Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What is it About Japan?

Great Buddha Hall, Nara


Interesting things about Japan:

- You can buy underwear at convenience stores, but not ziploc bags

- You have to take off your shoes at an inn, but not at airport security

- It's absurdly rude to wipe your nose in public, but perfectly fine for a man to urinate in public


I wonder, sometimes, why Japan has assumed an almost hypnotic influence over my life. I have no obvious explanation - I have no Japanese ancestry. I watched "Star Blazers" but wasn't especially entranced by anime as a kid. I never even liked Japanese food - much less sushi - until well into adulthood.

Yet here I am, comfortable but stuck in neutral, looking at Japan as my salvation. I've traveled there twice in 15 months. I plot and scheme about how to move there, even at the cost of a tremendous cut in pay. I download anime and buy mediocre coffee at Borders, just so I can read manga for free. I took taiko drumming lessons and subscribed to Japanesepod101 (a very nice Japanese interactive language site and podcast). My ringtone is the "Track 16" theme from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. Where did all this come from?

Kenrouken Garden, Kanazawa


Now that I've been to Japan twice, I can at least construct a case for why it fascinates and compels me - more on that in a minute - but that doesn't answer what drew me to it in the first place. No doubt, when I started to watch anime as an adult (Evangelion, Tenchi Muyo maybe, Rurouni Kenshin a bit later) the sheer variety and quality amazed me. I'd always loved animation and chafed at the shoddy treatment it receives from the mainstream media and public in the States. The idea of animation being respected as an art form every bit as valid as live-action, with sub-categories for all ages and tastes, immediately struck me as right. But is that a reason to adopt a country as a second homeland?

I suppose as I became curious about this place that spawned such strange and wonderful art, I began to dig deeper - and every discovery led to another fascinating riddle. The history of the country had always interested me, but soon became compelling. The aesthetic had always fundamentally appealed to me - minimal, naturalistic, even austere - and somehow, I began to feel a connection that was deeper than just Battousai and Eva-01. Shockingly for this Chicago boy, I even began to appreciate the sheer wonder of raw fish, an ever-deepening passion that will always be with me now.

So traveling to Japan seemed a natural next step. And once there, the sheer oddity of the place became even more apparent. Cliche it may be, but it's a country of extreme contrasts, paradoxes even. The ultra-modern alcoves of Tokyo, years ahead of the west in the use of technology in everyday life. Only a few miles away (minutes by train in this rail-happy land) small villages where old traditions and architecture reign supreme. It has one of the lowest birthrates in the world and one of the oldest populations, yet it's a culture obsessed with youth where teenagers exert a tremendous influence over fashion, language and the arts. Japan remains a country where formality and courtesy are woven deep in the psyche and even the language, yet possesses one of the oddest (and often most inappropriate) national senses of humor (is that a word?) of any place in the world.

I suppose, in the end, that's what draws me to Japan and things Japanese now - the sheer mystery of it. Remember when you were a kid, and every day seemed to bring a baffling yet fascinating new discovery in everyday life? That's what I feel when I'm in Japan - like a kid in the midst of constant discovery. The layers of Japanese culture are so numerous and the culture itself so opaque to foreigners that even living there for 20 years would only give me a fleeting glimpse through a door just slightly ajar. But that glimpse is enough to keep me hooked, hoping for another one. I can't imagine being bored of life there - frustrated, anxious, confused, sure - but never bored. That's a powerful appeal for me, make no mistake - though to top it off, when I do get treated to a little peek I usually like what I see. I know all the warts are there - the cultural sexism, the institutional racism against "outsiders", the dangers of a homogeneous society. But I also love the idea of a festival for every season, a shrine on every hill and a cafe where you can pay $10 to play with cats for an hour. And a businessman in an expensive suit reading Shounen Sunday manga as he sips his beer on a Shinkansen, without a hint of self-consciousness. And more than anything, I want to be a part of it - even though I know that I could never truly be a part of it. Even for a year or two, to pass those slightly open doors every day and be able to peek in and wonder is an idea whose romance hypnotizes me. I'm hooked - it won't let me go, and I don't want it to. Perhaps that's slightly insane, but right now that feeling is the closest thing in my life to a sure thing.

4 comments:

  1. どうもありがとう - 私はうれしい!これは、日本の私の最初のコメントした。

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  2. We are of like minds. Even down to the fear, and excitement, of a country institutionally racist of gaijan and any outsiders. But yet, here is always something within me that draws me there, a fascination and an obsession that does not leave me. I am still young, but my aspirations and dreams of one day going still do not leave me. Nice to know others are like-minded on this as I am.

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  3. It's a very, very special place. I wish you the best of luck in fulfilling your dream.

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