In This Issue:
A Weekend in Takahagi
The Enigma of Bad English, Solved!
Hello again, and welcome to another action-packed edition of the BMJ!
First I’d like to say congratulations to those friends our there who are
graduating this quarter, or are at least looking forward to a long Summer
vacation. Omedetou!! And for those of you coming to Japan, you are
welcome to stay (only temporarily, of course) in my 6-mat hovel in Ogikubo.
What could be finer?
What’s new this month? Well, I’ve been working on sprucing up the WWW
version of this thing, and have added a couple of interesting features.
The first is graphics, mostly photos of places or people that come up in
the Journal. In most cases I’ve opted for a “thumbnail” image in the main
page that’s linked to a larger image that you can view by clicking on it.
Additionally, the Netscape version of WebSpace now has frames and a hip,
tres elegant interface. Finally, I added a Japanese-English dictionary
words that appear in the BMJ (as well as allow me to dispense with those
tiresome parenthetical entries.) You need at least Netscape 2.0 to use
these functions. Also, for the frames version you’ll need to start from
the main page, so if you’re bookmarked somewhere within you may want to
back out a couple of steps and start from the /~denbushi/netscape/webspace.html
file instead. I should add that you might want to use your browsers Reload
feature to clear the old version of the page out of your cache and load
the new one.
Lose anybody yet?
Right, so anyway, I’m looking for a logo for the BMJ, and I wonder
if some kind soul out there with a nice graphics package and an artistic
eye would be willing to throw something attractive (like maybe the outline
of a blue mountain) together and let me put it to use? I’d be ever so grateful,
and you would even get full credit right there on the pages themselves,
read by, oh, tens of people every month! What an opportunity! Seriously,
though, if you’re interested (Lucien?) please do let
A Weekend in Takahagi
Shortly after arriving at Aoyama we exchange students were asked to, if
interested, sign up for a weekend homestay program in Takahagi, Ibaraki
prefecture. I didn’t intend to participate at first, but as the cutoff date
approached the number of students planning to go was still rather slim,
so the staff at the International Exchange office tendered the offer once
again. As it was free and classes were out that weekend for Golden Week,
I added my name to the list. As it happens, I’m really glad I did.
Takahagi is a small town on the coast three or so hours (by bus) North
of Tokyo. For our trip, however, it took more like five. The “highway” was
crammed to capacity with carloads of Japanese on their way to points unknown
(but presumably also North of Tokyo) during the abbreviated vacation known
as Golden Week. There were about ten students from Aoyama on the bus, and
forty or so from other schools in the Tokyo area, including ICU and Asia
Daigaku. It was a pretty international group all in all, with people from
Britain, New Zealand, Korea, the Philippines, the US, and China. Everyone
spoke some Japanese, but the spectrum of facility with the language was
nonetheless pretty broad. We passed the time talking, reading, and making
new friends. Free Willy was onscreen for an indeterminate length
of time, but aside from the requisite “I’d like to free my Willy!
Haw haw!”-isms that always seem to resound whenever the name of the movie
is mentioned, I don’t think anyone paid attention.
The bus came to rest just outside the grounds of some historically important
building near Takahagi, and we all stretched and groaned and shuffled from
the bus. We rounded a corner, and found ourselves in the midst of a sizable
crowd of Takahagians that immediately began waving little banners and singing
something indistinguishable in Japanese. There was an awkward moment of
uncertainty when we all thought “Er, huh?”, but then someone ventured forward,
and we followed.
The throng parted to allow us to pass through the main gate and into the
outdoor reception area, and we blushed and bowed and tried to do whatever
was expected of us under the circumstances. (I secretly wondered if the
others, like I, were in the process of making a quick mental inventory of
all of their Japanese lessons in hopes of recalling some obscure chapter
called “Sumisu-san Gets Greeted By A Mob Of Singing Townsfolk“) We
came presently to the interior of the small complex and milled about bovine-like,
gazing around and waiting for something interesting to happen.
The area was dominated by a rather large, traditional Japanese home. The
doors on the side facing us slid open then, and the lilting notes of ten
kotos emerged from within. The music was live, and each of the musicians
was dressed in the traditional kimono. To the right of the building
was a small koi pond and Japanese garden. It was quite majestic to
behold (contemplative sigh here), and we all stood there for a handful of
minutes taking in the sights and the sound of the music (they were playing
Haru no Umi).
We were formally greeted then by a representative of Takahagi who was
equipped with both a bullhorn and an excellent command of English. He explained
that we would be treated to a koto performance, Tea Ceremony, some
mochi pounding, and lunch. I sampled all of the above in turn and
had a smashing time. Especially noteworthy was the tea, and although it
seems I heard somewhere that the tea prepared during sadou is less
than tasty, I found it delicious.
We dallied there for awhile, glad to be off of the bus and in the care
of such kind people, then filed back into the vehicle for the short trip
to the Daishien where we would spend the night.
The Daishien is a large, hotel-like affair that is presumably designed
to provide lodging for sports teams and so forth that are in the area temporarily.
This was to be the location for the formal opening ceremony where families
would be introduced to their respective exchange students.
The students were divided along gender lines and by school, and I ended
up in a room with three other Aoyama guys: Adam, Jae, and Rob. The rooms
at the Daishien were setup for four people each, and were quite comfortable
with tatami flooring, dark wood pillars and sliding glass doors that
looked out over the ocean from the building’s fifth floor. The narrow balcony
was large enough to accommodate standing, but frisbee, for example, was
out of the question.
We killed time arrayed about the TV, watching Date-san ganbaru
on the tennis court before being called to join the Opening Festivities.
The ceremony itself was predictable, lots of super-polite Japanese speech
being thrown around as the Town Fathers all took a turn at the mic, and
applause at all the required intervals.
When the time came to introduce the students and families, students’ names
were called out one by one, and the families and student would converge
at the front of the room for The Group Photo, awkward in the intense scrutiny
and nervous smiles quavering, before returning together to seats near the
rear of the room. When my turn came at last I was immediately surrounded
by a family of five, and we must have looked odd, with my head and
shoulders above the tallest of them.
We hit it off right away. The family’s name was Nakata, and there were
three boys (14, 11, and 7) in addition to their parents. The father, Cedric
(not his real name), works as a Chemical Engineer in Takahagi, and loves
his work and his life there on the coast. This year was the first time for
them to participate in the homestay program, although it’s been an annual
event in the town for twenty-five years.
After The Big Ceremony we were herded into a spacious room that had been
stocked with scads of food and drink and beer and assorted other tasty things
for some good old-fashioned gorging. There were games with messy food, group
renditions of at least one John Lennon tune, a taiko performance
and more. It was, to be sure, a wholesome and heartwarming slice of old-fashioned
And then it was Disco Time.
That’s right, Disco Time. (I swear that’s what the schedule read)
The lights seemed to dim on their own, the music started, and we cut loose
under the mirrored orb rotating slowly above us, hypnotized by the flashing
lights and the heavy bass beat pounding out of a boom box in the corner
of the room. Before we knew it we were down to our undergarments or less,
a single seething mass of human flesh, swaying and jostling in the din like
the animals we had become, savage in our desire and wanton with dance fever.
It was Disco Time, baby, and we danced.
Actually, it was a bit more tame than that. By this point most of the
families and departed for the evening, and all that were left were the students
and some younger members of the Takahagi population. And the bass didn’t
actually pound, either. I mean, it was a boom box fer chrissakes.
But we had fun, and after awhile the lights came back on and everyone squinted
alot and dispersed through one of the numerous exits.
We ryuugakusei, of course, did the only logical thing, which was
to seize every unopened bottle of beer and whiskey in sight and relocate
them and ourselves to one of the suites for some serious drinking.
Everyone had stopped in to the ofuro to wash the sweat and whatever
else from their bodies, and arrived comfortably attired in the stylish yukata
that were provided. Most of the revelers preoccupied themselves with the
serious business of getting shitfaced, while I and a couple of others talked
and watched them tread the meandering Road to Oblivion. The hardiest of
them lasted until 2 a.m. or so, and then collapsed atop the heap of unconscious
bodies with an audible grunt. The formalities presumably dispensed with,
we took our cue to leave and called it a night.
I met the Nakata family the next morning bright and early, and we struck
off together in search of fun and adventure. We spent most of the day traveling
around the Takahagi area, stopping at the beach and exploring the woods
in the nearby hills, checking out temples and pretty much taking things
easy. Gaku, the youngest of the boys, and I got along especially well (I
could understand everything he said!) and it was a really good time. That
evening we had a feast of a dinner in their home and stayed up late into
the night talking, drinking and listening to Nakata-san’s impressive collection
of classical music.
