Category Archives: Japan

Books about Japan or Japanese culture.

Want to help Japan?

Art by anonimus-kyreii on DeviantArt

Disasters like this are immensely frustrating because there’s not a whole lot you can do to help. You can donate money, but that feels ephemeral, no matter how useful it may be. Rest assured, however, that you are doing something, and people will be helped.

Here are some places you can go to do your part:
First, some helpful advice from Charity Navigator

You can donate money at:
Amazon.com
Doctors Without Borders
Japan Society
Google’s excellent information page lets you donate to Japanese Red Cross, Unicef, and Save the Children
The Japan Times has a list of over a dozen resources for help (as well as ways to get information on what’s going on)

There are thousands upon thousands of people whose homes have been annihilated, whose families, businesses and livelihoods have literally been washed away. You can’t do much by yourself, but together we can do a lot.

It goes without saying that any natural disaster, be it Japan or Haiti or China or the United States anywhere else, deserves our full compassion and willingness to help. This one just kinda hits home…

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under FYI, Japan

Review 102: Dave Barry Does Japan

(Just a reminder – take the listener survey! Or I will be forced to do the honorable thing and disembowel myself to rid my family of the shame….)

Dave Barry Does Japan by Dave Barry

In September of 2008, I went to Hiroshima with The Boyfriend. I knew it would be a more serious place to visit than a lot of the other places I’ve been to in Japan, for obvious reasons, and as I thought about it, I remembered this book. You see, while Dave Barry is enormously funny, and I always have a hard time holding in my laughter when he writes, he also knows exactly when to turn off the funny and talk seriously about a topic. Such was the case with this book, and the chapter on visiting Hiroshima.

Oh, how I wish he were.... (photo by me)

But I’ll get to that later. Let me start by saying that yes, this is a very funny book, as so many of his books are. I can only imagine, though, how funny it is to someone who’s never been to Japan, much less lived there. I’ll bet that, while reading some of the more ridiculous examples of how different Japan is from the US, a lot of readers were thinking, “No, it can’t be that weird. He must be exaggerating for comic effect.”

 

No, no he’s not. Not in the least. Well, some, yes, because that’s his job, but all of the things that he points out as being “strange” about Japan – the ubiquitous vending machines, rockabillies dancing very seriously in a circle, kids practicing their English with strangers, plastic food shops, all of it is absolutely true. He is not, in fact, making this up.

Literacy is not vital to eating (photo by xeeliz)

He says at the beginning of the book, “So this book is not authoritative. If you want authoritative, go buy a real book.” At no point does he claim to be an expert on Japan, or that spending three weeks here would make him one. In fact, the main aspect he plays on is his eternal cluelessness. As he points out, Japan is like one big, very exclusive club into which you must be born if you want to become a member. There are rules that no outsider can ever really learn, much less on a three week whirlwind tour. There are people who try – there are a lot of foreign-born residents in this country who do their best to live according to the rules, but no matter how hard we try, we’ll never really become members of Club Japan. So, Barry just decides to do his best and try not to make himself look completely stupid.

He marginally succeeds, which is good – otherwise there would be no book.

Kneel-down comedy. (photo by Norimutsu Nogami)

With his family, Barry goes from Tokyo to Kyoto to Kyushu and back again, stopping to see temples and shrines, sumo, ceremonies, kabuki, rakugo and car factories, among other things. Through it all, they do their best to adapt to the strangeness of Japanese life and Japanese food, and he comes out with some wonderful stories that had me cackling on the bus ride down to Hiroshima.

Which I believe I mentioned before.

It’s an interesting chapter in the book. The chapter itself is flanked by two grey pages – a signal to the reader that this is a no-funny zone. There will be no jokes between these pages, and rightfully so. Barry and his family went there on the anniversary of the bombing, August 6th, and observed the Peace Ceremony. They looked at the statues and the monuments and the dome, and went to the museum, and came out with an enormous sense of… conflict.

There is no question in anyone’s mind that what happened in Hiroshima – and Nagasaki – was horrific. All you have to do is read the testimonials, look at the photos and the drawings in the museum, look at the charred and burned school uniforms, pieces of flesh on display, dioramas of the flattened city and you know that the nuclear bomb is nothing that you can really joke about. Hundreds of thousands of people died because of those bombs, and not all of them died right away. Soldiers, yes -Hiroshima has a history as a military city – but babies, students, innocent men and women also perished in fire, blast, trauma and, of course, the long, lingering death of radiation sickness.

No city deserves that. Ever.

Not all that funny, really.... (photo by me)

At the same time, Barry feels that the bombing is presented without context, and he’s not the only one to think so. From what he could see, it looks like America just decided to do this horrible thing, and there’s not sufficient explanation to visitors as to why this was done. What would make a supposedly civilized nation do such a patently evil thing to so many people?

