Saturday, August 20, 2011

closing the parenthesis

What is another language? Not just words
and rules you don't know, but concepts too
for feelings and ideas you never knew,
or thought, to name; like a poem that floods
its lines with light, as in the fabled
origin of life, escaping paraphrase.
So living in that country always was
mysterious and never to be equalled.

--Andrew McNeillie, from 'Cynefin Glossed'.

It has been with me for four years and I made it into the main vehicle for tackling the perplexities of living in this country. I have tried, not always successfully of course, to strike a balance between my own limited perception and a desire to generalise and understand the larger patterns of life here so as to stay afloat and not be hopelessly engulfed by them.

I wrote the truth as I saw it, to paraphrase an intrepid predecessor who travelled in Japan at the end of the 19th century and soon found the country 'a study rather than a rapture'. More than a century later, so did I.

The time has come to bring this space to a close, as I will now be moving elsewhere and opening a new chapter in life. I will no longer be in Japan, but Japan will always remain in me and be joined by other equally baffling places and experiences. The writing is thus bound to continue somewhere (I'm already marinating some ideas), and, to those who might eventually be interested in following it, I will leave a note here at some point. It might still take me a while to find my feet though, so please bear with me.

Apart from a few friends who give me feedback every now and then, I don't really know the identities nor the motivations of the readers who have followed this blog regularly or occasionally, but I'm grateful for their time and interest.

And I couldn't possibly leave without also expressing my appreciation and thanks to the dear enemies, those who through their example have shown me the kind of person I most definitely do not want to become. Amazing indeed how a couple of years in this society can make empty shells of so many -- way too many -- people. That's why I'm out of here, while there is still some humanity left in me.

The journey continues -- and with it the bewilderment, the curiosity, the discovery, the desire for the new and the unexpected.

Até sempre!

departures (11)

Even the weather seems to have gently yielded to the melancholic mood -- and I would be filled with gratitude if it just snowed tomorrow.

For there is no better way to say goodbye than to evanesce in the blizzard, together with the memory of happier times.

*       *       *

My friend who loves owls
Has been with me all day
Walking at my ear
And speaking of old summers
When to speak was easy.
His eyes are almost gone
Which made him hear well.
Under our feet the great
Glacier drove its keel.
What is to read there
Scored out in the dark?
Later the north-west distance
Thickened towards us.
The blizzard grew and proved
Too filled with other voices
High and desperate
For me to hear him more.
I turned to see him go
Becoming shapeless into
The shrill swerving snow.

--W.S. Graham, from 'Malcom Mooney's Land.'

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

last things

It is strange indeed how seemingly trivial everyday activities -- having a bath, making a cup of tea, listening to the sounds outside before falling asleep in the small hours, catching a glimpse of the fist morning light through the half-opened curtain -- acquire an almost ritualistic, dreamlike quality when you know you are performing them for the last time in a particular place.

As though you were walking barefoot down a cliff path and feeling every stone beneath your feet.

As though you could taste the tears a friend struggles to hold back when waving you goodbye at the station.

As though you were sleeping one final night in your small prison cell before being set free.

The bittersweet flavour of last things.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

it is the best of times, it is the worst of times (3)

What a fine little poem to bump into in an (almost) empty house amid the rubble and the remains of an abandoned life.

Another serendipity, of course -- and it might well be the last.

Because I sail, I sail.

*       *       *

Look !

I am becalmed in a deep sea
And give signals, but they are not answered.
And yet I see ships in the distance
And give signals, but they do not answer.

Am I a pariah ship, or a leper
To be shunned reasonably?
Or did I commit a crime long ago
And have forgotten, but they remember?

Into the dark night into darker I move
And the lights of the ships are not seen now
But instead there is a phosphorescence from the water
That light shines, and now I see

Low down, as I bend my hand into the water
A fish so transparent in his inner organs
That I know he comes from the earthquake bed
Five miles below where I sail, I sail.

