I always wanted to go to Japan, and in 2009, I saw that dream come true. I wrote earlier about my maybe-cancer scare. Between that chapter and the one where Jena and I became a couple, I had what I guess Unlife would describe as “an interlude”. There was nothing I wanted to do more after my medical emergency than run away. But I went through with every appointment and, finally, surgery. And for bravely facing my fears, I rewarded myself… by running even further. It was an unforgettable trip, one that pointed out what was important to me and what I valued when I was removed from it. I still carry pieces of it with me, even literally; I’m wearing the same Japanese coat I bought there as I write this on the train to work.
I was not alone on this trip. Spunky and Gore (you know who you are), friends of mine who at the time lived in Japan, were amazing enough to put me up for ten days. They provided friendship, a place to crash, and a language I knew in a sea of foreign peculiarities. It was fascinating exploring a land I had only witnessed in anime, giving it an odd familiarity. Even the sounds of the birds and trees felt similar to what I grew up listening to. There was an odd sense of belonging.
The weirdest part of Japan is how opposite of a culture it is to America. Not even just opposite; parallel. From the quiet on the trains of Japan to the unearthly roar of an American city; their abhorrence of violence and indulgence in sexual fantasy versus our celebration of violence and terror of sexual expression. But I think the biggest difference was the difference of fantasy and reality when it came to working as a team.
In America, an eternal theme within media and entertainment is that the most important thing is trusting in each other and working with each other as a team. How many stories can you think of in which the hero was finally able to triumph only once s/he accepted the love and support of friends, family, schoolmates, or another group? Unifying in the face of adversity, always stronger together. But in the real world, the encouragement is to look after yourself and your interests. Take care of YOUR family and YOUR wellbeing. Because it’s all up to you. And in Japan, it’s kind of the opposite. Their anime, their entertainment, normally revolves around that one guy (or girl but… usually guy) that has to make it all work and inspire everyone else. It’s all up to them. And yet, in their culture, they are expected to be an unwavering, unbreaking team that does for others more than themselves. Selfishness is frowned upon, and if you step out of line, you’re cast from the pack.
I don’t believe any system is perfect, nor am I putting Japan on a pedestal. They seem to have just as many problems as we do, just in different places. Though there is something to respect in the fact that a culture so opposite can still find a way to function and keep moving forward. It was almost like some weird thing binds us and keeps us together, no matter what the problem. I can’t emphasize how important it was to see a culture so radically different, and so laden with its own problems, that still works.
One afternoon I was in Kyoto, climbing up the hill with the orange gates. The Fushimi Inari Shrine. You’ve seen pictures of it:
I was most of the way up when it got dark. Crows screeched at me, the night descended, I was alone, saw no one, and didn’t speak the language if I did. I was scared, not sure if I should turn back or go forward, unsure if I was nearing the end. And as I wondered what to do, as if in answer to my plight, out of the bamboo woods emerged 3 kittens. As I walked, the trio continuously circled me. Not watching me or trying to draw me in but almost… protecting me. Keeping me safe. I can’t explain it even now. The whole thing seems batty as I type it, but without language, without anything in common, without any sort of basis, they provided a protection for me, either literally or figuratively in calming my spirit. When I found myself at the top of the hill, in a well lit space, they dispersed, and that was that.
You can’t run away from things that scare you. You must run through the unknown and towards a new direction. And know that there is good out there that surrounds and binds us, even if we can’t control or understand it.
I think that’s important to keep in mind right now.