Friday 14 September 2018

Jetting off to Japan - by Lesley Downer

New Year's, Osaka 1978; w Shige
and Reiko Tohmine. I'm on left.
Forty years ago this month, in September 1978, twenty-two fresh-faced young university graduates set off for Japan. Our mission was to teach English - not at language schools but in universities and high schools, and not in Tokyo but in the provinces, places which had never had an English teacher before or had the chance to see a real foreigner. In later years it would come to be called the JET Programme and thousands of young students would go out. But ours was the very first year and was by way of being a bit of an experiment.

The interviews took place at the Japanese embassy, an intimidating building in Grosvenor Square where nine interviewers sat in a line facing the interviewee in a huge high-ceilinged room. I had borrowed a suit from my mother for the occasion. Many years later one of the then interviewers told me that what they were really looking for was not qualifications or teaching skills or self-confidence or anything else but to assess whether we were the sort of people who could stick it out. And indeed in later years I’ve met people who went to Japan on the JET Scheme and ended up in a small town in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t stick it out and came home again. But we twenty two were made of sterner stuff.

Forty years ago certainly feels like history now - and here is a little of what we experienced.
Narita Airport, Japan, September 1978. I am at bottom left, kneeling.
In those days there was no direct flight to Japan. The journey took 18 hours with a stopover in Anchorage, Alaska. The airport was a 1 1/2 hour bus ride from Tokyo, which at first sight was distinctly unprepossessing.

In 1978 Japan was 33 years out of World War II and still rebuilding. The Tokyo Olympics of 1964 had helped bring back a degree of prosperity but many of the buildings had been thrown up at great speed and still looked jerry built.

In front of the tokonoma (I'm in the middle)
We were put up in a drab hotel and rushed almost straight away into a welcome meeting at the Ministry of Education, where we sat on metal chairs around long metal tables while what seemed like very old men droned on in Japanese, which none of us could speak, while we, horrendously jet lagged, tried to stay awake. The twenty two of us were to be scattered across Japan. There were two in Tokyo, two in Osaka, but most were in small towns where no one had ever seen a foreigner before.

There we were introduced to our hosts, in my case Professor Shimizu of Gifu Women’s University, who had come to take me to Gifu.

We went down on the bullet train. I remember my first sight of Mount Fuji - a perfect symmetrical cone rising out of the plain. Other mountains are obscured by mountain ranges but Fuji stands all alone in the flat plain, ethereal and beautiful with a trail of smoke wafting from the crater and a wisp of cloud crowning the summit. 
Gifu Castle, Japan

At the job interview at the Japanese Embassy in London, I’d been asked, ‘If you were offered this job, where would you like to go - Tokyo or the countryside?’ I’d said ‘countryside’, picturing green trees, fields, sheep, cows. Little did I know that to my Japanese interlocutor the word inaka - ‘countryside’ - actually means ‘the provinces’, ‘the sticks’, anywhere that isn’t Tokyo. 

And so I found myself in the grey industrial city of Gifu, a city no one had heard of, where so far as I knew no westerners ever went. It was autumn, when the rice has been harvested and the paddy fields are brown and threadbare. Early on I climbed to the top of Mount Kinka, which rises to one side of the city, and peered around, looking for any sign of countryside; but all I could see was brown and drab. I had to wait till spring to see the paddy fields turn brilliant green.

Initially I stayed in a seventh floor room in the Nagaragawa Hotel. I’d barely been there a night when I was woken by my bed swaying violently back and forth. ‘Earthquake!’ I thought in horror and leapt out of bed, wondering what to do. I soon learnt that it was just a tremor, an everyday occurrence. A real earthquake is a lot more dramatic.
Visiting a temple. I'm tucked away behind, in the middle
The staff at Gifu Women’s University had heard that foreigners need a lot of space so they arranged two tiny apartments for me, not one. I used one as my bedroom and bathroom and went along the outside landing to the next, which became my living room and kitchen. My colleague, Mrs Miyabe, took me to the electrical appliance shop to get a doll’s house sized fridge, a tiny purple washing machine and spin drier, an oven big enough to bake a loaf of bread or a cake and a one-person-sized vacuum cleaner, also purple. 

Eventually I moved to a bigger apartment, set in fields of daikon radishes. I also began to explore. Back in the sixteenth century, when Japan was made up of warring princedoms, Gifu was the capital of the famous and formidable warlord Oda Nobunaga. His castle is perched at the top of Mount Kinka. For reasons unknown the Americans bombed this little castle even though it’s a long way from anything industrial. By the time I got there it had been rebuilt in ferro concrete. You climb through the woods along footpaths to get there. It’s hard to imagine Oda and his thousands of samurai warriors making their way up and down the stony hillside. 

I studied tea ceremony ...
To get to the university I had to take the bus destination Mino, written only in Japanese at the front: 
I’d stand at the bus stop looking at the characters which my Japanese colleague had written for me on a piece of paper and comparing them with the characters at the front of each bus as it drew up. Japanese buses are as strictly timetabled as the bullet train and by the time I’d worked out that this was my bus, the doors would have closed and the bus would be pulling away.

Most people in Gifu had never seen a foreigner before. I’d never felt so isolated. Then after three months a colleague asked, ‘Would you like to meet the other foreigners?’ I hadn’t realised there were any. It turned out there were two - a married couple, John from Coulsdon and Sarah from Seattle. They became close friends. 
Gifu 1983 (I'm in the middle)
To counter the loneliness I went for walks to the beautiful nearby temple, which had a lake with tiny green turtles swimming around in it and a little stall that sold tofu with sweet miso sauce brushed on top, grilled over charcoal. I also taught myself Japanese; as there were only three foreigners there was no call for Japanese teachers. I studied tea ceremony and flower arranging and immersed myself in Japanese literature in translation. 

I also hitchhiked. By the end of my first year I’d been up to the north of the country and down to the far south.

In my time off my colleagues took me to see sword making, local festivals, paper making and cormorant fishing, for which Gifu is famous. But I still found myself on my own a lot. 

Then I started to make women friends. They took me on trams that trundled off deep into the countryside to ancient moss-covered temples with stone Buddhas outside and Shinto shrines with vermilion arches in front, often both religions celebrated side by side. There we dined on temple food, extraordinary delicate dishes. 

It was the beginning of a never-ending love affair with Japan, enough to fill a lifetime of writing. 

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback.

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All pictures are mine except the picture of Gifu Castle, which is courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Susan Price said...


Lesley Downer said...

Thank you, Susan! I was afraid it was a bit too 'me' ish ...

Ann Turnbull said...

I think 'me'ish can sometimes be good - and I always enjoy your posts, Lesley. (Loved the bit about trying to catch the bus!)

Lesley Downer said...

Thank you, Ann! Yes, it was a trial by fire. I'll never forget those particular characters!

Sue Purkiss said...

It sounds wonderful - but initially very lonely. Well done for coping - I don’t think I would have!

Lesley Downer said...

Thank you, Sue! The first year was actually so miserable I stayed on for a second year to make the first year worth while (mad, I know). And here we are forty years later!