Here we go again…coming face to face with the sweat and stifling humidity of Japan’s summer days. In winter, we think of Okinawa, Guam, Saipan, or one of those beach paradises to stir away from the freezing cold. And, in summer, we think of Karuizawa, Hokkaido, anywhere in the north where you don’t have to perspire and burn every second of the day under the scorching sun! Do we ever stay put in one place for more than eight months?
Several weeks ago, I spent four days of momentously utter pleasure, hanging out with a band of Italian musicians who came to Tokyo for a series of shows at the Blue Note Tokyo and Cotton Club. As the irresistible topic of Japanese lifestyle surfaced in casual discussion, one of the musicians told me how Tokyo pleases him greatly. Naturally, I couldn’t help crossing my eyebrows in a bit of cynical gesture, saying, “Really? In what sense? But, Tokyo is so chaotic, noisy, crowded, filled with unattractive buildings. You can’t even see a mountain.” He answered without hesitance, “But, we have mountains in Italy. I don’t need to look for mountains in Tokyo.” This placed a sweet smile on my face. He continued to say that for a traveling musician like him, every place in this world presents its own self, without ever a need for comparison with other cities. What for? So does Japan. We may complain about the indigestible crowds in Tokyo only because we think of another place that does not have them. We may not stand too well the over display of continuous bowing only because, likewise, we think of places where people do not do it, then convince ourselves that the latter option is always the state of comfort. We probably squirm at the sounds of the high pitched female voices in announcements, on television, radio, etc. because we know thousands of women outside Japan who don’t talk that way, and wonder to ourselves, “Well, what is the point?”
True enough, when you settle in one place for such a long period of time, especially in Japan, in this case, what used to be tools of curiosity and adventure gradually become numbered items on a fixed menu that you no longer have to read, select and wonder about their ingredients, style of cooking, or proportion. You just know they’ll always be there (on the daily menu)—and, when the taste from Monday to Sunday becomes more common, familiar and almost bland, you no longer ask why or how…you just eat them.
If you’re tired of the stiff Tokyo skyscrapers that may feel cold and distant, you can probably imagine them to be covered with green vines to add a certain natural freshness. If you feel wasted over repetitious Japanese dialogues and uncreative greetings and expressions, you can probably check what the Japanese are not saying instead. You’ll be surprised to discover that enigma behind the smile and bow.
Sometimes, discontent is a plight for escape. We are constantly searching, moving, and desiring a different level of existence—just like shopping for new clothes every season (what’s wrong with the old clothes?). Acceptance is a powerful weapon of survival. It also accords with a deep sense of humility to grapple with the stagnant realities, whether they strike you as harsh or pleasing. You may think acceptance comes so easy, but for a “gaijin” (foreigner) in Japan, it is a perennial challenge. Thus, so many gaijins could not live up to it that they either kill themselves or leave. No wonder the long staying minorities (like me…) are called martyrs of Japan’s enigma. Each day we need to humble ourselves against the temptation of rebellion and disobedience. Hand in hand with acceptance is also courage. And, all foreigners in Japan need this to survive in this country. It was Ernest Hemingway who put it brilliantly, “Courage is grace under pressure.”
I could never look at Tokyo skies any longer without that secret desire that they display other colors, shapes and contours; without that constant lingering that, yes, if only there were mountains from one horizon to the other. But, after a few seconds, the inevitable rhetorical question hits back at me, “What for?”
Japan’s enigma rests on your imagination. You will need a lot of it.
Have a “cool biz” summer…!