Life in Aizu Wakamatsu, Japan

I wrote these articles for a newspaper in Aizu Wakamatsu (Fukushima, Japan) in 1996.

Hello! My name is Shaney Crawford and I am a Canadian who is living in Tajima-machi in Minamiaizu. I have lived here since August 1995 and I am having a very good time. In this article, I would like to tell you about myself and about some of my thoughts on living as a foreigner in Japan. I hope that you find my writing interesting and that you can learn a bit about me and my country.

When I was in Canada, I lived in a medium-sized town called Kingston. It is in Southern Ontario. Ontario is one of ten provinces in Canada. You can find Ontario easily by looking at the Great Lakes. Ontario is just above them. Kingston is on Lake Ontario. It is very close to the United States. In fact, I once rode my bike to the United States from Kingston!

Kingston was the town where I went to university. My university is called “Queen’s University” because Queen Victoria signed the charter that allowed the university to exist. Queen’s University has about the same population as Tajima-machi — which is probably why I feel so at home in Tajima!

Canadians tend to move around a lot. In Japan, I have asked many people where they were born and almost all of them were born in the town that they are living in now. That is not the same in Canada. If you asked ten Canadians where they were born, I would guess that eight of them are not living there anymore. Actually, many Canadians were not born in Canada. We have many foreigners in Canada. But you can’t tell who is foreign and who is Canadian. There is not one face of Canada. We come in many different shapes and sizes!

I was born in a town near Lake Erie, another Great Lake. The town is called “Dunnville”. Then I moved to Toronto, Midland, Whitby, and Kingston. All of these towns are in Southern Ontario. While I was studying in Kingston, my parents moved from Whitby to Port Perry. I think children move away from home earlier in Canada than they do in Japan. I moved away from home when I was 18 to study at a boarding school. Ever since then, I have not lived with my parents. Most of my Japanese friends here in Tajima still live with their parents. This is one difference between Canada and Japan. I don’t think it means that we Canadians love our parents any less. I think it just means that Canadian children like to enjoy independence at an earlier age.

The school systems in Canada and Japan are very similar in some ways and very different in others. We also have elementary schools, junior high schools, and high schools in Canada. Junior high school is only two years, though, and high school is four years. Since Canada is so large, every province is allowed to have different school systems. In Ontario, we usually go to one school for Grade 1 to Grade 8 (elementary and junior high school) and then we go to another one for Grade 9 to Grade 12 (high school). We also have Grade 13, but it is optional. Students are allowed to pick their own courses from Grade 7 (which is first year junior high in Japan). There are many required courses, such as English, French, Science, and Math, but students can choose to take other courses such as Computers, Latin, Accounting, or Home-making. In Grade 7, the students can only choose one of their courses: the rest are required. If they have finished all of their required courses by the time they get to Grade 13, though, they can choose to take whatever they want.

I have just returned from a quick visit to Canada. I went home for two weeks to surprise my mother. She didn’t think that I was coming to Canada for Christmas, so she was very sad. She thought that I would be thousands of miles away on Christmas day, but I was actually in her own living room. She was very, very surprised! At Christmas, people gather together with their families and friends to exchange gifts and eat a special Christmas dinner. Usually we eat turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. After dinner, we eat Christmas pudding and shortbread cookies. Everyone always eats too much Christmas dinner, so we always finish dinner by rubbing our stomachs and saying what a great feast we’ve just had. Some people like to have a short sleep or a walk after dinner to help the food digest.
I was also home for New Year’s. I have heard that New Year’s is a very big day in Japan. In Canada, some people like to go out to bars and pubs and drink all night to celebrate the New Year. I like to stay inside and have a small party with my friends. This year, I celebrated New Year’s quietly with one of my university friends. Instead of going to the shrine and ringing the bell, we stayed inside and watched TV. We were watching a very funny programme, so I actually missed midnight! I didn’t realize that it was 1996 until 12:09! Usually, everyone stops what they are doing at 11:59pm on December 31st and we all count down the seconds until midnight.

I have returned to Japan just in time for a great storm. As I type this, there is a good 50 centimetres of snow on the ground and it is still snowing! Tajima seems to get a lot more snow than Kingston. However, Kingston is much colder than Tajima. On the day that I left Canada to return to Japan, it was minus 25 degrees Celsius! If you didn’t cover up a part of your body (like your fingers) they immediately started to hurt. I don’t like it when it gets that cold!

