Adapting the Fire

posted in: Uncategorized | 18

Everyone’s comments have made me think a lot about my own attitude, and how my own attitude probably helps in shaping my misery. Though my love for nature is genuine, and I do need to find the kind of natural environment that brings me close to a sense of balance within myself and the surrounding environment, I also knew what kind of environment I was getting myself into when I moved here (though this place is exceptionally unfriendly and developing way too fast, with little thought given to the quality of the neighborhood. My last apartment may have been too small, but, even in the heart of Tokyo, it was quiet and the neighbors were so friendly that we had parties together and took care of each other’s children and pets). Aki’s comment particularly rang true with her insistence that it is how you choose to view a situation that in the end determines how that situation affects you and the people around you. Her example of Nelson Mandela was powerful. Here was a man who had been locked up and abused for years, and still he managed to get out of it with hope and grace and respectability. Instead of nurturing hate and revenge, he insisted upon fairness and understanding and thus managed to end a state of affairs that was intolerable for the black people of South Africa. And to relinquish power, too! What a generous and wise spirit!

I further read some thoughts by Robert Bateman, perhaps my favorite wildlife artist, in which he speaks of the need for people to learn, as he did in Europe, how to live within one’s circumstances. While I don’t intend to start another diatribe against America, I do think that the expansionist, pioneer attitude of Americans today is inappropriate in a world so overcrowded, and that it is this attitude, in great part, which has contributed to the intolerance that began the Iraq war.

I have to look at my own development, too, when I speak of “nature” and our relationship to it. Before I left Japan after high school, to attend university in Oregon, I loved Japan and Tokyo so much that I wanted to become Japanese. I saw no ugliness in the city and the crowds and jumbled development actually felt normal to me; it was the world I had grown up in. Upon arriving in Oregon everything felt odd and overgrown and frighteningly over-spacious. For more than a year I couldn’t get used to the empty streets and never bumping into people. The stretched out lawns in front of people’s houses, without walls, and the vast concrete wastelands of parking lots seemed a shocking exploitation of precious land. The gargantuan invisible wall of wilderness, where bears and cougars and men with guns roamed, was so alien and vast that for years I couldn’t wrap my mind around it and never dared venture too far into it without friends.

Living in Oregon for ten years, though, gradually eroded my conceptions of space and humanity. Concentrating on courses revolving around the environment and listening to passionate professors speak about the “loss” of this wilderness and the supplanting of old growth forests with human plantations, biased my ideas about what was a fair assessment of “nature”, and what an ideal human habitat might look like. The ideals were particularly American, home grown from a land of people used to great open spaces, abundant wealth, complacent in their expectations of land and standard of living. When I began studying architecture the mantras of relevance and respect for existing historical precedents meant thinking of buildings like an American, building with an American sense of size and personal comfort, ways of seeing the built world that were completely outside of my own experiences in Japan and Germany.

I returned to Japan carrying this new load of cultural baggage, my eyes newly attuned to a different wavelength of tolerance and expectation. Whereas Tokyo, before I left, had seemed beautiful in its details and the people finely accentuated for living within the environment that had shaped them, I now saw only seething crowds and a mess of unkempt buildings. And I hated it. Try as I might I couldn’t restore the old faith in things Japanese and join the people in delighting in the trivial trinkets that so plague the society today. Part of what I sought had been lost during the social shakedown of the Bubble Era and I was returning to a different world, but in large part it stemmed from my own changes. I had lost the Japan of my youth.

Perhaps this learning process comes in big steps that you take at certain junctions in your life. First was the pastoral wonder of the world in childhood, then the reinforcement of ideals to reach for in America, the plunging into reality in my post graduate period, an awakening to the enigma of arrival in my early middle years, and now, something new, a further step in awakening and change. It is an often painful struggle, like the writhing of a moth pupa when something dangerous touches it, but cleansing, too. Perhaps the step to be taken is not some harboring of resentment against the people around me, but to actively take part in transforming the world I inhabit, to embrace it and mark it with my own brand of charm and vision. Certainly sitting here fuming alone in front of the computer can’t spell an iota of influence upon the neighbors. But if I were to offer something to admire and like, something beautiful and open, with my heart ready to suffer the gauntlet, then perhaps my own spirit will emerge free. After all it is a pact with humanity that I seek, not nature. Nature is there of itself all the time; it is the vagaries of the human experiment that so troubles me.

18 Responses

  1. Let me get this straight: you lived in OREGON, where the verdant wide open spaces caused you to long for TOKYO, and now that you have returned to Japan, you are dismayed about the facts of overcrowding outside your window, and yet you have angst about the USA. A sensitive, eloquent writer, you have many devoted readers. I trust they will have something comforting to say to you, as they nearly always do. I very much like the persona I encounter here, but I have the sense of having read this blog post several times before…

  2. I think I rather agree with Denny’s words though I don’t want to sound harsh. It’s the “grass is greener on the other side” kind of thing. Yet your struggles and change and growth are real. In the end of this passage, it seems you have made some kind of step forward, rather Mandela-like. Either you accept the place you are in and try to improve it as you say, or you can move to a more suitable environment, could you not? What about a small town in a lovely countryside in Japan ( I believe there are such still left )?
    Wish you well!

