Thirty-One Views of Japan

A Passion for Japan: A Collection of Personal Narratives, reviewed by Renae Lucas-Hall

A Passion for Japan: A Collection of Personal Narratives. Edited by John Rucynski. Ashiya, Japan: BlueSky Publishing, 362 pp., ¥3,681 (paper).

This book, unique and extraordinary, is full of captivating accounts written by 31 people from all over the world who are living or have lived in Japan. It’s not about what brought them to the Land of the Rising Sun. It’s about the passions and interests that make them stay. “This is a book about the journey from simply living in Japan to actually calling Japan home.”  

      Karen Hill Anton is the first contributor. In her chapter, Shodō: Finding My Way in the Way of Writing, Anton explains how her passion for calligraphy has become a discipline and “A Way” for her. She says, “Over time, I would learn not to compare my writing, but to just do my best.” Anton has learned to be present and express her true feelings through the brush. It doesn’t matter if she’s creating a scroll for a friend’s wedding or inscribing a Buddhist sutra, she has developed the skills to simply enjoy the process of writing in the moment.

      The next two chapters by Carmen Săpunaru Tămaş and David M. Weber focus on their love for matsuri or Japanese festivals. Tămaş is a Romanian anthropologist with a compelling writing style who, she tells us, fell in love with Achilles, the greatest of all Greek warriors, when she was a child. This infatuation led her to Susano-wo, the brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu, while she was working on her master’s thesis in Japan. When Tămaş was told Susano-wo returns to the world of the living once a year in July at the Gion Festival in Kyoto she made it her mission to attend but unfortunately, she didn’t feel a connection with the divine protectors at that time. Not ready to give up, she was determined to explore more festivals.

      When Tămaş was invited to take part in the Tenjin Matsuri Community she was able to observe the rituals of the Ōtori Mikoshi, the Shrine of the Phoenix. Tămaş began to appreciate the men who carry the mikoshi, the sacred religious palanquin carrying the Thunder God Tenjin, and the women who work behind the scenes to make this festival so special and important. After years of commitment to this community, she now feels like a fully-fledged member and a chronicler of the Guardians of the Phoenix.

      David M. Weber has been to over 200 different matsuri festivals from Okinawa to Hokkaido with many revisits. In his piece “Matsuri Madness Weber elaborates on his passions for history and festivals. He believes that matsuri “can be a welcome break from the daily grind that can be life in Tokyo . . . In sharp contrast [to the big city], at a matsuri there is energy! People are lively — eating, drinking, dancing, laughing, and singing. There is also a strong connection with community and the past.”

      Daniel Lilley and Judy Kambara write about their passion for drums. Lilley’s enthusiasm for wadaiko (taiko) drums began when he was a foreign teacher watching a junior high school entrance ceremony. He liked the way the drummers were dressed in T-shirts and bare feet and he thought the sound of their wooden sticks on leather skins and the vitality of the performance was mesmerizing and infectious. Ten years later, he was invited to participate at a danjiri matsuri (wooden float festival) and it was this that made him decide to attend classes on a regular basis. He says it takes a lot of physical strength and “you are essentially in a trance-like state, focusing on the rhythm, beat, timing, and cohesion with all the drummers around you.” Lilley also bonds with the Japanese through nomikai (drinking sessions), bōnenkai (a party held by companies or a group to celebrate and reflect at the end of the year), and nijikai (an after-party that breaks off from the bōnenkai for those who want to drink more and have more personal or intimate conversations).

      In contrast, Judy Kambara has always been more interested in Eisa, a traditional type of drumming and dance unique to Okinawa. Kambara is keen to preserve the Okinawan culture and language (Uchināguchi) which were suppressed in 1879 when Japan annexed Okinawa as the 47th prefecture. Much of the music of traditional Eisa is sung in Uchināguchi.

       “The music of Okinawa is powerful,” Kambara says. “It takes up residence in your soul and refuses to leave.” Why is this? It may be something to do with a well-known Okinawan proverb: “Ichariba chōdē,” which means “Even if we meet just once, we are brothers and sisters.”

      The chapters written by Tim Craig and Katrina Watts reveal their fervent passion for Japan’s national sport, sumo wrestling. Craig’s passion for sumo began when he was watching the sport on his host family’s TV. He liked the fact he didn’t need any Japanese language skills to understand it.

      He describes sumo matches as well as the rituals preceding them with the gusto and momentum of a commentator calling the Grand National horse race in the UK or the Melbourne Cup Carnival in Australia. All the verbs he uses: crouching, glaring, salt-throwing, staring, squatting, shoving, dodging, lifting, bellying and leg tripping, give you an authentic picture of the performance and his obsession for Japan’s favorite sport.

