Everyone should go to Asia before he dies — if for no other reason than to experience true culture shock.
In 1951, during the Korean War, the Army landed us at Yokohama Harbor. As we trooped down the gangplank and prepared to enter a convoy of olive drab buses, our sergeant yelled: “Anybody need to heed the call of nature?!” Several hands went up. He then formed us into a circle in the middle of the street and said: “Okay, go to it.”
“Right in the street?” inquired a timid voice.
“It’s okay,” answered the sergeant. “Local custom. Nobody will mind.”
As our inner circle began this delicate business, I looked up at houses on the hill across the street. The porches and balconies were crowded with Japanese women who were laughing and pointing at us. The joke was lost on me momentarily until I realized how odd we must look. Later, when I had had a chance to probe local customs, we appeared bizarre indeed. While the Japanese don’t think a thing about going potty under the common gaze, mass self-conscious peeing in public was an American innovation that amused them hugely.
Probing local customs takes some time and at least a fragile grasp of the language. We had been issued Japanese-English phrase books as we disembarked. But I had had time to memorize only two sentences: “How much does it cost?” and “Help! I’ve been bitten by a snake.” Neither did me much good when a buddy and I took a train ride at the end of our first week in Japan. We missed a transfer at Higashi-Kanagawa and landed at a tiny railroad station in the far outback where the houses were lit by oil lamps and the natives could have starred in an Eishin woodblock print of two centuries past. Even pidgin English had vanished entirely at this point. The station master merely gaped when he heard about my mishap with the serpent. He wrote a figure on a piece of paper when I asked “How much does it cost?” But I wasn’t sure whether it represented the price of a ticket to anywhere else, or the number of yen it would take to buy his rickety station house, or a doctor’s fee for treating snakebite.
But eventually Billy Badgerly and I were saved from a fate worse than AWOL by the appearance of a regular angel. She was an indigenous lass, an employee of Yokohama Engineer Depot, who guided us back to civilization.
It is the thousand-and-one little incidents of everyday life which produce some of the sharpest culture jolts — like my first haircut in a Japanese barber shop. All the barbers were women, which was remarkable enough. As I sat down for my haircut, a girl of about 19 plopped down in the chair beside me. The woman barber quickly lathered the girl’s face, then shaved her with a straight razor. After consulting English-speaking acquaintances, I uncovered the root of this oddity. It seems that Japanese heads sprout really, truly black hair. Even fine facial hair which is almost invisible on Swedes stands out on the Japanese female like a five-o’clock shadow. So, what’s a gal to do? Head for the barber shop.
Beauty shops where women drink snakes’ blood to improve skin tone …. Riksha carriages in downtown Yokohama …. French films with Japanese subtitles, and Japanese films with French subtitles …. parades of drunken Japanese waving festive ceremonial banners …. a quiet evening on Sagamihara Mountain, sipping hot milk fresh from goats and watching the sun set …. the list of little culture shocks is endless. The wonder is that anyone ever gets bored in Japan. If he does, there’s always Inoshima Island, barely off the coast and connected to the mainland by an artificial causeway. In this play-land they let you annoy an octopus. For a fee you can sidle up to one of their wide, shallow tanks and rap a cephalopod on the head — until he becomes irritated enough to change color, squirt ink and jet away from you. It’s great sport.
If that is not enough to divert the jaded and enervated, there is a real lovers’ leap on another coast. It’s a cliff face which became a popular place for teenagers to solve their romantic problems. Suicide has long been endemic
in Japanese culture, and not just among touchy aristocrats and kamikaze pilots. So many frustrated couples jumped into the sea from that cliff, that the new American-inspired government installed a billboard at the summit. It proclaimed in large kanji characters: “Wait a moment! Don’t be hasty. Life is worth living.” It went on to dress the kids down severely for wanting to snuff themselves.
Big things, too, can rock the culture boat. Take that tourist must-see, the Great Buddha at Kamakura, a hollow bronze statue some 30-feet high, impressive enough to smite the most jaded pilgrim with reverence. For a small fee anyone can mount a winding stair inside Buddha right up to his head, which is also hollow. There one can look through the slits in Buddha’s eyes at the worshippers below performing their devotions. It gives one a real god’s-eye view of that religion.
A Japanese bath is HOT, nothing like the moist, tepid wussie dips we take. And the tub is big, a huge wooden vat lined with steel, sporting a gas-fired heating unit beneath. This last item ensures that the temperature will not fall one degree below that required to turn Americans into boiled couch potatoes. I always suspected that an ablution in the Land of the Rising Sun evolved from some ancient form of slow execution.
My introduction to the Japanese bath came in a hotel, with women attendants to help this foreign devil over the rough spots. The ritual is as follows: first one strips naked and washes with soap and COLD water. (Since few buildings were heated then, this could be real fun in December.) Assuming our foreigner survives this first step, he then submerges himself in the hot bath, one painful inch at a time.
My female attendant left the room to get towels while I performed the frigid baptism. I then eased into the hot water, emitting a chant of “ow’s” and “ouches,” interspersed with some frantic curses. The water had just reached the middle of my thighs when she returned, slamming the sliding door open. In a spasm of modesty I sat down quickly, then leaped erect with a loud YOW! Modesty reflex took over a second time and I sat — to arise even faster and louder than before.
My attendant was laughing so hard she had to leave the room again, doubtless to inform the hotel staff about the latest kinky performance of the Crazy American. But like so many Japanese customs, the hot bath is addictive. I learned to like them. To this day I can’t take a winter dip unless it features water so hot it would make my friends wince.
In addition to looking and acting quaint, the Japanese of that era struggled mightily to assimilate and understand the strange customs and beliefs of Americans. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan survived as a flattened and atom-bombed mess. Most of its inhabitants went to bed cold and hungry at night. Each year they enviously watched their conquerors celebrate Christmas and New Year’s with gluttonous eating and drinking. So they adopted both holidays, rolled them into one, and called it “Christmasu.”
My initial brush with Christmasu came that first year at the Black Cat Café, Yokohama’s most GI-patronized night spot. It was Christmas Eve; Badgerly and I were feeling far from home, a little sentimental and a touch drunk. The staff of the Black Cat staged a special for Americans — to the tune of “Jingle Bells” all the house’s strippers danced on stage, costumed as Santa Claus and his Elves. Then, as the band switched to “Silent Night, Holy Night,” the girls divested themselves of their apparel. Off came the beard, the red suit, the elf caps and the green shirts, until the strippers stood naked under the spotlights awaiting applause.
Soldiers present did rise to the occasion and gave them a rousing applause. But Japanese in the audience remained silent and poker-faced. This was obviously an American cultural or religious demonstration. Japanese had always been taught to remain silently respectful when exposed to the arts, or to the higher thoughts of a foreign society.
It was a most memorable Christmas.