RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Reflecting on a trip to Japan, and what might have been

TOKYO DINING — Chizu Omori and family at Nana restaurant, in the Marunouchi business district, in the JP Tower Kitte mall.  photo courtesy of Chizu Omori

TOKYO DINING — Chizu Omori and family at Nana restaurant, in the Marunouchi business district, in the JP Tower Kitte mall.
photo courtesy of Chizu Omori

This summer I took a trip to Japan with my family, and we had a grand time. We managed to accommodate everybody, from me to my youngest grandchild who is 18. We did this by splitting up from time to time, with everybody doing what interested them. So, for instance, Geneva, the 18-year-old, went to the Robot Café with her aunt and uncle, and the rest of us went to the folk art museum.

Geneva strode around in shorts and tank tops, and her demeanor marked her as a foreigner (she is one-fourth Asian), but I saw that dress codes have been considerably relaxed in Tokyo so that girls were wearing short skirts and older women were in slacks. Some of us went to the Maidreamin Café where middle aged men are served by girls dressed up like Victorian maids. It’s silly stuff, but it tells us something about Japanese society in the 21st century.

We rented a house so we had a homey crash pad to return to after full days of sightseeing and eating. Tokyo is a foodie paradise. We loved prowling through all those basement groceries and take out shops in the department stores, and the myriad small eateries in every alley and street. I have never seen such attention paid to the aesthetics of presentation and packaging. In fact, the tidiness and order that is basic to everyday life in Japan is breathtaking. Every place is clean and life seems to be working in a very orderly fashion. The public transportation system is first rate, with comfortable trains that are air conditioned and clean. Service everywhere is courteous, you know that you will not get cheated in your transactions and you don’t have to figure out how much to tip because there is no tipping. Japan is a wonderful place to visit.

But I am very aware that I am an American. I don’t think that I could live for very long in Japan. All those unspoken rules and all that politeness would get to me after a while. Nevertheless, there’s a vast overlay of Western influences on everything, with many signs in English and more people eager to try out their English and wanting to talk. Even train announcements on some trains are in English, along with Chinese and Korean. It made roaming around quite easy.

The trip did start me thinking about my own history. At one time during my concentration camp experience, my parents decided that they no longer wanted to stay in the U.S. My father signed repatriation papers and so the decision had been officially made that our family would be leaving this country. The Poston, Ariz. camp was slowly being emptied because most of the inmates were moving out, going East and off to other parts of the country. At that time, returning to the West Coast was still forbidden. I was extremely unhappy with this decision and wanted desperately to remain here.

In the end, we did not go to Japan. We didn’t even have to move to Tule Lake, Calif., and I don’t quite know why we were allowed to remain, because most of those who requested repatriation did get put on boats and shipped off to Japan.

Once in a while, I have speculated on what my life would have been like if the family had returned to Kyushu and joined my farmer grandparents. I’ve talked to veterans who spent time in Japan after the war’s end as occupiers. Some have said that because I had bilingual skills at that time, I would have had a useful life there, probably getting a good job and easily accepted into society at that time. I don’t know. My life probably would have been enriched by undergoing such interesting experiences and I probably would have returned to the U.S. (as many did) with a broader and deeper understanding of the ways of the world. But, I would definitely not be the person that I am today.

Japanese society certainly seems to operate on a smooth level, and for the Japanese there must be a huge comfort in feeling the security and predictability of a homogeneous society. You know what is expected of you and you can expect all of the others to be operating pretty much under the same rules and values. We, on the other hand, live in a land where “freedom” and individuality are top priorities, at least in our rhetoric, and we are such a multiracial, multiethnic society that we are the polar opposite from Japan. And who can say which is preferable? I can’t.

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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