Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

Fostering entrepreneurship beyond the foreign community

Some people say that as long as you have blond hair, blue eyes and white skin, you can get a job, succeed and even become a celebrity in Japan. So imagine what would happen if there were two such people, married to each other!

You may not be aware of this, but my husband and I are movie stars. We’re also rock stars, TV celebrities, entrepreneurs and all-round poster children for Japan’s countryside.

I have been praised for having a small face, being a native speaker of English and for my Japanese language ability. My husband has been commended for being otokomae (handsome) — for, among other things, wearing plaid flannel shirts and ripped jeans (the real kind), sporting the occasional unshaven face, keeping a head of wild, blond hair and having large, manly calloused hands from working on projects around the house.

Now you know why we escaped to a small island of 550 people, where we can live a quiet life out of the public eye (if there is such a thing when you’re as famous as we are!). And it’s no wonder that Japanese women faint when real celebrities come to town — they’re expecting people like us, but instead are overwhelmed by true talent and beauty. I always wonder if, after witnessing the real celebrities, they throw away our autographs.

Don’t get me wrong, though. My husband and I do have our talents, but no one here really cares much about those. Entrepreneurship (risk-taking, hard work and tenacity) is attributed to the fact that we’re foreigners who possess an allure that the Japanese will never have. Some look upon us with envy because as foreigners we don’t have to live within the constraints of Japanese society. And that this is what gives us the Midas touch, something I prefer to call the “gaijin touch.”

But the gaijin touch is also a result of having cultivated our skills through years of education, experience and trial and error, and coming from countries that openly encourage risk because it is a precursor to success. People don’t realize that for us, to have not risked is to have failed.

Recently my husband and I went to the mainland to buy Buddhist pilgrimage outfits. The woman in the specialty store escorted us to the shelves of pilgrimage accouterments: white vests, walking staffs and sedge hats. These outfits are donned by pilgrims embarking on the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage in Shikoku.

As the shopkeeper nervously took an XL vest out of the package, she ventured that it probably wouldn’t be big enough to fit my husband.

“Oh, sorry, it’s not for him,” I said. “We’re buying prizes for an event we’re holding on Shiraishi Island to raise money for the Shiraishi Pilgrimage. The guests will be 90 percent Japanese.”

“Oh, Shiraishi Island!” the woman exclaimed. “I knew I recognized you — I’ve seen you on TV! I’ve never been to Shiraishi, though,” she said, rather embarrassed.

But I understood: Sometimes it takes longer to get to your own local spots because you know they’ll always be there and you take them for granted. Besides, she already knows what’s on Shiraishi Island: nothing. And she’s right. Foreigners visit the Seto Inland Sea to observe the Japanese way of life in the countryside. But for the Japanese this is nothing new. They already know what’s here: just a bunch of nature.

“The event is a trail race,” I told her. “Our island has a 10 km-long pilgrimage based on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. The island people used to maintain it, but our population is aging and people can’t do the work anymore. I figure that if we can hold this trail race every year, we’ll not only raise awareness of the 350-year-old historic route, but we’ll make enough money to outsource the maintenance costs.”

The shopkeeper and I chatted more about it while picking out walking sticks and sedge hats for prizes. She then advised us to go with three large-size vests for the first-, second- and third-place men and three mediums for the top three women.

When we took the goods up to the counter, the cashier smiled and said: “You speak Japanese! We’re so relieved. We didn’t know how we’d communicate otherwise.”

We all laughed. Then a middle-aged woman with perfectly quaffed white hair rushed out from behind the counter.

“Can I shake your hand? I’ve never met a real foreigner before,” she confessed.

She grasped my hand wholeheartedly and remarked how blue my eyes were. Next she turned to my husband, took his hand in hers and held it while commenting on how tall and otokomae he was.

Then she giggled, bowed and left the store.

We had clearly made her day, and I could just imagine the story she’d tell her husband when he came home that night. Or maybe she’d go straight to the cafe across the street and entertain the staff by giving details about our height, nose length, hand width and eye-socket radius. And if they were lucky, they could still get a glimpse of the glamorous couple in hiking boots as they left the store.

Holding our new purchases in her hands, the shop lady escorted us outside, gently handed over the shopping bags and thanked us for coming to their store. Then she bowed deeply as we got into the car. As we drove away, I looked through the back window and she was still bowing deeply.

We held the inaugural Run with Kobo Daishi Trail Race on May 6, the last day of Golden Week. I was asked to report the results at the next town hall meeting,

“Our first race was a great success,” I announced. “We had 30 volunteers come help put on the race for 147 registered runners from around Japan. We made enough money to pay for maintenance for the first few kilometers of the pilgrimage route for the next year.”

The lady sitting next to me, a board member on the city council, replied: “I think it’s a little embarrassing that a foreigner is holding this event to help our island. I hope that next year more locals will help Amy with the race.”

While it was true that the islanders hadn’t helped with the event, I was perfectly fine with that. On the other hand, more help is always a good thing.

What would be more profound, however, is if we could encourage more Japanese people to think outside the box, and to take risks in order to succeed.

Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Send all your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp.

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