It’s very hard to justify what was done. I know the arguments – that Japan was training civilians to defend the home islands to the death, that millions more might have died in a long, drawn-out battle, that the Soviets were ready to swoop in and take over – but all those justifications kind of sound hollow when you see the photographs of people with fifth-degree burns, and read about the thousands of children who were orphaned in a fraction of a second. To those leaders, however, at that time, the dropping of those bombs was a necessary option, and I don’t think even they knew how bad the effects would be.

Regardless, the bombs were not dropped capriciously. They were dropped following a long chain of events, decisions and ambitions that reached back decades. And I think I agree with Barry that more attention should be paid not only to the aftermath of the bombing, but also to what led up to it. Maybe just because I don’t want my country to look like a monster.

This country is even weirder than he thinks. (photo by me)

Anyway, the Hiroshima chapter aside, it really is a very funny book. Even funnier if you’ve ever been to or lived in Japan. It’s not the kind of book you buy if you’re actually interested in learning about Japan, but if you want some good laughs, go for it.

————————————-
“Compared with the Japanese, the average American displays in communication all the subtlety of Harpo hitting Zeppo with a dead chicken.”
-Dave Barry, Dave Barry Does Japan

Dave Barry on Wikipedia
The Dave Barry Website
Dave Barry Does Japan on Amazon.com

Leave a comment

Filed under Dave Barry, Hiroshima, humor, Japan, travel, war

Review 96: Ryoma – Life of a Renaissance Samurai


Ryoma – Life of a Renaissance Samurai by Romulus Hillsborough

If he had been born in the US, Sakamoto Ryoma would have been an ideal model of the American Dream. He was born to a poor family that had bought its way into samurai status only a couple of generations before. When he was a kid, people thought he was kind of slow and useless, and never thought he’d amount to anything. He was terrible in school, and so his father enrolled him in a school for sword fighting, where he found his passion.

He was a damn good swordsman, and quickly became qualified to open his own dojo. By this point, it looked like Sakamoto Ryoma would have been simply another famous name in the annals of Japanese swordsmanship.

And then the Americans came, and all hell broke loose.

The shogunate, knowing it was outgunned by the Americans, agreed to let them in, a decision that sent shockwaves around Japan. A political world that had been fairly simple to live in – a hierarchical system in which the Shogun was at the top of one’s loyalty chain and the Emperor was someone about whom one did not even think – became so complex that “Byzantine” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Webs were spun, and within instants, there were factions who wanted a thousand different things for the future. The simplest of these, and the one that Ryoma and other lower samurai from his home region latched on to at first, was simple: Throw out the foreigners and throw down the Shogun.

Luckily for Japan, Ryoma was not stupid enough to follow that path for too long. He was a bright guy, who quickly saw what needed to be done. With the help of other progressive thinkers, both within and outside the Shogunate, Ryoma decided that the survival of Japan was more important than that of the Shogunate or any individual clan or region. And in order to save Japan, they’d have to let the barbarians in.

His plan was simple, really: learn from the West, build a navy, buy weapons, and form a western-style democracy. Only then, with Japan standing as a strong modern nation, would it be able to deal with the outsiders, to say nothing of avoiding subjugation by them. Ryoma had learned from the lessons of China and India, and knew that infighting within the various factions was a sure road to being invaded and colonized by France or Britain.

A simple plan. The only problem was that no one wanted any part of it. And so it became Ryoma’s job to run across the country, cajoling, convincing and reasoning with the country’s great powers, all while staying one step ahead of the law – he was a fugitive from his region, an executable offense, and he rose to the top of the Shogun’s most wanted with undue haste….

It’s a neat story, if really long. Hillsborough has used an interesting style, though, that I’m still not sure I really like. It’s a kind of novelized biography. While I’m sure that his facts are solid – countless books have been written about Sakamoto Ryoma and he’s considered one of the founding fathers of modern Japan – he tries to make the story more… story-like by dramatizing events. Writing dialogue with action and inflection that he could only have known by being there. Ryoma roars and pounds the floor with his fist a lot. In fact, pre-Meiji Japan seems like a very noisy place, what with all the yelling and roaring and pounding and high officials shouting, “Impertinence!” every time someone set a foot wrong….

Like I said, I’m sure he didn’t make up anything important, but it still gives me a lingering feeling of doubt. By turning Ryoma into a character for his novel, Hillsborough displays his bias, and nothing is more deadly to history than bias. He portrays Ryoma as a kind of genius puppetmaster, twitching strings here and there until he got what he wanted, which kind of demeans the contributions of many other people without whom Sakamoto Ryoma would have died years before he was finally assassinated.

He was a very intelligent, very resourceful man, and without him Japan’s history would have been drastically different. So if you want to know more about this man, a statesman who should be held up with the great statesmen of the world, check out this book.

——————————————-
“A hero should go his own way!”
– Sakamoto Ryoma
——————————————-

Leave a comment

Filed under history, Japan, Romulus Hillsborough, Sakamoto Ryoma

Review 95: Shinsengumi – The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps


Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps by Romulus Hillsborough

A few years ago, Japan’s national TV network, NHK, aired a Sunday night drama about the Shinsengumi, a band of samurai who operated in Kyoto at the end of the Edo period. While I didn’t watch it, mainly because I was working and even if I had, I wouldn’t have understood, my students kept me updated and it sounds like NHK did a nice job of romanticizing the group. Indeed, if the sudden upswing in traffic around Mibu temple is any indication, NHK made them look positively heroic.

