Monday, February 13, 2012

Cultural Malaise: 'Dogs and Demons; Tales from the Dark side of Japan'

 My copy of dogs and Demons

Recently, I have been re-reading 'Dogs and Demons; Tales from the Dark Side of Japan' by Alex Kerr.

This book presents (presents = teishutsu-suru; NOT presents = okurimono) a powerful and hard-hitting look at modern Japanese society from many angles. The author (the author = the book's writer) shocks the reader with facts (facts = jijitsu) that most people outside (or even inside) Japan are unaware of (unaware = kizukanai).

Alex Kerr was educated at Yale, Oxford, and Keio universities, has spent many years in Japan, is fluent in the language, and has been involved in many aspects of Japanese art, culture and business. This book is now over 10 years old but it really shows the problems underlying Japan's cultural malaise (malaise = fukai-i, an ill feeling ).
The author felt moved (kando-o saseru) to write this book out of a deep respect and love for Japan and it's people. This book is also available in Japanese as: 'Inu to Oni'.
Mia's copy of 'Inu to Oni', Dogs and Demons

Some of the issues detailed in the book's chapters include:

The Land: The Construction State
Environment: Cedar Plantations and Orange Ooze;  
Demons: The Philosophy of Monuments
Bureaucracy: Power and Privilege;                          
Manga and Massive: The Business of Monuments
Old Cities: Kyoto and Tourism;                              
Information: A Different View of Reality
New Cities: Electric Wires and Roof Boxes;          
 The Bubble: Looking Back
Education: Following the Rules                                
After School: Flowers and Cinema

I highly recommend this book (and Kerr's earlier and gentler book 'Lost Japan') as very important for foreigners interested in the REALITY of modern Japan, and for Japanese who find themselves staring at the world around them and saying: "Nan desu-ka"? = "What ?!".
If you are a foreigner who has never visited Japan but have plans to, you must read at least portions of this book, even if it hurts. Alex Kerr paints a rather bleak picture of Japan. I started reading it before moving to Japan and had to put it aside for a while (out of disgust) before picking it up again. Of course it is easy to criticize almost any country, not least my own U.S.A. but Mr.Kerr makes some very good points in his book that explain things us outsiders find so puzzling and mysterious about Japan. As an English teacher I especially like the chapter on Education: Following the Rules: 

"Lesson One is the importance of moving in unison. ..."
 (a story is related here on walking in unison, group exercises with announcements from loud speakers on the playground and the consternation that arises when a child does something "different").
"Lesson Two is to learn that it is a crime to be different. Dr. Miyamoto reports that when one of his friends put her child in kindergarten, the teacher advised her to bring steamed rice for her child's lunch. "Why?" the mother asked. The teacher answered, "If children bring fried rice or sandwiches, some other child may want to have that, and it is not a good idea for children to feel they want something different. If everyone brings steamed rice, then nobody is going to wish for something they cannot have."
   "The natural corollary of Lesson Two, unfortunately, is xenophobia. The idea that foreigners are aliens and should not be allowed to mix with Japanese is an idea for which schools lay the groundwork very early. "

Dogs and Demons also mentions the issue of racism and discrimination here in Japan.
(racism = jinshusabetsu; discrimination = sabetsu)

"In the days of sakoku, "closed country" (1600-1869), when the shogunate restricted the Dutch and Chinese to the port of Nagasaki, Dutch traders lived on Dejima, a small artificial island in Nagasaki harbor connected by a causeway to the mainland. Only with special permits could the Dutch pass over the causeway... during the day. At night (they) had to return to Dejima, where ...guardsmen locked the gate behind them. Modern-day rules that restrict foreigners to certain discrete corners of Japanese society and keep them out of the mainstream can be traced to Dejima. And the dream of a physical Dejima for foreigners has never faded. ...When I worked for American real-estate developer Trammell Crow, I ran across many national and local development plans that called for getting all the foreigners to move into special apartment buildings designed just for them - often on landfill islands."