      Katrina Watts teaches us about the history of sumo. Sumo, she explains “has its roots in Shinto and over a thousand years’ history, as evidenced by the referees’ outfits and the samurai hairstyles.” In order to get closer to the world of sumo Watts started to take photos. One of the first being a picture of “a young Kotonowaka in a yukata (cotton robe) snapped at a temple, playing a Nintendo Game Boy while waiting to have his hair done by a sumo barber . . . Such a juxtaposition of traditional and modern!” Soon she was “besieged by young rikishi (professional sumo wrestlers), gyōji (referees), and yobidashi (announcers) wanting their pictures taken as well.”

      Baseball fans will enjoy the chapter by Trevor Raichura. He writes from the heart with unassuming sincerity. Raichura studied journalism as a young man but was well aware it was too cut-throat for his liking so he decided to teach English in Japan. Approaching 40 years old and tormented by the midlife blues, Raichura spoke with a life coach who suggested he write a blog about the Hanshin Tigers baseball team. This blog and its popularity led to Raichura writing a monthly column for a Kansai sports newspaper and doing that allowed him to integrate himself into society while cheering on his favorite team with a community of passionate sports fans.

      There’s also much to learn about Japan’s spirituality in this book. Victoria Yoshimura is a Buddhist priest at a 440-year-old temple in the mountains of Kyushu at Takachiho in Miyazaki prefecture. “ . . . Considered to be the birthplace of the gods, the spiritual home of the Japanese nation . . . Takachiho is the site of one of the most famous stories in Shinto mythology. According to legend, the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu hid in a cave here and as a result the whole world was plunged into darkness.”

      The area is breathtakingly beautiful but when Yoshimura first arrived there, she was lonely and she needed to find a way to enter into the local community. “I needed to reclaim my body, my mind, and my Japanese mojo. I needed to find a way to make Japan feel like home.”

      It took commitment but Yoshimura is now a fully-ordained priest and she may one day become a head priest. Everyone in the community shows her respect, even those men who were initially unwilling to accept her.

      Linda Mengxi Ding arrived at Narita Airport in 2014 but she could only cope with two years living in Tokyo because she found it “suffocating.” Three years later, she returned to Japan but this time she decided to live in Tokushima in Shikoku. There she met Osamu Nakamura who had devoted himself to perfecting the art of slow living, and attaining self-sufficiency. She decided to join him. She began enjoying nature, growing her own food, making her own meals, building houses out of wood, and chatting with the people helping her. Ding says “When I came to Kamikatsu I felt like I’d stumbled upon a treasure chest, filled not with gold but with time.”

            Robert McLaughlin, an associate professor at Tokoha University in Shizuoka, was grappling to find a way to teach his two-year-old daughter how to eat vegetables and bond with her at the same time. He turned to his father who suggested he start a vegetable patch. Soon he discovered he was a “new curiosity on the street”. He now had something in common with the older, more established Japanese residents.

      Although McLaughlin has experienced discrimination, he says his gardening patch, like anything else that “shows to others a spirit of gambaru (trying your best), is invariably met with praise and respect.” He says gardening has become his ikigai or reason for living: “An ikigai that brings fulfilment through effort, time, energy, and, of course, ganbaru.”

      Randy Channell Soei is originally from Canada but he now lives in Kyoto and teaches chadō, “The Way of Tea,” He was influenced by Bruce Lee as a child and moved to Japan from Hong Kong in the early 1980s to study budō (martial arts). He feels that he has found a balance between the two disciplines, martial arts and tea. Soei joined the Urasenke school in 1993 and spent three years as a student in the Midorikai, a special division for non-Japanese students. He graduated as a sensei teacher and says “The impressive procession of guests who continue to visit Urasenke made me feel that The Way of Tea can be considered the representative cultural art of Japan.”

      Samuel Nfor’s journey is mind opening. He’s an actor and English lecturer at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He’s originally from Cameroon, and says that theatre practitioners in Cameroon traditionally lean towards themes focusing on the downtrodden. Their aim is to educate society by opening their eyes to certain issues. Nfor was surprised that traditional arts in Japan focus on technique instead of providing a message.

      Nfor’s passion for acting and willingness to learn more about Japan led to an offer to study nihon-buyō (classical Japanese dance), kyōgen (traditional comic theatre), and Noh theatre on a one-year scholarship from Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. After just one year of tuition, he was performing in various productions. His limited Japanese language skills and his age prevented him from making a professional breakthrough on the stage but he continues to be involved in theatre and he has been living happily in Japan for 20 years.

