Late October finds me in Tokyo once more. Many people have gone to this huge, huge city but I have one bragging right: I have seen Tokyo, in a way, grow into what it is today.
It was late 70s and the Philippines was under Martial Law. An exchange program under the Youth Students Travel Association in the Philippines entered into an agreement with several local government units. The program created out of that partnership was aimed at sending exchange students to different countries under the International Christian Youth Exchange (later changed into the International Cultural Youth Exchange Program).
I was lucky to get the scholarship to Tokyo, Japan. For all the violent and active cultural fault that ran across the Philippines-Japan relation, my knowledge of the country was limited to the stereotypes created in films and through memories of the previous generation about the Japanese Occupation. They were not fair sources of idea but what can one expect from a naïve 19-year old student from the province?
It was tough enough leaving the country during the Martial Law years. With the press controlled and the information being censored by the government, a person travelling outside then was bound to hear the not-so-good thoughts about the pseudo New Society constructed by the dictator with the help of politicians who were bought easily. The government thus tried to control the flow of people.
The Japanese visa then was also one of the toughest to secure for Filipinos.
There were other odd requirements before one could leave the country. First, one must have undergone Youth Civic Action Program or YCAP, a kind of volunteer program; and, second, one must be have planted at least ten trees in some designated areas for reforestation. After one had planted the trees, one must secure a certificate from the barangay captain where he lived.
We know that planting trees is never easy; getting a certificate though showing that one had planted trees “somewhere” was easier.
While waiting for my departure, I received a brochure from the Embassy of Japan. Something excited me about the country other than the memory of three Godless years, hunger during the war and the cruelties inflicted on Filipinos during the Pacific War. This was the photo on the inside cover of the brochure: a Japanese family of four standing on a ski slope, the ice as white as my discovery that where I was going, there would be “snow.”
And so it came to pass that I, after six months of delay, I was able to leave the country for the first time. Instead of the originally scheduled September, I left in February.
Nothing prepared me for February in Tokyo. It was deep winter when I got out of Haneda Airport. There was no Narita Airport yet. The area that became the massive and modern Narita Airport at present was ancient farmlands owned by farmers who refused to sell their properties. It would take years before the farmers would give up their land and more years before the airport was constructed.
Presently, I marvel at the English translations of instructions at bus and train stations. In the 70s, translations and notices in what the Japanese call the “Romaji” or Roman letters were rare. I had to memorize the “kanji” or those characters borrowed from the Chinese and given a different reading by the Japanese.
I was also wary of the Japanese as individuals then. Their inscrutability to one not aware of their culture can be depressing. I still had to learn the language and not only the written and oral language but also the body language. All the cursory lessons I got from a small book on Nihonggo were useless. They were about straight, completed sentences. The elegant, proper sentence was elliptical, a line that sort of drifted into an obscure path. This space allowed people to politely interact with each other.
It would take years before I learned the true lesson about the Japanese language: wait for the verb to appear or be uttered. The verbs were always at the end. I had to drop also the pronouns so that my sentences would be more appropriate. Pronouns always call attention to oneself and in this culture, individuals disappear within social structures and groupings.
The body language was the more difficult to learn. Once mastered though, the vocabulary of the Japanese body language can help one navigate the Japanese culture. The much- vaunted mystique of the Japanese person vanished and, in its place, was a human being with his own sense of life, death and humor.
I write this while holed in a minimalist boutique hotel in Tokyo. Behind the hotels are embassies with their grand and singular designs. Outside the hotel, the stairs lead to the subway. The place is called Roppongi.
In the 70s, the place was seedy, with lots of bars and Filipino jazz musicians. They were not yet called “Japayuki,” which merely meant “those who go to Japan.” Oddly enough, even as there were enough sites and technologies to surprise me, I could relate to Japan easily in the 70s.
Roppongi today is awe-inspiring. The hotel is on the level of the street. Inside when you take the elevator, it is on the 5th floor. The reason for this is that there are five more floors below it. The area has been carved out of hills, with escalators going through terraced garden and trees that seem to be suspended. Looking around, I feel I understand more about one of the Wonders of the Ancient World – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
I have not visited my university, the Rikkyo University. The first time I was there, there were small, wooden stores along the way. In winter, I discovered that vendo machines had canned coffee. I would always buy one and drink it on my way to the Japanese language lessons. One morning, a door opened behind the vendo machine and a young man, through sign language and a smattering of English words, offered to heat my can of coffee. I followed him inside their old store where I met his old parents. There after a few minutes, I savored the hottest, most delicious coffee in can, in deep winter. The second day, they gave me bread to go with the coffee.
Each day, I would buy the same coffee. The man would come out and usher me into their home. In there, I would squat by the electric stove that warmed me. We never talked because I did not know how to speak their language.
When did I stop going into that dark, warm home? My memories fail me now. I think it was when I learned the language and got to know the city that I chose other, warm places.
Tokyo has changed a lot. It is always changing fast.
I miss that dark, warm home. No words were passed between us. But we understood each other, with me holding on to my first coffee in can, in deep, deep winter – a young man who didn’t know he will never grow old in Tokyo.