Iraq War Japan: Society Journal Society

Remorse, Heroism, and Shame

Last night, while taking a break from design work, I turned on the TV to watch the news. Japan’s prime minister Koizumi had just stepped into a press conference to make a statement about the recently returned hostages. In essence this is what he said:

“Well, it’s good to know that they have returned home safely. Now I think they should take the time to reflect on the great effort that went into [saving] them.”

It is a seemingly innocent statement, but according to the mores of Japanese understatement Koizumi was actually publicly reprimanding the hostages for causing both “meiwaku” (being inconsiderate of others… something that carries great weight in Japan) and “haji” (shame, loss of face) to the world. That he took the time to actually say this on TV means great humiliation for the hostages, both publicly and privately. For three individuals to have caused an entire nation unused to public displays of emotion to stumble into a heated debate about the legitimacy of the present government’s policies and actions, nearly toppling Koizumi from power, leaves a bitter aftertaste for many people here, and the consequences for the hostages has been harsh. According to the therapist who examined them upon return, their stress levels now are higher than when they were being threatened with death in Iraq. In addition, each hostage must pay ¥600,000 (nearly $6,000) in reparations to the government.

Koizumi wasn’t going to let go of this opportunity to punish those who nearly cost him his leadership of the country.

I’ve been fuming about the backlash against the hostages since I first started hearing the news bash them. (I first got wind of this news through Setsunai’s post at On Gaien Higashi Dori) But since it was only on the news that I heard all this, I decided to wait and talk to some people. In my English class this evening I asked my group of four students what they thought. I was shocked that basically they all agreed with Koizumi and the press, saying that all the hostages had been warned before they left for Iraq that Iraq was dangerous. The students felt that the hostages had only thought about themselves and had disregarded the feelings of their families, the awkward positions that they had put Japanese diplomats and politicians in, and the reasons why the Self Defense Force had been sent to Iraq in the first place. Most of them agreed that the intentions of the hostages were in themselves good, but misguided.

I pointed out to them that Koizumi was the one who had put Japanese people in Iraq in danger by presuming to send the Self Defense Force in the first place (against the wishes of nearly 90% of the populace) and thus angering the Iraqi people. I reasoned that the one who had been inconsiderate and caused loss of face for the Japanese people was therefore Koizumi, not the hostages.

My students met me halfway and I tried to meet them halfway, too, but I still cannot quite fathom the reasoning. I feel it reflects much of the Japanese reluctance to truly take responsibility for anything or any one other than themselves, often in public here, and more than often on the international stage. To me the shame they profess reflects a kind of selfishness stoked by a constant desire to always look good in the eyes of others, lashing out when their image is distorted. It is the same thing that caused the Japanese government to refuse the entry of the Doctors Without Frontiers rescue organization during the Kobe earthquake and the help of the American air force when a commercial jet crashed in a remote area of the mountains about ten years ago.

Susan of A Line Cast, A Hope Followed wrote me this e-mail:

I wanted to ask you to help me understand and be more compassionate about something going on in Japan right now.  I don’t see how it really is, I just read a news story here and there, and have no perspective, but it really disturbs me.
It sounds like the Japanese captives in Iraq who were released and returned home are the victims of terrible scorn there.  To an American pacifist, it appears that their very compassionate and courageous actions are viewed as a huge disgrace to Japanese people and that they’ve been accused of being selfish and disrespectful.  I guess that to me, the basic human desire to help those in need seems totally the opposite.  On the other hand, I was the first to condemn the young Seattle father who died some years back on Everest, putting his own needs over those of his family.  I guess in general, I’m perplexed and worried, that those four people have been through hell, and yet seem to be returning to a hell worse than the one they left. 
Do you have any thoughts you can share that would put this into a different light for me?  Am I on the right track with the climber analogy?  What will happen over time with these folks?  Will they be ostracized?  Eventually reintegrated?  Or is this another media exaggeration?
Thanks so much. 
Your fellow former Eugenian, Susan-san

It seems the news of the treatment of the hostages has gone worldwide. And without understanding how Japanese society works their treatment must seem bizarre and cruel. I’m not sure it is out of cruelty that the Japanese are reacting this way… in great part it is a reaction to having been exposed so starkly in the international media (Japanese are a people who in general shun the limelight) and to the sense of anger that people anywhere often feel after having been greatly frightened. If the hostages had actually been killed, I don’t know what would have happened in Japan. Something unspoken would have snapped.

