The Little Diplomat

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I spent hours there at a time. One shop I remember in particular sold model trains. Like most boys, I was enchanted by trains and had left my own American Flyer set “stateside,” as we Americans wistfully said about our distant homeland. But this shop sold such as I had not seen before: intricate HO-gauge rolling stock, in difficult wooden kits and ready-made—exact copies of American freight and passenger cars, right down to the car-side graphics! The wheel assemblies, or trucks, were especially detailed, flexing on tiny coiled springs. I would stand there and manipulate them, the proprietors smiling indulgently in the background. Years would pass before I saw their like again.

There were many other toys, some Japanese but lots mimicking American prototypes, especially automobiles, stores, houses, and dollhouses and their furnishings. There were mechanical toys too, but like the household goods of the time, they worked neither well nor long. And in addition to toy stores, there were myriad fireworks shops, whose offerings were gaily wrapped =but often fizzled.

But for me the most enchanting offering next to the trains was marbles. I had marbles back in the States, largely dull and featureless affairs that chipped easily, certainly none like these: hefty clear-glass orbs with dazzling, colorful insets in floral and geometric patterns.

They became my barter ammunition. For whatever reason, I was as adept at shooting marbles as I was inept at baseball. In such contests it was winner take all—and take them I usually did and then used these glass wonders as wampum to swap for post-exchange treats. By the time we left Japan, I had hundreds of these marbles, the best of which I kept in a purple velvet drawstring bag that had once held a fifth of Seagram’s V.O. I never again saw any as good.

 
 
 

This Japanese penchant for toys certainly explains the principal, if unofficial, Japanese holiday of the time: Christmas. The Japanese commercial acumen so evident today in the car you may drive and the television you surely watch had its postwar nascence in what was then a blatantly gaudy year-end extravaganza ostensibly celebrating the advent of Christendom, this in a country that was and is less than one percent Christian.

My one Christmas in Japan was magical. The Japanese no longer celebrate Christmas, at least not publicly. They don’t have to.

December transformed the Motomachi. Normally bleak and forbidding at night, especially in late winter, it dazzled with color and light at Christmastide. The decorations were eerily reminiscent of what I had known in America. There were visages of Santa Claus, but he had distinctly Asian features and was mostly featured on rice-paper lantern globes. The omnipresent fireworks bore special red-and-green Christmas wraps, and there were even Nativity scenes, although as with the Santas the participants looked more Japanese than Judean. And everywhere were candles and torches and any other form of illumination the merchants could improvise.

I spent just one Christmas in Japan, and it was magical in a way none other has been. Its sole reminder is a Japanese Santa tree bulb, which I continue to hang prominently. The Japanese no longer celebrate Christmas there, at least not publicly. But of course they don’t have to: Toys have given way to Toyotas, marbles to Matsushita Electric. I know. I shopped in the Motomachi on a trip my wife and I took there in September 1994, my first time back in forty-four years.

Most things have of course changed. The Yokohama I knew so well now more resembles Chicago. This includes its people: traditional Japanese dress, predominant when I lived there, is today relegated to ceremonies and private homes. Our house is gone, replaced by a modern white successor of the same size. The ravine I walked down to the Motomachi is now paved and tightly flanked with housing. The field where I played baseball so badly is overgrown with untended trees and brush. Only the outdoor pool where I learned to swim and the New Grand Hotel remain as I remember them: the former sadly worn, the latter being refurbished. Waterfront Yamashita Park is better than what I knew and larger, thanks to its inclusion in a gigantic harborfront landfill project.

And of course the thousands of shrines remain, some of which I remembered, especially the ones in Kyōto. On a tour bus there my wife idly commented that her aching feet made it difficult to keep removing her shoes to enter shrines. Our young Japanese woman guide mis-overheard her and gently but firmly chided us that it is the custom to take one’s shoes off before entering a Japanese home or shrine.

Been there, done that, I quietly assured her.