Japan Journals: 2015
May 3rd 2015
It’s early Sunday morning. Dog walkers are out in small numbers. Healthy early risers are around, too. It’s warm for the time of day. The sun came up only about an hour ago.
The flight wasn’t so bad. In spite of my initial moans — lack of leg space, mainly — I found it comfortable enough to sleep for most of it. Still, a good sleep in economy class is near impossible. By 8pm Japanese time I was exhausted. By 9, my head and body could resist no longer. I collapsed onto my futon. Five hours later I was awake. Properly awake. I got up, warmed up the bath, and tried to soak the achey feeling from my body. I thought the soak would help me get back to sleep. Help me fight off the jet lag. It didn’t.
Japan — specifically Kamakura, where my wife grew up, and I spent a wonderful half year living back in 2007 — feels like home to me. Not like a home away from home. But a real home. A place where I have a genuine urge to be. A place I feel I belong. I find this rather strange, though.
My “home” (as in the place where I live and work) is in a very international city: Frankfurt, Germany. There is nothing about my appearance that marks me out as a foreigner. And, even if I were dark skinned, or markedly from a non-European lineage, I am still just as likely to have been born German. With very average brown hair, white skin, it is only when I open my mouth do I mark myself as a stupid foreigner.
Japan, however, is not a nation known for its acceptance of foreigners. Actually, they can be outright hostile to them. My presence in a place where tourists don’t go marks me as an oddity. A curiosity. And yet it feels like I belong. Even more so than I do in Germany. Maybe it’s my lack of an emotional bond.
Here, in Japan, I have friends. I have family. Here, the cultural mindset is very much like my own. Well, aside from the lack of questioning of authority. That is something that I can never get on board with. My education, through Sex Pistols and other punk records, make me a staunch “questioner of everything”… no matter how senior the person is.
So, we had finished eating dinner. My wife had cooked as my mother-in law, though not working today, had to go out for a funeral. My daughters, being pretty much over the jet lag, went to bed at a very reasonable time. My wife lay with them ‘cause she was tired, too. Though, with me being the more “disciplinarian” of the two of us, I ended up lying with them so they would quiet down and sleep. They do tend to mess around, even if they’re very tired. And so, I lie, my eyes drift closed, I fall asleep to wake a few hours later. The curse of my jet lag returns.
So now, I sit in the kitchen, trying very hard to be quiet.
The window rattled. I thought the wind was picking up outside. It rattled more, and the ground rumbled with it. A small earthquake.
When I was at school, in Geography class when I was about 13, I studied the huge earthquake that struck California in the late 80s. I remember thinking at the time, as did many of my classmates: Why the hell would anyone live where this kind of thing could happen. San Francisco was very badly damaged back then. Europeans are not strangers to seeing destroyed cities. War was a huge part of out very recent history. But that destruction was forced upon the cities, by other human forces. Something that people could ultimately control, if not those on the receiving end at the time. But during those bombing raids, many people did leave the city. They sent the kids out so they wouldn’t get hurt. They left. Most fit young men were off fighting the enemy, but this was also an enemy we could predict. We had a chance to move, and we knew when it was coming because of warning systems in place. But of course earthquakes can’t be predicted. We know roughly where they happen, but not when.
There are some very geologically active areas. California being one. Japan being another. I naively asked my teacher, “Why didn’t they move?” Why stay in a place where you know, one day, the ground could shake your world to dust?
An image that haunts me to this day — it surfaced when I was travelling on the Golden Gate bridge on my single trip to SF, back in 2001 — was that of the upper level of the GG Bridge collapse, crushing everything underneath. I was a bit jumpy when I travelled on the lower layer.
So here, not far from the Pacific (although on hill, quite high above sea level), as the ground shook I listened and felt for the intensity. The Great North East Japan Earthquake, and its subsequent tsunami, replayed in my mind, as fresh to me as they had been years ago.
When I first visited after that day, I was petrified of going anywhere near the sea. The locals, seemingly, had moved on. Residents had learned to get on with their lives. But where two years have passed for them, in the same span four weeks have passed for me. Four weeks of “Japan time”. And when I visit the beach, I still plan escape routes, looking for the quickest route to high ground.
And here is another paradox with my feelings for Japan. I love this place. I mean truly love it, with all my heart. Germany, conversely, I could take or leave. I think the life I could lead in Japan could be infinitely more fulfilling.
