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Coming to Tohoku


The first time I came to Japan was in 1985. My wife-in-becoming brought me to meet and receive approval from her parents. I didn’t know the language, and until then had possessed little interest in or understanding of the culture. Soon, I was hooked. I was hooked — as so many wide-eyed westerners are — by the cadence of life, the vibrancy, the exoticism, the romanticism, the historical-global clash, by the dispassionate passion in which even the wrapping of a piece of codfish seemed to elicit and exude.


Above all, I was hooked by Tohoku, which reeled me in inexorably; as if I had been pre-assigned for the fisherman’s net. Destination came in the form of a professor who worked up there; a little old man with a polio-shortened leg, Clark Kent glasses, and a jaw set frozen to one side as if he’d stepped out of a Van Gogh painting. The year before he had been a Fulbrighter-in-residence, working with my graduate advisor. His specialty was Jewish writers and, upon learning that I was Jewish on my Mom’s side, he apparently regarded me as the asset that I wasn’t; first inviting me to visit him in Tohoku, then recruiting me to apply for an opening at his university. In the first few months after my arrival he pumped me for information about what Saul Bellow might mean by this, or Philip Roth by that — as if my having sat at a Seder and donned a Yarmulke three or four times in my life might have privileged me to know.


Thus it was that the second time I came to Japan it was to live and work. The year was 1989, the month Hirohito died, a time of mighty change, both symbolic and real. My research into the diversification of a dying iron and steel industry had me conducting interviews with executives in boardrooms set within walking distance of the silent palace. Behind drawn curtains, beneath dim lighting, before the gaze of subdued staff, one interviewee confided, “We are discouraged from laughing at this time”. Another replied with an ironic twist to his mouth, “Yes, but we are still expected to conduct business as usual”. The change wrought by the Emperor’s passing reverberated across Japan, and resonated throughout my university, but it affected me personally, as well; and in a most positive way. The next Emperor, Naruhito, who had married a “commoner” for love, brought with him the hint of a new world order to come, and this was the year that my life moved from pure potential to embodied action. It was there, in Tohoku, that my academic career was launched, and has been performed ever since; Tohoku was where my children were sired and raised, where my ambitions have been born and pursued, realized, and more often than I’d wish, rebuffed. Tohoku is where my youth has succumbed to middle age. It may very well be where the pinball that is my careening, wayward, outward-bounds life finally comes to rest.


Building Tohoku


When I came to Japan I came as a naïf: knowing nothing of the language, the culture, the history, or the people. I came to Japan specifically because I was a naïf; able to conjure the innocent’s fantasy of perfect ignorance, of limitless possibility, of eventual mastery, and ultimate wisdom. I came because I was given the chance to do something no one else had ever done before; I came on a principle, a motivation, a bone, a mirage that has guided and determined nearly every action throughout my 40-some years. When I entered University as the first full-time, foreign staffer, I was equipped with little more than the vigor, passion, the unrealistic hopes and uncertain certainties of youth. Tohoku proved the perfect stage for these exaggerated, preposterous motions, if for no other reason than the fact that Tohoku had once been forged into a regional empire by an audacious, 17-year-old warrior king.


Tohoku is the northeastern region on what is the main landmass of Japan’s four major islands and assorted collection of atolls, jetties and floating rocks. It is comprised of the states of Fukushima, Yamagata, Miyagi, Iwate, Aomori and Akita, working northward; these states not very different in character, size and rhythm as a collection of counties in northern California, say Mendocino, Lake, Trinity, Humboldt, Siskiyou, and Del Norte .When one enters Sendai, the unofficial capital of the region and 12th largest city in all of Japan, it is often by passing the statue of Date Masamune, the fearsome “one-eyed dragon”, who ruled most of the Tohoku region during the late 16th and early 17th century. His visage sports a crescent-moon helmet and an eye-patch, astride a solid marble steed. Masamune selected Sendai as the seat for trade, political and cultural relations, in large part because of its access to the sea. His power expanded exponentially, until he was widely regarded as Japan’s presumptive Shogun-to-be. Like the region he controlled, though, it wasn’t to be. He was held in abeyance, or outmaneuvered, or fell out of favor with those dangling the strings above-stage, and before his chance presented itself, he died; thus establishing Tohoku’s legacy as perpetual bridesmaid to other peoples and regions to the south.


