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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Lessons from Kagoshima

Dennis Fox

April 22 , 2004

Last month I went to Japan, first for two weeks to its southernmost city, Kagoshima, where my oldest son has been teaching English, and then briefly to Hiroshima and Tokyo. I was hardly off the plane before thinking Brookline should adopt some Japanese-style folkways.

Kagoshima's half-million residents live in the center of the Kyushu hot springs region, across Kinko Bay from the active Sakurajima volcano. Despite its off-the-beaten-path location almost a thousand kilometers from Tokyo, it's not nearly the Podunk the pitying Narita Airport customs agent laughed about when I told him where I was headed.

True, if I were gadflying about Kagoshima for the Daily Yomiuri no doubt I'd find plenty to whine about -- the noisy competition between politicians and sweet-potato sellers to create the most incessant loudspeaker din; the convenient but ugly vending machines lining every downtown street and rural road selling hot and cold coffee, soda and milk, beer and cigarettes; the smoke-filled restaurants, fatty meat, and triumphant McDonalds, KFC, and Haagen-Dazs. Paradise it's not.

Despite the imperfections, however, just walking around Kagoshima stimulates comparison. For example, unlike in Brookline, pay phones are everywhere, some inside handicapped-accessible booths. Also common are clearly marked public toilets, recycling bins, and frequent buses and trams running like clockwork (the bullet train I later took to Tokyo was a marvel).

On my first Kagoshima jaunt I noticed a ridged strip running down the middle of the sidewalk. My son explained that the ridges -- also present in some newer buildings, even in bathrooms -- help blind walkers safely find their way. That's the opposite of Brookline, where the only sidewalk ridges, created by unrepaired cracks and quaint cobblestones, hinder rather than help blind walkers, wheelchair users, and stroller pushers alike.

The universal bicycle accommodation also was obvious. Bikes are everywhere, ridden by young school children, middle-aged workers, and old retirees. My son routinely bikes miles every day, often arriving ahead of cars maneuvering through permanent clog. Whereas downtown Kagoshima's huge bike parking lots encourage riding, here at home we're still waiting for minimal racks in Coolidge Corner.

Also noticeable are the yellow license plates on cars so tiny they're not even sold in the United States. Owners of yellow plates get discounts on tolls, parking, and other fees; even the larger white-plated cars are mostly smaller than what's common in Brookline, where supersized SUVs dwarf my family's old Saturn.

Japan's cultural advantages extend beyond traffic. Manufacturers are now required to take back their products when consumers finish using them -- cars, computers, household appliances. Since consumers must pay to return them, the price of used goods has plummeted, encouraging re-use.

Another example: Japan's civil marriage process is free of ritual. Couples uninterested in religious rites simply submit paperwork to a government office and receive a form that declares them married. Rather than caving in last month to anti-gay prejudice, the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention might have modified the Japanese framework to make marriage-equivalent civil unions available ceremony-free to any couple, gay or straight, with wedding formalities and the term itself optional for those who want them.

Japanese public education, still emphasizing drill and memorization rather than critical thinking, offers an unfortunate model for the Massachusetts MCAS regime. However, the Hiroshima Peace Museum describes both Hiroshima's pre-1945 military importance and United State officials' cynical calculation of when, where, and why to drop the first atomic bomb. The somber explanations made more sense than the superficial State Department history book US officials gave my son's teaching cohort when they arrived in Japan.

Since returning last week, I've started catching up on town election campaigns, the effort to undo Town Meeting's rejected Brookline Place zoning change, and the School Committee's interminable superintendent search. But my mind wanders back to those lazy communal soaks in Kyushu's hot springs, sitting nude chest-deep in pools large and small, indoors and outside, surrounded by plants and flowers and calm. Maybe Town Meeting Members who vote in June to spend a million bucks to renovate the town pool could add a provision for hot soaks. The building already says Brookline Baths. I'm ready.

Japan Photos

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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