[The following conversation happened entirely in Japanese.]

(Grouses at TV)
Guy Jean:
(Grouses something else at TV)
Guy Jean:
You keep saying “Right? Right?” But you don’t understand a thing I’m saying, right?
Guy Jean:

Preferred pronoun: he

Nana has been wanting to buy a Roomba since we moved, and last week she spoke to a salesman at Bic Camera about the various models. She also was interested in the Braava model which automatically mops the floor. (We have all hardwood floors, no carpet.)

The salesman told us the Roombas need 10cm of clearance, so we decided to measure the clearance under our bed and sofa before proceeding.

Yesterday we were preparing to go to Bic again, and I measured the clearance under the bed: 8cm, and not a millimeter more. The sofa is fine at 14cm.

So we talked to the same guy again and he said (despite varying appearance) all the Roomba models are the same height. I confirmed this with the spec sheet and in fact they’re all 9.2cm. Nana told him to let the maker know we wanted a slimmer model. He said that was a popular request, but the spec hasn’t changed on that for the past 15 years.

So we looked at other makers. We thought we might find a Panasonic or Hitachi. They had models on display. We couldn’t find the specs, but they looked about the same size as the Roombas (and I hadn’t brought a tape measure). Then we found one that clearly said it was only 5.7cm high. It was quite a bit cheaper than the Roombas — only one-third the price. Nana asked the salesman about it and he confirmed it’s a Chinese company: Ecovacs.

We looked around a few more minutes, but it was clear this was the only one that would fit under our bed. And we were surprised to discover that it combined the sweeping and mopping functions, so we don’t need two separate machines. For the price we knew we couldn’t expect much, but we decided to take the leap.

Not a Roomba

The moment we got home I unboxed the thing. “Do they have instructions in English?” Nana asked. I pointed to the quick set-up guide: it’s all diagrams and iconese. Within a couple of minutes the robot was scuttling around our flat, quieter than we’d expected, and Nana had immediately decided it was a “he.” “Where is he now?” she’d ask. And when he got tangled up in anything, she’d say, “He has to learn to do that.”

(I’m not sure how much learning capability this cheap model has, but we were joking about its giving all our information to the Chinese.)

Nana would take to following him around the flat, worrying where he was from minute to minute and going to watch as, for example, he was busy pushing all our shoes around in the entrance foyer. “That’s more entertaining to you than the TV, eh?” I asked her. (I’d include a video of her following the thing around, but she’d have my head for it.)

Robot vacuum stuck on the pedestal
Easily fooled

Things that he gets caught on or confused by:

  • The table pedestal
  • The chair legs, unless we push them close to the pedestal
  • The window blinds
  • Electrical cords
  • The bath mat
  • Papers or other bric-à-brac on the floor (as in my den)

I’m sure we’ll discover more to add to the list.

After leaving him to charge up all night, we’ve set him going again this morning. We’ve left the bedroom door open, but so far he’s ignoring the allure.

Lessons learned

I stopped at the supermarket on the way home last night to get cream cheese for my breakfast bagel.

Whenever I’m in a supermarket or convenience store, I’m going to get snacks. Last night it was a packaged cheese assortment and box of sesame crackers, among other things.

Got home and Nana informed me there was, in fact, a whole unopened package of cream cheese in the fridge.

Had dinner, etc.

After Nana went to bed, I opened up the cheese assortment. Ate the whole thing, as well as the entire box of crackers. Libations to match.

Woke up at 4 a.m. in my chair, moved to the bed. Got up on the very last snooze alarm and raced to get ready to work. Did get a bagel and coffee in.

Stomach is lousy as a result of the cheese assortment.

Lesson learned:
Make sure we have enough ice.

A tale of two languages

For more than two decades I’ve been faced on a daily basis with the assumption that a visibly foreign person can’t understand Japanese. That’s only begun to change in the past handful of years, and now — in Tokyo at least — quite frequently people don’t seem surprised that I can understand them and speak with them. (I still get that “日本語上手ですね” reaction which shows they’re a bit surprised. And yes, I always answer, “まだまだ。。。”)

Just in the past two days, I’ve had an amusing variety of reactions. When I was cycling on Saturday I stopped at a convenience store for some carbo loading. I always make sure to respond to the cashier’s greeting so they know I speak Japanese. Sometimes this saves the time taken up by clerks trying to remember whatever they’re supposed to say in English (and is a lot less frustrating to me).

