Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Trouble in the Pagoda

Kawabata Yasunari (1968)
Click here for acceptance speech.

Oe Kenzaburo (1994)
Click here for acceptance speech.

Both of these Japanese gentlemen won the Nobel Prize for Literature. These are the ONLY two Japanese writers to have won the prize in its century long history, spaced about a quarter century apart, and both of them made carefully-crafted speeches which attempted to explain their rather isolated country, and their individual literary influences, to a benevolent but essentially disengaged (Western) audience.

This is interesting. It is particularly fascinating to note that the speeches are totally different in the world of feeling they portray.

Oe seems to be questioning Kawabata, or more accurately, Kawabata’s depiction of a Japanese sensibility based upon a centuries old Zen aesthetic. This was obviously not in accordance with Oe's more acerbic observations of modern Japan.

Kawabata was 69 when he received the prize in 1968. His formative years had been spent among artists and writers in the cosmopolitan Tokyo of the 1920s when Japan was going through its own version of the Jazz Age and was much more open to European artistic influences than it was to become in the narrowly nationalistic 1930s. Oe tells us he was about the same age as Yeats when he received his prize which would place him as a child of this feverish and misguided decade; indeed, he opens his speech with his memories of being a young boy sheltering in the woods of Shikoku during the final years of the Pacific War.

Both men's lives overlapped during different periods of one of the most traumatic centuries in Japanese history -- 1865 to 1965 -- and both turned their backs on what they perceived to be the insecurity and vulgarity of the wider society that surrounded them. Kawabata sought solace in a medieval Japan of poetry-writing monks and it is significant that he points out in his speech that his novel “Thousand Cranes” was an attack on modern practices, an ‘expression of doubt about and warning against the vulgarity into which the tea ceremony has fallen’. Oe sought kindred spirits at home (Professor Kazuo Watanabe) and abroad (William Butler Yeats) and of course drew great inspirational strength from his handicapped son Hikari.

Both Kawabata and Oe felt unease about Japanese society and the position of the artist within it. In spite of the explicit condemnation contained in his speech Kawabata did, in the end, commit suicide. Artistic freedom is far stronger than consistency and Kawabata made use of his options; a surprising number of first-rank Japanese writers have done the same -- Akutugawa, Dazai, Mishima. Oe lives on but as an increasingly isolated and (presumably) more alienated figure.

Many contemporary Japanese have never heard of Oe Kenzaburo (my students, for example), much less read his works, even though Oe like Kawabata before him -- a generation-and-a-half apart -- are the only two Japanese writers to have won the supreme accolade of international literary recognition. Oe seems to politely disown Kawabata's interpretation of the uniqueness of Japanese sensibility; he feels that Kawabata is retreating to a world of the moon and cherry blossoms which serves as a false shield against the expression of elite male (samurai) aggression, just as much a feature of the enclosed society of medieval Japan as it was in the militaristic 1930s. Oe has his own demons to face, among them a horror of the useless and destructive War he remembers from his youth, and a sharp distaste for the rampant materialism that provided a new outlet for the male elite (samurai in business suits) in the first and second generations following the Defeat of 1945.

Oe dislikes and distrusts modern Japan which he feels is becoming a neon and plastic culture, superficial, with no depth of human understanding, and dangerously out of touch with its spiritual past. His enemies are the smooth and persuasive nationalist politicians who are playing (again) on the political gullibility of a confused and diffuse and disorganized electorate. The wildly popular Governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro,-- scion of a wealthy family, ex-bestselling novelist with a movie-star brother, media darling, purveyor of a provocative and plausible line of populist rhetoric -- personifies everything about the intellectual seduction of New Japan that Oe despises.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

An Indian Diary

When you step out of Delhi Airport -- even at 3 o'clock in the morning -- India is ready and waiting for you. A heaving mob of taxi drivers pounce out of the shadows; one grabs your arm, another grabs your bags, and all of them are shouting at once: "Come with me!" . . . "I have very good car !" . . . "This way!" . . . "Come with me, come with me!" And when you get to a hotel, the night porter comes out wrapped up in a dirty sheet, rubbing his eyes. You ask him how much for a room and he tells you. You laugh and start to get back in the taxi, but the porter grabs your arm. In the end you get the room for about half the price and go in. It's hot. The electric fan on the ceiling doesn't work, nor do the lights. The electricity has broken down again. You lie there in the dark and it's too hot to sleep and you think, "Well . . . here I am, back in India. Nothing has changed."


India in some of its aspects is a highly developed and "up-to-date" country, but to the casual eye it appears chaotic and backward -- and fearfully noisy. As first impressions are replaced by second and third impressions the country seems, a bit bewilderingly, to belong to many different centuries all at the same time. India is one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world -- there were cities on the Indus River nearly five thousand years ago -- yet it is also a "new" country, since it finally gained its independence from Britain as late as 1947. History can help us to understand the way the Indian people think and live today as long as we don't try to interpret this history in the determinist sense of progression through time, or of one type of political and sociological environment being superceded and entirely replaced by another. There are at least three major and quite separate historical traditions at work in this country, each one of which can be traced to its own period of ascendancy, and each one of which continues to exert influence. These traditions have often been at odds with one another, and at other times have overlapped or even coalesced to form something new and different among certain sections of Indian society. The process continues to this day, and for the casual observer it is often difficult to understand the social and psychological strains that are still at work. Indeed, to speak of only three traditions is in itself an oversimplification, but it will serve as a useful beginning: these three traditions, in the order of their appearance, are the religious and social philosophies of the Aryan Hindus; those of the Muslims who invaded from the northwest, culminating with the empire of the Mughals; and, most recently, the predominantly secular but nonetheless philosophically challenging influence of the British Raj.

