Cultural Learnings of Japan for Make Benefit this Chinese Girl (Borat pun intended)

After the televised welcome to Miyazaki, we spent the day doing rather unglamorous things. For the most part we sat on a tour bus (which, to its credit, was decked out with golden chandeliers) watching the Japanese landscape whiz by in blurs of green (of crops and forests) and grey (of neat houses and tiles). We stopped for bathroom breaks often and I discovered that the fabled “modesty buttons” really do exist. In some ladies’ room — perhaps in the men’s as well, I wasn’t privy to verify – stalls are fitted with a small speaker and a button. Press the button and this personal radio plays a 25-second recording of very pleasant sounds to mask the rude noise of your urination. All through my week on Kyushu Island I enthusiastically pressed every modesty button I came upon and found great variety. Sometimes the speakers play music; other times, just soothing sounds of nature. The recordings of mountain streams really confound me – what’s the point of disguising your natural trickle with the sound of another one?

Since we arrived mid-afternoon, the itinerary for Day 1 was relatively light. We would drive to Aoshima Island, just off the coast of the resort beaches of Miyazaki City, take in the sights, then, head to our hotel in Kagoshima and the first onsen bath of the trip. Along the way, our excessively cute local tour guide kept up a lively chatter on the bus. Her name is Ai and she’s a cultural transplant, much like me, who moved to Japan during her elementary school years. In fluent Mandarin and Japanese she earnestly educated us on Japanese history and culture.

Ai knows an impressive lot about the two countries’ history and creational legends, but my favorite story of hers is one about Chinese misconceptions of Japan. Growing up in Manchuria, where historical enmity against the Japanese runs strongest, I’m very aware of the biases. It’s not uncommon in China – not the most “PC” place in the world – to hear people dismissively refer to Japanese as “little Japanese”, a slighting allusion not only to their diminutive stature but also to their perceived underhandedness. This moniker instantly calls to mind war-time movie images of a mustachioed Japanese commander plotting evil deeds with his creepy Chinese traitor-collaborator. Although young people have embraced Japanese pop culture, anti-Japanese sentiment flares out of random incidents. I remember back in 2001, China’s most popular starlet, Zhao Wei (think Britney Spears in her pre-head shaving days) appeared in a fashion magazine modeling a t-shirt dress emblazoned with the Japanese imperial flag (red sun with rays shooting out). Her blunder set off a media storm of hate and anger, with many predicting the end to her career (which didn’t happen, by the way). These things happen fairly frequently and I don’t think we’ll see an end to occasion

Back to Ai’s story, which is revealing of the Chinese attitude toward Japan in a more light-hearted way. Ai told us of a time she led some high-ranking Chinese officials around Kyushu Island. She was telling them Japanese creational legends, which are mostly set on Kyushu. It was here that the gods descended and gave birth to the first prince of the royal family (the same lineage that still occupies the chrysanthemum throne today). As she was telling these stories to the Chinese officials, one of them said, “Oh, Japanese creation, we all know the story of how this place came about.”

“How’s that?”, Ai asked.

“Well, there was a certain Wu Da Lang (I’ll translate it as Gotaro here) from China who migrated to Japan. He was a bing (a kind of flat round Chinese bread) seller back home and decided to take up the same trade here. To advertise his food stall, he stuck a red hot bing on a piece of white cloth and, voila, the Japanese flag was born. Gotaro needed to write home of his adventures, but he was not a literate man, so his letters are proper Chinese characters interspersed with his own made-up characters. And that’s how Japanese writing came about.”

Ai doubled over from laughter at this, an extremely Sino-centric view of Japan, which sees Japanese civilization as all derived from China. To be historically accurate, Ai reminded us, after Japan’s long fascination with Chinese language and arts, it went through a period of ‘closed doors’ when it stopped sending scholars to China and instead developed its own arts.

The bus rides went by quickly with Ai’s storytelling. At Aoshima Island, we got off to visit the Aoshima Jinja (shrine). There, I started my album of “wishing tree” photos. Shrines are a big part of Shinto Japan and each is believed to help in a certain aspect of life. On this trip, we would see shrines dedicated to scholarly achievement, fertility, and marital bliss. At every shrine, plenty of space is devoted to holding believers’ wishes. I could make out messages roughly saying, “Good luck on the exam!” and “Love and happiness” written on pieces of paper tied  to poles, written on little wooden placards and hung from message boards, and on other wishing instruments sold at the shrines. These colorful and heartfelt dedications were my favorite photo subjects in Japan.

Aoshima Jinja is set in a jungle flanked by ocean and a strange sight called “Devil’s Washboard.” Row upon row of neatly lined rock, which look like they’ve been cemented into place by someone who needed a lot of really skinny bowling allies, line the beaches. Despite looking manmade, these basalt rock formations are perfectly natural.

The scenery on the Kyushu that I saw thus far was beautiful in a desolate way. This island set in the extreme south of Japan is a cradle of natural wonders – volcanoes, hot springs, valleys, forges, mountain falls, rivers, and lots of ocean. Yet, the island has been abandoned to its senior citizens as younger people migrated to cities in search of non-agricultural employment. The sparse and aged local population, alongside the well-preserved natural scenery, is such a contrast to bustling Beijing. Here, we could drive for hours and hardly see ten people on the sidewalks. Along the pristine coasts, I could take pictures at any angle without people walking into my frame. Precipitation is a common feature in this volcanic zone, often shrouding the scenery in a surreal veil of mist.

After a long day, I happily checked in at our hotel at Kagoshima. We wolfed down a delectable kaiseki style dinner (especially enjoying the “black pork” specialty of Kagoshima) and rushed for the bath before it closed for the night. The bath, I’ll save for another story. Learning what not to do when stripping down and jumping into a hot pool with a bunch of old Japanese ladies was something!

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