The License Plate and the Great Divide
Updated: Aug 13, 2019
There’s a ravine between everyone and me, and it’s called the Japanese language.
As much as I tried to study back in the states, it’s simply not enough. I knew, going into this, it wasn’t enough, but I didn't give it much consideration, since proficiency in Japanese isn't a requirement for the position of an ALT.
Let me repeat: proficiency in Japanese is not a requirement for my job. But honestly, it probably should be.
Even now I can get around the ravine in small ways, using hand gestures, the minimal Japanese I know. But it’s still difficult.
In Houston I listened to a fellow future ALT, not knowing that my proficiency with the language was so low, complaining loudly about anyone who didn’t have JLPT certification going into the teaching program.
“If you don’t know Japanese, you’re probably a piece of shit,” she said with a laugh, followed by laughs of agreement from other teachers who had similarly-high language certification.
I think about that girl a lot. I wonder how she's doing these days.
Last Friday I got a series of frantic, terrified emails from my mom.
“Why were you in a Japanese interrogation room?!”
“It’s not a big deal. It was an honest mistake,” I explain. “Really, everything’s fine!”
“But why did they take you in for questioning!”
It starts on Wednesday, at the local gas station. While there, I got an oil change, and within an hour was on my way.
Thursday, I took the hour-long drive up the coast to one of my two assigned middle schools. No problems there.
On Friday morning, I end up getting out the door a few minutes late. I’d like to think it was fortunate circumstances that my day played out the way it did, rather than being late on my second day of school.
In my town, the police station is directly across the street from City Hall. As I’m passing the area where the two buildings sit, a police officer runs into the street – literally into the street, stopping traffic in both lanes, which would be more alarming if the max speed limit in this area of town wasn’t 25 miles an hour. At first, I assume I’m stopped to let students from the nearby high school cross safely.
Then, he starts waving directly at me. He blows his whistle and waves his hand and traffic-directing wand, beckoning me into the parking lot of the police department.
As I’m pulling into the spot I notice three other officers running out of the building, and my gut starts to fill with lead. What did I do to deserve this? What could they possibly want with me? Was I speeding, or did I miss a traffic signal? Would I have to pay some expensive fine? Would this be a black mark on my job record, would I be deported, would I be banned from ever returning to Japan?
As I’m running worst case scenarios through my head, everything seems so serious and tense. Stepping out of the car, I can see the officers look taken aback, as they see that I am distinctly not Japanese, which brings up a series of new challenges for both of us. Eyeing me with a mix of suspicion and confusion, they start speaking to me in harsh, rushed Japanese. Of course, I don’t understand a word.
“Sumimasen,” I stammer, “anno, wa… wakarunai…” Sorry, I don’t understand.
“Eigo?” One officer says to another. English?
“Eigo, ne?” The addressed officer says. English, right?
A third officer sucks air through his teeth. “Eigo desu,” he says, the grumble in his voice distinct. Great, a foreigner, is not what they said, but I can tell it’s what they’re thinking. Soon, they start demanding documents from me. I comply, of course, because that’s what you do when three policemen speaking a language you don’t understand swarm your car. International Driver’s Permit. Passport. Residence card. My car’s registration form with the title under my name. I even hand them my Texas driver’s license, even if that doesn’t do me any good here.
They still haven’t told me the problem.
“M-mondai… nani desu ka?” Even I know it’s awful and jumbled, but someone seems to recognize that I’m trying to ask what the problem is and why I was pulled over.
One of the officers waves me to the front of my car, and points at the bumper. My front license plate isn’t there.
“Missing,” he says.
“...I don’t know,” I say, in English, shrugging, hoping it gets my point across. I speak slowly, and use lots of hand gestures. “I don’t know where it went.”
Our exchanges are strange; four men stand around, speaking in Japanese and stitching together their combined knowledge of a language that I’m sure they studied a decade or more ago and thought they wouldn’t need again, and deliver a semi-coherent sentence through one officer who seems to have either the best grasp of the language or the most confidence in his speaking ability. I do my best, in response, to stitch together the little Japanese I know with hand gestures and very simple English.