I have named this column “Canadian Content” because that is a special phrase that we use in Canada. We have special laws in Canada to protect our culture. The Canadian Content laws make sure that Canadian music and TV programmes get played on our radio and television stations. I would like to expand the meaning of “Canadian Content” to include the sharing of Canadian culture with others. In Japanese, I have noticed that many words are shortened like Misuchilu for Mr. Children and Puripuri for Princess Princess. In Canada, we do the same thing with many of our words. Instead of saying “Canadian Content”, we usually just say “CanCon”. So, I hope that you have enjoyed this quick summary of Canadian information and I hope that I can continue to provide you with some CanCon in the future!

New Year’s is a time to have a fresh start. In Canada, we count down the seconds until the New Year and then we all shout, “HAPPY NEW YEAR”. After that, we talk about our New Year’s resolutions. A resolution is something that you decide to change in yourself. Sometimes, people make silly resolutions like “I will breathe at least once a day” or “I will sleep at least twice a week”. These resolutions are funny, but they don’t mean anything. New Year’s is a time to look back on your past year and the rest of your life and decide what you would like to change. Sometimes, if you’ve had a really good year, you can decide that you aren’t going to change anything. But most of us want to change at least one thing in our lives.

A common New Year’s resolution is to decide to stop smoking or to lose weight. These are both very difficult tasks and I don’t think that they are good resolutions. I think it is better to make important decisions like that when you are really ready for them — not just because the year has changed.

Another popular New Year’s resolution is to try to change your personality: to be more kind or less greedy. These are also difficult resolutions because they are not very specific. It is hard to live your life by such words.

Here are some resolutions that I think are very good. They are good because they are not impossible to do, they mention specifically what you should do, and they don’t require you to change your whole life in one day. This kind of resolution is always the most successful.

  • Be kind to strangers. There is a saying in English: Be kind to strangers because you’re a stranger too sometimes. Since I am living in a foreign country, I feel like a stranger almost all the time. This has made me realize how important it is for people to feel comfortable when they are the “stranger”. There are lots of ways to be kind to strangers. We can be kind from a distance by donating money to charities. We can stop our cars to let another car get out of a parking lot. Or we can hold the door open for someone with a heavy bag. The advantage of being kind to strangers is that, if we all do it, we will be treated kindly when we are the stranger.
  • Change one thing in your life that will help the environment. Japan is still not very environmentally friendly. In Canada, we recycle almost all of our garbage: paper, plastics, bottles, glass, cardboard, cans and other metals. Also, most Canadian companies try to use very little packaging for their products. In Japan, I have seen many examples of too much packaging. For example, tea bags are individually wrapped in paper, then five of them are wrapped in plastic. Then, there is a paper box around one hundred of them. Then there is plastic around the box. This much packaging is wasteful because all of the paper and plastic will just get burned. Changing these companies takes a lot of work, but there are smaller things that you can do to help the environment. For example, you can bring your own bags to the supermarket. Also, you can try to use less paper. If you photocopy many things, you can use both sides of the paper. Even if you can’t use less paper, then you can reuse paper that is already written on. If you keep paper that has been written on, and use the other side as scrap paper, you will save many trees. These things can be done without changing your life very much.
  • Try to learn about other cultures. It is only by learning about other cultures that we begin to understand our own. I have learned a lot about Japanese culture since I started living in Japan. However, I have learned more about Canadian culture too. For example, before I came to Japan, I never really thought about the typical Canadian family. In Japan, I notice that there are very few people who get divorced. Also, many people get married at a young age. In Canada, divorce is very common and most people wait until they are a bit older to get married. However, I thought that what I experienced in Canada was how the whole world was. Coming to Japan has given me a better perspective of the world. We don’t have to travel to other countries to learn more about other cultures though. We can attend international festivals, or read a novel that is set in another country, or we can talk to foreigners. All of these things are easy to do and they make us better people.
  • Tell someone when they are doing a good job. Everyone needs to be appreciated so this is my favourite resolution. It is not hard to tell a person that they are needed and that they are a good person. There are lots of ways to do this. Teachers can tell their students that their homework was really well done. Students can tell their teacher that they understood the lesson. Customers can thank shop owners for having the product that they were looking for. Sometimes, we don’t even need to talk to keep this resolution. A simple “thumbs up” to the person who you pass every day in the street will do.

I am going to try to live up to these four resolutions this year. Every year people complain that they are not able to keep their resolutions. This is probably because there are too many resolutions, or they are too difficult to remember. I like to make small but meaningful resolutions. This year, I think I will be successful.