Romulus Hillsborough (which, for the record, is an awesome name) takes a different approach to the Shinsengumi story, proving once again that, in history as with so many other things, how you see things depends on where you stand.

The 1860s were a bad decade. Every American schoolchild can tell you that. But it was bad in Japan as well, on a similar level. You see, for the previous 250 years, Japan had pretty much shut itself off from the Western world. There was limited contact with China and Korea, but as for Europe and the Americas? Damn near nothing. Japan wanted nothing to do with the white devils, and did a fantastic job keeping us out.

But the march of progress is inescapable, and by the mid-1800s, word got round to the Shogun that Great Britain had been working its way across Asia, taking out India and China through treaty, deception and conquest. This, naturally, worried the Shogun, who although being the military head of the country, had not fought a significant military battle since Sekigahara in 1600 (well, not the same shogun, but you get what I mean). The Tokugawa family ruled over a peaceful land, the Emperors stayed out of the way in Kyoto, and everything was copacetic.

In other words, ripe for some rampaging foreign power to take over.

Lucky for Japan, the first rampaging foreign power to show up on their doorstep was the United States. Admiral Perry and his Black Ships arrived in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853 with trade agreements and heavy cannon and announced that they would be happy to start trading with the Land of the Rising Sun. And if the Land of the Rising Sun wasn’t too keen on that, well, maybe a few well-placed shells would change their minds.

The shogun at the time, Tokugawa Iesada, was no idiot. In 1854, a “Treaty of Peace and Amity” was signed in Kanagawa, opening Japanese ports to western ships for the first time, and basically ending the era of seclusion.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

Most of the people living in Japan at the time had never seen a foreign person, and could rely only on rumor and misinformation to know what Westerners were like – pale-skinned, long-nosed blondes, as it turned out. No one knew what to expect from their new neighbors, and frankly, no one wanted to find out. Despite the “Amity” of the treaty, everyone knew that the only reason the American and British and Dutch had been let in was because they had better guns. Everyone, from the Shogun to the Emperor all the way down to the lowest burakumin wanted the foreigners kicked as far out of the country as they could get. With the possible exception of Sakamoto Ryoma, but we’ll get to him later.

Two factions opened up. There were the Imperial loyalists, who wanted to overthrow the Tokugawa bakufu and restore the Emperor to power, while kicking out the foreigners. And there were the Tokugawa loyalists, who stood behind their lord and master, and who would fight to the death to keep him in power. While kicking out the foreigners. The famed Samurai, who had really nothing to do for two and a half centuries but collect their stipends and harass commoners, finally had their chance to see some action. Many of them left their homes and became ronin, ready to fight for whomever would give them a chance.

The city of Kyoto was the Imperial city, and if Tokugawa Wosshisname (there were four Tokugawa shoguns between 1853 and 1868) were to keep the imperial loyalists in line, he would have to do it there. So, a man named Matsudaira Katamori – a close personal friend of the shogun’s, head of the Matsudaira clan and Lord of Aizu, and came up with an idea for keeping order in Kyoto. With the help of longtime friend and violence enthusiast Kiyokawa Hachiro, they got together the best of the wandering ronin and brought them to the village of Mibu, in Kyoto (where I used to live). They made quite an impact on the community, and were soon given the cute nickname of “Mibu Wolves.”

The Mibu Wolves were soon shaped and molded into the Shinsengumi, “The Newly Selected Group.” by three iron-willed men: Kondo Isami, Hijikata Toshizo, and Serizawa Kamo. Each of these men left lasting impressions on the Shinsengumi and on Japanese history.

So… what was the impression? Well, the Shinsengumi were a kind of police force for Kyoto, keeping the locals in line and watching for any threats against the shogunate. Unlike a regular police force, however, they had almost limitless power within the city. Their word was enough to arrest, convict and execute someone. There was no slight too small to provoke violence and murder, and no length they would not go to to destroy the enemies of Tokugawa. They fought to the end to keep the Shogun in power, even after Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the fifteenth and final Tokugawa shogun, abdicated control of the country to Emperor Meiji.

You could take the NHK view, that the Shinsengumi were on the wrong side of history, trying to uphold the virtues of their fathers and grandfathers, and that they were trying to keep the nation they loved from falling apart or changing irreparably.

Hillsborough takes the point of view that the Shinsengumi were deluded with the “germ of self-importance.” That they couldn’t see the broader picture of history unfolding around them and reacted to change the only way they knew how – with their swords. That they were thugs and bullies, relics of an age that should have ended long before it did. Perhaps the Shinsengumi were inevitable, perhaps they were even necessary for the Meiji Restoration to take place. But if even half the stories about them were true, they are not a group of men that I would really want to hang out with.