      Irina Holca is an associate professor of modern and contemporary Japanese literature at the university of Tokyo, but her passion is pottery. Holca visited the house and garden of the oldest foreign exchange student in Japan who had lived in Hyogo Prefecture since the 1960s. He owned many pieces which he generously gave out to friends who visited him. Potters opened up their kilns to Holca and her obsession with Japanese pottery began. She says “pottery has helped me connect with the community I live in (people usually attend schools in their neighbourhoods), both physically and emotionally, and I would truly hate for such a simple and direct way of interacting with local people to disappear.”

      Edward J. Taylor is a well-read and accomplished writer. He urges the reader to explore the smaller lanes and back streets in Kyoto. He says the best stuff can be found in the margins. He also provides a lovely description of Kyoto’s neighbourhoods, machiya (traditional wooden houses), and the arcades where tofu, calligraphy ink, sake, and cooking oil are sold.

      Taylor’s final paragraph reminds us to appreciate what we have: “I’ve come to find that familiarity with my own backyard can prove as rewarding as travel, and rather than expanding my awareness outward, that same attention to detail brings me into a closer relationship with the place where I live. As such, home can also be the road.”

      Mike Rhodes had three reasons for coming to Japan. He says it was “exotic, baffling, extraordinary.” Rhodes explains how he became a tour guide in English in Wakayama and along the Kumano Kodō which extends through Nara, Mie and Wakayama Prefectures. In order to become a guide, one must take part in on-site training, seminars, and proficiency tests so it takes dedication. The reason Rhodes was so keen to guide in this area is because the Kumano and its pilgrimage routes “have always represented a sacred ‘land of the gods’ where people feel they can be reborn and purified, and possibly achieve enlightenment.” He says “I have seen people lose the power of speech on tour. I notice them drifting off, no longer listening to what I say, staring as if they’ve seen an apparition or have come to a realization, and I know they’ve ‘transcended.’”

      Wes Lang is also a hiker as well as a writer and English instructor, best known for his website Hiking in Japan and his guide to the Japanese Alps. Lang explains how you can use your passion to make connections. Hiking, for example, lead him to a mountain hut in the Southern Alps where he met the famous actor Takatoshi Kaneko (from the 2001 hit comedy Waterboys). He used his gaijin congeniality to strike up a conversation with Kaneko when his Japanese companions were too shy to do so.

      Reminding us that one’s passions don’t need to be traditionally Japanese, we turn to the chess aficionado Simon Bibby from England, who has lived in the Kansai area since 2000. He proudly admits he enjoys winning when he plays chess. Maybe there’s a lesson in this: we should enjoy our passions but we should also revel in our victories. “I won a lot of games in 2021,” he says. “It’s good for the ego, and just like everyone else, I need my affirmation! We all have different ways to try and feel good about ourselves in order to get by.”

      Greg Rouault has a great philosophy on how to fit in to Japanese society. “I had always emphasized learning by observation. So, in my new context, that is what I did. I believe this made having me around a little less troublesome than it might have been otherwise; I was able to observe local customs and fall in step quite well.”

      Rouault also emphasizes the importance of understanding the small ‘c’s’ of Japanese culture like every day social norms, communication style and behavior, in comparison with the big ‘C’ cultural forms such as art, music, literature, and architecture. Wise words for the novice arriving in Japan not knowing what to prioritize.

      Wayne Malcolm, a professor of foreign language at Fukui University of Technology. says “Living in Japan has allowed me to thrive rather than just survive.” And “Being an academic, a teacher, and a leader in JALT has allowed me to develop the nurturing side of myself that I’ve always loved.” Malcolm has accepted the limitations of his Japanese language ability, but he has reached a point in his life where he knows he’s judged by his character and not his face. This is because of the way he has lived his life in Japan.

      John Rucynski, the editor of this book, is a writer, and an English teacher living in Hokkaido. His passions include eating kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) and ramen in Sapporo as well as skiing and visiting onsen hot spring baths, but it’s Rucynski’s experiences sailing around the world on the Ship for World Youth (SWY) as a participant and twice as an advisor which will pique one’s interest. These voyages are 50-day experiences with delegations from more than ten countries, plus more than 100 Japanese participants. The aim is to promote international exchange and “broaden the global view of the Japanese youth, promote mutual understanding and friendship between Japanese and foreign youth, as well as to cultivate the spirit of the international cooperation and the competence to practice it.”

      These trips on the high seas gave Rucynski the faith he needed not only to live in Japan but to call the place home. He met like-minded people who were able to embrace international exchange. His time on the cruises also gave him a sense of purpose in his career and he realised he could build a solid bridge between Japan and the rest of the world through his achievements.

