Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Will Miss/Won't Miss

One of my favorite blogs is "1000 Things About Japan...that I will miss and won't miss when I eventually leave." It is written by Sheri Custer, a dedicated blogger (she also maintains a Japanese snack blog that I do not follow). Sheri is a 46-year-old American woman who has lived in Japan with her American husband for more than 20 years. They live in a small apartment in Tokyo, both teach English (her husband goes to an office; she teaches private students in the apartment), have no children. That they are a childless American couple who have lived and worked in Japan for so long makes them fairly unusual. They are planning to return to the US in the foreseeable future, and when they made that decision, Sheri, who had been blogging about Japan in general, decided to identify the things she will and will not miss when she leaves.

By its nature, the blog is an eclectic collection of relatively short observations. The subjects range from the significant to the trivial, and Sheri is usually able to include a picture as an illustration. To suggest her range, here are some recent things she will miss: Japanese women who cover themselves entirely to protect their white skin; a kind of Japanese citrus/vinegar condiment; empty Japanese rooms; Japanese "soft cream'; national self-restraint; the "bottle-keep" system; and WYSIWYG restaurants.

She won't miss handwritten Japanese; a lack of charitable spirit; toilet paper paranoia; being a leaning post on trains; "it's Japanese" when it's not; earthquake sickness; or Japanese keyboards.

Sheri points out that her observations and opinions are entirely her own; she is making no grand pronouncements on Japan, the Japanese people, Japanese culture. But I find that what she says is almost always interesting and provides a unique account of items and aspects of Japanese life that for natives are too ordinary to mention and for tourists too small to see.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Messengers of the Gods

The imperial capital of Japan has moved at least three times, from Nara to Kyoto to Tokyo. (The political capital, the seat of government, has moved several times more; for a while in the 13th century, Kamakura was the political capital.)

Nara was the imperial capital from 710 to 784. When, upon the death of the emperor, the capital was moved to Kyoto, Nara's imperial palace was simply abandoned and allowed to deteriorate over the centuries. Archeologists, however, identified the buildings' remains and several have now been reconstructed.

Nara has been a center of Buddhism almost from the time monks first arrived with the tenets from China via Korea. While the elements, fire, war, and simple neglect have taken their toll on Nara's historic temples and shrines, there are at least a dozen worth visiting, including the Kasuga Shrine, and the Todai-ji (housing the largest bronze Buddha in Japan), Kōfuku-ji (founded originally in 669), Yakushi-ji (founded in 680), and more.

At one time, the small Sika deer from the area were considered sacred due to a visit from one of the four gods of the Kasuga Shinto shrine. He was said to have been invited and appeared on Mt. Mikasa riding a white deer. From that point, the deer were considered divine messengers of the gods and sacred by both Kasuga and Kofuku-ji. Today, the deer wander freely through the city's grounds and you can buy deer treats from vending machines to feed them. And, as my friend found in the picture above, the deer know it. Today they are more like beggars than messengers.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Beg, Borrow, Steal

Beg, Borrow, Steal by Michael Greenberg is subtitled "A Writer's Life." As a writer myself, I am always interested in another writer's life. The book is 44 four- or five-page anecdotes from Greenberg's life. These he revised slightly from columns he had written between June 2003 and April 2009. Because Greenberg wrote the pieces over almost six years, I would have liked the publication dates. For example, he begins one piece, "The novelist William Herrick has died at the age of eighty-nine." I knew Herrick, and I would have liked to know when he died. (In another anecdote about Ted Solotaroff, Greenberg does add a footnote giving Solotaroff's date of death.)

The anecdotes are entertaining and wonderfully well-written. So why are my feelings for the book so tepid? Perhaps because Greenberg was working against space constraints, he did not have room to go into real depth when the subject seemed to call for it. For example, he and his first wife spent a year in Argentina in the early 1970s. His wife was arrested for demonstrating against the government. Greenberg managed to scrape together $900 so she was charged only with disorderly conduct. As soon as she was free, they escaped to Uruguay where their son was conceived. The story deserves more than four pages.

