Nov 27

Wicked jet lag….

I left Japan three weeks ago. Most days it seems utterly surreal that I spent an entire month living my life on another continent. Before I left I titled this trip: Japan: Then & Now.”  Here’s my first attempt at that (unfulfilled) promise of regular blog posts!

Everyone’s asked “What’s changed?  What’s different?”  I’ve been leafing through random notes in my journal hoping to find a concise answer.  Mostly I stammer, unable to put so many layers of feelings into words.  I blame it on the jet lag–confusion, disorientation, that sort of thing.  But truth be told, not much has changed in Japan but for what’s it worth, here are my three standouts:

First, I was pleasantly surprised to see disabled persons living full lives out and about in their community.  When I first moved to Japan twenty years ago, I never saw a wheelchair.  Canes were for elderly women who wielded them to jump the queue in subway lineups.  I began to wonder if perhaps there were no disabled persons in Japan but I was set straight within days of my arrival.

Circa 1994…as a brunette!

I was given the opportunity to speak  to an adult English Club whose members were keen to learn about Canada.  As part of my self- introduction, I talked about my family, which included my personal experience as a single mom of a disabled boy.  After my lecture I noticed a woman quietly waiting in the corner.  The translator took her by the elbow and walked her to me.  Through translation I learned that this woman had a 30-something son who had never been outside their home in the daytime.  His disability was considered shameful. We both fought back tears as I tried to comfort and give her encouragement.  She bowed deeply, thanking me over and over, backing up slowly as she moved towards the door.  I was overcome with emotion, realizing just how much my words had affected her.  I thought about her a lot during my stay hoping that her life was now filled with joy and freedom.



Upgraded potty.

Another plus: Western-style wheelchair-friendly washrooms were everywhere.  Back in the day (1994-2000) one was hard pressed to find a western toilet in shops or restaurants.  Over time I put together my personal “western toilet location guide” that I carried around in my head when I was out and about.

Posted priority seating signage on subways is not merely a suggestion, as you can still find the able-bodied of all ages plunked down in them, scrolling their iPhones.  Armed with my cane, I was equipped to convince those who couldn’t read to give up their seat either to me, or someone else who needed it!  It happened every time I rode the train.  I was elated to find elevators in subways allowing everyone access to train travel.



Mari-san loves cats!

Mari-san loves cats!

My second surprise was finding more people speaking English–train station masters, fully bilingual electronic signage, even some clerks in my favourite department store could get by with English (just as I ‘got by’ with my version of Japanese!). The day after arrival I found myself having trouble asking for details at the local family restaurant.  Sensing my frustration a young Japanese woman sitting across from me asked “May I help you?”  Over time we met casually and became friends.






Rounding out my top three has to be the difference on the street.  Noise.  Joyful noise.  And not just the young, although this guy had a ton of fun trying to scare me.  Laughter.  Colorful clothing on people of all ages.  Children no longer hiding behind mother when they encounter a foreigner.  In fact, most of them used the opportunity to greet me in English!  A big change, for sure.





I realize now I need to add a fourth change. Me.  Over time I began to pay attention to my actions and reactions.  Was there frustration?  Sure.  Confusion?  Sometimes.  But returning to the familiar gave me a sense of belonging.  I had ties to this country.  I knew how to “be” here; how to take the train, buy a stamp, order a meal, look after my needs. Every day  I was greeted by others in my neighbourhood.  It felt great.  I was known and accepted.

I wonder if they miss me?



1 comment

  1. Jacquie

    Very inspiring to hear how you picked up and went to a new country 20 years ago & interesting to read your “then and now” experiences (especially the experience with the mom).

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