Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Pico Iyer on Japanese Realism

(Pico Iyer is a writer without a concrete sense of home or nationality. An Indian by blood, he was born and schooled in England but raised in California, and now lives in suburban Japan. He has been called "the poet laureate of wanderlust." The following is from The Global Soul, published in 2000. I recommend reading it, slowly).

"Perhaps the way in which my neighborhood most solidly uplifts and steadies me is by virtue of its tonic blend of cheerfulness and realism, measured (as I see it) with the wisdom of a culture that's been around long enough to know how to mete out its emotions. To many I know from the New World, the Japanese response to every setback, from terrorists to burning houses to long hours, crowded trains, and sudden deaths - Shikata ga nai, or "It can't be helped" - sounds fatalistic, and too ready to surrender power to the heavens. But to me, coming from a California where it sometimes seems as if everyone is restlessly in search of perfection in his life, his job, his partner, and himself, it feels bracing to hear of limits that imply a sense of past as well as of future. A republic founded on the "pusuit of happiness" seems a culture destined for disappointment, if only because it's pursuing something that, by definition, doesn't come from being sought; a culture founded, however inadvertently or subconciously, on the First Noble Truth of Buddhism - the reality of suffering - seems better placed to deal with sorrow, and be pleasantly surprised by joy. In a world that's overheating with the drug of choice and seeming freedom, Japan, for all its consumerist madness, suggests, in its deeper self, a postglobal order that knows what things can really be perfected (streets, habits, surfaces) and what cannot."

"In practical terms, this very serenity - some would say complacency - is perhaps what gives an air of pink-sweater innocence to protected neighborhoods such as mine. I do not belive the Japanese are more innocent than anyone else, but they are, perhaps, more concerned with keeping up appearances, especially of innocence, and whole communities are urged to play their part in this display of public sweetness (it is certainly the only culture I know where women, to look seductive, don't narrow their eyes, but widen them). Much of this can be converted in translation into what is regarded as hypocrisy, but it can also suggest a prudent drawing of boundaries in a world where they are in flux, and a sense of which illusions can be servicably maintained, and which cannot (as the ad outside my building ambiguously promises: HONEST COSMETICS TO MAKE YOU FOREVER YOUTHFUL AND BEAUTIFUL)."

'The society urges its members to conceive of a purpose and an identity higher than themselves (people give you their business cards when you meet them here, but not their resumes or dogmas). And even punky nose-ring boys and scruffy Indians are implicitly urged to tend to responsibilities beyond their mortal bodies. I find myself picking up stray pieces of trash as I walk down the street (almost as reflexively as I find myself, now, bowing to a public telephone as I put it back in its cradle on my return to California); getting up from my seat at the bank, I stop to brush it clean as I would never do "at home."'

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Last Festival (work in progress)

Mmm-bop! Boppa doo wop! Di di do da boo wop! Bap ba heya yeah…

Three slim girls in pale blue summer kimonos pick their way past shiny puddles in front of a stage decorated with red paper lanterns, munching on corn dogs and ignoring the pop music that blares through the smoky wet air over the parking lot of the Utashinai Community Center.

The girls wear bright sashes that accentuate the curves of their hips and clash mightily with their bright orange hair, frizzed, primped and fussed into radioactive bird nests. They move slowly, in part because the tight folds of the kimonos constrict movement, in part because they are unused to wearing traditional sandals, but mostly to let the construction workers and high school boys in the crowd get a good look at them tripping helplessly through the drizzling rain.

This is the last festival.


“The coal miners drank quite a bit in those days.”

Mr. Tanaka is leaving through a beautifully preserved photo album of past festivals, thrilled that the museum he curates has attracted a visitor.

“The women would collect their husband’s paycheck every month, because if the men had a chance they would spend all the money in one night at the bars.”

He laughs.

“That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”

“People in Utashinai had to stay cheerful, of course. No one was from Hokkaido back then, so they were all far from home. The work was hard. There were accidents. Many people were killed. The town supported the widows and children of dead miners. Everyone held each other up. The festival was joyous because the people needed joy.”


The karaoke contest is about to start. Four community center employees hold a thin rope separating the crowd from the area in front of the stage. One of them is standing next to me. He is very drunk. The rope is looped over his shoulders.