All his viscera are transparent, his eyes globule on stalks
Is he dead? Or alive and only languid? Now
Into my hand he comes, the travelling creature,
Not from the sea-bed only but from generations,
Faint because of the lighter pressure,
Fainting, a long fish, stretched out.

So we meet, and for a moment
I forget my solitariness.
But then I should like to show him,
And who shall I show him to?

--Stevie Smith, from Not Waving but Drowning in Collected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1983), p. 369.

Fuses, again

Donald Richie's comment on the denigration of women in pornography has reminded me of a text I posted here almost two years ago, and which I cannot resist linking once again.

And can any human being in her/his right mind wish for anything else than to inhabit a relationship in this way -- no hierarchies, no denigration or objectification of anyone? Just the sheer joy of intimacy and trust.

Monday, August 15, 2011

the future

The Western world and many of its time-honoured values, beliefs and social systems -- human rights, multiculturalism, the welfare state, democracy itself -- seem to be on the verge of collapse, and there are very few grounds for optimism about what will take their place.

And when one looks at the societies and political systems that are now emerging and rising to power in the world scene despite their total disrespect for the individual and her/his dignity, for the environment, for pluralism, for freedom of thought and speech, for history and memory, then one cannot but remember Orwell's ominous words from Nineteen Eighty-Four:

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Yet the urge to be there and witness history unfolding is irrepressible, as well the desire to mitigate it somehow, however modestly,  however discreetly, by leaving a mark on those who will at once suffer and be held responsible for its consequences in the future.

departures (10)

Not that it brings any reassurance or comfort.

Compiling all these thoughts, musings, ruminations, is not so much to pave the way for the journey ahead as a way of suspending the physical departure by painstakingly enlarging, stone by stone, the narrow passage that leads to a door which opens to yet another passage that leads to yet another door, and so on and so on.

The thoughts are the stones on the way; the destination does not matter.

Ideally, no one should even notice the moment of departure, because there is no such thing, really. You always leave earlier or later than they realise.

No parting gifts needed. No definitive goodbyes.

Travel at once sculpts and erodes your sense of belonging by creating passages that are nothing but permeable membranes between worlds, categories, dichotomies.

I am here and not here.

I am still here and have already left.

I shall never return but will arrive again.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

through queer eyes

A fine review of Donald Richie's latest book of essays in today's edition of The Japan Times, a review which does justice to his unique insights as a long-residing, non-assimilated foreigner in Japan.

The article doesn't directly refer to this, but it is widely known that Richie's has always been the perspective of a gay man. Hence perhaps his comfort in "the distance of being a foreigner in Japan. . . . This I regard as the best seat in the house. Because from here I can compare, and comparison is the first step toward understanding. I have learned to regard freedom as more important than belonging."

Interesting, no doubt, how Japan has been such a paradise of emotional detachment for so many western... gay men, precisely. Richie's comments on the seedy but also infantilized world of Japanese sex clubs where "anything goes" may provide some suggestive clues about why this has been (and will continue to be) so.

Yet to a straight western woman who has reached her wits' end in Japan, the following remarks are much more significant -- and depressing. They certainly provide valuable clues about why stuffy old Japan is (and will continue to be) such an inhospitable place for independent, liberated women:

Richie is a sympathetic witness to the plight of women in Japan, deploring that they are "frankly regarded as chattel. The double standard is so ingrained that it is taken for granted. The manipulation of women for economic, social, and sexual purposes is openly displayed and its rightness is seldom officially questioned."

Lamentably, "women seem also to subscribe to the rightness of their own oppression. They submit and endure."

[my comment: Chizuko Ueno, one of Japan's most outspoken feminist scholars, once remarked that these Japanese women suffer from a serious form of 'moral masochism'.]

It is precisely the systematic discrimination women suffer, he argues, that makes them consummate actresses. Role-playing is second nature, a coping mechanism as, "From the earliest age she learns to mask her true feelings and to counterfeit those she does not feel."

