After two years of living in the same small community, it can sometimes feel like I’ve exhausted everything there is to do in Akita. The seasons may shift, the tides ebb and flow, I change my clothes every once in a while. But I still can’t shake this feeling of repetition, like I’m condemned to bike the same roads, wave to the same children, and teach the same classes over and over and over again. Which is why I’m always thrilled whenever I discover something that is genuinely new to me.
Take, for example, the main bridge in town, which crosses the Yoneshiro river. I bike over this guy all the time. I’ve watched sunsets and fireworks from this span. I drive over it on my way to onsens, to schools, to Aomori. But I’d never actually been under it before, until last week, when curiosity seized me, and I ducked under its low 4-foot clearance. Here, I found ample evidence that English is alive and well Noshiro, as well as graffiti, which has always been eerily absent in town, with the exception of this one scrawl by the river. Apparently high school students are incredibly motivated by the topic of sex (shocker!) and want nothing more than to tell you all about it in English. On the far side of the bridge, you can find a lovely “Welcome Motherfucker” salutation. This wasn’t the first thing I saw when I moved to Noshiro, but I kind of wish it had been.
Another recent eye-opener involves these discrete black, white and yellow signs that are posted throughout the countryside. They’re so discrete, in fact, that I didn’t really even notice them until a few months ago. Then I began to see them everywhere… the distinctive color scheme and the concise, clean design kept catching my eye. Last weekend, I went on a quest to photograph as many of these signs as I could find, and translate them when I had some free time. On a 20 km bike ride between Noshiro and the neighboring town of Futatsui, I found 11 specimens, often on old neglected buildings covered with corrugated metal, or next to these red and white “Orion*” signs which advertise the availability of “life loans”. What did it all mean?
Herein lies the beauty of the foreign language: when you first see signs in a language you don’t know, everything looks romantic and foreign and lovely. When I moved to Japan two years ago, I was thrilled to ride my bike down streets chock-full of atmospheric signs declaring: タバコ、お酒、おもしろ館. Now that I’ve become more proficient in Japanese, I know better: these signs are just hawking cigarettes, alcohol, and porn, just like everywhere else in the world. Comprehension is great, but sometimes, you lose a little innocence when you translate.
Such is the case with my mystery signs, because I found to my surprise when I translated them that they were advocating Christianity. Which is fine in and of itself, but some of the messages were a little pointed for my taste, including “Sin’s reward is death” and “Make up for adultery. Jesus Christ“. Before, these signs were just part of the scenery in the Japanese countryside, but now every time I see one, I feel like I’m being asked to consider my status as a sinner. It’s a little unnerving.
So, yes, there’s a slight loss of innocence there. But being able to understand these signs brings up a whole new intriguing set of questions. Christianity was banned in Japan until the Meiji era, and Christians (according to Wikipedia ;) ) make up about 1% of the population here today. Consider for a moment that the average frequency of these signs in my neighborhood is 1 every 2 kilometers. Where do they all come from? A little internet research reveals that these signs are not just in Akita, or even Tohoku, but that they can be found all over Japan.
As an outside observer with little emotional investment in the signs’ message itself, I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. Who put these signs here? Are the owners of all these buildings Christian? Or are they indicative of a vigorous canvassing campaign? Why do I see these signs mostly in the countryside, but not so much in big cities? Discuss potential scenarios amongst yourselves, and let me know what you come up with… in the meantime, I’ll be out cruising the country roads, looking for another sign from (or at least about) God.
*FYI, while this company’s name originally appeared to be “Orion” in a funky English font, upon closer inspection it is actually “マルフク” in a funky Japanese font. Go figure.