American poet Walt Whitman once said that if anything was sacred, the human body was sacred.
But if Whitman was Japanese, he might have deemed something else more hallowed than flesh and bone.
For in Japan, if anything is sacred, the hometown is sacred.
Disagree? Then witness the twice-annual all-Japan exodus to bask before the home fire hearths, first in mid-summer and then again at New Year’s. Witness the worship of local cuisine and customs, revered throughout all Japan and yet mostly similar everywhere.
And witness the weepy inclusion of hometown content in the lyrics of almost all Japanese enka-style folk songs. Remove the hometown element from such songs and you would decimate an entire genre of Japanese music.
In Japan, the hometown is holy. It’s the breath to the Japanese spirit, the blue in the Japanese sky, the bed sheet around all Japanese ghosts.
More: The hometown is the bubbling well from which flows the one fuel that runs the Japanese heart — high octane nostalgia.
To a degree these feelings cross cultures. But while Japanese hometown autos roar on such nostalgia, foreign models usually sputter and die.
All people have hometowns just like all people have mothers. Individually, such ties vary from person to person. But collectively, the hometown connection is an umbilical cord to a Japanese past that is widely viewed as simpler and purer — and therefore richer.
I have a hometown too. Or I did. For I agree with John Steinbeck’s idea that a hometown exists only in memory, fossilized there forever just as it always was.
Meanwhile the real town has evolved into something that might look the same, just like deep-fried onion and calamari rings might look the same. But all it takes is one bite — or one trip back — to realize the difference.
And buildings, businesses and people are not the only features that time has swept away. Gone too is the naive youngster who once saw the town as the center of the universe. Change is the common denominator of everything. Except memory.
With my wife as well. Her own sleepy hometown crept into the national news time and again last year. Mayoral shenanigans, political shoe-pounding — that sort of thing.
She watched the news with bug-eyes, only to see if someone she knew would pop onto camera. The town itself might have been one on Mars. It is not the same today as the place where she grew up.
Nor are any Japanese hometowns. With “hometown” meaning that countrified “somewhere,” from which everyone is and from which everyone left. The movement of youth from country to city has left many rural communities anorexic. The population isn’t there anymore, nor is the future. . .
But the heart is.
While my wife has only yawning interest in her childhood home, the “hometown” concept can still make her sniffle. Like most Japanese, she enjoys a good cry. And few things can bring out the tears like smoke from the home fires.
Meanwhile, her foreigner husband would rather weep over the price of coffee.
She spouts that the symbolism of the hometown has somehow danced past me. A dance, she says, that is a poignant two-step of loss.
The hometown symbolizes what once was but what can never be again. It is that solemn reminder that we can cling to what we love but never hold it. It will always slip away.
In a group society, where relationships and the ties that bind them are both critical and fragile, the loss of the hometown signifies that all relationships will fail, all groups will break and the individual will one day be lost in that state which the individual fears the most.
That of being alone.
The hometown is a twofold reminder of a time when all life was warm and close — a time of family, friends, and overall youthful innocence — and the woeful notion that the connection to that time has been forever severed.
Thus is the attraction — the nostalgic beauty, the nostalgic pain — of the hometown.
Except during the twice-annual exodus seasons, when people celebrate hometowns as if constancy — and not change — was life’s common denominator.
In Japan, there is thus some healing and renewal in the nostalgic romancing of the past. For in those precious moments — in words that might echo Thornton Wilder in his classic play “Our Town” — everyone is, was, and will be together.
My wife tells me I cannot relate — or I can only relate to a degree — because my own society is one that emphasizes individualism. “Moving on” is the Western mantra. While here, she says, the key is “holding on.”
Whitman, Steinbeck, Wilder — why not throw in Mark Twain? He of Hannibal, Missouri, certainly America’s most beloved hometown. Just ask Tom Sawyer.
Twain, who refashioned Hannibal as Sawyer’s dreamy “St. Petersburg,” noted that fiction always makes sense. Meanwhile truth has no such obligation.
The truth is that Japanese hometown devotion may not make much sense. Yet it is still there, like a classic piece of fiction — sentimental and reverent — and always holding on.