Which is not to devalue Masamune. He was not only brutal and ambitious, but he was also a visionary of a sort: his interest in Christianity prompted him to send an emissary to meet Pope Paul V in Rome; his ambition to trade with the outside world produced missions to Mexico and Southern Europe. In many ways, though, Masamune was atypical of those from Tohoku; people who normally tend toward modesty, who shun pretension, whose horizons remain squarely fixed in front of them. They seem to keep their place in the constellation of power and cultural relations well rehearsed throughout the archipelago.


Deconstructing Tohoku


I know these people well because I have lived among them now for 15 years. Where I live most is inside a room of about 10 by 20 feet. It’s a box really, where I spend the king’s share of waking hours, captive; alternately staring deep within a computer screen or far beyond my picture window, thinking, in both instances, outside the box. The window allows me to see the world immediately containing me; the computer, the larger sphere containing us all. What I see tells us as much about the shape of our world as it does about Tohoku or even me.


No human lives independent of his surroundings. Bounded by space, defined by place, I am also defined by all the Tohoku things that have accumulated over these 15 years here: the photographs, posters, badges, dolls, knick-knacks, chotchkis, books, cards, souvenirs and toys. Collectively, these sundry objects paint not only a portrait of place, but also a tableau of self: a cyclorama of who I am and how I live; an archeology of why I am because of where I dwell. Sometimes I feel this gallery stamps me as gaijin; an outsider held at a distance, only able to stand outside the box and observe the life I am living within it. At other times, this motley concatenation communicates my privileged status: a foreign resident of a foreign land, blessed by the fact that I clutch an admission ticket to what has been a mystical mastery tour through this ReDot world.


Prominent in this aggregation is a bamboo branch, gracefully arched from my ceiling; a reminder that Tohoku — if not Japan — is a country predicated on ritual, instantiated and sustained by mythology. The thin green branch is adorned with origami decorations: senbatsuru (cranes symbolizing safety, health and longevity), tanzaku (small rectangular-shaped notes bearing wishes, representing the quest for knowledge), kamigoromo (paper kimono, symbolizing people, and toiling as talisman capable of diverting illness or accident), kuzukago (trash bags, emblematic of cleanliness and thriftiness, necessary for a well-functioning society), kinchaku (a large purse which speaks to thriving business), and toami (a fishing net, depicting harvest and natural bounty). This decorative branch is a remnant of Tanabata, the festival celebrating a star-struck couple — Aquila and Shokujo, a herdsman and weaver — who, purportedly, were banished to opposite sides of the Milky Way following their marriage, the result of a wrathful Emperor of Heaven. The bride’s incessant tears, however, played enough on the heartstrings of the stern Emperor, such that he consented to allow the lovers to reunite once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month.


Like many things Japanese, the Tanabata myth is derived from China, but has become distinctly indigenized over the years. In particular, during the Heien period (794-1192 AD), the tale was transformed into a festivity for children and young girls; celebrating hoped-for progress in sewing, weaving, calligraphy and other handicrafts. So, too, because Aquila was a herdsman, Tanabata has served as a paean to farm production. However, as Japan has inexorably modernized, the festival has diminished in its ritual role; it has increasingly become localized in those areas in which such commercial arts still matter. Hence, Tanabata tends to be a regional curiosity associated steadily with Tohoku, in particular, and Sendai, specifically. This is why Japanese throughout the country make their way to this northeastern hub in order to walk beneath and through a canopy of seven-foot, paper, bamboo, and aluminum foil constructions while chomping on braised chicken and squid on a stick, or sucking on shaved ice with thick, fruit-flavored gum syrup.