By the way, if you have been wanting to talk to a foreigner or a stranger for a long time now, but you have been too shy, New Year’s is the time to decide to change that. I can tell you that, as a foreigner, I am always delighted to speak to Japanese people. There is a common belief among Japanese people that their English is bad, but it is not true. I like to listen to Japanese people speak English because it means that we can enjoy cultural exchanges. So, please decide to speak English with someone this year! Happy New Year!

Canada and Japan are two very different countries. Canada is a very large country with a very small population, and Japan is a very small country with a very large population. Canada’s population contains many different kind of people, and Japan’s is mainly just one kind. Japan is a very old country, and Canada is a very young country. Most Japanese people have a very good idea of what Japanese culture is all about, but Canada’s people still haven’t decided what Canadian culture really is. So, I guess it’s not surprising that someone coming from one of these countries would have very different ideas than someone coming from the other country.

As a Canadian coming to Japan, I had a lot of ideas about Japan which were not right. I thought Japan was a highly technological country where everything was new and automated. In some respects, that is true. Japan does have some technology that we would appreciate in Canada like rice cookers (which are available in Canada, but difficult to find), remote control electric heating, and of course, toilet seat warmers. But in general, Canada is much more automated. We have 24 hour bank machines even in the smallest towns, central heating in every home, and almost everyone has used a computer at one time or another. The reason we think that Japan is so automated is because all of our machinery seems to come from Japan. But, for some reason, that doesn’t mean that Japanese people have the same machinery.

I didn’t realize that cars are driven on the left side of the road in Japan. This is another well-kept secret in the West. So many of our cars seem to be made in Japan, we just assume they are the same as the cars that are in Japan. Again this is not true at all.

There are a lot of things I didn’t know about the schooling system in Japan. The teachers all have a desk in one teachers’ room in Japan, but in Canada, the teachers’ desks are in the classrooms. Teachers are still allowed to smoke in school in Japan (although not at Tajima Chuugakkou). Also, the students seem to be disciplined less than in Canada. This really surprised me because I always thought that Japanese children were silent and obedient at least during school time. In fact, many students talk during lessons, and students often walk out of the classroom without asking the teacher. I was very surprised the first time I saw that happen! However, Japanese teachers, in Tajima anyway, seem to have good relationships with their students. Teachers and students often talk to each other outside of class, and many students visit the teachers’ room during break time.

On the other hand, some of the ideas that I had about Japan were correct. I had heard from many of my friends who had visited Japan that Japanese people were the kindest people in the world. The people in my town have definitely lived up to that reputation. I feel quite at home in Tajima because there are so many people in my town who look after me. I think someone told them that I don’t like cooking, because I am always being invited out to dinner! People are always asking me if I’m homesick and offering to take care of me when I’m sick or lonely. This great display of human kindness warms my heart.

Japan is also famous in the West for having a good sense of community spirit. I have found that this is true. During the O-bon festival in August, Japanese families and communities re-unite in a way that is difficult for us to do in Canada. As I mentioned before, most people in Canada don’t continue to live in the same place where they were born. Also, many of us don’t know our neighbours. However, in Tajima at least, everyone seems to know everyone else. This sense of community makes a great environment for children to grow up.

There are also some bad things that are true about Japan. I had heard that Japanese students had to deal with a lot of pressure from their parents to do well in school.
That is also true of Canadian students, but I think Japanese students have more stress. Japanese students must take an important test before they go to high school. I think that this test makes the students very stressed at a very young age. Sometimes I feel that Japanese students never get to experience a proper childhood.

But enough of the bad things. Let’s talk again about the good things. One of my Canadian friends who lived in Okinawa for three years told me that the service that you get in restaurants and stores in Japan is the best in the world. I have to agree with that idea too. When I returned to Canada for the Christmas holidays, I was surprised to notice how rude people in the service industry are sometimes. It made me homesick — for Japan! I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the good service because of Japan’s reputation for kindness and generosity.

I often wonder what Japanese people think about Canada. It would be interesting to see if a Japanese person was as surprised by Canada as I have been by Japan. I think that many Japanese people would be surprised at just how big Canada is. I think my province alone is about five times the size of all of Japan! Someday I hope to discuss such things with a Japanese person.

I guess that the most important thing for me to remember is that even though Canada and Japan are very different, they both have one important similarity: people. The people are what make a country special. Japanese people and Canadian people are very similar. Even though we don’t have the same machinery, schools, or weather, we are all capable of feeling emotions, having ideas, and sharing our dreams. I think that makes up for all the differences in the world!

An enkai is a great classroom. I have learned many things while having a nice meal with my friends and colleagues. Sometimes, I learn new Japanese words or expressions, but often, I learn many things about Japanese culture. You might think that a dinner party is the generally the same in every culture. Before I came to Japan, I never realized how different dinner parties were in Japan. I thought that eating dinner was a simple matter, but it appears I was wrong!

