I think it was the great writer on Japan, Donald Richie, who said he loved living in Japan but would likely hate it if he were Japanese. I can relate to that. I love living here and much as I may complain about never being fully accepted, and never being able to integrate fully into Japanese society, I’m not sure I really want to. I want to be treated equally when it suits me, but I am quite happy to play the get-out-of-social-duties gaijin card, too. I don’t want to feel that I can’t take holidays. I don’t want to feel compelled to work until I have to keep my eyes open with matchsticks. I don’t want to pretend to be impressed when somebody tells me which university they attended. I don’t mind it when people pay for my drink or a meal just because I am foreign. And sometimes, just sometimes, I don’t bother getting someone omiyage. My life here is good but I don’t imagine it would be quite as pleasant were I to swap it with a typical Japanese salaryman of my age. No, the locals see me as being different to them and that’s okay. I accept it and I don’t resent it. However, my difference is obvious in my appearance, and when you live in a small community where nobody else looks like you that can become quite tiresome, not because people may stare or wonder or guess, but because they notice. I value anonymity but here I have none. Everybody, it would seem, knows about everything I do.
I discovered this at our first community meal when people I was fairly sure I had never seen since we had first moved to the neighbourhood and delivered our introductory gifts asked how far I usually walked in the morning, and wondered why I didn’t tend to go on a Wednesday. An old woman expressed surprise that I enjoyed dried squid. I was rather more taken aback that she knew. It became apparent that almost every time I set foot outside my door I would be spotted and being well over six feet and caucasian, people tended to notice what I was up to.
When I realized this I began to modify my behaviour. In such a small community, I fret that my business could suffer from unkind gossip were I to act inappropriately. This being a model citizen can be annoying. We have a nice little table and chairs set in our garden and when the weather is nice on the weekend I often think that it would be lovely to sit outside with a bottle of wine or a few cold beers. I can be seen from the street, though, and I can’t enjoy my drink because I feel someone will go home and say, ‘I saw little Taro’s teacher today. He was sitting outside drinking alone at noon.’ I am sure that I worry too much and that nobody would really care even if they did see me. After all, when the cherry blossoms bloom, the Japanese like nothing better than to sit outside and get rat-arsed. They often begin drinking in the morning at that time of year and nobody thinks ill of anybody for it. They don’t get embarrassed when some old granddad gets up and begins singing in a public park at two in the afternoon and I love them all the more for it, but I can’t shake the guilt that I feel when spotted drinking alone in the daytime. Even if I hide the beer in a coffee cup (which, to be honest, just makes you feel even more guilt and brings the fear of alcoholism rushing to the forefront of your mind) I can’t enjoy it. No, if I’m going to get pissed these days, I prefer to do it in the privacy of my house, or somewhere outside the neighbourhood where I am unlikely to run into students or their parents. At least that way I will only be making an arse of myself in front of my wife or strangers. Nearer home, however, I take extra care to be polite and well-behaved when I am out and about. I wait for the green man before I cross the road even when no traffic is coming and I smile at everybody I see in the street because they could be a student’s mum, or dad, or grandmother and whilst I might not recognize them, they will me. Unfortunately, to those people who have no connection to our school and who have never met me I must seem like the village idiot as I wander about nodding hello to all and sundry and grinning like a fool with an erection. Those people probably notice me more than they ever would have before. ‘There he goes,’ they will laugh, ‘that big smiling simpleton is off on his walk again.’