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My Friend the Ambassador


My friend Terry left Japan to return to Canada yesterday. No, not permanently, but just for a two-week vacation, going back to visit his family and friends after being here for nearly two years, working for a Japanese company. He lives in a small 'one-room' apartment, goes to the office every day on his scooter, and in most respects, lives pretty much the same life as most young unmarried Japanese 'salarymen'.

I have been wondering about what he will tell his Canadian friends about his life here. I am sure they will be full of questions ... How is your job? Can you eat the food? Can you meet any girls? Are you learning to speak Japanese? And of course the big one: What is it like living in Japan?

There are two ways he can answer all their questions. Two very different ways. He could tell them about the long hard hours of work at his company. About how he arrives home late many evenings, too tired even to make dinner before falling into bed. About how he spends many Sundays at his desk, because the other employees are also there working, and he can't be the only one to take time off. His Canadian friends will understand; they have heard such stories about Japan many times before. He could also tell them about his tiny, cramped apartment, and the endless noise from the neighbours and the motorcycles outside. They will not be surprised at this either. He could tell them about his feeling that he is becoming just a cog in a huge industrial machine, devoid of his own personality. They will nod knowingly ...

Or he could tell them a different kind of story. He could tell them about Yuko and Toyotaro Tokimoto, who took him into their home, and made him a 'full-time' member of their noisy, chaotic, happy family. He might mention his co-worker Yajima-san, devoted to his wife and two young children, and for whom the words 'family man' might have been invented. The Canadian friends will look at each other, these are Japanese he is talking about?

He might then tell them about little five-year old Shunsuke, who doesn't know the word 'foreigner', but who does know that anybody willing to get down on the floor and wrestle with him like Terry does is going to be his true friend for life. Yes, he might tell his friends about some typical Japanese people like these - for this is the side of Japan about which they know nothing.

Which story do you think he should tell? I guess they are both true; but only one of them is well-known. The other one, the human story, has somehow been neglected. So I hope Terry will avoid reinforcing the old stereotypes about Japan, and will simply tell his friends that, when you get right down to it, in all the things that are really important, the people who live on these islands are just the same as people who live anywhere else. I sure hope he will, because around most of the world, the human story of Japan is a pretty well-kept secret ...