Mar 29, 2008

One Thing That Made Me Happy, One Thing That Pissed Me Off

When American troops invaded Okinawa at the end of WWII, the Japanese army handed out grenades to the civilian population and forced them to commit suicide in the face of the invaders. It's a nasty incident, to say the least. My personal reading of it was a move on the army's part to stoke American perceptions of supposed Japanese fanaticism. If the residents of a small, southern island would destroy themselves in the face of a military onslaught, then the Americans would except the same, on a grander scale, if they invaded the home islands. Personally, I doubt whether this scenario would have ever played out, and I think that oftentimes the American military exaggerated the extent of Japanese nationalism.

In any case, though, talk about this ugly incident has been quite politically charged for the past fifty years. But, fortunately, an Osaka court just dismissed a libel case against Kenzaburo Oe, an author who wrote openly about the incident. This is awesome. I haven't read any of Oe's books, but now I think I'll pick one up the next time I'm in a bookstore. Apparently most of his books are about existentialism and sex. Sounds fun.

In other, less nifty news, one of Slate's travel correspondents has written an absolutely idiotic bit about Hiroshima. From the tone of the article, he seems disappointed that the city's citizens don't walk around crying all the time, and seems slightly indignant that Hiroshima (a modern city in a modern country) has a perfectly normal Kinkos and a perfectly normal Starbucks. He even seems put out by the Okonomiyaki, the fun, greasy regional specialty. What was he expecting? Atomic Sorrow Lattes? Kinkos All Night Nuclear Devastation Copy Center? Talking about the city's history is one thing- expecting that history to be hung around its neck is another.

Anyway, the abovelinked article wasn't awesome. In fact, it made me actively angry. I'd be interested to know what ya'll think.

Mar 27, 2008

On Kipling

That picture's from last August. The statue in question is the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) of Kamakura, and that's me in front of it. I was a bit surprised last week when I found out that Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about it.

George Orwell once called Rudyard Kipling a "good bad poet." I think that sums up the man rather nicely. His stories, the rhythms of his poems, the adventurous and exotic feel of it all are fun to read. But, his stories and poems are, ultimately, not really about the exotic places he talks about. They're not really about India or Asia or whatnot, they're about British people perceiving and interacting with such places.

Any way, here's the poem.

"And there is a Japanese idol at Kamakura" 

O ye who tread the Narrow Way

By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,

Be gentle when the 'heathen' pray
To Buddha at Kamakura!

To him the Way, the Law, apart,

Whom Maya held beneath her heart,
Ananda's Lord, the Bodhisat,
The Buddha of Kamakura.

For though he neither burns nor sees,
Nor hears ye thank your Deities,
Ye have not sinned with such as these,

His children at Kamakura.

Yet spare us still the Western joke

When joss-sticks turn to scented smoke

The little sins of little folk

That worship at Kamakura --

The grey-robed, gay-sashed butterflies

That flit beneath the Master's eyes.

He is beyond the Mysteries

But loves them at Kamakura.

And whoso will, from Pride released,

Contemning neither creed nor priest,

May feel the Soul of all the East

About him at Kamakura.

Yea, every tale Ananda heard,
Of birth as fish or beast or bird,

While yet in lives the Master stirred,

The warm wind brings Kamakura.

Till drowsy eyelids seem to see

A-flower 'neath her golden htee
The Shwe-Dagon flare easterly
From Burmah to Kamakura,

And down the loaded air there comes

The thunder of Thibetan drums,

And droned -- "Om mane padme hums" --

A world's-width from Kamakura.

Yet Brahmans rule Benares still,

Buddh-Gaya's ruins pit the hill,
And beef-fed zealots threaten ill
To Buddha and Kamakura.

A tourist-show, a legend told,

A rusting bulk of bronze and gold,

So much, and scarce so much, ye hold

The meaning of Kamakura?

But when the morning prayer is prayed,

Think, ere ye pass to strife and trade,
Is God in human image made

No nearer than Kamakura?
There are major problems with this poem. For one thing, I have doubts about whether or not Kipling ever actually saw the statue, even though he did go to Yokohama (very near Kamakura) in 1889. The Daibutsu is indeed impressive, and indeed made of brass, but he's a bit off the mark with the "brass and gold" bit. Can't recall any gold bits when I was there. Also, Kipling's a racist ass as always.

