There’s a definite food hangover in Aki’s house, a hectic few days of hiking, eating and sightseeing has us sitting in the lounge room in front of the biggest TV I’ve ever watched to gorge on fat toast slices with ham and egg. We were going to do a short hike today but six sore legs have had their way so it’s a lazy sleep in and time to crack out some Vietnamese coffee. In the phins (Vietnamese coffee brewing apparatus) that Tung bought us in Hanoi as a souvenir, we brew up the potent syrup that makes the light Japanese coffee seem like nothing but water. Strong coffee, how we’ve missed you.
As glorious as a sleep in with strong coffee is, we can’t go a day in Japan without a train, it’s off to meet up with Ken and venture to Nagoya castle for sightseeing that doubles as a history lesson. Immense walls reminiscent of the imperial palace in Tokyo greet us under masses of green overgrowth as this grand moat and castle fights its way back to a former glory not seen since the Edo period that concluded in 1868. Modern restoration is under way, as much of an acknowledgement to carpentry as it is to the historical importance of this castle, one of few in Japan still in existence after a great many castles were bombed or burned down in the final stages of WWII.
Like castles anywhere, Nagoya castle not only housed the powerful but promoted their position, these elegantly arched roofs were once adorned with enormous dolphins of solid gold; even though the dolphins look more like goldfish. The power behind this castle was none other than the Tokugawa clan that ruled Japan in the Edo period of 1603-1868, a period of isolationist foreign policy, great wealth and a proliferation of art and culture. Through a tourists eyes, it seems that much of the beauty that we see in Japan today was born, fostered and refined in this period; powerful, influential, cultural and prosperous, the Tokugawa clan no doubt shaped Japan as we see it today. I assume terms like ruthless and aggressive also describe the Tokugawa’s but in a closed nation the rulers make the history; these terms are not to be seen. Standing in the upper floor of the commanding main tower the realm of the Tokugawa seems to stretch forever, beyond the moats now choked with weeds to an empire drawing back to this castle all the riches from as far as the eye can see.Immense power is never immense enough on its own, the Edo period came to a surprising close in a series of events called the Meiji restoration; or revolution, depending on who you ask. Falling behind the development of European powers, Japan was a traditional land not keeping up with the times and after American Commodore Perry sailed to Japan with warships laden with new technology the turning tide gained pace. Emperor Meiji, Meiji meaning enlightened rule, politically manoeuvred the Tokugawa’s out of power with an alarming lack of bloodshed leading to the then Shogun of the Tokugawa clan, Yoshinubu, to officially ‘put his prerogatives at the emperors disposal’. Through the entire Edo period there had always been an emperor in Japan but it had been little more than a title, from 1868 the emperor was truly in power and Japan was open for business.
Through the Meiji period, from 1860-1912, Japan industrialised and progressed into a modern nation with a blossoming economy to embrace a world of open trade. Due to the relatively peaceful transition from the Tokugawa clan to the Emperor, Japans rich culture and arts from the Edo period were blended with the new to take the first steps of the nation as we see it today. Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing, the samurai class had lost their power through the Meiji restoration and numbering more than ten times the french aristocracy in 1789 before the French revolution they were not to be cast down so easily. Oh, and they were samurai, not powdered toffs in fluer-de-lys embroidered gowns. And so the power ebbed and flowed with the new tide rising high. Japan, as we all know, was becoming a military force to be reckoned with in the early 20th century and the samurai swords were finally put back into their sheaths in favour of guns, planes and ships.
Civil war, change from feudal warlords to dictatorial government, isolation from the world through to industrialisation of a traditional culture; this sounds like the disaster that was/ is China. But it’s not, it’s Japan. In comparison to the train wreck that was a few centuries of China, the Japanese launch into the world seems relatively peaceful, bloodless; even contrite. Temples, art, books and cultural pursuits weren’t cast down or demonised, the population weren’t ritually tortured into oppressive mental degradation; instead a rich and refined culture became high tech while keeping hold of its traditions; Hello Kitty met Zen gardens and they got along famously. It’s nearly enough to make one weep to think of what has been lost from China, arguably the one ancient culture to better Japan for it’s art, history and creativity, now largely lost forever.From the heights of Nagoya castle to, ironically, the little Chinese restaurant in Aki’s hometown, we’re tucking into a delicious meal hearing how Aki would like to move back to Japan one day; it seems you can take the boy out of Japan but not Japan from the man. It’s understandable why, the reasons are all around us. We chat also about why he moved, he saved for years because he heard of a rugby team that was open to gay players, a dream only in those times to a man in Tado town. From small town conservative Japan he caught a plane on a whim toward a dream after sending an email into the world wide web. Funnily enough, I was the one to get that email, on a Monday at my desk in Artarmon, Sydney: hating my job; I can still remember it. ‘My name is Aki, I want to play rugby for Convicts, I play prop’. Wasting words has never been his thing. An email Monday, a plane Tuesday, Training Thursday led to his first game on Saturday to complete a flight into the unknown of epic proportions.
So why the flight from this perfect culture by this very Japanese man? The answer takes little guessing, conservative Japan isn’t a great place to be gay, or more accurately, different. To be fair, Japan is far from the worst offender in the world and it’s not only a gay issue, suicide rates are wildly inflated from a wide range of demographics that don’t fit into the perfect progression of a perfect nation that demands perfection. Japan is moderate, but not moderate enough to prevent a man from leaving his family, his culture, his life to chase the trail of an email sent to a frustrated employee on the other side of the world, someone he’d never met but would grow to know so well. Japan’s recent history is underpinned by relatively smooth progress and change; relatively smooth, but not smooth enough not to have a few casualties along the way. Conservatism the world over is defined by ignorance to difference, and the world over it comes at a cost. It’s a cost of lost or abandoned lives for perfection only visible if you don’t look too hard; ignorance expending difference to buy perfection for the ignorant.