Saturday, March 12, 2011

When home sneaks up on you

My friend Dan sent me a link to Nicholas Kristof’s column, " Sympathy for Japan, and Admiration," in yesterday’s New York Times, with the notation, “This blog entry from Nicholas Kristof seems pitch-perfect to me. I'd like to learn your response, if possible.”

I thought I’d share my response with you.


Thanks for sending that Nicholas Kristof piece. I would have missed it.

I've never liked descriptions of national cultures. Almost any attempt to describe a national culture says more about the parts you are predisposed to see and about your accidental encounters than it does about your ability to find objective truths.

On the other hand, what Kristof is describing has been seen by so many people you have to acknowledge he's probably got it right.

You invite me to comment. How could I possibly resist? Since I don't know how one would actually do an objective description of a nation or a national culture, I am inclined to stick with the strictly personal.

I think this expression of admiration for the Japanese spirit is right on. There is something quite special about the way Japanese give meaning to the words order, conscientiousness, resilience, patience and endurance. I'd add another virtue others don't always include in this list of stereotypical Japanese virtues - generosity.

I've had five years now to put Japan behind me. I live in the present pretty much and Japan doesn't register with me every day anymore. It's no longer part of my daily consciousness. My Japanese is slipping and I don't follow the political goings-on. But when the Huffington Post sent an alert to Taku's i-Phone and we turned on the TV to see what it was all about, I sat there transfixed watching the horror and fighting back the urge to cry. It wasn't just concern about family and other loved ones. It was watching Japan take such a hit that was getting to me.

My loyalty to Japan runs deep. I care what happens to the place. They gave me a home - a good one (I don't describe people as generous without good reason) - and it still feels like home. As long as I have the permanent visa it is home, in Robert Frost's sense - "the place where, if you have to go there they have to take you in." I've decided to give it up because I see no prospect on the horizon of returning there, but it pains me every time the thought crosses my mind that I'm about to sever that connection.

Unlike so many who go to Japan for cultural reasons, I went there simply because a job was handed to me, and over the years I wondered what the hell I was doing there, so weak was the draw. I took a long time to start learning the language, never really was on the same wave length on so many issues, barely paid any attention to the popular culture.

Perhaps for that reason when the awareness came that it had become home, it came without bells and whistles. It was simply quietly the place I lived and worked. It was full of annoyances and I was always happy to get on a plane and get away. And it always felt like home each time I would get back. When I got my "green card" and found I could stand in the Japanese passport line I couldn't believe where the feelings of pride were coming from. The sign at Narita says "Welcome to Japan" in English and "Welcome home" in Japanese and I always read the Japanese and ignored the English.

This quiet seduction can't be analyzed on the basis of Japanese virtues. It's not because Japanese are hard-working, because the streets are safe, because the trains run on time that Japan has my love and affection, as much as I like all these things. It's because Japan has created a society of people that works and because it ultimately opened its doors to me and let me become a part of the place, despite years of kvetching about how difficult it was to do so. I used to go to Thailand and feel envious of the expats who lived there among all the smiles, and come back to Japan and shudder at all the grouchy faces. I used to go to Italy and wonder why I lived with the tackiness of the Japanese urban landscape instead of the elegance of Florence and Rome and Venice. I used to go to Berlin and wonder why I chose Japan over Germany when push came to shove. So many other places had more to offer. They were tropical island vacations to Japan's bus tour to Atlantic City. But Japan, for all its faults and limitations, was home. In the end, when I complained about dirty politicians I realized it was because I thought the Japanese deserved better. When I complained about the tackiness of the architecture, it was because I saw the potential for so much more.

It shouldn't surprise me to discover that the place has grown on me. After all, I gave it over two decades of my life. But it does. Everything came with a great cost. I had a wonderful teaching situation and my university treated me very well indeed. But the politics of the place, in the end, made me feel like retirement was a Great Escape. Living in the Tokyo area meant hours of every day on a train, often standing jammed in and uncomfortable. San Francisco is the place where I became who I am today and Japan could never replace the loyalty I felt to the Bay Area. Because same-sex marriage is recognized neither in Japan nor in California, Taku and I had to live apart. I've never held back my view that the world isn't the one I'd create if I were its king.

But there is always time to pick away at Japan's limitations. This isn't one of them. Japan has been knocked down and I feel it's time for others to join Nicholas Kristof, especially those of us who know the place but are looking on from outside, to show admiration and affection, I think.

Japan just sort of sits there. It isn't flashy. It doesn't look at me with sexy eyes and say, "Come, let us make mad passion love." (It may to others.) It doesn't suggest it is a place to party, or a place to relax, particularly. It doesn't claim to be a place to do anything you can't do elsewhere, actually, unless you commit yourself entirely to its uniqueness. It's just there. Familiar. Comfortable. Friendly. Safe. Interesting. Reliable. Worthy of respect.

One of the better places in the world.


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