I lived in three places in Japan, in the deep countryside of the west (the ‘Noto peninsular’), in Megacity Osaka #1 and in ancient Kurashiki (‘little Kyoto’). Here are a few of my notes on high-technology mushroom country number one…
Ever heard of Kamen Rider? It’s a 1970s teevee series which tells the story of a mysterious world-wide terrorist organisation, Shocker (Sacred Hegemony Of Cycle Kindred Evolutional Realm) that turns people into mutant insects and brainwashes them, but one victim escapes just before his final brainwashing with his ‘sanity and moral conscience intact’. It’s not your ordinary ‘grasshopper themed superhero story’ though…
Not that I can be bothered to watch any of it — but the idea of Kamen Rider, and the total commitment to it… is… Well, hold on, take a look at this commercial for chewing gum, if you haven’t seen it already…
And now take a look at Hentai Kamen. Seen that have you? No? Okay, wait until the final ‘Gold Power Bomb’ move to see what I’m getting at here.
Of course I could go on and on and on. Probably every country on earth has a ‘look at the mad Japanese TV’ show. It’s hardly news — but what I’d like to draw your attention to here ladies and gentlemen, is that sexual honesty, a vivid sense of the totemic quality of animals and comic disregard for spatio-temporal limits have some kind of intuitive connection in Japanese cultural forms.
Speaking Japanese is like fat men turning wardrobes round in the thin corridors of my brain. Where we’d say, ‘We live nearby so we’ll come again soon. If you need anything, just ask’ Japs say ‘Close house that’s why again soon come so needed thing, if there is, without ceremony honourably ask, please deign to.’
Yes, deign. There are some stupendously elaborate formal set-phrases here. Its normal to translate ‘thanks for coming’, for example, as ‘I am grateful for humbly receiving your deigning to come,’ and here are eight levels of formality embedded in the grammar of everyday speech.
But this is a good thing. Although Japs and Brits alike (often) hide behind these rules and turn the game into cold, inflexible law, done right it is good to elaborately perform a hello or use ten embedded clauses to avoid having to give someone the tiny unpleasantness of having to refuse you or feel criticised. What I mean is formality, done right, is a form of play.
On my second or third day working at Monzen high school three students, cheerful lads of around fourteen, came into the staff room to talk with an austere geography teacher called Kawabata-sensei. They spoke seriously for a while about test results, Kawabata-sensei explained when they’d be out and they politely listened and then bowed. Then Kawabata-sensei reached forward and gave the student nearest to him a nipple-gripple.
For sports day I was expecting 100 metres and discus and whatnot. Instead; a mad tug-of-war race involving a hundred girls and twenty ropes, students being spun round ten times then running a 100m blindfold, an ‘event’ in which teams had to get beanbags into bucket strapped to a student’s back and a flag-up-a-pole-snatching contest, which resulted in pupils being led from the field with blood pouring from their mouths, everyone applauding and teachers laughing good-naturedly.
And for one of the religious rituals of the year, Setsubun, the town assembled outside the local temple while shuffling rows of monks entered and exited from different doors along the balcony, throwing beans into the crowd, which, to bring good luck, we had to catch (the same number as our age) and then take back home and hide in the corner of the room. Basically it was a medieval version of Super Mario Party; an approach to the sacrament, I thought, Catholic Mass could benefit from.
HEAVEN AND HELL
The horror, of course, is there: Insane worship of authority, terror of any kind of non-conformity, obsessive pedomorphism and infantilisation (screwdrivers come with instruction manuals), morbid ethnocentricity, cultural hypochondria, sensory overload (Japan is the noisiest country in the world) and psychotic overwork. These things are not unique to Japan, of course, just prominent disequilibria; and, as ever, under apt conditions, the horror is heaven.
Take the famous Japanese impurity-terror. Out of balance it leads to wearing a face mask for the whole winter to avoid getting a cold, going to the hospital if you have a slight itch and the drive to turn the whole world into an antiseptic laboratory. In its place it leads to total confidence entering a public toilet, the lovely neatness of Japanese homes and, one of the supreme achievements of human civilisation, the onsen, or public volcanic bath.
