One day I was walking along a path dedicated to philosophers in Kyoto, Japan, with my friend Hitomi. It was interesting that there even was a path dedicated to philosophers. It made me think deeply about paths, which at the time was the subject of my PhD Thesis. Suddenly, earning a Doctorate of Philosophy with a specialization in Paths made sense. But that feeling wore off quickly enough when we something rather unusual unexpectedly appeared in the sky.
First, we heard it. A thump thump thump sound. Then we noticed other people looking up and in one direction, so we looked too. We watched as dozens of helicopters … maybe fifty or sixty … forming a ragged, sinuous line passed overhead. There were blue ones in the color of the Japan Self Defense Force and green ones that looked like US military. They were going slowly enough that it took a few minutes for them to pass over, as everyone watched.
Over the previous several days, I had been encountering one new thing after another as Hitomi showed me around Inuyama and Kyoto (and later Osaka), and in each case as I would be taking in the novel sight Hitomi would quietly interject, at just the appropriate moment, a caption that perfectly fit the scene. So, as I watched the choppers go buy, I thought about what we were witnessing. It was, as I recall, some sort of local holiday, and New Years was just around the corner. Perhaps this was the annual areal parade. It could have been some sort of regular maneuvers designed to keep the JDF and the US military on the same page. Perhaps it was the monthly flight of some important dignitaries who liked to keep an eye on the philosophers path. In any event, I assumed this was normal and run of the mill, for Japan, for this city, for Hitomi, as was the case with everything else I had seen so far.
So when the choppers were out of sight but still audible, I assumed there would be a caption. We continued walking along the path. I waited for the caption. There was no caption. Finally, I said to Hitomi, “What the heck was that?” Her reply: “I have no idea. I’ve never seen that before.”
Yet another example of not being able to tell what is normal in an unfamiliar environment unless you either ask or hang around for a while. Central to the ethnographer’s methodological conundrum.
But today, I imagine that there are millions of Japanese People experiencing the a sense of uncanniness and unrooted discomfort every moment of the day as they observe things that just should not be there. A lack of home, missing members of their families, pets gone (and unfamiliar strays wandering hopelessly by), boats on roads, aircraft in junk heaps, cars piled haphazardly on public gardens, dead fish in bird baths, and the smell. The smell probably evolves, being different every day, with new kinds of rancidness as an unholy mulch breaks down between, beneath, on top of, everything pushed aside by the ocean acting very large next to an island that is actually very small.
I just glanced through this, which is one of the more interesting and poignant collections of images from the Tsunami area. It is not what Japan normally looks like, and it is not what Japan looks like in most places today, but it is what Japan looks like to the rest of the world, for now. Very sad.
One of the novel things I saw in Japan was at Hitomi’s family home. Her home had been badly damaged by a typhoon (though I’m not sure which one) and she, like many others in Osaka, rebuilt their abodes to be typhoon proof. The unique feature that caught my eye (though admittedly not as interesting as this item, found in the bathroom.) were the window coverings. Each window had an external ‘shade’ made of metal roll-up sheets. Resembling the wood of a roll-top desk, or the metal covering one might use to seal up a storefront in a bad neighborhood, these covers made the windows of the very sturdily built house impervious to storm level winds. I’m pretty sure that these would even protect against a tornado, up to F-2 or F3, though the coverings themselves might sustain damage.
That is not something you would see in the US. Go find homes rebuilt after a tornado or hurricane. They’ll be built pretty much in the same way they were built before, plus or minus this or that change in building practice or zoning code. In coastal New England, there are two kinds of post-hurricane or post-nor’easter homes: The kinds that were built about the same as the ones that were destroyed, and the kinds that were never rebuilt because of laws prohibiting rebuilding of homes that fell into the sea. (“That was a bad idea to begin with” laws.)
I don’t put much stock in comments people make about how the information coming out of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants can cause future nukes to be built more safely. In the US. But in Japan, that just might happen. Japan seems to be a society that is capable of introspection and evolution, very much unlike American society. When I was a kid, my parent’s peers scoffed regularly at the Japanese, in their feeble, even child-like efforts to replicate American products. Some of the grownups had been in Japan in the occupation forces. They scoffed in particular at the clones of the use Jeeps that were brought there by the military. They scoffed at the cheap, low quality consumer products coming into the US market.
I remember that pretty well but I also remember the day one of our neighbors, who’s livlihood was the repair of complicated business machines such as cash registers and all-key calculators, coming over to our family’s stoep where we were hanging in the shade of the maples out trying to stay cool one hot August afternoon. He had a white and black plastic squarish thingie with him. It said “Canon” on it, and had buttons.
“Look at this,” he said. “This is going to put me out of business.” It was a desktop Canon electronic calculator. His machine shop, he explained, did not have a single tool that would ever be used to fix something like this if it broke. And, it was cheap enough that one might not bother fixing it. The damn Japanese. They had produced something that was actually pretty nice. How dare they.
Several years later I worked on a contract to survey for archaeological sites in a 1960s period suburb, during a time (in the late 1970s) when the US Auto Industry was feeling it’s first heat from Japan. The “energy crisis” had made it clear that small and fuel efficient cars were good. The Japanese were, rumor had it, selling cars at below cost (I have no idea if this is true) and more and more Americans were buying them. Toyota, that company that was cloning the jeeps back in the day, was leading the pack and making cars that were better than the American cars. Better, cheaper, more fuel efficient.
And in this neighborhood, a group of what I imagine to have been angry white men of a certain age … former cash register repair men and the like … had gone from house to house and identified every home that had a Japanese car. They took large chunks of children’s’ sidewalk chalk and written racist and insulting phrases, sometimes threatening in nature, at the entrance way of each driveway known to serve a Japanese vehicle. The parents, they were, of the next generation of Teabaggers, I have no doubt.
All that brought back memories of my childhood, when my over the fence neighbors were a two person Japanese Family. The mom had married a US occupation soldier during the war. They had one kid, and then the father died. So it was just mom and son, both identified as ethnic Japanese even though the kid’s father was not Japanese. In those days, boys played “war” and since everyone’s dad had been in World War II (or, disgracefully, not) it was the Americans against the Jerries or the Japs. Interestingly, the kids who were German were not required to be the bad guys. But Billy, my over the fence neighbor was. He and I played together and alone quite a bit. We were friends, and we did things together. But when the kids played as a group, he was only occasionally recruited, and was always, eventually, denigrated by the handful of kids who were always that way, who always had the racist remark or the racist joke, and who were, by the way, always the first to strike out with punch or challenge someone to a fight. Teabaggers of the future, I have no doubt.
The Japanese don’t really need America’s Love. They are fine the way they are and are quite independent and in many ways, above or at least way to the side of Western culture and economy. But American attitudes towards the Japanese have historically been embarrassingly immature and stupid. Shameful. There is a lot of hatred and distrust, disdain and racism. Interestingly, most Americans who have had actual interaction with actual Japanese people and who have spent actual time in the country come away with respect and love for the people, their land, and their culture. That has to tell you something.
The earthquake-tsunami-nuclear catastrophe in Japan is not something you see every day. But the way the Japanese will eventually deal with it is. It is something you see every day in Japan, and something we can learn from if we allow ourselves as a nation and a culture to see something good and smart rather than sinister or childish when we gaze to the east.
For more information and essays about the Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Reactor problems in Japan CLICK HERE.