Like father Like son

Some people wonder where I get the inspiration from to dress up as a woman…

Meet my father a.k.a. ‘Honey Bun’.

This was his costume for a recent charity fundraiser he took part in!

Peter as 'Honey Bun'

How being able to speak Japanese has changed my life in Japan

KanjiI’ve been wanting to write this little post for some time. It’s not aimed at people who are perfectly happy not using Japanese whilst living in Japan (which I think is perfectly OK). It’s aimed at those considering studying Japanese. My hope is that it provides at least one person with a little inspiration.


It’s perfectly possible to live a very happy life in Tokyo without using Japanese. Our dear friend John John managed it for 30 odd years, and never seemed to have a problem (although he did have a lot of bilingual friends willing to help out when his VCR went kaput !). I also lived in Tokyo for about a year with a very limited Japanese vocabulary. Those were happy times, and I don’t recall feeling frustrated at not being able to speak Japanese.

My Japan-related History 2003-2008 in 6 short paragraphs

Prompted by the expiration of my visa (with no hope of a renewal) and a huge amount of debt, in 2003 I left Japan and returned to the UK.

I had a simple goal: to be back to Japan within five years with a university degree that would allow me to obtain a work visa (I’d previously bought a degree off the internet for US$300 but was laughed out of Otaru Immigration office).

Once back in the UK I applied to do a foundation course – with virtually no qualifications to my name and having been out of education for 7 years I needed to learn how to learn again. One year later that was complete, and I received an offer from the University of Sheffield to study Japanese at the highly respected School of East Asian Studies.

Graduation 2008There then followed 4 really tough years of study. We started off with about 50 people in our class – 16 of us made it though to the end (above, with Nagai sensei and Kitaka sensei. Note my appallingly cheesy grin). Though though it was, it was bloomin’ marvellous, and I would recommend the course to anyone.

Last July I graduated on a Tuesday, got married to my daringu *Twinkle* on a Friday, and returned to Japan shortly after that upon receiving my spouse visa.

It took me a while to settle back in. Having rejected a job offer from GABA that I’d secured over the phone from the UK I was unsure as to what I would do for a while. Also, I’d not used my Japanese for a while and seemed to have forgotten an awful lot. It was an uncomfortable yet exciting time.

Graduation, July 2008

Being able to speak Japanese and the impact it has upon my life

It’s now just over 6 months since my return. For reasons given in my previous mumble I’m now feeling very much at home. But there’s another reason I feel a lot more at home now that I didn’t go into in that post, and that’s my ability to speak Japanese.

Why? Simply put, it gives me more choices in how I live my life.

As I sat in the meeting room above the local gym, I had a little out-of-body moment. There I was, sitting in a room of local Japanese grannies and grandads, participating in a meeting to discuss how our local park should be run.

Wow! This is pretty cool! I thought. Six years ago when I used almost nothing but English in Japan I wouldn’t have been able to participate at all. I wouldn’t even have had the choice.

At work too I’m now using more and more Japanese. As my English telephone conversation classes peter out (it’s the end of the season) so I’m doing more work on creating marketing materials. This means working with the sales team, none of whom speak much English. In meetings with my (Japanese) boss I now find it far more natural to use Japanese – wow, I’m doing business in Japanese! OK, so I make a tonne of mistakes and my keigo is going through one of those non-existent phases – but it doesn’t matter. The important thing is I can communicate (and I’m continuing to study before work to help fill the 3 billion cubic metres of room for improvement).

Yesterday, I decided that I wanted to spend some time with a friend of ours who was made homeless a couple of years back and now sells the Big Issue outside Shibuya Station (East Exit, Ogura-san). He’d not been there for months, but yesterday, in accordance with what some call coincidence, he was there as we dashed to change to the subway. I quickly arranged to meet him after work, and last night, I did. I’ll talk more about what happened on the podcast, but just to say it was an enlightening experience – and something that could never had happened had I not learnt to speak Japanese.

I can sort stuff out at the bank by myself, I can run errands for *Twinkle* (where previously I would have had to get her to run errands for me). I can volunteer to help at the local city hall, I can speak with non-English speakers at parties and bars… I can do anything that I couldn’t do before due to the language barrier.

Speaking of *Twinkle*, it gives her greater freedom too. I don’t want there to be a language barrier between us – statistics show that intercultural couples are far more likely to divorce than others, language difficulties being one of the causes. I want her to be free to choose to use the language that most suits her feelings. I want to be friends with her friends, to communicate with them on the same level as she does. I want to be able to do stuff with her that requires Japanese language skills. I don’t want to be a husband who needs constant translations and explanations, or whose input needs to be translated back for others.

