Too long in Japan
Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 13, 2008
IN THE EARLY 1990s, there was a Tokyo-based English-language message board for PC users called TWICS. That was before the advent of Windows 95, when few people knew about the World Wide Web, much less used it.
As is the norm for Internet message boards, there were separate areas where people could discuss different topics. Many of the members were translators who had joined specifically to discuss Japanese-English translation subjects with other translators in a topic called “Honyaku”. (Honyaku still lives as an independent mailing list through Google.) There were also areas for discussing such topics as music, movies, books, Tokyo restaurants, and politics.
Early in the summer of 1993, a German member named Rene Rentzell created a topic called “Too Long in Japan”. The premise was simple: Finish the sentence that began, “You know you’ve been in Japan too long when…”
The topic was an instant hit, and more than 1,400 messages were submitted in slightly more than a year. (TWICS no longer exists, I think, going out of business not long after that when the Web exploded in the mid-90s and it did not offer competitive prices as an IP.)
Many of those original messages were quite funny, and almost immediately they began to be passed around Japan and the world on the Net in shorter lists. Just about all of the lists I’ve seen cherry-picked the best from the original TWICS topic, however. For example, long-time poster Ken (the Japanese Ken) sent in a link to a website earlier this week that has some of the messages, and every one of them originated on TWICS.
I was a member of TWICS in those days and participated in that topic. As luck would have it, I stumbled across a nearly complete copy of the list, including the message headers, on a German site last year while looking for something else. (It was probably put there by Rene, who might have been understandably proud of what he started.)
I hesitated to put it up on this site because I wasn’t sure how some Japanese might react, but Ken assures me there will be no problem. Therefore, I’ve added the TWICS Ur-list as a separate page, which you can access either here or on the masthead at the top.
All the Internet lists I’ve seen have stripped away the headers identifying the posters. The list I found still had the headers, and I’ve retained them because some of these ideas are so clever that the original authors deserve the credit. Rene in those days wrote under the name RRR. One of the best and most prolific posters was Bill Lise (writing as Billlise), who inspired another Ampontan post here. (Bill came to Japan around 1965, so he had plenty of ammunition.) I also contributed to that topic under my real name, and one pleasant Sunday afternoon in July 1993 Bill and I engaged in a friendly battle royal over the Internet, which is included in toto here. (It starts at around post #312.)
Some of the jokes are obvious, but some are deliciously subtle, such as #90, #210, #396, and #917. If I had to choose a favorite it would be #543.
There were more than 1,400 notes for this topic, but I’ve removed off-topic chatter and the inevitable duplicates where I spotted them. Nevertheless, there are still about 1,000. For some reason, the list I found on the German site started at #13, so the ones before that are probably lost to history. This is a long list, so it might be difficult to read through it all at once. Think of it as a giant box of chocolates: It’s not possible to eat the whole thing in one sitting.
Also, one of my own originals wasn’t on the list I found:
You know you’ve been in Japan too long when–
– You’re talking on the phone to your father overseas and he suddenly asks, “What the hell are you grunting for?”
This particular joke was one of those often included in the early lists that circulated on the Internet, and that’s when I realized that the idea for this topic had struck a chord among long-term foreign residents. It resonated in particular because it was a true story, and readers remembered something similar happening to them, or could imagine it happening to them. In a way, the Japanese should feel pleased. It is an implicit recognition by the foreigners living in Japan just how much the country has meant and still means to their lives.
Once you get started, it’s hard to stop. Just while preparing this post, I came up with:
You know you’ve been in Japan too long when–
–You can listen to sumo on the radio and follow the action (which I’m doing right now!)
–You walk down the street and someone you don’t know all that well asks you, “Where are you going”, and instead of thinking, “What a nosy question”, you smile and say, “Oh, just over there.”
- You are talking to another person, who, while making jokes about a third person who is also present, says, “Oh, this is that,” and you immediately understand.
–You walk into a traditional sushi shop and aren’t surprised to see Christmas decorations.
The list dates from 1993-1994, so some of the messages (particularly about TV programs and personalities) might be difficult to understand for people who hadn’t come to Japan yet. A case in point is #504; getting that joke requires the knowledge of two different people in show business, a TV program that was popular in the early 90s, and another TV program that was popular more than a decade before that. There are occasional references to obatarian, a word I don’t hear so much any more, so I suppose that could be the basis for another joke: You know you’ve been in Japan too long if you know what an obatarian is!
If anyone is inspired to add to the list, feel free to add your own in the Comment section!