[Op-Ed] Lessons in Neighbourliness, a Labour of Love from Japan
Friday, October 25, 2019
New in town and need to build a support network? Start with your neighbour!
The first time I learnt about my new neighbour or kinjo no hito, it was through a thoughtful notice from a colleague. You see, I had just moved to small-town Hasami in suburban Nagasaki and was put up by the Board of Education at a two-storey, teachers’ housing complex a short walk away from my schools.
“She will be coming up to meet you soon. She wants to explain the garbage disposal system to you.”
“Oh, okay, thank you.”
Hide-san didn’t show up until a couple of weeks later and I forgot about the matter altogether. One evening, when she finally did come by, I heard hurried footsteps scurrying along my corridor before my doorbell rang, surprising me. I wasn’t even a month old to the town and barely knew anyone outside of work; I certainly wasn’t expecting company!
“Ha-----i!” I yelled, as I went scurrying in return.
There she stood – a petite homemaker, the greys of her hair shyly making themselves known. She was decked out in her trusty apron – in her element, as I would come to realize, a sample each of the colour-coded trash bags and a neatly folded copy of the information poster tucked snugly under her arm. She smiled hesitantly and introduced herself, unsure about her English ability as I tried to respond in beginner’s Japanese, stumbling just as much but less conscious of it than she.
Make an effort to speak to your neighbour in Japanese. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know much. Just try anyway, and smile. It’s highly likely that you’ll be acknowledged in kind, and improve in turn. Over time, formality will wear away for both of your mistakes to become learning points.
The entire time that she patiently detailed the right way to trash and recycle waste, Hide-san remained planted on the boundary of my doorstep, clearly uncomfortable to step up beyond my genkan. We hovered by my shoe cupboard in the compact square as she explained, while I snuck embarrassed glances at the tangled mess of footwear, wishing they would disapparate. Looking up I realized in horror that the partition panels to my living hall and bedroom were drawn wide open, exposing a crime scene. I inched to angle my body as a blockade, desperately tugging at the panel within reach. It stood stubbornly encased in frame.
Always keep your house clean (or at the very least neaten up your genkan –the ‘entryway’), and shut the partition panels to your inner rooms. You never know when your neighbour can turn up unannounced.
Hide-san kept her eyes trained on the material, seemingly intent on conveying the critical know-how for me to fit in as a mindful resident of this small community. She left me no clue as to whether her aversion was of polite manner or if she had taken any notice of my untidiness at all. But having her over and basic awareness of Japanese culture was enough for a mental chiding on my part. I would have to be better prepared for unannounced visits in the future.
Several minutes later we were done, and I thanked Hide-san for her generosity in sharing, closing the door behind her carefully.
A work orientation lecture came to mind: as foreigners, we are told to be wary of the Japanese custom of give-and-take; a stringent rule whose oversight could very well lead to passive-aggressive behaviour by the thwarted local.
It bore on me that somehow, I would have to return the favour.
And so a week or so later, having just returned from a work event in the city, I found myself at Hide-san’s door with a gift-wrapped box of Nagasaki kasutera cake in my hands. She answered and in one smooth motion pulled the door shut from behind. But for a glimpse of lacy drapes, I caught nothing.
Hide-san wasn’t ready to receive me; her surprised expression told me so. And by the look of sheer horror that it morphed into, she clearly wasn’t prepared to accept my gift either.
I got confused, apologetic almost, for what I thought was the appropriate thing to do. Had I got it all wrong?
She begrudgingly took the omiyage at my insistence and saved herself with a mini eureka –
“Mamuta-san, momo suki?” It was August – peach season. I love peaches.
I lit up. “Yes!”
“Please wait here.”
She snuck back in through the crack that she opened, shutting the door again with as skilled precision. An unmistakable boundary was emerging as quickly as she did with a bagged peach, looking rather pleased with herself.
I accepted without hesitation – thrilled to sink my teeth into my treat and relieved more than anything, to have had the tension diffuse. Phew!
Respect the private/public boundary that most Japanese are particular about maintaining. Don’t overstep by inviting yourself in and certainly don’t expect any invitation to come inside anytime soon. Wait politely at the door instead. When you do make the invite list, you know you’ve successfully graduated. Even so, formalities do persist and should be adhered to. Err on the side of caution, always.
As time went by, the carefully restored balance that I had barely managed to strike with Hide-san went into complete shambles. I found myself more often than not at the receiving end of her mercy, sinking rather speedily into debt of growing obligation, struggling, as to how I could give back in kind. I had no car to give her a lift back, no fancy machines in my sad kitchen to return her fresh and fluffy loaf of homemade walnut bread, and not enough knowledge of the language to communicate the extent of my deep, earnest, and increasingly pained gratitude towards all her acts of kindness.
My bows became more dramatic and I developed a persistent headache from the drain I felt thanks to our lopsided relationship. I soon found myself dodging her, and I hated it.
