Статьи Скотта Гормана (Scott Gorman)

January 13, 2009

The ‘Ambassador from Akita’ spreads the good word
Special to the Asahi Shimbun

A FRIEND who lived for years in Tokyo before returning to the little coastal town of Kisakata in Akita Prefecture tells me that when someone is called into the boss’s office in the metropolis and told they are being sent to Akita to work, their anguished response is: “What did I do? How did I offend you?”

I suppose that explains the disbelief I encountered when I told people in the city that I was to spend my six-month Fulbright journalism research period in this town of less than 14,000 people situated between the Sea of Japan and 2,236-meter Mount Chokai.

Most people had no idea where Kisakata was, although some knew Akita was somewhere in the far north of Honshu, just below Aomori. They knew it for its good rice, delicious sake and legendary tall, beautiful women – a legend, by the way, that is true. But the one that says that this is a backwater with little to recommend it is a falsehood born of ignorance.

I chose Kisakata, where people largely make their living fishing, farming, working for technology firms or keeping shops, because I live in a similarly sized town in Washington State, near Seattle. I enjoy cities, relish visiting Tokyo and love modern Hiroshima, but after a week in any urban center, I want out. I am a writer and need quiet time for study and contemplation. And I need green trees, the seashore and people who actually smile at you on the street.

At the Fulbright office in Tokyo, I could tell they were both pleased at my unusual choice and also a bit worried about me. After all, in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, there are many services for English speakers, other expats to spend time with and signs in romaji everywhere. How would I get by in Akita?

But that was precisely the point.

Why come to a foreign land if all you do is stay where everything is easy? I wanted to live in a place where I had to do the adjusting, to throw myself in the unfamiliar waters and see if I drowned, floated or learned to swim.

Kisakata made it easier than I had thought. The people are remarkably kind and caring. Town officials provided a place for me to stay, which I mostly furnished from used furniture stores and 100 Yen shops. A neighbor brought me a warm woolen blanket, and I only came later to understand, when the snow started flying and the winds blew in from Siberia, just how much I was going to appreciate that blessing. I was asked to dinners, taken to many festivals and cultural events, invited to take part in daily life largely without reservation. I sampled my first kiritanpo (mochi dumpling stew) at a backyard cookout, tried to eat hatahata eggs (sandfish roe) before I was told I should just suck in the juices and was gently admonished not to use my chopsticks to spear things.

When we battled the nearby town of Yuza, Yamagata Prefecture, in an epic tug-of-war at Misaki Park, I was dressed in paper warrior’s costume and carried a fake musket, in the front ranks for all to see. Some laughed and pointed at me, and I realized had the shoe been on the other foot, I would have been laughing and pointing, too. Nonetheless, I stood proud behind my taisho (leader) and pulled as hard as I could. As I was one of the biggest people there, and perhaps was seen by my fellow townsmen as a kind of secret weapon, I properly took blame for our defeat, head hung in shame. But everyone clapped me on the shoulder and acted like I had done well.

One evening, observing the weekly taiko (drum) rehearsal by the troupe of which the small town is justifiably proud, I unexpectedly found myself pulled on stage to have a turn at the drum. Straining, I tried my best to stand in the proper position, left leg locked, right leg spread wide and veering out. As with my frequent attempts to sit upon my legs, Japanese style, my effort was only half successful. But I kept trying, determined not to disgrace myself and sweating freely. I kept the beat, though, and as part of the group, the power of the thundering drums came alive in a way it never has from the audience.

I was invited by a local kyudo (archery) enthusiast to a nearby center, where I observed the careful ritual movements, and was even allowed to try to send an arrow into a target a few meters away. Unused to the style, instead I sent the missile almost straight up, where it rattled the timbers and endangered one and all. Beet-red, I stepped away, and although the look on their faces told me I had done something so inelegant that it could never have been imagined, I was offered words of sympathy and forgiveness.