The next day bought with it a light drizzle that lasted throughout the
morning and into the early afternoon. We had planned a trip to the beach,
but opted instead for a tour of some of the prettier areas in the vicinity
from the dry comfort of their minivan. The country surrounding Takahagi
itself is strikingly beautiful, and especially lovely were the mountain
cherry trees, whose blossoms bloom a little later than their counterparts
in low-lying areas. Dotting the steep face of the nearby mountains in small
stands, they offered a splash of pale pinks and reds against the soft green
hues of the other foliage. According to Nakata-san, their awai colors
represented a beauty that the Japanese have prized for centuries, and can
be found in many forms of Japanese art. The light rain contributed to the
appeal of the scene by blurring all of the edges and lines, and for long
moments we simply sat and enjoyed it.
Arriving back at the Nakata household around noon, we set about preparing
lunch. We were having okonomiyaki, and I volunteered to grill and
top the pancake-like fritters. All of the kids shortly joined in as well,
and the following hour or so was spent leisurely, cooking and eating, eating
and cooking, and only putting the twin spatulas down to grab my chopsticks
or a drink of beer. Mrs. Nakata seemed surprised and pleased by the offer
of assistance, and when Mr. Nakata moved as if to lend a hand she feigned
shock and announced to all that this was his first foray into the kitchen.
He just blushed, smiled, and quietly set about chopping cabbage.
We left for the final reception after lunch, and all of the families and
we students gathered one last time in a large room in a nearby community
center. The occasion was marked by a great deal of fanfare, some speeches,
and an unexpected Flower Gauntlet thing that required all of us to walk,
single-file, through the center of two long rows of Takahagians, shaking
hands and saying thanks. When each of us reached his or her particular host
family we were presented with flowers, and I wouldn’t be exaggerating if
I said that the whole thing left me a little misty-eyed.
The bus pulled up to the building, and it was suddenly time to go. The
time had been short, indeed, but the parting was still a little sad. I reminded
the boys to study hard, thanked Okaasan for her wonderful hospitality,
and then tried to think of a way to tell Nakata-san in a few short sentences
all of the things that I wanted to say: that I had had a wonderful time,
that he had let me into his home and for two days I had felt like a part
of the family, and that I was grateful, and that I didn’t really want to
go yet, not just yet. However the time had come for words, and they hadn’t
arrived, so all I could do was thank him. But he just looked at me, saying
nothing, and I could see then that he knew, and he knew that I knew, and
it was enough.
I climbed on the bus, the doors snapped shut, and I walked to my seat
at the back. We waved our farewells at one another through the glass of
the rear window as the bus pulled away, Tokyo bound.
I’d like to lick the coil someday
like Icarus, who had to pay
with melting wax and feathers brown
he tasted it on his way down…
The Enigma of Bad English, Solved!
Many Japanese seem to lament that, even after years of study, they are
still unable to communicate (verbally, anyway) as well as they would like
to in English. Indeed, for many Japanese, conversational English is perhaps
less… smooth than one might expect after six or more years of study.
Speculation for this phenomena abounds (I use the word “phenomena” only
because it is so utterly pervasive), and the reasons offered for it many.
However, after long weeks of intense research and laborious study, I feel
compelled to share with the world my own hypothesis, one which I feel will
dispel once and for all the enigma of Bad English in Japan and herald in
a Golden Age of Eikaiwa. Ready? Okay, here it is:
Japanese people have a hard time
using English correctly and proficiently because they are bombarded
with Bad English from birth.
It is my considered opinion that television, radio, advertisers, college
newspapers, musicians and who knows who else are involved in a grand conspiracy
to propagate Bad English throughout Japan. “But why??” you ask? Well, I’m
not sure, but I think the answer should be given the attention afforded
The Third Gunman, White Water, and OJ combined.
Bad English is rampant in this country, and you wanna know what the really
funny thing is? Nobody even cares. You see, English isn’t a medium
for communication at all, it’s simply window dressing. It’s an advertising
tool. It “looks neat.” Manufacturers and producers slap all manner of random
names and slogans on their products simply in order to enhance market appeal,
such as: Relax Coffee, or Strawberry juice, just like your mother
used to make, and my personal favorite, Let’s Wedding! Was there
not one single native speaker around that they could ask (or better
yet, pay) to look things over for general accuracy or weirdness factor?
The answer: Yes, there were plenty. Were they consulted? No.
The answer to the next obvious question (i.e.- But why not?) is that it
doesn’t really matter if the English is weird, grammatically incorrect,
or downright hysterical to read, because the target market doesn’t know
the difference anyway. “Mr.” brand coffee (that’s right, just “Mr.”)
sells not because it’s superior to “Georgia” brand coffee. but because the
hip black and brown can has two massive Roman characters on the front. (Sidenote:
their commercials with an attractive black man saying “ii DEshou?”
probably don’t hurt, either.) Anyway, not to belabor the point, it really
doesn’t matter, and so the trend to butcher English goes on and on, and
therefore the average Japanese will have to overcome years of subtle conditioning
in Bad English in order to acheive any measurable proficiency in the language,
should he or she want to, that is.
It’s for the reasons that I’m calling for the formation of a new government
body to deal with this problem directly. The agency I envision would be
called the Ministry of Grammatically Correct Gairaigo, and would
be staffed with capable and very highly-paid foreign experts (like me, for
example) that would be responsible for proofing all English before it is
released to the public. That way current slogans like Acheive the Top
of High Mountain for a currently popular 4WD would never make it to
The major benefits I see here are, first, that the Japanese population
could be comfortable in the knowledge that their years of arduous study
will not be corrupted by the reckless use of Bad English by the media, and,
more importantly, that I would be well-paid.
Please write your representative as soon as possible with your endorsement,
and be sure to specify that a certain W. Michael Rollins be given
the top post.
Dare mo sawarenai
futari dake no kuni
kimi no te wo hanasanu you ni.
Ookina chikara de
sora ni ukabetara
furara uchuu no kaze ni noru…
I just paid forty bucks for a haircut.
Am I angry? Am I accosting the locals at random, demanding in broken Japanese
some explanation for the sky-high cost of, well, everything in this
country. No. In fact, I haven’t felt this good in months. I can’t wait
for my hair to grow out enough for me to justify coming back.
The Japanese haircut is unlike anything you’re likely to find in the states,
provided you, like me, live on a peasant’s budget and are relegated to frequenting
the local Supercuts or Hair Masters. As far as I can tell, the Japanese
have transformed the relatively mundane business of cutting hair into an
art form. In a few broad strokes, it works something like this:
Once seated in one of the eight or so Thrones of Pleasure, the customer
is greeted by a crack team of uniformed, smiling young women that turn the
usual “Howdy’awannit?” into what seems like the Command and Control center
aboard the USS Nimitz. They stand at attention, listening intently to your
detailed instructions and periodically trumpeting “Hai!” in unison.
Once the specifics of how the next couple of hours will be spent are defined,
they disperse in different directions, reappearing moments later with all
manner of tools, blankets and assorted gadgets. All but two then depart
for the special Deployment Center located somewhere in the back of building
until called into service. The remaining pair begin at once, one busily
snipping away at the excess strands of hair, the other standing at the ready,
passing tools over from a nearby wheeled cart and saying “Hai!” alot. Should
one’s plastic Hair Barrier slip even an inch from its moorings on either
side of the chair the assistant will rush in, emit a barrage of shiturei
itashimasu’s (Roughly translated: Geez, how RUDE of me! Gawd! Just shoot
me if I screw this up! Gosh I’m sorry!) and return things to their proper
place. As quickly as she came she’ll return to attention at her station
with an audible shhhhwack!. This lasts for maybe an hour, or until
all offending hairs have been lovingly snipped and carted off to the Illustrious
Customers’ Hair Graveyard some miles distant.
The Really Good Stuff
At this point the team members call in the Shampoo Expert, who appears at
your side as if teleported there and then begins deftly manipulating the
drawers and panels of the mahoghany bureau before you to reveal (gasp!)
a wash basin. She and the assistant (Hai!) set about protecting your shirt
and collar region with an elaborate system of towels, clips, and rivets.
