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Saturday, July 9, 2005

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Japan -- where the oldies are always golden


That pitter-patter you hear right now is probably only the remains of the rainy season slipping drop by drop from your eave spouts. Yet there is another melancholy drizzle in this land that falls all year round. It is that misty-eyed drool for all things past. Yes, this country is literally dripping with nostalgia.

The Japanese term is natsukashii, and to say it properly you must squeeze it out. You must sigh, you must squint, and you must strain the word slowly through a contented smile, the overall glow in your soul not far from that floating release behind that first gulp of cold beer at the end of a hot day.

Natsukashiiii -- the word stretches well. It is not stiff and awkward like its English cousins, "nostalgia" and "nostalgic." Those are terms with dust on them. They get unfolded from some seldom-opened closet in the back of the brain and then are applied from a respectful distance.

Not so with natsukashii. It is always up close and personal. And it doesn't come from the brain at all. It comes from the heart.

Natsukashii . . . a place, a person, a flavor, a snatch of lyric, a turn of phrase. The expression somehow fulfills that endless yearning that all Japanese have to belong, with nothing feeling quite so warm and fuzzy as the past.

Hence the Japanese court natsukashii experiences. They seek them out. Fortunately, they are not so hard to find.

Television: Odds are that at least once a week some show will present a dramatic countdown of hit songs of yesteryear. Or broadcast an interview with some wrinkled performer of days gone by. Or recap some classic program from the golden years of early TV. Since sponsors are rarely nostalgic about how they invest their money, the predominance of such shows can only mean one thing: People are watching.

Reunions: College reunions? OK. High school reunions? OK again. But junior high reunions? Elementary school reunions? Aren't those bending back a bit too far into the past? Yet the bending does not stop there. For many Japanese also enjoy kindergarten reunions, where adults swap stories about the good old days of finger paints and building blocks. Naturally, businesses have reunion parties too, including some with themes like "Wasn't it grand before we went bankrupt!" In that case, people reminisce about the time when they had jobs.

Museums: Museums focus on the past almost by definition, but Tokyo's museums offer an inordinate amount of displays aimed at life as it used to be. From the ADMT Advertising Museum at Shiodome, to the NHK Museum on Atago Hill, to the Tora-san spread out in Katsushiba, to the Showa Pavilion by Kitanomaru Park, to the Maritime Museum on Odaiba, and on to oodles more, the past is more than just presented. It is worshipped. It is adored.

Some of this may be because the history of the last century has indeed proved momentous. Another factor is that with the deep graying of the population there are many more people to remember times gone by than ever before. One simple reason why Japan doesn't let go of its 1950s image of Audrey Hepburn, for example, is that most of folks who haunted movie halls back then are still very much around.

Japan has a steamy affection for history in general. In a land devoid of natural resources, history is the one forever minable asset. The supply goes back hundreds and hundreds of years and can be tapped at a moment's notice. Whenever Japan feels bullied or ignored or defeated on the international stages of arts, politics or sports, it can always primp its feathers in the theater of history. It is the one place where Japan always feels secure. And history and nostalgia go hand in hand, not unlike rice and miso soup.

With the exception that while history can be cold and dry, nostalgia is always mushy and soft. This feature too strikes a chord with Japanese sensibilities, for despite its practiced samurai stoicism, this land just loves a sentimental cry. Emotions buried beneath the surface are often pumped straight to the top when the situation is primed with a splash of nostalgia. Tear-choked speeches extolling memories of school days, the venerable hometown or dear old mom or dad are almost staples of Japanese life.

Yet even all of this -- the under-the-surface passion, Japan's fascination with history, the lengthy memories of older generations and the Japanese quest to somehow, someway belong to someplace special -- do not quite add up to a full analysis of natsukashii and how it plucks deeply at most people's heartstrings.

"I don't understand," I tell my resident Japanese expert, my wife. "Explain to me, please, the Japanese concept of natsukashii. "

"Natsukashii," she says, "is one of those notions that is not meant to be understood, only experienced. It is the aftertaste of a relationship shared with other people -- or perhaps just stored within one person's heart. But only those who have actually touched those moments can feel the bond that the word expresses. You cannot explain it. You can only have been there."

"Like?"

"Like . . . our first apartment. We had almost no furniture and almost no money either. We lived on the floor and ate whatever was put on sale. You had a head of mussed-up hair and wore blue jeans with holes in them. I was a slender girl with hair past my shoulders. The sky was blue, the tree at our window was green and the air alone smelled sweet enough to live on. Do you remember?"

Yes, I tell her. I remember. And, sure enough, there is only one word that can properly describe the memory and the feeling it gives.

Natsukashii indeed.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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