04 August 2023

The Bear

Japan, even after fifteen years, feels the same as when I left it — I see it the same way I saw it when I was twenty-one. The Japan of my early twenties has also not changed its view of me, the big foreign bear lumbering gracelessly through a station, judging whether he can fit between two people on their phones. I find myself standing on the platform at Shinagawa and realise that I was standing here before at some point, when I was leaving the mission in 2004 and going to teach English in Niigata, when I was Jonah, running from the Lord, and consumed with thoughts that my judgement was coming, that it was inevitable, unable to communicate with anyone what was happening, not in English, not in Japanese. In the year that followed, my Japanese ability went from being something that people praised to something that people started to criticise, the way that it's incredible if you can get a bear to sit politely at a table, but you become concerned if starts to open doors. You don't want it to get the idea that it belongs indoors.

On the flight over, there was a Lebanese man sat next to Yoko, between her and the window, while I sat on the aisle. After a few starts and stops, we settled into speaking with each other in Japanese, Yoko between us and the conversation shifting as he talked to each of us at different times. He was coming back from Lebanon to his wife and kids, and his Japanese wife who was very strict, something he wanted me to endorse about all Japanese women as he leaned over Yoko and I was awkwardly put on the spot. He told us about his future plans to return to Lebanon and commented to Yoko about me, after we had been talking for a few hours, Wow, his Japanese is really polite. He speaks so politely, it's very cute, does he speak to you like this at home? Really?! That's amazing, Japanese people must really like speaking with a foreigner whose Japanese is as cute as his.

The pleasure I feel in Japan is the same as the pleasure you feel when you've cleverly solved a puzzle, but a vague cultural understanding of a large Asian country doesn't ever feel quite like something you should be proud of. First because, the sort of people that this groups me with, the people who would say they have solved the puzzle of Japan, are the sort of people that you might try to avoid at a party, your friend's brother-in-law from Florida who lives in Yokohama and wears a fedora in June and who your friend says speaks Japanese fluently and who tells you about some weird Japanese cultural oddity that sounds vaguely unbelievable, but probably is true. But more importantly, you should never trust a foreigner who tells you that they understand Japan because any actual Japanese person will tell you that it is impossible for any foreigner to understand Japan. No one has solved anything.

I feel this gaijin confident fear when I am back in Tokyo, like I am Jonah again, and like if I were to come back, to give into the pull of nostalgia, that I would immediately regret it. The world is full of these wormholes to the past. What is this feeling I want to feel again, is it just the desire to be young again? What is the thing we really want when we want when we want to go back to a place we have been. The doors of the train door open and close again with the sound of a carrousel. Everything in Japan feels magical in a way that things you don't understand feel magical. You think you've figured out some element of the trick, but the truth is you haven't. The music can never not be magical.