This article is part of the The Great American Reach Around series.
Eric "Rabid Child" Azevedo
Okayama, the Sunshine Prefecture: consisting of a southern area that, unlike much of the main island of Japan, is not a winter hellscape for half of the year. A part of the country that is fairly rural yet has a metropolitan area of over one million inhabitants. That is not the part of Okayama we will be discussing here. Instead, let's talk about Niimi.
If I were to describe Niimi based on the typical foreigner's view of Japan it would be this way: unlikely to be attacked by giant robots, and completely safe from Godzilla. If Tokyo is William Gibson, Niimi is William Faulkner. Niimi is a small, fairly isolated area made up of a central valley area of about 20,000 Yamato souls and several surrounding farm communities totaling 10,000 or so.
The geography is extremely mountainous, with everything nestled in narrow valleys along modest rivers. So, despite the meager population and rural setting, the landscape and numerous tiny fields ensure that the people here live in small houses and apartments along cramped streets. Just like the folks in Tokyo! It does have the benefit of making everything feel cozy. You get the impression that it would be nice to duck into all these hidden places, even if you never do.
The city was founded only about fifty years ago, leading me to believe that the area and its people were only discovered shortly before that. Alternatively, the castle foundation on the hill in the middle of town indicates that the area was once given as a domain to a samurai lord. A samurai lord that the Shogun was at best moderately happy with.
In the postwar era the city was somewhat of a boomtown driven by the mining industry, as is evidenced by the many mountains missing significant chunks. Some might call this ecological abuse, but personally I think we could do with fewer mountains around here. Recently, though, the area has receded into a kind of comfortable, slowly shrinking backwater status. The movie theaters, bowling alleys, and storefronts have been replaced by a seemingly endless supply of bars. In a deliberate attempt to shore up the livelihoods of the locals, city hall has disallowed most of the cookie cutter chains that typify much of Japan in favor of mom and pop establishments. Most of Niimi's economy now seems to be comprised of snack bars, ramen shops, hair salons, and auto repair outfits.
Among the young people who do not go into those professions, most of them will be gone after high school graduation. Places like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto are just names in the social studies textbooks to them, but also their destiny. Like everywhere in Japan, Niimi has a homecoming festival every year. Thousands faces not recently seen descend upon the town for a few days of visiting and nostalgia before returning to real life in Big Japan.
Meanwhile, Little Japan continues on. If the Japan of Tokyo is a nation constantly on its way somewhere, the Japan of places like Niimi is just kind of hanging out and carrying on, if only a little embarrassed to not be blinding the world with flashing lights and hyperactive international go go go. But the countryside is still nice to look at and people still take the time to talk to strangers.
For the people here, America and its citizens are incredibly frightening, but also the definition of cool. Anyone born after the war has been raised on a diet of Western movies and popular music. Many people here have a knowledge of American cinema and music that borders on encyclopedic. There is a general sense of wanting to become more Western, but it turns out that Japanese culture is pretty damn resilient, taking on what it wants from foreigners while remaining at the core oh so Japanese.
Americans are seen as friendly and armed. Perhaps that's why they have them imported to teach English, where they can be observed and interacted with while it is reasonably certain they aren't packing.
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