that same train line and went through the station where her father had killed himself every day.

A few years later I was in Chiba, working at a private high school. One morning at the staff meeting it was announced that a student in the 12th grade had committed suicide. His parents had been going through a divorce, and he had gone back to Sapporo where the family was from, and jumped from the fourteenth floor of a building. While the staff were all told, the general student population was not. His classmates certainly knew. For a while there was a vase on the desk he had used, containing the flowers specifically used on graves. It was right in the middle of the classroom, and every time I walked past I felt sad. I can’t imagine what the other students in the class were going through.

Several years ago, the husband of another Japanese friend had a stroke, and after a number of months in hospital he died. She had been busy going to the hospital while he was alive, and after his death she stayed at home. She sounded depressed in the messages I received from her, but the death of a close relative is hard and I thought she was going through the grieving process. How wrong I was. She killed herself. I attended the wake; it was at the same place we had gone to pay our respects to her husband not so long before.

I have often wondered if I could have done something. If I had gone to her house and knocked on the door, just checked in on her. I’m sure others felt the same. After every suicide there must be people asking themselves how things could have been different.

When I was at university I was clinically depressed. It lasted for about two years and even now, over twenty years later, I can still remember a little of how it felt. I remember feeling that my heart was cold, like a stone, I saw no colour or joy in life, I had to use all my energy just to function each day. I had to see my doctor every week, and before he wrote a new prescription for more anti-depressants he would ask me if I had thought about suicide. He never said it like that, he would ask me, ‘Have you had any thoughts about hurting yourself?’ and of course I said no. He wouldn’t write the prescription if I said yes.

My truthful answer would have been, ‘No, but . . . ‘ I was clinically depressed. Of course I thought about it. I didn’t think about actually killing myself, but the ideation was there. Every day was such a struggle, I was so exhausted from just keeping going, and the only relief from that long, dark tunnel was sleep. So no, I didn’t think about killing myself, but if I could just go to sleep and not wake up and have to deal with another day and then another, that didn’t seem so bad.

When someone is physically ill, it’s all right to talk about it. When someone is depressed, or dealing with another kind of mental illness, there is still so much stigma attached, it’s not so easy. I understand some of how that feels. I completed my last two years at university while I was depressed and hardly anyone knew. Somehow I fooled everyone, but it was hard. I don’t really have much memory of that time; I know I went to classes, handed in work and passed my exams, but beyond that I don’t really remember much. There probably isn’t much to remember, I think I was just getting by.

I still remember how it feels. I can’t imagine the horror, the weight of the depression, that leads someone to feel they have only one option left. I am thankful, tremendously so, that I never reached that point. In Japan, so many people do.

Anyone who takes the train in Tokyo knows that feeling. Waiting on a platform, travelling on a train, the announcement comes of a ‘jinshin jiko’ (人身事故) or ‘human accident’. It could refer to someone who has fallen off a platform (drunken salarymen, we’re looking at you), it could be a misguided individual who has somehow got themselves onto the tracks, but really, we all know. In the majority of cases, it’s a kind of code. There’s been a suicide. Someone finally couldn’t see any other option, and a life has ended. It’s a time to stop, to send out a prayer for all the people who will be affected by the heartbreaking news about to come their way.

Senzokuike shrine