Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Random Memories #35

All of the memories I have written about so far in this series relate to time spent in Japan, but the truth is that my relationship with it began shortly after it began with my boyfriend. A lot of the things that I use to talk about my memories pre-date my ever having set foot on Japanese soil. They are the souvenirs of things that he sent me as part of our correspondence and I learned a lot about Japan through him. 

During those early days, the information I received was taken with a spoonful of sweet sugar, but the strange-tasting pill of ethnocentrism. Sometimes it was sweet, sometimes bitter, and, much of the time, just weird. We didn't understand why things operated as they did nor could we see the value in some of those differences at that time. We only knew that the rules were different for inexplicable reasons.

In the early days of my friendship with my pen pal (and future boyfriend and now husband of nearly 25 years now), he would send me packages from California with comics from the newspaper that he enjoyed taped to the back. In particular, he liked to send Bloom County and Doonesbury for their acerbic humor and social commentary. It also did something toward dressing up the bland brown wrappers that a person who had a lot of pen pals (and I had a lot, 19 at one point in my life) received. It put personality on the outside as well as the inside.

After going to Japan, my boyfriend learned that one was not allowed to paste comics on the outside of international packages. For reasons he never learned, this was forbidden. I'm not sure if this restriction still applies in this day and age or if it applied to domestic mail, but it was curious. I do know that I sent Christmas cards and letters from Japan with festive or cute stickers on them without any sort of trouble from the postal service, so it may be something about how packages were handled. Since parcels, can and sometimes are, opened by customs inspectors, they may not have wanted to hear any complaints about mutilations of designs or decorations on packages or they may not have wanted to have to cut through them.

Customs inspectors generally did not open the parcels that we sent each other, but when they did, they were very much slowed down. While I'm pleased to say that they never lost a single package, card or letter among the hundreds we exchanged (yes, hundreds - I sent him mail 4-7 times a week over 11 months), I can say that they sometimes messed up and sent things by seamail instead of airmail and airmail instead of seamail (which was awesome as it was fast and cheap). I think one reason that they rarely opened up packages to check them was that we usually used what is called "small packet" rate. This was cheaper and had a relatively low weight restriction (up to 2 kg./4.4 lbs.) so we used it all of the time. I guess they think that anyone smuggling contraband goods in and out of Japan needs more than a couple of kilos, so they wouldn't bother to open them. Parcel post, on the other hand, frequently got snagged and held back for inspection.

As is often the case these days, most parcels were sent using a postage meter instead of stamps. The stamps you see here are rare ones from the time we were exchanging correspondence from 1987-88. I cut them off and kept them because he usually went the metered route or used the same stamp design again and again (the one above this paragraph) because they were what he was sold when he went to the post office and didn't specifically ask for special stamps. Also, most of the "pretty" stamps were designed for domestic mail and he'd have to paper too much of the front of a package to get enough total to send a parcel abroad.

This picture was taken in 1987 shortly after my boyfriend went to Japan. Here he is sending me a parcel at the Kitasenju post office, so I could see what he was doing early and often for my benefit. 
(Sorry for the censorship, but my husband's adorable visage, even an outdated one, cannot be revealed.)

Sometimes I think back on those days and remember just how important understanding all of the ins and outs of the postal service was for us and how hard it was for my boyfriend to negotiate them. I also think back on that time as a time when Japan was the same thing to me that it is to most people, a faraway place from which I got correspondence with interesting stamps and that I never expected to go to. Twenty-two-year-old me would never have believed that her future would include living there for 23 years. Life does take you places that you'd never expect to go. 


  1. As a person who has had penpals over the world, I treasure my stamps. Lately I have started making things out of the stamps instead of hoarding them in a pile. I donated some pretty handmade bookmarks with made with Chinese stamps not too long ago.

    1. My father used to collect stamps and at one point had a valuable collection. I didn't save many of them really, save the ones that are on the plethora of letters and postcards that I got from my boyfriend. However, I think they are a wonderful form of art and that it's a great idea to make things from them!

  2. I really would like you to write longer, more general pieces about Japan like this one. I am hooked on your writing ;-)

    Especially how you managed to live in Japan for 23 years. I will only be living here for a little over two years, but I can't wait to go home and would do so today if my job wasn't in danger back at home if I did so.

    The "honeymoon" for me lasted about 6 months. Since then, I am really creeped out by this country and its people. Did you ever feel creeped out by the Japanese? I mean in a "they are a hive mind and have never really overcome their fascist past" kind of way?

    The aversion to Japan I have is very profound. Often "cultural differences" simply mean things like "I like the food", or "I won't step on Tatami with my shoes", but in Japan, there are differences in the very basic things like not being able to trust people because they never say what they really mean.

    My only way to cope is to leave the house as little as possible (ironically, I've become a Gaikokujin Hikikomori), and count the days until my final departure from Narita.

    Have you ever had the feeling in these 23 years of "I got to get out of this place NOW", and if so, how did you cope? I am really looking for ways to make the remaining months here fun, and get over my current trauma.

    1. Thanks for reading and I'm glad you're hooked on my writing, Stephan! Every Wednesday, I do one of these pieces. I wish I had time for more, but this is all I can manage for now. Eventually, I want to put all of these types of things together for a book, but that's going to take even more time which I presently do not have. ;-)

      I should write a full piece to answer your question, but my feelings were similar to yours after a similarly brief "honeymoon". I wasn't so much creeped out though as just plain angry at being objectified and marginalized all of the the time.

      The "hive mind" thing also used to really bother me because sometimes it felt like you were dealing with robots who had been programmed, especially among the older generation. It took me many years to understand that they operated within a context that I did not and that they had a choice to make about how they navigated (and survived) in a culture with a heavier emphasis on conformity. I think knowing the security and comfort that came from their way of thinking as well as the more negative aspects helped me reach peace with it. Finding the "yin" after only seeing the "yang" for so long opened my mind to things.

      Coming from a Western culture in which people are more free-thinking made it hard to see this for a long time, but I did come to see it with age. Thinking alike has immense societal benefits as well as enormous personal consequences which can be painful. Knowing Japanese people, for the most part, espoused a philosophy and a thinking style that they weren't entirely happy with also helped. They play the game, because they have to and because there is a huge price to not doing so, but they don't necessarily like it. Some question it more than others. Some hate it more than others, but there's a more nuanced situation going on than I could initially see.

      I lived much as you did for quite some time in terms of leaving the house as little as possible. I really get that more than I can convey in words. My "gaijin bubble" was a sanctuary from a world that I found very troubling at times, but I reframed it over time to see it as something I could exist within without allowing it to bother me. I learned to accept it as alien, but non-threatening.

      I absolutely felt more than once that I had to get out "now", but I coped with it by developing a stronger sense of who I am and by understanding better who Japanese folks were and why they did what they did and seeing how some of those things were present in all cultures to varying degrees.

      Ironically, the not being able to trust people because they never say what they mean was one of the biggest issues when I first arrived. As a person who was often blunt and straightforward (and still does not fear confrontation), I found it irritating, disingenuous, and infuriating to be mislead, lied to, or have every bush beat around. Later, I figured out why this happens and stopped "blaming" and judging them for doing it.

      For every aspect, I learned to cope by understanding, and part of what this blog reflects is that process on many levels. Given that there is so much to say on this topic, I will probably go ahead in the following weeks and address some of these points. In fact, I already had one in mind about people not saying what they mean, and your question is a good catalyst to write that post for next week.

      Thanks again, and hang in there. It can get better. If you want to "talk", feel free to e-mail me and I'll try to help you more specifically.


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