Saturday, 2 May 2015

What a Friend We Have in Jizōs 1

                                     ‘Tis said the snow that piles
                                      All year long on Fuji’s cone
                                      Melts when the moon is full
                                      In the middle of the month of June,
                                      But falls again that very night.’
                                                    Takahashi no Mushimaro c. 730

We slept where samurai had awoken. Robyn got up at dawn, and opened the curtains, onto Japan’s oldest poem. Since the heavens and earth were parted, it has stood, godlike, lofty and noble...
She smiled at me and bowed, and launched into a tai chi set across our balcony. Clouds of the sky, fearing to drift across its face, trail hesitant upon the air...
Hovering above the water was a magnificent rose-tinged ice cream cone, fractals running down the snowcap. Since the ‘poet of images’ Akahito wrote his tribute in the Man’yoshu anthology in the eighth century, Mount Fuji has so inspired artists and poets and pilgrims that UNESCO identified it as a ‘cultural’ rather than ‘natural’ heritage site.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Into the Rising Sun 15

The calm was distracted by new hygienic imperatives. Japan is where you take off your shoes to enter your room, and shower before you bathe. Horizons would be broadened. Please kindly refrain from wearing slippers and yakuta outside of guest rooms...The slippers are finished with cleaning. 
The first puzzle was the second set of slippers, the hard pink plastic tow pinchers, three sizes too small, that were only to be used in the toilet. Robyn went first.
“That’s not me!” She cried, after sitting down.
“The toilet seats are heated.” I said. “And there are buttons for all sorts of things.” Some auxiliary features border on terrifying. A pressure transducer detects your presence. There is the standard bidet tenderness selection, and a posterior nozzle with a variety of jet size, power settings, and ‘turbo wash’ massage option. Deodorization features include masking fragrances and, in more advanced models, ozone, which is also highly inflammable in the presence of a spark. Sensors that measure blood pressure and body fat and urinary sugar can transmit this information wirelessly to doctors; other sensors can detect illegal substances and transmit this information to the authorities, thus giving new meaning to the concepts of stool pigeon and blow dryer. 
The Otohime Sound Princess produces a tinny replica of a toilet flush, designed to mask the sound of a woman peeing. This occurs above the background sphincter relaxation mood music, there to help you and your nether muscles de-stress enough to perform. The Toto Washlet in our Kamakura bathroom was smarter than most of my colleagues back home.
“What do you hope to learn in Japan?” I had been asked by one, before we left. I told him that this was the reason I was going.

   ‘A traveler went to visit a famous Zen Master to learn something about 
    Zen. While the Master was serving tea the traveler began talking about 
    Zen. The master poured the traveler’s cup to the brim, and kept 
    pouring. The traveler watched this. “The cup is full and overflowing.” 
    He said. “Its overfull master. Stop it.” The Master smilingly replied, 
    “You’re like this cup. How can you pour something about Zen into you. 
    First empty your cup.”’

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Robyn asked, just before falling asleep. 
“What?” I asked.
“Just outside our balcony.” She said. “Japan.”

       ‘One should not show his sleeping quarters to other people. The time 
        of deep sleep and dawning are very important.’
                   Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure- The Book of the Samurai, 1716

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Into the Rising Sun 14

                  ‘I thought I was the only one hurrying toward the East,
                   but the plum flowers above the fence were ahead of me.’

