After the shocking passing of my father in February 1995, I had returned to Malaysia to be with my mother. I must have spent over a month back home, missing the final weeks of language school at Bunka and its graduation ceremony.
My next stop in the journey was to be at a senmon gakko (professional training college) and the start of my first-year semester in April of 1995. I eventually dragged myself, reluctantly, back to Tokyo sometime in March of ’95 and got ready to enter college.
The college I was assigned to was the Kokusai Kankou Senmon Gakko (International College of Tourism or ICT). The school was located at Asakusabashi in Tokyo. As Monbusho scholarship students, we were not allowed to pick our colleges or field of study. It was all pre-assigned at the point of offer of the scholarship. As I had studied Tourism in ITM, I was given a course in International Tourism Management at ICT.
Senmon Gakko are basically technical or vocational training colleges, where they prepare you for life in the working world in the most practicable manner. Courses are typically 2 years long. Unlike the Japanese daigaku (university) such as University of Tokyo (Todai), Keio Daigaku or Waseda Daigaku, where courses there would take up to 4 years to complete for a degree. Not everyone who completes high school gets to go to a daigaku as they’re fairly hard to enter. These Japanese high school leavers would then enroll in a Senmon Gakko for their higher education.
Which then leaves me enrolled in a class with a bunch of rambunctious 18-year-olds Japanese high school leavers as classmates. This is going to get interesting.
Also a part of the scholarship was of course the monthly stipend or allowances. Monbusho would provide us students with ¥129,500 per month, and The Association of International Education Japan (AIEJ) would add another ¥15,000 per month. This amount would eventually be increased to a total of about ¥150,000 per month. That’s a lot of money.
In the mid 90’s, the exchange rate for Japanese Yen to RM is about ¥100 relative to RM2.50. In the real world, ¥100 would get you a can of drink from a vending machine or one item from the Hyaku En (¥100) shops (like Daiso). ¥515 (RM12) would get you a set of McValue Meal, more than double the cost in KL at that time. Taking a ¥1,000 note with me to the local suupaa (supermarket) would get me a loaf of bread, some eggs, a 1.5l bottle of coke, a bar of chocolate and not much else.
So, ¥150,000 roughly converts to RM3,750 per month. Still a huge sum for a student. But you need to be cognizant to the fact that cost of living is exorbitant in Tokyo, a city which features prominently on the list of the World’s Most Expensive Cities every year.
As for us scholarship students, we were blessed that all tuition and school related fees are paid for. All we had to do was attend school. The stipend is meant to cover other costs of living such as rent, train fare, food and other basic necessities. Rental for accommodation would take a huge chunk of the monthly stipend. Depending on where you choose to live, rental can take up to one-third to half off the ¥150,000.
By this time, I was happily entrenched in Gyotoku. Roslan and Elmy also stayed in an apartment unit 10 minutes bicycle ride away from my apartment. I was spending more time at their place than mine most days. This was so only because of the need for the basic survival necessity – FOOD.
I am totally hopeless in the kitchen. I can’t differentiate between a pot or a pan. I don’t know how to cut meat or veggies. I’ve only cooked rice a handful of times. That also with a lot of difficulties.
Lan and Elmy both kept a part-time job, called Arubaito or baito for short in Nihongo. The word arubaito originally comes from the German word Arbeit, which means work. Nihongo uses a lot of loan words, words that are borrowed from other languages like English, Portuguese, Dutch, German, French.
Some loan words or gairaigo that you may be familiar with are konbini (convenience store), sofuto kurimu (ice-cream), miruku (milk), depaato (department store), biru (building), furi saizu (free size), koin randori (coin laundry) and many, many equally mind-boggling examples. The Japanese also has this tendency to mix and match words from two languages and shortening them.
Did you know that the word Karaoke originated from the Japanese word kara (empty) and mixed with the first part of the English word orchestra? So, what you get is kara+orche = KaraOke, okay!
What about Pokémon? Everybody knows Pokémon. But did you know that it comes from two English words put together and shortened to become pocke(t) + mon(ster) = Pokémon. Amazing.
In school, we had to use words such as pasokon (personal computer) and wapuro (word processor). There were many other times I was left scratching my head to decipher the meaning of these gairaigo no matter how hard I try to anglicized their pronunciation.
