An American in Japan

Eight years after I went to Spain, another opportunity to live abroad came up – this time in Japan.  The thought of going that far away, both geographically and culturally, was definitely nerve-wracking, but instead of having to talk myself into it, I wanted to go.

I was in a much different place at 28 than I was at 19, and the circumstances of this trip were exponentially easier than those involved with my study abroad semester. I was married, and my (then) husband had an opportunity to work for a year in Hamamatsu, a coastal city of about 800,000 midway between Tokyo and Osaka. He had lived in Japan previously and was reasonably competent with the language, and his employer would essentially handle the details; all I had to do was agree to go. I had been teaching high school English for three years at that point, and the plan was for me to try to find a job at a language school.

So we did it — put all of our possessions in storage, sold our cars, and rented out our house. As I would have expected, the journey to Japan and the first couple of weeks were a little rocky, but as I noted in the journal that I kept that year, I understood that this early rough stage would not last forever.

(I had completely forgotten that I even kept a journal, and was ecstatic after unearthing it while doing research for this blog entry.  I had captured everyday moments like this: “Yesterday we set up the apartment and fought with the washing machine. It’s pretty hard to know what’s wrong when you can only read a small part of the manual.”)

Shortly after we arrived, I found work at the Four Seasons Language School teaching English in a variety of locations.  Some classes took place at the Four Seasons building, about 15 minutes from our apartment, while others required driving to a wide range of settings: a kindergarten housed at a Shinto temple 45 minutes outside the city, a junior high school about 30 minutes away, and several more local places, including an all-girls Catholic high school, a junior college, and two businesses. 

I got off to quite a start.  My first day I was asked to give a brief introductory speech to the students at the all-girls high school.  When I got there, I was given slippers to change into in the lobby (as is customary in homes, schools, and businesses), and then escorted to the gym, which was stifling hot and packed. 

The nun running the school spoke to the girls for a minute or two, several times mentioning “Susan-sensei.”  Then she motioned for me to come to the stage and said, “Berry clothes.” 

Hmm, I thought.  Berry clothes? 

Oh!  Very close!  As in, speak very close to the microphone. 

Then she said, “In the middle.” 


Oh!  She wants me to move. 

I shuffled to the middle of the stage in my slippers.  Thankfully I didn’t kick them off, as I had already done twice in the previous ten minutes.

I mumbled “Good morning,” then paused and looked at the microphone because I wasn’t sure I was speaking loud enough. 

The gym teacher in the front row must have thought I was waiting for a response because he shouted something harsh, and the next thing I knew, hundreds of girls were bowing to me in unison, saying, “Good morning, Susan-sensei!” I instinctively bowed back, which I’m sure was the wrong thing to do, and launched into my little prepared speech. 

There was no telling how many girls understood what I was saying because I was using words like “colleagues” and “unfortunately” (I’m not sure what I was talking about that was unfortunate, but this is what I wrote in my journal); in any case, I counted the event as a win because I finished without fainting or unknowingly throwing out insults, both of which seemed like real possibilities.

Driving was another intimidating task I faced at the beginning. 

Japanese road sign

My husband and I purchased a used car shortly after we got to Japan, as well as a scooter that I would use to get back and forth to Four Seasons.  I had been practicing driving on the left side of the road, but was far from confident.  I would be doing the driving for work in a car provided by the school, and I was worried about the street signs, most of which were written in a combination of English and three Japanese alphabets: I had mastered two of the three. Attempting to read street signs I had a two-thirds chance of understanding while overriding muscle memory to drive on the right side of the road was, well, exciting!

A few weeks into my teaching job, I got severely lost on my way to a class at a local company. Over the course of two hours, I stopped for directions three times (it was 1997, pre-Smartphones), landed on an expressway, where I accidentally barreled through the entry toll without taking a ticket, headed in the opposite direction from where I needed to go, was chastised by a toll collector, and called Four Seasons twice to get help, once from a payphone on the side of the road and once from the control room of the toll station — chaperoned by the disgusted toll collector. Needless to say, my class had to be cancelled.

Coworkers Rieko (striped shirt) and
Kanami (tan sweater) saved me from
disaster on the highway

Even in trying situations like this, it all just felt so much easier than when I was in Spain. I wasn’t living alone, and I had much more support from the amazing ladies at my school and from the circle of friends I developed there.  Being a little bit older also gave me perspective that any rough patches were temporary and occasionally even amusing. 

As a result, I was able to enjoy what I was seeing and learning, and the rewards of the trip were even greater than they had been in Spain.

I was able to get a window into Japan through my work.  My students ranged in age from five to eighty, and I was teaching mostly conversation classes, so we spent a lot of time just talking about life. We had many discussions about cultural differences between Japan and America that I found fascinating.  There was also a custom for students to throw welcome parties and goodbye parties for teachers, so I had an opportunity to go out to restaurants and even karaoke with my adult students on a number of occasions. 

Overall, the year worked out better than I ever could have hoped. I eventually learned how to speak Japanese well enough to communicate and to get around on my own. We were able to travel some within Japan and saw so many pretty things — rock gardens, temples, bridges, and gates, often times unexpected pockets of beauty in an otherwise dreary, cement landscape. I also found that I loved the simplicity of Japanese design, furnishings, and artwork. But what touched me most, and what stays with me as I look back, were the people. I developed some great friendships, several of which extended long beyond our time in Japan.

Many of the people I worked with, and especially a coworker who I recently learned passed away last fall, represented the best of Japan — they were patient, gracious, hard-working, kind, and soft spoken yet strong-willed. They were curious. They loved to laugh. More than 20 years later, these are the things that I remember and value most about this incredible experience. I can see that more than “kinda clearly.”

Teaching a kids class at Four Seasons with my coworker and friend Keiko
Dinner and karaoke with my evening class
The wonderful ladies in my Tuesday morning class
Kindergarten class at the Shinto temple
Welcome party with Yamaha businessmen
They called me Speed Racer
Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) in Kyoto
Floating torii gate in Miyajima, built in 1168, a mere 800 years before my birth
Visiting cherished Hamamatsu friends Kevin and Ingrid in Canada several years after we all returned from Japan
Keiko visiting us in Boston in fall of 2000
My favorite rock garden

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