Tips for Kenyan Students Coming to Study in Japan, Part 2

Part 1 is here. 

On social life, dating and relationships

It will be lonely at first. You may want to talk to your friends and family, but the time difference might make it hard to be in contact all the time. It might take time to make friends, and even then, your friends might be busy with their studies and/or part-time jobs.

Alcohol is expensive in bars and clubs, but very cheap in supermarkets and convenience stores. But don’t stock up on alcohol to drink at home alone. It can become a habit. Do not drink too much.

Dating will be hard if you are a woman. It’s easier if you are a man. Japanese women are more confident and won’t mind being out with a foreigner. “They” say Japanese women are very “meek” as girlfriends but when you get married, the script is flipped and she is in charge. It is common and expected in Japanese households for the women to control the finances and make all the life decisions regarding basically everything. You are expected to hand over your salary and she’ll budget it and give you pocket money.

You’ll find yourself downloading Tinder and trying out online dating, something you’ve never had to do because of the deep social ties you have in your country; or the ease with which you can approach a stranger and ask for their number. Don’t be embarrassed about it, we conduct our lives online now so dating is just one aspect of that life that has moved online now. Unfortunately, online dating is full of creeps, but so is the real world.

On Getting a Mobile Phone Contract

Immediately you land at Narita or Haneda or Kansai, your first thought will be how to get an internet connection. Change enough money into yen to rent a two-week portable wifi device. It can get you going until you’re settled.

It took me a week of negotiation to get a Japanese mobile contract. It’s not like in Kenya where you can just get a pre-paid SIM card in under 5 minutes. Here, most providers want to sell you a phone and SIM contract. They won’t even let you buy a SIM card only since you’ll already be arriving with your phone. If you want to upgrade your device, this is a chance to get a 2-year contract. Otherwise, try getting a contract-free SIM card from the mobile virtual network providers.

On Money

Japan loves its cash. People carry huge wallets walking around with over ¥100,000 (approx $1,000) in cash. Luckily, it’s a safe country. There are a lot of cash-based transactions and useless bank cards that only act as CASH cards, not debit cards.

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Cash still rules in Japan.

You’ll burn through the Yens very quickly. The cost of living here is very high. Getting on the high-speed train from Tokyo to Osaka will easily cost you ¥12,000, one way. In Kenya, that’s the equivalent of the journey from Nairobi to Mombasa, which costs ¥3,000. So if you want to travel during the university holidays, just know it will be costly to take the express or high-speed trains. Buses are a way cheaper option especially if you book in advance.

It will be cheaper living in rural  or near-rural prefectures than in Tokyo or Osaka. If you have to choose between a university in Tokyo/Osaka or rural Japan, consider cost of living vs having a social life. There is a better social life in the big cities, but you will end up spending more on these social activities. The food costs are about the same. Rent is what is significantly cheaper in rural Japan.

If you want to send money to your family, use WorldRemit, it’s the cheapest. Transferwise is cost-effective too. Avoid Western Union, it is convenient but quite expensive. I’m just giving you tips here for you to do begin your research, so don’t ask me to take you through it step by step.

You can work part-time. You are allowed up to 28 hours a week. You can teach English, do dishes in restaurants, make ramen, convenience store clerk, etc.  If you have a scholarship, you can just work for fun and to make a bit of money. If you are working to pay your fees and upkeep, it can get tough but know that you’ll make it. Keep your eye on the prize.

On driving

For the love of God, do not come to Japan without a driving license if you ever plan on driving in Japan. It will cost you about ¥300,000 ($3,000) to get a driving license from scratch. It will cost you less than $50 to convert your existing license to a Japanese one. You can use an international driving license but only for a year after arrival in Japan. After that, you have to convert it to the Japanese one. Even that won’t be an easy process, but it’s cheaper. I wrote all about it here.

You are going to need a car especially if you leave in rural Japan, more especially if you have a family. Do not buy a white plate car (that’s a car of 1,000 CC or more). A yellow plate car (less than 1,000 CC) will do just fine (Also called kei-cars.) Cars are cheap to buy initially but you pay tax annually. For a yellow plate car, the annual tax is about ¥10,000 (~$100) and it goes upwards of  ¥35,000 ($350) for white plate cars. There is also a need to renew registration every two years (¥60,000 – ¥1000,000 or more).

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A kei-car like this will be very cost-effective. Sure, it tops out at 60Km/h but you will probably be driving in the range of 40-50 Km/h most times.

Make sure you get insurance, which may cost over ¥72,000 annually (~$700). Without insurance, you can be royally fucked if you ever get into an accident.

On Housing

If your university offers you accommodation, take it. The cost of renting in Japan is quite high.  The average cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo is around ¥80,000 a month. University apartments are usually subsidized. If they don’t provide accommodation, ask if they partner with real estate agents. The universities will usually help you find accommodation or direct you to a real estate company that will help you. Some universities have family housing

On sexism

All the secretaries are women. All the doctors, men. All the pilots, male. All cabin attendants, female. In my 6 years of living here, I’ve never seen a female pilot or a male cabin attendant. You will be surprised to find Japan lags behind Kenya when it comes to gender equality. So sexism, language and cultural barrier (and xenophobia) will stand in the way of your career success.

Medical universities literally lowered the high scores of female candidates to limit the number of women who will become doctors. Their spots went to men who had lower scores. It’s that sexist. Reason being? When the women get married and get kids, they’ll stay home to look after kids so no need to train them in the first place. That’s because, in Japan, they are set in their way of life and don’t want to change. There are clear rules of division and labour. Women are denied access to high paying jobs meaning they rely on their spouses. They stay home and look after the kids, men go to work. 

They are averse to change. Risk-averse. Once a system works in Japan (fax), they cling to it and never want to change.  Unfortunately, things have to change if the negative population growth is anything to go by.

On the weather

Japan has four distinct seasons and it is something that they are very proud of. On weather-related tips, one practical thing I can tell you is don’t bother shopping for seasonal (winter) clothes in Kenya. No need to bring too much luggage. Once you arrive here, there is no need to go to high-end shops. There are so many good quality clothes in second hand/recycling shops. That’s where I got all my winter wear, which I still have 6 years later. Remember to enjoy seasonal activities and events. Cherry blossom picnics and BBQ in spring, summer festivals and fireworks, autumn foliage drives, winter skiing.

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Sakura in Japan. Image, courtesy.

On Natural Disasters

Typhoons in the summer. Earthquakes that occur at any time. Especially in the greater Tokyo area. We have slight earthquakes from time to time. The country is well-prepared to deal with natural disasters and you’ll be given information on how to prepare for such disasters by your university and local city hall. Pay attention. Stay calm.

On Staying Here with your family

If you can bring your spouse/children to Japan, do it. It will be a nice experience for everyone all around. It will also be a great support system for you. It’s very easy for your family to join you in Japan, although finding work for your spouse might be hard. One option is joining you in the same uni to also further their studies.

Choose rural Japan if you want to bring your family. The cost of living is cheaper, people are friendlier and there will be spaces in kindergartens for your kids. If they are of school going age, they will have to deal with the Japanese language barrier when joining elementary or high school, so think about that.

If you plan to bring your family, make sure you put in extra effort to study Japanese so you can navigate the visa applications, the schools, the hospitals, the supermarkets, etc.

On Staying After Graduation

If you don’t plan to live in Japan after graduation, you don’t have to invest too much time in studying the language.

If you plan to stay on after graduation, I would advise you right now to start studying Japanese. It will be your most useful skill. It’s crazy but Japanese companies can hire someone with a nuclear physics degree to work in marketing, as long as you’ve got good communication skills (including Japanese).  So study Japanese.

If you want to stay on for the very long term, it is possible to get permanent residency and even a Japanese passport. Just be aware that Japan doesn’t allow dual citizenship and you’ll have to give up the citizenship you currently hold.

