Saturday, November 04, 2006


The first thing you realize upon landing at Tokyo International Airport is that it is not in Tokyo at all. I knew this, but I had forgotten this. I remembered, eventually, because to get to Tokyo you have to take the Narita Express, an ultra-fast train that will smoothly house, transport and deposit you within ninety minutes in downtown Tokyo. Watching the scenery glide by, a perfect red orb of a sun -- the flag itself, suspended, emerging -- hung in the air, and I was struck by how familiar everything seemed, recollected, not forgotten. Sights, sounds, sensations, waiting to be remembered.

- Perhaps it`s because I live only twenty minutes from where I lived previously (three and a half years ago, for four years), but I`m amazed at how quickly and effortlessly I`ve slipped back into Japan. Away, abroad, it regains its mystical, oriental allure; here, now, it is what it is, a place like every other place, unique only in its own uniqueness. Every place becomes something more when you leave it; returning, it becomes what it has always been. I have a job to do, and so does everyone else; there is little cultural romance, few indulgent emotional excursions, because life itself is for the living, not the recollecting. (And yet even as I write these words, so declarative in their absoluteness, I understand that this is not necessarily the case. I`m remembering what I hadn`t realized I`d forgotten in its absoluteness: the systematic politeness of everyone; the smoothly plastic way all the interlocking parts of this society hum and thrive; the lull of safety the country exudes. One can open one`s wallet in a public place and not worry about snatchers, thieves, delinquents. Even the tough-looking teens are only posing, and they know it too, but a pose is still an attitude, and an attitude is always a statement. Ironic, though, because I have spent over three and a half years away from this country, in poor and dangerous places like Cambodia and the Philippines, and yet where was the only place where I was physically harmed? Why, right here, in Japan, whacked in the gut with a two-by-four by a crazy homeless man. So safety is always an illusion.)

-- You can give a convenience store clerk 10000 yen, the equivalent of a hundred dollars, even if you buy only a five cent candy, and there is no problem getting change.

-- The Internet cafe I`m writing this at has a fucking shower. Make of that what you will.

-- I spent twenty minutes the other night on the phone, with the deliveryman who was supposed to deliver my apartment`s pots and pans, dishes and utensils, only he had my old address, the one my company had already altered before I arrived, and so he didn't know where he was supposed to go, and I couldn't find my new, present address, so I tried to think of what I should do, and so did he, the guy on the phone, until finally, amidst my stack of cluttered papers and pens, I found it, my address, and I read it to him over the phone, and he, comprehending, informed me that my junk would be delivered sometime that night, and after I hung up, I breathed a long and nervous breath and realized that I had spoken entirely in Japanese, every word, and that though I hadn't understood probably half of what he'd said, we'd communicated, discussed, reached an agreement, and I felt almost proud, like a child who has made it through science class without destroying the lab.

--I'm again impressed by the collective whole that seems to coagulate here. Everybody reduces themselves to be part of something bigger -- a society, perhaps. All people in all countries do this, I suppose, but in Japan the insitutionalized civility hints at a larger, more complete symbiosis. Happiness is not necessarily guaranteed, but order certainly is. That must count for something.

-- At times in the past few days I've felt like Rocky Balboa in Rocky V. Broke, back in the old neighbourhood, wife Adrian returning to her job at the local pet store -- the Italian Stallion can hardly believe it. As the metro rain rumbles on by overhead, Rocky calles out to his beloved from across the street, across the metallic grumble: "Yo, Adrian, " he asks, "did we ever leave this place?" She thinks about it. "I don`t know," she finally says. I know the feeling. I feel the same way, now, but I also remember the carefully carved stones dotting the landscape of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and kneeling beside Ho Chi Minh`s old Rolls Royce in Sagion, Vietnam, and wading in the perfect-blue ocean of the Filipino sea, and I think: Yes, I've left, been there and back again, to paraphrase Tolkien.

-- It is a nice feeling to be surrounded by mountains.

-- Nice, too, to have hot water, a shower, luxuries not available in Baguio, in the Philippines. My first time in Japan I was struck by the superficial cultural oddities, but now I appreciate and have a context for the everyday wealth of a developed country. After two and a half years in Cambodia, and one in the Philippines, I can see and smell and taste how goddamn lucky our part of the world truly is. To be able to drink tap water; to have paved roads ready for driving. All of this -- here, but not there. I didn`t understand that before, not even a little, but now I do, maybe a little.

-- A country is what it prioritizes. In Japan, timeliness is everything, order is everything, alignment is everyting. I sat on the train and watched a young trainee, female in a dark blue suit, bordering on grey, wearing a tie and a hat, learn about the proper way to do whatever it is that Japanese train conductors do. The train puilled into a station; she stepped inside as her superior, early thirties, male, stepped out and carefully studied the black-and-white monitors attached to the guardrails. He looked down the track; looked back to the monitors; a slight nod. Then, back to the train, relaxed, smiling and pointing things out to his young trainee. She looked nervous but intent, wanting to succeed.

