Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Leaving

When I was 21 I’d lived my entire life essentially in one house. I’d never crossed a national border, said good-bye to more than one friend at a time, or packed for more than a month away. If you’d told me then that within 6 years I’d be in the middle of my 5th inter-continental move (with two more bearing down on me), I might not have laughed, but I’m sure I would have smiled, taking it, strangely, as rather blatant flattery. I remember my first real departure, the intensity of it, the thrill and pain and the tears through laughter. I remember how alive I felt. In the years since, filled with heart-wrenching goodbyes under the security cameras and joyful meetings at baggage claim, the airports and faces and tears have slowly bled into one anonymous past, as if I were acting in a film based on a true story, trying to touch a flame that can’t touch me. The strongest ache now comes not from the bracing punch of reality, but from the inability to feel anything that could do justice to the moment, to what those around me are feeling. But like fear, most passion - perhaps even most emotion - is rooted in the unknown, and it is inevitable that those who leave expose the truth that can’t be learned by staying: mere moments after saying goodbye to everything we’ve ever known, life goes on. That is, at least, what we tell ourselves, as we step through another metal detector and wave that final wave again. It is clear to me that experience grants a certain familiarity with what I will feel, what will be said to me, and what I must do. But familiarity can only take me so far. The one certainty about every departure is uncertainty; we never step out of the same river twice. Departures are like a treadmill that’s just a bit too fast for me - no matter how hard I run it will throw me off. Even though repetition may take away the initial shock of being thrown, even if I learn to approximate when the fall will come, the fact remains that the ground on which I stand is about to make a dramatic change of speed. The only thing that really changes is how quickly I can get up, dust myself off, and step back on. “Certainly it hurts,” says H.W. Lawrence. “The trick… is not minding that it hurts.” We are sedentary creatures by nature. The desire to be rooted is in our bones, the act of uprooting ourselves always strikes a nerve. Leaving a group of people sets the clock ticking away against me a little faster than it should, and I rarely get the right words out in time (and when I do there are always more right words that come too late). To whatever lengths I go, the sought for feeling of being “ready” to leave the person is never quite achieved. Of course not, as long as I’m trying to heal all trace of heartache, since the deepest ache demands one and only one remedy: to not leave. Aches will linger, loose-ends will dangle, and regrets are as inevitable as mistakes. The only true completion is the one that starts with birth and ends with death, all other acts leave something incomplete, a farewell to what has become my life and yet I live on. And so departures always catch us off guard, feeling unprepared in some corner of our hearts. I know this all too well, but just as understanding the force of gravity might alleviate some confusion but do nothing to free me from the effects, so it is with the force of leaving. No matter how collected I manage to be, no matter how quickly I can get up off the floor, I will always leave something behind.  

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Living Museum

What must it feel like to be a living museum? How can one exist as part of a past so remote, so indistinct, so lost, without becoming lost as well? Undeniably the past has parented this present world, but no silvery mirror, no drop of blood, no spark of the mind betrays a thread of common lineage. The present age is an orphan, raised in a world of foster families and half-brothers, all unsure of what a parent is, even as the ghosts of our mothers and fathers drift through the haunted orphanage, barely seen but impossible to ignore. There are those who choose the shadow world; as ghosts they walk through our world while living in the world we came from, too long ago to remember. What must it feel like to put on the face of a mother, a father, a Creator, and see the child gawk, chatter nervously, take a picture, and remember nothing?
This young woman walked past me, and though I don't know where she came from or where she was going - doubtless from one meticulously recreated world to another - her transition through the world of broad daylight was spellbinding indeed. Though avoiding the main bustling streets her quiet passage drew a crowd; not of foreigners longing for an elusive glimpse of the Japan they came to see, but of Japanese schoolchildren and grandmas and adults going home from work, digging for their cameras and hesitantly mumbling the one-word request "picture?" They're uncomfortable, uncertain how to speak with this specter, frightened by their fascination, and she is just as reluctant, silent, as displaced as a deer transported to the streets of Tokyo. The contrast is drawn by one old man whose confidence is grating "Hey there, where are you going? I'll bet you're going to the tea houses? Isn't that right? Right? Hey, Maiko-san, say something!"
Maiko means "dancing girl," the title for an apprentice geisha, a rigorous year-long trial by fire entered into -in Kyoto and Nara- usually before the age of 18. Her averted gaze and nervous grace begin to take on new meaning, new poignancy. What must it feel like to choose a life of mystery in a world where ever rattle is broken and every lock picked? Can ghosts of our past survive in the blinding light we've created? What happens when we look back without memory, stare into the eyes of our parents without recognition? What can we do with this exhibit, out of joint, too real, too strange? What must it feel like to be a living museum?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Random Thoughts, May

-Do birds know that cats can’t fly, Or are they just relieved to not be followed into the sky? -Sometimes I feel like the only one who thinks that happiness and contentment ought not to be the highest goals of life. -Humanity’s greatest need is to stop needing anything beyond what we have. -The written word will never be able to compete with the spoken word. In print we all hear the words in our own voice, spoken in a way we would expect. Only the words spoken into our ears from an existence separate from our own allows the full power of the “other” to sink its teeth into us. -Rather than miss people who are far away, I spend much more time missing the people who are right in front of me. -When dealing with a captive audience, the only thing that counts is the ending. -Having no one to rely on by no means guarantees the development of self-sufficiency; the fires of loneliness and disorientation can destroy as easily as refine. But still it is immeasurably easier to find the strength within one’s self when there is nowhere else to look. When the dream-like possibilities of romantic salvation and heroic leaders whisper and reach out, it’s extraordinarily difficult to not reach back, regardless of all hard-earned understanding of the impermanence of it all.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Wakayama Wanderings Illustrated

I've been unusually busy this week, and legitimately haven't had time and/or energy to continue with the story of Wakayama Wanderings. I did, however, have the energy to tinker with my pictures from the trip, and here are the results. I'm trying to expand the limits of my editing ability, since that now strikes me as more essential with a SLR camera, and as a result these pictures are obviously over-processed. Still, if not all of them are exactly art, they at least give a good idea of what I saw and experienced on the trip. Please let me know what you think, and any critical pointers are very welcome. These are in no particular order, because pictures are a pain to organize on this site. :-) You can click on them for a full-sized (though low quality) version. Once again, to be continued...!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

In Search of the Real Japan: Wakayama Wanderings

“Sometimes reality is bigger than your dreams.” A friend wrote me these words years ago, speaking about hard-learned lessons in her young life. But somehow they kept echoing in my head while I was facing a very different struggle: how to describe the unimaginable force of an experience that I can’t quite explain to myself?