In conclusion

Sorry, this post has been all over the place. Here are some my posts about Life in Japan. Japan is an awesome country, if a little boring. It’s a great country to study in. Working here for a few years would also be a good experience. Living here in the long-term will be a difficult journey though not an impossible one.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan | 1 Comment

Tips for Kenyan Students Coming to Study in Japan, Part 1

The other day, I got an email from someone in Kenya who has gotten a scholarship to study his master’s degree at a university in Tokyo. He wondered if I have some tips or advice for him. Of course, I do. But they wouldn’t fit in a short paragraph, so I decided to write a blog about it. I hope it will be of benefit to all students coming to Japan, although some advice may be specifically for Kenyans.

I’ll try to be brief, there is much ground to cover. From studies, food, language, culture, social life, banking and insurance, mobile phones, driving, earthquakes and disasters, finances, dating and relationships, life in the big city vs in rural Japan, rules, manners, social norms, renting apartments, hospital visits, cost of living, weather, living here with your family… I could write a book. Maybe I will write a book someday.

For now, I will try to keep it brief. Update: it ended up being almost 4,000 words so I decided to break it into 2 parts.

Here are a few tips, not in order of importance. Leave a comment below if you have any questions or want more info about a topic. 

On Academic Life

  1. Don’t Come for Undergrad

There are many reasons not to do a bachelor’s degree in Japan. First of all, a majority of the courses in undergraduate are taught in Japanese. So unless you want to spend 2 years in language school followed by higher education in a language you are barely beginning to get a grasp of, don’t come here for undergrad. Imagine learning electrical engineering/political science in Japanese as a non-native speaker after only 2 years of studying the language. Also, if you haven’t been exposed to Kanji like the Chinese students, you’ll have a much harder time. In addition, campus in Japan is boring. Trust me on this (you might find out why later in the post). I had the best time in a Kenyan public university: the freedom and social life there surpasses no other.  The friendships I made have spanned time and distance and are still strong today.  Furthermore, I believe it is important to enjoy young adulthood in a familiar environment. You won’t have deal with the loneliness, culture shock, strange food and customs, new language.. all while studying for your degree and without your close friends or family nearby.

2. Come for your Master’s/PhD

Hopefully, you got a scholarship to come to Japan for your master’s or PhD. If you don’t have a scholarship, it will be harder to get one after arrival in Japan, but not impossible. It’s easier to get funding for PhD scholarships than a master’s degree. It’s also easier to get scholarships for some areas like technology and engineering than say, social sciences.

How to get scholarships? For African students, there is the Abe scholarship and also the MEXT scholarship for students worldwide. (The topic of finding a scholarship and a graduate supervisor deserves its own blog post).

If you do your master’s degree here, consider another country for PhD, just to get a different experience. That’s because you’ll also have a better chance at successful employment in a country that has less of a language and cultural barrier.

Oh, btw, here are some tips for PhD students.

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On the day I got my PhD. September 21st, 2018.

3. You Won’t Fail

As a Kenyan, you won’t fail. There are hardly exams for classes, it’s mostly reports that you have to hand in. Attendance counts for a lot. For your thesis, it’s possible they consider effort more than contents – I have read several masters’ theses with atrocious grammar. Luckily, as a Kenyan, your English is at native-level. It will give you an advantage. Just don’t be surprised if you are asked to prove your proficiency through stupid TOEIC tests – I’ve done 3 so far and got the maximum score each fucking time. So don’t worry about your grades. I’m sure if you have made it thus far, you’ll do well in a Japanese university.

4. Publish and Attend Conferences

Most universities or laboratories have enough funding for you to attend 1-2 conferences a year. Use this chance to attend conferences, to get your work published, and to also travel… You can even submit a poster of your work, or work-in-progress. I did my master’s degree in Kenya and never published anything because our unis aren’t focused on publications and suffer from a lack of funding. In my PhD, I attended 4 conferences in Canada, New Zealand, France and the U.S. I also published one journal paper.

5. Take Advantage of the Funding

If you are studying physics or chemistry, take advantage of the ample funding in universities to request for equipment and materials. Even if you are in social sciences, be aware that you can make a request for a MacBookPro/decent laptop for your writing. This is one thing that Japan does very well, funding public universities from either the government or private sector. This is especially the case in specialized universities like JAIST, which I attended.

On Language and Culture

  1. If you get a chance to study Japanese, seize it with both hands

You’ll be surprised at just how little English is spoken here. Your lab mates will speak in broken English and you’ll be auto-correcting everything they speak in your head. Your professor will probably speak in broken English too. Do NOT correct them. It is an endless and thankless journey, and you might hurt their pride and feelings. Just appreciate the fact that you can communicate.

Outside of the lab though, it will be a real struggle to do anything without some Japanese language ability. You will need to drag along a Japanese speaking friend to go to city hall,  the bank,  the hospital,  the restaurant, basically anywhere. You can’t even read your mail (oh there, will be tons of paper mail), so you won’t be able to tell what’s important or not, without knowing some Kanji.

If you get a chance to study Japanese, even if you are staying here for a short time, seize it. It will be helpful whether staying for the short or long term.

 

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Studying Japanese. Don’t do stupid things.

 

2. You’ll live in a foreign bubble, especially in campus

Since you won’t be speaking Japanese, you will probably be living in a bubble of foreign students who speak English. This is okay if you are planning to get your degree then go back to your country. If you plan to stay in Japan longer, try to explore out of your bubble. Join community events where international students are invited.

3. Rules, manners and norms

Japan is a rule-based country. Everything is done by the book. Japanese people are scared to go abroad because they fear the chaos out there. Everyone keeps time. To be on time is to be late. Even if everyone has arrived and is seated, and the PowerPoint is ready, the meeting won’t start even a second early. Everyone will keep looking at the clock, keep fidgeting (no chatter though) until the second-hand strikes 00. Then the chair will clear his throat and say, “good morning, welcome everyone” or whatever. Do not talk on the phone on the train. Don’t eat in public. The longer you stay, the more rules, manners and norms you will discover. Japanese people never make ‘independent’ decisions, they always follow some rule book (written or otherwise). This can be shocking to you as a Kenyan coming from a country where everyone thinks for themselves and where we threw the rule book out of the window. It can get annoying sometimes when it’s for small inconsequential things that are blown out of proportion. Don’t be surprised if at McDonald’s you are denied Ketchup if on the menu it states that your burger comes with BBQ sauce. The bus will leave you if you are 2 seconds late, even if the driver can see you sprinting. The students’ office can deny your application for graduation if you submit your documents 1 second after the stated time. You can lose an entire academic year because you were lax with the deadlines. It doesn’t matter if the people who will sign the documents are missing, or the printer is not working. Deadlines don’t get extended for whatever reason or excuse. Don’t get frustrated, you’ll soon get used to the rules. 

 

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Yes, there are rules for everywhere and every situation.

 

4. On Indirect Communication and the Difficulty of Making Japanese Friends

Japanese is an indirect language and in this culture, people never say yes or no. They never say what they are thinking either. They tell you what you want to hear. They talk about safe topics, like food or the weather.TV is just food shows, this country has a food porn problem – it’s food shows on every channel. (If you have lived in Japan, you’ll appreciate that video, otherwise don’t click on the link.) You assume that after a couple of months of meeting, you’ll form close friendships with Japanese people but it can take years to get close to them. You’ll find yourself making friends with fellow foreigners. That’s fine, you should make and maintain friendships. The unfortunate thing is most foreigners in Japan are transients. You make friends with people this year and the following year they are gone so make the most of it.

5. You represent all Kenyans (and all Africans)

If you like a certain thing, say pancakes, Japanese people will be like “oh.. Kenyans like pancakes.” That’s because of their collective culture, in which they say things like “Japanese people like this… or that..”. So everything you do will represent Kenyans (and Africans) in general. They’ll make remarks about your long legs, your well-defined muscles, your small head.. things you’ve never thought about.

