Wednesday, August 08, 2007

On Seeing "Sameness"

Postcard from Japan (#8)

Dear Rox and LLF,

Scene One: Breakfast, ANA Hotel, Hiroshima

We’re in a rush, nearly an hour behind schedule because someone was up late blogging last night and then couldn’t fall asleep. We’re seated next to a “white” family but are focused on trying to figure out why we’re given lunch menus when the breakfast buffet is still out. We resolve that international puzzle and are tucking into our scrambled eggs when the woman next to us turns and says in a loud whisper, “It’s so nice to see non-Asians.” Yikes, we think, what is she assuming about us, and how do we respond to such an opening line? I think I took another bite of egg. Goose probably said something vague and noncommital like, “We’re pleased that it’s less humid here than it was in Kyoto.” Fortunately, a conversation ensued, and we quickly reached more comfortable ground. They were Dubliners, a mom, dad, and teenaged son just in the night before from Shanghai. They’ve been traveling for nearly a month. They are having the time of their lives, though the son seems a little road-weary and the mom thinks the Chinese are “pushy.” Dad, however, is wildly enthusiastic about China and insists we have to go there, and when we go we have to stay in Hyatts. “Hyatt is all over China,” he says, “and they’re wonderful. You have to go. China is where it’s at.” Dad is a little hard to understand, because his voice is soft and low, but his zeal for China is palpable. They’ll be staying in the Park Hyatt Tokyo on the 13th, the day we leave for home.

This close encounter is the first of this sort that we’ve had since we’ve been here, though I’ve noticed how often our glances momentarily lock on those of other “non-Asians” as we walk through the streets or sit on trains or see the sights. Perhaps it’s a reflex action, a natural response by members of a group accustomed to being in the majority who suddenly find themselves radically in the minority. Perhaps it’s another aspect of the “Nara-tology” problem I mused upon yesterday. When so much in a new environment is so deeply unfamiliar, like reaches toward like, even if the likeness proves to be superficial or based on error. I’m realizing, for example, that I was initially reading the “non-Asians” I was seeing as mostly Americans, but that is by no means the case. American tourists are far outnumbered here by Europeans, French and Germans in particular, and by Australians. Sameness and difference are shifting grounds, equally treacherous, equally uncertain, it turns out, in travel as in critical theory.

Scene Two: Ferry to Miyajima

Straight couple in their mid-30s is behind us in line for the ferry. He’s worried that they need tickets to get on board, though they have passes from the rail company that runs the ferry. He’s worrying in a loud voice with a British accent. We turn and assure him that you don’t need tickets when there aren’t reserved seats. We’ve got the passes, too. We learned this lesson half an hour ago in the Hiroshima station and are pleased to pass it along to fellow travelers. His girlfriend has a British accent too -- kind of but not exactly. We chat with them for most of the short ferry ride. Where have you been? What have you done? How long are you here? They also stayed in the Park Hyatt Tokyo and were jealous to hear that we would be going back in a few days. The girlfriend, it turns out, is from San Antonio, Texas but has lived in London for the past three years. “Oh, sweetheart,” I wanted to say after knowing her for ten minutes, “what else are you hiding beneath that fake little voice of yours? Whatever it is, is it really worth all the effort you’re making to conceal it?”

Scene Three: Train from Miyajima to Hiroshima

Mom in her mid-thirties is traveling with her daughter, who looks to be around six. They are seated facing us, speaking French. The kid is adorable. My heart melts. The train is crowded with day-trippers from Miyajima and assorted locals. A Japanese man with a cat in a carrier stands next to us and puts the cat carrier down on the floor. He engages the little girl’s attention by speaking to her and pointing out the cat. She is mesmerized, keeps tapping on the top of the carrier to get the cat to look at her. Suddenly, she looks over at me and asks if I speak French. “Oui,” I say, friendly but self-conscious about my rusty French, “un peu.” I ask her if she has a cat at home and she says she does, but he lives in the garden. Actually, Mom had to clarify that part for me. I have a hard time understanding the girl’s French. We have another version of the travelers’ chat, but this one feels warmer, probably because the kid is so cute and the cat gives all of us an excuse to smile and be silly. At some point we shift into English so that Goose can join the conversation (and I can stop asking the poor woman to repeat herself). Mom is a little uncertain about where their stop is, and they wind up exiting suddenly, a couple of stops before the main Hiroshima station. We barely have a chance to say good-bye, but when they reach the platform they turn back and wave. I’m not sure if they’re waving at us or at the cat, but we wave back enthusiastically. What’s funny to me is that I have found myself ready to lapse into French on several occasions on this trip, because it is wired into my limited brain as “the language that is not English.” I default into it whenever my main programming language doesn’t work. There it is again: the irresistible urge to find sameness within difference, to make the unfamiliar familiar. Oh, well. At least the French finally came in handy.