What is it about a still forest path fading around a bend that touches my soul? Why do stray wisps of clouds dancing on a mountainside make me more content than all the company and possessions I could desire? How can a subtle shift of self-perception so slight that it falls into the dark crack between words seem to light up the world with new colors and shades? I may never know, just as I may never really be able to explain the momentous non-events of the past two weeks.

In my teenage years I used to hang from a bar for two minutes every night for chiropractic reasons. Quickly I learned that being able to see the timer count down the slow seconds was the worst kind of torture, that the task was significantly less difficult if I just closed my eyes and waited for the beep. When I knew exactly when I could let go, somehow it seems like I couldn't have held on a second longer.

I had a relapse of this lesson in the weeks before my recent vacation. I just had to get out, had to get time to breathe, and I was counting the days, the hours even, watching freedom drift imperceptible closer. Tick...Tck...Tick... By the time the final beep came I exploded out of the office with the speed of gravity yanking my twitching fingers off that bar. “Mountains,” my soul sang, “mountains mountains mountains!” It’s strange how loneliness can make me yearn for solitude. I guess humans are prepared to adapt to almost any circumstances; it’s half-life that kills us. The majority of my time in Japan is spent alone, but only in the worst way. Every minute of the work day is spent surrounded by people with whom I can’t communicate or who don’t have time to communicate with me, and I can find neither the opportunity for company nor the freedom to be alone. Ironically I was about to use my two weeks of freedom in an attempt to seize both ends of the spectrum. Along with planning a long awaited soul-cleansing trek though the majestic mountains to the south, I’d also invited one of my closest friends to come down from Tokyo and join me during the time that our holidays overlapped. I had a few days before she was free, however, so on a whim I decided to head for a monastic center called Koya-san, by way of Osaka. Osaka was, as always, the perfect launching pad for a quest for “Serene Japan,” for the simply reason that Osaka is anything, absolutely anything, but serene. A showcase for the modern “Real Japan” in all it’s glorious facsimile and impenetrable superficiality, this city makes my head spin every time. After this, I reasoned, almost any place would seem peaceful and simple.

I then headed to Koya-san, with very few expectations. Koya-san filled me with two very strong and diametrically opposed reactions. Wandering through the vast mossy lantern-lit cemetery long after dark, for the first time I was suddenly seized with the thought that I don’t want to leaveJapan. The cemetery overwhelmed me, and quite defeated my camera at all times of day or night. I could have spent days there, and this is to say nothing of the 100+ temples nestled into the mountains nearby. Rooms full of golden lanterns and thick incense, massive pagodas housing enchanted goddesses, monks robes swishing over tatami, bells at dawn and dusk; and to think I nearly didn’t come. The rub is that there are so many places in Japan that could be equally inspiring, and yet I have plans that pull on me and very little time or money to see much more than I’ve already seen. I’ve been killing time, waiting for the real adventure to begin (much by necessity, the majority of my time is killed at work whether I assist in the “mercy killing” or not). Now I realize that I need more time, that I’ve missed so much.

It’s more than sightseeing that I’m talking about. As I walked past wave after wave of unique Buddhist statues, some barely peeking their noses out of dark knotholes, others towering over me in the gloom, most standing quiet guard over the glint of scattered coins, cups of sake, oranges small and big, vases of flowers, I felt myself being confronted with devotion. Japan is anything but a country of religious fervor. The most pronounced spiritual characteristics are an adherence to tradition and a passive tolerance that comes not from an acceptance of all, but a happy indifference to all. But here, with every chisel mark, every fresh flower, every chanted prayer, I could feel faith. It’s different than any faith I’ve known before, the material and function is different, but it’s real faith. The temple where I slept welcomed its visitors to morning prayers, and in the candle-lit room shrouded in incense, as I listened to the chants and prayers of these mostly young men, I realized that I was looking at them as a kind of living museum, put on display in an “historically-accurate” environment, fulfilling tradition and duty with their lives. Just as quickly I realized that they in no way see themselves this way. Unlike the geisha in Kyoto, living a life of history for those who want a taste of the past, these monks have a sense of their own value and meaningfulness in the here and now. They live in sincere devotion to a belief in something they cannot see or touch. In the face of the tourist’s camera their eyes do not flit away as do the geisha’s, who knows she’s on display; they smile, ignore, frown, in essence they react as someone who lives a real life in a real world, not a prop for historical reenactment. They live lives of devotion, of faith. Back in the cemetery after morning prayers row after row of stone figures roll out of sight beyond the towering trees, chronicling age upon age of that faith and devotion. And the visitors to these monuments come, wearing dark ropes or “well-worn style” jeans, carrying a pilgrim’s staff or the newest digital camera, they walk, they ride, they fly, covering the distance in hours or weeks, but the sounds of a splash, a clap, a chant are the same in this place as they have been for a thousand years, perhaps for a thousand years more.

These revelations crowded my mind, and I am overwhelmed by what more this country could reveal to me, if only time were not running out.

At the same time, other thoughts balance my awe. No site of any note in Japan can fully escape the country’s compulsive “Will to Convenience.” Never mind that some things were intended to be difficult; I suppose nothing feels cheapened as long as the price-tag stays high. In Koya-san the primary manifestation of Modern Japan’s restless tentacles is a road. It’s the only main road, can’t be too old, and it runs right through the middle of the temples, literally past their front doors, and the sound of engines can be heard everywhere: the raked rock gardens, the painted tea rooms, the inner sanctuaries, none escape the roar of traffic. Kobo-Daishi, the founding monk of the 8th century, hunted for years to find this place far from the distractions of the ancient capitals in Kyoto and Nara. It would have taken weeks to get here from anywhere in those days, and all would be left behind in the process. Now it’s a day trip, there and back again within hours, and the accessibility of all the world has to offer is as impossible to ignore as the ever-flowing river of cars.