Lan and Elmy actually worked part-time at a Malaysian restaurant in the city. And Elmy is a trained chef as he graduated ITM in Chef Training while Lan is a Hotel Management graduate. Every day, they would be bringing back leftover food from the restaurant that we would have for dinner. Other days, either one of them would do the cooking at their apartment. I was just there to eat.
That’s dinner sorted then. Breakfast would usually be toast (which I can actually do), and lunch at school would be some buns and a can of drink from either Family Mart, 7-11 or Lawson. Other times I just subsisted on Coke, cigarettes and coffee. And Mister Donut.
In the 90’s, Halal food, either restaurants or stores selling them were few and far between in Japan. There are some restaurants that you can go to, like the famous Indonesia Raya in Ginza, but their prices are prohibitive. You can probably go once in a while IF you really have a craving for Malaysia/Indonesian food. But honestly, Elmy could cook it better.
My biggest issue is that I don’t eat fish, of any kind or species. Not even anchovies. And to make matters worse, fish is a staple dish in Japan. So sushi and sashimi are out of the question. I can take some other seafood though, so the safest bet would be the seafood tempura with rice like tendon. When we do go out, we’ll just nibble on what we can find and eat rice when we got home.
This is when I decided to move ‘CLOSER’ to Lan and Elmy. An opportunity arose when there was a vacancy at an apartment block just adjacent to theirs. It was a newer, fully furnished unit in an apartment complex called the Bay Avenue 101. With a name like that, who wouldn’t want to live there, right? It did come with a slightly higher premium rental though. But I thought I could off-set this as I also started my own baito after moving to Bay Avenue.
The owner of the building coincidentally also owns a few other apartment blocks within close proximity. And he kept a management office on the ground floor of Bay Avenue. He leases his apartments, short or long term, predominantly to foreigners, and was doing good business as he doesn’t charge the customary reikin (key money), which is a form of ‘gift’ to the owner before you are handed the keys to the unit or property. Reikin can sometimes cost 1 to 3 months of one month’s rental, and is non-refundable. Little wonder a lot of foreigners try to avoid this.
The only issue is the owner doesn’t speak a word of English despite the fact. So, he employs a part-timer, like me, in his office who is bi-lingual and can help with enquiries and also collecting rentals and maintenance issues. The office is open for foreigners every evening, Monday to Friday from 9pm-11pm. That was the ambit of the job. Seems easy enough.
The baito pays good money even though it was only for 2 hours work a day. I’d get paid ¥3,000 a day which translates to about RM75. That’s an additional RM1,500 per month in my pockets. Now I can understand why some Malaysians stay back in Japan and don’t return. The cost of living may be high, but the salary commensurate with that and the quality of life in Japan is beyond doubt.
The other thing that I noticed about the Japanese are there were no racial discrimination to speak of throughout my stay there. Sure, there was some suspicion, as the Japanese consider themselves a superior race due to their standing as a world economic superpower and a fully developed nation even back then. They do look up to the Caucasians though. We brown-skinned people from backwater countries are considered less-favorably so. But that was about it. The Japanese largely kept to themselves and don’t really bother other people.
That’s why Tokyo is a very safe place, even for a gaijin. Even the notoriously infamous Yakuza don’t disturb the common man on the street. From what I saw, the gaijins in Japan tries very hard to get assimilated quickly with the culture, customs and the Japanese way of life. So this endears them to the Japanese society. For example, it would be difficult to find a gaijin who would force his language onto a Japanese. Usually it is the other way around. MOST gaijins in Japan would be able to speak some Japanese.
Back in school, I was met with this realization that this is not Bunka anymore. Where I used to be surrounded by friends from Malaysia and other students from all over the world, where everybody spoke English and we were having fun learning Nihongo, this was a whole different ballgame. The Japanese kids hardly spoke English, and the Nihongo they spoke was of the ’street’ variety, full of slangs and swear words. Me coming off one year of proper Nihongo at language school, must have sounded like a reporter reading the news on TV to them. I had to adjust, and pick up their version of Nihongo. Truthfully, if you already have the basics, it would be a walk in the park. Observe and listen, and practice. Soon enough, I was happily swearing my way on the weather, through the packed subways and everywhere else.
What made my life a bit easier was the fact that since I was studying International Tourism, half of my subjects at school were in English, or partially English. There was English kaiwa (conversation), English for Tourism and stuff like that. Since I was the only one who spoke English in class, invariably I would be the star the of the class as my classmates would turn to me for help every time there was an English classwork or quiz.
