Thursday, 17 March 2011

私は非常に残念です*

I first fell in love with Japan when I was twelve years old, nearly three decades ago. I can remember it very distinctly.
Back then I was a quiet child who loved books, and Lego, and Star Wars, and - most of all - videogames. One day in the Summer I opened my copy of 'Computer and Videogames' and saw a special feature on 'Games you'll never play'. It was all about Japan and the Nintendo Entertainment System, and on the right hand side, in a tiny box with a blurry screenshot, was a paragraph - no more than 50 words - describing a game about Godzilla. It looked utterly unremarkable, except that it shipped with a special controller that had a microphone in it, and to make the monster on screen transform or fire lasers you had to shout commands into the microphone: It would hear you and react. I could not believe what I reading; it seemed like the most insane, wonderful thing ever. The article ended with a brief parting shot saying that Japan was full to the brim with things like this, and was a place with a videogame arcade on the corner of every block, and books just full of comics that even grown-ups read. It sounded wonderful.
Five years later, I bought a Sega Megadrive, one of kind imported from Japan a long time before they came to England, from a seedy little shop in The Lanes in Brighton. The games were expensive, and hard to come by (there was no Internet back then) but, by God, they were good. While everyone else played on their Amiga or Atari, I saved the money from my Saturday job and bought obscure, unreviewed games from small listings in the back of magazines: wonderful, arcade-perfect gems like Ghosts'n'Goblins and Thunderforce II, and although the text was in Kanji and I had no idea what was going on and had to learn each menu by trial and error, I loved it all.
From that point on, a little bit of Japan, of Otaku culture, seeped into me and has been a part of me ever since, two decades plus and counting. It's probably not the best way of getting to appreciate a country, it's people or its culture - but I can't help that: that's what happened to me. I started to love Japan from the other side of the world. I never expected to get to visit.
But I did: I was lucky enough to go to Japan in my late twenties, as part of my job, and it was everything I hoped it would be. Vending machines in the street that sold cans of hot coffee, public notices written in the form of cartoons, vendors on the street selling octopus balls, Tanuki statues standing guard outside restaurants, and - at least in Tokyo - a videogame arcade on every corner. And I got to go back there, again and again, with different jobs: it was the business trip I didn't mind taking, the customer visit that I'd tag a days holiday onto the end of. I have never liked a place more, never wished more that I was part of another culture, than when I was standing in Akihabara Electric Town on a Sunday afternoon, watching the neon signs and the milling crowds. I loved it all; the plastic food in restaurant windows, the gachapon machines, the Shinkansen train, the scramble crossing in Shibuya, the ancient wooden temples in Kyoto and the Tokyo subway lines where trains come into stations halfway up the side of buildings.
And I have passed this all on to my children. Eldest sleeps in a Princess Peach T-Shirt, Youngest sleeps with a Cinnamoroll soft toy. Youngest's favourite film is My Neighbor Totoro, and Oldest can probably name over 400 Pokemon, including their moves and evolutions. Their favourite meal is chicken and rice, because that was Hello Kitty's favourite dinner in the DVD I got them. They prefer Nintendo over XBox and Playstation, because they already know that you have to pick a tribe, that it's gameplay over graphics, and that nobody is ever going to face down Shigeru Miyamato in that contest. Their Daddy's love of Japanese gaming culture has seeped into them through their genes, so much so that my wife warned me that one day they will leave us to live in Japan and that it will all be my fault. I took a quiet pride in that possibility. At least they would live somewhere cool...
Then there was an earthquake, and a tsunami, and a nuclear accident, and I quickly realised that I know absolutely nothing about Japan.
This was because of a picture I saw - this picture, in fact, which first caught my eye because a detail looked familiar - a woman on the far left is holding a shopping bag with a picture I recognised; it is Rilakkuma, the 'relax bear', and I recognised it because it was the first soft toy I bought in Japan for my baby daughter. It is the first thing I noticed but it is the least important detail: the picture shows a long, snaking queue of people, waiting in line to try to buy food from a shop with empty shelves. Nobody is pushing, nobody is shoving: they are hungry and their children need to be fed, and as a nation they are facing the worst that both nature and science can throw at them and they are standing in line to wait their turn.
And you see this again and again, example after example, the very best of people in the face of the worst of times. I read today of a Tokyo shopkeeper who accidentally overcharged a foreign visitor, and so cycled to the bus station the next day in the hope of catching his customer before they left his wonderful, bruised country because he wanted to give him the correct change. How can you not respect that?
I am humbled: by the Japanese people's stoicism, their resilience, their order and structure and the respect they show for each other. I realised that have I loved Japanese culture for all my adult life, but I have been doing so for all the wrong reasons.
What I want to say then, is: Japan, I am so very sorry, for what has has happened, and for what is happening to you. I realise that the sadness I feel is meaningless - I have no insight, cannot begin to imagine what you are feeling - but I love you more now than I ever did.
I'm grateful for the impact you've had on my life and and one day - as soon as possible - I'm coming back. We all are - I want my daughters to see you for themselves.

* (Watashi wa hijō ni zan'nendesu) -"I am so very sorry"

5 comments:

Jaime said...

so often when i visit here you make me laugh, today is the first time you've made me cry. i too have great admiration for Japan and their response to an unimaginable situation. i can only hope we learn a bit more about ourselves from their rolemodelling. thank you for sharing.

johngmckiernan said...

PDC
A beautiful, touching blog this one.
I've only had the pleasure of going to Japan once, but like you, it's a country that touched me deeply - the mix of historic temples and cutting edge technology, of geisha girls and cyberpunks, of a people who've been aggressors but suffered the most dreadful tragedies to end conflicts. I've now seen two of my favourite countries suffer terrible loss from earthquakes in just a couple of months, and it's heartbreaking. The only glimmer is that the Japanese have shown before that they have the resilience and ingenuity to survive tragedy and bounce back. Let us hope and pray that they will do so again without losing the characteristics that made us fall in love with them.
JohnnyMac

johngmckiernan said...

PDC
A beautiful, touching blog this one.
I've only had the pleasure of going to Japan once, but like you, it's a country that touched me deeply - the mix of historic temples and cutting edge technology, of geisha girls and cyberpunks, of a people who've been aggressors but suffered the most dreadful tragedies to end conflicts. I've now seen two of my favourite countries suffer terrible loss from earthquakes in just a couple of months, and it's heartbreaking. The only glimmer is that the Japanese have shown before that they have the resilience and ingenuity to survive tragedy and bounce back. Let us hope and pray that they will do so again without losing the characteristics that made us fall in love with them.
JohnnyMac

Misterimpatient said...

Thank-you Paul.

Sharon Cassidy said...

Hi Paul,

I saw this post and I ended up sitting here at my desk weeping.

I feel especially close to Japan now since my youngest was teaching in a small town in Minamisanriku, Japan when the tsunami hit. She's OK - thank god. The experience for our whole family has been life changing. We'll be forever connected to Miyagi and will be helping in any way we can while they rebuild. Thanks so much for the post!