I had a sense at times that Greenberg was writing to reinforce the stereotype of the struggling, Brooklyn-born, Jewish writer, one who rejects a future in the family scrap-metal business to toil at dozens of dead-end jobs (waiter, street peddler, post office clerk, more) while writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting an unpublished (unpublishable?) novel. He meets interesting people, but, again, because of space constraints, we never really get to know them or what they meant to Greenberg.

Apparently his only other book is a memoir of his daughter's manic breakdown, Hurry Down Sunshine, and he writes an interesting—if too brief—essay about the challenge of writing about one's family, friends, and acquaintances. He quotes Philip Roth on the bind in which family members find themselves: "Their own material is articulated for them by someone else who, in his voracious, voyeuristic using-up of their lives, gets there first but doesn't always get it right." Even if you have no intention of settling scores, it seems almost inevitable that someone you write about will see what you write as settling a score. Unfortunately for Greenberg, the memoir seems to be the milieu in which he is happiest and most effective. I suspect it turns family gatherings into minefields.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Does That Mean?

One of the many decisions I had to make in writing Getting Oriented was how to handle the Japanese language. I knew I didn't want to provide instant translations that you sometimes see, something like: "Ichiro picked up his hashi [chopsticks] and dug into his katsudon [bowl of rice and pork]."

My answer: When a character is speaking Japanese, the text is in italic. It becomes a little awkward sometimes when the characters are switching from Japanese to English and back, but I believe readers can follow.

As a result, there are almost no Japanese words in a 240-page book set in Japan. I did leave a few: moshi moshi, which I trusted most readers to understand from the context; sokaiya and dotera, for which there are no good English equivalents, and which I explain as soon as I use them. Toward the end of the book, my tour guide begins to tell a Japanese joke in Japanese, but when his American guests demand to hear it in English, he beings again in English.

To show that this is a novel about Japan, however, I did use Japanese at the beginning of each chapter:

第一章、第二章 etc. and I've been asked what it means.

It says "Chapter 1," "Chapter 2," etc. My way of giving a genuine Japanese flavor to the novel.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

While I am not a baseball fan, I've been to two minor league games in two different cities this summer. I like minor league games because the tickets are reasonable, the stadiums are small, and the fans (most of them) are just out for the game because so little is riding on whether a team wins or loses.

Until recently, I'd never been to a baseball game in Japan. But I went with a friend to watch the Yokohama Bay Stars beat the Yakult Swallows. Some observations: Fans were given an inexpensive plastic Bay Stars rain poncho on the way in.

The stadium was less than half filled. Officials turned off the Jumbotron/scoreboard during plays so you had to watch the game rather than the big screen.

Young women and a few young men in Day-Glo green shorts and jackets and hats came through the stands selling Coca Cola, beer, and a salty fish-based snack.

Cheerleaders in white boots, short skirts, and bare midriffs led the cheers with gold sparkly pompoms, and there were a number of mascots--a Bay Star, a baseball, and more.

Games for the kids before the game--pitch to the Bay Star catcher, run the bases. The TV camera would pan around the stadium between innings stopping on a group for three seconds. At the end of the game, the pictures were posted at the exit, a free memory of the night.

The fans, despite all the beer, were well-behaved. They usually shouted in unison, beat, a drum, and knocked noisemakers together in rhythm. Bay Star fans were silent when the Yakult Swallows cheered and, presumably, they were quiet when we cheered (I couldn't tell from the noise).

Baseball is so popular in Japan that, I've been told, some Japanese believe it was invented there. Robert Whiting has written a wonderful book, You Gotta Have Wa, that investigates the Japanese game called "baseball," but which isn't exactly the same as what we play here. As Whiting points out, players commit to an 11-month training/playing season; they practice fielding until they drop from exhaustion. Fans chant highly organized and rhythmic chants all game long, regardless of the score. As one reviewer points out, this is much more than a baseball book; culture, and cultural diffusion, and the differences between Americans and Japanese. If you like baseball, you should go to a game. And if you're interested in Japan, you should read Whiting's book.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Makioka Sisters, the movie

I've just watched (again) the Criterion Collection's high-definition DVD restoration of The Makioka Sisters. Set in Osaka in the years just before the attack on Pearl Harbor—the Japanese at home are already feeling the effects of the war in China—the movie follows the lives of four sisters from a declining merchant family. Their parents are dead, two older sisters are married (and the eldest's husband is the titular head, having married into the family and taken the Makioka name), the two younger are in the marriage market.

