Here and there – Japan

I have always enjoyed my visits to Japan, and at the same time I have always felt an outsider, a true foreigner.  It’s not just language.  Perhaps I can explain by way of a simple example.  I wanted to eat one evening.  I was given a recommendation for a restaurant nearby, and the meal and the setting were exceptional.  The food was prepared with care and delicacy, the bowls, chopsticks, plates, teacups, everything was beautiful.  The restaurant was wonderfully appointed, the colours, furniture, layout were exquisite.  A stunning night out.  When I left, I got a bit turned around and rather than return the way I came, I went in a different direction, and quickly found myself alongside the restaurant, facing the back.  Customers were not expected to be here.  This side lane was disgusting, with garbage shoved up against the wall, food spilling out, a stinking mess.  Inside and outside, two very different places, almost as if the Japanese are schizophrenic, but then I realised that I am the one who is schizophrenic!  This is Japan, and I can’t choose to separate out some parts to suit my cultural expectations.

I have been lucky enough to go to Japan on several occasions.  I would always learn about myself, as I did in three of those visits, in 1991, in 1995 and in 2006.

In 1991, married for a second time, my wife and I and our very young daughter were in Tokyo.    As usual, I had work meetings.  However, on the first night in Japan, we decided to eat in, at the hotel’s restaurant.  As our daughter was only 6 months old, I ordered a selection of steamed vegetables for her.  As my wife was anxious about a cuisine she didn’t know well, we ordered a mixture of dishes, some more ‘western’ than others.  We tucked in, enjoyed the warm sake in ceramic ‘glasses’, and it was only after forty minutes or so I realised my daughter’s food hadn’t appeared.  She was content, but she would need food soon

I asked our waiter when we could expect the steamed vegetables.  He was very surprised.  Taken aback might be a better description.  He explained they had already been served, at the beginning of our meal.  With a great deal of embarrassment, I realised what had happened.  A tiny and very elegant dish of steamed vegetables had been delivered to our table.  I had thought it was a bonus appetiser – and I’d eaten it!  I can’t remember how we dealt with my faux pas, but I suspect I simply ordered the same dish for a second time.

Apart from my successfully hoovering up my daughter’s meal, the incident left us with a muddle of thoughts.  Had the serving staff seen what had happened?  Did they realise I had stolen my daughter’s meal?  Was I offering yet further information about the ignorance and gross behaviour of westerners.  On this last point, I remembered the wife of a friend, a student of Japanese, who had been in Tokyo for a visit by herself a few years before, staying for a couple of months.  She had loved her visit and relished her ability to speak in Japanese with reasonable success.  Towards the end of the visit, she had been in a restaurant, and it was unusually quiet.  She overheard some people talking at the next table – about her:  she was described by the locals as a typical example of a westerner:  “they stink”!  It was to colour her view of a language and a country she loved for the rest of the time I knew her.

Our meal had been beautifully prepared and served:  more to the point, my daughter’s steamed vegetables were offered in an elegant pyramid of items, so stunning I had wished I had photographed the dish (but back then we didn’t take photographs of dishes served in a restaurant!).  It was presented like a work of art, and I treated it as ‘just food’.  Origami executed with a cooked carrot, broccoli, cauliflower and a variety of beans.

It was food that played a role again when I was Japan in 1995,  once again attending meetings and giving a talk in Tokyo.  I am sure you are familiar with these exercises.  Spread over a few days, there is a conference, combined with meetings of the organisation’s committee scheduled to take place on a couple of mornings, and then a post-conference one-day trip and dinner to conclude the visit.  On that final day I would have loved to go back to Nara, travel up there on the ‘Romance Train’, and then wander around that sacred place, but the local organisers had decided on a far more exciting itinerary.  We were going to see Mt Fuji.

In the morning, we were taken by coach to Hakone, at the southern end of a lake.  There in a rather pleasant restaurant, we had lunch.  The lunch turned out to be a disappointment.  Around us, similar groups were eating, and the Bento box they had been served looked delicious.  However, when our meal arrived, we were served trout and salad (and potato chips, I think?).  The trout was very nice, but that Bento box looked even better.  I tried to swap my meal, but to no avail.  I’d faced this problem before, on the famous Romance Train going to Nara a year before.  On that journey we were served breakfast.  I don’t know what the others got, but, as a westerner, I was given an Egg McMuffin!!

