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Japan: Living Journal Life In

Food for Diagnosis

It’s been a strange day today.

First, in the midst of reading what for me as a diabetic is an important book (important because so few books that I’ve read on diabetes have spoken soberly and without the sickening “Oh, poor widdle babykins, let Daddy kiss the booboo and make it all bedder” attitude that I can’t stand, and actually goes into depth about the origins and workings of diabetes, with examples and explanations that closely follow my own experience with the disease), “The Mind-Body Diabetes Revolution“, by Richard S. Surwit, and taking the clinical tests within to determine my levels of risk in stress, depression, and hostility, I discovered that in both stress and depression I carry the highest possible risk factors (what a relief to know that hostility-wise I am a lamb!), and that technically I have severe clinical depression, and need professional help.

I guess I’ve more or less known this all along, but it seems so artificial. It’s hard to describe. I grew up and live in a culture, Japan’s, where I don’t know a single person who goes to any type of therapy (as opposed to America and Europe where it seems half my friends see a shrink), and have very rarely met anyone who even remotely seems to need it. Yes, I meet people who are down occasionally and who have anger issues and such, but it never seems to get that much in the way of their lives. In the 14 years that I’ve been teaching English I’ve asked countless students about their memories and experiences of high school, if they harbored any resentment or exceptionally bad memories. Almost without exception each student, men and women, have told me they enjoyed high school and would be very happy to do it all again. Only about three or four admitted to any kind of bullying. When I ask these students about their present lives, a few will tell me of dissatisfaction, or disappointment, but in general, very few people tell me out and out that they are really unhappy. You walk the streets and, compared to what I have seen in the States and Europe, only rarely do you come across individuals who seem out of whack with reality and their surroundings.

Now I know that some of this comes as a result of the Japanese tendency to keep embarrassing family secrets out of the public eye, but it is more than that, too. There is a whole alternative expectation out of life here that, I think, puts less pressure on individuals and in many, many ways is much more realistic about life. There is none of the tunnel-vision of organized religion pervading the society in any way (and Westerners who come here seeking such a social construct often tend to give more weight to such things as the Buddhist temples and the shrines than actually exists… Japanese are simply not a religious people, though they do carry their own form of spirituality). Marriage is often seen much more as a pact between two people for raising a family, than as a field for solely nurturing the couple’s romantic feelings (though that is a big benefit when it happens). I have talked to many married people, men and women, equally, who, without the slightest sense of guilt or moral wrongdoing (though not all, course), feel that there is nothing wrong with their spouses having extra-marital affairs, as long as they don’t find out about it (in their transliterated words: “As long as the affair doesn’t intrude in the family circle”). People here expect life to be hard and full of sadness. The whole concept of “mono-no-aware”, a perception of pathos, in which the whole world is seen through the glass of impermanence and passing, and everything is filled with the sadness and beauty of things that only last a moment, is something that every Japanese intuitively understands. Say the words “moon”, “rain”, “frog”, “blossom”, “pebble”… and each one will conjure up a flurry of colors, movement, sounds, and feeling that pertains to things not lasting. People see themselves and their possessions as just as fleeting… one reason why so few artifacts from the past, especially buildings, remain.

I could go on, but the point is that I’m not sure how to interpret the criteria that the diabetes books lays out for determining the ill health of my mind and spirit. I grew up non-Japanese and spent a little less than half my life in the States, so there is the influence of western culturedrawing me one way, but there is also this Japanese sense of how things are and should be. I don’t see my state-of-mind as being all that unusual or off-kilter. The questions in the book felt so American, in that they assume a MacDonald’s smile for a state-of-mind that they consider healthy:

1. Do you feel sad most of the time?
2. Do you often feel as if there’s little to look forward to?
3. Do you see your life as being one failure after another?
4. Do you feel as if you no longer enjoy any activities these days?…

to name just a few.

Part of me nods in sage understanding, knowing that it must be necessary to keep up that sense of glittering cheerfulness that pervades American culture, where if you aren’t smiling something must be seriously wrong with you. Smile at the camera!

But the other part of me sees no reason to smile at the camera when I just don’t feel the least bit perky. It doesn’t mean I am not full of mirth or quiet contentment; it just means that the camera is no reason to put on a show.

Why weren’t the questions framed thus:

1. Do you love what is around you and grieve the letting go?
2. Do you often feel a responsibility toward people around you and just don’t have the time or means to do what you would really like?
3. Do you see your life as being a learning experience and that there are bound to be more failures than successes?
4. Do you feel that you are changing as you get older and your tastes have moved on?

So now I must determine my state of affairs and go either East or West. Decide to prance about or skulk in the corner… Take your pick.

After putting aside the book I met a blogging friend, whom I hadn’t seen in over six months, for lunch. He brought his young son along this time and we three men sat in Starbucks, basically being ordered around by my friend’s son, he telling us to help him complete his sketchbook doodles. The boy was a great little kid, full of fresh vivacity and laughter, and I found myself, as I watched him, suddenly filled with a great sadness that most likely my wife and I will never have a child together. I have no idea where this suddenly came from. Children are not something I have much thought about or strongly desired, and yet there I was, jealous of my friend and wondering how I could have missed something so fundamental. When the two of them said good-bye, I headed toward my evening job with a kind of slack-jawed surprise. Me, a father?!? I promptly dashed off a message on my cell phone to my wife: “I really miss you today.”

And finally, on my way home, I decided to take the extra long walk from one station before my own, a quiet saunter through an upper-income neighborhood where quite a few gardens and trees reminded me that soil still existed in this world. I love going home this way and have taken to doing it almost every evening these days, as part of my steps toward changing my life toward those things that mean most to me. As I descended a particularly charming set of steep stairs lined with zelkova trees and ivy-covered walls, I spied a break between some of the houses and saw straight into someone’s bedroom, where the lights were full glare. Staring right back at me from the wall of the bedroom was a huge Nazi flag, the red and black blazoned in the darkness. “Damn!”, I thought. “What’s that person up to?” What exactly did they like about that flag? But this was Japan, of course, and, like almost everything, it was mostly likely something just for aesthetic affectation. But you never know. There be blond, Aryan-Asian dragons even here.