Red Dot, Orange Rock


Inside my box, the Tanabata ornament droops toward a bookcase. Wedged between the top-most gaps of the metal shelves sit a couple of signed basketballs from my years coaching college and pro ball. One orange globe — from the last year I ever coached — sports a band-aid over the air valve. My “girls” giving me the razz; communicating that I might not have been as spry as I once was or was always pretending to be. Years before I lost a ligament in a pick-up game against a bunch of overzealous, America-worshiping teens, those pups were so determined to show the gaijin they got game. For over a decade I limped through the cartilage catching in the joint. The pain endured, though, couldn’t hold a candle to the joy invoked by the 16 scrawls adorning the ball.


Perusing these names, I am reminded of all the could-have-beens; all the should-have-saids. All the errors in judgment I could have acknowledged. For instance, there was Sei, the point guard with the mercurial Mediterranean eyes. Playground sneaky and foot-quick, but fighting weight, she was insecure, to boot. Sei was always quick to infer a criticism or slight in the simplest coaching suggestion. Of course, it didn’t help that she was always more interested in taking the ball to the hoop than dishing out assists. For two years I yelled (in increasingly exasperated tones) “Learn the system, think like a coach!” but she always acted as if I was speaking alien. Which, in more ways than one, I guess I was. I always thought it ironic, though, that for a country purported to be group oriented, the players always seemed to have a robust affinity for free-lancing. Maybe instead of ranting at Sei’s lack of team spirit, I should have applauded her initiative.


Then there was Saki, the smartest of the lot, who would replace me as coach in the sponsor’s cost-cutting campaign. The tallest on that squad, Saki was never large enough to compete with the towers from Tokyo, but she was still one tough cookie. She’d never fail to finish a game bloodied, battered, bruised. In time outs, her face flushed, her heart pressing against her collarbone, pounding through her chest, she would look at me in bewilderment as I ranted: “What the fuck, Saki! Is that all you can give us? Nothing more?!” As smart as she was, she probably understood that this gaijin was just a salesman; pushing buttons.


Aki’s is another signature worth remembering — another apology I ought to deliver. She was a dumpy, shy kid with an excuse-me character; the country bumpkin I didn’t want to recruit. Aki didn’t have the classic body coaches look for in a player, nor the quickness or finesse. But when I mistakenly placed a check next to her name on the roster sheet during a championship game, she was required to enter the starting line-up; and, wouldn’t you know? after a year captive at the end of the bench, she delivered with three consecutive baskets in the first two minutes against our bitter, regional rival. I, in my infinite wisdom, promptly subbed her out as soon as I could for the most athletic player, Ryo, her sempai (senior) from high school; the prize we received from her high school for the concession of accepting dowdy old Aki. Ryo, in front of a large contingent of family and friends, promptly froze, flamed and failed. When Aki returned to the game, her spirit dampened perhaps by the lack of faith the coach had shown in her early superlative opening, she couldn’t find her rhythm. Her miscues were inevitable; our collective failure unsurprising. The loss bringing an ignominious end to what had been an otherwise sterling coaching career.


The Roads Taken


In recruiting Aki, Ryo, and a handful of others, I traveled the many back roads and byways of Tohoku. Threading through the six states, up and back, to and fro, over and over again, searching for the muddied diamonds that the big corporations in Tokyo and Osaka might, in their imperial myopia, carelessly overlook. I took the tours mostly by train, sometimes by car. Tohoku is chock-full of countryside; pitted two-lane, grey-tops, pinched on both sides by row upon row of corn, soy, and cabbage. Yamagata, to the mid-west, is famous for its cherries, watermelon, and pears; Aomori, in the far north, for its apples; Miyagi, in the mid-east, for its rice; Iwate, along the middle coast, for its fish.


