(In January, 2012, my site was catastrophically hacked. I managed to get most of the content back, but unfortunately all my Japanese posts and comments have been rendered illegible. This was one of my best-loved posts, with some of the most interesting comments, so it is a loss greatly felt. I hope to keep the Japanese continued in my posts.
(edit: Managed to find the original Japanese text in the .plist file of my old Ecto software…an offline blog writing application, no longer available. Unfortunately, still can’t find the comments, though I know I have it somewhere on a .PDF copy of my old blog.)
Yesterday morning three men suddenly appeared at the my garden fence, climbed over it, and started dismantling the fence. I just happened to notice this as I was working on the computer in my study, glimpsing movement and hearing men’s voices just outside. I rushed to the living room door, threw it open, and demanded what they were doing.
“We’re going to put in two sewer pipes just on either side of the garden,” they replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and what was I making such a fuss about?
“You’re going to what? Who are you and what right do you have to just walk into my garden unannounced?”
“We’re working for [some organization I had no clue about… I just assumed it was my ever insensitive landlord]. We were told to come here and put the pipes in.”
Sputtering with indignation I nearly shouted, “You don’t just come barging into my home and start doing construction work! You contact me first and make an appointment! You have no right to invade my privacy like that!”
They just looked at me as if I was another one of those insane foreigners, an altogether far too common attitude among Japanese. One of them, carrying a shovel, stomped over my rosemary bushes and brushed past me, ignoring the glare I gave him. He bent down, lifted away my compost pile, and tossed it over the other end of the fence. He started digging.
The thing is that my Japanese is just not good enough to handle such unfamiliar legal situations, especially when I am so hopping mad that I can barely get my English out. I didn’t know what to do. What were the proper social expectations here, since people’s ideas of privacy and acceptable behavior are so different from America and other places? If it was my landlord who was responsible for this, how could I keep my advantage as a tenant and whom could I turn to if something illegal had been committed?
Being unsure I let the men go about their business and called my landlord. He knew nothing about it and told me he would look into it, saying that it was probably the ward office, putting in public utilities.
“Yes, but without contacting me about it?” I asked.
“They were wrong to do that,” he admitted.
I had to go to work so I didn’t have time to stay around to see what the men were up to. When I returned I found the fence replaced, but two huge white concrete manholes planted in either side of my 2 meter by 8 meter garden. My rosemary had been ripped out of the ground, one of my zelkova saplings chopped down, all the plants on the ground tromped over, my shiitake mushroom seeder log left exposed to the sky, and my planter shelf upended at one end of the garden.
Something broke inside me. I stood gazing at all of this and for a moment I hated Japan and all Japanese. I just had enough. All the unending construction around my house for four years straight, with almost no days of peace, all the unfriendliness of the neighbors and their inconsiderate banging and conversing very loudly in front of my bedroom window at five in the morning and things like flooding my apartment with washing machine overflow from upstairs and not even coming down to apologize, all the monotonous attitudes and predictable behavior and obsessive concern with things cute and public propriety and staying within the lines on the notebook pages, all the times I’d been cheated by partners in my freelance work, while being subjected to racial disdain…aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! I felt like destroying someone else’s home!
Then it all collapsed into sadness and a kind of exhausted numbness. I’ve had enough of fighting and finding fault and using my mind and heart to shore up defenses and attacks. I’ve had enough of war of any sort.
In the light of day I stood outside gazing at the garden again today. All I could think was I had to leave. Soon. Find some way to make enough money to finally pull away from here. The avocado tree stood at one end of the garden, the remaining zelkova sapling at the other and I wondered how I would be able to keep them safe, bring them with me. But I couldn’t of course. They would have to take their chances in this garden of changes that has erupted around them since I planted them five years ago. I wish now that I hadn’t planted them; what a waste of hope and love and life.
