It’s always tough to see friends leave Japan. Yet sooner or later almost everyone goes back.
But in such situations, long-term residents have learned exactly what to say to dear departing friends. Well-chosen words of farewell, like . . .
“Can I have your stuff?”
He has his nose in his beer. So I tick off the items from my wish list:
“Your kotatsu? Your futons? And your Anpanman coffee mug?”
The last item jars him to life. “Sure. Take them all. Where I’m going, I won’t need them.”
Where he’s going is Iowa. I tell him he won’t need his yen there either. He might as well leave that with me too.
But he’s not that drunk. Not yet, anyway. I order another round.
“It’s time,” he tells me. “Time to go.”
“No, no. I just ordered more beer.” And I have way more items on my wish list.
“I meant Japan. After 25 years, it’s just time.”
I ask how he knew. Not that I expect my time to come. Who does? My feet are so entrenched in Japanese soil I have tiny bonsai sprouting between my toes.
“I just woke up one morning and missed the smell of Iowa air,” he says. “And that was that.”
Ah the aroma of livestock! How inviting.
“How do you know you won’t go back and then miss the smell of Tokyo air?”
He asks me to inhale, as if that was answer enough. So in return, I ask the biggest question of all. After decades in Japan, just how did he plan to earn a living back at home?
He shrugs. “Teach English, I suppose.”
So I reach and snap my fingers in his eyes.
“Hello! Don’t you remember? People in Iowa speak English already.” Or at least a form thereof.
“Oh I’ll find someone. Just like I do here. If I can’t latch on with some conversation school, I’ll open a small classroom in my house. Pass out flyers at the subway. Maybe meet private students at a coffee shop. You know.”
No, I don’t know. Instead, I imagine a bunch of grizzled farmers in overalls sitting around his kitchen table, asking questions in turn, like, “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” “What’s your favorite color?”
“I don’t think folks in Iowa will pay you for speaking practice. And good luck with that subway idea. I think you’d do better advertising on the backs of cows.”
The waitress brings our refills and he wets his whistle, all the way down to his shoes.
“OK, so if English won’t work, I’ll teach Japanese then. I can do the basics. Add in a little origami, maybe some Japanese cooking, and I’ll get by.”
Again I see his kitchen full of farmers, this time folding paper cranes.
“If I were you, I’d change gears. I don’t imagine the good people of Iowa will be that nuts to learn about Japan.”
He hiccups — symbolic, perhaps.
“So what’ll I do?”
“That’s what I’m asking.”
“You’re saying people won’t be knocking on my door, begging to learn something?”
“Not unless you teach them how to pick lottery winners. Or how to turn tap water into super premium.”
“How about the TOEIC test? I could teach that.”
“Nooo. Not even the TOEIC. Iowans have about as much interest in the TOEIC as giraffes have in ice skates.”
He drains his glass.
“So . . . I’m going back to the old homestead, but after a quarter century in Japan, I have no experience, no job skills and no talent whatsoever.”
I tell him he forgot “No common sense.”
“So what’s that leave me? As far as job possibilities?”
“I dunno. Congress, maybe.”
“Then,” and he belches, “why am I going back?”
“For the air. Remember?” I hope that’s answer enough. For I want his kotatsu.
That’s right, he tells me: for the air.
He means he has always felt like a fish in strange waters here — strange and wonderful enough to keep him in Japan for half his life. But the home waters were always easier and always beckoning. Now it was just time. He’d find something to do back home, he was sure.
“But,” he says, “Don’t the home waters beckon you too?”
“What home waters? I have Japanese trees growing between my toes.”
Besides, there is a truth that haunts anyone who has fully grasped the life of a wanderer: It doesn’t matter where you go; you are always foreign.
He nods, smiles and says, “I’ll drink to that.” And he orders more, knowing I’ll buy.
Enough to cover the cost of all his stuff?
The way he is drinking? Maybe so. I’ll have to add more to my list.
Yet enough for a proper send-off? For a good old buddy?
No, never. And that’s the bitterest bite of Tokyo air.
When East Marries West appears in print on the third Thursday Community page of the month. Your comments and ideas: email@example.com