Could not the region’s inter-city highway be built away from this place of serenity? Would it be impossible to ask visitors seeking peace to park their cars a few blocks away and walk into a refuge from noise and commotion? But I’m sure that when the road was prepared for automobiles that no thought was given to this, only to convenience and access. And with that access other elements of the world have infiltrated as well. Every guest room in the temple I slept at was fitted with a T.V. Yes, if we want to stay at the temple we must respect the monastic lifestyle by getting up for prayers at 5:30, but we can spend the rest of the time soaking up Japanese game shows and American sitcoms. The austere temple hallways include barely-concealed vending-machines and “western style” toilets with heated seats and an array of buttons, and down the street lines of shops sell “collectable” Buddha key-chains and “vegetarian snacks.”

Somehow these worlds live side-by-side, and let’s not forget that I myself am a tourist here, but somehow it feels diluted, and much that the location and history of this place intended has not escaped the world of “all things to all people, at a fair price and a convenient time.” Enlightenment out for sampling with the pickled ginger, spiritual pilgrimage by way of a weekend package bus tour, a soothing escape from all we bring with us. This is a place of strength, a real place, and it seems that Koya-san has managed to use its spirit of vitality as a selling point without selling its soul. But something is missing. No matter how deep I breathe there’s still a tightness in my heart, and the simple darkness behind my eyelids is inevitably invaded by the noise of complexity. The world was held back, but it never seemed very far away, reminding me that my escape is temporary. Now I know more clearly what I am looking for, and I’m ready to go deeper.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Like dreaming,

Like slowly waking,

The Mountains welcome me home.

As clouds kiss the trees,

The rain ends.

Devotion in stone, even prayers sent up alone, still cut to the bone. Just a preview of the upcoming multi-media presentation of my recent trip, coming soon to a computer near you (I promise!).

Monday, April 20, 2009


We are besieged by the images surrounding us, and all too often overrun and enslaved by them. We see those stunningly serene photographs, of a Japanese garden, say, or dawn over a mountain lake, and we want it; not what is shown, per se, but what is felt, though the distinction is lost on us these days. So we go out in search of that feeling, represented in our minds by a picture which froze a temporary conduit of peace. We hike, climb, run, and these days even fly the world over. We scour the guidebooks, set our cameras to burst mode in hopes of a “lucky capture,” and race against our limited time to find stillness by lightly sprinting from one sight to the next, like window-shopping with loose change or visiting a buffet on a half-full stomach; we can’t afford to commit to anything exclusively. We are mystified that we’re never able to grasp what we came to find, that the city we saw in that movie looks more like a movie set, that the pristine wilderness is filled with bugs and tourists, that seeing the perfect picture through our lenses doesn’t bring our spirits closer to it. We seem to really believe that quantity will bring us quality, that given enough 25 minute visits sooner or later one moment will magically open and reveal eternity. The picture may be captured, an escape from routine may be achieved, but like wisps of cotton candy these can only tease at substance; and we know, in those moments when all attempts at distraction fall short, that we are starving. The irony is clear, that the deep peace we seek is exactly what cannot be found in the shallowly ferocious way we hunt it. The tragedy might be less clear, that what we catch whiffs of through glossy magazines and flashing screens is not something to seek, but something to claim. The longing we feel from that glassy mountain lake cannot be captured, it comes with stillness and deep breaths and quiet rejection of the frantic pace of life (a pace that most travel embraces). Real purification and serenity is exactly what we don’t have time for, and in our hurry to find it we rush past every opportunity to stop and claim it. But cannot the same be said of peace no matter where we are? Sitting on the floor in the middle of a silent room, eyes closed, breath deep, petty complications put aside, can we not feel peace, touch eternity, taste the renewal that all the travel agencies try to sell us? Perhaps the view, once we open our eyes, of a cluttered room will not compare to that quiet lake, or the interruptions might be a crying baby rather than a startled deer, but the moment, the stillness, the renewal, is the same. Wherever we are, we must know what we seek, rejecting all cheap (or expensive!) substitutes and flashy counterfeits, and claim it firmly. No more desperate snapshops, no more escapes to new cages, no more dreaming of shadows. It’s time to be where we are, be who we are, and be at peace.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Speaker Beware

In Japan there seems to be no understanding of the need to express things, in the most Latin sense of the word: to communicate feelings, ideas, experiences, just to get them out. Being in such a close-quarters self-contained culture for so long, one of the exceptional elements of Japanese people is their ability to stay inside themselves. It doesn’t demand the same kind of effort of them as it would in the West to take a secret to the grave, or to wear a mask that is never lifted. If there is something you don’t want to make public, then you keep it to yourself, it’s as simple as that. Once something is spoken it’s communal property, with none of the unspoken understanding that this-and-that shouldn’t reach so-and-so’s ears. After all, if it was any kind of secret, why not just keep it inside? Before I realized this it took many experiences of voicing half-private impressions, thoughts, or questions about a colleague to another in unspoken confidence, only to have my “confidante” quickly translate it and shout it across the room to the person in question, all in complete innocence, oblivious to the notion that if I’d wanted my words broadcasted I would have asked for such services. If you want privacy here, you have to find it within yourself.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Spider Web Cracks