“I forgot my umbrella,” he whines to no one in particular.

The drunk spots me standing next to him and grabs my hand, first enthusiastically and then for balance. Four tiny grandmothers grumble as the wet rope digs into their necks.

“Foreigner,” says the drunk, still holding my hand, smiling glassily, his face streaked with rain.

“Foreigner. Foreigner. Foreigner.”

He lets go of me and leans over, unsteadily, deliberately. The rope dips down, releasing the old women. He finds a plastic cup on the pavement by his feet and slowly lifts himself back up, the rope rising with him.

“Here,” he smiles, pushing the cup into my chest. The beer tastes warmer than the rain.

I lift my bottle to refill his cup, but he takes it from me and drinks the whole thing, the rope jerking with each swallow.


A 6th grader looks up at me shyly. “Hello,” I say. “How are you?”

“I’m fine thank you, and you?” Her voice is almost lost in the patter of rain.

The rope jerks towards us, bringing the drunk with it. “Here,” he says, thrusting the empty bottle at the girl. “You. Go and put this in the non-burnable trash bin. The non-burnable, got it?”

She looks up to me, frightened, then runs back to her friends.

“Hell,” says the drunk. “Take this then will you?”

He stumbles off towards the concessions. I am holding the rope. It is heavy. The four grandmothers give me little bows and apologetic smiles.

“Yoroshiku onegai-simasu,” they say. The phrase, ubiquitous in Japanese, does not translate well to English. American grandmothers might think along similar lines, but would not come out and say something to the effect of, “Please do your best and treat us well.”

Eight high school boys in homemade animal costumes take the stage and perform “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, but a microphone malfunctions and the no one can hear the singer, so they go through the whole routine a second time.


“Wait,” I ask. Mr. Tanaka turns to the previous page and squints down at a black and white photograph of six rough looking men standing in front of a coal pit, hands on their hips, grinning broadly. Three of the faces are white.

“Soo desu nee,” he says contemplatively. “This was from the time of the Second World War. Americans were here. They worked in the coal mines.”

“How many?” I ask. “Where did they stay?”

“Phhhhh.” Mr. Tanaka sucks air through his front teeth.

“I really don’t know,” he says. “It was…it was…”

We have been speaking Japanese, but now he turns to English.

“It was friendly. Friendly na kanzi datta yo nee.”

“Are there any more pictures?”

“No, just this one.”

I stare hard at the faces, trying to read past the smiles.

“Here, take a look at this,” says Mr. Tanaka, moving to a nearby PC.

“You can play six different games.”

I sit down and examine the menu. The object of each game is to guide a young boy through the trials of daily life in Utashinai, circa 1940.

Make people dance by banging the taiko drum!

Dodge globs of crow shit while carrying water from the well to the kitchen!

Find father in the public bath!

Mr. Tanaka chuckles as I double click on the backs of hairy men in an animated steam room.

“It’s important for the children to know their history,” he says.


A parade dances along the street under more red lanterns and strings of tiny European flags.

“Yosakoi, soran, soran, soran, soran.”

The music echoes of the misty valley walls, sending chills down my scalp and through the small of my back. Even Sapporo has sent a delegation, thirty silk-robed beauties who fly through their routine with the grace and urgency of cranes. Each group of dancers is followed by a bull-necked man taking little wavering steps that send him stumbling from one side of the street to the other as he strains to hold up a massive flag, every muscle gritted and bone braced as the dancers swirl and the music pours on down.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Clothes of a Terrible Frill

Grading homework is a tedious responsiblity, but sometimes the answers my students come up with make me laugh out loud. My favorites often unwittingly include double entendres, such as the common "I want to go to Tokyo/Okinawa/America to trip," but the very best in unintentional comedy comes from answers that are only vaguely recognizeable as English but nonetheless seem open to the kind of poetic interpretation an English major might use to fill 6-8 pages on a "just one hit because I have a paper to write" night.

Check out this dandy courtesy of Rika Konno, 13 years old:

Assignment: Keep an English diary over the summer holiday.