If any of the sleepy samurai on our train were contemplating suicide, nobody was spilling their guts. In Yokohama, Robyn and I boarded the Yokosuka Line that would take us further south. We dangled from the rafters, past the point where Matthew Perry and his four Black Ships first cracked open the fortress cocoon that Japan had been for the previous two hundred years. The sakoku ‘chained country’ foreign policy of the Tokugawa Shogunate had been unambiguous. No foreigner could enter nor could any Japanese leave the country, on penalty of death. On July 14, 1853, the Commodore came ashore with an entourage of 300 officers, marines, and musicians, passed through ranks of armed samurai, and handed a letter from President Fillmore to the Shogun’s officials. He told them that he would return for an answer and, three days later, left Yokohama.
Twenty-eight minutes further south, Robyn and I were almost there. Surrounded on three sides by mountains, like a cooking hearth with only one open side, before there were roads, the only way here was through high narrow passes, the ‘Seven Mouths of Kamakura.’ One last green and yellow Enoshima Electric railway car clacked and clattered us though six more stations, until the sign I had been searching for rolled around the last corner. Shichirigahama. 
“Here?” Asked Robyn.
“Here.” I said.
“What’s here?” She asked.
“The beginning of the Samurai Road.” We pulled our Ospreys out onto the single side platform. Outside the dimly lit small station was the smell of the ocean, and a woodcut full moon shimmering on it. We hiked along the breakwater, until I found the road that took us up the hill, and a path that took us onto the grounds of the Kamakura Prince Hotel. The lobby was empty, except for the clerk. He bowed. We bowed.
“Your special request.” He said, eventually handing me the key.
“What special request?” Robyn asked.
“I’ll show you tomorrow.” I said. And we all bowed, and Robyn and I took the elevator to our room. Outside the night was still and quiet. Moonlight on the waves seeped through the windows of our corner room. Tranquility base here.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Into the Rising Sun 13

  ‘With the statistical rise in numbers of hikikimori, shut-ins or recluses 
    who have given up on the outside world and live largely online as 
    avatars, shinguru parasite singles who continue to live with their 
    parents well into their 30s, and otaku, proud members of the growing 
    ‘geek’ culture, fewer and fewer young Japanese seem to be having 
    actual sex- living out their fantasy sexual lives vicariously. Virtual 
    girlfriends, lifelike, custom-designed dolls, pillows designed to ‘hug’ 
    lonely singles, all play a part in a broader spectrum of loneliness and 
    desire. Afraid of rejection, uninterested in the complications of 
    involvement, many Japanese are happy to pay intimidating sums of 
    money simply to be flirted with, assured that they are interesting and 
    amusing, and made to feel special- often at ‘hostess bars’ where no 
    actual sex ever occurs. So in many ways, this... is about fantasy- as 
    much as anything else.’
                                                                                      Anthony Bourdain

And in Japan, the collision of fantasy and solitude and technology is continuing to respond to those in need. The Japanese sex doll industry has just reached the ‘next level’ in the creation of the perfect artificial $2,000 ‘Dutch Wife.’ The firm Orient Industry has announced their new range of non-inflatable dolls, made from high quality silicon, and so lifelike that here is very little to distinguish them from a real girlfriend. Dutch wives come with ‘realistic feeling skin’ and authentic looking eyes, customizable bust size, facial appearance and hair colour, movable joints, (which can be placed in a variety of anatomical positions), and a selection of clothing, so the new owner doesn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of visiting a lingerie store. Advertisements boast that anyone who buys one will never want a real girlfriend again. Early sales indicate the dolls are a big success. One observer was troubled by the fact that ‘their faces look like children,’ but I was more troubled that, instead of ‘their faces,’ he should have been concerned about ‘the faces.’  
