Japanese Diary: Noriko

When I emailed Noriko and informed her that I was coming to Tokyo, she didn’t respond right away. Three weeks later, I received an email from her: “Great, I’ll meet you at 1 pm on November 15 at the Hachiko statue in front of Shibuya station.”

I smiled. I loved Noriko’s sense of humor. Hachiko was a faithful dog who waited at Shibuya Station for his owner every day for nine years. It’s become Japan’s symbol of loyalty, love, and care. In 1924, Hidesaburo Ueno adopted a puppy. The dog would meet Ueno at Shibuya Station every day. On May 21, 1925, Ueno died. Hachiko didn’t know of  Ueno’s death and would return to Shibuya Station every day to wait for Ueno. This continued until March 8, 1935, when Hachiko died. His body was cremated and buried next to Ueno’s grave. “I’ll be there at 1 pm sharp, but not going to wait for nine years,” I replied.

On January 26, I was at the MoMa when I saw a girl standing in front of Fernand Leger’s painting “Three Women.”

“Do you like Leger?” I asked her and immediately regretted it:  ‘What the stupid question is that!’  I thought to myself. She looked at me:

“Not really,” she said, “I just love how he shows the middle finger to French odalisque tradition.”

“You like rebels…”

“I’m an optimist, and I like people who don’t complain about how horrible everything is in the present. Look at the women’s faces,” she pointed at Leger’s painting, “all three women have similar faces, and their bodies are assembled from metal parts. Happy colors are the symbol of his positive vision of industrialism. He accepted the present and made peace with it. That’s what I appreciate in his art.”

I liked her. She told me that her name was Noriko, and she was from Japan. She lived in New York City and was getting her MBA at NYU. She broke the all-pervasive Japanese social pressures to be cute, adorable, fashionable, organized, submissive, and soft-spoken. She was quite the opposite: strong-willed, loud, chaotic, had tattoos and piercings all over her body. She wore jeans and t-shirts all the time, and she chain-smoked. We had lunch together and talked about Kurosawa’s poetic cinematography. She told me that she was graduating soon and planning to go back to Japan. I promised her that I would see her in Japan soon.

I arrived at the Shibuya station fifteen minutes early and sat on a bench under a blooming cherry tree. The streets were packed with people. Sakura… I almost forgot this was a special time in Japan as whole families gathered for the centuries-old cherry blossom-viewing tradition called hanami. Sakura is a Japanese identity and, like any other symbol of Japan, runs deep, making the cherry flower a cultural icon for the entire country. Cherry Blossoms also has roots in the themes of mortality, vigilance, and living in the present and are an existential metaphor for human existence. One week of Sakura blooming is mind-blowing, poetic, and transcending, a visual reminder that our lives are short.

I expected her to be late, but to my surprise, Noriko arrived only ten minutes late. She looked different; I hardly recognized her. All her piercings were gone; instead of torn jeans, she was dressed in a navy blue skirt, slightly above her knees. On the top, she wore a long-sleeved white blouse.

        * * *

“A white coat is worn over a violet waistcoat.
Duck eggs.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Wisteria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.”

March 27, 2004, Osaka. Noriko is eleven years old and today is Noriko’s birthday. She and her grandmother are sitting around the table. The mother walks into the room with a birthday cake. After Noriko blew out the candles, the mother gives her a birthday card. Noriko knows it’s from her father. Her parents are divorced, and she and her mother moved to Osaka. The father stayed in Toyohashi. She hadn’t been in contact with him for three years, except for a birthday card she is receiving every year on her birthday from him.

* * *

“Are you hungry?” she asked and, without waiting for my answer, continued: “You probably are, let’s eat. I know a good place. I think you are going to like it.”

We walked for five minutes and went to a small restaurant. There were only three tables. A young couple already occupied one table. We sat near a window and ordered food.

“How are you, Noriko? How long have you been living in Tokyo?”

“It’s been almost two years.”

“What do you do? Do you work?” I asked her.

“I work in one of these office jobs…you know what I mean. I’ve been loyal to the company and people I work for, but I discovered that sometimes I try to avoid working on matters that I’m obliged to do.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. I don’t feel doing it.”

“Has that ever happened before?”

