TGJA – Chapter Thirteen – The Glossy Varnish of a Strange Land(scape)

Although it has been a while I can promise you my delinquency in writing these updates has not been for lack of things to say. Those of you who know me well will also realize how amusing this is. I fear that the silence has been induced by factors beyond speechlessness or even writer’s block. Quite unexpectedly, and seemingly over night, I got a life.

As I have attested before, Japan is a strange place, and I assume it has been so for quite some time for those of us who are not privy to the unique manner in which the Japanese conduct themselves and their daily affairs. This observation stems from limited experience I realize, making my claims perhaps seem to be fraught with both the ignorance of youth and the ignorance of inexperience, but I can safely say one thing: even the Japanese find the Japanese to be strange at times, and those few whom I can call friend have confessed this to me in hushed whispers, fearing the wrath of nameless stares. Some writers would be daunted for fear of the gap between scribe and subject being too vast to cross. I, in turn, care little for gaps which exist for reasons I am not explained and am unafraid of failing to cross it, for whether it can truly be crossed or not, this ever widening metaphorical barrier, I am here, the Japan is here, and neither of us are going anywhere.

It is easy to be fooled by the poor English translations and the pastel-pink, rhinestone-set  veneer that coats all manner of advertisements in Japan. Behind the cutesy façade hide the faceless conglomerates that are every bit as cold and calculating as their western counterparts. Japan is no more a haven for those who are discontent with the status quo that any other place, and despite the tourist board’s best efforts, a few photos of cherry blossoms and the iconic profile of Fuji-san, the mystic Zen and infinite patience and good manners of the silently reflective loyal samurai are a thing that even when looked for is extremely difficult to find. The social etiquette and intricacies of the unwritten Japanese moral code saturate life here, and business in particular, only to such an extent as deemed necessary. This is readily evident when the discerning consumer glimpses what lies beyond that which is apparent from a pedestrian perspective. The practicality and cost efficiency of lowest common denominator marketing is not lost on me. Sadly however, there are vast hordes of people whose entire lives revolve around numbers whose significance is trivial to most everyone else. As has been so aptly demonstrated by the global recession, some of the numbers turned out not to exist at all – imagine the embarrassment to come to work one day only to find that your work has been fictional, and that somehow, your invented numbers had to be compensated with real ones at the expense of everyone else. (if my over-simplification of reality offends you, please stop reading – your lack of humor and my lack of interest in you are in conflict!) Reality being what it is, I look with soft lament on the hollow, bleak, and listless faces staring dead ahead whenever they venture forth from their concrete prisons on some menial duty, or in search of basic sustenance.

Thus the Japan we (I) imagined, and Japan as it truly is are two entirely different things. One is a place of intellect and wisdom, diligence and discipline, while the other is a place of strange hair, odd clothing, and every bit the reflection of true human nature. In fairness, deep in the green-draped mountains far from here, the old Japan may be very much alive, but it has been driven from Tokyo with a big stick and determined disposition, for now none remains.

Hair accessories are just one of those things I know nothing about and frankly, in my blissful ignorance, usually do not notice. Little did I know there is a world out there in which tiny plastic objects (mass produced in China for next to nothing) fetch prices as though made of gold. Recently a dear friend of mine made the journey to Japan for, amongst countless other reasons, a burning desire to shop. Being an exceedingly talented woman, she managed to gracefully combine marking seeing me off her ‘to do’ list whilst increasing the size of her hair accessories collection. The latter, I was told, was a dire necessity.

Within the already niche market of hair accessories there are sub-divisions yet. The hair accessories bought in a 3-pack at your local store and the designer pieces available only through licensed retailers in dedicated locations around the globe, though different only in name, can be distinguished by women as penguins find their frankly identical looking chicks in the crowds of Antarctica. Ever the lady, my friend was quite patient with both my apathy (which I tried to hide) and my ignorance (which could not be hidden). She explained to me that the hair accessories she favored came in two varieties: functional, and decorative (though it was quickly made apparent one need not exclude the other). Thus a hair pin, much as the name implies, pins the hair in place in some unnatural manner, whereas a hair clip simply attaches to the head like a space alien feeding off your brain, but does nothing beyond look pretty.