Once prepared to brave the water, you are invited to lean forward in your
chair and endure the many and varied pleasures of The Wash. In my case,
I suffered perhaps seven separate scrub cycles: Shampoo, Shampoo II, Conditioner,
Really Good-Smelling Stuff, Scalp Prep, Super Tingly Scalp Treatment, Rinse,
Rinse The Rinse Out Rinse, etc. etc. At some point I think I passed out,
but was revived by a pair of firm hands massaging my back and shoulders,
and another toweling off my soaked noggin. Hauled vertical once again, I
was greeted by my dazed and giddy reflection in the mirror. And then the
chair dropped backwards…
Next, hot towels were brought on a cart and draped carefully across the
upper half of my face. Some unseen steam-generating device was then employed
to blow hot, moist air on my cheeks and neck. That done, more towels were
added until only my nose remained, poking comically I’m sure from the middle
of them like some remote, fleshy mountain. I dozed.
The towels were gingerly removed, and my face was introduced to hot lather
(instant friends, those two) and I fell under the skilled manipulation of
a gleaming, gold straight razor. Each area of my face was shaved at least
twice, including that bothersome area between the brows, and each instance
(yes! more!) was preceded by the gentle application of steaming lather.
My facial hair probably won’t emerge again for a week or two. The finale
was a somewhat unexpected clippity-clip that emerged from my nostril region,
and it was good to know that I wouldn’t have to worry about that
for the next few days. Anyway, many and varied other delights followed,
but in the interest of keeping this a family-oriented journal I’ll dispense
with the details.
Following the grooming ops the team assembled once more around me, waiting
with bated breath for the appraisal. My delirious, croaked reply “G, uh-hungh”
seemed to get across to them, and they smiled, bowed in unison and dispersed.
I rose to leave, and as I approached the register a young woman profferred
an open mahogany box filled with assorted cigarettes. I took one, she lit
it, I paid my measly forty dollars and walked out into the night, a chorus
of arigatou gozaimashita’s reverberating in the air of the doorway
behind me. As I walked I took note of the sappari feeling that filled
my entire body. The air was cool on the exposed skin around my ears. My
scalp was abuzz. My skin was clean and tight. My nostrils were unobstructed.
I rubbed my scalp and thought “Grow, baby, grow.”
- The average height of the little spikes that protrude from the edges
of opened umbrellas in Japan is 6′0″ (the exact height of my eyeballs).
As such, walking into a crowd on Tokyo’s packed sidewalks on a rainy day
is akin to having a friend hold a chain saw horizontally at head level
and then run toward you.
- The general consensus here seems to be that Whitey Can’t Speak Japanese.
And if he can, he damn sure can’t read it. I’ve had people ask,
even after speaking to them for an hour or more in Japanese and having
said that I’ve studied Japanese for three years, “Can you read hiragana?”
(Hiragana is one of the phonetic scripts used in Japanese. It’s
usually the first part of the written language taught, and I learned it
in two weeks. Compared to some, that’s a _long_ time) Even in the advanced
Japanese class I’m enrolled in at school now I can tell that the teacher
handles me with kid gloves, even though there are those with ability at
or below my level. I am, however, the only non-Asian in there. I’m not
going to turn this into a rant on the subject (if you want one, click
here), but it’s something I had heard
about yet never experienced first hand. Until now, that is.
- I’ve been experiencing some rather odd physiological changes since
arriving here. For example, the rate of growth of my hair and fingernails
has increased dramatically. And as if that wasn’t vexing enough, I’ve
lost about eight-five pounds thanks to this new Bimbo Seikatsu
diet I’m on (”The Rice and Ramen Way to a Thinner, Emaciated You!“).
Pretty soon I’m going to look like that aborigine fellow from the Guinness
Book of World Records, all hair and nails coiled up on themselves, and
fifty pounds dripping wet. SEND FOOD!!
In This Issue:
That time again, and here I am, bouncing around the room…
Greetings, and welcome to the latest edition of the Blue Mountain Journal.
An oversight in the first issue, allow me to begin with some clarification
about the title. “Blue Mountain” comes directly from the characters used
to spell Aoyama, “ao” being blue and “yama” mountain. Aoyama, of course,
is the name of the university I’m attending here in Tokyo. Make sense? Right,
so, with that out of the way…
As you’re no doubt aware, I’ve been having some internet connectivity
problems since arriving here. Dial-up accounts are cho-expensive, so I’ve
waited to shell out the big dollars for an account with a provider here
until I have a better idea of the big picture. I am, however, glad to say
that as of yesterday I got the dial-up connection via Aoyama up and running
for e-mail, WWW and USEnet. The downside is that I still can’t see the rest
of the world unless I Telnet to another campus machine and go from there.
Unfortunately that doesn’t allow me to use any of the nifty internet tools
that I’ve installed under Win95. So, in short, I’m still working on it.
(Somewhere a voice is saying “Er, Windows 95??)
Yes, it may come as a shock to those of you who know me as a Team OS/2
member and ardent Windoze basher, but I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion
that OS/2, though robust and powerful and uncommon enough that you can say
“I run OS/2″ and come off sounding like a tech-savvy, with-it computer guy,
is doomed to extinction. Software companies globally must agree, since there
is virtually zero software available for it. I’m not even going to get into
drivers and hardware support. Add to that the problem of appearance, most
notably the fact that the interface was designed by a team of vision-impaired
engineers rather than graphic design artists or others with more than a
passing familiarity with the concept of esthetic appeal. Maybe Microsoft
and NeXT got to them all first, who knows.
So anyway, back to Windows95…
A friend talked me into installing it on Zeke, my ThinkPad (only after
much cajoling and arm-twisting and a succession of Martinis) to see what
I thought about it, and I have to admit that I love it. Win95 and the ThinkPad
get along smashingly well, and all of the things that always proved so frustrating
in the past with OS/2 (getting drivers, finding software, etc. ad nauseum)
have been amazingly simple. I’m hooked! (All thanks to a certain stubble-headed
one we all know and love).
On a related point, I’m using MS Exchange (a great program, especially
since I installed “Idioms”) to compose and distribute this, so if any of
you out there would like a copy that incorporates some of the numerous groovy
functions that Exchange has to offer let me know.
Enough about computers, though. I have a phone number for the time being,
should anyone have something really pressing. It is: 0422-33-0851 (precede
this with your international dial code and the country code for Japan, 81).
The number should be good until sometime in May. If you would like the address
here, mail me.
Thanks to everyone who wrote back and for the positive feedback! And for
you thoughtless others out there, scorn and derision! (Just joking. Well,
sort of joking, anyway)
Waiter, there’s a hanabira in my sake!
The end of that handful of weeks that marks the onset of Spring and finds
the cherry trees in full, splendid bloom was drawing nigh, and it found
me fretting that the period would pass before I would have a chance to enjoy
a trademark Japanese pastime, Hanami. When the blossoms have burst forth
in pink radiance around this time every year people flock in droves to parks
in the city and elsewhere to get engage in a tradition centuries old. Handed
down from generation to generation and rich in cultural heritage, it essentially
involves getting plastered under the pretense of enjoying nature.
In groups of all sizes family, friends and co-workers flee the indoors
armed with blankets, baskets, and truckloads of sake and beer to spend the
day in wistful (catatonic?) contemplation of the fragile blossoms, and of
the way they reflect our own insignificance and mortality. (Sigh)
But, alas!, it seemed that I would miss out on the fun this year, and
I was saddened by the prospect…
Then, out of the blue, an invitation! Another student at Aogaku, one that
I had met only an hour or so before, tendered the offer, and I was more
than happy to accept. We set the date for the following Sunday and agreed
to meet at a station in a popular part of town. Saturday night, however,
found me dancing in Roppongi till around five o’clock Sunday morning, and
there was no way I was going to make the 10:00 appointment. My exhausted
body scolded me for the trade-off I had made, but its admonitions grew muffled
as my head sank into the pillow. I awoke sometime later, and the short shadow
of the wind-chime on the tatami beside me indicated that the noon hour had
come and gone. I arose, muscles complaining, and in the semi-conscious fugue
state of the shower I worked on an alternative plan for the day.
Shortly thereafter, dry and backup yotei in mind, I got on the phone and
invited a Japanese friend I had met in the states to go and see if we could
find the Hanami group. We met later at Harajuku and set off in search of
the others, fingers crossed and thinking that we might even be able to find
them in the expansive, rather crowded environs of Yoyogi Park.
