When I was 5 or 6 years old, my mom was still in law school at UCLA. We lived in a modest place in Beverly Hills, which she shared with a roommate, Joan. One day Joan brought home a Nintendo. It was originally played by her and my mom, to relieve the stress of their classes, but I soon got ahold of it and became entranced by Mario. And so, the influence of Japan entered my life.
For many years, this particular, (somewhat) geeky strand of Japanese culture was my primary association with the place–probably not unlike many of my generation. You see, not only did I love video games, and still want to design them up through my senior year of high school, but I grew, specifically, to love Role Playing Games, simply abbreviated as RPGs. Although well acquainted with every manner of side-scroller at this time, and numerous player vs player fighting games, it was long, story and character driven RPGs that took perhaps 40 or 50 hours to finish, which really held my attention. After Atari lost its influence, virtually all console games were developed in Japan for a time–gradually, that stopped being the case–yet the vast bulk of console RPGs still kept being produced Japan. Although video games became progressively mainstream, and more arcade-like with improvements in graphics, these lengthy and involved RPGs were more of a modern electronic throwback to their American forebears, such as Dungeons and Dragons.
Many of these games offered a quirky sensibility, inhabiting strange hybrid-worlds of fantasy and sci-fi, but from a distinctly Japanese perspective (the students all in uniforms as in the Persona/Shin Megami Tensei series, liberally sprinkling in crosses and demons with Shinto shrines), also reflecting many anime sensibilities. I thought it was great. I spent hours of my youth weaving my mind through these worlds. This was my earliest and longest exposure to Japanese things.
Next came martial arts. I first did aikido when I was 14, then really started it in earnest when I was 16, due to an influential English teacher who had recently begun practicing. Our teacher was a dedicated French master of Yoseikan Budo, who had studied with the founder of the style in Japan for 7 years in the 70s. The dojo was first in Palos Verdes, then in Torrance, one of the hubs of the Japanese community in California and the USA. Patrick Auge Sensei spoke fluent Japanese, French, and English. We had many students, including “normal” Americans, like my English teacher, Mr.Brown, Stu, a jovial Polish-American from Michigan with a strong liking for Japanese women, Japanese-Americans, like Takeo, the 2nd-generation son of a plastics company CEO, and actual Japanese people–the most notable of whom was sensei’s wife, Kaoru Sensei, a 5th dan herself.
One of my most memorable classes was a day when no one showed up for some reason. So it was just me, a teenage white belt, and my 6th and 7th dan teachers. I was nervous, and lucky. In our dojo, at the end of class, usually the most senior student did the sensei ni rei and shomen ni rei, “bow to sensei, bow to the shomen.” This was one of the only times I did it, and certainly the first. When my dad picked me up from practice that night, Kaoru Sensei smiled with pride and mentioned to my dad that I had done it for the first time, although of course he didn’t grasp the significance of it–although he did drive back and forth between Manhattan Beach and Torrance/PV many, many times, before I got my license and was able to borrow the car. Thanks, dad!
Around this time I also started studying Buddhism, and meditating, which happened to coincide with my introduction to existentialism and absurdism–good bedfellows–I believe I may have been the only person in my AP English class who felt deeply moved by The Stranger, the rest, apparently expressing boredom and confusion. It was in this dojo that I had my first introduction to meditation. Sometimes I sat after class and would sit on the tatami, practicing, even though I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to be doing yet.
“Here, this will make it easier,” Auge sensei said once, turning out the lights for me. He always knew just how much to push.
These early beginnings into the nature of mind probably also influenced my (several-year) desire to become a neuroscientist, leading me to take courses in college on philosophy of mind, psychology, neurobiology, and attempt to apply my mathematical-systems approach towards both differential equations and self-identity, while continuing to take ukemi and sit in zazen at 7:30 in the morning with a bunch of old Claremont hippies.
