Monday, February 28, 2011

read in passing

Some things strike you like lightning, because so uncannily accurate:

       What is most strange is not to be found in exotic locales but close
       to home.

Because so very true.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

tatemae & honne (2)

I have recently felt that I might be getting mellow [...]. 
The Japanese are just like other people. They work hard
to support their--but no. They are not like everyone else.
They are infinitely more clannish, insular, parochial, and
one owes it to one's self-respect to preserve a certain
outrage at the insularity. To have the sense of outrage
go dull is to lose the will to communicate; and that I
think is death.
---Edward Seidensticker, This Country Japan (Tokyo:
Kodansha, 1984), p. 332 [my emphasis].

One thing about us foreigners is we can become friends overnight,
become really close," [Konishiki] explains. "The Japanese people
are more like, 'up front we are good friends,' but at the back they're
not too sure, they don't show that side, it takes time for them, but
they won't show it. [Us] foreigners, we tend to be very open when
we meet Japanese people," he adds, "which is OK, but make sure
not to get too deep, thinking that they are 100 percent with you-
it won't work with the Japanese.
---Konishiki, former Sumo star, in interview with The Japan Times
[my emphasis].

A slow lunch with a group of dear friends yesterday has once again set me thinking on the issue. That is, on how long it has taken me to realise this simple - and, to me, painful - truth that so many Westerners living here for any considerable length of time seem to take for granted: to enjoy and make the best of life in Japan you absolutely need to shield yourself from any close contact with most Japanese, with their stiff mental categories and regimented behaviours, and move within a selected circle of (mostly) Western friends. For the sake of sanity.

Yet nothing is more contrary to my beliefs in intercultural dialogue, to my cherished faith in people's capacity to overcome even the most difficult cultural and psychological barriers. Not in Japan though, alas. Slow learner as I am, I've had to reach my wits' end and accumulate an almost unbearable amount of professional and, above all, personal disappointments to realise this truth and restore my faith in the rest of humankind. And the sad truth is what Edward Seidensticker, one of the most eminent and perceptive scholars of modern Japan, describes in the above-cited passage: that the Japanese are not, to their own detriment, like everyone else, and that, despite the 'all-smiles' facade, the barriers they erect to the successful personal and professional integration of non-Japanese are far higher than anywhere else.

It's all well and good as long as you're a passing presence, a linguistic and cultural ingenue who sticks to the surface of Japanese life and lavishes praise on the exoticism of the culture. But once you become fluent in Japanese and begin to perceive the murkiness that lies underneath the glossy, hyper-polite surface of the national psyche, then you step into dangerous territory and will soon be seen as a threatening, inconvenient, intrusive presence. As our dear wise man Konishiki (a Japanese national of Hawaiian origin who, symptomatically, still considers himself a 'foreigner') advises, make sure not to get too deep with the Japanese - that is to say, never, but never let your guard down and make the naive mistake of assuming you're part of their uchi. They will always keep you at arm's length.

In a soberer tone, Seidensticker's note touches on the crux of the Westerner's experience in Japan. Their manifold differences and idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, most Westerners, and particularly those who pursue intellectual/scholarly interests, were educated within cultural traditions that generally value individuality and encourage reasoning, debate, inquiry, critique, dissent, and friction as healthy, essential aspects of the life of the mind.

And yet criticise is precisely what you're not allowed to do in Japan - or, if you're willing to, you can be sure you'll pay a high price. And yet... criticise is precisely what any observant and discerning Westerner must perforce do to keep one's self-respect and sense of justice (or of outrage, as Seidensticker puts it) in Japan. Unless, of course, you're one of those calculating long-residing chaps who readily sell out in order to achieve their petty ambitions, and have no qualms about cynically surrendering to the prevailing tatemae mindset. Since I have little respect for the latter though, I shall waste no time with them.

But why is then the very lifeblood of intellectual and civic existence in the West - the ability to criticise and oppose existing conditions in order to change them for the better - so widely disliked and feared in Japan? And an even more baffling question: how come people who are supposed to be highly educated display such an ingrained inability to deal with criticism, and thus recurrently censor, snub, bully, and condemn to all sorts of mura hachibu - the colourful native word for ostracism - those who dare to express some form of dissent from their envisaged sense of wa (和), the Japanese concept of a group-oriented harmony or consensus?