About 1500 BC the Aryans, a warlike nomadic folk , invaded India from the west. In the course of the next thousand years or so they subdued the people who had been living there before them and established control over the vast and fertile North Indian plain. Their religion was one of ritualistic sacrifice to many gods and their society was divided, rigidly, according to various functions and privileges (there are a number of remarkable linguistic and ritual similarities to the European Celts and the early tribes of Latium that went on to form the Roman Republic). These social divisions gave rise to the caste system which persists to the present day. The four original castes were those of priests, warriors, tradesmen, and farmers. Non-Aryans had no social standing at all and became "outcastes". These castes sub-divided among themselves and sub-divided again so that today there are more than three thousand of them, called "jatis". A jati determines the social standing of its members in relation to all other Hindus in terms of worship, dietary practices, and acceptable partners in marriage. The system is flexible enough to allow for upward and downward movement of the various jatis on a limited scale, but the overall effect of such compartmentalization of society has been profound in that it makes any lasting sense of national or political solidarity (except in relation to non-Hindus) almost impossible to achieve. Even in times of relative peace and prosperity, preoccupation with the pecking order is responsible for a great deal of tension and irritability, exploding at times into the sudden outbursts of violence that are a constant feature of Indian life.

The Aryans ruled over small independent kingdoms for the most part, although two great empires arose and lasted for a few centuries each. Before this time, and for long periods afterwards, there were the invasions -- always the invasions: Persians, Greeks, Huns, Kushans, Turks, Mongols, Afghans . . . the list is long and formidable. But among all these foreign invaders it was the Muslims -- especially the "Mughals" from Afghanistan -- and then the British, who came from far across the sea, who were to have the most lasting and noticeable effect upon Hindu civilization.


At Laxman Jhula , after an overnight bus trip up from Delhi we arrive finally at the foothills of the Himalayas. The sun shines down on the Ganges, green and turbulent, fast-flowing, not as dirty and foul-smelling as it will become by the time it reaches the holy city of Benares. The passengers on the bus wash and brush their teeth at a public well and then pass over a narrow bridge. The roadway is lined with beggars. It's very hot. The beggars are spaced very close to one another, some of them squatting in the shade of umbrellas and it's impossible to give money to all of them. There are many temples along the river and people bathe, fully-dressed, believing that these sacred waters will wash away their sins. As we walk along I spot a European among the beggars and go over to ask him what he's doing there. He shrugs and says, " What else can I do now ? "


Hardwar. In the bazaar an elderly man takes me by the arm and speaks in careful, cultured English . He takes me to his house. His wife bows, joins her hands to her forehead, and then brings us cups of tea. The room is small but cool, and the walls are lined with books. He asks me what my religion might be and begins to speak slowly and hypnotically about God. Before I leave he shows me letters from America, from England and from France and Holland and Germany. "These are my friends, " he says, "they have stayed with me here." I look through some of the letters to be polite and think how hard it must be at times to be an Indian trapped in India. I thank him for the tea and step back into the noise and the sunlight. There are cows lying in the narrow street and the pedestrians and cyclists make their way around them .


On the train. A day and a night on the train and the evening of the second day is approaching. We pull into a station, another station just like all the others: the platform, the station master's hut, the waiting room. People are asleep on the platform, others are sitting in groups, smoking, chatting, drinking tea . . . farmers in ragged turbans, women in cotton saris with bracelets up to their elbows, porters in torn red tunics, and all the people with nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. Everywhere one goes in India, at any time of the day or night, one finds people sleeping: sleeping curled up on the pavements, sleeping in the corridors of public buildings, sleeping in the shade of trees or in the cool arcades of the mosques and temples, and sleeping on station platforms like this one. Here, as soon as the train stops the beggars are crowding the windows, thrusting in their arms, holding up deformed children, pleading, begging for money. There are so many, too many. And everywhere you go it is the same. And there are so many people selling things, so many people selling the same things, and each fighting with the other to be the one you buy from. And over all this noise and confusion you can always hear the drawn-out mournful cry of the tea-sellers as they move up and down the length of the train, chanting " Chaaa . . . aay , chaaa . . . aay !" Then the train pulls out. We leave the station behind. Soon it will be another station, a place just like this one but with a different name. There will be the same sights, the beggars, the porters, the people asleep and the people awake, and the same cry of the tea-sellers approaching and receding along the platform . . . " Chaaa . . . aay . . ."


The Mughals established their rule over India in 1526. Their leader, Babur, had already made six unsuccessful attempts to conquer the Afghan dynasty then in control of Delhi. He was hiding in a cave after his last defeat, so the story goes, when he noticed a spider trying to climb up a thread. Six times the spider climbed and six times the spider fell, but on the seventh attempt it was successful. Babur took this for a sign and decided to invade India one more time. He too was successful on his seventh attempt and his descendants were to rule over India for the next two hundred years and more. Each one of the emperors over six generations -- from father to son to grandson -- reigned in an atmosphere of splendour and magnificence that the world had rarely seen before and will likely never see again. Babur, Humayun, Akbar (especially Akbar!), Jahangir, Shah Jehan, Aurangzeb: their lives have become the source of legends in India. It was a time of palaces and gardens, of fountains and poetry and coins flung into the arms of the crowd; it was a time of great battles and heroes and intrigues, of queens and dancing girls, of treachery and gallantry and peacocks strutting on emerald lawns. "If there is a Paradise on Earth," reads the carved inscription on one of the marble walls within the Red Fort at Delhi , "If there is a Paradise on Earth , it is here . . . it is here . . . it is here." Now all this pride and dazzling brilliance is a thing of the past. Nothing remains of the Mughal Empire apart from its religion, Islam, and its public buildings. But what buildings! The Mughals blended traditional Hindu and Persian styles to create a unique, almost floating style of architecture, the most famous example of which is, of course, the Taj Mahal .


