Salty Thoughts

When I returned to Canada from Japan last summer I began to think about my life in a different manner. The exact reason for this I cannot say. Perhaps in writing this column I will be able to more clearly understand what I felt and what it means for my future. It all started shortly after I arrived home when I began to experience some interesting feelings and thoughts about who I was and what I was doing in life. These thoughts and ideas came in various forms but all were quite strange and surprising. I call them strange because I had never before thought of my life or my existence for that matter in such ways. If my reflections are too ethereal or just plain boring you’ll just have to excuse me or better yet simply stop reading.

When I was in Japan it was almost like I had been taking a mood enhancing narcotic that either sped up the pace of my everyday existence or at least greatly modified what I perceived to be reality. Reality is relative to the individual of course, but somehow when I was in Japan I truly felt like what I was seeing, smelling and hearing did not actually exist. It was not just because of the differences between Canada and Japan, nor the fact that I didn’t posses enough language ability to communicate effectively, but rather the fact that for the year that I lived in Japan I observed life taking place all around me, and it was Japanese life and reality, not my own. I think the reason for my disassociation from that reality can be explained with the analogy of a grain of salt in a glass of salt water. That is, the glass was Japan, the water, the reality of life in Japanese society, the salt, the Japanese who went about their everyday lives, and me of course the grain of sand. No matter how vigorously the water was stirred, the salt never became absorbed into the water, though at times it was carried along with the current at such a speed so that to the naked eye it was no different than the salt in the churning water. When the stirring stopped though and the water cleared, the grain of sand could always be found at the bottom of the glass, alone. This is not in anyway a criticism of Japanese society as it is my observations and comparisons between that of my own culture and that of Japan’s. Indeed, before I went to Japan I was not aware that I had a culture, and if anyone would have asked me I would have had no idea how to explain what life in Canada was like or what characteristics Canadian people shared in common. Anyway I had better get back to what I thought this column might be about, reality.

When the grain of sand left the glass it felt heavy, slow and even cold, just about how a grain of sand must feel like when it is taken out of a glass of turning water and dropped onto a large platter. Now imagine that the platter has not just other grains of sand but various sizes of pebbles, stones, glass, and even a grain of salt or two. Now you might be able to feel how I felt when I returned home to Canada. The grain of sand on the platter had no water to carry it, and although it had other grains of sand to be with it didn’t feel like it did when it was in the glass of water with the salt. At least in the glass of water the grain of salt could float along merrily making itself believe at times that in reality it was a grain of salt, but on the platter there was no mistaking a grain of salt with a pebble or a piece of glass. It was as if the grain of sand took on some of the nature of the salt simply because there were so many grains of salt and so few grains of sand in the glass of water. What is better then? A reality where a grain of sand can sometimes be or at least feel like a grain of salt, or a reality where the pebbles, glass and sand all know that they will never quite mix or feel comfortable with each other even though they all share some common characteristic, that being that they are Canadian.

