We landed in darkness. The last time I was in Narita was 18 years earlier. With a six-hour layover, I inexplicably didn’t leave the airport. “Can I possibly die without at least a glimpse of Japan?” I’d ask myself, cringing.
Finally, I was there. My first impressions were the generous legroom on the train to Tokyo, sterile apartment buildings somewhat reminiscent of Singapore, subway cars packed with standing, black-suited salarymen then, at Nippori Station, a commanding middle-aged executive, sheathed in an expensive suit, staggering drunk. Everyone else on the platform stood so straight and rigid, I also noticed, as if contrapposto was banned. In Vietnam, few can stand for more than a few seconds without leaning on something or collapsing into a squat.
My maternal great-grandfather, Ngo Thuc Dinh, was one of the top officials in the pro-Japanese Vietnamese government of World War II, and for this collaboration, he was targeted for assassination by the Communists. Unable to do this, they killed my grandfather instead. This incident didn’t just change how my mother was raised, but my emotional makeup.
As a motherless 12-year-old in Tacoma, Washington, I had a Japanese-American teacher, Miss Dogen, who treated me like a son. If you can read this, I thank you and am truly sorry I never said a proper goodbye. Learning to write, I read Mishima, Kawabata, Akutagawa, Dazai, all suicides, and the Japanese-American David Mura, whose Turning Japanese gave me enduring insights into Japan, America and myself.
My father owned a Japanese restaurant in Santa Clara, CA. Its cooks were Mexicans and Vietnamese, however, with only one Japanese ever employed, right at the beginning, to teach the rest the basics, then he was, ah, fired. Among Kobe’s decorations was a Turkish serving plate, bought at a flea market.
“This is clearly not Japanese, dad.”
“It’s close enough. No one will know.” To be so slapdash and careless is typically Vietnamese, I’m sorry to say.
Young, I saw The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Fronted by Kembra Pfahler, it’s a cathartic band of half-naked, weirdly-painted women, with a Japanese drummer who walked around, even before the show, in a bottomless leather pants. Even at my most rebellious, I never had such balls.
My wife and I booked a small yet very efficient apartment in Nihonbashi, the financial district. For the first time, I experienced a heated toilet seat and a jet of water aimed at my exit. What impressed me most, though, was a mini-sink built into the water tank, so as it was being refilled, I could wash my hands.
Some people aren’t meant to travel, for the unexpected will alarm or infuriate them. They simply can’t stomach the fact that the aim of traveling is to be refuted, disorientated or, if one’s very lucky, deranged. For an entire day, my wife stayed inside to watch a Vietnamese TV movie on YouTube.
As Europeans roamed and conquered, East Asians turned hermetic. From 1405 to 1433, the Chinese arrayed an unprecedented armada to explore the world, then they stopped voyaging, banned the building of large ships and outlawed seafaring. There was nothing beyond the waves but trifles and Japanese dwarf pirates, wokou. Smug, the Chinese sank themselves.
Initially open to whites, Japan’s rulers then saw the Christian missionaries as deforming and dividing their society, thus began 220 years of isolation. With his suck-on-this black ships and two white flags as gifts, Admiral Perry changed all that, and once Japan decided it had no choice but to compete with whites, it systematically and energetically proceeded to deform itself, a process that hasn’t stopped.
Genpei Akasegawa (1937-2014) was an artist who documented Tokyo architectural components that had become useless. Not demolished, they’re often even maintained or fixed, as in the railing of a wooden staircase leading nowhere. These instances of found art, Akasegawa dubbed Thomasson, after the American baseball player. Though signed to the biggest Nippon League contract ever, Gary Thomasson was a strikeout machine as the cleanup hitter for the Yomiuri Giants. Serving no purpose, Thomasson became art, as it were. A recurrent Dada nightmare, Thomasson was nicknamed the “Giant Human Fan.”
The beauty (and sadness) of Thomassons is that they represent the nearly obliterated past, and walking around Tokyo, I couldn’t help but feel, constantly, that the entire city was a gorgeous and glittering tomb over a scorched and pulverized Japan.
41 km2 of Tokyo were obliterated by American bombs, as compared to 6.5 km2 of Dresden, by British and US planes. Killing 100,000 mostly civilian Tokyoites over two days, Operation Meeting House is still the most destructive bombing raid in history.
As for the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American justification is that they saved millions of GI lives, with sadism, racism, worship of technology and the desire to browbeat the Russkies playing no significant part. As the shocking-and-awesome proof of American supremacy, the atomic bomb had to be used! You can buy a T-shirt with a mushroom cloud, “MADE IN AMERICA / TESTED IN JAPAN.”
Many will say the Japanese had it coming after their Bombing of Chongqing, Rape of Nanking, Bataan Death March and Unit 731, etc. For over a thousand years, Japan only invaded a neighboring country once (Korea in 1592-98), but after being bullied by whites, it tried to outwhite whites by unleashing the worst barbarity against other Asians. It is as if in doing so, Japanese proved they weren’t really yellow.
