Sight Seen In Tokyo

Danae Leali

August 1, 2005

She held up her finger to us and then took my brother away. His small white fingers tried to slip from her tanned hand as she pulled him down the sidewalk. His face turned towards us, panic blanketing his eyes. Though he was frightened, we motioned him to follow, reassuring him that everything would be alright. He would be back with us soon.

We’d been in Japan for a few days—a beautiful country full of history and friendly people, but with a language well beyond our grasp. We’d been to Tokyo Disney during the first few days of our trip and found ourselves to be the main attraction. "Americans," we heard people say. "Gaijin"—foreigner—they whispered to each other as they watched us walk through the amusement park. We laughed at our photos when we’d gotten back home—pictures of our family smiling, in the background children pointing, not at the colorful characters, but at our pale skin and light hair. A natural curiosity at something not often seen followed us to each place we visited.

When she came up to us, we’d been walking through a Shinto shrine. We’d caught sight of a wedding procession as we walked up to the shrine and stopped to watch. The woman walked up to us, her black hair pulled into a ponytail. She was wearing a black tank top and khaki Capri pants. Taping my father on the shoulder, she began to point at my younger brother who was five—years—old at the time. He nodded, unsure of what she meant. She pointed in the distance and placed her hands on my brother’s shoulders.

Panic made my mother’s arms twitch towards my brother as the woman pointed towards a man standing a few hundred feet away. He waved a camera to us while the woman began to point at a tree the man was standing near. The tree was gnarled and its branches jutting from the trunk like an old woman’s arthritic fingers. Pigeons crawled all over the cement, carpeting the ground. My mother, my sister, and I stood there, mouths agape, still amazed and unsure of what was to happen next. But my father smiled at the woman and nodded his head.

"Max, go ahead with her, okay? She just wants a picture."

A picture? My sister and I looked at each other. A picture? With our brother? In front of her stood a temple hundreds of years old. Inside, ceremonial drums reached to the ceiling. Golden artifacts lay across the floor in reverent order. Gods, larger than life, stood decked in jewels and pearls, demanding recognition with solid eyes. Mahogany separated the mortal and the divine. Parishioners kneeled silently, hands clasped in prayer while visitors stood back in silent wonder at the beauty of the Shinto gods in this holy place. With all these things, why take a picture of a small American boy in front of a barren tree?

With a small bow of thanks, the woman bent in front of my brother and smiled at him to reassure him of his safety. His awkward smile back showed a shyness and an uneasiness that she chose to ignore as she took him by the shoulders and moved him towards the tree. The man with the camera waved to us and the woman continually turned back to us and bowed as she walked. My brother kept turning as well, at his young age still hoping to be rescued by the family who had always acknowledged that strangers were "bad."

"It’s alright, buddy! It’s okay. We’re right here." My mother couldn’t let him think that his family had forgotten him.

The woman and my brother stood in the front of the tree. She bent down towards him, her hands on his shoulders. The pigeons walked in and out of the camera frame. My brother, never one for smiling, raised his eyebrows and pulled his mouth tight.

"Smile, Max! Smile for the picture!" we all yelled to him. At our urging, he let his lips turn up at the corners, but left his eyebrows up, making his smile seem ridiculous. My mother had pulled out her camera to take a picture as well.

The woman walked behind my brother as she brought him back, bowing to us constantly.

"Oragato, oragato." She bowed one more time and paused slightly. "Thank…you."

She placed my brother’s hand in my mother’s and turned and walked back towards the man. Taking each other’s hands, they walked away, turning their backs to the temple. They glanced back every few steps, but only to bow to us, their eyes trained on the face of my brother.

I looked at him—he was still my brother: the same nose as my grandmother, the same eyes as my father, the same smile as my mother—an ordinary boy from an ordinary place. What did the face of a small, American boy hold that the gold of the Orient did not? How do the eyes of a child overshadow the jewels of a 1,000—years’ time?

I turned my face toward the temple. The dust and prayers of hundreds of years rested in the grains of the wooden timbers. Red lanterns with black and gold flaking symbols swayed in the breeze, the tassels pulsing with the rhythm of a snake, slowly slicing through the air. My first instinct was to take the Kodak Saver from my pocket and to take a photograph, to immortalize the mystery of Japan on a piece of laminated paper. I looked down at my brother, the subject of a picture just moments earlier.

This temple with its golden gods and prayerful secrets was always with them—their eyes wandered over it day after day—it didn’t seem as powerful to them as it did to me. But a small boy whose skin was whiter than they were used to, whose eyes were large and round, a boy who they would never seen again—a boy whose name they did not know—had impressed them. Had impressed them enough to take a picture.

We turned towards the temple, our feet moving slowly in the heat. Whispers clung to the air: "Gaijin," "American," "Foreigner." They leaned together, watching us move, looking at our clothing, smiling at our actions. But we continued walking. Our curiosity in the painted red structure in front of us and our appearance creating a curiosity around us—their ordinary temple became our extraordinary shrine and our everyday appearance became their astonishing sight.

Danae Leali is a sophomore from Canal Fulton, Ohio, majoring in Creative Writing.