Suman Meets Mochi: Thoughts on Life in Tokyo

This essay was selected for The Philippine Star’s “Share Your Story” in 2010. The link to the article has expired so I’m reposting it here.

In the six months I have lived in Tokyo, I still cannot speak enough Nihongo to survive, but there is probably one Japanese word that I have come to know most intimately and whose meaning has become very real to me — that is, sabishii (lonely).

This comes a bit as a surprise considering the impression we Filipinos have about Japan. It is, after all, the most developed country in Asia, boasting of a high standard of living and economic wealth. We associate Japan with technological advances we have never seen before like bullet trains, robots, and toilets that can be programmed to do a number of things (i.e. open and close lids automatically, warm the seat, play music to mask sounds, spray perfume to mask odors, wash and air out bottoms, etc.). When we think of Japan, we also think of its distinct and fascinating cultural traditions like kimono, origami, sumo, and many others.

And yet there’s probably a lot that we cannot see behind the image of wealth and prosperity that Japan projects. Every year, around 35,000 people kill themselves — that is, about 95 people every day. These numbers are disturbing in themselves, but what I find even more disturbing is the seeming nonchalance of the Japanese when it comes to incidences of suicide. Several times when the trains have been delayed because someone jumped the tracks, it still bewilders me how the Japanese seem completely unperturbed by this news as they continue reading their manga comic books (yes, I’m referring to adults) or newspapers, or fiddling with their mobile phones. If anything, some would display annoyance for the delay. For a country with such a strong economy and where poverty is almost unthinkable, loneliness is so pervasive, almost palpable in the air one breathes. And I understood why Japan is sometimes likened to a “velvet coffin.”

220px-Ibos_SumanWhile I did not come to Tokyo kicking and screaming, my husband often says that he married the only Filipino he knows who wanted to stay in the Philippines. It didn’t help that I arrived in Tokyo at the beginning of winter when the days are much shorter and I have only five drab-looking winter jackets and sweaters to choose from, all of which make me feel like a human suman (Filipino leaf-wrapped rice cake), or mochi (the Japanese version) if you will. There’s something about the cold and the reduced amount of sunlight that drains my energy. And then there are things I just do not understand — the language and its varying levels of politeness, why Japanese women give up their seats for their men (and why the men actually take them!), how people’s graciousness and solicitousness should never be mistaken for friendship, and how a foreigner will always be an outsider no matter how long they have lived in Japan, how fluent they are or familiar with Japanese ways.

Here in Japan, none of my credentials mattered — no one cared that I graduated summa cum laude from one of the top universities in the Philippines, have a Master’s Degree, or that I was one of the most outstanding teachers at the college I taught in back home. The one thing that seemed to matter above anything else was something that cannot be helped — that I am Filipino. I have met people who short of asked me whether I married my American husband to be able to leave the Philippines. My answer does not make any difference because they have it all figured out in their heads anyway. But I should be grateful as some people have it worse, like this Filipino who inquired by telephone at an international school. They were impressed by her responses and requested her to visit the school for an interview. When she got to the gate where the security cameras revealed the color of her skin, she was told to go home as there were no openings. I do not know if I should be thankful that I look Japanese and never get stopped in the streets by plainclothes policemen demanding to see proper identification.

And then the unthinkable happened. When I was 8 weeks pregnant, a motorbike trying to beat the red light hit me head-on at the pedestrian crossing. I flipped and landed on top of the motorbike on my back and my groceries were strewn all over the street. Seeing that I wasn’t bleeding, the motorbike driver motioned to leave the scene. I was still in shock and tried to explain I was pregnant. Although most Japanese would not want to get involved in such cases, some kind Japanese pedestrians stopped the motorbike driver from leaving and appealed to his sense of responsibility.

What happened is not as dramatic as other people’s near-death experiences but it did teach me to focus on the many things that I can be grateful for, even in the most depressing circumstances. I regained back my sense of humor, deriving amusement in such instances as when Japanese people look so confused and don’t know what to make of my white husband who speaks impeccable Japanese and his very Japanese-looking Chinese-Filipino wife beside him who can’t utter a word of Japanese. I also am grateful for the feisty baby inside me who survived the accident during the risky first trimester. I smile thinking about how special our baby is, bringing together so many worlds: Filipino, Chinese, American, Japanese — she belongs to the next generation of third culture children who hopefully will know none of the boundaries that have so limited us.

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7 responses to “Suman Meets Mochi: Thoughts on Life in Tokyo

  1. Hi She! I really admire your strength and courage! I am shocked to learn that women give up their seats for men in Japan! Well, I knew that women are considered a lesser class BUT women giving up their seats for men? Whoa?!

  2. A good balance I thought. Yes, everything you write about that feels so negative is true. But there are upsides as well. And things have changed dramtically, mostly for the good, over the last 25 years. Whether they will continue, or the right-wing government tries to take Japan backwards, is another matter.

    • Thanks for your comments Angela. It is interesting to reread what I wrote three years ago. My piece was like an emotional snapshot at that time and it’s interesting to see how I’ve changed since then.

  3. I wouldn’t have thought that this was written 3 years ago. Everything here resonates with me and still applies today. I still see wives walking 3 paces behind their husbands where I live.

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