The chief planner of the firebombing of Tokyo and 64 other Japanese cities was General Curtis LeMay, “There are no innocent civilians. It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore.” “Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time [...] I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.” LeMay’s most famous statement, though, concerns the Vietnam War, “My solution to the problem would be to tell [the North Vietnamese] frankly that they’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Ages.” In any case, if entire cities must be destroyed to atone for war crimes, then Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, etc., should have been vaporized yesterday.
In the heart of Berlin is a vast and, frankly, hideously clunky Holocaust Memorial, while in the middle of Tokyo is the sublimely beautiful Yasukuni Shrine. Built in 1869, it’s a memorial to Japanese war dead, dating to the Boshin War. After walking half a kilometer and passing through three enormous torii, I finally arrived at its magnificent main building. Exploring its grounds, I stumbled upon monuments to the Kamikaze pilot, war widow, military horse, dog and even carrier pigeon. Elegantly sculpted, these honor any Japanese being that had suffered on behalf of the nation. Like most people, I never made it to the Chinreisha, a shrine dedicated to war dead of all nations, but it is tiny and tucked away, an afterthought erected only in 1965.
At Ueno Zoo, there’s a memorial to animals deliberately killed in anticipation of American bombing, but nothing to indicate a B-29 pilot had been displayed, naked, in a tiger cage. Ray “Hap” Halloran remembers:
Almost miraculously, our prisoner of war camp survived a massive fire raid by B-29s on nearby Tokyo that took place on March 10,1945. Much of Tokyo burned to the ground that night, with more than 100,000 people killed, more even than those killed at either Nagasaki or Hiroshima after an atomic bomb was dropped on these two cities.
The wooden stable—where I was held captive in a steel cage—was surrounded by a huge fire that night. Again, I don’t know how I endured the heat or the smoke. After I survived the firebombing, I was removed from my own cage and put on exhibit (naked) in a tiger cage at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, where Japanese civilians, mostly women, looked upon me in sad silence.
Over dinner, I said to novelist Hideo Furukawa, “Everything here is so exact. The Japanese are so attentive to each detail, and that’s why just about everything here is so beautiful. This kind of care and love, I’ve also seen in Germany and Italy.”
Hideo smiled, “They’re all Fascist countries!”
“Fascism is only a blip in their history, and it’s seven decades ago! Why should Germany and Japan be singled out as particularly evil? Do Americans ever apologize? They’re killing people right now, as we’re talking!”
Lafcadio Hearn wrote in 1895, “A Japanese city is still, as it was ten centuries ago, little more than a wilderness of wooden sheds,—picturesque, indeed, as paper lanterns are, but scarcely less frail. And there is no great stir and noise anywhere,—no heavy traffic, no booming and rumbling, no furious haste. In Tokyo itself you may enjoy, if you wish, the peace of a country village.”
Even with 16 million people and skyscrapers everywhere, Tokyo is still tranquil, thanks to its cozy side streets, with their intimate bars and restaurants, and because its people are always mindful of others. No one jostles, or hogs a sidewalk or seat. Unlike in urban America, there’s no public display of aggression, and the very rare homeless don’t pester anyone for anything. Street crime almost never occurs, and only foreigners yak loudly on cellphones.
Signs on sidewalks, “No Smoking While Walking!” Venturing out, my wife observed, “No one eats while walking either! There is no activity on the sidewalk, and there’s not a trash can anywhere. They are so uptight!”
Seeing nearly everyone on the subway staring at his cellphone, my wife whispered to me, “They’re even lonelier than Americans.”
In Yaesu, I stared up at a multi-storied karaoke business. In a purple, red and green lit room, a man appeared to be singing by himself. I kept waiting in vain for another person to appear.
Always nearby, there’s a pachinko parlor where men, mostly, spend hours feeding steel balls into childishly colorful machines. Although the nominal aim is to win prizes, trifling mostly, the real attraction is oblivion. In Tokyo-Ga, Wim Wenders comments:
This game induces a kind of hypnosis, a strange feeling of happiness. Winning is hardly important, but time passes. You lose touch with yourself for a while, and merge with the machine, and perhaps you forget what you always wanted to forget. This game first appeared after the lost war, when the Japanese people had a national trauma to forget.
In the past, Japanese merged with their plow, pottery, brush and sword. Now, they strive to be at one with their office cubicle, pachinko machine and Gucci bag.
Disaffected, the Japanese don’t mug and loot, but geek or drop out, thus you have the anime and manga nerds, hikikomori recluses who sometimes assault their parents with baseball bats and legions of virginal young men, dubbed “herbivores,” who don’t even try to have a girlfriend.