A partial answer to the enigma lies in a key distinction that the Western mind takes for granted: that between society and self, between group and individual. Due to the blurring of this distinction, criticism of Japan tends to be taken personally by the Japanese, and more often than not seriously threatens, or destroys altogether, basic loyalties and friendships. Hence I couldn't agree more with a remark cited in Ivan P. Hall's devastating portrait of the Japanese intelligentsia and its cartel mentality, Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop:

'If you're a foreigner who is too critical about Japan, your sources of information or friends dry up'. [...] Access in Japan depends excessively on a warm personal rapport, for the sake of which too many [Western] scholars, cultural diplomats, and other intellectuals with a stake in Japan have trimmed their critical sails. [...] For those foreigners willing to bear a certain personal cost, however, I must stress the importance and feasibility of speaking out. (pp. 177-78)

And what a cost you often bear, what a cost. Most disheartening of all is how these forms of censorship and snubbing can manifest themselves not only in the domain of work relationships but also in the private sphere. I've recently learned a painful lesson when a native chap I had (naively) taken for a friend bluntly warned me that I'd soon lose all my Japanese friends, one by one, if I continued criticising Japan the way I do. As the saying goes, with friends like these who the hell needs enemies?!

Not all Japanese are as undiscerning and infantile as this and other chaps I've met here are, thank goodness, but the way such thoughtless, bigoted behaviours recur even among seemingly intelligent and cultured people who should know better is quite alarming. However I try, I can't imagine being cold-shouldered by a Western friend just because I've criticised some aspect of her/his culture. While s/he might disagree with the remark(s), we'll certainly remain friends as before. You expect people to be sensible or, well, sane (!) enough to make some basic distinctions.

Not in Japan though, apparently. A small-minded, kokoro no semai, ki ga mijikai Japanese will bitterly resent you, and your outspokenness will forever cast a shadow on your... er... 'friendship'. It's only a question of time until you pay the price and have the door slammed in your face. These fellas will make sure you do: they simply know no other way, so deeply is the pattern of surveillance & punishment engraved in their psyche (since, say, the Edo period?).

On the other hand, a Western assertive mind can't help wondering that one must be really at a low ebb - or in a state of utter denial - and have a very, very fragile sense of identity to display such a chronic inability to gracefully deal with criticism, to make some basic distinctions like those mentioned above as well as to see or judge the flaws in the bubble inside of which one lives.

Now, reverting to my very open circle of Western friends in Tokyo and our recent slow lunch. As we were discussing these and other matters concerning cultural-national allegiances and their pitfalls, one of them wittily remarked that the reason why most Westerners find it so hard to cope with this straightjacket society is that we are creatures of exuberance, passion, who thrive on individuality, idiosyncrasy, iconoclasm, dissent, conflict, risk-taking. The fragile, diffident, self-censored Japanese ego, by contrast, feels gravely threatened and easily freaks out and crumbles when faced with all these things that unsettle its overneat uchi/soto mental categories and challenge thereby its spurious sense of wa.

In view of all these crucial differences, what forms of understanding and dialogue with such hopeless people can one possibly envisage? I'm at my wits' end indeed, I must confess. After all these years.

Friday, February 25, 2011

the pleasures of friendship

Impromptu, sincere gestures of friendship are a rarity in this land of sickeningly untrusting and two-faced people.

That's why these gestures are such a joy -- as when you arrive home late in the evening after an exhausting day and find a small bowl of delicious, wholesome stew at the bottom of your stairway tenderly left by a friend with an affectionate note.

Arigato, I.-san! You're one in a million indeed.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

everlasting resurrection

At the end of an unbelievably stressful and hectic month that never seemed to end, the first intimations of spring bring some signs of hope.

This winter of my discontent will soon be over, it will be.

Frostbitten and battle-scarred, but I've survived another one.

