The other day I popped down to the local police station, for it was time to renew my driving license. The procedure was simple enough. I filled in a form with my personal details and answered a short questionnaire. By means of leaving boxes unchecked, I assured the nice people at the police station that doctors hadn’t told me not to drive, that I wasn’t in the habit of suddenly passing out and other such indicators that I might be a danger behind the wheel. I liked their faith in honesty, but I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had ever checked those boxes.
I handed in my forms and waited for half an hour or so, as those who had arrived before me were called up to have their eyes checked and pay their renewal fees. I knew when it was my turn before they even called my name because a couple of staff members were having a discussion and looking puzzled. I recognised them as katakana illiterates, and as they looked up, about to give my name a go, I was already standing in front of them. I said my name for them and they smiled and gave me my eye test.
Then it was time to wait until I could have my photo taken for the new licence. I was sent to the corner of the police station, where a video was playing on a loop. It was a driving safety video, warning us to wear our seat belts, drive within the speed limits, not to drink and drive and all the other sensible pieces of advice you should heed when operating a motor vehicle. We heard an interview with someone whose child had been killed in a road accident and were shown what would happen to us if our car hit a wall even at a moderate speed. It could have been quite the depressing film, but thankfully our narrator was a cartoon bunny rabbit to keep it all cheery. It reminded me of the Tufty Club in Britain. That was hugely successful and employed a cartoon squirrel. But then again, that was aimed at teaching children under the age of five how to cross the road. I’m not sure it’s quite as necessary to employ the cute friend technique when informing grown-ups how best to avoid death on the roads. When the rabbit appeared on screen after a demonstration of crash test dummies hurtling through windscreens, I kept quiet. I wasn’t sure when the appropriate time to say ‘Kawaii!’ was.
The other day I ended up on one of those trains you always see on telly programmes about Japan. You know the ones; the ones where passengers are crammed in so tightly that they are forced to breathe each other’s hair. It wasn’t pleasant. I was forced to rub crotches with an oily-faced businessman who found himself resting his head upon my shoulder. We were, in effect, sharing an armless hug. I was relieved when he managed to somehow negotiate his way off the train, but then became alarmed as his place was taken by a schoolgirl in uniform. Strange as it may seem, having a schoolgirl next to you on a crowded train is worse than having a salaryman with a penchant for kimuchi-nattou breakfasts. For when you are forced against your will to press upon a schoolgirl in a train, you find yourself desperately hoping that all other passengers can see your hands way up there on the hand straps, fingers wiggling to attract attention. ‘I am not a groper,’ you hope they convey. ‘All frottage is entirely unwanted and unintentional.’ Nevertheless, I found myself terrified that someone else, someone nearby, might be a groper and the girl might mistake his hand for mine. She looked scared enough as it was, but more so when she caught my eye and I attempted a reassuring smile. ‘Shit, I’ve creeped her out,’ I thought. But there was nothing I could do. You can’t lean into someone on a crowded train and whisper, ‘It’s okay, I’m definitely not a molester.’ Not without arousing deep suspicion that you almost certainly are. So we struggled along, she bracing herself for the worst, I doing elaborate finger dances and squirming with every awkward carriage shunt. My stop arrived and I pushed my way off the train. I was red-faced and sweating and the picture of innocent guilt. I wished there had been a ladies-only carriage. They are doubly good, I realized. Primarily, of course, they protect the women from unwanted hands. But as a bonus they take away the fear that can accompany a regular man just trying to get from A to B.
Well, yesterday, I spent my time reading Baye Mcneil’s second book Loco In Yokohama, and what a pleasant day it was! This book, I had heard, was about teaching in Japan and, as someone who has spent the best part of two decades doing just that, I was looking forward to seeing how our experiences compared. The characters and situations are familiar to anybody who has spent time working in Japanese schools – there are English teachers who can’t speak English, staff with breath to make a badger wince, and overreactions to the slightest of misfortunes as happened to Loco when he foolishly mentioned that he had misplaced a memory stick – but the book isn’t just about teaching in Japan. No, for me it is much more a book about human relationships and it is an excellent and absorbing one at that. It is the interplay between the individuals that draws you in – the back-stabbing between the staff, the handling of unruly or unhinged students, the everyday frustrations of dealing with other human beings, and the friendship the author finds with one or two special individuals.
That last part is vital. You see, on occasion I have read some of Loco’s blog pieces and wondered why on earth he has stayed in Japan so long. He has not been shy about voicing his misgivings about the country, the people who won’t sit next to him on trains, the looks of fear in those nearby, the assumptions, and the blindness or deafness to what should be readily apparent. But what you also get from this book is the flip-side. You get the warmth he feels for some people, the kindness that has brought him to the brink of tears, and the answer, in part at least, to why he is still here.
This is not a quirky book with ‘hilarious’ tales about going to class in toilet slippers or having to eat fish sperm for lunch. Rather it is a book that reveals to us the highs and lows, the frustrations and pleasures, the joy and sadness that come from interacting with other people. Anybody who has lived and taught in Japan will recognise many of the characters and relate to the situations. Anyone who has lived at all will relate to the emotions. Definitely worth setting aside some time for. You can get it here