Saturday, 18 April 2015

Into the Rising Sun 2

“Sadie thinks you’re some kind of samurai?” Robyn asked.
“She just thinks some of the new guys aren’t.” I said. Take a look at the men today. It seems that most of them have a woman’s heart. There are very few true men anymore. It is easy for a strong warrior to gain the advantage these days because so few have any courage at all. This loss of the warrior spirit is easily shown by the fact that men today cannot even behead a convicted criminal with his hands tied behind his back.
The ANA counter at the Vancouver airport opened at the stroke of the second hand on the twelve. 
“Nothing to check in?” She asked. 
“Nothing.” I said. There is really nothing you must be and there is nothing you must do. There is really nothing you must have and there is nothing you must know. There is really nothing you must become. However, it helps to understand that fire burns, and when it rains, the earth gets wet. Robyn and I ate in the food court.
“I never really thought of poutine as an upgrade.” She said. We moved through Security and Duty Free and Space and Time, and emerged into the limbo of our departure lounge. It slowly began to fill with kawaii cuteness, to a level of farcical absurdity. Giggling Japanese girls dressed like Annes of Green Gables with floppy hats, or Lolitas without them, clutched plush toys and cell phones and KitKats. The boys shared iPod shuffles through manifold trees of earbud branches, and selfies, wearing T-shirts with messages that must have been cool somewhere. People who love surfers and worship the ocean are our friends- Beach sound. Older passengers wore surgical masks.
“Is that so they don’t catch our germs?” Asked Robyn.
“So we don’t catch theirs.” I said. “On-gimu-giri.” We were supposed to board by seat number, but there was a different calculus at work, and Robyn and I drifted into hierarchical position in the queue. We stowed our Ospreys. The flight left the ground at the precise time, at the precise angle of attack.
But wait. My entertainment module didn’t work. I pressed the stewardess call bell. A geisha answered it. We spoke in French. She fixed it in seconds, in Japanese. Robyn slept. I watched a movie. To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life. She awoke for the flatulogenic Hungarian goulash of turnips and beans and cabbage, and found me, on returning from the washroom, because my head was the only one above the seats.
Many hours later and earlier, I lost count, the camera from the undercarriage of the airliner came alive on our cabin screen. We descended into a red sky over Tokyo Bay, where Matthew Perry and Douglas MacArthur had extracted their surrenders and, beyond which, we would tender our own.
Ours was one of the first international flights into Haneda, most of which landed at Narita, sixty kilometres from Tokyo. We touched down downtown, but we weren’t staying. I had planned a surgical egress from the capital, the same evening we arrived. Only three kinds of ATMs will give gaijin cash in Japan- the post offices, 7-11, and Citibank. Origami Bank had folded, it was today learned that Sumo Bank has gone belly up. Bonsai Bank plans to cut back some of its branches. Karaoke Bank is up for sale and is going for a song. Meanwhile, shares in Kamikaze Bank have nose-dived and 500 jobs at Karate Bank will be chopped. Analysts report that there is something fishy going on at Sushi Bank and staff there fear they may get a raw deal. Through Immigration and Customs, Robyn and I hit the Citibank machine, twice. A Japanese man walked into the currency exchange in New York City with 2000 yen and walked out with $72. The following week, he walked in with another 2000 yen, and was handed $66. He asked the teller why he got less money that week than the previous week. The teller said, ‘Fluctuations.’ The Japanese man stormed out, and just before slamming the door, turned around and shouted, ‘Fluc you Amelicans, too.’ 
Further into our arrival hall, we picked up two times two days worth of properly dated Tokyo subway passes at discount, for our last four days in the country. We already had both kinds of Japanese maps, the small and schematic and bewildering, and the large and fantastically detailed and bewildering. At 20:14, we boarded the first of several trains that would take us south to Shichirigahama, standing room only, Ospreys on our backs, hanging from to the ceiling straps that would take us down the Samurai Road.