6. Everything you have heard about safety and cleanness is true.

Ref to 3 above. Following the rules is one of the reasons Japan is as safe and as clean as it is. You can leave your iPhone, MacBook, and wallet on a table in a restaurant unattended, go the toilet and come back to find everything untouched. You can jog at night. Muggings are extremely, extremely rare. Even then, they’re not violent – I read the news of an old lady who was pick-pocketing young distracted mothers out shopping.

The first thing you will learn is how to separate the trash. Plastics, plastic bottles, coloured glass bottles, clear glass bottles, aluminium cans, steel cans, metals.. all go into separate bags. Jut follow the rules.

Don’t be surprised by Japan’s love affair with plastic. There is so much plastic packaging in Japan, it will drive you crazy if you are an environmentalist. I mean, we’ve had to ban plastic bags in Kenya but in here, it’s plastic on steroids.

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A single strawberry was packaged in 4 pieces of plastic. This is a true story highlighting plastic love in Japan. Here is the link. https://medium.com/social-innovation-japan/7-surprising-facts-about-plastic-in-japan-f6920cc8e621

7. A country where things work nearly perfectly.

Everything works. Welcome to a country where the national health insurance scheme even includes international students, who are offered a huge discount on the premium. Health insurance includes dental care. People obey the rules, even traffic rules. No overlapping. No hooting. Peace and quiet. You will never encounter corruption at public offices. The power never goes off, unless it’s a disaster (actually during the strong typhoon we had last year, we still had power in my area). In the 6 years I have been living here, never once have I experienced a power cut. Or a water cut. Or downtime with the internet. No dust. No trash in the streets.  Clean public bathrooms everywhere, with toilet paper (albeit single ply). Clean water to drink the park. Safe tap water. It’s just so refreshing to be in a country where things work. Convenience stores that are conveniently open 24/7.

8. High tech, Low Tech

Sure, Japan is said to be high tech but don’t be surprised by the large amount of paperwork needed just to carry out many procedures in the university or at city hall. I still don’t have a debit card. Many places are cash only. Fax machines are still in use. You’ll be surprised to find that Kenya is more tech-savvy in some areas than Japan is. Once a system works in Japan (fax), they cling to it and never want to change.

On Food

At first, the food will taste very strange. Everything has soy sauce in it – we hardly ever use soy sauce in Kenya. Then there are the deep-fried meat cutlets; meat should never be fried. But eventually, you’ll get used to it.

Ramen, okonomiyaki and curry are the only Japanese foods you can enjoy the first few weeks. However, they are calorie-heavy. So watch out, many of the people I came to Japan with are significantly heavier now. 

 

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Japanese beef curry. Yum. Photo, courtesy.

 

Fruits are expensive. Avocado is a luxury. So are watermelons. A fresh mango can set you back ¥2,000 (USD $20). But please make sure you add some fruit in your budget, otherwise.. the scurvy. If you can’t afford fruits, then maybe try canned fruits like pineapples. 

 

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These high-end mangoes cost ¥10,500, before tax. That’s approx USD $100

 

Food is generally expensive in Japan. If you are a single person, it might even be cheaper to eat at the school cafeteria than to make meals for yourself. My advice is don’t stress or starve yourself. That is what it costs to stay alive.

Eating out alone isn’t expensive. Eating out with friends can become expensive though, especially if accompanied by drinks. You can easily spend ¥10,000 – ¥20,000 on a night out.

Nobody eats sushi every day.

Food is a safe topic that Japanese people talk about constantly.

Whenever you are offered food in Japan, be sure to pause in chewing, appreciate it, and say “oiishii desu ne“. It will please everyone. It doesn’t matter what it tastes like. Just learn how to say “oishii” and other variations like of the same like “umai“.

Part Two Here.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan | 1 Comment

April Update

It’s been almost a month since my last post. For those who followed the story, you’ll be happy to hear that Miss B. made it back to Nairobi safely. At JKIA, she was processed and sent to a quarantine facility, where she spent two weeks in isolation. She was tested after the two weeks, found negative and was given a letter saying she could travel to Kisumu, even though there was a total lockdown of Nairobi county. She was finally reunited with her family in Kisumu. What remains now is for me to ship her the books she left behind. Looking back, we certainly made the right decision to get her out of Japan. The pandemic might last several more months. We don’t know when we will be able to affordably fly again.

In the past month, even when time seems to be standing still, a lot has happened.

Jeremy is now 7.

Jeremy turned 7 years old on March 30th. He is still in Kenya with my parents  and they had traveled upcountry. Nairobi’s lockdown means they are enjoying an extended time in the countryside, where Jeremy is enjoying the fresh air, running around the wide fields, playing with the cows and spending time with my cousins. I can’t imagine a better place for him to be during this period. It would have been tough for both of us, being stuck indoors in our tiny apartment in Tokyo, while I worked from home and kept him engaged at the same time. I miss him very much. This pandemic means that I can’t even plan a visit, and my plan for our reunification might be delayed. Anyway, Jeremy now speaks a bit of Swahili and Kisii, in addition to English. He tells me he still remembers Japanese.

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Just  a boy in the 254

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How cute are the gumboots?

My brother’s daughter, Arianna, was born on April 10th.

I am so excited to be an aunt and so happy for my brother and his wife who welcomed their first baby. It’s challenging to be new parents in these times and I wish them the best. I can’t wait to meet her. Once this pandemic is over, the first thing I will do is book a ticket to Kenya to see my family.

I’ve been jogging for 44 days now.

I set a fitness goal to jog for 200 days this year. I started this fitness journey in February and at first I was only doing about 2.5 Kms. Gradually, I’ve been able to do 6Kms regularly and I even did a 10K the other day. Working from home means I get more time to exercise. I usually jog from around 5 to 6, time I would be commuting home. I love jogging outside. I don’t like going to the gym and besides, gyms are now closed. I found a beautiful route which has both pedestrian and cycling paths, so I don’t have to worry about cyclists.

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My jogging route in Mitaka City, Tokyo

So what are the gains? I look and feel great. My skin, which has always been smooth, is now even smoother and more supple. I haven’t actually lost any weight, at least on the scale. However, I am much leaner as muscle replaces fat. I’m maintaining a sort of running diary via a twitter thread.

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Okay, I’m holding my breath. A bit.

I turned 32!

A couple of days ago, I turned 32 years old. I should have been in Bali for my friend Bern’s wedding. I would have celebrated my birthday on a beach in Bali, catching up with many long time friends whom I hadn’t seen for years.

For my birthday, I ordered a cake from a shop nearby and celebrated with my housemate, Frashia. She took the photos above. How I got a housemate is a story for another day but I am so glad she is here. It’s so nice to have someone to talk to, take turns cooking with and watch Citizen Live on YouTube with. Together, we have baked banana bread, cooked chapos, mandazis, ugali with omena or pork, ndengu with rice, pilau and many other Kenyan dishes.

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Ugali, pork and spinach.

Working from home has been challenging for sure. Online meetings are hard. Concentration is low. However, we are all trying our best. I wrote a paper on design patterns for real life AI systems that was conditionally accepted for a conference, so I will be busy revising it.

Oh, one more thing. I renewed my Japanese driving license the other day and got a GOLD-en level license! It means I have been safely driving in Japan for 5 years and can get insurance discounts. If you knew how hard it was to get a Japanese driving license in the first place, you would be in awe of me right now. You would understand my urge to add this piece of information to my CV, linkedIn and even Tinder profiles.

Anyway, let’s hope for a better May.

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Suicide in Japan and the Last Narita Express

I am sorry for the dramatic title of this post, but you will see why by the end of this post.

It was on Monday night, the 23rd of March, when Miss B. sent me a message on Facebook. She was stuck at Haneda Airport. Her Emirates Flight to Dubai had just been cancelled. Dubai was no longer accepting flights because of, well, coronavirus.

