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What I Love About Japan
Robert L.Seltman
Friday March 18, 2005
"The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" 1823-29 by Hokusai, Katsushika (1760-1849)

My relationship with Japan is long and subtle. Like many Americans, my karmic topknot was tied long before I was born, with that surreal bonding of enemies. My dad spent his formative years as a boiler-room sailor, in a small wooden sub-chaser, scouting the South Pacific for Japanese submarines. He learned to loath their inscrutable buck-toothed bottle-bottom-eyeglass wearing image, from propaganda flicks and first-hand experiences of war. And I was reminded continuously of this legacy, by slant-eyed jokes in the schoolyard, war horror stories from drunken old-timers, and from black and white Grade B spy films on Saturday TV.

Most of us impressionable baby-boom kids, though, eventually changed our opinion, thanks in part to the persistent hard work of the Japanese and a benevolent paternal US foreign policy. We experienced this change as happy consumers of cheap well-made Japanese goodies of everything plastic, to everything electronic, to everything on wheels that was both reliable and affordable.

I was amazed how this one-time enemy could win the hearts of the Pacific force, my very own grumpy and cynical enlisted flag-waving uncles. My family GI would return home and bedazzle us with tales of R&R adventures, both sexual and cultural, during the Korean War. Later, more friends, classmates, and shell-shocked kin experienced Japan first-hand during the Nam years with equal exuberance.

An endless US military engagement with communist threats, and countless recreational relationships established on leave... coated Asia, from Thailand across the Philippines, and back to Okinawa, Honshu, and Hokkaido, with delectable stories, exotic impressions, and bewildering mysteries. How my young boy eyes lit up, while hearing erotic ad-libs, of strong dollar conquests with willing partners, told by these 'men of the world.'

As predictably consistent, as the shopping center experience became in suburban USA, witnessing repeatedly Japanese product superiority, with Japanese cars ruling the roads and VCR conquering our homes, these travel stories from the Orient created even a greater myth. A land, where men could be both, wise and sexually satisfied.

Representing a radical exotic alternative to 50's hamburger joints and church pews, the mystique expanded further with Zen in the late 60's, when finally drug induced delusions mingled with genuine spiritual aspirations, calling me West for enlightenment sake, with a side order of Tantric tease. For seekers of an alternative lifestyle, what could be more extreme than submergence into the Source, esoteric Asia? For seekers raised in the comforts of middle-class America, what could be safer than Japan? Ecstatic exotica without the fuss and muss.

I first saw Japan from the sea at thirty, as I sailed from my Trans-Siberian last-stop port in Russia on an around-the-world sojourn. A rough night sea, with well-lit squid fishing boats bobbing precariously, as if in the 'Great Wave' woodblock print of Hokusai. Honshu looked so darkly forested and wantonly wild from the ocean. I fantasized walking her peaks and shores in a spiritual quest, an urban artist's aesthetic-life manifestation, as a mendicant stud amongst the blossoming cherries.

A couple of years later, thanks to a book by Oliver Statler titled 'Japanese Pilgrimage', I got my wish. Selling off my small art life in New York City, I became a pilgrim to the 88 temples of Shikoku, and eventually sat the three month obligatory stint, for many Western male romantics, as a monk in a Zen monastery.

Yet the scent of sensuality had long been cast in bone, way before reaching Japan's shore. In art school the Japanese sensibility permeated the studio atmosphere from our calmly eccentric Japanese instructors, and the hordes of roaming Japanese artisans, in every tear of the New York City art scene.

My first wife, though Chinese, who lived her pre-school years, among the wealthy refugees from Mao's China in Yokohama, christened me early with elixirs of oriental insight. She talked of being breast fed by well-endowed Japanese wet-nurses, who cooed in affectionate Nihon-go. As talented with the brush as she was beautiful, her name translated, both lyrically and accurately, as flower bud in snow. Through her graces, I came to know well-crafted and radically composed masterpieces, and the superbly subtle spaces of aristocratic love.

Though Western women refuse to believe it, there is something to the sensual exactitude of pampered skin and delicate earlobes of the cloistered Asian women from good families. Something to the grace of concern for others, coupled with socially liberated guilt-free values, which makes making-love special here. Certainly good sex happens everywhere, but to those who know, love is lovelier when a partner opens as a flower, fresh and welcoming to the morning sun.

Having been married twice, into matriarchal-dominant variants of both the Chinese and Japanese cultures, I am not naive to the downside of these international mergers. But unequivocally, I will defend to the day I die, the true source, of world over-population and my own demise, is the dandifying delight of Eastern embraces. The paradoxical splendor of damsel delicacies deliberately placed just within reach yet slightly out of bounds, making a man feel Captain to his own pleasure ship, just prior to being scuttled and set adrift.

To be born, as a Western man into the arms of the Orient, must be the highest plateau on the climb up good-karma mountain. To live in Japan, where every corner yields a prospectus for bliss, is the masterful tease of a maker bent on propagating the human race, while poking fun at the futility of the human condition. To know Asia intimately is to have surrendered to the warm waters of hidden coves, tucked away in love hotels and pillbox mansions. To know Japan is to combine with this biological revelation an appreciation for sociological peace. The yin-yang push-and-pull, of an alluring womb, drawing you in and then emphatically declaring a truce of disengagement.

Our source of peace, beyond the nuclear laden warships in our harbor, is the very same virtue of homogeneous aspiration exuding from everyone you meet. 'Ours and yours', the 'us and them' dichotomy of a lingering Edo mentality, all card-carrying members of the Japanese collective have it, on these Eastern emerald isles.