                               ‘The tram-car full,
                               ‘Stop shoving,’ they shout,
                               And go on shoving.’
                                                            Modern Senryu

Friday, 17 April 2015

Into the Rising Sun 1

  ‘If only you and I could go far, far away, 
                         to the other side of the sky...’ 
                                             Inariya Fusanosuke

Hanne is a dear old friend. She and her husband used to be part of our wine club. Freddy was a Dutch Jew that had barely escaped Auschwitz, and Hanne was the young German fräulein that fell for him, and his fast convertible. Freddy has been gone for several years now, but Hanne is still here. She drove us to the ferry that would take us to the airport, as fast as Freddy had left the other Germans, and the other Germans had entered Poland.
“How long will you be in Japan?” She asked, careening back and forth across both lanes.
“Two weeks.” Robyn said.
“Should I pick you up?” She asked, pulling into the terminal drop-off lane.
“It’s OK, Hanne.” I said. We air kissed her auf wiedersehen, and hoisted the two small powder blue Osprey packs. I had bought them especially for this trip, despite the protests of my loving wife.
“Why do we need them?’ She asked.
“No check-in luggage.” I said. “And light for hiking.”
“Where are we hiking in Japan?” She asked, unaware of the plan.
“Samurai Road.” I said.
“Where’s that?” She asked.
“Don’t know yet.” I said. We boarded the Coastal Inspiration that would sail us over the Georgia Strait to our ANA Inspiration of Japan flight at YVR. Past the vending machines and the California rolls for seven bucks, we sat in a sunny window and practiced our Japanese.
“Ohayou Gozaimasu.” I said.
“What’s that?” Robyn asked.
“Good morning.” I said.
“Jeezuz.” She said. I looked up into a familiar face. It was Sadie, an ICU nurse I had worked with in our Critical Care unit. She was dressed in motorcycle leather chaps, heading to Mexico on a road trip.
“You should come to JR’s party in July.” She said. We made a note of it. She asked us where we headed.
“Japan.” I said. The look in her eyes fell somewhere between wonder and ‘I wonder.’ She asked me about my dog-eared book.
“Hagakure.” I said. “The Book of the Samurai. It was written in 1716 from the oral memoirs of a samurai that had renounced the world, and retired to a hermitage in the mountains.”
“Sounds a bit like you.” She said. “You were different than the new docs.” Sadie went off to Mexico, and I went back to my book. It is a wretched thing that the young men of today are so contriving and so proud of their material possessions. Men with contriving hearts are lacking in duty, Lacking in duty they will have no self-respect. 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Soy Sauce 16

Understanding Japanese culture is like peeling an onion. There are three layers. At first glance, the Japanese appear to be very different. They do everything in groups, take off their shoes indoors, eat strange things, and smile in all the wrong places. After awhile, they seem to be just like us. There is Elvis and Mickey and baseball. Oscar Wilde described them as ‘not unlike the general run of English people… extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them.’ 
But then you realize, you were right the first time. The food that isn’t strange is strange. The garbage trucks back up to Beethoven. The love hotels have boxing ring beds decorated with playboy bunnies and muppets. They have faux Christian weddings, with rubber cakes and choirs that sing What a Friend we Have in Jesus, and company jingles at the receptions. I Feel Coke. Japanese cowboys, in neighbourhood Japanese cowboy bars sing Take this jov and showve it. They tell you that riding a train to work is kind of like riding a horse and their office is kind of like a ranch, and roping in customers is how they make a living, and how they think that teamwork, not rugged individualism, won the West. Before a man studies Zen, to him mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, mountains to him are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this when he really attains to the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters.
Like the onion layers, and the mastery of Zen, the ancient Japanese warriors were encouraged to pursue the ‘real samurai spirit’ by studying ‘until they understand all the secrets and only then return to their former simplicity and live a quiet life.’ I wanted to do that. And so I did. 
Robyn and I were going to the land of larger-than-life warriors and tiny tweetable poems and monster lizards and miniature trees. We were headed down the Samurai Road.

       ‘Thank you for visiting the official website of the
        Museum of Soy Sauce
Art. We cannot hide our
        feelings of joy and cannot help but impressed

          by your spiritual nobility of actively learning for
        the sake of your own

                            Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Director of the
                            Sanuki Museum of Soy Sauce Art 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Soy Sauce 15

                         ‘All my life I taught Zen to the people - 
                         Nine and seventy years. 
                         Who he sees not things as they are 
                         Will never know Zen.’ 
                                    Enni Ben'en (1201-1280)