Miss B. was on her way from Ishikawa Prefecture to Nairobi, Kenya, flying via Haneda Airport in Tokyo and Dubai. Why was she flying in these coronavirus times, you ask? Well, this wasn’t a luxury trip. She was going back home. She had completed her master’s degree and graduated. She had gotten her certificate – there was no graduation ceremony, cleared her apartment, closed her bank accounts, cancelled her phone contracts, and said sayonara. Her scholarship was done. Her student visa was up. She had no choice but to leave for Kenya before borders got closed. She was aware that once she landed in Kenya, she would undergo a two week quarantine at her own cost and she was ready for this.

On that Monday, Kenya had announced the country would close borders on Wednesday 25th at midnight. So Miss B. had thought that she was lucky she was flying from Tokyo on the 23rd and arriving on 24th. Then her flight got cancelled at 11pm that night and she was stuck at Haneda. There were no trains running at that time, so she had to spend the night there. I gave her directions to my place so we could figure out the next steps and she took the first bus in the morning (Tuesday 24th) to my station. She sent her luggage to my address using Kuroneko, the transportation company.

Once she had rested a bit, showered and had breakfast, she emailed her school to let them know she was stranded. They advised her to get another flight to Kenya if possible and that they would refund her. Luckily, Qatar Airways had a flight to Nairobi that 24th night, departing at 22:20 from Narita Airport. We quickly booked the flight. This was the last flight that would get her to Kenya by the 25th. We breathed a sigh of relief when the payment went through.

It was now around 14:00. Her flight was at 22:20. It takes roughly 2.5 hours from my place to Narita Airport. If we needed to be at the airport 3 hours before departure, we should leave my place by around 4pm.

But we had one problem, her luggage had not arrived from Haneda. She only had her handbag and laptop bag with her.

I called Kuroneko. They said they would give me a call once the luggage arrived at the distribution center for Mitaka, which, luckily, is literally 5 minutes away from my house.

At 2pm, there was nothing to do but wait. I was working from home so I went back to my work laptop and for her, I put a movie to watch. She couldn’t relax enough to take a nap, even though she hadn’t slept for two days: on Sunday night she had been packing up and clearing her apartment, and on Monday night when her flight had been cancelled, she had spent the night on airport benches. Taxis cost so much in Japan. A taxi from Haneda to my house could have easily cost ¥30,000. So she had had to wait until Tuesday morning to take the bus, which costs ¥1,000.

At 4pm, when we should have been leaving for the airport, we decided to take a walk to the Kuroneko Mitaka center and check whether the luggage had arrived and they had forgotten to call us.  They told us the earliest it would arrive would be 5:30pm.

5:30pm would be cutting it close, but not too bad. We would arrive at the airport at 8pm, which might be still have been okay because she would have 1.5 hours before check-in closed.

Promptly at 5:30pm, we got a call from the Kuroneko distribution center. We rushed there, ladies and gentlemen. We got the bags: all four of them! In addition to the two bags she had at home. She had a total of 6 bags.

“Miss B., are you serious?” I asked her, as we each dragged two bags across the tarmac to my house. “How are you having this much luggage? Isn’t it overweight?”

“It’s my books you know,” answered Miss B. as we waited for the light to turn green at the pedestrian crossing. “I can’t be divorced from my books.”

“Did you weigh the luggage?”

“Yes, I have a budget for paying the extra weight,” she added. But the Qatar flight we had purchased only had an allowance of 30Kgs. We agreed that she had to leave some luggage behind and that I would ship it to her later.

When we got to my house, it was almost 5:45pm. There was no way we could catch a bus from Kichijoji Station in time for the flight, so we decided to go to Tokyo Station and catch the Narita Express departing 7pm. This would get us to Narita at 8pm, risky but might still be okay. Remember, this was the very last flight to Kenya. If we missed this flight, there was no flight we could catch the next day. She would get stranded in Japan with no visa, no scholarship. Of course she could stay with me, but she also really wanted to leave Japan. She had not had the best of times.

The Narita Express

The Narita Express

 

So it is 5:45pm and Miss B. is rearranging her luggage and I am calling a taxi to take us to the train station so we can catch Chuo Line to Tokyo Station. It takes about 40-50 minutes from my house to Tokyo Station, so if we left at 6pm we could catch the 7pm Narita Express.

At 6pm, the taxi pulled up in front of my apartment. We had 2 pieces of luggage to be checked in: one suitcase with clothes, and another with bags,shoes and books. And two pieces of hand luggage: a backpack and a laptop bag.

The taxi driver, a lovely old lady, told us that Kichijoji Station is usually crowded and Mitaka Station might be better (I live in between these two stations). She would drop us off near the elevator, she said.

At 6:15pm, we were getting into the elevator at Mitaka Station. Unfortunately, we had missed the Special Rapid train so we took the Rapid one. This would still get us to Tokyo Station before 7pm. The stops for the Rapid train are Mitaka -> Kichijoji -> Nishi Ogikubo -> Ogikubo -> Koenji -> Nakano -> Shinjuku -> Yotsuya -> Ochanomizu -> Kanda -> Tokyo. Alright then.

At 6:22, we get into a Rapid train at Mitaka. Next stop, Kichijoji.

Two minutes later, as we pull into the platform at Kichijoji, the driver applies emergency breaks. He then makes a chilling announcement.

“The emergency breaks have been applied. It seems we may have a body injury related accident.”

What?

What is the worst thing that could happen when you are rushing to catch the last flight out? 

A suicide, by someone jumping on the tracks of the train that you are on. And that’s exactly what happened.

On top of the stress of coronavirus!

When someone jumps in front of a train in Tokyo, which happens nearly every day (and this is not an exaggeration – there is a dark side to this country), the complicated schedules of the trains are messed up and delays of up to an hour or more are experienced across several lines.

On a normal weekday at rush hour, there is a Chuo train every 3-4 minutes. And each car in each train is fully packed at 110% of the capacity. If there is even a 5 minute delay,  the number of people on the platform piles up very quickly. A suicide, characterized by a 人身事故 announcement, inconveniences hundreds of thousands of travelers and it is not unheard of for train companies to demand compensation from families  of the suicide victim. (By the way, can you say a suicide victim, or that’s an oxymoron?)

“We have had an accident. Please remain on board. We apologize for the inconvenience.” The announcement continued.

“The doors will remain closed. There is one train car that’s not aligned on the platform. Please remain on board. We deeply apologize for the inconvenience.”

It was now past 6:30pm. I thought of calling Qatar Airlines to inform them that we would be late. When I found the contact number of Qatar in Japan, a recorded voice told me that the hours of operation are between 9am to 5pm and would I call them back the following day? Jesus!

We remained on board. The police arrived. They set up a perimeter in front of the train.

I told Miss B. to check in online, first of all.

It was approaching 6:40pm. If the worst came to worst, we would need to be at the check-in desk at Narita Airport before 9:20pm, when the check-in counter closes.

At 6:45pm, they finally opened only the door of the first car of the train, so we all had to walk to the first car to get off. As we walked, we could feel the train cars near the front shaking a bit, I think one may have been a bit derailed.

As we got out of the first car, I could see the yellow tape around the front of the car. There was a stretcher, but there were no medical supplies. When you jump in front of a train, ladies and gentlemen, that’s it.

Two police officers (I assume) were preparing a tarp to bring up the remains. Onlookers on the platform were taking photos. Someone from down there on the tracks (I couldn’t see the tracks, mercifully) was warning them not to take photos. 写真撮らないでください。

I spared a thought for the departed. That life was was so unbearable, that a violent death, being dragged by tons of metal across the tracks (because it will not stop immediately), was more preferable to living. To breathing.

chuo-line

At a previous accident on the Chuo Line. Image from https://cashing-nyanco.net/kanenai-qa/syakkin-hensai/838/

To be honest, I didn’t spare any thoughts at the time, that was much later. At the time, I was thinking OMG ARE WE GONNA MAKE IT TO NARITA?

