Much to my surprise, I seem to have discovered myself sulking with a Kirin Ichiban in a bar in the industrial outskirts of Tokyo with no return ticket. The barman peers over my to see me checking my webmail and asks
“You are a university Student?”
“You like Japan?”
I shrug. “Yeah, it’s all right I guess”
“You are here to study Japanese?”
If you want to travel on the University’s dime, it’s generally understood that you should devote your life to high-level language study and live somewhere for your year abroad. Then there’s my way. You can spend your time dicking around with microscopes and get sent half way round the world with no money, no skills and absolutely no prospect of coming home in the next 2 years. I belong to that rare cadre of people who want the stresses and schedule of a full-time job but with the financial security and sleep deprivation of being a student. I am, in short, a Post-Grad. As part of my PhD research, I was recently sent to Japan. Very recently. As in, like, 18 hours ago.
There’s a lot of things they don’t tell you about Japan. The hornets. The fog. The inability to find a full-sized bath towel. Then again there’s also a lot of things they do tell you about, but you still won’t be prepared. No matter how many times I was warned, I didn’t quite heed the warning that everything in Japan takes twice as long and involves three times as much paperwork as you ever thought possible. I paid the price heavily at Kanagawa ward office.
In order to live in Japan as a foreigner, you need to register for a Foreign Residence Card. To do this, you have to go to your local Ward office-a Kafka-esque nightmare of bureaucracy and bad carpet. I could feel my skin physically age whilst queuing to be allowed to join the queues. It was a kind of purgatory, but judging by the twinkling CasioTouch music piped in over the tannoy this was not God’s Waiting Room but rather His Elevator. The only relief from the incessant muzak was copying out my landing forms in triplicate-clearly I was being punished for my sloppiness and illegibility in the airport at 5:00AM. When my number was finally called, I groggily stumbled up to the counter.
“Are you number 383?”
“Yes, erm, hi?”
Note to self: never say “hai”.
Half an hour later, I was the proud owner of the exact same card I came in with, but now with a signature on the back. I wasn’t out of the woods yet. In order to pay my rent and key money, I need a Japanese bank account. In order to get a bank account I need a phone. However, without a bank account you cannot get a phone contract. It makes the Central Bureaucracy look efficient. The international program coordinator consoles me that “it’s just the way we Japanese do things” on the intervening train rides. By the third journey, I felt less convinced.
I was starting to feel like I’d made a terrible mistake. Can I face two years of queuing whilst orders are barked at me in a language I can barely understand? Do I want to eke out an existence drifting between bed, the lab and back to bed (more than I did already)? Am I really this commitment to rice and raw fish?
Disheartened, I pull into the bar nearest to my apartment and order a drink. I barely sit down before the jet-lag hits and I doze off. When I wake up, I find there are only three people left in the place. Which brings me back to my conversation to the barman.
“You are here to study Japanese?”
The silence mingles with stale cigarette smoke.
“Well” he eventually says, with a smile “You will have to learn”.
He calls over the other man, produces a plate of yakitori and sits down with us at the bar. For the next hour or so, my exhaustion and apprehension seem as far away as Liverpool itself. We drank, we laughed, we joked in broken English and even more broken Japanese. My friends for the evening were nothing but friendly and accommodating, genuinely keen for me to experience and enjoy their culture. It seemed then to have a lot to do with having another drink.
Eventually, though, we made our goodbyes. As I was about to leave, the barman turned to me and said.
“Please enjoy Japan”
I finished off my beer.
“I think I just might”.