The Japanese Conundrum
I used to teach Japanese history and culture at a private boarding school (Cate) near Santa Barbara, which is a way of introduction to a somewhat embarrassing question about my three trips to Japan: to wit, why did I feel so befuddled about the country and its culture when I arrived and traveled thousands of miles in search of the Japan Ninth (Daiku)? Some who have traveled to Japan feel as if they have finally found "home," and stay on in a country that is, on the surface, like many developed nations, except without the grime, crime, chaos, and trains that don't run on time. The answer is not a simple one, as I am still somewhat off balance in reflecting on my travels, and how my understanding of one of the more beautiful countries in the world has changed since this project began (more on this question below).
As a quick sidebar, my more leisurely travel to other countries through the years has been less satisfying except when on the job. You know, the kind of travel where "we did Germany, Italy, and France" then the return home with the photos. I am not saying that leisurely travel (that tends to be not as leisurely as we expect) is not worthy of our time. I note merely my own increasing discomfort with the visiting of the usual sites, without the opportunity to live a bit amongst locals. I feel the same way about world-class museums. I don't want to walk for three miles in the Louvre with thousands of others, catching a glimpse of three hundred pieces of art about which I know little. I prefer to sit in front of one painting or one artist, having studied a bit prior to the confrontation, perhaps discovering the mysteries revealed by the brush strokes and the odd perspective on that squirrel in the bottom left corner of the frame, or to decide after all that one of these treasures should be thrown out the front door on its ear. And at the risk of sounding the philistine, this impulse is much easier with contemporary modern art;) Sorry, Jeff Koons.
As everyone who does business in Japan knows, one cannot travel to Japan empty handed. To book oneself up with a study of Japanese customs and history is a big plus if the major and minor faux pas is to be avoided, which of course is unavoidable. And since I wanted the entire crew (three people) to know something of how to think and feel about our surroundings while filming, I requested that the cinematographers read two books about Japanese aesthetics, and to revisit a couple classic Kurasawa films along with a bit of contemporary Japanese cinema, to be viewed on our little screens on our long flight. What better way to see the past that lives in the present as we went about our business. Or so I thought.
The first book, written by the American Donald Richie, who has spent his entire adult life studying Japan, is A Tractate On Japanese Aesthetics. In 72 pages Richie introduces the reader to Japanese beauty, "in the manner of a zuihitsu," ideas that "follow the brush wherever it leads." And the brush leads us to fascinating insights, about elegance, for one, the simplicity "in the precise stroke of the inked brush, the perfect judo throw, the rightness of the placing of a single flower," emphasizing the concept underneath rather than the surface "realism" of much western art. Japanese aesthetics are "revealed as the product of a social competitiveness, of the desire to find yet more subtle shades of meaning and beauty than the next guy." Richie is referring to women, too, of course.
And as beauty in Japan comes in small packages, the second book is Jun' ichiro Tanaki's exquiste In Praise of Shadows. Tanaki's observations are lovingly presented in 42 pages, where he covers toilet practices (much has changed since he wrote the book in 1933), Bhuddist temple architecture, thatch-roofed houses, among many other things. But unlike Ritchie, Tanaki's reflections are enlivening but mournful, as if he was trying to preserve a passing Japan in the act of writing. He directs the eyes, with a steady and practiced hand, to the little things we miss, in Japan and by implication elsewhere, when we won't or can't slow down long enough to see what we are looking at.
"Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and radio render these moments of silence utterly lifeless. And so we distort the arts themselves to curry favor for them with the machines." And again, "We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity." Who cannot sympathize with such thoughts, which remind me of T.S. Elliot's response to his first visit to Times Square: "It might be considered beautiful, provided one didn't know how to read." Japan now has many Times Squares, with their full commercial neon asault on the senses.
So there was much to learn. About how to see with different eyes, about how to present a business card, how low to bow when meeting a respected person, about how and when to present a gift so as to not embarrass the receiver. And still the major faux pas was always one minute or one step away.
One instance, for my benefit only one, will suffice. I visited a small restaurant in Kyoto, where I stepped on a tatami mat with my shoes on before sitting down to dinner. A collective gasp from those Japanese who witnessed the transgression let me know that I was one to be cordoned off, an untouchable. But in general, the Japanese forgive visitors their violation of decorum, the thousands of rules for behavior developed over centuries and now written into the DNA of Japanese life, decorum now being quickly discarded by a good slice of the younger set. Once considered shameful, a young woman who puts on her makeup on a subway is now common. Positive change, in large and small ways, has been accepted in what is a fairly conservative society.
One small, and false, victory came my way during an important lunch with administrators for the 5000 Daiku in Tokyo. I was asking permission to film their concert. After two hours of eating, talking, and considerable silence--the Japanese, unlike Americans, are not uncomfortable with silence during conversations--Akira Takauchi, my guide through all things Daiku, told me I was "very Japanese" because I listened attentively instead of talking. Not hard to do when I know only ten words of Japanese. I had to pick up the hefty check. But I was given permission to film. No complaining allowed.
In comparative terms Americans are anarchists, always looking for that imaginary space where no laws or rules apply, setting out for the territory whenever we get the itch for change. We have no aesthetic tradition that coheres or guides art over the long haul, but rather a melange of individual urges and desires that have emerged out of the rough-elbowed jostling of immigrant-filled cities, with change and innovation as the only sure mantra that inspires worship. We have our painters in the genre of rural nostalgia, just as we have novelists who write westerns, but they don't rate. The Japanese, by contrast, are not anarchists, metaphorically speaking, although beneath the surface calm and orderliness of Japanese life there is a hot magma that surfaces in anime and the grotesqueries of some manga comics. Modernity has its way with everyone, eventually.
In one of my final interviews for Following The Ninth, a large door was opened for me onto Japanese culture. My interviewee told me that one of the worst insults a Japanese person could say to another is a three word phrase that roughly translates as "you are oblivious to the atmosphere in the room," which means you are either rude, or ignorant about how to engage others in a society that prides politeness, where how one treats others is based on a precise and refined knowledge about where one stands in relation to specific individuals. There is a hierarchy of long standing, and attention to it must be paid.
After all the reading and teaching, it turned out that it was I, the educator, that needed educating. There I was with my dunce cap in the corner of the Japanese culture schoolroom. But as strange as it may sound, I enjoyed being ignorant. I was constantly picking up cues about Japanese life, discovering, in the inimitable words of our former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the "unknown unknowns" about Japanese culture.
I can't wait to return to one of my favorite countries. And I will never again, as long as I live, step on a tatami mat with my shoes on.
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- (27 days)