“Everywhere you go, people are people.” My grandma said these words to me over 10 years ago when she returned from a trip to Kenya. I believed them, and still do, but somehow after 8 months Japan still seems like a different planet to me, and not in spite of the people, but because of them. In actual fact the parameters that define humanity really are quite narrow, especially when you allow the imagination free rein to consider all the potential variations that could manifest themselves in the human condition. The catch is that we are sensitive, hypersensitive even, to the slightest deviation from what we’ve learned to be “the norm.” We are creatures of habit, and absolutely anything that forces us to reevaluate our surroundings casts an alien tint to the whole environment. Logic has nothing to do with it, and understanding does not dilute the response. I can understand how some people have no problem with their food looking back at them with unblinking eyes, and they can understand my hesitancy, but they still find my squeamishness humorous, and I find their crunching on an intact head disgusting. The tables are turned when my colleagues silently stare wide-eyed at me as I nonchalantly munch on an apple without removing the skin. If Europeans can travel across the Atlantic and eat a meal using a knife and fork at the same time and the Americans “looked at us like monkeys,” what do we feel when the Japanese restaurant offers only untried chopsticks, or the African hut offers no utensils at all? Just today my misreading of the Japanese date system (, with the Japanese year system, so that today is 21.4.6) resulted in a bit of chaos, several times in Prague ( a similar mistake resulted in a hefty expiration fine, and returning to America (mm.dd.yy) always forces me to think twice before filling in any paperwork (or gets me strange looks from the bank employees when I don’t think twice). Driving on the left still gives me an occasional heart attack, the dance between bowing and handshaking is a complication frequently added to already complicated introductions, and the sight of knee-high socks with tights or the sharing of motor-functions between a bike, a cell phone, and a sun-brella never fails to make me smile in bewilderment. Last week I arrived at my school’s graduation in my best three-piece brown suit, to discover that I was the only person in a crowd of two hundred not wearing a black suit with a white shirt and tie (as if being a head taller didn’t make me stand out enough). While the Japanese sleep on the floor on a thin mattress and find western beds unbearably soft (my Japanese friends in America quickly started sleeping on the floor), most foreigners here spend a week with stiff backs and buy a bed. Are these big, paradigm-altering differences? No, they are mere matters of preference and condition, easily explained if somewhat harder to accept, and sometimes nearly impossible to adopt. Can these be the variations that drive cultures apart and into conflict, sparking fear and hate and violence? Probably not. But it takes nothing more extreme to shake us out of our habitual auto-pilot and simplifying assumptions and to force us to question everything; to return– in a sense– to wide-eyed infancy, with all the hang-ups of adulthood. These trivial differences are enough to remind me, every single day, that I am in a place that is alien to me, as I am to it, that their way is not my way, that I will always need the words “them” and “us.” If all it takes is a wrinkled nose, a poorly-timed look, or a misunderstood smile to cause discomfort, uncertainty, and alienation, then what of the divergences that creep minusculely closer – while cutting disproportionately deeper – to the foundation we share? Of course we can understand – if we actually want to – how one culture says “individual” like a holy incantation while another uses it as an insult, why a woman unveiled is almost as threatening in one country as a woman veiled in another, that “unclean” might have nothing to do with germs or might have nothing to do with religion, how aid might be taken as a blessing or a burden, or where direct communication might be essential or essentially rude. But understanding only allows navigation through these pitfalls, and while that is the first step, it is still far from acceptance, tolerance, harmony, and community. The theories are clear enough, but face to face with foreignness the truisms - “We all smile in the same language,” “No man is an island” “Wherever you go, people are people” - begin to loose some of their soothing magic. The fact is that we’re not that different, really. An alien race looking down on us would have no trouble identifying us as one race, even without seeing our nearly identical physical forms. None of us are designed to be alone, we seek pleasure, we all know what it means to feel fear, anger, pain, embarrassment, satisfaction, affection, and, although cultural interpretations vary, love is universally understood. In groups we all need an “other” as much as we need a community, hierarchy comes naturally, and despite historical deviations the measure of “success” has always returned to the quantity of material possessions. We laugh, we sing, we dance, we cry, we fight, we love, and we die, every one, yesterday and today, in the east and west, north and south. Perhaps it’s the overwhelmingly foundational similarities that make the petty differences stand out so brightly. Especially evident in the globalized world, we have a remarkable ability to stand surrounded by familiar sights, clothing, brands, technology, faces, and even ideas, and be consumed by the slightest unfamiliarity. With ironically universal consistency, our ability to see aliens usually eclipses our ability to see brothers and sisters. So how to live in a world that is reducing the space of our lives much faster than the diversity therein? While the world is being brought together the people are as distant as ever, the main difference being that now the alien lives next door. Wherever real harmony lies, it is not in factual education. A standard day of errands in town brings us into contact with a dozen cultures, and while it would be a great start to know to bow to this person, to not hand this person money with the left hand, or to look over this person’s right ear and not at his eyes, this quickly descends into a mere memorization of infinite trivia that doesn’t bring true community or even guarantee a hospitable reception (some people have left their culture behind for a reason, or feel alienated by being treated as “different”). So if the attempt to memorize the varying behavior of every culture we meet is a futile dead-end, how can we responsibly respond to the globalized world? This is one of the large questions I’ve set to work out, and I have barely the beginning of an answer. As ideas occur to me, I’ll add to the following list, in hopes of creating a kind of blueprint for the best kind of understanding, a shortcut, if you will, to memorizing the detailed ins and outs of each culture we might encounter. 1. When it comes to responding to a new or foreign situation, I’ve observed three kinds of people. I’m not sure how these behavioral patterns are adopted, or if they can be changed once they are firmly established, but they are extremely easy to recognize. There are those whose instinct is to adjust the environment to suit their own needs and norms as much as possible. Others automatically tend to adjust themselves to the environment despite the personal inconvenience. In the context of multiculturalism, it should be clear which is more conductive to harmonious interaction. The third type is exceedingly rare and still something of a mystery to me: those who can effortlessly approach a situation in both the above ways at the same time without any apparent contradiction. Ex: One evening a few weeks ago I took four hungry friends to a restaurant I’d been raving about. I’d been there for the wonderfully presented and well-priced lunch, and wanted to share it with others. I led them through the bustling city, marched into “my restaurant”, and announced that there were five of us for dinner. After some initial uncertainty (which I chalked up to the usual hesitancy in the face of a group of foreigners) the employees guided us upstairs, showed us where to put our shoes and coats, brought us to a nice table, and left some menus that seemed strangely unfamiliar to me. I tried vainly to find the meals I’d enjoyed before, and after about five minutes the waitress returned with small bowls of unordered food. My Japan-savvy friend and I exchanged frightened glances. Instantly we knew that somehow we had stumbled into a izakaya, a place for Japanese company meetings and drinking parties, usually exorbitantly expensive and operating on a very different system than a typical restaurant. I learned that night that many of these places operate a regular restaurant during lunch time, and change to a izakaya in the evening, which explains why it was different than I remembered. What to do? We’d already been sitting there too long to slip out without affront. The first type of person from my description would of course just stand and leave anyway, feeling no obligation to continue with the unwritten contract he had mistakenly entered into. My friends and I were shown to be the second type, since once we realized what had happened we whispered to each other “well, it’s too late to leave now.” We decided to order the minimum amount of food that would allow us to escape without rudeness (about 4 bites of meat each, which ended up costing us $36), and then fled feeling embarrassed and robbed. In retrospect, I imagine that the third type of person would quickly size up the situation, and then communicate to the waitress that he’d made a mistake (I could have asked “is this a izakaya?” and then expressed shock to find out that it was, giving us a pretence to leave. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to us at the time (probably because we were already in the mindset of paying the price of awkwardness and inconvenience ourselves in order to shield the employees from it, a very Japanese reaction)… But even if the person knew not a word of the language, he could still make it clear that he was looking for something the restaurant didn’t have, or focus on the unordered food, etc). Then – this being Japan– bowing and apologizing profusely all the way to the door, making comments or signs about what a foolish foreigner he is, he could make his escape without causing any unnecessary ripples but also not inconveniencing himself. The keys to this third type, I’m beginning to see, are communication, graciousness, and an ability to charmingly manipulate the situation.