In Agra for a week, staying at the same place as four years ago. The old man says he remembers me, but I wonder. He sits all day in the shade of the courtyard with his eyes closed, immovable as a lizard. The Taj Mahal is about a two-minute walk from here, past the shops, through the arch, and across the square. But there's something wrong with me. I'm sick. Everybody who comes to India gets sick, gets well after a while and then gets sick again. It's something you have to get used to. This time it seems to be worse than usual and I'm beginning to get worried. In the afternoon Ganesh, the rickshaw driver, comes by and gives me two bananas and a small lump of brown stuff. "Eat this, " he says, "and don't drink any tea." I do as he says and sleep until the evening. I awake feeling much better and stroll down to the bazaar where I run into Ganesh outside one of the tea shops. "What was it you gave me ?" I ask, "I'm feeling much better now". "Opium," he says, and in the next breath invites me to his cousin's wedding.


The Taj Mahal. Shah Jehan dearly loved his wife who was known as the "Jewel of the Palace". When she died in childbirth he could not overcome his grief and, vowing to build a tomb for her that would last throughout the ages, gathered artisans and workmen from all over India. When the building was nearing completion the Emperor decided to build an exact copy as his own tomb, only this time in black marble and across the river which runs behind the present Taj. His idea was to increase the proportions slightly so that when one looked through the archway that serves as an entrance to the White Taj, the Black Taj behind it would serve as a perfect outline of its graceful domes and slim minarets. His son, Aurangzeb, deposed Shah Jehan before this dream could be realized, and the dying Emperor spent his last years as a prisoner in the Fort of Agra, a sick man, with a mirror on the ceiling of his room so that he could see the Taj without rising from his bed .


On the nights when there is a moon, the gardens of the Taj are open until midnight. There you can sit on one of the marble benches surrounded by an almost perfect stillness while the Taj rises up, pure, white, and gleaming before you. The semi- precious stones inlaid in the marble glisten in the moonlight. Never have I seen anything like this. Several nights in a row I went down there and sat alone for hours, silently watching. If I could understand the source of those feelings, I think it would change my life.


The wedding was magnificent. First there was a procession through the crowded streets as the bridegroom arrived on a white horse. His bride-to-be was wearing the traditional red sari with borders of spun gold and he was resplendent in a turban and spotless robes. The room where the wedding was held was so dense with people that I could hardly squeeze in, but I managed to catch glimpses of what was going on from time to time over the heads of the crowd. The central part of the ceremony is when the bridegroom leads the bride five times around a sacred fire, symbolizing the five elements (earth, air, fire, wind and water) from which all life arises, has its being, and returns. It is no coincidence that the ceremony of cremation of the dead is similar. The eldest son or closest male relative (women are not allowed to attend cremations) leads a procession of family members five times around the funeral pyre before he sets it alight with a torch. There is a consistency of thought here: birth is a manifestation, marriage a regeneration, and death only a comma in the progress of the human soul, a temporary end to be followed by another birth, another marriage, and so on forever. The individual person is just a passing phase in the eternal life of his soul. Beliefs such as these are used to explain why Hindu India seems so alien and incomprehensible to outsiders, and so careless of human suffering. How, we are asked to consider, can the Hindus possibly live any other way when they believe the world to be a mere illusion? Well, the simple answer is that most of the Hindus I met never seemed to bother with the philosophy of their religion at all, but simply observed familiar customs and rituals without giving them another thought. There is something almost southern Italian in the popularity of garish, multi-coloured religious images and the love of bright and gaudy and above all, noisy, processions. These people are just as passionately involved with their own personal successes and failures and with the ups and downs of fortune as any other people, certainly so in their youth and middle age. With advancing years comes a growing interest in religion and religious philosophy. This is a phenomenon not particularly restricted to India or the Hindus, by any means, since the elderly in any society have to make their peace with Death.


Benares. We met by the river before dawn and climbing into the boat moved silently into the middle of the stream. The sun began to rise quickly in the east and within minutes turned the surface of the river into sliding, dazzling sheets of gold. Slowly we passed the strange-shaped temples on the shore and the people who had come down to bathe, some of them standing waist-deep in the water, all facing towards the sun, their hands joined together in prayer. So strange the feeling. . . as though this were not the twentieth century at all, as though one were in a world of many hundreds of years before . . . From a circle of brahmins on the shore came a drone of chanting, but there was no other sound to be heard but the drip of water from suspended oars as we moved along. The sun climbed higher in the sky. Dukhi stopped rowing, said something, everybody laughed. Somebody passed me a cigarette and the spell was broken. Soon after the corpse of a baby floated by, bloated and horrible. We all held handkerchiefs to our noses .


The British first came to India as traders during the declining years of the Mughals. When the Empire began to disintegrate during the 18th Century, the East India Company began to assume more and more military and political power under the guise of "protecting trade". By the mid-19th Century most of India was under British control -- the exceptions were the Princely States, each with a British Resident and with fluctuating degrees of sovereignty. With British rule came many innovations: they introduced a law system and a civil service which extended to the district and village level; their medicine reduced the appalling mortality rate and the population increased enormously as a result; the railway and telegraph linked all parts of India for the first time; their language became the lingua franca of India and remains so today in a country of 14 major languages and more than 250 separate dialects. But the English language, studied originally as a means to securing government employment, became in time a window for the educated elite into a world of new ideas, ideas such as parliamentary democracy, civil liberties, and the principles of social justice -- and such ideas led, inevitably, to a political campaign for independence.

