Silence. As the sweat drips down our backs, we stand with our heads bowed, eyes closed in reverence. It is 11:02am on August 9th, the exact time when the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki 67 years ago. Hundreds of people are crammed into the Peace Park, facing the famous Peace Statue whose eyes are, likewise, closed. I learned about the atomic bombings in history class, but now, less than a mile from where Fat Man detonated, it seems more real to me than ever. The atomic bomb is certainly a reality for the Japanese living in Nagasaki. To this day, people are dying of the bomb’s after affects. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power disaster, the city of Nagasaki is more committed than ever to the promotion of world peace and global zero. Reflecting this mission, millions of origami cranes, folded individually by Nagasaki locals (my hostel staff included), fill the Peace Park on August 9th. In a few hours I will board my plane for Boston, back to the Land of the Free, Fenway Park, and Clam Chowder. Reflecting on my time in Japan, I feel grateful and overwhelmed. The past month has been more like an Indy movie than real life. I arrived in Nagasaki with no real itinerary, unsure and a bit lonely after a week of traveling alone in Tokyo. Now, I am leaving behind a web of support, a group of the most giving and welcoming people I’ve ever met. In a way, I feel like I’m leaving home instead of returning to it.
What have I learned from my leap into the unfamiliar and exotic realm of Japan? That it is, in many ways, not so exotic. Sure there are many cultural differences: Japanese vending machines carry coffee, tea, and beer while their American counterparts do not. However, I now realize that my original conception of Japan was skewed and idealistic. Before embarking on my trip, I imagined the Japanese to be spiritual, balanced, and in touch with nature. I pictured myself frolicking among looming Buddhist temples in ancient forests that radiated mystery and harmony. I envisioned a determination to preserve traditional culture and the lingering influence of the honorable bushido code.
On the other hand, and quite contradictorily, I also expected to find a consumer’s metropolis where opportunism and efficiency were valued. After reading many books by foreign authors, I learned of a disintegration of family life, an extreme secularization, and a higher than normal suicide rate. Never doubting this information, I adopted the presumption that the Japanese were polite, yet cold and mechanical, and that I would always be an outsider.
Generalizations about any population are bound to contain elements of truth; Japan has both traditional and a modern aspects. However, I now realize that my conceptions of Japan were grossly exaggerated. The traditional, spiritual Japan that I fell in love with is certainly not Japan today. Although there are places where age-old rituals are being preserved, a lot has changed as far as religion is concerned. Nor is Japan a country of identical, unfeeling puppets. What I found, individual to individual, was a warmth, a concern for the feelings of others, and an individuality that none of my books had touched on. Far from feeling like an outsider, I was taken in and cared for by complete strangers.
For example, when I was lost and looking for the Nagasaki City Library, I stopped to ask directions from an older woman at the bus stop. Squinting up at me, she began ushering me down the street, guarding me from the sun’s unforgiving rays with her umbrella. Not only did this woman miss her bus, but she also walked me to the library to make sure I wouldn’t lose my way.
Similarly, a teacher I was meeting for the first time offered to take me to the Goto Islands and spend the day driving me to Hidden Christian churches. Not only did she stick to her word, but we also met her students, sampled famous Goto udon, and skim boarded on a picturesque beach. I did not pay for one meal the entire trip
Time and time again, the Japanese exhibited an unthinkable openness to me, a foreigner. One night, my roommate at Akari Hostel drove me an hour to visit two natural onsen, proceeding to pay for my ticket, my dinner, and a pack of hi-chews. “When you get a job,” she assured me, “you can pay.” A woman I met at Nagasaki Junshin Catholic University worked painstakingly to find me an English speaking doctor when I got sick, emailing me everyday to check in and make sure I was getting the care I needed. Yet again, a family welcomed me with open arms, inviting me to their home for Eel Day and throwing me a surprise dinner before I left. I simply cannot believe that I have been met with such tenderness.
That being said, the most difficult part of traveling alone in Japan has been meeting people that I will never see again. Many of the Japanese that showered me with kindness, do not have facebook, cannot read an English blog, or do not own a computer. My stay in Japan has put me in the care of one person, who then relayed me to the next, and so on. As a Type A personality, it was a new experience letting go, relying on others, and allowing fate dictate my journey. Returning to America, my suitcase is bulging with undeserved gifts. Half the time, I couldn’t understand what my benefactors were saying. But all the awkward moments and language barriers did nothing to divert their friendly attitudes.
I set out to study Japanese spirituality, to find what mattered most to the Japanese people. I found pieces of it at religious sites: on Buddhist mountains, in Shinto shrines, and on Christian islands. But where it really hit me was at 11:02am on the anniversary of one of the worst atrocities to ever scar the Earth. Some say the Japanese value the group over the individual. I say they have an understanding of our reliance on others, a willingness to drop everything to help someone else, an ability to put others above self, even if that “other” is a strange and confused foreigner.
Like Americans, the Japanese are a group made up of individuals. They are millions of cranes, not black and white or uniform color, but a rainbow of shades. Each is folded carefully, with a giving heart.