In our era of unending overheated news cycles I take comfort in the cold dispassionate analytic Japanese cultural characteristic. Its helpful not only for keeping a level head but also making interesting connections between seemingly unrelated things.
For example different cultural responses to the COVID crisis: in Japan people went out and bought pets, in America people went out and bought guns. Japanese like making those kinds of comparisons that seem to come out of left field, but for me provide ‘think outside the box’ context sorely missing in public discourse these days. And again when Bloomberg ran a piece titled “Buddhist Monks Are Snapping Up ESG Bonds in Japan,” that wasn’t getting any traction in the Japanese news space.
As a Buddhist priest (monks live monastic lives outside of society, priests do not) it stuck me as odd that a Rinzai Zen temple would advertise investing in ESG bonds as future proofing the temple instead of working to get younger people involved in temple activities. The Bloomberg piece also reads like stealth marketing, if Zen temples and the Vatican are investing in ESG bonds it must be good…right?
I asked a Japanese trader friend about it and he set me straight without blinking an eye, “With this coming out on Bloomberg just when the Dali Lama and Greta Thunberg are hooking up online to discuss environmental issues, it sounds like investment funds and players are gearing up to make a lot of mischief. The only difference is that they used to be better at hiding this kind of nonsense and now they suck.” Bingo…helpful context to divine where things are going. There is also online discussion of a COVID-19 ‘vaccination mafia’, but that’s another subject for another day.
Parasols are a standard Japanese summer item for women but I was scratching my head when I saw men using them this summer. Was it the heat? Was it something else? I searched online and soon found the answer: COVID and face masks.
You see men don’t mind tan lines in the usual places but face mask tan lines are to be avoided at all costs. Japanese guys apparently have it tough these days because Japanese women are incredibly picky. Guys have to have just the right muscled physique but not too much, face hair is okay but body hair is no, and no face mask tan lines.
I don’t know about you but I take comfort in people caring about appearances despite all the chaos that is 2020. A little dose of normal helps the day go down.
Many festivals are canceled this year because of COVID but you can still go to a local shrine or temple and tie your Tanabata wish to the bamboo. It’s always fun to read what other people have wished for: good health, happy family or the very appropriate ‘go away COVID’.
In the old lunar calendar Tanabata and Obon came together, 7/7 and 7/13 respectively. The western calendar mixed things up in the Meiji era because both events herald the last hurrah of Japanese summer and fall during the western August when calculated by the lunar July. This is why the events are July in Tokyo and August in the countryside.
There are plenty of hot days after Obon but summer feels done, you can feel wisps of autumn in the night air. The Japanese enjoyment of seasons is never the full gaudy glory but in catching the first faint whispers of change.
Ken Bolido recently bought a Washlet for his employer Austin Evans. The Twitter video of the unveiling unlidding is funny but got me thinking: what’s the toilet tech gap at other gadget sites? Inquiring minds want to know. It’s hilarious to think that all those high tech review sites with high tech equipped studios, have low tech toilets.
Alan Booth’s The Roads to Sata created a modern English language book genre, Disappearing Japan. It’s an endangered species that has been disappearing for decades, aka “the real Japan.” Whatever that is.
I read Roads to Sata long ago and liked it, but that was before I had experiences to compare, i.e. a frame of reference. Later on after many adventures working summer mountain lodges in the Southern Alps I read Booth’s companion book Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan and liked it, much less. Travel books and writing are like travel companions, most of them drive you crazy, only a rare few make truly good life long companions. After 30 years in Japan I don’t care to travel with Alan Booth anymore or emulate his gimmicky patchwork style that mixed evocative narrative hooks with black comedy, embarrassingly wrong cultural “insights” and a decidedly narcissistic take of Japanese history that cleverly camouflages good old western style cultural snobbery as ‘outsider viewpoint’.
The Alan Booth Japan travel writing style is alive and well in Craig Mod’s I Walked 600 Miles Across Japan for Pizza Toast, it shares the same kitschy patchwork walkabout formula explaining Showa era Kissaten culture. It’s not my cup of coffee but it’s a fun informative read for people who don’t know Japan or haven’t lived here long. Brushing past a few embarrassingly bad ‘hooks’ like the Pachinco mamas leaving infants in the car parking lot reference, old timers probably see a different narrative lurking in discarded details like the abandoned but unexplained karaoke parlor coin laundry picture, a quirky Gifu sight familiar to anybody who knows that area and history.
Kissaten culture will not disappear. I like pizza toast, blend coffee, neapolitan ketchup spaghetti, green cream soda with a glow in the dark maraschino cherry, oshibori and nice clean glass ashtrays. Lots of people do and the growing number of older people in Japan with lots of time to kill need places to go. I remain hopeful that visitors to Japan will venture out of overpriced Starbucks and discover the joys of classic Japanese Kissaten.