By some quirk of fate, our cable provider recently gave us access to the English version of NHK, Japan’s public television network. I was overjoyed when I stumbled upon the channel a couple weeks ago, and I’m hoping it’s not just a short-term teaser to get us to upgrade our cable package. (By the way, right now NHK is doing a series of reports marking the third anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, the one that resulted in the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. That earthquake killed 18,000 people and I was sad to learn that there are 2,600 people still listed as missing.)
You may wonder why I’m so excited about getting news from Japan. There are several reasons, but the primary one is a very personal connection: I lived in Tokyo for five years, from 1985 to 1990. My first husband was a journalist, employed by the Pacific Stars and Stripes, the news organization for the U.S. Military. He was a civilian employee, and we lived right in the center of Tokyo, immersed in Japanese daily life. I was 24 years old and very naive when I arrived there. As a young newlywed left alone all day in a country so different from my own, I suffered intense culture shock as I struggled to adapt. There was no email back then, so my two options for reaching my support network in the States were via snail-mail letter or $2-a-minute phone calls. I was a rowboat with one oar, adrift in a sea of kanji, yen, and tofu.
After settling in for a few months, I finally got a job in a German consulting firm’s marketing department. A year later I found myself searching for another job where I wouldn’t be just the token American that they used to convince clients they were a “truly international” company. I ended up selling Japanese and English language courses to corporations in the Tokyo metro area. And that’s where I met Mr. Fukumura.
He was the office manager in charge of supervising us, the foreign sales staff in the company. (The Japanese staff worked in a separate division for some reason.) Part of Fukumura-san’s job description included helping us find our way around Tokyo, a city notorious for not using street names. The blocks in each ward are numbered, so addresses are a series of numbers like this: 4-1-33 Koyama, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 104. (If you’re interested, here’s the Wikipedia explanation of it.) And lest we forget, this was back in the days before the Internet and smartphones with GPS, so we really had to get good directions from the nearest train station before heading out on our sales calls. Luckily I’m pretty good at finding my way around, so I did fine with that.
But Mr. Fukumura went above and beyond his official job description many times. He was such a kind man, tolerant of many things from the foreign staff he managed. Most of us were young and ignorant, but he always treated us with respect. My colleagues were from many countries: India, China, Thailand, the U.K., Australia, France, Algeria, Iran, and Ethiopia, among others. I learned a lot from my interactions with my coworkers of various nationalities, and began to see my own country through new eyes.
But Mr. Fukumura earned a spot deep in my heart when he held my hand as I had to navigate the Japanese court system when my marriage fell apart after little more than two years. I had married too quickly and too young, and moved 6,500 miles away from friends and family, with a husband who worked among other Americans in a gated office complex while I was left to find my way alone in a culture where I couldn’t even read the names of products in the grocery store. (Ask me how frustrating it is to put “sugar” in your tea and find out it’s salt…I had no way to know the difference when I was buying it in the supermarket.)
Anyway, Fukumura-san not only went to court with me and translated my divorce documents, he made countless calls trying to find a landlord willing to have a foreigner as a tenant. He went with me to meet the landlord, who wanted to have a look at me to make his final decision as to whether I would be a suitable tenant. Even though I had been in Japan for a couple years at that point, I hadn’t become comfortable enough with the language for certain types of important conversations, so his help was invaluable to me.
Those first few months after my divorce are a blur now, but I remember I was terrified and excited at the same time. Now I would be on my own in Tokyo at age 26. Everything turned out great eventually, and I’m so glad I resisted my initial impulse to run home to my parents and cry about things. The next three years were some of the best of my entire life, filled with parties, travel, and interesting friends. And Mr. Fukumura remained my safety line through it all. He was like a favorite uncle, reassuring and reliable and always looking out for my best interests.
He once told me that Americans had been kind to his daughter who lived in California, and that was part of his motivation to help foreigners in his own country. That convinced me that the world would be a better place if we all had the chance to know people from other countries, because those personal relationships and experiences teach you to think twice before resorting to stereotypes to describe entire nationalities. If I were to make a list of the most important learning experiences a person could have in their life, it would definitely include living in a different culture, even if only for a few months.
When it came time for me to leave Japan after five years, Fukumura-san gave me a photo of Mt. Fuji that he had taken on one of his trips to that revered Japanese mountain. Every time I look at it I smile and think of how one man’s kindness was largely responsible for allowing me to have such wonderful experiences in Japan.
He was about 65 when I left, so he would be around 89 now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still living an active life — he was very fit and loved to be outdoors, whether it was swimming or hiking or just walking. And that’s the way I will always think of him: healthy and smiling.
If you’re out there, Akira Fukumura, I hope you know how important you were to this young American girl so far from home. I hope I was gracious enough to tell you this back then, but just in case I didn’t, I want to say it now: Thank you, my friend.