As a change of pace, I thought I’d share some reflections from my recent trip to Japan.
The main purpose of my trip was to talk about my new book, but I also enjoyed seeing old friends and colleagues from my many years working on U.S.-Japan relations while in government and at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.
Japan’s public transportation system is ubiquitous and highly efficient. I’d bought a Japan Rail pass, which allowed me to travel to cities north and south of Tokyo with no added expense.
The Shinkansen, or high-speed train (which travels at speeds of up to 200 mph) arrives and departs from stations precisely on the minute printed in the timetable. Conductors stand on the platform, urging people on or off and helping passengers as needed with heavy luggage – all to help ensure that the train never falls behind schedule.
For an American accustomed to piped music in nearly every public space and sometimes loud conversations (live or increasingly on cellphones), the silence prevailing in train cars is a dramatic change.
Recorded announcements broadcast upon departure (always in a soft, comforting voice) remind passengers to keep their conversations quiet and to make telephone calls only in the space between cars.
I found the quiet a welcome respite from a busy schedule, allowing me to be alone with my thoughts and to take in the passing countryside, with its mix of industrial, residential, and agricultural landscape.
If you’ve ever been in New York City’s Grand Central Station, you’ll have some idea of the crowds and controlled chaos that reigns in Japan’s largest train stations – especially those of Tokyo and Osaka.
As I stood in the Tokyo station waiting for the track number for my train to be listed, I quietly observed the mass of humanity streaming past me in every direction. At one point, an entire body of schoolchildren filed past, two-by-two, each student in white blouse or shirt and navy blue shorts or slacks.
The moving line of students stretched from one end of the station to the other; yet the adult chaperones had no trouble keeping them in line, nor did they have to admonish them to keep their voices down or behave themselves.
Such is the consideration for others that every Japanese person learns at an early age. Respecting other people’s space; avoiding loud, annoying behavior; and generally being a worthy member of the group are important attributes in a crowded country with tight living spaces.
Being in Japan also reminds one of just how close some of the world’s hot spots are to one of America’s staunchest friends and allies. While I was there, North Korea launched yet another missile that landed in the waters close to Japan.
As the only country ever to have suffered from nuclear weapons, Japan is acutely sensitive to the threat posed by its secretive neighbor’s unabashed pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles to launch them.
My visit also proved that the effects of war never really die. A former Japanese colleague and friend, whose father was killed by American forces on Iwo Jima during World War II, recalled walking hand in hand with his father – an elementary school principal – during a parade in Tokyo sending troops off to war. My friend was just seven at the time.
Although his face was stoic, his glistening eyes revealed the depth of his pain even today, 71 years after the war’s end.
But some positive lessons also emerged from my trip. I had the pleasure of revisiting some of the churches founded by my great-grandfather during his 25 years as a missionary in Japan, beginning in the days when Japan was reopening to the West after 250 years of near-total seclusion.
Although Japan’s Christian population is small (less than two percent of the population), they retain the practices and beliefs taught by America’s early emissaries. I also spoke to a diverse group of Tokyo citizens, whose historical society keeps alive the memory of foreigners who lived in Tokyo’s foreign “concession,” or district.
Because of unfair treaties Western countries forced upon a weak Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, Japan required all foreigners to live in “concessions;” and foreigners needed an inland passport to travel outside “treaty” cities. That practice ended at the close of the nineteenth century, with revision of the treaties.
Japan is a fascinating, welcoming country; and it’s preparing to host the 2020 Olympics. If you’ve never been, that may be just the time to plan a visit.
Joanna Shelton’s book is “A Christian in the Land of the Gods: Journey of Faith in Japan” (Cascade Books, 2016). It will be translated and published in Japan late in 2017, in advance of the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Regime, the era when her great-grandfather served in Japan.