Home > Focus on Japan 2005 > Japan, 1985 – Conclusion

Japan, 1985 – Conclusion

October 1st, 2005

This is not the conclusion to my looks back to twenty years ago, but rather the conclusion to the story of how I came here in the first place. As you’ll recall from my previous two posts, I found out about teaching in Japan during a summer trip in 1985, and later was contacted by the YMCA, who then sent me the wrong info about how to get a visa.

So on Monday, October 7th, I set off on my journey. I would rather have taken a direct flight to Seoul on Korean Airlines and then a quick jump from Seoul to Tokyo (Korean had no direct SF-Tokyo flights), but the ticket I had bought was non-changeable. (It had to be Korean because after the 1983 downing of Korean Air flight 007, their prices were very low and their service great, so I preferred that airline.) I had, in fact, paid more for the multi-leg ticket, on the YMCA’s advice.

So the airplane trip began, the longest I have ever taken, and an outstanding example of why I now demand direct flights. The first leg was not even Korean Air, from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I’m pretty sure it was PSA, the fun airline that used to paint smiles on the front of their planes. I recall the pilot cracking jokes before take-off (“I’d like to request that the flight attendant move out of the aisle so I can see out the rear window”), and on landing (“If you enjoyed your trip, remember you are on PSA flight 274. If you did not enjoy your flight, then remember you are on South West flight 781″).

At Los Angeles, I switched to a Korean Air Flight to Seoul with a layover in Anchorage. By the time we arrived at Anchorage, I had run out of reading material and still faced many hours ahead on the trip. I went to the kiosk at the airport (it was late at night, so the regular fully-stocked book store was not open), but could not find much that I would like to read. The only thing I could find was a Playboy magazine with articles that seemed of interest. (It was a near-empty flight, no adjacent passengers to offend.) Now, I’m not saying I never bought that particular magazine for the pictorials, but I swear to God, this time I really, actually did buy it for the articles. In fact, I didn’t even think of it as pornography, but as reading material–which is why I took no special care hiding it deep in my carry-on. When I was finished reading (stop snickering), I just laid it on top of everything else in the bag and closed it.

And so set up my rather interesting entry into Japan.

You see, Japan has always had rather interesting pornography laws, in that you could show bare breasts on prime-time television, but you could not show pubic hair anywhere. It was strictly verboten. And don’t even ask about genitalia. Severe violence and sexual situations were all fine in practically any media, but that one specific place always had to be airbrushed out. Now, Playboy was no Hustler in those days, but even it was in excess of what Japan’s laws would allow.

So by the time I arrived in Tokyo, after more than six hours sitting in Seoul Airport, and after the trip that lasted more than a day, I was dead tired and still had quite a bit of traveling left to do. I had put away the magazine when we were pulling into Seoul maybe 8 hours earlier and had completely forgotten about it. And so I sauntered up to customs unaware of the trouble I was about to get into.

Sure enough, the customs agent asked me to open the carry-on, and out popped the Playboy. As the agent picked up the magazine, I remembered the Japanese laws and realized I was in trouble. So I automatically switched to stupid-gaijin mode with the agent, who could not speak English. Kore wa dame! he told me, holding up the magazine. I played dumb, as if not understanding that he told me the magazine was not good. I hoped he would just take the magazine, put it into a drawer, and wave me on. But this guy was insistent. When I feigned ignorance, he wanted to show me exactly why the magazine was no good. So he opened the magazine and started looking for a photo with the offending patch of hair.

Comically enough, he couldn’t find one. He tried the centerfold, no luck; he riffed through many pages, landing all too often on pages with text or photos that would not serve as an example. Meanwhile, a line started backing up behind me as the agent searched more and more intently through the Playboy. Finally, he found a page with what he wanted. Kore! he exclaimed triumphantly, pointing at the model’s nether region. Kore wa dame! This part is not good!

It took every ounce of my self-restraint not to switch into my basic Japanese and tell him that it was, in fact, very good! Somehow I kept a straight face, nodding sagely, saying, “Ah!” to show I now understood. Then the agent got his assistant to take over while the agent walked me to the men’s room at the back corner of the luggage claim area, where he showed me a trash can styled like a mail box, so that you could not reach in and get anything out. He then handed me the magazine and gestured for me to drop it in, which of course I did. Crisis resolved, and he let me go.

So I left the airport, got to Ueno station by the Skyliner (a different trip back then), transferred to JNR to get to Shinjuku, from where I caught the express train to the Japan Sea coast, and Toyama city. I seem to recall that I arrived there early evening Japan time, and after my bags got stowed, the gang immediately took me out to have yakitori at Akiyoshi, a restaurant chain from Fukui which I still frequent today.

