Japan from the inside out

More from Mac in No Shinkansen Sticksville

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 28, 2009

READER MAC enjoys sending occasional reports on the people he meets in a part of Japan he calls No Shinkansen Sticksville. It only goes to show the sort of interesting folks you can meet and have fun with if you look. Here are three of his latest. Two were appended as notes to a previous missive here.

Still out here in ‘No Shinkansen Sticksville’ where the lack of any street lighting makes the tanktrap-like concrete ditches around the rice fields a major cause of untimely death of drunken ojiisan making their way home on rattling old rides.

I went to a slideshow talk of a very pretty, waif-like 21 year old who had just returned from a 5,000 km bicycle ride around eight East African countries … alone. By herself.

Yamasaki Mio had also clocked up to 6,000 km around Japan before marrying the handsome Yamada Kohei, a Japan Overseas Cooperation (JICA) development worker in Malawi, who had become famous for recording a Number One hit in the Chichewa language, Ndimakukonda. A love song about HIV (AIDS) he hoped would reduce the stigma of HIV there. All profits going back to support charity work there. The pair act as official goodwill ambassadors for Eritrean tourism. (See here and here, both in Japanese.)

Our local biker’s NPO has sent out thousands of bikes, recycled from outside of railway stations etc, to Mozambique, reducing gun crime by swopping them out for old Russian and American weapons left by the last civil war.

That’s not the story though.

Hanging around outside, I spoke to another slim young woman I had seen before playing tabla (an Indian percussion instrument) at a Hindu chanting session called a sankirtan down at the local guesthouse. She too had spent a couple of years abroad working with women in Pakistan, where she had learnt to play them.

Looking at her mamchari (single speed shopping bike), we had a good laugh at her expense because she had stuck a ‘Harley-Davidson’ chopper-style sticker on the back mudguard. We thought it was very funny.

No, she politely explained, she did actually own a Harley-Davidson Sportster as well … but was thinking of selling it now because it was not good for the environment.

Yup … just your average, quiet, sunny weekend in a racist, inward and conservative country like Japan filled with whacky geeks waiting to restore the Emperor and invade China again.

A short postscript to the above.

The woman with the Harley-Davidson – who like most women Harley-Davidson owners in Japan (yes, there are many) was waif-like and, aesthetically, would not have looked out of place at a department store cosmetic counter – had also spent time in Syria and Iraq as an aid worker.

The woman cyclist and AIDs worker were planning to ride the Silk Route from China to Turkey next, and then the ridge ride from North down to South America. And, on the basis of her record to date and sincerity, why should I doubt her?

Not only am I secretly impressed by the women who work and ride on Harleys in Japan (they have special day courses in how to pick the behemoths up – part of the driving test here – and ‘chop’ them low so they can reach the ground), you can imagine my thrill when the female pilot of a chrome-framed, hard-tailed, Shovel-head bobber, resplendent in a 60s bubble-visored Fonda helmet and style to match, actually waved at me as she rode past one day.

Of course, not all Japanese women like the fat, lowboy Yankee aesthetics. Others prefer the more lean, restrained British “rocker” style. And do they actually ride oily, old vintage Triumphs, Nortons and Enfields? They not only ride them but they apply themselves to fix and restore them. (See here, in English with a link to a Japanese site.)

Yup … On Any Sunday … in a racist, inward-looking and conservative country like Japan.

I find it deeply touching that 20 or 30 individuals give up their days voluntarily to prepare and send off goods to a distant and culturally alien African nation, with whom they have no colonial debt for having screwed up in the past and may never see. The organization in question was recently bequeath a townhouse property by a little old lady, now deceased, who wanted to see some good coming of it and run it as an African cafe and Fairtrade shop.

– Mac

Here’s the first paragraph of the website linked in the second report above. I have no idea who wrote it…:

It is always humbling to see the respect, the passion and the efforts Japanese people invest in their love of all things British. And generally done with an enthusiastic professionalism with which they make it very clear why in 60 years – and having been burned and nuked to the ground – theirs is the 2nd strongest economy in the world and Britain is slipping down to be a gutter of a Third World nation. The innate Japanese sense of understated cool, the appreciation of fine aesthetics, the sense of independent defiance that has set them apart from other…East Asian nations. It is something that a lot of Westerners find very difficult and try hard to diminish by using negative racial stereotypes.

