Life in Tokyo can only be interesting and challenging if you make an effort to see it from a different point of view.
The days are noticeably growing cooler. The songs of the crickets have lowered into a sluggish pitch as the musicians struggle against the temperature. For some reason the non-native Rose-Ringed Parakeets (Psittacula krameri), with their lime green, winged javelin-like bodies, have been congregating around the telephone wires and tall Zelkova trees around my neighborhood, and the mornings and evenings have been punctuated by their piercing shrieks. Parrots and parakeets most definitely belong to the area above the forest canopy… when you see their darting, vigorous flight it is hard to imagine them pent up in a cage ever again.
The light recedes earlier now, too, and children in the neighborhood scatter back into their homes earlier. It is a pity, because it seems as if the children had only just begun to grow dark and their limbs to grow firmer with their days outside during their short summer vacations. It had taken most of the summer for them to venture into the neighborhood and play with the other kids. Now the TV’s and video games have recaptured their victims and the slow degeneration of the children’s summer bred muscles will begin anew. When the tide of darkness neeps high enough and the cold keeps people locked up indoors, all the afternoon shouting and laughing in the neighborhood will die away to concrete silence. Perhaps the children in this neighborhood bump around a little too much for me during the days when I’m trying to work here at the computer, but at least they reminded me of things being alive.
My late night returns home from my night work will soon again have me arriving on my street, standing outside my apartment building under the sulfur light of the street light, listening. Listening for others and hearing only the wind or the distant, passing thump-thump of the commuter train. The lights will be on in the surrounding house windows, but no silhouettes in them. It is often hard to believe that this is one of the most crowded cities in the world; so often the streets resemble the watchful facelessness of a mausoleum. Perhaps I feel this because I seek the ghost of humanity in the streets. And perhaps I seek this humanity because the same streets of my children told more stories. People were out in the streets more and more drama occurred as a result. Somehow the lure of modern conveniences in the home has separated people from one another.
A friend of mine recently responded, when I asked her if interacting with her neighbors was important for her: “The people around me are strangers. I have no interest in their lives and want them to show no interest in mine. What goes on with the person next door is of no concern to me. I would rather that we pass each other by without even looking at one another. The place I live is just that: a place to live. My friends are elsewhere and my activities take place either in the privacy of my home or where my friends and colleagues are. The area where I live is only for convenience.”
These words sent a shiver up my spine and left me feeling disoriented, though I’m not exactly sure why. Her words make sense on a certain level and even carry a measure of precaution necessary for living in such a big city, especially for a woman living alone. But I can’t help but wonder over what is missing in the words. It is as if the very place we live in, that we inhabit, has become nothing but an abstraction. Our connection to what sustains us, the giving of the Earth to our survival, seems not to figure in the evaluation. Surely if we are to survive the oncoming hardships of a deteriorating habitat we must learn both to identify with the places we dwell in and to learn to share our lives and needs with our neighbors, both human and non. Such essential basics as food, air, water, shelter, and health all require our cooperation and a deeper level of concern and affiliation with our surroundings than we have now.
This has been one of my deepest, most consuming concerns over the years and one that seems disproportionately difficult to discuss with others, especially neighbors. Another friend asked me recently why I feel such a disillusionment with my sense of self-identity. Perhaps the roots lie in this question of abstract versus concrete identification with the place we live in. If you can’t name every tree or tell the yearly patterns of wind blowing or know where the best water is in your valley, doesn’t that mean that you don’t know where you are?
I have always held a strong dislike for zoos, feeling that all creatures ought to have the full expression of their evolutionary complexity in the way they live. All creatures became what they are out of an inextricable relationship with their surroundings and thus should live within those surroundings.
However, upon starting the book “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, his argument that animals don’t feel stress when in confinement, as long as that confinement fulfills their individual needs has gotten me thinking a lot about the nature of both what habitat means and what our own lives mean as we live in cities today. While I won’t give up my contention that wild animals ought to live their wild lives in wild places, I now wonder if perhaps zoos, good zoos, are a necessary part of caring for endangered species today.
Martel knows his animals. He has either really done his research or spent a lot of time with animals, because he knows details about them that only someone who has spent a lot of time with them could witness. And he doesn’t “cutify” them either, a practice here in Japan that has reached epidemic proportions (and is the sad source of the Japanese illegal trading in endangered species).
I remember stepping into a pet shop in Shin-Okubo about six years ago and coming upon a fennec fox curled up in the corner of a tiny cage. I was so shocked that such a rare animal was being displayed openly like that, that my anger left me speechless. But I didn’t even know what to do. Who to approach about this here in Japan? The country where whales are killed now more out of chauvinistic resentment than any need for the meat, where whale meat is brazenly sold on mid-day women’s variety show commercials, by a woman who presents the whole product line with such a pleasant voice you would think she was hawking perfume.
People too often think of animals as mere commodities. And with the world getting smaller day by day, any reform of such pot-bellied thinking seems quite unlikely.
Still, Martel has made me ponder my own prejudices. Time to look at my own motivations.
I almost died on Sunday evening. I was bicycling along the Nogawa River near my home, returning from a pleasant glide downhill beside the chest-high grass-overgrown banks, when I entered an unlit stretch under the darkness of an arbor of cherry trees. Suddenly, before I realized what was happening, my bicycle jerked up from under me, the tree canopy and bicycle path whirled up and around, and the next thing I knew the asphalt hit my outstretched hands and shoulder. It was as if an invisible person had just thrown me over their shoulder. The impact badly gouged my palms, right elbow, right knee and shin. My (stupidly unworn) bicycling gloves, bandana, and bicycle mirror flew across the pavement. Stupidly I gazed back from whence I had flown and recognized the shadow of tree root heaving up the asphalt and forming a perfect launch thank-you-m’am. Naturally my first oh-so-dignified reaction (I am not neko-gata, cat profile) was to jump and and stamp about swearing at the sky. And then kicking the bump. And then swearing at Chofu city authorities. And then picking up my poor bicycle to check if she was okay. (All right outside the open window of a family’s house, wherein the occupants were sittiing down to dinner while watching tv) And only then, after wasting about 5 minutes in impotent fooldoggery, feeling the pain and staring at the lacerated skin and blood all over. After picking up my things, I gingerly got back on my bicycle and creaked home, while pipistrelle bats twittered and looped above the river.
My skull continued to swivel on my vertebrate. The eggshell had not been cracked and no soup had been spilled. And all while not wearing a helmet. I never do learn. Except that the spark that I carry sure seemed precious when the fingerhold snapped away for a moment.
Dawn is always my favorite time of day. People are still sleeping and the quietness draws attention to things that are often overlooked later in the day, things like the speed of the clouds passing overhead, the sway of the trees, the quick chirrups of sparrows darting over the rooftops, and the shifting of the light. Because of my night job teaching English it is usually difficult to get up so early, and so I usually miss the dawns these days. But today, here I am, and like the hush of the breeze through the leaves of the false acacia outside my window, there is a quietness beating slowly in my chest. The sky is bright and it feels good to be alive.