It’s a very informative book, if a little too short. Hillsborough says in the beginning that you’re reading a “historical narrative,” which should be taken carefully. Given the lack of primary sources, knowing exactly what happened when is difficult. Many texts on the Shinsengumi contradict each other, and for a long time, they were not a polite subject of research. Think about it – from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 through the surrender to the United States in 1945, the Emperor was a living god and a subject of reverence among the people of Japan. Who, then, would have the balls to do research into the group that actively opposed imperial rule?

Still, it’s a good read. It’s even better when you actually live in Kyoto. I used to be able to see Mibu temple from my balcony. I’ve walked past the site of the old Ikeda-ya (where the Shinsengumi foiled a plot to burn down Kyoto and kidnap a high-ranking Tokugawa ally) hundreds of times. I could walk to the site where Ito Kashitarou was assassinated for splitting from the group. History becomes much more fun when you’re right where it happened….

———————————–
“For all its worth, however, when the will to power is combined with the germ of self-importance – the conviction that one is of greater worth than his fellow human beings – it tends to transform into the stuff of tragedy, often lethal to the host.”
– Romulus Hillsborough, Shinsengumi
———————————–

The Shinsengumi on Wikipedia
The Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps on Amazon.com

Leave a comment

Filed under history, Japan, Romulus Hillsborough, Shinsengumi

Review 49: Comrade Loves of the Samurai


Comrade Loves of the Samurai by Ihara Saikaku

At last, the book you’ve been waiting for – a book of gay samurai love stories! Woo-hoo! Hot Bushido love! Awwwwww yeah…..

No, seriously, it’s short stories of gay samurai love.

You see, here’s the thing – prior to the modern era of Japan, the attitude towards gay love was similar to that of ancient Greece. Women were fine for having children and securing alliances and building property, but if you want real passion, real true love, you needed a bright-eyed young boy. This kind of relationship between an older man and an adolescent boy, generally known as pederasty (which is often wrongly confused with pedophilia), was considered a natural and healthy bond in those days, and assuming that both parties acted honorably and respectfully, it was mutually beneficial.

As in many other world cultures, this kind of bond was a common one, especially amongst the religious and ruling classes – people who were less interested in breeding large families and more interested in the aesthetic aspects of romance and eroticism. It wasn’t necessarily a lifelong bond, but it could be, and some of these pairings have inspired love stories as passionate and heartbreaking as any other.

This being Japan, of course, most of the love stories in this book don’t end well. About half tend to finish with seppuku, ending the lives of the lovers and, occasionally, other people who are unlucky enough to be in the area. The story All Comrade-Lovers Die by Hara-Kiri is a case in point – it’s the story of Ukyo, Uneme and Samanousuke, three youths bound together by a deep, passionate love. When Ukyo murders a romantic rival in order to prevent the deaths of his friends, he is ordered to kill himself to pay for it. His beloved Uneme joins him in death, and Samanousuke, unable to live without either of the men he loves, takes his own life soon after.

Then there’s Love Vowed to the Dead, in which young Muranousuke fulfills the dying wish of his best friend Gorokitji by giving himself to Gorokitji’s lost lover. In He Died to Save his Lover, young Korin allows himself to be tortured and executed by one lover to save the life of another, and of course, He Followed his Friend into the Other World, After Torturing him to Death, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Let it be said, though, that Sasanousuke didn’t mean for Hayemon to freeze to death, it just kind of happened that way.

In my favorite, The Tragic Love of Two Enemies, a man, Senpatji, falls in love with the young son of the samurai that he had been ordered to kill many years before. The boy, Shynousuke, is ordered by his mother to kill Senpatji, and thus avenge his father, but the boy cannot bring himself to murder the man he loves – especially since Senpatji had been acting under the orders of his lord. He convinces his mother to give them one more night together, which she does, because she’s not completely heartless. She finds them dead the next morning, both impaled through their hearts on Shynousuke’s sword.

Who says the Japanese aren’t romantic?

There are happy(ish) tales, too. Tales of constant dedication, of loyalty and hidden desires in the courtly world of the ruling classes of Edo-period Japan. Men and boys endure great hardships and risk their lives to be together, and on occasion get to spend the rest of their lives together.

These stories were all written back in the 17th century and the author gained great notoriety writing these kinds of soft romances. One of his books was titled, Glorious Tales of Pederasty, which I would really love to see on a bookshelf at Borders someday. Just to see the reactions…. There’s a whole lot of, “They lay together through the night” kind of language, and a general avoidance of sordid detail. Still, they’re well-written, and well-translated, so you can get a very good sense, in these short, short stories, of the kinds of relationships that popped up among the samurai class way back before Western prudishness got its claws into people. In the preface to Glorious Tales, Ihara says:

Our eyes are soiled by the soft haunches and scarlet petticoats of women. These female beauties are good for nothing save to give pleasure to old men in lands where there is not a single good-looking boy. If a man is interested in women, he can never know the joys of pederasty. 

