Saturday, June 19, 1999

Life in the Hood

Since I moved here to Oiso, I have been conscious of how much my surroundings affect my attitude toward my choice to live as an expatriate. You know how much energy I have expended airing my frustrations with life in Japan, and how often I have sent out appeals not to take me too seriously and comments about life intended to balance the criticism. The most effective mechanism for living here or anywhere, I am convinced, is to cultivate one's appreciation of the absurd, and to learn to laugh out loud and often at the ways we come up with to ruin a perfectly good day on a perfectly good planet. I have to remind myself of this a lot, because I am cursed with a Puritan background and some terribly sentimental genes, all of which push me toward taking life seriously. Since I have made such a strong pitch for guffawing, forgive me, now, if I exercise some absurdity-balancing rights and tell you about my neighborhood, and how it is making me glad to be living in Japan.

What strikes anyone quickly about life in the Tokyo sprawl is the terrible and unrelenting lack of green relief. Nobody, it seems to me, can match the Japanese in the speed and efficiency with which they can clear a patch of trees and grass and replace it with a parking lot or another unsightly blockhouse they (absurdly) call "mansions." Top of the list of complaints from long-term foreigners is the (absurd and) ritualized proclamation that "we Japanese love nature" in a world so ready and willing to hack down a tree. The excuse is a ready one. So many people. It's literally a choice between people or trees.

I moved into Tokyo six years ago because I was bored with life in the suburbs. Bored with the plain lack of originality of a housing development built all at once, at the symmetry of the streets, and mostly bored with the life in a neighborhood built for people whose highest priority was minding their own business. In comparison to this, Tokyo became increasingly irresistible. It is ugly, but it is alive. It is rich and varied, a gourmand's banquet, a young person's playground, a consumer's paradise. So it's a little low on trees. It's unmatched for excitement. In Japan, it's everybody's idea of where it's at.

I moved into Tokyo when I was ready for bright lights, big city, and for the first year or more I loved it. It was the the right move at the right time, despite the cost, the commute of an hour and forty minutes each way to work, the noise and the pollution. But it got old fast. Five years later, I had had enough. I moved away from my apartment in Yoyogi across the street from the magazine delivery center which banged bundles into trucks all night, to Kyodo where the construction started the moment I arrived and continued on all sides of my "mansion" the entire two years, and the time came when I cried uncle and went looking for grass and trees and fresh air and quiet.

Which I found. I found a place so lovely that I am still remarking on it, a year after the move. A little town just outside the urban sprawl, a place with almost no mansions and banners telling everyone with any plans to build one that they will have a fight on their hands. It's a funky little town, little more to the outsider than a row of shops on Highway 1, not unlike a rural town in Northern California. To Japanese, the town has a rich history. It is associated with former Prime Minister Yoshida, who had his summer home here, with the orphanage set up at the Elizabeth Saunders home, which took in over 600 "throwaway" kids of mixed racial parentage during the Occupation, with resort and weekend homes for the rich of the big city, and with legends found in Kabuki drama. But to me it is a place with trees and fresh breezes from the sea, and a house with a hiking trail for a backyard barely five minutes from a train station for those times when it is necessary to join the world. A house built on the start of the hill so that the main entrance is on the third floor where the switch-back road goes by my kitchen and living-room windows and reminds me I am not living in isolation, but still very much in civilization. But it is civilization where troops of hikers, including groups of thirty or more school kids parade past on weekends, hiking to the top of Shonandaira. I refuse to pull the blinds down, so I am on display to these adventurers, and some of them actually stop dead in their tracks at the sight of a foreign man obviously at the kitchen sink, sometimes wearing an apron.

I've decided not to hide my habits, but to flaunt them. To those who stop (the kids), I smile and wave, and there is a powerful sense of satisfaction in watching the smiles creep over their faces as they realize they've been caught staring. All those years of being annoyed at their almost total lack of self-consciousness and sophistication, looks of amazement on their faces and fingers in the air pointing out that a "foreigner" is among them. Not only being there and foreign, but even doing something foreign. Maybe it's that I'm getting old, but now I no longer stiffen at being pointed out as different; instead I enjoy the child in them looking at what is nothing more than one of the many curious wonders the world has to offer them. And I observe that when couples walk by and I smile and nod, it's virtually always the woman who smiles and acknowledges my nod. The majority of the men pretend not to have seen me.