First of all, there are differences in the reasons for having an enkai. In Japan, I have noticed that there are enkais at the beginning of the new year, the beginning of the school term, whenever someone leaves or joins a company, whenever there is a special event (such as the Fukushima Kokutai), and of course, at the end of the year. In Canada, we don’t have so many parties with our colleagues. Usually, we only have a Christmas party (in early December). That party is usually held at someone’s house. Another difference is that all of the husbands and wives of the company’s employees will be invited. I think it’s very strange not to invite husbands and wives to enkais. I have known my fellow teachers for six months, but I don’t know any of their husbands and wives! Other than that, sometimes a few people from the same company will get together for a casual dinner at a restaurant. So, we don’t have as many enkais as there are in Japan.

Once we’ve decided to have a party, we have to decide what time it will begin and where to have it. The starting time is very important in Japan. If someone is late, then they will make everyone else wait. However, in Canada, it is OK to come late to a party. In fact, it is rude to be exactly on time! We have a saying in English, “fashionably late”. It refers to the idea that there is a good time to come to a party: definitely not early, but also not on time, and not too late. If you show up exactly on time to a party in Canada, it seems like you are too anxious for the party to begin. It is like saying to your hosts, “Hurry up!!!” If you show up just a little bit late, then you will not be rushing your hosts. As for the place, parties in Canada are often held at people’s houses. This is sometimes true for the nijikai or sanjikai in Japan, but most of the parties that I have been to in Japan have been in restaurants.

Once we’ve arrived at the party, there are some other big differences to see. In Japan, every enkai, and every special event, starts with an opening ceremony. Many people give speeches at these ceremonies. However, in Canada, we don’t usually have so many speeches. We arrive at the party and we usually find that there are snacks to be eaten. We can start to eat these snacks as soon as we arrive. These snacks are not the main meal, they are to be eaten before the meal. Also, there are many different kinds of drinks: water, juice, pop, beer, wine, and hard liquor (alcohol). Everyone eats some snacks and pours their own drinks. Everyone drinks different things. I have noticed that people usually have beer, sake, or oolongcha at enkais in Japan. Also, since Japanese beer bottles are so huge, everyone shares the beer. In Canada, we have smaller beer bottles. So, one beer bottle belongs to one person — and if you try to pour beer for someone from their own bottle, they will be very surprised! They will be even more surprised if you pour the beer from their bottle into someone else’s glass! You might be surprised to learn that sometimes we drink straight from the bottle or can. This is considered to be perfectly polite in Canada. After everyone has had a little something to eat and drink, someone might “open” the party by proposing a toast. The “toastmaster” thanks the hosts, and proposes a toast to whatever is being celebrated. The toast is not usually longer than about one minute. Then, everyone goes back to eating and drinking and celebrating. Sometime later, a meal will be served.

The meals at enkais are very different. Not only is the food different, but also the behaviour of the guests is different. Usually, a Canadian party meal will include one kind of meat, some potatoes (or rice), and two or three kinds of vegetables. There might also be some bread or dinner rolls, some pickles, and some salad. Everyone has a large plate and they fill it up with whatever they like. In Japan, everyone seems to eat the same meal, and the meal is on many different plates and bowls. One difference that I’m sure you know is that we usually use knives, forks, and spoons rather than chopsticks. However, if we have a party where Asian food is being served, we sometimes use chopsticks. This is why many foreigners can use chopsticks even though they don’t use them all the time in their country.

The differences in behaviour during meals is kind of funny. Sometimes, something that is considered very polite in Japan is considered extremely impolite in Canada. For example, in Japan, it is considered polite to lift your bowl off the table when you are eating rice or soup. In Canada, it is extremely rude to lift bowls or plates off the table when you are eating. Also, it is OK to talk with food in your mouth in Japan, but it is not OK in Canada. In Canada it is OK to lick your fingers during a meal, but it’s not OK in Japan. In Japan, people usually wander around the room and talk to the other people at the party, but in Canada, it is considered rude to leave your seat during a meal. In fact, if you are a child and you want to leave your seat during a meal, you must first ask to be excused. There are many other differences like this. This is a good time to remember that every culture has different rules, and it is important to be aware of these differences, and be tolerant of them too.

