I got off the plane into the hot Tokyo summer air. I had become lost to the past and lost to myself. I had fully intended to become lost, to disappear and fall off the edge of my known world. Sometimes people who disappear don’t want to be found, and I was one of those people. What I was chasing was a fresh start, a new beginning somewhere where nobody knew my name, and no one had any way of knowing my past. After having run away from home at seventeen years old and struggling with life ever since I had made mistake after mistake. Unsuitable romances, sex, drugs and rock and roll which followed on from a childhood in which I was abused and mistreated, had sent my life into a tailspin. Back then in the late ‘90s I was still hung up on what other people thought of me, and to me the only solution was to go somewhere that I had no idea what anyone else was saying, nor could translate their thoughts about me into my own feelings of shame and fear of other’s reaction to me. I was looking for a tabula rasa but was not anticipating just how blank the slate could get.
As I exited the airport at Narita, wearing a sweater, jacket, boots and jeans, I almost expired from heat exhaustion on the spot. Late summer in Tokyo was hotter than I was expecting and much more humid. I felt as if I were being steamed alive. I often mock people who declare certain locations to be hot but reassure me that it is ‘a dry heat’, and therefore much more bearable. Hot is hot after all, except when hot is in Tokyo. The air gets thick with moisture, so much so that sometimes a gentle mist falls without developing into raindrops. It is suffocating and intense. As I hauled my suitcase downstairs into the subway, a mélange of words and sounds, heat and panic overwhelmed me. Strings of ‘romanji’ English alphabet formed long messes of words like Takodanababa and Ochanomizu. Nothing sounded or looked like anything I had ever seen before. All of a sudden, the anchor between myself and the world outside of me shattered into a million over-heated pieces. I was missing the anchor of words.
I had been handed a brown envelope at the airport, by sweetly disinterested airport workers. The person from the English teaching school that had been meant to meet me at Narita had failed to turn up, but they had sent a thick manilla envelope containing two sheets of paper. One had a hand-drawn map on it that showed me no road names, and cryptic instructions, but instead labeled landmarks like ‘Family Mart next to the hairdressers’ and ‘Temple with baby statues outside to your left.’ I had no cell phone and no number to call for assistance. I could not read, I could not speak, I could not understand a single thing that was happening around me, and at that very point in time I failed to see how I was going to make it from Narita airport to a business hotel near Yaraicho station. Without words I was lost, and feared I would never find where I was going.
It took two attempts to make it out of the train station and into the streets. When I did, nothing felt familiar or secure. Streets did not appear to have any name designation, hence the map relying on landmarks instead! I wandered up and down the road trying to locate the baby-like statues and a convenience store next to a hairdressing parlor, turning the map this way and that, trying to get my bearings after a very long flight, and being drenched in sweat from my very unsuitable clothing choices.
I must have looked utterly lost, because a policeman came out of his koban police-box and walked up to me looking worried. He asked for my ID in strained English and stared at the map, before pointing down a cross street and gesticulating aggressively. I almost burst into tears. I don’t know if I was more scared of the seemingly angry policeman, or delighted that a change of clothes and some air-conditioning was on the cards. I made it into a hotel which had small roman letters under the katakana hieroglyphics I was yet to master. I finally found an anchor. The hotel staff spoke a little English and had been expecting me. I wanted a soda, so walked to the vending machine on the landing, and put a thousand yen bill into the machine. It spat out a coca cola, and with that cool familiar drink, with letters on it that I could read, some clue that I had not completely left the planet. I turned the can around. I could not read the rest of the information on it, not the ingredients, nor any other information. I couldn’t even guess. That night I fell asleep so soundly that when I woke the next morning, I failed to instantly remember where I was. I had got exactly what I wanted.
My new job and new life as an expat English teacher was my escape ladder: my attempt to escape my destiny as just another casualty. I could see the way my life was going. I was going to end up being just another statistic, another tragedy, another loss that no one thinks about after the initial platitudes, and besides I always had the sneaking suspicion that if I held on there would be better days around the corner. Back home, I had ended up falling into whatever made me feel less: less pain, less me, even less woman. I wanted to be numb and faceless. I needed to be ignored or at least not hated. I needed much less than the screamingly mundane and harsh reality that I was failing to function within.