Being an artist I was able to discuss the aesthetic merit of each piece she lifted and with beaming eyes showed me, but despite extensive schooling I found I had been ill prepared to mingle at my customary level in the conversation. Much to my relief a beautiful Japanese girl was on hand to not only aid in selection (and the ever crucial matching!) of accessories, but also was uniquely adept at demonstrating their various uses in both her own hair, and that of would-be customers. She managed to do all this with a smile, and yet a deftness I cannot here in words describe. The entire experience was illuminating – I had not known a single thing about clips and pins and after a meager hour or so at a booth no bigger than my desk, could talk at length about the merits of pink rhinestones on gold clips and blue rhinestones on silver pins. I felt as though I had discovered and mastered a new language (in lieu of not having mastered Japanese – this made me feel excellent)

When it came time to pay however, all these good feelings changed. Hair accessories made of plastic and beset with glitter and beads I had assumed would be bought for tokens or, if real money were to be involved, by the hand-full. I was sadly mistaken, as the nice Japanese lady rang up the total for a mere three of the countless  hair accessories available. The figure displayed on the cash register oddly resembled figures one would expect to see in the next booth over, where diamonds and swiss-made watches were being sold. Incidentally it was at that exact moment I was glad to be a bachelor – the notion of having to pay the specified amount for pieces of frill I would fail to notice, much less name had this been my girlfriend, too much for my simply mind to bare.

Earthquakes are a phenomenon almost synonymous with life in Japan. The nearest fault lines are not far away and indeed Japan itself is evidence, floating in the great blue Pacific, that the movement of the earth itself is capable of great deeds. You travel to Japan with this in the back of your mind. Earthquakes are inherently dangerous of course, and more so in highly built-up areas where many structures are still made of wood and other flammable materials interlaced with necessities like electrical wires, and gas pipes. I need not remind most people either that when the big one comes (and I have been told it is overdue) the mass panic and instant overload to all emergency systems and simultaneous acute suspension of all public and most private transport will create a chaos such as seldom witnessed anywhere else. Fortunately, my first earthquake was a doozy.

Having made friends with some locals I found myself on a small astroturf soccer field when quite unexpectedly play was halted and all in attendance – that is, everyone but me – sat down spontaneously on the field looking around as though waiting for something. Perhaps it was their familiarity with the phenomenon of the earth quaking beneath their feet, or more acute senses to detect the start of an earthquake, all players had taken up seated positions before I ever noticed what was going on. Then came the unnatural sensation of feeling the earth beneath my feet moving in a most peculiar way; for the first time in my life, the earth was moving while I was not.

Later it turned out that though I had experience a serious earthquake, the epicenter had been far away and thus the effect on the daily goings-on of Tokyo had been barely interrupted. This did not stop my mother from calling me to ascertain if I had been the only person in a city of 34 million to have been injured or killed. So much for female intuition – I was fine.