Tohoku is the breadbasket: the Nebraskas, Iowas, Kanasases, Montanas, and Minnesotas of Japan. It’s not as flat as those locales, perhaps, but lush; the natural jewel of this otherwise resource-scarce country. The people tilling the Tohoku soil are big bodied; teeming with basic values, hard outlooks, healthy skepticism, and little artifice. They’re decent folk who’ll slam the door in your face if they think you are selling them a satchel of purloined goods. I stop in the bigger bergs along the way to buy designer cookies and specially-crafted crackers as gifts for the high school principals and coaches I beg to allow my employer, the regional bank I front for, to hire the players who will soon be graduating. The banks will ultimately seed these school’s coffers with extra nuggets before the player actually buses into Yamagata and drops her bag in the company dorm; but what exactly changes hands and how much that might be is outside my purview.


I’m just the setter-upper, the warm-up act, the maitre d’ at the door ushering the customer to the table. For my exertions I receive bitter green tea, exchange name cards, make small talk about life in America and Japan, and try to avoid doing anything too offensive as to turn the school toward some other scout . . . something like walking on the carpet in muddy shoes or turning my nose at the quaint manners or the dank, darkly lit rooms in which I am received. My eyes continually shift from school administrator to player. She sits alongside demurely, ramrod straight, hands on knees, ungainly out of sweats. She wears the standard “sailor” uniform that school girls are required to wear; the garb that is a staple of porn, fueling so many middle-aged fantasies. These are young women with eyes cast downward, intimidated or else powerless to voice their true opinions about my visit. These kids are a newer form of picture bride being bargained off between powerful buyer and even more powerful seller. Once the package is delivered, the name cards exchanged, the pitch made, I’m back out on the road; another train platform, another slow trip to another hamlet, population 1,626. Another cold can of coffee or lemon soda to stave off the summer heat; another hot container of corn soup or Royal Milk Tea to brace against the biting winter chill.


Traveling in Tohoku means staying in small inns and sleeping on straw mats with a layer of foam or down in between, and pillows stuffed with hard beans. Being on the road in Tohoku means sipping rice wine, hot or cold depending on the state (each boasting that it features the best combination of rice and water; hence, the best crystal-clear brew in the country). Staying in Tohoku means sitting cross-legged at a squat table in the middle of a brown spackled room with rice-paper doors. In the winter the table has a heating unit underneath, with a heavy skirt attached to the sides, beneath which one can warm his legs. Moving through Tohoku means choosing from hundreds of hot springs and public baths, a way of life for many Japanese that is both an education and an acquired taste for foreigners. There are hot springs that can be shared with mountain monkeys, or else with the opposite sex. Many are available in the winter, with ice and snow encasing the basin, creating an inversion layer of grey fog a meter above the bath. Public baths signify communal living: shared spaces and public exposure, with towels draped strategically over breasts and genitals. After baths comes the food and drink to replenish the calories lost in sweat; the repasts, broken into waves of minimal courses comprised of microscopic dishes, artistic achievements which can be glorious for both palate and eyes.


Inn-eating in Tohoku varies depending on the locale, but in the standard family-run ryokan (country inn) the meal common meal is grilled fish in soy sauce, bean curd in a fermented soup, a bowl of rice, and some pickled radishes. If you’re lucky you might happen into a breaded cut of pork alongside a bed of diced raw cabbage. A good desert would be some green tea ice cream or else a sweetened paste of black beans dappling a gooey rice cake. If you’re really lucky, the innkeepers will engage you in conversation as they’re politely, efficiently stacking your empties on wooden trays and shuttling them into a kitchen, stage left.


In my earliest Tohoku years, before coaching the women, I oversaw the men’s college team, and my young family of four braved the road trips with me. My wife was adept at enticing stories from the inn proprietors: tales about a time in which the GIs held sway; how, back in 1946, during the first weeks of occupation, Tohoku’s locals hid the women and children, fearful of what the foreigners might do. Stories of how, once they realized that there was not going to be mass executions or rampant rapes — that the demons might actually be as noble as they claimed — the streets returned to normal. All the Americans seemed interested in doing was exchanging cigarettes and chocolates for priceless swords and precious kimonos. It was never clear in these tales the degree to which the occupied felt obliged or even coerced; how intimidated they were in turning over family heirlooms for mere shreds of smokeable weed and a few sweet morsels. The operant reaction seemed to be relief that extermination wasn’t on the agenda.

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