I lived in Japan for a little over three years after graduating from university. I don’t know why I chose Japan, except that we’d had a lovely homestay woman come from Tokyo when I was young, and I had a really cool sister in law from Japan too. It seemed as good a place as any to try a different life, and my experience with Japanese people had been such a pleasure.
My prefecture, Miyazaki, down in tropical Kyushu, had a reputation for being relaxed and slow-paced, with lots of exquisite tramping due to the mountainous and volcanic interior, and pretty white-sand surf beaches. It also had wild monkeys and horses.
I guess if anything I expected this:
But I got this.
The loveliest thing about my time in Japan, though, was the friends I made and the people I worked with (I won’t post pictures of them, as I don’t think they’d be real keen to be featured on a political blog).
It wasn’t hard to make friends, particularly if you were active and joined a group (I joined a taiko drumming festival group and it remains the most formative thing I ever did in my life). And working in a town hall you get an automatic invite to all the drinking parties!
I lived in a rural area of a rural regional prefecture, a few hours’ drive from the nearest urban centre, Miyazaki City (though it was tiny and sun-bleached, and full of abandoned buildings). I was far away from most other foreigners, but I met up with a group every now and then. And I found that many of the Americans I spoke with were experiencing quite severe culture shock. The people they met seemed so different. Everything was different. The food was weird. There was nothing to do. It was hard for them to connect with anybody.
But none of the New Zealanders I met in Kyushu experienced the same level of disjointedness. We were too similar to the people around us for the differences to be the biggest factor in our relationships.
There are a few similarities in particular that are easily highlighted. I’ll point out that of course these are stereotypes. But bear with me.
TOP TEN SIMILARITIES BETWEEN KYUSHU PEOPLE AND AOTEAROAN PEOPLE
1. We are shaky and erupty. Both NZ and Japan are affected daily by geological processes that most countries in the world simply don’t experience. Earthquakes, active volcanoes, hot springs, eruptions, and big-ass electrical storms – these are quite unique to our twin positions on the Pacific and in the Ring of Fire. This has had a huge impact on our collective outlooks and national spirits. New Zealanders and Japanese take both daily minor earthquakes and occasional very large ones in relative stride (while most of my British, Australian and American peers absolutely freaked out at the slightest jiggling of the ground).
2. We are similarly-sized and isolated. We border the southern edge of Oceania. They are on the tip of Asia and Russia, teetering over the Pacific, physically removed from the goings-on from the world, famously isolated. Like Japan, a large part of our interior land is so mountainous that it is extremely sparsely populated, cold and lonely. We both crowd around the edges of the sea.
3. We are island nations. Japan and Aotearoa are literally surrounded by the sea, making seafood and the ocean both central and essential to our lives (and yes, a long history of regarding marine mammals as a resource – though, please, this conversation isn’t about that). Most New Zealanders I met loved the food in Japan, while many of those from other countries picked miserably at the fresh fish and shellfish dishes, spending their weekends and salaries at the foreign food store.
4. We hint. One interesting aspect of teaching English in Japan was the difference between American English and New Zealand English, and it was largely cultural. The American textbooks would teach, Please give me that book. Thank you, while in Aotearoa, we writhe around murmuring, If you wouldn’t mind, could you possibly pass me that book…? Thanks heaps. This kind of ubiquitous language softening is something I found Kyushu people and New Zealand people had in common. If someone asks you to do something, and you’d rather not or you can’t, both Japanese and New Zealanders might say something like It’s possible…. the implication being, It’s possible, but… We understand and work within the parameters of unspoken (or spoken!) social obligation, and we don’t mind.
5. We are hard workers. Kyushu and New Zealand people work hard and play hard. We get out on the weekends into the mountains and onto the sea. We push ourselves and enjoy it. We admire people who do the same. When Ed Hillary died, the city hall I worked in held a minute’s silence and expressed genuine grief at the world’s loss of a great man. This was not a show put on for me as a New Zealand employee. It was because he was an icon of perseverance, decency, hard work, kindness, and simple spirit, and they loved him.
6. We are passionate about natural beauty. Kyushu people and New Zealand people get it. We hike, we go to our turangawaewae and our family home when we can; we pay homage to natural beauty in the wild. We both treat our forests, trees, geological formations, mountains and animals with an almost spiritual sort of reverence. People garden the hell out of their properties, and people who can’t wish they could.
