||Translated by Kazuo Uekura
It was in the summer of 1984 that I visited Princeton, New Jersey
for the first time.
I took an Amtrak train from Washington D.C. and on my way to
New York, I got off the train at Princeton Junction and took
a taxi and went to the university. 1984 was the presidential
election year between Reagan and Mondale. Everywhere I heard
"Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen, and Michael
Jackson was wearing the silver glove due to getting burned on
the hand. (That sounds like just a few years ago. Maybe because
I'm getting older)
The reason I came to Princeton was simple; Princeton University
was the school F. Scott Fitzgerald graduated from and I wanted
to see its campus myself. I had no special purpose for my visiting
except that. My train stopped at Princeton and probably, I thought,
I would have no business coming here again in my future, which
made me to decide to drop in the university. After rambling
on campus, looking at his own hand written manuscript in a special
room at the library, walking around the town, and staying one
night at a shabby motel "Princeton Motor Lodge," I
jumped on the Amtrak again and went to New York. I still remember
that the town gave me a peaceful and pastoral impression. It
was during the summer vacation and few people were seen on spacious
campus and the town looked drowsy. When jogging in the morning,
I stumbled upon many rabbits and squirrels around the area.
(The next time I visited, the fields were replaced by a big
Another thing I clearly remember was the taxi I took at Princeton
Junction. Nowadays lots of taxis are waiting in front of the
railway station, but when I arrived there, there happened to
be no taxi. The shuttle train between the station and the university
was out of service then, I forgot the reason, though. The Princeton
Junction station is located all alone in vacant fields, and
you could find no house where people are living. The passengers
who got off at the station were only four; a woman in her mid-twenties,
a black man around twenty, me and my companion. All we could
do was sit in front of the station and wait for a taxi.
It was quite a long time before a taxi came up. We had started
to worry about ourselves when, eventually, one taxi appeared.
Feeling relieved, all four of us pooled the one taxi. The woman
took a seat beside the driver and the rest of us occupied the
back seat. The taxi-driver was a middle-aged big white guy.
The taxi started with our sense of relief, but after a while
the black man next to me deliberately took his hair spray can
out of a suitcase, and after shaking it up and down, started
to spray on his hair. I could not understand why he did such
a thing in a taxi-cab, but anyway the rest of us could hardly
bear it. He kept on spraying and finally the driver pulled the
car to the curb, got out, opened the back door and shouted furiously
to the black man saying "You get out here!" At first,
he grumbled and resisted, but maybe intimidated by the tough-guy-appearance
of the driver, he got out with his suitcase, showing no further
protest. He must have been stoned on drugs. The driver returned
to his seat and continued to drive, and carried three of us
to town, as if nothing had happened.
A little later, the driver said to us as if to spit out that
"We had no one like that here before." "After
inviting the business complex in the suburbs of town, ever more
narcotics began to flow into this area. What on earth will become
of this town in the next several years?
Seven years later, I revisited Princeton. This time I was going
to stay at the university for a long period. When chatting with
an American in Japan, I said something to the effect that "I'd
like to get relaxed and write novels in a quiet place without
any disturbance." Then he promptly met a person related
to Princeton University and made an actual plan for going abroad.
He said to me "Now Princeton University is inviting you.
Your residential place has already been reserved. Pack everything
up and go there by the end of next January." I like this
kind of American alacrity.
It was the fall of 1990 when we started packing and preparing
for our stay in the U.S. Though at that time we had just finished
a three-year stay in Europe and come back to Japan, we were
starting again to stay abroad without exactly noticing why.
I felt it was a bit hectic, but I didn't want to lose the good
chance to live in Princeton anyway.
The Gulf War broke out when I was on the way to the American
Consulate. In a taxi heading for Akasaka, we heard the news
on the radio tell us that the American forces attacked Baghdad
with missiles. It was not a good sign for us. We couldn't feel
at ease to live in America when it was at war with a country,
even if the country was very far away. But all the paperwork
had been finished, and we had no choice but to go to the U.S.
As a result, we had no war-influence on our stay, but we didn't
feel comfortable in the patriotic and macho mood of the society.
Once I saw a student demonstration on the campus of Princeton
with a placard that read "The Gulf War is something...."
I remembered "the good old anti-war protest," but
when I watched more carefully, I found it was a "pro-war"
demonstration. I have no intention to interfere in somebody
else's affairs, but I took the fact to heart that the times
have really changed. Later when I talked with a student at Rutgers
University(it is a more average university though), the student
said "It is because of Princeton, Mr. Murakami. We had
an anti-war protest all right." Later in Princeton we had
violent trouble when pro-war students attacked anti-war students
and snatched their placards and broke them.
