Innocents Abroad, 2002

You can almost guess from the map that Japan is a country of calculated spaces and deep reserve.

“One must travel to learn.”

Mark Twain, “Innocents Abroad”


You can almost guess from the map that Japan is a country of calculated spaces and deep reserve. It is about the size and shape of California, if that state were shaken free from the mainland by an earthquake and left to drift lonely in the Pacific Ocean. But unlike California, which seems overcrowded by American standards, Japan is a country so densely populated that manners seem a key to survival rather than the extracurricular activity that they often appear to be in the United States. Our course across the misnamed Pacific Ocean, from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Kobe, Japan, was 4,500 miles and took two weeks. Other than a glimpse of the Aleutian Islands, we saw no land at all for those 14 days.

The sea was our home, and each morning we propped ourselves against the ship’s rails, the salt spray misting against our skin. Over time, perhaps, the sea has grown more pungent with the salt of the continents. In my mouth it left the taste of another world. After a few days, the vastness of the ocean made us long for the familiar distractions of the land, just as the land had once made us yearn for the uncluttered sea. The second day out, at noon, we saw a whale’s spout and the curve of black back breaking the smooth surface of the water. We watched and waited. The ocean compels such attention, a humility, or at least a looking beyond self. On land, we look to filter out and distinguish the individual images that crowd our consciousness, but on the ocean, we strain to see the specific amidst the seeming sameness. Our first day aboard the ship, Captain Ryan said in lilting Irish tones, “We’re just a sliver of steel in this wide, wide ocean.” And we were— just a thought flickering against the conflagration of experience.

Off the starboard bow the next morning, a rainbow—pale green, yellow and rust—streamed from a dark cloud. What did lost sailors make of such signs? That they were omens or tricks of fate? Behind me, the sun bled through a carpet of clouds, and the sea was immeasurably beautiful. It was the last calm day we would have for a while.

The ocean can make you feel as old as time itself. For the ancient Greeks the sea was an endless river that circled the planet, a stream between the end of the earth and the beginning of heaven. The Pacific is not only the largest and deepest ocean but, perhaps, the most misapprehended. It was misunderstood by the man who struggled with it on his way around the world in the 16th century—Ferdinand Magellan. As Daniel Boorstin explains in “The Discoverers”: “During the whole three months and 20 days during which they sailed about 12,000 miles through open ocean, they had not a single storm. Misled by this one experience, they named it Pacific.” Magellan, like Columbus, was a discoverer malgré lui, a man whose greatest discovery may have been one he missed himself. Columbus thought he found the Indies but discovered a new world instead. Magellan thought he found a mild, pacific ocean but had sailed into what is most likely the largest, most turbulent body of water on Earth. Boorstin calls it “his greatest and most unwilling discovery.” According to many historians, though, Magellan’s journey was probably a more fantastic feat than any done by Columbus or Vespucci, two other famous mis-namers. As Boorstin points out, Magellan “would face rougher seas, negotiate more treacherous passages, and find his way across a broader ocean.” Magellan was a skillful seaman. He was proud and brave, setting out in the fall of 1519 with 250 men in five barely seaworthy ships on a voyage that had never been done before, or at least never chronicled. He held his crew together through mutinies and starvation and various disasters, but, of course, he never completed the circumnavigation. Magellan was killed near the Philippines, cut down by poisoned arrows and scimitars when he held his ground so that his men could escape. Only 18 of his crew returned to Seville three years later.

I was thinking of Magellan when we awoke to 7-foot swells, spumes of spray dancing along the ridgeline of whitecaps that stretched to the horizon. It could have been romantic, an Impressionist sky, the sea a quilt of light blue and steel gray, but most of the voyagers were too sick to appreciate it. Half the faces I saw around the ship were pasty yellow or pale green. During my first class, at least half a dozen students walked out of the room, narrow-eyed, jaw muscles popping, as if they despised me. But as the ship rose and fell with the waves and I caught sight of the horizon line bobbing up and down with a sickening regularity in the picture window on the left side of the classroom, I realized that I wasn’t the worst teacher in the world—as I had at first suspected—but that my wit was no match for nausea. At least, I decided, my teaching didn’t cause nausea. And given the fact that I had to hold tight to the podium to stand upright and was feeling queasy myself, I was perfectly satisfied with that meager achievement.

Unlike Magellan, those first few days out, I didn’t have to deal with mutinies or starvation, just an audience that rose and fell and changed hue before my eyes. Once I got used to the fact that nausea produced a look on someone’s face that could easily be mistaken for apathy or even hatred, I was better able to control my instinct to hide in my cabin.

In that first week, shortly before we landed in Japan, the staff captain, Harry Sylvester, a tall, gray-bearded man with ironic eyes and a smile that could silence a room of 700-people, offered the students some warnings.

“If you have to abandon ship, ‘Women and children first’ applies,” he said, eyeing the college men in the first few rows.

“Doors are heavy. Close them. If they’re open and you have your finger on them, they could close, leaving you with a smarting, broken or severed finger.” He eyed the children in the room.

“If there’s a fire and you happen to be trained in firefighting, well, by all means grab a fire extinguisher and be a hero. If not, call someone and get out of the way.” He seemed to look directly at me for this one.

He told us about “Mr. Skylight” and “Code Blue” (medical emergency codes for the crew) and then he paused for “Mr. Mob.”

“That’s ‘Man overboard,’” he said, “and God help you if you slip into the sea. The chances are not good that we’re getting you back. A few years ago, aboard Semester at Sea, a young man took it into his mind that he wanted to rappel from the deck of the ship and touch the water. It was midnight. He had had enough wine, I suppose, to make this seem to be a fine idea. Or maybe he was naturally stupid. He fell into the sea. The ship performed a figure eight maneuver and, miraculously, we found him a few hours later. He was sent home at the next port. We don’t want to search for you in the dark sea, and we don’t want to call your parents to say you were lost overboard—so if any idea seems stupid to you, it is. Don’t do it.”