Much of the action involves the family trying to find an acceptable husband for shy and retiring Yukiko, 30, and the behavior of brash and modern Taeko, 25, who cannot marry before her older sister. Yukiko's husband will come only through a miai, the arranged meeting between the potential couple and their relatives. Taeko would marry for love and without regard for class or family status, I suspect an extraordinary attitude for a young Japanese woman in the 1930s.

The film is based on Junichiro Tanizaki's novel of the same name (in English; in Japanese it's Sasame Yuki, which means something like "a veil of snow"). The book was published right after the war and translated by Edward G. Seidensticker in 1957.

The movie, which by necessity has to simplify the 500-page novel, is both lovely and poignant. The war in China barely intrudes, and except for moments neither the film nor the book discusses politics or history. We know, however, what the characters do not; they are about to be swept into war and desolation.

The Makioka Sisters shows the tensions, needs, and social constraints within a Japanese family. For a fine discussion of the movie, see Audi Bock's essay. Even better, rent the movie, or read the book, or both.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Silent-Movie Star's Estate

If you walk through the bamboo grove I talked about a few days ago, you come to Okochi-sanso, the villa and five-acre estate of Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962), who played swashbuckling samurai in the early years of Japanese movies.

Kyoto is the Hollywood of Japan. Indeed, one of the city's sights is the Toei Uzumasa Eigamura—"movie village"—a film set and theme park that has replicas of traditional Japanese buildings used as settings for historical movies and TV dramas. There are streets depicting Edo Period town scenes, a replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge, a traditional court house, and part of the former Yoshiwara red light district. Actual film shooting takes place occasionally, and you can watch the action.

Okochi-sanso is in Kyoto's northwestern hills, in the Arashiyama district. The villa itself is not open to the public, but the real attraction is the stroll garden, a path that winds through the grounds. The route is designed so that the walker sees different views...a mountain...a gorge...the city...a tea house (above)...and a tea garden designed to make you feel you are in a remote spot in the mountains, miles from the city.

Everyone I've taken through the garden has been moved by the experience. Walk a few steps along the rough stones that make the path and suddenly a new scene confronts you. Take in as much of the beauty as you can stand, move along the path several yards and suddenly there is a new scene. Extraordinary.

There is an admission fee, but for it attendants in a pavilion give you a bowl of special green tea (matcha) and a sweet.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Your Life in Eight Words

The person who maintains the A Writing Primate blog, D.S. Renzulli, has interviewed me via e-mail, asking about my writing habits and interest in Japan. The interview concludes with this challenge: Give an eight-word description of your life.

Eight words! That's as bad as haiku. Worse than some. Perhaps the most famous haiku in English—"An old pond/a frog jumps in/the sound of water"—has ten words. What can you say in eight words? Of course, the haiku masters are able to evoke entire histories, entire landscapes, entire philosophies in seventeen syllables.

How important is haiku still in Japan? Not long ago, I visited the Matsuyama Municipal Shiki Memorial Museum pictured above, an entire modern building (dedicated in 1981) devoted to a Meiji-era writer and haiku. Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) was born in Matsuyama, a city on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main Japanese islands. Shiki is considered to be the most important figure in the modernization of haiku and tanka poetry, and the museum exists to promote the art of haiku and the memory of Shiki.

I was impressed that Matsuyama's city fathers (and haiku fans?) would construct a large building for a single poet. If you go, however, go with a Japanese guide; the exhibits and of course the poetry is all in Japanese. I looked up Shiki's haiku in translation (although haiku does not really translate well) and found this, which seemed to evoke his life in about a dozen words: "After killing a spider/how lonely I feel/in the cold of the night."