By Sarah Somerset
It’s Saturday morning and I am enjoying sleeping in after a demanding work week as a single mother. I have a lunch date so mid-morning my daughter Heloise, aged 14, and Hannah, aged 11, and I exit our flat and head towards our car in the communal car park directly outside. As we are about to hop in the car I am upbraided in Japanese by one of the housewives from our university housing complex, Tanaka san.
“Why aren’t you helping us with weeding today?”
I look around and notice that all of the housewives from the housing complex are posted around the building, behatted to protect themselves from the sun, and begloved to protect their hands from weeding.
“I didn’t know it was weeding day today,” I weakly protest.
Then I recall the notice in kanji (Japanese characters) that has been posted at the bottom of the stairwell for the past few weeks. It must have announced that today was to be set aside for the housewives to perform their communal weeding duty. Because it is in kanji I have not registered the meaning.
“This housing is subsidized, so we have to do the ground maintenance ourselves. How can you accept subsidized housing if you don’t agree to pull your weight?” she continues.
Oh no! I have let the group down.
“Sumimasen” I apologise as I bow to her but inside I am more angry than apologetic. However, this society frowns upon overt displays of emotion. I opt for the culturally appropriate response.
I approach each of the housewives who are all kneeling as they weed. I bow to each of them individually, lamely repeating sumimasen to each one.
Anyway, my lunch date is waiting, so I usher Heloise and Hannah into the car, and drive off, leaving the weeders behind me.
Why have I been so publicly upbraided? Could I not enjoy the gaijin-card which allows foreigners to be excused from irksome neighbourhood duties in the name of ignorance of local customs? Perhaps this is revenge for the day I refused to let Tanaka-san practice her English on me. Because I earn my livelihood as an English teacher I don’t feel that I need to provide free lessons. Tanaka-san seems to think that random kerbside consultations are acceptable. I only extend my professional concern for English language teaching to my students. I expect others to have the grace to let me participate in their society in the local language. After all, I have studied Japanese for three decades and am working in Japan. Is it so unusual to want to speak the language of one’s host country?
I have been thinking about moving for quite a while, but this treatment prompts me to action. The university housing complex where I live is known as a shukusha. One member of each household works for the university. Most of the academics are men, and I am a minority of one, as the only western female head of household. The housewives gather together for communal events such as management meetings and weeding duties. They have positioned me as a housewife because of my gender, even though I am a full-time worker.
I purchase a copy of the monthly real estate magazine which advertises rental accommodation in Wakayama. I telephone an agent to enquire about a house which is a five-minute cycle away from the university. He provides directions on the phone.
“Continue 100 metres from the Uozumi Bridge. Then turn right at the student hostel. Take the first left. It’s the westerm house at the T-junction, opposite the wooden cottage with the potted plants in front.”
I inspect the house, and hurriedly tell the agent that I would like to rent it. The house itself is adequate for three people, and is close to the university campus.
The landlord is happy to have us as tenants. I sign the paperwork, and then hurriedly I make the short journey from the shukusha to our new dwelling to transfer our household goods. As I am leaving, one of the housewives detains me.
“Are you moving?”
“Yes, I found a house.”
“Oh lovely! I would like to visit you. Where is it?”
“Not far from here”. I evade a direct answer.
Soon I have removed the family possessions from the shukusha. Our new house is almost impossible to find. Even I manage to get lost the first time I try and return there from the shukusha. On arrival we are befriended by a feline friend we name Betty. I look forward to avoiding making more faux pas in the unfamiliar and complicated communal life of the shukusha, and hope to enjoy some longed-for obscurity. Heloise, Hannah and I, with the help of Betty, enjoy our escape from the obligations and responsibilities of communal living, and prying eyes in this house which is impossible for anyone other than the initiated to find.