The plane lands with a thud on the Tokyo tarmac, fifteen hours after take-off from Phoenix, Arizona. I look out the window of row 38 seat C, the window, and see only darkness. It is 10:00 p.m. in Japan. I am in unchartered territory, a place where I don’t know the customs, the language, or the food. I don’t know where I will live. Will it be in a condo, apartment, a new house, an old house, or with my in-laws? I left that decision up to my Japanese husband. I can only pray he didn’t choose his parents. Japanese tradition requires that the oldest son and his wife live with the parents and take care of them for the rest of their lives. I wasn’t provided this information until the day we got married. Sumio arrived in Japan one month before I did in order to find us a place to live and face the anger of his parents for marrying a gaijin (foreigner). Yes, that would be me. We got married in December in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I was a student getting my BA in ESL/Spanish. He was employed by a Japanese company in Waterloo, Iowa.

Sumio returned to Japan two weeks after the wedding and I returned home to Phoenix. He had to prepare his parents for his decision to marry an American woman. Six months before Sumio and I met, his parents had chosen a Japanese wife, omiai, for him. This was very common in the 1980’s. His father was angry because now they had to tell the girl’s family she was not needed anymore. Sumio had to financially reimburse her for any emotional damages she had endured.

My seat partner is a Japanese businessman who speaks English very well. We occupied our flying time with lessons in Japanese language and culture. He couldn’t believe that I was flying to Japan for the first time and meeting my husband at the airport. Why is an American woman moving to Japan? He never asked the question. He was polite. I thought about the answer and the answer was love and curiosity. I love the man I married, and I want to know more about his culture.

We exit the plane.  My seatmate asks, “What is your husband’s name?” I answer, “Sumio”. He removes a white piece of paper from the message board situated near the information desk. It is thumbtacked to a corkboard. This was thirty-seven years ago, before cell phones. Sumio wrote the message in Japanese. What? I can’t read Japanese. My seat partner reads the message. “I am waiting for you at the exit of immigration.” Nice. I was hoping he wouldn’t leave me at the airport. I trusted him.  We have only been married one month.

I present my passport. The customs agent looks at me quizzically. He is probably wondering why a girl like me has a Japanese last name.

He asks me, “What’s your purpose in coming to Japan?”

I answer, “I married a Japanese.”

He asks, “How long to you plan on staying?”

“I am not sure.” I answer.  He smiles and waves me through customs.

The wide glass sliding doors open into the crowd of people waiting. How am I going to find my husband? They all look like him! Black hair, 5’7” tall, and dark eyes. I will let him look for me. I stand out in this crowd. Light skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair. How could he not find me? I hear him call my name “Kyaroru, Kyaroru”. My name is Carol. Neither he nor any other Japanese can pronounce my name. He just calls me Okasan (mother), a term of endearment that most Japanese husbands use for their wives. I turn around and there he is. He did come! What a relief.

We greet each other with a very short embrace. It is taboo to hug or kiss in public. Other people watch with quizzical looks on their faces. Am I his English teacher, his American girlfriend, or a friend of the family? Not many American women marry Japanese men. Japanese women wait on their husbands and Americans don’t. American men marry Japanese women because they know they will take care of them and wait on them.

The airport smells of cigarettes. I am about to gag. It is incredibly noisy. I can’t understand a thing that is being said over the loudspeakers. The Japanese use loudspeakers to announce everything. I have a really bad headache along with a case of serious jet lag.

Sumio asks, “How much money do you have?”

I answer, “$100”. He looks at me in shock. He can’t believe I traveled across the world with such a small amount. That was a joke the whole time we were married. We have to run to catch the last train. It is 11:00 p.m. and the last train is leaving at 11:30.

I am holding on to the handle of my black suitcase and dragging it behind me and running.  I have my American passport in my left hand. My newly minted husband, Sumio, is

about twenty feet ahead of me with my second suitcase. These two suitcases contain my life possessions. I don’t know how long I will be living in Japan.

I am drained and anxious. I can’t read any of the signs or understand any of the announcements. I don’t speak Japanese. I must depend on my husband to translate. He doesn’t speak English very well. His translations are short. What am I doing here?

The train stops, we jump into the train dragging the suitcases behind us. Sumio stores the bags in the designated luggage area. There are five men in the train car. I am the only woman and the only American. Two of the men are dressed in dark blue suits with dark ties. The uniform of Japanese businesspeople. One of them has his shirt hanging out of his pants and his tie undone. He is slouched on the red plastic bench holding on to one of the poles with both hands for balance. The smell of sake fills the air. They are on their way home after a night of drinking in a bar. Three of the men are smoking. It is January 1981, smoking is allowed on public trains. Two other men dressed in black shirts with white T-shirts peeking out and black trousers are having a hushed conversation. They have the appearance of Catholic priests. They are not. They are the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Yes, they have a uniform too. My husband warns me in English not to look at them, so I don’t.

It’s 11:00 pm, and we are on a local train from the Tokyo airport to Toyohashi, Japan; Not the nice-looking Shinkansen (bullet trains) that are pictured in the tourist information, but the green and red trains that take people to and from work every day.  Most Japanese use public transportation to take them shopping, to work, and to school. It is cheaper and more

convenient. We shouldn’t be on this train. Sumio thought I was going to bring enough money for us to stay in a hotel. I only have $100. After he got over the shock of me arriving in Japan with less than what we needed, we headed to catch the last train out of the station.