Independence came in the end not through the ideas learned from English books but through a popular (and shrewdly political) campaign based upon an idealization of the Hindu past. This was led by an English-educated lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, revered throughout India to this day as the "Mahatma", or Great Soul. Gandhi disrupted the British power structure in India through the use of non-violent civil disobedience on a mass scale. His ascetic way of life and his sincere belief in the teachings of ancient Hindu scriptures gained him the fervent and devotional support of illiterate village India. But it was his imaginative use of symbolic protest -- notably his leisurely walk across India to the sea with his thousands of followers in order to collect salt and so defy the government monopoly -- that attracted the attention of the international press. The relentless pressure which came to bear on the British, from within the country in the form of mass demonstrations and from without in the form of world opinion, led to their decision to pull out of India in 1947.

Since Gandhi's assassination in 1948 -- at the hands of a Hindu nationalist who didn't like the concessions being made to Muslims -- India has been struggling to find its direction as a nation under a new dynasty -- that of the Nehru family. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi's friend and political ally, held the reins of power in the first crucial decade and a half of independence and it was his daughter Indira who kept the nation together, invoking emergency decrees in the mid-70s, until her assassination at the hands of Sikh extremists. Her son Rajiv was also assassinated, this time by Tamil separatists from Sri Lanka. After a prolonged interregnum by the Hindu nationalists of the BJP, Rajiv's wife Sonia, an Italian by birth, has recently led the Congress Party to another sweeping election victory but has wisely declined to assume the post of Prime Minister. The country still faces enormous problems, chiefly those brought about by overpopulation and widespread, mind-numbing poverty, and is furthermore riven with an alarming array of internal divisions, political, regional, religious, linguistic. Despite the many strains, the fabric still holds together .


One of the bitter legacies of the colonial past is the queer mixture of arrogance and envy that one encounters in conversations with English-speaking Indians. On the one hand they criticize everything they possibly can about the West in the most provocative terms: it's materialistic, morally corrupt, and full of terrorists, pornographers and drug addicts. What a horrible, disgusting place! But it is also a place with a high standard of living and with opportunities that do not exist in India, where ordinary people take cars and televisions and washing machines for granted and where the electricity works all day. These conversations all seemed to follow a familiar pattern no matter where they took place -- whether in restaurants or railway carriages or in the tea shops of the bazaar. First came the criticism, torrents of outlandish nonsense for the most part, since nobody seemed to have a clear picture of what life was really like in Europe and North America. I never argued, I simply listened. Then when the denunciations had ceased came the urgent, whispered questions: how could one get a visa to work in such-and-such a country? Could I help? I felt sorry for some, especially the young and energetic, but not all that sorry. They were at least well-fed. All around us were beggars and people starving in the streets.


Udaipur. Sick again. Sitting in a tea stall in the gardens of a dead maharaja while the monsoon rains beat down on the tin roof. Across from me a wrinkled old man in a blue turban sits huddled in his rags, staring at me. Everything is quiet apart from the rain and a kettle that hisses on the coals of an open fire. I haven't shaved for three days and feel rotten. I catch the old man's eye and hold the stare. What the hell are you looking at? "God is good," he says in English, and smiles.


Bombay. The view from the hilltops above the city is impressive. The buildings, from a distance, are tall, modern, and white and the Arabian Sea is a deep tropical blue. This is the commercial hub of India. Seen from a distance it looks a bit like Honolulu. Closer up it's more like Hong Kong -- only more so. The streets are jammed with people and a fair number of them spread out burlap sacks on the pavement at night and sleep on them. The big hotels seemed to be full of Arabs in flowing robes. But there were no Arabs in my hotel. Where I stayed (with an Australian fellow I had met on the train) was a dingy walk-up near the railroad station. We fastened our own padlock to the door of the room -- a traveller's custom in this part of the world -- and went out, wandering through the crowded streets, looking for a place to eat. The British influence was very noticeable downtown, with many rather hideous-looking Victorian-Gothic buildings and red double-decker buses. This was once their " Gateway to India " where all the liners and troopships from Britain arrived. We found a place, finally, that served beer as well as food. Beer in India can be pretty awful stuff but it's usually safer than the water. We had a large bottle each, ate, and ordered a couple more. In the course of time the beer made its presence felt and I asked the owner where I could wash my hands. He looked at me as though I had taken leave of my senses. "OK," I said, "never mind the hands. Where's your toilet?" "Outside," he said. I went outside and found myself staring at the street. " Listen," I said, going back in, "I couldn't find it. Where is it?" "Outside! "he yelled, with a wave that took in all of Bombay .


Back in Delhi where it all began. I'm leaving tomorrow. Outside the Great Mosque in the Old City a European in a blue satin waistcoat and loose yellow trousers walks up to me. His face is all hair and beard and glittering eyes. "Hey man," he says, "can you give me a couple of rupees? I want to get something to eat." I reach into my pocket for some change and ask him how long he's been in India. "Too long, man," he says, his eyes on the money, "way too long. I gotta get out of here."


The very next day I was back in Japan. It was a shock to the system. Everything became clean and orderly and expensive all of a sudden. Friends asked me what India had been like and I didn't know what to say. Even what I have written here is nothing more than a collection of fragments -- a number of random incidents with a little historical background. I could write a great deal more because there are so many more memories to draw upon. The selection is incomplete. But no matter how much I write I don't think I can carry the feeling of what it's like to be over there. It's a chaotic, colourful, noisy, round-the-clock circus sort of a country which I can't claim to understand very well -- but then neither do the Indians themselves. The poverty is truly frightening: in spite of this, in spite of the crowded cities, in spite of the noise and the flies and everything else that visitors complain of, there is something magical and timeless about this place. There are moments when the face of our own century seems to slip away entirely -- as though a mask had suddenly been removed -- and something eternal and never-changing is briefly revealed But which is the reality and which is the illusion?

