Commentary by Hank F. Miller Jr.
Japan should have some of the best neighbors in the world.
For it certainly has some of the best fences and walls I've ever seen.
In fact, arriving in Japan many years ago and coming from Gloucester city a small town in Southern New Jersey where we have lots of trees, lawns open land, and open driveways, with room to move around. The first feature of Japanese life that crept into my soul and made me feel "Nope, I'm not in Jersey anymore "was the wall "that surrounded nearly each and every house including the one I live in now.
Past the neon flicker of the commercial districts and the futons, meaning sleeping mats, which tongued the balconies to air them out daily. There were many high-rises, deep into the maze of residential "my homes," stand the ever present ramparts of Japanese suburbia--each residence contained in a box, every house by a barrier of reinforced concrete and a gate of molded iron. To a newcomer like I was then, it was almost as if the Japanese had taken the phrase "a man's home is his castle"literally. Peek down any street, and there they were miniature castles, all egg-cartooned together, side by side.
"I like the walls, "says my Japanese wife Keiko."They make me feel secure."My question is, "Why?"For the walls are not high enough to stave off burglars or even block out the curious eyes of neighbors and passerby. In my first year in Japan we moved into an apartment with paper thin walls, and just next to the sidewalk was our bedroom an arm's length away.
I can remember being awakened by a whispering voice near my window. I rolled over in my bedding and see my neighbor's young daughter with a group of school friends. She was peering in over the wall and reporting on my movements."Now he's turning over. Now he's making a face. Now he's sitting up. Now he's...run!"
Other times I have had neighbors' phone with helpful information like:"You've left your back window open." "You've got clothes hanging in the rain."
"Why not air out that bedding? It's been lying in your room for weeks."How would they know all that unless their eyes had roamed over the castle parapets?
The stone walls do not hold back the other senses either. When there is yakiniku grilled or fried steak on my neighbor's tabletop, my taste buds know it. When my other neighbor chooses to talk to her plants at 5 in the morning, I feel like I'm right there among the geraniums.
"My Japanese wife says but the houses in Jersey are set back off of the roads, and streets', and your forgetting the
Hustle and bustle on Japanese streets, the danger from cars and motor scooters."Maybe with the walls all around this is a genetic heritage of an island nation.
Japanese have always been "walled in "by the sea. Perhaps it is part of their identity to be closed off from the outside."To me the wall out front clarifies our place within the whole. It connects us--like a thread--to the family next door and the family beyond them and so on.
It's all one chain and our section is but a link. It doesn't symbolize the exclusion of the outside; it shows our relationship to it. That is why it's soothing. That is why I like it."I look at that wall and I know--if something happens-- the neighbors are right on the other side."
Some neighbors routinely offer to help in different ways. They used to give treats to our kids when they were little.
They fill our entrance way with tangerines potatoes spinach.
They accept our packages when we are out, note any strange goings-on and-yes-even shower encouragement on our plants and feed our tropical fish, when we're away for long periods of time, they're extremely kind to us.
So in the end, maybe Japanese neighbors are the best after all. And maybe it is all because of those connecting walls.
I am not so sure this is what Robert Frost had in mind.
But on the road less traveled of expatriate life, good neighbors are essential. So we keep our Japanese walls well-mended. It's the neighborly thing to don't you think?
Warm Regards from Kitakyushu City, Japan