The train chugs along and stops at every station along the line. I am trying not to breathe so much because the tobacco smoke is making me sick. I am also famished. I just got off a fifteen-hour flight from the US. I haven’t eaten for almost six hours. I could vomit. I won’t.

The neon lights flash as the train makes its way down the tracks. There are more neon lights in every city in Japan than there are in Las Vegas. There are signs for “café” (bars), restaurants, pachinko parlors, and love motels. I want to hold Sumio’s hand to feel some solace. That is not acceptable in Japan. I feel alone.

One man finally gets off the train on the fifth stop. He is so drunk. He shuffles to the opened door while another man helps him out. He doesn’t make it. The alarm sounds, and he gets stuck. The door opens one more time. This time he and his friend make it off the train. I hope they can find their way home. The man slouched on the seat is sleeping. I wonder if he will miss his stop.

The men are staring at me. Where is an American woman with two suitcases going with a Japanese man? Was she picked up in some bar? Are they headed to a “love motel”? Japanese men don’t marry American women. We have a reputation for being too independent. I am his English teacher, prostitute, lover, or girlfriend.

I close my eyes once in a while and awaken every time the door opens. The slouched man on the bench is gone, and so are the Yakuza. Now, it is only Sumio and I. He holds my hand, and one hour later we arrive at our destination.

The automated voice announces the arrival at our station, Toyohashi. I must have fallen asleep the last twenty minutes of the trip. The train comes to a stop. Another man had gotten on somewhere and is slouching on the bench. Is this his stop? He doesn’t move. He continues snoring.

Sumio disengages my two suitcases from the luggage rack. He takes one suitcase, and I grab the other one. I am dazed I don’t remember where I am or why I am here. I look down at my watch it says Thursday, January 7, 1981, 9:00 a.m. Why is it so dark outside? It is Thursday, January 8, 1:00 a.m. in Japan. I think I must have skipped a day of sleep somewhere.

The doors slide open. Sumio exits first, and I follow. I have no idea where I am going. It is dark inside the station and feels very ghostly because there is no one around. We follow the exit signs out of the station. A line of about six taxi cabs sits waiting for customers, most of whom are drunk Japanese businessmen on their way home. The taxi cab drivers are snoozing in their seats with their hands rested on the steering wheel.

We walk over to the parking lot. One single car is waiting with its lights on. A young man, eighteen years old gets out of the car. Sumio and I walk over to the driver. He bows to Sumio and gets a quick nod in return. He is 5’7″ tall and has a head of dark curly hair. The curls are not natural. It is the 80s, and it was the style of the times. He looks like a Japanese Brady Bunch kid.

Yasuo is the youngest of four boys. He is my brother-in-law. He bows to me and I to him. My bow does not have to be as deep as his because I am older than he, and an American woman. He puts my suitcases in the trunk of the car. Sumio sits in the passenger seat on the left. Yasuo sits in the driver’s position on the right. Japanese drive on the left-hand side of the road.

Sumio is the eldest in his family. Yasuo is the brother that Sumio needs to protect. Sumio is the respected oldest brother, oniisan. Japanese siblings do not call their older brothers or sisters by name. They use their titles; older brother, younger brother, older sister, and younger sister.

We get into the car, Sumio sits on the left side of the driver and I sit behind Sumio in the passenger seat. I observe the neon signs trying to figure out what they say. Is it a supermarket or a pachinko parlor? Is it a bar or a coffee shop? There are not many cars on the street at 1:00 a.m.

I am so tired. I can only think about falling into bed and sleeping for about two days. Twenty minutes later we arrive at our house. The house Sumio and I will live in for the next five years.

Sumio and Yasuo carry my two bags into the genkan. We remove our shoes and step up into the entryway. They drop the bags off in the bedroom which is on the way to the kitchen and small dining room. I am hoping for some quiet time with Sumio. Yasuo leads us into the kitchen. Sumio’s two brothers, father and mother are sitting on blue zabutons. It is 1:00 a.m. Why are they sitting in my living room?

The table is square and a round lacquered tray full of sushi is sitting in the middle of the table. Six pair of chopsticks are set around the table. Eight pairs of eyes are looking down at the food. They are avoiding eye contact with me. It would be rude for them to look at a stranger directly in the eyes. I look at them. I bow and whisper konbonwa (good evening), I whisper because I am afraid I might pronounce it wrong. They greet me in the same way. I sit on my zabuton with my legs under me. It is not polite to sit “Indian style” for a woman. So many things to learn. Small blue plates are placed in front of the chopsticks. Chopsticks are never placed on the side of dishes in Japan. The chopsticks sit on little chopstick holders. This is my first time to eat sushi.

Sushi does not refer to the raw fish. It refers to the vinegar rice that accompanies the sashimi (raw fish). Japanese serve sushi for special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and welcoming visitors into their home. I am the visitor.

Most Japanese buy prepared sushi in the supermarket or a local convenience store. If Japanese eat sushi outside of their home they frequent a “sushiya” in their neighborhood. The sushi sitting on the table in the kitchen was made by my mother-in-law. Today was a special occasion. Her eldest son brought home an American wife. Was she celebrating?


Five Years in Japan: The Arrival


I am a retired ESL teacher. I have a dog that owns me. I travel to learn about a culture. I want to share my stories with you. Come along with me!

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