Every morning you wake up over there and you wonder what is going to happen. And every day, without fail, something does happen, usually without warning. India never, never leaves you alone. It is always tugging at your sleeve, pulling you, pushing you -- just like the taxi drivers at the airport -- forcing you into a world of your senses and imagination. It's too much to take in all at once: there is so much beauty to be seen and so much horror which cannot be avoided. You always feel that you need more time to understand, to reconcile the differences; that if you only had more time you could make sense of all the incidents and impressions of each passing day as if they were so many pieces that fit together to make a design. But perhaps there is no design. I don't know. India fascinates and appalls me. I reveled in the excitement and colour while I was there but I was happy enough to leave when the time came. Now I'm wondering when I'll manage to go back.

(Check here for an excellent collection of photos from India)

Monday, June 21, 2004

Gaijin … a rose by any other name?

For a lot of people Japan never really comes into focus. I was thinking about people overseas when I began that sentence, people who have no reason or desire to visit Japan, but it strikes me now that the same could be said for many of the gaijin who have lived here for years. A gaijin is a foreigner, literally an "outside person".

For a lot of people this apparently innocuous term carries a bit of a charge. They get bent out of shape entirely when this term is applied to them, as if it were somehow equivalent to a raft of other epithets we have been taught not to use any more -- supply your own examples in this space.

By itself the term gaijin seems pretty bland and a fair sight better than the Chinese version "gwai-lo" which translates as foreign devil. I suppose a lot depends on how the word is used -- as in "Smile when you say that, mister".

You can live in this country for 100 years, marry the Emperor's daughter (unlikely), get elected to your local city council, play for one of the national teams, walk around waving your shiny red Japanese passport, and you will still be seen as a gaijin.

For some people this is extremely irksome. Every year there is a spate of letters in the local English-language press decrying Japanese attitudes to foreigners in general and the widespread use of the G-word in particular. This happens every year; nothing seems to change.

Just how bad is discrimination in Japan? The Japanese claim they are not making any moral distinction, just using the evidence of their eyes in the same way all people automatically register whether another person is male or female, old or young. Maybe so. It has to be said people don't drive their cars into plate glass windows when they see you, hordes of taunting giggling children don't follow you through the streets (they used to), few people glare at you and none of them throw stones.

Being a gaijin in Japan is a sweet deal compared to being a gaijin (or whatever the word is -- probably not nice) in a place like Iraq or Saudi Arabia. There the locals will try to shoot you, blow you up or cut off your head. Count your blessings. On the minus side of the ledger you may find yourself denied entry to certain bars and restaurants and even some stores; you may find it very difficult to rent an apartment in certain areas; you may hit a glass ceiling on promotions if you work for a Japanese company; and you may encounter frigid hostility from the parents of your Japanese girlfriend or boyfriend. There are a few actively unpleasant people around and in Hokkaido you can't even have a bath, which I'll come back to later.

None of these things are part of the happy-clappy side of cultural communications, but I hardly think such reactions are limited to Japan. Any ethnically different group of immigrants in a new country faces similar, and often worse, discrimination. The Irish in 19th century America were treated as scum of the earth, soon to be followed by Italians, Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. Afro-Americans still face subtle and not-so-subtle inequalities of treatment in the land of their birth. In secular enlightened Western Europe (pause for laughs) the Germans look down on Turks, the French dislike Algerians, the Italians shun Libyans and Albanians, the Dutch keep the Moluccans at arm's length and the holy sainted Irish (the world's most persecuted people, thanks to the co-operation of the evil, clueless English) make life miserable for their own indigeneous gypsies. The Mexicans are nasty to their Indians, the Hindus beat up on Muslims, the Sunni are not nice to the Shi'a, Southeast Asians gang up on local Chinese, and the unhappy list goes on.

What makes the gaijin debate in Japan particularly interesting (for me, anyway) is to watch the reactions of members of a majority group in their home country coming to terms with suddenly becoming a minority-type person over here. They don't seem to like it at all.

Most if not all of the recurring outrage in the Letters to the Editor, the loudly-voiced complaints at parties, the smouldering resentments of newcomers and oldtimers alike, stem largely from North American, Anzac (Aussie/NZ), and Western European Caucasians who are finding out for the first time in their lives what it feels like to be on the receiving end of discriminatory behaviour.

Does this somehow make discrimination OK? No, it doesn't. Discrimination remains unfair and it can be deeply hurtful to the person who experiences it. But if the experience opens a few eyes among those who belong to a majority group at home, and if it alters their attitudes toward minority groups in their own countries, then it may have served some useful purpose.

That's a nice pious thought for the foreigners who go home. But what about the foreigners who have settled in Japan?

David Aldwinkle is an American (actually an ex-American) who lives in the northern island of Hokkaido. He is a very prominent anti-discrimination activist who is best known for his ongoing campaign against local bathhouses on the island. These bathhouses arbitrarily decided to ban all foreigners after a number of distressing incidents involving drunken Russian sailors. Instead of making a sensible decision to ban all drunks of whatever nationality, the bathhouse owners clubbed together and announced a blanket ban on all non-Japanese. Dave (we've met) was incensed and mounted a campaign to get the decision overturned. He started petition drives and has been all over the national and even international press. No dice. He even took the rather extreme step of taking out Japanese nationality, thereby renouncing his US citizenship (the things we do for a bath!), and armed with his shiny red Japanese passport, a posse of supporters, and a rolling tape recorder, marched into a local bathhouse and demanded his place in the tub. Still no dice. "You may be a Japanese citizen", he was told in effect, "but you still LOOK like a gaijin."

