Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

This morning, (12:30PM may be afternoon for some people but for me it's still morning) while sitting at Tully's, I completed my reading of Alex Kerr's "Lost Japan." Quite an interesting book. What is most interesting to see is the author's progression from "Lost Japan" in 1994 to "Dogs and Demons" in 2001. "Lost Japan" deals with Kerr's experiences over 30 years as he becomes truly intertwined with traditional Japanese culture. He buys and renovates a traditional house in the mountains of Iya, befriends Kabuki masters, artists and intellectuals while trying to understand the Japan that is changing before his very eyes. It certainly is interesting to see that in 1994 he still had much of that twinkle one gets in one's eyes when one arrives in Japan. While I will not go so far as to say that twinkle was gone when he wrote "Dogs and Demons" he certainly seems to have a more realistic approach to Japan in his later book. "Lost Japan" is lex Kerr's realization that some of Japan's traditional arts and culture have been lost... and that no one seems to care.

Quite a few of his writings struck a chord while I was reading and I'd like to share some of these with you now, along with my thoughts after each passage. I hate to preach, but I will anyway. I have a feeling I was paying more attention near the end of the book as most of the quotes which struck me are in that section of the book... I may need to re-read this one again...

The first thing I read which made me reach for a pen and paper was a haiku written in 1978 when Kerr left the Iya valley for Tokyo to enter the world of Kabuki. His solitary life in the mountains of Iya had been short lived due to the ongoing development on the region and the rapid disapearance of the traditional life he sought. It was written by the mother of a friend of his who lived in their small mountain village.
Powdered in snow
The morning mountains
Tug at my back.
page 54
For the unititiated, a haiku is a short Japanese poem, only 17 syllables arranged in 5-7-5 syllable lines and attempts to capture an intense emotion or scene of nature in a very concise manner. This particular haiku captures the feeling of Kerr's departure quite amazingly in the simple beauty that only haiku does so well. Looking back now, I can understand the feeling. Last Sunday morning on the way to the river for the BBQ, I caught a glimpse of Nantai-san covered in snow... and couldn't tear my eyes away.... mountains are a sacred and beautiful thing for sure.

The second passage which struck me was when Kerr was discussing the lack of crime in Japan, which in fact makes it quite comfortable to live here. Here is the quote, direct from the book.
"One of Japan's greatest achievements is its relative lack of crime, and this is one of the invisible factors which makes life here very comfortable. The low crime rate is the result of those smoothly running social systems and the envy of many a nation - this is the good side of having trained the population to be bland and obedient."
page 221
This is definitely something I have noticed here. Why is there little crime in Japan? Because the government\society\whoever says it's wrong. It's that simple. In the same way that the tea ceremony and flower arrangement has become largely scripted, so has the life of most Japanese people (and as I heard this week, that of long-term foreigners in Japan). And nowhere in that script is there room for such chaotic things as theft and violence. People do what they are told. Period. Why? Because they have been brought up in a very militaristic (right down to the Prussian army-style uniforms in school) system and have been formed into the perfect citizen, one who will "endure" the rigidity and high demands of Japanese life. So lack of crime is one of the good things, while general apathy towards politics and resistance to (fear of?) change are some of the bad things resulting from this indoctrination. Nobody asks any questions, it's just "gambatte", a Japanese word which perfectly coins both "endure" and "do your best" at the same time.

His next striking statement was regarding Japan's lack of internationalism, though that is THE one word one keeps hearing on an almost daily basis. (along with the excuse: "Japan is an island" to any questions about the lack internationalization) Kerr is writing about the transformation of anything foreign into a Japanese version of the same object. This is a long one, but here goes:
"Japan is like an oyster. An oyster dislikes foreign objects: when even the smallest grain of sand or broken shell finds its way inside the oyster shell, the oyster finds the invasion inteollerable, so it secretes layer after layer of nacre upon the surface of the invading particle, eventually creating a beautiful pearl. However, while pearls may vary slightly in size and luster, they all look very much alike. In the process of coating, not a trace remains of the shape or color of the grain of sand inside. In like manner, Japan coats all culture from abroad, transforming it into a Japanese-style pearl. The finished pearl is a thing of great beauty - often, as in the case of the tea ceremony, more refined than the original - but the essential nature of the original is lost. This is why Japan, which has hundreds of thousands of Italian and Chinese restaurants, has almost no genuine Italian or Chinese food. Ingredients are altered and watered down, and there is even a brand of olive oil which bears the label 'Specially Reconstituted for Japanese Taste'."
page 231
Goddamn but if I haven't tried to explain this to 300 people here in Japan. The closest I could get to Kerr's fantastic explanation was to say something along the lines of: "Japan has many good Itlaian and Mexican restaurants, but I haven't found any good Italian or Mexican food". It's usually at this point that I lose my conversation partner and have to blather on about my individual experiences with real ethnic food in Canada and its counterpart here in Japan. I eventually get my point accross, kind of... but damned if I wasn't amazed at finding this passage in "Lost Japan" which encapsulates exactly what I've been trying to say!