This comes in handy in pornography where the formula insists that "women must be denigrated and she must deserve to be." He adds that in this realm women are portrayed as hysterical animals: "While she screams, kicks, and in general abandons herself, he remains thoughtful, calm, a dedicated craftsman." Curiously, the genre is "puritanical about the virgin state," while insisting that "women are evil, that sex is their instrument and that men are their prey."

Indeed. I have written on nothing else of late (here, herehere and here e.g.) -- and only wish that the self-imposed geographical distance I will be very soon acquiring will one day allow me to simply laugh at the sheer ludicrousness, backwardness and absurdity of it all.

first intimation

Manuscript upon manuscript, day upon day, consecutive separations from what we love,
winter is approaching . . . .

---Maria Gabriela Llansol, Na Casa de Julho e Agosto / In the House of July and August, trans. from the Portuguese by DK.

It is, it is, even at the height of summer. The dead cicada in the sun brings its first intimation --- and I already feel its icy paradise in the bones.

The lurking nostalgia awaiting me.

If only it stayed away a little longer. If only ---

Friday, August 12, 2011

departures (9)

What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country . . . we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. . . . This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in travel, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing. . . . Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way that distraction, as in Pascal's use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves.

—Albert Camus, from Notebooks 1935-1942.

*       *       *

But in the broadest sense, as a passage across significant borders -- a transformation, a transition -- travel is also a way of restoring the fabric of existence that has been torn by intrigue, heartlessness, contempt.

A way of recovering trust and kindness, because when alone among strangers you have no alternative but to be trustful and kind; you put yourself in their hands to feel less alone

And once the torn fabric is quietly and slowly restored, the beauty arising therein becomes all the more precious.

You are back to yourself.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

it is the best of times, it is the worst of times (2)

And yet another small serendipity that mitigates the exhaustion and discomfort of departure. How strangely comforting indeed to find this long-forgotten book in a corner of my messy, in-transit library and to retrieve a passage that pretty much sums up my current frame of mind.

A salutary reminder -- and a celebration -- of the absolute necessity of breaking out from the traps in which we often find ourselves caught and which can shield us from truth and emotion, from life itself: the trap of false comfort and safety, the trap of spurious alibis and reassurances, the trap of numbing habits and routines, the trap of fear.

Despite and beyond all the uncertainties, the hesitations, the despairs.

*       *       *

They walked into what you call traps because they find a lot more shelter and a bit more food in the trap than elsewhere, even though they might finish up in the trap with no room or chance to do anything but wait patiently to be pecked to hell.

--Gwyn Thomas, All Things Betray Thee (1949; London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1986).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I want, if older, still to know

Despite all the frenzied days of packing and preparations, the stocktaking is inevitable and the thought visits you ever so often.

How, in defiance of life's endless disasters and disappointments, one goes on, even when nothing new is promised or seems possible.

The love of truth sounds way too lofty to describe this urge, because it is more simply a desire for self-knowledge, for self-respect, for the respect of others.

Most of all, it is a refusal to let anyone, under whatever circumstances, trample on your inalienable imperative of existing, of standing upright in your own shape, of growing and expressing yourself according to your own autonomy.

Thus I shall hold it close forever keenly, repeating it like a mantra, wherever I am.

Because they shall have no dominion.

*       *       *

Myself (click to listen to Creeley's reading)

What, younger, felt
was possible, now knows
is not—but still
not changed enough—

Walked by the sea,
unchanged in memory—
evening, as clouds
on the far-off rim

of water float,
pictures of time,
smoke, faintness—
still the dream.

I want, if older,
still to know
why, human, men
and women are

so torn, so lost,
why hopes cannot
find better world
than this.