Monday, March 23, 2009


"The problem with Japan is that I like the aesthetic a lot, but I don’t like the actual operation." -Foreign Resident of Japan
Suddenly my vision clears, and I find myself caught in a flood of bright wide eyes, swaying capes and skirts, flowing wigs of sexy color, and lashes fluttering like butterflies.
I’m captivated by it all, awed by how attractive and alluring this country can be, or knows how to be. A shy smile and wide innocent eyes are proven to be the most seductive, though both messages are affected. Images, ideas – people – are crafted here, in stunning, meticulous, effortless detail, crafted to and for perfection. No reservation here, no need for dignity when you have what you want. The display is on, batting eyes at clicking shutters, selling the image – self – for the thrill of a flash. All fear and uncertainty washed away, all safe behind the mask. A mask over masks, nothing more, and no hiding that, at least. There’s no claim to be anything but superficial, playing at hope, escape, a touch; all that we can’t stop wanting but can’t ever have. It’s all here to see, all here to want. Looking through the contacts, the lenses, the empty rims;
Let’s act like life, sleep through dreams, grin at love, snap a picture. It’s as close as we will get.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spring Photography

Spring is here, which means Plum and Cherry trees perform slow-motion explosions of color, birds burst into long-stifled song, the gracefully stunning kimonoed flowers of Japanese youth walk the lanes of Kyoto, and fire-festivals abound. Yes, Spring is here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Being an ALT in Japan

For those interested in knowing why I talk about "working" and "teaching" in Japan with quotation marks, and understanding what it's like (for me, at least) to be employed in the context of Japanese culture, I point you to this essay on my other blog:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


In response to a question about the nuclear bombing of Japan, Azuma-san (who was 6 when the bombs were dropped) said: "You musn't ever forget it, but you have to forget it."

Melting-Pot Anyone?

Why are so many people drawn to America? What is it about the “American Life,” whatever that might mean, that makes one country the destination or dream or perceived “Promise Land” of so many disparate cultures? The fact is that the American Dream is just that, a dream, for the majority of immigrants, and many cultures set up their own closed communities as if they wanted no part of the “American Life.” Yet the migration continues. It is not that America has found the perfect cultural common denominator, but rather that the material goods and quality of life that draws in every culture and lifestyle. In short, the key is not the American lifestyle but the perceived American easy of life. And this is important, because often we talk of people seeking out the “American way of life,” and then wonder how they can complain or refuse to adapt themselves when they finally arrive. They didn’t come for an “American way of life,” they came to continue their own lives and dreams (rooted in their own cultures, religions, languages, and experiences), only more comfortably.

(Photo: New York City, August 2007)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

