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Saturday, Nov. 25, 2006


A land without similes

If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times.

"What's it like over there?"

The question flows from family, friends and acquaintances -- everyone from my second cousin to an old fraternity pal to some guy crammed in the seat next to me on a puddle jumper over mid-America. And many others.

"What's it like over there?" -- With "over there" being "Japan" and "it" being life.

The words always make me pause. Because . . . well, what is it like? The question is simple. The answer is not.

What's more, I know most questioners don't truly care. They're only making small talk. As soon as I begin to ramble forth my reply, their eyes glaze with distance. My cousin stops me to say he has to go feed his hogs. My frat buddy tells me he can still chug an entire pitcher of beer, just like in the old days. "Wanna see?" And the fellow trapped beside me in the airplane suddenly turns to the window and says, "Hey, those cars down there look like toys. Isn't that fascinating?"

Yet, the question keeps coming. Someone presents it anew each and every time I return to the States. So . . . what is the answer? What's it like?

And my answer is . . . I can't say.

Part of the difficulty comes in the shape in which the question arrives. "What is it like?" The form begs for some sort of simile or metaphor, some comparative handle to which the questioner can latch onto and reach enlightenment through association.

You know, something such as: Life is . . . a box of chocolates, a rolling stone, a 10-speed bicycle, a zesty meat sauce (in which you are the bay leaf). And so on.

But across oceans, cultures, languages and longitude, somehow all the similes break down and metaphors fail to make ends meet. All figures of speech are either much too slim or much too fat. Nothing fits.

Sure, you can present friends and family with an explanation of what Japan is like, but is that really Japan? Or is it just some flashy word wizardry that you, the creative wizard, have concocted out of dashes of images and pinches of hyperbole, an illusion of life that may kiss the question -- What's it like over there? -- but doesn't come close to bedding it.

Because it's a question that cannot be answered with words. You can indeed paint a picture of Japan, but the only way to make listeners really understand is to yank them into the frame.

My first hour in this land I spent waiting for a bus at old Haneda Airport in early September 1974. I stayed inside because outside the air tasted like freshly burned rubber. I preferred the indoor flavor -- which was more like socks dipped in sweat.

In the waiting lounge not a single seat was open. People were wilting into every chair and fanning themselves with kerchiefs and newsprint, like from some courtroom scene in the Deep South.

Except here the object of attention was not some perspiring lawyer in suspenders, but rather a large TV screen on which two near naked men, very much like my cousin's hogs, slapped themselves around a dirt circle, while someone screeched at them in falsetto. Wrestlers, they were, and they were sweating too, only in their case their pores ran like hoses, and the water made their skin shine like wet inner tubes. I found I couldn't watch too much.

So I went to use the toilet, where I found a hole in the floor. Sort of like -- a hole in the floor.

Now such a description is fun to remember and even more fun to play around with. It may have been the valid view of a 20-year-old, but it is not the reality of all those people waiting in the heat of early autumn, while Takamiyama, Wajima and others wrestled on TV. Maybe the image resonates for those who have been in similar situations, but the heavy truth remains that my vision only captures my blindered sense of my surroundings.

Blindered by language, blindered by inexperience, blindered by ignorance

There is only one way to answer the question of what Japan is like:

You have to live here. You have to learn the language. You have to deal with the politics and pressures of a work place. You have to wrangle with bureaucracy. You have to absorb the Japanese media. You have to grow accustomed to Japanese rooms, roads and railways. You have to enter relationships.

And even then the words will escape you.

Maybe that's like anyplace. Or maybe it's not. Maybe this island nation with its unique vernacular and customs and its centuries of isolation is not like anyplace else. Maybe it's a place where similes just don't work. Or at least not for all people at all levels.

Maybe it's like that old story you like to tell. You know, the one that makes you snort for air, but leaves everybody else just staring in silence. The one where I guess you had to be there.

"What's it like over there?"

My wife, a Japanese, and my sons, brought to this land while still in diapers, cannot answer the question either. Of course, Japanese has it own figurative speech, but words of illumination do not come easy.

You have to be here. A reason perhaps why most foreign depictions of Japan are somehow hollow in their descriptions.

"What's it like over there?"

This time the speaker is a store clerk, amused by my Japanese credit card.

"Japan? It's kind of like, you know, wearing wet underwear to a mime show."

He stares. "Excuse me?"

"Or maybe it's like jumping from an airplane and free falling blissfully with your eyes closed, only to suddenly discover that your chute won't open. The shock jars you awake just in time to realize, hey, it's not a dream. It's real."


I shrug. "What can I say? That's Japan."

For I might as well be silly. If he really wants to know, no straight answer will suffice.

Except maybe this: "Here's my address. Come visit and see."

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