Tsumari, we never did. But we did walk around for a couple of hours and
catch up, and that was really nice. Eventually, tired from all of the walking,
we sat down on the grass on the edge of a park and chatted about computers
and Seattle and how Tokyo needs a real kissaten and watched the clouds drift
As many of you probably guessed, it was about then that a bullhorn-wielding
man in a pink rabbit suit approached, bellowing incomprehensible English
and beckoning wildly with a long, pink appendage. I hollered back, surprised
and amused, “Nihongo de ii yo,” (Japanese is fine) which provoked an eruption
of laughter from a group of Hanami-ers stationed a couple dozen yards away,
and took the rabbit quite by surprise. He brightened then, and promptly
invited the two of us to join he and the group for some food, drink and
merriment. My friend and I exchanged “shall we?” glances, shrugged, and
stolled on over.
Everyone there seemed pretty well lit by that point and welcomed us with
cheers and toasts and at least five different Japanese dishes. The sole
foreigner present, I was inundated with questions of all sorts for about
the first thirty minutes or so, and people marveled politely at my meager
Japanese ability. I’m at that stage now where I can carry on conversations
and such about general matters but not much else, which places me in the
huge middle category of people that speak Japanese anywhere from barely
to pretty darn well, and so end up lavished with compliments on language
ability far in excess of what is warranted. (Or what _I_ would say is warranted,
anyway) Foreigners who can produce the occasional “arigatou” or “sumimasen”
are afforded the same treatment, and it ultimately amounts to courtesy more
than any real evaluation of one’s ability. I’ll know I’ve really made progress
when the compliments *stop*. (Jack Seward has excellent guidelines for rating
Japanese language ability, and they can be found in his book “Japanese in
So we sat there, eating and drinking and chatting, and the day passed
in a wonderfully blissful fashion. I had been provided with a glass of beer
and a wooden, square cup for drinking cold sake. Neither was allowed the
opportunity to dry, and I was feeling pretty light-headed pretty quickly.
I realized at some point that every time the woman across from me refilled
my sake cup she would drop a sakura petal (hanabira) into it, but I was
beyond caring enough to ask why. Anybody out there know?
Kin-chan, the rabbit who had initially approached us, had not let up one
inch in his efforts at recruiting revelers, and soon began intercepting
anyone who passed too closely with earnest invitations via bullhorn. (It’s
easy to sound earnest with a bullhorn) And should a foreigner (any nationality)
come into view, he would immediately bellow in my direction, “Maiku-san!
Maiku-san! Tsuuyaku shite!” (Mike! Come ‘ere and translate!) In about half
of the cases I would actually speak the same language as the hapless passer-by,
and would let them know that their presence was not only requested, but
demanded by the ebullient pink fellow nearby. This pattern was repeated
indefinitely until we had a real “international” thing going on, with Japanese,
German, Russian and Brazilian people scattered beneath the sakura blossoms
and partying it up. It pleased Kin-chan to no end to call the affair an
“International Hanami Party,” and he would do so about every four minutes,
laughing and waving the bullhorn around. Call it what you will, it was a
Presently my friend indicated a need to return, but assured me that I
was more than welcome to hang out if I wanted to. I accepted, and we all
saw her off with a toast and even a traditional homecoming ballad or two.
(Okay, I made that last bit up. For all I know the Japanese don’t even *have*
traditional homecoming ballads, but it would have been cool if we had.)
Not long after that the decision was made to go. I’m not sure exactly
how it was decided, but suddenly everyone was moving about, gathering glasses
and plates and things and generally mobilizing into some kind of Hanami
Cleanup Task Force, so I just jumped right in and followed suit. (Shyeah
right. Picture fifteen or so Japanese, all responsibly engaged in the execution
of some specific duty like it had been decided at birth, and then there’s
me with, like, a tupperware bowl filled with some mysterious black murk
sloshing about, looking lost and muttering to nobody in particular, “Um…kore
wa…ano…dou shiyou..?”) Maybe they were using telepathy or something,
I dunno, but they had also decided on the next destination, and in moments
we were off, giggling and delirious, to Kin-chan’s noodle shop.
I’m not sure why we stopped in there, but we only stayed for a moment
or so before striking off en masse to another restaurant for sushi. The
food was wonderful, and tray after tray of assorted dishes were brought
and consumed in short order. (Think “gyuuinbashoku”) Regretfully, though,
there was this one particularly inebriated individual next to me who kept
covertly stealing the topping off the sushi, leaving the shivering, exposed
rice ball forlornly behind. Odious woman. Eventually I reprimanded her,
and she scowled at me but discontinued her surreptitious campaign.
The check came, and after some quick calculation by Kin-chan we all produced
some cash (about twenty bucks each). Sated, we struck off once again, this
time to sing karaoke and resume serious drinking.
The bar itself was a “karaoke box” on a grand scale, with massive rooms
that could accommodate twenty or more. Our group fell into that category,
and soon people were taking their turns at the microphone. I was called
on first to do an impromptu jikoshokai (self-intro), and then to sing something.
I was ready for them, though (ha-HA!), and I casually announced the number
for my standard opening tune, Anzen Chitai’s “Koi no Yokan” (Expectation
of Love). It went over well, and I was replaced on stage by a succession
of drunken revelers who crooned (or brayed, as was the case) their favorite
tunes. Kin-chan, now well-oiled, was down to his boxers, and they seemed
to be on their way out as well. His bare ass periodically cavorted in front
of the raucous crowd, and the reactions of the spectators ranged from shouts
of encouragement to averted, blushing faces. After a while he put the strip
tease act to rest and let the other performers sing in relative peace.
How long this went on I can’t really say, but eventually we left in search
of more food. It was approaching the wee hours at this point, and we had
been partying for maybe twelve hours straight. At the small noodle restaurant
that admitted us (fools!) we all slurped down monstrous bowls of ramen or
udon, and shared plates of gyoza. It finally looked as though everyone had
had just about enough, and we made for home. The trains had stopped running
some time earlier, and Kin-chan happily agreed to put me up for the night
in his chic-but-small Shibuya apartment. I was out as soon as my head hit
I’ve just completed the first week of classes, and my schedule is approaching
some semblance of solidity. Here at Aogaku the first week is kind of a trial
period where students sit it on classes that they think they might like
to take and get an idea of what the course will be like. As you’re required
to select the classes for the next year in advance, it’s probably a good
The classes I’ve decided on thus far are:
- Japanese III (Intermediate)
- Advanced Japanese
- Japanology (who came up with this, anyway?)
- History of Japanese Culture
- Computer Applications
All but one of the classes (Japanology) is conducted in Japanese, so I’ve
got my work cut out for me. The computer class should be pretty easy for
the obvious reasons, but history and advanced Japanese classes will prove
to be quite demanding, I’m sure. I’m really looking forward to the calligraphy
class, and the professor for the Japanology class seems interesting and
The classes on the whole seem to be far simpler than university-level
courses in the US. It’s my understanding that this is common knowledge among
most Japanese, and that after 12 years of “education hell” in Japan’s demanding
school system, anyone who has made into a university deserves the break.
It’s not uncommon at all for students to sleep or read magazines during
the lecture, and the quantity of homework and assignments in general seems
minimal at best. These are only my initial impressions, of course, so their
accuracy should be classified as dubious at best. I thought I’d share them
anyway, and we’ll see how they evolve.
What else? The campus is small but attractive, and located in the center
of a commercial urban district known for its high-fashion and as a proving
ground for new styles and test products. There are approximately 135 female
students to every male student, and the women are required to conform to
strict standards of dress, height-weight distribution, and speech (25 uso!’s
per hour minimum, 20 heee!’s, etc.) They are all between 18 and 20 years
of age. (I haven’t checked the actual figures yet, but I’m sure I’m prety
close) The students dress for the office, or it seems that way to me, and
I occasionally feel out of place in my t-shirt, levis and doc marten’s.
Maybe the heat and humidity of Summer will spur the student body to more
casual dress. (Insert Sean-esque “uh-heh…heh” here)
I usually take lunch in the shokudou, or cafeteria, only because it’s
so cheap. The quality of the food fluctuates between not bad and tolerable,
depending on what you order, but it fits with my rather limited budget.
One can usually get enough to eat for around four dollars, which is about
half what you might expect to pay at an inexpensive lunch spot nearby. The
smoke in the shokudou can get unbearable at times, what with upwards of
two hundred students taking turns smoking in the confines of the main room,
and I usually try to find an open spot in the smaller non-smoking area.
