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I manage to catch the last day that photographer Kishin Shinoyama’s photographic exhibition The People is showing at Kanazawa’s stunning 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. (Do take a peek at the building here as it is beyond words.) After following a long white hallway I enter a small door in the wall and walk into a room draped in black. A darkroom. When I emerge the first larger than life-sized photo I see is of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Opposite is the word GOD.
Instantly I am reminded of John Lennon’s wry observation that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. However, in this instance the word denotes the first section of five sub-themes for the exhibit: GOD, the deceased; STAR, various celebrities; SPECTACLE, other-worldly and dream dimensions; BODY, beauty, eroticism and struggle as expressed by the nude body; and ACCIDENTS, portraits of the 03/11/11 Great East Japan Earthquake and Disaster victims.
As is often the case with many other exhibits throughout Japan, there is no English translation. No texts on the walls. No audio tape. According to Kishin Shinoyama these selected works are people everyone knows. But besides Lennon and Ono I recognize but cannot name two faces. That’s all.
In spite of my frustrating ignorance, the photos speak for themselves. Powerful and luminous like the monstrous statuary often found in temples, they tower above me or spread before me in super-sized splendor.
However, I’m not satisfied with a face-value viewing. I must understand more fully what I see. Notebook in hand, I wait in front of many of the most compelling images until someone who looks approachable steps up beside me. In sotto voce Japanese I ask, “Excuse me. Who is that, please?” People are eager to tell me. I write down the names, and if they can identify them by their roles in English, a brief note.
Afterwards I Google them all. They are iconic personalities. Among them centenarian twin sisters Kin-San and Gin-San, actors, writers, opera stars, popular singers, models, baseball players, a pop-idol girl group, a geisha.
Whether captured in theatrical grandeur or humble reflection, the range of emotion expressed in each image leaves me more than raw. As a whole they are shattering. In composition, gesture, body language and micro-expressions they reflect the shared human condition. I see their majesty, power and prestige. Their anguish, despair, and guile. Their indifference, resignation and terror. Their innocence, menace or defeat. In theirs I recognize my own.
I leave overwhelmed by what I have seen. At the same time, I am baffled. I failed to see joy or delight or elation. Why not? I leave with that disturbing question which sometimes haunts me still.
I agree with Matt Zoller Seitz the editor in chief at RogerEbert.com who states that Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a film you experience and then live with. That’s true in spite of its flaws.
Originally a 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who have illegally entered seventeenth century Japan which at that time was closed to foreigners except for strictly limited trade in carefully controlled port cities. The men are searching for a third priest, their mentor who has reportedly recanted his Christian faith and lives with a wife in the style of the Japanese.
I won’t belabor the story line as it is recounted in great detail in almost every review available for anyone wishing to know. However, given the beauty of the cinematography, and the landscapes, as well as the excruciating dilemmas the characters face, the film should have been more enthralling—even heartbreaking—than it was.
Why didn’t it move me? Probably because the story was told from a distancing point of view. In spite of its obvious craft and visual beauty, the film felt almost like a textbook recounting the details of a time that no one cares about now.
Also, the characterization was weak, at times more like caricature and stereotype. The costuming intensified that effect. Though the Jesuit priests and the hidden Japanese Christians struggle with philosophical, religious and moral questions while living under constant threat of torture, I never suffered along with the protagonists.
Perhaps, like Scorsese, a lapsed Catholic would have found their specific struggle more compelling; however, due to the detachment established by the point of view, they seemed rather tedious and predictable people. I could pity them for the accident of their birth in such a difficult time and place, but otherwise, I wasn’t touched. I wanted to be.
In addition, the motives of the antagonists aren’t made clear. Without some knowledge of Japanese history and the political foundation of the story’s events, much is lost. It helps to know that the determined extermination of the Christians at that time was rooted in a rebellion by mostly Roman Catholic Japanese. Like most uprisings, the events could be attributed to famine, over-taxation, and a large population of peasants with little to lose other than very miserable lives. The local government believed the rebellion was assisted by the seditious teachings of the Europeans.
Now that’s an over-simplification; however, without understanding that much, the ruthless response of the Tokugawa Shogunate against the Jesuits and Japanese Christians doesn’t make as much sense. Especially in a country in which Buddhism and Shintoism already co-existed. Otherwise, why single out Christianity for exclusion?
It also helps to remember that European colonizers in their dealings with indigenous peoples were as cruel as any of the Japanese depicted in the film. There are no black or white hats in this context. Given internal and external conflict this rich, it shouldn’t have felt flat, and 161 minutes shouldn’t have felt long.
As for the ending, I saw it coming. I hate when that happens.