I could go on: Joss sticks are Chinese, not Japanese. The Shwe Dragon Pagoda in Burma is a Theravada temple, but Japanese Buddhism is of the Mahayana variety. The Buddha depicted in Kamakura isn't supposed to be Siddhartha Guatama, but Amitabha, a Buddha often described as being from a non-earthly realm and not in Burmese Buddhism at all. The statue isn't an idol, as idols depict gods, which Buddhas decidedly are not (the whole point of Buddhas is that they represent human potential for enlightenment). There are no "Thibetan Drums" in Kamakura. Those are usually in Tibet, thousands of miles away, and "brahmans" would have nothing to do with anything in Japan since they're from India, and a part of Hinduism anyway. And, given that Buddhism is so diverse and given to syncretism, claiming that any one image captures "the soul of all the East" is a bit of a stretch.

But enough. It's easy to criticize Kipling. This is the guy who wrote Gunga Din and The White Man's Burden, after all. He might as well have a target hanging from his moustache for pedantic liberals like myself myself to take cheap shots at. With all of the poem's flaws and stumblings, it would be easy to dismiss something like this. It would be easy to make fun of Kipling, write him off. It would be easy to get smug and self-satisfied, happy and full of ourselves at all the progress we've made since him. But, I like the poem despite its flaws.

Kipling is naive, more than anything. He doesn't go much beyond his preconceived notions, and pastes ideas of the "East" already rattling about in his head upon the Kamakura monument. But, despite that, I do think that the poem does convey some very really awe on the poets part, either at the statue or at the idea of it. Particularly the two lines "He is beyond the mysteries/But loves them at Kamakura," is an especially poignant bit. The idea that a monumental sites are a place where two worlds touch, a place that the things normally "beyond the mysteries" become more tactile is something very real, I think. For instance- I remember seeing George Washington's grave on Mount Vernon when I was a high schooler. Washington, like Buddha, is someone idealized and variously portrayed, mythologized and abstract. He is beyond knowing and beyond, almost, objective history, he is somewhere else. Yet, there in the rain and before a stone box that held his bones, he was no longer so "beyond." The ideal was suddenly made present and real, a thing "beyond" no longer. Some may call such a feeling religious (I don't), but I think that such a rush of perception is something that can be profoundly moving when the iconic becomes real.

Anyway, this is a sort of poetic niche that I tend to go for, actually- the romatical, exotic, and adventurous sort. Stuff like The Golden Road to Samarkand and Kubla Khan. Stuff that I can't help but regard as a bit of a guilty pleasure, what with it's idealization of things Asiatic, stuff that is before all else evocative. Stuff, in other words, that would piss off Edward W. Said. (To be fair, Said admitted that all cultures express some degree of exoticism when talking about others, and said it was harmless for the most part unless it got perverted into military or economic hegemony. But still, he remains an icon when it comes to discourse about cross cultural perceptions.)

This stuff is clumsy, I know. Clumsy, inaccurate, and immature. But, I think that the best thing to do, is to try to move culturally past Kipling et al, rather than condemning them. Just as modern chemistry moved past alchemy, so too should we see such things as immature attempts at cultural understanding, rather than something worthy of scorn.

And it's hardly unique to Western culture.

Last week I saw a Japanese guy on a JR line, decked out like he was an American rapper. He had the baggy pants, sizable jacket, head scarf and baseball hat combo, and sat with his legs splayed in front of him luxuriating in ease. But his clothes displayed an amusing and naive juxtaposition. His jacket was festooned with Gothic lettering, the design proclaiming "Los Angeles" or "LA" over and over again, like they were blue tattoos upon the white fabric. His baseball cap (worn, of course, over a headscarf) displayed the New York Yankees logo. To my American eyes, such a combination was quite absurd, yet this man was doing his best to revel in a foreign culture which he found fascinating.

He was naive, but like Kipling, I can't fault him. Kipling was naive and ignorant for coupling the Shwe Dragon Pagoda with the Kamakura Daibutsu, as was this man for mixing East and West Coast apparel. But both of them came from a sincere, yet ignorant, place. It is remarkably easy to cast this sort of behavior as idiotic, when in fact it is merely immature.

But immaturity is part of growth, of course.

Mar 14, 2008

Bent Words and Simulacrums

Katakana continues to fascinate me. All over the place my native language is being changed and bent around me. Studying Japanese has made me think about English, and the wonderful, odd, and various meanings that words have.

Take the word "smart" for instance. It has the primary meaning of "being intelligent" and such, but it has other connotations as well. It could mean something is sharply painful as in, "Ow, that smarts!" It could be an admonition, as in "Don't talk smart with me, young man." One could say that a person is "smartly dressed," meaning that they have a snappy suit or such on, or are wearing a "smart, striped suit." In both instances, one gets the impression of a fashionable, thin person. So, in Katakana "sumato" means "thin."