*       *       *

Weeping oaks grieve, chestnuts raise
mournful candles. Sad is spring
to perpetuate, sad to trace
immortalities never changing.

Weary on the sea
for sight of land
gazing past the coming wave we
see the same wave;

drift on merciless reiteration of years;
descry no death; but spring
is everlasting

--Basil Bunting, from First Book of Odes (1924) in Collected Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 75.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

so as not to forget

For friendship
make a chain that holds,
to be bound to
others, two by two,

a walk, a garland,
handed by hands
that cannot move
unless they hold.

            --Robert Creeley

Sunday, February 20, 2011

into the shadows, again

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.... 
        --T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Who has the courage to go into the dark places where
there is nothing but feeling?   
                 --Thomas A. Clark, 'A Walk by Moonlight'

Baffling indeed, how this growing obsession with the spotlight of continuous display, this incessant chitter-chatter on mobile phones, Facebooks, Twitters, whatever, can coexist with, or perhaps serve to mask, a neurotic fear of genuine disclosure, a panic over the emotional openness to others --- and to oneself.

When everything, everyone is mask, performance, stage, rehearsal, calculation, is there any room left for the shadows of true intimacy, for the spontaneity of feeling?

For life itself...?

Friday, February 18, 2011


In the same way that sometimes you have to get rid of yourself to find yourself, other times you have to leave home to find home - or at least to write it.

wanting a message

If you want messages you must provide an orifice.
But to really want messages is itself an orifice,
a lesion, an interruption of the diurnal pact. The future
ferments in this cleft, packed with honour and disdain,
drawing us ever larger and further on, to this self-
same world, that listens; the rest is vain stuff.

Surely it is this whole particular, this action we
are that draws our sight into the funnel, opening
and closing as the light wing flutters, back
and forth, back and forth, wisdom and rubbish -
poetry is the flight. And now if I can just get out
of this notional claw I'll find exactly where I am.

--Peter Riley, from 'Ballad of the Broken Bridge' in Passing Measures: A Collection of Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2000), p. 16.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

my own pillow book (2)

Resuming the compilation of intense dislikes for my own pillow book...

*       *       *

Sanctimoniousness. Self-righteous, holier-than-thou people who don't hesitate to summarily judge and execute others for their faults and shortcomings, as if they themselves were paragons of virtue. (And, of course, they're always the first to claim they never judge other people. Never. What an idea!)

Needless to say, hypocrisy and fickleness never lag far behind these chaps.

Maybe because I come from such a stuffy old catholic culture, I'm way too familiar with the pattern and have no patience whatsoever for such troubled souls.

Let them rot in their own misery thus.


Monday, February 14, 2011

forgetting me, remember me

At the end of a day full of bitter-sweet memories you want to forget and remember, an old fave.

Because the goal of living is to contradict ourselves.

*       *       *

in time of daffodils(who know
the goal of living is to grow)
forgetting why,remember how

in time of lilacs who proclaim
the aim of waking is to dream,
remember so(forgetting seem)

in time of roses(who amaze
our now and here with paradise)
forgetting if,remember yes

in time of all sweet things beyond
whatever mind may comprehend,
remember seek(forgetting find)

and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me,remember me

   --e. e. cummings


Saturday, February 12, 2011

literary women

Some things haven't changed that much indeed concerning the treatment of women deemed to have transgressed their 'proper' place or certain social and cultural boundaries.

*       *       *

To be pointed at - to be noticed & commented upon - to be suspected of literary airs - to be shunned, as literary women are, by the more unpretending of my own sex: & abhorred, as literary women are, by the more pretending of the other! - My dear, I would sooner exhibit as a rope dancer.

--Mary Brunton, 1810 [qtd. in E. Eger, C. Grant, C. O' Gallchoir, and P. Warburton, eds. Women, Writing and the Public Sphere, 1700-1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 1.]

women on the move

And the journey continues, with the most interesting discoveries and insights cropping up on the way:

The historian Eric J. Leed acknowledges the constitutive masculinity of travel when he argues that, 'from the time of Gilgamesh,' journeying has served as 'the medium of traditional male immortalities,' enabling men to imagine escape from death by the 'crossing' of space and the 'record[ing]' of adventures 'in bricks, books, and stories.' He even labels this travel, which provides men the opportunity to achieve notable distinction through self-defining experience far from home, 'spermatic' travel.

