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Holland Park Press

Looking for Kimiko

16 March 2011 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar

My Japanese earthquake was called Kimiko and happened 25 years ago. All of a sudden, dressed in a kimono, she appeared on my parents’ doorstep.

During the previous year I had been on a Japan study tour. For two weeks, together with a fellow student, I travelled with our guide Toshihiro. My impression of Japan, like a photo, was fixed during those two weeks.

At the Tokyo Correspondents Club a Dutch reporter explained that in Japan women’s terms of speech differ from men’s. He had learned the language from his wife, hence he regularly caused confusion: although he spoke good Japanese, he sounded like a woman.

I am not sure if my memories are accurate. It is what I remember from 26 years ago and, as you know, our memories are unreliable.

Impressions of ice-cold pineapple on a stick bought at a stall; it was hot. Images of a huge bath in the Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with rice-paper walls. The water looked like a grey soup with flakes, hence my fellow student drained the bath and filled it again. The Ryokan was up in arms: ‘Who emptied the bath?’ shouted the proprietor. 

We spent the entire day with Toshi and two girlfriends. One was called Kimiko, she was very amusing.

‘I believe I'm drunk,’ said my travel companion when we arrived back at the Ryokan. It is strange but when experiencing an earthquake you first of all think something is wrong with you. But it wasn’t us; the room moved.

The next day Toshi took us to the home of a professor at Tokyo University. The professor had retired and said, ‘I may have fought against your father.’ Further clarification followed, ‘In Indonesia.’ I had to admit this wasn’t the case and the look on his face showed his regret; we would have had something in common.

He asked if I would like to wear his important decoration so that we could have our picture taken. I thought, I hope it isn't a war decoration. I must have declined because in the picture only the professor is wearing a medal.

Yet there are pictures of me posing with a samurai sword, one of a Japanese major-general cooking us noodles, and quite a few with Kimiko in a kimono. In every photo she is smiling at me.

Japan looked very modern; yet underneath it all was another Japan, a much older Japan. This was a Japan with girls bowing in department stores; deafening silence in a packed metro; people stopping you in the street to practise their English; breakfast of fish soup, fruitcake and milk; a temple just around the corner; pouring one's heart out after three glasses of beer. Kimiko’s Japan, but how well did I get to know it?

A year later Kimiko, dressed in a kimono, appeared on my parents’ doorstep. I took her out for dinner in a local hotel. ‘We could take a room,’ she said. I replied that she could stay with my parents. I was 24 and everything was still up in the air.

The next day I had to go abroad for a week and my parents showed her most of the Netherlands. At breakfast, due to a mutual communication problem, Kimiko piled every kind of filling on one piece of bread. ‘Delicious!’ she said; maybe this fixed her picture of the Netherlands.

Meanwhile I have found Toshi on LinkedIn. He has added another contact after the earthquake; he is safe. I have a few Japanese watercolours on display in my flat, gifts from the professor, and a Japanese doll wearing a kimono from Kimiko. I still have her pictures and it is only now that I notice how lovely she was. While watching events unfold on TV, I realised we could have had Japanese children. Suddenly I pictured myself: I spoke a sort of Japanese which sounded very feminine.

© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press

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