Another example: Claim. To claim something means to contend that something is true. But, it's got other meanings as well. "To claim" something could mean that you take it as yours, as in, "she claimed her wallet from lost and found," or "I claim this land for Spain!" A pioneer's bit of land is called a claim. A "claim" could also be a presumption of time and space as in "back off, you're making too many claims on my time." A formal complaint could be called a claim and the person making the complain a claimant. And that last one, complaint, is was "kuramu" means in Katakana- a complaint.

In both of these instances it's rather dizzying to think about how a single facet of a word is held up and made to stand in for the whole, a simulacrum branching off and becoming a thing in its own right. I know that this happens all the time, with language and just about everything else. A little thing, a thing that's only a facet, comes up and becomes a representation for something far vaster and more complex. For instance-

When we think about Tianamen Square, we think about that guy in front of the tank.

When we think about the space program, we think of Neil Armstrong on the moon.

When we think about Richard Nixon, we imagine his fingers and arms splayed in branching "V"s.

When we think about Gary Coleman, we think of "What you talkin' about, Willis?"

A single facet of an idea, event, person, or thing is made to stand in for the whole. This is not a good or bad process, but seeing my own language subject to this via Katakana makes me acutely aware of this phenomenon of simplification, compression, icon-making, and representation.

Oh, Japan- you make my brain all tingly. I loves ya for it.

Mar 7, 2008

On Hesse

I think the Buddha comes across as a bit selfish.

Really. Look at him. He's just sitting there all serene like, and then vanishes off into whatever Nirvana is. More power to him for being "enlightened" (whatever that is), for being at ease with himself, for knowing how to sit, think, be calm etc. All good skills. I wish I could do that.

But, you serene bastard, get up and do something.

Don't just sit there, satisfied with the peace and nicety of your own head and emotion. Don't just walk out on the world once you've become satisfied with the your neat mental state. Don't think you're done. You're not. And besides, why on earth are you so eager to escape from earthly existence anyway? Suffering? Yeah, it's suffering. It's also joy and exploration and learning and everything. If, after my death, some divine thing in the antechamber of non-existence asked me "Want another go?" I'd say, "Yeah! Get me out of this bardo and into existence again! Fuck nirvana, I want suffering, joy, fear, panic, learning, exhilaration and all of it! Keep your nothing- I'll be busy with everything."

Of course, there's a bit more to Buddhism than that, but those my thoughts on it in a nutshell. Not that I'm completely disapproving of Buddhism- there are too many varieties of it to generalize (like I just did) and some of it is quite intriguing, even to a nonbeliever such as myself. But, I think it overshoots in a few key places.

Which brings me to Herman Hesse.

I recently read both The Glass Bead Game and Siddhartha, both of which I liked a great deal. One of the reasons that I enjoyed them so much is that in both novels the characters do find a wonderful balance between contemplation and action, thinking and doing. The principal characters of each novel, at the end of each book, seem responsible. The Buddha may only sit there, reject the world, and do nothing, but Hesse's characters conjure up the image of one of those serene faces speaking, those lotus-position legs uncrossing and walking, those folded hands being raised to action.

The Glass Bead Game (which, it turns out, has little to do with glass beads) takes place in approximately the 25th century or so after modern society has destroyed itself. In the nameless country where the book takes place, a specific province, Castalia, has been given over entirely to art, academics, and study. Ostensibly, the purpose of the province is to act as a wellspring of knowledge and a training center for teachers.

In Castelia, the cloistered, privileged scholars play what is called the Glass Bead Game, an elaborate ritual and meditation that draws upon, organizes, and arranges all of the culture, science, philosophy, art, and knowledge that human society has ever produced. Throughout the book, the Game is variously and conflictingly portrayed both as the summation of all scholarship, and as a staid substitute for it. The Castelians produce nothing new. New art, new research, and new inquiry are all nonexistent. There is only the maintenance of things that have come before, meditations upon the past.

The main character, Joseph Knecht, rises through the ranks of Castalia, and his ultimate decisions strike a fine balance between repudiating and venerating the ivory tower. His experience of meditating on the past has value, but he realizes that it is not enough, that thought must be coupled with action, and that while one can learn much from withdrawing from the outside world, one must also slip back into it and help it.

