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Wit, humor help longtime columnist come to grips with life in Japan

by Mariko Kato

Freelance journalist and longtime Japan resident Thomas Dillon was at first shy of being on the receiving end of questions.

“I don’t have any wisdom in my head, even though I don’t have much hair on it,” said the 54-year-old part-time university professor and father of two.

Dillon first came to Japan in 1976 and has since embraced, often with a playful sense of humor and a pint of beer in hand, the many delights and obstacles shared by subsequent generations of settled foreigners.

Once assured that profundities were not the order of the day, Dillon began looking back on his years in Japan with more than a hint of nostalgia.

Author of the long-running column “When East Marries West” in this newspaper, Dillon had his first taste of Japan as a student on a college program touring Asia.

“It was so much fun working through misconceptions. Back then there wasn’t much information about Japan. I thought it was tropical and I would be wearing a Hawaiian shirt all day long! It was fun not to be able to order food, (fumbling over) really stupid simple conversations. My first experience of an onsen, I went with some guys and girls, and we knew the girls were on the other side. That was exciting!”

Many of Dillon’s early memories of Japan involved two Japanese university students, one from whom he’d happened to buy a hot dog during a baseball game. “I went out drinking with him and his friend, and for the three weeks in Tokyo they took me to concerts and tea ceremonies.

“There was a lot of drinking. I taught them dirty words (in English) and they taught me my first Japanese sentence: Anata wa totemo kawaii desu. (You are very cute)!

“I envy the new people coming to Japan and making those relationships. Those experiences touched me.”

The young people who come to Japan now have stronger language skills and greater knowledge of the country, says Dillon. “But,” he added, “it’s a different ball game if you want to become ‘culturally attuned.’ ”

“That’s something you have to develop. Those of us who have been here for a long time learn to stay in step. Harmony is very important, we’re not ones to shake the boat.”

Originally from Illinois farm country, Dillon reacted and grew accustomed to Japanese ways with a mix of enthusiasm and reluctance.

His next trip to Japan lasted five years, when he taught at an all girls’ Lutheran high school in Kumamoto Prefecture.

“Oh, the giri choko!” he laughed, referring to the obligatory chocolate his students gave him on Valentine’s Day. “One girl melted chocolate and made a bust of my head! It looked terrible.”

“And one time I was taken to karaoke. I’d never even heard of the word, and I just don’t sing in public. So I went to the toilet and there was a way to get over the wall into the lobby.”

He made his escape, and declares that since then he hasn’t ever been quite drunk enough to burst into song.

But Dillon’s real test with Japanese culture came when he met his wife at a Lutheran event in 1977.

Her mother opposed their relationship and asked an elder missionary to discourage him.

But the missionary’s words, Dillon recalls, actually inspired him to up his game. “I was 22 or 23 and kind of a nerd, and I’d never dated a girl as cute as my wife. The missionary said that young American men think dating is the same as in the States but it’s a much more serious thing in Japanese culture.

He told me, “if you’re not going to treat the relationship seriously I want you to break it up right now.” So I said ‘OK, I’ll get serious!’ “

And he got serious, so serious that he surprised even himself. He called and wrote to his future wife, who was then living in Kagoshima, every day and drove for four hours to see her on the weekends.

“I thought, ‘she’s too cute, someone’s going to take her.’ But it got to be a real drag for her, and for me too, I thought ‘I don’t want to call her, I have nothing to say!’ I can’t believe I did that.”

They were eventually married (by the missionary who had originally advised him). They had their reception in a room above a bowling alley, Dillon remembers fondly, the proceedings broken up by the electronic tune played every time someone bowled a strike.

Although Dillon then returned to the U.S. to pursue a degree in English teaching, he soon came back and settled in Tokyo in 1990. After three years as president of the National Lutheran Missionary Association, he took a position as part-time professor of English literature at Sophia University. This position he still holds, along with teaching at other schools, publishing educational books, and writing scripts for English-learning TV programs and articles for various publications.

Although an advocate of assimilation, Dillon says it is easier for him because he is not wholly attached to any institution. “If you are part of a group there are certain things you have to fulfill, and if you don’t you’re causing disharmony.”

But being outside the group, he says, can be very lonely, especially for veteran Japan residents like himself. “I’m close to those who have not only been in the same situations, but done things around the same time. There are very few of those left here now.”

One of the difficult decisions faced by many resident foreigners concerns their children’s education. Dillon was no exception.

“My older son had ijime (bullying) problems at Japanese elementary school. His Japanese was perfect but he happened to look very Western, and he had a very stubborn personality that the Japanese kids interpreted as being a foreigner, when reality he was just being himself.”

Even now, as a Ph.D. student in the U.S., his son remembers it as a very bad time, Dillon said, adding that being able to move him to international school was a big motivation behind settling in Tokyo.

He also recalls how he and his wife worked hard to keep up their sons’ bilingual skills. “In Kumamoto I taught them English every night, using films. I saw ‘The Goonies’ 45 times. I very much believe that my first son is (studying) cinema because it got pumped into his skin at a very early age!”

His sons grew up proud of their Japanese heritage, as Dillon is of his Japanese affiliation, defending his adopted home from criticism when he goes over to the U.S. But when he is in Japan, he says, there are small things that irritate him.

He feels that the recent swine flu scare brought on “a sense of xenophobia, a passive aggression, that the outside world is forcing this on us. I also don’t like the term ‘gaijin crime,’ by which they are pointing to Chinese. I find that to be a very discriminatory term.”

Dillon is also bemused by how the Japanese exaggerate when a fellow citizen does well internationally. “The media gives them so much attention, and I find that a little bit unnatural. For example, if Ichiro says three words of English to a fan, that’s got to be in the media — Ichiro speaking English!”

Dillon himself has nurtured the English skills of many, from the early days when he wrote his own text for his high school students based on games and interaction, to his current role as university professor, turning his classroom into a “laboratory where my students can practice all the time.”

Nevertheless, his real passion is in writing, a dream which was sidelined by other priorities in his life. “I became an English teacher because I had to. I came to Japan because I wanted an adventure, and I wanted to move on and see the rest of the world. But I enjoyed the job security — and then I met my wife.

“I actually wanted to write,” he says and raises his eyebrows with a twinkle in his eye. “But, do you know it doesn’t pay well?”

Dillon confessed that in addition to journalism, he had earlier ambitions to write fiction. “I was very starry-eyed in those days. I wanted to write a great Japanese-American novel.”

Upon the suggestion that he still could, Dillon just chuckled. And with that, he stepped out lightly into the evening sun, donning a baseball cap to cover his bald spot — a frequent subject of self-mockery in his effervescent Japan Times column.

And, by the way, that bald spot . . . it isn’t actually as big as he would have you believe.