So that should give you an idea of the cultural divide you’re working against when you pick up this book. It’s tough for us modern folks, whose culture is dead set against cross-generational homosexual relationships, to really be comfortable reading stories like this. Usually when you hear stories about a grown man and a teenage boy, it’s immediately classified as “abuse.” Images of windowless panel vans, sweaty gym teachers, NAMBLA meetings rise up and…. Yeah.

Speaking from an American perspective, I can’t think of any situation where a relationship such as the ones in this book would ever be considered acceptable, despite the purity of the feelings involved. The characters in these stories, it must be noted, are not leches. They’re not Herbert from Family Guy. But no matter how pure my intentions might be, if I were to start hanging around the arcades, chatting up fifteen year-old boys, my life as a respectable citizen would be effectively over.

Even assuming that a relationship built on pederasty can be mutually beneficial – and it could be argued that it can – it’s still a) illegal in most places and b) massively creepy. So that makes it an interesting challenge to get into these stories. Life was different back then, after all. The extended childhood that we take for granted in our teenage years pretty much didn’t exist. As soon as someone reached the age of sexual maturity, they were basically proto-adults, rather than lingering children, and were therefore fair game. So as much as I hate to invoke cultural relativism (because I find it wishy-washy and noncommittal), I have to just say, “It was a different time.” In times gone by, pederastic relationships worked, but our culture has moved to a point now where even if it were legalized, the emotional and experiential gulf between the older and younger party would probably make it impossible to go beyond a relationship built on physical eroticism.

Still, the feelings in these stories are just as valid and pure as “traditional” romances, the obstacles they overcome and risks they take are just as real and just as difficult. If you can set aside your more judgmental self, you can appreciate the depth of feeling that existed in these relationships, and recognize the universal themes of all great love stories – discovery, love, loss, betrayal, redemption…. They’re all here. So get reading.

————————————-
“The fairest plants and trees meet their death because of the marvel of their flowers. And it is the same with humanity: many men perish because they are too beautiful.”
– Ihara Saikaku, Comrade Loves of the Samurai
————————————-

Ihara Saikaku on Wikipedia
Comrade Loves of the Samurai on Amazon.com
Pederastic couples in Japan on Wikipedia

Leave a comment

Filed under homosexuality, Ihara Saikaku, Japan, romance

Review 44: Shutting Out the Sun


Shutting out the Sun – How Japan Created its own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger

One of the things you learn about Japan when you get here – and you learn it pretty quickly – is that there can be a vast difference between the appearance of Japan and the reality of it. The faces that people show you, or even that the city shows you, is not necessarily their true face.

Take Kyoto as an example: it prides itself on being a city of traditional culture, the touchstone of all that is Truly Japanese. When you first see it, though, you think, “Really? Because it looks like a big ol’ jumbled-up city to me.” And it does – aside from the temples, which remain more or less relegated to the edges of the city, the vestiges of Old Japan have been swept away in favor of concrete and glass. Kyoto Station is a glimmering lump in the middle of the city, and Kyoto Tower, as many have said, is a stake through its heart. But ask anyone and we’ll say, “Kyoto is a beautiful city.” Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

This is how it is to live in Japan. There is a gulf between the true nature of things and the way we want them to be. For someone born and raised here, this kind of thinking is taught from birth, and without the ability to divide oneself in twain, life in Japanese society can be very difficult. These two states have names, too – tatemae is the face that you present to the world, the one that everyone expects of you. Honne is your “true self,” the feelings and thoughts that you hold in reserve so as not to cause conflict with the greater society around you.

The origins of this dichotomy are unclear, although there are those who attribute it to a culture with roots in collective agriculture. If your life and the lives of everyone in your village depends on getting the rice crop in, you have to learn to hold back certain feelings or desires for the good of the group. You sublimate yourself into the group structure, because that’s what has to be done. So, tatemae isn’t a lie, or a deliberate performance designed to deceive people. It’s a bargain between oneself and society – “This is what society needs me to be? Fine. I can be that.” What remains is honne, the inner self that society cannot touch, but can never see.

So what happens when someone can’t hold up their end of this social contract? What happens when the modern world makes demands of people that this ancient compact can’t handle? Well, that’s when things start to go wrong….

For many years, this bargain between the individual and society worked, mainly because society kept up its end of the deal. People were protected, employed, and given a place in the world, whether it was the feudal culture of the Edo era, the wartime mobilization of the 30s and 40s, or the indomitable Japan Inc. of the post-war years. As the world progressed, however, it soon became evident that the old ways weren’t enough. Japan needed to change, or face stagnation and irrelevance.

In this book, Zielenziger tries to figure out how Japan got into the state it’s in – a decade and a half of stagnation, with no end in sight, and the very real possibility of a slide into graying irrelevance by the middle of the century. To do so, he looks first on the human scale, at the people who have given up on Japan’s social contract – the hikkikomori.