The trip is winding down now, kids. Tomorrow we’re off to Hakone for our night at a traditional Japanese inn (with thermal baths), then back to Tokyo for the last hurrah. Below are a few shots from Hiroshima and Miyajima. It was a little jarring to move from the somberness of Hiroshima to the loveliness of Miyajima, but part of what one takes away from Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and Museum is the value and necessity of finding (or building) beauty after ruin, so perhaps the contradiction between the two places isn’t as jarring as it seems. In any case, I won’t touch the subjects of war, peace, and nuclear weaponry, at least not here, not tonight. It’s late, and this weary traveler needs to get some sleep. I’ll let Goose pop off on those topics in Comments.

Love to all,

Memorial Cenotaph, Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima
A-Bomb Dome (formerly Hiroshima's Industrial Promotion Hall, this building was directly below the atomic bomb blast but did not collapse)
O-torii ("big gate"), Miyajima (not quite high tide, so the "floating" effect is incomplete)
Floating Women (Photo Credit: Sweet probably German guy on beach)


  1. Sameness in difference? That's a new angle I'll have to consider as I turn ye olde dissertation in a book!

    If you've time, try to go to the open air sculpture garden in Hakone. It's absolutely stunning, and it should be significantly cooler up there. I'm SO enjoying these posts!


  2. The whole trip has been stunning, reorienting (all puns intended, I suppose), and fortifying. The Peace Memorial Park here in Hiroshima is a profound testament and witness to rising from the ashes and finding and making beauty where one would think there never could be any grace again. In praise of life, there is no rancor in any of the commentary here, not even in the very graphic descriptions of the destruction and havoc wrought beyond any of our imaginations (even though it happened, it still cannot be fathomed). When this city was destroyed, families, friends, enemies forged in daily pettiness, citizens were lost forever, obliterated beyond recovery. They still, 62 years later, do not nearly have all the names of the dead--which makes sense, when you think that so many were wiped out in a flash of light and fireball, the heat of which equaled the surface of the sun for a second, and raised the surface of Hiroshima itself to 3,000-5,000 degrees centigrade. Whole families, whole neighborhoods gone in a few seconds and no one left to remember who was there before. At least in many cases. Though we know the name of the little boy whose melted tricycle is on display in the Peace Museum. And of the mother who never made it to work. And of the husband who was sitting at his desk, though his wife found only his carbonized lunch box two days later.

    War is not the answer, and that's the main message here. No blaming of Americans, and full acknowledgment that Japan started the war with the U.S., there is only blaming of war itself. And since we are the ones who have actually done this to another people, a people so very different from us in so many ways (and so very like us in all their humanness and humanity), we are the ones who need to take the leadership to insure it never happens again. That is not pie-in-the-sky corny hippie rhetoric--that is love of life.

    As Gertrude Stein said when asked what she thought about the awful mechanism that did this: "it is the people who are interesting, not the ways of killing them."

    In peace and with love of beauty and life,
    --Goose (popping off, as requested ;)

  3. Anonymous1:17 AM EDT

    Thanks again to Moose for these postcards from Japan which I have loved and have looked forward to reading each time the next installment appears!

    I am afraid to speak of it, for fear my words would fail even to begin to approach the loving-kindness and solemn dignity present in these good thoughts you have shared on the Peace Memorial at Hiroshima Martha Nell!

    But because of the breakdown of our Constitution which is happening in America today, I'd like to mention a very beautiful book of haiku poems which were written by Japanese people who were arrested and sent to concentration camps in the United States during World War II. These good folks had done nothing wrong, they were imprisoned solely because they were Americans of Japanese heritage. There is great hardship and pain expressed in many of the haiku, but surprisingly, as you say MN, there is very little rancor, and perhaps for that very reason, I myself have wept reading them. The book is:

    An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku. Compiled, translated and prefaced by Violet Kazue de Cristoford. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1997

    by Taniguchi, Sadayo

    Hand-cuffed and taken away
    I see my husband
    even today

    by Tsunekawa, Hangetsu

    Came to interment camp
    on a summer night
    barracks lighting up one by one

    by Takaoka, Senbinshi

    Sentry stands guard
    whitewashed house
    oleander blooming

    and 2 haiku by Tsunekawa, Takako

    Small child
    playing with pebbles
    dense young silk tree

    Children eating watermelon
    sitting on board walk
    my child there also

    - - -

  4. The BD slideshow was a great success. We both marveled at the pleasure of it all, and sighed remembering the old days of watching family slides and how deadly it seemed. What a difference!

    Mom kept saying over and over, "That Marilee is quite a photographer!"

    We loved spending the BD with you as usual.

    Love from Katie and Jean


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