Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of my arrival in Japan. Some years I remember the date sufficiently in advance to plan and execute a little celebration. Having been busy this last week, it had slipped my mind until yesterday evening, when a new acquaintance asked me how long I've been in Japan. This common question usually prompts a calculation; this time it served to remind me that the anniversary had arrived (or is it I that had arrived, after the anniversary had patiently waited for me?).
A week or so ago, someone asked me what my initial impressions of Japan were (this, too, is a very common question). I have various answers prepared for that question, depending on what I think the questioner really wants to know, and on my mood when asked. This time I gave a straightforward answer, at least for a strict definition of "initial".
I first arrived in Japan on a Boeing 707, one of the "stretched" models such as the 707-320 or one of its variants. It was chartered by the military, and left Travis Air Force Base in California, refueled in Anchorage, Alaska, and landed at Yokota Air Force Base. The weather was good, so when we got close enough, the pilot helpfully indicated Fuji-san below, and that was my first--very orthodox and very iconic--impression of Japan.
The next was the very numerous and very striking deep blue tile roofs of the houses visible below. In the early morning sunlight, they stood out dramatically. I hadn't expected to see thatched roofs or some similar near-anachronism, but for some reason no images of Japan that I had seen prepared me for the many, many blue roofs.
I and a half dozen or so other young sailors were taken by micro-bus from Yokota to Yokosuka. Since we left in the late afternoon, the traffic through Tokyo, Kawasaki, and Yokohama was heavy even on a Saturday (although working on Saturday was the norm then rather than the exception). Although I didn't know it at the time, the driver didn't take one of the routes--some of which would have been shorter in distance--that bypass the main urban areas. Possibly he wanted to use wider roads, or maybe he was doing his passengers a favor by taking what a first-time visitor would probably regard as the scenic route. Whatever his reason may have been, the ride provided me with the next three impressions of Japan: signs, masks, and cherry blossoms.
Although I should have expected it, I was shocked by all the signs that I could not read. More specifically, I was surrounded by thousands of signs that I was not only unable to read, but had little hope of ever being able to read, because they were in kanji rather than in romaji. Having grown up in San Francisco and been a frequent visitor to both Japantown amd Chinatown , I was familiar with kanji and hanzi...but "familiar" in my case meant having seen them as adjuncts to romanized/phoenetic writing, not as the main or only writing. It was a profound shock to realize that I had suddenly become so illiterate that I could not distinguish between the sign for a tea store and that for a drugstore. At the time, I was essentially bilingual in English and Spanish, semi-competent in French, and relatively good at translating Latin. I had been confident that, given time and a dictionary, I could at least translate foreign languages into English sufficiently to get the gist of the message. The sudden realization that I had no idea of even how to use a kanji dictionary was like a kick to the head.
While I was musing on my new-found ignorance, I was observing the passersby, and wondering why so many of them were wearing what looked like surgical masks. I thought it unlikely that there could be so many doctors and nurses among the crowds of people going home, and that they had somehow forgotten to remove their masks. Although I didn't know it at the time, it was hay fever season and also the season when many people catch colds, and when I asked our driver about the masks he explained about the custom here of wearing masks to avoid catching or spreading colds, and to avoid pollen as much as possible. It had been a very bizarre early impression, though, and was among the first of what I have since habitually referred to as Another Exotic Oriental Mystery.
The final memorable impression of my first day here was the cherry blossoms. They were a couple of days past their peak, but there were blossoming trees everywhere, it seemed, and in a few areas the hana fubuki (literally "flower blizzard") had begun, combining beauty with the poignant sense of impermanence that is one of the great charms of sakura blossoms.
My first day, then, began with Fuji-san, then continued through striking color, ignorance, mystification, and beauty. Come to think of it, the 45 years since then have seen those themes recapitulated many times.
Home Truths column for August
2 weeks ago