At my insistence, I was also left to discover things for myself, but in many ways I was guided from behind the scenes by people who let me bumble along but also showed me by their care that I was no stranger, just a friend they didn’t know very well yet. When I made mistakes, they gently showed me the correct way.

Once, wanting to decorate my home with greenery, I stopped and tried to buy soe plants from a display at a local shop. I was refused by the elderly woman who seemed to be minding the store, and my feelings were hurt. Yes, I could not ask properly, but she knew what I wanted. I thought maybe she was prejudiced against foreigners. But when I asked someone the next day, they explained that this was a residence, not a shop. I had been trying to buy plants from the woman’s own home! I went back and bowed deeply, apologetic, and she smiled and forgave me instantly.

Communication, as the above example shows, could be difficult when the few English speakers in town were not around. Using the few words of Japanese I knew and gestures, I could usually get by. But more than once, after enduring my jabbering, a few shopkeepers just shrugged and made it clear that I should leave. Can’t say as I blamed them. Who needs that kind of trouble? And what fool would come all the way to rural northern Japan without a rudimentary command of Japanese, anyway?

At the local bank, I pulled out my bank card and slipped it in the cash machine. This was easy, I thought as I tried to withdraw 20,000 yen; after all, the numbers were the same as in America. But when I punched in the five digits, the machine burped and no money emerged. That was because, someone eventually explained to me, that whatever number I punched in was followed by four zeros when I pushed the symbol for 10,000 yen.

So I was asking the machine to give me 200,000,000 yen! While my sponsors generously provide for me in Japan, it’s not that much. After a few weeks, I finally got it right, and I felt like I had really done something special.

At the local onsen (hot spring), the other bathers were grateful that at least I knew to wash well before I got in the hot pools. But they looked at me a little funny as I walked from the washing stools. Looking around, I noticed that everyone else was using small towels to preserve modesty. I blushed and quickly did the same. I never made that mistake again.

The people here showed their true colors when news of the events in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, reached these shores. In the next few days, dozens of people stopped my on the streets to pat my hand and express sympathy, genuinely worried about me, a stranger, and my friends and family back home. Many of those I first spoke with in that time are my friends today, and a better lot would be hard to find. The children can be interesting. Although they might like to, the adults know enough not to stare too long at the large, shambling stranger.

But the children have no such built-in editing device. They gape and clap their hands over their mouths at the sight of me. Once, when I was walking overlooking the sea, a group of toddlers in their pink school caps spotted me. I waved and smiled, and the bravest among them came up for a closer look. Seeing my smile and sensing my welcoming nature, he put out his little hand for a shake, like he had seen on TV. Instantly, I was swarmed with dozens of the cute children, all wanting to shake, some pulling at my full beard to make sure it was real. That was a joy.

As part of my Fulbright function, I travel to many parts of Japan. I try to show respect for people’s opinions and viewpoints, even when they are different than mine. This is as it should be; I am here to learn and I try to keep my mouth closed. But that is not possible when I hear people casually disrespect Akita and its people. I tell them about the extraordinary landscape, the peace, historic treasures, the great arts handed down and practiced here to this day. I resent their condescending attitude to the people, whom they seem to consider rubes and bumpkins, and tell them plainly that despite appearances, some of the wisest and most mentally sophisticated people I have met in Japan reside here.

They sometimes humor me, laughing and calling me “The Ambassador from Akita.” If so, it is an honor I come by honestly.

And when I’m in Tokyo, knowing many people try to hide their Akita origins, I enjoy blurting out some Akita-ben here and there, saying goodbye with a hearty Shayba-neh and saying something delicious is maay.

Some people look at me as if I’ve made a rude noise. But sometimes a funny thing happens: someone sidles up to me, like the waiter at an Italian restaurant in Tokyo, and quietly confides they are a native of Akita and love it still–but please don’t tell anyone. As the Ambassador from Akita, I cannot grant that request. Because I love it, too.

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