Copyright © 2015, by Don MacLaren
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Author's note: The following story, "Welcome to Japan," was originally published in the winter 2009 edition of the literary journal The Write Place at the Write Time.  The version below has been altered from that version, and all edits made since publication are completely my responsibility.

Don MacLaren​​

​Welcome to Japan

I was looking for something more in life than the life I saw while growing up in Michigan, and for as long as I can remember I’d wanted to travel beyond the shores of the Great Lakes.

The Navy offered me the only way out, and in the 1980s my ship visited Japan. I’d always been impressed by Japan’s rich history and what I thought of as a beautiful culture. Then, seeing Japan first-hand, the Japanese I met struck me as being friendly, hard-working and sincere.

However, many Americans - especially those in my home state - felt economically threatened by Japan because of Japan’s auto exports to the US. I felt differently. I thought Americans should study Japan as the Japanese studied the US. So, when I was offered a chance to work in Japan after graduating from college I jumped at the chance, and prepared to cross the Pacific as if I were making a trek to the Promised Land.


It was raining when the plane I’d boarded in Los Angeles landed at Narita Airport, outside of Tokyo, on Saturday, March 16th, 1991. The $100 in US bills in my pocket was all the money I had to my name, and I changed those bills into yen when I got off the plane. I then boarded a bus and headed for Utsunomiya - about 100 kilometers north of the airport - driving past huge factories and small plots of rice fields. I was exhausted and still hung-over from the drinking I'd done my last night in the States - finishing just a few hours before my plane took off from San Francisco to LA, for my connecting flight across the ocean I’d traversed four times previously while on an aircraft carrier in the Navy.

When the bus got to Utsunomiya it was nighttime and snowing. Mr. Konno, the man who had interviewed me on the UC Berkeley campus a few months earlier, just before I had graduated, greeted me in front of the Utsunomiya JR (Japan Railways) station, and helped me with my bags as we walked to the American Club's main school, about a block away. I sat in the office with a terrible headache as Mr. Konno went somewhere to do something about getting me a place to sleep. Finally, after about an hour he came back and we set out for the apartment I would be staying at. While driving me there he asked me if I had an international driver's license, which he had told me to get before I came to the country. "Hai," I answered him.


We got to the apartment and Mr. Konno and a slightly chubby Japanese woman, who had come with us in another car, gave me eating utensils, some food, a blanket and a Japanese futon.

"A present from the American Club," Mr. Konno said, as he handed the items to me, the preoccupied expression on his face breaking into the semblance of a smile under his receding hairline. I was very happy to get the food since I was so low on money. He told me I would be moving to Oyama, a city about 30 kilometers south of Utsunomiya and 70 kilometers north of Tokyo, and that the apartment I was going to stay in that night would only be temporary.

It's unusual to get snow in March in Utsunomiya like we did my first night there, and the snow added to the cold atmosphere of my induction. I tried to turn on the kerosene heater in the apartment to keep warm, but it was out of kerosene. After unwrapping the futon and blanket Mr. Konno had given me, I devised a system in which I kept from freezing by wrapping a towel around my head and breathing into it. I rolled the blanket around the rest of my body. Wrapped up thus, neither my breath nor body heat could escape the combination of blanket and towel, and I was therefore able to keep myself warm.

I woke up the next day about 4:00 AM and couldn't get back to sleep, which I attributed to jet lag. I lay down until the sun came up, then lifted my body off the floor, got dressed and took a walk outside. There were frozen puddles of water I stepped on just to hear them crunch and crack like I used to do when I was growing up in Michigan. I had about a half a pack of cigarettes left from the pack I'd bought in San Francisco the night before leaving for Japan, and lit one while I went for a stroll in the freezing cold. The neighborhood I was in seemed to be far away from the center of the city because there wasn't much around. Some bare plots of land I assumed were high with rice and other crops during the summer. A few houses here and there. Train tracks about 50 meters away. A few ugly apartment buildings, like the one that I was staying in. Not very pretty, but in a completely different context from the "not very pretty" neighborhood in Oakland I had come from. It was also in the country at the opposite side of the Pacific that I'd wanted to live in for years – ever since having visited it while in the Navy nine years earlier.

After my walk I came back to the apartment and cooked breakfast. Later, after eating it and taking a shower, I opened up the Japanese textbook I had brought with me and reviewed verb conjugation and memorized vocabulary for a few hours. After that I turned on the radio in the apartment, tuned it to an English-language station and listened to a British journalist speak about Japanese trade policies and the problems they created with other countries.

Later in the day I decided to try to find my way to the American Club with the car that Mr. Konno had lent me. The car had a huge sign on top of it that advertised "American Club English Conversation School" written in Japanese and noting the school's phone number. The sign made me feel a little self-conscious. Nevertheless, I got in, started it and drove, trying to find the main road Mr. Konno had driven me in on the night before.

After spending two or three hours driving around I finally found the American Club - getting lost several times and asking several people directions in my poor Japanese in the process. The last person I asked was a guy practicing his golf swing in the middle of a side street. He took a swing and told me it was where his golf ball would have landed. His daughter, about five years old, said "hello" to me. I thanked them, waved and drove off into the sunset.


A few days after I arrived in Japan Mr. Konno drove me to Oyama, where I was to live. I looked around the apartment. The tatami covering the floor was old and cut up, and the walls throughout the apartment were caked with a film of dirt. And on top of all this there was no running water. Japan seemed so clean and orderly from the outside, while looking at its surface. But in fact there was dirt inside that you couldn't get rid of no matter how hard you scrubbed, while at the same time something so basic to life as water was turned off.