The meal selection process bears mentioning, as the system was certainly
a new one for me. On one wall in the main room there is a large, glass display
case that entices unsuspecting patrons with twenty or so shellacked examples
of whatever is on the menu for that day. These prefab teishoku, or “set
lunches,” exhibit characteristics not unlike what one might expect from
the menu board in a typical fast food restaurant. Specifically, they never
seem to accurately represent what ends up on your plate. Noodle dishes buried
in vegetables, shrimp and other goodies look pretty tasty under the lamps
of the display case, but the dish placed with an unceremonious thunk in
front of you is pretty much noodles and some kind of liquid, with a smattering
of bean sprouts or some other dollar-a-hectare produce tossed in as an afterthought.
With practice and experience, though, I expect to be able to restrict my
selections to those that are both filling and, well, not too odd-tasting.
One Key Guy
Remember that scene in Sex, Lies, and Videotape where James Spader relates
his aversion to keys and the trappings they connote? If I recall correctly
it went something like this:
Y’know how it is. You get a job and the next thing you know you gotta
have a key to the office. And a key to your house or whatever. Then there’s
a key for your car or, even worse, cars. Before you know it you’ve got
a big ugly wad of keys jangling around in your pocket. Well, not me. No
thanks, mister. I’m a One Key Guy.
Well, as a One Key Guy myself, I can see where he’s coming from. I have
but one key, a house key, and you know what? It’s not even *mine*. I guess
that would make me a No Key Guy. (I don’t want to hear any business about
suitcase or padlock keys from you sticklers out there. I got no keys that
count, see?) I must say I feel all that much lighter for it, too. I enjoy
occasionally confusing my key with, say, a 500 yen coin. I like not having
to fish around in my pocket for something that has settled below the level
of the key ring. I like never being thrust unwittingly into some annoying
Solve The Magic Keyring Puzzle! situation that requires you untangle a hopelessly
convoluted key mass in order to free the one key you actually need. I especially
like not having to endure the repeated thwack-bounce-thwack of the keys
striking my upper thigh when I wear slacks. Maybe someday *everyone* will
just have one key. You’ll buy a car or a house or something and at some
point the salesperson will ask you for your Key so that they can properly
configure the locks. No offense to the Locksmith lobby or hardware store
clerks out there, but frankly the world would be a better, happier place
with fewer keys around. I’m doing my part.
This section is a must-have, especially for someone so apparently prone
to “pulling a gaijin” as I am. As you read, though, I would ask you to remember
that I’m *new* here, and not necessarily a complete imbecile. So there.
Japanese: no longer the language of convenience
At the Nyuugaku-shiki (Opening Day Ceremony) at Aoyama Gakuin, a friend
and I were watching the students mill about and pass in large groups (there
is no such thing as a “small” group in Japan). I turned to him, elbow jabbing
and grinning lecherously, and said, “Boy, this place is a real bijin tengoku!
(babe heaven),” only to have a Japanese woman to my left, obviously the
parent of one of the bijin in question, whip her head around and fix me
with a menacing glare. We moved away quickly, hiding our faces and trying
hard not to laugh out loud.
Your bath is ready, Sir.
My roommate for the time being had been out of town on business for the
better part of a week, and on the day of his return I resolved to do something
nice for him. I decided to fill the o-furo, or bath, and have it nice and
hot by the time he arrived home late that night. I wasn’t completely familiar
with the complexities of the gas-operated machine at that point, and I set
thing to “heat bath water” and adjusted the temperature down to a low setting
that would be just right for steeping a medium-sized body. Tetsu arrived
home as expected, and we sat and enjoyed a beer and some conversation, at
which point I let him know (smiling smugly inward) that the bath was ready,
should he want one. He said it sounded great and went off to change while
I made for my own room, the satisfaction of having done a good deed sitting
warmly in my belly.
His arrival at the bathroom a few moments was marked by a stunned “oh
no…” and then “Maiku!!!” I practically fell out my skin scrambling to
get over there, and, looking into the bathroom, I saw the water of the bath
at a full, roiling boil. It seems the temp selector has no effect when the
system is set to heat the water in the tub, and the bath had just gotten
hotter and hotter and hotter. Needless to say, poor Tetsu was going to go
without a bath tonight…
I’ve got to add here, though, that I was truly distressed by the turn
of events, and Tetsu knew it. He went to great pains to make light of the
situation, including waving the steam that billowed out of the bathroom
into his mouth with his hands and saying by way of reassurance, “It’s good!
Healthy, see?” I had royally screwed up, yes, but that to him was secondary
to my peace of mind, and I appreciated his handling of this situation more
than he probably knew. (Minakawa-rashii, ne Noboru-san?)
Heard near Harajuku Station as I watched a group of punk-types sulk and
pose for the cameras of passing tourists: makusu (max), as in “kanojo
wa makusu-sugei jan!”
Heard on the train: Cho-beribaddo (Cho very bad), which must equate
to being, well, pretty darn bad.
- No film is developed in this country. Instead, film is sent via space
shuttle to a secret film laboratory on Mars, and then returned for pickup.
I swear I’m not making this up. How else would one explain a charge of $20
for a single roll of 24 exposure film?
- Advertisers are legally bound to include the word “shinhatsubai!” (NEW!)
in any televised advertisement, no matter how old the product may be. I’ve
commercials for rice, for crying out loud, which has been around for, of,
maybe a kazillion years now, where some perky, vacuous teen idol proclaims
“shinhatsubai!” at the end. Um, hello? It’s RICE! Jeez…
- Ex-pats in Japan seem to have an odd kind of aversion to or competitiveness
thing going on with one another. I’m still trying to figure out why this
might be, but there definitely seems to be very little in the way of kinship
among the other hakujin I see here. (I only say “hakujin” because they are
the easiest to find, unless you go to Roppongi, where the majority instantly
becomes kokujin military-types. They’re friendlier, but this probably owes
to their being employed as kyaku-hiki.) It may just be Anti-American sentiment
I’m experiencing, though, of which there appears to be no shortage, at least
among the Europeans. I’ve had a couple of encounters with people where it
was clear that they took a certain sneering affront at being categorized
as from the US. The really funny part is that most of these arrogant snots
can’t even speak Japanese. I’ll be researching this further.
- Smoking isn’t slowing down at all.
was born sometime around the year 1283 into a family of hereditary
Shinto diviners. His considerable facility with poetry led to
an early position in the Kamakura court, where he served as a
steward to Horikawa Tomomori. Later, around 1313 and for reasons
unknown, he opted for the life of a Buddhist monk and changed
his name to the more religious-sounding Kenkou. An active poet,
he belonged to the traditional and conservative Nijou school
of poetry, and was later praised as one of the “four
deva kings” of the Nijou
school. It is not, however, his poetry for which he is best well
known, but rather a collection of essays known as the Tsurezuregusa,
or Essays in Idleness.
is a collection of zuihitsu, or “random
jottings,” and is considered
along with Sei Shonagon’s
Pillow Book to be one of the earliest examples of this
uniquely Japanese literary genre. The essays themselves, numbering
243 in all, vary considerably in length from a single sentence
in some cases to a handful of pages in others. They cover a broad
range of topics, and include anecdotes, observations, and reflections
on nature, humankind, and the path to enlightenment. His comments
on etiquette and style have especially endured, and he is credited
today with defining or elucidating much of what is considered
Most importantly, the work not only provides the reader with
a glimpse of life in medieval Japan, but also into the mind of
the author himself.
The work reveals a sensitive and
refined man who, though bound on the one hand by his status as
a Buddhist monk to lead the solitary life of a recluse, finds
it difficult to truly separate himself from the court and his
contemporaries, for which his interest is keen. Instead of leaving
the capital and all of its worldly trappings behind to live high
in some mountain retreat, he chose instead to reside on the fringes
of Heian-kyou, where much of society and his previous existence
was readily accessible to him. Kenkou delights in relating amusing
stories about court figures and their antics. In many cases,
though, perhaps to imply that there was in fact some distance
between himself and the actual participants or events he details,
he qualifies the anecdotes with a trailing “I
am told” or “…it
is said”. It is clear,
however, that he was in fact very active in some court circles,
especially those related to poetry, and that much of the information
he imparts could have been obtained first hand.
Similarly, he demonstrates an interest
in the endurance of court protocol and custom, and numerous essays
are offered almost as reminders of how something or other had
been traditionally done, and therefore should be done.
These pieces are sometimes accompanied by laments that the people
of his day no longer remembered the proper method or precedent
when dealing with particular situations. He wrote:
Nobody is left who knows the proper
manner of hanging a quiver before the house of a man in disgrace
with His Majesty. Formerly, it was the custom to hang a quiver
at the Tenjin Shrine on Gojou when the emperor was ill or when
a general epidemic was rampant.