One subject that stayed with me till today is on business etiquette. The Japanese pay such a high importance to the hierarchical relationship of seniority that they incorporate it into the syllabus at school to prepare you for working life after you graduate. On the most basic level, there is the senpai (senior) – kohai (junior) relationship. This is practiced even as early as elementary school. Then there is the more complicated relationship between ordinary salaryman (office worker) and his or her shachou (CEO) or buchou (department head). The most enduring point was that you MUST NOT, ever, question your superiors. And they’re ALWAYS right, even when they call a glass a plate.
Then there are other intricate customs such as where to stand, where to sit, how to walk, how to bow and a whole different level of language to address your superiors relative to your position in the company. Everyone who enters the working world must subscribe to this set of etiquettes. No wonder the Japanese salaryman and O.L (office lady) are a bunch of highly stressed people.
I learnt that there were other aspects of the working culture that add to this stress. One peculiar trait is that a salaryman would be deemed an embarrassment to his family if he is back home before nightfall. This would indicate that he is a slacker and not working hard enough like everyone else.
To avoid this, he would instead divert to a place where he can relieve some tension and let off some steam. Favorites would be the karaoke joints or to go play ‘pachinko’, the Japanese equivalent of the slot machine. You’d find a karaoke joint or a pachinko parlour at every corner of every subway station in Tokyo.
And then there is another office ritual that you’d need to partake in which is ‘nomikai’ – literally meaning ‘drinking party’. As fun as it sounds, salarymen are obliged to drink with bosses and co-workers in the evenings in order to build up company relationships. Izakaya (pubs or bars) are usually packed to the brim every day from 6-8pm. It is then not uncommon to find a yopparai (drunk) salaryman late at night most weekdays everywhere.
In March of 1995, while I was back in Malaysia, a tragedy struck Tokyo. At approximately 8.15am on 20th March a deviant religious cult who called themselves the Aum Shinrikyo perpetrated a Sarin nerve gas attack in central Tokyo targeting rush hour commuters on three different subway lines heading to Kasumigaseki, where the Japanese government’s seat of power or the Diet is located. Pandemonium ensued and panic spread across the city as the subway system came to a grinding halt. Nobody knew what had happened in the immediate aftermath of the incident. In all, 12 people perished and more than 5,000 were injured in the attack.
It was the worst domestic terror attack ever carried out on Japanese soil and Japan would be gripped by fear from the Sarin attack. It was in the news every day until the capture of the cult’s leader Shoko Asahara and a number of his followers in May of that year.
I would have been on the train to Shinjuku passing by Kasumigaseki at that very hour had I been in Japan. I consider myself lucky that I was away. But the fear lingered for many months. Police presence were increased at all train stations after that.
Having spent over a year in Tokyo, I realized that I needed to be more inclusive and so I started to socialize more. Living next to Lan and Elmy made me more open to join up with social activities organized by fellow Malaysians in Tokyo. There was the BBQ picnic by a river, Hari Raya celebration at the Malaysian High Consulate, the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show, Hanami (flower watching) which is the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the cherry blossom. Hanami is a big thing in Japan, since it only blooms once a year around March to April.
Living in Japan also gave me the opportunity to experience the four seasons for the first time. Make that five if you include the typhoon season! Coming from tropical Malaysia, where it is just either rain or shine and nothing in between, having this chance was exciting at first, until you actually have to live through the biting chill of winter and the prickly heat of mid-summer.
Summer in Japan can be very hot and dry, it’s not humid like Malaysia so the heat hits you like a furnace. Not a lot fun, then. And to me at least, cold is when the temperature hits anything below 20° Celsius, which is basically from October when the temperature starts to drop. This will last till late April when spring turns to summer. That’s two-thirds of the year in chilly coldness.
Then you get the winter months of December to February. I’m not a fan of the cold. You’d have to put on layers of clothing, and this makes it troublesome when you have to go out. You’d also have to turn on the heater at home where this would cost a bomb. So I used a portable heater instead. Placed it right at my feet every night. One morning I woke up and saw that the heater had burnt part of my futon. Nasib baik tak mati rentung!
