Going, going, gone

Japanese people often ask me, “Why did you come to Japan?” For me, this question has proven difficult to answer with complete honesty, because the reasons are complicated and require explanation. My Japanese isn’t nuanced enough to do these reasons justice, so instead, I reinterpret the question in a way that makes it easier to answer: “Why were you interested in Japan?”

For some of the people who come here, these questions really are interchangeable, but I think they constitute a minority. Most people don’t move halfway around the world based on interests alone. There are a host of circumstances that contribute to a decision of that magnitude. An interest is just the beginning.

And yet, most of the time, the answer I give is probably more satisfactory than the one I withhold. Prattling on about the drudgery of retail sales, the wanderer’s itch, and the desire to be challenged by life is a sure way to find yourself standing alone by the punchbowl. Most new acquaintances don’t want to know your outlook on life–they’re just curious if you like the same stuff that they like.

So I tell them I’m fascinated by Japanese literature. I can say this with a clear conscience because it is absolutely true. As a bonus, it doesn’t take much Japanese to name-drop a handful of famous authors and convey that you are a man of taste and letters, even though you spend most of your free time puzzling over which backup running backs are likely to steal carries at the end of the regular season.

When I applied to the JET Program, I cited my college coursework in Japanese Lit as fundamental to my interest in Japan. I wanted, I said, to see for myself the land I had only read about.

But since arriving, the only Japanese author I’d endeavored to read in country was Haruki Murakami. Some months ago, I wrote at length about my slog through 1Q84, his most recent and most epic novel. One of the interesting things about Murakami, not just in 1Q84 but in general, is that his books are so unique that they begin to shed the impression of being Japanese. Yes, 1Q84 takes place in Japan, and there is certainly an undercurrent of Japanese sensibility that remains in Murakami’s writing. But the scenes, characters, and tropes of his books kaleidoscope reality in such a way that it is hard to recognize them as belonging to anything other than the author himself.

While I drew many conclusions about Murakami from my reading of 1Q84, it didn’t impress upon me any meaningful revelations about Japan. In this way, it didn’t seem to matter that I was reading Murakami in Japan. In fact, his work is so urban that it might have felt more at home in any city than it did in the Japanese countryside. When I finally got around to reading another Japanese author, the result could not have been more different.

Although Murakami holds the mantle of Japan’s most popular author (living or dead), Yasunari Kawabata is properly regarded by many as the father of modern Japanese literature. If Soseki Natsume is Japan’s Mark Twain–in stature, not style–then Kawabata may be Ernest Hemingway. (As contemporaries, both men won the Nobel Prize for Literature–Kawabata was the first Japanese to win it–and both men took their own lives.)

I had previously read one of Kawabata’s works, The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no Oto in Japanese). Kawabata’s style has been described by translators as reminiscent of haiku, and with the writers of that quintessential Japanese form, he shares a talent for spare, evocative language. In college, when I read The Sound of the Mountain for the first time, I found myself frustrated by how many important details were left unwritten for the reader to infer. Last year, when I reread it, I began to understand that what goes unsaid often speaks the loudest.

Like The Sound of the Mountain, my second foray into Kawabata was a novel as well, though some might not think of it that way. In his introduction to The Master of Go (Meijin), translator Edward G. Seidensticker writes,

The word used, of course, is not novel but shosetsu, a rather more flexible and generous and catholic term than ‘novel.’ Frequently what would seem to the Western reader a piece of autobiography or a set of memoirs, somewhat embroidered but essentially nonfiction all the same, is placed by the Japanese reader in the realm of shosetsu.” (Kawabata v.)

In fact, Seidensticker continues, The Master of Go is by all accounts a rather faithful retelling of a real event which occurred in Japan in 1938. A few names and other details are changed, and some artistic liberties are taken, but the story itself is drawn delicately from real life.

The subject of the novel is a championship match of Go, a traditional Japanese board game. Though the rules of Go are relatively simple, the strategy involved in high-level play is incredibly nuanced and extremely complex, with a number of possible permutations many magnitudes greater than chess. Played on a 19×19 grid, the object of Go is control more territory on the board than your opponent at the end of play.

While Kawabata meditates on aspects of game-play throughout the book, The Master of Go is not a strategy guide. It is the story of the two combatants: one, the Master (Meijin), the other, the challenger. Although an avid player of Go may derive added satisfaction from it, Kawabata’s novel does not require any special knowledge of the game. It is only a book about Go in as much as Friday Night Lights is a TV show about football: the game is a narrative backdrop for the human drama that unfolds.

The Master (right) and his challenger, locked in battle.