Not only is the sex that used to exist between work and death increasingly done alone, so is the actual dying. Woody Allen may have been channeling the Japanese with his observation that ‘the difference between sex and death is that with death you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you.’
Elderly Japanese die kodokushi lonely deaths in their homes, especially men with few social ties. Undiscovered for months, or even years, they are often found mummified. Companies which specialize in cleaning out the apartments of people who have succumbed to such a fate are paid to deal with the grisly ‘kodokushi stains’ left behind by the rotting body.
Not all the somnolent salarymen in our compartment would live long enough to leave a stain on their tatami mats. Some would be killed by their ennui. While the homocide rate is virtually nonexistent, Japan has more than twice the suicides of any other developed country. Over seventy per cent of suicides are male, and the leading cause of death in men between the ages of 20 and 44. 
What used to be the samurai’s noble act final statement of courage and resolution, is now respected as a ‘morning tub’ to wipe off defilements, an honorable self-destruction. The Japanese love the theme, playing it up as Americans play up crime, with the same vicarious enjoyment. It meets some need that cannot be filled by any other act. The difference between samurai and salaryman suicide however, is that, in modem times, suicide is a choice to die, and in feudal circumstances, the samurai would have been killed anyway. 
The National Police Agency categorizes suicide motives under one or more of 50 reasons. Since the bursting of the 1990s economic bubble murdered the ‘jobs-for life’ culture, the unemployment rate rose to 5.7 per cent, and precisely accounted for 57 percent of all suicides. The overwork that accompanied the increasing pressure on retaining jobs accounted for 47 per cent of the suicides in 2008.  Elderly salarymen that were forced to retire, who felt isolated and lonely and without purpose or identity, chose to escape the void in increasing numbers. Harassment from Japanese banks and consumer loan companies killed off one in four, a result of the debt-ridden guilt and despair that drove them to inseki-jisatsu ‘responsibility-driven suicide. Japanese lenders began taking out suicide coverage life insurance policies on borrowers, who were not required to be notified.
The commuter tracks we were travelling on became a common suicide venue, so much so that rail companies began to fine surviving family members for the inconvenience. Large mirrors were installed on railway platforms. The sight of one about to jump was apparent somehow sobering. For me the question still went begging. Japanese are so afraid of showing inconsideration to others and yet train suicides were guaranteed to inconvenience more others than just about anything else I could think of.
The second most popular place in the world for suicide, after San Francisco's Golden Gate, lay directly ahead of us in the night. At the foot of Mount Fuji is the fourteen square miles of Aokigahara, the Suicide Forest, or the Black Sea of Trees. The forest contains a number of rocky, icy caverns and due to the wind-blocking density of the trees and an absence of nearly all wildlife, is known for being deathly quiet. The forest floor is volcanic rock, difficult to penetrate with picks or shovels or other hand tools. In the distant past, during times of drought and famine, it was know for the custom of Ubasute, carrying an infirm or elderly relative to the mountain, and leaving them there to die, by dehydration or starvation or exposure, or any combination. The practice formed the basis of many legends and poems. In one Buddhist allegory, a man carries his mother up a mountain on his back. During the journey, she stretches out her arms, catching the twigs and scattering them in their wake, so that her son will be able to find the way home.

