Going about the business of making ready to leave Japan, my thoughts seesaw with images and memories of now versus then, the ‘then’ in this case being my early years in this country. It doesn’t matter where you are, Timbuktu or Tokyo, New York or London, the landscape, the people and the customs change, sometimes greatly over the passage of years. In that light, there are aspects about the Japan of 2010 that are almost unrecognizable when held up against my memory of scenery and customs in 1982.
In those days I saw most things Japanese through rose colored glasses, and was ready to argue that little fault could be found in the far eastern world I had come to. Very probably, for the first three years here I walked about in a state of cultural intoxication, wide-eyed and willing about things I would later come to look askance at. It didn’t bother me then that the Japanese were not as quiet and reserved, or as spiritual as books had taught, or led me to believe. It didn’t disturb me that many drank to the point of throwing up on streets and train platforms, or that half the people, children and adults read comic books voraciously. I saw all friendliness, harmony, public safety, a deep well of colorful tradition, and in most people an appealing curiosity about Americans like myself. I was passing through, living in what I could only call heaven.
Sure, in time I came to notice things that fogged, or jostled the prettiness of my rosy view, but it was becoming clear to me that these people, these Japanese, had—for all the warts and past sins—built a stable and comfortable society where thoughts of others were always in mind. And it didn’t take me long to learn that as a foreigner, I enjoyed exemptions from the norm, that my misspoken Japanese or faulty manners were excused as natural for non-Japanese. (It took a few years more for me to learn that this was in fact a kind of discrimination, and included a faint whiff of superiority.)
Things change, as I said. Ask me now and looking around at this society in 2010, I would tell you that the Japanese thoughtfulness I once admired is gone, and that the younger Japanese could teach college courses in how to be selfish without the least thought of others. I could be wrong, could be harsh in my view of things modern, but I lament the loss of history and tradition, the stripping away of older appreciations and understanding of their own cultural values. Perhaps that’s why I describe myself as a person looking for the lost.
I’ve been fortunate to have friends here who were willing to indulge me in my old-fashioned Japanese enthusiasms, to guide, lead or show me the things I sought, and to overlook the frequent faux pax, or my often silly pursuits. Sad now to think that a few of these friends have been lost, or put out of reach, much like the old and faint shadows of Japanese culture we sought together. Where are they now?
Photo: Facing pages from the 1898-1907 Japan Diaries of Richard Gordon Smith