STCPHEN JAMES O'MEARA
One World, One Hobby
On September 4th National Public Radio aired a report on the overt racism sometimes encountered by foreigners in Japan, where those born elsewhere are called gaijin — "outside persons." The broadcast perplexed me, because I had just returned from the Tainai Star Party outside Niigata, 250 kilometers (150 miles) north of Tokyo. I didn't experience the xenophobia described by NPR's correspondent; instead, I was treated like family.
Perhaps it s because Niigata's residents are practicing to be good hosts for next year's World Cup soccer tournament. More likely it's because I wasn't seen
as an American out of place in Japan, but as an amateur astronomer at home among other amateur astronomers.
Compared with other star parties I've attended, Tainai is at once familiar and strange. Its venue, an attractive hilltop park, offers relatively dark skies. Yet its vendor displays remain open — and well lit — all night long; still, throngs of eager stargazers line up to look through the telescopes. If you want to do any deep-sky observing, you have to walk down the hill. But you won't find the big "light-bucket" reflectors popular at U.S. events. Almost every tripod is topped with premium binoculars or a small- to medium-size, high-quality refractor.
At Tainai you also get model-rocket launches, rock-and-roll concerts, and a boomerang demonstration. And this year Yukihiro Takatsuki, my counterpart at Tenmon Gitido, Japan's leading astronomy magazine, delighted onlookers for three days by building a motorized, computerized observing chair for binoculars.
It's true that some of what happens at Tainai has little to do with astronomy, but so what? Thousands of night-sky enthusiasts and their families have a lot of fun together. Many find good deals on new equipment. They get to meet many of the leading lights of Japanese amateur astronomy too, including artist Shigemi Numazawa, comic storyteller Koen Yanagiya, and the manufacturers of all those wonderful binoculars and refractors. And because there is so much to do besides observe, everyone has a grand time even if the sky is cloudy.
At Tainai I was constantly reminded that 1 was in a foreign country. So much besides the star party itself was different: the faces, the language, the food, the money. But the attendees' love of astronomy joined us more strongly than any national or cultural differences could divide us. Whenever and wherever amateur astronomers get together, nobody's a foreigner.