A Travel Vignette

buddha.jpg (7386 bytes)

From a Japan Travel Diary (1985)

A Girl and Her Buddha

Also, of Earthquakes and Honor, the Japanese Way

A Bob Djurdjevic Column, October 1985

TOKYO - My flight from Singapore to Tokyo was fairly uneventful until we got to just over Okinawa. That's when we hit some pretty heavy turbulence. And, as it seems so often the case, this happened just as dinner was being served. I didn't know if I should feel more sorry for the cabin crew who were being bounced around, or for the passengers who were having the food and drinks spilled on them, not to mention their nerves tested. As for myself, I was lucky. A small piece of sushi was all I found on my lap after the weather settled down.

The incident reminded me of a story about a lady who was seated next to a priest during a similarly violent air turbulence. In desperation, she turned to the cleric and said, "Father, can't you do something about it?" "Sorry, Madam," the minister replied coolly, "but, I am in sales, not management." My next door neighbor, a Japanese to whom I told the joke, for some reason didn't find it very amusing. I only figured out why later.

Just as I was about to return to my book, the captain announced over the airplane's PA system that Tokyo had just had an earthquake. "Oh, great!" I exclaimed, recalling our ordeal in Greece a few years before. The captain said that the extent of the damage or casualties was not known, but that it did not seem very serious since the quake measured "only six-point-something degrees on the Richter scale." Evidently, the captain didn't know what a "six-point-something" degree earthquake meant.

After we had landed, and I got to my hotel (the "New Otani"), I asked a man at the front desk what damage the earthquake had caused. He acted as if he didn't know what I was talking about. "You know -- the e-a-r-t-h q-u-a-k-e," I pronounced the words very slowly moving with my hands and arms in a swaying motion. "You know -- the shake?" "What shake?" the man asked. I felt like replying with something like "the chocolate flavor, no whipped cream," but I gave up on the idea figuring he'd never get it. Instead, I said "you've just had a 'six-point-something' earthquake, and you want me to believe that you didn't know anything about it?!"

I was barking up the wrong tree. It was obvious that the man had been coached by the hotel management not to cause any panic with the "gaijin" (foreign) guests by talking about it. The following day, I read in the English-language Tokyo papers that this was the strongest quake to hit the city since 1929, when whole sections of the Japanese capital were devastated.

I went back up to my room. I decided to call a friend who used to work for me, years ago, but whom I had not seen for a number of years. Her husband was with IBM, and they had been transferred first to Hong Kong, and later to Tokyo. "Mushi-mushi," a familiar female voice answered the phone. "Since when have you started stuttering?" I joked, showing my ignorance of Japanese at the same time. Apparently, "mushi-mushi" is a customary way they answer phones in Japan. My friend explained that the earthquake really wasn't all that bad, although she certainly felt it when it hit.

A few weeks later, a Japanese friend told me that he was also in Tokyo that day. "Did you feel the earthquake?" I asked. "No," he replied. "Really? You didn't feel a thing?" I was bewildered. Maybe that hotel porter was telling the truth after all. "The reason I didn't," my friend explained, "was that I was riding in a taxi at the time."

Bus Driver Hangs Self To Atone For Death Of Passengers

The following day was a Sunday. It was a very rainy Tokyo Sunday. It had been raining continuously ever since I looked out my hotel window. Yet, it was my only day off during a short visit to Japan. From past experiences, I've learned that whenever you only have a few hours to sightsee in a strange city, and no one to tell you where to start, your best bet is to try to see it from the waterfront. Of course, this may not work in Phoenix, Arizona, for example. The city has to have a waterfront first.

I signed up for a half-day "bus and boat"-tour. As I entered the bus, I noticed a small TV screen on the dash. "What on Earth is this for?" I was wondering. "Surely, they don't let the bus drivers watch TV while driving?" At that moment the bus was beginning to back away from its parking spot. The small black & white TV screen came alive. From a camera affixed to the back of the bus, the driver was able to see what was behind him as he put the gear in reverse. The bus also produced a beeping sound as it backed up. Japan was putting its video technology to good use -- to save human lives. I am yet to see an American bus equipped with a TV camera for driving in reverse. And that's despite the outcry on Capitol Hill about the alleged Japanese conquest of the U.S. video-equipment industry.

