Tuesday, April 29
For no reason at all I lost my voice this week. I didn’t have a fever nor any other symptoms of a cold. But my voice just up and left! Let me tell you, teaching without a voice is awful. Fortunately my students were understanding and I made it through the week no worse for the wear.
At the end of the week one of my 3-year-old students, Tomomi, brought me a get well letter. It was the first letter I’ve received from a kid student. And it was adorable!
Sunday, June 3rd
Sunday I visited a hiking-festival at Akarenga in Yokohama (赤レンガ) with Mari. Dozens of tents were set up to sell outdoors gear. We perused up and down the stalls and I came to an observation. The first; all of the products were labeled in English. Upon closer inspection I found almost everything had been made in or originally marketed for the US. I was delighted that I could read all of the packages.
The second observation; 90% of the gear was marketed towards women. All of the advertisements were pictures of Japanese women in brightly colored hiking clothes. Most of the shoppers were women too. I thought back to my many hiking adventures in Japan. The vast majority of fellow hikers I’ve met were either young women or elderly men. For some reason, unknown to me, hiking is predominantly a women’s sport in Japan. Just as well I suppose. Mari found a cute hiking skirt on sale. Better she wear the skirt than me.
Wednesday, June 6
Wednesday I had my tri-monthly ramen (ラメン) dinner with my friend, and former mentor, Hamish 先生. It’s always nice to see my old friend and share some gossip. Oh, and it’s good to practice my Aussie English too. Oi!
Saturday, June 9
The beginning of the Japanese rainy season.
Sunday, June 24
Saturday was the beginning of the rainy season. And Sunday offered a brief lull in the action. The sun came out to shine and I ran outside to soak it up. Mari and I visited Shimokita-Zawa (下北沢) for some window shopping and iced tea. The hot sun shun down and baked our backs.
We finished in Shimokita and moved west out of Tokyo. Next stop: Hon-Atsugi (本厚着). My good friend Trevor was hosting one of his famous BBQs down by the river. Mari and I met her cousin, Kana, at the station and we visited the store to pick up beer and fish. I used my impressive memory from one year before, and traced a path back to the river. We found the river and a half-dozen parties spread out. I searched left to right looking for my friend.
“Who are you looking for,” asked Mari.
“White people,” I replied.
Sure enough I found Trevor towering over a group of Japanese people. We made a beeline to the party and dropped our bags. Cracked a beer. Made the rounds. The party was two hours in progress when we arrived. I drank my first beer quickly to catch up.
The time at the river was great. Food. Beer. Frisbee. Chatting. Sunshine. All too soon the sun fell behind clouds and a cool wind moved through the valley. The girls and I packed up and we moved back to the station. We left Kana and went back home for some dinner. Dinner was light and sat atop of the of salmon in our bellies. The time melted away and I took my girlfriend back to the station. She went home and I went back to the party in Hon-Atsugi.
Meanwhile the party had migrated from the river back to Trevor’s apartment. I climbed up the steps to find Trevor outside his room with an empty wine bottle.
“Dude, Alex! Welcome back!” He looked pleasantly drunk. We walked a short distance to his neighbor’s room. He rested his hand on the handle of the door. “Prepare yourself a shocking party.”
“Alex, show me your prepared face!”
I squinted my eyes and gave a cheesy grin.
“Good enough, let’s go!”
He opened the door to the apartment and I was shocked. 15 people had crammed into a tiny one room apartment. The room smelled of sweat, smoke, river and booze. Two men had taken off their shirts and working on their belts. Ahead of me Trevor hoisted his wine bottle in the air.
“Let’s play spin the bottle!”
I shrunk into the corner and quickly drank my beer. I was way too sober for this kind of party. Spin the bottle started and soon drunk 20-somethings began sharing awkward kisses in front of everyone. I busied myself by looking through a Japanese textbook. Eventually though the bottle landed on me. Behind it was a cute Japanese girl.
