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Saturday, Sept. 18, 2010


Hey, you — go home!

This is one of the few modern countries in the world where you can go back in time without ever leaving the current century.

In Japan there are heaps of white elephants to explore, places that used to be frequented and no longer are, crumbling buildings and rusting, steel structures that no one bothers to tear down. And many of these stand right next to new flashing neon pachinko parlors, shopping malls or brand new 20-story apartment buildings. It's an eclectic mix of the "passed" and present.

Japan's "Lost Generation" — those between 25 and 35 years old — would more aptly be named the "Rust Generation." They're the first ones to have to deal with the fallout of the bubble era. But the best thing about calling them the Rust Generation would be the likelihood that the name will be mistranslated somewhere down the line as the Lust Generation.

Japan's islands have long been a source of tearful TV documentaries that focus on aging populations and families abandoned by adult children who have left the boring countryside for the modern, gleaming cities with more job opportunities. And now, as if there is not enough to worry about already, people worry about Japan's shrinking population. I don't have a problem with it though. I can think of a lot of things we could use smaller people for such as fixing pipes in places that are hard to get to.

It's certainly true that mostly older people live on the islands in the Seto Inland Sea. You hardly see young people on our island these days, which makes me wonder: Shouldn't young people be visiting their grandparents more often? Just once a year at Obon isn't enough. Heck, in the U.S. it's over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house we go!

But something makes the Inland Sea islands seem too remote to visit. It's not like the islands have moved any further away from the mainland over the past 50 years though. I suspect it's the emotional distance that has increased. To people on the mainland, the islands have become so irrelevant, it's as if they don't exist.

Even in the U.S, we all say things like, "I've been meaning to get over to Pleasant Hill for years, just to see what's there, but haven't gotten around to it." In other words, we never will get around to it because deep down, we already know what is there: not much.

So, when you walk around these islands, you'd think the locals would sneer at you thinking, "Yeah, you've been meaning to get over here for years, we know," aware that most of the world has forgotten them. But to the contrary, they are open and friendly and just delighted to see anyone other than their own family members for once. It could be the first time in years they've seen someone they don't know. Think of all the cakes and green tea they've been saving up in their houses for guests who never come!

Japanese people often ask me why I moved to a small island of just 651 people and 10 vending machines. "There is a bridge, isn't there?" they say expectantly. There are so many bridges connecting islands to the mainland these days, it makes bridgeless islands like ours seem even more remote. "Whoa, no bridge!? You mean you have to take a ferry to get there?" they say, astounded, as if you had to get a boat license and drive the ferry yourself. I assure people that it takes no special talent to ride a ferry to an island. There are no special qualifications, height or age requirements. And kids are even half price! You'd think everyone would go. But people still shake their heads and say, "Taihen!" assuring me that they feel my pain.

I realize that, in many ways, I am living the Japanese dream: hardship, every day! I could make millions begging on the streets of the mainland telling woeful tales about my hard life on an island and how I couldn't pass the ferry driver's test and therefore must swim back and forth every day. They'd take pity on me and throw their pension payments at me, or maybe even send them electronically so I wouldn't have to swim all the way to the mainland to pick them up. But the truth is I'm happy on this little island where everyone is old and friendly. It makes me think there must be other foreigners out there living far from their families who wouldn't mind adopting some grandparents during their stay in Japan. On visits to the countryside, they could help them out in exchange for cakes and green tea.

This weekend Japan celebrates Respect for the Aged Day. On our island, we celebrate by hosting a performance especially for the old folks.

But wouldn't it be so much better if the government started a "Hey, you — go home!" campaign to get young people to go back to their hometowns for this long weekend rather than just taking another holiday? The "Hey, you — go home!" campaign would encourage people to use the time to explore the countryside as well as to bring them more in touch with elderly relatives and their lifestyles that have been left behind.

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