In Siddhartha, the main character tries just about everything over the course of his life. He's raised a Brahman, and learns the conventional ways of the upper class. He follows wandering mendicants, follows the Buddha for a while, leaves him to have great sex with the best courtesan ever, becomes a wealthy merchant, ODs on vice, drink, and gambling, gets soft, leaves everything again, and finds value in all of his experiences. And that's what I really liked about Siddhartha- at the end of the book the character has a bit of debate with a Buddhist monk in which he explains that he loves the world for what it is, rather than what it will become.

The Buddhist monk describes himself as a seeker, Siddhartha counters by saying that if one is a seeker, one might do very little finding. Being focused on a goal can blind someone to finding the other things around them. They see only the goal and the things that lead to it, they miss the wonders and other things that the world has to offer (as an oftentimes goal-oriented person, this was a nice little reminder). If that goal is Heaven or Nirvana, one can miss the wonders of worldliness.

Rocks, for instance, are awesome. Not because they once were part of a mountain, or could be melted and made into tools. Sure, those things are cool, too, but a rock is nifty because of it's rockiness. Because of it's immediate being, because of it's apparency.

Same with people. People aren't awesome because they might go on to Nirvana or Heaven or whatever. Goodness and love aren't worthwhile because they'll lead to these ethereal rewards. This stuff is worthwhile because, like Kant says, people are ends in and of themselves. As a devoted non-nihlistic secular person, this is something that I find immensely valuable. It's a way of looking at the world, looking at morality, and looking at love that is free from the oppressive rationalization of heavenly rewards.

Such a world view demands engagement, demands action. Joseph Knecht decides that he is obliged to help the world, that satisfaction with his own private, academic Nirvana is not enough. Siddhartha decides that the sacredness he seeks can be found immediately around him, and that all the experiences of the world can lead to it. Experience and life are of immediate and apparent value, and such a world demands our compassion.

At least this is my reading of Hesse. My feeling of both of the characters is one of immense responsibility. They find the value in meditation, and when they wake up, they impart their knowledge on others. And, that waking is not a failure, but a part of the cycle. Interaction with the world is not something to be lamented or mourned, but something that is intrinsic to what could be called enlightenment. In other words, get me out of this bardo and into existence again. Fuck nirvana, I want suffering, joy, fear, panic, learning, exhilaration and all of it. Keep your nothing- I'll be busy with everything.

Mar 5, 2008

"You're motorin'! What's your price for flight?"

I'm going to contend that I'm the first person ever who's broken into laughter while reading Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Blood Meridian is not funny. At all. In fact, it's the sort of book that makes you forget that good things exist. It's a beautiful display of ugliness that makes Diane Arbus seem downright glamorous, that's what how dark it is.

But, as I was reading it on the train last night, I couldn't help but laugh as I heard something a bit... familiar.

"Sister Christian oh the time has come..."

What the fuck?

"And you know that you're the only one..."

A gang of five or so salarymen (and one salarywoman) had turned the Kesei line into their own little karaoke box. This makes sense, as trains tend to be just like karaoke boxes, except for the fact that they don't have booze or music, and tend to be full of strangers.

I busted up laughing, forgetting the depressing, violent, dark book I was reading. Oddly, I seemed to be the only one on the train who found this funny.

Japan seems determined to sing at me.
'Tis nifty.

Mar 1, 2008


Japan has stripped off bits of me. No, "bits" is the wrong word. Japan has sloughed off whole segments of my brain and personality, rebuilt them, and changed them. And, I'm the better for it. You know that whole thing about how you have to go off, go away from home and get into unfamiliar territory in order to find yourself? Well, it's true! Wow!

Specifically, I'd like to talk about two things: irony and geekiness. I've written a bit about this before. But, I'm more than a little further along now. Both of these traits are things that I value, things that I look for in people, things that I find appealing. But, they have not been unequivocally good to me or good for me. Self-identification can prop you up, give you an identity, act as set of struts upon which you can build yourself. But, it can only go so far before it becomes constraining. Saying something like, "My geeky identity allows me to enjoy this socially unconventional past time like D&D or SF" is all well and good, but one slides into a nasty little trap when you think "My geeky identity prevents me from doing such and such social activity."

Joseph's recent post reminded me of this.
His opening description of clubbing being "not who [he] is" made me wince with identification. I've had similar thoughts about activities that I've imagined are outside my usual realm. But, I'd take issue with one word that he uses in his second paragraph: "concessions." I think that when you allow yourself to go outside your normal experience, you concede nothing. You have only the accumulation of experience, not the negation of any. (Joseph, when I finally get around to visiting L.A. you're going to have to show me some of the more eccentric clubbing sites.) But, I can completely understand his feelings and his use of the word. Stepping outside one's defined circle does, weirdly and viscerally, feel like a concession, when in fact expanding one's experience is just the opposite.