My house was built by an architect, about twenty-five years ago. From the hillside it juts straight out to a point, making a large triangle. Two rooms on the third floor, the living room and the dining room make triangles within the triangle, as do the rooms below them, the two bedrooms on the second floor. These four rooms have an entire wall of windows, and the house is a blaze of light and openness. It has done wonders for my disposition. I not only have the trees, the Japanese maples, the pear trees, and a big leafy one which nobody can name, so they call it the "mongrel" tree. And bushes of hydrangea all around. And a bamboo hedge which grows shoots sometimes at the astonishing rate of six inches a day, and which keeps me hacking away at middle class respectability every four or five days. I have the openness to the ocean to the south, and the breeze it brings.

After I moved in and dealt with the enormous task of cleaning the windows and ridding the closets of years of mould, it sank in that I would also have to deal with the garden. The previous tenant, I later learned from the neighbors, hadn't done a thing in at least two years, and it was obvious. One of my neighbors, Mrs. K., came to the door one day and asked me point blank, "Would you like to do something about your garden?" For some reason, I took the question without insult and said yes. I really did, but the thought of tracking down a gardener had been too daunting, and I was also unconvinced I could negotiate the price successfully. From Mrs. K. I learned there is an organization called the "Reason for Living" Society. A group of old men who garden, at a bargain rate, and who came in answer to a prayer. I expected some emergency weeding, maybe a little trim. But I gave the men a $500 limit and in two days they razor trimmed my entire garden, trees and all, for $400. I found their office under a bridge when I went to pay them, left them the routine gift of sweet bean pastries, and arranged to have them come by and do this job every three to six months.

The day after the trimming, I got a fax from Mrs. K. "We didn't like the previous tenant; she was odd. But we like you!" she said. I learned later that the neighbors were concerned, not merely with appearances, but with the chance of fire. There had been a lot of dead plant debris under my jungle patchwork, and I think their fears were well-founded. The whole experience brought home to me how much I had conditioned myself to living in a city apartment where I had none of these responsiblities. Because of the beauty of the location, instead of seeing these responsibilities as burdens and expenses, I began to interpret them as signs I had found what I was looking for, a place with natural beauty and things to talk about, however trivial, with neighbors. One by one they would stop to comment. I beamed at each compliment.

On the other side is Mr. I, who comes down only on weekends. He used to bring his wife, but now he comes alone. I wonder if she has died. There was a long time when he didn't come at all, but now he's coming again. We say hello and make promises to have coffee, but it hasn't happened. I think it will before long. Past Mr. I. is Mrs. S. and her family, including a boy about ten who is constantly running into Mr. I's yard to retrieve a ball. The only kid in the neighborhood. I love the quiet, but it must be hard on the boy. Up the hill is an old man who uses an umbrella as a cane, and salutes me with it as he passes. Another woman stops to admire my hedges and commend me on my ability to cut them in a straight line. Little by little I am becoming familiar with the faces of the people who live up the hill.

Some weeks ago, an event took place which seems to be bringing the neighborhood together. Just at the next zig in the zig-zag single lane road which enables about twenty households to live on the hill behind my house, somebody decided to build one more. Mrs. H., her name is—I've never seen her and neither, apparently, has anybody else. One day the silence was destroyed by the sound of tree-cutting. I didn't give it much thought, because I assumed somebody was trimming. But the sound went on for hours and a sinking feeling came over me and forced me out of the house to have a look. When I got to the top of the hill, I felt sick to my stomach. At least fifteen trees had been cut down and the hillside looked like a stripmine or a scene following a forest fire. That night, Mrs. S. was at my door, informing me that the neighborhood was gathering the following Friday for an "information session" with the builders.

The meeting took place with bureaucratic efficiency, starting on time, and accompanied with official handouts. The two "parties of the first part" -- the builders and the prefectural authorities stood on one side, and the neighborhood folk on the other. It started with the usual "history" of the situation, with an official from the construction company reading off a list of this-happened-then-this-happened events until suddenly an old man spoke out. "OK, that's enough" he said. "We didn't come here to listen to your report, we came to get some answers. What are you doing here?" "First let us finish," they said. And the reporting went on. But people started grumbling and the insistence on order and authority seemed to be backfiring. Finally they came to an end and the self-appointed spokesman for the construction group said, "Now we will take your questions. Please state them one at a time and begin by giving your name."

