David Notkin's and Cathy Tuttle's "Japan Stories" (1990-91)

14 June 1990, Japan Stories #1: Welcome to Tokyo

Well, Cathy and I left for Japan a week ago today (well, maybe tomorrow, because of the International Date Line). Without question, it has been one of the strangest weeks of our lives. Rather than give a play-by-play, I'll try to hit a couple of highlights instead.

The bad news to start was that Thai Airline (which was, by the way, just wonderful to fly) lost two of our bags. The good news was that, after they tracked them down in Bangkok, they shipped them into our apartment from the airport (which would have cost us about $20 had we paid for it).

We're staying at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (TiTech, TIT, or ToKoDai, as you prefer) International Guest House, which is very modern and quite nice. We have about 400 square feet, including a bathroom, the tiniest washing machine you ever did see, a living room/dining room/kitchen combination, a bedroom, and a balcony (with some poles that are the dryer to go with the washer).

When we were checked in, the staff member checked off a list of things like cups, blankets, etc. But he also very carefully checked off the two air conditioners and the beds. (Oh yeah, there are two twin beds, separated by a night table. The 24+ page "Rules for Residents" does, however, say we can rearrange the furniture, as long as we return it to its upright and locked position before we check out.) Figuring out how to use each appliance (the TV, the vacuum, the washer, and even the refrigerator) is an experience, given the instruction sheets that are, of course, in Japanese.

Monday was my first day on the job. I felt like I was on Letterman doing stupid pet tricks. All four of us (Cathy, Kevin, Kellen, and me) were shunted from office to office, being introduced to people for reasons that have not yet become clear. Kevin and I signed our contracts (most in Japanese, although a couple were in both Japanese and English). The most unusual document (of the ones I could read) said:


Dear Mr. David Samuel Notkin

Starting June 9, 1990 you are expected to accept employment as a
facutly [sic] member at Tokyo Institute of Technology.  I wonder if
your employment with us should in any form affect your citizenship
resulting in the loss of your nationality under the laws of your
country.  Although such seems unlikely in your case, let me call your
attention to the possibility by way of friendly precaution.

			Yasuhara SUEMATSU
			Tokyo Institute of Technology

Of course, I had just signed many forms in Japanese that could easily have been renouncing my US citizenship, but why should I worry? Actually, I figure that this form is here since my position in funded by Toshiba, and that the Congressmen who smashed Toshiba products with sledgehammers on the steps of the Capitol passed a special law nuking folks funded by Toshiba.

Noriko Matsumoto is the secretary for Takuya Katayama and Takehiro Tokuda, who are my hosts. After the first round of document signing Matsumoto-san took us to several other offices, including the library and the "money" office. In the money office, we were introduced to several people, continuing our practice in bowing (which we both needed and got quite a bit better at by the end of the day). A woman then served us green tea. We all figured we were waiting for something (for instance, travel reimbursement). However, after about 15 minutes, Matsumoto-san stood up, said goodbye, and ushered us out. I still have no clue as to why we went there.

Matsumoto-san is fascinated with us in general and with Cathy in particular. The next day Cathy came in to meet Matsumoto-san to go shopping for a tomato plant. Matsumoto-san then took Cathy all over the building showing her friends Cathy's earrings (an apple and a snake) and Cathy's "big feet." At lunch, Matsumoto-san and the woman who served us tea in the money office talked about Cathy in Japanese. Let's just say that Cathy really thought the food at lunch was great. (Actually, Matsumoto-san is really quite friendly and helpful. She can just get a bit tiring. We go to meet her parents and her tea ceremony teacher a week from Saturday. *That* will be a story.)

Cathy will be taking an intensive Japanese course in Yokohama starting next week. She was instructed to call when she arrived to make plans and such. The first two or three times she called this school, she couldn't get anybody on the phone that spoke English. Similarly, when I called a number to get an extra copy of an English language phone directory, nobody there could speak English either.

Japanese TV is pretty amazing, from what we can tell. Sumo wrestling is, of course, one of our favorites. Sixty-two Japanese sumo wrestlers just visited Brazil, and we saw some of the action. The most incredible thing was the size of one of these guys. They say these guys are mostly muscle, but this guy was fat, fat, fat. I'd guess 400 pounds easily, and it could have been 500 or even 600 pounds. Another outrageous show had this buxum Japanese woman, maybe 20 years old, in a bathing suit. In a style like that of Candid Camera, they had guys walk up to her and touch her nipples. When they did this, they got an electric shock. This went on for maybe 15 minutes. Where's the Moral Majority when you really need them? One other show was wild, too. It was a game show with four or five contestants of various ages. One question they were asked, for instance, was to figure out the area of a specific trapezoid. (Remember, this is on prime-time TV.) Those that got the wrong answer (about half), got a tambourine to wear around their neck (or their hat). At the end of the show, the guy who had the most tambourines on his neck was hoisted into the air over the stage in a sling. Run the credits.

I got a spot on my suit jacket one day. So we took out the Berlitz and found the phrase for "Can you take out this stain?" We found a tiny dry cleaners near our apartment, run by a wizened old lady. Well, the place was incredibly dark, and the lady said she couldn't take out the stain since she couldn't see it. Coming outside or putting on a light seemed to be out of the question, so we found another place that was glad to help.

Yesterday Kevin and I were introduced to the faculty (of CS, EE, and electronics). This was at their weekly faculty meeting. There were perhaps 40 faculty (all men). And the food they had looked absolutely great, although we weren't offered any. In any case, Katayama-san introduced us for a minute or so in Japanese. Then I said a couple of trite phrases, after which everybody applauded. Kevin then said a couple of nearly identical trite phrases, after which everybody applauded. Then we left. I heard from several people later on how well we had done. Amazing.

Then in the afternoon we went to open bank accounts. We did the usual filling out of forms, and then we waited for about 1/2 hour. We were called to the counter and received: a passbook (it reminded me of elementary school, which was the last time I had one of these), a book to hold ATM receipts, instructions (in English) on how to use the ATM, and (in the words of Dave Barry), this is the truth, a box of mini-tissues with little bunny rabbits on the box. I can't imagine what we'll get when we close our accounts.

Well, this was longer than I expected. And I've left out far more than I've included. And it's only a week that we've been here. Sayonara, for now...