1st day: August 5th

I went to Sapporo today.
Though it was a weekday, a lot of people were surprised
to be you. But after all the parson who came with clothes
of a terrible frill is to have been what I was surprised at most.
After all when Sapporo was terrible, I realized it.

2nd day: August 10th

It was terrifically hot today.
Is hot tomorrow too??
But is there no help for it because, oh, it is hot
in the summer

3rd day: August 15th

I ate rolling by hand sushi today. I was terrifically delicious.
Because I am delicious and I am delicious and ate too much,
a stomach is very full.
Terrifically but happy.

Comments/interpretations welcome. I gave Rika an A+.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Committed, Part 2

My companions slowly filed off the bus. The driver thanked each one of them quite formally, giving a slight bow as they deposited the fare. Miyazaki-san hovered over me, the picture of concern. “Time to get off,” he said. “Let’s go.”
I stuttered a series of apologies, and his eyes betrayed a flash of anger. Miyazaki-san was not getting off the bus without me.

The two protagonists of the debate over yesterday’s weather were stepping onto the curb, which meant we were the only two passengers still on the bus. The driver swiveled his head around and looked at us, his face a mask of politeness. “Hai, doozo,” he said over the speaker system. “Go ahead.” Clearly, he was not accustomed to carrying passengers on this route as far as central Utashinai. The time to act was now.

The best adventures are never planned. Memorable conclusions are the result of mistaken assumptions more often than not. Travelers in Europe will often tell you that the best part of their journey evolved from a late night decision to head for the station, wave a Rail Pass at the ticket window and hop whatever train was leaving next, destination unknown, plans unrehearsed. Columbus assumed that the world was one-seventh its actual size. Many said he was dead-crazy-wrong, and they were right. Now, someone was assuming that I was mentally deficient. Maybe it was the spirit of discovery, or maybe I just couldn’t think of a way to pacify an apoplectic Miyazaki-san, but I got off the bus.

“You’ve got to follow my lead,” he was saying, walking rapidly up the sidewalk to catch the others. “Everything will be fine if you just go along with what I tell you, is that understood?”
“I’m very sorry,” I said, attempting to pacify my mentor with polite ritualisms. “I am indebted to you. But, you see, I am an American. I am an English teacher.”

Miyazaki-san frowned. Clearly, this new arrival was a difficult case. “America is very far, isn’t it,” he said finally. “Very far away indeed.” He was wondering how someone unable to speak properly or navigate a simple bus route by himself could possibly travel to Japan from America.
“Very far,” I said cheerfully, feeling that we were making progress towards mutual understanding, but Miyazaki-san had decided I must be delusional, and changed the subject.

“Some days are for working outside,” he said. “The greenhouses are over there, and there’s also other vegetable fields in back. We grow corn, tomato, eggplant, onion, lettuce, soybean, cucumber…the rice is all across the road.”

Already, men in sun hats and tall rubber boots were striding out into the fields of rice, hooking up irrigation equipment and methodically removing stray weeds. Tall silhouettes of thick corn stalks and tomato vines heavy with ripe fruit were visible through the white plastic greenhouse walls. The vegetable gardens were spotless, the plants evenly spaced, row after row of dark, leafy eggplants and conical green pillars of beans stretching across the meadow to the edge of the pines. I thought of my little garden back home, baby zucchinis choked by exuberant weeds, fallen tomato plants and thirsty eggplants struggling to produce a single malnourished fruit. The workers here might not be able to name the four islands of Japan, but looking at their flourishing produce, I was the one who began to feel inadequate.

“There’s cleaning duty every two weeks,” Miyazaki-san was saying as we entered the main building and removed our shoes. Miyazaki-san carefully placed his in a small locker. I slipped into a pair of plastic footwear available to accommodate guests, scanning half nervously and half hopefully for a receptionist, superintendent or other authority who could instantly put a stop to this little charade, but apart from a white haired man with unfocused eyes dully running a vacuum cleaner across the linoleum, this part of the building was empty.