"Nothing doing!" said the nun. There are two Catholic nuns living at the foot of the stone staircase at the back of my house. I don't know the whole story on them, but there is a sign on the door declaring that they give lessons in flower arranging and piano, and I occasionally hear the sound of the piano when all the windows are open. "Don't you tell us what to do. There is no need for you to ask for names. We ask the questions. You answer them."

Well, blow me over, I think to myself. You tell 'em sister! And we're off and running. One by one the neighbors speak out. What are you doing tearing down all these trees? What do you mean building on a hillside this steep (42 degrees)? Who's responsible if the hillside collapses on our houses? Have you no appreciation for the fact the rainy season is about to start? The questioning goes on and gets increasingly heated. The construction company spokespeople begin to take on a wounded look. The prefectural authorities begin to take on arrogance. A full-fledged conflict has formed, here in the land of submission, of harmony, and of indirectness.

Each of the neighbors reveals a distinct personality. One is emotional and strident; another is calm and reasonable, a third asks deeply probing questions, another wonders in a barely audible voice if there is any possibility of putting the trees back. The meeting ends (the average age is over 60 and we've all been standing on a slope for an hour and a half) with an appeal for data. How great is the risk, they want to know, of building in this climate, in this earthquake-prone country, in this season, on a 40-degree incline.

The meeting makes the local papers first. Then the Mainichi Shimbun, under the headline "Voices of Anxiety from Citizens." In the picture, I'm the one who looks like a foreigner. A second meeting is called, this time for the next Friday evening, when more people can attend.

The meeting is like a New England town meeting, except that we are all sitting on zabuton on tatami and have left our shoes in the entry-hall. Two rows of defendents again, the front row of engineers and construction company officials, the rear row of prefectural bureaucrats. This time there is no attempt to act authoritarian and take charge. Running the meeting is a local Oiso official, a friendly boy-next-door affable-Joe type who knows the neighbors and insists that although he's sitting with the construction and prefectural authority teams, he's here to represent everybody's interests and give everybody a fair hearing. There is one woman on the panel, and she begins. "We are here to speak to your main concern," she says. "The question of safety." And she begins to outline what they know about angles and leverages and boring schedules and backup systems and support. Another voice talks about the need to cover everything with cement. A third with the plan to plant grass after it’s all done.

Once again the audience gets impatient. And this time, they’re prepared. There are xeroxed data on landslides, a report from one person on her failure to get approval two years ago for a similar construction, several pointed questions about responsibility. As the evening wears on—the meeting starts at 7 and is still going at 10—the mood of the audience gets angrier, the questions more pointed, and the sense of a community united more palatable. "Why do you persist on quoting the law to us!" shouts one woman who looks like she has never shouted anything in her life before. "Don’t you understand it’s not the law we’re concerned with, it’s safety!" As usual, the audience, made up of ordinary folk, has a couple of people who get lost in their own comments and ask questions that have been asked before. But the defence team also has its drawbacks, one official who cannot hide his disdain for the community, who looks constantly at his watch and rolls his eyes at the repetitions of questions.

In the end, the arrogance provokes the audience into broadside attacks. "You there, prefecture spokesman, do you have any knowledge at all about the technical aspects of this problem? How can you talk about approving something you don’t understand!?" "Stop telling us to keep this discussion about the safety aspects. You are tearing down a hillside in our neighborhood. Why do you assume you can do that without our approval?" Finally, one man expresses the frustrations of the crowd in one laser-beam question, "You keep insisting you are ‘within your rights.’ Does that mean you intend to ignore an entire neighborhood united against you? Do you intend to ignore everything we have to say, Mr. Prefectural Authority? Do you? If you do, tell us now. Loud and clear, so we know where we stand!"

The question brings the meeting to a halt. There is no response, but a dead silence which seems to go on forever. Finally Joe Affable shakes his head and utters the Japanese sign of defeat. "Komatta, na!" he says, switching the tone from what has been exceedingly polite formal language, to the plain form. "This is bad news, this," he says.