Even so, in spite of everything the film resonates and is timely. In an interview with Time Out Tokyo, actor Shinya Tsukamoto answers Mari Hiratsuka’s question, “What message does Silence have for us in the present?
“Personally, I’m struck by the absurdity of why, at any given point in history someone is always using violence to suppress what others believe. Silence asks a powerful question about that absurdity.”
Reviewer Peter Debruge maintains, “Scorsese…has created a taxing film that will not only hold up to multiple viewings, but practically demands them.” That’s also true in spite of its flaws.
Last week I downloaded Microsoft’s Translator to my phone. Now I can photograph, keyboard or speak into the phone and get an instant English to Japanese or Japanese to English translation. Someone with whom I wish to communicate can hear as well as read the result.
It’s also useful for learning Japanese that is not in my Tuttle Concise. Though it’s pretty good for anything I need to check, to my surprise it lacks the word beginner. I can state that I don’t speak or understand Japanese very well. Plus, I can ask someone to speak more slowly. However, there are times when I need to let myself off the hook and say I am a beginner.
The translation app isn’t perfect. Even though I speak clearly (or at least I thought I did), my first verbal attempt was understood as I am a big dinner. I guess I’ll have to work on that.
Now it’s time to get down to methodical study. I’ve arranged to return to Japan in November. I will live in a furnished studio apartment in the Aoyama area of Tokyo (yellow circle on the subway map below) until the end of January. Over those three months I will begin and complete Level One of the Ikebana Sogetsu course in the International Class.
Steve Jobs once remarked that there was a lightness in being a beginner. Being less sure about everything freed him to enter one of the most creative periods of his life. I am a big dinner. Imagine–even feast on–that!
As part of the ongoing celebration of five years of blogging at The Way of Words, today I reprise a single story in 5 posts. These describe an intense experience in a remote Japanese temple during a single afternoon which unexpectedly and forever altered my perception of everything.
In Internet and ideal blog terms it’s a long story. Therefore, I originally broke it down into shorter segments. Each also stands alone.
For anyone unfamiliar with the terms, Buddhists use the words kensho and satori to describe profound experiences of enlightenment. To attempt brief definitions here is problematic. However, if needed, clicking on either one will take you to the good folks at Wikipedia for a detailed introduction.
Click on the links below to read my satori story.
The last time I was part of a group where everyone minded each others business was before adulthood. During that time I belonged to a church; a small, conservative, community of Mennonites who despite their unique culture, good works and upstanding qualities felt compelled as a group to regulate the behavior of others. Sometimes that meant great pressure on members to conform and often to make public apologies for transgressions.
In that respect, even though it’s set in present day Japan, I found the world of Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City oddly familiar. Made by Fuji Television in cooperation with Netflix, this Japanese reality show has a twist. There is no script.
The cameras roll as six strangers—three men and three women between the ages of 18 and 29—share a stunning house and enjoy free use of automobiles provided for them. The dramatic arc is the day to day stuff of life. Who cooks, who does dishes. Who does or doesn’t get along with others, and the consequences of such interpersonal friction. The members set rules, eat and socialize together while maintaining their daily working lives or studies.
The resulting footage is shaved down to 30-minute episodes by clever editing and presented together with great music. (A playlist is available on Spotify.) This is complemented by insightful commentary from a group of well-known Japanese comedians and actors who watch the episodes together. Then like a Greek chorus, they interrupt with their take on developments. The result is crazily compelling and addictive.
The house members are exceptionally attractive people: models, would-be actors, dancers, designers, and other creatives. Each person is working with varying degrees of success toward personal aspirations just like most other people. However, at some level most have already distinguished themselves before they joined Terrace House. They have chosen the experience as well as the global exposure that comes with it for a variety of reasons.
Of course, some are also looking for romance. They are singles living together unchaperoned (if you can forget about the cameras) with other super-hot looking members of the opposite sex. Thus their day to day interactions buzz with underlying sexual tension.
Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City tests the characters and emotional stability of the participants, exposes their transgressions and highlights moments of exceptional sensitivity. More than that, it reveals how social conditioning and mores work to govern Japanese behavior. The elegance of Japanese social graces is immediately apparent. House members bow to each other, constantly acknowledge each other and express their thanks for the smallest things—all the time—even in moments of deep personal distress.
When it comes to courting, there are established and codified rituals quite unlike those in the West. Public displays of affection or even gestures of comfort such as putting an arm around someone are not that common in Japan. Therefore, holding hands in public signals the status of a relationship and indicates an intention. A chaste little kiss is a very big deal.
In a world of largely American reality TV with its sleazy excesses (from the Kardashians to the highest office in the land), Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City is refreshing for its restraint. More than once the commentators use the word pure in describing the appeal of an individual. When was the last time you heard that in a conversation?