Anyway, irony. Or rather, the analysis and thinking that ironic distance lends itself.

Like I've said before, I like irony. I love it. The dry, acidic, cutting sort of irony that builds so much on itself no one can quite tell what it means. For instance: Are aviator glasses cool? Are they hip, fashionable, etc.? The answer is "Who the fuck knows?" "yes," and "not really," all at once. Ridiculing things, cleverly deconstructing things, stripping away the parts and understanding everything on various levels of understanding and obliqueness does something for me. No, more than that. It's a process that has made me feel easily intelligent. To simultaneously see something (a person, a book, a movie, a song) both from a distance and to gaze into its component parts is a wonderful, stimulating experience.

But this misses something. Examining something from a distance, seeing it in context of other, related things and examining something's parts, seeing the bits and guts of it misses something. It misses the thing in and of itself. It is like laboriously examining the sides of a razor, but missing the edge.

For instance-

I was clubbing out in Tokyo a few weeks ago, and thought, for a few moments, that I could think of it as an anthropological experience, watching the scene and the people and observing and noting everything around me. I did do that, a little, but for the most part, I just enjoyed the flashing lights, the clouds of dry ice, and the people.

This is not a new skill for me, I've always been able to simply enjoy things, simply be in the moment and such. But in Japan, I've been able to do it more. Here, in my relationships with students and such, I've had to speak and communicate directly, without subtlety or double meanings. I've had to let my communication be simply what it is, be direct, be straightforward. What follows, is that I've had to allow experiences be simply what they are, be direct, be straightforward. Going into a club for me was not a place where I would set my brain aspinning, analyzing social dynamics, thinking about anthropology, my head moving more than my body as music and light filled the atmosphere. Instead, it was what it was.

This can be a bit frightening, actually. Irony, distance, analysis, etc. can all be a sort of shield. To hiply/intellectually stand outside of something, take it apart, be with it without experience is a way of armoring oneself, of providing a sort of cool/smart excuse for self-consciousness and social awkwardness. This shield can be addictive, and not only provide an excuse for these things, but pile onto them.

Make no mistake, I'm still a sarcastic, analytical person. But as I said earlier, new experience is not a concession. It is an addition.

And, geekiness.

Geekiness, first off, can be great. It can provide a sense of belonging and inclusion, it can allows people to feel like they're part of some secret society where everyone knows lots of watchwords that come in the form of Monty Python quotes and Star Wars references. It's great. I've heard people make (completely sincere) comparisons of geekdom to gay subculture, and I don't think that such a comparison is completely unfair. Both cultures have an array of signifiers, rely on specific shared interests, and have behavorial patterns associated with them both by the observers and participants of each subculture.

This is all very useful for identification, but like all forms of identification, it can be constraining and sometimes infuriating, as it was last week. I was in a bar in Chiba listening to some live music, and the people I was sitting with were going on and on about video games and Star Trek. There were some Simpsons quotes in there, too.

And I just wanted to yell at them to shut the fuck up.

I didn't. I did the socially responsible thing and simply went to another part of the bar and talked to other people about other things, but I found it remarkable that I walked away, rather annoyed, from a subculture that I've so long embraced. I chose smalltalk over Star Trek, and loved it.

The problem is that identification of any kind can become toxic and constraining, can make new experiences feel like concessions instead of expansions, can become insular and twisting, a mobius strip of behavior and conversation.

Since coming to Japan, I haven't had a video game system, have not played in any RPGs, have watched very little in the way of TV or movies, and read only a few SF books. I haven't taken part of the cultural bits of geekdom for sometime, and I feel like I'm losing my identification with the subculture. I know that I'm losing my identification with the subculture. I still do things like watch anime and read SF, but now I seem to be enjoying those sort of things in the same way that I enjoy anything else. I don't feel it's connected to anything culturally, and I don't want that culture to dominate my interactions or conversations with others, which is why I became so annoyed with the geek crowd in that Chiba bar. Their conversation was culturally monchromatic, a staid, unlively thing that said nothing about any of the participants.

Anyway, my larger point is that the feeling of cultural disassociation that I've experienced over the past sixteen months has been liberating. I feel that my identifications aren't really being constraints any more. It's wonderful, weird, disorienting, fun, and rather exciting as well.