Winning: ‘The Alien’: readers remember life in ’90s Japan

The following are a selection of the winning submissions in response to last month’s Zeit Gist competition to win copies of “The Very Best of Neil Garscadden’s Alien Humor,” a collection of many of the pieces Garscadden wrote while editor of the humor section of The Alien magazine.

In response to Garscadden’s column, headlined “Living and loving The Alien from Nagoya” (July 26), readers were invited to share their memories of The Alien, Nagoya then and now, or life in Japan in the 1990s.

You think you had it good?

Japan in the ’90s was a golden age, so much so that Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch works in reverse:

“When I first arrived, potential employers massaged my feet during interviews.”

“Oh, you were unlucky! Potential employers used to tuck ¥10,000 bills into the hem of my underwear while introducing me to their college-aged daughters.”

I arrived in 1992 by boat from Taiwan on a one-way ticket with $800 in my pocket, no job, and nowhere else to go — yet I was admitted! A month later, I was teaching company classes on the upper floors of gleaming buildings in Osaka to up-and-comers clad in Brooks Brothers and not much older than myself. They would take me out past the last train and carelessly hand over enough taxi coupons to allow me to return to my Kyoto apartment, which was entirely (and quite tastefully) furnished from gomi gleaning. (In fact, an American friend of mine who considered gleaning beneath himself nonetheless purchased my furnishings for a fair amount when I decamped for Kyushu.)

It was all too easy, all too innocent, but I guess it is another example of how Japan is harbinger to the world: Downsizing is now generational.

Will our children live as well as we do? My answer is yes: Things may not be so easy today, but the wackiness of life in Japan continues just as it does across the world, only with less money and no more taxi coupons.

Can I have my free book now? My kids are in school and I’d like to save the money.


No longer funny or interesting

I have lived here continually since 1988 and the decade of the ’90s was unremarkable compared to when I lived here in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. As an “alien,” I feel my uniqueness as a foreigner in Japan has faded significantly.

In 1964 I was unique. I got lots of stares, signed lots of school trip autographs and rarely saw anyone giving the peace sign when being photographed. “Charisma Man” comes to mind. The yen was 360 to the U. S. dollar, life was easy, the world was at peace and the United States was respected worldwide.

Fast forward to the ’90s and I think Japan simply has gotten used to foreigners and we are much less “alien” overall. We see a number of foreigners today on television and in commercials, and the number of foreigners working and living in Japan has increased. And because of this, we aliens have assimilated quite well since the ’60s, learning the language, customs and traditions and, for the most part, fitting into society quite well.

The humor today is the exception, not the norm. It is the fledgling foreigner who is still naive, funny and “alien,” and those of us who are long-term residents find the same humor in them as our Japanese friends and colleagues do, reminding me of John Lennon’s refrain, “I think I’m turning Japanese”.

So many of us expats have assimilated and blended into Japanese society that we are no longer unique, funny or even interesting anymore. Maybe John Lennon was right.

I once attempted humor with a Japanese colleague, remarking that I thought he used a fork very well. I thought it was funny. He was not amused.

Kamogawa, Chiba

Finally, respite from the mob

In the regional burg I began calling “home” during the mid-1980s, the local residents used to look at me like I’d just emerged from a UFO wearing a silver jumpsuit and with antennae sprouting from my head any time I set foot outside of my apartment (N.B., even staying inside was not entirely “safe” in this respect, as neighborhood children — and the occasional adult “peeper”- often peered into my apartment windows at me before yelling “Harroh!” and running away laughing).

However, subsequent waves of chipper young ALTs and JET program folks from the late 1980s on did much to change this. By the early 1990s I could safely walk down the street without having to worry about attracting pointing, staring mobs wherever I went, but on the other hand, the days of ¥10,000 for an hour of English conversation teaching were gone, too.

On the whole, though, the psychological comfort and subsequent quality-of-life boost of the former more than compensated for the personal sacrifice involved in being on the losing side of a significant supply/demand curve shift in eikaiwa business dynamics (I ended up pursuing an academic career anyway, so no biggie there, all things said and done).