  3. Denny, I think that was rather unkind and myopic, though it may be true to a great extent. My circumstances are not completely of my own making; being married to someone means you have to make compromises, as you probably well know. Returning to Tokyo was an effort on my part to provide a fertile place where my wife, a Brazilian with few prospects for work outside of Japan (she’s second generation Japanese and Japan is one of the few places where she can get a working visa), could find meaningful and well-paying work (she was a factory worker when we met). Her chances of making it into the States are nearly nil, she probably wouldn’t find meaningful work in the States since she doesn’t speak English and doesn’t have a university education, and I wasn’t about to leave her behind just to satisfy my own selfish needs (the US would require me to live in the States without her for five years before they would approve an initial review as to whether she was suitable for immigrant status or not). She likes the city and has family nearby so I did what I thought was best for her. But to the detriment of my own needs. I do not openly talk about my wife on this blog very often because I feel her life is her own and private and no one else’s business. But my life just happens to be more complicated and more three dimensional than the posts I make here might suggest. I am not a stupid man nor one who enjoys wallowing in misery, but it just so happens that circumstances in life DO limit what you can do sometimes, and no amount of “being positive” or believing in fairies is going to dilute the reality.

    I am doing my best to extricate myself from something that is not quite so simple as, “I think I will just throw my satchel over my shoulder and mosey on into the sunset.” I want to make the transition without unduly hurting others in the process and making sure that my wife is well-established and safe (it would cost each of us about $6,000… $12,000 altogether… just to make a down payment on a new apartment each, and that’s for a rather cheap place! We just don’t have that kind of money. Most Americans can’t even imagine how expensive things are here in Japan). Anyone who just leaves without doing this for people they love is an asshole and a selfish egoist. I might whine here sometimes, but I do not leave people in a lurch, no matter how frustrating or painful it might be.

    So please give me a break. I write on my blog in part to exorcise the great frustration I feel for how slowly it is all moving and for days when it all seems too much. I’ve been very patient and have learned to be understanding. I hold a lot of the feelings I have for the way things are inside and this is one place where I can release the excess. Until you have lived in Japan to experience firsthand the difficulties of being a foreigner here (a place which is more than just an “experience” for me… it is one portion of my notion of “home” …the States and Germany being the two other parts…, where a lot of my identity and loyalties developed, but with the added dilemma of never being accepted as part of the society because I am not Japanese) and lived in my shoes in my world between cultures (which I’m sure any of you who have grown up in a polarity of foreign cultures can identify with), I don’t think you can understand what it is like not knowing where to set roots down when you have no roots to set. I think it is also easy to talk about making decisions when you perceive me as being alone, but if you honestly care about and work with people whom you love in your life, you know very well that things don’t always work quite so smoothly as you would wish them to.

    I believe that people live in a circle of others who help you through your life. People don’t live alone, can’t. And it is your responsibility and role to help other people through their lives, not to just live for your own desires.

    So it is a balance. And that often takes time, and is not always pleasant, and not always what you want. It doesn’t mean, though, that I can’t or shouldn’t hope and plan for something better.

  4. Marja-Leena, A lot of what I write in the blog is an effort on my part to sort things out in my head and heart. It helps when people have good suggestions and sometimes when they openly criticize my attitude and thinking. Since I have very few friends to open up to here in Japan (an aspect of Japan that many foreigners complain about… why is it so hard to break into the intimate world of friendships here in Japan, even if you can speak the language fluently. I’ve never had trouble making friends anywhere else in the world), the circle of people I’ve gotten to know here in the blog and with whom I interact has provided some measure of a very necessary contact with people. Quite often people have said things which made my train veer in another direction, and helped me see things in a new light, that often I am blind to myself. Aki’s comment in my last post was like that; she helped me realize that I wasn’t looking clearly at the situation. As you say, my struggles are real, not just something written in a blog. I am a real person over here, not just some ideas on a computer screen. There are real people involved, with real money, and real responsibilities. There are real consequences.

    And yes, I have been thinking very hard about moving out to the country here (I’ve even contacted Robert Brady from Pureland Mountain to ask for particulars). But there’s the issue of work and money. I’m not Japanese and finding a good job in the country in Japan is not easy as a foreigner (it’s almost limited to just teaching English… not much prospect of anything else, unless I want to work in a factory). But I’m looking for possibilities. Hopefully something promising will show up.

