By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
The Meitei of Manipur have some similarities to the Japanese, especially in their ingenuity, as recorded by British colonial officers in Manipur, more than one hundred years ago. It became my ambition to visit Japanafter watching the Hollywoodmovie, Sayonara.
This Japanese word Sayonara meaning Goodbye is very popular worldwide, beginning from restaurant, song and hotel names to the Tamil girl singer Sayonara.
Sayonara was made popular by the Hollywood movie of its name, starring Marlon Brando and Ricardo Montalban – the first Mexican leading man in Hollywood, with his Spanish accent. I remember seeing this film with Khuraijam Dhiren at the Odeon in Delhi in 1957. The film was a post-war attempt to re-humanise the Japanese with scenes of the 1950s. It was set in Kobe in a military setting and Japanese women were portrayed as delicate doll-like creatures.
In 1994 I went to Yokohama to present a paper at the 10th International AIDS Conference at the Pacifica Convention Centre. The opening day Laser show, which the prince and princess of Japan attended was out of this world.
Yokohama is the second largest city after Tokyo with a population of 3.6 million. It lies in the Tokyo Bay Area, south of Tokyo, less than half an hour’s journey by train from Tokyo. It is a prominent port city.
Yokohama was a small fishing village having little contact with foreigners until 1854 when Commodore Perry arrived at just south of Yokohama with a fleet of American warships, demanding that Japan open several ports for commerce, and Tokugawa Shogunate agreed by signing a Treaty of Peace and Amity.
Yokohama quickly became the base for foreign trade in Japan withy many foreigners settling there, in Yamate. The first English language newspaper, The Japan Herald was published there in 1861. The early 20th century was marked by a rapid growth industry. Yokohama was first destroyed by the September 1923 earthquake. Japanese mobs murdered many Koreans believing that Koreans used black magic to cause the earthquake.
It was rebuilt, only to be destroyed in a single morning of 29 May 1945 by thirty-oddUSair raids during WWII, when B-29s firebombed the city and in just one hour and nine minutes reduced 42% of it to rubble, killing seven-eight thousand people.
During the American occupation, Yokohama was a major transhipment base for American supplies and personnel, especially during the Korean War. Yokohama has no airport of its own. You can reach there from one of two Tokyo’s airports. A multitude of train lines connectYokohamawithTokyo.
The Japanese men commute by train to their offices. They all travel standing up, holding the straps on the support bar, and shutting their eyes (dozing). In the heat of the summer they all wear very thin expensive woollen suits with ties.
Rebuilding of Yokohama with the construction of an entertainment town of Minato Mirai on reclaimed land started in 1983 including the Yokohama Landmark Tower, the tallest building in Japan. You can go up to the 69th floor (for Japanese Yen 1,000 = Indian rupees 537) to
have a good view of the city. The elevators are the fastest in Japan. You are up there before you have time to think. For another Yen 1,000 you can have some snack and drink at the Cocktail lounge on the 70th floor or, dinner at the 68th floor.
In 1989, Cosmos Clock 21, the tallest Ferris wheel, like the London Eye, was also opened. I sat in it and looked at the city as the wheel slowly rotated.
Before I went to the conference, I received with the Conference programme, a booklet on Japanese etiquette such as bowing and a few Japanese words, such as Sayonara = goodbye,ohiogozaimasu = good morning, Konnichiwa = good afternoon, origato = thank you, dozo =
Please; and advice to ask school children if one gets lost as English is taught in school. I found that very handy. However it had its limitations.
To go to the Conference centre I travelled from a nearby train station to the Minato Mirai station, which leads into the entrance hall of the Yokohama Landmark tower leading to the giant complex ofLandmarkPlazaand then out to the conference Centre.
One evening on my way back I came out by a different gate. As I lost my way I approached a woman with a young girl. As soon as I said excuse me, the mother and daughter ran away. They probably took me to be a mad old Japanese man.
While shopping in the afternoons, the Japanese shop assistant girls who were very well made up and dressed in bright colourful uniforms would say ‘konnichiwa’ and bow. I would also bow, not wanting to disappoint them. I would then walk up and look at the items (labelled in English and Japanese) I wanted to buy and point to them with my finger.
She would say ‘Hai’ and bow again. As she brought them I looked at the price with Roman numerical on the cashier machine. I would put the money on the tray next to cash machine. She would take the money and as I came out she would say ‘origato’ and bow again. I would bow again. After a few of these I used to have backache.
Bowing is considered extremely important in Japan. Bowes originate at the waist and can be divided into three main types: informal, formal and very formal. Informal bows as I had are made at a fifteen degree angle; more formal bows at about 30 degrees. Very formal bows are deeper. The longer and deeper the bows the stronger the emotion and respect expressed.
Japan is very expensive, three times as much as the UK. At that time, a pint of beer in the UK was £2, but £5 for half a pint in Japan. Food is equally expensive. An ice-cream parfait in a tall glass with scoops of chocolate and strawberry, topped up with whipped cream will cost about 5,000 Yen (2,685 rupees).
For evening dinners I ate only Macdonald fried chicken with chips, a small pudding and a glass of coke for £10 (£3in the UK) from the shop next to the hotel. Unless you eat in the big hotel restaurants, the Japanese restaurants have menus displayed in the windows in replica plastic models – a unique Japanese innovation. All the replicas are handcrafted to perfection, not mere rubbery copies.
Since I did not know what was in them and how much they cost, I avoided them. Japanese restaurants provide diners with single use wooden chopsticks that must be separated apart at the thick end. They are shorter than the Chinese ones and mostly square-shaped. All Chopsticks taper towards the bottom and you eat with that end.
I went to attend a Japanese tea drinking ceremony- set up for tourists. It was very arduous and the green thick creamy tea was horrible, undrinkable – excused for the foreigners. The
ceremony was in a room in a teahouse located in the garden away from the residence. Three of us were there. We were welcomed with a bow and no words were spoken but we were signalled to sit on the floor.
One woman in a Kimono with the traditional Japanese hair style, helped by another woman knelt and went through elaborate steps to prepare the tea. When ready the assistant passed a bowl of tea to each of us. The main hostess then explained in English the nature and meaning of the ceremony, which is the way of bringing one’s self into harmony with nature and others, and also for tranquillity (relaxation).
Another fascinating show was the elaborate Japanese Kimono dressing. There are kimonos for every season; they explained that the real kimonos cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. You can also buy very cheap second hand kimonos. Kimonos are a much less common sight these days, and are usually worn by older women on special occasions.
Young girls usually wear it at coming-of-age ceremony. Kimono literally means “Clothing”. Modern Japanese women now lack the skill to put on a kimono unaided as they are now replaced by western clothes. Unmarried women wear kimonos with large sleeves and elaborate patterns. Men’s kimonos are usually of one basic shape and of subdued colours and they should fall to the ankles.
A visit to the Yokohama Kirin beer Brewery Company, which played a leading role in Japan’s adoption of beer from the West, was fascinating in that in the whole factory which was fully automated there were only two people – the man guiding us and another in the control room with all kinds of gadgets.
Another racial characteristic of Japan that one can not fail to notice is that in the metropolitan areas at least, all Japanese women are thin with small breasts and of middle height. I understand it is an increasing obsession to remain slim. Because they are slim they are very smart in western dresses. Japan is the safest place in the world the opposite of Manipur.
The writer is based in the UK
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