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Stewart Clayton

One of the attractions of Japanese culture is their concern with aesthetics and beauty.

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. It’s 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!" ("It’s 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, I’m 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 surroundings.

Back home in Vancouver I often feel a groggy, apathetic energy, and a self-absorbed mind-set, around me. In Japan, if you don’t 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 language’s ‘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 wasn’t 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, what’s 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 Vancouver’s own Robson Street, where a lot of Japanese students hang out. Now, it’s 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 cuts.

I’ll also be curious to get caught up-to-date on the new trends in Japan’s 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. . I’m 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. It’s not going to happen with PuffyAmiYumi.

In the world of electronics, there’s 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 can’t 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 wasn’t 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 wouldn’t pick up more than the occasional set phrase or verb or two. Sometimes, even less. If I was watching with a Japanese friend, sometimes they’d ask rhetorically: "Do you know where she’s from? Their dialect is very different. It’s difficult to understand." Of course! That was why I couldn’t understand a word.

I miss the small town trusting mentality. My girlfriend would leave her car key in the car’s unused ashtray-- so that it wouldn’t get lost. Of course, she’d keep the car door unlocked at all times. She also wouldn’t 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 culture’s rigid structure—to let loose, inevitably helped along by many generous gulps of beer.

© Stewart Clayton December 2002

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