In Hakone we were escorted over to the dockside and boarded a replica 17th Century Japanese ship.  This took us up Lake Ashi, passing by some shrines.  After arriving at Hanaori at the north end of the lake, we were taken up to the sulphur hot springs.  That was fun, especially as this was October, and already cold:  hot springs were a good idea.  Now we confronted the local delicacy, eggs!  These were chicken eggs that had been cooked in the hot sulphur gas.  The shell was an almost black, and inside was a hard-cooked egg, which seemed to have absorbed some of the sulphur, too.  Black and horrible.  However, we were assured that eating an egg would prolong our lives (by five, or seven, or ten years? – I can’t remember).

I ate my egg, and then asked if I ate a second, would my life be doubly extended?  Now Japanese politeness took over, our guide was embarrassed, confused and unable to answer, and I was equally incapable of explaining to her that my question was meant to be humorous.  Western deprecating humour didn’t work well in Japan!  We left the sulphur springs and a troubled guide.  I am sure she had a lot to say about westerners.  Finally, we got back in the coach to visit Mt Fuji, Fujisan Kengamine.  By the time we arrived it was already dusk, and the mountain had a good covering a snow:  the combination of the late day light and the snow left Fuji looking quite spectacular.  Unfortunately, seeing Mt Fuji years later, I couldn’t separate the image of the old volcano from thoughts of smelly sulphur-cooked eggs!

My second wife died in 2006.  After the church service, we held a wake and my youngest daughter set up a table with origami sheets and asked everyone to help her fold paper cranes. She had been inspired by the story of ‘Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes’, a children’s book based on the true story of Sadako Sasaki who lived in Hiroshima and was two years old when the atomic bomb was dropped there.  Sadako set out to fold one thousand paper cranes, inspired by the legend that if you fold 1,000 cranes you will be granted a wish.  If you don’t know the story, please read it!  In addition to those at the wake, Julia organised a cancer fundraiser at school, and, with friends, they folded more paper cranes.  In 2007 she took at least 1,000 paper cranes to the Japan on a school trip and placed them at the special memorial next to the statue of Sadako with a golden crane, which stands in the Hiroshima Peace Park.

I met my daughter in Tokyo, at the end of her school trip.  After a few days I went down to Hiroshima.  When you arrive at the Peace Park, the first, very striking sight is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the ruined remains of what had been the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall.  The force of the bomb was downwards, and this allowed the walls of the hall to stand, and even the skeleton of the dome on top.  Standing on the eastern side of the Motoyasu River, it faces the main park area on the island where the river divides.  It is the iconic image of the Peace Park, a concrete and steel remnant, devoid of life, an empty shell.

The Peace Memorial was controversial for many years.  One party to the controversy saw it as an essential reminder of what had happened, many of these the hibakusha, explosion affected persons, a carefully chosen designation, rather than describing them as seizonsha, survivors.  The group wanted the ruin as a dedicated symbol, a reminder of what happened, particularly as it stands close to the river which had been full of dead and burnt bodies.  Others wanted to get rid of what they saw as a depressing sight, the land cleared and rebuilt, just as had been done for so much of the city.  It was, I think, a kind of Japanese wisdom that decided to leave the ruined building as it was, knowing the tower and the walls would slowly crumble of their own accord over the years.  So far, it has changed very little in 75 years.

Most visitors cross over the Motoyasu Bridge to walk into the main park area.  As you come off the bridge and turn right, to the north, you see the Children’s Peace Monument, dedicated to the children who died when the bomb exploded.  The monument comprises that statue of Sadako I mentioned before, a girl with outstretched arms and a folded paper crane rising above her, the statue based on the true story of Sadako Sasaki.  After her death, Sadako’s friends and schoolmates published a collection of letters, sold in order to raise funds to build a memorial to her and to all of the other children who had died from the effects of the atomic bomb. The statue was unveiled in 1999.  Paper cranes are often left at the statue, as my daughter had done, and every year, on Obon Day, thousands of people leave paper cranes to remember their ancestors.  When we visited the memorial I saw, at the foot of the statue, a plaque which reads: “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace on Earth.”