Over the course of the Terrace House series there are many compelling scenes. Some leave the commentators momentarily speechless or jubilant or in tears. After one poignant moment, one of the commentators is awestruck and remarks that you couldn’t write a script like that. No one would believe it. But this was real.
However, the absence of a script is somewhat misleading and only partly true. What is often revealed as the series progresses is a tacit and deeply ingrained cultural script. At its fundamental core is what it is to be Japanese.
So sorry. I’m overdue. I ought to have posted some time ago. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at me, I’ve been busy.
What have I been up to, you ask. Answer: Binge-watching Netflix.
Uh-oh, you say. Winter sloth. Slacking off, eh? Answer: Not exactly.
Bear with me, I say. There’s a bit of backstory. You think: Excuses always have a backstory.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hear me out and then decide. Though it has been a long process, I’ll try to keep the telling brief.
About a decade ago I began to teach myself Japanese from CDs. I began by using the Pimsleur method. The method is research-based and structured to acquire language by ear and patterned repetition the way infants do. No written text or syllabus is provided so that pronunciation isn’t influenced by English-based ways of reading vowels. It is strictly listen, repeat and remember. As I didn’t want to learn writing anyway, I wanted to be able to speak—even if just a little—while traveling, that suited me just fine.
Unfortunately, there were serious flaws in the Pimsleur content. I was frustrated from learning too many macho pick-up lines along with vocabulary for driving and gassing up a car which I would never need in Japan. Quite alarmingly, the dialogues went from pleased to meet you to would you like to have a drink at my place to I want to stay in Japan with you, without any of the niceties or necessities between each stage.
Still, it was a reasonable way to start as it tuned my already musical ear. I am always complimented on my pronunciation. However, at $300 USD for each level of 30 CDs, I wasn’t inclined to move to levels 2 or 3 without knowing that the content would be suitable.
Since then I have acquired a smattering of additional, useful phrases on a hit and miss basis from friends and lessons on YouTube. Most of the latter I find excruciatingly tedious. Bored to death at the pace, I give up. Drilling phrases and sentence patterns into my skull so they stay there isn’t easy.
According to Bernard Saint Jacques, Doctor Emeritus in communication and linguistics at the University of British Columbia, successful language acquisition in adult learners depends on two things. First, the motivation of the student and second, the opportunity to speak the language under real conditions.
Alas, I don’t get too much opportunity for the latter and all too quickly I arrive at the end of what I know how to say. Then I’m stuck again.
To shorten a much longer story, let me just say that’s how I ended up at Netflix. The Internet has changed greatly over time, and so has Netflix since I subscribed about two years ago. Recently their content has expanded to include options from various countries. Some say this is the new wave of content, a platform no longer limited to old runs of American movies or series such as: Friends, Suits, Scandal and the like.
First, by chance a series called Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories piqued my attention. Then of course, the bots offered more in that vein. That’s how I ended up at Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City and Terrace House: Aloha State.
In Japanese with English subtitles, these series have helped me not only to learn more Japanese, but also gain insight into a variety of cultural nuances. Bonus: I’ve had a splendid time. I’ve not been bored for a second, though it still hasn’t solved the problem of not having opportunities to speak under real conditions. Never mind. One step at a time.
Often (sometimes multiple times a day) something unexpected and special takes me by surprise when traveling through Japan. Out of curiosity, I’d gone to Jizo Dori mainly to check out the “Harajuku for grandmothers” and “aka pantsu.”
Both were much as I’d expected. An avenue dotted with stooped people wearing bucket hats and stores festooned with bright red granny panties. More polyester than seen since Fortrel made its mid-20th century debut, as well as the “same” offerings of “famous” local specialties found everywhere else.
Before catching my train on the JR Yamanote line, I’d perused a map to see whether there was anything else worth checking out near Jizo Dori. I noticed a garden called Rikugien was a short walk from Komagome Station. Once recharged by a tasty tempura lunch I wandered over. Click here to read what I found.
To celebrate five years of blogging, this post links to previous content from The Way of Words.Your comments are always appreciated.
That year snow began falling during the Christmas Eve service. Afterwards, groups of men worked to shove each car through the nearly 12 inches of heavy white stuff. Fortunately a snow plow had passed along the Island Highway while we were inside church, and carloads filled with excitement-crazed children made their way home without too much difficulty at the end of the service.
In our house, presents waited until morning. I awakened around 6 o’clock when I heard the furnace turn on and our mother moving about as she stuffed the giant turkey. Then the oven door opened and closed. I lifted the corner of my bedroom curtain to reveal a gray white coverlet over the still-dark world. During the night another 12 inches had fallen.
