Lines Evermore Unclear
“Oh crystal ball, crystal ball, save us all, tell me life is beautiful.” –Keane, ‘Crystal Ball’
Has it really been two weeks? I’m kind of in limbo right now, as even though my conscious mind is acclimating, my subconscious is still trying to figure out what in the world I am doing here. As far as communication goes, I’m getting there. Slowly. I haven’t had enough Japanese language classes to make significant progress (I actually haven’t started most of my classes yet due to holidays and the typhoon), but I pick things up on a daily basis (words I use often include “cool,” “maybe,” and “understood”). Tonight I even managed to tell my host mom that I played pachinko with my friends and that my dad owns a Japanese pachinko machine and fixes old pinball machines in our garage! Useful things to know, let me tell you (sarcasm). Besides the language, I am slowly learning how to conduct myself in society at places such as restaurants and stores, and though I ignore the occasional store clerk (I am so sorry lady who I think was trying to offer me a sample!), I am gradually learning the ins and outs of everyday life.
I had no school Friday as it was the autumnal equinox, and my host mom took me to see Takarazuka Revue! We hopped on bicycles, much to my dismay as I have not ridden a bicycle in about two years and the Japanese are not particularly keen on wearing helmets, and I followed her (without crashing!) to the Takarazuka Grand Theater a couple of miles away. As we stood in line we met a kind older woman who was in line to see the show as well, ecstatic that I, being a foreigner, would be so inclined to attend. “Is this your first time in Japan?” she asked me in Japanese. “Yes, it’s my first time,” I responded. She nodded and smiled a bit before saying, “I see, well, it’s very good that you want to see Takarazuka. Very good.”
As we waited, I noticed a group of women (okay, there were no men) standing off to the side by a gate. When a voice in the group yelled, “Sit down!” and the entire group sat formally on their knees, I looked to my host mom and the woman next to us for direction. They laughed a little bit and my host mom whispered to me, “Those are Takarazuka club members.” The older woman piped in, “I think that’s a rule. Look!” And as I turned to watch, a well-dressed, androgynous-looking woman came walking up to the gates and entered a pin number into the keypad. As the gate opened, the entire group said at once, “おはようございます!” or “Good morning!” Ah yes, I remembered then, the Takarazuka fan girls have quite the reputation.
Turning to the ladies next to me I heard our new friend whisper, “I think Todoroki Yuu is supposed to be making an appearance.” All of a sudden I started sputtering incoherent Japanese phrases, only managing to garner strange looks before blurting, “Todoroki Yuu is my favorite!!” So ineloquent, but alas, aren’t all moments of crazed fandom? When both of the women next to me start jabbering excitedly, I knew I must have said something right. They talked to me for a while in Japanese that I couldn’t understand, and I just nodded repeatedly until they both grabbed my arms (quite unlike the Japanese) to spin me around.
“Waaah, look Amy-chan!” My host mom rasps, hitting me again. A car with tinted windows pulls up at the sidewalk not two feet from me. The cab door opens, a pale hand shielding the owner’s face from view. I know those hands. Filing my creeper status away for the moment (or forever), I hear my host mom squeal, my breath catching as out of the car steps none other than my ultimate girl crush–Totoroki Yuu! I hear murmurs and squeals from the fan club as she steps up to the keypad and enters the gate, my host mom pushing me forward so I can get a better look. As she walks across the courtyard and up the steps of the Grand Theater, the fan girls yell in unison, “いってらっしゃい!” (roughly: Have a nice day!), and the moment is over. This all happened before the actual show.
The entire production including intermission was about five hours long, as it consisted of two full shows: one a musical, in this case 仮面の男 or Man in the Iron Mask (literally “Masked Man”), and the sort of broadway-esque dance show Royal Straight Flush!! (why a native Japanese speaker would choose this title I have no idea). The acting, costumes, music, and stage design were all beautiful, and although I couldn’t understand most of the lines, I understood the story and the emotion behind the scenes. However, one of the few lines spoken in English by the Three Musketeers I latched onto, as it rang true in more than the context of the play, but in the context of Japanese society itself: “All for one and one for all!”
If there is one thing that I have taken from all of this so far–and something that will likely continue to stand out to me if it is prevalent this early on–is the collectivist mentality of Japan. We’ve all heard it before: Asian countries tend to be collectivistic, working for the greater good of everyone rather than for the individual. In other words, it probably couldn’t be farther from the idealistic “American Dream” of “making it on your own” and the like. The idea is not to stand out, not to put yourself on display. It’s difficult to explain if you’ve never experienced the difference. I feel like I’m in the way when I’m out in public. I feel the desire to hide, not so much because I look different, but because I am so obviously marching to the beat of a different drum. Surprisingly, it becomes worse when I am with others who are non-Japanese. At least partially, I know it’s the language barrier. But the fact that society goes so much deeper than language is really starting to hit home, and I know that I will have a much harder time learning how to live Japanese rather than speak Japanese. Economic similarities and work ethic aside, there might not be two cultures in the world that are more different at their core values than Japan and the United States.
So who is right? The answer is: neither. Both. There is no right or wrong answer, there are just different ways of doing things and different ways in which societies run themselves. Of course I am comfortable with the American value of individualism. I grew up in America, and there is no reason I shouldn’t be. Do I think that makes it better? From a neutral perspective, no. But of course there is a part of me that wishes to be catered to, to be praised. But one must be cautious in saying that these things are human nature. Yes, we are all humans, and humans share universalistic traits. One could say it is human nature to love, but the rules of who to love, when to love, and how to love change within different cultural contexts. What is love? One could say not showing physical affection to one’s children is a form of neglect, but hugs are incredibly rare in Japan, children being no exception. In my opinion, attributing an action to “human nature” is a god-awful excuse for writing off something that you don’t understand; an attempt to group all human beings into the same category to make oneself more comfortable in difficult situations. Something is American nature perhaps, but human nature? I’m not so sure. I suppose that’s why I’m here: to search for an answer, and in the case that there isn’t one, to accept and understand another society as it is, without comparing every detail against my own.