Miyazaki-san impatiently motioned me over to a small table under a bulletin board, where he carefully printed his name in neat ideograms, then pointed for me to do the same, frowning at my sloppy katakana. “Teimu,” he read, holding the sheet up to the light. “Teimu….Teimu…” He was scanning a typewritten notice on the bulleting board.
“Your name isn’t posted,” he said apologetically. “I’ll check with Tanaka. He’s in charge of scheduling. For now you can just follow me. I’m posted to the store today, just my luck, when it’s sunny outside.”

He led me down the hall, past the old man and his vacuum cleaner and through a door that opened into a wooden building that looked like an oversized version of a roadside farm stand. Fresh vegetables were arranged in shining displays that filled the front half of the building, while various arts and crafts that the residents made during the winter tool up shelve room in the back corner. After unlocking the front entrance and inspecting the vegetables for signs of rot, Miyazaki-san sat himself down at a small desk and produced a plastic pail for me to sit on.

And so we sat. Apparently the stress of dealing with me had put my companion in no mood for conversation. Miyazaki-san gave no sign that he was aware of my presence, but I knew that if I tried to leave the building he would be watching me like a sumo wrestler watches his dinner.

Customers trickled in and out, none of them paying me the slightest attention. Miyazaki-san carefully wrote down their purchases in an old fashioned ledger, depositing the bills and change in a wooden cash box. For the first hour I prayed that no one I knew would come into the shop, and for the next two hours I prayed that someone would. There was nothing to do but look at the vegetables and think.

As far as I could tell, the entire Central Sorachi Institute for the Mentally Disabled was an entirely self contained organization. The residents were the administrators, workers and trainers, as Miyazaki-san was demonstrating. Although responsibility and funding must have been organized somewhere in the vast recesses of Japanese bureaucracy, if the thriving vegetable gardens and spotless interiors were any indication, the residents were doing a perfectly fine job managing things by themselves.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, patients at a mental hospital in America are kept neutered, stripped of their independence, judged utterly incapable of the simplest act of self-responsibility. Hints of self-assertion are medicated and belittled until the men conform to the staff’s vision of dependent infantilism. Miyazaki-san, the vacuum pusher and the weather debaters were clearly handicapped, but were given responsibility for their own affairs and maintained a functional community they could take pride in. I was reminded of elementary school children making sure their classmates are sitting up straight at the start of a lesson while the teacher sits quietly in the back of the room. Japan is a country that puts great emphasis on conformity and self-responsibility, but I am continually surprised by how little authority figures force their wishes on subordinates. For most Japanese, the urge to conform, to be a productive member of the community is an internal impulse. I wondered how long Americans – disabled or not – could be left unsupervised in the vegetable market without a tomato fight breaking out.

The minutes ticked by while I mused about Japanese cultural tendencies, but after three hours of sitting on my stool next to the silent Miyazaki-san I decided enough was enough. “Excuse me,” I said, smiling nervously and standing up. “I’m leaving. I’m going home. I’m very sorry. Thank you for everything.”

Miyazaki-san’s eyes bulged. “At six!” he said. “Six o clock is the time to go home.”

I started for the door. He jumped from his desk and ran in front of me, highly agitated. It wasn’t possible. I couldn’t just walk away in front of his eyes as long as Miyazaki-san saw me as his responsibility. Subterfuge was in order.

“Oh, “I said laughing. I didn’t mean that I’m going home. I have to use the bathroom. I’ll be right back!”
“It’s this way,” said Miyazaki-san suspiciously, heading for door to the main building. “I’ll show you.”
“But who will watch the store?” I asked innocently. “What if customers come and no one is here?”
Miyazaki-san was uncertain. “You can go at lunch time. One hour.”
“I’m so sorry, it’s urgent,” I said, plumbing the depths of my Japanese ability. “I’ll be right back.”
“To the left,” said Miyazaki-san. “Don’t get lost.”

I took a deep breath and surveyed the main hall. The white haired man was asleep in a chair next to his vacuum, but otherwise the room was empty. Tip toeing hurriedly to the entrance way, I pulled on my shoes, peeked outside and ran for the bus stop, doubled over like a soldier under enemy fire trying to make it into the next trench.

After half an hour of hiding in the little shed ready to run if Miyazaki-san came looking for me, an empty bus pulled around the corner. The same driver welcomed me aboard, his face still a mask of politeness, and the two of us rolled up the valley into Utashinai.