The Japanese constitution explicitly condemns discrimination but the courts and politicians see this as a non-issue with the Japanese electorate. Is there no way of getting this in-your-face ban on foreigners overturned? Apparently not. Poor old Dave must be smelling pretty ripe by now ….

In another well-documented incident a Brazilian resident did get a court ruling in her favour. Japan has a fairly significant immigrant population from Brazil and Peru, brought in during the boom years of the 1980s to do jobs the Japanese no longer cared to do themselves. Anna Bortz was a reporter on a local Brazilian newspaper/radio station in Hamamatsu, a city about halfway between Tokyo and Osaka on the Pacific coast. Hamamatsu is a blue-collar town with one of the largest concentrations of South American immigrants in Japan, largely because of its many manufacturing plants. One day Anna was turned away from a jewellers shop in the city simply because she was non-Japanese (the shop blamed foreigners for shoplifting losses) and promptly took the shop to court After a protracted legal case she finally won damages and this was regarded as a great victory for the anti-discrimination lobby.

But has the situation really changed? Not really, at least not in terms of landmark legal decisions (Anna was a one-off) and certainly not in terms of political legislation. Foreigners remain a very small percentage of the total population and many of them are on short-term contracts. Their numbers are simply not sufficient to arouse any significant political action which tries to either extend or reduce their rights. There are periodic rabble-rousing attempts to stigmatize foreigners by the lower end of the political food-chain in which the rise in crime statistics is directly related to the increase of foreigners in Japan. This may frighten people and garner a few votes but it has no connection with the reality of the situation.

In gradual terms, however, there has been a noticeable shift in Japanese attitudes. I have lived in this country for 25 years off an on (mostly on) and even though I jump at every chance to go home (Ireland) there is nothing strange or unusual about that. So do most Japanese living or working overseas. I certainly wouldn't have stayed so long had I found the country oppressive or hostile. It isn't. I have very fond feelings for this country.

After a year or two without a long visit home, I find it is the little things, not the elephant-sized differences, that can really get on my nerves (Can you use chopsticks? -- Can you eat sushi? -- No foreigner can really learn Japanese -- We Japanese can communicate without words [this, from the most wordy people on the planet !] whereas you people blather all the time -- "We Japanese" this -- "We Japanese" that -- Our children take ten months to be born but your children take only nine -- We Japanese think with the other side of our brain, etc., etc) but it's nothing that a holiday can't cure.

Being a resident gaijin is a bit like working in a submarine. It's not so bad when you get the routine down, but you're on duty 24/7 and you can't help but look forward to coming up for air. It's the simple little things you miss -- speaking your own language, not standing out in a crowd, understanding all the jokes, just being another anonymous ordinary person. What I miss most about Ireland -- apart from the music -- are the quick flashes of wit (they draw blood) and the sheer speed and inventiveness of even the most casual conversations. Then there's the falling-down helpless laughter in place of polite giggles. Ah well.

But there have been changes in Japanese attitudes, very significant changes. When I first arrived here in the late 1970s kids actually did follow you in the streets pointing and shouting "Gaijin!!". Their parents smiled indulgently and never said a word of reproach. You felt you were in a zoo, on the wrong side of the cage. But that's all behind us. Touch wood.

Japanese people then couldn't get their heads around a gaijin talking Japanese. It wasn't on the menu. No matter how fluently and grammatically we spoke they would look at our faces and do this windshield wiper movement which is the Japanese gesture for negative intake/ incomprehension. Then they would say something like "Eigo wakarimasen" (I don't understand English) because they were totally unprepared for some round-eye speaking to them in their own language. That's all behind us too -- now people walk up and EXPECT you to speak their language, the normal approach in most countries.

Back then it was a different story. We talked about it at the time (unabashedly "gaijin" -- and that's what we called each other) and came to the conclusion we would have to do some "channel-changing operations". An ordinary Japanese person in a shop or at a petrol pump or wherever just took it for granted that we couldn't speak Japanese so you had to give them some warning -- change the input channel.

"Hello. Hello. Japanese language on the way. Get ready!!"

What we decided (and it worked) was to start all communications with Japanese filler words -- things like umm, and err, and emm -- just to let them know that Japanese was on the way. The two favorites were a long drawn out "Ettooo …" and three carefully spaced "Ano ne" … "Ano ne" … "Ano ne". It worked like a charm. Their eyes would flicker, you could almost see the channels changing, and then you could launch in. They would look at you, amazed. But no windshield wipers.

Those early days are gone and I can't say I'm sorry to see Japan move on, although I have to say I was filled with delight by the strangeness of this country back then and the sharp-edged and freshly-minted awareness that seemed to surround every new encounter. Living in Japan was an adventure, never ever seen as a hardship. It was like landing on another planet. You used roll out of bed in the morning (roll off the futon, in actual fact) and think, "Well, what's going to happen today?" It was great.

Changes have come about not because of government ministries hiring thousands of untrained foreign ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) and pushing "English By Osmosis", nor by directives from on high to harried and already overworked local teachers to instill international consciousness in their students (how, exactly?). What changes have come about have been set in motion by the simple and effective means of more and more Japanese travelling overseas. The first and possibly second trip was usually with a group (total Japanese-speaking bubble) but the third, fourth, and fifth (and so on) was more adventurous and generally a lot more fun.

