Blending in with the crowd

While John Barbara attended a festival on a cold snowy day in

By John Barbara
Special to The Dispatch
W hat have I gotten myself into?
That thought has crossed my mind more than once since I packed
my bags last August, said goodbye to my family and friends and
hopped on a plane bound for Tokyo.
By John Barbara

Special to The Dispatch

W hat have I gotten myself into?

That thought has crossed my mind more than once since I packed my bags last August, said goodbye to my family and friends and hopped on a plane bound for Tokyo.

At some point during the 12-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean, I realized that I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. My home for the next year of my life was going to be a country where I didn’t know a single person, couldn’t speak the language and was completely ignorant of the history and culture.

It was just by random chance that I had seen the ad for the position of “Coordinator of International Relations for Gilroy’s sister city in Takko-Machi, Japan.” My life, however, has completely changed because of it.

I was born 24 years ago in Gilroy’s old Wheeler Hospital and have been an area resident for most of my life. I moved to Walla Walla, Wash., for four years while attending Whitman College, where I received a bachelor’s degree in political science before returning to live in Morgan Hill. A year ago in April of 2002, I was browsing The Dispatch Classifieds when I happened upon the ad for the CIR position. I had no idea what the job was, nor was I even aware that Gilroy had a sister city in Japan. However, just the thought of living in Japan for a year was exciting, so on a whim I sent my resume and a one-page essay to Takko-Machi and hoped for the best.

On a warm Sunday morning a few weeks later, I was seated at a table in the small teacher’s lounge at Brownell Elementary being interviewed by Sam and Judy Bozzo, Elaine Bonino and Mark Goodrich, a former CIR. As the interview began, they first asked “What would I do the first day on the job?”

I responded, “Well, I’m not sure. I don’t really know what a CIR is.”

They explained that each CIR is hired by the town of Takko-Machi for one year and facilitates the cultural exchange between Gilroy and the city. This includes organizing annual trips for both Gilroy and Takko-Machi residents to visit their sister city.

The job also entails teaching English and American customs at several schools in Takko-Machi and attending official town functions. The benefits of the job include a rent-free apartment, several free trips between Japan and the U.S., a good salary and being the guest of honor at countless celebrations, festivals and parties.

A few weeks later I received a phone call from Julie Della Maggiora, then the current Takko-Machi CIR, telling me I had been chosen for the job. I couldn’t believe it, and my heart was beating so fast I could barely talk. After hanging up, the realization of what I was getting myself into began to set in, and I was nervous yet exhilarated at the same time. I had no idea of what to expect in the coming year, but I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I was not going pass up.

As the pilot announced that we were making our final descent, I took a deep breath and thought, “All I can do now is take it one day at a time, stay open-minded, and hope for the best.” This turned out to be a very important attitude to have when traveling or living in Japan.

The first night at my new apartment, my next-door neighbor invited me to eat dinner with her family. I happily accepted and began to look up how to say “good evening” and “delicious” in my Japanese-English dictionary.

A couple of hours later, there was a knock at my door and I answered it to find my neighbor’s daughter who had come to tell me that dinner was ready. She spoke a little English and I found out that she lived with her husband and two children in Sapporo, which is more than six hours from Takko-Machi. I asked why she was in town and she said to visit her mother and to meet me. I was thrown off by this last comment since I had no idea why someone would travel that far to meet her mother’s new neighbor.

A few minutes later I was even more surprised as other guests began arriving. Soon, there were 10 people sitting cross-legged on the tatami (woven rice straw) mats around the zataku (low Japanese dining table). The guests included a local doctor, a retired mayor of Takko-Machi, two farmers and several other prominent members of the community. All of them had come to meet me, and I later learned that my arrival dinner had been planned for weeks. I was shocked but have since discovered this is the type of greeting an American should expect when traveling to Japan.

The Japanese are infatuated with American culture. American customs and English comprehension are a part of every Japanese child’s education starting in kindergarten. This focus on the U.S. was initially just to improve business relations between the two countries but has turned into a popular trend in Japan. American name-brand clothing, music, movies and anything else that has to do with the U.S. is seen as kak-koii (cool) by many Japanese (especially the younger generations). This also means that any American in Japan usually gets to enjoy a sort of celebrity status.

Outside of the major cities, people rarely get the opportunity to see, let alone meet an American or any other foreigners. Because of this, I’m definitely a public figure in Takko-Machi, and it has made life here very interesting to say the least. From the first moment I arrived, everyone in town knew who I was and wanted to meet me. All of the people I passed on the street would introduce themselves and many would invite me to eat at their homes. I received so many invitations that sometimes I wouldn’t have a free day for several weeks at a time. Small children would stare wide-eyed at me like they were looking at some alien being that had just dropped into their town while high school girls would giggle uncontrollably whenever I’d say konnichi wa (hello).