International Church

After an afternoon of reading Pico Iyer’s (an Indian born in England, raised in California, now living in Japan) account of Toronto, where one typical school “had fewer than a thousand students, in all.. but seventy-six different languages could be heard along its hallways, and more than 70 percent of its students spoke a mother tongue other than English... not a melting pot, as the people in Toronto politely reminded me, but a mosaic”, I was picked up by my new Japanese friend (a retired sailor with a myriad of stories and a zest for life) to go to a catholic mass in the small city nearby. I wasn’t sure what to expect, except that it was a Japanese church, and this service (every Saturday evening) catered to the Latin American population in the city. What met me was astonishing, especially in the context of the famously homogenous and impenetrable Japan. I first followed my guide into the meeting room, and as he entered I heard a stream of Japanese greetings, so I came in bowing, only to be confronted with an obviously Latin face of a young woman who turned to me with a friendly “Hola!” This was enough to throw a monkey-wrench into my determinedly mono-linguistic mind, but there was much more to come. The young lady, Senorita Maria, was from Peru (though her grandfather was Japanese), and had lived in Japan for over 10 years. She taught Japanese to foreigners and Spanish in the university and “No no, I don’t understand English. I mean, I studied it for 10 years, but I don’t know it very well,” she said in barely accented English. At that point the Father came in, an 80 year old American, with a Japanese name and face, who leads the mass alternatively in Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. His English had a forced feel to it, perfect in grammar and accent, but somehow too deliberate and self-aware. He’d been a priest in Japan for 50 years. Already I was a little bewildered in trying to get my bearings, as the (officially) American, Peruvian, and Japanese all chatted away in Japanese, then somehow switched to Spanish (even my friend unveiled his Spanish sentences), as I tried desperately to drudge up my high school Spanish without loosing a grip on my few vital words of Japanese. And then the children came in. I’ve never been so aware of my compulsion to read someone’s nationality in their face, first and foremost. It always seemed essential to me, to know what we have in common, what language we might be able to communicate in, how I should interpret a touch on my arm, and how life had taught them to view the world (or, at least, to help myself think that I know). These kids, however, defied my most desperate attempts to snatch up the slightest clue as to what was going behind their eyes. I eventually decided -more to give my mind a rest than any sense of certainty- that they were all Japanese, with the exception of the obviously Latin girl and boy, even when the 7 year old boy (Juan Garcia), started chattering away in Japanese and translating for his father. “No, he’s full Peruvian,” I was told, “and has only been in the country for 3 years.” The girl, however, was half Filipino, though she spoke not a word of English. One obviously Japanese girl was actually half Brazilian, and helped translate from Portuguese, while another jerkily introduced herself in an English thick with a typical Japanese accent “Hello, my name is Laida, I’m from the Philippians,” all the while turning the deepest shade of pink I’ve ever seen. The only fully Japanese girl in the room kept interjecting in Spanish. I felt my sense of bewilderment intensifying to dizziness. Having all the answers made orienting myself even more daunting, for what is the nationality of a half Brazilian, half Filipino, born and raised in Japan? Or a half Japanese half Peruvian living with a Mexican relative? “Oh, I have an American passport!” said little Juan to me, almost impishly, in Japanese. “Stop the room please,” I wanted to say, “I’d like to get off.” What does nationality or ethnicity even mean in a context like this? For the young girl with a Japanese face and language, yet born in Peru to a Brazilian mother, how ought this child respond to the most basic of questions “where are you from?” Whenever possible, of course, she will say “from here,” since all the question really seeks is a connection, but is it a lie? Is it ever the whole truth? The UN declaration of human right states as one of its basic tenants for humanity that “Everyone has the right to a nationality,” which is a core need for those who lack it, but might be just as much a source of friction in abundance. Of course all we’re really just looking is a label, a starting point, and nationality has been a fool-proof way to expedite an understanding of where the other is coming from. But in a world where I can sit behind a couple and eventually deduce (based on overheard language, accent, and appearance) that I’m seeing a Japanese man and his Brazilian wife, only later to learn that it’s a Peruvian man and his Filipino wife (what does that make their 5 year old daughter, born and raised in Japan?), in this world, is nationality quickly becoming less a convenient coat hanger and more a mental hang-up? And if nationality is, like family, something a man does not choose – as many of us are becoming more and more like an individual passed from one foster parent to the next, none really making a claim on “belonging”- then language is like the friends he can choose, which tell more about how he sees himself and wants to be seen. For in this small church room the ability to navigate is no longer dominated by origin, but by language. All around I can begin to track the web-like lines of communicate, as I try to keep up with “Buenos Noches”s here, “Konban wa”s there, and everywhere a deer-in-headlights look as the other follows up on my signals that we can communicate. I find out that Spanish speakers can understand Portuguese, but not the other way around. I meet adults who have lived in Japan for 10 years, yet their kids have to translate my most basic of Japanese to them. Some few who speak all the languages gathered there rush around like whirlwinds of activity, while others close into small circles of those they could communicate with. In this place, a forerunner of the world stage, the “sense of belonging” goes not to the highest bidder, nor to the holder of the correct passport, but to the speakers of the right languages. And so while the world is shrinking, it’s becoming exponentially more fractured. The teenage girl next to me might indeed hold an American passport, but I can’t speak Spanish, and if I did I wouldn’t know where to begin commenting on her favorite childhood cartoon in Japan, or what kind of relationship she has with her English-only father. It’s still true of course that speaking the same language doesn’t mean you have anything to talk about. So that’s one more thing that struck me about this place, again in contrast to the norms of the country waiting outside the front doors: warmth. I spent 10 minutes speaking mutually broken Japanese with a Bolivian who thumped me on the back more times then I can count, and discussed religious culture with a Japanese woman using little more than sincere smiles and hand-motions (not an unusual exercise, but somehow it felt like real communication). During the greeting time a full 20 people gave me a double-handed handshake (even the Japanese had picked it up!), unintentionally teaching me to say “Peace be with you” in four languages. The world has changed, again, without most of us realizing it. The number of people falling through the cracks of how we traditionally see and understand the world is growing, but once the cracks are full it is we “normal” ones who will be out of place. Our ways of seeing each other will have to change, categories must be reorganized, What question will replace “Where are you from?”? Will it be “What language do you speak,” “Where do you live?” or perhaps even “Where are you going?”? In any case mankind shows no signs of abandoning the need to see itself in groups, but the rules of membership and the shape of the anchors we toss out are all changing rapidly. If it can be so visible in a small church in suburban Japan, the world can’t be far behind.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Japan Anecdotes 1, The Informer

Most foreigners in Japan quickly learn that there are certain unwritten rules about what you do and do not tell Japanese people. These rules are motivated by two main characteristics: 1. Japanese people are not generally interested in foreign countries, or at least not interested enough to inconvenience you by asking. In 7 months in Japan I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been asked anything about the culture, history, politics, education, economic, or lifestyle of my home country America (and this during the time of the wars on terror, Obama’s election, and the financial crisis). For the most part questions revolve around my thoughts on Japan, which brings up the fact that 2. Japanese people do not respond well to anything said critically (or for that matter, anything not glowingly optimistic) about their country. The main purpose of foreigners I’d say – and I’m not the first to go this far – is to confirm the remarkableness and even superiority of Japan. Try telling them honestly that the education system is a little misguided, or that the temples start to all look the same after awhile, or that you actually prefer Korean food to Japanese, and... well, the short answer is that the subject will be changed faster than a samurai drawing his sword, the conversation will go downhill rapidly, and you will get signals (verbal or otherwise) that you clearly “don’t get it,” as no gaijin can, after all. Or perhaps the results of allowing a little real honesty to slip into conversation will hit closer to home, as befell one of my fellow American teachers here in Kansai inaka (central Japan countryside). He was riding the train one evening and fell into conversation with a curious (in all senses) old gentleman, who wanted to know where he lived in Japan, what he was doing here, what school he worked at, etc. After the standard introductory small talk, the man moved on to the standard line of questioning, which included “what do you think of Japanese students?” My friend replied that the elementary school students are genki (energetic), and in Jr. High the first graders were also pretty genki, second graders average, and the third graders sleep a lot. There’s nothing remarkable about this evaluation, it’s simply true, though probably not a truth we’d express to the teachers we work with; it often seems that we’re honestly expected to just not notice anything negative in the school. My friend might have also mentioned that he gets rather bored in school at times, and perhaps even implied that the students didn’t seem to learn much English overall, but he’s not sure how much of his opinions he let show. Soon his station arrived and he bid the man adieu. But apparently his opinions and lighthearted evaluations had struck a chord, or perhaps the old man was more disturbed by the audacity of a foreigner being allowed to experience anything short of heaven-on-earth for a single moment in Japan. Several days later my friend was sitting at his desk and got called to talk with the English teacher for the third graders. A few minutes ago, the teacher said through a nervous grin, she had gotten a call from a certain old man who had expressed severe concern over reports that the third graders were sleeping in class, which had made a certain foreigner very dissatisfied. This old man had in fact been a teacher himself, and proceeded to enlighten her as to what she had to do to fix this intolerable situation. My friend was informed of all this, and then the conversation was over. Of course all the details of the call were not divulged, and to this day he doesn’t know how much he told the old man, or how much was passed on. In any case the simple answer to both questions is “too much.” The work environment has now become noticeably awkward. My Dad, in response to this story, replied “so it takes a village, huh?” And yes, that about sums it up.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Random Thoughts, March 2009