On my first visit to Japan, in my first temple garden in Kyoto, I passed only one sign. The Way of Seeing. It was the only sign. I had to make my own way. There was nothing to see or do or find, except what I had brought myself. And that was the greatest find of all.
My mind absorbed the calmness; the calmness absorbed my mind. In the silence, and stones and water and air, and shapes and empty space, perfection had been fashioned out of nothing. In the passage of time and the aches of recollection, the transcendental exalting loveliness was sad, and the sadness was lovely. This floating world, shadowed by my own mortality, cut my soul, and I could taste my own blood.
Japan would not be Japan without Zen. The desperate Japanese pursuit of total predictive control may have come off the antithetical austere branches of their Buddhism. The need to know, despite the mysterious Yugen not knowing that is Buddha; the need for perfection despite the imperfect Wabi-sabi impermanence of sakura cherry blossoms, the minor and the hidden and the tentative and the ephemeral and the subtle and the evanescent Mono no aware pathos of things; the need for noisy violent video games despite the simple, subtle, unobtrusive beauty of Shibui; the hard vulgarity of Japanese porn despite the heartbreaker elegance of Miyabi; the full feverish acquisitiveness of Japanese consumer society despite the infinity and nothingness of the Ensou void; the determinism of Japanese politics corporate culture despite the Shoganai acceptance of fate. It can't be helped.
Logic and beauty are different in Japan, because of Zen. Logic is something invented in the West to allow Westerners to win discussions. Bean sauce that smells of bean sauce is no good. The Japanese sense of beauty is dominated by a love of irregularity rather than symmetry, impermanence rather than eternity, and simplicity rather than the ornate. 
Zen also dog-eared and tortured the samurai spirit. There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man's whole life is a succession of moment after moment. There will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment… One should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break right through to the other side… If you keep your sword drawn and wield it about then no one will dare approach you and you will have no allies. But if you never draw it, it will dull and rust and people will assume that you are feeble… If one is overly strict, his subordinates will become untrustworthy. If he over-trusts, his subordinates will become unruly.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Soy Sauce 14

                          ‘The warrior doesn't care if he's
                           called a beast or a dog; 

                            the main thing is winning.’
                                               Asakura Norikage