“Yes, this happens to me from time to time. I wish I had the ability to not get stressed about it.

“Do you still like your job?”

“Like is a strong word to use in this context. I’d use the word tolerate.” She continued, “before I started working, I knew very well about scrupulously hierarchical rules that govern Japanese corporate culture: the Japanese companies value loyalty and obedience more than anything else. Individual initiatives are meaningless, and in some cases discouraged.”

“That doesn’t sound appealing. Why don’t you quit if you aren’t happy there?” I asked her.

“It’s not that easy.”

“What do you mean?” I looked at Noriko. She was nervously playing with the end of her hair while staring at a wall.

* * *

“Sick on my journey
only my dreams wander
these desolate moors.”

March 27, 2001, Toyohashi. Noriko standing in front of her father in the middle of the room. Mother is waiting outside the room holding two suitcases. He kneels in front of her, puts his hands on her shoulders, and looks into her eyes: “Listen to your mother. I’ll send you birthday cards on your birthday.” Noriko stands, and her eyes are tearing up. She doesn’t want to go. Mother puts the suitcases on the floor and takes Noriko’s arm: “We need to leave now.” Noriko starts walking slowly, keeps looking toward her father with tears in her eyes.

* * *

“When I got back to Japan, I started looking for jobs. I quickly found the job that I thought would suit my ambition. On my first day, I was introduced to a man who would be my direct supervisor: Mr. Takahashi. He was fifty-five years old and had gray hair. He seldom smiled and had the reputation of being a strong-willed person. I have had mixed feelings about him since the day I met him. I felt I could trust him, and he would be the person from whom I could learn how to survive the ruthless corporate culture. But at the same time, I didn’t understand his approach.”

“Is it a generational gap or something else?”

“He manages a few other workers and me in minutely coordinated order and the concept of honor and respect. If you violate his order, it can be disastrous. A few months ago, I helped one of my co-workers to complete a certain task. We stayed late after work and finished everything before the deadline. My co-worker’s supervisor was happy about the accomplishment and told Mr. Takahashi that I did a great job helping my co-worker with the project. Mr. Takahashi didn’t say anything to him, but he unleashed all his anger on me. He screamed at me in front of the other co-workers that if I ever do anything like that without his approval, he will fire me on the spot. I replied that I stayed after work and worked on the project after working hours, but he didn’t want to hear anything. He told me to shut up. I was devastated but didn’t say anything.”

“This silence can be bad in some situations,” I told her, “you can’t just crawl into your shell and take the blame. Sometimes, you need to speak up and defend yourself.”

“It’s easier to say than to do it…” she said quietly. “Sometimes, when I am upset, I can see myself naked living down in a safe hole. I don’t really have to worry about anybody seeing me, I am in a safe place, and nobody can touch me. But soon, I realize that the hole I crawled into is not a safety net; it’s just an illusion.”

“Mr. Takahashi, he yells at me to show his power over me. I go home, and the only thing that is in my mind is how miserable my life is. Often, I find myself thinking of quitting the job, but I am afraid of losing face… For me, it is obvious that I am exposed to corporate bullying. Like many other people of my generation, I am no longer silent when facing the wall of masculinity abuse. At the same time, when I studied in the US, I freed myself from the fear of uncertainty. Yet, the struggle isn’t over, it’s a daily task, and in the process of this fight, the generational gap becomes an encumbrance. I keep asking myself questions: What’s wrong? Am I afraid of making decisions? There is nothing to be afraid of, so what’s the reason? Why am I acting this way?” I know the answers to these questions are completely buried in my consciousness.”

* * *

“Straw sandals half sunk
in an old pond
in the sleety snow.”

March 27, 2004, Osaka. Noriko opens the card and starts reading the delicately brush-painted birthday-greeting kanji. She feels warmth and comfort inside her heart. Suddenly there is a knock on the door. The mother gets up and opens it. A man is standing there, holding flowers in his hand. “Noriko, I want you to meet someone,” Mother said nervously, biting her lips. “This is Arthur, and he will be living with us.” Noriko looks at him. Arthur smiles at Noriko: “Nice to meet you; what’s your name?” Noriko doesn’t say anything, grabs the birthday card from her father, leaves the room, and shuts the door.

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