                                ‘In the depths of the mountains,
                                      Who was it for the aged mother snapped
                                      One twig after another?
                                      Heedless of herself
                                      She did so
                                      For the sake of her son.’

The forest is reputedly haunted by the yūrei angry spirits of those left to die. Nowadays, Aokigahara is haunted by abandoned tents and lost personal items, and bodies dangling from the trees. In 2004, 108 people killed themselves in the forest. In 2010, of the 247 people that attempted suicide in the forest, 54 were successful. Suicides increase during March, the end of the fiscal year in Japan. 
There are signs in the forest, in Japanese and English. Your life is a precious gift from your parents... Please think about your parents, siblings and children... Don't keep it to yourself... Talk about your problems. Beyond them are the a variety of unofficial trails, where police and local volunteers conduct their annual ‘body hunt.’ 
Robyn and I continued into the night towards Mount Fuji, in the same direction of the card I got for my fiftieth birthday. Relax, It’s not the end of the world. But you can see it from there. 
And in the minds of the half asleep salarymen dangling from the ceiling, you could hear the sound of breaking twigs.

                                   ‘Working, working.
                                             Yet no joy in life,
                                             Still staring emptily
                                             At empty hands.’
                                                         Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912)

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Into the Rising Sun 12

The US occupation after WWII further enforced American cultural values. Japan rebelled with hentai seiyoku surrogate fetish publications. One of these obsessions was women’s underwear. Japanese never traditionally wore any. Panties first came to Japan after the war, teaching the local girls to be ashamed of their vaginas, and to cover them up. The problem was thy were expensive, and the only women who could afford to wear them were the ‘pan-pan girls,’ the high-class prostitutes of the euphemistically-named RAA (Recreation Amusement Association). The panties paradox was that an item of clothing designed to suppress sexuality became intensely associated with sexuality it was designed to frustrate. There were special vending machines, for old male customers buying not new panties.
By the 1960s, fetishism had bolted its last gates, into sadomasochistic gender bender content. In 1986, Toshio Maeda got past the pixelated censored depictions of sexual intercourse, by creating tentacle sex. Pornography was characterized by sexual intercourse with monsters, demons, robots, and aliens, and their respectively bizarre genitalia but, unlike Hokusai's The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, these are modern violent invasive acts, the product of the cultural traumatic turmoil of the atomic age. 
Meat-eating Mad Men salarymen drink and carouse, and live out their underground fantasies in subterranean stations. At the Shibuya Pink Girl's Club in Tokyo, men pay $130 to grope the girl of their choice, from a menu of schoolgirls or office receptionists, on a simulated chikan densha pervert train. The girl beckons to him through the window of a mock-up carriage, which broadcasts station announcements, and shakes and rattles. In 2008, in Osaka, a 35 year old man named Manabu Mizuta was arrested, for repeatedly releasing hundreds of beetle larvae inside moving express trains, ‘to see women get scared and shake their legs.’ Soy sex.
But the biggest single sexual problem in Japan today is not any single degeneracy but the entire degeneration of the sexual activity of an entire generation. Over sixty per cent of unmarried Japanese men and half of unmarried women are not involved in any kind of a romantic relationship, choosing to love pandas and koalas and kittens instead; 45% of Japanese women polled say they are ‘not interested in or despised sexual contact.’   Japan’s total fertility rate is down to 1.21- ranked 220 out of the 224 nations listed in the CIA World Book. The actual population has been declining since 2006. By 2020, in the Land of the Rising Sun, adult diapers will outsell baby diapers: The sun also sets. Soy sex. No sex.
The collapsing demographics are obviously related to individual behaviour, and there is something new in the air and water. Be nice. Don’t have sex. The slow and subterranean currents of history and social change have created an unspoken rebellion against many of the masculine, materialist values associated with Japan's 1980s bubble economy. Meat-eating philoprogenitive samuroids, famously beastly to the Chinese, Allied prisoners of war, immigrant Koreans, and each other, and salarymen, hungry for products to mark their personal economic progress, have turned into herbivore soushoku danshi ’grass-eating boys,’ taking walks, shunning sex, and not spending money. The country's economic stagnation since the early 1990s has altered the behaviour of men, who have, in turn, made the economic stagnation worse. Grass-eating men are as alarming as they are, because they form the nexus between two of the biggest challenges facing Japanese society: the declining birth rate and anemic consumption. 
Up to 75 percent of men in their 20s and 30s describe themselves as grass-eating men. Named for their lack of interest in sex and their preference for quieter, less competitive lives, herbivores are softer, more orderly, tamer, and more obedient than their parents. Young Japanese men today have chosen to have less to prove. They have no desire to live up to traditional social expectations in their relationships with women, their jobs, or anything else.
Grass-eaters love to putter around the house, spend time by themselves or with close friends, and shop more for little luxuries than big-ticket items to decorate their homes with. They prefer vacationing in Japan to venturing abroad. They're often close to their mothers and have female friends, but they have spent so much time playing computer games that they prefer the company of cyber women to the real thing. Many grew up without siblings in households where both parents worked, but with TVs, stereos and game consoles in their bedrooms. They interacted less with their families, and ended up with poor communication skills, so they don't pursue women because they are bad at expressing themselves. They’re not particularly motivated by sex, prefer not to make the first move, and like to split the bill.
The lines between men and women seemed to have blurred; ‘Boys love’ is a genre of manga and novels written for women, about romantic relationships between men, that has spawned its own line of videos, computer games, magazines, and cafes where women dress as men. 
The Internet has helped make these alternative lifestyles more acceptable.
There is a downdraft of isolationism that the grass-eaters have produced, however, that has even further radicalized the next generation. Out of a total population of 128 million Japanese, there are now almost four million Hikikomori, adolescents and young adults who have chosen to completely retreat to their bedrooms and shut themselves off completely from society, boys lost in their video games and the world-wide-web. Triggers like poor grades or a broken heart have put them there, and protective parents, conscious of their social standing and averse to seeking professional help, allow them to remain, but the withdrawal itself can become the continuing traumatic reason for never leaving. A person’s reputation in the community and the pressure he or she feels to impress others, sekentei, is a powerful social force that conspires to keep him there. The longer hikikomori withdraw from society, the more aware they become of their social failure. Whatever self-esteem and confidence they may have had is lost, and the prospect of leaving home becomes ever more terrifying. 