Looking back, it’s safe to say that few of these interests were really shared by my classmates at Harvey Mudd College, who were, on the whole, more interested in tackling purely technical and mathematical problems, building complex devices, and puling off crazy pranks. Anime and video games, were in abundance, however, and I met at least one expert cosplayer (those people who dress up in accurate costumes of their favorite characters at anime conventions).
Upon leaving this dojo for college, I thought I would get a big celebration party like some of the other students who had left, but Auge sensei announced, “We are not going to throw Nick a party..because he is not really leaving..he is always welcome here.”
Damn! I wanted a party! I thought.
I only fully appreciated this gesture years later.
“You have great talent..but you’re restless,” was what he told me. That stung; but he was always perceptive.
I watched some anime, I delved into Japanese cinema–first Kurosawa, gradually, Takeshi Kitano and Hirokazu Kore-eda. Despite his massive influence, Ozu has failed to peak my interest, but perhaps I’ll re-cross that bridge at some point. In high school, the local community college offered Japanese and I thought about taking it, and would have–if I hadn’t already been filled to the brim with Honors and AP science, math, English, and history classes–a problem that would re-occur later in college, with Chinese. Non-essential language study is not particularly well-suited for the strongly academic, and especially, scientifically-oriented.
Due in part to the influence of a room mate who had spent time there, and Peter Hessler’s marvelous and groundbreaking book, River Town, I somehow ended up going to China and learning Chinese instead of Japan and Japanese. Part of this is was wanting to see the insanity and rate of change offered by China for myself, and its enormous influence, size, and humanity, both great and terrible, which Japan seemed almost irrelevant in comparison to, by this point. Partially due to my interests in various aspects of Japanese culture, and knowing that much of it could ultimately be traced to China, I knew I had to go there, despite the extent to which it has been utterly wiped away.
So I started studying Chinese, for much the same reason that I had once looked at higher-level math textbooks and thought, “I need to understand what this means.” I needed to understand what Chinese meant. It bothered me that this writing system perplexed me, I needed to get some sort of competency in it, and try to figure out this perplexing and disturbing culture. Even before I knew anything about the Japanese or Chinese writing systems, I can remember being at LAX and looking at signs in various languages and training myself to tell the two apart.”Chinese is blocky and overly complicated looking, Japanese is more squiggly and not as dense,” I remember thinking.
Now that I can read Chinese and complex math books, I no longer have a strong desire to learn Japanese. For that matter, I no longer have a strong desire to teach myself differential geometry, old English, or play God to fruit flies.
So, as I embark to Japan in 9 days, it’s under a different backdrop than the overjoyed 17-year old who would have loved for the opportunity to go 12 years ago, and in that sense, is a long-awaited and overdue full-circle trip I have been keenly anticipating, yet, I believe it is also happening at the right time (except maybe with respect to weather). My head has been so full of ideas and images about and related to Japan for so long, that I expect the actual experience of being there will be somewhat unreal, and at the same time, probably significantly less shocking and exotic than it is for many, due to having previously lived in China and Taiwan, and travelled all over Europe.
It seems this (rarely and erratically updated) blog has become largely about tea and odd art projects, though was previously started in part to document my time living in Taiwan. Despite the unrevealing and unrepresentative pieces of my life portrayed here, my life back in Berkeley has continued to go on, and the past year was largely characterized by a soul-gripping, frustrating commitment to a dysfunctional middle school. Now that I’m on break and am free to idle my days for several months without having to wake up for anything, I can continue the process of unpacking writing that is in various stages of completion, continuing with Taiwan, bits and pieces of my (full and lucky, despite its temporary problems) life here in the Bay Area, and looking forward through Japan. Besides continuing to teach, make music, and practice aikido, my main two goals in the medium-to long-term that I would like to come to fruition are 1) Publish writing and 2) Start a tea business.
I will try to write a bit on here during my time there, if anyone’s reading, though will also be taking several notebooks. Almost ready!