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Saturday, July 11, 2009

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The lost decade


Dame Senility may one day cloak my eyes with her perplexing veils of memory gone astray, but when she does, I will be ready.

For — in a way — I have been there, done that.

My wife too. In fact, she met Dame Senility just the other night after supper, in the guise of NHK.

For NHK adores memory lane, where a budget-friendly stroll requires only videotapes and an announcer. This time the national broadcaster was serving one of its favorite after-dinner dishes, a medley of hit songs from yesteryear.

Yet, when the program wound into the early '80s, my wife blinked like a slot machine gone wild, until her eyelids settled on lemons.

"Who are these singers? What are these songs? I was living then! How come I don't know!?"

Then the veil lifted and the answer broke clear. We were not in Japan at that time and instead resided in the States, where I was busy hacking my way through the jungle of graduate school.

Meanwhile, my wife stayed home in our student apartment, honed her English on American television and — uh, what else? — Oh, yes! — had a pair of babies.

So, while the years were fertile in a family sense, in a Japanese cultural sense, they remain but a hole, a jagged gap in her memory. At the time we had no media contact with Japan whatsoever — no papers, no TV, no news, nothing.

They are my wife's "rosuto years" and references to Japanese events from those days always leave her befuddled.

"That happened?" she might ask in regard to some distant news bit. "Really?" The scandals, catastrophes and personalities of that time seem more fiction to her than history.

I share that cultural hole, but grant it little attention, as my interests shift in the other direction — toward the States — where I have lost years of my own. All of us do, those who crisscrossed back and forth between cultures in the pre-Internet, pre-satellite TV days.

We cannot help but throw blank stares at one side or the other. It's not quite senility, but it's not comfortable either, to be out of step memory-wise with your own home.

My lost years number 10, an entire decade, all spent in rural Kyushu where I was also bereft of armed forces radio. That decade is cleft by my graduate school period in the States, but on either end of the divide lies a wasteland of knowledge about my homeland.

Japan has its own lost decade, the protracted slowdown that followed the collapse of the bubble economy. But my lost decade focuses on memory, not money.

Jimmy Carter, the peanut guy? Yes, I remember him. His presidency was . . . Uh, what was it?

"Forgettable," quips a friend. "Even for those who remember."

Reagan I can recall, or at least his first term. Which means I remember his promises well enough. They linger in my memory like a vision of jellybeans — colorful to look at but perhaps not so satisfying as an eight-year meal.

Major events Stateside made the news here too, naturally. Yet so not much as domestic news, nor all of the soft cultural underside — TV, music and sports.

"Tell me," I ask my friend, "Did the '80s even have music, the latter half?"

He shakes his head. "Other than Springsteen, no."

The thing about having lost years is that I am not sure he is joking.

And in sports? "Did the Cubs win the pennant? Tell me they did."

Yet I wave him off before he can respond. For some truths are universal and can defy any gap.

Connecting with American TV was the most difficult of all. For years I thought the "Fonz" was some sort of muppet. And that "Alf" was a visitor from Sweden. Imagine my surprise when reruns of "Alf" hit Japanese TV.

In my lost years, I was forever bewildered whenever a friend or relative referred to American television. Worse, though, was when a combination of quick trips back and videotapes from home eventually filled the holes.

So now I could comment on programs like the "A-Team." The trouble was I was always years behind the curve. Go ahead. Just try discussing Mr. T. when people are hooked on "Baywatch."

DVDs, Cable TV, YouTube and the Internet now cover everything. Younger generations of travelers perhaps sense no holes whatsoever in their pop cultural heritage. The world today is a tighter place than it was 15 years ago.

And that is bad news, perhaps, for those who would actually like some help forgetting people and events like George Bush, Britney Spears, reality TV and more.

Or, alas, that the Chicago Cubs still haven't won the pennant. Where is Dame Senility when you need her?



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