I have lived in Japan for more than half of my life. I first came here as a nine-year-old child, the daughter of a missionary. Later, after several years of study and work in the US, I returned as an adult with my Japanese husband. You’d think that after more than thirty years here, I could almost call myself Japanese! But no. In this homogeneous country, I’m still a foreigner.
The role of a foreigner in Japan is, for the most part, a comfortable one. Japanese people are polite. They don’t expect foreigners to know Japanese, so when I do speak it (with my learned-as-a-child accent), I’m applauded and praised. This role can also be lonely, though.
As I go about daily life, my five-foot-seven height and Caucasian features automatically set me apart; there’s no possibility of melting into the crowd. Small children stare at my blue eyes and light hair. Sometimes, on a crowded train, the open seat next to me will remain open. Gaijin, the Japanese term for anyone non-Japanese, means “outside person.” I must accept that I am, and always will be, a gaijin.
My husband and I live in a residential area near Tokyo’s Shibuya ward. Here, my neighbors are used to me; they greet me and chat with me in Japanese. The little children in my building see me as an opportunity to practice their newly learned English: “Hello! Good morning! I am four years old!” they shout, as their parents smile and nod. The adults in my building and on my street greet me in Japanese: “Good morning. Have a good day at work.”
These brief interactions mean a lot to me, although I’m aware that I’m only scratching the surface of the lives I encounter.
Last Tuesday, as usual, I left for work at 6:45 AM.
I enjoy my daily five-minute walk to the bus stop. It takes me past the university dormitory, the community center, a multi-unit condo and a row of single-family dwellings. Turning the corner, I pass a middle-aged man who is always sweeping the street with complete concentration. Every day he responds to my “Good morning” with a barely audible reply. I’m not sure why he’s so reticent, but I’m determined to be cheerful and proper in my interactions with him.
Sometimes, on the last stretch leading to my bus stop on the main road, I’ll see a father walking his daughter, in her school uniform, to the train station. This encounter always makes me smile. The two of them are talking, laughing, sometimes even holding hands as they walk.
Otherwise, the road is usually deserted. But last Tuesday, I saw an elderly man standing by the roadside.
He was small and compact, with rumpled, thinning hair and glasses. Although it was a cold morning, he wore no shoes, just a sock on one foot–and a glove on the other. He was just standing beside the road and looking across to the other side, as if waiting for someone to appear.
I approached him.
“Grandfather, are you okay?” I asked respectfully.
He mumbled a reply; I couldn’t make it out.
“Where do you live?” I asked. Again, a mumbled reply.
“Why don’t we walk over to the police box?” I said. “It’s just a block away.” (Every neighborhood has a police box–a small booth or building manned by one or two policemen whose job it is to know the locals and be the go-to people when a lost wallet is found, a dog runs away or there’s a neighborhood dispute.)
But the elderly man resisted my gentle tug on his arm.
Then, with perfect timing, along came a neighbor who frequently passes me on his bicycle at this time of day.
I flagged him down.
“Do you know this man? He seems to be lost,” I said.
He studied the elderly man. “No, I don’t,” he said.
“What happened, Grandfather? Can you tell us where you live?” he asked. The old man only mumbled and shuffled his feet.
“If you can wait here with this gentleman, I’ll go get the policeman,” I said.
But when I got to the police box, it was empty. I read the sign: “Out on patrol.”
Checking my watch and trying to figure out what to do next, I walked back to the two men.
“I’ll take over, you can go to work,” said the bike man. “Don’t be late! You were kind to stop and try to help, but I can take care of it now. I’ll call the police.”
So I left the elderly man in his care and continued on my way.
Next morning, same time, same street: The bike man jumped off his bike and greeted me with a big smile.
“We found out where the old man lives! He’d wandered far from home, but he’s safe now!”
The policeman seemed to be watching for us. He came out of the box and approached to tell me the same news and thank me. It was a lovely neighborhood connection, with smiles all around.
Japan is an aging society, and we are all grappling with the implications for our communities and healthcare system. Recently I watched a TV documentary about a village whose members took responsibility for caring for confused and wandering elderly in a humane way: They held classes instructing community members how to recognize when a person is confused, how to approach these individuals and how to help them find their homes and families. The whole community had agreed to ease the burden on nuclear families, and to join together in caring for their aging men and women.
The message was clear: It takes a village to keep Granddad safe. We all need to help. We all must care for the elders in our neighborhoods.
The bike-man, the policeman and I did just that, I thought.
I struggle with being a foreigner here, and with feeling that I will always and forever be an “outside person.” But on Tuesday of last week, I was not an outside person. For a few minutes at least, I was a part, a small but vital part, of my own Tokyo village.
About the author:
Ruth Harimoto has worked as a nurse at an international school in Tokyo for twelve years, caring for the students and helping the foreign-born staff to navigate the Japanese healthcare system. She writes as a hobby. “Writing always helps me to process thoughts, articulate conflicting emotions and document something that feels significant to me. The very small interaction that this story describes left me smiling. In my life as a foreigner, it was a fleeting moment of belonging; I felt that it needed to be documented.”