The Last Narita Express was leaving Tokyo Station at 8:03pm and getting to Narita Airport Station at 9:11. With any luck, any luck at all, we might make it.

The Chuo Line had stopped all operations. Nothing was moving.

I heard on the announcement that the Sobu Local Line from Kichijoji to Shinjuku was still moving. The other option would have been the Inokashira Line to Shibuya then Yamanote Line to Shinjuku.

We transferred to the Sobu Local Line, and we managed to get to Koenji. At Koenji, we stopped for almost 15 minutes because there were no free platforms at the next stop, Nakano. Our blood pressure was at an all time high. Taking a taxi was out of question, it would take so long because of traffic and we would be late for sure.

When we finally got to Nakano, it was way past 7pm. I was not sure of the exact time. Suddenly, the driver announced that that particular train was going into the “garage” 車庫 and that we should get off and take the next one.

Nothing we could do, I don’t know who makes these decisions or why. We got off and waited 5 minutes for the next train on the Line that was going to Chiba via Shinjuku. It started moving.

We arrived at Shinjuku past 7:30pm. When we got down from the platform into the station, I saw the red line on the floor directing us to the Narita Express (NEX).

We ran with the luggage, following the red line. Those NEX tracks are so far!

At 7:38, we were at the escalator, heading to the platform.

The Last Narita Express was leaving at 7:39.

Once off the escalator, we ran! We had made it. With seconds to spare. We made it on the Last Narita Express, that left Shinjuku at 7:39, stopped briefly at Tokyo Station at 8:03, and got to Narita Airport 9:11pm.

I told Miss B. that when we arrived at Narita, we should dash to the check-in counter.

Unfortunately, since we hadn’t purchased train tickets all the way to Narita beforehand, we had to pay at the exit. Miss B. paid and rushed to the the check-in counter at the 3rd floor of Terminal 2, I thought.

I didn’t have cash on me so I was a bit delayed, having to pay with a card. I took the elevator to the 3rd floor.

It was 9:17pm. I saw the Qatar Airways counter. I was in front of the check-in by 9:19.

Phew.

“Miss, your passport please.” Said the Japanese lady, pleasantly.

I looked around, fuck.

Miss B. was nowhere to be found. Where the hell had she gone?

“Miss B! I started shouting at the very empty airport, looking around. She came running from the escalators.

“I was looking for you,” she said. What? But anyway, she hadn’t slept for 2 days, on top of all the stress.

There we finally were, standing in front of the Qatar counter at 9:21pm. One minute after check-in.

Luckily.

Luckily, the Qatar supervisor was there. He said, you are so lucky I am here. I will let you check in this time. But next time, please, you should arrive with enough time to spare.

But there was a suicide on our line!” we said in unison.

And also we had been waiting for the luggage to arrive, because the previous flight had been cancelled, because of coronavirus.

Finally, she checked in but they told her to hurry, the flight was beginning to board. But her luggage was overweight, and would cost an additional ¥70,000 for the extra weight. There was no time to sort it out. She had to leave behind her suitcase with shoes and books. I will figure out how to ship it to her.

She had made it.

Last I saw of her, she was disappearing behind the security counter.

I dragged her suitcase with me, and wasn’t even phased when the Japanese guy at the information desk asked me if I was looking for the cheap bus. Yes please, I said. It’s leaving in 4 minutes, he said. I said I would risk it and rushed out and I made it. I got to my house at midnight.

Miss B. arrived safely in Kenya. She is now in quarantine.

There are now 3 bags full of interesting books in my house.

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan | Tagged , , | 37 Comments

March 2020… an Update

Last year, I joined a 21 posts in 21 days blogging challenge. The 21 days have so far been spread across several months. If you count the bullied out of Japan posts and the one about skiing, then this current post is the 12th in the series. Halfway there!

Let’s take a trip back to around March 2013 when I was doing my scholarship interview at the Embassy of Japan in Upperhill, Nairobi. On the interview panel was a University of Nairobi professor who had been in Japan for 7 years.

I was like, Jesus Christ, that is a long time!

But lo and behold, here I am, in my 6th year in Japan. I blinked and by the time I opened my eyes, everything had changed and yet a lot still remains the same. I have missed weddings and funerals, births and christenings.

When I came back from Kenya this January, it meant readjusting to life in Japan without Jeremy. I am happy to report that Jeremy continues doing well in Kenya. He turns 7 at the end of this month. I continue the search for a reunion plan. I cannot blog about it until everything is made official. I cannot make any long term plans as well until everything is decided so I am kind of in limbo.

January and February went by so fast. I have to admit, it’s blissful not having to deal with the school administration/gakudo newsletters/neighbourhood watches, etc., now that Jeremy isn’t around. It does feel lonely though, what with the extra room that I hardly venture into, and how every time I pass by places where we walked and played together, I can hear the echo of his words replayed in mind.

In February, I finally blogged about what my son went through, and to date I’m still responding to comments on the blog, twitter and Instagram DMs, facebook comments and inbox messages, and emails. Work was also equally busy in February as we are nearing the end of the fiscal year in Japan, which ends in March.

Feburary was also the month I was invited to speak at a Nerd Nite Tokyo event, which I shall blog about later. I also attended one other event in February called Space Cafe in Tokyo, which hosts talks related to space, one thing that really fascinates me.

Speaking on Cloud Computing Basics at Nerd Nite Tokyo

Speaking on Cloud Computing Basics at Nerd Nite Tokyo

I don’t have many travel plans this year, but hopefully April will find me in Bali for a friend’s wedding (which will coincide with my 32nd birthday) and May may find me in Okinawa, enjoying the golden week. I’ll probably still be in Japan in June and in July/August, I hope to visit Jeremy and my parents in Kenya.  It’s hard to make travel plans with COVID-19 coronavirus in the air, so it’s mostly a wait and see game.

Exercise-wise, I decided that I would jog for 200 days this year. So far, I have done 14 days, follow my hashtag on twitter. I am not really a gym kind of girl, so jogging is the one activity I am enjoying in my quest to stay fit and also look great in time for my upcoming island trips. I have already ordered (one-size-too-small) swimsuits from AliExpress, but we (you and I) don’t know if they will arrive in time for the trips, as they are being shipped from China and with the coronovirus…

My reading has taken a back seat, as has my Japanese language studies. I am giving priority to finding a way to reunite with my child, so most of my effort is being directed towards this. However, in the last month, I did read Digital Bedbugs, an Anthology of the Nairobi Fiction Writing Workshop published by Makena Onjerika. You should check it out on Amazon.

Cheers to March!

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Solo Ski Trip… with Friends

First of all, I have received so much feedback from the series of posts I wrote about my son, Jeremy, being bullied out of Japan. (For those not in the know, read part one, two and three.) I will be taking my time to respond to each of the comments, emails and private messages. Please bear with me.

This past weekend, I really wanted to go somewhere alone. A solo trip. Perhaps it was an attempt at escaping from my reality for a bit.  By the way, this seems like a good time to slip in an update on “my actor“. After not meeting for a while, I texted to ask when we would be seeing each other next and got an “how about end of the month” response. Is this normal in Japan? People living in the same city yet meeting only once or twice a month? Those of you living and dating in Tokyo, how often do you meet? Anyway, it was clear we are on different paths and at different points in our lives. I can hear the clock ticking, my time in Japan is winding down. There is nothing to hold onto in this country and it’s time to enjoy what’s probably my last few months here. My last text to him was “I’ll never forget you” and his to me was “I will treasure you forever”.

Initially, I wanted to take my book and go somewhere near the sea, take a walk by the beach (yes, I know it’s cold but I would be in a coat, scarf, hat, gloves, you know, the works..). Where was I? Yes, take a walk by the beach, go to a tiny local restaurant for dinner and wow the owners with my Japanese, then spend the night at a hotel and come back to the city the next day.

Then my friends told me about the JR ski trip offers. For something like 14,000 Yen, you get a return ticket on the shinkasen, ski lift ticket for a day, and ski equipment rental plus an onsen (for an extra 300 yen). I figured I can always go to the sea at any time of the year, but the snow season is soon coming to an end.