Kenkou existed in a world of great
political flux, and the nostalgia that he feels for earlier, perhaps
more stable times often through. He seems particularly vexed
by the evolution of conventional speech away from forms he considered
traditionally appropriate. This was especially true in cases
where ritual speech had been corrupted into truncated, less formal
forms. An active poet since his youth and a member of the conservative
Nijou school, it should come as no surprise that innovation
and novelty held little appeal for him.
His knowledge of court customs was
thorough, and numerous essays are simply informative commentaries
on specific court practices of the time. Examples of this type
include detailed descriptions of the orientation of bed and pillow
in the emperor’s bedchamber,
the manner in which cords should be attached to loops on boxes,
and the means by which a person should be restrained prior to
being flogged. One has to wonder what purpose these were intended
to serve, if other than only to illustrate these practices for
the benefit of subsequent generations. If nothing else, they
represent Kenkou’s fascination
with such matters and perhaps reflect his belief that the world
was in a state of decay (mappou). As this degeneration
seemed to him to be characterized by the neglect of ritual and
tradition, it is possible to conclude that his transcription of
the customs of his time and those of previous generations had
an archival objective.
preoccupation with the court and worldly pursuits is quite at
odds with his status as a monk and recluse, and he seems unwilling
to fully embrace the ascetic lifestyle as, for example, Kamo
no Choumei did decades earlier when he became a priest. One
wonders why he took the tonsure in the first place if the hermitage
was not a way of life he personally favored. Even in his essays
about other monks he speaks of them more as an outsider than a
kinsman, and only a handful of his essays can be described as
expressing singularly Buddhist principles. The answer may be
found in some of the pieces, though, where he indicates that the
transition from public life to one of solitary contemplation of
The Way is incumbent upon men in their twilight years, and that
it is unseemly for the aged to mingle with the young, or priests
with society. Kenkou’s daily
rounds, conversely, brought him often into contact with other
people and the noteworthy events of their lives. This kind of
contradiction is not at all uncommon in the work, and some scholars
contend that the format itself, short essays written over an indeterminate
period of time, lends itself to such inconsistency. I am inclined
to agree with that assumption simply because doing otherwise requires
one to ignore the fact that our opinions evolve with time and
are wholly relative to the situation at hand. Still, reading
in the same hour two passages that begin “Nobody
begrudges wasting a little time”
and “A man who wastes
his time doing useless things is either a fool or a knave”
may give one pause for thought about the capriciousness of his
In addition to his observations
of the court and customs, much of Kenkou’s
work could be said to serve as a guide to gentlemanly behavior.
The collection is punctuated with essays that describe in varying
degrees of detail how a man was expected to act under certain
circumstances or in general, and many attempt to define in no
uncertain terms the kinds of ambitions that were meritorious.
He seems especially critical of those who pursued monetary gain:
What a foolish thing it is to be
governed by a desire for fame and profit and to fret away one’s
whole life without a moment of peace. Great wealth is no guarantee
of security. Wealth, in fact, tends to attract calamities and
disaster…It is an exceedingly stupid man who will torment himself
for the sake of worldly gain.
Equally denigrated are the uneducated
and boorish, whose antics provide Kenkou with ample examples of
what the “well-bred”
man should never do. He paints a picture of the ideal man as
being quiet, self-effacing, generally sober, and, most of all,
a person of refined tastes. Though less harsh in his treatment
of common people than was Sei Shonagon in her Pillow
Book, Kenkou does not afford them much in the way of leniency.
They seem as caricatures, propped up idiotically in front of
the reader to serve as an antithesis to Kenkou’s
idealized, elevated man:
The man of breeding never appears
to abandon himself completely to his pleasures; even his manner
of enjoyment is detached. It is the rustic boors who take all
their pleasures grossly. They squirm their way through the crowd
to get under the trees; they stare at the blossoms with eyes for
nothing else. they drink sake and compose linked verse; and finally
they heartlessly break off great branches and cart them away.
When they see a spring they dip their hands and feet to cool
them; if it is the snow, they jump down to leave their footprints.
No matter what the sight, they are never content merely with
looking at it.
I think these entries may ultimately
add to the popularity of the work because they serve as a kind
of handbook for proper behavior and etiquette, which it may be
argued are given a great deal of importance in Japanese society
relative to others. The Japanese reader is presented with very
clearly articulated ideas about what it is to be properly Japanese.
In some cases Kenkou eschews metaphor or example completely and
simple describes what is appropriate when, for example, calling
on someone at their home: “It
is most agreeable when a visitor comes without business, talks
pleasantly for a while, then leaves.”
In the same direct fashion he cautions the gentleman in numerous
essays not to indulge in ostentatious displays of knowledge or
A man should avoid displaying deep
familiarity with any subject. Can one imagine a well-bred man
talking with the air of a know-it-all, even about a matter with
which he is in fact familiar? The boor who pops up on the scene
from somewhere in the hinterland answers questions with an air
of utter authority in every field. As a result, though the man
may also possess qualities that compel our admiration, the manner
in which he displays his high opinion of himself is contemptible.
It is impressive when a man is always slow to speak, even on
subjects he knows thoroughly, and does not speak at all unless
There are numerous entries of this
sort, and they stand out from the rest, I think, because they
are so utterly timeless. The passage above is just as true today
as it was in his time, and it is this quality that makes the work
endure. As such, even the contemporary reader can find in the
Tsurezuregusa much that can be applied to his or her life
today. In this area Kenkou’s
brilliance is clearly displayed, and his place in Japanese history
as a gifted philosopher justified.
More than simply an authority on
matters of etiquette and grace, though, Kenkou is also regarded
as having had much to do with the development of the Japanese
for nature and artistic style. The importance he attaches to
an awareness of the impermanent, the incomplete, and the irregular
have shaped the Japanese collective consciousness more than we
may ever know. The Tsurezuregusa shows us that for him
the suggested was superior to the conspicuous, and beginnings
and endings to the central experience. The natural world was
his favorite canvas for ruminations of this kind, and the examples
he uses are vividly drawn in images familiar to any Japanese.
It is interesting to note that it is here that Kenkou’s
Buddhist ideology is best represented. So much of beauty lay
in its ephemerality, he reminds us, and this perception has as
its roots the Buddhist concept of mujou, or impermanence.
Cherry blossoms are loved for their brevity, for example, and
for how they suggest the finite nature of our own existence and
that of all things. Surely this way of looking at the natural
world existed in Japan long before Kenkou put his brush to ink,
but his words offer a unique expression of its fundamental ideas.
It is therefore regrettable how few of the pieces in the Tsurezuregusa
are devoted to observations of the natural world, but from those
available we do find that he had cultivated the recluse’s
eye for nature even though he had not put any great distance between
himself and the urban hub of Heian-kyou.
Yoshida Kenkou became a monk and
set his feet upon The Way, but his path was one that never carried
him too far from the society and company of others he loved so
much. Somehow he was able to fuse the courtier and the recluse
into a single entity that found in that union a keener insight
into the world than either might have achieved alone. That he
was generous enough to record his thoughts we can be grateful,
and in the pages of his legacy we find a window into his heart,
his mind, and his world.
The Tsurezuregusa is a classic of Japanese literature. It is a collection of zuihitsu (lit. random jottings), a genre unique to Japan, and was written in the early part of the 14th century. This paper discusses it and the author, Yoshida Kenkou.
Ihara Saikaku (1641-93) was born
Hirayama Tougo in Osaka to a prosperous merchant family. Little
is known about his early life, but his wife died young and his
only daughter shortly thereafter. Rather than enter the priesthood
as might have been expected under the circumstances, he began
traveling extensively and writing. He was recognized initially
for his skill as a haikai poet,
and is credited with being one of the most prolific renga
(linked verse) poets of all time. Late in life, however, he turned
his attention instead to writing novels, and it is for the brilliant
literary works of this period that he is best known today.
The Japan of the late seventeenth-century had existed under the
stern yet unified rule of the Tokugawa shogunate for nearly a
century before the publication of the literary classic The
Life of an Amorous Man. The work was the first novel
by then forty-one year-old Saikaku, and in its pages he recounted
the life and exploits of the ridiculously amorous hero Yonosuke
(lit.- man of the world), a rake who devotes most of his life,
from early youth till death, to pursuing and enjoying the intimate
company of women and, some cases, young boys. The work was an
important one for two fundamental reasons: first, it was the first
literary work to emerge in Japan that treated sex and sensuality
with a candor hardly before seen in Japanese literature. So influential
was it, in fact, that it produced an entire genre of fiction that
would become characteristic of the period, Ukiyo-zoushi,
or “tales of the floating world.”
