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Sunday, June 9, 2002


The walls that connect us

"Good fences make good neighbors." Which means -- if we extrapolate this bit of Robert Frost wisdom a little further -- Japan should have some of the best neighbors in the world.

For it certainly has some of the best fences.

In fact, arriving from a prairie town of rolling lawns and open driveways, the first feature of Japanese life that crept into my soul and made me feel "Nope, I'm not in Kansas anymore" was the "wall" that surrounded nearly each and every house.

Past the neon flicker of the commercial districts and the futon-tongued balconies of the high-rises, deep into the maze of residential "my homes," stand the ever present ramparts of Japanese suburbia -- each residence contained in a box, every house fortified by a barrier of reinforced concrete and a gate of molded iron.

To a newcomer like I was then, it was almost as if the Japanese had taken the phrase "a man's home is his castle" literally. Peek down any street, and there they were: miniature castles, all egg-cartoned together, side by side.

"I like the walls," says my Japanese wife. "They make me feel secure."

My question is, "Why?"

For the walls are not high enough to stave off burglars or even block out the curious eyes of neighbors and passersby.

In my first year in Japan, I can remember being awakened by a whispered voice near my window. I rolled over in my bedding to see my neighbor's young daughter with a group of school friends. She was peering in over the wall and reporting on my movements.

"Now he's turning over. Now he's making a face. Now he's sitting up. Now he's . . . run!"

Other times I have had neighbors phone with helpful information like:

"You've left your back window open."

"You've got clothes hanging in the rain."

"Why not air out that bedding? It's been lying in your room for weeks."

How would they know all that unless their eyes had roamed over the castle parapets?

The stone walls do not hold back the other senses either. When there is yakiniku sizzling on my neighbor's tabletop, my taste buds know it. When my other neighbor chooses to talk to her plants at 5 in the morning, I feel like I'm right there among the geraniums.

Walls or no walls, the homes are too close together for true privacy. In truth, I feel better insulated when in the Midwest, where beyond the occasional hedge and picket fence, often the only barrier between one home and the next is a swath of grass.

"But houses there are set back from the road," my wife says. "You're forgetting the bustle on Japanese streets, the danger from cars and motor scooters."

Perhaps . . . but on our winding Tokyo avenue, we typically welcome only two or three cars a day. And usually but one scooter -- the mailman's.

On other streets, rather than feel protected by the walls, I feel trapped. If the oncoming car swerves, I have no place to dodge it. It's just me, the car . . . and the confounded wall.

Safety tells me that in an earthquake-prone land, such walls are, in themselves, dangerous. Practicality says that in a country so desperate for space, they are a peculiar luxury. Aesthetics declares that in a place forever keen on shape and color, they are a marked displeasure to the eye.

"I still like them," says my wife. "I find them calming."

Maybe this is the genetic heritage of an island nation. Japanese have always been "walled in" by the sea. Perhaps it is part of their identity to be closed off from the outside.

Or maybe the wall helps better delineate the line between "us" and "them" -- the concept of uchi and soto that dominates the mentality of all Japanese groups and often the nation as a whole.

Or maybe the wall hints at that character trait that all people have, but that the Japanese are fond of touting as uniquely their own -- of a surface personality and an interior one. The former is displayed only to the open streets of society. The latter stays safely and secretly hidden behind the mortar walls of the psyche.

"Yes, maybe it's all those things," agrees my wife. "Or none of them.

"To me, the wall out front clarifies our place within the whole. It connects us -- like a thread -- to the family next door and the family beyond them and so on. It's all one chain and our section is but a link. It doesn't symbolize the exclusion of the outside; it shows our relationship to it. That is why it's soothing. That is why I like it.

"I look at that wall and know -- if something happens -- the neighbors are right on the other side."

Neighbors that routinely offer to help in different ways. They give treats to our dog, fill our entrance way with tangerines, accept our packages when we are out, note any strange goings-on and -- yes -- even shower encouragement on our plants.

So in the end, maybe Japanese neighbors are the best. And maybe it is all because of those connecting walls.

I am not so sure this is what Robert Frost had in mind. But on the road less traveled of expatriate life, good neighbors are essential.

So keep your Japanese walls well-mended. It's the neighborly thing to do.

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