But anyway that war came to a successful end, and when we started
feeling at ease, the next turbulence occurred; the rise of Japan
bashing throughout the country before the approaching 50-year
anniversary of Pearl Harbor. This atmosphere was generated partly
by the patriotism uplifted following the Gulf War, and partly
because Americans were searching for an outlet for their frustration
toward the lasting dull economy in the country.
I don't know how it was reported in Japan, but I felt it rather
tough to live actually in that kind of social ambiance. Besides
a sense of uncomfortableness, the air surrounding me often had
something like a thorn pricking me. Especially when December
came, I rarely went out except shopping and often stayed at
home. It was not only the case with me, but all the Japanese
here felt something similar. In such a delicate time, a certain
Japanese politician (you know who he is) made some remarks which
rubbed Americans the wrong way, which really made me wonder
what on earth the Japanese politician was thinking and made
me so furious.
In one of those days, I was invited to dinner by an American
acquaintance of mine, and at the dinner table, a white American
(he was a retired professor though) let it slip and called me
"You Jap...." in the conversation. That made all the
people present deadly silent as if all of them had cold water
poured on their head, .and the host turned ghastly pale. This
was the worst thing that could ever happen at an American dinner
table. The person in question didn't seem to notice that he
let these words out at all. Later the host called me aside and
made an excuse by saying that "Haruki, he has no malicious
intention, so please forgive him. When young, he was recruited
by the navy and fought against Japan in the Pacific Ocean. The
military education he received still remains with him. We never
have any private antipathy to you all." I replied that
"I got it, so please don't worry." Actually I didn't
care about it, but still now I remember how strained the people
present were. This was a rare experience.
With these kind of incidents, my first year was rather tense
to me. It was rather a heavy year for Americans and for us as
well. Soon after this, the riot hit Los Angeles. Throughout
the year, I shut myself up indoors and I was writing a long
novel. I seldom went anywhere and didn't do almost anything
else. After undergoing mysterious twists and turns, this long
novel split into two cells; one became a rather long short novel
(or a rather short long novel) "Kokkyou no minami, Taiyo
no nishi" and the other a rather long long novel "Nejimakidori
Following this intensive year and a short break, my wish to
write something like an essay gradually became stronger. Successfully
I came to publish a series of my essays every month in a little
magazine "Book" from Kodansha. The length of each
essay was twenty-one or two pages of 400-character manuscript
paper, and this was the longest essay I had ever published.
But while writing a series of essays for one and half years,
I never felt each essay was too long. As is often the case with
writers, I am rather a type of writer who thinks while writing
words. Materializing my thought into words and rethinking about
it in a visual way, it often helps me a lot. In that sense,
writing as many as twenty-one or two pages every month gave
me a wider range of thinking. Probably during the past one-year
stay in America, various things, I think, have been piled up
which must be interpreted into words along with a careful consideration.
Consequently the taxi driver's anxiety in 1984, implied in his
whisper "What will become of this community in the next
several years?", might be partly right and partly not.
In the point that Princeton is still a peaceful and beautiful
town beyond worldly affairs, his apprehensions ended up as needless
fears. In spite of the increase of shopping malls, the ready-built
houses for sale , and the occasional traffic jams in the morning
and evening rush hours, the basic characteristic of the town
has scarcely changed. But his anxiety has been realized in that
the U.S., including this small community, has undergone some
changes. Looking carefully at this country from inside, I feel
keenly that it is a serious task to keep winning the wars one
after another. Despite the collapse in the Vietnam War, this
country won the Cold War and the Gulf War, but this doesn't
necessarily mean that the citizens of this country became happier
than ever before. People seem to be even more at a loss in the
predicament of serious problems than ten years ago. Both nation
and its people, I think, need to meet with some setbacks or
defeats in their turning point. But if asked whether the U.S.
can be replaced by some other countries providing as definite
and powerful sense of value as this country does, my answer
is negative. In this sense, a sense of exhaustion that the Americans
are feeling in general resembles some itching uncomfortableness
in which the present Japanese are placed. In brief, this can
be explained as follows; the exhaustion of America caused by
the distinct idea about what they should do or where they should
go, and the uncomfortableness of Japan without any clear-cut
belief that we are headed in the right direction. When facing
these two choices between distinctiveness and ambiguity, the
Japanese might feel what a heavy burden it is to choose their
way to lead in future..
Writing essays for this book gave me the opportunity to think
over various matters. But no conclusive answer is given in almost
any facet where some crucial value judgment is needed. Therefore,
regrettably, this book doesn't help you get "the instant
understanding of America." As an author, I am gratified
if this book will be "a hint" to your understanding
of the States.
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