Why does Japan inspire longing in so many people? Why did I devote so much of my university studies followed by 5 years of my life, and countless hours of continued study afterward to a place where I would never fit in? Why do I struggle even today with a language spoken by an ever decreasing number of people, ranked by the US State Department as one of the most difficult to learn for native English speakers?
Twenty two years after leaving Japan as the parent of an infant and without job prospects, I arrived at Narita airport with a solid career behind me and as a successful parent with a wallet filled with plastic buying power and cash. Older, wiser and balder I stood waiting at passport control to be fingerprinted and granted entry.
I noticed a short line of people stood waiting at the residents entry line. It looked like a cast of a freakshow, people with tattoos, hair of rainbow hues that looked like it had been cut by a weedwacker, nose rings and studs. One woman wore a jacket emblazoned with the slogan, “Southern Fried Queer.” I recalled cutting my hair short and removing a single earring stud on the plane over when I arrived 27 years before in order to better fit in to this conservative society. Had things in Japan changed all that much? I would soon find out.
Just like I had grown fatter, wealthier and I hope wiser, Kyoto had changed. As the taxi sped to the hotel near Kawaramachi-Oike, I struggled to find recognizable landmarks from the past. They were there but you had to look past the changes – the Gucci store on Shijo street, the new hotel where the Virgin record store was, and the disappearance of McDonalds restaurants. Shops had come and gone likely numerous times in the area, including a hideous filthy pet shop that sold endangered species with questionable provenance in Teramachi where I once rescued a cat from a crowded cage. And the ubiquitous beer machines that had fueled my disappointment (and alcoholism) had gone. Even my cigarette brand, Mild Sevens, had changed its name to avoid litigation. Litigation fear? In Japan? Now there’s a change.
Kyoto seemed more prosperous, and much cleaner – even though there wasn’t a trash can in sight – and had many more foreign faces on the streets and in the shops. Overall during the few days spent there, seeing 25 years into the past with my mind and contrasting it with the present seen with my eyes, Kyoto seemed a lot friendlier – at least on the surface (and don’t knock it: as any traveler will tell you, superficial friendliness is just fine most of the time.) Even the office of my old company which went bust in 2007 where I worked 22 years ago was still there.
One thing that hit me in Kyoto and throughout the trip: prices hadn’t changed in 22 years. Drinks machines offered Coca-Cole and various drinks for ¥110, and cigarettes were cheaper in Japan than they were in the US. Boxed lunches. Noodles at noodle shops. Taxi fares. Everything that we purchased during our trip were roughly the same they had been when they had left in 1997.
According to online inflation calculators, prices in the US have increased 60% during that time, and our inflation rate has been very low. The fact that prices hadn’t changed at all in Japan was something I’d never seen before: price stasis.
As expected Chinese tourists outnumbered every other tourist group. I’ve studied Mandarin so can easily tell the difference between the three main languages of east Asia: Japanese, Chinese and Korean. I’ve found busloads of Chinese in unexpected places such as Vik Iceland, and they were in Kyoto and Tokyo. But strangely not in Hiroshima.
I’d never been to Hiroshima, but bullet train rides covered by our JR Passes, as well as bad weather in Kyoto gave us the impetus we needed to visit. Hiroshima was just like everywhere else we had been so far, except Peace Park was filled with a sea of Japanese school children on field trips, a few Falun Gong supporters protesting organ harvesting by the Chinese, and no Chinese tourists.
The peace museum detailed the atomic attacks in horrific images and artifacts, including conglomerates of concrete, steel, ash and bone. It was meant to be stomach churning, and it was, and children less than 10 were seeing it just as I was. I didn’t expect context of the blasts – the horrors the Japanese had perpetrated on the Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asians including European and American civilians and POWs, the potential slaughter of millions in a land invasion that both my father and father-in-law were training for in the Philippines and Burma, or the starvation of more through a blockade meant to starve the regime to submission. There were charred backpacks of children, but none used in the exercises to train them to run towards foreign soldiers, so that they could be filled with explosives and remotely detonated during a coming invasion. Perhaps it wasn’t the place for such a contrast, but given the revisionist historians both in Japan and elsewhere who see the bombs out of context, and therefore unmitigated instruments of evil, such context is necessary. And I think that’s why I didn’t see any Chinese tourists: The view of Japan as “victim” of the war doesn’t fit with the actual victims of Japanese aggression.