…but he gets it.

If what you know about Japan is derived from the English-language mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.

Or, to paraphrase a quick jibe I just saw on another site:

“I’m reminded of the (apocryphal) Fleet Street headline: “Fog In Channel. Continent Cut Off.” In this case: Fog in Journalism Guild front yard. Japan cut off.”

4 Responses to “More from Mac in No Shinkansen Sticksville”

  1. Koiyuki said

    Although I disagree with many of your political views, I am glad that people like you are showing Japan’s rich, diverse side that not many are privy to before entering the country. I, for one, love exploring the richness in many of the subcultures it has, including the automotive worlds just under the surface.
    K: Thanks for reading. Reasonable people can disagree about politics, and I try to make sure everything I write about that is honest, without sparing the kind of people I prefer.

    – A.

  2. Mac said

    There are, of course, plenty of other genuinely interesting stories, that spin off any hardworked and successful venture such as the above by listening to the insights these people have about their own country, its strengths and failings.

    These reflections on the real reality of life in Japan that are hard to see when you troll around with other gaijin, stick to Roppongi or depend on the bar and kitchen staff of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Japan for McCurrying “local opinion”.

    I find it deeply touching that 20 or 30 individuals give up their days voluntarily to prepare and send off goods to a distance and culturally alien African nation, with whom they have no colonial debt for having screwed up in the past and may never see. The organization in question was recently bequeath a townhouse property by a little old deceased lady who wanted to see some good coming of it and run it as an African cafe and Fairtrade shop.

    Personally, I always rode Japanese motorcycles. F111s on wheels. None of the bloat of America and none of the dirty, unreliability of Brits. No doubt the Brits had character and style in shovelfuls but the Japanese were the first to make affordably possible troublefree, 1,000 mile, full-bore, Grand Prix-esque hikes across Europe with nothing more than a credit card and a toothbrush. No need to get your hand filthy, and no need to re-assemble en route.

    Of course, those were the days before we were aware of pollution and climate change.

    You can tell a lot about the spirit of a nation by the transportation it produces.

  3. Mac said

    Sorry, I screwed up the coding on the two links above … but they are in there. Must have missed out an apostrophe.

  4. Mac said

    There is a local cento which has particularly good water, piped down from a hillside onsen and hence I hold season tickets for it. No tourists. No foreigners. No aspic “heritage” experiences. It is just part of an every day life which I am grateful for and to be accepted into.

    Of course, what I find is that despite all the stereotypical bollocks one reads about ‘no tattoos’ and racism in Japanese bathhouses, by their clientele, around 99% of the baths I go to are utterly relaxed to the point of disinterest about the former and the latter does not exist. If you are not an asshole like the David Aldwinckle Sect (Debito), they really do not care. You inevitably get far more than your ¥ 360 worth of pleasure, respect and good service.

    What I am emphasizing here is sticking to and experiencing reality rather than engaging in the tired and much hyped media myths. Especially over exploited ones.

    The reality of Japan is the much refined everyday civil society that one experiences around one’s self and of which these individuals are part of. As an outsider, it is quite hard to work one’s way through the shell of prejudices and preconceptions that the media have reinforced for decades in order to or see … or especially feel … that reality. Partly because that reality is very refined in comparison to gross Western societies and our senses (I would argue) and, partly, because our mental and social programmers, the media, are invested into creating and sustaining the unreal.

    It is not praise, it is just reality that in civil society they operate as civil members … and tidy up their bowls and stools as they go. The place ends up looking better after they leave than it was before. Is that really too much praise? It is reality. I was just comparing their public civility to equivalent males, or male environments, in the West and how dirty, disordered and disrespectful they would be.

    “Balding 50 year old male tidies up bathhouse bowls without being asked” … it is not exactly newsworthy, is it? What is the equivalent one, “Hells Angel offers stranger cup of tea”.

    Nah, that is the problem … reality is just not interesting enough for the info-tainment industry.

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