“Were you in car accident?” The would-be ambassador of my small town’s police department says to me.
“Iie, iie,” I reply. No, no. “Kuruma…” I pantomime driving a car, then make a thumbs-up gesture- “daijobu… demo,” It's fine, but... I run to my bumper, point to where the missing license plate would be, and make a gesture meant to simulate the plate falling off, “fell off… maybe?”
“Fell off…” the four men make sounds of recognition, nodding their heads. “Doko? Where?”
“...I don’t know.”
More deliberation. Then another line from their ambassador.
“You need license plate,” the officer says. “You cannot drive.”
It’s all so strange and inconvenient and so wonderfully, painfully, delightfully something that could only happen to me.
And then I have a thought.
“I will contact my boss,” I say, pulling out my phone.
I send a few frantic texts to my boss and representative, something to the effect of “Good morning, I apologize but today, I will be late for work. Also, can you please help me, I am at the police department and they will not let me leave.” My priorities are clearly in order, at least to Japanese bureaucratic standards.
Because it’s late August in Japan it’s hot, and because it’s hot we decide to wait inside for a response. Of course, this means going through the back of the police station, past the long window into the main office area. As we pass the office windows, banks of desks full of everyone from beat cops on break to people doing desk work to confused secretaries, everyone turns to stare at me, and I realize just how incriminating it all looks.
Here I am – a sweaty, nervous foreigner being dragged from the back of a small-town Japanese police department, all the way through to the front of the building, by four cops, no less. Here she is, they must think, an international car thief, here in this small town in northwest Kyushu, trying to steal kei cars. My grand plan, foiled.
There’s no place for me to sit in the front of the building. So instead they unlock a room to the side of the office, and gesture me inside.
Once I’m in, I have the distinct feeling I’ve seen this room before.
I watch a lot of cop shows on TV, and because I watch a lot of cop shows on TV, I know exactly what room I’m in. They’ve taken me into the interrogation room, and it looks just like it does in Law and Order, and I can't help but laugh. So now we’re here, I and one officer sitting across from each other at the table, another sitting next to him, the two others who have been there but hardly speaking hovering near the door. Occasionally, an officer I don’t recognize will come by the door, peek in curiously, and leave. Then, another officer will come by, peek into the room, and leave. Then another, and another, until I assume my city’s entire police force has seen me.
“When will your boss come?” the officer asks.
And even though all of this has already happened to me it’s only about 8:15AM, and because it’s 8:15 AM City Hall isn’t open yet, which I assume means my boss and representative aren’t yet at work and likely haven’t checked their messages.
Before I’m able to respond with “I don’t know,” I get a message from my boss.
“Okay, someone will be there in a moment. Please wait.”
“Someone is coming,” I explain. I show them the message to prove my point.
Soon my rep, a middle-aged woman who I communicate with mainly through Google Translate and gestures, shows up and makes an exclamation of surprise, seeing me in the interrogation room looking less scared and more annoyed.
“Ah! Rachel-san, daijobu desu ka?” She says, through a bout of nervous laughter.
“Ah, hai, hai, daijobu desu,” I reply.
After a bit of communication on the part of the officers and my rep, she finally starts hammering away at her Google Translate app, typing out a message for me. After a bit of writing, she shows me her phone screen.
“Because you do not have a front number plate, you will need a new one. We will go to the prefectural office to get a new plate.”
The prefectural office is in Oita City, over an hour away by car. I’m going to be really late for school.
Before we go to the prefectural office we go to City Hall. Walking into the office, the salarymen and office ladies I’ve come to know by face and befriended with slight bows and the occasional “ohaiyougozaimasu” all look at me in surprise.
“Eh? Rachel-san? Nan deshou?” One man I know somewhat well asks when he sees me, knowing I’m supposed to be at school.