Are we to conclude, therefore, that American lives may be cheaper; not worth as much investment in safety as the Japanese? Well, that just may be so. But, one should not blame just the industry for it. Our moral and social values are vastly different, too. For example, while in Tokyo, I also read a story about one Japanese bus driver who hanged himself right by the roadside of the accident he had caused. He took responsibility for the lives of three people and injuries to 61 others. Back home, such a driver would probably have gotten away with a slap on the wrist judgment as so many unsuccessful DWI cases attest.

Many, Informal "Gods"

About 80% of the Japanese are Bhuddists; 19% or so are Shinto; only about 1% are Christians. In part, the differences in religious values underline the variations in the Japanese versus the Western mindsets. As well as some similarities. For example, the basic difference between the Shinto and the Bhuddist religions is that the former believe in getting their rewards while still alive, rather than after death. Our tour guide said that the Shinto were "modified" Bhuddists, who have about eight million Gods. "How do they keep track of them?" I asked in bewilderment. I must confess that I was seeing some data processing opportunities as I asked the question. "They just do," replied the guide. "They don't worry too much about being particularly accurate." And even the Bhuddists have many Bhuddas for various occasions, some even for children.

Remember that Japanese passenger with whom I unsuccessfully shared a joke about a priest? I discovered that this wasn't necessarily because of his lack of English -- as I had assumed originally. It was also possibly because the Japanese go about practicing their religion(s) in a rather casual, informal style. There were no "salesmen" around the temples (that I could see anyway), nor was anybody passing an envelope around, or asking you to make a contribution in some other way. Instead, I observed people casually clapping their hands (to get God's attention before starting the prayer), as well as contributing, but in their own way.

The prayers are said individually (not as a programmed chorus in Christian churches); they are said casually, in their own words (there are no "Bibles" or "Prayer Books" around; in fact, there are no seats in Bhuddist temples, either); they are said quickly (I observed some people leaving about 30 seconds after clapping their hands and murmuring a few words). It seemed as if the Japanese people don't want to waste too much time on that kind of stuff. Even their quick prayers can be made shorter yet. For example, for about 50, you can buy your own versions of "fortune cookies" from a bunch of wooden drawers lining the entrance to a temple. If you like your fortune, you simply tie the piece of paper into a knot around an appropriate rail inside the temple. If you don't, you discard it.

This unassuming approach to religion is all the more interesting as a contrast to how much time and ceremonious effort the Japanese put into an act as simple as serving tea, for example. Their "tea serving ceremonies" are some of Tokyo's more popular tourist attractions.

Light rain was still falling as I left the Asakusa temple. A hundred yards or so down the corridor, and to the right of the temple, I noticed a fairly small brass Bhudda-figure in the middle of a wooden courtyard. The reason I could tell it was brass was that Bhudda's face glowed almost like gold in the day's twilight, rubbed clean by the millions of fingers which touched it with affection. The rest of the statue was fairly dark-colored, almost brown (see the photo at top of this story).

A small girl, no more than 10 years of age, was standing beside the sculpture.buddha.jpg (7386 bytes) Holding an umbrella in one hand, she was wiping Bhudda's face with her other hand. It was a touching scene -- a little person caring for her God with so much spontaneity, so much feeling. She seemed so pure in her love. And so practical. You see, she just didn't want her God to get wet...

I stood there watching her for a minute. I contemplated how we, the Westerners, sometimes mutilate the beauty of our religions by sending our youngsters, dressed up as if for parade, to the stuffy Sunday schools. Certainly our children were never enamored by any of it, and eventually simply told us that they no longer wanted to go there. We didn't force them.

At that moment, the little Japanese girl's eyes met mine. She realized that I had been watching her. I felt like an intruder who had invaded someone's privacy. Smiling apologetically, I hurried down the temple's corridor...

logolittle.jpg (9114 bytes)

Back to "Travel Vignettes" header