But my children are still young. The eldest is only five, the youngest is almost three. Once my thoughts of earthquakes and tsunamis linked them only to other people. Not so much that they only happened in far off lands, just… the chances of me being involved directly are so slim that there is no point in worrying about it. To live here, in this wonderful place, I accept those chances. Those very slim chances. Betting my life against pretty good odds. Like any person, my goal in life is to be happy. To live a full, rich life. Me, as a weird internationalist, who doesn’t really have a home town (not even back in England). But I, like every parent, have my happiness rendered almost irrelevant for the safety and security of my children.
Maybe I can blame a little my infatuation with horror for my expectation of the worst. I could never walk through a forest alone. I’d always expect some madman to creep up behind me. But of course there’s nobody there. There’s never anybody there. But if there were somebody there, would it be better? The fear of a person creeping behind you — just seeing shadows out of the corner of your eyes, shapes in the bushes, slim tree stumps that look like slim stalkers. Or if there really were a person, innocent though they may be, and safe you most likely are… but there are the footsteps; the crunching gravel; the snapping twigs. I’m not sure which would instil the most fear in me.
My mother always openly stressed about my welfare. When I went gallivanting off to different countries — especially when I was travelling solo across the United States — she was adamant that I stay in touch. I understand her fears. The lack of contact, no matter how short the time is, allows the imagination to run off. In her case, I can’t put that down to the horror movies. So probably it’s in my blood. But, maybe, they made my imagined scenarios all the more terrible.
She did drive me a little bit crazy with her worry. I always knew I was okay. I knew I was going to be okay and there was never anything to concern her. That was probably my youthful arrogance. The one lack of feeling that makes a person feel indestructible. Through my youth, I yearned for my freedom, for my independence from that fear. But we can never escape it. Not really. I like to think of myself as a pretty liberal parent, and I’d love my girls, when they’re old enough to go on adventures like I did. More so, even. My adventures were short and not so wild when I compare to what others have done. I hope that I’ll be able to let go of these fears when my kids are old enough to take care of themselves completely. I’m not sure if I will, though. Ultimately, it is a parent’s duty to ensure their kids are safe.
But, would it be morally acceptable to take children from the relative safety of a country like Germany (or the UK) to a country like Japan? In Europe, I know the threats to be almost all human. But in Japan — my beloved adopted home, and my kid’s other “home country”… they’re dual national, British/Japanese — they’re is always going to be that uncontrollable threat. If they’re at home, tucked up in bed, sleeping soundly, I know that the pain that could befall them is controllable. Lock the doors, the windows, keep the boiler maintained, feed them well, take them to the doctors when they get sick. All these things are within my power to control. But… the earth. No matter how much we try to harness the power of earth’s majesty, we will never be able to control it.
I would never take my child to a politically unstable country to live. Is a geologically unstable country much different?
May 7th 2015
I’ve been under a dark cloud the last few days…
Sunday 10th May 2015
The UK general election has come and gone. The overwhelming majority of people put their crosses in the box that meant (even if it didn’t literally read) “me, me, me, me.” Translation: The Conservatives got a majority.
The map of England is now an intense blue, with a few blobs of red, and some negligible yellow and purple.
I genuine believed the Cons had screwed up so badly for the average person — and those in need of help and support — these last five years, that Labour was sure to get into government. Even with the SNP and UKIP snatching some of their voters. I was wrong.
History has shown quite clearly that in times of difficulty, people tend to swing to the right. At it’s core is a protectionist ideology, always looking for someone to blame for misfortunes. Who better to blame than those people who don’t have a voice loud enough to argue back?
For UKIP, every problem was down to immigration. I would have liked to think that that’s an overstatement, but it doesn’t seem to be. Whenever Farage gets a chance to speak, it always comes around to border control and migration. It doesn’t fail. Underneath his xenophobic ramblings, he may have some valid points.
Housing shortage? Too many immigrants. Problems with education? Too many immigrant children. Not enough jobs too go around? Well, that’s those pesky immigrants stealing our jobs. Poor performing hospitals? Well, obviously that’s because there are too many immigrants getting sick!
Simple minds come to simple conclusions.
They claim to not be racist. I guess technically they’re not. They blame all immigrants, regardless of skin colour. Their popularity has made blaming immigrants more mainstream. Previously, the main anti-immigrant part was the BNP (British National Party). They were basically the National Front with suits. They had their roots in other, more violent and overtly racist parties. Most people knew what they really were. And they failed to get much support.
