Risky Relationships among the Rice Fields

By Casey Eugene Bales

From age three to age nine, I was raised in Tokyo, a city with neon-lit streets, crowded  sidewalks, and towering skyscrapers.  Walking through this metropolis, especially when  underground, made me feel insignificant within  the endless waves of people going about their  daily business. Despite the mass of people, I  couldn’t help but wonder in awe at the regard  the Japanese had for others. When I was around  eight years old, I remember Mom accidentally  leaving her purse at a bus stop in the district of  Sangenjaya and then returning hours later to look  for it. To her relief—and surprise—the purse was  still there with everything inside it. Of course,  that was the early nineties and things may be  different now. But this Japanese collective  behavior had a strong impact on my moral  upbringing as it taught me about honesty and  doing one’s best not to inconvenience others.  

When I left Hawaii and returned to Japan in  1997 at the age of eleven for my mother’s new  teaching destination, we moved to a small  farming village surrounded by rice fields. I enrolled in a country elementary school for fifth grade. I was considered a kikokushijo (returnee  child) and was expected to assimilate back into  the Japanese educational system without a  hiccup. It was challenging, to say the least.  

Located in Niigata prefecture northwest of Tokyo,  on Japan’s largest and most populated island of  Honshu, Nakajo was a small, rural farming town  famous for cultivating koshihikari rice. It’s now  known as Tainai City. My walk to and from school  was long: one hour there and one hour back. I  trudged through several feet of snow, past white  blanketed rice fields in winter and grassy green  paddies during early summer.  

As a family, we were an enigma in Japan. My  step-father, Wade, looked like a Japanese  national yet could not speak the language.  I looked like a foreigner, but I could speak  Japanese like a native. Often, in a restaurant, a  waiter or waitress would approach Wade only to  end up speaking with me. A Japanese man who  owned a local restaurant once raised his voice

at Wade when Wade stayed quiet as I spoke for  him. I guess the man felt shunned by Wade’s  silence. Or maybe he’d just never come across  a Japanese-looking man being spoken for by a  fluent young (foreigner) child.  It was great to be back in Japan, but it was still  difficult fitting in with the local kids. They were  country boys; I was a gaijin city kid—and I had  just come from America. Having small scuffles  during recess and cleaning time was common. I  grew accustomed to not only verbal but physical  abuse as well. After school, boys would throw  snowballs spiked with rocks at me and shout,  “Go back to America!” Wade understood the  challenge I was going through and advised me  on handling difficult situations, like when a group  of boys tried to ambush me on a quiet backroad.  He volunteered to meet me after school and  accompany me home on foot or bicycle whenever  he thought I might be in trouble. In many ways, as  I became Wade’s personal translator, he became  like my personal Mr. Miyagi from the 1984 film  The Karate Kid—Wade even caught a fly with his chopsticks once.

I moved again in 1998 for sixth grade when  Mom accepted a teaching position at Kanazawa  Institute of Technology, an engineering university.  With a fifteenth-century castle overlooking the  city and well-preserved Edo-era architecture,  Kanazawa is located on the west coast of  Japan’s central island of Honshu, along the Sea  of Japan. I was much better at making friends  here. However, I do remember it wasn’t perfect.  As is typical at Japanese schools, students were  required to exchange their outdoor shoes for  indoor shoes upon entering the building. Each  student had their individual shoebox where  they would store their footwear. Twice at the  end of the school day, I was met with piercing  pain when I placed my foot into a shoe filled  with thumbtacks. I asked my male friends, and  they suspected it might have been some of the  girls who didn’t think so well of me and wanted  me to quit going to the school. Lucky for me, I  bonded with my sixth-grade teacher and became obsessed with playing sports, especially soccer.  I developed close friendships with several of my  male classmates, with whom I later entered junior  high school. It was in junior high school that I  remember being ecstatic to win a relay event at  the school’s annual undokai (sports day) for my  red team. Those same good friends later traveled  to Indiana to visit me.

My team and I win the tire-pulling relay race during the seventh grade sports festival, Kanazawa City Takanawadai Middle School.

I felt comfortable at Takaodai Junior High  School in Kanazawa wearing the required  gakuran, a uniform modeled on the uniforms  of the European navy. It consisted of long  black pants and a jacket with a standing collar.  The jacket fastened from top to bottom with  golden buttons embossed with the school  emblem. Wearing this uniform was a sign of  earned maturity and educational promotion all  over Japan. It was at this time that I became  obsessed with drawing intricate mazes, which  probably reflected the path of my life up to that  point. I spent hours alone in my room creating  passageways that connected, blocked, surprised,  and led to various adventures.

During my seventh-grade year at Takanawadai  Junior High School, I was elected class president.

There were two factors that led up to this  moment. First was when a couple of students  and I were called to the front of the class to write kanji (Chinese characters) with the correct stroke  order. I was the only one to write them in the  correct order even though I was not Japanese. That impressed the teacher and my classmates.  Second, it was probably my newfound popularity  and blond hair. As young teenagers, we rebelled  by doing things naughty young boys typically  do, like smoking cigarettes or buying an adult  magazine. I knew we were breaking cultural rules  of conduct, but risks are only scary when you  don’t have friends taking them along with you.

Receiving my kindergarten diploma from President  Kusuo Hitomi of Showa Women’s University with  Shibuya Sensei (kindergarten principal.)

Living in Kanazawa was a time I really felt at  home. When asked my nationality back then,  I often said I was Japanese, not American. The  evening before our flight back home to Indiana  from Kanazawa in 2000, I asked Mom to drive  me to my junior high school for one last time. The  building was dark and empty. It was late at night.

I sat silently in the car, staring at the campus, with  only the schoolyard spotlights illuminating the  dark buildings. Sadness fell upon me like a coastal  fog. These walls housed some of my fondest  memories yet; I needed this last goodbye.  

The long flight to Indiana the next day felt  like heading for outer space. I was flying to a  complete unknown. I’d formed a lasting bond, not  only with my friends but with Japan and a culture  that had become second nature. When people  cross borders and get to know one another, it  closes the door to hatred forever. I had finally  adjusted to my second culture, and I didn’t want  to leave.

Casey Bales lives his destiny as a bridge between  America and Japan. He spent ten of his formative years  being schooled in the Japanese educational system in  Japan and later continued his Japanese education in  the United States—thereby completing his entire K-12  education as the only non-Japanese in each grade level.  Having grown up as a third culture kid (TCK), Casey is  continuing his adult cultural journey in Tokyo, Japan,  with his wife, Yuki. 

*This piece is an excerpt from Casey’s memoir, Invisible Outsider: From battling bullies to building  bridges, my life as a Third Culture Kid (Summertime  Publishing, 2022). 



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