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Monday, March 23, 2015

Noboko And Andrew: Five The Hard Way

I have five days left in Japan, and this is my final Saturday in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken.

Despite the beer I imbibed last night at my good-bye party, once Noboko left to teach class for the morning, I dragged my tired ass out if bed and counted my lucky stars.

I showered, dressed, grabbed some cereal, loaded a roll of film (and two more for the road) and hopped on my bicycle for a final look around the city.

It's funny how often you let the simple things go by...

Since this was just a road trip, with only one thing happening, let me fill in the time with some random thoughts that may or may not have been going through my mind at that time. It's usually pretty busy in there, and it has been 22 years, so perhaps I can be forgiven.   

How is it that I have seen more of Saipan, Thailand and Malaysia and Singapore than I have of my own hometown of Ohtawara-shi? It's just not right, but I could say the same thing about Toronto, having spent 44 years in that city and have never seen the Scarborough Bluffs or even Casa Loma!

On the plus side, I have driven as far east as New Brunswick (still need to make Nova Scotia and Newfoundland) and have gone all the way to the Pacific Ocean in BC. I do need a side trip to the three great northern Territories, though.

But Ohtawara... it's smallish... why has it not been better explored by myself. Probably because I made it my home.

Still, I bet I am one of the few people in Ohtawara under the age of 30 to have walked the abandoned train line, or even know that it is something more than a bicycle path...

There's not much I can tell you, except that I hit every shinto shrine and Buddhist temple I could find, said hello to everyone along the way as they starred at me...

Even after three years here, some of the older folks while peer up from their perpetual back breaking stare at the ground (probably from working decades in a ricefield) to stare at me as I ride by, brakes squealing noisily as I slow down to shout out an "ohio gozaimasu (good morning" and proffer a bow, which always evokes a shocked bow in return.

They still seem to think it amazing that a gaijin (foreigner) would have the manners to do something like that, but it's all good... I live in do-inakka, the boonies of Japan... sure it's a city, but it's name literally translates to Big Ricefield Field City, the city so inakka, that they use the word 'field' twice just in case you missed out the first time.

But the folks here are decent, honest and even simple people who have taken, for the most part, a keen interest in myself and the other foreigners who have called Ohtawara home lately.

Some like Matthew and myself are quite visible to the community, taking part in every single matsuri and parade that Japan can throw at us. Matthew and I are both the type of people who relish the opportunity to be part of the community, who don't hide in our home when asked to participate.

Yes, we value our privacy, and can be taken aback by some of the inane questions put to us - the classic "Can you use chopsticks?" question got very old two months into our stay, with Matthew being quick witted enough and proficient enough in Japanese to ask them if they know how to use a fork, and when they shockingly answer in the positive, he adds a 'sugoi' (wonderful), hoping they will understand the sarcasm, and to note that the Japanese, while a unique culture are not the only ones who can use chopsticks, or eat rice or like sushi.

At first I thought inane questions like that were meant to assure the Japanese that they were different from us, but I know that Matthew and I did our best these past three years to ensure that we were similar enough to the Japanese, that if it weren't for the color of our skin or the shape of our eyes (or in Matthew's case, excessive height), that actually act just as Japanese as they do--less the dumb questions about foreign affairs.

True, in my three years here, I would often ask "WHY?" to the Japanese - on any topic, and would get that damn sucking of air through the teeth response... but in this case, it was an honest inward reflection that meant they knew the answer but were afraid to tell us lest they look silly.

One of my JTE (Japanese teacher of English) when presented one of those 'why'
 questions from me, sucked a lot of air, bowed his head in frustration and silently wondered how I had discovered one of those Japanese secrets... "It's difficult to explain, except that it's always been that way, so that's why we do it—even though, as you point out, that there are quite a few different, if not better ways, to do things... "

Japan will change, he noted, just that it takes longer than non-Japanese people would expect.

It's funny... the Japanese would often feel pride, but much shame at the society's inability to affect positive change, but that's mostly because the Japanese know very little about anything non-Japanese.

In Canada, up until the 1980s, even, shops were not allowed to open on Sunday - the Lord's day, for fear of upsetting the good Christian values or something like that. Sports were never scheduled on that day, with baseball and hockey finally breaking those barriers down in the 1970s.

Hell, in Canada, the right to vote for women wasn't granted until... well... Manitoba gave women the provincial vote in 1914, but Federal Canada legally allow it until 1916. The province of Quebec didn't allow women the right to vote provincially until 1940, as both legislators and the Catholic Church were adamant in keeping women down. In Quebec, a woman could vote federally, but not provincially. How screwed up is that?

If I was asked why by the Japanese, I would have to suck a lot of air between my teeth also.

I'm not even going to back up my point with an American example, suffice to say the word 'segregation,' as one air-sucking moment.

By the way... everyone who knows baseball, knows that Jackie Robinson was the first Black to play in the Major Leagues back in 1947. Before that, the only way a Black Man could play baseball was to be in the Negro Leagues. But... back in the 1880s and earlier, many a professional baseball team was mixed with Whites and Blacks, and while I might know why segregation occurred amongst the professional baseball ranks, how much air would you have to suck to explain it.

My point being that, that Japan is every much as fugged up as the place you are in right now. Plenty. But each place still has its good, if not wonderful points, so judge not, lest ye be judged.

That was kind of the whole thing I learned about Japan - very early in fact...

This whole "It's A Wonderful Rife" blog, that was originally a monthly column begun nearly 25 years ago... it was and remains a way to look at the Japanese and the Japanese way of life and to laugh... but also to point out the foibles of my/yours/our own western way of thinking.

I'm the kind of guy who likes to have a lot of fun... have some laughs... and if I can get laid, too, even better... so being told I need to leave Japan because the jig/gig/job is up, well... it makes me introspective... hence my visits to all the shinto shrines and Buddhist temples I spy...

I don't believe in any one god (air sucking through the teeth), and definitely not any one religion, because who the hell am I to possess such an ego to assume one is better than the other, or even that one exists, and the rest of the world is a bunch of blaspheming idiots? 

Japan didn't teach me that. I was fully cognizant of the shortcomings of most of mankind - arrogance. I possess my own, to be sure, but I'm not going to tell anyone my way is better than your way. At least not directly.

I can't tell you exactly what I was thinking as I visited the religious grounds in Japan, but I sure wasn't praying for any deity to come to my aid. Billions of people pray every day, billions of prayers go unanswered.

Aaaaaaa, crap... Noboko...  maybe just a little prayer to whichever Buddha is listening and any of you other gods and deities out there: "Give a guy a break."

Somewhere the gods are playing craps going for five the hard way,
Andrew Joseph

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