Harry Sylvester had offered convincing warnings, and we lost no one at sea. But we did leave one student in prison in Japan before our visit was over. We were all prepared, though, for some encounter with suffering in Japan. We even expected it. Kobe, our destination port, was only two hours from Hiroshima by bullet train and a few more by bus. And as Kenzuboro Oe wrote, ‘Hiroshima is like a nakedly exposed wound inflicted on all mankind.” Was there a more appropriate place to understand the reality of suffering than a country founded on the first noble truth of Buddhism?

We took the relatively inexpensive bus from Kobe to Hiroshima. Located at the confluence of the Ota and Motoyasu rivers, the city has been rebuilt in the concrete, steel and glass image of everything else we saw in Japan, but at its heart stands the A-Bomb Dome, a haunting reminder of August 6, 1945, and all that remains of the old city. The former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall had been close to the hypocenter, or ground zero, when the bomb dropped. The twisted girders and skeleton of the building have been preserved by UNESCO as a reminder. We walked to the Cenotaph, erected in memory of the victims of the bomb, and we marched solemnly through the museum, forcing ourselves to look at the photographs of the rubble and the charred bodies. Two things stay with me from that day. It was the first time I had been in a museum in which the history was not written by Americans or friends of America. I felt shame for my own country.

Outside the Dome, we met a man who was 7 years old when the bomb dropped. He looked older than most 64-year-old Americans do, wizened and missing a few front teeth. But as he spoke with us, translated by a young woman on the street, he made me realize that he was History, that he was what the bomb was about, the individual standing against the faceless flash of a technology sparking out of control. Somehow, he had survived the destruction, and somehow Hiroshima and Japan had, as well, rebuilding their cities and countries with a quiet courage and reserve and determination. The word alas drifted from his lips as it had from the 10-year-old Toshio Nakamura in John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” The word alas rose like a sigh from the very ground where we stood.

In Kobe that night, we drank beers in an Irish pub that didn’t serve Guinness but that did have two Irish-Americans on acoustic guitars singing Beatles songs. Our waiter was a Japanese kid with a spiked hairdo and a pink streak running through it. He had been a bouncer in Queens, N.Y., had gotten into some trouble, and decided to start over again in the motherland of the Rising Sun. He had found some country in between America and Japan, it seemed. Half the people in the bar were middle-aged American and European men. The other half, draped on their arms, were young Japanese women. Outside the bar was the strange otherworldliness of modern Japan—a few temples mixed in with glass and concrete and high-tech wonders. Everything moved in a dreamlike quiet. Horns didn’t honk and people didn’t shout up to apartment windows, as they typically did in Queens, “Hey, Ma, throw down a dollar!”

When we left the bar, Kobe was ablaze in colored lights. Down the street, outside an upscale noodle restaurant, a dozen men were laughing and shouting. It seems only drunk men and baseball fans make loud noises in Japan. The men were tossing a compatriot into the air, singing some phrase as they did it, and laughing like schoolboys when they caught him again. The man turned to us. “This is the happiest day of my life!” He had just retired, and his co-workers were launching him into a new world. They let me participate in tossing the man, and we joined together like campers on the shores of Long Lake in Maine during one of those summers from my boyhood.

But, of course, there’s another side to Japan. There’s always another side. The next afternoon, a few hours before we were to leave port and head for China, the story began to circulate around the ship.

I first heard about David’s imprisonment in Kobe after a class discussion of Yukio Mishima’s story “Martyrdom,” a tale that hints at suppressed homosexuality and chronicles an adolescent brutality. It’s a story about modern Japan, about peer pressure and the culture of the mob. The mysterious relationship between spirituality and cruelty is summed up in the final scene, where a prank may have turned deadly and, in turn, miraculous.

Reading “Martyrdom” and hearing about David was one of those eerie coincidences that might not pass muster for fiction but is fit to mention in an essay because it was true. By the time the story circulated to me, I heard that David had been in a fight after a night of clubbing in Japan. Most of the faculty and many of the students, it seemed, were ready to believe that a privileged and arrogant SAS student had drunkenly attacked a demure Japanese man who was quietly minding his own business. David was locked up for days (we sailed to China without him), and many thought he would end up in prison in Japan. The story of the fight had all of the elements of a strange kung-fu drama. David had been in an elevator with another SAS student when a young Japanese man entered with his girlfriend. For some reason, the man felt that David had said something to insult his girlfriend. When the elevator doors opened, the young man got out with his girlfriend. Then he handed her his wallet and cell phone and ran back through the still-open doors and attacked David, who defended himself with a karate kick. With this kick, somehow, he severed one of the man’s fingers—another one of those true events too strange for fiction. That night David found himself in jail, tied to a chair, interrogated for hours.

A week later, after his father flew in from South America and hired a lawyer, the Japanese officials recognized that David had acted in self-defense, and he rejoined the ship. That’s when I got to know David. He spoke English with an innocent decorum; I found him to be as gentle and quietly polite as I might have imagined any respectful Japanese man to be.

There is no uncomplicated way to define a culture; the true world is as mysterious and fantastic as fiction. Hanged corpses can disappear in a Mishima story, and fingers can fly off hands in the surreal light of a Japanese moon. But perhaps David discovered a deeper lesson—one that many people in Japan had already learned—that the world requires a payment from each of us.

About the Author

Michael Pearson

Michael Pearson is the director of creative writing at Old Dominion University. He is the author of “Imagined Places: Journeys Into Literary America.” “A Place That’s Known: Essays,” “Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx,” and most recently, the novel “Shohola Falls.”

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