Friday, September 21, 2007
Exile Off Main Street (continued)
Recently I was drinking with my Japanese Mentor, a man older than myself by some twenty years, which is quite old indeed, and after our fifth drink at our third Izakaya(casual J-land Bar/resturaunt) he explained to me in his emphatic, halting English (his Eigo being much more useful than my pathetic Nihongo) a fact of his singular existence in Japan.
“I am a stranger in my country.” He said not quite proudly but not exactly sadly either.
Having known him for only a short while I somehow believed him completely.
When I got to know him better my trust was validated and as I learned more of his personal history I gradually came to understand that he was something of a rebel in his more than somewhat conformist society. He was the maverick I thought I’d been. At the advanced and frightening age of 40 he’d dropped his salaryman yoke like a virus and then set out to do it his way, an extremely bold move anywhere but especially daring here in the land of the most rigid of career paths.
He was, and remains, the nail that sticks up.
But he had a good idea, clear vision, excellent timing (pre-bubble), steely determination and good credit at the Bank so he rolled his life’s dice and borrowed heavily, gambling everything on his will to win.
15 arduous years later he has, to a great measure, achieved overnight success.
His loan is long since paid, he now makes his decisions without consultation, sets his own hours and everyone else’s, lives exactly where he wants to live, drives exactly what he wants to drive, eats like a king, vacations frequently, works hard when he has to and plays hard when he wants to, which I am led to understand is often.
A favorite boast of his is that he loves his family, his money and his car, approximately in that order.
He is competitive beyond all reason, keenly perceptive in all situations, riotously funny, enormously generous, the life of all parties, supercharged with boundless energy and proud of all things Japanese. He would make a splendid American if Japan ever tires of his act.
A stranger, I thought to myself as I sat with him that night.
“Wakarimashitta.” I replied at last.
We didn’t talk all that much for the rest of the evening, we didn’t need to; we were comfortable with each other I like to believe. I was adjusting to that feeling of peaceful affinity and I discovered that it was a necessary adjustment in my new world.
So as most guests learn I did as well, perhaps a bit more grudgingly and painfully than others younger than me but I learned. My responsibilities were few if any, my hosts shouldered every load as if it was their pride and pleasure or at the very least a social imperative. I slowly discovered a heretofore unknown ability towards common courteousy.
It was easy enough in the end, good examples were all around me.
There were few demands placed on me and I gradually learned how to pour a beer, wait my turn, arrive early instead of late, serve someone else first and pick up a check. When I needed one I got a job, was grateful for it and there was plenty of help at the office. I did what I could, the work was easy and I prepared well. I was happy to do it and it seemed to be more than anyone expected or less than was generally produced by my foreign brethren. I may have been a commodity but it was clear to me that I was a human commodity and nothing less.
I walked through the streets with an unfamiliar but not uncomfortable sense of pride, I was doing something worth doing in a place worth doing it. Perhaps I was pulling my share of the load I found myself hoping.
There is a special place in my new neighborhood, an old temple tucked snugly and surreptitiously into the labyrinth of side streets that shield my neighborhood from the tourist traffic. It’s a simple thirty second walk from my door but when I enter it could easily be 600 years ago or more that I’ve walked into, further than any past I could ever imagine. I haven't learned its name and most times don't wish to, it's enough to be there and to be my refuge. Its large grounds contain three ancient wooden structures (1 grand,2 smaller), a small still pond, a low slung stone bridge over the pond and a wide open uncluttered panoramic view of the stars with no evidence of any modernity clutching at its edges. Whenever I sit beside its stately natural grace and melt into its pulsing but low-key serenity I realize how comfortable I am inside its wide open borders. The Temple has no locks, gates or fences and anyone is welcome on the grounds at anytime. Perhaps not so strangely it is largely ignored by my Japanese neighbors and too far off the beaten path for anything but the most serious or dedicated of tourist.
Often at night I sit on its steps and gaze up into its massive eaves as I sip my drink, smoke my smoke or simply breathe in the peace while the moon beams down on me as if in personal blessing. One of my favorite seclusions is to sit quietly at the foot of the bridge in the evening, facing the massive main doors, almost covered by the outstretched branches of a neighboring tree, the moonlight dim and warm, and wrap myself in the calm. Often I become so quiet, so still that more than once a neighbor has walked through the grounds on the way home from work, the path being not more than ten feet from my spot on the bridge, and simply strolled past me without even noticing me sitting there.
For reasons I don’t know this always lends me a gentle comfort.
On most occasions I imagine it as my private estate and given its vast but simple grandeur and almost complete lack of visitors it is not a difficult illusion for me to maintain.
I’m a lonely Prince in Exile waiting for my chance to return to power-
I’m a lost romantic Poet nursing a wounded soul-
I’m an outlaw Ronin on the run hiding in plain sight from an unjust world that can’t understand me.
All these fantasies are soothing in a playful way but most often I strictly feel at home there, comfortable and calm. Grateful.
Time passes, of course, but my physical incongruity never has and certainly never will. Japan is, for the most part, a homogenous society but I come from a land of immigrants of which my father was one. Japan’s culture is of course older than my entire Nation by many hundreds of years and far too dense for my over stimulated American mind to grasp without a great deal more time so instead I just try to objectively appreciate the differences as I slowly, slowly learn.
I find it an increasingly easy task.
My homeland is a land of strangers and strivers running away from a nightmare or running towards a dream, sometimes both. I believe it’s a good dream and I hope most make it there.
What do the Japanese dream of, hope for, work for, reach for? The same things I do I now imagine but I can’t know because I am not one of this great Nation, I am the most obvious Other much as I was at home and perhaps what I would be anywhere, anytime.
“A stranger in my country” I sometimes hear my Mentors words echoing in my head as I look hopefully into the eyes that are looking hopefully into mine.
But I’ve learned that this sense of “strangeness” doesn’t just apply to the way we all look or even feel. The sense of being different, not fitting in is in itself a connection that many share, foreign or native. It’s as strong a bond in many ways as fitting in perfectly because there is a necessity in its reality, a solid gravity to its weight. In Japan a flawed teacup can surely be more desirable than a perfect copy. I believe the purity and truth of imperfection, impermanence is regarded as a strength in the Japanese aesthetic and as a pleasure to most. There is a celebration for the stranger among his fellows here and, I now believe, perhaps everywhere and all are welcome at that celebration. Isn’t that, ultimately, what friendship is about?
So today I no longer feel like a guest nor do I desire the position of one. On my better days I like to think that I’ve moved beyond that particular status and that, just maybe, I have a place here, a part to play in this Nations drama, a responsibility to the people who are not me but are friends. The people whose lives are not mine but whose streets, trains, rivers, seas, forests, mountains and sky we share together, that I am allowed to share freely. Maybe I can help.