In fact, on several occasions both in Takko-Machi and other towns I have visited, I’ve been swarmed by squealing teenage girls begging for autographs and a chance to take pictures with me. It always starts the same way, with a huddled group whispering and giggling together and casting frequent glances in my direction. Then, with a lot of urging from her friends, one girl will get up the courage to walk over to me and introduce herself in broken English she has learned at school. Next comes the inevitable “sign please,” as I am handed a jacket, book, backpack, school binder or some other article and a pen. As soon as I sign my name, I am instantly surrounded by a voracious horde of screaming girls pushing, pulling and climbing over one another to get close enough to thrust something towards me to autograph. It is total chaos, and the first couple of times it happened I couldn’t believe what was going on.

Any American who visits or lives in Japan should expect to “stand out” and definitely receive a lot more attention than they are used to back home. Don’t be the least bit surprised if people ask you to pose with them for a picture, ask you to sign an autograph or randomly stop you to try out their English. It will happen, especially outside of the major cities, where some locals go their entire lives without meeting a foreigner. Just go along with it, enjoy your newfound fame and everyone will be happy.

Not only do the Japanese people want to learn everything they can about America, they are very anxious to share their culture with foreigners. Japan has a rich cultural history, and, although it is one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world today, the past is kept very much alive. Holidays, festivals, dances, songs and ceremonies which were practiced hundreds of years ago are still just as important to the Japanese people today. However, as an American, don’t expect to be just a casual spectator at these events. Most of the time, you will be invited to experience Japanese tradition first-hand.

After my first week in Takko-Machi, I was invited to attend the Obon Matsuri (Festival of The Dead). It is believed that for three days the spirits of the dead come back to earth and can visit their families. During this time, family members visit the graves of the deceased and bring gifts of food, candy and alcohol for the spirits while they are on earth. Torches and bonfires are lit each night to guide the spirits. On the last day of the festival everyone gathers at the temple for the Nanyadora dance to say goodbye to the spirits until the next year.

I met my new friends who had invited me to the annual event. It was the last night of the festival and a large crowd was already visible as we approached the gates to the large Buddhist temple. After a quick stop at the family graves to lay out rice balls, sake (rice wine) and other goodies for the deceased, we made our way over to the large courtyard in front of the temple.

People were milling around, casually talking and drinking sake. Suddenly, a woman’s voice rang out through a microphone and was immediately answered by a man’s voice which completed the chant which translates to, “What should we do?,” “Do anything you want.” Then, four sets of Taigo Drums simultaneously pierced the humid night air with their rhythmic pounding and the entire square came to life.

The first few minutes of the Nanyadora, I was completely mesmerized as more than a hundred dancers wearing ceremonial yukattas (Japanese robes) moved in perfect rhythm to the hypnotic beat of the drums. Each intricately patterned and brightly colored yukatta gracefully billowed, twisted and flowed with the graceful movements of the dancers as they made their way around the circle. I couldn’t believe how well each dancer moved in perfect rhythm with all of the others, from the youngest children to the most elderly members of the community. It was pure poetry as the two chanting singers, the drummers and the hundreds of coordinated dancers all complimented each other in perfect harmony.

My awe-filled observance was soon ended as a random dancer spotted me outside the circle and ran over. I couldn’t understand a word she said but the meaning was clear: I had to dance. I could hear some cheers of approval from the crowd as I joined the circle but all my attention was focused on forcing my awkward body to perform a rough imitation of the dancers around me. Soon, several cable television crews noticed me in the circle and recorded my every cumbersome step to be seen all over the country.

As the music and dancing continued, more people continued to arrive and join the dance. After an hour, the large courtyard was packed and the dancers began to overflow into the street. By this point, the dancing combined with the hot night air and ample amounts of sake, which were passed to me by excited spectators, began to take a toll and I thought I’d rest a minute. When I stepped out of the circle though, it was quickly explained to me that once you start the dance you have to go till the end. “Well, when will that be?,” I hesitantly asked. “Maybe two hours more,” was the casual response. As I reclaimed my spot in the circle and continued dancing, the only thought I had was, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Almost four hours after the dance started, the chanting and drums stopped as suddenly as they had begun and applause burst forth from the entire crowd. Presents were distributed to various dancers who had been chosen by a judge as the best performers of the evening. Then someone grabbed me and led me to the podium where the two chanters had stood during the dance. After a brief speech by the chairman of the event, I was handed a large package and told that I received the “special gift” for my participation in the ceremony. I didn’t know what to say but managed a “domo arigato,” (thank you very much) and the crowd erupted in applause.

As I walked back to my apartment carrying my gift, every person I passed bowed and said “komban wa” (good evening). I couldn’t help but smile. I was a complete stranger but had been accepted by the community without hesitation. In a week’s time I had made many friends, and everyone I met had gone out of their way to welcome me. I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into by moving to Takko-Machi for a year, but one thing was certain. As long as I was in The Land of the Rising Sun, I could count on the unconditional generosity and hospitality of the Japanese people to make me feel at home.