Yamagata Prefecture in inland Tohoku is my second home in Japan. My wife’s family live there. On a Dec. 8-10 visit, I got to see a side of the area often hidden in the most unlikely of venues.
Every morning during stays at the family home in Yamagata, me and my wife head to the local onsen hot-spring public bath. A long held tradition in many parts of Japan, segregated bathing with others in piping-hot water pumped straight from volcanic streams is a true pleasure. It’s a chance to meditate, endure the heat, and refresh the body and mind.
But on Dec. 10, circumstances dictated me and my wife did not bathe until after lunch. The onsen we entered was the realm of the elderly. A place unknown to most.
I stepped into the bathing room and showered before heading to the bath, in the same steaming hall. The room was relatively empty apart from two men, a cheerfully plump man in his 60s and his father, clearly ravaged by aged-related disease.
As I dipped my legs, hesitantly, into 43C water, and winced before lurching my gut in, the son turned to me.
“It’s bloody hot today isn’t it?” he said in a thick, Tohoku dialect. For an idea of the dialect, think broad Yorkshire.
“Yes,” I replied, concentrating on getting more of myself in the bath without too much shock.
“Where are you from?” There would be no reflection today. I was, like it or not, having a conversation.
“You must be happy. Princess Katherine is having a baby. English people are happy about this.”
“I read. I know. You’re country is a mess. It’s divided. I saw.”
“That’s true. But what can be done?”
“Yes. How long have you been here?”
“Wow. That’s a while. What do you think of Japan’s politics? Why are you in Yamagata?”
“I’m married to a local.”
Another man enters the room. A rightist.
“Great,” the son says.
“And Japanese politics is a mess,” I continue.
Such a comment speaks volumes in Yamagata. The effects of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake in the inland area were not necessarily direct on a large scale, but they were existential.
Everybody in Yamagata felt the sheer power of the earth on that day, even if they were mercifully distant from the sea. Friends were lost and businesses were destroyed, refugees from the devastation first flooded the prefecture’s public halls and later skewed the local property market as they left the coast forever to start new lives.
Markets were destroyed overnight for Yamagata’s small businesses, which lost many loyal customers. An unjustified guilt, as toxic as the chemicals left in the air by destroyed factories and nuclear reactors on the coast, lingered through the prefecture’s towns. Outlooks on life changed, but little else did.
Politicians bickered, money failed to get through to those that needed it and old views came to the surface. Yamagata was a part of Tohoku. And Tohoku was a part of Japan, but different. The city boys cared when they wanted to, but Tohoku was Tohoku. It faced the modern city types in the same way it faced its bitter winters: with resilience, pride and a cynical defiance. The city boys did little for them, and they expected no more.
Politics was a mess.
“Exactly. We don’t know what to do.” This was a lie. The man, and his elderly father, like most across Japan, had already decided how they would vote in the coming election. They just weren’t telling.
“That’s the truth. Nobody knows what to do,” I said. I got out of the bath to cool off, and while under a shower was approached by the rightist.
“Where are you from?” the rightist asked.
“England. I’m married to a local girl. The bath is hot,” I said, hoping for peace.
“Don’t you want to go home?”
“Not really, but we may move somewhere else in Asia. This is where the global economy is centered now.”
“You should go home.”
The first man jumped in. “You are an idiot. Quit the right-wing nonsense.”
The four of us stood, naked, in a standoff.
“He’s ‘menkoi’” the son told me, using local dialect and pointing at the rightist.
In Yamagata, “menkoi” is in many way the equivalent of the rest of the country’s “kawaii,” which means “cute.” But there is a difference. In Yamagata, “menkoi” is used as a term to look down on those less fortunate, the brain-damaged, the disabled, the simply stupid. This type of “cute” person is similar to the kindergarten “winner” that came fifth in a running race.
I took this moment to jump back in the bath while the son argued with his “menkoi” friend about his idiocy. The rightist defended himself quite well.
As the father and son left, the menkoi bather sat down beside me and again demanded I go home. He explained his logic.
“I have read the books. People with different skin don’t mix. You’ve seen the problems in England. You know about what the blacks did to your country, don’t you?”
“They were bad for you. I’ve read it. People don’t mix. Go home.”
I am naked. I am in an onsen. I am listening to this?
“They weren’t bad. They came to support the economy, they brought culture, music, food, brains and good with them. I’ll see you later.” In broken Japanese and naked, explaining the benefits of immigration for contemporary British society is a challenge.
I rinse a final time, stand up and walk off.
Drying myself in the changing room, the son approaches me. We are still naked. “You are special.”
I continue to dry myself and say “thank you.”
“No, no, you are. You understand Japanese. I couldn’t understand English even if I lived there as long as you have lived here.”
I laugh, say thank you and continue to dry myself. “Isn’t he special father?” the man says. His father agrees.
“Thank you.” Nearly dry. “You’d be surprised, people pick up languages when they have to.”
The man comes over, stands in front of me, looks me in the eyes and gives a deep bow. I thank him, after he thanks me, holding my towel close.
“You celebrate New Year in your country? You pray at New Year?”
“We are Christians generally, so we celebrate Christmas,” I reply.
“You go to church?”
“We did. We don’t anymore. We place priority on science.”
“Japan should do that.”
“It has consequences, there is less sense of community, more crime. But it might be better.”
“Do you have yakuza, you know, Japanese mafia?”
“No, we don’t. But there is random violence, and young gangs. It’s … Different. And it might not be better.”
“It’s difficult isn’t it?”
He puts on his clothes and leaves with his father. A couple of minutes later, I am changed and in the onsen lobby. As I am waiting for my wife, the rightist man walks out of the changing room.
“Thank you,” he says, and pauses. “But I have my beliefs. I should speak them.”
With a Dec. 16 election so close, ain’t that the naked truth.