Like so many other things Japanese, the hikkikomori phenomenon is said to be unique to Japan. Not quite agoraphobics, not quite dropouts or depressives, the hikkikomori are people – usually men – who have given up on the world. They usually live in a single room, often in the homes of parents who enable their hermit lifestyle, and refuse to come out. They sit in there and read, or watch TV, or think. They see no place for themselves in the outside world, and so they give up on it. The men that Zielenziger interviewed suggested that the outside world was too much for them. In many cases they were bullied by others – a pattern of social control that is unfortunately ingrained here – or they simply looked at their parents and thought, “Is this what I will become?”

An American child, faced with the knowledge that he doesn’t fit with the rest of the world, will probably see it as an opportunity to shape his own identity. A hikkikomori sees it as a personal failure. He knows how Japanese society works, and rather than blame the world for not accepting him, he blames himself for not being able to fit in. Thus, retiring from the world is seen as the only option available, other than suicide. Some hikkikomori spend years in their rooms, refusing to speak even with their parents, who – often out of a sense of shame or the nurturing love known as amae – support their boys’ choice of lifestyle.

At the other end are the people who give their identity over to an outside source. In more dangerous cases, this outside source might be a cult, like the Aum Shinrinkyo group who carried out the deadly sarin attack against the Tokyo subway in 1995. A more benign manifestation, however, is brand mania. Zielenziger talks to women who identify themselves through the brands they buy. These people will spend money they don’t have in order to get a bag from Louis Vuitton or Gucci or Chanel. They distinguish themselves with their brand identity, willingly giving up their own in the process. In a country where one can no longer trust the government to look after your best interests, or the media to tell you the truth, or business to give you a job, putting all your faith in Louis Vuitton – with its worldwide reputation for quality – seems to be a good idea.

It’s a nation in crisis, according to Zielenziger. It’s a country that’s gone from feudalism to full modernity in only a century and a half, but the culture hasn’t changed nearly as much as the country has. It’s a bustling, 21st-century nation built on a foundation that was laid in the 17th century, and things are starting to fall apart. It’s a country that puts society before the individual, but that premise is cracking under the weight of a world that values individuality. It’s a place where responsibility is distributed and accountability doesn’t exist, where mistakes go unexamined lest they bring shame upon those who made them, and where the past is a thing that can be easily ignored if it troubles you. Zielenziger believes that the underlying social structure of Japan is holding it back, leading the entire country to another withdrawal from the world. Much like the hikkikomori that no one likes to talk about, Japan may one day find itself alone and isolated, not knowing its place in the world and not knowing how it can get back to what it used to be.

The book is quite a read, going from small one-on-one interviews to historical and sociological analyses, but it is overwhelmingly negative in tone. Zielenziger isn’t wrong, necessarily, but he is of the mind-set that Japan is irrevocably screwed and that only Western cultural intervention can save it.

He lays the hikkikomori problem – and the problem of parasite singles, NEETs, and all the other dysfunctional youth – at the foot of Japan’s collectivist culture, as well as the intense bond of amae that exists between the parent and child. While he doesn’t say it in so many words, he does imply that the traditional social structure of Japan is simply incapable of keeping Japan competitive in the modern era. He believes that Western values, especially those stemming from Christianity, are what Japan needs to survive.

The bit about Christianity seemed to come from left field, but he does make a case for it. Christianity, he believes, places the onus of salvation on the individual. It is a person’s works (or faith) that ensure his place in the afterlife. This focus on one’s personal responsibility, and ultimate judgment, fosters a Self that is harder to suppress. From that strong sense of individuality, a culture can foster more competition, thereby preventing stagnation.

There’s a long, not entirely interesting chapter on Korea that he uses to illustrate this point. Unlike Japan, Korea – once called “The Hermit Kingdom” – found itself facing economic turmoil and got themselves out of it. Not because Korean ways were better, but because they knew that if they stuck to their traditions they’d be screwed. Korea is a nation strongly influenced by Christianity, and the individuality that Christianity fosters, suggests Zielenziger, is what gave Korea the courage to risk social turmoil for the betterment of their nation.

There may be something to this, but I doubt that adopting Christianity en masse will save Japan from Zielenziger’s dire future. Honestly, it was tough to stay objective while reading this, mainly because of the gulf between what I see, having lived here for the better part of a decade, and how Zielenziger describes the place. If I didn’t know better, I would have read this and thought that Japan was a zombie nation, populated either by hermits or soulless consumers. From what I’ve seen, I know that this is not the case.

Granted, I haven’t completely immersed myself in the culture, mainly because that’s an extremely difficult thing for a non-Japanese to do. Most of the people I talk to are my students, and people with the desire and the resources to study English are probably not an accurate cross-section of the country. So I don’t claim to have any more insight into the Japanese mind than Mr. Zielenziger does, but from my experience it seems that all hope is not lost. Yes, the government is a faceless bureaucracy, the media is completely complacent and the corporate community that once offered jobs for life has vanished. But Japan has proved resilient in the past, adapting to great changes that were thrust upon it from the outside. And a quick look at Japanese history shows that, when the times need it, people emerge to challenge the established order.