Because I didn't have any water in the apartment the first few days I was living in it, I couldn't attempt to clean the film of dirt that completely covered the kitchen and bathroom walls, and I had to bathe in a public bath next to the American Club school in Oyama.

After the water in my apartment came on I scrubbed and scrubbed the walls, but to no avail. The walls seemed to be painted with a coat of dirt that spoke of despair. And alas, despair was not to be outdone by my attempts to overcome it and wipe it away. The dirt and despair seemed to come from something deep within the walls, and at the foundation of life in Japan.

A couple days after the water came on Mr. Konno came to my apartment with a large bottle of sake. "A present from the landlord," he said "for all the trouble you've had with your apartment." I was happy to have the sake. I certainly needed it, but I needed money more, so I asked Mr.. Konno if I could borrow some. He lent me 50,000 yen (about $400 at the time) and later subtracted it from my paycheck.


I was determined to make my stay in Japan productive, and from the day I arrived in the country I spent nearly all of my free time in my apartment alone, studying Japanese obsessively (except for the time I invested in taking karate classes, which I began a few weeks after arriving in Japan).

Nevertheless, despite my desire to learn Japanese, most Japanese assume foreigners in their country are incapable of attaining fluency in their language, and tend to expect foreigners to speak English with them. I refused to allow this to dissuade me in my studies though, and reasoned that if I attained a sufficient level of fluency in Japanese I could get a better-paying and more respectable job in the country than teaching English.


Shortly after arriving in the country I sat down and calculated my debts from student loans and all the credit cards I had. The debts added up to over $20,000. Thus, I couldn't afford to go out much, and in fact though I paid as much as I could every month to the credit card companies it was never enough. By the time I was in Japan a couple months, all my credit cards were cancelled, and I began getting nasty letters from my creditors telling me I was seriously delinquent in my payments.


I spent many sleepless nights my first years in Japan fretting over my debts. I was often invited to parties, but almost always declined in my first years in the country. "We're going to karaoke after work on Saturday. Are you going to come?" was a common invitation I received. The conversation generally progressed by my saying "No, thanks. I'm going to study Japanese all weekend. Besides, I don't have much money." "What the hell do you spend your money on, Don?" another teacher would say. "I'm paying off debts - credit cards and student loans," I would answer. "Student loans! Do you take those seriously? Just don't pay them. I don't," is what a teacher from Connecticut said to me one day. His words were echoed by many other gaijin I knew in Japan. (Gaijin - sometimes considered pejorative - is the most commonly used word in Japanese for “foreigner” or “foreigners.”) I would have been a lot better off financially if I had followed the advice of many people and just stopped paying student loans and credit cards, but I felt that because I'd borrowed money I had an obligation to pay it back. Instead of listening to the advice they gave me, I scrimped and lived like an ascetic monk for the greater part of six years, and dug my way out of debtor’s prison.

* * *

After the American Club went bankrupt in the summer of 1995 [1] I moved to Tokyo, where initially I slept outside in parks, or sometimes, when it was raining, at a public bath (where at that time you could sleep on a Japanese futon for a couple thousand yen (about $15-$20) or inside cheap, all-night porno theaters. Other times though, I would sleep sitting up in a seat on the Yamanote train that runs in a big circle around central Tokyo. At least once every couple days I tried to do a job of bathing myself in a public restroom in a park, by rubbing a washcloth over my face and torso. But this wasn't satisfactory. By chance I found that one of the high-class department stores in the Shinjuku district has a sink inside one of the bathroom stalls. I would lock the stall door, brush my teeth, shave, and then strip and bathe by running a wet washcloth with a little soap over my body, then later, wipe the soap film off. I did the whole operation thoroughly and quickly, never taking more than ten minutes. I made sure to leave the stall clean for the next person by drying all the water that had collected around the sink and on the floor with paper towels before I left.

I lived outside for a little over a week, then got a room in a "gaijin house" (a residence that caters to foreigners) in Sugamo, a neighborhood known for the large number of elderly people living there. My room was next to streetcar/tram tracks, one of a set of only two such tracks in all of Tokyo. The train rattled my windows in the afternoon and night when I was working on my resume, writing cover letters, reading or trying to sleep. I had bought a portable word processor from a friend when I was living in Oyama, and was using it to write with. The writing paid off because soon I got a job at an English school in Kanda, one of the business districts in Tokyo. I taught seven hours of classes a day, five days a week. However, by this time my Japanese speaking and reading skills were sufficient to work for a company other than an English school, so I continued to look for another job. I felt the next phase of my life, beginning with a new job, was meant to be a new dawn, and a promise of brighter horizons. However, the fates had conspired for the sun to rise upon a dark landscape.

I am not sure if I have it in me to relate the rest of the story, as it is one of the most unpleasant and agonizing I could have conceived of in my darkest nightmares. Suffice it to say that this new dawn ushered in a Kafkaesque journey of years navigating a twisting labyrinth of cultural truths and contradictions, struggling to keep what I knew of myself at the center of the maze. Perhaps someday, after I open a bottle of wine, courage will come to me to put pen to paper and finish the tale of my odyssey. Or perhaps the story, like the story of my life and yours, is still incomplete, and thus when it does end, I will not be alive to write the final chapter.

What I do know, is this - that somewhere along the way, as I traversed the path to the light at the end of a dark tunnel, I found myself bound and married till death, for better or worse, to the country I had crossed the Pacific to live in.

[1] In fact the American Club never did go bankrupt, but it had serious financial problems, and was taken to court twice over unpaid wages, the first time by a group led by me. That lawsuit took place in December 1994. In the version published in The Write Place At the Write Time I did not note any lawsuits take place, and had written that the International Club "...went bankrupt in the summer of 1995..."

As of April 2015 there was a Wikipedia article on the American Club, here​​.