Monday, 27 April 2015

Into the Rising Sun 11

                              ‘The Chinese will eat anything, and the Japanese will fuck it.’                                                                                                                                                

Some of the still conscious salarymen in our carriage were immersed and engrossed in what might have passed for comic books back home. Except for the subject material, which fell somewhere between sex and death. Soy sex. No sex.
One of the most confusing polar ‘but also’s’ of Japanese culture has been the dichotomous rigorous buttoned-down conventionalism and unhinged kinky depravities that characterize their fantasies. Anthony Bourdain once asked the question in a slightly different way. I totally don't understand the porn here. Why is it you can't fuck somebody with a penis, but you can fuck them with an octopus tentacle? The answer lies in the furthest part of the Japanese erotic spectrum.
There is a three-tiered hierarchy of Japanese sexual activity. The Standard Stuff includes the brothels and massage parlours, strip clubs and sex shops, fellatio and vibrator bars, and a huge adult movie industry, within which although hardcore sex acts are allowed to be filmed, the genitalia of the performers is required to be blurred out, in adherence to moral laws. The Innocent and Adorable slide into perversity comes from the five-year-old girl pink-purple, fuzzy, fluffy, sparkly, hearts-and-stars cute kawaii aesthetic that begins to bleed into the world of sex. All the temptress employees behaving like hyper-sexualized schoolgirl cartoons, in the French maid-themed cafes, clap and jump, sing in high-pitched voices, converting Hello Kitty into meow.
But its in the Dark and Rapey where the monsters live. The erotic manga comic book stories in the laps of our salarymen, the anime animated final fulfillments, and the eroge erotic video games that combine cartoons and pornography and gaming into an outlet experience for suppressed illegal desires, are the media that allow our salaryman to experience things that he would never have the courage to do in real life- homoerotic indulgences, shibari bondage, rapes, violations by demons and tentacles, fetishism, S&M, shinjū love suicide, necrophilia, and any other hentai perversion you might prefer not to imagine. Child pornography, adding to the stressful slide of the kawaii rage, was legal until 1999. The country with the most powerful social norms on the planet, is the one with the most wicked fantasies.
None of this yet answers Bourdain’s question about tentacles. In order to do that, you must look at the long history of pornography in Japan. Nudity has never been taboo in Japanese culture. Women were topless, everyone got together naked in communal onsen spas at the end of every day, and, because of Buddhism or the absence of Christianity or whatever, the Japanese traditionally had a much more open, nonjudgmental, less puritanical view of sex. As far back as the Heian period, which ended about the time that King Henry II began using the London safes of the Knights Templar to store part of his treasure, what we call porn was simply another common book genre, like cooking or travel. Artists were simply making pictures of people enjoying sex, and no social stigma was attached to the eroticism of shunga. Initially inspired by Chinese medicine manual illustrations, ‘shunga’ is a contraction of shunkyū-higi-ga, the Japanese pronunciation for a Chinese set of twelve scrolls depicting the twelve sexual acts that the crown prince had to carry out as an expression of yin yang. Translated literally, the Japanese word means ‘picture of spring,’ spring being a common euphemism for sex. 
Samurai, chonin townspeople, and housewives all owned shunga; they all experienced separation from the opposite sex. The samurai lived in barracks for months at a time (in the sankin-kōtai system of required annual conjugal separation in Edo), and the merchants' needed to travel to obtain and sell goods. In the same way that it was a talisman against death for a samurai to carry shunga, it was also considered protection against fire in merchant warehouses, and the home. 
Because nudity was not inherently erotic, and the reader could more easily identify courtesans and foreigners, characters were fully clothed and shown in nonrealistic positions with exaggerated genitalia for psychological impact- a 'second face' expressing the primal passions that the everyday face is obligated by giri to conceal. Plum blossoms were used to represent virginity, and tissues to symbolize impending ejaculation. Francis Hall, an American businessperson who arrived in Yokohama in 1859, was shocked and disgusted when his Japanese acquaintances and their wives showed him shunga at their homes, and described them as ‘vile pictures executed in the best style Japanese art.’ 
From the 16th to the 19th century, the shogunate tried to suppress these works, but not very hard.
In 1814, Edo artist Katsushika Hokusai produced a famous woodcut of a young ama diver sexually entwined with two octopuses. The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife depicted a mutually pleasurable interaction, unlike what was to follow almost two hundred years later. Shunga production fell with the rise of pornographic photographs in the late 19th century. But the technology came also with Western morality, which coerced the Japanese government into cracking down on traditional public nudity. In the 1907 Censorship law that followed, Article 175 of the Criminal Code banned the publication of obscene materials. Images of male-female intercourse were strategically ‘pixelated,’ and what had once been considered normal sexual genital portraiture became more influenced by western monotheistic mores- sterilized and demonized and idealized into long legs and large breasts.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Book Editors/Proofreaders Wanted