The characters are intriguing and well-rendered, but for me, the most fascinating thing about this story is what it tells us about the values of prewar Japan.

Per one of my Go-playing students, current professional matches typically allot 2 hours of time to each player, though major championships may exceed this. (The Ing Cup, held every 4 years, is the world’s most lucrative Go tournament, with a winner’s purse of nearly $500,000. Finalists have a time allotment of 3.5 hours.)

Given that championship matches may be played in a best-of-three or best-of-five format, it is fair to conclude that games of Go are rather lengthy affairs. But they are nothing like they once were. In the match described by Kawabata, each player was allotted fully 40 hours in which to play. Four-zero. Hours. Per person. To play one game.

Now, Kawabata goes out of his way to say that this was an outrageous figure even at the time, when championship combatants were typically limited to a mere 10 hours apiece. But it gets even stranger than that.

As one might expect, the game was broken up into sessions of play, but after each period of play, the combatants were given four days to recover before play was resumed. The game was considered so mentally taxing that playing more than twice a week was deemed out of the question. But even though the combatants spent only a handful of hours each week at the Go board, they were not allowed to leave the ryokan (hot-spring resort) where the game was being played. Although leniency was sometimes granted, this restriction–known as “canning”–was considered essential to the integrity of the competition.

Even under the best circumstances, then, this game would have taken weeks to complete, with both players boarded up inside a hotel. But because one of the combatants–Honinbo Shusai, the Master–was old and sickly, the game had to be suspended repeatedly so that he could be hospitalized. The game continued, however, largely because its sponsor–Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s preeminent newspaper–desperately wanted it to come full-term.

The newspaper had sponsored the match so that it could publish columns on its progress, and demanded that it continue because the serial had proved hugely popular. It was Kawabata himself who had been hired to cover the match, which took over 6 months to complete and was published in its entirety across some 60-plus columns.

Reading this book in 2012, it is difficult to imagine that such a thing actually happened. A newspaper–a newspaper–shelled out money for food and accommodations at a variety of expensive hot-spring resorts, not just for the players themselves, but for an entire cadre of auxiliary personnel: judges, timekeepers, and scorers, not to mention famous writers and photographers to cover the whole thing. All for the sake of a board game that, in the end, took 54 hours spread over 6 months to finish.

And it was a huge success! Readers of the Yomiuri Shimbun couldn’t get enough of it! There were individual plays that took over 3 hours; weeks went by with only a dozen moves to show for them; and yet commentary on the match proved so popular that the newspaper people repeatedly summoned Honinbo Shusai to the board from his gurney.

Such a thing was possible in the Japan of 1938; no, not merely possible. It actually happened. And as I read about it, something strange happened: I became nostalgic for a country I have never known.

When we pine idly for the joys of a simpler time, it is seldom the loss of 54-hour board games that tug most poignantly at our heartstrings. Yet, such a game paints contemporary Japan in stark relief. Though rich with history, I live in a country that is as proud of its modernness as any Western nation. With digital pictures to take, video games to play, electric cars to drive and posters to kiss, Japan has no time or patience for board game odysseys.

Make no mistake: I do not want to play a 54-hour game of Go. I do not want to watch one. And it didn’t particularly thrill me to read about one. But the fact that such a thing once captivated an entire country is remarkable. And it feels something like loss to know it never could again.

Rice rules everything around me

If there’s one food that is symbolic of Japan, it would have to be sushi. But while sushi is Japan’s most distinctive contribution to world cuisine, it’s hardly the most essential component of washoku (Japanese cuisine). That would be rice.

Now, that’s sort of a cop-out answer, since rice is the most important ingredient in sushi to begin with. Although it doesn’t attract as much attention as showstoppers like raw fish or shrimp, rice cooked with vinegar is what actually makes something sushi. By itself, that raw tuna is just sashimi, a distinction I never really understood before moving here.

But anyway, sushi is various, regional, and flashy, so it deservedly receives top-billing among Japanese foods. Rice is basically none of those things–it just happens to hold everything together, from Japanese society and Japanese diets to sushi itself.

In feudal Japan, taxes were collected in the form of rice, and the value of an estate was measured by its rice production. Today, despite modern increases in bread and noodle consumption, rice remains the staple food of Japan. Many Japanese people eat rice with every meal–rice and miso soup is a common breakfast–and this tradition is so culturally ingrained that it is reflected by the language itself (the word gohan means both “rice” and “meal”).

