perception.jpeg Pia discovered that the consulate paperwork to work in Japan was irksome, but managed it in the end. She met all the requirements and arrived at Narita airport on a Saturday afternoon. At the airport, the immigration officials also gave her a difficult time. She didn’t know why because all her documents were in order. Mr. Lortan was waiting for her at the Tokyo City Air Terminal but she did not know how to contact him there. Pia was exasperated and tired after her trip. She decided to call Lortan’s office to have one of his employees contact him at the Terminal. She took out Lortan’s namecard, and the immigration official upon seeing it, asked for it, then allowed her to leave. Pia wondered about that and thought to ask Lortan about it.

Mr. Lortan drove Pia from the Terminal to a hotel near the office. He would give her time next week, he said, for her to find a flat. Lortan pointed out some tall buildings and told her what they were. Pia observed that not many monuments had survived the War. Tokyo was a very modern city.

“By the way,” Pia asked, “at the airport, the immigration official had only let me go after taking your namecard. Why was that?”

“A namecard,” Mr. Lortan replied, “tells the other person more than just your name, your company, your position, and your office address. For the Japanese, this information denotes your social status. Their language has different forms of respect and the namecard tells them which form to use. The Japanese are a people bound by honour and the namecard is more than just an introduction.”

Several days later, Pia found a small house made of wood, next to a primary school in Aoyama. An elderly widow, who preferred to live in the country, owned the old Japanese dwelling. The front door opened onto a hallway that led to the living room area on the left, and the one bedroom on the right. The bedroom floor was covered with tatami mats, and she was told that you place a futon on it for a bed. The kitchen had no door and opened directly onto the dining room. With an area of fifty square metres, Pia found it comfortable. She enjoyed shopping for furniture and things to decorate her new home.
She spent her first weekends exploring the surroundings of Aoyama. The cars on the avenues were all brand new. The Japanese pedestrians were all well dressed. A few women wore kimonos. Near her house were two sports shops opposite each other in the street, Ski Shop Jiro and Tennis Shop Jiro. Pia found their window displays beautifully eye-catching. There were modern buildings mingling with wooden Japanese houses. There was Bell Commons at the corner of a busy intersection and across it on the other side, an old Japanese house selling tea.

Pia enrolled herself at a language school to learn French. She found it necessary when dealing with French clients in Tokyo and business associates in France. After all, she was working for a French company. She understood the language after three months but would only speak it when necessary. She did not want to be misunderstood in a language she did not fully grasp. Besides, she knew that the French dislike it when their language is spoken incorrectly. The company had Japanese employees and they took care of the Japanese side of the business.

Pia’s office was located in a building in Akasaka. Commuting took her less than five minutes by the subterranean railway from her house. Sometimes she would leave early and walk briskly to the office, crossing through Aoyama cemetery. Cherry trees line the stone paths of this huge cemetery located in the heart of Tokyo, where land for the living is scarce and priceless. The Japanese hold great reverence for their dead.

On the weekends that she wasn’t treasure hunting in flea markets, she would spend it playing tennis. The sports club membership fees were costing an arm and a leg, over several hundreds of thousands of yen, but she found public tennis courts reasonable. Like other tennis players, she had to reserve in advance, and there were courts where your name was drawn by lottery.

Pia devoted her evenings to the social circuit. She found it necessary to keep in touch with the people they were doing business with and to keep herself in the public eye. She quickly learnt that in this kind of business, good public relations was an advantage.
Pia once attended a cocktail party at the French Embassy and because she spoke French only when necessary, those around her wrongly assumed that if she didn’t speak the language, then she must not understand it.

“Do you see the lady in the blue suit? She’s Miss Delgado. I hear she’s very clever. She works with Lortan. His company is doing extremely well.” “Who is she? She’s so distinguished and elegant. What’s Lortan’s business? He must have an excellent selection of wine. Remind me to call him tomorrow.” Ah, the French–so gallant and so chivalrous.

As Pia stood by the French windows, admiring the large Japanese stone lantern in the garden of the ambassador’s residence, one of the guests came up to her. “Miss Delgado, do you speak Spanish?” he asked. “No, I’m sorry. Spanish sounds Greek to me.” “I have been told,” he snorted, “that the upper class in your society are the ones who speak Spanish.”

