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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Inside The Heart Of Japan

It being Christmas time, and me not feeling very Christmassy these past few years - no, not quite bah, humbug or anything that bad, but I just feel out of sorts around this time of year.

Anyhow,let's take a look at one of the first books written about Japan by one of the very first JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme exchangers, one Bruce Feiler via his book Learning To Bow.

It was lent to me by my buddy Vince down south in the central part of North America... a book that purports to delve inside the Heart of Japan.

Feiler is one heck of a good writer. No one can deny that. Born a couple of weeks earlier than myself, he is the best-selling author of 12 books, including The Secrets of Happy Families, The Council of Dads, Walking the Bible, and Abraham, and one of only a handful of writers to have six consecutive New York Times nonfiction best-sellers in the last decade. He writes the This Life column in the Sunday New York Times and is also the writer/presenter of the PBS miniseries Walking the Bible and Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler (2014).

So, he's good.

Now, maybe it's the fact that he was there three years earlier than myself, and he was trying to write about the culture of Japan in a serious manner--all of which he succeeded in doing--but damn is it boring.

I have no idea how this book has been 'heralded as one of the funniest, liveliest and most insightful books ever written about the clash of cultures between America and Japan'.

It certainly is insightful, but maybe it's just me... a guy who also happened to live in a small rural Japanese town like him... but it sure seems like I had more fun out there. Real fun and not just fun for serious people.

Bruce seems to be a serious guy. Maybe that's the problem.

I went in, like him, completely open to the experience, but unlike him, my serious side is tempered with a completely stupid non-serious side that actually finds the Japanese to NOT be stiff and robotic... which is what I still seemed to get from Bruce even when he was trying to show them as being human.

Yes, every situation is different.

While Bruce begins his entry into the mystique of Japan through a ritual outdoor bath concocted by his Board of Education as a means of showing how these workaholic Japanese people let their hair down, to that I say phooey.

Do you want to know what MY guys did?

It's July... 1990... we're traveling back from Tokyo to Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken in a panel van. There are two seats - one for the driver, one for the passenger. I'm NOT the passenger. And neither are my two compatriots sliding around the back of the van.

Those two in the back with me are the two gentlemen who would be my bosses over the next few years... but not just my bosses... they would be my teachers, my friends, my confidantes.

So... while we are driving to my new home - I'm in the back of a van... unable to see what the fug is going on in the outside world... I have no idea what the sights are... I have no idea where I am going... I have no idea if my city is large, cosmopolitan or modern - in truth, it was not. But it was home.

Kanemaru-san... one of the two bosses, was sitting beside me sweating as much as I was in the back, though I was in a three-piece suit and tie. I sat on the edge of my luggage, while he and Hanzaki-san squatted on their haunches and slid around like a dog trying to stand up in a car. It is amusing... and I laughed at their misfortune... to which they laughed, too, as they understood the ridiculousness of the situation, language-barrier be damned.

Kanemaru-san, having enough of that, crawled towards me and sat on the edge of one of my four suitcases. I may never have been a Boy Scout, and I certainly would never be confused for one, but I do think their motto of 'always be prepared' is a good one.

Still, I was unprepared for what happened next.

Kanemaru-san pulled out a cigarette from a soft pack Golden Bat smokes lit it and sat beside me as he puffed smoke around us while he thumbed through a Japanese-English dictionary, pointing to a single word with a meaty finger.

I would say the English word out loud, and he would flip to the next word and the next and the next... some 30 words...

People... I wish I could share those 30 words, but I can't... lost in the haziness of both time and cigarette smoke... but I can share what those 30 words meant.

Kanemaru-san, word by word, told me a joke.

It wasn't the funniest joke I had ever heard, and if I recall correctly, it was one I already knew... but it was the funniest thing in the world to me.

Here we are... in a non-air-conditioned panel van with what I assume was the rest of Japan zooming by anonymously... and I'm with four Japanese men I just met... sliding around, unwittingly sharing a smoke.... and every stereotype I ever had of the Japanese was forever blown out my ass like so much smoke.

Why did I believe that the Japanese were these stiff formal folk? Screw that! Here were guys... guys then who are my age now... maybe younger even... and they wanted nothing more than to make me feel  comfortable by telling me a joke... to make me smile.

Learning to bow? Are you effing kidding me? Inside the heart of Japan?

Oh my god... No...

These Japanese liked to share a laugh. And we did.

You can read Bruce Feiler's book on Japan... and you can marvel at how he turns a phrase... and maybe everything that happened in Bruce's book actually happened... but damn it was boring.

Before my bosses picked me up, in my first night in Japan, I got lost with a bunch of Americans in Tokyo. I don't know what was scarier - being the lone Canadian, being attracted to one of the Americans and not telling her that, or being in a part of Tokyo where there was no neon light.

I was nearly hit by a car when I looked the wrong way while trying to cross the road... was pulled back at the last moment by that same woman I feel in love/lust with (Florence Nightingale thing, perhaps... but damn she was hot!) (That was Kristine, by the way).

I was also accosted by a Japanese transsexual... not accosted so much as propositioned...

We asked for directions from a Japanese businessman, who rather than point us in the correct direction led us back to our hotel... after a 40 minute hike...
... and that was the first three hours out in Japan!

Learning to bow isn't the be all and end all in Japan. It's a very small part of Japan and it's a very rote part of Japan, but despite my wife saying it's a clever title, it's not what Japan is about. It's not even what it's like to be a foreigner.

No... if you want to know what Japan is like, go there... and experience it for yourself.

If you get lucky like I did, or Matthew did, or numerous others, you'll hopefully find that the heart of Japan is its people.

Not the warriors, samurai, soldiers, geisha, ninja, politicians or whatever... it's the honest to gosh people who live in the city or in the small town... and hopefully you'll discover for yourself that true living is just living and being able to have a good time.

I have to keep reminding myself of that.

Bah... but no humbug.

Andrew Joseph     



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