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November 19, 2007
Japan, Part 4: They
All Look Alike, So Start Sending the Nasty E-Mails
I’m going to go way out on a limb here, and say that most Japanese
people look a lot alike.
Now before you start sending me nasty e-mails explaining everything that
is terrible about what I just said, please read on. Then go ahead
and send me those nasty e-mails. I enjoy pretty much any attention I can
Anyway, the thing I found most striking during the time we spent in
Japan was that we were visiting an island where virtually all of the
inhabitants are members of a single race. We were in Saga, which is a
moderate-sized city in a very rural area, a long way from the
international influences of Tokyo. Saga is kind of like the Japanese
version of Fort Wayne, Indiana – it will probably never be considered
the cosmopolitan epicenter of the nation. Any nation.
But you would be hard-pressed to walk through any shopping center in
Fort Wayne without seeing a mix of white, African-American, Hispanic and
Asian people, not to mention body variations like tall, short, fat,
skinny and so on. And this variety of sizes, shapes and colors is
something so normal to our American experience that we don’t even notice
In fact, within my immediate family we have blue eyes, brown eyes, hazel
eyes, light skin (the kind that sizzles in the sun), olive skin, blonde
hair, brown hair, red hair and my own RTG hair (for all you
acronym-phobic Luddites out there, RTG hair is “Rapidly Turning Gray.”)
But after just a few days in Japan, I found myself startled any time I
spotted someone who was more than about five feet, seven inches tall, or
who had anything other than black hair and brown eyes. Someone told me
that out of the millions of people living in the general vicinity of
Saga, there were something like 27 foreigners.
And how do they know this? On any given day in rural America, no one has
any idea how many Mexicans might be living out behind the barn.
As invited foreigners in Japan, we were treated with great kindness and
respect. We stayed with a Buddhist monk and his family who took us in
warmly, as if we were oversized and slightly dull-witted family members.
But it was always clear, in ways that went way beyond mispronouncing the
simplest Japanese words and bashing our heads on the tops of door
frames, that we were not the kind of people their world was designed
for. For example, they would stare in open-mouthed amazement at the
sheer quantities of raw fish and seaweed we could consume, and they had
an intense clinical interest in my “big biru bella.”
For those few of my readers who are not completely conversational in
Japanese, “biru” is “beer,” one of the first and most useful Japanese
words I learned. “Bella” apparently refers to that part of the American
physique found just above (and sometimes flopping over) the belt buckle.
The Japanese also have a very different sense of personal history than
we do. Chaiko, our hostess, showed us a small shrine that pays specific
tribute to the lives of at least the last seven generations of Buddhist
monks in her husband’s family line. It seems like they can trace
ancestors back to the stone age, while I think a lot of Americans would
be really hard-pressed to come up with their grandparents’ middle names.
So there it is. In the past four weeks I’ve told you everything you need
to know before you go to Japan and try to make people understand what
you’re saying by repeatedly shouting it and using a Charlie Chan accent.
Next week – something completely different.
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