In this case, the clerk spoke to me in Japanese but combined that with large flourishes and gestures. “Would you like me to heat this up for you?” Gesturing to the cheeseburger and to the microwave. She kept it up for the whole transaction. “Do you want that in separate bags?” Lady, I get it already. I was nearly laughing by the time I left the store. (She really wasn’t sure when I told her I didn’t want to try for the lottery prize, though. It’s usually more trouble than it’s worth: a can of milk tea or a cup of yogurt if I win.)

The second instance came on Sunday, when a traffic cop wasn’t happy with the way I crossed an intersection on my bike via the crosswalk. I was wearing a UV-cut mask and bandana, so she may not have known I was a gaijin when she called me out. But as soon as she spoke to me I took the mask off (in part hoping to put her off). But she just kept speaking to me in Japanese (without broad hand gestures) as if taking it for granted I could understand her. While I was a bit annoyed with her for giving me a lecture (there really was no safety issue with what I’d done), I found it refreshing that she assumed I could understand her (which I could). I thanked her for pointing out the error of my ways, and again when she told me to be careful.

The final instance was a couple of hours later, while I was enjoying a lunch of Nana’s world-famous onigiri while sitting on a park bench in Yokohama. An older woman (checks mirror: yes, she was older) asked if I minded if she sat on the same bench. “Please, go ahead.” I got the standard reaction of surprise I speak Japanese, followed by, “I guess you’ve been here a long time.” She stayed and chatted with me for about five minutes. But if my answers diverged in substance from her questions, she didn’t seem to follow me. For example:

I guess you’ve been here for a long time.
Guy Jean:
Yes, in fact I’ve been here since the start of the Heisei era.
You know, Heisei … ?
Yes, I’ve been here for a long time.
I guessed it.

And again:

You like onigiri, huh?
Yes. They’re really good when I’m biking. Lots of energy. My partner made these fresh for me this morning.
Yes, I love onigiri!
I bet your wife’s Japanese, right? I knew it when I saw those onigiri!

Dear reader, I had specifically said 「パートナー」(partner) …


The assistant at the office is my canary in the coal mine for the start of kafun, the hay fever season. He forfeits his contact lenses for glasses several weeks before things really tick upwards on the pollen count, and then starts popping pills. He’s been doing this for several days now.

Today another colleague mentioned he was suffering, and I sent him directions to my favorite allergist. Not too far from the office, good office hours for working people, and an excellent command of English.

And while I was observing the assistant and assisting the colleague, I was insisting that I was fine — that I wasn’t suffering at all. In fact, I’ve been doing a lot better these past few years, and sometimes don’t even bother with medication.

Then I left the office and went to meet a client for his English lesson, and he mentioned it also. It’s hay fever season, and he’s feeling it. I insisted I wasn’t affected in the least.

On the way home, I sneezed once or twice. Not really bad, but a couple of sneezes for seemingly no reason. And I was feeling itchy. I’ve been putting cream on my legs and now my scalp was starting to itch as well.

That’s it, I thought. Tomorrow, Nana and I are off to Izu for a couple of days of rest and relaxation, and I’m driving a minimum of three hours to get there. Once there, I don’t know what kind of access we’ll have to either allergists or drug stores. (I’m sure they’ll have both, but I don’t know if the allergists will prescribe what I’m used to taking or if the pharmacies will have it on hand.) Since the medication I usually take is available over the counter, I figured I could pick it up tomorrow morning on the way to the car rental pick-up. I’d heard Nana mention a 10 a.m. pick-up, and I was sure I could talk her into being just 15 minutes late for that so we could stop at the local drug store at 10 and get my meds.

Map of Japan with pollen count
Pollen count

On the bus home, I got off at the usual stop and realized I was right by the drug store. I shook my head at how long it had taken me to come to that realization. I found the medicine in under a minute, and spent another two minutes picking out eyedrops that were specifically formulated for hay fever. I spent a bit longer waiting in line at the register, and then the clerk informed me a generic was available for the hay fever medication I’d selected. He had a small basket of the generic right there at the register, which shows how widespread this hay fever thing is. (I decided to stick with my name-brand stuff. A few pence more and I get something I’m confident will work. Call it the placebo effect.)

I got home and had dinner with Nana and then took a pill. It was just a few minutes later that Nana mentioned we’re getting up early tomorrow, and we’re picking up the rental car at 8 …