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."'


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