I’m sure the hostages will be fine, especially after the ravenous Japanese media settles down.

There have been other reactions to the wars right now that have bothered me, too. Denny, from Book of Life and Beth at Cassandra Pages, both of whom I respect deeply and whose blogs I read religiously every day, recently wrote about the death of the American soldier Pat Tilman. I very much sympathize with and understand the sorrow and pain people feel over his death. Like Beth I protest against war not because of the ridiculous politics involved but because people are killed. Whether those people are soldiers or little children or arrogant leaders, every death that war brings is a sorrow that cannot be unmade. And Pat Tilman’s death is an utter tragedy.

But so many of the stories from the news are cloaked, as always, in the myths of “heroism” and “doing great deeds for country” and the “selflessness of the young men and women who serve our country”. I’ve read and reread the words over and over again, trying to find in myself the empathy for such abstract and fervent emotions, but, perhaps because I am not an American citizen (though culturally, family-wise, and in spirit I am in great part American), I just can’t look at the photo of Pat Tilman and feel that he is anything other than a young man whose death will cause suffering for those who knew him and further paints the picture of the war in Afghanistan as nothing more than an arrogant and empty fiasco that the American government has all but forgotten. I cannot find it in myself to see him as a hero. I cannot see it in myself to see anyone as a “hero”.

Why do we never see photos of the selfless deeds of volunteers who risk their lives to save victims in wars, without weapons? Why do we not see photos and hear grief and praise for Palestinians who blow themselves up in the name of saving their land from invaders? After all, their slogans and songs of patriotism sound exactly like the support for Pat Tilman from above. Both are a little blind, both see violence and revenge and bloodshed as legitimate means to righting a wrong. And neither is aware of how one-sided their dogma appears to those who stand outside their sphere of dialogue.

This Iraq war is going to get worse, much worse, though I wish to mercy that I am wrong. If we don’t all start to introspect and rearrange our views of both ourselves and those with whom we share this one little world, learn to stop going blind at our borders, one day the whole stack of blocks will lose equilibrium. There are those who would say I am an alarmist, that the world is still going in spite of doom sayers, but already we have had two world wars. I listened to the stories my German grandfather and grandmother told me of what happened. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen again? The resemblance to the rising of the Nazis is chilling. But no, WE aren’t like that. WE would never do anything so evil. NEVER.

Update: The Independant: Japan’s hostages tell how they came home to scorn and shame. It’s a well-written article, though, with its comparison to American nationalism, I think it doesn’t portray the general atmosphere here. Few Japanese are speaking in terms of “support our boys”. They want the troops to come home.

Journal Living Things Nature Spiritual Connection



Oblong winged katydid
Female Oblong-Winged Katydid resting amidst the underbrush, White River Junction, Vermont, U.S.A., 1989

Spring is ratcheting by (yes, I know it’s not a real word, but it sounded so descriptive of the occasional glimpses I make out of the window… if I was a camcorder the whole world outside would pass like a time lapse film outside my window, not too different from Rod Taylor’s 1960’s “Time Machine” visions of his world fast forwarding and fast rewinding. The two zelkovas that I planted two years ago have sprung out into a surprise of light green leaves, already waving a meter above my head. I peek out the curtain between bouts at the computer, while hard at work on the last spurt of the hotel design project, and lament yet another passing of Apollo’s chariot across the rooftops.

The other parts of the connection to sunlight and green things and air living in freedom come to me in little gifts of passage while on the trains, going to and from work. I stand on the train platform of the station near my home, looking over a tree nursery of flowering dogwoods and take a few moments to hear the last rays of the sun tinkling into the corners of my eyes, seeping in like warm honey. Or I sit transfixed, staring across the breadth of the train car at the hard lavender sky building up muscles among the clouds. When no one objects I pull open the window behind me and close my eyes as balmy fingers of wind buffet my face; at times I inhale deeply, seeking traces of sweetness in the night air. Or better yet, the living room sliding door rattles open to my hand and I step out into the dawn light, mist still screening the neighboring garden, while a flock of one of my favorite birds, the Azure Winged Magpie (Cyanopica cyana) (Pica, a very interesting curiosity about this species is that they live only here in Japan, parts of southeastern China, western Spain (in the Extremadura), and in Portugal. ) keep watch in the magnolia, their long, azure tails pointing down beneath the branches.

