My Diary of Firsts seized a whole new direction at the beginning of this year when I took a Winter trip to Sapporo, pursuing a skiing adventure with some great friends of mine. The trip got off to a rocky start when we discovered at the airport that our flights had been cancelled due to heavy snowfall. At the check-in counter we explained that we would catch the Shinkansen up north instead and the woman merely looked at us and uttered “Ki o tsukete”. I ignored this new phrase at first in my stage of mixed emotions. Our flights had just been cancelled, yet we were reeling at the impending adventure into the unknown.
After a 10 hour train ride (when I say ride, I really mean standing for 10 hours in a cram-packed carriage; struggling to move or breathe), we finally arrived at our destination to find the roads covered in 12 inch thick sheets of ice and pavement labyrinths dug out of 6 foot snow drifts. As we braced the treacherous roads, seeing many people slip and slide, one unfortunate man fell, hitting the back of his head with a loud thud. People rushed to the scene and as he stood was met with a chorus of ‘ki o tsukete.’ This phrase materialised once more…..but what did it mean? I attempted a quick Google but was unlucky at catching the correct pronunciation.
The next day on top of a mountain in Asahikawa, I was attempting [and failing] for the first time, the fine art of skiing. Half way down the slope, I lost traction and took quite a hefty fall; twisting my knee and landing in a tangled mass of body parts face down in the snow. As people slowed down to pass, a sense of déjà vu overcame me as that new danger related phrase appeared once more. It turns out that ‘ki o tsukete’ is used to simply wish that the receiver takes care of ones self. Standing on what felt like the top of all creation, overcome with fear, ‘take care’ was the last thing I needed to hear but some part deep inside of me appreciated the intent and in some way it helped ease my primitive fear…………momentarily.
The trip ended on a high and we returned to normality, the winter holidays were over and it was back to my daily routine which meant back to work. A few days into the new semester I experienced a horrifically shocking encounter on the morning commute to work where I would use my new phrase instinctively for the first time.
It was a Tuesday morning and I entered a trance like state of autopilot mode, taking my regular route to the station and boarding carriage #1, knowing that it would stop right outside the stairs at my destined station. The car wasn’t overly crowded but it wasn’t anywhere near the empty side either. I perceived a me-shaped empty spot in the middle of the walk way so I took post there in between two Japanese men. I noticed the man to my left was dressed rather distinctively compared to all us other professional drones in black suits. He was sporting a floor length white trench coat that looked as if it were full of secrets, a large white brim hat with a black sash around the middle and a black polo neck wooly jumper. I tried to imagine him in a modern day western movie, fearful of getting dirt on his clinically clean attire and this made me chuckle out loud. The stray grey hairs on the side of his head gave the impression that he was perhaps in his 40s but his face told me otherwise. He had a baby face but there was a glazed over tension behind his eyes that alerted all my flight instincts.
I knew I would be on this train for 6 stops so I held onto the hand rings, always secretly wishing to swing like a gladiator down the carriage every time I grab ahold, and placed my bag on the floor between my legs. Holding onto the ring next to me, the dapper man raised his head sharply and looked me square in the eyes. In the realms of wolves he would have howled or cocked his leg; claiming his territory, but by this point, more passengers had boarded and the environment became much more intimate, reducing any free space around me. I avoided eye contact as I used to when walking amongst the sheep living next to my childhood house, thinking this would calm him as it did with the sheep. Unfortunately, my ovine treatment did nothing of the sorts.
The train roared to life and one stop went by when suddenly the conductor exercised the emergency breaks and in doing so, each passenger was jolted slightly. In all the commotion, the bag laying between my legs fell slightly, gently brushed against the mans right leg in the same motion. I bent low to reposition my bag, offering a ‘sumimasen’ to the leg owner as I straightened up. Instead of an expression of gratitude or even remote forgiveness, I was met with a sense of rage only ever witnessed in a Spanish bull fighting arena.
I tried to ignore the situation, putting it down to a bad morning or perhaps he had missed his morning coffee. Another station went by and I could still feel those red eyes fixed upon the side of my face until the train halted to a complete stop at his point of departure. Many passengers left the carriage at this popular stop and my new found friend would soon do the same but not before elbowing me directly on the side of the head as he turned around, knocking my glasses off in doing so. This was the moment I decided to use my new phrase, thinking it would defuse the tension as it was obviously an accident…… “Ki o tsukete” I said with a smile, and what happened next shocked me and the entire carriage of people around me…….
The man continued to hold his elbow against the side of my head until suddenly and quite abruptly I find myself being grabbed by the shoulders and shoved up against the train door with this modern cowboy shouting very clearly in my face “GAIKOKUJIN!!!!” before he rotated, swiftly leaving the train. The whole time I was in a state of complete shock with so many questions racing through my mind: Why are my glasses still hanging at a funny angle? What has made this cowboy so angry all of a sudden? Why are you so offended at my being a foreigner? What secrets do you have under that coat?
Nobody came to my aid, if anything I felt suddenly penalised for the whole debacle as current passengers moved away from me, continuing to stare until I left the train 3 stops later, and new passengers boarding the train read the air and followed suit. For the first time in Japan I felt completely isolated and helpless, not fully understanding the events that just occurred on my morning commute to work.
Finally at work I enthralled my boss with the aforementioned events and he apologised wholeheartedly as if it were he that had committed this heinous act. He explained that by the description of the mans outfit it sounded like he may have been a member of the Yakuza [Japanese Mafia] which I was none the wiser to. He laughed when I told him I practised my knew and perhaps in hindsight, inappropriately tame expression and instead told me in a jovial manner that next time I see a man dressed differently to stand well away from them.
Sometimes it’s very difficult not to stand out living in Japan. I am accustomed to looks, stares and comments of all kinds and I have learned to embrace or act ignorant to it. I never expected such an unwarranted and unjustified attack of a cold Tuesday morning on my way to work. Looking back I can laugh at what I thought would defuse the situation by offering a simple helping of ‘take care’, and I can happily report that this circumstance has not in any way tainted my love for this country and its people.
There are 38 million people in the Greater Tokyo Area and I was just fortunate enough to meet the one bad guy who failed as an extra in a Clint Eastwood movie. It gave me an insight into how people react in said situations, it gave me a chance to fail publicly at Japanese and it gave me a stonker of an anecdote to regale over our morning cup of coffee.