Ever in the process of becoming 'men,' travellers affirm their masculinity through purposes, activities, behaviors, dispositions, perspectives, and bodily movements displayed on the road, and through the narratives of travel that they return home to the sending culture. Thus, travel functions as a defining area of agency. We cannot imagine Odysseus without his travels, or Aeneas, or the knights of the Round Table, or Columbus, Captain Cook, Boswell, Byron, or Loti, or, closer to our own times, Jack Kerouac. Nor can we imagine them without their travel narratives. These narratives of travel can be read as journey myths 'project[ing],' as Richard Slotkin suggests of myths generally, 'models of good and heroic behavior that reinforce the values of ideology, and affirm as good the distribution of authority and power that ideology rationalizes.'

Leed contrasts the masculine logic of mobility with the logic of 'sessility'. To be 'sessile,' in botanical terms, is to be permanently planted, tenaciously fixed, utterly immobile. It is, in a sense, to remain always 'at home,' which has been the traditional locale assigned to women. What Judith Butler describes as 'the domain of socially instituted norms,' through which gender identity and gendered relationships get reiterated in everyday occasions, secures the domestication of a woman through protocols of proper femininity that tether her to home and thus to a requisite sessility. But she is not just resident in the home. As Karen R. Lawrence observes in Penelope Voyages, 'She in effect is home itself, for the female body is traditionally associated with earth, shelter, enclosure.' Whatever particular women may be doing in their everyday lives, the idea of woman as 'earth, shelter, enclosure,' as 'home,' persists, anchoring femininity, weighing it down, fixing it as a compass point [my note: an idea that is deeply - and depressingly - entrenched in Japanese culture and language]. Moreover, the 'home' that is identified as feminine, feminized, and equated with woman becomes that which must be left behind in the pursuit of agency. This 'stifling home,' Meaghan Morris observes so tellingly, has been precisely 'the place from which the voyage begins and to which, in the end, it returns.'

Yet, even though travel has generally been associated with men and masculine prerogatives, even though it has functioned as a domain of constitutive masculinity, women have always been and continue to be on the move. They climb aboard sailing vessels, or pull themselves onto horses, or grab a walking stick and set out along rutted paths, or rush to make a train. If traveling, being on the road, makes a man a man - and makes masculinity and its power visible - what does it make a woman, who is at once subject as home and subject at home? What does it make for a particular woman to gain access to this defining arena of agency in the West?

--Sidonie Smith, Moving Lives: Twentieth-Century Women's Travel Writing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. ix-x.

The journey continues...

Image: Isabella L. Bird, the intrepid Victorian traveller, in Tibet at the end of the 19th century.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

and you can turn back no longer, no longer stand still

Strange days. The wait on the eve of momentous decisions suspends time, puts life in parentheses, allows even the nursing of a heavy cold at home. Good for reading, writing, musing, imagining future possibilities.

Yet impossible at the same time to avoid a certain sadness, a sense of loss at the prospect of other once imagined possibilities and cherished hopes being left behind - foundered, shipwrecked, scorched.

But maybe, as a dear friend has recently told me, the hardest thing will be when the moment of truth arrives and you will have to renounce the numbing security of old habits, the memory of places & people that were once part of your life, however briefly. For good and all.

In the meantime, this strange limbo. Neither good nor bad, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, neither warm nor cold. Just something in between, moving in slow motion - inexorably, though.

*       *       *

Above and below
The roll of days spread out like a cloth
Days engraved on everyone's forehead
Yesterday folding Tomorrow opening
Today like a horse without a rider
Today a drop of water falling into a lake
Today a white light above and below

A fan of days held in a virgin hand
A burning taper burning paper
And you can turn back no longer
No longer stand still
The words of poems curling among the ashes
Hieroglyphics of larger despairs than ours.