Kerr says that the hope for modern Japan lies in a specific number of people who have somehow formed outside of the mold. He has befriended many of the "luminati" and hopes that they can lead future generations to a better place. To show just how "different" the thinking of these select few is, he recounts this story about a mishap by one of these intelectuals' students during the tea ceremony. You must first understand just how intricately scripted the tea ceremony is to fully grasp the importance of his reaction. Every movement, every angle of the tea ceremony is precicely calculated and one must not diverge from it in any way... so a mistake is usually cause for great shame... or something... from what I understand. Having never seen the tea ceremony performed, I can't give a first hand account...
"The tea used in the ceremony is finely powdered green tea, carried in a laquered caddy called a natsume, which is shaped like an egg with a flat bottom and top. One day, a student failed to support the body of the caddy, taking only the lid in his hands, and the caddy dropped from the height of about one meter directly onto the tatami. The powdered tea puffed up high into the air in a cloud and tea settled in a green ring on the mat before our startled eyes. Everyone was petrified. In the silence, Sawada asked us, "What is the appropriate thing to say at a time like this?" Nobody could answer. He said, "You should say, 'How beautiful!' " And indeed the ring of powdered green tea on the tatami was beautiful. ..."
page 243
How cool is that? While everyone in the room probably expected for the student to be chastised for his failure to properly perform what was required of him, the Master instead saw deeper into the situation and saw a unique opportunity to gaze upon beauty created by random chaos. Quite interesting.

Finally, a quote in the book attributed to Tamasaburo, a great Kabuki master. The quote makes refference to the general concensus by some intellectuals that the following generations are nothing but 'blind mules' and thus not worthy of carrying on their work.
"The reason why people end up as 'blind mules', is that they are trying to succeed a genius. You never can. All you can do is to take a hint from their work, and create something completely new yourself."
page 261

Totally true... and I've been lucky enough to have some pretty damn good people around to take hints from in the past. I can only hope to use their tutelage wisely and carve my own path.

So with this parting quote I bid you adieu and head off to bed. Good week so far, plans for a return run to Nikko on Sunday will promise to make next weekend a great one as well. Cheers!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not responding deeply here (I did read "Dog and Demons"), but if you do get a hankering for authentic Mexican, there's a really great place near the Don Quixote in Roppongi. It's not just authentic, but may be one of the best Mexican places I've been to anywhere- and the margaritas will leave you dazed and roaming the streets. I never had any luck with authentic Italian.

I'll see youse people next year. All of you Utsunomiyaites will have a standing invitation to Nagano upon my return.

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Smee said...

I bet you haven't had fire grilled waffles with Maple liqueur yet either! *LOL*
I'll have to read these infamous books. Although the author is focusing on Japan, there are many broader insights that are worth reflection. Who knows, I they may lead to some of those divine inspired thoughts I get out of nowhere (I like to call them braingels). One minute, the typical male "nothing", the next a whole ball or mental yarn to unravel. Gotta love getting whacked on the head!


3:14 PM  
Blogger Michel Lafleur said...

Matto-sensei: Glad to hear you're heading back this way, will have to setup a ski trip or something up there in Nagano. You're back in January? February? Mexican in Roppongi... gottit... haven't been down there yet, not really any plans to but I'll keep it in mind.

Smee: True, no fire-grilled waffles with maple liqueur... though this weekend's excursion and cooking on the fire was great... brought back memories of those fabulous steak dinners we tend to have when camping.... mmmm

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll be in Omiya for training (again!) on February 10th and in Nagano (Ueda to be specific) the next week. I've actually never skiied before as I'm from the "Dirty South," but my guess is that it won't be long until my students will want to be my ski teacher. Hopefully I'll be slightly competant by the time you make it out for a ski trip.


9:46 AM  

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