Perhaps the most delightful moment occurred four nights ago on my way home on the train from a long day of morning at the doctor, afternoon at a design review meeting, and evening of teaching English… I was so tired that the moment I sat down I drifted off into sleep. For some reason I woke one station before my stop and opened my eyes straight into the face of a young woman staring at my… knee. My knee? My eyes followed the line of her gaze and I nearly jumped out of my seat: there, doing a pretty little pirouette, she was, a female katydid (Holochlora japonica), green as green can be. That was not something I had expected to see on a late night train, a chilly spring evening, while half-subdued from nature-deprivation. And yet there she was, saying hello, waving at me with her antennae. I thought she was delightful, though I think the woman staring at me must have felt she was witnessing the coming of the body snatchers. I reached out to grab the katydid, and she hopped to the floor. In front of everyone and just not caring what anyone thought, I leaned down and caught her, bringing her to the window, which I promptly pulled open. I stood with the wind blowing in, my back to everyone on the train and waited until the train passed through an open area where the katydid would be sure to find the company of leaves. I tossed her into the night, wishing her well, and somehow wishing I was tossing myself out with her. She disappeared into the darkness and I closed the window, sat down, and closed my eyes again.

Nature is not some foreign dreamworld that only the initiated can attend. It is all around us, every day, wild and free and vital. It may be harder to recognize it in this concrete lab experiment we’ve decided to call “good living”, but if you peer between the cracks the denizens are moving, going about their own lives. And occasionally they look up and see us, and when you’re lucky, they wave hello.

Journal Musings

Jogging Memories

More than a week ago, while deeply immersed in my work, an e-mail floated to the surface of my e-mail client that had me make a double take. I thought the e-mail was spam at first, but when I saw the name of the sender I stopped everything I was doing and opened it: it was a letter from a former high school classmate who was trying to contact as many people from our alma mater as he could. Attached to the message was a photo of six of the classmates, dining at a school reunion barbecue and looking older and a little more dog eared.

I write about this because I hadn’t been in touch with any of these people since I graduated in 1978, all except one, and he and I have had a falling out. For me high school here in Japan left a lot to be desired; being a skinny, sometimes overly sensitive guy in a boy’s school, looking like a Mexican or Indian among macho white Americans, Australians, Brits, and hierarchy-minded Japanese, in a school where the entire curriculum was based on an American point of view (though the school, run by Canadian Jesuit brothers, boasted to the world 52 different nations represented… but just imagine: 7 years studying American history, only one year studying world history.. something was quite warped) and where, if you didn’t hail from the dominating countries and cultures you ended up being an outcast, one of the Others who sat at separate tables in the lunch room and who received only supporting roles in the distinctly Euro-American biased musicals… all this left me deeply suspicious and critical of white Americans, of elitists who believe that those with less money exist to serve them, and of Christianity.

I say Christianity because of the intolerance the brothers showed for people with different faiths or beliefs (something I could never understand in an international school) and for the rampant molesting that went on around the school, usually of the elementary school boys, including me and my brother, but also of some of the visiting girls who took some science classes and tennis lessons from the brothers. One time, my teacher dismissed the entire class when I raised the question of abortion to a cardinal visiting from Rome. I have never heard anyone, except my brother, mention these awful acts… even today it is a no-no that probably no one will ever acknowledge. I have no idea if the molesting still goes on.

All my high school years I felt something dirty living inside me. I felt I was angry all the time, at a world trying to snuff my attestations out. My escape to America, to the University of Oregon, was like a breath of fresh, clean air… the new people I met were nothing like the elitists I had endured back in Japan, and while there were always those people who cannot seem to help but act like infants, the experience of college was liberating. It opened my mind, exposed me to characters who challenged me to grow and find the kernel of strength in myself, and opened an interactive relationship with a place around me that didn’t feel corrosive. I even began to enjoy my body, not feeling that my skinniness and dark complexion made me unattractive or undesirable. Best of all, I made a ring of wonderful, supportive, and fun-loving friends, people I will cherish all my life.

Years have passed and, like anyone, I’ve long since grown out of that ungainly high school boy. Or so I thought. When I peered at the e-mail from my former classmate, a lot of old memories came flooding back. All the bullying and exclusions and feeling inferior. To have these feelings poke their ugly little heads out from under the hood is troubling, to say the least. I have often wondered if I could face these boys again and hold my ground, without getting all awkward and tongue-tied the way I used to. I thought I had grown into someone more confident, but now I’m not so sure. What is it that triggers all the childhood fears?