Before I send them off the final manuscripts for print editions, I need some refuge seekers to help with making sure there are no undiscovered errors in five of my works. I will send you a .docx file and, in exchange for sending me what changes you think need to be made, you get to read the book. Choose from any of the following:

Orion's Cartwheel
Between the Cartwheels
Hind Cartwheel
The Final Cartwheel

Stories of the Southern Sea

To apply, contact me me through my website. 

Samurai Road- All Your Images in One Place

After the rain. To be alive. Before the dawn. It was all so perfect.

Into the Rising Sun 10

Since 2003, Japan has also seen a proliferation of Internet suicide clubs, and an alarmingly increasing number of temporary members. The technology has been further strengthened by the change in choice if inhaled fumes, which have gone from charcoal, to hydrogen sulfide. The Japanese like to do things in groups.
The most pernicious cult of all, of course, may have come from abroad. Tom Cruise, an American adherent, and the Last Samurai, had been gone for eight years when, immediately after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami disaster, the Church of Scientology sent Volunteer Ministers to provide ‘Scientology assist’ touch-healing, a ‘spiritual first aid’ groping of 48,000 homeless tsunami victims. A Hashikami City Councillor thanked the practitioners, saying ‘theirs is a service the Japanese people can find nowhere else.’ Absolutely, nowhere else.
The act of quitting as a salaryman, escaping corporate life to find more fulfilling work, is known as datsusara. Childhood dreams or momentary inspirations can lead to a new entrepreneurial rebirth as a farmer, fisherman, artisan, writer, restauranteur, shopkeeper, plumber, or other self-employed independence. But there are dangers in taking up a profession without proper knowledge and, for the Japanese salaryman, this is not an easy, or viable option. The shelter of the big tree casts a broad shadow.
So they carry on, in their fatigue fugue states. Falling asleep on the job, inemuri, is admired, because it demonstrates how hard they work for their company. Like everything Japanese, there are rules to follow. It is only respectable if done upright, to show that they are still socially engaged, even if they’re not. The nicest thing you can say to a colleague as you leave the office late at night is otsukaresama deshita. You're tired.
The West may have helped do this to them. World War II hit the reset button on Japan’s economy. In 1950, an American statistician named W. Edwards Deming brought a unique style of company management that focused on perpetual cyclical improvement and dissatisfaction. If your employees have worked their fingers to the bone, have them to grind those bones down to a fine powder, and after that, have them go door to door selling the powder as an aphrodisiac. The Deming cycle was a natural fit with ingrained Japanese tradition. Their deep respect for seniority makes it unthinkable to go home before your boss. And your boss might just stay at the office until after midnight because he's such a hard worker, or because he hates his wife, or because he's already home.
Salarymen work twelve or more hours a day, all-night and late-night and holidays, six or seven days a week, year after year, often with the furoshiki cloaked overtime unpaid. Physical and mental stress from overwork, especially since the Bubble Economy burst in the late 1980s, have caused an epidemic of occupational sudden death. The Ministry of Labor tracks these karōshi deaths, some insurance companies pay them out, and some companies get sued, for the young heart attacks and strokes that are the collateral damage of the Denning cycle. 
The liberty part was a non-starter. The honour part was implicit. But the religious part, for the salaryman, was a problem.

                                       *         *        *