I Went To Japan

Silence is Golden

One of [Shusaku] Endō’s most powerful novels, Chimmoku (1966; Silence), is a fictionalized account of Portuguese priests who traveled to Japan and the subsequent slaughter of their Japanese converts.  Catholic missionary activities in Japan began in earnest around 1549, but according to OnePeterFive, nearly five hundred years later, [o]nly 1% of the Japanese population, split evenly between Catholics and Protestants along with small pockets of Eastern Orthodoxy, claim to be believers in Christ.  In 2017, almost 80 percent of the total population of Japan participated in Shinto practices. Closely behind is Buddhism, with more than 60 percent of the population adhering to its practices. Most Japanese thus practice both religions, so it should come as no surprise that Japan has a wealth of religious architecture – Kyoto alone is estimated to have well over 2,000 temples and shrines. During an eight-hour tour of the Old Capital, we visited several (along with hundreds and hundreds of fellow tourists). Fortunately, the last stop was the best stop: Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The expression “to jump off the porch at Kiyomizu” is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge.” This refers to an Edo period tradition that held that, if one were to survive jumping from the terrace, one’s wish would be granted. 234 jumps were recorded in the Edo period and of those, [34 died].


The toughest tuck in for me was sushi, which simply means vinegared rice, but in our case had plenty of raw fish (called sashimi) on top. After scoffing at Americans who live for the stale-by-Japanese-standards products served in the US, I thought that I was ready to return to a food I liked but had been avoiding for years for its comparative staleness. Turns out, I don’t like it. The sushi chef placed an eight-piece plate in front of each of us. I ate the tuna, octopus and sweet omelette, then started feeling queasy at the thought of keeping the super fishy, super squishy bright red salmon eggs and smaller orange-ier, stiffer flying fish eggs. I balked. Stalled. And made eye contact with my husband, who took care of things for me. I left with a sense of shame and a level of respect for those who willingly eat raw fish.

Excuse Me

“The Japanese have five different ways to say ‘thank you’ – and every one of them translates literally as resentment, in various degrees,” says Stranger in a Strange Land‘s Jubal Harshaw. I’m not sure whether or not that’s true. In my experience, 3.5 years living outside Tokyo and a recent return trip, the Japanese are quite courteous. Whether that’s due to the conspicuous reminder signs, the accountability of conformity, some sort of deep-seated beliefs, or a combination of all three, I don’t know; however, I loved every polite-person minute of it. We spent hours riding the JR Line and subway trains with hundreds of people, and only twice did I hear a cell phone ring. The level of consideration for others was a refreshing change from the cell phone rudeness often experienced in America.


Photo: Foreign Arrivals Get Biometric Scan: The Japan Times

Japan began fingerprinting and photographing foreigners arriving in the country Tuesday [November 20, 2007] under a revised immigration law to keep terrorists out, drawing criticism from rights groups and foreign residents that their data might be abused. U.S. airports (TSA) use biometric data, but only to match a person’s face with the photo on his or her passport. When we arrived in May of 2019, a dozen years after the implementation of the policy, being forced to provide my fingerprints came as a surprise. But then, Japan is a homogenous country (98.5% of its inhabitants are of Japanese ethnicity). Only recently, Japan’s parliament has approved a controversial new law allowing hundreds of thousands of foreigners into the country to ease labour shortages. They are also reluctant to accept refugees. In Germany and Canada around 40% of applications for asylum are approved, in Britain more than 30%. But in Japan the number is 0.2%. Both the US and Japan make the list of the 5 Hardest Countries for Getting Citizenship, but a comparison of the per capita immigration rate of the two countries shows the disparity between the two countries, [f]rom 2007-2012, with a population of about 314 million, the US accepted about five million immigrants per year (15.94 immigrants/1,000 inhabitants) while Japan, with a population of about 127.6 million, accepted about 350,000 immigrants per year (2.74 immigrants/1,000 inhabitants).

Do you speak English?

The Japanese language consists of about 50,000 kanji characters, plus 46 hiragana, literally “ordinary” or “simple” kana and 46 katakana, “fragmentary kana,” which are used primarily for foreign words and names, loanwords and onomatopoeia. Although there are plenty of places where you will find information (like the rail system) printed in English (plus Chinese and Korean) it’s useful and polite to learn some of the language before you go. Because most of us don’t understand the meaning of Japanese names, we find them difficult to remember; however, they are often quite simple. Let’s talk about Japanese car brands. Nissan means “sun”+”production,” in other words, “made in Japan;” Mitsubishi means “three”+”diamonds;” and Mazda=Matsuda and means “pine”+”field”=”field of pines.” While traveling, my family stuck with one main word, arigato “thank you,” while I re-learned hiragana, katakana, a dozen kanji, and about twenty words and phrases, which was adequate for our needs.

What Would You Do?

In 2018, forty-two percent of Americans owned passports and that number has risen steadily. As a person who has lived in several places throughout the United States and traveled outside of it several times, I think that doing so has not only helped broaden my horizons but also better appreciate “my” country more than if I had spent my entire life in the same place. International travel reinforces what I’ve always believed: the U.S. is the best country in the world. I ask myself (and my kids after our recent return from Japan), if you were given the chance to live in Japan and enough money so that you did not have to work, and your family and friends could visit you there, but you could never return to the U.S., would you do it? Their answers were easy to decide and the same as mine.

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