Tokyo saved me. As I fumbled my way around a world I could not communicate with, and that I could not read in any sense, literal or figurative, I felt suddenly free. It was a world that I could only interact with on its terms. This blank new world demanded little of me: I went to work teaching English, behaved as a decent transitory resident, and in return Japan was mine. I was free of western society and the expectations put upon me. There was no judgement heaped on me for my mistakes and troubles, because I had left all that far behind. I was not an unknown quantity; I was an entirely new person. I was free of my past. I was free of who I was, when I was, where I was, and more than that, the rest of the world could not pour information into me, because I simply did not understand what anyone was trying to communicate to me.
It wasn’t just a new start; it was a wiping clean of the slate. It was not an escape as much as a free fall with no ropes. I was in my mid-twenties and I was going to start again. There was a freedom I experienced that Japanese women didn’t seem to at that time. Japanese society had no expectations of me, as I was foreign to it. Japanese society generally expected me to be a barbarian, to have no manners and to not understand how the new world turned and worked in a harmony I had not previously experienced. When I was solemnly given a card announcing I had been registered as an ‘alien’, it all made perfect sense. I had not merely left my life behind; I might as well have gone to a different, seemingly more civilized planet. Everyone expected that I would be different, that I would be an offense to the ‘wa’ – the social harmony. I was no longer disappointing anybody. My weirdness and inability to fit in was explained wholly by my nationality, and it was a huge relief to me.
Tokyo is a neon wonderland. It was strange even then, just as much as it was in later years. It is a curious mixture of peaceful and safe, and loud and bustling. The city towers above in walls of glass and concrete, the sun reflecting off surfaces and making the summers even more unbearable than they would otherwise be. Nothing was quite how I was used to it being. Drug stores became adventures in their own right. Buying food was an expedition. Seeing a doctor was a quest with variable results. Mundane life became quite extraordinary.
In downtown Tokyo shops and hotels, panchinko pin ball gambling parlors, hostess bars, train stations, bakeries and restaurants fight for business, all advertising and declaring their specialties in words I could not read. I gulped down words written in romanji (normal English letters), like a woman dying of thirst, yet the words didn’t seem to mean what they meant usually.
New Half Bar! (a hostess bar where men can pay to drink with trans women wearing skimpy sexy clothing, who will pour the drinks and charm drunken curious Japanese salarymen office workers). Ranking! Number 1! (this place is highly-rated). Be careful! Tiny grass is sleeping! (don’t step on the grass, we just planted it, and it needs to grow without your big feet on it). Poo Pi Paper! (yes, you got it…a toilet paper brand). Calpis (Cow’s piss…a fermented milk drink). Today is Under Construction! Thanks for Understanding! (metaphysical advice for the traveler). The art of Japanese English use and understanding becomes a new and unexpectedly beautiful turn for the English language, albeit an occasionally painful one. I remember going up to a mother of a young girl wearing a tee shirt that read “Pop Cherry!” I wanted to tell her it was nasty, it’s meaning was unacceptably sexual for such a young child, but found myself flailing around, and decided in the end it was not worth the pain of trying to explain what was emblazoned across her little daughter’s chest. I wish I could find who made that tee-shirt and give them a piece of my mind on the words they had chosen for a piece of children’s clothing. As it was, I thought to myself, was it really so bad if hardly anyone around could read it either. Back then, there was remarkably few English-speaking gaijin around. If no one can read it, does it matter what is being communicated? I did make up my mind to never wear anything in Japanese that I could not read. I didn’t want to accidentally make myself the butt of a joke, or else act as a walking billboard for a thought or act or product that I did not agree with. Words have meaning, even when we cannot understand them.
When I could finally read enough not to buy cat food instead of canned tuna, and could be reasonably sure about whatever establishment I was walking into from the details on the signage outside, I was deflated. Everything was quite mundane after all, at least for the most part. Something gets lost in translation, something gets diminished once it is understood. I kind of missed my guessing games and surprise suppers. My lack of understanding of the words around me made me do things and go places and eat things I would never have chosen. It took some of the choice away and forced a little more adventure onto me.
