I have long held the belief that Japanese men of a certain age instinctively develop a fondness for a uniform of sorts. They let some sixty-five summers or so pass and then think, ‘Do you know what? From now on, whenever I step outside, I shall wear an ill-fitting baseball cap and pull my slacks up to my nipples.’ Yesterday, I attended a hanami party where it would be hard to argue against my theory.
We were invited to my wife’s uncle’s house for a barbecue and cherry blossom viewing party. Excluding my wife and I, my mother- and father-in-law were regarded as the sprightly youngsters of the gathering. They are 69 and 72 respectively. The others there were aged between 75 and 88 years. Of the six males in attendance, only I was without a cap.
‘Like the hats,’ I whispered to my wife. ‘Nice slogans.’ My wife hadn’t really paid any attention to what was written on the caps. Neither, of course, had the men. Many in Japan don’t care what the English words on their clothing mean. Elderly Japanese men who don’t speak any English and have long since abandoned any sense of style clearly don’t give two hoots. Nevertheless, they provided me with some gentle amusement.
My father-in-law donned a black cap bearing the legend, ‘It’s World Grand Prix. Born To Victory!’ Next to him, his eldest brother, a largely immobile old soul whose primary skills are now dribbling and making surprising, sudden burpy noises, sported headwear declaring simply, ‘15th Anniversary!’
‘Of what?’ I asked my wife discreetly, ‘Needing lavatorial assistance?’ a quip which I regretted when, through means of a small grunt the old chap indicated to a sibling that he had to pee and it became clear that he did indeed need help in such matters.
Across from them a skinny man of pitiable shakiness and wearing Bono-style sunglasses communicated through his oddly perched headgear that he was a ‘High Performance Spirit Record Breaker’. Unlikely, to say the least. He was seated next to an ‘Imagination Climb Mountaineer’. My favorite cap, though, was one which simply read, ‘Vans!’ Perhaps this is a brand name, I don’t know, but I like to think not. I prefer to think the man is just a fan of the van as a form of transport and wanted to declare as much. I rather hope he has an array of clothing declaring his favourites in various categories. ‘Pencils!’ emblazoned on a cap indicative of his writing implement of choice, for example, or a t-shirt announcing ‘Slippers!’ in homage to his preferred footwear.
Oh, how easy it is to mock the aged! How easy it is to forget that we, too, will one day lack sartorial savvy and care not a jot about it. For I was reminded that those men were once young when I got talking to the ‘Imagination Climb Mountaineer’. He poured my beer and told me that his only time going abroad was in the war.
‘China,’ he said. ‘Against the Russians. My job was to dig a hole in the ground and hide. When the tanks rolled over I was to climb up under the tank and detonate a bomb I had.’
‘With you still there?’ I asked.
He nodded. And then he smiled and took a sip of his beer. ‘But I was captured about week before I was to do it. I was kept in a prison camp for six months.’
‘How old were you?’ I asked.
‘Eighteen,’ he said.
I didn’t know what to say. There was no malice in his voice, no trace of bitterness. He was just an elderly man telling his story. At least three of those men in silly caps had experienced things that the rest of us can probably barely comprehend. Why shouldn’t they wear ridiculous bonnets?