I recently read another blog where a comment mentioned the racism and discrimination against foreigners (foreigner = gaikokujin, gaijin) here in Japan, that there are places that are not open to foreigners. I would like to say something in response to this issue …

I’m a U.S. citizen living in Japan about 3 yrs (married to a Japanese national over 6 yrs) and I agree that it is an issue, but not a hopeless one.
Japan pays a lot of lip service (lip service = tatemae, NOT hone or honest opinion or intent) to the “idea” of being “International”, but in reality there is an invisible wall for us “gaijin” (foreigners). As a tall, white, blue-eyed male I don't suffer racism or discrimination as much as say a Korean, Phillipino, Chinese or somebody of African descent might. I am very fortunate and happy to live in Japan with a lovely, intelligent and supportive wife, and to be surrounded by many kind and friendly family members, students and friends. When I do hit a minor cultural obstacle that smells like racism, I deal with it by not giving anybody any power over my self, my emotions, or my spiritual inspiration.
I react by shielding  myself (ironic because the ignorant are shielding themselves... from "the alien"!);
and I don't allow ignorance (ignorance = muchi; mugaku) to affect me personally.

I choose to ignore the ignorant.

    Admittedly, this is NOT easy at times… and I wouldn't be able to do this if I was here in Japan alone.
But I look at it this way: if some certain Japanese people wish to continue to keep us aliens at arm’s length… well, that’s their loss.
("To keep at arm's length" = To keep distance between. To hold something away from oneself).

But Japan is not as completely bleak as Mr.Kerr's book makes it seem. I truly enjoy visiting temples & shrines and the experiences offered there. Perhaps having a Japanese wife and  a Mother-in-law who works as a tour conductor makes it a bit easier for me to go further into shrines or temples than some foreigners. I have a much better knowledge (if not understanding) of the spiritual and religious traditions here (Buddhism,  Shinto, etc.) than almost any native Japanese person (young or old) I have yet spoken with on the subject.
(I truly wish this was an exaggeration but, sadly, it really is so)!
I have a genuine desire to learn more about the spiritual traditions of Japan, but so far no one I have met can offer anything about it beyond common superstition (superstition = meishin). Perhaps this is because of the  language barrier and the natural tendency towards fear (which leads to secrecy).

Japan is a country in need of genuine spiritual healing and awakening. When family and friends from the U.S. ask me what religion the Japanese people have, I've usually responded: “Materialism”.
The real worship is at the shrines of Gucci, Sony, Louis Vuitton and Panasonic, and they do so because they have been told or trained to believe that these things are worthy pursuits. Most Japanese follow rigid rules, restrictions, orders and advertising very well and without question.
However, this is not entirely true. After the earthquake and tsunami last year, there was a sudden surge in attendance and offerings and magickal talismans (emma, omamori), made at shrines all across the country. The outpouring of genuine devotion and rejoicing at certain times, seasons and festivals is spectacular!
There is a very rich native spiritual heritage right here in Japan that I would encourage everybody to investigate if they find it interesting. The Shinto, Buddhist, Mikkyo and Zen traditions are a treasure house just waiting to be explored! As to Japanese who would ban foreigners from intruding into their spirituality I offer the example of the resurgence of Tibetan Buddhism despite Chinese oppression, largely due to the genuine interest, study and  devotion of  Westerners.
Allowing foreigners in to sacred studies and places would help keep these traditions from dying out !

'Dogs and Demons' reveals that the past 20 years have shown the rest of Asia bypassing the once popular “Japan model” because of Japan’s reluctance or inability to change, adapt or “let in” the world. Many of Japan’s best & brightest talents have escaped to other parts of Asia or the rest of the world to escape the rigid structure and  find REAL prosperity and freedom (of body-mind-spirit) elsewhere.

 Only the Japanese themselves can rehabilitate the cultural malaise that stifles them. They have to want to break free of the programming that has been drilled into their heads through their entire para-military educational “training” (not “teaching”). Their dissatisfaction has to overcome their fear of speaking out and being heard and making changes to long held (but not traditional) rigid rules and restrictions.

This next cultural revolution may best be achieved by approaching any shrine here in Japan which houses at it’s sacred, central position a perfectly polished, circular mirror.... and taking a long, deep look into it.

Since the earthquake and tsunami of last year much progress has been made in cleaning up the hard hit areas. Naturally the mirror will be polished once more (by the people, not the bureaucrats). I really hope that Positive Change is in the air….

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