Warning: this post will be long, that’s why I am dividing it into three parts. I have already talked about the contents of this post in the interview with the Black Experience in Japan channel on YouTube.
Writing this series of posts is having to relive the pain of the experience and that’s why I have been avoiding it for over 5 months now. But writing is cathartic, therapeutic even… so here we are, finally.
Before you read this, it is important to get some context and background. I came to Japan in October 2014 on a fully funded scholarship, courtesy of the Japanese government. The scholarship covers everything including a flight ticket, tuition and a monthly stipend at your university of choice in Japan. It was a great opportunity for me to do my PhD, and experience a new culture, having never lived elsewhere except in East Africa.
I was a 26 year old single parent when I came to Japan. At the time, I lived with my very loving and supportive parents. I didn’t want to leave my son behind in Kenya to be raised by his grandparents. At the same time, I couldn’t just bring him with me into the unknown. So when I first came to Japan in October 2014, I was alone. I missed him every single day but I started working towards bringing him over to join me. I was a research student for a year and in this period I got his certificate of eligibility which would enable him to come to Japan as my dependant. I also got my Japanese driving license and a car. I learned to speak Japanese in order to be able to interact with his teachers or doctors. I got him admission at the local nursery school. I moved into the family housing in the school. When I returned to Kenya the following year, I had his ticket to Japan ready.
Reunited, we finally came to Japan in late September and I officially started my PhD in JAIST, in Ishikawa Prefecture, in October 2015. After the initial hiccups (well, this is a story for another day) he settled well in the nursery school, and I started on my PhD journey while parenting single. It wasn’t easy but I had a very understanding supervisor. We quickly settled into a routine. Jeremy picked up Japanese and made friends in the nursery school, many of whom lived in the same campus. I enrolled him in piano (later we withdrew because he hasn’t got the patience although he does enjoy it), swimming (which he loved) and taiko, Japanese drumming, which he also enjoyed. Study-wise, I was progressing well. I submitted papers to 4 international conferences in Canada, France, New Zealand and even one in Las Vegas in 2018. Jeremy accompanied me to 2 of these conferences, to France and to New Zealand. Socially, we made very many friends in the local community, including our Japanese parents, the Nishikawas. Dating-wise, the game was dead but I was in rural Japan so I just vumiliad. Travel-wise, Jeremy and I and other friends went to Malaysia and South Korea, and within Japan we did go around seeing many places including Osaka, Kyoto, Gifu, Fukui, Toyama, Niigata, Noto etc.
All in all, a wholesome life. 3 years passed. I graduated with a PhD in Information Science. My whole family was here to celebrate with me.
In my final year of PhD, I interviewed with Hitachi and got an offer to join the Research and Development Group. Although I graduated in September of 2018, I decided to join the company in April 2019. That’s because I was waiting for Jeremy to graduate from nursery school so when we moved to Tokyo, we would just join elementary school with all the other first graders. The academic year in Japan starts in April.
On graduation day from nursery school, all of Jeremy’s friends were crying asking him to stay, to not leave, to not go to Tokyo.
So excuse my optimism when I packed my bags and left for Tokyo. I mean, my company sent a moving company to help me move. Since I don’t have parents in Japan to act as guarantors (real estate is a scam in Japan, but again, a story for another day), my company acted as my guarantor.
I was excited for life in the big city! I got a nice 2LDK apartment in one of Tokyo’s nicer suburbs. No more living like a student! I furnished the apartment, getting an actual bed after sleeping on a mattress on the floor for years, and one for Jeremy too, who got his own bedroom. We’d made it to Tokyo! Jeremy started school. I started working. Somehow, we got a routine down. I even got a babysitter, a very nice American lady, so I could meet my friends for drinks or even go on dates once in a while on Friday or Saturday nights.
I joined a Facebook support group for “Parents with kids in Japanese Schools” to gain insight into why the school and the PTA loved sending so many leaflets, on a daily basis! That was my biggest gripe with the school at the time! Jeremy spoke fluent Japanese by then, with English as a second language. I thought things were going well until he told me around May or June that he didn’t like going to school because there was a bully there. He didn’t want to go to school.