That’s what Japan needs now. Someone – or, more effectively, a group of someones – to stand up, stick out and risk themselves for the betterment of their country. It won’t be easy – revolution never is – but it needs to be done. Perhaps one day, instead of shutting themselves in their rooms, there might be young men and women who take to the streets and show Japan that there is value in the individual. I hope I get to see it.

————————————–
“To survive in Japan, you have to kill off your own original voice.”
Kaz Ueyama, Shutting Out the Sun
————————————–

Michael Zielenziger on Wikipedia
Michael Zielenziger’s Homepage
Shutting Out the Sun on Amazon.com
Hikkikomori at Wikipedia
Amae at Wikipedia

Leave a comment

Filed under identity, Japan, Michael Zielenziger, nonfiction, psychology, society

Review 43: Underground

Underground – The Tokyo Gas Attack & the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami

On March 20, 1995, in the middle of the morning rush hour, the Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed a terrorist attack on the subways of Tokyo. Five men on five different trains unleashed sarin gas in the subway system, which shut down most of the city, injured at least 5,000 people, and left 12 dead. It was the single worst attack on Japan since the end of World War Two, and it gripped the nation.

I remember hearing about this, but I don’t remember giving it too much attention – I mean, when was I ever going to have to know much about Japan, right? In the light of our own terrorist woes in the US, I wish I had.

Haruki Murakami is best known for being a fiction writer. I’ve read a few of his books, and they’re all really interesting. He has a very strange mind, and he’s a good enough writer that he can often successfully avoid giving his characters names, something that still surprises me. This time, however, he decided to turn his hand to non-fiction, chronicling the events of what was a shocking blow to his home country.

In his introduction to this book, he explains why he decided to write it. Like many people, he heard about the attacks while he was living abroad, and thought, “Oh, that’s terrible.” And then he tried to put it out of his mind. But it wouldn’t stay there. A woman had written a letter to a magazine about her husband. He had been on the subway that morning, and had been injured by the sarin. His injuries had impaired him to the point where he had been forced to quit his job. Not only because of the physical effects of being gassed, but also because he had become an outcast at work. People would look at him and whisper about the “weirdo” who had been on the subway that day. He was, probably, a reminder of what people wanted to forget. He had, by no will of his own, become an outsider, and that pressure led him to quit his job – what Murakami calls a “double violence.” First by the sarin, then by Japan.

From that point, Murakami took to wondering what really happened to people that morning. Not what the newspapers and TV said, but the stories of the people who had actually been on the trains.

So he began taking interviews. Of the hundreds he contacted, he got a total of 60 people to agree to talk to him. This is definitely a huge difference between Japanese and Americans. After September 11th, I’m sure people were falling all over themselves to tell their stories, or to talk about their dead friends and relatives.

In Japan, people were eager to forget. They didn’t want this nosy journalist stirring things up again. It’s easier to put things in the past, to say, “It can’t be helped” and go on with one’s life.

Fortunately for us, Murakami got some people to talk, and for that we have this book.

He divides the stories into subway lines and stations, and it’s interesting to see how peoples’ stories are slightly different at times, where one interviewee and another interacted. He gives the histories of people, and provides a narrative of what was happening to people on that morning – where they were going, what they were doing and thinking, and how they felt. Some people thought they were sick, others thought that some kind of cleaning fluid had splashed. A few guessed that it was an attack.

Some of the best stories come from the station personnel. So far, my experience with the guys in the uniforms who run the stations is that they all say “Arigatou gozaimas” whenever you put your ticket through the gate. These guys, though, had to take charge of a subway system that was under attack by an odorless, invisible weapon, without knowing who had done it or why. Unlike firemen or policemen, these guys had to deal with a situation for which they had likely never been trained.

The civilian stories are also fascinating, as they tell how they tried to help, and they vented their frustration with the lack of help. They talked about what they were thinking as the symptoms set in – dimming of vision, nausea, lack of coordination…. One interesting commonality is how many people kept trying to go to work. They put down their symptoms to any number of garden-variety maladies – anemia, lack of a proper breakfast, general stress. Half-blind, unable to walk straight, many of them still made it to their workplaces, not knowing the danger they were in until they heard about sarin on the news.

Sarin is a nerve gas, originally designed by Nazis, it is one of the most powerful gasses out there. Iraq used it to great effect against Iran in the 80s, and could well still have some floating around. According to the translator’s notes, a drop of sarin the size of a pinhead is enough to kill a person.

The cult members who set this thing off had liters of the stuff. Fortunately, they cut it with another liquid (and even pure sarin doesn’t evaporate well) which cut its lethality. Somewhat.

Perhaps the tiny number of fatalities – 12 – were due to the lower potency of the gas. It certainly wasn’t because the Tokyo or Japanese governments were any good at dealing with disasters. Interviews with doctors at local hospitals talked about the utter confusion that ensued after the attacks. None of them were briefed on the situation, they didn’t know what kind of gas had been used, and therefore couldn’t treat it properly. Worse yet, in some cases, they didn’t even know it was a gas. In some hospitals, sarin victims were admitted to the emergency rooms, where the sarin in their clothes began affecting the ER nurses and doctors.

