Is Japan changing? Utterly, and not a bit


Japan is changing. Or is it? The young Japanese people are changing while the old Japanese are holding on to their traditions. Whether you witness the changes in Japan, and to what degree, largely depends on where you are.

On Shiraishi Island where I live, for example, the changes we experience are temporary, taking place only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summertime. This is when 30-year-old women in leopard-print bikinis and high heels and their tattooed husbands come from the mainland to enjoy the beach here. These changes always go home on the last ferry at 5 p.m., after which the island returns to its traditional lifestyle.

During these summer hours is the only time one can witness this mix of old and new. In the mornings, as the first scantily dressed crowds get off the ferry and walk along the road to the beach, they pass the island’s “obaa-chans” donning bonnets, aprons and gloves, pushing their wooden carts to the gardens. Their fisherman husbands are already out at sea.

As the tourists set up their tents on the beach, the newspaper man makes deliveries on his dilapidated bicycle to the locals who live along the one-lane road that divides the houses and the beach.

Some of the houses along this road hang out goods for sale on a horizontal bamboo pole: five beach balls, a few pairs of swimming goggles and some packages of fireworks. Nobody tends the bamboo pole shops — if a customer comes along, he yells into the house for the obaa-chan to come out. If the obaa-chan is away at the garden for the day, the customer leaves the money in the coin box left for that purpose.

By midafternoon, children are running along the beach squirting their water guns at each other as the toilet cleaning men go on their regular Saturday rounds cleaning out the nonflush toilets in the houses around the island. Their truck, with a silver barrel mounted on it and a large vacuum tube draped over the side, drives right down the road between the crowds and the houses. After all, there’s only one road on this island, so everyone gets equal access.

Teenagers ride skateboards and electric scooters down the beach road-turned-strip while a local “ojii-chan” stumbles out of the island’s only bar, where he has been sitting on a stool made from a tree stump, drinking with girls in midriff tops and pierced navels and boys in Hawaiian print shorts. Long ago he gave up riding a regular bicycle and now is making his way down the road on a three-wheeled bicycle, leaning to the left while his bicycle veers to the right. The crowds on the street give him the right of way.

More and more mainlanders arrive throughout the afternoon on jet skis and boats. The patio at the bar is in full swing while a group of people wearing black curiously look on as they walk by on their way back from a “hoji” ceremony.

While the tourists eat colorful “kakigori” (shaved ice) on the beach for 500 yen, the locals are eating 100 yen ice cream bars they bought a few hundred meters off the beach in one of those local stores where you can still buy eggs and a rake at the same time.

At the end of the day, the obaa-chans come back from their gardens pushing their wooden carts now full of fresh vegetables, the wheels squeaking from the weight. They wave to the tourists headed back to the port and say, “Mata irasshaimase!”

Their fisherman husbands are headed back home after a long day at sea. As the fishing boats enter the port, the 5 o’clock ferry leaves the port, taking all of Japan’s changes back to the mainland.