I found fascinating to observe the mechanisms of a society as complex and full of infinite subtleties as the Japanese, and that may be one of the reasons that prompted me to study diligently their language. Its grammatical constructions, with the verb always at the end, its elaborate variations depending on the degree of formality appropriate to each situation, and a writing form that combines two syllabic alphabets with characters taken from the Chinese are some of the pitfalls that await to the unwary. However, I considered worth the effort when I realized the freedom that it gave me while travelling, and especially by those simple conversations that I could engage with the locals. The visits to the family house of my friend Sogo (by the way whose parents, like mine, were schoolteachers, and they, like mine, had three boys of about the same ages) were quite memorable. Despite the cultural conditioning, the family atmosphere was surprisingly similar.
The frequent dinners and excursions with the colleagues were also remarkable experiences. Knowing my vegetarianism, wherever we went I always had ready in advance my own vegan plate and plenty of tea instead of their abundant beer and sake. I also discovered that the real purpose of going to the karaokes was not so much to have fun but to have an outlet to their oppressed creativity, a moment in which they could express themselves more freely than usually, a time when the invisible social barriers were blurred, and even the “sensei” (professor) was approachable.
At dinner with some Korean colleagues, I discovered the wounded pride of a people that is still struggling to forgive the historical abuses of its powerful neighbor. While writing this, I remember my grandmother, who never left Spain and I doubt she ever met any French, and yet she felt an undisguised antipathy towards them; the reason was that while talking during the cold nights of winter at her village they still remembered the outrages of Napoleon’s troops during the siege of Astorga, in 1810!
Every Wednesday I had a cup of tea with the secretaries of the department, which gave me the opportunity to know a world without so much testosterone, because in Japanese engineering departments most of the female presence is the secretaries. With one of them I had the fortune to know the famous Tea Ceremony, which combines a subject so ordinary as preparing a cup of tea with Noo dramatic aesthetics and transcendental philosophy of Zen. A prodigy. And thanks to another of the secretaries, of one the oldest families in Nagoya, I watched the ceremonies of a School of Buddhism called Pure Land. Her father was the last priest of an uninterrupted lineage that went back four hundred years! to a samurai ancestor who, regretting having killed several people, put down the sword and retired to a temple in which he lived for the rest of his days.