  5. Butuki, please accept my apology if I seemed too critical! Your response to me and to Denny helped me to understand better your difficulties. I admire and respect your loyalty to your wife’s situation. I do understand how difficult it is for foreigners, for one daughter lived there a short while as an exchange student, plus some friends as English teachers. I have many Japanese friends here who say they don’t feel they belong there anymore after living here (Canada).The Japanese society seems very complex! I also appreciate how writing about your frustrations is important to clarify your thoughts and not just whining. Do keep doing it, you write beautifully and keep looking for a compromise situation for both of you, perhaps somewhere close to Tokyo would offer jobs for both of you and still have reasonable housing and access to nature? Good luck and good cheer.

    By the way, Vancouver is a great place and has a very large Japanese community :>)

  6. Marja-Leena, actually your comment was very welcome and softened the blow of Denny’s disdainful words. I was quite taken aback by his assumptions about me, knowing as he does, next to nothing about my real life. Your suggestion about trying to find a way to move to the country was helpful and positive, and was something I can grasp and understand because it is concrete. To just tell me, as Denny did in so many words, that my confusion and pain is impractical and weak, well, that certainly didn’t help me dig my way out of the difficulties. I’m not looking for sympathy; I’m looking for solutions and other people’s knowledge about how to deal with such problems. Without friends and a community I can communicate with, there really are not many other places for me to turn. So I thank you for listening and offering some good advice.

    One of the places I am thinking of moving to is Vancouver. New Zealand, Australia, and Canada are the top three places on my list of research for jobs, cost of living, quality of lifestyle, and diversity that I am doing right now. May I ask how the job situation is in Vancouver right now? I hear from Canadian co-workers here that it’s tough.

  7. I vote for Vancouver!!! It’s a great multicultural city, and you’d have a couple of blog friends (Dale, Lekshe and I) driving distance away until you set up your local network of friendship and support.

    I don’t know about jobs there in total, but i”m sending you some job descriptions from Monster.

  8. I came here to leave a note but was taken aback by the first comment. I’m so glad you took the time to address it as I’m sure most of us are aware that our recurrent struggles are not as one dimensional as those words suggested.

    Unfortunately, I find myself completely side-tracked as I heard something else in that criticism. Something I don’t quite know how to broach without the threat of starting another bun fight but I couldn’t help hearing a hint of defensive patriotism beneath Denny’s words. Effectively, I found they inadvertently displayed a touch of the very thing you’ve addressed in so many of your rants about the US: the rampant patriotic machine. Perhaps I notice it because it contrasts so sharply with the Australian attitude. Aussies couldn’t give two hoots about what you have to say about their country. If you don’t like it, “She’ll be right, mate.” I think we’ve been very lucky to have escaped that patriotism – in all areas bar sport. Perhaps its one of the reasons we’ve been fairly innocuous on the world scene. And it makes me very nervous to have a Prime Minister who is now making noises about flying flags in schools and children singing the national anthem each morning. If we can get rid of him in the next election I’d highly recommend Australia as a place to live. :)

  9. One reason why Australia and New Zealand are top on my list, besides what I consider very open and tolerant societies, is that I am thinking of studying wildlife biology and wildlife management and then using what I learn in combination with my writing and background in architecture and teaching to devote myself fully to environmental education. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, but never had the courage to embrace completely. I feel that living in Australia or New Zealand might just provide the perfect environment for these endeavors because I’ve read and heard so much about their environmental programs. People there seem to be educated from very young to respect their environment and it seems to be part of everyone’s daily life in many ways. And I’d like to be in a place where people live like that (with regrets, Pica, to such wonderful places as Davis, California, and Eugene, Oregon; Missoula, Montana; Boulder, Colorado; and Keene, New Hampshire), especially if I can live in a place where I can be outdoors most of the time.

    I have to do more research. I’d like something where I can still hold connections to Japan and Asia, possibly working with green tours for Japanese, or even, if I can get the money and work for it, living part of the year in Oceania and part of the year in Japan. That would solve the dilemma of wanting to be part of Japan and also living in a more environmentally friendly place.

    A lot of the changes I want to make mean that I have to “soften” my mind, learn to be open to creative possibilities. And not being afraid to take some of the scary first steps.

  10. Good luck with this, Butuki. Your dreams are inspiring. I hope you find the courage to take steps in that direction.

    As for Australians being so environmentally aware, I’m surprised to hear it as I still find a large degree of apathy in practice. But I guess it’s all relative, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere else to make a comparison.

    And you are right, environmental education is part of the curriculum from a young age. It has to have some impact.

