If you are a young whippersnapper reading this you probably think that 1994 was a terribly long time ago. To me, it was just a few years ago. As any middle-aged bore will tell you, we feel the same now as we did back then in our early twenties. You may think we are dull old fuckwits, baldies and squares when you talk to us but we think we’re your peers. Anyway, why am I talking like an annoying old uncle trying to be down with the kids? Well, I’ve been reminiscing, you see. For next month, 18 years ago, I first set foot on these islands. It doesn’t seem so long ago, and yet everything was different.
Of course, everything was different everywhere 18 years ago. Normal people didn’t know what the Internet was, mail needed stamps, and very few people had mobile phones. Those that did might have had a holster contraption to carry it in as it was the size and weight of a house brick. Communication was planned and arranged and took at least a little effort. It was not as spontaneous and scattered as it is today. And what that meant was that when I arrived in Japan all those years ago, I couldn’t post on Facebook to say I had arrived, upload a photo of my apartment and share my life with friends at home in bite-sized, or indeed byte-sized, pieces. I left home, and most people didn’t hear of me again for weeks or months. Some didn’t hear from me for years. More than a few I have never seen since.
Showing photographs to the family required you to take your film down to the shop and pay to get it developed and hope there was a nice picture somewhere. If there wasn’t and you really wanted to include a picture then the accompanying letter would be delayed by a few days at best, but more likely by much longer. You’d have to use up another whole film and then get that developed. Letters themselves were hard. After all, you couldn’t just send a two-line letter to a friend thousands of miles away like you might with email. They’d either be insulted by the brevity or worried for your sanity. Email has removed that unwritten rule that letters must be at least a page or so. Back in the nineties you had to think about enough stuff to write without being dreadfully dull. My handwriting got much bigger, the spaces between words got wider and I spent much more time than one should chewing on the end of pens.
Phone calls weren’t much easier. For a start, getting a phone took quite a bit of money. A landline was usually bought from an outgoing teacher for between about 30,000 and 50,000 yen. To buy one new cost about 80,000 yen. I didn’t have that kind of money back then. I lived for a year without a phone of any kind. For me to call home required a trip to the station, outside which Iranians sold dodgy international phone cards. Then I had to go to an ‘International Phone Booth’ where I froze or sweated as I spoke, depending on the season. For a year, nobody could call me at all.
When you moved to Japan from the UK in 1994, you really did leave your culture behind in ways that you don’t have to now. For me, I was also stepping into the unknown. I had seen a few pictures of Japan in a book I got from the library. There was nowhere else that I knew where to find some. I had never heard of any of the things that are well-known around the world now, simple things like anime, izakaya and onsen. Japan was a mystery to me and once I arrived I had no choice but to be swallowed up by it.
There was no easy way out. I had no satellite TV, no YouTube, and precious few places to get English books. I could rent videos, of course, but couldn’t have them sent from home as the video systems used in the UK and Japan differed. I lapped up any English television shows I could find. In the early afternoons I watched an old fellow teach us how to paint, and shortly afterwards a woman imparting her wisdom on dog training. The highlight was the Sunday night Hollywood movie shown on television and introduced by an old man with a farewell catchphrase of ‘Sayonara, sayonara, sayonara!’
I look back at those days with fondness. Everything was new. Everything was unfamiliar. When old timers earnestly told me, ‘In Japan, the nail that sticks up must be hammered down,’ I listened to them and took note of their wisdom rather than thinking, ‘Oh fuck off, with your Japanology shite.’
I wonder how new and unfamiliar Japan feels to the young men and women who arrive here these days. They have seen it in videos and photographs, they know the proverbs, they probably know people who have been here before. They surely arrive and think, ‘Oh, it’s just how it looks on that J-vlogger’s YouTube video, or in so-and-so’s Facebook pictures,’ rather than stepping off a plane almost completely blind.
Do I think the old way is better, more real? Christ, no. I am far happier with all the creature comforts modern technology allows, and wouldn’t for a second want to go back to the old days. At the same time, though, I enjoy the nostalgia and hindsight that time allows. It was different back then. Life itself was different, of course, but so was the experience of moving somewhere so far from home. I prefer the way we are able to live abroad now, but still, whenever I let my mind wander back, I am ever so pleased to have witnessed the changes.