My representative explains the situation in excitable Japanese, met with the occasional “ehhh, unnn, sou” as he reacts to the story she’s telling about my morning. Of course, other people listen in, overhearing her tale, and also deliver appropriate reactions to the story of my brush with the law.
Once she’s made the appropriate phone calls to the prefectural office and they know to expect us, we’re on our way. We hop in one of the cars provided to City Hall employees for work-related use, and start heading south.
When I drive to the city, I usually take the highway through the mountains. It’s a beautiful drive and gets me there faster, but it’s a bit lonely. This time, my representative takes a different route, and we end up driving along the coast, through parts of my own town and the towns leading to the city I haven’t seen before. We pass under the castle in the next town over, past coffee shops my rep points out to me. Eventually, we get to the city, and as we’re nearing the prefectural office where I’m supposed to go and pay 2000 yen, I get a call from my prefectural advisor:
“Hello, Rachel! Good news! Someone found your missing number plate. Please come back to the police station.”
First, I’m relieved – now I don’t have to pay $20 to get a new license plate! Then, I feel frustration – I’d come all the way to the city, only to have to turn around?!
I let the prefectural advisor explain the situation to my rep in Japanese, and once she understands, we begin to turn around.
“Yokkata, ne?” she says, with a delighted sigh. What a relief, right? (More or less).
“Hai, yokkata,” I agree, emotionally exhausted.
So we make the drive back up the coast, back to town, but before we go back to the police station we make a quick stop at the mechanic-
The goddamn mechanic.
As it turns out, during my oil change, the license plate came off, and they forgot to re-attach it. They give me back my number plate, apologize profusely, and I am ferried back to the police department. I hand the plate to one of the four officers who I spent the morning with in the interrogation room, and he helps me by re-attaching the plates to the front and back of my car.
“Hai, daijobu, arigatogozaimasu,” he says, and makes a quick bow before waltzing back into the police station.
And with that, it’s over.
By the time I’m finished dealing with my ridiculous situation, it’s almost 2. My day ends at 4.
“I will take the rest of the day off,” I explain, through Google Translate, to my local rep. “Thank you for all of your help today.”
Exhausted, I drive to a local cafe for a late lunch, before going home for a well-deserved nap.
When I’ve rested and gathered my energy, I make a light-hearted Facebook post referencing my time in the interrogation room, prompting a lot of confusion from new friends… and my mom.
Which leads to those emails I mentioned at the beginning.
Like I said, not that big a deal.
Walking up the hill to the Stone Buddhas of Usuki on Saturday evening, I laugh about my ridiculous Friday once again.
“I can’t imagine not being able to communicate even a little in Japanese,” says my new friend who has a much better grasp on the language than I do. “I like hearing about the crazy challenges you’re facing. I feel like I’m living vicariously through you.”
Everyone I’ve met so far has some extended background in Japanese. Many of the people I’ve met studied it in college, others studied abroad here, and a lot of them at least have enough of a grasp on the language that the very world surrounding them isn’t completely baffling. That, or they have some sort of experience in leadership over small children, teaching, coaching, nannying, or otherwise.
I spent a week in Tokyo in 2006, visiting English-speaking family. I studied the language casually, in my spare time, between my full-time job and the rest of my life. It’s barely enough to read hiragana, katakana, some kanji, most certainly not enough for actually formulating sentences.
There’s not just a ravine between me and the people of Japan – there’s a ravine between me and many of the other teachers in this program, too. Many of the people here are fresh out of college, most of them are much younger than me. Most have experience in teaching or coaching. When I tell people that my background is in project management and my only real leadership experience over children was a stint as a Sunday school teacher over ten years ago, I see a lot of raised eyebrows.
“I think going to a country where you don’t speak the language and committing to living there for a year is pretty brave,” the same friend says, later that weekend over coffee, and I laugh.
Brave and stupid are two sides of the same coin. But I’ll take it.