At the end of the enkai in Japan, there is usually a closing ceremony and everyone says “banzai” three times. In Canada, we are less formal. The party ends whenever everyone has left. Japanese people seem to all leave at the same time. In Canada, we don’t usually say when a party is going to end: we only say when it will begin. So, whenever anyone is tired or has something else to do, they just go home. Also, in Canada we don’t know about “enkai, nijikai, sanjikai, etc”. We usually just have a party in one place and when we are finished at that one place, we go home.

As you can see, there are many things to learn at an enkai. I find that I learn a lot more about Japanese people and Japanese culture at an enkai than I could ever read in a book. So, my advice for travellers is to try to get invited to a dinner party in the country that you are visiting!

Recently, I was invited to a setsubun festival at a shougakkou in Tajima. When my supervisor explained what happens at a setsubun festival, I laughed very hard. I thought it was a very silly idea. Then, I realized that we do a lot of crazy things in Canada too. The day of the setsubun festival was actually the same day as “Groundhog Day” in Canada. On Groundhog Day, everyone waits to find out if a groundhog came out of his hole and saw his shadow. If the groundhog sees his shadow, then summer will come soon. If he doesn’t see his shadow, then it will be a long winter. I don’t think that many people actually believe in the fortune-telling abilities of the groundhog, but it is a nice thing to think about in the middle of a cold winter.

Thinking about setsubun made me consider many other superstitions we have in Canada. I would like to tell you about some of them. Maybe some of them are the same as in Japan.

There are many things that some people think bring good luck. For example, if you find a four-leaf clover in a field, you are guaranteed to have good luck forever. A four-leaf clover is very rare, so it is considered very lucky. But, it is not just rareness that makes something lucky. There are lots of horseshoes in the world, but horseshoes are also considered lucky in Canada. It is very popular to hang a horseshoe above the door of your house or your room. You must be careful, though. A horseshoe must be hung with the ends pointing upwards. If you hang it with the ends pointing downwards, all your luck will run out the bottom!

Sometimes, we like to carry things with us that will bring us good luck. It’s not very easy to carry a horseshoe around, so we usually leave those in our houses. However, it is very common to see people carrying key chains with “lucky charms” on them. One of the most famous lucky charms is a rabbit’s foot. Believe it or not, we actually carry a hairy foot of a real rabbit (usually with the fur dyed a strange colour) along with our keys for good luck! Superstitions make us do some strange things…
It’s very interesting to see what other people consider to bring bad luck. I will tell you some of the things that bring bad luck in Canada. I think that there are similar ideas in Japan, although the objects themselves might be different. For example, the number thirteen is very bad luck. If you travel in Canada, you will probably not find any buildings with a thirteenth floor. Usually, the numbers in a building will go from twelve to fourteen, and skip thirteen.

You can bring bad luck upon yourself if you do certain things like opening an umbrella inside your house, walking under a ladder, or putting your shoes on a table. You can give someone else bad luck by forgetting to do certain things when you give them presents. If you give someone a wallet, you must put some money in it. If you don’t, you are wishing them eternal poverty. If you give someone a knife, you must put a penny on the blade. If you don’t, they will cut themselves with it.
Probably the most well-known superstition in Canada is about breaking a mirror. If you break a mirror, you will get seven years of bad luck. Another very popular one has to do with salt. If you spill salt, you must take a pinch of the spilled salt with your right hand and throw it over your left shoulder. If you don’t, the devil will travel on your back and make you do bad things.

Another kind of superstition has to do with fortune-telling. For example, if a knife falls off your table, a man will visit you soon. If a fork falls off, a woman will visit. If a spoon falls off, a baby will visit. If your ears are ringing, then someone is talking about you. If you think they might be saying something bad, you can get them back by pinching your elbow. If you do that, the person will bite their tongue! If your right eye itches, you will laugh soon. If your left eye itches, you’ll cry soon. If you kill a spider it will rain. This last one is my favourite: if you follow a rainbow to the end, you will find a pot of gold.

The last kind of superstition that I can think of is the kind that lets you get your wishes. There is a very famous way to make a wish, and that is to wish on the first star that you see in the night sky. There is a chant that goes along with that kind of a wish: “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight”. You can also get your wishes to come true by blowing out all the candles on your birthday cake in one breath. The most important rule is that you can’t tell anyone what your wish is. If you tell, your wish won’t come true.

Some of these superstitions may sound very strange to you. They sound strange to me as I’m typing them! Not many people believe very strongly in them, but they are still an important part of Canadian culture. And like I said before, you can’t get to know your own culture unless you have a good look at another one. I really didn’t think these superstitions were very strange until I started comparing them to Japanese superstitions. So, next time I think something in Japan is strange or weird, I’ll have to remember to think about something that is stranger and weirder in my own country!