When I first came to Japan, I spent the better part of my first year answering questions like, “Why do you like Japan so much?” or, “How come you have to live so far away?” And I did my best to convey my nascent feelings of destiny and dreams, and awe; but I routinely fell short of conveying a fraction of the unregulated emotion I had streaming from my heart every second I spent here.
Now it’s 3:36, I’m dead tired and my strength to do anything but collapse is quickly waning, but I am in a position right now to explain it more sufficiently than normally I have the impetus for, so I will fight exhaustion for another thirty [seventy] minutes and write. Today was Saturday, and in many ways not so different from any other, but nearly everything I did was an accent to my motivation to live in Japan.
Last night after getting off of the phone with my mother I prepared for bed and acquiesced that I could watch part of a movie before falling asleep on the sofa and thusly did so. I set an alarm for something like 6:30, but in between torn dreams of unrequited passion that became 8:30. I rose to the shrill crescendo of my old monochrome Toshiba keitai, and spent the first two hours of the day (unintentionally) getting roped into futzing with scans and photo sets more intensive than my computer can handle at the moment. I had plans to go to Horiuchi to get a score of prints for friends and myself, but in doing the math I realized what I wanted to print would cost over three hundred dollars, and so started thinking seriously about buying my own printer and consequently a new computer (briefly a Macintosh until I calculated it would end up costing twice as much as the 5D).
Around 1:00 I went to lunch in Yoyogi, and then headed to Shinjuku Nishiguchi to pick up some film before my trip tomorrow. I locked my bike up in front of pachinko parlor Gaia and in a dazed sort of mood made my way slower than usual through the crowd to look at electronics and the like.
You’ve probably been to any number of Circuit Citys or Best Buys in your life, but at any given time there was never more than a few patrons per aisle in the store. In Tokyo there are commonly more than eight customers per square meter in any centrally-located spot of commerce. This is something that after first arriving exhausts you. But as time goes on it’s not other people all around to avoid but just so much denser an atmosphere– rustling tree boughs and bushes along the winding path to one’s destination. Most of the time I’m incredibly goal driven and take note of this phenomena only half-consciously. But every once in a while I completely give up on time and efficiency and shuffle along idly with only a vague sense of some task to accomplish. It’s at these times that I prickle with the cool shock of from realizing all the everyday differences between this land and the one I grew up in. Here there are so many human beings, buzzing about with a torrent of agenda like so many determined bees. An ocean of wealth and capitalism, and a swarm of tautly smiling, suited staff to guide and direct.
While at Yodobashi I gazed with focused contemplation at a sample photograph borne from the Pixus 9500 inkjet printer until a beaming girl wearing a black Canon windbreaker and matching mini-skirt interrupted my study to ask if there were any questions I had about the product. Half-considering how completely she could really allay my concerns about reflectance range, I politely replied no and said I was just looking. She then nodded and warmly added that if there was anything I needed to just ask, before scurrying away and being absorbed into the writhing mass of commerce I was stationed within. I looked at the oversized sample prints and thought to myself that if my beloved Canon really intends to sell this product line to “professionals”, they wouldn’t distribute questionable testimonies of this quality, smiling to myself before moving on.
After buying my standard ration of high speed film from the gangly, brush-headed clerk in the print department, I had a brief conversation with a crooked-toothed girl at Map Camera about release cables for the A-1. Despite the fact I was interested in a two dollar piece of used wire, she was extremely attentive and sure to give me every chance to examine the device before my purchase. It’s probably the greater part of being lonely before my time, but I always end up trying to extend such interactions as long as possible, to share in some spirited common interest for a few brief moments before I’m out of the store and left again to my own fragmented thoughts.
On the way home I was moved by how clear the autumn sky was and remembered Sister Charles remarking that the October heavens were always the purest blue. When I got home I had a long list of things I intended to do but instead felt quite drowsy and after playing with my release cable for a few minutes fell asleep on the sofa again with the Pixus 9500 product guide spread across my chest.
When I awoke just before five o’clock the sun was desperately clinging to the tops of the Nakano skyline and I rushed to get a few unsatisfactory pictures from the 5D before the day vanished all together. Afterwards I flipped through a couple channels and ultimately settled on the kindergarten television show Pitagora Switch on the Japanese equivalent of PBS. Scooping up the last of some thawed salmon pasta gratin I gathered my bags and set out for Honmachi.