Partly to counteract this sense of losing ground, I decided to reply to all the recipients of the e-mail, to hail them and try to overcome so much of the old resentments. Sending the letter made me nervous enough to make my palms sweat, but I did it. I like to try to face old ghosts and make friends with them.

Only one person replied, as flippant as I remember. No one else. And I don’t expect them to. In a way it confirms my high school suspicions. All week I have been asking myself why I would subject myself to further neglect and invisibility. I haven’t needed these people for 26 years. Why would I need them now?

Art & Design Graphic Design Humor Journal Musings


The brochure design project I am working on went though a critical review session yesterday with the hotel people and, while wringing my hands under the table, culminated in the turning point of the design. With my design partner and I anxiously peering at our clients, wondering what they thought, and with me basically sitting there overwhelmed by all the arcane Japanese politesse that was flying between my partner and the reviewers, I kept repeating the litany in my mind: “I will not die if they don’t like my design. I will not die if they don’t like my design. I will not die if they don’t like my design.” I brought my hands out from under the table, picked up, for reassurance, the ball point pen I always use for sketching wherever I go, forced myself to sit up straight, and deliberately, and s-l-o-w-l-y, turned it over in my fingers, to give the impression that I was cool and nonchalant.

Probably the clients didn’t really care. They were all eyes for the brochure. After about five minutes of passing the mockups around, the leader nodded, looked up, and pronounced, “Ma, iijanai?”, which, translated literally means, “Well, good enough, isn’t it?”, but, which in the parlance of Japanese restraint means, “Looks great. Exactly what we were looking for.” There weren’t even any criticisms of the details. My partner turned to me and, tightlipping a restless grin, mouthed , “Fantastic.” It was like a key to a landslide. All the sleepless hours, all the grand visions of failure, all the intimidation of creeping under the shadow of the hotel skyscraper, came tumbling down and disintegrated like popping bubbles at my feet. And, much more than relief, I felt a sense of accomplishment that perhaps I haven’t felt often enough in my life. Good, honest hard work has its own rewards.

Needless-to-say, I feel pretty battered and torn. I tried to get up to go for my daily exercise, but the body had other ideas. I puttered about the apartment, dabbled in blog comments, read some more awful news. And ended up collapsing in my bed like deflated dough. And napped.

I just woke from the nap a little while ago. From a bad dream, actually. I had been dreaming about this beautiful blogger (with the familiar face of a woman I knew back in college… but it’s so unusual… I never have fantasies about blondes…) with whom I had exchanged telephone numbers for some not-too-hard-to-fathom reason. In the dream I gathered up the courage to ring her up. We talked about the topics we both enjoyed writing about, then decided to meet.

The next scene found us standing face-to-face on the street outside my apartment here in Japan, just at a you wish distance apart, mumbling to one another, but already beyond intelligible speech. This woman blogger was about to say something very profound (at least for me), when from all around us a hoard of Japanese children, mostly boys, started gathering. They didn’t speak or move their hands, just advanced toward us. My blogger diva, frightened, clung to me (can’t recall in real life a woman ever clinging to me out of fear), and I, so manly like, pushed through the crowd toward my house (yes, it was a house now). The children grew insistent, however, and a wordless moan rose up among them. The female blogger and I dashed into the house, slammed the door behind us, and threw the lock before anyone could get in.

I switched on the lights. The interior of the house boasted walls stripped down to the frames, moulting armchairs and sofas, and a chandelier that had crashed to the floor. Dust had settled over everything. We tiptoed through the rooms to my studio where my computer was located. I guess I wanted to show my blogger date my stuff. Instead we encountered the entire back wall of my room fitted with a giant 2 meter by 3 meter LCD flat panel monitor (lots of unrequited desires here, no?) on which was running a documentary, narrated by David Attenborough, about tree frog mating habits. My blogger lover and I reached out and took one another’s hands to comfort one another in the face of this monstrous horror.

I noticed that my usual computer desk was gone and that the room was occupied by three beds, and in each bed, wrapped in a bed sheet, facing the monitor, lay a different woman. Each of them sat up and I recognized them: my wife, an old friend from college, and a childhood victim of my puppy love. They said nothing, just sat there staring at me. Did I feel guilt?

The next moment my brother Teja (hi Teja!) walked in through the door, carrying a notebook PC (it wasn’t Apple, that much I am sure). He stopped, held out the PC to me and frowned. Playing on the screen was a news clip of me marching in the antiwar protests here in Tokyo last year. I held a placard with the words, “Out with Bush!” scrawled in black paint on its surface. When the clip was done, my brother lowered the PC and stood to join the women.

