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Sunday, Nov. 7, 1999


Hail Japan, for you will surely miss it one day

The foreign community in Japan is transient. People come and go. The funny thing is, when they go, they're usually ready. It's something biological: that need to return home.

Someday I'll leave Japan too, but not yet. I'd miss it too much. I'd miss the man at the train station who says "good morning" to every single person who passes through the ticket gate at rush hour. I'd miss the lady who comes over the loudspeaker in that sexy voice and says, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the shinkansen."

I'd miss the potted flowers that decorate the train stations and the main streets, and the fact that no one ever steals them. I'd miss the warmth of a yakitori shop in winter, and the coolness of soba in summer. I'd miss Pocky candy, Doraemon, free tissues and Kyoto in autumn.

I'd miss the subtle uniqueness of Japanese people: the guy who practices his golf swing in front of his house and the old lady who pushes her four-wheeled cart. I'd miss Japanese mothers, who clean off their child's canned beverage with a flowered handkerchief, hand-sew school bags for their child, and pay 10,000 yen a month for English classes for their 2-year old.

I'd miss the people in my neighborhood, like the old lady who wears Adidas running pants and watches the sea all day, and the guy who brushes his teeth in his pajamas for 20 minutes every evening while watching the sun set on the beach. I'd miss my neighbor, Ueda-san, who closes the windows of my house when it rains and I'm not home, who brings in my laundry for me when it rains even when I am home, and who never complains even though my cat sleeps on the flowers in her garden.

Where else can you witness such perplexities as elementary-school students who must wear shorts in winter, junior high-school girls who can go all day without ever changing their facial expression and college students who sleep through entire semesters of Japanese history class? This is Japan!

What other country offers so many myths? There is no other country where people work harder, longer hours than anywhere else in the world, yet stores don't open till 10 a.m. and are closed by 7 p.m. Where else is drinking socially accepted, expected and considered actual work?

Japan is a country where people love nature as much as they love concrete, and where garbage is separated but not necessarily recycled. It's a country where students study mathematics to no end, yet everyone uses a calculator to add up the price of two apples at the store.

I'd miss the vibrant pulse of Japanese cities: the flashing pachinko lights, dark alleys brightened by the glow of red lanterns outside restaurants and men who hawk everything from movie tickets to prostitutes wearing suits. I'd miss Osaka dialect and the way the people, every Sunday, line up two hours before a "manzai" performance at the Yoshimoto theater, then once the doors open sprint to get front-row seats. I'd miss the integrity of the homeless people in Tokyo, who go to the public bath every evening and have nothing but the clothes on their back -- a business suit.

I'd miss the safety of Japan: the way men leave their briefcases sitting behind them on the ground while they buy a train ticket, the fact that criminals plead guilty and that guns are illegal. I'd miss the thrill of going to the bank, withdrawing 200,000 yen, then later that day stopping by the travel agent to pay cash for my international plane ticket.

I'd miss those "only in Japan" moments like when you spot a couple at a hotel restaurant on their first date discussing an arranged marriage, or when a Japanese friend just treated you and others to a 50,000 yen meal and afterward says, "Don't mention it." Japan is the only country where people offer everything from coins to women's brassieres at Shinto shrines, tote giant wooden phalli at Shinto festivals, and leave 10,000 yen melons to rot at grave sites.

Japan is the country where I've learned to give, be tolerant and put others before me.

So while others feel the biological need to go home, I'll stay on to learn a little more. Besides, someone has to stay and teach English to students wearing T-shirts that say, "For your precious gardening life."

Visit the Japan Lite home page at www.amychavez.com or e-mail comments to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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