What do you do when you try so hard to nurture serenity in your life and little things like this keep cropping up to challenge what you love? I know I’ve been pulling away more and more into my shell of a life, meeting people less, becoming reclusive and mistrusting, so I wonder if this is the banging on the door that I really need to get my attention and start engaging life headlong again. When did I ever become so fearful? Nothing scared me so much when I was younger. Change had always been a welcome development, a chance to breathe fresh air, meet new people, and reinvent myself. Just how do trees do it, lasting through the ages, looking on at all the familiar things being ripped up, and never once wincing? They surely must have more forgiving eyes than I do.
There is an enormous discussion (via On Gaien Higashi Dori) going on over at Joi Ito’s page following Joi’s… a Japanese with close ties and long experience with America and Americans… statement about how he feels about the U.S. election. For me it is interesting in that Joi’s perspective more closely parallels my own, but at the same time provides insight into how many Japanese around me feel. You don’t often get these perspectives in the blog world, because most Japanese cannot enter into the discussions at this level of English and therefore people around the world tend to miss what the Japanese might be thinking. It is a close approximate of how much of the rest of the world feels, too. The resulting comments provide a lot of food for thought, but is, perhaps, somewhat unfair, in that for the most part only English speaking readers, dominated by Americans, can necessarily contribute to the discussion.
Perhaps there is something to be learned from Joi Ito’s (and several other Japanese commenters) responses, most of all his willingness to both make an unpopular (among Americans) statement to Americans (hell, you open your mouth and they jump all over you) as well as a willingness to appear human by admitting his own faults and those of Japan. Rarely have I spoken with a Japanese about the state of Japan in which they didn’t apologize for the way Japan is. There is this inherent understanding here that things could be better and, while people here have a long way to go toward getting more involved with their government and the Japanese government itself is a creaking dinosaur, there is a steady, if slow, progression towards newer ideas and social reform. Anyone who was here from back in the 70’s would see clearly just how much things have changed. From a Japanese perspective, comparing Japan’s changes to those of America, there is a real sense of things moving backward in the States. Joi, I think, speaks from that perspective, which most Americans, knowing almost nothing about Japan or other countries, even Europe, cannot hope to use as a base from which to gauge their own society or their situation. Joi’s view, by the very nature of Japan’s necessarily dependent relationship with the rest of the world, tends toward cross-cultural dialogue, whereas American politics and opinions tend to be ingrown and self-focusing.
Americans wonder why so many people around the world criticize them so much. It is not because people around the world arbitrarily hate Americans or feel some genetic need to disparage them. And there are a great number of non-Americans, like myself, who respect, like, and even love Americans (my brother and father are Americans and I have many friends who have been very close to me for over twenty years), but vehemently oppose the government’s policies. The problem is that so many Americans can’t differentiate between themselves as individuals and the identity of the country. As a nation the United States is committing atrocities around the world and forcing themselves upon the rest of us. Any person in their right mind would strongly oppose this and even show disgust, disdain, or outrage. Why these feelings are lumped together as â€œhateâ€ only tells so many of us that Americans as a whole do not think deeply about social issues and their causes.
The â€œworld as villageâ€ model can help us see what has been happening and provides a means for an individual to imagine the emotional gammut that all parties run through. It is the American refusal to acknowledge themselves as a just one member of the community, rather than the big cheese on the block, that so grates on people. Most people around the world after the New York tragedy voiced their sympathy towards Americans. With the Afghan war and then the Iraq war, very few people went so far as to call for the deaths of Americans; rather they called for dialogue and an attempt at reconciliation and understanding, mature and conciliatory gestures from within a working community. Even Sadam Hussein and Muhammad Omar (for those who can’t remember him, he was the leader of the Taliban) requested debates with Bush. Instead the American government sought to lie to everyone, ignore them, threaten them, insult them, and finally roll over their heads and attack two countries which had done absolutely nothing to them. If someone had done that to the Americans, if Americans are even able to empathize with this example, how would the Americans have responded? Graciously? With restraint and patience? Stressing non-violence and respect?