I have heard of some grains of sand, mostly southern sand, that have actually become salt or something very similar to it in taste. These “pseudo-salt particles” have been more-or-less accepted by the salt water mixture and live quite enjoyable lives but, so far the process of “saltification” is a difficult one reserved for those salt grains who have achieved a celebrity status among the community of salt. What does all this mean? Well, it will probably mean different things to different people and nothing to others. For me, as a Canadian, I have never felt much cultural belonging. Growing up in Vancouver was like growing up in not one country but many. My friends came from all over the world: China, Japan, India, and many of the countries in Europe. Most of them maintained their cultures, languages and traditions from their native countries while at the same time “becoming” Canadian. Which they felt stronger, being a Canadian or a citizen of their home country I am not sure. Many Canadians will tell you that it is a special feature of life in Canada that so many cultures come together and live in general peace and harmony. Before I experienced life in Japan, that was about all I could have told someone who asked me what life in Canada was like. Now however I can see that all those different cultures don’t necessarily “mix” with one another, and as a result, the Canadian culture is, for me, somewhat of a murky point. My experience in Japan showed me a people who shared common history, language, beliefs and ideals, and most importantly, culture. This all translates to a strong Japanese “reality”, and a feeling of belonging. It was this feeling that I occasionally felt in Japan as I worked and lived a Japanese life for a year. Clearly I was not Japanese, but I participated in the Japanese reality and lived the Japanese life to the extent that at times I forgot that I was not Japanese. I was not unlike the nameless cat in Natsume Soseki’s tale “Wagahai ha neko de aru” 吾輩は猫である(one of my favorite books) who at times forgets that he is a cat and feels more comfortable in the presence of humans than his fellow felines. The “Japanese reality”, or unity, or whatever you would like to call it was so different for me that it made me realize how much I was missing. I have never felt about my life, the way I perceived the Japanese to feel about their culture and country. Of course I love and am proud of my country but I feel that I donユt quite belong here in the sense that I don’t< share a common reality with the others around me. The only thing that every Canadian really shares is the fact that they are all supposed to accept the many kinds of different cultures that have chosen to reside here. This is a great thing in itself but for myself, after seeing a life where everyone shares so much more, my existence here has become somewhat spiritless and cold, like a motionless grain of sand on a platter. At this point I feel that it would be better to live in a country where there is a very strong, common culture even though it is not mine, rather than to live in a country where the native culture is uncertain and intangible. In Canada, I have met many young Japanese people who are here with working-holiday visas. A large portion of them think that Canada would be a great place to live for the rest of their lives. In Canada, they say, they can escape the sometimes suffocating nature of life in Japan. They can feel "free" they say. I say that they should really think about what that freedom means. Is it really freedom or is it actually emptiness? Please let me know if you have a good answer to any of these questions. Copyright @ Michael Richter. All rights reserved.


This month I would like to talk about one of my favorite sports, Sumo.
The average westerner is totally ignorant of the rich tradition and history of sumo, let alone the Japanese people themselves.
Most foreigners, and many Japanese as well for that matter, find Sumo to be strange and even disgusting.

To be sure the sport is not for everyone, however, I think that if more people took the time to learn a little bit about the rich tradition and rules of Sumo they could not help but be impressed. I certainly do not profess to be an expert on either Japanese history or Sumo, but I must say that the more I watch, the more I learn, and the more I come to appreciate the sport. For the beginner who does not live in Japan, and thus does not have access to live Sumo, I would suggest checking out “The Grand Sumo Home Page ” which is the official site of the Japanese Sumo Association. The site can be reached at ****. The site provides a wealth of information concerning Japan’s national sport including origin, rules,F ranking, ceremonies, key terms, and kimarite, which are sumo techniques.

Each category is well laid-out, detailed and very interesting. As well, there are lots of pictures which go along with the various explanations. It is also possible to put your name on a mailing list to receive updated information about upcoming tournaments, and promotions. The best thing about the site is that it provides live coverage of sumo matches. Using the free software which they provide you are able to watch the last two hours of each day’s matches in full color and sound.O Using a 56k modem, the action is somewhat stop and go, however it is still a worthwhile experience. Along with the ability to watch sumo live, there are also various interviews with the rikishi (wrestlers) and free downloads of the most exciting matches which have none of the stop-and-go drawback. The site also provides a comprehensive list of the daily matches, and up-to-date rankings.

While learning about sumo you will also learn about the history of Japan, as the sport of sumo dates back some 1500 years and has its roots in Japan’s religious (Shinto) andN imperial dynasty. As well, any serious scholar of Japan should be well versed in Japanese culture, history, language, and sport; sumo is innately linked to all four. Put together with the extensive explanations of the rules, history, and techniques, it is easy to learn some Japanese history and language, have an entertaining time, and get hooked on the sport of sumo. I found no drawbacks to this site other than the fact that with the time difference between Pacific Standard Time and Japan Standard Time, one has to watch the live events starting at 11:00 p.m.

I think that you will enjoy Sumo if you give it a chance, and if nothing else, you may learn something!

Copyright @ Michael Richter. All rights reserved.