But as even more time went by, and Hide-san’s gracious hospitality met a routine exchange with my grand bursts of humility, she also began to ease up. She would practise her English more freely with me on our weekly ride to the supermarket, asking me questions about my background that I would happily respond to. She took care of me when I was down with the flu – running up with cling-wrapped bowls of miso soup, oden, kitsune udon, and the like, for nights in a row, so that I could rest and not have to worry about food. In return, I started filling her tupperware with generous portions of imported basmati rice from the precious parcel I otherwise saved for serious bouts of homesickness.
Hide-san became my own personal town-news anchor. She’d warn me of snakes loitering in our carpark and remind me of the monthly recycling date. She comforted me when we lost heating in the wake of a major power outage we suffered one stormy winter night, and she became my emergency evacuation liaison when the vast paddy fields all around us went under during the tsuyu floods. Hide-san swept cobwebs off the railings of my verandah and taught me the tale of how mukade travel in pairs; she discarded the odd objects I didn’t know how to dispose of and dragged my fat futon to a laudromat so that I could sell it. She even worked with me on my presentation for a Japanese speech contest, agreeing to a recording of her reading so that I could get my intonation right. She did a dramatic reading of it too, blushing profusely and waving me off when I praised her at the end.
And I became her personal English tutor, and her friend. I listened to her stories about her family, commiserating and sharing in her joys. I made her try spiced and ghee-clad Indian dishes, which she gamely ate. After she came running up in Snoopy pyjamas to attend to a mukade bite scare this one time, I bought Hide-san and her family Snoopy towels as my parting gift. Cooking for her, helping her with the groceries to her door, posting her letters written in child-like Japanese from my various travels, became natural and heartfelt expressions of gratitude. It was no longer about restoring the balance; it had become an effortless desire to just give.
The week before I left Hasami, I spent my last day of nenkyuu gallivanting with Hide-san. When we got to her car, she lifted her boot to hand me a chilled bottle of Oronamin C – my favourite energy drink. She had four sitting in an ice-box to keep me hydrated through the hot summer day.
My last weekend was a busy one for Hide-san. She had prepared a lavish farewell feast for me at her home, spanning days of meticulous planning, checking in with me using a maru-batsu-sankaku system to gauge my preference for the many dishes she’d listed out. Of course, it went without saying that homemade gyoza and warmed up sake were staples. She had stopped drinking sake for some years now but she drank that night over dinner, just to give me company.
Hide-san was the last person I said bye to before I boarded my train out. She insisted on driving me to the station in the neighbouring town (Hasami doesn’t have one of its own), and then stubbornly refused to leave till my train arrived when I requested for her to go. I stood my ground, my voice cracking but firm.
“This is why,” I replied, pointing to my tears. Her eyes went wet and she rummaged through her purse, removing a letter.
I hugged her smack in the middle of the station – not a common sight in Japan, where emotions too must be kept in check to abide by public/private decorum.
She hugged me back and then quietly nodded in understanding, walked away to her car and left.
Here's what I learnt about neighbourliness in Japan, in my one year with Hide-san: the Japanese custom of give-and-take gradually evolves from a calculative balancing act, to a genuine exchange with absolute disregard for juggling, if you let it.
I turned towards the platform and prayed that the letter was in English.
It was four full pages of scribbled out Japanese, with tons of kanji thrown into the mix.
I groaned, not knowing whether to laugh or to cry. So I did both.
Futon – bedding mattress
Genkan – entryway or hallway
Gyoza – dumplings, typically pan-fried, with a cabbage and minced pork filling
Oden – a stew of several chunky ingredients like tofu, boiled egg and fishcake in light soya broth
Omiyage – literally ‘souvenir’ or gift-giving more generally, at the heart of Japanese customary give-and-take
Kanji – a complex Japanese calligraphy script that derives from Chinese written characters
Kasutera – ‘castella’, a sponge cake introduced to Nagasaki by the Portuguese
Kinjo – neighbourhood; kinjo no hito – literally ‘person of the neighbourhood’
Kitsune udon – a light broth noodle dish, typically topped with fried tofu, fishcake and scallions
Maru-batsu-sankaku – literally ‘circle-cross-triangle’, referring to a ‘yes-no-maybe’ system of gestures
Miso – a popular Japanese seasoning made from fermented soybeans
Momo suki – literally ‘peaches like’, or in question form – ‘do you like peaches’
Mukade – a poisonous centipede, typically found to have a black body and red pincers, common in Japan particularly during the rainy season
Nenkyuu – annual leave
Sake – Japanese rice wine
Tatemae – the Japanese cultural duality of presentation or façade versus true, heartfelt intent
Tsuyu – rainy season in Japan, usually from June to September
About the Author
Born in Kobe and left my soul behind when I moved to Singapore, cradled by the valleys of suburban Nagasaki, in a magical pottery town called Hasami, from which I've newly returned after working as an English teacher at the local high/elementary schools. Japan has given me so much, it'll take a lifetime's worth to keep giving back. This is but one way.