My adventures were more wholesome than my previous escapades, but I eventually had to come to terms with the fact that I was generally offensive to the ‘wa’ whether I was in Japan, or whatever country I had found myself in. I had always wandered. I was never good at staying in one place for long. The difference was that I could hide my inability to fit in within my general foreignness. There were few western women in Japan when I first went there, a few more western men, generally working within the English teaching industry. I was a curiosity for different, less troublesome reasons than usual, and I enjoyed the freedom that it gave me. I could be weird, but it was a generic weird and the usual judgements didn’t apply. For a while it was bliss. I could start again but this time with less baggage to haul along with me.
I enjoyed the stares as I walked down the street eating an onigiri and drinking a bottle of cola, as people tutted at my poor manners eating and drinking on the street as I walked. I liked laughing without covering my mouth. I liked the fact I was judged on my loudness instead of more insidious things that I had no chance of erasing.
I had no idea what to do with the yukata (summer informal kimono) that was laid out on my bed in the hotel I stayed at while I looked for a place to live in Tokyo, and no idea how to ask anybody about it. I had no idea how to work within a Japanese office (carefully and with no complaining at the crazy hours and travel obligations demanded of you). I had no idea how to eat, or what to eat – I couldn’t read, I had no idea how to order food in a restaurant. Even MacDonald’s was impossible in those early days, since I couldn’t open my mouth and produce katakana-ized sounds to order the dirty big mac and fries of my hungover dreams. The opening of the first Starbucks was a cause of deep joy to me. I had been living on onigiri – balls of rice with surprise fillings, mystery drinks in bottles saying things I could only guess it. I sometimes got the mouthful of tiny baby anchovy, heads and tails and guts and all. I sometimes got the tuna mayonnaise. Occasionally I was treated to something truly different like mentaiko (spicy marinated pollock roe) and forced out of my comfort zone. Sometimes it was not something I enjoyed, sometimes it was something I loved. The game of not knowing became a source of deep and lasting joy in my life.
I was not unhappy living and working in Japan. I loved my life as a single woman in Tokyo. I enjoyed the money I earnt and the trips I made. I had friends and I found my work satisfying. I ate out regularly and spent my weekends either hitting some cheesy nightclub night in Roppongi, or else a bar or a new hot café with an exciting brunch menu. Sometimes I spent wonderful simple evenings watching fireworks and drinking whilst standing on the bridge near the office with other English teachers watching the night and the people go by.
I often took off alone, having always been somewhat of a loner and needing not be around other people occasionally. Took my guidebook and found museums and parks, temples and shrines, and simply got lost somewhere that nobody much cared who I was and how I had previously lived my life. I was not tempted to try and interact, because I simply couldn’t do so. I prefer being suspect because I am foreign, instead of being suspect for being a bad woman.
I suppose I never quite escaped being a bad woman. I never quite ditched my past and outran judgement. The difference is, the younger me wanted desperately to fit in, to gain absolution, to not be judged or ridiculed or cast out from where I belonged, the older me really couldn’t give a damn. Japan in those brilliant early days let me live and let me live free. I was happy being scum as long as those who pointed their fingers kept their distance from me. I wish I could go back in time to tell the younger me to care much, much less, and concentrate on happiness rather than whatever it was that other people thought she should be doing. I might have had to do a little less running if I had just been true to myself. After all the one person you can never escape, that you can’t run away from, is yourself. Spending your life like a dog chasing its tail is no way to live. It is no way to live at all.
Tokyo let me get lost in translation. I disappeared in the fact that the world around me had meaning that I could not ascertain or understand. It was a decompression-type experience. After a deluge of people, information, judgements and troubles, I was floating free in a world without words, without meaning except that which I imbued on it. Not understanding others, nor they me led to confusion, but a sense of freedom, and the minimal nature of interactions gave me space to heal and enjoy life once again. Once I learned to speak and read a little, I was more robust, more capable of dealing with other people, but the world lost some of its innocent magic. In the end I realized, however different some places are, people are people and they communicate much of the same things: I love you. I need you. Could you do this? Would you not do that? Here is food, it tastes good. Here is fun, you will enjoy it. This is the price and this is the content. Here someone died, and here they were born. What is your name? Where are you going? Who do you think you are? Who are we to you? Human interaction is based around these common principles of need and want, and basic information. With all that gone, and the only thing left being me and a noisy but meaningless world around, I started to find some meaning in my own life, I began to work out how to live again. It took a neon wonderland full of sights and sounds, but not signifying anything intelligible for a while, until I had worked to be able to understand once again.