“Yes, Alex!” It was Trevor. “Kiss this beautiful woman!”
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
“Al-lex, Al-lex, Al-lex,” everyone started chanting my name. Peer pressure.
I raised my voice and projected through the room, “You all met my girlfriend three hours ago. I am not about to kiss another woman. 僕のガールフレンドがあります (I have a girlfriend)!” My message got through and the game continued without me.
I felt guilty about taking the steam out of the game until the naked guys in the corner stole the scene. They had started giving each other pink bellies. I cracked my second beer and watched the party begin to fall apart. I worked on my beer and said goodbye to everyone as they left. Soon there were just a few people left. We took the hint and left Trevor to his devices.
A short train ride later and I was home. I drank four glasses of water to keep my tried-and-trued 2:1 ratio. Lights out.
The influence of Chinese culture on Japan is everywhere in Japan. Language, fashion, culture, medicine, food. Everywhere. The influence of one culture on another is human nature. But what makes this example interesting is Japan’s animosity towards China. The Japanese are often called xenophobic. But the Japanese truly dislike the Chinese. So much of what the Japanese have comes from across the sea. But the scorn is palpable. Talk about biting the hand that feeds.
I do need to add a quick disclaimer. Everything I’m about to say is a broad generalization. Of course not every Japanese person’s mentality is identical. But what I’ve observed is general enough that I can make observations. Let’s explore.
Written language. The two most important parts of written Japanese are hiragana and kanji. Hiragana is a phonetic alphabet that evolved from simplified Chinese. Kanji is simplified Chinese script. Almost everyone has kanji characters for their name. The characters have different meanings much like Western names. So even at an individual level, like a person’s name, the Japanese are indebted to the Chinese.
How about food? Rice was imported from China. Even sushi, the pride of Japan, actually began in China. And all of the non-native mammals popular to eat; cattle, pork and poultry, they too came from China. So the basic Japanese diet came from China!
Chopsticks too! The complicated invention that dazzles when operated by non-Japanese. That’s from China too!
I could list hundreds of specific examples of Chinese influence on Japan. Entire books have been written on this topic. It’s something everyone knows and no one can intelligently deny. So why then have I chosen to write about it?
Simply put; the average Japanese person strongly dislikes China. Let me explain. Sino-Japanese relations are long and complex. The most notable thorn between the two is obviously World War II. A part of history that most Japanese are keen to forget. 70 years have passed since the war but still the unease continues. More recently China’s expanding economy, and often hawkish regional policies, have brought friction between the two countries. Two years ago China surpassed Japan as the second largest GDP in the world. Naturally Japan feels a little bitter about being surpassed.
For all of the hard feelings very little is actually said. Japan is a very politically correct country. Very few people speak openly and negatively about China. It takes a while for a foreigner to pick up on the subtle negativity. However Osaka mayor, Toru Hashimoto, recently, and very publicly, denied the “Nanking Massacre.” With a few exceptions like this, most people are careful to intentionally say bad things about the Chinese.
If there is little open aggression to China, there are plenty of degrading comments made about the country. The food. The government. The safety. The culture. Maybe China isn’t a bad place. But it just isn’t “as good as Japan.”
Ask any Japanese person and they’ll swear everything eaten in China is poisonous. The Japanese are especially disgusted that “Chinese people eat dog.” When asked why that’s bad I’m told dogs are “cute, smart and friendly with people.”
“Ohh, so dogs are like whales. But wait, Japanese people eat whales. Is that bad too?” I’ve asked this question before and the conversation always comes to a halt. Consider me perverse, but I enjoy showing people their own double standards.
Ultimately Japan’s rejection of China is manifested in all its international relations. I’ve been here long enough that I can independently confirm Japan is xenophobic. This is a tragedy and shortcoming that will prevent Japan from truly joining an international and intercultural world. If Japan cannot be welcoming to its oldest neighbor how can it ever accept others with whom so little is shared?