2004, now that was a great year. It was the Golden Age of Japan.
I was on my seventh trip here, crisscrossing the nation by high-speed shinkansen in search of small, traditional restaurants, ancient temples, and women with long black hair and short skirts. By then, I figured I knew the country pretty well, spoke a few words of the language, and was seriously contemplating just sleeping on the beach and never returning. I was in love with Japan. It lived up to all of my expectations.
Nothing was better than eating dinner in an authentic Japanese restaurant. I had a favorite one, where I’d slide open the door, hear a welcoming irasshaimase followed by a consistent double-take at the fact I was white. Then I’d slip off my shoes, sit on a tatami floor and eat the most amazing sushi with a small bottle of sake, surrounded by wood, bamboo, and rice-paper partitions. The waitress always helped me read the menu.
“I’d like this, please,” I said. “The sushi combo.
“Um,” she replied, “you’re pointing at grilled chicken skewers.
“Yes, exactly,” I said. “That’s what I’d like, chicken skewers. And some sushi.
“Sushi’s on the next page.
“Oh. Of course it is.
“So the sushi combo then?
“That’d be great.
“Still want the grilled chicken?
“No, not really.
“Be right back.”
Okay, let’s do a little exercise. By which I mean “think about stuff.” I don’t even know why it’s called exercise since it does exactly nothing to help you lose weight. Whatever, it’s easier than push-ups, so here we go:
1. Complete the following sentences in as many ways as you can. But don’t take all day. We’ve got stuff to do, you know.
Japan is . . .
Japanese people are . . .
Japanese culture values . . .
Give it a shot. You need the exercise. Then when you’re done, it’s my turn. So let’s see . . .
Japan is safe. Japan’s clean. It’s high-tech. Peaceful. Hey, that’s a pretty good start.
Japanese people? Hmmm. Shy. Polite. Short. Humble. Hard-working.
Japanese culture values . . . harmony? Nature? The elderly? Interconnectivity.
Whatever you came up with, it’s all good. Don’t get bogged down with the details, cause this’ll all make sense in a minute. Maybe. Now, here’s the next part, and if you’ve got half a brain, it should be a no-brainer:
2. Think of as many images of Japan as you can. You can take a little longer, since we saved time in the first exercise.
Again, my turn. See, isn’t it fun when we work on stuff together? Just say yes. Here goes:
Sushi, kimonos, koi fish, temples, manga, anime, karate, tofu, green tea, geishas, rice, chopsticks, kabuki, overcrowded trains, red umbrellas, cherry blossoms, hot springs, bamboo, zen, businessmen in suits, schoolgirls in uniforms, kamikaze, atom bombs, sake, sumo wrestling, sitting on the floor, taking off shoes, bowing, origami, white cranes, tiny apartments, miso soup, Mount Fuji, Starbucks.
Okay, Starbucks was a wildcard, but Japanese people do love their coffee, that’s for sure. Anyway, that’s just off the top of my head. I could do this all day, and I bet you could too, because it doesn’t matter where in the world you live—-accurate or not, everyone’s got images of Japan.
Okay, last part of the exercise:
3. Think of as many images of Slovenia as you can.
I can actually do this, thanks to Japanese TV. Because I was having a beer and flipping channels, just getting in my workout, when this show about Slovenia came on. Turns out it’s a beautiful country, with great architecture, friendly people, and delicious food. Slovenians eat a lot of bread; I think that was my conclusion. Who knew? Slovenia: we like bread. I believe that’s on their flag.
And then I started wondering. Why didn’t I know anything about Slovenia before? Or about Sri Lanka, or Bolivia, or Madagascar? And then I remembered: Oh, riiiight, because I’m American. But somehow even I know about Japan. Everyone knows about Japan, land of the rising sun. It even comes with a sound track, the plucking of koto strings, sound of running water, and that lone bamboo flute playing in the background. Which is strange, because I hear signal bells clanging at train crossings and the deafening hum of cicadas, but zero flutes. Eh, probably just my neighborhood.
Fast-forward Ten Years
I happened to pass by that authentic restaurant again recently. Turns out it’s on the first floor of a massive, gray apartment building. Somehow before, I never stepped back and noticed it from the outside. It made me wonder how the people living above deal with all that chicken smoke. I bet their laundry smells delicious. In fact, the entire first floor of the building was taken up with similar places.
Workmen were putting in a new restaurant next door. I looked in, and it was just a blank concrete space: a long, empty box. But already they were installing a wooden counter, and soon they’d add some tatami flooring, a fish tank, pictures of pine trees, and hang red paper lanterns at night to transform the gray concrete hole into a perfect replica of a traditional Japanese restaurant. And I thought, that’s interesting, seeing people stamping out this image of Japan.
