When you see naked kids bathing on the sidewalk, it's a good sign you're not in Japan anymore.
You would think that regularly commuting -- for lack of a better word -- between the Philippines and Japan would be a lesson in contrasts: Japan (the rich and powerful) contrasted with the Philippines (the poor and desperate).
Yes and no.
Yes, because it's quite obvious that Japan, being the world's second largest economy, has a leg or two (or three, or thirty-seven) up on the Philippines. For starters, you don't see nude, grimy children dunking buckets of dirty water over their head in the middle of a summer afternoon. Besides that rather simple and startling fact, things are efficient in Japan; things are shiny in Japan; things are smooth in Japan. The Philippines has a lived-in feel to it, or perhaps it's better to say a living-in feel to it -- everything's happening, at once, and it's messy and dirty and as chaotic as Japan is antiseptic.
But about a month ago on a cool Sunday morning in downtown Tokyo I was heading towards Takashimaya Times Square, home to the best bookstore in Tokyo, Kinokuniya, with a sixth-floor selection of English books and magazines that can't be beat. Up beside me came a shabbily dressed man, slightly dirty, pushing sixty.
"Do you speak Japanese?" he asked. (In Japanese, of course.)
"A little," I said.
"I didn't have any food today, and I'm feeling a little bit hungry, so..."
He left the rest unsaid. (In Japan, in the Japanese language, almost everything is left unsaid. Even the down-and-out don't waste words.)
I gave him a buck, feeling guilty for being so cheap, and guilty for being so rich.
An hour later, as I left the bookstore, the same man wandered by, and he approached me again, using the same spiel, but I saw no glint in his eyes that recognized me from our previous encounter. (Do all foreigners look alike? I wondered.)
Tokyo is very rich and very modern and it isn't very often that you encounter anybody down and out. They're there, yes, but you have to somewhat search for them, and most people don't do that -- search for the down-and-out.
In Philippines, in Manila, even in Baguio, where I live, you don't have to search too hard.
Manila is a big and throbbing city, reminding me of Bangkok, but it's also a city of contrasts. The downtown district has its share of bright and shiny buildings, but if you cock your head a certain way as you drive on by in your taxi you can see entire communities, if not generations, of families perched under the endless bridges, living in shacks. At night, on the sidewalks, groups of kids lay sprawled out, shirtless, some pantless, on flattened cardboard sidewalks. Poverty is such a part of life that it becomes to seem just like that -- a part -- and you learn to slot it into its appropriate mental box inside of your skull.
And then sometimes it comes walking up beside you, in small and not-so-subtle ways.
Walking down the road the other day, a shoeless man in a grubby black top walked past me, walking fast, walking sure. He seemed in a hurry. Suddenly he bent down, picked up something off the gravel, brought it to his lips and kept on walking, all in one certain, seamless motion. It took me a moment or two to realize that he had grabbed the remaining butt of a slightly-lit cigarette. He took one, two, three drags, then chucked it back to the ground. It had served its purpose. Nothing was wasted.
I watched him walk ahead of me, shoeless, on the sticky July pavement of the side of a highway in the northern Philippines in this small and cozy corner of our planet.
A week ago I was in Tokyo.
Now I'm in Baguio.
Sooner than not, I'll be back in Japan. (My head somewhat spinning.)
Tonight, a group of kids in the heart of Manila will sleep under the stars, inside of the heat, on a spread of cardboard on the sidewalk.
Tonight, that homeless man in Tokyo will find a corner of concrete to rest his head upon.
Seems like only a few weeks ago I was marvelling over the differences between my hometown, St.Catharines, and the hometown of my parents, Fort Erie. So far away, those two towns are. Almost, what, forty minutes by car. Almost a different planet, it seemed.