-If you find that the only thing preventing you from becoming who you want to be is the people around you, then it’s time to reevaluate who you want to be. -1.III -The fact is that the answers to all humanity’s deepest problems have been given, again and again, but never really followed more than half-heartedly, to the point where we decided that they must not really be answers after all. So we go scurrying around in the dark searching for something else, anything else, just so long as it be new. -3.III -In any observation that a man makes about humanity it should be remembered that he is his own primary source of evidence. 22.III -Made in the image we’ve made. 23.III -The only thing more staggering than man’s capacity to learn is man’s capacity to not learn. 23.III -I keep forgetting that I seek to be broken. I think when you get close without being pushed over the edge then all the survival mechanisms kick in and you flail about just trying to keep your footing. But once you’re over, all the voices go silent, the mind releases the heart, the eyes loose their protective scales, and all you can do is feel. Those are the moments that Life is made of. 24.III -A passive civilization is best equipped to be a passive by-stander. -31.III

Blurred, Into Nothing, Almost

At the oddest, most mundane moment, I feel both my heart and head about to explode. I’m just standing in the corner of class, though it is the last class, of a difficult and frustrating group of students, students with whom I have failed to connect, and I'm thinking of nothing, but a nothing surrounded and suffocated with revelations and feelings that can’t quite get in. An odd moment, about to explode.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Saving Culture

If there’s any hope for maintaining a diversity of culture in the world, I think we need to be more specific about the very different types of cultural transference. Off the top of my head I can think of three distinct types that I routinely see lumped together. 1. Absorption. This might look bad on the surface - Japanese festivals populated by Disney-mask-wearing children or South American homes plastered with Bruce Willis and John Wayne movie posters is not what we came to see – but it’s not nearly as bad as it looks. The fact is that every new context produces a new creation. Vietnamese watching “The Sixth Sense” do not see the same movie as when Americans watch it, and the same goes for all music, movies, and McDonalds, for every message and meaning. While it may not look like it, diversity of world-view and lifestyle is still maintained (for now). 2. Improvement. This also looks bad, since we came to see traditional adobe, kimono, and cooking fires, not concrete, levis, and microwaves. But how can we even suggest denying cooling, comfort, convenience, and coolness to people when we wouldn’t dream of giving them up ourselves (think covered wagons, skinning buffalo, and bonnets to get a picture of what that denial would demand of us!). In the end culture was made for man, not man for culture. 3. Craving: This is where the truly negative transference lies. People everywhere, on the most grassroots level, need to realize that what’s obviously better for “them” isn’t necessarily better for “us”. There’s no question that the average quality of life is better in America than in India, but the resulting rush for American products like coke, fast food, and even American art and architecture helps no one except the few Americans behind these products. It’s perfectly understandable that those in less fortunate countries desire the entertainment and comfort afforded by affluent nations. Maybe they’ll manage to move, but more likely they’ll try to adapt those technologies and customs to their own lives. Some of these things will unquestionably improve the individual’s life. Many products, however, are desired simply because of the suggestion of luxury without actually granting any. This results in a waste of financial resources, disuse of indigenous resources, and a general disrespect for elements of the native culture which could stand up to the imported culture in a fair fight. It is those elements which are now being clobbered in a heavily weighted fight that can and should be saved.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


In the West you do whatever has to be done in order to "get the job done," even if that means behaving badly. In Japan, you do whatever is necessary to "behave correctly." The real hardship for the Japanese comes from "getting the job done" being part of "proper behavior."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In a Word, I'd Say....

We have a new front-runner in the search for a single word to describe modern Japan, submitted by a good friend and fellow JET (you know who you are): "Sheltered" Previous top entries include: "Constrained" "Comfortable" "Dazed" "Unexpected" "Sterile" Those that aren`t a single word but I like them anyway: "There`s something in the water..." "Cookie-cutter country" And a final one you can`t be expected to understand if you haven`t lived in Japan, but if you have then it says it all: "I`m fine thanks, and you?"

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Zen And The Art Of Beauty Maintenance

One of my many assumtions about Japan was that people here know how to live in balance with nature better than people in the West...


