While my relationship with Tokyo spans 20 years, including an extended work-related living experience in 2001, living here now opens a new and challenging page in my life.
One of the largest and most populated cities in the world, statistics alone fail to define Tokyo, a dynamic, complex and vast metropolis. Despite my knowledge of the city and understanding of Japanese culture and social customs, I am overwhelmed.
Tokyo is a study in contradictions. Every day is filled with diverse and incongruous experiences. I see things that amaze me and amuse me; startle me or sometimes scare me. I experience things I can understand and things that confound me. Although I understand that the way Japanese think about things is conceptually different and sometimes totally opposite of what I am used to, it is easy to become confused and at times uncomfortable.
I am an experienced global citizen. But, everywhere I turn, Tokyo tests my confidence and curiosity. It is easy to wonder: “Ko-ko wa do-ko? Wa-ta-shi wa da-reh? Na-ni mo wah-kah-nai!” (Where is this? Who am I? I don’t understand anything!)
In truth, I also frequently feel quite lonely.
Some of that feeling reflects having left my daughters and ten grandchildren in the U.S. Although we were geographically separated even in the U.S. the emotional impact of an additional 6500 miles of separation plays heavy on my heart.
As a foreigner the general awareness of being different, a “stake that sticks out,” also contributes to this feeling. It is obvious in the occassional glances or an apparent indifference that you sense you are different and perhaps you don’t quite belong here as you go about your daily life.
It is easy to forget that everyone in Tokyo is very busy and the intensity of life here exceeds my expectation of normality. I try not to take it personally.
Of course, my language deficit is the other major factor. While I have a relatively deep understanding of the culture, it does me little good as my inability to communicate in Japanese leads to a sense of social isolation, frequently even as an unintended consequence with family members.
On the plus side, since much of what Japanese communicate is non-verbal, through careful listening and observation I can generally understand enough to get a sense of what is being said. Nonetheless, it is easy to feel like the fifth wheel. I often sit quietly and enjoy the wonderment of it all; being grateful for having the opportunity to experience a new and exciting life adventure.
The feeling of being lonely passes and I move on to overcoming my limitations and making the best of the good fortune to be here at age 76 with my wonderful wife, a lovable loyal dog, family and friends.
Recognizing that I will never have very good Japanese language skills, I am trying to learn how to be a better communicator through more effectively using common phrases to expand my communication skills.
Thanks to Toma, it appears I am having some success with this approach. There are many people walking dogs in our neighborhood and Toma attracts a lot of attention from the pets and their owners. These encounters are “safe” opportunities for me to test my language skills. Combined with the familiarity that comes with being a “regular,” the encounters are increasing in frequency and growing in number. I believe this experience will help m build my skills and confidence.
For more formal conversations or in situations where I need assistance, I also have a technology tool, Pocket Talk. The device translates English to Japanese and Japanese to English at the push of a button. While handy, it is a poor substitute for speaking the language and even in tech-savvy Japan, not a good way to build relationships.
Right now I am focused on learning my local area before taking on the rest of Tokyo (at least solo). Walking to explore the neighborhood and discovering the world between the condo and the train station (the gateway to everything else in Tokyo) has uncovered hidden eateries, cafes, bakeries and all types of shops.
The local 24 hour Don Quixote discount store (an anything you ever needed or wanted, or didn’t, store) is a unique experience that I just love to visit and browse. The ever present convenience store is a Japanese version of U.S. comfort food. Indeed, the 7-11 store steps from the front entrance to our condo building is my go-to place when I need a sense of my former home.
Next month I plan to begin taking a series of Tokyo walking discovery tours. I recently found two books filled with fascinating information and directions to explore the city.* They both provide background information one needs to fully appreciate the past and present context for each walk. The walks include not only the “must-see” historic sites and other cultural attractions, but also visits to interesting neighborhoods, buildings and other architecture of note, parks and gardens, and other sites of this vibrant city.
I will be posting my notes and photographs from these discovery walks on my website (paulmyer.com/Japan).
I have always found Tokyo a very English-friendly place and Tokoyites very willing to help when you need to interact. That their expectations are set very low regarding my language skill and cultural sensitivity is a help. And, preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are greatly enhancing foreign visitor friendly signage, directions and other forms of visible assistance. Unless I have a very senior moment, getting lost should not be a major concern.
* Tokyo––29 Walks in the World’s Most Exciting City; Tokyo Maze––42 Walks In & Around the Japanese Capital