This is particularly noticeable among people in their twenties and early thirties but it begins even earlier now with the popularity of homestay trips abroad for junior and senior high school students in the 13-18 age group. The outside world has become more familiar and is no longer viewed as a menacing and threatening counterfoil to national purity in the home islands, and this has had a knock-on effect when the travellers come home.

This is a process still very much in its early stages, much like a child in its early adolescence. At least infancy is behind us, but the process is still not particularly rapid and almost glacially slow in its trickle-down effect on the society as a whole. Think of a multi-megabyte download using a 56k dialup modem. It takes a huge amount of time but with a lot of patience you get there in the end. The last 25 years have seen enormous changes, imperceptible on a daily basis, but impressive in their overall accumulation.

You can't force an historically isolated society into new perceptions overnight. Technologically, Japan is at the cutting edge of the 21st century. Psychologically, it is still coming to terms with the gap between Edo and the Meiji restoration. That's a huge psychic leap that still hasn't been resolved. You can shape and distort reality by political and media overkill, as happened here in the 1930s -- and the military adventures in China and the Pacific War which followed were both logical results of Meiji expansion, and not the aberration that some historians would have us believe. Editing the news at source is a method of controlling thought employed by all authoritarian states. China and North Korea come to mind these days, perhaps even Cuba and Vietnam. Among the democracies we have the less than shining example of Singapore and perhaps (the jury is still out) post 9/11 America.

Japan has followed a business model since the defeat of its military ambitions in 1945 but even that is now in decline. Material success, heady as it was in the 1980s, when Japan overtook Germany and even the USA, never really captured the spiritual aspirations of this intensely competitive and self-absorbed nation. It is never a good idea to let governments control a nation's means of expression. To begin with, they don't know how. They don't understand the powers they are dealing with.

The political establishment in Japan is, in any case, pretty feeble. The parliamentarians here are far more intent on pursuing intra-party factional feuds than they are in providing any blueprint or cross-party united action plan to pull Japan out of its decade-long recession. While small businesses go to the wall and bankruptcies increase -- and along with them business-related suicides -- we are treated to a spectacle of backroom power struggles as the political elite indulge in a replay of the "sengokujidai" (period of civil wars of the 16th century) without the flashy swordplay and assassinations.

One worrying trend is the rumblings offstage of a newly confident and xenophobic right wing.

These are the hardliners who revere the Emperor, still see Japan as the Land of the Gods, deny the Nanking Massacre, recoil from any foreign contacts, and put pressure on schools to use sanitized history textbooks. According to these guys Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened out of a clear blue sky. ("One day the American President decided to drop atomic bombs on Japanese schoolchildren" -- no, this is NOT a direct quote of any kind. But that is the message. Japanese schoolkids are often visibly perplexed about the bombings because they haven't been taught to connect the dots with Pearl Harbour).

For years we have had right wing nutters in paramilitary uniforms trawling through cities in huge camouflaged sound trucks blaring out marching songs from the Pacific War and spreading messages of hate. Every democracy has its lunatic fringe and people generally sigh and put up with them. So too with Japan.

In recent years, as the recession has continued to bite down hard, the mainstream politicians have been cautiously beating the same tribal tom-toms. The Japanese force in Iraq is one sign of these changing times. Sending troops overseas is a total non-starter under the post-WWII Japanese Constitution (1946, enacted 1947) so this is widely seen as a test case for future deployments abroad, either with or without UN sanction. It is significant that the USA called for help from other nations -- a call to which Japan decided to respond -- without any UN support. The government is playing a rather dangerous game because any Japanese troop casualties could lead to an instant and furious backlash from a (so far) indifferent and apathetic electorate. (It is a constant source of amazement to see how tuned-out most Japanese are to the actions of their government).

So now we have the SDF (Japanese Self-Defense Force, with the fourth-largest military budget in the world )deployed as a military force overseas for the first time in 60 years. One careful move on the chessboard.

We also have the personable and decidedly sinister Ishihara Shintaro re-elected in a landslide as the Governor of Tokyo. Here is a man who dislikes and distrusts other nations (particularly the United States) and who has made a career of playing upon local fears of encroaching foreign influences which dilute the sacred spirit of Japan. He has proposed a Rapid Reaction Force to suppress and control foreigners in the event of a natural disaster in the Tokyo area. No, I am not kidding.

Most Japanese laugh these things off. Oh, none of this is serious, they say. Maybe not. But I have lived in this country long enough to realize that even the strongest, kindest and gentlest people suddenly jump to attention when the Voice of Authority barks.

To be fair, most Japanese who can still afford it these days carry on their carefree consumer existence without a thought in their heads about the government or the outside world. But they did the same in the 1920s.

Painful as it is to say this (I have really grown to love this country and have made many good friends over the years) once the government cracks the whip, the majority will immediately come to heel. There will always be a few wild and glorious exceptions but the word "few" is the one to keep in mind. The alternative to instant blind obedience would be ostracism and expulsion from the tribe, a condition worse than death for most ordinary Japanese.

We have already seen the effect over the last three years of fear and compulsion and "patriotism" (nationalism viewed from the inside) on the multicultural open society that was the United States. It would be foolish to say it couldn't happen here where the social pressures and historical traditions are so much more conducive to conformity.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Joyce, Iraq, Michael Collins and a few other thoughts

Today is Bloomsday, an auspicious day on the Dublin calendar.

On the 16th of June, 1904 -- one hundred years ago today -- Stephen Dedalus steps out of his temporary home at the Martello Tower in Sandycove and walks to work as a part-time teacher in nearby Dalkey. After a difficult interview with the bullock-befriending headmaster, Mr Deasey, he walks neben-ein-ander, nach-ein-ander along the strand into Dublin City -- the re-invented Telemachus -- and thus Joyce begins his modern re-telling of an ancient Greek epic.