Poor Joe. He does recover, finally, and gets the discussion going again. But it soon stops once more when a voice shouts out, "You, Mr. Spokesman. Who put you there in the middle? Next time we insist on somebody from the authorities we approve of." It is an unfair attack on a nice guy. But it makes clear that the trust in the authorities to oversee the situation is gone, and the conflict is serious.

I have listened the entire two hours up to this point with near total fascination. I have lived in Japan a long time, have watched ordinary life up close for thirty years. I’ve never seen a group quite this articulate, quite this direct, quite this riled up. These folk are enraged, and they are all the more powerful in that they know how to contain and direct their rage. Throughout the evening I sat there feeling for the guys under fire. The engineers look like engineers. Honest folk, used to facts and figures and hard work. Not at all happy to be on the spot like this, not at all certain how to respond. The bureaucrats look like bureaucrats, too. Tobacco stained fingers, faces worn down like rocks on a sandy beach from routine, figures humbled with fatigue so total you have to study them closely to see the annoyance. Repeating endlessly that they are "within the law" and revealing by their repetition that this is the only strategy in their repertoire. They are no match for an angry group of citizens.

It’s 10:15 and I have missed my dinner. My lunch was some warmed over pasta which gave me a stomach ache, and I’m wondering whether to walk home with Mr. and Mrs. K, or to bound for the 7/11 and some factory-line sushi. I opt for the walk home with my neighbors. I want to ask some questions. "Who was that man who peppered his talk with English words?" "That’s Mrs. S’s husband," says Mrs. K. I had asked her earlier and she ran the question down the row of ladies to my right. Not one of them knew, but it turns our her husband knew. All these women share their day-to-day details, but not one of them knew this man. Guess he’s never home. I’d never seen him either, and was meeting Mr. K, too, for the first time all year. Only the old men on the hill are familiar to me. The younger ones still come home after dark. The neighborhood follows the Japanese patterns of housewives at home, men at work.

But this neighborhood has taken on some extra complexity for me and it’s the differences I see now, not the stereotypes. Nuns who tell you they’re in charge, not you. People who tell bureaucrats to go away and send in somebody who knows what he’s talking about. People who tell you you’ve torn down one too many trees, have come into a neighborhood that is valued for its beauty and have made it ugly, and for that you have made enemies. As I say goodnight to the K’s, other neighbors stream by on their way home. They all stop to say goodnight.

I have neighbors I find I'm drawn to. Neighbors who care about building and maintaining a place that is quiet and beautiful. People who love trees as much as I do. Neighbors who tell me they are glad I’ve moved in, glad I’ve joined them in this protest, glad I understand.

Don’t look now, but those roots I have yanked out every couple of years in the last decade seem to be moving downward. There is a new twist to the plan to pack up and leave with retirement only a couple years now down the road. A hint of the possibility that absurdity could give way to irony, as the key to understanding my experience in this land. Or will it be melancholy?

Oiso, June 19, 1999

Update: January 9, 2000

Six months have passed since I wrote this love letter to a neighborhood. My friend Doris moved in in July and has joined me in singing the praises of the Hood. Doris, actually, has put me to shame. She is much better than I am at getting to know people, and I now have been inside the houses of a number of neighbors, thanks to her, and know the names of almost a dozen more. I came back after the summer break to two invitations in the first week to barbecues and a list of new names to learn.

Doris likes early morning walks, and has managed to find dogs that need walking. She calls it her rent-a-dog service, and I have taken to tagging along. Amazing how people will smile at you when you’re with a dog.

For a while, it appeared we had made some gains in slowing down the construction. But despite every effort short of violent confrontation, the construction started up again and it appears the cause is lost. Unfortunately, that’s not the worst of it. What the protest uncovered in their digging was plans for 150 houses to be built on the top of the hill. And we were worried about one!

No plans for changes in the infrastructure. Same narrow roads, same narrow sewer pipes, 150 new households, all of which will use the switchback road that goes past my kitchen window.