Cuteness is another Japanese nightmare which, in essence and apt, is, literally, heaven. The instinct to make every tiny object natural, the use of the friendly suffix ‘chan’ to make friends of common objects (or the honourable ‘o’ to verbally bow towards one’s lunchbox) and the urge to turn even men at work barriers into pink bunnies is, like the ‘surreal naturalism’ of the pop-culture mentioned above, ultimately (as Joseph Campbell pointed out) due to civilisation in Japan, for all its oppressive omnipresence and hypermodernity, sitting somehow light upon stone age consciousness, allowing childishness, rewarding softness and seeing sweet life everywhere. which bespeaks,
The same primal sensitivity is behind the premium placed on empathy. The Japanese, like our prehistorical friends, do not make strident declaration of personal preference and engage in a war of intent in order to reach a decision. Instead one is expected to feel for other’s desires and needs, and to endeavour to meet them before they have to go to the unpleasant indignity of having to ask. Although this often descends into neurotic confusion it is still in many cases a far more effective and agreeable way of going about the game of being with others and, for me at least, having now been married to a Japanese woman for seven years, a stupendously useful antidote to the literal, wordy, explicit mode of communication I was trained in.
Fellow [female] teacher: Do you know Miho?
Teacher: She is so cute!
Me: Yeah, she’s lovely.
Teacher: Her face is so small!
Me: Er, yeah.
Teacher: She is like a door!
Me: Do you like your hair?
Me: Oh, what kind of hair would you like?
Student: Serious white mohican.
Miko: Do you want anything to drink? Tea or Coffee?
Me: Um, yes, some tea would be nice.
Me: Er, no. Tea.
Miko: Or perhaps you’d like coffee?
Me: Coffee sounds great!
Me: English is difficult, isn’t it?
Me: English is easy, isn’t it?
Me: Do you always say yes?
Me: Do you say yes when you don’t understand?
Me: Do you understand what I am saying now?
While I was working in a high school in Japan someone gave me a present for blossom season, a tin of biscuits, which had this written on the lid;
This is the door into the world filled with a great many flowers. Here, all the flowers are different from others as there is nobody but has the same face. The flowers repeat themselves to be out vividly, gone beautifully and re-born one after another. The world full of bright energy will certainly give one feel a comfort for a while.
The television weather reports at blossom viewing time show where the blossom is as it moves in a wave up the country, and when it does come out, frothing ecstatically over cherry trees everywhere, the world is full of bright energy, and it certainly does give one feel a comfort for a while.
For several months I had a frog in my letterbox.
There were lots and lots of frogs where I lived in Noto, ranging from minuscule bonsai froglettes to the booming cow frogazoid. They lived in the rice fields, which are everywhere: in every town, behind warehouses, surrounding carparks, stuffed between houses, running up the sides of sliproads. And not just rice fields but allotments, irrigation canals, compost heaps and forests of vegetables, even in the suburbs of Osaka. The whole country is practically self-sufficient in vegetables with fresh stuff often grown locally. It’s marvellous. In the UK it’s almost impossible to say what anything tastes like anymore, and after eating a Hiroshima lemon – grown and picked a few minutes away – I’m sadly confident that I am one of the few living Englishmen ever to have really tasted that remarkable fruit.
Here’s an eighteenth century woodblock triptych. Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre…
And here is a detail from an Edo period manga (i.e. scroll) called ‘The Fart Competition’.
And here’s an example of ‘netsuke’, miniature carvings originally used for fastenings on kimonos. There’s a mind-blowing (tiny mind, tiny explosion) collection in the British Museum. This one is an inch high.
See the exquisite quality of catness. Frankly I don’t really trust any culture that cannot see the exquisite quality of catness. Spain, for example, where I live now, for all that I admire of the place, does not, on the whole, see the exquisite quality of catness.
Finally, here’s a page from a typical children’s book, ‘It Might be an Apple’ by Shinsuke Yoshitake (author of ‘Can I Build Another Me?’).
That last one I
nicked adapted for The Apocalypedia (which is sprinkled with Japanese influences) for the section on feelings that art can evoke.
