A Journey into the Land of Voltes V

Voltes V digital art by Richard Baron Reyes

Imagine a sweaty 8-year-old boy running home from school, wary that it is almost 6 p.m., dropping his books carelessly on the kitchen floor and flicking the switch of a rickety old black-and-white TV. That was 1978, the year when the Japanese anime Voltes V hit Philippine television and caught all Filipino children by surprise. For many, it was their first glimpse of Japanese culture, and for those with black-and-white TV sets, the colors were not so vivid then.

I was one of those 8-year-old kids, the so-called Martial Law babies, who got caught in the web of Voltes V mania. Our family TV was then already decrepit and the outdoor antenna had just been swept by a recent storm. But despite peeking through the grainy monochrome, my tiny heart still skipped a beat each time Voltes V got hit by one of those sinister Boazanian robots whose leader wanted to rule planet Earth. To my young, impressionable mind, Japan’s Voltes V made everything perfect.

The parade of Japanese robots began with Voltes V, and then came Mazinger Z, then Daimos, then the Star Rangers, and soon enough, prime time was swamped by all of these Japanese cartoons, and kids like me then began to mimic the characters. It was fun acting out Steve Armstrong (or Kenichi Gou), the venerable pilot of Volt Panzer, or Star 1 of the Star Rangers in our own make-believe world. Each morning, the previous night’s episodes would fill classroom talk and everyone would trade stickers or collectibles of their favorite Japanese heroes.

Forget about Superman and the Superfriends, or Wonder Woman and Batman! Somehow, in that brief glimpse of time 25 years ago, Japan had caught the imagination of Filipino children, and their lives would never be the same. I said “brief” because just when my family could finally afford those very expensive colored TVs then, former President Marcos banned the showing of all Japanese anime. If it was just possible to join the rebel groups during those dark, gloomy days, I would have planted a long, hard kiss on my mom’s cheek and headed off to the hinterlands with my toy M16 submachine gun.

Imagine the day after Marcos pulled the plug. An eerie silence soon replaced the animated chatter in the school cafeteria. It was as if someone in the family had died. Voltes V and the rest of the Japanese heroes are gone. But life continues, so they speak, but not without the episodes playing and replaying subliminally in our young minds.

That was my first glimpse of Japan and her rich culture — not through the eyes of a venerable sensei but through Japan’s creative animators and manga artists. Little did I know that 12 years later, in 1990 when I was 20, I would first set foot on Japanese soil, not to search for my long, lost superhero, but to experience Japanese culture and life firsthand as a delegate of the 17th Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program.

It was on a balmy autumn day in November 1990 when the luxury liner MS Nippon Maru arrived in Tokyo to the warm greetings of Japanese kindergarten school kids. More than 200 delegates from Southeast Asian countries have come for a week’s visit, to snap happily at tourist spots, loiter through shopping streets, and join Japanese families for home stay. Watching the 5-year-old children, with their immaculately white uniforms and blue caps, playing various musical instruments and greeting us as we arrived, confirmed what I had thought about Japan since those Voltes V days. That Japan and her people are truly warm.

Asakusa in Tokyo was my first glimpse of Japan’s juxtaposition of sorts. Here, the ancient and modern, the gargantuan and the delicate, the refined and shabby all combined to create an aura of excitement and mystery. It was where space-age modernity blended with ancient traditions, where cell phone-toting, computer-savvy tourists basked in the myths of old, and where the century-old aroma of rice crackers mixed with hotdog scents. Looking back, I have realized that my impression of Asakusa then actually mirrored what Japan really is. That behind the high-tech gizmos and ultramodern technology lies an ancient culture steeped in tradition. Japan’s modern facade covers an older, hidden interior. In Asakusa, I was in its midst.

The 1990 junket was not just photo-ops in front of temples, museums and shrines; it was also an educational tour. A small group of delegates, including myself, visited Tokyo’s sewage treatment facility, and I never knew till then that the water that drains through our sinks actually goes through elaborate processes before it is finally released to the environment.

It is, therefore, not surprising why Tokyo Bay and Tokyo’s inland rivers and lakes continue to teem with life. It is a testament to the Japanese people’s commitment to the environment and to the unsung heroes who labor in these waste treatment facilities. While back home, garbage is a perennial problem, here in Tokyo, people sort their garbage well and take them out only on designated days. It is no wonder why Tokyo is one of the cleanest metropolitan areas in the world despite its millions of inhabitants. While thermodynamics’ second law states that everything moves toward chaos or entropy, it is somehow not applicable in Japan. Indeed, only a people can make this happen.

My first glimpse of Japanese family life was also in 1990 during a home stay experience in Yamanashi, which is at the foot of the sacred Mt. Fuji. The names of my hosts escape my memory now but their hospitality and warmness linger. From them, I caught my first glimpse of the simple pleasures of a typical Japanese family: delicious food, heartwarming conversations, and close family ties. Because I hardly knew Nihongo then, smiles, hugs and warm handshakes replaced words that need not be spoken.

My next trip to Japan came in 1996 as a research trainee through the auspices of the Japan International Cooperation Agency. From May 1996 to March 1997, I spent most of my time at the Tsukuba-based Microbial Resources Laboratory of the then National Institute of Bioscience and Human-Technology, working on oil-degrading microbes with the excellent scientist, Dr. Takanori Higashihara. From that experience, I caught my first glimpse of the formidable Japanese work ethic, which is truly the driving force of Japan’s rise to economic power from the rubbles of the Second World War.