In Japan, health and enthusiasm and energy are all part of the single concept of Genki. The achievement of Genki comes through the discipline and ethics inherent in Geido. And the most important component of Geido is the determination. Greatness can come through willpower alone. Ganbatte is the ‘do your best’ obsession of giving your all: Akirame ga Warui, we don’t know how to quit, Akiramenai, do or die, Ashikiri, cutting off the legs, Bosai Pakku, preparing for survival, Bushidō, the fighting knight way, Chusei Shin, loyal to the last, Daikan, mind over matter, Gai Ju Nai Go, soft outside; hard inside, Gaman Kurabe, a test of wills, Gamanzuyoi, suffering the unbearable, Ippo Machigau To, one false step and the sword, Isshokenmei, putting one’s life on the line, Kangeiko, discipline the Japanese way, Karada de Obocru, matter over mind, Kato Kyoso, compete or die, Kokorogamae, attitude is everything, Kosho, coming out fighting, Memeshi, who’s a wimp, No miss, second best isn’t good enough, Shibutosa, fight to the death, Shobu, a fight to the finish, Suri-Awase, grinding off the rough edges…
Japanese martial arts and traditional arts are all about discipline, as were the proverbs that accompanied them. If eating poison, eat to the plate… If you don’t enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub. My dog-eared Hagakure was replete. Singlemindedness is all-powerful… A warrior is worthless unless he rises above others and stands strong in the midst of a storm… I’ll give you the answer to the question “What is most important to the heart of a warrior?” The answer is, “To desire with one’s very soul every second of every day to accomplish one’s aim.” But the talented hawk hides its claws, and the Japanese strategy for winning has always included stealth and deception: Aiso Warai, beware of fake smiles, Akujunkan, the great runaround, Amai, spreading on the sugar, Anmoku no Ryokai, an unspoken understanding, Ashirau, the diplomatic brush-off, Dango, dividing up the spoils, En Maku wo Haru, laying a smoke screen, Homegoroshi, praising to death, Ihyo wo Tsuku, springing surprises, Ii Toko Tori, taking only the good, Ikki Nomi, playing to your peers, Ippiki Ookami, Japan’s lone wolves, Kakushi Aji, a secret ingredient, Kamaseru, sharing the spoils, Kao ga Hiroi, having a wide face, Kao wo Dasu, showing your true face, Kanson Minpi, bowing before officials, Kikkake, putting on an act, Kirei Goto, making pretty talk, Ki wo Yurusu, letting your guard down, Komawari ga Kiku, bypassing the bureaucracy, Konran, keeping things under control, Kuroko, the men in black, Kyoso, the ultimate competitors, Kyoso to Kyocho, doing business with enemies, Nigiritsubusu, crushing people’s projects, Odateru, applying soft soap, Odawara Hyojo, a delaying tactic, Saguru, probing your partners, Supai, industrial espionage, Sarakin, the loan shark business, Seken Shirazu, babes in the woods, Seken Zure Shita, too wise for the world, Sensei, polishing the apple, Shimei, picking your bed partner, Sha Chiku, a nation of corporate sheep, Shido, a word from big brother, Shikitari, the herd instinct, Shingi Kai, Japan’s shadow rulers, Shirankao, keeping a straight face, Shitofumeikin, company slush finds, Sodanyaku, the quiet advisors, Sonshite Tokutore, losing to win, Shushoku Shido, long arms of professors, Tateyaku Sha, finding the kingpin, Tesaki, putting up the front man, Uiuishii, the wiles of naivety, Uma ga Au, harmonizing your horses, Urakata, the hidden-person ploy, Urami wo Kau, buying into trouble, Sode no Shita, a little something up the sleeve, Yakutoku, a dangerous perk…
Like the lack of evil, and the absence of wrong, the Japanese have trouble with saying the word ‘no’ directly. Again, between the dog ears- Wrap your intentions in needles of pine… Tether even a roasted chicken… When meeting with the enemy, there is a way to determine his strength. If he has his head cast down, he will appear black and is strong. If he is looking upward, he will appear white and is weak.
A man has a false heart in his mouth for the world to see, another in his breast to show to his special friends and his family, and the real one, the true one, the secret one, which is never known to anyone except to himself alone, hidden…
One also senses a certain insecurity, and a deep desire to be respected, in Japanese behaviour. The phrase used to introduce oneself, Yoroshiku onegaishimasu, is best translated as ‘Please be nice to me,’ hardly a reflection of the strength of will and strategy surging through the rest of their cultural heritage. Nor does the concept of Kawaii, cuteness to a level of farcical absurdity, completely fit. Except that Japanese girls who dream of Anne of Green Gables, want to be Anne of Green Gables, with the heart of a warrior.

Monday, 13 April 2015

For a Limited Time

I have posted my books on Amazon for 5.95, until the print editions come out. Enjoy.

Soy Sauce 13

The Japanese always have their act together, but it is an act. 
Expressionless eyes and unfailing correctness act to keep the world at a distance. The words for ‘thank you’ are loaded with self-deprecating equivocation- arigato, this difficult thing, katajikenai’, I am insulted, kino do’ku, this poisonous feeling, sumimasen, this never ends. The Japanese have perfected good manners and made them indistinguishable from rudeness. If Freemasonry describes itself as ‘a beautiful system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols,’ Japan is the largest lodge in the world. Like the face of a geisha or a gilt screen, the surface as exquisite as it is opaque. 
A corollary to their hatred of defilement, the Japanese are impatient with all limitation. They see no reason why everything cannot be made perfect, and possess the vision and the discipline to make it so. No daylight exists between the idea and the reality, and the construction and the creation- the gardener’s one flawless chrysanthemum a year, the calligrapher’s perfect stroke, the photographer’s reduction of three-dimensional reality to two-dimensional order. Everything, including the future and humanity, can be programmed and perfected. When IBM gave a Japanese manufacturing company a trial project, they set out a specification of three defective parts per ten thousand. The delivery came with an accompanying letter.

    ‘We, Japanese people, had a hard time understanding
     North American
business practices. But the three
     defective parts per 10,000 have
been separately
     manufactured and have been included in the

      consignment. Hope this pleases you.’

