This Is Not a Postcard

Tales of 2 people on 3 continents

Fukushima, mon amour

A few disclaimers:

  • Many thanks to Laura Allen and Jonathan Mackenzie, our hosts in Japan, for invaluable information about Japanese language, culture, society, history, etc. We would have been completely lost without them. If there are any elements of the following post which might humbly be considered insights, it is likely that they there Jonathan or Laura’s to begin with.
  • Much of this post is utter nonsense. A note at the end will help you separate the wheat from the chaff.
  • The photos below are small so they fit in the blog column. You can click on any one for a closer look.
I. The Meaning of Japan
In order to write “Japan” in Japanese you need to use two kanji, or iconographic characters.
Fig 1. The ancient art of Japanese calligraphy

Fig 1. The ancient art of Japanese calligraphy

The first kanji means “small” or “cute.” The second kanji can be roughly translated as “eccentric” in the common sense of uniquely strange, but also in the outlier sense – alone and away from the pack.

I’ll give you some examples that illustrate this Japanese brand of strange cuteness perfectly.

Fig 2. Cap’n James Huth

Fig 2. Cap’n James Huth

When Japanese passengers board a long distance ferry such as this one from Kobe to Kyushu, they don this miniature version of the captain’s uniform in order to symbolically assume their share of responsibility for the welfare of the ship and its crew. You’ll note that the resulting image is both reassuring and creepy, no?

Here’s another: Many children in Japan (most?) wear t-shirts that feature the English language in some delightfully mangled form. Others are delightfully mangled by association. This child’s t-shirt reads, “Happiness comes quickly and certainly.” Keen observers will notice the revolver in his right hand.

Fig 3. Happiness is a warm gun

Fig 3. Happiness is a warm gun

Though the Japanese declare themselves to be a-religious, they actively engage with gaggles of monuments, shrines and temples scattered throughout the country. This one in Kyoto is a Buddhist shrine for the unborn.

Fig 4. Unborn Babies R Us

Fig 4. Unborn Babies R Us

Women who have lost a foetus, either by choice or by miscarriage, will place a baby doll on a shelf along with some kid-friendly snacks as a way of encouraging it to be re-born under more auspicious circumstances. Traditionally, abortion has not been stigmatized and criminalized in Japan as it has been in many communities in the US. This ritual, for example, is considered an acceptable and public means by which to seek atonement.

Fukui prefecture, where our friends Laura and Jonathan are living, has the highest concentration of nuclear power plants of any region in Japan. Local displays featuring cartoon characters tell you what the ambient radiation levels are at any given moment. The display here reads 449 nGy/h (nanoGrays per hour).

Fig 5. "Four o'clock and all's well!"

Fig 5. "Four o'clock and all's well!"

Public opinion has shifted slightly since the Fukushima Daichi disaster, but the Japanese people remain firmly pro-nuclear.

Tomes could be (and probably have been) written on the cute strangeness of Japanese fashion. Take this article of “clothing”, for example.

Fig 6. Foot thong

Fig 6. Foot thong

What the frack? And I’m supposed to pay 10 bucks for this?

So as you can see, the fundamental strange cuteness or cute strangeness of Japan is alive and well. We found that, rather than question or recoil from it, the best thing to do is just embrace it.

Fig 7. Sparkle me good times

Fig 7. Sparkle me good times

 II. Little Miss Manga

I have never felt more disconnected from the rest of the world than I feel here in Japan. Plus, it doesn’t really remind me of anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’s like the Japanese are a bunch of marsupials who have been evolving for centuries without contact with the outside world.

This sensation has been compounded by the fact that there is no WIFI anywhere in Japan. The WIFI revolution just skipped Japan entirely. James thinks they maybe just leapfrogged into 3G or something. Who knows. But it’s impossible to get online for free and the internet cafes are incredibly expensive. And weird.

Here, they’re called “Manga cafés” and they are open 24 hours a day. There are showers and food available so you never have to leave. We spent the night in a manga café in Nagasaki because our campground fell through and everything else was all booked up.

Fig 8. Our street in Manga café town

Fig 8. Our street in Manga café town

Here’s how it works: You register at the desk and you are assigned to a numbered cubicle. Inside the cubicle you have a fully outfitted entertainment center, as well as a phone to the front desk so that you can place orders. Here’s a view of the inside.

Fig 9. The Japanese are fond of making peace signs when taking photos. So is Laura.

Fig 9. The Japanese are fond of making peace signs when taking photos. So is Laura.

Your hourly fee (about $10 for both of us) entitles you to unlimited use of all media, including movies, videos games, and of course manga, which are insanely popular and sometimes raunchy Japanese comic books. And free drinks in all sorts of strange varieties.

There are no windows at the manga café, so you have no idea how much time has passed. The floor of the cubicle is covered with a big foam cushion and you are given pillows and blankets. It is not at all unusual for folks to check in late at night as we did and leave in the morning. I don’t think they sleep, though.

III.  I am a rock, I am an island

For a long, long time, Japan was completely closed off to the rest of the world.

Like, 200 years.

During that time (ending in 1868) Japanese citizens were flat out forbidden to engage in any contact with foreigners at home and foreign travel was banned.

As many of you will remember from history class, that period was forcibly ended when the United States under Commodore Matthew Perry brought warships into Tokyo bay and demanded that Japan open itself up to foreign trade.

So international relations have been a bit of a rough road, to say the least. And it’s hard not to imagine you are seeing the legacy of those events in everyday life on the ground.

For one thing, Japanese people don’t speak English for the most part, so even conversing with them is incredibly challenging.