“I resent your implication, sir,” Pia snorted back, “but allow me to enlighten you on our language problem.” Pia looked around and directed him towards some chairs in the corner of the salon of the Residence. “You see,” she began, “the Filipinos suffer from an insidious discrimination. It is the discrimination among Filipinos for fellow Filipinos. Our years of colonisation have dispersed us in so many ways, and we create an artificial status symbol to identify ourselves with. We do not have a unifying language, so one class identifies with the Spanish language and Spanish culture; another class identifies with the American tongue and American merchandise; and all the others identify themselves with the region they come from and the dialect of the area.

“Do the Filipinos have a national identity? It is so ambiguous that we quibble among ourselves and create social identity in terms of language: I speak Spanish, I speak English, and I only speak Tagalog with the maids. I am Pampangan, I am Cebuano, and I speak Chavacano in Mindanao. Less than two percent of our population speak Spanish, and they are the descendants of those who came here long ago. There are not many of them left, but they are wealthy because they own huge parcels of land and have created industries from this capital base. The Chinese live in a society of their own, speaking their languages among themselves. They have done very well, too, in their adopted country.

“My nation’s progress depends very much on unity, and one factor of cohesion is a common language. We have between 100 to 150 indigenous languages and dialects, estimates one eminent Filipino linguist. We have eight ethnic groups and 60 cultural minorities. Our diversity is our cultural wealth and we must keep it. But put all these 100 or so speakers of different languages in one national meeting room and you will have a cacophonic discussion that could not possibly lead to anywhere near some kind of understanding of any side. To complicate the whole matter, we are an archipelago of 7,107 islands, many of which are still unnamed. Not only can we not communicate with each other, but we also find it difficult to cross the physical frontiers of our country.

“Elemental nationalists have made Tagalog the dominant language in education. It is a beautiful and romantic language, but unfortunately, with a very limited vocabulary. Filipino society in Manila speaks a horrible mixture of Tagalog and English; not many speak Tagalog eloquently. Tagalog is the language of the capital and is one of the eight major languages in the country, out of 87 considered as languages. But it is not the language spoken by the majority of Filipinos; only 23% of the population are native Tagalog speakers. The Tagalogs are a part of the population, and the language, culture, and customs of this segment do not speak for the entire nation. We alienate other linguistic groups by choosing this indigenous language, only because it is the language of the capital. If we transfer the capital to the Visayas, what would the working language there be? Would they impose the language of the Visayan capital on the rest of the population?”

“I apologise for my ignorance, Miss Delgado,” he said. “But then, what do you think the solution is to your language problem?” “We have three national languages: Tagalog, Spanish, and English. In 1959, the indigenous national language was renamed Pilipino–perhaps to make it sound more a national than a regional language. But the success of that simple modification as a solution to our language problem is questionable. It is essential that we have a lingua franca, a language that we can all use simply to facilitate communication among all the ethnolinguistic groups. There is one such language that we can adopt nationwide.

It is a neutral language, so one region does not disassociate itself from the other. It is a language that has the knack of creating new words and expanding–Tagalog has contributed some words to its vocabulary. It is a language that we are already familiar with, as it was easily grasped through our educational system when used as a medium of instruction. It is a language that will promote our integration with the international community. Adopting this universal language would greatly simplify communication. It would be preferable if it were the noble language of diplomacy and culture, but the Filipinos are already accustomed with the other.”

“The Scandinavian languages also have limited vocabularies, and rely to some extent on English,” he said. “But language is closely linked to culture. You change the language to the detriment of culture.”

“No, sir. We will continue to speak our languages and our dialects. But we will use that universal language as a second language, only to facilitate communication among all Filipinos. Besides, there would be a far worse effect if Tagalog or any other Filipino language or dialect were to be the only language used. You see, without an effective command of English, employment is restricted to the language’s region and whatever possibilities it presents. We would therefore limit our opportunities with elemental notions of nationalism in language. This then perpetuates regionalist attitudes and sharpens social class distinctions.”

“Although English-speakers do not hold a monopoly on the upper social class,” he concludes, “it is highly advantageous and useful if one were multilingual. In Belgium, for example, where the north speak Flemish and the south speak French, the language issue divides their population because historical social class distinctions have been unfairly related to language. The Belgians also speak English, aside from either Flemish or French, and use it as their working language in order to avoid confrontations on this issue.”

The employees at Pia’s new office were very good to her. She often had lunch with them when she did not have a business appointment. They enjoyed practising their English. “Are there other Filipinos you know?” she once asked her Japanese colleagues over lunch. They looked at each other and waited for the other to speak.