I slid deeper under my covers knowing we would have to wait until 8 before being allowed downstairs. No point in getting worked up. I knew the drill. Dad would read from the Bible and pray before one of us would be selected to hand out the presents. Only after they were distributed were we allowed to open them–one at a time. No mad ripping chaos allowed in our house. Might as well settle in and stay toasty.
After a short time I overheard the phone call telling Dad that church was cancelled on account of the snow. Hooray! This year we would have all morning to play with our presents.
Then a loud thunk as a transformer blew. The power was out. I heard my mother shriek, “The turkey!” Always pragmatic and unflappable and with phone lines still operational, Dad called Grandma. She was the lone hold-out in the family who had not given up her faithful oil stove for electric. Could we cook our turkey and eat at her place instead of ours? Of course.
Dad loaded the turkey and anything else requiring an operational stove into a large box. He strapped it to the toboggan, and set off on the half-mile walk to Grandma’s place.
With the furnace also out, on Dad’s return we didn’t dawdle over breakfast or focus long on our new toys. We took one thing to play with, bundled up and walked over to Grandma’s where the oil stove soon warmed our skinny, numb bodies. After a while our cousins came too as there was no power at their place either. Fourteen of us crammed into her 500 square-foot kitchen and living room.
We opened Grandma’s presents—always a new pair of hand-knit slippers. We played games. We sang. We ate. And ate. The turkey. All the trimmings. Tarts and pies. Mountains of nuts. Piles of Japanese oranges. Rosebuds and hard candy. No one counted a calorie or cautioned anyone to stop. We simply refilled the bowls when they ran low.
As the afternoon’s moody skies deepened into night, Grandpa lit the kerosene lanterns. We carried on in their glow and the warmth of the old oil stove. Thankfully, my cousins and siblings—7 rowdy boys—bolted to the attic for a good part of the time. The men sat in the living room and talked.
We women washed and dried the dishes. Afterwards we sat down to chat and relax around the table. Was anyone still hungry? No. We ached and groaned and insisted we couldn’t eat another thing. Before long my aunt reached for the nutcracker. I popped a couple of rosebuds as I peeled another orange. Soon another pile of nutshells grew as we chucked them into the center of the table. We looked at each other, laughed and shook our heads. Tomorrow we would be sensible again.
After the power came back on we reluctantly made our way home to our own frigid houses. Except for two dolls at age 4 and 9 and at 6 my letter to Santa Claus which was read over the radio, I remember few specifics of the happy haze of childhood Christmases. However, this charmed day remains indelible.
Greater Victoria, my new home-city, goes all out during the Christmas season. The Legislature Buildings, Government House, Empress Hotel, Butchart Gardens, as well as numerous local establishments light up. Carolers wander the downtown streets and musicians perform in various plazas. One evening a huge fleet of transport trucks lights up and roars through the city in an amazing show; another sees a flotilla of brightly lit boats in a sail past.
Indoors, venues feature elegant garlands, wreaths, trees, and offer craft fairs, delectable food and entertainment. It’s a city of constant concerts and theatrical shows which are conveniently listed in glossy holiday guides.
I always decorate early (First Advent) and take down late (Epiphany). My tree is up, and the crèche displayed on the sill of a leaded glass window that very conveniently has a rosette over the manger.
In addition to my own vast collection of Christmas carols, offerings from the CBC’s classical Christmas stream play constantly.
As the days get gloomier, it’s gratifying to defy the night with light and song. (The northern ancients knew what they were about when they created Yule, the Saturnalia and other similar festivals. Thank heaven the church had the sense to steal from them when they saw austerity and penance weren’t working!)
This year I’ve added a 90-minute horse-drawn carriage ride beside the sea, through Beacon Hill Park and into downtown to my personal celebrations. If I bring the bubbly Victoria Carriage Tours supplies the ice-bucket, the glasses and warm blankets.
Since no one was interested in joining me, I will go solo. More bubbly for me! I reject the notion that Christmas is for children or not worth celebrating if you live alone. No matter what time of year, I’ve never let that stop me from creating beauty, comfort and joy. Bring on the Ho! Ho! Ho! And even the Happy Humbug!
Disclosure: Part of this content previously appeared in a comments thread.
What’s not to love about Japan? Plenty. Like any other nation and culture it has flaws and problems galore. Even though I don’t have blinkers on, my purpose in writing about my journeys and adventures in Japan is not to criticize but chronicle my experience.
I admit it: There are selective omissions in what I write. Occasionally however, I disclose what I don’t get, what I can’t appreciate and why.
One of those things I don’t appreciate but is dearly beloved by every Japanese person I’ve met is the kotatsu. Click here to read why not.
To celebrate five years of blogging, this post links to previous content from The Way of Words.Your comments are always appreciated.