All the events of “Ulysses” take place on this single day, the 16th of June. Joyce uses the sights and sounds of the city, the names of living people, the signboards and advertisements and actual names of the stores, newspapers, and pubs. Everything becomes grist to his mill -- the tragedy in New York harbor, the winner of a horse race (factual events) -- in order to show us how Stephen and his spiritual father, Leopold Bloom, the outcast, the cuckold, the Jew, circle one another in this chaotic modern city and inexorably come closer together.

Shortly before independence in Ireland -- followed by the usual xenophobia -- and before the devastation of the First World War destroyed the beliefs and values of 19th century Europe (to be followed by the unimaginable horrors of Hitler and Stalin and their willing executioners), Joyce was telling us to step away from the anger of partisan positions and to look at all human life with a detached if benevolent eye – a rather sharp and satirical eye, it has to be said. Observe, take pity, but don’t interfere.

Not bad advice for the present time.

Joyce was broke all his life, living on handouts. Now he's famous in his home country after being derided for years (I talked to his nephew in Dublin a few years ago who told me the whole family was desperately ashamed of him while the nephew was a kid -- this pornographic writer). Before we went on the EURO, the Irish government put him on the 10 Pound note. I know what Joyce would have said to that -- he'd have said, "Hand us over a basket of dem t’ings."

You have to be dead, I suppose, to be truly appreciated. Look at Van Gogh. Look at Ronald Reagan. For the last ten years we never heard a peep about this guy and now that he's finally dropped off the perch (Alzheimers, 93 years old) the whole American nation is going through an approximation of Shia mourning rites. Countries without a solid sense of history have to create it on the hop: Walt Disney, where are you now?

But the USA, like all other places, does have its history – dirty, smelly, frightening, confused, full of raging egomaniacs at cross-purposes – which needs to be cleaned up like all national histories and walloped into some sort of moral chronological shape before landing on the desktops of the young. It is a very interesting and inspiring history, some of it, particularly the 50 years or so before and after the nation broke away from Britain: the Philadelphia Convention, the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the signing of the Declaration (with John Hancock front and center, cojones the size of boulders) when all these guys must have known they were liable to be strung up as felons and traitors if their side lost.

It could have gone either way. The "insurgents" and "terrorists" of the 18th century could have been defeated and Americans would be walking around today with British Commonwealth passports, just like Canadians and Australians.

I couldn't imagine Bush and Cheney (with his six deferments) in the frontline at Lexington and Concord. No sign of Wolfowitz or Feith or Cambone, either. Kerry would have probably shown up, lanky, awkward, getting in the way, making dull droning speeches, but definitely present and accounted for.

Starting a war is relatively easy. Finishing a war is an entirely different matter. People who have actually experienced war at the sharp end don't lightly embark upon a new one.

War is murder on a grand scale. You kill people for political reasons. It's better to kill a few instead of a lot (of course) but once you start you have to keep on killing until you get what you want. This is Shock and Awe, known in the not-so-distant past as "Blitzkrieg". Overwhelm the enemy. If they keep fighting back, kill more of them. If you can't distinguish the enemy from the civilian population, keep the press away from the action and (with deep regrets) wipe out whoever gets in your way. Dehumanize your enemy (call them "Japs", "Krauts", "gooks", "ragheads"). Imprison suspects. Abuse them. This is not a contemporary phenomenon by any means. It represents the usual pattern of events.

Take a look at any punitive war (starting with the American Colonies in 1776) and follow the numbers:

1) Total incomprehension/ lack of interest in local feeling
2) Send in troops.
3) Enjoy initial military successes.
4) Look around for a puppet government.
5) Take hits from insurgent groups
6) Get tough with the locals
7) Confuse terrorists with local population
8) Treat all local civilians as enemy
9) Build forts
10) Bring in more troops as attacks increase
11) Tell the people at home everything is going according to plan
12) Start torture of captives
13) Use more firepower
14) Bring in more troops (conscript if necessary)
15) Engage in atrocities
16) Excoriate domestic opponents as “unpatriotic”
17) Declare imminent victory
18) Reduce troops
19) Tell local puppet government to take over
20) Pull out

The beginnings of modern terrorism can be traced to the IRA under the leadership of Michael Collins fighting against the British occupation of Ireland during the period 1919-22 , a style of warfare which was loosely based on the hit-and-run tactics of the Boers in the South African War of 1899-1902. When faced with a superior force you do not confront them in a traditional battle. You hit them at their vulnerable points in quick in-and-out attacks and melt back into the local population. You target the intelligence-gathering system of the invading force by killing their police and making an example of informers and collaborators. You frighten your own people (if necessary, and it usually is) to prevent them from doing business or having any contact with the enemy. You isolate the enemy and then increase the number and intensity of attacks so that he knows he is going to get hit nearly every day but he doesn’t know when and he doesn’t know where. You keep it up until the enemy loses political support at home and pulls out. The down side is that it takes 2-3 generations to put your country together again after the invader has gone. You can end up with a civil war. Look at Afghanistan after the Soviets.

Not much about Japan in this initial outing, not a single mention in fact. No worries, I’ll get around to the local scene when I write again. Strange Days over here -- where nobody even thinks, much less talks about the war in Iraq. We had a scare over the 3 Japanese hostages in April – they were roundly abused and forced into hiding after being released, by the way – and as long as nothing happens to the Japanese troops nobody wants to know. Troop casualties could change everything overnight, so the government is treading on eggshells. Why did Japan send troops in the first place? It's not so difficult to figure out. Look at a map of this region and think of the initials NK.