      Haru Yamada is a global nomad with a passion for tennis. Her training has taught her that preparation is a vital part of a player’s mindset and a tremendous life skill. She has also learned to listen to not only what people are saying but to try and grasp what they’re communicating beyond words. She explains that if you have the ability to do what the Japanese call “kūki wo yomu” or “reading the air” you’ll be able to understand the social context of what is being said. This, she says, is vital if you want to fit into Japanese society.

      Dr. Hiya Mukherjee was born in India but she lived in Japan for four and a half years between 2016 and 2021 and received her PhD in Humanities from Nagoya University. She specializes in cultural anthropology. Initially, Dr. Mukherjee was startled by many aspects of daily life in Japan that she thought were unusual: the way Japanese women always apply makeup before going out, the relentless giving and receiving gifts and souvenirs, and the way Japanese people get drunk after work with their colleagues. However, it was the kindness and sincerity of the people that made the greatest impression on her.

      Steve McCarty, an American who has spent more than 40 years in Japan, focuses on his passion for baseball. He believes his participation in this sport has allowed him to improve his Japanese language skills, acculturate, and become an insider in Japanese groups. McCarty is also fascinated by the religious syncretism so common in Japan. “Tracking down evidence of the fusion of religions in Japan has been one of my ‘passions’ for Japan along with developing friendships with thoughtful Japanese who have welcomed my interest in their culture.”

      When Vicky Ann Richings arrived in Japan, she was aware the Japanese were “known for their generosity, hospitality, and disciplined societal behaviour when it comes to foreign visitors.”. But after 12 months, she realized it would take her a lot longer than a year to become part of this somewhat closed society so she embarked on her passion for reading Japanese literature. Richings says “Once I embraced reading literature in Japanese, I felt less frustrated about repeatedly being called ‘the foreigner who is good at Japanese.’” I was able to re-evaluate my sense of identity and feel much more at home.”

      Kathryn M. Tanaka is also interested in literature, in particular the literature and stories written by people affected by Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. Tanaka makes an excellent argument for “sharing and reshaping of the history of Hansen’s disease.” She says “literature allows us to access multiple perspectives and to complicate dominant narratives.” We will confront negative and serious issues in Japan as elsewhere, but with work we can move toward a brighter future.

            Wendy Bigler has worked as a college counsellor at international schools in Taiwan and Japan for the past decade but her passion is traditional Japanese roof tiles and thatching. Bigler loves nothing more than spending a day in a tiler’s workshop and instead of counting sheep at night she builds a house with a bamboo scaffold frame in her mind to help her get to sleep. Bigler and her husband now own two traditional Japanese houses and they’ve started a farm-stay in Japan where people can learn about these kominka. When she sees knots in thatching, she also sees a community coming together through the tying of the grass reeds. Bigler has been able to connect with hundreds of other like-minded people through social media on YouTube and Facebook and she says it’s an incredible privilege to be part of this community.

The chapters by Adrianne Verla Uchida professing her passion for indie music and soccer, Margaret C. Kim searching for her identity, and Emily Balistrieri, an accomplished translator who enjoys sharing Japanese science-fiction with the English-speaking world, are also well-worth reading.

            The final chapter is dedicated to Rebecca Otowa, an Australian who has been living southeast of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture for over 35 years. She married the oldest son of a Japanese family knowing she and her husband Toshiro would eventually inherit a 350-year-old family home with three storehouses and 12 interconnecting rooms.

      Otowa is keeping tradition alive by living in this home in the countryside and lovingly taking care of the house and land. “For centuries,” she writes, “many social mechanisms were devised to keep the houses safe and inhabited and passed down as treasures for the succeeding generations. It was something of a feather in my mother-in-law’s cap that ‘the young people’ were living with her in the ancestral home.” This is a great achievement considering so many people are vanishing from rural areas and heading to the big cities.

      Otowa explains it’s the house that has made her feel accepted in Japan more than anything else because it doesn’t judge her. She’s also full of praise for the country in which she lives. “Perhaps most people who spend a long time living here eventually come to this point: Japan is great, and endlessly interesting, but it is also a home. It’s familiar and dear and ordinary in the way that a home is.”

      There’s so much to learn from this book. Every page is fascinating. It’s a delight to read about these wonderful people who have taken the time to pen their experiences and impress us with their passions but why do people living in Japan pursue their obsessions so wholeheartedly? Vicky Ann Richings offers a quotation from Shimazaki Toson that gives us a clue: “In this world, there is nothing that is not fleeting. At the very least, in this way, I want to leave behind a mark on this world. A mark of my sincerity.”

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Renae Lucas-Hall

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