Tapping an alien on the arm

Thursday 4th August, 2011

The obvious legacy of copper mines like at Ashio are the dilapidated industrial shells posing like a contemporary art installation, drawing intrepid tourists in to imagine the times of glory for these places.

For workers and locals, the effect of such places may be pernicious. As a visitor I always try to dismiss these negative realities and focus on self-indulgence! Like riding the Watarase Keikoku Line tourist rail line – where once only copper ore was dragged through the spectacular Watarase River gorge to port.

However, the exquisite scenery and the one-carriage train became secondary to an extraordinary conversation with a young Japanese boy.

At Omama about 15 young kids got on the little train, pushing and chatting, striving for the few seats available. Attentive young adult carers moved a child here and there, a few gentle words spoken. A pre-school or holiday group. After an  excursion to the Keikoku Line office and train sheds at Omama.

The very young boy, maybe 6 years old, sidles in the space next to me on the long, side facing seat. Constant chatter, continuing in Japanese. Will his sentence ever end. Will he take a breath.

Not to his mate. Not to the grinning carer who knows this guy is not going to shut up. He is talking to me!

Turning to him I see he is fascinated by what he sees. Different in so many respects. I am a gaijin – a term used sometimes disparagingly, for non-Japanese or alien.

My ‘hello’ just increases his excitement. A sound not able to be understood. I am the alien.

Lightly, my hairy arm is tapped and stroked. Testing reactions. Expressing a connection through touch. A genuine interest in discovery.

So just what was the boy saying, what was he thinking? Had he ever seen a gaijin up close before?

It was one of ‘smiling on the inside moments’ of learning and innocence. Savour the memory, for there is no photo.

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