Also known as the longest blog ever.
We've just finished the first chapter of our journey. It's amazing sometimes how quickly three weeks can seem to pass and yet how far away their start can seem. We are now aboard the magnificent Yin Jang, making our way through the high seas to Tianjin, China (okay, if one insists on reality, magnificent may have been a stretch and by high seas I mean the calm waters of the sea of Japan. Life at sea has pushed us to exaggeration as we continually refer to ourselves as women of the sea and begin sentences with "In truth, it's a lonely life...". Clearly, the rocking of the boat made us a bit delusional and now I am not putting this entry online three days later in an internet cafe in Beijing, but you get the idea).
Here are my parting impressions of Japan. Certainly, we've not stayed long enough to make any educated statements on the country, but I will give my thoughts all the same. In leaving Japan, the three things that come to mind are: Conflicted, Confined, and yet still uniquely and wonderfully Charming.
Japan, in my mind, is a nation in conflict. In a way that was both baffling and intriguing, Japan brought paradox to nearly every situation. At once traditional and modern, advanced and yet terribly behind. Japan has gadgets and gizmos aplenty, but they've not figured out how to hide their telephone wires or make reasonable dryers. The Buddhist and Shinto religions which dominate the culture bring with them an appreciation for a focus on harmony with nature while at the very same time, the Japanese government is destroying Japan's beautiful natural landscape at alarming rates in the name of unnecessary and expansive public works projects.
As for the people, we found them to be warm and kind and helpful in ways unimaginable in the U.S. (even in the south) and yet at times, shockingly cold and untouched. Despite being one of the most homogenous nations in the world, the people of Japan are as varied and diverse in their outward appearances as one would find in any international city. The culture in many ways is typified by order and politeness but yet it can seem at times to be the absolute picture of chaos. Despite very specific codes of conduct that place a high premium on dignity and seriousness, once finds that after dark each night the salary men can be found,in their perfectly manicured suits, roaming the streets holding each other up by the necktie, vomiting on the sidewalk, and swaying in the subways drunkenly.
Thus, it seems to me, that in many regards, Japan is a nation in conflict. Japan seems to be held in a forward and backward movement that is keeping it stable and also stagnant. It was descibed by Alex Kerr in his book Of Dogs and Demons (which inevitabley skewed the way I viewed Japan) as a post industrial nation, with pre-industrial goals. It will be incredibly interesting to see what they do with the next ten years - it could go either way.
My second leaving impression was that in many ways I felt the culture to be defined, and in a way confined by what is normal, what is traditional, mostly by what it means to be "Japanese." Despite the outward diversity expressed in fashion choices and hairstyles, there is an incredible emphasis on being part of the group. As children, they are schooled in an almost military fashion, taught time and again that the highest value is placed on belonging to something, on fitting in. From this develops serious problems with bullying and high numbers of student burnouts (I've read that Japanese students miss on average 1.5 months of school per year attributed to this). At the larger scale it creates and support xenophobia (though I personally did not confront outward signs of xenophobia, and on the contrast was repeatedly met with helpfulness and warmth, I have heard differently from those who have been here longer). There are very serious unspoken rules of engagement around here which regulate most aspects of Japanese society and which inevitably exclude those who do not, or can not, play by the rules.
Despite everything that has been surprising and sometimes disappointing however, I am still quite enamored with the place. My final parting impression is that in spite of it all, Japan is charming to a fault. I will miss the lights of Tokyo and the calm of Kyoto. The hidden shrines and the sushi trains. I will miss the men whose job it is to push you into the subway car and the girls teetering knock-kneed on their stilettos. I will miss chocolate covered puffed rice and everything being on time. Bicycle parking garages and old ladies with sun umbrellas. I will miss the giggles on the street, and the sound of bike bells. I will even miss, if only a little, the utter depressing loneliness of Tokyo in the rain (after having been lost for 3 hours only to be turned away at the door of the Chinese embassy and forced to take refuge in an overpriced starbucks).
In the end, I was able to remove (if only for a bit) my rose colored glasses and scratch at the top layer of Japanese culture. I found that, as is always the case, Japan was not the Utopia I first thought it to be, but it is still an awfully wonderful place. On the sleepless overnight bus ride to Kobe, I was kept awake by the tune of a song from childhood, around 4am the words finally came to me and they seemed all too fitting as I moved on to the second chapter of our trip: "Don't know how we'll grow up, but what a way to begin..."