“Yes,” one of them said. “We hear about them in the news, but you will not find them interesting.” They talked about an area in Tokyo called Kabukicho, where the yakuza operate drinking dens and illegal brothels. Here, they said, you will find Filipino dancers, singers, and bargirls. Pia was shocked. She was unfamiliar with this world. “But why would they come all the way to Tokyo to do that? Are there no Japanese bargirls and whatnots here, that you would have to import them from my country?” she asked in disbelief.

“Economic development in your country,” one of her colleagues replied, “is the slowest in all Asia, and because of this, there are many Filipinos working abroad. You have eight million compatriots overseas who remit $12 billion annually to the Philippine treasury. Your country’s economy is artificially propped up by all the belly-shaking dancers, domestics, and construction workers around the world. We have such a high standard of living that very few Japanese are willing to get into work that involves the 3Ks: kitanay–dirty, kiken–dangerous, and kitsui–difficult. Your citizens are probably your country’s major export.”

“They are willing to work in these jobs in foreign lands,” another colleague continued, “because your government does not look after their welfare. They come from the rural areas, working abroad to support families back home. It is a big sacrifice on their part to be separated like that. They are one of many unsung heroes of your nation. They have taken the economic ills of your country on their shoulders, sending money home to feed the people.”

“Like Maupassant’s tallow ball…” Pia remarked.

Pia’s first months in Tokyo passed very quickly, and when it was the Japanese holiday of Obon, she thought it was too soon to go to Manila to spend a few days there. She wanted to visit the Asakusa Kannon Temple that morning and then go to Ginza.

Two huge angry-looking statues of deities greeted her at the entrance to the temple. They were in a wire-fence enclosure on opposite sides of the entranceway, with a large red lantern in front. The pathway leading to the temple was lined with souvenir shops. The path was crowded with Japanese and very few foreign tourists. There was a display of bonsai and ikebana to the right. There was a magnificent five-storied pagoda to the left. Pia walked around the Temple, admiring the architecture and the colours used on the designs of the ceiling and columns.

She watched the Japanese throw coins into an old wooden box with narrow beams across the top so that the coins passed through the slats. Then they clapped their hands twice and bowed their heads. There was a braided cord attached to a bell, and they gave that a shake. Apart from certain ritual ceremonies to accompany birth, marriage, and death, temple visiting seemed to be the only other obligation for a believer. The only Buddhist, in the proper sense of the word, is the Buddhist monk. Pia saw some of them inside the temple, and they looked at peace with the world and most dignified.

Pia had read that Buddhism came to Japan via India. Its distinct attribute is its intensely practical attitude. It is a system of thought that teaches the way to perfect peace and happiness. Siddhartha Gautama, the father of Buddhism, was born over four hundred years before Jesus of Nazareth. He was the son of a royal family, in what is now Nepal; the other was the son of a carpenter, in what is now Israel. Buddha developed his philosophy, outlined as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Christ did the same, developing his own philosophy and promising eternal salvation to those who believe it. Buddhism, like the Christian philosophy, has evolved through the years with varied interpretations and is now very different from the original. Both have statues and monuments–fantastic representations of human imagination. Both were human beings, symbolising a spiritual principle. One has been elevated to the status of God.

At the bottom of the steps was a large metallic receptacle with burning sticks of incense. The Japanese fanned the smoke towards their face, motioning good luck to come. Just to the side of the incense burner was a rectangular water trough. Pia watched the Japanese as they dipped a tin cup with a long wooden handle into the trough, then holding the handle in one hand and with the back of the other, guided the tin cup to their lips. It was a graceful hand movement.

To the far right of the temple, behind some short trees and tall bushes, Pia noticed a small wooden edifice. She walked around it and approached it from the main path. There was a carved wooden panel of animals on the left. It was a Shinto shrine. From what Pia had read, Shinto is the oldest surviving religion of Japan, dating from prehistoric times. The Japanese worship many deities called kami, which are the basic forces found in nature. It is an animist religion that emphasises rituals. It has no elaborate philosophy. According to Shinto myth, the sun goddess, Amaterasu, created the Japanese islands, and that the Emperor is descended from this divinity. The Japanese conduct ceremonies, the matsuri, that pray for long life, peace, abundant harvests, and good health. Pia was amazed that this modern society still kept their primitive religion, practicing its rituals and observing its traditions.

She continued on foot along the main avenue up to the Sumida River where she watched a sightseeing boat ply along. There were several bridges that cut across the expanse of water, each one different from the other. She bought some roasted chestnuts from a street vendor, and wondered how he could eke out a living from the small profit he adds to the price of his produce. After a few minutes, Pia headed for the underground station to go to Ginza.

