(Member: Benjamin B. French No. 15; Past Master: The Colonial Lodge No.1821)
Before I moved to Japan, I’d get frustrated with people who would only describe Japan as “different” without further elaboration, but after living here for a year, “different” is usually the best that I can do if I want to describe it to someone.
Things like language and customs are obvious, but people here will usually offer some leeway once they realize they’re dealing with a foreigner. Where “different” really begins to force itself is in all the prosaic, workaday things that at one time let your head go on autopilot, like taking the Metro. Now I have to think about not only trying to game out the best car to take to avoid asphyxiation during rush hour, but also the unwritten rules about lining up for the doors, finding and defending my spot, and whether I have enough space to check my phone. It’s also at this point that people stop being forgiving towards foreigners and they usually become seen as large, bearish things that crash their way into the cars and upend all order.
Buying snacks at the grocery store is another challenge. Beer is beer, except when it’s highball, and it’s not clear which ones are alcohol-free. Zima is also available (but not recommended, no matter what nostalgia tells you). Chips are an entirely different challenge. The fact that Japan has branched well beyond America’s salt/BBQ/sour cream & onion/sour cream & cheddar/nachos continuum is good and bad—good because it’s impossible to be bored with all the variety and rotating seasonal flavors, bad because sometimes those flavors are “squid intestines.” But that’s assuming that you can understand the images on the bag in front of you and recognize things like foie gras or soy sauce-mayonnaise-tuna flavor. Most other times it’s not clear and you’re looking at bags with pictures of grinning shrimp, an abstractly-drawn grandmother with fire coming out of her mouth, a haughty-looking potato, or random piles of tacos.
In this kind of environment, you find yourself holding on to any kind of familiarity you can and that’s where Masonry can help. Masons, rightly, like to point out the differences in rituals and lodges between jurisdictions, but the fundamentals are always there: Pillars are the same everywhere. When you walk in, the worshipful master and wardens are in their same spots. The East is always in the same place and serves the same function. Refectories all seem to be painted the same color for some reason. Even the things you thought were silly back home like the square-and-compass wallpaper and glass display cases of hats and jewels belonging to who-knows are strangely comforting.
And then there’s the ritual. Once the gavel drops, the routine is familiar—I remember how I exhaled at that sound, thinking, for one of the rare times in Japan, I know this. The floor work may be different, which you’ll find out when you go to the spot you usually would, and then see everyone staring at you from their original places, confirming that you’re now that guy. But even then, it’s the same fundamentals: a candidate enters blindfolded and leaves the lodge room changed. Even when there are differences, those differences are the starting points for conversation.
So, it can’t be said that Masonry is a copy of what Masons would experience back in D.C.—the ritual is in Japanese, sushi is for dinner, and vending machines line the walls of the refectory. But that’s fine—I’m not in D.C., I’m in Tokyo. Tokyo Tower is down the street and the Masonic building is on the site of the Imperial Navy Officer’s Club where the decision to attack Pearl Harbor was reached. There’s no point in expecting the familiar anywhere in Japan, and that applies to Masonry as well.
What makes Masonry stand out in the white noise of everything that’s unfamiliar is that the lodge gives everyone a common start with the same ritual, the same furniture, and the same experiences. Unlike the profane world, where the confusion and differences start with what were once the basic, the most boring parts of your life, in Masonry the basic parts are what’s familiar and the differences are built on top of that.
Of course, my time spent in lodge is infinitesimal compared to my time spent in the rest of Tokyo where I’m confronted with a perpetually different place all over again. But it’s grounding to know there’s a place like a Masonic lodge in the midst of all of this.