7. We are crazy about sports. The All Blacks! They are number one in the world and they win because they just never give up. They just literally run people over!! Like steamrollers!! People would shriek when they learned I was from New Zealand. Baseball, soccer, basketball, volleyball, badminton, sumo and rugby were the big ones in Kyushu.
8. We are welcoming. We pride ourselves on being welcome to tourists and travellers; flinging our doors open; helping anybody who needs it. While Japan doesn’t have the same level of tourism, the generosity of spirit is identical. People are delighted to assist, to offer, to give what they can and to make a real connection with somebody who moments ago was a stranger. I would find myself piled with home-grown vegetables and homemade pickles wherever I went.
9. We are passionately anti-nuclear. New Zealand is famous for taking a lonely stand on nuclear energy and warfare issues. Japanese people, as members of the only country that has suffered the depraved hell that is deliberate atomic bombs, have always been uneasy with their nuclear power. I never spoke with a single person who felt OK with it. But the decision wasn’t in their hands. The anger at the top-level decisions leading to such reliance on nuclear power was immense following the Tohoku tsunami in 2011. However, the community I lived in gathered in angry solidarity to halt plans to put a nuclear reactor in their town. By the time I lived there, almost every home had a solar hot water panel, and wind turbines were whirling on the hills.
10. We fucking love food. Our attitude to food is the same. We go silly over expertly-prepared, interesting meals. BBQing is a national pastime in the summer, and people’s eyes go wide when they discuss preparation methods for local or speciality foods. Cooking shows and gourmet fusion-style home cooking with regional ingredients is a shared NZ-Kyushu culinary religion. And we love umami flavours including savoury yeast spreads. My friends went nuts over Marmite and avocado on Snax (Ritz!) crackers. Even now I occasionally get an email saying, Hey Amanda, how are you, but what was that salty black paste called? The one you did on crackers? Please reply asap.
All that aside, there is a rumour I’ve heard that Japanese people are very polite.
It’s not true in the slightest. The Japanese people I’ve met and become friends with are rude, hilarious, silly, warm, polite, generous, curious, clever, shy, talented, loud-mouthed, naughty, kind, smart, loyal, lazy, musical, sporty and hard-working.
Just like the New Zealand people I’ve met and become friends with.
It is easy to be friends with people from Kyushu (which includes Miyazaki, Oita, Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, and Saga prefectures). There are way more similarities than differences, and I remain close with lots of people from my time in Miyazaki, whose real and genuine friendship I value so hard.
And I’m not the only person who values a friendship with Japan. We have sister-city pacts with cities in Fukushima (yes, of the recent devastating tsunami), Tochigi, Hyogo, Tokyo and Fukuoka prefectures.
1986 was the year we began a sister-city pact with Fukuoka City. In 1989 a Friendship Garden (designed by a master gardener by the name of Matsuda) to honour the pact was opened in the Auckland Zoo.
It has been a place cherished by New Zealand citizens and and Japanese visitors alike. It is peaceful, pretty, and serene.
Except it’s not anymore.
With no notice, and no plans to reinstate or relocate it anywhere in particular, they have dismantled the bulk of it, put a few pieces in storage, and all but bulldozed the garden to bits.
It is a crude, blunt slap in the face to our sister city Fukuoka, who will take it very personally and very seriously. It is a middle finger to the warm relationships so many of us have made, and the treasured formal friendship between our cities. It is quite shocking to me, and it is quite shocking to them. 12 different TV stations in Japan have picked up the story so far.
Gardens like this one are a real symbol of solidarity and friendship; of kindness and warmth; of a shared appreciation for our similarities, not our differences. A friendship garden between two faraway cities honours the common ground that hovers between cultures, ethnicities and countries; between nationalities and politics.
It is where we just can be human together.
And they destroyed it without even asking us.
Surprised by the outrage, the Auckland Zoo has suggested relocating it elsewhere in Auckland. You know, just… do another one. Doesn’t matter, right? Put it in the Botanic Gardens or whatever, they have said; they’ve got some of the “stuff” in storage anyway.
Not nearly good enough.
This morning there was a meeting with the Auckland Council. Len Brown has volunteered to be the one to apologise to both Fukuoka and Auckland.
But really, it wasn’t his fault, and it’s not up to him to make it right.
It’s the director of the Auckland Zoo, Jonathan Wilcken, who needs to get down on his fucking knees.
P.s. Like or join the group helping to get it sorted: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Help-us-save-the-Fukuoka-Friendship-Garden/482124611899437?hc_location=timeline