So I decided to join my friends for skiing in Niigata.

It took me an hour but I was finally able to navigate the JR website with the help of Google Translate and book the trip. Why is it so painful navigating Japanese websites? Then your session is never saved and you almost always have to start over. Then you run into problems like your name isn’t full width kana, or it has no Kanji, etc.

On Saturday morning, I overslept! I missed my shinkasen. My friends had left earlier that morning, at around 7 am.

I was leaving Tokyo Station at 9:30 am and I arrived in Niigata at around 11 am. Luckily,  even though I had missed by 8 am bullet train, I could sit in the unreserved section and furthermore, I got a window seat!

Since my friends had arrived earlier, they were already on the mountain skiing or snowboarding and it was hard to communicate on the phone. So it was kind of a solo ski trip for me. I arrived at Kandatsu Snow Resort, changed, rented equipment, and went up the mountain, enjoying my time alone. I didn’t join my friends for lunch because I had eaten on the shinkasen. I only met them later at around 4 pm when the ski lift was closing.

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It was snowing the entire day!

A post shared by Savvy Kenya (@savvykenya) on

I can’t say that Kandatsu is the most scenic ski resort, but I can assure you it is the most beginner friendly that I have ever seen. It has a long, gentle slope that skiers or snowboarders of any level can enjoy. They’ve also recently bought new equipment, their snow shoes were light and the skis, top notch and so easy to use. (I am not getting paid for this post, this is just my experience.)

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

I would say my skiing skill is upper beginner. It doesn’t matter the level, it only means that I can now enjoy skiing without a fear of falling, and I know that the more I go, the more my skill will keep on improving.

It was snowing the entire time and it was so cold, my fingers were turning purple. I now know not to push myself too hard next time.

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

Kandatsu Snow Resort in Niigata

At the end of the day, I met my friends and we went to the onsen to warm up, followed by dinner and some drinks, and we then took the shinkansen back to Tokyo.

A perfect solo trip with friends.

I hope I can go again before spring is upon us.

 

 

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Bullied Out of Japan: Part 3 (Final)

Once I understood the depth of what was happening (see part one and two here), I ended talked to many people, both Japanese and non-Japanese. Their experiences and advice opened my eyes to the truth about the Japanese society that produces a self-policing community. I am not an expert on Japanese culture. However, there is a collective agreement that bullying is particularly vicious in Japanese schools. There are studies upon studies. This culture extends to the workplace, where the spirit of stoicism and “not causing trouble” philosophy are enforced. Until people just can’t take it any more, and walk onto the tracks of the passing trains. Suicides are pretty common in Japan. Including teen suicides and kids in elementary school. See article: Two former classmates ordered to pay ¥37 million in damages over bullied Japanese boy’s suicide. If you don’t want to “cause trouble” with your suicide (your family will be ordered to compensate the railway company for the inconveniences you cause), then there is a suicide forest for you to go quietly.

This is rapidly becoming dark.

Of course each country has its good and bad sides. Just the other day, there was a stampede in a Kenyan primary school in which over 15 children died when a stairwell collapsed.

Japan paints a perfect picture to the world, but it has its dark side too.

I didn’t pay attention to this dark side until my son became a victim of bullying. Then things went rapidly downhill and all I could see was the dark side of this country.

I could illustrate this with more examples. Like during sports day soon after I had visited the school, after he had had a fairly good day, they went back to the classroom to change out of their sports wear. I had a feeling and went to check on him, only to find the teacher holding him back because he was about to explode. Asking him what was wrong, the teacher said that Roy had once again something nasty to Jeremy. Why is my child the one on the receiving end of the “punishment/admonishment?”

I am sure things would have been better had we stayed in Ishikawa. But there are very few jobs in Ishikawa and my social life was deadish there. What I’ve heard is that if your kid continues into elementary school with the same kids from nursery school, they are less likely to experience this bullying.

Anyway, I weighed my options.

Fight the bullying – as you can see, group bullying is part of the culture here. The nail that sticks out gets hammered in. If anyone associates or tries to help the victim, they also become a target of bullying too. So the victim becomes isolated. I did not have the energy to take on the entire culture. In individualistic countries like America, you can take on the bully and his parents one-on-one, and can even find people to support you. Here, no one wants to “cause trouble”.

Home schooling – well, I am a single parent and I work. Not feasible. Even if I hired a teacher, I would have to pay her my entire salary.

Moving to another district with more foreigners.

Well, in Japan, diversity is still a myth. There are very few foreigners (less than 2% of the population I believe) and when it comes to kids in Japanese schools, that percentage is even less. Secondly, there is no guarantee that the bullying/isolation won’t happen in that school. It is part of the culture of conformity, bullying that one person who threatens the averageness, the sameness, the very identity of the group. The identity of what it means to be Japanese.

Furthermore, moving costs are insanely high here. I need close to 800,000 Yen ($7,000) to move to another 2LDK. Transportation costs, deposits, key money, real estate agency commission, money to change the lock, etc. Not forgetting the fee needed to break my current lease, which runs for two years. And there is no guarantee that the next place will be peaceful.

International School

This would have been the ideal option from the beginning. The student body is diverse. The culture isn’t that of conformity, stoicism or avoiding trouble. Except for the astronomical costs. At 31, I am not in that income bracket yet. I just began my career after a 4.5 year break from employment. 

Finally… out of Japan

None of these solutions could urgently resolve my problem anyway. I had withdrawn Jeremy from school when he had a major episode where he was fighting the 2nd graders.

I tried working from home. My company is nice like that. But it was not feasible to work from home with a healthy, energetic boy bouncing his soccer ball against the walls. He was returning to his old self now that he wasn’t going to the toxic school environment.

I called my mother. She was more than willing to have him for now.

I booked a flight two days to go. I asked for time off. It was a nice, smooth flight on Ethiopian Airlines (yes, my first time on Ethiopian was good!). Jeremy was going home.

While home, we visited my grandmother (who by the way, had also been a single mother who bravely raised her 7 kids). I did not know that I’d be seeing her for the last time, for she passed way last November. Jeremy represented me at the funeral.

Schools were on holiday. Every day, he played outside freely with the other kids on holiday, like children should. He started picking up Swahili. He picked up some Kisii words. He was learning to be a kid again.

There is so much pressure on school kids here in Japan. They forget their pencil, you get a phone call at work. Something as trivial as forgetting a pen at home make a kid become riddled with anxiety. They carry the ridiculously heavy randoseru, instead of comfortable backpacks. They need to fit in, to not stand out. They need to do their Kanji drills. If they make a mistake, it’s a big deal, instead of taking it as part of learning. They learn to not ask questions, to not ask why, to just follow the rules. They become the next generation of… wait I am going off tangent here.

I went back to Kenya after Christmas. He was doing well but it was clear he was missing me and I had missed him too. I still miss him every day.

In January, we found a local school in the neighbourhood. I do not want my child waking up at 5am to to a school far away, to avoid traffic. (We need to resolve the traffic problem in Nairobi by the way.) The public school is overwhelmed with the number of kids, while in Japan, some schools are closing for lack of children! The population is declining, and every year, fewer Japanese kids are born.

I came back to Japan in January. Bread has to be earned. I believe I have some big decisions to make very soon, but I am happy that Jeremy is happy now. The light, the sparkle in his eyes has returned. He’s got his confidence and smile back.

My goal in 2020 is to be reunited (live together again) with Jeremy.

P.S. You can now see why my friend’s visit to Japan in November last year was quite timely as I got to re-experience Japan as a tourist, not forgetting I almost dated a Japanese actor, which was a hilarious and welcome distraction.