There were many shops and department stores, and many more Japanese. There were art galleries, automobile display rooms, bookstores, and eateries. She strolled along, admiring the window displays. She passed by a shoe shop and went inside to buy walking shoes.

On the left side of the shop were women’s shoes and on the right, men’s. It was lunchtime, and business suit-clad customers were browsing around. Even on holidays, Pia observed, the Japanese feel compelled to work.

Pia tried on a pair, which she found too tight. It’s too small, she said, motioning with her hands to the attendant sales clerk, since her Japanese was minimal. There was a Japanese man sitting next to Pia, waiting to try on a pair of shoes. He turned to her and said, “Why don’t you cut the front part off, and let your toes hang out?”

Pia turned her head in his direction and laughed. “Your English is very good,” she said.
“Thank you! I studied English in school and from an NHK programme, our educational and cultural television station,” he replied.

“Your state-run television stations have excellent programmes,” Pia remarked. “They present the arts, discuss literary classics, and they have excellent news coverage and documentaries from the British Broadcasting Corporation.”

“Thank you!” he said again. He then took a leather cardholder from his coat pocket and handed Pia his meishi.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said, bowing slightly and giving his namecard politely. “Please call me Keita.”

Pia took her card out of her handbag and did the same. “I’m pleased to meet you Keita-san. Please call me Pia.” The saleswoman returned with another pair for Pia, and Keita tried on his.

“Pia-san,” Keita asked, “have you had lunch?”

“No, not yet,” Pia replied.

“I would like to practise my English,” he said. “May I please invite you?”

Pia looked him over. He looked smart in his well-tailored suit. He was polite. He was funny, too. Don’t talk to strangers, her mother said, but this one looked to be all right. “I would be very happy to,” she replied.

They both paid for their purchases and walked out of the shop together, and as Keita looked left and right, deciding where to go, Pia noted his height. He only reached up to her chin.

“Let’s see,” he said, “there’s a street not far from here that’s lined with restaurants. Let’s go there.” Keita started to walk, and he marched with quick short steps. Pia walked slowly with long strides, looking in at the shop windows now and then.

“So how long have you been living in Japan, Pia-san?”

“I just arrived a few months ago.”

“Are you from the Philippines?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I just love your country!”

Pia looked at him in surprise.

“Your country is so beautiful! The Filipinos are so kind and hospitable! In spite of their hardships, they are always laughing or smiling. When I go to the countryside, I find both young and old playing chess together. That is so fantastic! Either that or they are playing basketball or betting on fighting cocks.

“I have been to Boracay, the chocolate hills in Bohol, the rice terraces in Banaue, and the island of Cebu. I have seen the sailing boats on the seas of Mindanao. I have been to the beaches of Batanes, eating sea urchins on its shores. I have been to other places in your country that you will not find on a tourist map. Really, your country and your people are wonderful!”

Then Keita lowered his voice, and placed his hand in front of his mouth as if to whisper. “You know, I don’t want to talk too much about your country to the Japanese. The young Japanese go to Hawaii or Saipan, but what they don’t know is that the real paradise is your Philippines. If they knew that, they would all come to your country instead. So I want to keep that a secret.”

Pia stopped in her tracks, with her mouth open like a stranded fish. She stared at this man who was so proud of her country. “It’s still a long while from now,” he continued, “but I would like to buy a house beside a golf course in the Philippines when I retire. I think I’m about your age. I’m forty-one.”

Pia walked hurriedly to catch up with him. “Thank you very much, Keita-san,” Pia said, “but I’m only twenty-seven.”

“Oops,” Keita started to look at the sky. “Pleasant weather for this time of year, isn’t it?”
Pia laughed again. “Well, you’re so tall, Pia-san, I thought you were older. Gomen-nasai.”

“That’s all right.” They turned right in an alley of two-storied buildings made of prefabricated material with wooden façades. They decided on raw fish and entered a restaurant where they sat at a counter in front of the sushi chef.

“So how do you like living in Japan?” Keita asked. Pia paused for thought before she replied. She could say so little after Keita talked so glowingly about her country. “There’s still a lot I need to know about Japan. I admire your traditions and your culture. Your people are so honest and polite. The Japanese must be one of the most cultivated societies in the world. I congratulate the parent-State for your excellent upbringing. You have a highly structured society, carefully represented in your language, so it is almost impossible to integrate into your society. You also have a quality of life that must be the envy of Asia.”

