Despite my listing the several manga series I follow in Day 24, Japan itself has always held less fascination for me than it seems to for many in the nerd set. Don’t get me wrong—my years of fandom for and later assistance on Usagi Yojimbo has instilled an interest in Japanese history in me, you can’t go through film school without cultivating a love for Ozu and Kurasawa, and I think everyone I know enjoys Miyazaki. But it’s not like the people I’ve known who seemed almost to find in Japanese culture the answer to their own alienation from America’s. Japan the place has never seemed more or less interesting than any of dozens of parts of the world that I’d like to visit.
So it was strange during the years that I dated and briefly lived with a Japanese woman that the first question people would ask me when I mentioned her was, “Oh, do you speak Japanese?” It was just assumed that her ethnicity and culture were part of the attraction, when in fact they were incidental. Though born in Japan, she had come to America at the age of three, and her unaccented English, I gathered, was far stronger than her Japanese, which was frozen at about the middle-school level. In our years together I learned maybe three words, and Japan wasn’t high on her list of priorities either, unless it was to argue that the food is the best in the world and the horror films the scariest.
But so it was that I ended up visiting Japan in October 2006. She went to see her extended family about every year and a half, and it had never really occurred to me to go, as some far more enthusiastic friend or other was always eager, but on this particular trip she asked me to come. My attitude towards travel is, whether I’ve long desired to go or not, if I get the opportunity and can afford it, I should. This is the same reason that a year later I accompanied a friend on a road trip from San Francisco to Fort Bragg, NC, and why, in 1998, I had gone on a school-sponsored summer trip to China for a couple weeks. Similarly, I had never given traveling to China much thought, but had an incredible time, and I’d actually be much quicker to return there than to Japan, for the dual reasons that it felt more different from home and because, 14 years later, I suspect that it’s massively changed from when I was there.
In the years since we split up, Japanese culture has become a bit more present in my life, between assisting on Usagi and starting to read a lot more manga, but at the time my main touchstone was my passion for the work of Osamu Tezuka, whose Phoenix and Buddha had changed my concept of comics during college. Asked what I wanted to do and see while we were there, I deferred to her with one exception: we must visit the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum in Takarazuka, Tezuka’s hometown. We did a lot of the standard things, too: visited the Imperial palace and the Tsukiji fish market, saw lots of temples, ate takoyaki and Osaka ramen, toured the Sapporo brewery and the Tōei Kyoto Studio Park, where samurai TV shows are filmed, walked Akihabera Electric Town, all that stuff.
But the thing I anticipated was the Tezuka museum. Considered in Japan the God of Manga, Tezuka’s importance to manga and anime has no direct American comparison. It is as if Jack Kirby and Walt Disney were a single person, producing a fantastically outsized number of comics pages (estimates go as high as 150,000) that reinvented the way stories were told in the medium, and going on to become one of the most beloved producers in animation, running a studio that created many of the classics of the genre. At once a brilliant entertainer of children, Tezuka also created strange, dark, experimental work I read again and again when they finally came to America. I’ve since learned that the average manga reader in Japan focuses primarily on what’s new, and older works are not widely read. The exception are Tezuka’s classics like Astro Boy and Black Jack.
We turned out to be perfectly situated for a visit to the museum, as our home base was in Osaka prefecture, and Takarazuka is a short distance away in neighboring Hyōgo prefecture. I remember it being a fairly brief train ride. We had been primed a few days earlier when we discovered the Tezuka Osamu World store in the Kyoto rail station, and there we took pictures with statues of Astro Boy/Tetsuwan Atom and Black Jack, whose series had yet to be published by Vertical, meaning I was only vaguely aware of it (I’ve been rendering Tezuka’s name surname last in Western style, but of course in Japan it’s the other way around).