The term “floating world”
was used to describe the environs of the pleasure quarters and
theater districts that were becoming popular at that time. Moreover,
the typically short passages that make up the work provide the
modern reader with an unobstructed (but decidedly masculine) view
into the brothels and pleasure quarters of feudal Japan.
The pleasure quarters (yuukaku)
were government-sanctioned districts, mostly urban, where men
could purchase the favors of the demimondaine.
In some cases, like that of the expansive Yoshiwara
district in Edo, the licensed quarters were active on a rather
grand scale. The insulated world of Yoshiwara
and other districts like it provided the writers of the time with
a world of superficial dazzle and ritualized pleasure populated
with rogues and hypocrites of all descriptions. “There
were devious merchants, scheming courtesans, fallen or slumming
samurai, slimy sycophants, lecherous monks, horny nuns, vainglorious
actors, ludicrous fops and fey spendthrifts.”
[Bornoff, 174] Saikaku used these figures, often drawn as caricatures,
as inhabitants of his own literary “floating
In his richly drawn portraits of life behind
the scenes in the world of recreational sex, Saikaku never treats
the reader to excessively explicit detail. One does find, though,
that although prostitution was very much present in current sense
of the word, the male patrons were highly selective of the partners
they chose to spend time with, and that a fulfilling “evening
of pleasure” may have included
little more than food, drink, and pleasant conversation. This
is wholly apart from what we might think of as prostitution today,
where services purchased and anticipated are almost exclusively
within the realm of physical, sexual gratification. For the characters
in Saikaku’s world a woman’s
manner and grace were as important or more so than her physical
attributes, and this reveals her to having been more than simply
a sexual object.
In addition to exploits in the yuukaku,
Saikaku wrote on other areas of the sexual spectrum. One theme
that received particular attention was that of same-sex love,
or more specifically, love between men and boys. This type of
affection was referred to as nanshoku,
or “male love,”
and it contrasted with joshoku, “female
love.” In Saikaku’s
day homosexual love among men had none of the stigma attached
to it today in Japanese society or that of our own. In fact,
the contemporary view of the rugged, lethal samurai might find
itself sharply at odds with the reality of the commonplace nature
of male love and its pervasive acceptance in medieval and Tokugawa
Saikaku writes about nanshoku
at great length in his book Nanshoku Oukagami
(The Great Mirror of Male Love). In it he depicts male love as
it existed around the samurai tradition, as well as in the other
arena in which it was most predominant, the kabuki
theater. The short stories that make up the work are evenly divided
between the two types.
Nanshoku existed exclusively
between men and boys, and the age of nineteen was the point at
which a male would assume the role associated with the former.
Prior to that time he was exclusively a member of the latter,
and known as a wakashu. The
men who practiced homosexual love were divided into two categories:
onna-girai and shoujin-zuki.
were those men that dallied exclusively with wakashu, and
by contemporary terminology might be called “gay.”
Shoujin-zuki were those who continued to have sexual relations
with women in addition to their liaisons with boys, and in many
cases even had wives and families. Nanshoku Oukagami was
made up entirely of the former, however, and some critics argue
that it is for this reason that a discernible misogynistic bias
exists in many of the stories. Paul Gordon Schalow says:
Because he adopted the onna-girai’s
extreme stance toward female love rather than the shoujin-zuki’s
inclusive position, Saikaku was obliged to write disparagingly
of women in the pages of Nanshoku Oukagami. But Saikaku’s
misogynistic tone, which many readers of this translation will
find offensive, is directed not so much at women as at the men
who loved them. [Schalow, 4]
The status and perception of women had seen a noticeable decline
Japan in the Middle Ages and into the feudal period. Tokugawa
society, with its strict class divisions and clearly defined societal
roles, was inhospitable to women to such a degree that the fruits
of their artistic and creative pursuits, having reached their
apogee in the Heian Era, were now being stifled in almost every
quarter. One glaring example of this practice was the barring
of women from performing on-stage by the bakufu
in 1629. Although initially allowed to perform in the blossoming
kabuki theater, the role of women
had slowly shifted from that of performer to prostitute. This,
it was feared, would turn performance halls into brothels, and
women were summarily excluded from further participation in hopes
of averting the progression. Curiously, however, those selected
to fill the now-vacant female roles on the kabuki
stage (i.e.- young, feminine boys) soon experienced the same evolution
of role, and in like fashion became ready bedmates for enthusiastic
spectators. It is noteworthy that this form of the theater, called
wakashu kabuki, was subsequently
banned as well.
If anything, Saikaku only echoed the kind of biased, subjugative
view of women already well-established in Japan in his time.
One particularly apropos example is his treatment of the main
characters in the two works The Life of
an Amorous Man and The Life of
an Amorous Woman. In the former case the protagonist,
the ever-infatuated Yonosuke, progresses through his entire lifetime
experiencing successes and failures but ultimately achieving great
prosperity after many years spent in the familiar embrace of the
pleasure quarters. The heroine in Amorous
Woman, however, enjoys a wonderfully auspicious existence
in her youth, but experiences a steady, inexorable decline which
finds her a gnarled and pathetic wretch at the end. The same
similarly unpleasant yet inevitable fate seems to await many of
the female characters in Saikaku’s other works
as well, and the dual underlying messages seem to be that promiscuity
and licentious behavior are the bailiwick of men alone, and that
women are of little worth once their looks and sexual appeal have
The rake, the Lothario who demonstrates masterful skill in seduction,
holds a certain appeal for Saikaku. His protagonists are overwhelmingly
attractive, clever men who, much like the famous
poet Ariwara no Narihira, entice the objects of their fancy,
be they young women or wakashu boys, with carefully chosen
words and cultured manner. The ploy for luring widows regularly
used by Yonosuke’s elderly confidant
in The Life of an Amorous Man sounds so appealing to the
young dandy that employs it himself at the first opportunity .
It is known that Saikaku was an active patron of the pleasure
quarters himself, and one must wonder if his characters were the
product of his own self-image. Whatever the case, the sensual
world held great interest for him, and he traversed its broad
expanses with a keen eye and vigorous pen.
It is important to note that Saikaku’s works,
though often quite erotic, were not oblivious to the realm of
the heart, and some of his pieces relate tales of ardent love
by common people, not unlike the works of his contemporary, Chikamatsu.
Saikaku wrote of lovers who experience great depth of emotion
and caring. These figures are often torn between the love they
feel for one another, and the duty that conspires to keep them
apart. An example of this type is the first story in Five
Women Who Loved Love where, much like Chikamatsu’s
The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, the leading figures are
doomed to be separated against their will, deceived, shamed, and
decide eventually to die gloriously together. Although in Saikaku’s
work the ending finds the couple as somewhat apart from the “models
of true love” that die together,
the mettle of their devotion is nonetheless tested under dire
circumstances, and is found to ring true. I think it is these
works which must have led to his great popularity because they,
along with the stories of the bunraku and kabuki
stage, gave new voice to the lives and dreams of commoners and
Ihara Saikaku is described as “one of
the most uninhibited writers who ever published a tale”
by translator Kengi Hamada. His unabashed, straight-forward style
of writing may not seem to the modern reader to be especially
sensual or otherwise erotic, but for his time it was a new direction
in literature, and it launched an entire genre. In his characters
we can find a little of the author himself, his views of women,
and his love for the sensual world.
Saikaku, Ihara. The Life of an Amorous
Man. Trans. Kengi Hamada. Rutland, VT: Charles E.
Tuttle Company, Inc., 1979.
Saikaku, Ihara. Five Women Who Loved Love.
Trans. Wm, Theodore de Bary. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle
Company, Inc., 1956.
Saikaku, Ihara. The Great Mirror of Male
Love. Trans. Paul Gordon Schalow. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1990.
Bornoff, Nicholas. Pink Samurai: Love,
Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan. New York,
NY: Pocket Books, 1991.
The Heian Court: a shimmering world of princes and princesses, courtesans and courtiers, noble men and women that together comprised the yoki hito, or “Good People.” For an age known primarily for its embrace of the arts and other aesthetic pursuits, one might suppose that the predominance of poetry, painting, and song in court life might have filled the air with romance. Tearful proclamations of regret at leave-taking after a night spent in a lover’s arms, and the hastily-composed poems that were sure to follow them paint an image of gallant courtship of ladies by gentlemen, and amour between the sexes not unlike that of Medieval Europe. Under somewhat closer scrutiny, however, does the romantic motif remain intact? Like sukima in the wall of a Heian lady’s quarters, the extant literary works of the time provide us with a sliver of insight beyond those silken walls, and into the hearts of the Good People.