I asked him what the bully did. He said he sometimes kicked or punched him. Or said mean words to him. Jeremy told me this particular kid was always mean to not only him, but to other kids in the class as well.
My blood went cold. And then hot. My hands were shaking when I called the school later that day to ask about this particular kid. His name is Roy. Well, not really. I don’t know why I am protecting that shitty kid’s identity, but I don’t want any legal issues.
The homeroom teacher said they were handling it. She said they had talked to the parents and the kid was changing. She had made Roy apologize to Jeremy and had also talked to the other kids about treating Jeremy well. She said she watched them closely in the classroom and that it had stopped, and that was why she hadn’t called me before. She then apologized for causing me trouble. 迷惑をかけて申し訳ございません。I didn’t get the apology thing, it is my child, I have a right to know. I want to be informed.
As a parent, there is nothing worse than being unable to defend your child. What could I do? It was a strange landscape for me to navigate. I planned on going to the school to talk to the teacher and ask for Roy’s parents’ phone numbers and talk to them as well. What I really felt like doing was meeting the kid and shaking and threatening the life out of the shitty kid, a kind of violent fantasy that sustained me in those days. In reality, I would never do that, because when you never know what’s going on in the bully’s head or what’s happening in his home. I did tell Jeremy to hit him back as a last resort, and I struggled with this decision, but actually Jeremy is a very gentle kid in spite of his taller-than-average body build. He wouldn’t do it, I read it on his averted face. To be honest, I don’t believe in violence as a solution, and I never hit Jeremy as punishment.
Anyway, after I called the teacher, I talked to Jeremy and he said that yes, the boy had stopped the picking/punching but he sometimes sneaked in mean words. On other days, he would say that they actually played together as friends. I thought that perhaps the bully just wanted to be friends. In fact, they attended the same after school club (or gakudo 学童保育所 in Japanese), and often after doing homework, they would play together before walking home. They especially enjoyed playing dodge ball outdoors.
I began to hope that things had improved. Summer came around. I read dozens of leaflets from the school, checked homework, missed some clean-up days, participated in the mandatory neighbourhood patrol (every home with a school child has their turn), and enrolled Jeremy in the soccer club. He stopped complaining about the school. On weekends when not playing soccer, he played with other kids in the tiny park near our apartment, or sometimes we went to the bigger parks around us. On rainy days, we would ride our bikes to the community center to play there. The community center has got some sports amenities – a basketball court and pool – and a reading room. We were settling into life in Tokyo.
Before we knew it, it was July and mid-summer. Schools were closing for the summer.
I made arrangements to send Jeremy to Ishikawa for a couple of weeks. He would stay with his Japanese grandparents and get to see most of his friends who had joined the local elementary school there. On the flight from Haneda to Komatsu, we met a couple of bald-headed monks on the same flight.
“Hey.. look! Boozu!” Jeremy pointed out. Bōzu is a Buddhist monk (compare the word bonze), or in modern slang, “bald-headed”.
The monks were good-natured and asked Jeremy how old he was, impressed with his Japanese. He told them Japanese was his favorite subject. They naturally asked him if he liked school and he replied in the negative. Why, they asked.
“だっていじわる子がいるもん” There is a kid who bullies me there.
What? I had thought that whole thing was over.
Apparently not, but he had just stopped telling me about it. I would find out the reason later when school resumed.
For now, we had a break from the school, but I was now really worried and knew that when schools opened, I would have to finally go to the school and have that talk with the teacher.
As I was working, I didn’t go back to pick Jeremy from Ishikawa. Instead, he flew by himself while being taken care of by the ANA crew, who handed him over to me at the airport.
About a couple of weeks after school resumed, I got a phone call from the teacher. I was on my way back from a business trip to Ibaraki, where we had gone to visit the place where Hitachi was founded over 100 years ago.
“Do you have time to talk now?” She asked me.
I said, sure.
By the time I hang up the phone, I was shaking.