--David Gascoyne, 'No Solution' in Selected Poems (London: Enitharmon, 1994), p. 34.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

writing matters (1)

... Writing matters tremendously for women; ... how we plot ourselves into our fictions has everything to do with how we plot ourselves into our lives.

Writing hurts.

--Ruth Behar, 'Introduction: Out of Exile' in Ruth Behar and Deborah A. Gordon, eds. Women Writing Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 15; 23.

to a troubled friend

Past the desert, out of the fog, whatever, but we will.
We shall ride out this storm, girl.

*       *       *

i command you to be
good runners
to go with grace
go well in the dark and
make for high ground
my dearest girls
my girls
my more than me

            --Lucille Clifton

poem at the end of the world

the poem at the end of the world
is the poem the little girl breathes
into her pillow   the one
she cannot tell    the one
there is no one to hear       this poem
is a political poem    is a war poem        is a
universal poem but is not about
these things    this poem
is about one human heart    this poem
is the poem at the end of the world

       --Lucille Clifton, from shapeshifter poems.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

we are easily disloyal

                              ...That's how we
are disloyal, without constancy to the little
play and hurt in the soul. Being less than
strict in our gaze; the day flickers and
thins and contracts, oh yes and thus does
get smaller, and smaller: the northern
winter is an age for us and the owl of
my right hand is ready for flight. I have
already seen its beating search in the sky,
hateful, I will not look. By our lights
we stand to the sudden pleasure of how
the colour is skimmed to the world, and our
life does lie as a fallen and slanted thing.

   --J. H. Prynne, from 'Love in the Air' in The White Stones (1969).

Sunday, February 6, 2011

kurutteru shakai

Again, it's somewhat reassuring to notice that I'm not alone in my perception that the number of mentally deranged individuals in this society - monster parents, monster children (not to mention monster dogs!), claimers from hell, and all sorts of misanthropes & sociopaths - is well beyond the safety limit, and that they're increasingly capable of anything to vent their spite and rage.

So watch your back - and, above all, do not ever touch anyone, not even lightly...

Kurutteru shakai, most definitely.

*       *       *

There be all kinds of monsters among us

An old saying goes "Issun no mushi ni mo gobu mo tamashi" (even a one-inch worm has a half-inch soul); i.e., even the most humble and powerless creature can put up with only so much before turning on its tormentor.

As if to confirm this aphorism, the media has been abuzz since belatedly learning that last September, a teacher at a public primary school in Gyoda, a city of 85,000 in northern Saitama Prefecture, filed suit against the parents of a girl in her third-grade class.

Reports on the TV wide shows and in the print media invariably referred to the defendants as monsutaa pearentsu (monster parents).

Apparently the previous June, the teacher had mediated a dispute between two girls, and the parents of one, believing the teacher had not been impartial, reacted with a torrent of verbal and written complaints to the school, the Ministry of Education, the Gyoda City office, the prefectural Board of Education, and the Commission on Human Rights.

"They even filed an assault charge at the Gyoda police station against the teacher, for touching their daughter on the back," a reporter at a local news bureau told Shukan Shincho (Feb. 3).

The child had reportedly claimed the teacher had smacked her from behind. The teacher said she had only "lightly touched" the child.

The 45-year-old teacher charged that the parents' persistent and aggressive complaints had traumatized her, leading to insomnia. She also maintained she could no longer function as a teacher, and demanded ¥5 million in damages.

According to a colleague, the teacher decided to proceed with the lawsuit because she "would be marked as a criminal" if the parents didn't cease their attacks.

Despite the child allegedly being singled out for bullying by classmates, the parents kept her in school to maintain her record of perfect attendance.

Determined to find proof that his complaints were justified, the father even had his daughter secrete a voice recorder on her person before going to school.

"My kid would absolutely never tell a lie," he's quoted in Shukan Post (Feb. 11).

The school has declined to comment to the media, but perhaps as a result of the growing media exposure, on Jan. 21, the teacher tendered her resignation.

"She was a good teacher, but from last year I could tell she'd begun to appear haggard," a colleague told Shukan Post.

