Nov. 18, 2010By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
Deep into a descent from 30,000 feet, the plane returning us from Japan glided toward the runway. Dipping below dense clouds, landing gear issued forth. Snow swirled outside, obscuring views of the Windy City.
Our plane suddenly thrust upward with a jerking motion. We were ascending. A collective gasp rippled through the cabin.
“Ladies and gentleman,” the captain announced, “the plane in front of us skidded off the runway. We’re flying to Detroit.”
It was 1995. I sat scrunched in a middle row, crammed between my husband and a young soldier dressed in camo. The soldier didn’t talk much. He sat quietly, sipping Southern Comfort poured from tiny glass bottles delivered by flight attendants. I’m not a beer drinker, much less a whiskey drinker. Aromas of fermented corn mash blended with “spices” wafted under my nose, compounding claustrophobic queasiness. I felt relieved when, libations downed, the soldier pulled his cap over his eyes and fell asleep. I guessed he was heading home, for Christmas.
Economy seats offered scant luxury during our 11-hour Tokyo to Chicago flight. The airline appeared to aim for the lowest common denominator when preparing “special meals,” covering all potential bases of non-meat eaters. Our vegetarian dinners arrived on plastic trays, vegan and gluten-free. I remember rice noodles with lukewarm veggies and a “donut” made of potatoes for dessert. I had to tell the flight attendant I was pregnant to garner a little protein in the form of cheese. I ate my “donut,” salivating as neighboring carnivores dipped into chocolate frosted cake.
A Detroit diversion was not part of our plan. Concerned about our connecting flight and wearied by pregnancy-induced nausea, I was eager to exit the flying machine. Chicago experienced near-blizzard conditions. Detroit lacked customs officials at that late hour. We waited on the tarmac for hours for Chicago skies to clear. Toilet paper and patience ran low as flight attendants plied us with the few remaining pretzels on board.
Ten days in Japan as a tag-along conference spouse proved exhilarating and sometimes lonely. With my husband’s expenses covered, we shelled out the extra money for my flight, meals and lodging. We also packed Grape Nuts, peanut butter and crackers.
My husband left our room each morning for technical presentations. Semiconductor types gathered from Asia, North America and Europe to share research findings. Work sessions eased into business lunches and a few evening cocktail hours. In short, during the conference, I was largely on my own.
Hotel staff, immaculate and smiling in neatly pressed uniforms, spoke “veneer” English. They capably and courteously provided room reservations, arranged for cabs and recommended restaurants. Attempts to engage them in deeper human exchanges elicited silent smiles and the look of, “I don’t know what you are asking me.” I can’t complain. Their English skills far exceeded my few words of Japanese.
I ventured out, befriending another conference spouse. Fast friends are made when few speak your language.
Conference concluded, my husband and I spent several days exploring Tokyo. Extreme “orderliness” took some getting used to. Commuters patiently lined up along black perpendicular lines painted on subway platforms. When a subway rolled in, they entered with calm precision. The Japanese definition of “personal space” was different from my own. Squeezed into a car, I experienced extremely close encounters with fellow riders. My husband and I towered above, brunette beacons amid a sea of satiny black hair.
With map and compass in hand, we explored the city on foot, deciphering, as best we could, signs and symbols. We ambled under trees on the periphery of the Imperial Palace, encountering ducks, swans and enormous orange carp flitting in ponds.
Architecture in downtown Tokyo was decidedly modern, with lots of neon, a la Times Square. Venturing off main thoroughfares, deeper into neighborhoods, we found examples of beautifully carved wood structures. We wandered through an outdoor market where every form of seafood — recognizable and unrecognizable — appeared. I remember lots of tentacles. We sought out green, quieter spaces amid frenetic activity. We walked to a cemetery. Graves displaying bonsai and rock gardens were accented with mini pagodas from which incense burned.
We visited Yasukuni-jinja, a Shinto shrine honoring Japan’s war dead. The Shinto religion, associated with extreme nationalism during World War II, experienced a “church-state separation” imposed by American occupiers after World War II. Exploring the shrine, I sought to understand what drove some Japanese to blindly serve their Emperor’s distorted wishes.
One room was dedicated to more than 6,000 kamikaze soldiers who completed suicide missions to advance Japan’s war effort. These acts were performed with planes, boats and even “human torpedoes,” one of which was on display. Photos of soldiers, handsome and healthy as they attended their pre-mission funerals, lined the walls. I sensed pride and reverence. I did not sense remorse.
Each country must interpret its own history. The more I travel, the more I learn, the more I wonder if we as Americans are doing a good job interpreting our own.