All that being said I can’t help feeling that here we all are going again. For the past three days I’ve been raking over the coals, wandering aimlessly through the wilderness of words between the two huge camps in the night, leaving scraps of food to chew on (with all the outrage of anyone else), stopping to converse with various sentinels, bounding back and forth in my head. I would have thought that in my heart I live among those who opposed Bush, and for all practical purposes, I do. But there is something insidious in the wall of anger all around and in the indifference of those who voted for Bush towards those who now grieve. The divisiveness reflects two sides of a lusterless coin. Either way the elections had gone, one side would now be up in arms, gnashing their teeth, and seeking revenge and reasons to get back at the other side. The very nature of the rift reflects the nature of the whole mess… people have ensconced themselves within a single perspective and refuse to budge from their position. The blogosphere is ablaze with bombs lobbed upon either side, not a soul seeming to stop and consider that the heart of the problem lies in the very inability to talk and find the same vocabulary. The doctrines don’t seem to really matter. Something much deeper is at play and it threatens the very frame of the world’s society. A new Babel over the airwaves, with the towers in flames at our feet.
I propose that the underlying threat arises out of our refusal to acknowledge the state of the physical world, and that in denying it, we have lost all sense of who we are and where we belong. The contention resides in our bones; just look at any other species… it is always a fight over the territory or male dominance. When the territory vanishes, when an animal loses ground, all hell breaks loose. We like to deny it, but we are animals, too.
One reason I stopped blogging at the end of the summer was in great part because of this sense of something in myself dissipating into the light of the screen and my muscles forgetting the stop-motion of walking and immersing myself in the arms of other living things. I had found myself following one contention to another through the cerebral world of blogs and the internet, arguing and sitting alone fuming and gradually darkening my mind with clouds of imagined wrongs. I wasn’t dealing with real people or learning more about living in the real world of nature. The very purpose of my feet and fingers, eyes and ears escaped my notice.
So I must stop myself here before I dive back into the water; I do not want to live my life fighting ghosts and demons. I want to learn to engage them and talk. I want to discover what it is that binds us all together and actuates language. Bush preaches hate and warmongering and revenge and absolutes. He refutes the mystery. And so many have fallen in step behind him, taking up his chants and marching to the beat. That is not how I want to live my life. That is not how I see the living things around me or how I want to greet other people. Not in the language of defeat and bloodletting.
So, as John from Journal of a Writing Man carefully deliberates, it is not the election or the aftermath that I want to embrace, but rather the stuff of our everyday lives, and a willingness to push through the brambles and emerge on the other side. Bush is a reality. I will work steadily for change, not rush it for the ego of one misguided man. The Earth moves along a different chronology from ours. It is up to us to match our footsteps to its rich rhythm. And to learn to speak its language and to remember the origins of work.
Spent the afternoon watching The Last Samurai yesterday. When I first saw the preview for it last summer, I groaned, “Oh God, no, not another epic movie about some white guy becoming a downtrodden and less enlightened people’s icon, who saves them for their own good!” After hearing good reviews about it from the Japanese press, though, and getting some thumbs up from a few of my students, I decided to give it a try.
I stumbled back to the train station afterwards, roiling with conflicting feelings and with a lot of questions and reactions.
It is a beautiful movie, that much must be said. The grand vistas of the mountains, the rural scenes, the replica of the port town, even the fencing sequences and moments in the temples were exquisitely and accurately done. The movie gave quite a sense of what life must have been like right at the beginning of the Meiji Era, the last days of the samurai.
And some of the acting was unforgettable. Ken Watanabe, I think, stole the show with his powerful portrayal of a warrior lord, and Koyuki (which means “Little Snow”) left the whole theater of Japanese moviegoers weeping behind their handkerchiefs with her dignified and subtle portrayal of a woman whose husband is killed by Tom Cruise’s character. Even Tom Cruise does a good job both in portraying the true awkwardness of a foreigner attempting to speak Japanese and in learning the moves of Japanese society. I liked some of the contrasts that were sensitively incorporated, showing how differently Japanese and Americans think.
