Friday, October 21, 2005

Land and People

The four girls gossiping at the bus stop in front of Utashinai Junior High School this evening were catching snow bugs, swarms of tiny gnat-like insects floating white and weightless on the golden air. The bugs hatch late in the day in mid-October, timing their emergence with the gasping brilliance of fall color that sweeps down from the mountains to flood the valley with dusty orange and dripping spots of red.

Snow bugs look just like the first flakes of winter, little bits of white fluff drifting about aimlessly on breezes that make you wish for a wool hat and a warm pair of gloves. When they arrive, the real snow is never far behind. The next storm to blow in from the Japan Sea will leave the hilltops shining with something more permanent than frost, and by late November the old men in town will wake up early to spend mornings clearing the sidewalk in front of their houses.

Taking time to acknowledge the subtle signs that mark the flow of seasons is an act deeply embedded in this culture. Indeed, for many Japanese, the very idea of distinct seasons is so closely linked to their sense of national identity that they are shocked and dismayed to learn that other countries have a summer, winter, autumn and spring. The broader myth of Japanese uniqueness is a concept close to the heart of many people here, especially among the older generation. Even as fast food chains replace soba stands and English seeps into train stations and talk shows, the grandmothers and grandfathers who survived the Second World War speak of their homeland as a land apart, separate and removed from the disorderly and unfamiliar rhythms of gaikoku, a word that encompasses everywhere that is not Japan.

Traditional art forms like flower arranging, calligraphy and the tea ceremony are at their core a means of showcasing the mood of the land. Calligraphy nearly always contains a reference to nature – the autumn moon, plum blossoms or chirping frogs – and displays of verse are phased in and out to match the season. Likewise, although much is made of the rigid form that governs the tea ceremony, the seasonal changes a master makes in the presentation of tea, such as the choice of sweet and pottery, are at least as important as adhering to the proper order of preparation. A well-chosen flower arrangement or scroll is a mark of sophistication in any inn or private home, meaning, in other words, that culture (the kind you can spell with a “d”) is a measure of one’s attunement with the natural world.

The same can be said for Japanese cooking, which places a great emphasis on the use of seasonal foods. This is a practical way of eating – food in season is cheap, readily available and delicious – but it is also a link to nature at the most basic of levels. Importing food to these islands was an impossibility until quite recent times, which means that from the beginning of history, every Japanese person was, in a purely physical sense, wholly a product of their ancestral land and the surrounding sea. While Japan is hardly unique among indigenous cultures in this regard, its extreme geographic isolation and the weight of a national history that was already ancient in the time of Columbus brought about an interdependency between life and land stronger than in the continental nations of Europe, Africa and the Americas. Looking around the staffroom at the Junior High School, I see Mr. Middle Mountain, Mr. Small Pine and Ms. Rice-Field in a narrow Valley. Religion too, is rooted in the land. It was only natural for the Japanese to place their gods and spirits in rice fields, rivers and mountains, celebrating the harvest with pagan festivals of fire, fertility and lots of booze.

Of course, tell all that to the salary-man living on curry rice, greasy hamburgers and beer, or the mullet-sporting teenagers who pay know all about hip-hop fashion (well, apart from mullets) but couldn’t tell you what plant tofu is made from. It’s difficult to reconcile the shallow, overworked and fashion-obsessed Japan of today with the slow, solemn earthiness of traditional life. Can flower arranging survive in a culture where the current obsession is a leather-wearing pelvic-thrusting comic who calls himself Hard Gay? Does the name Furukawa (Old River) mean anything in a land where running water in any form is choked off and blocked in by dams and concrete banks?

In truth, it is misleading to conflate modern day Japan with its feudal equivalent. Many traditions – ritual suicide by sword, for instance - are truly a thing of the past. However the links between land and people that formed the nation of Japan will not fade so easily, regardless of how nature is mistreated. The connection survives in habits, sometimes unnoticed, but rarely neglected. Japanese keep gardens, not lawns, every letter, and most e-mails, begin with a comment about the weather and shrines still dot forests, fields and mountains - like mushrooms after a rain.


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3:49 AM  
Blogger Haruna said...

Hey:) There are many snow bugs around my house too:) They make me feel the beginning of winter, but I don't like them because they always bother me.....
When I was about 5 years old, there were much more snow bugs here, and they entered my nose.....

11:53 PM  

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