I had prepared. I had my Japanese ID, my passport, and my newly made personal seal. I had dragged my feet for months, but had finally gotten myself to the other side of the identity crisis required to pick characters to represent my name. I had ordered the cheapest design in the shop, and to really give myself gravitas, bought a plastic Gudetama holder at the 100円 shop to carry the seal in. I was ready for this interaction to be over quickly, yet there we sat on either side of the desk, at a stalemate.
I couldn’t figure out what the woman was saying. I had filled out enough paperwork since moving to Japan that I knew the standard questions at the top of a given form; I knew not to write the hyphen in my first name because it would cause confusion, and I could write the kanji for Shibuya without copying it from my phone.
But in this moment, I couldn’t connect what was being said to any of the categories I knew. Maybe if she showed me the characters? I was panicking. Time slowed and I could feel the heat building inside my mask. I repeated the sounds she made and tried to juice from them a drop of meaning. The extremely unamused bank rep asked if I wanted to come back with a friend who spoke Japanese to open my checking account. I managed a self-effacing, “I’ll do my best.” It was clear that the rep did not think that that would be sufficient.
The higher you climb up the ladder of Japanese formality, the harder it is to convince people to speak to you like a child, which is very often what you need when you have the vocabulary of an eighth grader who also has strong opinions about the government’s pandemic response. In extra polite environs, simple words you think you know, like “house,” and “to eat,” morph to unrecognizable forms. The rep at Japan’s largest and famously old-school bank wasn’t interested in stooping to the level of this perspiring foreigner with basic one-word hints, like “day” and “born.” At that point, my brain had only logged tanjōbi, the word for “birthday,” and had not yet, through a humiliating exercise such as this one, learned the more formal seinengappi, or “date of birth.” At last something congealed, and I understood I needed to give my birthdate.
Part one resolved, I became aware of a rapidly emerging part two. Being born just short of 2,000 years after the birth of Christ was spiritually meaningless to me, but apparently literally meaningless to this bank form. I needed to give my date of birth in Japanese years. That meant reorienting the start of my life toward the reigning emperor at the time.
We were now far beyond my ken. I was so flustered that instead of trying to be polite, I blurted out “88.” With some pain, the rep said “Shōwa” and then some numbers I didn’t catch. I was sweating. I asked her to repeat herself. She didn’t seem sure either. I Googled what I thought she said.
But wait. This wasn’t my first time at the non-Gregorian calendar rodeo. We count birthdays in Vietnam by the lunar zodiac. One of my sisters was born at the end of January, but before the lunar new year, so she’s a rabbit, not a dragon, like the rest of the ’76 babies. If I was born in a cusp year—that is, when one emperor’s reign ended and another began—then just subtracting the years from the beginning of the Shōwa era could result in a year that didn’t exist on the regnal calendar. Of course the bank rep would know that, I reasoned, and so would Google. Wouldn’t they? I flushed, unable to produce the right timeline with any certainty.
The months and years began to slide together, names and animals and elements and numerals mapped against time lines and axes, some which went forward from 0 and some which went backward, some which went in circles, but were circles within circles, some whose meanings meant nothing to me, others which contained both the birth of Donkey Kong and the world’s first atomic bombs. I felt the stress of time passing on all the calendars I knew nothing about.
We count time; we name it. The gods follow us across weekdays (Thursday for Jupiter, Roman god of thunder); months (May for Maia, Roman fertility goddess); years (they reset when Christ was born, and when a new divine emperor takes over). So that it doesn’t feel so random, so fathomless. A fathom, the length between your outstretched arms. Instead, the gods gather you in theirs, place and measure what you can’t hold alone.
Here, my sense of time, already tenuous, fell apart in the abyss of another country’s history. I wrote “63” and hoped that the month I was born was not the beginning or end of an era for anyone else but me.