Shelley is dead and gone,
who said,
"Taught them not this—
to know themselves;

their might could not repress
the mutiny within,
And for the morn
of truth they feigned,

deep night
Caught them ere evening . . ."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

it is the best of times, it is the worst of times (1)

... when it arrives, the moment to pack these most precious of belongings into cardboard boxes and send them to a faraway place -- and I'm forced to sort through them and make some stark choices. Which ones to take with you, which ones to leave behind? And how can you possibly create such a hierarchy among your closest friends? And how can you know beforehand which ones you're not going to miss at some point later?

Some of their landscapes, memories, scents are so full of life that all too often I cannot but yield to the irresistible urge to open a parenthesis and be led on countless, unexpected journeys, oblivious to the passing of time and the surrounding chaos.

At other times I just enjoy opening one of them at random and marvelling at the significance of these chance encounters, other countless journeys -- like the following, still sitting warmly on my lap:

With lips I have prevailed
and a brain of fire
now there are ashes in my head.
I haven't heard from you in months
because I am afraid of that black sea,
not needing the bathers in its foam.
More than a tincture of infidelity
more than a tight cock gathered in salt-sweat.
Standing in the rain is like reading
an inaccurate biography of you.
An echo of a sea, raging.

--Barry MacSweeney, from 'Brother Wolf' in Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000 (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe), pp. 30-31.

The task never ends, suspending the closure a little longer.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

a principle of kindness

Davood Emdadian
The deep desire for beauty, which is also a desire for the new, the unexpected.

That which is most repressed because it hates the monotonous, the fixed for fixedness's sake, the safety based on fear, the imposture of language -- the hallucinated misery in which so many seem to live.

A desire for beauty that impels movement and inscribes on the living a principle of kindness, as Llansol calls it.

And there is something eroticising in this kindness, such as the kindness we stake when we love. The kindness that flows and lingers between lovers, and which they, once satiated, run the risk of never finding again.

It alone makes the splendour of bodies, inscribing their intense and attractive forms on significant and surprising relationships from which affection emerges.

And the greatest, deepest grief of every being, that which can make her/him irreversibly bitter, ugly, sick, opaque, is to have risked that kindness and lost it, as though one loses a game.

Because to be abandoned, to have the kindness one has extended to an other treated with contempt is to be buried alive under a devastation of ashes.

Yet how can one possibly resign oneself to lose it?

Better die howling in pain than shield oneself from the risk of growing -- and, above all, from the light one so sorely misses.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

lest we forget

From this the poem springs; that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

--Wallace Stevens, 'Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.'

Friday, August 5, 2011

the house

in that house from afar where she was habitually happy and well imagined, vague hours of a great sadness were formed; the days piled up in a great hierarchy to overcome. . . .

--Maria Gabriela Llansol, Na Casa de Julho e Agosto / In the House of July and August (Lisbon: Relogio D'Agua, 2003), p. 20. Translated from the Portuguese by DK.

It alone counteracted my wanderlust for two years -- its faded beauty, our complicity, the almost mediterranean light in the late afternoon.

The homespun, tucked away Tokyo.

The greatest heartbreak to leave it to such an uncertain fate, bereft of memories, the things once held dear.

However illusory it might all have been.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

'the loneliness of the long-distance foreigner'...

I have written ad nauseam on this depressing topic (hereherehere, herehere and here e.g.), but if doubts still remain about how generally unwelcoming and mistrustful of foreigners - of others, tout court - the Japanese are and how difficult (or virtually impossible) it is for westerners to establish long-lasting, reliable friendships with most of these insufferable bores, I cannot but recommend the article reproduced below.

Such things should no longer surprise me after so many years in Japan, and yet I don't cease to be appalled by the emotional atrophy, iciness, rudeness, self-absorption and utter disrespect for basic human feelings - namely trust - that most Japanese (esp. the males) display in their interactions with others. How much lower can these chaps sink?

