of the attractions of Japanese culture is their concern with aesthetics
I was at the
point that the stone faces on the trains were getting to me; the fish
bowl feeling was getting to me. Five years ago I up and left Japan, after
having lived there for the five previous years. Now, I have a strong urge
to return, to feel the charm of the culture; to feel the frustrations
of living in that society. My personal five year itch. Its funny
how the pendulum of our tolerance level can swing. A few years ago I thought
that if I heard another sailor uniform-wearing high school girl say, "Kawai!"
("Its cute!") and her friend reply, "Kawai ne!"
while admiring a Hello Kitty accessory that I would scream out: "Spare
me!" Now, it would be cute to witness such a scene again.
Back then I got my fix of international news (in English) via short wave
radio and one of the few national English dailies. I also had a laptop
computer with a grey scale screen and a painfully slow modem. Surfing
the Net was a wonderful way to alleviate feelings of homesickness. How
did all the ex-pats survive before the Internet? Today, Im sure
it is that much easier, and one more outlet to lessen the feeling of homesickness.
One of the attractions of Japanese culture is their concern with aesthetics
and beauty. Their attention to quality, although prices are sky-high,
is very appealing. Fifty bucks for a melon? Sure, why not. Way back in
1992 I had what is still to this day the most expensive cup of coffee
I have ever had in an elegant hotel lounge in downtown Osaka. Eight big
ones, for one dainty cupful, the coffee poured out of a sterling silver
decanter by a beautiful server, wearing a conservative uniform, bowing
deeply at the waist. And I savoured every drop while soaking up the graceful
Back home in Vancouver I often feel a groggy, apathetic energy, and a
self-absorbed mind-set, around me. In Japan, if you dont wake up
bright-eyed and genki (energetic) you might as well crawl
back in bed for the day. Over there, the naval-gazing self-help
movement was refreshingly absent; everything there revolves around the
group. Being an outsider, it was (is) impossible to completely enter that
world, but many Japanese I met, contrary to popular stereotyping, were
more than happy to include me in their lives. This, for me, was immersion
in the best sense. Foreigners are known as gaikokujin (more
polite), or more commonly as gaijin (outside person). I never
had a problem with that. Does anyone here discuss the dark context of
the English languages foreigner or even worse, alien?
Alien? Not exactly politically correct.
Most people never use English in their day to day lives there. They have
absolutely no use for it; many will study it, though, for
overseas travel, or just as a hobby. Of course, some people in larger
centres, need to know English for business or tourism-related capacities,
but it is quite a small percentage of the population. So, it wasnt
uncommon to see a deer-in-the-headlights look when approaching them, although
others eagerly wanted to practice their fractured English.
When I go back, will I experience culture shock again? Or has the whole
country lost all its charm and become fully Westernized? For example,
whats with the twenty-year-olds and their dyed blond hair? This
fad was just beginning when I left, but it started as a somewhat innocent
deep brown. Since then, the rebelliousness has gotten out of hand, as
can be witnessed by a walk down Vancouvers own Robson Street, where
a lot of Japanese students hang out. Now, its all shades under the
sun. Their parents must be worried sick, wondering where they went wrong
raising their little Yukiko-chan. Just wait until they graduate into mohawk
also be curious to get caught up-to-date on the new trends in Japans
entertainment world. Japanese pop has to be the most insipid music
on the planet, surpassing on the snooze scale even the Backstreet
Boys or the Spice Girls. Although their video games, and Pokemon,
and more, have invaded North America, they have yet to score a hit
in the mainstream music world here, which shows that North Americans
do have some discerning taste after all. . Im sure the Japanese
public would love to see one of their own make it over here, as
turn-about is fair play: a lot of Hollywood stars as well as Western
singers and bands are huge in Japan. Its not going to happen
In the world of electronics,
theres no place like Japan. Will the ubiquitous use of state-of-the-art
cell phones with built-in mini cameras overwhelm me and force me to flee
the country once again? What other new high tech gadgets will I be convinced
we all cant live without? It was an enjoyable hobby: watching the
art of bonsai being performed on electronic parts. There is an almost
fetishistic urge to miniaturize everything.
How are the banks and the economy doing these days? Are they on the verge
of complete collapse, or finally on the road to recovery? The downturn
in the economy started roughly at the time I first arrived, in the Fall
of 1991. For the record: it wasnt me! Till then, the Japanese economy
was experiencing a bubble. Those were the days when some Japanese
businessman bought a Van Gogh for about thirty five million dollars (US),
and all eyes were on Japan as the hottest, most conspicuously lavish economy
in the world.
What do I miss? I miss being the one Caucasian in a bar or restaurant
full of Japanese. Of being surrounded by a cacophony of mile-a-minute
Japanese barrages from all sides. Or, back in my tiny apartment, just
having the TV on in the background, or actually trying to watch and understand
it. There were four channels back then; satellite programming was just
being introduced. Programming consisted of game shows, panel discussions,
scandal news, legitimate news, Sumo tournaments and baseball.
Usually, I wouldnt pick up more than the occasional set phrase or
verb or two. Sometimes, even less. If I was watching with a Japanese friend,
sometimes theyd ask rhetorically: "Do you know where shes
from? Their dialect is very different. Its difficult to understand."
Of course! That was why I couldnt understand a word.
I miss the small town trusting mentality. My girlfriend would leave her
car key in the cars unused ashtray-- so that it wouldnt get
lost. Of course, shed keep the car door unlocked at all times. She
also wouldnt lock her front door overnight. And if a delivery came
to the house, the deliverer would slide open the door, poke his or her
head inside, shout out Sumimasen (excuse me), and then, maybe,
push the doorbell. Now, I hear through the grapevine, that sales of house
locks are booming. What a shame, to have lost that trust and innocence.
Most of all, I miss the people. They are not at all like the stereotypes
once you get to know them. The women can be shy, but in a group can also
be extremely loud and boisterous. The men were not all boring, robotic
salarymen. I met an awfully lot of very individualistic, creative
and entrepreneurial people with interesting and interested minds. Lots
of characters, with a twinkle in their eyes, not about to conform to anything,
and aching for a chance to escape from the cultures rigid structureto
let loose, inevitably helped along by many generous gulps of beer.
© Stewart Clayton December 2002
and Stormy Nights on the Gulf Islands
the darkness at nights.
Resilient Royal City
West, has suffered many snubs and as many disasters over the years
the Street and Onto the Wall
Artist Martin Budny shines at DV8
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