And suddenly I felt like when I’m in Las Vegas, and have to remind myself that I’m not actually in Venice. That isn’t a real canal. Those stone walls are made of plastic, and the sky’s just painted on the ceiling. But this actually was Japan, and those workmen were Japanese people, yet they were busy fabricating this empty space into something that would appear more “Japanese.” The way you’d expect Japan to look. So that was weird.
Pictures of Japan
I really admire photographers in Japan, because you’ve got to angle the camera just right to capture an ancient temple without including the colorful giant plastic children’s play castle in front. When snapping a shot of a quiet tea house or a zen garden, you’ve gotta be careful not to back up too far, otherwise all the power lines, cell phone towers, and office buildings come crowding into your picture of tranquility. Or I guess you could just Photoshop them out. Photography’s an art, for real.
What’s Japan Like?
99 percent of everything you’ve ever read about Japan is wrong. To call it a pack of of lies would be a bit cliché, so I won’t. Plus that’s French, not Japanese. But still, every morning, I wake up and ask myself, “What is Japan?” Of course, that comes after I ask, “Jeez, Seeroi, why’d you drink so much shochu last night?” And every day, the answer is less and less clear. I guess I just like booze, that’s all. And girls with fake eyelashes and padded bras, apparently. But Japan’s complex too.
Japanese Public Relations
Understanding Japan requires de-programming yourself from all of the beliefs you were taught about it, and trying to see it without that false front. Because it’s easy to find a little shrine in the forest and say, Wow, Ken Seeroi was wrong. Japan really is mystical. Then you walk ten feet and there’s a pile of discarded refrigerators and bicycle parts. See, if you can’t trust Ken Seeroi, who can you trust? But me too, because although I’ve lived here for years, on three of the five islands, I still occasionally view the nation through the lens of preconceptions, rather than for what it is. It’s hard to forget the propaganda, all those images of how the country and people are supposed to be.
So then which is it? Is Japan a nation that values harmony with nature, or a country that’s mindlessly pouring concrete over every hillside to stop the incessant landslides? Is it a high-tech neon marvel, or a place that has yet to invent home insulation? A nation where people humbly bow and respect others, or where an old man passes out in Ikebukuro station and commuters step nimbly over his lifeless body in a rush to make their trains? Hey, it wasn’t our fault he dropped right in front of the ticket gate.
The answer is probably a little of both. Japan’s certainly not some mysterious land imbued with ancient rituals. Nor is it a futuristic society with singing toilets. That’s just hype. I like Japan, I really do. Any place I can get a hot dog and a beer at four a.m. is all right in my book. But I had to recover from all I’d been told about “Japaaaan,” the mysterious Orient, in order to start understanding the real place I was living in. Turns out, it’s exceptionally unremarkable. Maybe the most amazing thing is, for such a small country, how much PR it generates. I mean, China’s ten times the size and all I know about that place is they invented beef with broccoli and special wonton soup.
You gotta wonder where the Japan hype came from. Personally, I blame Bruce Lee. He convinced the world that Asia was cool and mystical and got an entire generation of kids to sign up for karate classes. Like a guy who weighs a hundred pounds could somehow beat Chuck Norris. Please. But if you can’t trust Bruce Lee, well. Whatever, back to Japan. Foreign people seem inclined to inflate and glorify cultural differences. You sleep on a futon? How exotic, spending the night on the floor. Eat fish without cooking it? Well, that’s certainly progress, not using fire. And Japanese people are happy to bolster this image. Even they believe it. Japan’s special and everywhere else isn’t? Well, if you say so. So together we all weave this fantasy image of canned Japaaaan, like The Olive Garden serving Itaaaalian food.
Stars in the Land of the Rising Sun
The first time I saw a sumo wrestler talking on an iPhone, it seemed wildly incongruous. Like how can the dude have a cell phone when he won’t even put on some decent spandex shorts? I mean, cover up your huge ass already. Nobody wants to see that. But yeah, even sumo wrestlers get phone calls, and it was an iPhone 4, so perhaps the ancient traditions still prevail.
And then I was near a temple recently, just after it closed, crossing through the dusky parking lot to get to the convenience store. And a monk in brown robes hurried by me. I imagined he was going to sit cross-legged before an altar and chant all night until he reached enlightenment and dawn broke. Maybe there’d be a flute playing, finally. But instead, he just hopped into a Toyota, lit a cigarette, and drove off. And for some reason this reminded me of that guy in Texas who wears a cowboy hat and boots even though he can’t tell a skinny cow from a fat goat. When the stars come out, he doesn’t sit by a campfire eating beef jerky and singing to his herd. Maybe James Taylor does, but everybody else goes home, microwaves a pizza and watches TV like a normal human being. And I’m pretty sure monks do to. Welcome to Japan.