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Saturday, Dec. 10, 2005


Of countries big and small

"It's a big country," rings an oft-repeated line from a 1958 Gregory Peck-Burl Ives Western about love, honor and territory in the old West, a film appropriately titled "The Big Country."

For America is indeed a big country, and perhaps especially so from the viewpoint of the notoriously rabbit-hutched Japanese. In fact, when listing America's most attractive features, most Japanese are quick to cite its enormous physical scope.

Yet after almost three decades in the more geographically challenged of these two lands, I admit I do not feel boxed into a "bento." True, my house is so small that we can only invite small guests. Plus our neighbors are so close that when one sneezes we have to wipe our windows. Nonetheless, I have always held the impression that Japan is a big country too.

I admit this feeling might be a side effect of congested city traffic. My body has been trained from youth to think that when I rumble away in a train or a car for more than an hour, I should have traveled at least 50 miles. Here, traffic lights, narrow streets, multiple train stops and convoluted rail routes tease my body, but in the end cannot fool my eyes. I may feel I have covered 50 miles when riding into central Tokyo, but the odometer still reads only 30 -- and make that 30 km, the equivalent of less than 20 miles.

When the earthquake struck Nagano last year, a friend in the States asked how many miles Nagano was from Tokyo, and I answered him with the firm conviction of a learned resident and said, "I have no idea."

But then added, "Maybe, three, four hundred miles or more." For it certainly feels that far. Yet that deadly shaker occurred only 150 miles away, almost in Tokyo's backyard.

Mountains add to the sensation of distance. More than a scattering of islands, Japan is a line of shoulder-rubbing mountains rising gregariously from the sea. Hop any distance from the coastal mega-towns, and the mountainous landscape compels adjectives. Raw? Well, no. Pristine and uninhabited? No again, yet not overdeveloped either. Enticing? Spacious? At times even panoramic? Yes, yes and yes.

If you don't buy this, take a car across central Kyushu, or across Hokkaido, or through Tohoku, or head anywhere into the rural hinterland and be prepared to have your eyes pop open. So indeed, the mountain peaks add considerably to my sense of Japan's size.

Then there is the "ribbon" factor. Japan may have space equal only to that of California, but it packages that space rather differently. Traveling from Hokkaido to Okinawa compares well with going from Maine to Florida. No small distance there, especially when stretched out ribbonlike in an archipelago.

If that comparison fails to impress, try this one: the size of Japan is roughly equivalent to my personal ignorance, which -- like space -- is thought to be expanding. Or at least it was equivalent to my ignorance when I first arrived.

For in those days I knew nothing of Japanese geography. Every road marker and every rail sign confused me. Place names sounded like . . . well, like Japanese. Which I could not comprehend, so I could only imagine how far things were.

"Today," my wife would tell me, "we're visiting Shirinashihama." Shirinashihama? The name struck fear. Where in the hell was Shirinashihama? Would we have enough gas? Would we make it before dark? Or even before the first snow? Who could tell?

As it happens, Shirinashihama was only 10 minutes away. But it could have been light-years for all I knew. Such was the impact of my rock of ignorance.

To soften that rock, my wife purchased me a wooden puzzle map, the kind of toy that precocious Japanese kids can solve in just minutes. So I did my best not to show them up.

America at least provides a few states for puzzle dummies. You know, nice simple states like Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, which even a mannequin could place on a map. But have you ever tried to figure out the shape of Gunma, Tochigi or Yamanashi? They all look like sandbags with their stuffings kicked out. Were these really prefectures? Or just scribbles drawn by some nut? And where in the world -- let alone Japan -- could those pieces fit?

But I was not about to let Japanese tykes make me look bad, at least more than once. Through Yankee ingenuity -- and a hammer -- I was soon able to solve the puzzle in ways that they could not.

Yet my map lessons slowly worked and, even without that hammer, I sort of kind of learned Japanese geography. The lesson that has sunk in the farthest is that this land is bigger than it looks.

Two years into marriage, my wife and I took a trip to the States and Greyhound-bused our way from L.A. to Houston. My wife's chief comment -- right after "My butt hurts!" -- was this: "It's a big country!" For a while there she even swore she saw Gregory Peck and Burl Ives rolling along with the tumbleweeds.

To kill those highway hours, I brought -- heh, heh -- a puzzle map of the United States. Hammerless, my wife could only rely on her samurai ingenuity. Piece by piece -- coolly, methodically, stoically -- she fit together Utah, Nevada, Wyoming . . . and then gave up.

"I did not! I also got Colorado and both Dakotas! Plus both Iowas too!"

There you have it. America might seem large to many Japanese simply because they don't know it too well.

From L.A. to Houston is not so different than from Maine to Florida or from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Anyway you cut it, it's a long haul. Long enough to say and say again, "It's big country" as often as you want.

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

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