But now, the Conservatives are back with a majority government. And that majority is the key to all this. As much as we can decry the LibDems for not keeping their promises while in coalition with the Conservatives, I’m sure they were a moderating force. Imagine what the Cons could have done had there not been a more liberal, moderating force keeping things in check. Toning it down a little.
The past years has seen people who really need it get their benefits stopped. And some of them have died as a result. Starving to death in their own home, because some jackass in a suit figured they were fit enough to work. The Conservatives have been elected on the notion of continued economic recovery. It is the cuts to those who need it the most that have helped pay for it.
And so they can celebrate their success. Congratulations, Cameron. What a price you paid for success.
I guess it’s okay if it doesn’t affect him. But how can we really expect a man like Cameron to understand what it’s like to struggle. He’s a wealthy man from a wealthy family. He’s been given everything that he could ever need, and more.
If the cost of living in the UK were more reasonable, then perhaps families could actually manage on a single salary. Instantly making the benefit bill lower, and killing the necessity for both parents in a family to work full-time, just to maintain a reasonable standard of living fitting of a person in a developed democracy in the 21st century.
But nobody will ever fix the outrageous living costs in the UK, certainly not The Conservatives. Why would they? It’s not something that effects them directly. Their focus is (and always will be): the elderly, who obviously vote in higher numbers than the young); the wealthy; and businesses.
Businesses are employers, so it makes sense to care for them to some degree. But we can’t sacrifice the lives of normal people to make business owners feel more comfortable. The trickle down theory doesn’t work. You give a business owner more money, they’ll have more money. Businesses exist to make money. If they make more, why would they hire more people? They’re not benevolent beings, in it for the good mankind.
13th May 2015
The birds are squawking and singing. Leaves and branches from last nights battering storm, thrown and piled in corners of the stairways. The air is clean, fresh. The sky is clear.
I sit in the park, up the hill from the popular tourist destination, Zeniarai Benten shrine. The shrine is an old place, connected with the old Hojo clan. The emblem of that clan is known the world over, just not for its original use — it is the same emblem used in Nintendo’s Zelda games, representing the the Triforce. Three triangles organised into the shape of a triangle.
Fairly fitting, like cowboys of the United States, the old ways of the Samurai are difficult to see as an objective historical fact. The myth of them is far stronger and more inspiring than the reality could ever be. It is the legend that lives on, when living memories are no longer around. Those real tales have been mythologised and glamourised for an age desperate for something magical.
20th May 2015
Just four days to go until I leave Japan. Three weeks is supposed to be a long holiday, but my time away from Frankfurt is never long enough. Being in a place that one dislikes so intensely, and having so little power to leave, is a depressing state to be in.
But depression is, at least partly, a feedback loop. I became disheartened because of unhappiness at work.With my family relying on me 100% for financial security, I couldn’t just leave. My lack of German language skills, along with my very specific working background, severely limits my career options.
But my ambitions take me to a different place. I want to write. The love for writing has been as important as the blood that pumps through my veins. I have felt that I’m close to being good enough to be professional. Close…
To be a writer of fiction, the path is long. With what limited free time I have, I’ve tried. My stories have come on a lot since those early years. That first published story still remains elusive. I have so many stories that I believe, once polished, will be good. Some I think are the best I’ve ever written. Older stories, with a more mature and refined editing eye, people could enjoy reading. But it just takes so god damn long. So much time, working on short stories, for them to be rejected by magazines and publishers. All of my love and passion funnelled into these tales, and the editor just says no.
But I still think that my wife doesn’t see it as a viable career. Just a hobby and nothing more. And it will always be a man’s job to provide for his family.
23rd May 2015
We fly back to Germany tomorrow. I left the girls sleeping on the futon, after a long and tiring day at Tokyo Disneyland.
The rides were exciting. But I saw the magic that place holds in the faces of my two girls, during the night time parade. All of their favourite characters came by, lit up and created with lights. All of the Disney entourage was there: Mickey and Minnie, Donald and Daisy, Pluto, Goofy, all the princesses, Tinkerbell and the fairies, the Disney-Pixar ones.
With the lights on the floats, the kids’ faces glowed. Disneyland is a magical place. That magical quality is intensified, to an incomprehensible degree, by the children and their emotional bond with these enchanting people. Those beautiful creatures…