In his book, The Emptiness of Japanese Influence, Gavan McCormack, professor of Japanese History at the Australian National University, has this to say about the city of Tokyo:

Tokyo residents enjoyed (in the late 1980s) an average 2.6 square meters per head of urban park lands, compared with 30.4 meters in London, 37.4 in Bonn, 45.7 in Washington and 12.2 in Paris…. There is a further dimension, increasingly serious as development and population growth continues unabated in the Tokyo region. It is the atmospheric effect known as heat island. Because of the combined consequences of constant heat emissions from autos, air conditioners, and the like, the heat-retaining qualities of concrete, the greenhouse effect from carbon-dioxide emissions, and the diminution of vegetation, Tokyo is heating up at a rate more than ten times the world average… (NY and London: M.E. Sharpe, 1996:64)

My love for this place is unabated. Yesterday I was in Atami with three more neighbors for an afternoon at the hot springs followed by an evening of magnificent Japanese delicacies, Spanish wine, and long talks about the increasingly depressing signs that Oiso is at long last falling to the developers now about to extend the urban sprawl to fill one of the last pieces of green land between Tokyo and Odawara. I have carried around petitions, have now sat with Mr. I (his wife is very much alive), and half a dozen others to come up with approaches. I have joined protests at the town hall, have posted a “Down with the Daikanyama Apartment Construction” banner in front of my house, had it stolen, and posted another.

As an outsider, I can do only so much. I am learning the limitations of this lovely town. Ironically, some of the best fighters in this battle are people who know the value of the grass and trees they fled from Tokyo to find. Problem is, they’ve only been here twenty years and so are still considered by many to be newcomers. The old timers are arguing they should sit and listen, and not lead. The community has a long way to go to develop a united front against the developers, and in the meantime a lot of trees are going down.

Lovely town, with lovely people. If only it could stay that way.

Update: January 11, 2007

Seven years have passed since that six-month update. I lived in Oiso six more years after that, and then I left. Oiso became home, and I kept my promise to myself when I declared, “If I ever leave Oiso, it will be because I am leaving Japan.” In March of 2006 I pulled up stakes and came back to live in California, and Oiso is receding in memory.

Now when I think of Oiso, I marvel that I never tired of it. Never found any place I’ve lived that I could say that about.

It never became an absolute home. I grew very fond of my immediate neighbors, the Kandas, and had a future shock moment this week when I saw the handwriting of their ten year old on a New Year’s card. He was barely three when I first got to know him. Now he’s capable of a serious conversation, and even his younger siblings are growing and reminding me of how time changes things. I had trouble at times getting home from the station because there were so many neighbors along the road I had to stop and talk to, and for a while there, I thought Oiso was going to turn the trick and make me Japanese, and make me surrender my American home and identity.

But it didn’t quite have the draw. It came close, and if I hadn’t already come to feel connected, I would have on the day I had to turn in the keys to my house. That morning four of my neighbors showed up with aprons on and cleaning buckets in hand to clean my house from top to bottom. I had given away my household to them, among others, and they were returning the favor. I have never before known the pleasure of giving away so much without the slightest sense of loss. On the contrary, the knowledge that my household lives on in Oiso gives me no small amount of pleasure.

Oiso has lost much of the small town character that so charmed me seven years ago. In my time there, that rape of the hillside that drew me into a sense of belonging to a neighborhood was only the first. One by one I watched as bamboo groves were mowed down to create housing developments. The train station that once looked like something out of an English country calendar now sports an ugly 7/11, and the commuters pour in in the morning and out at night as they do with any other suburb. Oiso is no longer just beyond the Tokyo urban sprawl. It is now part of it, and children who grow up there will never know it as a village again.

I will never go back there to live. The time has come and gone, the house has been rented to others – even if I did have the job to pay the rent and the inclination to go back to the life I had then – and this town that I grew to call home now has to live in the past. When I think back on my homes in Japan – Minami Nagasaki, Sagami Ono, Kataseyama, Yoyogi, Kyodo and Oiso – only Oiso seems real. Maybe because I lived there longer than anywhere else. Certainly because it’s the last place I lived. But mostly because it was a town where I came to know, love and respect, and feel connected with a neighborhood in a way that, for a time at least, suggested my association with Japan could become permanent.

It didn’t. But it might have.

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