Weeks ago, I returned from a fortnight in Tokyo where I spent the holidays with my family.
But although there was an occasional Christmas tree and the Japanese patiently waited at terribly long queues to visit the German Christmas markets, it was a far cry from Christmas as we Filipinos know it.
Japan in December is in stark contrast to ours with our Christian traditions, gorgeously decorated malls, and cheerful Christmas jingles.
Days before Christmas, Tokyo was in a rabbit frenzy. How could I, of all people, forget that the Year of the Rabbit was around the corner?
There were rabbits on posters, banners, clothes, and every shop, whether they sold toys or sweets. Starbucks Japan had a beautiful line of rabbit-themed mugs and there were charms at every temple, postcards at every convenience store.
The Japanese won’t let you forget the Year of the Rabbit as they, like the Chinese and Koreans, hold rabbits in a kindly light. If for the Chinese the rabbit is a lunar deity rewarded for sacrificing itself so that others may live, the Japanese claim to see a rabbit cooking mochi in a pot in every full moon.
Not to mention, as the rabbit is viewed as a tender and gentle creature, they look forward to the Year of the Rabbit as one of calmness and peace as compared to the recent turbulent Year of the Tiger.
Gentle is how I would describe my encounters with the Japanese on all my trips, and they are also polite and helpful.
My first trip to Japan, not knowing that subways weren’t designed for unwieldy luggage, I struggled with mine up a steep flight of stairs praying for angels to help me. And one did! In the form of an older Japanese man who suddenly picked up the back end of my suitcase and helped me carry it to the subway exit.
On this last trip, the gentle Japanese chuckled at my super-large printouts of the immigration QR codes. Crossing a bridge at Iidabashi, I noticed one glove was missing and was fishing around my bag when a jogger stopped to inquire what was wrong. He accompanied me back until we reached Starbucks where I had left the glove behind.
They are very polite, and even when I failed to put the “burnable” garbage out on the correct day, my Airbnb host made no complaint and even rated me as “a great guest!”
The sense of awe at what seems like Japanese perfection begins on the trip from the airport to the city. On the smooth highway, you pass neat buildings, clean waterways, and get the feeling that here, everything is tidy and in order.
You only start to see the repression beneath that perfection when you visit galleries such as Mori in Roppongi or the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT).
There is beautiful and thought-provoking art, to be sure, but also plenty of visuals and installations that are strange, disturbing, uncomfortable, and full of angst.
Maid cafés that proliferate in Akihabara serve as venues where patrons can find a sympathetic ear in these dolled-up Lolitas, to share thoughts and anxieties they normally cannot express.
In my rabbit series, Book 4: The Secret Rebellion is set during the Liberation of Manila and I had to find ways to gently let children know that war is a horrible thing.
But watching films like Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies shows that the Japanese are still carrying the sorrows of World War II in their hearts.
Returning to Manila, I see how here we have the freedom to express ourselves, and often express ourselves way too much and too freely in an environment that is, in stark contrast to the neat perfection of Japan, colorfully chaotic.
And that might not always be such a bad thing.