  11. I have ‘listened’ to your thoughtful words and ‘watched’ as you have slowly found answer to question only to find even more questions over many months now and I have rejoiced to know there is another person on a similar journey to me. Though our lives and living on so many levels are and will be different there are meeting points that make me smile in recognition both painful and joyful.
    Here in Wales I know there is a thriving Japanese community because of the motor industry which ‘loses’ people here all the time. Environmentally we have a very long way to go but we are learning and it is probably less crowded than many other places in Britain. However you can only be outside most of the time if you have a love for waterproof clothing :0) Though the University in Swansea is known for its ocean and enviroment studies.
    I wish you well in your contuing journey I have never felt you have whined, I’ve felt a little thrashing around, an amount of searching and an ongoing journey that is powered by an open heart.
    Peace and purpose to you and light and love to both you and your wife may you find a way to still find each other smiling and blessed when the questions are answered for you both.

  12. Damn, I was going to suggest moving back here to good old liberal Massachusetts. I know some Brazilians who are running a thriving office building cleaning business. The Brazilians seem to have a lock on that business around here, and my Argentine friends are having a hard time breaking in. No idea about the Japanese population, but many Brazilian communities. Well, I hope you guys can find someplace that accommodates your multicultural and multi-personal needs. Sounds like you have some good possibilities to explore.

  13. I’m not sure how the job situation is here in Vancouver, depending on the field you are looking at. Excellent English is pretty much a requirement ( a problem for your wife?). The high tech industry I believe is good here.

    I have heard excellent things about NZ, even better than Canada!

    You sound happier already at the idea of change ahead – good luck!

  14. Good luck, Butuki, with whatever changes you decide to make.

  15. I’m a recent arrival here (thanks to CdV’s recent post) and have not delved into your archives at all (largely because I know I’ll be mesermised for hours by your beautifully fluid and honest prose) but from the few entries I’ve read so far I’m shocked at the unnecessary roughness of the opening comment in this thread. I just wanted to say ‘booooo’ to that and express appreciation and gratitude for your eloquent erm stuff what you wrote.

  16. Demian, thanks for your note. I’ve been stopping by your site every now and then for the past few months, but never took the time to comment or link to you, though I always enjoyed your drawings very much. Like you, I re-acquainted myself with your blog recently through CdV. I love the variety I find in blogs and how each blog becomes an individual’s self-expression. Yours is certainly one of the more unique out there!

  17. Thank you butuki – I’m also not a prolific comment leaver as a rule – largely because (as with the one above) I tend to read them later and realise a lame attempt at a joke has misfired and made me sound really dumb – hey ho! I think all the best blogs have a clearly visible unique and imperfect human being between the lines of text or ink. It’s a new and still strange phenomenon to me – encountering and becoming enchanted with so many gifted and articulating people just giving out their wit and sense and craft for the sake and love of it. Anyway, well met!

  18. You know when I was ten I moved from Minnesota to Massachusetts. I REALLY didn’t want to go. I was scared of the change and I felt so totally out of control of the situation, because, well, I was. I was so angry with my parents for taking me away from my home. I desperately clung onto every familiar thing that I could, even forcing my mother to come with me into the back yard with a shovel to dig up the pet grasshopper that we had buried several years before so that I could inter it in the new back yard.
    I held onto that for a long time, particularly as I found the cultural differences between the midwest and the east coast to be enormous. I didn’t know how to fit in in this new world and we all know kids are cruel.
    I didn’t go back to the Minneapolis area until 20 years later. Teja and I had a convention there. One of the things we did was to get together with a couple who were friends of my parents who lived two houses down from us in Bloomington (now home of the Mall of America–how times change).
    As we drove through the streets, it was like driving through deja vu. There were so many places that I almost recognized, but I couldn’t quite get a handle on how they fit into the big picture.
    When we reached my old neighborhood, the first place we stopped was the park where my dad used to take me ice skating and sledding and where I learned to swing REALLY high and jump off. I looked at the hill and boy, it just wasn’t as steep as I remember it being. Then, there was this huge gash torn through the middle of it–some kind of aquafer. Hmmm…
    We drove up my street and stopped in front of my old house. The first thing that struck me was how small it looked and how beat up. It really wasn’t that different, but of course, my perspective had changed. We took a picture of the what-was-a-sapling maple tree for my mother and continued on to my neighbor’s house.
    We slowed as we passed my old house on our way back to the hotel. As I looked at the big picture window, I felt like I could see a shadow of myself looking back at me, a part of me that I had left behind when I left. Mentally, I reached out and told her to come along, but she didn’t.
    Teja and I flew back on separate flights. I don’t remember why. But as my plane started taxiing down the runway, I could feel “her” presense again. Running along side the airplane begging me to take her with me. So, I did.
    Even writing this now, I can feel my throat tightening and the words in this little box appear somewhat blurry. I think there will always be a part of me that will stay angry and hurt and scared about having had to leave my childhood home, even though I know that Bloomington, MN is not the right place for me any more. I will never go back there to live, regardless of my memories and the feelings they engender. When I left the airport at the end of that week, I knew it was truly time to go.

Leave a Reply