“How does it feel to celebrate your birthday so far away from your family and regular group of friends?” Fushigi, one of the other international students studying in Japan, asked me as we walked to karate practice on the night of my birthday. (Fushigi isn’t his real name, but some of us called him that because he was always so fushigi, which means “mysterious” in Japanese. The other names mentioned are also nicknames, all affectionately uttered by the group of us international students.)
It wasn’t my first time celebrating my birthday abroad, but it was definitely the most memorable. Birthdays are a big thing, all around the world. Japan is no exception. This journal isn’t about how birthdays are celebrated in Japan, though. It’s about how one foreigner had the best surprise birthday of his young life with a small group of people he had barely known for over a month.
And it was a small group, much smaller than any standard university study abroad group. We were 20, 10 Americans and 10 Japanese students (nine girls and one guy) who basically volunteered to be our friends (they were called our “tutors,” but they were more like culture guides who were themselves interested in learning about a foreign culture). With a group so small and no major conflicting personalities, it was no surprise that we grew as close as fast as we did, especially since we lived in a tiny town in the middle of the countryside.
Apparently, I had been acting moody all week (my birthday fell on a Friday that year) because no one seemed to care that my birthday was coming up. Or at least that’s what they told me afterwards. I didn’t feel moody, but I have to admit that I was a little disappointed, particularly because none of us was that busy that week and we had been talking about my birthday for the past few weeks up until the start of the week of my birthday. I think I was in the right for not feeling jolly.
Earlier in the evening, before karate practice, I called up the guys, who all lived one floor down, to see if they wanted to do something simple like going to an izakaya (a traditional Japanese bar) for my birthday. They all pretty much said yes nonchalantly, not sounding too excited about my birthday. By the way, turning 20 in Japan is like turning 21 in America. You don’t really get any new legal privileges (aside from being able to vote, but who cares about that when convenience store owners and bartenders don’t check ID), but in Japanese culture it’s the official transition from being a child to being an adult, glorified by an intricate traditional ceremony called a seijin shiki, which translates to “ceremony of adulthood.” So I turned legal twice, once in Japan and once in America. How cool is that?
I didn’t realize that my fellow international students were such good actors until after the surprise birthday. They got me good, especially Jami (big white guy with a longer name), who rubbed in my face, “You sounded pretty pitiful over the phone, dude. I really made you think I didn’t give a sh*t, didn’t I?”
Before karate practice, a few of the tutors (all girls) had come over to Panda’s room (we had a very interesting game of charade in which she earned herself that nickname). One of them knocked on my door to borrow some soy sauce. I had no idea what they were doing, but I should’ve guessed.
After karate practice, we were walking back to our apartment complex, the night breeze cooling our sweating bodies, when Fushigi got a phone call (he was the only one of us Americans with a cell phone because he had a friend who lived in Japan but was away for a few months, so he lent Fushigi his phone; the official study abroad program was only four and a half months, not long enough for a cell phone plan that wouldn’t rip you off). He and Panda were walking a little ahead while one of the tutors and I were walking a little behind. Then Panda came running up to me and asked (I use this word “asked” as a euphemism) me to go to Ogino, the local supermarket, with her to do some grocery shopping.
“But I’m supposed to go to the izakaya with the guys,” I protested.
“But I need milk [or something trivial like that]!” she said.
“Okay,” I conceded.
She was actually stalling for time. The people back at the apartments weren’t done cooking yet. At this point, I still wasn’t suspecting anything.
On the way back, now laden with plastic bags of sports drinks and other grocery items, we bumped into one of our TAs, who actually worked at the izakaya that the guys and I were planning to go to, so I asked her if she would like to hang with us for a while. In typical Japanese fashion, she verbally wondered if it was okay to intrude on my birthday. Panda was very insistent that she wouldn’t be intruding. Very insistent.
I didn’t start suspecting anything until I saw my curtains were closed. I hadn’t closed my curtains. It was always easy to see my room walking toward the building because it was on the second floor. The first floor was all guys, and the second floor was all girls except me. At the on-site orientation, the coordinator had said, “So there are seven boys and three girls. There are six rooms on each floor. I guess six of the boys will be on the first floor, and there will be one boy living with the girls on the second floor. Ladies, which boy will it be?” The girls all laughed and said, “Terry!” Yeah, the ladies just love me.
No, it was just a coincidence. I had happened to check in around the same time as Panda at our hotel in Tokyo, two days before we got on a bus and left for the countryside, so the girls and I had the chance to hang out in Shinjuku before meeting the other guys.
Bakuhatsu (“explosion,” you have to meet her to find out), the girl who lived in the room next to mine had “risked her life” climbing from her balcony to mine just to find out that my door was already unlocked. As we got closer to the building, I noticed that some lights were still on. They later told me that everyone had turned off their lights, but someone exclaimed that it would look too obvious if all the lights were off, so some of them turned their lights back on.
Up the stairs to the second floor, we went to hang out in Panda’s room for a while, but she seemed to be in a real hurry to rush me into my room. When I walked into my room, since I knew all along that these people loved me and wouldn’t forget my birthday, I knew.
Many Japanese apartments are situated into one outer room with the bathroom (it’s literally a “bath-room,” where you take baths or showers), the toilet room, the sink room, a washing machine, and a kitchenette and an inner room, which is usually your working space, your living space, and your sleeping space. The two rooms are separated by a wooden sliding door, which is there for privacy reasons and to keep you warm in the winter. It was still summer. I never closed that sliding door.
The door was closed.
I swung it open dramatically and didn’t look as surprised as I should’ve, but I knew they all saw the joy painted all over my face. On the wooden floor were more than a dozen plates of traditional Japanese food (please don’t make me name them, suffice it to say that it was delicious, especially because it was made just for me) surrounded by all the friends I had on this side of the world.
There were two birthday cards, one in English by the American international students, one in Japanese by the domestic Japanese tutors. Ironically, I read the Japanese one just fine, but like most Americans, these fine guys and girls had such poor handwriting that they needed to read their entries for me, which only added to the effect.
In the birthday cards were my own nicknames. My favorite were Itsumo and Baransu, which mean “always” and “balance” (it’s just a transliteration of the English word) respectively.
You know what’s one of the best parts of celebrating your birthday in Japan? Well, allow Jami to say it: (This was the next day) “Man, give the man a beer. It’s still his birthday in America!”