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Memories of Japan

March 18, 2011

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IT is true that faraway disasters and tragedies become more real and more intense when you have visited the place, have family or friends who either live there or are from there or even if you are drawn to the country’s books, music and films.

As news of the triple tragedy facing Japan — a massive earthquake, a devastating tsunami and the ongoing nuclear crisis — reached me last week, I was saddened to the core, the pain made more acute by my connections with a country which my parents once called home for six wonderful years and which I have visited regularly since the early 1980s for personal and professional reasons.

As I exchanged phone calls with my mother and sister, it was clear that they were just as moved and pained by the scale of Japan’s catastrophe and the images of wreckage. They were also just as impressed by the resilience and determination of the Japanese people.

It is difficult to imagine even parts of affluent Japan without electricity, water, heating and food. I have kept track of Japan’s political, economic and social developments for most of my professional life. It is a country that fascinates and intrigues and confuses foreigners — but it never, ever bores.

Even now although eclipsed by rising China as Asia’s economic powerhouse, Japan continues to attract and enchant. Despite its chaotic politics, ageing population, it remains an economic giant, its presence and influence still helping the rest of Asia to grow and develop.

As diplomats in Tokyo in the 1980s, my parents had a wonderful time, entertained by the country’s top politicians and business leaders and even fashion designers, chefs and sumo wrestlers. It was also hard work. Japanese government officials and business top brass had a real interest in developing closer economic and political links with Pakistan. As such there was a constant to-ing and fro-ing of business and government delegations — and for my mother, many trips to jewellery stores as the spouses of visiting Pakistani politicians and officials stocked up on pearls, pearls and more pearls.

Looking back, I should not have been surprised by this intense Japanese interest in Pakistan. As a child, Japanese businessmen coming to invest in Pakistan were probably the first ‘East Asians’ I ever met and really talked to. They were an impressive lot, friendly and open — and brave enough to put their money through aid and investment in a country tottering from democracy to dictatorship. They continue to do so.

While my parents were in Tokyo, I visited often, travelling across the country, visiting temples, admiring huge statues of Buddha, indulging in the best sushi and stocking up in the department stores. Japanese cities were more vibrant, dynamic and noisy than European ones — there was a buzz in the air, an energy and youthful exuberance that did not exist in Europe — then or now.

True, the Japanese were a homogenous lot, anxious to melt in with the others, unwilling to stand out. And some of the clichés were true. Arranged marriages were the norm — sort of. Women were not expected to work after marriage. The ‘salary men’ staggered home drunk after late nights spent drinking sake in geisha houses.

The expatriate women whispered that Japanese women were well-honed in the art of seduction and no man was safe in their vicinity. I remember being fascinated as an American friend of my family recounted ‘losing’ her husband to a Japanese woman’s wiles. It did not fit in with the traditional image of Japanese women as docile and submissive creatures — but perhaps that was their charm, said a friend. I did not really care — the Japanese women I knew were intelligent, beautiful, articulate and chic. And they could cook up a storm.

The streets of Tokyo were so safe that little kids went to school unaccompanied, helped to cross streets by kindly policemen. Newspapers were full of stories of businessmen and pop singers and others entangled in scandals committing hara-kiri to avoid public shame. Baseball was a national obsession.

Over the years, Japan changed. Younger people were anxious to stand out as individuals. So they tinted their hair, developed a love affair with tanning booths and adopted a quirky quasi gothic dress code that never failed to impress. There was rock and roll music in Tokyo’s parks as Elvis-look-a-likes — young men and women — boogied. A stone throw’s away, the streets were crowded with women in traditional kimonos. My home is still filled with beautiful porcelain, prints and exquisite objects I picked up in these streets.

I performed my first karaoke in Osaka, ate sushi until I exploded and was dazzled by the electronics on display in Akiabarah. Japanese journalists I met — and continue to meet — were always first with the best quotes and inside information. In the 1980s, foreigners were still viewed with curiosity — not the intrusive kind, but gentle curiosity. As gaijins my little son and I aroused a great deal of interest. Women came up to me to touch his cheeks and little toes as we wandered around in Japanese cities.

Kawai — cute — was their impression of the little one. But a street artist who tried to sketch me declared that I had a “very difficult and interesting foreign face”. I did not know whether to take that as an insult or a compliment. However, I still have the drawing. Knowing the strength, drive and determination — and contradictions — of the Japanese people, I am confident they will overcome the current calamity, emerging stronger, more buoyant than before.

For the moment, I find it difficult to imagine the streets of Japanese without the glittering lights, the crowds and the unending roar of traffic. But I know they — and Japan — will soon be back.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.