The Japan Gap

The energetic glam music lovin’ Okamisan of Matsuya Ryokan in Niigata

One of the fascinating things I find in Japan life is the delightfully unexpected mismatch of people and things that they do. I was introduced to this Japanese cultural phenomenon shortly after arriving here in 1984. A nice young girl who wanted to be a flight attendant invited me home for tea. I knew she only wanted to practice English but jumped at the chance. It was a nice time. I met her family and they were very kind. Her demure Junior High age younger sister said she wanted the honor of playing something for me. She got out her keyboard, hit the CD player button and started playing along with a screeching Twister Sister track, a virtuoso performance at top volume. After 3 minutes of mayhem she hit the stop button and transformed back into a polite demure junior high student.

Much later my Japanese partner told me lots of young demure looking Japanese high school girls love playing wild wooly heavy metal guitar solos in rock bands. “People like to have something or do something that isn’t part of their nature,” he said. It’s important to remember that the Japanese audience that went gaga for Queen and the Runaways in the 70’s was not guys, it was gals. I got a taste of it recently staying at the wonderful Matsuya onsen ryokan in Niigata. The Okamisan was a delightfully energetic woman who fed us well. After dinner relaxing in the common living room she asked if we’d like to listen to some music. We did and she put on a CD…Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody…at volume, this despite the classic Japanese ryokan atmosphere surrounding us.

At first I didn’t understand the phenomenon but over the years I have found Japanese culture and society to be much more accepting of human nature in many ways than the USA culture I grew up in. I think it’s part of the cultural DNA passed down from Shinto and Buddhism. Not that many westerners would agree with that assessment but is easy to see in countless manga and anime…if you pay close attention.

And so it goes that you find big beefy K-1 athletes who sport tiny cute Chihuahua pets, humongous Sumo wrestlers who like knitting and flower arranging, and little old ladies on the street taking huge dogs on a walk, with the dog walking them. In Japan nobody bats an eye at the Japan gap.

The Yesbutt

There’s a long running Japanese gag that goes like this: any discussion with a westerner is an endless loop of a Japanese person explaining something with the westerner cutting in with a ‘yes, but…’ hijacking the discussion without listening, a one way conversation. Yesbutt is the butt of the joke that is conversation with westerners…a comedy of yesbutts.

Once I was made aware that I was a yesbutt, I suddenly saw it everywhere, in my family, my western friends, and media in particular where ‘talking points’ are just endless yesbutts butting heads without discussion anything. Twitter of course is yesbutt heaven as is most social media. Why bother acknowledging somebody else’s point of view or opinion when social media ranking system ad revenue only rewards the biggest yesbutts?

Historically Japanese society has been very adept at dealing with yesbutts, and thankfully still have the ability to listen, though like most higher human behavior in the internet age, it has taken a hit. There is not much one person can do in the face of modern human society turning into one big yesbutt, but today at least, I endeavor not to be a yesbutt. And listen.

Un-worry

I didn’t learn how to un-worry until I lived in Japan a few years and saw how the Japanese do it. Un-worry is not the same thing as not worrying, the get out of bed late, don’t give a damn about others self centered variety I found too much of in American life. Un-worry is do what you have to do and do your best for yourself and others at any given moment…but don’t worry about the outcome. It’s going to be what it’s going to be.

To that end I always find the Japanese cultural fine art of compartmentalization amazing and extremely useful. No matter what happens there’s enough dry disattachment to switch gears and do…something else, something constructive. It’s the Sho-ga-nai spirit that westerns see as negative that I see as positive gear shift. I secretly think it’s the thing that got Japan from WWII defeat to the world’s 2nd largest (recently 3rd largest) economy. I cannot imagine the American psyche suffering a similar sized defeat from the outside and sifting gears so adroitly, too much hanging on hysteria. Life is tough but it doesn’t have to be tough on you. Sho-ga-nai.

Parasite Mind

I’ve been wanting to see the hit Korean movie Parasite even since it won the Academy Award for best picture but am too distracted by COVID restrictions and the hassles of life interrupted. Parasite was a small hit in Japan but when combing comments on Japanese blogs and forums, it’s clear the movie resonates with older views much more than younger ones. In particular it’s the older viewers who grew up and came of age in the Showa era who appreciate the social tensions and dynamics at play. Younger viewers just scratch their heads.

This kind of Showa is brilliantly portrayed in the 1982 movie ‘Giwaku’ (Suspicion) and Kaori Momoi’s legendary award winning performance. The last scene of her pouring wine on the lawyer who saved her life, played by Shima Iwashita is often called ‘over the top’ by western reviewers, but it is not. People who lived in that era know that particular coveting creature: wanting someone else’s something but also wanting the worst for that someone, a spiritual poverty of measuring one’s happiness by a particular persons misfortune.

It’s the same dark side sometimes implied, but never directly expressed, in the Japanese expression ‘mura shakai’ (village society/村社会) being closed off from society. It’s almost gone but still survives in tiny pockets. It’s not physical isolation but isolation in the minds of groups who close themselves off. A Sado friend told me about a recent event in one small corner of the island know to be that way. A Japanese man retired there from outside the island. He was mistakenly diagnosed as infected with COVID-19 (PCR tests are only 40% accurate). Village locals discreetly harassed him and damaged his house to the point where it was inhabitable. Only after he was driven out did the local hospital say they made a mistake, that his test was negative. It played out in the dark, off the record, nobody acknowledging anything.

We may snicker as such human behavior and think our modern selves above it, but the parasite mind is alive and well on social media. When cultural warriors who are only happy when they destroy peoples reputation and remove them from public life, that’s the parasite mind at work. Meanwhile I keep telling myself that I’ll catch up and finally watch Parasite…when things calm down…if they ever do.

Kuyo: the importance of remembering and forgetting

The Japanese Kanji and meaning for Kuyo (供養), apparently has no real direct equivalent in Chinese; I occasionally run across online questions from mainland Chinese exchange students in Japan asking what it means. The standard English translation, ‘memorial’, is worthless and does almost nothing to convey what Kuyo really is.

Kuyo is praying for the spirit of the deceased to be nourished by our earthly efforts so they attain enlightenment. In this way Kuyo is closer to the original ancient Indian Buddhist ceremonies and also elements of Vietnamese Buddhism which suggests that the culture traveled the southern trade routes to Japan.

In traditional Japanese Buddhism the 50th memorial year was the usual cutoff up through the Showa era, but these days the cutoff is the 33rd memorial since most of the people directly connected with the deceased aren’t around to do Kuyo for them, and it’s not the responsibility for later generations.

Japanese Buddhist practitioners say that forgetting is just as important in Kuyo as remembering. That sounds like a contradiction but it’s part of letting go of the past even as one honors it with Kuyo prayers; an important natural progression not only for the living, but also for the spirits of the deceased to leave past lives and become enlightened.

2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. The annual Kuyo ceremony for all victims of the war and prayer for world peace was held on August 15 at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery. This years event was drastically scaled down because of COVID but I see it staying small as the number of people with direct connections with the war dwindles away.

When it disappears entirely I hope people will remember to forget, in the right way. I don’t believe that the people of the war generation wanted Kuyo to go on forever or burden future generations with the responsibility. They wanted them to be free from the past and lead happy lives, because that is the ultimate goal of Kuyo: happiness and enlightenment for all beings of the past, present and future.