My blogger delight was gone. I raised a hand to make my protest when, out of nowhere, the doorbell rang. I tried to open my mouth, and the doorbell rang again…

I woke from my nap. The doorbell was ringing and I could hear the sound of the mailman’s motorcycle.

I slipped out of bed and trotted to the door, opened it. The mailman was dripping wet from rain. He handed me an envelope and asked me to sign it. Which I promptly did. I closed the door behind me and ripped open the envelope.

It was a new credit card from Master Card.

Blogging Journal

Distant Rivers


Cactus blooming
Cactus blooming in my window sill, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan, 2004

I’m not sure how to take this: Two days ago Tonio of White Elephant (formerly “Savoradin”) wrote a post about a dream he had and feeling somewhat uneasy about its conclusion. In response I attempted to find some kind of consolation for him, by equating his visions with the healing strength of stories, albeit somewhat bluntly and a little insensitive to his earlier allusions to a very painful and devastating memory in April of another year. There was some misunderstanding between us, though civil, and we exchanged a few e-mails in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort we both felt. Tonio stated that he was seriously thinking of closing down his blog, though he denied that I had anything to do with it. The next day, I checked his site to see if any progress had been made with other comments to his last post, only to find that he actually had shut down the blog indefinitely.

Most likely it was, as he told me, just a conclusion of earlier intentions he had had, but still, I feel as if I was the catalyst. It’s been bothering me all night and all morning. Most especially because of the earlier talk in the comments on his post three days ago, in which he and others mentioned suicide and clinical depression, I can’t help but wonder what I might have caused. In this invisible world of blog interaction you never know who is really abiding on the other side; words that you might think carry only light effect, might actually bend someone else’s hopes and fears, and, in my indelicate treading around the flower bed, I now wonder if I hurt someone more than I can know.

Tonio has offered a window into a delicate and sublime soul who wrote poetry that, though he always denied it, could pierce you to the quick in its subtlety and almost whimsical ease in the use of words. He had a way of combining images and representations that expressed vocabulary in exactly what you felt you had been fishing for. And he wrote about the vulnerability of the human soul in a way that few people on the internet have ever approached. He would fiercely push away such praise, however, and find a way to minimize any value in his words, And this has always made me sad. There is a flame there that burns so brightly, but is in danger of snuffing out.

I just hope that he finds what he is looking for and discovers the strength of his own deep and lovely river. Too many voices seem to lose their way in this wilderness and never come home. Perhaps his time away is exactly what he needs, though. The real world is the only place where the heart can mend.

Art & Design Graphic Design Humor Journal Musings

Copy that?

It is 3:00 in the morning, my brain has oozed into the consistency of refried beans, and surely my eyeballs must have loosened in their sockets… Here I am attempting to write copy for the hotel’s restaurant brochure. It’s been a slog of hours now and, by Jove, the words have turned off the Muzak and taken to dancing on the table. What d’ya think, as an introduction to a major offering of victuals:

“The world reeks of flavors. All kinds. And the flavors come with food. All kinds, too. There’re hot flavors, cold flavors, Japanese flavors, French flavors, Korean flavors, and even Karaoke flavors. And they’re all good. Really good. Nothing bad. All really, really good. Cooked by good cooks who can cook good. No really, no one bad. Well, at least not where you can see them. And the seats are straight and the tables don’t wobble. No really. Sturdy as Gigantor. The restaurants are good. You can enjoy food. Come and eat.”

So what do you think? Simple, straight, to the point. Can’t be anything wrong with that! Ugh, gotta get back to the notebook…

Sleep a wink for me, ye Ramblers of the Land of Dreams…

Blogging Journal


Several people now have commented that they are no longer able to see my pictures when they open my blog. I’m sorry I haven’t answered anyone yet about it, but I have no idea what is wrong. The pictures load fine on my system (Mac OS 10.3.3 and OS 9.2.2, on all four computers), and a number of other people with Windows all seem to not be having any problems either.

For those of you who are not seeing my pictures, are you all using Windows, or is it a Mac problem, too? Which browsers are you all using? All my browsers (Mac versions, unfortunately) of Safari, Netscape, Internet Explorer, Mozilla, and Firefox (iCab downloads the pictures but plays hash with the layout, and OmniWeb just crashes) do just fine with downloading the pictures.

