Monday, September 22, 1997

Turning Japanese

I miss your opinions, stories and laughter. I miss your insight, sadness and disasters. I miss your triumphs, accomplishments and determination...
-for J.H.

First Impressions of Japan: I didn't feel as if I could say much. When I did speak people looked at me with a stunned, confused look in their eyes. When they spoke the meaning of their conversations baffled me. Everything was rather odd and a mystery. In other words, it was just like home.

Life in the Big City: It is odd to go to sleep one morning only to wake up later the same day to find yourself in a completely different world. The twelve hour flight was a bit wearying. I reminded myself the next time Max the Cat whines and moans as I load him up in the car I will remember what it is like to be trapped inside a metal tube with no way to control your destination. What made the flight somewhat bearable was listening to the Northwest Airlines entertainment channels through my headsets. Nine hours of a one hour Beach Boys' special played over and over. By the time we were over the Sea of Japan I swore if I heard Help Me Rhonda one more time I was going to jump out of the plane. But damn if those Pet Sounds songs didn't hold up even after the ninetieth listen. I discovered too late (the last hour of the flight) that on another channel played a Styx reunion special. The listening experiences erased any doubt which culture had warped and shaped my mind.

Can you hear when my voice is a whisper? When you look away is it more clear? Your words never hurt me but your silence does.

Before I left I had tried to sharpen the focus of the picture of what it would all be like in my mind's eye. That picture was shaped by the portraits that used to hang in my grandparents' house in St. Paul- paintings of Mt. Fuji, photographs of their trips to Japan. After arriving in Osaka and taking a train from the airport into town, those pictures were about as close as the one's recently returned from Mars. A quick glance of Osaka reveals a city that looks in part like any big American city; tall buildings slightly aged, with apartments and houses scattered about. In a way it sort of reminded me of Philadelphia- the age of the architecture and the layout of the city as viewed from an above ground train. But unlike Philadelphia the city didn't seem worn out but was rather well kept. Osaka definitely had its own rhythm, the narrow streets where cars zipped through past hordes of pedestrians and bicyclists. Yet somehow there was a comforting order to the chaos.

You taught me to buy shoes and to learn to walk again. You made me feel like I was back on track and helped me through the most confusing concrete lots.

At night the electric signs flashed into your eyes as life buzzed around you. There was no honking of horns from impatient drivers or ornery looks from passing strangers. The retail, hotel, and restaurant help was extremely polite, bowing as you entered their establishments. Even the immigration inspector was respectful and gracious and made you feel welcome, "Maeda-san..." The Kentucky Fried Chicken sign suggested not all was foreign and that we hadn't landed on Mars after all (although I'm sure when the Mars' landscape is developed a KFC will do quite well there as well).

Cultural Tips for the Uninformed: Japan is not a good place to go for a guy who does not own a good pair of socks. I'm the type of fellow who rarely gets rid of stockings, even if the elasticity is worn and torn and the holes outnumber the remaining material. I believe worn out socks are one of the prices you must pay for living in an imperfect society. But in Japan where one often removes one's shoes as you enter homes or restaurants, wearing worn out socks can be a bit embarrassing. Also the squatting at meals was a bit hard on the knees. But the food was exquisite and I've never eaten as much in my entire life. One thing you want to do is eat quickly. The Japanese don't dawdle when it comes to food. And they eat large quantities (I felt I was on some sort of sumo wrestler's diet). We had sushi (rice and fish wrapped inside seaweed), udon (Japanese noodles), tempura (fried vegetables and seafood), and sashimi (raw fish). We ate at a restaurant where there was a charcoal grill built in the table and you cooked your marinated beef on the grill.

God as my friend are you surprised it means so much? Do you ever wonder why we are all born crying and why we leave in so much confusion?

Wacky Tobacky: Want to quit smoking without the difficult side effects? Go to the Tokyo Wendy's, step into second floor area and take a deep breath. Within minutes you'll have enough nicotine in your system to last you for nine lives. These people can seriously smoke. And they also enjoy an adult beverage whenever possible. They probably drink more beer than your average Packer fan. I thought about trying to recreate the Paul McCartney 1980 Japan experience trying to sneak into the country past customs with some sort of hemp bi-product, but thought better of it. No use testing the immigration official's sense of humor. The first sign we saw as we got off the plane was one telling anyone who felt "abnormal" to go to the quarantine area. It was my first mental test. I always feel a bit abnormal but did the Japanese officials need to know that?

Possible link between height impairment and with smoking? One nice feeling was for the first time in my life I didn't feel noticeably short. Not that I was tall among the Japanese people but I was about average size until we got to Tokyo where all of a sudden the people (especially the women) seemed a bit taller than other Japanese. One look at their footwear suggests why that is- huge platform shoes.

Mary O'Del: We were told for the Japanese the name of a business or product isn't important as far as the meaning of the words. Rather it's the sound that the Japanese take into account. Thus we saw some oddities like a drink called Procari Sweat. Nothing quite quenches a thirst like a jug of sweat. And we also saw a shopping bag with the name Marginal Glamour. One wouldn't want excellent glamour when spending hard earned cash, mediocre glamour is OK.

Bow Down To Toyota: A Shinto temple we saw had a shrine where drivers drove up to an area where their cars were blessed for good luck and low accident claims by shaking a broom looking object in their direction. Unfortunately we witnessed a ten car fender bender while leaving the temple (not really).

Communication: Words flowed but little was understood. Still it was amazing how much can be communicated by a smile or a meeting of eyes. For those who do not speak there still is hope that there are others who still will be able to understand.

Common Meeting Experience: Like many business meetings I have participated in, the meetings we attended were a bit perplexing. Language differences made communication difficult. I committed a faux pas by forgetting to bring along my business cards which are used during introductions as a polite way to help people put names to faces. One of the meetings we attended was held in at a conference table in the company's showroom. The table was eye shaped and a bright light illuminated things yet it wasn't harsh on the eyes. It felt like sitting at one of those TV political roundtable discussions. With my camera case strapped around my neck like a tricorder it also felt a bit like I was a member of a Star Trek landing party meeting with some planet's dignitaries.

An Uncommon Bond: I watched several baseball games on my hotel TV at night. It almost made me feel a hint of homesickness. Differences? What's the deal with the trumpets that constantly blare throughout the game playing a fight song during the action? What is the deal with the plastic clap devices (and if you've ever used a plastic clap device you know just how painful that can be) that are given to the crowd to bang and make noise? And why do the ball girl's wear protective batting helmets?

A Moving Experience: I felt the earth move in Tokyo. Fortunately it was just an earthquake. And no one even panicked which is a good thing with the volume of the population. One thing the country has is lots of people. Many of them Japanese. So many people where anyone who might go in with an inflated value of their own self importance can be quickly humbled. Being in the middle of the Tokyo subway system during a busy time, as streams of people swarm around you from every direction you quickly can see how one individual's life is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. At the same time the opportunity to visit foreign worlds and see the possibilities that exist is eye opening and awe inspiring.

Get Back: On the trip home one of the in flight movies was While You Were Sleeping. Seeing Sandra Bullock's smile brought things back to the familiar. Looking out the window I noticed the flight to Japan was mostly in the light, the flight to the United States was mostly in the dark. Enough said.

I only wish you the best and know I intend to do better. I'll always cherish the time we did have. So I look to the east, stunned as I stare, the sense of loss too intense to bear. Prayers stuck in my throat along with my good-bye.

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