Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dispatch From Japan

It’s a lovely Saturday afternoon in Fujisawa, Japan, southwest of Tokyo. My son Cal and his fiancé Chika are off at work. Andrea and I had a quiet morning – breakfast at a coffee shop by the train station and then exploring this neighborhood called Shonandai. I’m finishing Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, and Andrea’s reading The Haunting Of Hill House. The windows are open to a breeze that’s drying the laundry just outside, the sun is shining, Neil Young is singing One Of These Days from my cell phone. I toast a parmesan roll picked up at a Scandanavian bakery this morning and sip a gin and tonic while I alternate between my computer and Harper Lee.

Tomorrow Cal and Chika will get married. It’s been a lovely trip and time to be alive with people I love.
Mt. Fugi, viewed from our hike near Kanagawa.

Japan is a bit jarring compared to the life we live in Indiana, and that’s not criticism of Japan. At home our lives are car-centered. As good as the Japanese are at making them, cars are a nuisance here. Cal and Chika move about on their feet, on bicycles, and on mass transit. They’re better for it. At home, where the restaurants are constantly learning new ways to temp my weaknesses for butter, cheese, and salt, the restaurants here serve up sushi rolls, nigiri, yakitori (grilled meat and veggies), and ramen in miso or chili broth. Yes, we’ve hovered over plates of mushroom and vegetable tempura, but on the train home last night I saw the glimmer of a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign as we rocketed through Yokohama with the realization that the Japanese will live longer eating their fried food than we’ll live eating ours.

In fact it was three days before we saw our first obese person, and that man turned out to be Anglo.

I thought about crime and gun control as we moved about the Shibuya crossing, a Time Square-like business district in Tokyo crammed with people, international name brand shopping, nightclubs, video billboards and neon. The traffic lights turn red in all directions at once, unleashing rights-of-way to a staggering surge of pedestrians moving like a massive pot of boiling peas, churning and spilling in all directions.
The famous Shibuya intersection in Tokyo.

With the merciless crush of people here there should be some serious crime (imagine well more than a 3rd of the U.S. population crammed into just California), but it doesn’t.

This densely populated nation has strict gun control. If I’m to listen to fellow Hoosiers back home with the gun fetish, Japan should be overrun with criminals and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be poised to enslave the masses. But no. Instead it’s a terribly safe place where crime is a rarity and gun deaths are a freakish rarity. I did some quick research and found that even once you adjust for population, America’s gun death rate is 175 times that of Japan’s. They do not make up for lack of guns with knifings or stranglings.

Japan also has full-blown socialized government health care, not a lite, market-based system like Obamacare. They live longer and have a lower infant mortality rate than America.

There are interesting contradictions in this culture. The dominate architecture is a little drab but at the same time each and every manhole cover is cast with intricate floral patterns, some colorful, looking like a giant’s cloisonné broach laid upon the asphalt. Those I’ve met who teach Japanese children say typical parents here spoil their kids, but they’re also free-range parents – we see 6-year-olds alone on the train platform headed home from school and neighborhood parks are filled with kids from the age of perhaps 6 to 18 and not one single parent in sight as kids come and go – 8-year-olds boys with soccer balls under an arm or 12 year old girls on bicycles peddling about.

They’re fussy about some things and simply let other shit go.

Far more people smoke here than in the U.S., but there aren’t a lot of cigarette butts on the ground. Every open plot of ground seems to be  planted with some vegetable or another and walking about this urban environment I find persimmons and citrus ripening in yards at every turn. A bell chime calls out from neighborhood sound systems late afternoon, meant to remind children to go home for dinner. Whether they actual go or not, I cannot say. Cal is put off when the sound system reads out public service info. The loud speaker voices remind one of war films and air raid warnings, though today it’s just letting you know a street is being closed for paving.

The giant copper Buddha at Kamakura. The area is dotted
with Buddhist shrines, some at least 1,500 years old.
Homes don’t have tank water heaters as we do, instead you press a button on the wall to activate the point-of-use water heater and it immediately heats water as you use it and stops heating it when the faucet is turned off. Theirs work so well, it makes me wonder why Americans waste so much energy and money with tank water heaters.  And though it’s a thoroughly modern nation, the retail economy is primarily cash-based and don’t be surprised to head into a public bathroom and find the toilet is a hole in the floor. Andrea approached me from a train station bathroom exit with a look of having seen a ghost, but instead she had simply had her first encounter with that hole in the floor.

And oddly, it’s completely normal to socialize with a group of friends and you and only you are wearing a surgical mask. 

This is a pretty non-religious country, but the nearby ancient Buddhist temples echo a culture of industriousness, peace, and live-and-let-live. Still there’s a dark side to Japan's hyper competitive and pressure-filled high schools and work places and a social structure that prizes conformity: their suicide rate is frightening. While in Tokyo the other night, a rail line was delayed because some hopeless soul had thrown themselves in front of a train. I'm told this is common.

I will admit that Japan was never on my world travel bucket list. I came only because my son is here. But having come, I’m so glad I did. It’s a lovely country.

Tomorrow we will wake from our last night on “futon” sleeping pads laid upon grass mattes on the floor, our heads resting on bean bag pillows (a surprisingly comfortable arrangement) and begin the 17-18 hours of travel between the Shonandai subway station and Indianapolis Airport. Already looking forward to my next visit.

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