Finally, here are a few entries from my diary from September 2004 – May 2005, my first year in Japan…
Arrive at Monzen, Ishikawa-ken, west Honshu. My house is literally a shed in a forest, my car is two scooters strapped together under a biscuit tin. It is absurdly hot and humid, the air screams with cicadas.
First class with one of my Assistant Teachers (middle aged guy; sweaty, jelly-jawed, tight). I say, at the end of the lesson, ‘any questions?’ to the class. The teacher says to me, worried; ‘yes, do you like me?’
Kids clean the schools here. They seem to enjoy it. They also wander freely through the staffroom. Teachers seem to enjoy it.
Student (15) hands in essay to me on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. He concludes with: ‘It is more real than the world. It is THE PHILOSOPHY’.
National Disaster Day. We practice dealing with earthquakes and suspicious person entering school (with a long dog-catching pole). Takes ages. I suggest combining the two — suspicious person enters during earthquake. Idea intensely pondered, but rejected.
Secure date with girl from neighbouring town. First time I’ve ever chatted a girl up through a friend of hers translating over a mobile phone. She accepts my offer of lunch by quickly touching her fingers together above her head, which is the best thing I have ever seen. It is now January 14th. She is next free on March 10th.
These poor kids. No wonder so many of them drop out of the world entirely after this nightmare. I’m in Japan, it’s all exotic and different, but the fundamental meaninglessness of the entire endeavour is precisely the same as every other school on earth (EDIT: after this I discovered that Japanese schooling was based, partly, on Prussian military education).
Winter hard. Sub zero temperatures and paper walls. Glasses of unattended water in the kitchen are solid ice the next morning. Every other day I squat in my back porch, hammering at a little plastic kerosene pump like my life depends on it, which, actually, it does.
Saw the most amazing adventure playground today, the sort of thing I dreamed of as a boy. Multi-level castles connected by a huge long elaborate maze of slides, nets, flying foxes and whatnot. Huge crash mats are kept in sheds and brought out every day by playground keeper. The state funds this.
Today was ‘school uniform inspection day’(!), where the teachers spring a surprise inspection on the kids. Due to all the checking of ties and shoelaces and so on the morning staff meeting was seven minutes late. The teachers rushed (like literally ran) into the staff room, and it begun and announcements were made and at the end, as usual, the deputy head said ‘any other business?’ and the headmaster said, ‘yes…’ and then he FREAKED OUT… Went totally nuts. What’s the problem? I was thinking. Turned out he was apoplectic because the meeting was seven minutes late and nobody had told him it might be! After this, the English teachers came up to me, as usual, to explain what the meeting was about and they were quite embarrassed, and reading between the lines (I’m learning) I got that they thought the head’s outburst was weird. It was weird.
This morning saw group of monks walking down road, dressed in black capes, white espadrilles and gators, funny square baskets on their heads, chanting, ringing little bells and running giggling up to people’s doors and asking for bags of rice, apples and packets of crisps. From the windows of a flower shop the soviet Russian National Anthem played.
Waiting in the photocopier room with the kindly deputy head-master, who used to be a zen monk. Collect my copies and am about to leave when he says ‘Darren,’ ‘Yes Kyoto-sensei?’ ‘Darren. (pause). Good face.’ Feel like crying.
I love literally every one of my students.
Yesterday interviewed by a local reporter. Young woman, profound beauty. She asked me ‘what is the most impressive thing you have ever seen?’ and I said, without missing a beat, ‘the aurora borealis’. She was really amazed that I had seen it, as was I.
Student assignment: ‘I am six families. But when I do some perties, it is it to 24 people in all, when all are very cheerful, and 24 people gather to my family, it is very lively and all aer shy and are, I live long at I great-grandmother 89 years old very much. I look very young for great-grandmother spirit. There is a families. As for it, my family has a foreign person, I am going to say Vienna of Austria. And the foreigner lives, I come to Japan to play once a year. And the foreigner does opera in Vienna. A voice is very fair and gives a performance sometimes in Japan, I spend 1st very happily on 1st.’