There is a common Western misperception that the Japanese are great at copying things, but not very inventive. The truth is that they are great at reinventing things, and possibly better at understanding the original invention. But they are also capable of taking inventiveness to bizarre places. Chindōgu is the Japanese art of inventing ingenious everyday gadgets that seem like an ideal solution to a particular problem, but anyone actually attempting to use one finds that it causes so many new problems, or such social embarrassment, that it has no utility whatsoever. More interesting examples of chindōgu are the combined household duster and cocktail-shaker, the hay fever all-day toilet tissue roll dispenser hat, the all-over plastic aquaphobia bathing suit, the baby mop outfit floor cleaner and cat duster slippers, the noodle-eaters hair guard, the selfies extendable arm, the solar energy lighter, the butter grater, the square watermelon, and the flip hole masturbatory machine.
There is an imposition of cold horror here. The bonsai knows no capriciousness, no natural exuberance, no passion or fire. Ardor is replaced by order. Everything that is supposed to be changing and breathing and imperfect and alive is forced into perfection- emotions, relations, and the people themselves.
The word for ‘different’ in Japanese, is the same word for ‘wrong.’ Chigau. But, like no concept of evil, there is actually no word for wrong. The stake that sticks out gets hammered down. In a poll that asked what in their lives had given them the most happiness, more than half the Japanese questioned answered Disneyland. The army ants in jackets and ties and skirts and blouses coursing through the subways, and the lady-in-waiting white gloved taxi drivers, find their greatest pleasure in conformity, as comforting and cloying and antiseptic, as the muzak at Mickey’s House in Toontown.

                                     ‘O because
                                      We are not individuals
                                      We are the herd, the group 
                                      We are the group personified...’
                                               Tamura Ryuichi (1923- 1998),
                                                                         Three Voices

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Soy Sauce 12

         ‘I fancy that there are no people in the world more
          punctilious about
their honour than the Japanese,
          for they will not put up with a single
insult or even
          a word spoken in anger.’ 

                                       St. Francis Xavier (1506–1552)

So how do the Japanese think about themselves? What qualities do they embrace? 
A homogenous culture with a racial purity hangup, the Japanese believe that their strength and exceptionalism derives from their love of this purity, and a corresponding hatred of defilement. They strive to be as serene and beautiful as a cherry tree in full bloom, Their words distinguish them from lesser mortals: Bukkyo, the wellspring of Japaneseness, Shakkei, creating Japaneseness, Nihonteki, being Japanese-like, Kuuki, the Japanese atmosphere, Miyabi, elegance in things Japanese, Aun no Kokyu, the Japanese sixth sense, Byodo, Japanese-style fairness, Omoiyari, Japanese-style sympathy, Kangeiko, discipline the Japanese way, Kuroto, professionalism in Japan, Shinrai, relying on Japaneseness…  
Foreigners are still considered as either oddities or a menace. Again, they have words: Ato Aji, a foreign aftertaste, Gaijin Kusai, smelling like a foreigner, Hanamochi Naranai, looking down on foreigners, Iwakan, allergic to foreigners… The French despise anyone who cannot speak their language; the Japanese suspect anyone who can. They are brilliantly capable at inventing complex systems of rules, but unenthusiastic about explaining those rules to foreign visitors. Their own historic caste of untouchables, the Eta, have given way to new categories of the defiled. There is considerable discrimination in Japan against the Hibakusha, the ‘explosion-affected people,’ survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their descendants. They are damaged goods, stigmatized as less employable, less marriageable, less worthy of association, and less worthy in their own minds.
The Japanese practice Bura-Hara, a form of discrimination based on the myth that blood type determines personality. Type O people are energetic and social, while Type B's are selfish and whining. Both kindergartens and dating services are segregated by blood type.
There are other dichotomous polarities in the homogeneous impenetrable culture of the Japanese, resulting in the most fantastic series of ‘but also’s’ ever used for any nation of the world- samurai and monk, Chrysanthemum and Sword, politeness and overbearing insolence, exquisite purity and capacity for perversity, deep lyrical quiet spirituality and loud mechanical pachinko parlours, behavioral rigidity and innovative adaptation, submissiveness and indominability, generous loyalty and spiteful treachery, bravery and timidity, traditionalism and modernity, Zen gardens and cartoon kittens. If genius is the ability to simultaneously hold two opposing ideas and keep going, the Japanese are brilliant. Both poles are governed by the same aesthetic clarity, the same will for harmony, the same delicacy of suggestion, and the same perfectionist ideal; not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but unity, discipline and pursuit of purity. Every aspect of life must be perfected, until perfect.