I’m writing this on the last day of September. Last night, there was a definite chill in the air, and this morning, a typhoon was howling in from the south. Unlike earlier in the summer, the winds have really picked up here in Hiroshima. Late in the afternoon, the sky turned the strangest colour. But the rain just stopped, and for a moment a rainbow poked through the clouds.
It’s been three months since I took my first tentative steps into Japan, through the sultry fug of the Osaka summer. Tomorrow, school is changing over to the Autumn textbooks, and it felt like a good time to stop and take stock.
How can I describe my initial impressions of Japan? Like any civilisation-state with a hundred and twenty seven million people, it resists my attempts at easy generalizations. For example, before I travelled, people told me that Japanese people tend to be more reserved than Westerners. In my own experience, this isn’t exactly right. People are often very friendly and helpful, and on the occasions I’ve been having a solitary drink I’ve usually been accosted by someone wanting to chat. People seem at least as keen to dance and laugh and celebrate and commiserate with newcomers and strangers as in England, at any rate.
I wonder if maybe people mean something slightly different when they talk about ‘reserved’ Japanese people. To elaborate, there’s one experience I’ve had time and time again in just three months of being here. I will be discussing some vaguely weighty topic with someone: something about politics, or social organization, or culture. I will be jabbering away excitably in my usual way, and then I will catch myself, stop, and ask: ‘what do you think?’ The other person will stop, pause for a while, and give me a carefully considered, balanced neutral answer which describes common points of view. This could be mistaken for an answer, but it isn’t really.
Now, I don’t think for a moment that people I talk to don’t have their own opinions on the topic du jour. It’s just that compared to your average roomful of English people, I think Japanese people are much less keen to share their opinions or honest feelings with someone they aren’t close to. This careful, polite evasion can make it difficult for an emotionally open soul like me to bond with people. To borrow an example from the classroom, it’s easy to get students to describe the music or movies they like, but hard to get even higher level students to describe how a piece of music or movie makes them feel (of course, this is an outrageous generalization, and there are exceptions).
Japan’s urban landscapes are unexpected, too. I’d seen many isolated pictures, but nothing really prepared me for the odd juxtapositions. The level of aesthetic thought put into things like ordinary restaurant signs is deeply impressive. Temples and shrines are inevitably decorated with extreme beauty, delicacy and awareness of surroundings. Even neon signs can be real works of art. And yet, they’re often interspersed with a maze of concrete and wires, and a jumble of bafflingly ugly buildings. The contrast between the sheer joy of aesthetics and the drab anonymity of whole chunks of city is an interesting one, and I’ll probably write about it more.
Perhaps my strongest initial impression of Japan is its extraordinary cohesiveness as a society. People co-operate more, and fight less than anywhere I’ve ever been. This isn’t a kind of faux respectfulness bred from fear, as you might see in some societies- I think people genuinely find it easier to work together and inhabit the same space. I do wonder though, if it’s exactly this cohesiveness that makes it so difficult for foreigners to fit in in Japan. You do get the feeling, sometimes, of being an interloper, a jigsaw piece put back in the wrong box.
I could have written twenty thousand words on my impressions, but I’m hungry and I’ve just finished my second six-day work week, so I’ll leave it there. But a few words on what the future holds…
WHAT LEWIS DOES NEXT
I still need to meet more people, really. I have a couple of friends here, but I need to push the envelope- maybe head out for a game of pool and a pint more often, or find some other social context where the language barrier won’t stop me getting involved. And on that note…
I need to learn Japanese. Like, properly. I’ve utterly failed on this front in my first three months- at first I was pouring all my mental energy into a new job, and then I wasn’t sleeping properly. But (praise ye gods) I seem to be sleeping better this week, and I’ve suddenly got the time and mindset to get started. It’s not like I can’t say anything- I get by, in restaurants and shops, museums and ticket offices, and can manage a short conversation in a bar to share some generalities. But my conversation is pretty limited, and since I use English at work, I don’t get enough practice each day to really make headway. So I have made myself an autumn resolution. Let’s see how it goes.
Next month, I’m hoping to head to the Edion Stadium for some more Sanfrecce games, and a mate from distant shores (Louis) will be in Hiroshima, and will hopefully stop by for a bowl of ramen and a night on the town. In November, I might head to Fukuoka with a friend to watch some sumo. And on December 21st, I’ll be back in the motherland.
From your correspondent in the City of Peace.