A Hawk From A Handsaw

The previous post helped me make a connection that might have serious consequences for my "course of understanding." Years ago I realized that all the effort I put into understanding my emotions was not leading me where I wanted to go, because in the end understanding one of your emotions gives you the ability to scoff at that emotion, but not to control it. Now I'm beginning to wonder if understanding a culture might give one the ability to scoff at it and analyze it, but not adapt to it. If understanding doesn't necessarily lead to tolerance and a reduction of friction, then I might be on a wild goose chase.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


It often annoys or confuses me that no Japanese person seems able make a request of me without a wide smile (not a sign of friendliness, I eventually learned, but of discomfort). Imposing on another person in any way, or entering into any situation that has even the smallest possibility of leading to a conflict, is grounds for turbo-powered tension-defusing politeness, which means bows, smiles, and “thank-you-so-very-much-for-your-trouble”s and “I’m-so-very-sorry-to-have-inconvenienced-you-with-my-insignificant-request”s all around. This is especially true when addressing a foreigner, because one can never be sure when a foreigner is going to inexplicably go berserk, and because it’s vitally important that the foreigner have only good experiences and thoughts about Japan and Japanese people. Ironically, this never fails to rub me the wrong way. The thought has more than once flashed through my mind “if he apologizes one more time for asking me to prepared a 10-minute English game, I’m gonna punch him.” Thankfully I’ve been able to maintain my plastered smile instead, so far. When you think about it, however, most of the things we laugh at in the West are things out of control in some way, or something that turned out other than the doer intended. Seeing someone slipping on a banana peel, or jumping with fright, farting, diarrhea, sex, over-eating or drinking, and even death can all provoke roaring laughter or stifled giggles, especially when it’s clear that the victim of the laughter does not have himself under control. The sight of someone sitting on a toilet taking care of business, not funny. The sight of someone suddenly having to race to the bathroom and barely making it (or better yet, not making it), funny. Watching a civilized dinner, not funny. Watching someone discover that the pie is just too delicious to resist and messily inhaling the entire thing, funny. The strange thing is that humans don’t generally like it when the situations – or they themselves – are out of control. We like to be in control, and rarely appreciate being reminded of things that might instead control us. And so all these same things portrayed in a different way can be sources of discomfort: death, addiction, bodily functions, injury, and sex among the most potent conversation stoppers if handled clumsily. Perhaps what we think is pure joviality on our part is really the evolution of our own nervous laughter in the face of these things that could make us uncomfortable. It’s our way of handling it, and over time we’ve simply learned to call it “humor.” So it still bothers me that my colleagues seem so uncomfortable about asking me to do the smallest things, but it’s good to realize that we all have odd ways of handling our discomfort. Next time a wildly grinning colleague apologizes for interrupting my bored reading to give me something useful to do, I’ll just think about suddenly letting off a loud fart instead of hitting him.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Excitement At The Elementary School

For the most part Japanese elementary school students are the sweetest, cutest, most lovable representations of humanity on earth. The high-point of my week (as it is for many of the teachers in my program all across Japan) is the day at the elementary school (see video).

But today there were some poorly-hidden exceptions to the rule. I would’ve had no notion of the upheaval under the glassy surface if I hadn't noticed that hardly any of the teachers were in the office eating lunch at the regular time. I asked where they were, and after getting through a couple attempts to dodge the question I was told that two of the 4th graders hadn't returned from recess and had probably ran off into the nearby hills to escape. Most of the teachers were out looking for them. It was snowing, by the way. Then I noticed a 2nd grade boy eating his lunch alone in a corner of the teacher's office. I asked why he was there, and was told that one of his classmates (who happens to be one of my favorite students and is practically communicative in English) punched this boy in the eye and he'd just returned from the hospital. Of course I would not have been informed about any of this if I hadn't pursued the information myself. Now I'm wondering what else I've incorrectly assumed about the going-ons at the schools. I also have to wonder how much conscious effort is put into showing a good face for the foreigner. I've definitely heard students told to behave better so as to make a good impression on "the foreigner", and seen problems and conflicts postponed because of my presence. Sometimes I really wonder how much of the picture I'm being allowed to see.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

To Be Not Alone

A line that stays with me (recited by, of all people, Drew Barrymore, in, of all movies, “Lucky You”) is "You know what I think? I think we’re all just trying not to be lonely." At first glance Japan might seem to refute this. Social interaction here is not what it is in the West, and is not focused on the same goals. My first Japanese friend, who was studying in my University in California, told me that she’d come to America with the assumption –shared by many whose impression of Americans is shaped purely by the image that America exports – that Americans are fiercely independent, self-sufficient, and, in general, strong in themselves. It was only a matter of days before she was confronted with the sights of American college life, dominated by sororities and fraternities, nightly parties filled with strangers, a dating scene characterized by “it’s probably not going anywhere, but it’s better than being alone,” and the omnipresent hum of the mantra “thy shall not eat alone, study alone, play alone, or sleep alone. If thou dost, thou art a looser.” My friend’s ideas about American independence were crushed in light of the obvious dependence on the group for definition and significance, especially when compared to the quiet Japanese willingness to suppress the individual needs and feelings in favor of conforming to the collectively-selected “norm”. While many Westerners would truly be unable to maintain mental health if they did not have a least a couple friends with whom they could really “be themselves,” many Japanese still operate under the principle that the deepest core of one’s self is something to never be shown, to anyone, not ever. And oftentimes they never do, something the average American (like myself) finds unfathomable, in a very literal way. The difference is that in the West people look to others to be recognized and actualized as individuals; in Japan it is to be accepted and incorporated into the group. Both, however, are driven by the fear of being alone. In terms of needing the affirmation of the group, the Japanese can seem greatly more self-sufficient than Westerners, but they are just as likely to go to any lengths to avoid being alone. I see it in the way my Jr. High school boys all sit in each other’s laps and the girls waddle around the halls entangled in group hugs (no joke) and in the way that my colleagues and supervisors arrange my schedule so that I’m never unattended (which strangely does not strike me as supervision, just a mind-set that a person shouldn’t be alone, which explains the fact that never being alone here does not make me feel socialized, but rather provokes that most dreaded sense of being alone in a crowd). When I do manage to get off to a quiet corner for a breather there’s a kind of quiet confusion radiating from the group over my behavior. What really strikes me is how extraordinarily polarized the rules of operation can be in a society, and yet it all comes around to at least one of the same things: people don’t want to be alone. The question I have to ask next, then, is “why?” What do we sense deep within our (perhaps truest) selves that propels us to the arms of company that often demeans or diminishes our dignity as individuals, to fill the silence with the white noise of mindless “entertainment,” or to distort or mask our character, all to avoid coming face to face with ourselves? Whether it’s worth it or not, either way it frightens me.