 

 

 

Posted in Blog, Life in Japan | Tagged , , , | 35 Comments

Bullied Out of Japan: Part 2

So here we were in Tokyo, almost 6 months later. I had thought we were well settled in. I had found a very nice Nigerian lady to do my hair, and Jeremy would play with her two kids while she worked her magic. I was even having a semblance of a social life, going out dancing once in a while with Vivi, my Italian friend and coworker. I was dating a nice Frenchman (😘 😘Chris, keep on being full of light) in his 30’s who would bring me salad and play living room soccer with Jeremy.

And then the teacher called me on September 20th, 2019.

She asked me if Jeremy had changed his behaviour at home, and I said no. Everything was normal at home. He would come home tired after a long day at school and gakudo, the after school club. I would make him dinner, then check his homework, give him a shower (sometimes he showered by himself), then he would watch one or two episodes of Pokemon on Amazon Prime, which he was obsessed with. Then he would go to bed at around 8 or 8:30.

I am paraphrasing, as the conversation took place in Japanese.

“Well, in school, he has been getting really angry in class.”

What do you mean, I asked?

“Well, he gets angry and then he acts out by throwing his erasers, pens, pencil case at the wall. ”

While I was still processing this, she continued.

“He does this 4 or 5 times a day. When he does this, what I do is send him to the Hokenshitsu (like the nurse’s room for band-aids and minor cuts, etc) to calm down. When he comes back however, he soon gets angry again.”

I was so shocked. At home, he’s a nice and gentle kid. At the park, he loves playing with younger kids, he’s always getting the “oniichan rashii ne” compliments from Japanese parents saying how good of a big brother he is. Mark you, these are strangers we meet at the park, and Jeremy has no fear walking up to them, saying hello and asking the kids to play. So what the teacher was saying was largely out of character and more like what Jeremy would do when he was going through the terrible 2’s phase (because well, he couldn’t communicate).

She was still talking.

“Yes, he has done this on a daily basis since the second semester started. I have tried talking to him. Of course he understands Japanese perfectly, so language is not a problem. I have told him it is okay to get angry, it is normal, but he needs to learn to control his feelings of anger. It is like he tries, but cannot control his emotions. Perhaps he should talk to a behavioural therapist (my understanding) to help him with anger management.”

I was now dabbing at the tears threatening to fall from my eyes. Vivi asked me what’s wrong. I motioned that I would tell her later.

Why would a 6 year old be so angry? What could make a kid so angry that he would be unable to control his emotions, until he throws whatever is within reach against the wall?

She continued.

“In fact today, during clean up, he wouldn’t cooperate and he took off his indoor shoes and threw them against the wall.”

What now?

“I have explained to him that this is dangerous and could hurt other kids. I can see he understands but he cannot control himself. Once he’s calmed down he’s very lively but his anger flares up so quickly. This started in this semester, last semester everything was ok. When do you have time, can come to school to discuss it.”

I asked about the bullying.

“No, there is no bullying. We talked to the whole school and told the students to not bully him, but to help him.” 手伝ってあげて、マナー教えたり (To help him with the rules and manners).  I thought it was ominous that they’d put the spotlight on him as the only black kid in the entire school, which would surely make matters worse, no?

After we settled for a Thursday the following week, I hang up and turned to Vivi, tears streaming down my face. School is supposed to be fun (in my opinion), but it seemed my son was having a hellish time. What could make a 6 year old be so angry? The teacher hadn’t explained to me the reason. Anger therapy for a 6 year old?

“Harriet, save your son” Vivi said.

When I got home, Jeremy was his usual self but on closer observation, I realized that he’d actually been less talkative lately. He had also stopped doing his homework at the gakudo, which I thought was because he got too tired after playing the whole day. I would help him do it, but wouldn’t force it if he was too tired. Imagine you’ve been up since 6 and are doing homework at 7 or 8pm in the night. I was lax in enforcing homework, believing that in the first grade, kids should have fun and the intense work can begin in the later years of primary/elementary school.

In a gentle voice, I asked him if everything was ok in school.

He averted his face and looked down, shamefaced.

I told him sensei had told me what was happening in school. Why was he getting angry, I asked.

But Jeremy was silent.

Later, you will see why it would be something difficult for a 6 year old to explain. He just said,

“Roy is still bullying me.”

It wasn’t a lie, but it was not the complete picture.

The following day, glum-faced as he was, I asked him if he wanted to go to school and he said he hated going to school (in the first grade!). I told him he would have to go that day but I was going to visit the school that Thursday to sort out everything. I told him everything would be alright.

I posted what was happening in the support group of “Parents with kids in Japanese schools”. The feedback I got was chilling. Many parents shared their experiences and gave me advice. They sent me private messages of support and offered to help wherever they could. Basically, I needed to get to the root cause of the acting-out, but it was highly likely to be bullying.

As the only black child in a Japanese school, he stood out. And standing out is a bad thing in a conformist society like Japan. Below is an excerpt from this article that sums up why bullying is so vicious in Japanese schools:

“Bullying is common in many countries as not all children have been civilized at a young age, but I feel it is different here in Japan,” she said. “In schools here, a pupil who is different from the others will be a target. That is the same throughout Japanese society. Conformity is important.

“So if you are talented in class, or if you are a girl who is too pretty, or if you play a musical instrument well or if you just act differently, you are a target.”

I had literally put my lamb in the lion’s den.

In my defense, the last 4 years in Ishikawa in the Japanese nursery school went great. My son spoke the language with a local accent! Was I too optimistic? I also thought that bullying would start in the later years (and planned to leave by then), not from the 1st grade! The crazy thing is, my work environment is great. Awesome even. Great team, great working conditions. But my child was living the dark side of Japan, while I basked in the brilliant light (of tatemae) at work.

After reading the responses in the facebook group, it became extremely difficult to send Jeremy to school in the morning. I was supposed to meet the teacher that Thursday afternoon at around 4pm, but I decided to take the whole day off.

As usual, he didn’t want to go to school. I called the school to let them we would be absent, and the principal picked up the phone.

“Why aren’t you coming to school? Fever, flu?”

I said it’s because Jeremy was being bullied. He asked nothing more! He said he would pass the message to the homeroom teacher and hang up.

By 9am that morning, Jeremy was restless. I decided I might as well go to the school and observe what was happening. I asked Jeremy if we could go together and he said if you stay with me, I will go. The teacher had said she would schedule a particular day for me to observe the class, but I figured out that since I had taken a day off anyway, I might as well show up. I am glad no one was prepared for our arrival, for on that day, I learned exactly what was happening and how much worse the situation really was.

At the school entrance, we took off our outdoor shoes, Jeremy changed into his indoor shoes and we went into the class. The teacher was shocked to see us but asked Jeremy to take out his books and prepare for class. I explained to the teacher that I was free that day and would she let me observe the class. She said no, she had not prepared to host me and I would disrupt the learning as other kids in class would wonder why I was there. She emphatically said to go and come back at 4pm that day and we would talk and arrange a day for me to observe the class. She then went back to teaching as Jeremy settled down, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave just like that so I remained standing at the door. I just wanted to find out what was causing this behaviour.

She came back to the door and assured me she would watch Jeremy closely the whole day and that I really should go. She said, okay, let’s call him and make a promise that today he will behave.

Jeremy came to the door, she bent down and into his face, said this. It wasn’t what she said, rather the tone with which she said it.

She said:

“JEREMY, IT IS OKAY TO GET ANGRY. BUT YOU CANNOT THROW THINGS AT THE WALLS. YOU WILL HURT OTHER KIDS. IF OTHER KIDS GET HURT, YOU MOTHER COULD BE IN SO MUCH TROUBLE. YOU ARE CAUSING TROUBLE TO EVERYONE. DON’T THROW THINGS. LET’S MAKE A PROMISE WITH YOUR MOTHER RIGHT HERE. YOU DON’T WANT TO CAUSE HER TROUBLE, DO YOU? EVERYONE HATES THAT.”

“怒って大丈夫だけど、ものを投げるのはだめだよ。他のことに当たったらケガするよ。そしてお母さんに大変ですよ。それみんながいや!”

