Sunday, September 21, 2008

Introduction: 2008

The following is a journal I kept in 2001, when I went to Japan for about three weeks. I make no claims for it other than it is one person's view of an experience, recorded more or less in real time. I haven't changed a word (except substituting "cell-phone" for the German "handy," which is a word I like better, but nobody else is going to understand), despite the fact that I've since learned things that have modified some of what I say here, particularly about the place of women in Japanese society. (Thanks, Jim). I also don't apologize for the characterization of some of the people here, most notably Cal, who at the time was miserable, but who has adapted enthusiastically to his situation and is doing lots better, thanks. So much for me as advice-giver, at least in 2001.

There's an epilogue to this tale. I was able to afford this trip thanks to a small inheritance. It was my intention, after I returned, to start work on a book which would require me to spend some time in the United States to gather material. Just before I left Berlin, I loaned a sizeable part of my capital to a friend who was on the verge of realizing a visionary project, and who was expecting to sign a lease for a large building here in which to realize it with the help of a major American corporation. This loan was not made lightly: I researched the hell out of the prospective partners, and everything came back good. The loan would have been repaid within a month, and I would have proceeded with my book.

Instead, the events of September 11, 2001 intervened. The American partners, who were due in Berlin on September 15 to sign the papers, backed out of all projected non-American deals, this one included. My friend was stuck with a building which, because the world's markets contracted in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, nobody wanted. In short, we both lost everything we had. To this day, neither one of us has really recovered.

I don't want to suggest that this is the last good time I had -- certainly it wasn't all a good time, as you'll be able to see between the lines -- or that I'm nostalgic or sentimental about this trip. It is what it is, and since recently, friends of mine have asked about it, I decided to throw it together in an afternoon. As I write, I still haven't finished adding the photos.

And if it seems familiar to you, it did, for a short while, exist on a website designed and published by my late friend, Bob Watts, who died this January. Even seven years ago, he designed a much more elegant presentation than this text is getting now, but Blogger is easy and free, so that's what I'm using.

There was a time, after this was written and I realized my money would never return, when I was consumed with ifs: if I hadn't loaned the money...if I hadn't gone to Japan...if I'd just written the book proposal first and had the advance to live on... And it's true: if I'd had the money, I would have left Berlin five years ago, when it became evident that there was, really, no reason for me to be here any longer. But there's no excuse for not living in the present, and there's no reason to regret the past if it was as amazing and eye-opening as this particular three-week slice of it was.

A few explanations. Online life wasn't like it is now in 2001. I was carrying a laptop, but there was no in-room wireless, and I had to use dialup. Unfortunately, all the phone lines were ISDN, and my modem wasn't compatible. That, the lack of online news sources, and the fact that at the time I was using Compuserve, which fought a long battle against the Internet and the World Wide Web because it wanted to remain proprietary, resulted in my not getting the information about the attacks until a couple of days later. Fortunately, I'd joined the Well earlier in the year, and when I finally could get to a computer, I was able to catch up through postings there. Not only was that community vital in helping me plan the trip, it kept me sane while I, an expat American in Germany on vacation in Japan, was trying to get a sense of balance. The reference to is to an e-mail account I set up there -- they offered free web-based e-mail -- while I was in Japan because I couldn't get into my Compuserve account. I was especially anxious, because I was writing a lot for the Wall Street Journal, whose offices on Liberty St. in New York were in the shadow of the World Trade Center (my one and only visit, if you can call it that, to the now-vanished buildings was when I walked through the lobby on my way out of the subway station to visit my editors, Ray and Taylor, the year before), and I had no idea if they were even still alive. They were.

Would I go back to Japan? I would, for a shorter time, with more clearly-defined goals. Sure, I'd love to go back to Kyoto and Tokyo, at the very least. I'd pace myself better, too, and not try to do so much. But even a mere seven years on, some things cannot be repeated.

Coca-Cola no longer makes Water Salad, for one thing.

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