Then it was onto a hike in Nagano where we stayed in traditional Japanese inns, ryokan and visited hot springs. Neither had been options for us in the 1990s since we lacked the money for these luxuries and the knowledge about where foreigners were accepted. Even with the supposed acceptance, there is nothing quite like being stared at while you’re nude by naked Japanese men. I had had the experience back in the day, visiting the local public bath in our neighborhood and bathing with Japanese yakuza members with their punch perm hair they covered with shower caps, and their elaborate tattoos. Still they got used to our tour group and pretty much left us alone. Sleeping on futons had definitely changed for us. It’s one thing to sleep on the floor when you’re in your 20s or 30s: something completely different when you’re in your 50s or 60s. But the food at the ryokan was good for the most part, although the staff at one of the four ryokan we stayed at ignored us – rude even by non-Japanese standards, particularly on a $2000/person tour.
We ended our visit in Tokyo, a city that had always frightened me even before I became a hermit and had to live in the woods. But it was no problem thanks to the preparations the city was making to be tourist friendly for the coming Olympics. Many train stations had multi-lingual female workers posted at the ticket machines to help explain how to navigate the multitude of train lines and 1000 train stations in the city. We hit various neighborhoods: Harajuku on Halloween night. The Japanese take the holiday seriously, and whenever they get serious about something they’ll run with it and surpass everyone else at it.
The neighborhood was filled with young people in costume, many taken from anime or manga characters. Lots of vampire Victorian maids and characters dressed in leather that looked like they stepped off a Mad Max movie set.
We also visited the Akihabara neighborhood which has been famous for electronics since the 1960s. There not only could all manner of gadgets be found, there were multi-level stores devoted to obsessions such card games, video games, and realistic dolls with eye-watering prices, with some reaching $5000.
In Japanese otaku has always been an insult, yet entire segments of the economy are devoted to “dedicated hobbyists” to use a gentler euphemism. Whether it’s dolls or realistic Gundam models the Japanese show no restraint when they pursue an idea to its logical conclusion. In a sense that is no different from the traditional arts of flower arrangement, tea ceremony or kimono wearing. Instead of viewing the men and women buying the dolls or the card games with disdain, I felt a strong kinship with them. After all, I too played video games, modeled trains, and delved deeply into my own fascinations. While I had no interest in collecting these dolls, I understood why they were collected: they were beautiful, well made and carefully crafted. You didn’t need to collect them to appreciate them.
While sitting in a Starbucks a group of “elderly” women sat around a table talking. I looked over at them, and watched them. Then it dawned on me.
“These are my tribe,” I said to the Wife.
In my mind and heart I am in my 20s or 30s, but watching them carefully I recognized that the women were likely in their 50s and 60s. My age group. I was no longer the young man who had come to Japan with a vision of learning Japan’s innermost secrets and using that as the foundation to a career in the Foreign Service. Instead I was a middle aged American man sipping coffee with his wife in a Starbucks in Japan. That was all I was, and that was okay.
But it wasn’t okay. These were Japanese women who likely couldn’t speak a sentence of English between them. They didn’t own guns or vote Republican, and I didn’t know the first thing about polite forms in Japanese or tying an obi. We were still night and day, a clash of opposites, and yet fundamentally I felt a sort of kinship to them. That feeling was back – and it frustrated the hell out of me.
The trip back to Japan had rekindled that love, that obsession that had motivated me 40 years earlier to devote myself to the study of East Asia – its languages, history, people, and cultures. And on this trip that kataomoi – that longing I felt for Japan that I had left in the past – came back, stronger than ever.
What would I do? How would I handle it?