Eventually, if you live in Japan long enough, you learn not to ask “why.” But until you learn, you keep asking, and every time you ask, you regret it that little bit more.
I was in the municipal swimming pool in Nishi-Omiya, over on the far side of town from my neighbourhood of Owada, in the Tokyo suburb of Omiya. After paying a couple hundred yen, I changed and jumped into the metre-deep water. Little old ladies did walking laps in the lanes to the right, and I started crawling up and down my lane, my fingertips grazing the bottom on the occasional stroke.
After a couple laps, a whistle sounded. The lifeguard, a 20-something in a dodgy Speedo and cap, was blowing the whistle. Everyone climbed out of the pool, and I asked an old man in the next lane, in my best Japanese, what was going on.
“Oh, it’s rest time,” he explained.
I figured this was optional, so I carried on swimming. When I reached the end of the pool, the lifeguard was waiting for me. “Time to get out,” he told me. “It’s rest time.”
“That’s OK,” I told him, “I just got in. I don’t need a rest.”
“But it’s rest time. Everyone must have a rest.”
“But I’ve only been swimming for a few minutes. I’m not tired.”
“But it’s ten to one. At ten to the hour, everyone must take a rest.”
“Kimari desu,” came the answer. It has been decided.
So, question asked, I got out of the pool. I sat in the sauna; I wasn’t about to sit shivering by the side of the pool for ten minutes. And then, on the hour, everyone went back into the pool.
At the end of my fourth or fifth lap, the lifeguard was again waiting for me.
“I’ve been and checked. It has been decided by the Parks and Recreation Committee,” was his response to my question asked an hour and ten minutes before.
The following week, the open-air pool at Owada Koen park opened for the summer. I’ll be smart, I thought, I’ll time this one just right. So I showed up at the park at about ten to 10 in the morning, paid my ¥320, changed, and, on the very stroke of 10, walked out to the pool. I managed to dip in a toe.
“You can’t swim now.”
“I can’t swim now?” I cried. “It’s after the hour! I’m not at all tired! I even have my ridiculous swimming hat that covers the hair on my head but doesn’t even come close to keeping my beard out of the water. Why can’t I bloody swim?” I’d learnt to swear in Japanese by this point.
“Primary school class,” was his response.
In fact, my Japanese swearing was still relatively amateurish, so I cursed quite expertly in English. Then, taking a deep breath, I asked the obvious question.
“Why, then, didn’t the lass who took my 300 yen tell me this?”
I’ve seen some blank stares in my day — I’m a teacher; I see little else — but the stare I saw at this point, from the young lifeguard who was about to teach the primary school swimming class, was absolutely stoic.
I waited. I was dry; the sun was shining on my skin. Finally, at about half-past, the children left the pool. I picked up my ridiculous hat, and again tried to enter the pool.
“You can’t swim yet,” I was told.
“Oh, for f…why not?”
“We have to check the pool.”
“For what? Dead bodies?”
Then I saw another lifeguard, face-down in the clear, clean water, mask and snorkel on his head and fins on his feet, swimming laps of the pool. They were, indeed, checking for dead bodies. I suppose that’s legitimate.
Finally, at 38 minutes past 10, I was invited to enter the pool. I swam. The water was cool, the sun was warm. It was bliss.
Then, exactly 12 minutes later, a whistle blew.
“You have got, you have absolutely got,” I pleaded, in my very earnest Japanese, “to be completely shitting me.”
“It’s ten to. Time to rest.”
“But,” I reasoned, “I have been swimming for 12 minutes. You yourself kept me out of the pool until 12 minutes ago.”
Now, after a few years, languages start to blend in the mind. You stop remembering what was said in what language. You just remember the meanings. But this comment, this answer, I’ll always remember exactly the way it was said in Japanese.
“Saki wa saki, ima wa ima.” That was then, this is now.
That was when I knew it was time to give up. I left Japan about two years later, and I didn’t ask “why” ever again.
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When he's not busy writing, broadcasting, beekeeping, or cooking with his wife and daughter, Steve McCabe is a high-school teacher in Auckland, in New Zealand's North Island, where he arrived four years ago after decade-long stints in Japan and Florida. Steve has developed a plethora of skills over the years, from flying planes to speaking Japanese to making wines of varying, but generally rather high, quality. Steve keeps links to all his writings here.