It has been widely reported that this monster parent phenomenon by no means ends upon leaving primary school. In some cases, it continues while a child is in university, or even after reaching adulthood and taking up employment.

In Nikkan Gendai (Jan. 27), labor consultant Yuka Inage recalls a case where a parent complained to the company that her offspring was obliged to work overtime without compensation, and demanded overtime pay: "He's too docile and won't speak up for himself," came the explanation. But from a legal standpoint, writes Inage, parents or guardians are only empowered to act on behalf of minors. If you're really serious about claiming wages on your adult child's behalf, you'll require a power of attorney — a tactic unlikely to endear anyone to his or her employer.

Other species of "monsters" have also been making increasingly frequent appearances at government offices and businesses. Several years ago a business magazine, Shukan Diamond, devoted its Jan. 26, 2008, cover story to "claimers from hell." As a prime example, it related the story of an infuriated resident of Uji City in Kyoto Prefecture, who persistently demanded the city replace all its manhole covers because they bore the manufacturer's name, which happened to be the same as his surname. "My children will suffer harassment," he ranted.

Diamond went so far as to categorize claimers into 11 basic types: 1) the outright sociopaths; 2) people who harbor a phobia of dirt or germs; 3) the goody two-shoes meddlers on behalf of others; 4) the self-righteous sermonizers; 5) those who imagine they are victims of some injustice; 6) those who feel they deserve deferential treatment just because they paid money; 7) the overly tenacious; 8) those with too much time on their hands; 9) the persistent, "stalker" variety; 10) those who revel in showing off their superior knowledge about the product or technology; and 11) the hysterical whiners.

Japan, in the view of those who must contend with the above, is metamorphosing into a nation where people don't just raise complaints, but make false charges and pick fights at the slightest pretext.

The phenomenon inspired Shinichi Sekine to write a book titled "The Claimer Next Door" (Chuokoron Shinsha, 2007).

Sekine told an interviewer in Shukan Gendai magazine that he believes the recent barrage of bellicose objections reflects a change in the temperament of Japanese.

"They are not just complaining; their methods are becoming increasingly spiteful, such as demanding money or that an apology be made in writing," he noted.

The archetypal image of Japanese as a people who are stoic and undemonstrative, it seems, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

The Japan Times: Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011
(C) All rights reserved

how can we sustain such constant loss

... And yet home is easily our
idea of it, the music of decent and proper
order, it's this we must leave in some quite
specific place if we are not to carry it
everywhere with us
... Music is truly the
sound of our time, since it is how we most
deeply recognise the home we may not
have: the loss is trust and you could
reverse that without change.

--J. H. Prynne, from 'Thoughts on Esterhazy Court Uniform' in The White Stones (1969).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

existential shipwrecks...

My visions were of shipwreck and famine; of death or captivity among barbarian hordes; of a lifetime dragged out in sorrow and tears, upon some gray and desolate rock, in an ocean unapproachable and unknown. Such visions and desires--for they amounted to desires--... I regarded . . . as prophetic glimpses of a destiny which I felt myself in a measure bound to fulfill.

--Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), p. 57.

down with it (2)

I give up.

However hard you try to keep yourself in good spirits and show goodwill towards people here, you're constantly butting heads with this unassailable wall of narrow-mindedness and aloofness.

You write to a non-Japanese friend or colleague asking a favour and s/he promptly and gracefully responds, no matter how eminent or busy s/he is. You expect the same of a Japanese colleague or... er... 'friend' - and s/he couldn't care less.

These cultural and psychological differences are so immensely, so sadly revealing.

What damn moronic society is this that brainwashes people into believing that to show themselves aloof, unavailable and unresponsive to others is some kind of manly virtue or a sign of moral superiority...?

Rock bottom indeed.

But, well, you live and learn...

(Image source:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

a wave-blurred portrait

Enough of romanticised sirens and their songs, enough.
An anti-siren song, for a change -- for something truer to life.

*       *       *

My life is hung up
in the flood
  a wave-blurred

Don't fall in love
with this face--
   it no longer exists
              in water
                    we cannot fish

            --Lorine Niedecker