They figured it was probably cyanide. One doctor, who had happened to have been at a seminar on a previous sarin attack in Japan, recognized the symptoms of sarin poisoning and faxed the information around the city’s hospitals, apparently a very unusual act by a doctor in Japan. Like many organizations in Japan, hospitals are loathe to share information without going through the proper channels, even in an event such as this. But this fits into the Japanese mind-set as well: to take such initiative is to invite criticism. Should the decision be the wrong one, it would bring shame down on everyone involved. Thankfully there were some people whose minds were more concerned with saving lives than saving face. Not enough, though. The Tokyo Bureau of Health didn’t chime in until 5:00 PM, nearly eight hours after the attack.

One doctor claims that the only reason so few people died was because of the efforts of individual doctors and paramedics. The official organizations were more or less useless, much like they were after the Kobe earthquake in 1992.

However it happened, the death toll was kept low, but the effects lingered on. Sarin has long-lasting physical effects, weakening the victim for years to come. Even more, there were the psychological effects that come with any event of mass terrorism.

I saw an article in an Australian magazine which interviewed some people who had been photographed during the burning and destruction of the World Trade Center. None of them were happy, none of them were leading good lives. Months later, the attack still lingered in their minds and their lives, effectively continued on. The same was, and probably is, true in Japan after the Tokyo subway attack.

After the publication of the first edition, Murkami decided that he had a few more interviews to do. It’s one thing to know what happened to the victims, but one also has to wonder: Why would anyone do such a thing?

So he went to interview current and former members of the Aum cult, and find out why they joined, what attraction the cult held for them, and what they knew of the cult’s plans. After the attacks, most of the Japanese media were treating Aum simply as “The Enemy,” a faceless group whose members were, in the grand Japanese tradition, not individuals but simply facets of the whole.

Aum, under its leader, Asahara, worked like most cults do: They recruited people with doubts, misgivings and unreconciled views of the world. Many of the people Murakami interviewed were highly intelligent people who felt, from childhood, that the world they lived in made no sense to them. Others were lost, confused, who felt unhinged and disconnected. Such people are classic candidates for cults, and Aum took them in.

In Aum, they tell Murakami, there was no fear of responsibility, no worries about their choices for the future, because their future was preordained. If anything bad happened, it was just bad karma falling away. For some, Aum was just a new way to look at life, a new way to go through life that offered less uncertainty and pain than conventional life.

For others, though, it was a political movement. It was a group whose goals could be achieved by murder, both individual and mass. The interviews are interesting, because you can understand why the lifestyle of Aum might be attractive to people, if not very practical.

Murakami wanted to point out, by interviewing the Aum members, that this cult didn’t appear out of nowhere. It arose in Japan, made up of Japanese men and women. It was a reaction to Japanese society, a signal of the illnesses that permeate it. It was not, and should never have been treated as, something separate.

There’s not a lot of judgment in this book, as that was not Murakami’s goal. He did what he set out to do – tell the stories of people who had been there, who had experienced the terrors of the sarin attack. It’s always interesting to hear real stories, and always good.

One has to wonder, though…. Terrorism is not all bombs and airplanes and Arabs. These terrorists – and they do fit the bill – were people who looked like everyone else, men in suits, carrying briefcases and a newspaper-wrapped bundle each. No one would have given them a second thought.

Could this happen in America? Probably. We still haven’t found whoever was mailing the anthrax around, at least not at the writing of this review. It would be very possible for a group of men to board the subways in New York at rush hour, gather their resolve, and unleash an attack at least as destructive as the World Trade Center attack was. And the answer isn’t “More Security” – that’s closing the barn doors after the horses have not only left, but they’ve started their own fertilizer reprocessing plant and planned to blow up the Kentucky Derby. The interviews in this book suggest that terrorism is a societal issue, not a security one. If we want to stop people from doing violence to us, we need to find out what drives them to do so. Remember: the majority of terrorist acts carried out in the United States were not done by al-Qaeda. They were done by Americans, just as the Tokyo attacks were done by Japanese.

No matter what our politicians and police tell us, we’re never completely safe. Japan learned that in ’95. We need to learn it as well.

——————————————-
“We need to realize that most of the people who join cults are not abnormal; they’re not disadvantaged; they’re not eccentrics. They are the people who live average lives (and maybe, from the outside, more than average lives) who live in my neighborhood. And in yours.

“Maybe they think about things a little too seriously. Perhaps there’s some pain they’re carrying around inside. They’re not good at making their feelings known to others and are somewhat troubled. They can’t find a suitable means to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. That might very well be me. It might be you.”
– Haruki Murakami, Underground
——————————————-

Haruki Murakami at Wikipedia
Underground at Wikipedia
Tokyo sarin gas attack on Wikipedia
Aum Shinrikyo on Wikipedia
Haruki Murakami’s website
Underground at Amazon.com

Leave a comment

Filed under cults, Haruki Murakami, history, Japan, nonfiction, society, terrorism, Tokyo