“Crime and poverty are not common in Japan,” Keita agreed. “Yes, we have a very high standard of living. Good manners and right conduct, and a moral education are taught to us in elementary and high school. Japanese society imposes strong expectations on ourselves–you see, we have a very strong national identity.”

“But both our countries emerged from the War in very bad shape. What has put Japan in the lead? Ninety percent of your population live on twenty per cent of the country’s territory and you have no natural resources to speak of.”

“Our system of land management was drastically reformed just after World War Two. It has been considered one of the most successful in the history of agrarian reform. It brought a more equal distribution of assets, thereby restructuring rural society. We redistributed land property rights, with the only eligible buyer being the cultivator of the land, thus creating a social class of independent owner-farmers. The property rights of those landlords, whose property holdings exceeded five hectares, were transferred to the tenant farmers through compulsory acquisition by the government. Land property was not confiscated, but was financially acquired. Nevertheless, land reform, in order to be effective, necessitates draconian measures.

“So in Japan, conditions were conducive to the success of this land reform. First, the political situation was favourable and facilitated the undermining of the landlords’ political and economic power. Secondly, we had a group of well-educated people in the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce who were able to tackle the enormous amount of operational work. Thirdly, the government offered a highly favourable credit programme enabling tenants to purchase farmland. And fourthly, government policies regulated land and food prices so as to make land an unattractive source of income for large landholders. The government also enacted other numerous regulations aimed at defending the dignity of man. The reform greatly improved the standard of living of rural people. Please study our land reform programme. Your country, by the way, needs a drastically innovative government to reorganise your society.

“Our economy, on the other hand, is driven by international trade. But the Philippines once had the second biggest economy in Asia, next to Japan. Students from neighbouring countries were going to your universities in order to study your ways. In the early sixties, some ASEAN countries were sending their economists to learn what the Philippines was doing. This was the time before Marcos. After Martial Law, the Philippines is now one of the poorest countries in Asia.

“There is also another issue that your country must tackle. Your countrymen have little loyalty to the government and therefore to the nation. In search of a better life, your first wave of migrants was well-educated Filipinos and skilled workers, later to be followed by the rural people. If you are indifferent to your country’s plight, who then will make the changes? Your government should also be worried about the brain-drain problem.”

“They seem unconcerned,” Pia replied, “because emigration is an open safety-valve to let out social unrest. It is an unsatisfactory solution for the country’s economic problems. The result is that there is almost no one in the country capable of carrying the nation forward. There are 400 millionaire families, of which 40 are billionaires, and they control tightly 90% of the country’s wealth. There are 14 families who each own over 40,470,000 square metres of land.”

“Look at Singapore,” Keita continued, “that nation developed under the extremely capable and responsible leadership of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. They also had a colonial past, but Lee Kuan Yew transformed his nation into the thriving economy it is today. The socio-economic development of Singapore is another excellent Asian model.

“There is another difference between Japan and the Philippines, and that is religion. We do not allow religion to dictate how the government runs the country. The major consequences of your overpopulation are your country’s poor standard of living and the strain it puts on your educational institutions. If the masses are not educated, they will never rise above their poverty; nor will they, by holding the majority of the popular vote, be capable of making the right choice as to who is to be their nation’s leader. If the plight of the masses is not redressed, this situation will become a breeding ground for social unrest. You must not allow dogmatic notions lead your country to destruction.”

“Buddhism,” Pia noted, “teaches very practical principles, but there are Christians in your country.”

Keita laughed. “The ones who brought that religion to this country were very often English-speakers. The Japanese love to practice their English. You see, many of us Japanese find it hard to believe, and consider it almost implausible, that there should be some sort of divine creator of man and the universe. Christmas is a commercialised event in this country. We are attracted less to faith but to gift-giving customs, carol-singing, and bright decorations. Like Valentine’s Day, our department stores know a good thing when they see it.”

They had finished their lunch and stood up to leave. “We have a proverb dating back to the Edo period,” Keita said, as they stepped out of the restaurant. “If you want to educate your children, let them travel. Learn from the cultures of the advanced civilisations of today, and see what has made them what they are. Those who do not leave their niche are limited in their perceptions.

“The influence of other cultures is inevitable and necessary, and there is a lot to learn from the cultures of other nations. Keep your traditions and customs, but also, assimilate selected aspects of other cultures in order to move forward and to assume the progress made by others comprising our world community. Progress is a constant learning process of what works and what does not. Learn from those who have learnt better.”