Perhaps because I’ve lived here in Japan all my life and traveled throughout the country, including more walks in the mountains than I can remember, I also noticed a lot of glaring problems. First, the landscape. One quick glance at the mountains and I knew immediately that it wasn’t Japan )most of the film was filmed in New Zealand). Japan’s slopes are steeper and come together, usually, with more angles. The flat bottomed valley of the rural village was too flatly abrupt, with few of the village houses nested on the steep hillsides, as would be characteristic of Japanese mountain villages. The vegetation on the mountainsides was all wrong… a pallor of green that doesn’t exist in Japan, where it tends to be much more emerald in quality, due to the warmer climate here. The way the soil clodded up wasn’t characteristic of Japan. The presence of palm trees and giant ferns, on both the slopes and in the forests, gave away New Zealand’s identity… in the area where this story takes place there wouldn’t have been any palm trees or giant ferns lurking in the backgrounds of the battle scenes. And worst of all was the supposed form of Mt. Fuji, which has a huge crater in the side facing the ocean approach to the port town and which would not have appeared so large in the sky from what I suppose was supposed to be Edo (the old name of Tokyo). Mt. Fuji is 150 kilometers away from Tokyo. For me, but probably not for most people, the whole movie environment felt wrong, not Japanese.
Because a lot of the behavior of the Japanese characters was closely discussed with the Japanese actors, the feel of their gestures, voices, pronunciation, and dialogue, felt very natural. The interaction between the Japanese characters worked, too, unlike in such movies as “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” (a Japanese general in real life would never have given in the way the general did in the movie) or “Black Rain”. However, there were moments when things just didn’t come across as authentic. When Tom Cruise’s character leans over to hug Koyuki’s character’s boy, there is no surprise on the part of any of the Japanese. But this would have been scandalous behavior, especially for a man to show to a samurai boy… the boy would have been shocked, as would the onlooking man in the garden, and certainly Koyuki’s character would have stopped dead in her tracks. Such behavior between men and their children is still not often practiced even today, let alone back in the period of this movie. And I had trouble with Ken Watanabe’s last scene when he ends by speaking to Tom Cruise in English. For someone trying to hold on with his last breath to all aspects of his culture, it seemed peculiarly uncharacteristic of him to resort to English.
In spite of these faults, the story was well-written and the transformation of Tom Cruise’s character quite believable. The gentleness and devotion of the movie to the human heart left me quite deeply moved by end of the show.
What disturbed me in profound ways, however, were the images and emotional reactions I had to the battle scenes: I couldn’t stop thinking about Bush and America’s Year of War last year. The more I watched those hundreds of soldiers falling in the movie, the more angry I became and the more uncontrollably grief stricken at the thought of all that has been forced on all of us over the last two and a half years. War, war, war, war, war! I was just totally exhausted with thinking about it and at times in the movie I could barely keep my eyes upon the scenes so close to weeping I was. It finally all came cascading out in that one, brief view of the entire battlefield with all those thousands of dead. One more crack of a gun. One more horse gutted. One more young man shot to pieces… I wanted to stand up in the theater, raise my fists, and shout my fury at Bush.
Instead I just sat and watched, looking for the entertainment value.
Fine movie that it was, it ignores the truth of the samurai: that they were very often brutal oppressors and caused untold hardship for the majority of the Japanese people who mostly lived on farms and were not allowed to carry weapons. All the glory of samurai chivalry is all very nice, but what was depicted is not an accurate picture of Japan’s history… which has always been fraught with bloody wars. The Meiji Restoration did a lot more good than bad for Japanese culture and people live a lot more at peace these days than back then. I can’t imagine very many Japanese would want to go back to those “good ole days”.
But still, the movie’s call for people of different cultures to hold on to who they are is an important one. It can certainly provide reflection to people around the world today who are beleaguered by American’s push to render all lands and people in their image. Fingerprints be damned! Brazil has the right attitude. Let Americans be fingerprinted all around the world in retaliation. They deserve just as much humiliation as anyone else, no?
I’m not sure The Last Samurai taught me anything at all about Japan. It just seemed a reiteration of what I already knew and a refute of what the West thinks it knows about Asia. But worth a looksee.