Hamamatsu, Shizuoka

‘Charisma Man’ too close to home

I have very fond memories of living in Japan in the 1990s. I landed in Yokohama for my one-year working holiday in 1997, staying in a gaijin house in a rather upmarket suburb. I’m sure our mere presence reduced the value of surrounding houses substantially.

I was living with an interesting bunch: There was the usual bunch of English teachers from the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the U.K., but then thrown into that mix were TV presenters, interpreters, engineers, cooks and bar hostesses and, well, I’m really not sure what some of them did all day. There were several who came and went in a flash but a few had lived there for years, and I’m sure if the place hadn’t been knocked down a few years ago (so I heard), they would still be there today.

I recall seeing that first “Charisma Man” comic strip and laughing heartily along with my fellow female gaijin house mates. We thought it so amusing that we cut it out and stuck it on the communal notice board at the genkan (entrance) of the house. Some of the male gaijins in our house didn’t take to it too well and were indeed “offended” that we found it so hilarious (a little too close to home perhaps??). They tore it down almost immediately.


Time is ripe for ‘Solar Man’

As a long-time resident of Kansai, I have seen many things come and go since my arrival here in 1986. In fact, it seems that whenever I find something I like here, it is certain to disappear fairly quickly.

Luckily, I happened on The Alien in the ’90s and was able to enjoy quite a few years of its spot-on humorous take on the life of the foreigner in Japan.

It was always one of my joys to pick up a copy of The Alien and read “The Neil Zone” or any one of the other humorous features. But my all-time favorite was always the adventures of “Charisma Man.” What a classic!

As things continue to change in Japan, maybe now it’s time for someone to create “Solar-Man” — or some such character — to do battle with the evil proponents of nuclear power.

Of course, that would require someone to put together another humor magazine as well. I’m hopeful that it could happen, but I won’t hold my breath waiting.

If ever we needed more humor in Japan, we need it now!

Kadoma, Osaka

Snow big deal

I have only been to Nagoya once. That was about 13 years ago, in the middle of winter, and I went there with my son and mother-in-law to attend the funeral of her close relative.

We took a taxi and settled down. But being new to the place we sounded quite exuberant in our conversation and it became obvious to the driver that we were visitors and I was an “alien,” so he joined our conversation pointing out different places of interest.

Suddenly, he pointed up towards the sky and said excitedly, “Snow! It’s snowing!” We looked out of the window to see it but there was obviously nothing.

“Where?” I was trying hard to find it.

“There!” he said, as he pointed proudly to a single flake of snow followed by another.

“Oh, OK.”

He was puzzled at my disinterest.

“That’s snow! Have you ever seen snow?”

“Yeah, I shovel about 30 cm of it off our driveway every day . Glad you don’t have that here.”

Yokote, Akita

We were and are very fortunate

Well, I’m not sure I qualify, having arrived in ’97, but I remember those pieces in The Alien, so here goes.

“Charisma Man” in particular stands out. As I adjusted to my new line of work in eikaiwa — and the myriad benefits of being a relatively “scarce” gaijin in Japan — Charisma Man left me smug in the belief that I was nothing at all like him.

Over the years, of course, I’ve come to realize a little of him exists in all of us here; there’s really no way to ignore the economic implications of belonging to a group representing about 2 percent of an otherwise homogeneous population.

Whether it be access to work or to the vast majority of Japanese wishing to share their strong values and wonderful culture, we are very, very fortunate.

As the old maxim goes, all good humor is based in truth. Thanks, Charisma Man!


‘The Alien’ had it nailed right on

Life in Japan was the bomb, man! The whole place was awash with money, and me and my buddies were surfing the wave. English was a fad, we could pick up ¥400K a month and throw all of it after the hedonism that possessed the place.

A buddy in Aichi used to send me “The Alien” sometimes and they had it nailed right on — it was way crazy watching the “Charisma Men” cruising the “bodycon” chicks at Julianas (night club in Tokyo), just to crash and burn like the dweebies they were. Good times.

Chigasaki, Kanagawa

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