I came to Japan, in 1972, with no expectations, as a wife of someone who happened to be Japanese. I was enchanted by Japanese sensibilities, art and values. But I came from a career in the BBC and encountered the constraints of expectations of wives, starting with the uniform of short white socks and long white aprons and expectations of where women should be and when. That is, in the kitchen when guests visit, NOT on the train late at night and NOT working outside the dusty home. Women I met locally in our suburban commuters’ town, told me they had never been as far as Tokyo, then a 20-minute train ride. We couldn’t relate to each other at all.
My process, somewhat similar to Allan’s, started earlier and took longer. I began to feel very confined. I was alsodocumenting my experiences every week with aerogrammes, I wrote everywhere, on station platforms and in trains, in parks and restaurants, when I got to the end of the blue paper I turned the paper upside down and squeezed more in the space between the lines (until people complained). I wrote only to my parents, but these aerogrammes were passed around the whole village where they were living out their retirement. Then I acquired a large electric typewriter which I fondly thought would be the last word in technology for years to come! I could fit more into the allotted blue space.
After the first honeymoon stage when I encountered so much that was so wonderful, I began to pass through that rejection phase that you probably all know very well, when I thought that anything that wasn’t like it is in England was inferior, and I felt that I had spent the first quarter century of my life wasting my time and learning absolutely nothing remotely useful, and from being a well functioning part of a company broadcasting all round England my output seemed to be reduced now to being an English language machine, though who cared if I could produce more than nursery rhymes. I began to resent differences and complain a lot. But then after some years I visited England and started resenting the differences that made England seem inferior, I was not satisfied with anything anywhere.
Came the day, several years after I’d come to Japan, but a week or so since I returned from visiting my homeland, I slowly became aware that I was constantly unhappy with any place where I was, and I began to wonder if this wasn’t rather absurd. Then suddenly I saw something that stopped me dead in my housewifely shopping tracks – here on this busy main shopping street near the station where pedestrians and delivery trucks vied for space, I saw, poking through the asphalt, a little yellow primrose, completely oblivious of the endless black tar and rushing giants all around.
It was just there, tiny, vulnerable and happily dancing in the breeze. I began to feel really silly. Here was this tiny modest little plant poking through an ocean of asphalt, brightly yellow, being nothing but its bright primrose self, and if it could do it, why couldn’t I? How was being unhappy and resentful serving me? And who else cared?
It was a stunning, sea change moment. I realised that being unhappy or happy was a choice not a matter of circumstance (for the most part). I began to see, and share in my letters, the charm and joy of life’s passage and encounters, wherever they were. And my letters became talking points, in the village and then more widely, people responding, discussing, telling me I should write a book. It took a primrose to beat the steel and show me the bamboo.