*       *       *

The loneliness of the long-distance foreigner
The Japan Times, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011

A few months ago I had beers with several old Japan-hand guys (combined we have more than a century of Japan experiences), and one of them asked an interesting question:

"After all our years here, how many close Japanese male friends do you have?" (Excluding Debito, of course.)

We glanced amongst ourselves and realized that none of us had any. Not one we would count on as a "friend." Nobody to whom we could talk openly, unreservedly, and in depth with, about what's on our minds. Or contact for a place to stay because our spouse was on the warpath. Or call at 3 a.m. to announce the birth of our latest baby. Or ring up on the spur of the moment because we didn't want to drink alone that evening. Or who would care enough to check on us in the event of a natural disaster. Not one.

This occasioned much discussion and theorizing, both at the table and on my blog later (see

(A quick note to readers already poised to strike with poison pens: None of the following theories are necessarily mine, nor do I necessarily agree with them. They are just to stimulate further discussion.)

One theory was that Japanese salarymen of our age group are generally boring people. Too busy or work-oriented to cultivate outside interests or hobbies, these one-note-Taros generally "talk shop" or resort to shaggy-dog stories about food. We contrasted them with Japanese women, who, thanks to more varied lifestyles and interests (including travel, language and culture), are more engaging and make better conversation partners (even if, my friends hastily added, the relationship had not become physical).

Another idea was that for many Japanese men, their hobby was you. By this, the speaker meant the culture vultures craving the "gaijin shiriaiexperience" or honing their language skills. This was OK in the beginning (especially when we first got here) but it got old quickly, as they realized we wanted to learn Japanese too, and when they weren't willing to reciprocate. Not to mention that we eventually got tired of hearing blanket cultural explanations for individual issues (which is how culture vultures are hard-wired to see the world, anyway).

Another theory was that after a certain age, Japanese men don't make "friends" with anyone. The few lifelong friends they would ever make were in school; once they entered the job market, all other males were treated as rivals or steps to promotion — meaning you put up a mask and didn't reveal potentially compromising personal information. Thus if Japanese men were going to make friends at all, they were going to make them permanently, spending enormous time and energy imprinting themselves on precious few people. This meant they had to choose wisely, and non-Japanese — generally seen as in Japan only temporarily and with unclear loyalties — weren't worth the emotional investment.

Related to this were issues of Japan's hierarchical society. Everyone was either subordinate or superior — kōhai or senpai — which interfered with friendships as the years marched on: Few non-Japanese (NJ) wanted to languish as kōhai, and few Japanese wanted to deal with a foreign senpai. Besides, went the theory, this relationship wasn't something we'd classify as a "friendship" anyway. Conclusion: Japanese men, as opposed to Japanese women with their lifetime coffee klatches, were some of the most lonely people on the planet.

Another suggestion was that this was just part of how life shakes down. Sure, when you're young and carefree you can hang out willy-nilly, spend money with abandon and enjoy the beer-induced bonhomie (which Japan's watering holes are very good at creating) with everyone all night. But as time goes on and people get married, have kids, take on a mortgage and a nagging spouse (who doesn't necessarily want you spending their money on your own personal fun, especially if it involves friends of the opposite sex), you prioritize, regardless of nationality.

Fine, our group countered, but we've all been married and had kids, and yet we're still meeting regularly — because NJ priorities include beers with friends from time to time. In fact, for us the older the relationship gets, the more we want to maintain it — especially given all we've been through together. "New friends are silver, but old friends are gold."

Still another, intriguing theory was the utilitarian nature of Japanese relationships, i.e. Japanese make friends not as a matter of course but with a specific purpose in mind: shared lifestyles, interests, sports-team fandom, what have you. But once that purpose had run its course — because you've exhausted all conversation or lost the commonality — you should expect to lose contact. The logic runs that in Japan it is awkward, untoward, even rude to extend a relationship beyond its "natural shelf life." This goes even just for moving to another city in Japan: Consider it normal to lose touch with everyone you leave behind. The thread of camaraderie is that thin in Japan.

