On the Neighbor’s Children

The neighbor’s children wake up early on the weekend. They gather in the courtyard and perform a choreographed stretching exercise. Children across the country learn this routine, set to a piano piece, and the motions indicate – to me, anyway – a story about the rising sun.

On TV, I have seen postal workers perform this ritual before their morning routes, but I have only seen some real-life people do it: Some adults, and all of the neighbor’s children.

The children stay outside all day. They get together and play baseball or ride small plastic tricycles or, if they are older, bikes sprouting miniature wheels for balance.

One day there was a large wooden pole in the center of the courtyard. The next day a child was using it to batter the steel poles of the courtyard’s fencing. The next day the plastic tricycles were strewn across the courtyard as if they were debris from a collision at adult speeds. None of the children were outside again for seven days.

On a day before I planned to travel, the door bell rang. It was very hot, and I wasn’t wearing any pants. I was also in the bathroom.

I wasn’t expecting anyone and wouldn’t be able to communicate with whoever it was, so I stayed in the bathroom and pretended not to be home. A voice cried out in Japanese and the doorbell rang again.

The urgency and persistence of the demand was unusual for this country, and I was actually frightened by it. Someone wanted something very badly, something I would be incapable of knowing or providing. The confrontation would be awkward. It would not be said that after two years, I should probably be capable of knowing and providing whatever they needed, but I would know it, and I’d be ashamed of it.

I resolved to stay in the bathroom. The bell rang and the shouting resumed. I knew that they knew I was home. My behavior was now even more complicated and inexplicable.

I’d done this before, in college. I was smitten with a girl and rather than act on being smitten, I waited around until she made a boyfriend and they invited themselves and a terrible dog to my house. I knew I’d be mean, so I opted to hide in the closet while they came in through the open door, asked my roommate where I was, and left.

Shortly after that I decided I needed to change my life.

Now, my front door is made of heavy metal, and it does not open or close quietly. The bell rang and then the door opened, clattering to a close but too quickly for anyone to come inside. The situation was escalating.

I knew I’d have to face the stranger or they would break into my home and take whatever they wanted, and when that feeling gave me a sense of relief, I knew I needed to get out of the bathroom and settle this, like men. I flushed.

The bell rang and the voice shouted and the door opened and the door closed, and then came the sound of the hallway door closing, the door across from the bathroom. I went into the hallway and to the front door.

Three children were screaming at me. The children had a baseball bat. Perhaps this was a robbery.

I understood the word “veranda,” because in Japanese it is “beranda.” I told them to wait a minute and walked to the porch. A rubber baseball was in the gutter. It seemed too soft to play ball with. I handed it back to them.

Gomenasai,” they said. (“Sorry about that.”)
Ie deshyou,” I said. (“S’alright, hey.”)

Would the children have broken into my apartment to steal their ball back? In their childhoods they would have been given beans to throw at demons, usually roughly the size and stature of their parents in plastic masks. I wondered if they wished for beans today, just in case they ran into me while skittering across the kitchen to the berandaa for a deflated rubber ball.

Perhaps one of the boys was the one brave enough to lay waste to everyone’s childhoods with a large wooden pole. Maybe the sense of adult destruction was crucial to his development, maybe he obliterated his own youth because it seemed so stupid to have been on tricycles and training wheels for so long, now that he has a man’s game, a game with a bat and a rubber ball.

Perhaps he’d have faced me down without beans. Or maybe he’d have stayed outside. But I could tell him, if I could tell him, that the monsters I want to throw beans at the most are men-shaped adults too scared to speak if the doorbell rings while they’re taking a shit.

You can throw beans at the Facebook monster by “liking” This Japanese Life

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7 Responses to On the Neighbor’s Children

  1. zoomingjapan says:

    I’ve never seen that exercise live although I’ve been in Japan for many years and have been living in the countryside only! I’ve seen it many times on TV, though.

    Hm, your neighbor’s kids seems to have a happy life with lots of free time. How rare!
    Mine are out to play ball for about 30min. each day. Most of the time they’re inside and I hear them practicing the piano. The mother always screams at the kids and they scream back.
    The mother uses very bad words …. at those times I wish I wouldn’t be able to understand Japanese :( …..

    The link above that claims Japan to be the #1 kid-friendly country also makes me laugh.
    The Japanese education system is old-fashioned and not very healthy.
    No wonder there’s so much bullying going on. Kids are frustrated.

    • Japan is kid-friendly like Toronto is a good place to live (from TO, loathe it): these results are from arbitrary criteria inaccurately gathered by people who do not know the places, nor live there, often cannot speak the language, and rely on the locals and their governments for the ‘data’ – which is always heavily massaged.

    • owwls says:

      Yeah, for child-friendly it seems to end exactly as soon as the kids hit JHS… then it’s boot camp.

  2. Yep says:

    Ie deshyou means, House, right?

  3. kamo says:

    They collect stamps, did you know? For the morning exercises. They have to show them to their teachers when their ‘holidays’ are over.

    But still. As long as you’re in single digits, age wise, Japan’s a fantastic country. But as soon as the teenage years kick in it becomes a very different kettle of fish. Because, y’know, being a teenager is such an easy ride as it is…

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