Such alienation was anticipated in Kawabata’s gently creepy House of the Sleeping Beauties (1961), which depicts a brothel where men pay to merely sleep with a naked, unconscious woman. It begins:
He was not to do anything in bad taste, the woman of the inn warned old Eguchi. He was not to put his finger into the mouth of the sleeping girl, or try anything else of that sort.
One evening, the protagonist arrived to find out the madame had provided him and his drugged beauty with an electric blanket having two switches:
“An interesting idea, a blanket that two people can adjust to suit themselves.”
“It’s American. But please don’t be difficult and turn off the girl’s side. You understand, I’m sure, that she won’t wake up, no matter how cold she gets.”
Ah, the progressive comfort of not quite sharing a blanket! It’s American. In the US, there’s now a phenomenon called the half-night stand, where the casual sex partner leaves right after the act, to avoid any post-coital awkwardness.
The breakdown of community and extended family in all Americanized societies have resulted in anomic individuals who see no needs for any human relationship that isn’t mechanically sexual.
Since sex sans intimacy is their true aim, many find it best to bypass the seeing, argumentative body altogether, so now you have widespread porn addiction and a vast array of masturbatory aids, with Japanese companies leading the way.
From Tenga, there’s the Iroha Mikazuki, “This vibrator delivers a soft undulating ocean-like sensation to the female erogenous zones. This pastel colored vibrator is covered in a unique ‘Soft Touch’ silicone that is naturally smooth in texture and can repel dust and be used underwater.”
If you’re still heartbroken after being weaned from breast feeding so many moons ago, there’s the Japanese Mother Breast Milk Heaven Lotion from Kanojo Toys, “The generously sized bottle contains a lube that uniquely replicates the feel and smell of breast milk (but without any of the issues regarding hygiene).”
When not dropping out, Japanese overwork, sometimes to death from a heart attack or a stroke, and there’s even a term, karojisatsu, for workers driven to suicide.
Japanese arrange suicide pacts with internet buddies. In one 2005 case, seven young people, including a 14-year-old girl, died in two cars, 30 miles apart. Among developed nations, Japan has the highest rate of suicides, and they ingest more anti-depressants than anyone else on earth.
Though already told that Japanese don’t talk to strangers in bars, I gave it a try anyway, hence I met two ladies at iBrew, on the edge of Ginza. In their mid-30’s, one had been a manager at an upscale department store, but quit because “the work was too much.” Now a housewife, Ayako showed me, on her phone, dinners she had prepared for her husband, and I was immediately struck by the artfulness of her food arrangement. “It is common,” she said of the exquisite care, love and nurtured tradition on display.
Her friend was a pastry chef who had trained in Paris and had worked for two years in Indonesia. Photos of her creations also betrayed tremendous love and artistry. Interestingly, Yoko preferred the relative chaos and spontaneity of Indonesia to overly regimented Japan. “I’d like to live there.”
Ayako had done some traveling, so I asked for her favorite city. “Prague!” she immediately answered.
“That’s because it was never bombed! It’s one of my favorite cities also.”
In 1853, Herman Meville published “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” As iconic a modern man as any, Bartleby is described as “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!” Employed in a law office with windows staring at walls, with views that are “deficient in what landscape painters call “life’,” Bartleby started out as an exceptional worker:
At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.
The salaryman then hit a wall, and his refusal to perform a simple task, as requested by his genial boss, is one of the greatest moments in fiction:
Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
That became his mantra. Without emotion, Bartleby simply refused to do anything. He declined alternative jobs and even turned down his boss’ offer to take him in. Finally jailed as a homeless vagrant, Bartleby even refused to eat:
“I prefer not to dine today,” said Bartleby, turning away. “It would disagree with me; I am unused to dinners.”
By saying no to everything, Bartleby was the first hikimori, herbivore and karojisatsu salaryman. Without being aware of Melville, Kafka would publish “The Hunger Artist” in 1922. He, too, couldn’t stomach anything, “I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”
A wholesale rejection of everything doesn’t have to be self-destructive, however, and can even lead to a recovery of sanity, beauty and long-suppressed virtues. The end of the American epoch, now unfurling, is an opportunity for all societies to rediscover themselves, and Japan, with its exceptional human capital still intact, is in better shape than most for this transition.
Lafcadio Hearn wrote in 1904, “What remains of this elder civilization is full of charm,—charm unspeakable,—and to witness its gradual destruction must be a grief for whomsoever has felt that charm.” After a century and a half of destruction, it’s time to end the mourning.
A hugely popular pachinko machine, I’m Juggler, features Uncle Sam as a hysterical, red-nosed clown, and since pachinko parlors are everywhere in Japan, this laughing maniac infests the entire country. You can hardly walk a block without seeing him.
From its founding, the US has destroyed societies to save them, with Iraq, Libya and Syria only the latest examples. Without any violence whatsoever, perhaps Japan can return the favor.