However, one naturalized Japanese friend of mine (who just turned 70) pooh-poohed all these theories and took me out to meet his drinking buddies (of both genders, mostly in their 60s and 70s themselves). At this stage in their lives things were less complicated. There were no love triangles, no senpai-kōhai conceits, no "shop talk," because they were all retired. Moreover they were more outgoing and interesting, not only because they were cultivating pastimes to keep from going senile, but also because the almighty social lubricant of alcohol was omnipresent (they drank like there was no tomorrow; for some of them, after all, there might not be!). For my friend, getting Japanese to lower their masks was pretty easy.

Fine, but I asked if it weren't a bit unreasonable for us middle-aged blokes to wait for this life stage just to make some Japanese friends. These things may take time, and we may indeed have to spend years collecting shards of short interactions from the local greengrocer before we put together a more revealing relationship. But in the meantime, human interaction with at least one person of the same gender that goes beyond platitudes, and hopefully does not require libation and liver damage, is necessary now for sanity's sake, no?

There were other, less-developed theories, but the general conclusion was: Whatever expectation one had of "friends" — either between Japanese and NJ, or between Japanese themselves — there was little room over time for overlap. Ultimately NJ-NJ relationships wound up being more friendly, supportive and long-lasting.

Now it's time for disclaimers: No doubt the regular suspects will vent their spleen to our Have Your Say section and decry this essay as overgeneralizing, bashing, even discriminating against Japanese men.

Fire away, but you'd be missing the point of this column. When you have a good number of NJ long-termers saying they have few to no long-term Japanese friends, this is a very serious issue — with a direct connection to issues of immigration and assimilation of outsiders. It may be a crude barometer regarding life in Japan, but let's carry on the discussion anyway and see how sophisticated we can make it.

So let's narrow this debate down to one simple question: As a long-term NJ resident in Japan, how many Japanese friends do you have, as defined in the introduction above? (You might say that you have no relationship with anyone of any nationality with that much depth, but that's awfully lonely — I dare say even unhealthy — and I hope you can remedy that.) Respondents who can address the other sides of the question (i.e. NJ women befriending Japanese women/men, and same-sex relationships) are especially welcome, as this essay has a shortage of insight on those angles.

Be honest. And by "honest", I mean giving this question due consideration and experience: People who haven't been living in Japan for, say, about 10 years, seeing how things shake down over a significant portion of a lifetime's arc, should refrain from commentary and let their senpai speak. "I've been here one year and have oodles of Japanese friends, you twerpski!" just isn't a valid sample yet. And please come clean about your backgrounds when you write in, since age, gender, occupation, etc. all have as much bearing on the discussion as your duration of time in Japan.

Above all, remember what my job as a columnist is: to stimulate public discussion. Respondents are welcome to disagree (I actually consider agreement from readers to be an unexpected luxury), but if this column can at least get you to think, even start clacking keyboards to The Japan Times, I've done my job. Go to it. Consider yourself duly stimulated, and please offer us some friendly advice.

The Japan Times: Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011
(C) All rights reserved

Monday, August 1, 2011

writing matters (4)

The invading letter I could have written, I should have written, no matter what.

But will never write.

You are not a memory, you are a landscape; at a certain moment of your suffering, you sent me a landscape that is a dune in front of the sea; a landscape with the scent of the sea breeeze in which I lay my spirit to behold time; no being of a companion dwells therein, but I see him, and it seems to me that the dune should not always be deserted; we are sitting on the sand, marvelling at the beauty coming out of our emptiness; and I cannot efface the pain, but on the sand of the dune, amidst some trees, there is the joy we recognised as fragile and precious.

--Maria Gabriela Llansol, Na Casa de Julho e Agosto / In the House of July and August (Lisbon: Relogio D'Agua, 2003), p. 29. Translated from the Portuguese by DK.