-- Yesterday was a series of accidents. My projected thirty minute walk through my rural neighbourhood turned into a ninety-minute jaunt when I took a wrong turn. No matter. The day was cool, the mountains imposing but protective. Everything smelled like the Japan I remember. After a year in the mountains of Bagiuo and a few days in this Japanese countryside, the dusty stench of Phnom Penh seems far away indeed.

-- Later, I asked the policeman manning the police box next to the station for the little bookshop I had found the day before. (Police boxes, or koban, are found in every town in Japan, and are often -- if not primarily -- used as places where one can ask for directions, as buildings in Japan are numbered not consecutively, but according to when they were built, resulting in absolutely madness...) I thought I remembered where the shop was, but I felt like practicing my meager Japanese. The policeman told me to go straight ahead for a few hundred metres, and it would be on my left. I thanked him, went on my way, and then slowly realized that this was not where I went yesterday. Whatever. The place I found was more interesting, anyway. A used-book shop, dusty and compact. I picked up an old Yukio Mishima hardback called 'Nikutani ni Tsuite', or, 'Regarding the Flesh', according to my (most likely) mangled Japanese syntax. I also bought a small paperback Japanese translation of a Ross Macdonald detective novel. (There's no way, of course, that I can actually read either of these books in full, but I can poke my way along, my trusted kanji dictionary by my side.) I asked the owner how old the shop was, and he, thinking, calculating, told me it was twenty-three years old. More Japanese speaking practice for me. Simple, but refreshing. It's been a long time since I've been able to speak what little I can. (A few weeks back, in the Philippines, I spoke Japanese with Helen's Japanese teacher. "Ah, my Nihongo is like a baby's," I said, in Japanese. "No, no, Scott-san," she said. "More like an elementary school student, maybe." It was meant as a compliment -- I think -- so I took it as one.) I walked out of the little used-book store, the honya, already planning to purchase sometime later the Japanese translation of one of my favorite Norma Mailer books, The Fight, his chronicle of Ali and Foreman's 'Rumble In The Jungle'. How would Mailer's electric, elastic, vigorous prose be rendered in Japanese? I won't be able to read it straight through for years -- if ever -- but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or else what's a heaven for?

-- All Japanese cars, every single one of them, at all times, look as if they had just rolled off the lot, been washed and scrubbed, waxed and glistened: pristine, flawless, perfect. I mean, every, single, fucking, one. How is that possible? Does everybody wash their cars every day, right before they head out?

-- I`ve never seen the movie, but my brother's old running buddy, Mike McGowan, past winner of the Detroit Marathon, has become a successful writer and director in Canada, and his last flick, Saint Ralph (featuring Campbell Scott and Meg Tilly) is about a teenager who decides to win the Boston Marathon, hoping that his ambitious quest will somehow cure his mother of cancer. (Or something like that.) Cancer does that to you. It fills you with impossible bargains that God, or the universe that stands in for Him, has no obligation whatsoever to meet, but you make these deals anyway. Because everything else is so completely and totally out of your hands. Part of me has decided that I will continue my fitness kick, and begin to translate a Japanese book, and, by doing so, God, or the universe, will stem the onslaught of Helen's cancer. This is ridiculous, irrational and slightly mad, but so is cancer itself, and perhaps the universe is fond of individual irrationality, and will seek to reward it in some such fashion.

-- So I picked a book at random from the shelves at BOOK OFF, the used-book store chain here in Japan. (The name of which still strikes me as borderline offensive, so closely does it sound like 'Fuck Off' -- but maybe that's just me.) The book's title, translated by me, is THE SMALL TOWN'S VIEW. Or THE LANDSCAPE OF A SMALL TOWN. Or VIEW FROM A SMALL TOWN. It all depends. Shifting languages from one to the other is always mercurial and often arbitrary. I felt a quiet thrill as, with my dictionary, I figured out the name of the book in English. I have no idea whether the book or the author is famous. Maybe it's been translated into English before; maybe it hasn't. Maybe I'm the only English-speaking person in the world who has taken the trouble to render it in my own tongue. It's possible, especially if neither the book nor the writer are particularly well-established. The book itself is far, far, far above my level, but my plan is to read it through once, taking note of what I can understand, not worrying about what I can't. (Japanese is made up of three simultaneously used writing systems -- two of which, hiragana and katakana, are phonetic, and the memorization of these sixty or so characters is not so difficult. The other system utilizes kanji, or Chinese characters, of which there are over two thousand in common usage, each of which has at least two or three possible sounds, and all of which are used in synch with hiragana and katakana. Centuries ago, Spanish missionaries were convinced that kanji, and Japanese in general, was a language created by the Devil to thwart their attempts to convert the locals to Christianity. I'm almost incline to agree with them.) And so, after haphazardly making my way through the book the first time, I'll go back and, page by page, with my kanji dictionary, attempt my own, undoubtedly ludicrous, faulty, misguided and clumsy translation. And, by doing this, and staying physically fit, the universe will comply and keep her cancer at bay. Other people pray. This is my form of prayer.

1 comment:

Harrison said...

Train Scotted.

You sir. I don't know where to begin. Please check email for where I will begin. Or, if you see this first, read this:

Shoop shooby dooby, like scooby dooby.

Proceed to email.