TyportSoon afterwards, I was introduced to my apartment (a bare-concrete-walled 6-mat room with a unit bath and a hallway kitchenette, with no windows except the balcony doors, and was soon to be overcome by mold) and my job. It offered a minimal salary–210,000 yen a month, plus 40,000 yen for the apartment rent. And the Y never compensated me for the extra few hundred bucks that the longer-flight ticket cost me, despite the fact that they not only caused me that excess expense but very nearly cost me much, much more. I wanted to rant at them, but it being my first time living and working in Japan and wanting to build a good relationship with my employer–not to mention that they made it clear they would never pay–I decided not let it go. Alas, that was not my last problem with that particular branch or its management at the time. Like when they ripped me off on the apartment’s key money (they said I would pay “half,” but didn’t tell me that I was paying the non-refundable half while they paid the refundable deposit–though they made me move when I left their employ, retaining ownership of the lease), or when they essentially stole $700 I made teaching on a side job (“Thank you for the donation”), or when they threatened to deport me when I complained about the lost wages. I could make a whole other blog post about it, but I probably won’t.

After one and a half years with the Y, I left to go full-time (if only for six months) with evening classes at a local 2-year public college, and company classes. Though I worked only a few hours a day (the YMCA had me on morning to night, with lots of idle time with nothing to do), I made a lot more than the Y ever had paid me. But I couldn’t get local visa sponsorship after the end of the second year in Japan, and so went to Tokyo, where I found a job for the next three years. It was after the fifth year that I decided it was about time I went back to get my A.A. and my B.A. I had also found out from my first few years in Toyama that if one could get a job at a university, the salary and working conditions were excellent–and thus began my initial interest in living in Japan permanently. That, more than anything else, was the life-changing part of that first few years in Japan, which stemmed from the initial offer to work there.

I got my B.A. in 1992, went back to Japan until 1995, when I returned again to get my M.A. in TESOL. In 1998 I came back for good. There’s another story about my arrival, but it’s not a 20th anniversary thing, so maybe later.

In the next post of this series, I’ll get back to the original topic, which was about what things were like in Japan back then–don’t worry, I didn’t forget. I just thought it would be appropriate to preface that with the story of how I got there. Seeing how this story has fleshed out, I’m beginning to think that the original post idea will not be nearly as meaty… but I’ll try.

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  1. October 1st, 2005 at 17:10 | #1

    I *knew* the second you mentioned the Playboy where this was going. Ah, those wacky Japanese!

  2. ykw
    October 2nd, 2005 at 04:06 | #2

    Nice Photo !

  3. ReyLynda
    October 3rd, 2005 at 10:40 | #3

    I couldn’t stop laughing yesterday morning when I read about your unintentional foray into soft-porn smuggling.

    It reminded me of my own very minor but silly customs hassle a few years back before I lived in Japan, when I was visiting my brother who was stationed at Atsugi. Upon arrival at Narita, a very officious (and I guess very new) customs agent proceeded to methodically pick apart my bag and its contents piece by monotonous piece. He had me open every tiny pocket and every little cosmetic bag and Q-tip ziploc, and I watched him growing increasingly more frustrated at not finding a heroin syringe, some stray doobie or a home made bomb. For the record, at 5’4″ I’m about the least threatening person you’ll ever run into.

    After watching everyone else go through the standard cursory customs search at a reasonable rate, ten long minutes later he finally points accusingly to the last large black nylon zip baggie that was “camoflauged” against the bottom of my black duffle bag. I opened the bag for him and proudly handed it over so he could inspect the contents –two month’s worth of a veritable feminine hygiene buffet. Every shape size and embarassing color of OB tampons, Kotex Maxipads and the handy but eye-catching individually wrapped neon pink Light Days minipads. He turned fifteen shades of pink himself after just touching the outside of the bag, started profusely sweating, and proceeded to drop the entire contents on the floor. I was allowed to leave very quickly after that. Who knew those little cotton things had so much power!

  4. October 4th, 2005 at 23:32 | #4

    That was a nice series of posts indeed. Incredible how a few choice things do not change :-).

    And I must say your mullets were awesome 😛

  5. BlogD
    October 5th, 2005 at 02:19 | #5

    Thanks, but that’s the intro. I may not have as much material for the rest, but there’s more to come, probably tomorrow.