The Japanese people’s drive for excellence was typified by my lab mates then who had no qualms about staying in the lab from 12 to 14 hours daily to complete their experiments and write their reports. Scientific integrity was always stressed and dishonesty in whatever form was intolerable. The group mentality and belongingness was very strong, as exemplified by the willingness of each one to assist in another’s task just to fulfill the group’s goals. Indeed, among research groups throughout Japan, cooperation is several rungs higher than competition, and this translates to numerous scientific papers and break-throughs, as well as the healthy collaboration between industry and academe. Those ten months as a JICA participant answered my question as to why Japan is also a technological superpower.

My stint in Tsukuba did not end in 1997, since two years after returning home and working at the University of the Philippines, I was back in Japan as a Monbusho scholarship grantee at the prestigious University of Tsukuba, the intellectual cradle of three Nobel laureates. From 1999 to 2003, I was mostly under the tutelage of another excellent scientist, a female at that, Dr. Hiroko Isoda. In these four years, I had the opportunity to immerse myself deeper into Japanese culture and experience firsthand the similarities and contrasts between Philippine and Japanese lifestyles. Among my memorable impressions are these.

The first thing that struck me is the sensei concept. Here in Japan, no word elicits more reverence and even fear than the word sensei. For many, sensei means God, and for a lowly ryugakusei like me then, the sensei practically had control over my future. There is probably no such equivalent in the Philippines nor in the Western world. Certainly, there are professors and teachers, but the connotation of sensei in Japan is sometimes close to that of an infallible person, as I had observed. However, for many of these so-called senseis, they do live up to their titles and assume full responsibility for those under their care.

Bicycles and umbrellas illustrate another peculiar aspect of Japanese culture. While the Japanese are known for their impeccable honesty and integrity, their Achilles’ heel lies in two simple things: bicycles and umbrellas. Somehow, it appears that these two items are everyone’s property, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “borrowing” one for just a while. Maybe it stems from the society’s homogeneity and for everyone’s willingness to help in times of need. Well, I am probably stretching the issue a little too much.

Certainly, the Japan experience is never complete without the veritable onsen, with its warm soothing waters and that peculiarly thick sulfuric smell. Many say that the onsen can cure gastrointestinal and nervous diseases as well as ease arthritic and rheumatic pain, thereby attracting the elderly. Other onsens boast of curing gynecological problems. This is where businessmen close deals, students discuss mathematical problems, women chatter about their kids, and retirees talk about stock market trends. Undoubtedly, those who are not used to being stark naked together with other people will probably find the onsen an uneasy experience. However, I’ve always felt that it is where you come face to face with our own humanity, free from any masks, just yourself and the color of your skin. The onsen is where Japan literally bares itself.

Japan’s uniqueness also stems from the ubiquity of the hanko, that all-important seal fashioned from expensive wood, plastic or ivory. Almost every Japanese I know has one. It replaces the handwritten signature of other cultures and is vital to business deals, contracts and financial transactions. It has brought a new meaning to the word “convenience,” Tokyo being the convenience capital of the world. With the hanko, you don’t have to be personally present to sign important documents. In fact, you can be dead and yet still transact business with the hanko that you leave behind. Probably, nowhere in the world is this possible except in Japan.

Nowhere in the world, too, can you also find the most number of karaoke bars, which literally fill to the brim on Friday and Saturday nights, especially here in Tokyo. Karaoke has likewise invaded the world, for wherever you find Japanese tourists, be it in South America, Southeast Asia, even in the Middle East, there will always be karaoke. It is a testament to the Japanese people’s inherent love for music as an expression of the soul.

With Japan’s aging and dwindling population, I see a gradual yet imminent change in Japanese society. Gaikokujins or foreigners have become a vital force in Japan’s growth engine, manning the food and manufacturing industries. The information technology sector is also slowly being filled by bilingual experts who can bridge cultural and language gaps in a gradually shrinking world. I have also seen a growing number of mixed marriages, particularly between Japanese men and Filipino women, or between Japanese and Latin Americans. Japan’s gene pool is gradually changing, and for the better, I suppose. Japan’s culture, which is already rich, will continue to evolve and be animated by enduring influences from those who have come to Japan, stayed here, and have loved and adopted the country as their own.

I have since entered Japan’s labor force after completing my graduate studies in March 2003. My job is that of an editor of biology, chemistry and physics research papers written by Japanese scientists for submission to peer-reviewed international scientific journals. After completing my MS and PhD degrees through the auspices of the Japanese government – in fact, through the kindness of the Japanese people – I have stayed to serve and give back what Japan has so unselfishly given me and other ryugakuseis like me. Each day, I am privileged to read, before anyone else in the world, the excellent science that Japanese labs and scientists churn out. My task is to polish and render them comprehensible to the international scientific community.

Once in a while, I do get papers on robotics, and I can’t help but recall those wonderful days more than 25 years ago – in 1978 – when I was still a kid ogling on TV at Japanese robots saving the world against evil elements. Little did I know then that my destiny would eventually lead me here, to where Voltes V “lived,” except that this land is not fictional. It is as real as the current summer heat and the mushi atsui weather that reminds me so much of my own country.

It must have been decades ago since I awoke to the reality that Voltes V is just a figment of some artist’s imagination and that saving the world isn’t really some robot’s task. However, one thought remained: that if Japan is to march more proudly into the 21st century and make the world a better place, its people and the gaikokujins who contribute to their society can certainly learn from Kenichi Gou’s battle cry.

In the face of adversity: “Let’s fight together! LET’S VOLT IN!”

This essay won the 2003 Kyoto International Culture Association (KICA) Essay Writing Contest.

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