(I’ll repeat here that I’m not having a go at people who don’t speak Japanese. I don’t see Japanese speakers as being in any way ‘superior’ to those who don’t. We’ve all made our own choices and we all have our own priorities, and the way we lead our lives is entirely up to us)

Life is hard enough as it is without an optional language barrier making things more challenging.

And for me personally, I have another big reason for learning Japanese: for our (as yet not-conceived) children. I feel it is very important for me that I be able to communicate with them in their native language (which is likely to be Japanese). Yes, I’ll probably be using English with them a lot of the time as well, but I never want to be in a situation (probably later on in their lives) where I can’t understand what they are trying to tell me, or where I can’t respond in Japanese if the situation suggests that that would be best.

Take away all the benefits I feel on a daily basis, and that alone is enough.

So, no matter what the time and financial costs, if you are considering learning Japanese, I’d say go for it! The pay-back is potentially so enormous that it will dwarf the initial investment.

And of course the good news is, if an idiot like me can learn Japanese, anyone can!

頑張りましょう!

Last day of the year: Looking forward to 2009 and beyond

We’re back at *Twinkle*s parents for New Years Eve, as is the tradition when in Japan. This year I won’t be drinking, following a disastrous incident last time when I, along with *Twinkle*s two sisters’ British partners devoured a whole crate of beer between us – most of it went down my throat.

I feel it’ll be a nice quiet affair this year, with lots of food and some typically silly Japanese TV.

Cycling with my wifey

*Twinkle* and I have had a good day relaxing together. Following an easy morning spent watching Indiana Jones and eating tangerines (whilst tucked under the kotastu – a heated table which sits atop a pit in the floor for putting your legs in), we headed out on the family bicycles to LakeTown, the biggest shopping mall I’ve ever seen in my entire life. This huge development is located in the middle of a bunch of rice paddies here in Saitama, and even has its own (brand new) railway station. It has about 500 shops, and thus a huge variety – on the ground floor after passing a load of fantastically original restaurants (Disneyland-style decor, but more authentic), you’ll then find a fleet of shiney Toyota family saloons. There’s a gardening section, tonnes of cutey kiddies clothing stores, two large department stores, a cinema, a gym, three Starbucks, and a row of solar panels perched on the edge of the roof (which also serves as a car park).

camouflage phone

Camouflage phone

I usually loathe shopping centres, and only ever went to MeadowHall (MeadowHell) in Sheffield in desperation when I was in need of a Mac Genius. But LakeTown surprised me. They’ve done a great job of creating a ‘nice’ space. It’s actually fun to walk around the place, and it’s so big that you can walk around looking at your iPhone without bumping into people. It has sexy interactive floor guides, and Universal Design Toilets.

The Universal Design Toilets
LakeTown Loos

What more could you ask for?

Chopsticks display

How about this for a chopsticks collection

I guess that's why they say it three times

We didn’t go there to shop though – in fact all we picked up was five pairs of slippers for the family feet (it’s blooming freezing at the mo). Instead, we spent several hours in a cafe making plans for the Tokyo Tame family’s next 1, 3, 5 and 10 years. We discussed moving house (and changed our minds once again), when the children are to be born (I guess that’ll be a guideline then), specific financial goals and more detailed goals regarding our careers. We also made promises and plans regarding use of free time.

For recharging your electric car

Electric charging station at LakeTown shopping mall, Saitama Japan

It’s really exciting to think that we can, to a certain extent, shape our own futures. The value of goal setting and future-life planning is something that we both heartely believe in, but don’t do as often as we could. This is the second year though that we’ve taken time out to make these ‘big plans’. Whilst we didn’t necessarily hit all of our targets for 2008, merely having them in mind throughout the year helped us make a lot of small decisions along the way (will this take us a little closer to our goals?).

Lucky bags on offer at LakeTown shops: Pay up to 15,000 yen (£60) for a bag, the contents of which are a mystery until after you’ve paid – hugely popular in Japan.

List of lucky New Year bags available at some of LakeTown's 500 outlets

We’ll be printing our list out and hanging it somewhere where we often see it.

On the way home from LakeTown we were fortunate to get a great view of Mount Fuji, some 100+km to the South West of Koshigaya. It’s a shame we weren’t crossing that bridge a little earlier, but still, there was enough light remaining light to cause me to gasp and shout “Mount Fuji!” when I first looked to the West.

Mount Fuji from about 100km+ (this is what happens when you shoot in low light on ISO 1600 with a Nikon D40x!)
fuji_2336