What, then, were love and marriage to the people that populated the Heian court and the literature of the period? It would seem that the carefully crafted veneer of pomp and ceremony, then so ubiquitous, extended beyond the ritual pursuits of the court and into the bed chambers of the Heian cast of characters.
Men and women of Heian were not generally free to intermingle, and the occasions in which they did share the same space, court ceremonies and other ritual gatherings, for example, afforded them the opportunity to assess one another in various ways. In terms of visual appeal, both sexes are known to have garbed themselves in elaborate flowing robes of a hue appropriate to the season, and were well-coifed above the collar as well. As the numerous layers of clothing effectively served to conceal the female form, it could be argued that physical traits, cascading black hair and well-painted face notwithstanding, were not that which initially prompted a man of the court to open a dialog with a woman. Instead, it was probably a sharp wit and facility with poetry, regularly subject to public exhibition and evaluation, that would spark the interest of a male.
In quite the same fashion, women were attentive to a man’s ability to demonstrate a knowledge of classic poetry and to construct poems of merit, as well as to the raiment in which they attired themselves. Omitting physique, then, one might assume that intelligence was elevated as the standard by which suitors and the objects of their affection were measured, initially at least.
However, does talent in the field of classical poetry, for example, denote superior intellect, or merely superior education? Far from meritorious, Heian aristocratic society conferred power and prestige based as much on genealogical factors as those of intrinsic skill, and an examination of the benchmarks employed by women when considering a mate might indicate an emphasis on high birth. By the same token, men were required to restrict their formal (i.e.- publicly recognized) relationships to those with women of sufficient class. This concern with status reflects other practices of the time which involved considerable behind-the-scenes maneuvering by elevated persons in the court designed to preserve position and power.
In courtship, it was generally incumbent on the male to initiate communication, and he would usually do so in the form of a poem sent via messenger to the women of his fancy. In it he would attempt to compose lines of elegant verse that would generate interest in him on her part, and thereby yield a response in similar form. Much as the woman had done with his, he would then evaluate her response both in terms of content and handwriting. This exchange could be all that was necessary to clear the way for a late-night visit, or yobai, by the suitor. Although the yobai (lit. “night-creeping) was thought of as a “secret” meeting, the members of the woman’s household were less than oblivious to the nocturnal rendezvous. What exactly transpired in these situations is never clearly defined in the available literature of the period, but it is generally understood that intercourse was involved.
Here some clarification is called for, I think, because the casual reader of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book might, for example, conclude that Heian women served as little more that ladies-in-waiting of another sort entirely, which is to say that the night found them at the sexual whim of whoever may choose to dally there on his yobai excursions. Despite the widespread promiscuity of the time, though, this was not the case at all. The nighttime meetings conformed to a standard ritual that was very much a part of courtship, and which often resulted in the legal union (i.e.- marriage) of the parties involved.
But what of love? Are we to understand that a poem overheard, a surreptitious glance at a woman’s face through a partially open door, or a brief liaison under cover of darkness could move one to feelings of love and yearning? Was “love” as we think of it today even part of the formula that produced a marriage? Perhaps not. For example, in her Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon seems to place much more importance on matters of grace and form than on the sincerity or depth of a lover’s emotions. The following excerpt from note 27, Hateful Things, illustrates this clearly:
Indeed, one’s attachment to a man depends largely on the elegance of his leave-taking. When he jumps out of bed, scurries about the room, tightly fastens his trouser sash, rolls up the sleeves of his Court cloak, over-robe, or hunting costume, stuffs his belongings into the breast of his robe and then briskly secures the outer sash–one really begins to hate him.
There are numerous such examples in the work that indicate the importance of form over substance. Even in matters of spirituality, the author in one case ties the attractiveness of a priest’s features to his ability to convey his message to an audience whose attention would presumably wander were he less than comely. Consider, then, that if etiquette, grace and status are what brought couples together, what characterized their union subsequent to wedlock?
Matrimony in Heian-kyo fell into two broad categories. The first was the initial marriage, typically an arranged affair designed to benefit one or both of the parties involved by aligning them with a person of status via his or her familial ties. Based on the fact that neither party was involved in the selection process, and since the bride and groom were generally in their early teens at the time of marriage, one could assume that there was little, if any, emotional component present in the union. Although this may sound to the contemporary reader to be a pitiable fate for a young couple, it merely reflects traditionally held notions that separated one’s familial responsibilities as spouse and parent from the pursuit of individual needs, such as love and sexual gratification. These needs were fulfilled outside of the realm of arranged marriage and involved unions with consorts, or “secondary” wives, who existed in the second marriage category.
Heian society was quite polygamous; it was not unusual for a man of import to have numerous secondary wives in addition to the primary one, and the greater the number of wives a man had only added to his status. In fact, more than simply window dressing for the status-conscious male, secondary wives were implicitly required for a man of consequence, whose duty it was to sire as many children as possible. In Pink Samurai, Nicholass Bornoff writes, “With a painfully short average life span and a high infant mortality rate, producing a large number of offspring was a practical imperative assuring continuation of the line” (p. 122).
The primary wife, or kita no kata, enjoyed a status greater than that of subsequent wives, and was entrusted with, among other things, the rearing and education of her daughters so that they would one day be able to marry into good families. Elevated as she was, however, all was not sake and chysanthemums, for she was often required to vie with his secondary wives for the affection and attention of her husband.
Secondary wives as well could have had cause for considerable nuptial grief. Although they would often continue to reside in their parents’ home even after the wedding ceremony, they could also be installed in the residence of the husband, and therefore under the proverbial thumb of the kita no kata, who there reigned supreme. In Ochikubo Monogatari, for example, a cruel kita no kata terrorizes the helpless daughter of her husbands former wife. Ivan Morris writes in The World of the Shinig Prince that, although the move to the house of her husband would clearly legitimize the relationship, it also “had the disadvantage of exposing [the secondary wife] directly to the hostility and competition of the man’s principal wife and of other secondary consorts, past and future” (p. 233).
Moreover, the more wives a man had, the less time he had to devote to each one. This must have been a dismal fate indeed for those women who, because of their status as wives to powerful figures, were unable both to pursue relationships with other men or spend more than a modest amount of time with their spouses. By contemporary standards this would be intolerable, but what about in Heian-kyo? Based on the literature available we find a spectrum of perceptions ranging from acceptance (Murasaki Shikibu) to bitterness (Mother of Michitsuna, the disgruntled wife of Fujiwara no Kaneie). Ultimately, the matter of the necessity of this arrangement was probably understood by all of the parties involved, though this understanding may not have served as solace for many a Heian woman, relegated as she was to merely conjugal visits on those evenings when her spouse came calling.
Not to paint too ghastly a picture of Heian romance, I should note that the period is not without its share of love stories and other works, fictive and otherwise, that reveal great emotional depth in the relations of the people represented therein. Even Genji himself, a Lothario by any standard, is nonetheless a creature of deep feeling who is seen to possess ardor of the most sincere sort. But are these declarations of love, the carefully composed poems and endearments whispered as one “lies buried under the bedclothes” (Shonagon, p. 64) truly expressions of affection, or simply part of the role of “lover,” contrived and scripted like so much else in the Heian court?
In Heian times as in all others, humans were nonetheless human, and to discount the candor of their emotions would be to call into question our own. It is clear, though, that ritual and ceremony permeated most, if not all, facets of Heian society, including the relations between men and women. To the cynical eye, all might seem to have been an exercize in fraud, wind-up dolls pretending at being in love with sugared words and empty endearments. To this reader, however, there is a beauty that exists in the way their emotions, surely ablaze beneath a perfunctory mien, were regulated and frugally discharged as laconic lines of verse, or tears that fell on long, silk sleeves.
Congratulations on finding my personal blog. It's been around in various incarnations since 1997, which is before blogs were called "blogs." See if you can top that.
My name is michael, and denbushi (電武士) is the now-dorky-seeming online name I made up back when I thought (ever so presciently) that some kind of unique nickname for the interwebs might be handy. Just for the record, it IS unique (even today!) except for this jujitsu variant/dojo in Puerto Rico which co-opted it without even asking me. If I had to cage-fight them for exclusive use of "denbushi" chances are good they'd win. But I'd still do it.
These days I live in Tokyo and mostly use my real name. A few years ago I founded a design and marketing agency called netwise. We do web and internet stuff. We're pretty good at it.