  6. David H.
    October 8th, 2005 at 00:19 | #6

    Nice blog—one of the better on Japan. It brings back memories of Toyama and times before that. I have been visiting Japan since 1977, I have lived here twice–in Tokyo now since 1999. Boy do I remember many of the things you mention. It has changed a lot.

    I was at the Toyama YMCA in 1991-3. I believe the director was Shiroishi-san. I used to go between that and the Takaoka YMCA to teach. I also worked for a while at a company called AutoKiDen there. One thing that I remember when I was there was how much Russians were disliked. I took to wearing a t-shirt with an American flag on it so I would not be mistaken for a Russian.

    Keep writing, we all enjoy reading it!

  7. Me
    October 8th, 2005 at 02:15 | #7

    David: Wow! Someone else from the old workplace!

    I was in Toyama between October 1985 and September 1987, but left the Y in maybe March or April 1987. Shiroishi was the manager of the school, and Yamazaki was the director. I remember Shiroishi converted to Christianity, apparently so as to rise in the ranks–it seems like it worked. He was not always kind to me, but some of that may have been on orders. At one time, I was offered work at the local city college. My Y contract specified that all work I did outside the Y was to be paid to the Y, and that the Y would then give me my meager salary. However, most of the teachers were doing outside work, and with the agreement of the school, they were allowed to keep the money. When I was offered the city college work, the college said that they wanted to follow the letter of the contract and pay me the 70,000 yen through the YMCA contract. I asked Shiroishi if the school would allow me to keep all the money, and transfer it in whole to me after the city college paid. He happily approved, told me it would be no problem.

    I did the work, then waited for payday. Eventually, the college told me the money had been paid. I went to Shiroishi and asked for him to transfer the money to me, as promised–and he just replied, “thanks for the donation.” I couldn’t believe it. Although legally, they could do what they did, it was a complete violation of word and trust. I was livid. I complained. Then Shiroishi took me aside into an empty classroom and told me that if I did not stop complaining, I would not only be fired, but that he would contact the Nagoya immigration office and recommend that I be deported and not allowed back into Japan in the future. And in those days, Japanese visa sponsors could very easily do exactly that. He knew that by that time I planned to live and work in Japan for a long time. It was a very dark and vile thing to do–steal money from me, then if I complained, threaten to deport me and derail my entire life plans. I then went to Yamazaki and told him what was happening. In the end, I was given something like 30% of the money, and soon after I left the Y.

    In retrospect, I think I know what happened, something common in Japan: a lower manager made a promise that he believed would be followed. When it came to the attention of his superior, the manager was overridden–but had already made the promise. In America, the higher manager would ethically be bound by the promise of the lower manager. Not so in Japan–just the reverse. Shiroishi was probably given no other choice but to go back on his promise. I cannot know if threatening to deport me was his idea or not, however–but it still seems in retrospect a very nasty, un-Christian and unnecessary thing to do.

    Anyway, other than that…. There was no Takaoka Y at the time (or at least we never heard of it), so that must have started in the intervening years. I do remember the Russians, they were often in town, on shore leave from the ships that docked there. A friend and I sometimes pretended to be Russian when drunk businessmen tried to start an annoying conversation-with-a-gaijin. It scared the bejesus outta them.

    As for company classes, the Y had me do several of those. When I left the Y, a few of the companies told me they wanted me to continue on in teaching them privately. When I declined (despite what the Y had done to me, I had no desire to swipe a client base from a non-profit organization like the Y), they told me they would not continue with the Y anyway, so I was clear ethically, and I agreed. When figuring out the pay, they told me that the Y had been charging them 25,000 yen per 90-minute lesson. I could not believe it. My salary had worked out to roughly 1,600 yen per hour, so the Y had been raking it in off of those classes. I charged the companies half that much, and at that, I was getting 8,333 yen per hour. In that six months when I worked away from the Y, I made a LOT more than the Y had been paying me, even though my work hours dropped from 35 or so per week at the Y to about 12 per week privately. And the 35 hours the Y made me work did not include the “off” times between classes, sometimes 3 or 4 hours a day. It was a huge difference.

    So, tell me, what was the Y like around 90-91? Still using the Streamline textbooks? Still in the same place, on Daiwa Blvd. in Goban-cho (I think?)? When I first got there, it was on the corner of Shinonome Dori and Route 41 (at least I think that’s where it was), and they moved after I left.

    I just looked up Toyama on Google and it’s changed. There’s an Inari-machi station now, which was definitely not there when I was there–I lived in Inari-machi.

    What were your impressions of the place?

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