This is an article I wrote for the “Comfort” Issue of the YAK, the 3 times a year publication done by and for Okinawa Prefecture ALTs from the JET programme.
I have been in Japan for nearly two and a half years, and in that time I have gone home twice. In total, I have been out of the country for all of maybe 20 days. Since I have been here I have never had to take byokyu (well, up until this week, but it doesn’t really count). I have been extremely healthy for the most part, only having to visit the hospital for minor sports related injuries. At first, I was surprised by my seeming good luck, only sick twice in all the time I have been in Japan. But wait, the plot thickens. Both times I got sick were when I was at home. Coincidence? I think not.
The first time I got sick was when I went home for summer vacation a year and a half ago. I came down with strep and spent a full two thirds of my vacation floored until I finally got to a Wallgreens and got a z-pack to knock out the infection. This time I had to take byoku because I had a fever and had green… well you do not really need to know that much about my nose. So the question is why do I get sick there and not in Japan? I think the answer lies in some of those comforts we all miss, some of the differences between our home cultures and Japan that are so obvious that many of us yearn for them.
So what did I do this trip? Nearly every meal I at was a meeting with an old family member or friend I had not seen in years. The way I saw it, it was a good way to kill two birds with one dinner roll. Japanese food is great, I make it all the time, but I miss American food too. So as I got my fill of back home favorites, I also was able to pack in as many people as possible into my short schedule. I was shocked that where I would have finished off an entire plate of food a few years ago, this time I was ordering smaller portions and still had left overs. My time in Japan has taught me to eat far less than I used to and still be satisfied. It was shocking to find that the old comfort, over indulgence, was not even really possible anymore. I could no longer eat that much.
Aside from friends, there was lots of family. I have a big family, four brothers and sisters with 11 kids among them. In Arizona at least, we tend to shake hands, hug, and even kiss for greetings. We spent long hours preparing for the feasts and parties around Christmas, and even longer hours enjoying the fruits of our labors. It is no wonder that the proximity of all the people and foods, etc. lent itself to a sharing of more than Christmas spirit.
So why do I get sick there and not in Japan? In Japan people are more distant physically sure, but I would argue they can be just as close when you get to know them emotionally. The distance however is telling. Bowing instead of other forms of greeting might just be one of the things that has led Japan to have one of the biggest populations of old people. People live longer in Japan. Maybe it is because they are not spreading around all their germs every time they say hello. Maybe it is because they do not stuff their faces as much as many of us westerners do. So sure, I got my sourdough bread, and I still wish they had it here. Nevertheless, I find it a comfort to live in a place where the people live longer. Maybe we could all learn a few new comforts during our time, however long, in Japan.