It was basically a tirade, and the crazy thing is, I was right there! That was when I realized that when Japanese people deal with kids, they don’t bother with tatemae(Too long, can’t go into it right now).

If this woman spoke to my child like this in my presence, what about when I wasn’t around? Did she think I was going to side with her and agree that he is causing me so much trouble? I was more interested in finding out why he was getting angry in the first place, which she wouldn’t address. It is not okay for little boys to be so angry.

I felt so sad for poor Jeremy.

I finally understood why he never said anything and why he had stopped talking about the bullying.

He didn’t want to cause me any trouble.

In Japan, the avoidance of “causing trouble” is a philosophy of life. An AKB 48 idol was assaulted, and she apologized to the public for “causing trouble”. Train announcements ask you to not speak on the phone, because you will “cause trouble” for others. Everywhere you go, the message is “do not cause trouble.” My son was of course internalizing this philosophy.

I asked him if he wanted to go home instead.

He said, “我慢する”. I will endure.

Another aspect of Japanese culture is endurance. Stoicism, if you will.

Jeremy went back to his seat. The teacher resumed teaching. I left the school in tears.

I hadn’t gone far when I got the phone call to go back to the school. Jeremy had had an episode. He was in the Hokenshitsu.

I dried my tears and went to the Hokenshitsu. Jeremy sat forlorn, in a corner, while the nurse looked at him like she was a fly in her tea.

She looked at me with the same expression as he came in. She told him,

“Tell your mother what you’ve done!” in the same tone as the teacher.

In a small voice, Jeremy said that some kid came and shouted in his ear, surprising him and making him jump. He also said that when he had stood to go to the toilet, several of his classmates had shouted at him, “Ocharo-kun, sit down!”

The kid who did the shouting wasn’t punished, but Jeremy was. I hugged him and told him I’d stay with him that day.

We went back to the class and the teacher said that that was fast. Usually, he would take a longer time to calm down.

Of course he would! The Hokenshitsu is not the place to send a child who’s angry. The woman there was so mean to him, in front of me. How did they treat him when I wasn’t around?

No wonder he felt isolated with no one to turn to. Not in school, and not at home because he didn’t want to cause me trouble.

I stayed during the math lesson. I noticed they were handing in their homework sheets, which Jeremy hadn’t done. He was doing it while I was there. That was when I noticed all the other kids had turned to Jeremy, and were watching do his homework, shouting answers at him even before he could write it down. Of course they’d done the homework so they knew the answers, but they weren’t giving him a chance to work it out.

I finally understood what was happening.

The reason he got so angry in class was because of the constant correction by everyone, in addition to the specific case of bullying by Roy. The other kids seem to have studied ahead (sometimes attending kumon/after school drills – something I found out by talking to lots of people) and are ready with answers the next day. I hadn’t been enforcing homework either, but I had no idea the extent of the effect this was having on him. So these kids had all singled out my son as the target of correction, and once he started working out his answers, they were ready to correct him. They blurted out answers while he was working it out, and that made him lose it and his confidence in the process. They would, in a chorus, tell him to sit down if he stood up in class, even if he was going to the toilet.

Worse, when he came back from the Hokenshitsu after 20-30 minutes, he’d missed  a huge part of the lesson and so the other kids were ready to correct him as he tried to catch up, making him angry and creating a vicious cycle.

On top of the cultural collective bullying to “fit in” with the behaviour of the rest of the group, he was still being bullied by Roy who kicked or punched or said mean things to him (I reiterate that my son is very sensitive and kind). The bully kept apologizing but still repeated his actions from time to time. He was apparently attending a “training” to improve his behavior.

In his 自由ノート free-writing notebook, Jeremy has filled it with kid-drawings of Pocket monsters. I guess he was immersing himself in Pokemon as a way a means of coping (see the IG pic at the beginning of the post).

However, one drawing stands out:

Bullying in the playground

Bullying in the playground

I asked him to explain it to me.

It depicts a scene at the playground.

He says they were skipping rope in the playground when Roy came and kicked him, making him cry, as you can see in the drawing the large tears coursing down Jeremy’s face.

The teacher then made Roy apologize, and Jeremy said “ii yo”. You’re forgiven.

To be continued in part 3.

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Bullied Out of Japan: Part 1

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.

Jeremy and I

Jeremy and I in Japan in October or November, 2015

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.

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Jeremy sleeping with Bomi-chan, our Japanese family’s cat.

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.

DSC_6099

DSC_6097

My family and friends turned up to help me celebrate this special day!

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.

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First day of school! #入学式 #おめでとう

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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.

“だっていじわるこがいる”

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.

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Pre-game banter 🙂

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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.

Read more in part two.

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Vi in Japan III: Exploring Kyoto and Osaka

This is the 7th post in a 21-day-blogging-challenge. It was supposed to be a “21 posts in 21 days” challenge but for me, it’s has been more of a challenge to create 21 posts before the end of the decade.

When Vi visited, we spent a lot of time in the Kanto area (around Tokyo) but we spared a couple of days to visit Japan’s old capital, Kyoto. We also passed by Osaka on our way back to Tokyo.

If you are in Japan, you must take the bullet train even though it can be quite expensive. We took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Of course we got bento boxes for our lunch and a couple of drinks to wash it down as we prepared for a comfortable 2 hour ride. It went by so fast. We were the first to get on, that’s how we were able to get the shot below. By the time we took off, all seats were taken.

In the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto

In the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto.

We had taken the late afternoon train so it was dark by the time we got to Kyoto. I had booked us an airbnb near Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. We went to our tiny apartment to get some rest before going out to explore Gion. It was raining that night so perhaps that’s why we didn’t see any Geishas in any colourful kimonos. We so no Geishas, period. Instead, we drifted towards the sound and beat of music and ended up in a shisha bar where we danced to hits almost all night. The crowd was nice and friendly, a mixture of locals and tourists. For like the third time during this period, we got home as the sun was rising.

We were supposed to explore Kyoto the following day but we ended up staying in bed the whole day watching sumo wrestling on TV. It turns out sumo wrestling is really interesting. The wrestlers train for so many weeks for just a 2 minute match!

The day after that, we spent the morning visiting two major spots in Kyoto before leaving for Osaka: the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine and the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. We managed to see some beautiful autumn foliage too.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha

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We found autumn in Kyoto

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Afterwards, we had lunch then took a train to Osaka to catch the sunset on top of Umeda Sky Building. We also admired the Osaka skyline. It was beautiful sitting in a cafe up there, watching the sunlight fade out and the city lights start twinkling. Trains and cars zoomed down below in the maze of highways and train tracks, a kaleidoscope of colour.

Chasing the sunset on top of Umeda Sky Building in Osaka

Chasing the sunset on top of Umeda Sky Building in Osaka

You can't stop me now

You can’t stop me now.

Can you spot the road that goes through a building in Osaka? Click to view large image.

Can you spot the road that goes through a building in Osaka? Click to view large image.

Osaka at night. This picture doesn't do it justice.

Osaka at night. This picture doesn’t do it justice. Can you see the moving kaleidoscope of colour? Click to view large image.

 

Traveling around in Japan can be expensive so after shoving down ramen, we rushed to catch – not a bullet train – but a night bus that would take over 9 hrs instead 2. There was a flier in the back of the seats in front of us warning us of “economy class syndrome“, the flier advised us to flex our toes and stand up and stretch from time to time. This got us thinking of what this term means: economy class syndrome. Finally, we had a name that also adequately described the guilt we feel spending our hard earned money on anything other than the basics. When you grow up in scarcity, you find it hard to spend money later. That’s how I find myself loading my Suica – commuter card – with 1,000 yen at a time even when I know I would end up loading it again the next day. Instead of putting in 10,000 Yen upfront. This deserves it’s own post.

This is the end of the Vi in Japan series. I really enjoyed traveling around Japan, showing off the country’s charms to my friend.

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