Recently a general election was held in Tokyo. What position was to be filled and why had escaped me, but the campaigning affected me dramatically. In a city where rules prevail and are generally adhered to, large billboards had sprung up marked with a numbered grid. Then, not a day later, posters began appearing in the spaces on the grid – generally portraits of what was immediately obvious, political candidates. Usually, I would not take any more notice of such an event (both outside of my control and beyond my purview as a non-citizen) and that would be all. Two things however quickly became apparent. The first was that, in a city as large and obviously important to politicians as Tokyo, the campaign staff resort to tactics beyond hanging posters to get out the vote. Small minivans mounted with disproportionally large loudspeakers started to appear, manned by supporters, blaring the incomprehensible message of their respective candidates whilst white-gloved women put on their best all-day smiles and waved furiously out the windows. Busses started to appear in public spaces, such as in front of the Ikebukero station, from the top of which the candidates themselves made speeches through megaphones and/or microphones hooked up to the world’s loudest speakers. The speeches drew crowds, and the crowds slowed down the crowd not wishing to stop and listen. The inconvenience was tolerable if only to witness democracy in action. Being precluded from casting a vote (not that I would have even if I could, as I know not a thing of Japanese politics or issues), I found myself picking favorites nonetheless. I decided early on that because the speeches may as well have been delivered by an alien, for the Japanese being spoken was both incomprehensible and so loud deafness was the only message sure to get across, that my choice would depend heavily on the posters around town. Having a pleasant and trustworthy face thus carried a lot of weight, but also any message I could either read or glean from pictures was to be decisive. In the end I ended up rooting for “The Happiness Realization Party” on account of having understood the spirit of democracy like no other modern political group or having the most fortuitous misspelling of their true Japanese message. Though ind the end I am not sure who won, and I doubt it was The Happiness Realization Party, their posters brought joy to my life for the brief weeks in which they were up.

The second semester of my Japanese language program came to an end recently followed by the first real break since I began studying here in march. Although the class had not been a complete waste of time, I had gotten the distinct impression that my first semester, during which we focussed on speaking, writing and listening, had been hugely more beneficial than the second, during which we focussed on the complexities and haphazard nature of Japanese grammar. Thankfully, at the end of the last day of classes, we were predictably given a short and, as is normal, poorly translated questionnaire. The questions, which were oddly specific and yet not definitive required we grade our teachers, the class, and the program based on a scale of 1 through 5. Dutifully, I filled out the questionnaire and then attacked the last part of the questionnaire with gusto: “do you have any additional comments?” – the question read. “Yes,” I thought “many” and began writing.

The space provided for this question was insufficient of course, as the question itself was an afterthought probably meant only to write something like: “I like Japanese because it is totemo tanoshii!” and then leave it at that. Not so on my questionnaire. Having quickly penned-in the empty space is a small a font as I deemed wise, I flipped over to find an entirely blank back of which to avail myself. I took to my task with gusto. Soon, the other students were finished, having either nothing to say, or not the will to say it, and slowly the class began to empty. Soon, that left just me, writing diligently, and an increasingly nervous sensei eyeing his watch. His less than subtle attempts to see what I was writing, or rather, to see if I would finish writing anytime soon did little to dissuade me. I had things to say, and finally, at long last, a medium to say it with. In the end however, the man interrupted me and told me we would have to gather in the main office, a few minutes walk away. I told him I understood, got up, and though he tasted victory as he extended his hand for my questionnaire, undoubtedly very happy with himself for concocting a clever ruse to have me stop writing and hand in my paper, I assured the man there was empty space yet to fill with a most poignant critique, and tucked the paper in my bag to finish on location. With a nervous, and decidedly pale face, he exited the classroom, as I followed him like a thundercloud about to spoil a picnic.

Once in the main office, I took a seat in plain view of the faculty office as well as numerous students and whilst trying to block out the dull roar of the last day of school, set about finishing my slightly more in-depth review of the last three months. Despite much attention from teachers wondering why and what I was writing, I continued until the page was filled to capacity and then walked over to the teacher who had originally handed out the questionnaire. Again he extended his hand to take receipt of my essay on the shortcoming of his institution and its staff (though in fairness I suggested solutions) and he was once again to be disappointed. I told the man I wanted a copy, and that I hoped I would be invited in due course to discuss the questionnaire. I got only blank stares.

As it happens I was later summoned to return to school to speak with a faculty member who, in keeping with Japanese tradition, agreed with me on every point as she emphatically nodded all the while never intending to change a thing. It no longer bothers me that this is the way things are here – I find it comforting. A predictable reaction may not always be what is most beneficial, but it does help to keep expectations low.

More on Japan, the Japanese, and the wondrous diferences I am learning to love next time.

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