Dec 17, 2006

My Reviews of Japanese Stuff, Part III: A Book, a Point of Etiquette, and a Transportation Phenomenon

Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
Oh, Banana Yoshimoto. You're adorable.
Back in my bookstore days, I remember shelving/hearing about Yoshimoto quite a bit, but never read anything by her. So, in my quest to delve into Japanese literature, I picked up Kitchen, her best known book. I liked it. Ok, it's not great literature. It's light and fluffy, much like an amicable cat or the delightful holiday film Love, Actually. Not super great, but fun and smile-making.
That said, I'm now going to way overthink the book's sexual politics.
I picked up Kitchen right after I finished Confessions of a Mask, and was surprised that I'd yet again stumbled on another big, gay, Japanese book. Kitchen, though, isn't the sex-hell that Mishima describes.
The two stories in the book both feature men who dress as women- the first has undergone full-on sexual reassignment surgery, the second dresses in women's clothing. I find it curious, that in both stories the men's sexual different-ness is construed as a reaction to grief. And it seems, that because she presents transgenderism as a dramatic reaction to grief, Yoshimoto tacitly justifies it for the given circumstances of her characters.
But, that's not good enough, methinks.
I don't doubt Yoshimoto's sincerity. Like I said, she's adorable. She seems to have genuine empathy for her queer characters, but perniciously portrays alternative sexuality as something arising from extraordinary circumstances, not as something that's part of (that big, pretentious term) the human condition. I know that she wrote Kitchen as a young woman, and I wonder if her views have matured in the past twenty some years.
Japan is a much less sexually liberal contry than the U.S. So, I'm wondering if maybe I should have a "take what I can get" sort of attitude when it comes to any gleaming of sexual liberalism. Yoshimoto is a happy, pluralistic utopia compared with the brooding stylings of Mishima, so maybe instead of being annoyed at her for not being liberal enough, I should just be glad she's basically on my side philosophically. Hmm.
The book is fun, though. It's not the "new voice of young Japan" that people have proclaimed it to be, but if you want to be distracted for an afternoon, then I'd recommend it.

Being Expected To Slurp
Ramen, that is. This one requires somethign of a story-
One night, at the local gaijin bar, I was speaking English with a bunch of people, when all of a sudden this rather colorful dude walks in with a girl at his side. The guy was maybe in his sixties, gray hair, lined face, but wearing a pair of shiny leather pants with an enormous rhinestone buckle. It was like Texas had invaded his abdomen. This guy was what the word "jolly" was made for. He was old, his face lined, but he was active and outgoing, and was promptly able to charismatically dominate the bar, even though he spoke practically no English.
Beside him, was a girl maybe a third of his age. At first I thought it was a sugardaddy/armpiece arrangement, but I figured out that they were just friends. She was obviously in "going out" wear, but nothing of her's really matched her geriatric companion's cow-made culottes or shiny belt bling. She, too, spoke practically no English.
So, this old leather pants dude starts giving the gaijin there improptu Japanese lessons. It's incredible. He speaks very slowly, is happy and laughs a lot, and and everyone likes him. Meanwhile, the girl is hitting on me, and asks me if I like ramen. "Yes," I say. "I really want some ramen," she says as a pretention of getting us out of the bar. However, the leather pants guy managed to overhear us, and happily invited himself to ramen with us.
So, me, her, and the old guy in leather pants all go out for ramen at about one thirty in the morning. We sit there, and with their sparse English and my bare-bones Japanese, we actually managed to have a conversation. Apparently, he is an architect, and she is a geography student. And, while eating ramen, they told me all about slurping.
"In Japan," he said, "you slurp." He made a long, loud wet sound as he ate the ramen, and looked at me with the universal expression for "now you try."
I did, and forsaking all instinct and ingrained behavior patters, slurped up the noodles.
This was very weird for met. I sort of get this. I mean, slurping means you enjoy it, right? Which is good. But, for me, the slurping motion seems wholly unnatural. I try to do it, to fit in, but I'd much rather just simply swallow my ramen and be efficient about it rather than tacking on a superfluous slurping step.
But, now whenever I'm in a restaurant and eating some liquid-intensive food, I just think back to meeting the leather pants dude and the girl, and how they said "good job" to me as I got on my bike to bid them adieu. "Now you can slurp," they said, each giving me the thumbs-up sign in the moonlight. I rode home. I didn't make it with the girl, but I was quite happy with my new culinary knowledge.
And I do slurp. Loudly. The other gaijin think it's disgusting.

Maybe this is just an Okayama thing. I've heard that in big cities, traffic is quite regularized. But, out here in the "definitely-a-city-but-there's-lots-of-country-and-rural-stuff-around" land of Okayama, the street traffic is maddening. I'm not talking about driving (I don't have a car here) I mean biking and walking. I'm serious. Walking is confusing.
Except for one glorious street, Okayama doesn't have any bike lanes. So, everyone here just rides their bikes on the sidewalks. You'd think that this wouldn't be too big a deal. The sidewalks are very, very wide, so you'd think that the bikes would be consigned to one side, and pedestrians another. No, this is not the case.
I'm going to digress for a moment.
I have a friend back in Eugene, K, who is absolutely maddening to ride bikes with. Maddening because she's extrodinarily slow. When I ride my bike, I don't actually sit in the saddle. I stand up, so I can extend my legs all the way, only ever sitting when I'm stopping or going extremely slowly. K actually sits down. She sits in the saddle and leisurely pedals forward. When I asked her about this, she told me that bike riding should be "relaxing." I don't understand this. I mean, it can be relaxing sometimes, but mostly I think of bike riding as a form of rapid transit/exercise, neither of which you get leisurely sitting in the saddle, slowly pedaling forward.
Everyone in Okayama seems to ride like K. Everyone. Old ladies hunch over handle bars going the approximate speed of a peg-legged chihuahaua. Business guys chatting on their cell phones, their personal transport a secondary task. Short-skirted schoolgirls creeping across sidewalks like some great, gradual uniformed mob.
Not only that, but Euclidian geometry is oftentimes merrily discarded by the populace of Okayama, and instead of walking in straight lines, folks seem to have this sort of meandering mosey that they do everywhere and anywhere. They zig, they zag, the stop for a moment or two. I don't get it. There are plenty of times, when I'm walking in a perfectly straight line, and I'll almost run into someone. How does this happen? How? I'm getting better at it. It's like it's a giant game of Frogger.

(For the record: I loves ya, K! Even with the slow-bike stuff. Seriously! You rock, and such.)

1 comment:

K said...

I loves you too... I'm not THAT slow.... Slow, granted, but not THAT slow. ;)