A short distance from the Children’s Peace Monument is the Peace Bell, a large Japanese bell which anyone is encouraged to ring for world peace.  It has a lovely deep and sonorous tone.  The surface of the bell has a map of the world, with three inscriptions.  One is in Greek, and is from Socrates, “Know yourself”, (the bell was donated by the Greek Embassy).  The quotation is repeated in Japanese.  The third is a quotation in Sanskrit from the Longer Sukhävatïvyüha Sütra, a Buddhist text, which has been translated as “The lord of vast light, incomparable and infinite, has illuminated all Buddha countries in all the quarters, he has quieted passions, all sins and errors, he has quieted the fire in the walk of hell”.

There are many other moving and impressive monuments in the Park, including the Memorial Cenotaph, which holds all the names of the people killed by the bomb, and the site of the memorial ceremony held every 6 August.  The cenotaph carries a Japanese epitaph which translates as  “please rest in peace, for [we/they] shall not repeat the error.” The sentence could be interpreted as either “we shall not repeat the error” or as “they shall not repeat the error”. The wording was chosen to recognise the victims of Hiroshima without politicising the issue.  The author, Professor Saika, provided an English translation, “Let all the souls here rest in peace for we shall not repeat the evil.”  To resolve any ambiguity, on November 3, 1983, an explanatory plaque in English was added in order to convey the author’s intent that ‘we’ refers to ‘all humanity’, not specifically the Japanese or Americans, and that the ‘error’ is the ‘evil of war’.  Any call for peace requires such sensitivity.

The Peace Park is both memorable and profoundly moving.  Among the many buildings and memorials, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, is particularly important, and especially hard to confront.  To quote from the Museum’s English guide:  “The Peace Memorial Museum collects and displays belongings left by the victims, photos, and other materials that convey the horror of that event, supplemented by exhibits that describe Hiroshima before and after the bombings and others that present the current status of the nuclear age.  Each of the items displayed embodies the grief, anger, or pain of real people.  Having now recovered from the A-bomb calamity, Hiroshima’s deepest wish is the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the realization of a genuinely peaceful international community.”  If anything, the brochure understates how challenging it is to go through the museum.

Unsparing in what it shows, no wonder that in 1982, the Mayor of Hiroshima called for ‘Mayors for Peace’.  By 1 June 2020, 7,907 cities from 164 countries and regions had signed up to join Mayors for Peace, committing to its aim to abolish nuclear weapons.  Included in that total are 90 cities in Australia (including Melbourne), an astonishing 1,017 in Iran, 682 in Germany, but only 218 in the US.  The relatively low level of commitment by American cities is shown in the participation from North Carolina, which includes the major university towns of Chapel Hill and Durham, and Creedmoor, a tiny city close to Durham, but not included are Raleigh, the state Capital, nor Charlotte, the largest city in the state.

The aesthetic of the Peace Park is like so much you see in Japan.  It has been thought through with enormous care.  It seems simple in many ways, but it is a simplicity that emphasises what is important.  Like the Japanese gardens and shrines in many cities, it is a quiet place, designed for reflection.  I have been there three times now, and each time the experience is even more emotional.  I have sat in the park, with Japanese visitors nearby, and always experience the Park’s unspoken acknowledgment: ‘please, never again’.  I haven’t been ashamed to cry, and I see others doing the same (and I confess I try to visit when overseas tourists will be less dominant).  Some people want to tell me the Japanese are not like us, skilled at maintaining a ‘face’:  all I can say is that at the Peace Park I see adults moved like me – and children enjoying ringing the bell, as children would anywhere.

I have been to several places where there are monuments to those killed in war.  Some are like the Cenotaph in London and the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.  In Europe, there are the cemeteries with row upon row of gravestones, often quiet places for reflection, just like the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.  There are cathedrals with the remains for military standards hanging from the walls, some hundreds of years old.  For Japan, like Germany, there is the burden of having been the aggressors whose behaviour has brought them shame.  However, I feel that, at least at Hiroshima, they have got it right.  It’s not about blame and it’s not about pride.  It is about Donne’s words in his Meditation 17:

No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main …
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

Steamed vegetables for a young child, sulphur eggs for a longer life, and the Peace Park.  They are all part of how Japan nourishes my soul.  Like every country, it has its dark side and some history best forgotten.  At the same time, here in Australia we can learn from what the Japanese do so well.  Despite all that has happened there, it is a spiritual place, something we should aspire to achieve create as well.  Like the Japanese, we have a lot to reconcile.