Not Quite “Japanese-like” People of the “Canada of Japan”
Having spent about one-third of my 60-something years so far in Tokyo and about two-thirds in countries overseas, I have become increasingly aware of a certain “kind of people” since about the 1980s when I used to live in Singapore. That’s because I pick up from these people, who are genuine Japanese as far as their name, appearance and behavior are concerned, a unique “something” that is not quite “Japanese-like.”
In Vancouver, where I moved 12 years ago, I still keep running into individuals of this “kind of people.” Among Nikkei/Ijusha folks I meet through work or volunteer activities, there are those with whom I feel we’re on the same wavelength and conversation just seems to flow – even though I’m meeting them for the first time. After a while, I would say “Excuse me but,” and ask what part of Japan they are from. As soon as I hear the answer, I’d be taken aback, thinking “Not Again!” A few times. I’ve even had to explain why I was taken aback. I might as well tell you now, I’m talking about the people from Hokkaido, whose presence I’ve felt more while living outside Japan. Including people whose Hokkaido origin I was not aware of, I may have known dozens of them since the 1960s.
Just within the past several months, I have run into so many “Dosanko (Children of Hokkaido)” as they call themselves with a measure of pride, both new faces and familiar ones, that it’s almost uncanny.?From what they’ve told me and?some materials I’ve found on the internet, the traits of Hokkaido folks can be characterized as follows. They can handle one-on-one situations with ease even with people they don’t know well. They readily accept outsiders. They have own personal views on almost anything. They don’t like to congregate unnecessarily. They don’t worry about “how others will see them” very much. “That’s why we’re on the same wavelength,” I thought when I found out. For good or for bad, I share these traits myself.
Their distinct local culture is quite discernible in the views and actions of “Dosanko” friends and acquaintances.
Back in January, I got to know a young man, perhaps 30-something, on a movie set where I was working as an extra in a Japanese-theme film. Having lost his job in Hokkaido, he’d been travelling in Australia, India and now Canada doing some volunteer work and studying English. In Mumbai, he helped out at one of Mother Theresa’s orphanages. He was planning to return to Mumbai, but what intrigued me was the local friend who’d invited him. “He’s building his own hotel, while living and putting up guests in the completed part of the building. When he has enough money, he resumes the building project.” He sounds like a very patient man, somehow appropriate for the Indian continent, but a Japanese man who wants to help him must also be “one heck of a laid-back guy” (my words).
At a supper gathering back in December, I had a chance to have a good chat with Mr T., whom I had gotten to know through translation activities, about many things including Hokkaido. He is a promising young man who is currently working at a top-class hotel in Whistler. He is thinking of eventually pursuing an academic career possibly in North America, or in Tokyo or back in Hokkaido. A few days later, he was good enough to send me his interesting thoughts on “what it means to be a Hokkaido native”.
“There are many respects in which Hokkaido is not Japan, which is somewhat akin to the Canada-U.S. relationship. The way we see Tokyo from Hokkaido is like how we see New York or LA from Vancouver.” Much of the Hokkaido culture and lifestyle is “the crystallization of the know-how that our forefathers and kindred souls have had to come up with in order to survive in the newly-settled territory of Hokkaido, so I’m very proud of it all,” Mr T said.
Everyone likes to brag about his/her home prefecture, province or whatever. But Hokkaido has a unique history of being the only large new territory in Japan, to which many people migrated from around the 1880 under the settlement policy of the new Meiji government, so there is special impact in his words, “the crystallization of know-how.”
Speaking of “Dosanko,” Mr Akitaya who contributes to this magazine, is also from there.
We occasionally have lunch together to chat. He might tell me off if I write anything half-baked about Hokkaido, but he did tell me this recently. “We Dosanko readily accept outsiders, but we are also not afraid to express our views.”
A man in the real estate business, he seems able to get along with all types of people regardless of their backgrounds, a trait I certainly envy.
Hokkaido people apparently still call Honshu naichi (homeland). Its nuance was explained to me, also back in December, by Mrs S, a busy researcher/volunteer /housewife whom I got to know through community activities. Since we’re in the same neighborhood, we sometimes run into each other and chat or gab in a coffeeshop. “When I ferried across the Hakodate-Aoyama Channel for the first time as a child and got on the train for Tokyo,” she said, “I saw bright kaki (persimmon) fruit on trees by farm houses, and felt ‘So this is naichi’!”
Going back to the old days, the word Hokkaido-jin conjures up the face of Mr K, a photographer/interpreter I knew in San Francisco in the early 1970s. One fond memory is of us two photographing and interviewing the wizard jazz guitarist John McLaughlin for a Japanese jazz magazine. I heard from friends there that back in the 90s, he moved up to Alaska as an interpreter for a Japanese seafood importer, and eventually passed away there. I remember having the impression that a man from the north country had returned to a north country in another place..
In Singapore, where I lived for 16 years before moving here in 1997, there was this bearded “Dosanko” guy who for a while handled the production of an airline in-flight magazine I was editing. We got along pretty well, spending many an evening drinking at one of Singapore’s famous hawker centres or in a jazz bar. I won’t forget what he said the last time we had a drink together. It was on the eve of his departure for Guangdong, China where he had found a job. “I hate these big get-togethers like going away parties,” he was railing into his beer…the last time I saw him. I wonder where he is now.
This brings to my mind another way of describing them: the type of people who have an air about them as though you could run into them again anytime, anywhere.
Where did their unique traits come from? Allow me to indulge in a bit of my usual opinionated and bias-filled deduction. When people from Tõhoku and other parts of Japan migrated to the severe frontierland to settle, there was need for everyone to help each other out. If outsiders arrived, they were not excluded because everyone was a migrant anyway and an extra pair of hands always came in handy. Unlike back on the mainland where administrative organs and local bosses controlling turfs were entrenched, they must have had to settle disputes often on their own through discussion. And if they had to protect their interests on their own, they would have become good at asserting their views.
This might be reminiscent of Canada’s pioneering days. Hokkaido these days, by the way, is going through tough times. Over the past 20 years, its population has “decreased by perhaps one half,” according to Mr. T. So their economic strength has weakened due to the combined effect of ageing and declining population. One can only wish that Japan’s Canada will make an effort unique to its culture to somehow gut it out.