When I moved to Japan, I started hanging out with women over 50 years old, which was not something I was used to back in Brazil. One after another, I created a random web of interaction with each one of them, motivated by an inner voice I have still been unable to understand. What could be going on between all these older women and me?
I met each of them in a different set of circumstances. Inside trains running in Tokyo, at karate practice, standing in airport check-ins and even inside a post office. But what struck me was the number of them: seven. One for every day of the week. My "Shichinin no Okasan" (Seven Moms).
When I was first here, trying (and failing) to change money in a post office, a lady in her early 60s helped me out. Before I could even say thank you she had seized me by the arm and dragged me to her house. Iwai, as she was called, wanted to present me to her daughter, who had been in Brazil once. Over time, the arranged marriage never worked out and I ended up being friendlier with her than with her daughter. She even gave me a bicycle, which was just one of many presents I would receive from my maternal army.
Shinoda was 72. She started chatting to me on a train platform and before long we were conversing daily on the 9:16 from Komaba Todaimae. She gave me a copy of John Dower’s "Embracing Defeat."
Then, during karate training, I made friends with an energetic woman in her mid-50s named Nogawa. A black belt student, she would help the sensei instructing newcomers in their long journey into the karate world. She suggested I was too thin and gave me a rice cooker.
The one who might seem most like a sugar-granny is Matsumoto, 78, who received a huge inheritance, and is the only one of her family left in Tokyo. I call her “Baba,” similar to “grandma” in English. She always gives me expensive things, such as bottles of Sauterne wine, Godiva chocolates and a Mitsukoshi suit worth more than $1,000. After spending money without restraint for 20 years, she is close to bankrupt now.
Tanaka, in her late 60s, lives in rural Iwate Prefecture. She was my host mom during a home-stay program in the summer of 2006. I can understand about 10% of what she says in her thick Tohoku dialect, but we laugh together all the time. Her husband turns red after his first sip of sake, and purple after the first glass. It is impossible not to note that she has a kind of nervous tick, moving her lips all the time. Lately she has been sick, but we still exchange emails. She gave me a shaving machine.
A mother of three kids who had already left home, Wada is a hyperactive woman with a very high voice who volunteers as a host mom for Vietnamese students. I spent Christmas at her house, with four 18-year-old students from Hanoi, and ended up rolling on her living room carpet with her playing the Nintendo Wii.
Finally, there is Takeda. Married to a dentist and in her late 60s, she organizes different activities connecting Japanese friends with foreign students. I went on a trip to an Izu onsen with 11 of her elderly friends and 11 young students. Her daughter works as a medium at a Shimokitazawa temple, and told me that I have already been to Japan twice in a past life.
I met these ladies by chance and the friendships built up over time. It dispelled any preconceptions I might have had that Japanese people are cold. In Latin America, it’s often very easy to get to know someone at first, but much harder to become real friends. When you get to know people in Japan, it’s not always such an easy process. There are moments of silence, and different movements as you go through times of little meetings. In the end, the investment is worth much more than warm socks and bicycles and suits.
It might be that such ladies in Japan are more approachable than at home. Interacting with a foreign student, conveniently placed into the "ryugakusei" category, might have served as a good pretext for them to express themselves differently as well as to practice some English. Maybe there is also a certain degree of innocence in ladies used to the more herbivorous Japanese male than the carnivorous Latino.
As for me, my seven maternal friends replaced the family in Brazil that I would go to see every week. Here, they provided me with feelings of home. The conversations and time spent over dinners, coffee breaks, department store sweets, drinks and a variety of small parties, these five years in Japan, have provided me with memories of my Japanese moms to treasure for a lifetime.
The author has recently completed his doctorate on Public Security and Police in Japan and Brazil.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today