Arigato, Japan, for Thirty Years

The sight of huge gaudy billboards, one next to another, advertising some of the biggest names in Japanese electronics: Sony, Panasonic, Fujitsu — that was my first image of Japan. That was how Japan presented itself on the world stage back in the 1980s, and several decades later that is still the strongest memory I have of the country I’ve long called home.

The date was 23 December 1986, exactly 30 years ago today. It was the day I first arrived in Japan.

The place was the former Osaka International Airport in the city of Itami in western Japan. I had just come of out of the terminal building on that chilly winter afternoon, and there across the airport parking lot were those big billboards, crammed together in sardine-like fashion, just as everything else in Japan seemed to be. I was mesmerized by all the sights and sounds of the Land of the Rising Sun, taking in all the minutest details.

Memories of that first day are burnt deep into my memory and I guess they will always be there. Which makes this day as good a time as any to look back on the three decades that have passed since then, reflect a bit on the road traveled thus far, and extend thanks where it is due.

I had quit my job as a newspaper editor-in-chief in a small central California town in the United States back in late 1986, with dreams of “making it big” somewhere out there in the world. I yearned to be writing stories about politics, economics and social issues at the international level. Japanese friends from the university I had attended persuaded me to give Japan a try. So I did. I left behind my most prized possession in life — my electric typewriter, what else? — with my girlfriend at the airport in Los Angeles, left behind my beloved Japanese-made Honda Civic car with my mother, and didn’t look back. I never saw the car or the typewriter (or the girlfriend) again.

Once in Japan, I stayed at the home of one of those Japanese university friends for a couple weeks, high up in the mountains overlooking the port city of Kobe. I got busy typing up job résumés on a manual typewriter in a cold, unheated downstairs anteroom of their suburban home, before striking out on my own into Japanese society a couple weeks later. I spoke and read almost no Japanese. But I still had those dreams of making it big, and was determined to do whatever it took to get ahead.

I lived at a gaijin (foreigner) guest house in Kyoto for a while that first winter, having as a bunkmate some young guy named Mark from Auckland, New Zealand, who was selling jewelry and other trinkets on the streets of downtown Kyoto — with permission from the local Japanese yakuza underworld syndicate, of course.

It was there at the Greenpeace guest house (no relation to the environmental group) where a phone message first came through to me from Tokyo via the Japan Times, one of the four English-language daily newspapers in the country at the time. They had received one of my job résumés in the mail and were interested in interviewing me for a full-time position as a news reporter — the first full-time staff reporter of theirs, as it turned out, to be permanently based in Japan outside of Tokyo. Was I interested in coming in for an interview? It seemed The Force was with me.

A top priority for me at the time, aside from work, was getting out of Kyoto, a city known as much for its severely cold winters as for its historical charm, as quickly as possible. I soon relocated to warmer climes in the countryside of southern Osaka Prefecture, where rice paddies were everywhere. I stayed as a kind of boarder in the home of some quite unusual Japanese people in exchange for teaching English at their small private language school (which happened to be located just above a pub they also owned).

Their two-story residence where I was boarding — the “Psycho House”, as I called it — resembled something out of an old Alfred Hitchcock horror movie, especially on windy evenings when the old metal gate in front of the house would get to creaking. Also helping the Psycho House to earn its moniker were a couple of other gaijin boarders at the time: an obnoxious guy from Italy, who used to keep everyone in the house awake by cranking up his electric bass guitar amp late into the night, and a dishonest young woman from Australia, who ended up ripping off some money from me. In fact, the only “normal” thing about living there in southern Osaka seemed to be the rice paddy just outside the window of my tiny second-floor room, a field that lulled me to sleep every night with the peaceful symphony of a thousand chirping crickets. Ah, Japan. I was falling in love with my new home.

I got hired at the Japan Times Osaka office and was covering international events, just as I had always dreamed of doing. And here I was, only in the country for a few months! I dived head-first into my Japanese-language studies as a matter of survival more than anything else, and kept on pushing ahead. I got an apartment of my own closer to downtown Osaka and was enjoying life as a single, young professional man in a big city full of young available women.

From there, I went on to report as a stringer in Osaka for the Tokyo bureau of the United Press International (UPI) wire service and as a full-time reporter and editor for a couple of other Japan-based English daily newspapers. By the time I had left the newspaper business for good around 1995, after more than a decade in the field, I had reached the top of the mountain, so to speak, by working for the Japanese daily newspaper with the highest-ranking circulation in the world. There was nowhere higher to go.

I was disillusioned with the dirtiness of the daily newspaper grind, both in Japan and the U.S., and had to get out of it for good. But luckily I kept my faith in journalism as an honest source for telling the truth and changing society for the better. I’ve continued working over the years as a so-called independent journalist (versus, I suppose, a “dependent journalist”, as a Japanese corporate media person once described himself to me), and have found opportunities in both journalism and higher education to combine the best of both worlds. It’s a good place to be when you reach middle age and find that you’re hitting your stride as a writer and educator, and that some of your best work still lies ahead of you.

So, would I ever go back to the United States? The short answer: Hell no! The long answer: Maybe just for visiting, but certainly not to live and work. In the Age of Trump that lies ahead of us, I do not envy my fellow U.S. citizens; they’ve got some tough times ahead. We all do, since the reach of the USA is now worldwide and leaves no region or nation untouched. We just carry on the good fight from wherever we happen to be in this world. I intend to contribute to the good fight from right here in Japan through the power of the written word.

Not counting a few detours along the way, the Kansai area of western Japan has been my home continuously for 30 years. I’ve lived, worked, loved and grown here, and married and raised a family of my own here. When it’s my time to leave Planet Earth, I guess I’ll probably depart from right here. But I’ve got many more good years still left in me, with much more work to be done, and I’m looking forward with positivity to the future. And I have Japan to thank for all this. It has been a long, eventful journey indeed, and one I would not have traded for anything else in the world.

To all the acquaintances, friends, family and other connections I have made along the way these past 30 years: The only thing left to do is offer a deep respectful, Japanese bow and convey to you a heart-filled Domo arigato gozaimashita. Thank you so very much for the chance to pursue my dreams through my work, with all the ups and downs that has entailed, for sharing those experiences with me, and in the process, helping to give me a new lease on life. May the next 30 years be even better.

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