I’m not sure how many of you tweak your browser preferences, but it might make a difference if you go to your menu, click the application name (in Mac) or, I think, the “edit” submenu in Windows, scroll down to “preferences”, go to the equivalent of “web content” (in Internet Explorer) and either check or uncheck the equivalent of “show pictures”. If the box is unchecked for “show pictures” that might be the problem with your browser failing to download the photographs.

But then, some people have said that they see the pictures in others’ pages, but not mine. So it may be a problem on my end. But I haven’t a clue what it might be. Let me do some foraging around and I’ll get back to you all. It may be a few days. I’m just too busy right now to be off on blogging goose chases! Ahhhh!

Home Places Japan: Living Journal Life In Musings People Tokyo

Breath of Fresh Air


Nogawa spring awakening
First greening of the Noh River and people appearing to sit out in the sun, Noh River, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan, 2004
Children Nogawa River
Children wandering imaginary lands, Noh River, Chofu, Tokyo, Japan, 2004
Sleeping sakura Nogawa
Sleeping under a blizzard of blossums, Noh River, Tokyo, Japan, 2004




After surfacing from a three day marathon designing spree with only 2 hours of sleep and three weeks of intense conceptual designing for the Keio Plaza Hotel brochure I’ve been working on, I’m just teetering on the brink of throwing in the towel. While design work is fun and stimulating, I can’t see why anyone would subject themselves to such mental and physical abuse. With an evening job teaching English, a day time job writing (after all, that’s what I’m doing all this other stuff for), and a non-negotiable regimen of exercise to stave off the horrors of diabetes (which I’ve none-the-less compromised by neglecting exercise for two weeks now because of all this work) personally I cannot handle the stress any more. I was so wound up on Sunday night, in anticipation of a big meeting yesterday, that I lay awake for three hours trying to get to sleep, but visions of brochure designs kept floating through my brain and finally I rolled out of bed to finish up some preliminary sketches.

All day yesterday it was a series of mishaps and blunders and micro-crises: I misplaced my keys before heading out for the meeting… then had a woman nearly run me over with her bicycle… then had trouble with the ticket vending machine at the station when it wouldn’t accept the large bill I had slipped into it… thereby missing the scheduled train… then took the wrong train to the wrong train exit (Shinjuku station is this huge rabbit warren that has more than a million people passing through each day) and was late for the meeting. The meeting itself went very well and everyone seemed happy with the design. That alone set my nerves at ease for the first time in days.

The cherry blossoms are erupting everywhere, like a slow motion counter strike by a peace-loving anti-terrorism contingent, tired of the inundation of terrorism news. I couldn’t let this go by of course, and so last week took two hours to try out my newly refitted folding bicycle and ride along the Noh River near my apartment.


Cherry Tree Tunnel
Arches of cherry tree limbs, Noh River, Chofu, Tokyo, 2004
Cherry blossom cascade
New opening cherry blossoms, Noh River, Chofu, Tokyo, 2004


What made my whole week, though, was a little encounter with a French woman and her son on the train home from the meeting. I first saw her pushing her baby carriage on the platform while waiting for the train. She carried an air of joy and nonchalance that resided in her eyes and smile, and in the way she coddled her son and kept kissing him. She even glanced up and smiled at me, which, if you know anything about Japan in public, is about as rare as good cheese and clean rivers.

I couldn’t take my eyes off her, so out of place this all seemed. While everyone else was sitting straight and still as boards, staring into the void, myself included, she and her Japanese son seemed to move outside of the general sphere. She brought her face close to the baby’s and they locked eyes, followed by many kisses. I kept thinking, “Wow, she’s so French!” (she was speaking to her son in French, that’s how I knew she was French) But it was more than that. I also kept thinking, this physical interaction with her child, this unabashed display of affection, this “skinship” as the Japanese call such a relationship between two people, is what lays the base for a strong confidence in oneself. This little boy knows he is loved and will most likely grow up feeling part of someone else’s intimate world.

In contrast there was a Japanese father and his son sitting just two passengers off to the side of the French woman and her baby. The father sat there dour and immovable, arms crossed, with a huge frown sagging the corners of his face, while the boy hunched and stared out the window. Whenever the boy slouched or moved to another position the father would reach out and arm him back into position, while sternly muttering, “Sit up straight. People are watching you!” My eyes traveled back and forth between these two and the French woman and baby, and exhausted as I was, I always found myself turning back to the French woman. She made me smile.

As the train ran through a gauntlet of cherry trees I closed my eyes and welcomed this delightful introduction to new life. I felt a stirring of laughter in my breast.