It Could Only Happen in Japan: A Misunderstanding in Okayama

As regular readers of my work will know, I have been living in Japan for several years. In that time, I’ve had probably more than my fair share of weird and wonderful experiences and I’ve plenty of rather zany and eccentric characters.

As I sat in the Izakaya the other day, chatting with some friends, I shared a few stories from my time here and some of the more unusual things that have happened to me.

I’ve never really considered myself a comedian, but I like to think I am a reasonably competent story teller. As a professional writer, one would certainly hope so!

My friends seemed to enjoy my banter, and one of them remarked, “These stories are so funny, you should write a book.”

Unfortunately for my friend I don’t think I have the time, energy or writing ability to churn out a full novel, but a thousand words or so is definitely doable. Who knows, perhaps in the fullness of time this may become an occasional feature here on Taiken Japan. But for now, here’s one of my more infamous stories from my time in Japan.

One of my first experiences of rural Japanese life, and both the attributes and limitations thereof, came in 2008 when I made the move from the bright lights, glitz and glamour of Tokyo, to the gentle farmlands of rural Okayama.

I found myself based in Mabi-Cho, a quaint little village in the proverbial “middle of nowhere”.

Photo : Toshihiro Gamo on Flickr

Like many other countries, such small and isolated villages can be hives of gossip, innuendo and misunderstandings, especially when you are one of only 2 foreigners in the entire town!

My first such misunderstanding came a few months after I arrived.

I was working at the local junior high school as an English teacher.

It was a “long weekend”. I had the Saturday, Sunday and then Monday off work. I endeavored to make the most of it.

On the Friday night, I decided to meet up with a friend of mine from nearby Kurashiki City, who had just returned to Japan after an extended period studying abroad. As she hadn’t been to Mabi Cho for quite some time, she decided to come over for dinner.

So, I greeted her at the train station with a warm hug before we headed to a local okonomiyaki restaurant for dinner.

The following day, my then girlfriend was returning from a weeklong business trip overseas. As things had transpired we hadn’t seen each other for about 3 weeks. The plan was she would come over to my place and we would spend Saturday evening together.

Like most young, passionate couples, we kissed and embraced upon seeing each other at the station before heading back to my place for dinner.

Finally on the Monday afternoon, something happened, the worst thing that can possibly happen to an English teacher in rural Japan. My laptop broke down. Cue a panic-stricken phonecall to another of my Japanese friends, an accomplished computer engineer. She promptly came over to my place and fixed the computer.

As much out of relief as gratitude, I bought her dinner before walking her back to the station. At the station, I thanked her once again, before giving her a hug and sending her on her way. It had been an enjoyable, if somewhat unremarkable weekend. “But tomorrow it's back to school for another week.” I thought.

The next day at my junior high school, things seemed not quite right, though I couldn’t really see why. I headed into my first class of the day around 8:50AM as usual. The students were laughing and whispering to each other. I couldn’t understand what they were saying as my Japanese was still rather limited at that time, but nonetheless I knew from the gestures, and the secretive nature of the discussions that the topic of conversation was me.

After that first class, the head of the Japanese English teachers asked me to go to a private room for a chat. “What’s up?” I asked rather nonchalantly.

Her face remained stone cold serious.

Liam sensei,” she began softly. “I know you come from a far away country and that in Scotland maybe the culture is different, but here in Japan there are rules we all have to follow.

Of course,” I said, somewhat confused.

And you do realise,” she continued, “that in Japan, you are only allowed to have one wife?

Photo : Sean Molin on Flickr

I was shocked. What on Earth was she on about?

Sensei,” I began, “As much as I would love to have several women running around after me, I don’t even have one wife at the moment. I’ve only had a girlfriend for a couple of months!

In that case,” she retorted, seeming a little flustered, “why are all the students saying you have 3 wives?!

Then it hit me.

Clearly someone from the school had seen me embracing 3 different women over the course of the long weekend, and as gossipers so often do, put two and two together and come up with 750!

Sensei,” I said, trying really hard not to laugh, “I think there has been a little bit of a misunderstanding here.

As it turned out, one of my students had an older sister who worked part-time in the convenience store next to the train station and had over the course of the weekend seen me hugging my friend on Friday, kissing my girlfriend on the Saturday and then finally thanking my laptop’s savior with a hug on Monday. As I was soon to learn, in that part of Japan, indeed in most of Japan, hugging friends, especially friends of the opposite sex, just isn’t the done thing here.

Photo : Raul Lieberwirth on Flickr

And the moral here dear readers? Not only is polygamy very, very bad, but hugging people you do not wish to marry, if you live in the countryside is a very bad idea!

All joking aside, for all they can sometimes be a bit too nosy for my liking, the people of rural Japan have a beauty and warmth to them that you seldom find elsewhere. Such misunderstandings can happen, but it’s only because of the way the local community looks out for its own. Certainly in the future, if I do indeed have a family someday here in Japan, I would not rule out living in the countryside once again.

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