Last month was not spring break as usual for us, as we traveled to Japan. We seized our chance to spend time with good friends who live in Tokyo and to enjoy the Japanese cherry blossom (aka sakura) in various locations.
The Japanese seem to be uniquely attuned to nature and seasons, which is reflected in countless works of art. After viewing the bountiful beauty of sakura I am hardly surprised by this intimate bond. I also now look at blossoming trees here in Cleveland, where spring has begun a few weeks later, with more attention and even a sort of craving.
Our journey was also the occasion to observe Japan through a multicultural lens, something I had not done in my previous trips many years ago, maybe for lack of experience and perspective back then.
There is no denying Japan’s insularity but some pieces of the puzzle do not necessarily fit that brief description. One example bound to strike me is the ubiquitous use of French in store names and clothes, as well as the love for fine French pastries, like the gorgeous baba au rhum and Mont-Blanc I purchased at the pastry shop Éclat des Jours in Tokyo.
What struck Appa on the other hand was our frequent encounters with statues of Japanized Hindu gods in the Buddhist temples we visited. The names were altered but still recognizable to him. Sometimes their Sanskrit origin was acknowledged, sometimes it was not. Yet another exhibit for how religion thrives on amalgamation…
As for the Japanese taste for European culture, it may be less ancient but it is by no means a recent thing. I have just finished Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, one of the great Japanese novels of last century. The bourgeois characters of the story, set in the 1930s and 1940s, love wine and cheese and they are well versed in French literature and cinema.
Foreign language fluency is still not the norm in Japan. It was the first time I experienced how technology is now commonly used to solve this problem and communicate seamlessly. We had several interactions with Japanese where at least one person was using their smart phone for instantaneous translation. Understand and being understood has become incredibly easy regardless of language barriers — a least in simple matters.
Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, which I watched on our flight back to the United States, resonates with this experience, in a much more complex way. Yūsuke, the main character, directs multilingual productions of classic plays in which each actor acts in his or her native language. Perhaps the most moving performance in Yūsuke’s production of Uncle Vanya is that of a radiant Korean actress who signs.
The most personal multicultural dimension of our trip, however, was our staying with our friends, who welcomed us in their Tokyo apartment. He is an unusually learned and curious French executive I struck a friendship with long ago when we were studying business management together. She is a Japanese scholar with an impressive background in French history. They have a bright-eyed teenage daughter who loves baking. They all speak French and Japanese and alternate fluidly between the two languages.
Appa says France and Japan cultures have an uncanny mutual attraction. I know I have been and I remain intrigued by Japan. I thought this might be my last trip there now that cutting on long distance flights seems to be the reasonable thing to do. I long for more though…