This need 'to do the right thing, in just the right way' sets Japan apart from the other flavors of Asia. So many miles away from the malignant malevolence of rabid individualism, white-washed within an immigrant smelting pot of pseudo-tolerance, our badge of superiority so proudly adorn in the Americas. Japan remains special, born from a deep-rooted need to please the collective whole, while remaining aloof to the huddled masses of the greater horde just outside her door.

Do one's duty, live by a code carved in this inherited vision, a culturally engraved 'rule book' laminated and embossed upon each brain. Rules everyone learns from mommy Japan by the command "Dame!" i.e. 'It's impossible, unethical, thus both illogical and prohibited, so don't even think about it!' This magical gluey glob of an affirmation, which covers the Japanese psyche from birth, insures we all know 'when to speak', and 'what we need to do', and 'how to do it', to preserve civil order within the red-orange Tori gates.

When the rules are broken anywhere here, by a murderous pedophile or homicidal guru, we hear a collective weeping in the media, a gnashing of well brushed teeth, repeated again and again over richly rewarding coffee in town or choice green leaf tea in the provinces. This is the actualization of a Carl Marx ethos and a Groucho Marx one-liner, where no God in particular commands over a collective consciousness that assures productivity, with a fully functional bureaucracy, extending into every fiber of our daily diet. Where many a foreigner states, 'I wouldn't join any country club that would accept me as a member' Japan obliges with perpetual rejection.

The Japanese have an uncanny ability to always know your business, believing it relevant to their own, while desperately hoping you do not notice their nosiness. It is the ideal child-parent relationship, where everyone takes turns being parent and child. If you can trust the system, you can feel blessed. Be cynical and you are thrust into the dungeons of despair. From the well spring of trust are drawn the prosperous 'salary-man samurai and the saccharine smiling OL.' From the dungeon of the doldrums come the cultist and disheveled counter-cultureless, doomed to wallow in exiled loneliness.

But even for the dementias, of social out-castration, there is a solution. Done with a bewildering proficiency via the Internet, and a rendezvous in a parked car with like-minded disciples of despair, life can be left for death by these goth pouters, left to those more suited to life as a transient cheery blossom of bubbling fortitude. Suicide is not unique to Japan, but while Americans use wide gage weapons and leave a mess, Japanese discreetly tape the windows shut and smoke themselves to death. Death is Japan's consensual solution to those culturally disenfranchised, a systematized discretion, a sleepy slip into eternal invisibility.

In Nihon we are suspended in perpetual isometrics, trying always to be politely engaged while politically neutral, stuck somewhere between great aspirations and hard knock realities, permitting fluid fantastical fantasies in pornographic manga and restricted movement on the dance floor.

This creates a heaven for those of us up to the task. As guests in a land where gas-stand attendants still wash windows, where train conductors take pride in cleanliness and punctuality, where strangers and neighbors will tolerate almost any digression, as long as it is done behind closed doors with volume lowered, life is lusciously safe and clean. And, with enough soft-cream sweeteners and Starbucks mood-stimulants, all feels quite bearable.

Without the smelly armpits and loud boisterous exuberance, of extraverted arm-waving cheek-kissing Latinos, nor the introverted reflections and angst filled conversations, of perpetually perplexed northern-sphere Westerners, Japan is blessed with 'quiet time' spaces in even the noisiest of Pachinko parlors. There is special meditative neutrality always made available, as long as one is willing to slip into the groove of peer tailored politeness. Being in the good graces of the collective affords one a well-deserved sanctuary, and momentary reprise from the glaring eyes of our communal guardians.

As pre-school children we are content, far enough from mom's eyes to allow a sense of privacy in play, yet still under her protective umbrella, shielded from an alien universe. As an American, whose dominatrix foreign policy protects the Japanese from angry Asians with secret weapons, I am blessed with a permanent work visa and vistas of economic opportunity.

As long as I abide by that which helps the whole feel well, and stand clear of extraneous emotion and behavior, I may taste the bounty of milk and honey, tofu and soy sauce, healthcare and longevity, courtesy and distance, patience and tolerance, the salty sweet and sour of Japanese society.

I am blessed by a world-weary expat community, which permits me to bitch. Blessed too with the healthy freshness in youth, both of students and my own children, who hear out my old man diatribes with a sufficient supply of forgiveness. Though the therapeutic value of the 'gaijin' rant has never been confirmed as effective, never the less it bleeds eternally from our reactionary lips, and we need to respect this culture, that allows us, ad infinitum, our forum of discontent. There are so many ways Japan expresses her love for me each day, so many small and big kindnesses.

When I feel her spring, I bound with energy. When fall tumbles into gray winter, I saddened with her, into the dark crevices of her ancient literature, a society as dank as her farewell "O-genki de!" attempts to be uplifting. I love Japan because it is as complex and rewarding as a lover who has lived there by your side, knowing all your idiosyncrasies, for all these years.

I love Japan for the promises she still holds and all the ones she has broken. She still tries so hard to cleanse herself nightly in baths of self-forgiveness, knowing all too well there is no purging history. She remains so optimistic in her down turned eyes of economic recession, her long elegant neck exposed to the lusty eyes of hatchet wielding neighbors.

As ants rebuilding rain soaked hills, we in Japan work because we know no other way, as sheep to slaughter, we 'baa' to affirm our solidarity, as penguin wobbling on 'global warming' glaciers, we teach our children as well as we can afford. To be part of this phenomenon known as Japan, even from the odd and perplexing pedestal of 'permanent resident' alien, has the seductive charm of a flirtatious stranger, coupled with the lasting lore of an old friend.

Deep down somewhere, between my prostate and my 'hara', lies my own homogeneous urge to be part of this humanity. Like an old marital partner, I need to remind myself to say how I feel for you. Though my face cracks to say it, you know how much I care. How much more I want to know you, for as long as you will have me.


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