What everyone was waiting for was to experience snow. It didn’t snow in Tokyo during my first winter there in ‘94-‘95 as Tokyo doesn’t really get much snowfall in winter. It was just depressingly wet and cold. But as luck would have it, it finally snowed in earnest in February of ‘96. There was one night when there was a heavy snowfall in Gyotoku, and I happily went out with Lan to play in the snow and take photos. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. We were the only ones out though. The Japanese just stayed indoors, wondering what these two goons were doing outside in the snow.
The highlight of my stay in Japan would definitely be the visit to Yomiuri Land, an amusement park located in Inagi City, about half an hour from the city center. The main attraction at Yomiuri Land is the Bandit Rollercoaster. When it was first opened in 1988, Bandit was credited as the fastest rollercoaster ride in the world with speeds topping 110km/h. Yomiuri Land is located on a hilly site, and with the Bandit’s maximum height reaching up to 51 meters, passing the side of the hill and the top of trees through its 1,560 meters of length, you can imagine how high the ride is.
It would be my first time ever on a rollercoaster. I was terrified of heights, so this was gonna be horrifying. In a cruel twist of fate, by the time it was my turn to ride it came, I got to sit on the front most seat. 2 minutes and a whole lot of screaming my lungs out later, the ride was over. I’ve never had a longer 2 minutes in my life than this.
The rest of the times would be spent at Lan and Elmy’s place. They had everything there. The ultimate bachelor’s pad. Karaoke, Play Station, food.
Sony’s first ever Play Station was only released in late 1994. These boys would own one, obviously. I wasn’t much of gamer, but I got hooked. We would play games until the wee hours of the morning. My favorite was the legendary arcade game Raiden, and car racing game Ridge Racer. Such fond memories, these. I really miss those times.
1996 came and it would turn out to be a pivotal year for me. What was supposed to be the making of me, turned out to be quite the opposite.
When Lan and Elmy left to return to Malaysia in early ‘96, my life was in limbo. I would lose my best mates. I felt lost for a while as I was so used to having them around. And now I was all alone again.
Now that I’m living on my own and lost my regular supply of cooked meals, I had to device a workable dinner menu that I could realistically prepare. The choices were not overwhelming, I must say. There was Indomie goreng or Maggi soup on Mondays, cheese or French toast on Tuesdays, pasta on Wednesdays, nasi goreng on Thursdays, sausages and eggs on Fridays. If I felt like it, I’d eat out or tapau food on weekends when I don’t have baito.
My nasi goreng would use the Adabi instant nasi goreng paste brought from Malaysia. The belacan smell would stink the whole apartment complex. For the rice, I’d buy one portion of it ready cooked from 7-11. I was, after all, only cooking for one. Such was my sad existence.
This miserable state of affairs made me retreat back into my shell. My life shifted from a cheerful disposition to a melancholic gloom. I isolated myself from everyone again in the end.
To add salt to the wound, turmoil in my personal life had left me dejected. It was the kind of seismic event that renders a situation so hopeless you just feel like giving up and walking away. My hopes, my dreams, they were shattered to smithereens. They were now left hanging by a thread.
I was left ‘waiting’, hung out to dry, caught neither here nor there. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to borrow from an old Malay proverb, “Yang dikejar tak dapat, yang dikendong berciciran”. What I dreamt of didn’t happen. You have these high hopes and wish that it will all end happily ever after, just like in a fairy tale.
But this isn’t the movies. This is real life. I was resigned to the fact that this is how the story of my life would play out. I was left to rue the missed opportunities. Stranded between expectations and reality.
Writing this story made me feel like going back to that Japan in time and reliving this whole episode of my life and to make things right. If ever there was a moment where I felt that if only I could turn back the clock, this was it.
In August of 1996, under a cloud of sorrow, it was time to leave the country. What started out with a bang, I would never have thought would end in such a whimper. Standing alone in Narita Airport where it all started, I cut a desolate figure waiting for my flight home.
Things, places, people change. They move on with the tide of time. Advancement in technology and modernization has changed everything as we knew it. The Tokyo I lived in is not the same as the Tokyo as it is now. People I knew has got on with their lives and are strangers now when they used to be my close confidant.
This bird that once flew east is now flying over the cuckoo’s nest, one last time. 5300km and 8 hours later, I was back in KL.
So, you move on in life. Live and let live. It is time to banish the demons of yesteryears.
25 years on, it was time to let go.