I know, I know, why is it that we expect people in other countries to speak English (or print signs in roman characters) in order for them to engage with foreigners? That’s so arrogant and imperialistic.

Well, the God awful truth of it is that English is the international lingua franca, and we Americans just happen to be some of the lucky native speakers of that language. Like it or not, it is English not Japanese that open doors to the world. And if you don’t speak English, you’re out of the international conversation.

Back to Japan – It’s not just that the Japanese don’t have a gift for or an interest in learning other languages. It’s that they also seem to have a deep-seated distrust and distaste for non-Japanese people and things. Coupled with an astonishingly high regard for their own culture and traditions.

Here’s a trite example of that.

Fig 10. Puppy etiquette

Fig 10. Puppy etiquette

This is a little flyer we picked up at a temple in Kyoto located within the park of the Imperial Palace. It’s in some mumbo-jumbo language that we don’t understand, but thankfully they used pictures.

The dog on the left is a “shiba inu” (Japanese dog breed), which fans of internet pet videos will no doubt recognize. Many, many Japanese dog owners have shiba inus.

Who’s a good dog?

No one has dogs like the one on the right. No, sir.

I gather from reputable sources (see disclaimers, above) that the Japanese traditionally believe themselves to be a superior race. And while they may strive to emulate certain aspects of “Western” society (big Manga-style doe eyes, for example), they mostly reject it outright. They also reject immigrants for the most part, fearing that they will dilute Japanese-ness.

This is not necessarily an attitude that is unique to the Japanese. But they seem to manifest it to a greater degree than many others I have personally encountered.

In some ways, this is wonderful. Because it allows them to maintain their identity, their traditions, their culture, their architecture, their environment, their art forms, their language, their cuisine, their lifestyle.

Fig 11. James and Laura expertly sanding enameled chopsticks

Fig 11. James and Laura expertly sanding enameled chopsticks

Please see our other photos to get some sense of the intense beauty, genius and magic of Japan. It is truly extraordinary.

But what also happens as a result of their Japan-is-best attitude that they end up cutting themselves off to a large extent from the rest of the world.

Over the years, foreigners have made a few inroads in Japan. Take the couch surfing house we stayed at in Kyoto, for example.

Fig 12. Our home in Kyoto, with conventional exterior

Fig 12. Our home in Kyoto, with conventional exterior

As you’ll recall from my last post on couch surfing, the owner of this house maintains it for exclusive use by couch surfers visiting Kyoto. Looks pretty standard on the outside. But on the inside…

Fig 13. Kitchen at CS house

Fig 13. Kitchen at CS house

Anything but!

Thousands of visitors have stayed at this house since it was made available in 2008, and they have left notes like these all over the interior. In every nook and cranny (bedrooms, bathrooms, closets, cupboards) you can find them. Guests from all over the world (US, France, Korea, Italy, Ecuador, New Caledonia, UK, Singapore, Canada, Argentina, etc etc etc), all extolling the wonders and delights of Kyoto. And the magnanimity of Shoji-san, the owner of the CS house. It is truly heart warming.

And Shoji-san himself, whom we met on our last day in town, is a lovely husband and father who has yet to travel outside the country (!) but who loves meeting the world via this house. It’s his main extra-curricular activity, when he’s not farming.

That is, until the recent earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Once again, due to events and circumstances beyond their control, the terms of Japan’s engagement with the outside world have changed.

This time, back to a position of isolation. The world has recoiled from Japan with as much intensity and resolve as it demanded entry in.

All the tourists have cleared out. Everyone. And many of the Westerners who were living in Japan have taken off. Some personally fearing the aftermath of the earthquake, many others under intense pressure from their families back home who have been exposed to a flood of dire media reports.

The Japanese will pull through this. Heck, if you can pull through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you can pull through anything. And the fact that all the foreigners have cleared out doesn’t seem to be all that disturbing to the man on the street. Life goes on. Maybe that’s the way they prefer it anyway?

Not Shoji-san. In its heydey, the CS house accommodated up to 10 guests a night! Now it is a shadow of its former self. Shoji says he’ll probably have to close it down soon, because it’s hard to justify the expense particularly with the Japanese economy in the shape it’s in.

He’s had a total of 8-10 visitors since March, and that includes the four of us.

Dear Japan,

Your extraordinary beauty is beyond my reach and comprehension. You so often seem cold and disdainful. You don’t seem to have a very high opinion of me. Our relationship must always be on your terms.

I left under dark skies, but they will brighten again.

You are not alone. I will always love you.


p.s. I lied about a few things: the kanji for Japan and the Captain’s uniform thing. Everything else is true.



  jim and mary huth wrote @

jimmy and sonia – we enjoyed your recent posting from japan – very insightful, both visually and conceptually.
how about a quick lesson on the proper use of chopsticks when you return?:):)

  Tony L wrote @

Ahh so. But did you see the many church steeples about town? These are special chapels, built only for western style weddings, which come complete with church choir and, if possible, as western minister!

The Japanese excede the Americans in their ability to incorporate foreign items in their culture.

  Sonia Marcus wrote @

True enough, Tony san. From what we understand, the Japanese believe that their excellence plies in re-appropriating aspects of other people’s cultures and dramatically improving them. In fact, much of the discussion surrounding the means by which to improve Japanese higher ed has to do with fostering a culture of innovation, rather than re-appropriation.

  James Huth wrote @

Bamboo groves, hot springs,
fast trains and slow shrines – all nice.
Damn the exchange rate!

  Laurie Huth wrote @

Great pictures. I’m glad my brother was not wearing the matching too small captain’s pants, too!

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