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Hiding from strangers in the global village

by Michael Hoffman

In his 1993 novel “Hanauzumi,” Junichi Watanabe pictures a prosperous farming village in Saitama. The year is 1868. The Meiji Restoration has just occurred. The shogun has been overthrown. The teenage Emperor Meiji has been conveyed from the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto and installed in Tokyo. Great changes are afoot, pregnant with greater ones to come.

And yet not a ripple of this has reached the Saitama village, all of 50-odd km away.

Life flows on to its age-old bucolic rhythms. Of the world beyond the village, the locals are neither informed nor curious. When they gather to talk it is not of politics, upheaval and revolution but of the youngest daughter of the village headman, who has mysteriously returned from the home she married into three years before — why? What can it mean? Friction with the mother-in-law? No, she’s too clever a girl for that …

We today are different, of course. Such cramped horizons are unimaginable to us. They were breached long ago, and are now irrecoverable, even if we wanted to recover them — and don’t we, sometimes? The up-to-the-nanosecond coverage in which we are immersed of everything everywhere on the planet is stimulating but also wearying. Wouldn’t it be nice, if only occasionally, to turn off the outside world and concern ourselves with the trivial joys and predicaments of the people we know?

But we’re not villagers anymore — or rather, the entire world is our village. Last month in this space it was mentioned that one Japanese in a hundred lives abroad. Some find Japan too limiting and seek a wider field of opportunity. Others are corporate employees engaged abroad in company business, often in disturbingly different, sometimes dangerous settings. Last month’s Algerian hostage crisis, fatal to 10 Japanese, was a worst-case scenario come abruptly to life. It happens. Not often, but the potential is always there.

Shukan Post magazine ran a feature earlier this month on corporate expatriates stationed in some of the world’s more volatile locales. Anything can happen and a lot does. The best defense against the worst of it is a virtual armed camp.

“When you’re building a plant in the middle of the desert,” explains a veteran of such operations in Iran and Iraq, “the first thing to be set up is the camp. There’ll be a rec room for mah-jongg and watching videos, and rooms for quiet conversation; there’s a library, and so on.” It’s comfortable but confining. In many cases you daren’t venture beyond the camp gates monitored by armed guards.

Most corporate expats leave their families behind, but not all. An engineer’s wife describes her time in Saudi Arabia: “We were 100 households living behind a high fence. To get home you had to pass through three gates. In the compound we had a swimming pool, a gym, a convenience store, a library; also a school, which my son attended. We were told, ‘If you’re kidnapped outside the compound there’s no way you will ever be found. And Japanese are easy targets.’ ”

Culture clash can be anything from deadly to annoying to funny. In Saudi Arabia as in many Moslem countries there is no legal alcohol. You can procure the stuff illegally if you know your way around, but at the risk of arrest if caught. Likewise a woman showing too much — meaning any — skin; or a man, for that matter. One Japanese man was reportedly arrested in Saudi Arabia for jogging in shorts.

In Indonesia the water can make you ill; in China, the air can. In India the engineers are first-rate but lack the Japanese virtue — if it is a virtue — of punctuality. In Latin America the prevailing vice, from the Japanese point of view, is boundless friendliness. “Every time you step out of the office for a minute you have to give everyone a firm handshake. You have to remember everyone’s birthday … ” It’s called “building trust” — necessary in business everywhere, with particular contrivances determined by local culture.

Wide world or narrow world — which is better? At the end of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), whose beginning is depicted in Watanabe’s novel, and not too far away from the village in which the novel is set, a woman named Toyo Shibata was born. She turned out to be a poet, but only discovered her talent late in life. She started writing at age 90, published her first book at 98, and lived long enough to see it become a million-plus seller before passing away this January at 101. The book’s title is “Kujikenai de” — roughly, “Don’t lose heart.”

In its tribute to her, Shukan Josei magazine briefly summarized her life and published some of her poems. She was born in 1911 into a relatively well-off family in Tochigi City. In her teens she was apprenticed to a restaurant. She married at 20 and divorced six months later. At 33 she remarried and at 34 gave birth to the son, now 67, who inspired her poetry.

The poems are short, simple, personal. One begins, “When New Year’s comes I remember my son as an elementary school boy, selling natto (fermented soybeans) to buy me a big coin purse.” And another: “Our child’s hand in mine, I awaited your return at the station; I saw you in the crowd and waved.”

There’s an understated elegance here that is very attractive. Still, you have to wonder: Why would a slim anthology of poems like this sell a million and a half copies? The author’s age would be one factor, a welcome encouragement to an aging nation. Might the narrowness of her focus be another? It seems to invite us to come back home to ourselves and close the door, if only for a little while.