My former neighbor Kimura-san is a big fan of the Swallows’ manager, Furuta, and this weekend is his last series of games as he’s retiring. So I bought a pair of tickets in advance and invited her to the special event against the Dragons where a memorial video reel was due to be played between innings. It was standing room only and we ended up in the last few rows of the upper section behind the home bullpen, but the stadium is small so we still had a fairly good view of the action. Indicative to how things went this season, Chunichi kicked the snot out of Yakult, despite my best efforts of cheering along with the inflatable thundersticks we received upon entering the stadium. In the bottom of the seventh Furuta activated himself as a pinch hitter. With that well-scripted move the already emotional crowd exploded into a frenzy. On the wrong side of a 8-0 shutout he scored a hit early on in the count and the stupid cynical part of me that’s festered with age wondered how much respect and honor for one’s seniors were put into the pitches thrown to the Swallows’ aged catcher. In the bottom of the ninth he got on base again and then a well-placed hit from center fielder Aoki scored Furuta, the only run in an otherwise dismal game. But everyone in the park loved it, my honored guest tearing up at the sight.
After the game we went for Kimura-san’s favorite kind of food, ramen, and had a repast far beyond what I was capable of consuming. It was a nice, warm finish to what should have been the end to my day, but I’m a sucker for old friends and duty. So after bidding Kimura-san good night I went to an izakaya (bar) near where I used to live to give my respects to the owner. A number of old acquaintances I hadn’t seen in a nearly a year were there, my arrival stirring up a fair amount of conversation. Japanese are markedly more sensitive to foreign nationals than Americans, probably as the island country has remained isolated for thousands of years with a near perfect homogeneous population. I chose my compliments carefully, ate my “sa-bisu” dishes with a broad grin, and did my best to encourage the owner’s college-age daughter to overcome her discouragement and believe in herself.
Around midnight all of the other customers had gone home and though I was still in the mood to chat, I knew it was time to leave so I bid the owner good night and got back on my bicycle. Again, I was exceedingly aware that I really should have gone home given the next two days ahead of me, but there was still one establishment I was indebted to and really needed to make an appearance at, considering the fortune of being close by.
So I went to the Lounge Maki once again, a small, old “sunakku” situated above the grocery store where I used to shop. The pub is one of many expiring drink-and-conversation bars where a generation of salaried middle-aged men stop to find a little solace after the war zone of work and before the battlefield of home. The grandmotherly owner, Jun-san has always cared for me; she stayed up with me until 5:30 on my birthday, in an awkward time when I had nowhere else to go or anyone to share turning 25 with. Again, though it wasn’t my birthday, I received two pair of Burberry socks, withdrawn from a locked chest reserved for only the best customers. I accepted the present in chagrin and listened to her talk about her family and modern day child rearing in Japan until well past three.
On the short trip home between Honmachi and Sangubashi I came across a policeman headed the other way. Of course he waved me down because the headlight on my bicycle is broken, and I’m sure he didn’t run across many other potential inquiries in that part of town so late at night. However, as always, the officer was kind, courteous, and warm, conducting his business while affably carrying on a conversation. We talked about baseball and Furuta’s retirement, in addition to the standard fare of how long I’ve been here, how good my Japanese is, etc. After checking the bicycle’s registration number he apologized again for detaining me and with a smile bid me good night. I am blessed to live in a country so tranquil.
When I first moved abroad, I wanted to show everyone how special I was, I wanted people to notice what I did and get validation for it; much more so than when I was in America. For in coming to Japan, I was a child once again, and needed the approval of someone, anyone, for anything so I could feel like I was good and belonged. But as the years have passed I have learned something a little more complicated, and perhaps not so much uniquely Japanese as human. In living here I’ve acquired what an honest person can pick up almost anywere, but something markedly invaluable — compassion. When I do things for myself, I do them alone, but when I am around others I increasingly try to choose my actions based on what I guess I can do to serve those close by, those who’ve been so unflaggingly kind to me.
A song, or a drink; a smile, or an inquiry… I use the knowledge I have gained and the instincts in my heart to find doors to those around me. Living in Japan is perhaps not more about tradition, or obligation, or empathy than any other country, but being here has helped me learn to appreciate and embrace them.