Of course, unlike sushi, a reliance on rice is hardly something that Japan can claim as unique. Rice has a celebrated place in the culinary histories of many Asian cultures, from China to India to Thailand and beyond. But sharing rice with the world does little to cheapen its impact on Japanese life.

Where I live, in the heart of rural Japan, that impact cannot be ignored. Not only is rice a part of virtually every meal, it physically surrounds all aspects of life. Rice fields haphazardly quilt the valley in which I live, filling the nooks and crannies between roads and buildings. They are terraced into the mountains and along the riverbeds. You can’t look out a second-story window in summertime without seeing neatly planted rows of blinding green stalks.

Obviously, these fields don’t plant themselves. Many people in this area make a living in agriculture, and while carrots, potatoes, and daikon (radishes) proliferate, rice is overwhelmingly the name of the game. I don’t know too much about who owns the fields, who works them, and what the division of labor is, but I can tell you there is labor aplenty. Spring, summer, and fall, behatted and rubber-booted, the men and women of the fields are out there. Many of them are older, and a deeply-bent back is especially characteristic of older women here, the product of years of fieldwork (and a calcium poor diet resulting in osteoporosis).

With so many of their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers pulling food out of the ground to put food on the table, it’s understandably deemed important that Japanese children around here learn the basics of farming. And since rice is what they eat at almost every meal, rice is the logical crop for educating them on matters of the hoe.

Although most of my elementary schools find a way to work farming lessons into their curriculum, some are better equipped for this than others. At my smallest school, high up in the hills, students experience every step of the process firsthand: planting the seeds, cultivating them throughout the growing season, harvesting the rice, and finally, hammering it into mochi, a glutinous rice cake typically eaten during the winter and especially around New Year’s Day.

Last year, I happened to be there on the day of the mochitsuki, or mochi-making, when the rice is heated in a mortar and pounded with mallets until it becomes a pliable, gelatinous paste. While children are taught how to mochitsuki, it’s essentially a grown man’s game: the mallets are heavy, and the rice is stubborn, requiring quite a substantial beating before it cooperates nicely. To do it skillfully, you need a blacksmith’s arms and a metronome’s timing, as alternating blows are dealt and you can hurt yourself or your partner if you fall out of rhythm. I wasn’t particularly good at it. These guys are.

This year, I was told in advance to bring ratty clothes, because I’d be at the school on the day of the rice harvest, or inekari. After morning classes, the entire school–all 12 students, all the teachers and staff, even the principal himself–headed down the hillside to a midsize tanbo (rice field), where some parents and neighborhood farmers were waiting. (The vice principal had to stay in the office in case the phone rang. Such is the lot of the Japanese vice principal.)

The farmers gave us a quick tutorial on how to cut the rice, then handed us all kama, small blades with one dull side. One side is dull, okay, but even so, trusting a 6-year-old to carefully wield his own blade–and not to stab his friend, just for sport–seemed to me like a scenario video coming to a Red Cross course near you. Miraculously, no digits, or even ponytails, were harmed in the making of this post. Still, this is the same culture that trusts teenagers to conduct an orderly torchlight procession through the narrow streets of a mostly-wooden town. For comparisons sake, when Americans kids are told to turn on a light bulb by completing a simple circuit, they jack the alligator clips into a wall socket and end up in the emergency room. (This really happened.) (I didn’t do it.)

The harvesting itself is remarkably simple: grab the stalks, cut near the root, pile, repeat. Every few piles, use an old, dry stalk–presumably kept from a previous harvest–to bundle. It is a monotonous process, but almost enjoyably so, and the mind wanders aimlessly while you work. Almost enjoyable, but not quite: you’re still crouching or on all fours the entire time, and it’s painfully easy to see how a back gets bent double from too much of it.

As a group, it took us an hour or so to clear the field by hand. (Later, they showed us the riding harvester, which a single driver can use to clear and bundle an entire field in half the time.) Next came hanging the rice out to dry.

Unlike the cutting, which merely requires opposable thumbs and a functioning cerebellum, there is a touch of deftness in hanging the rice to dry. First, the farmers constructed long, makeshift sawhorses in the middle of the field using tree branches. Then, taking up a bundle of rice, we were shown how to invert it, and–swizzling it just so–part the bundle over the sawhorse. Do it right, and the rice sits snugly atop the sawhorse, giving you a lovely complementary element in the pastoral landscape you’ve been painting in your spare time. Do it wrong, and the rice spills out everywhere, and the farmers exchange exasperate looks while you apologize in clumsy Japanese.

After another hour, the rice was drying aesthetically over the sawhorses, and I felt as if I’d done an honest day’s work. Which, when you think about it, is some real Nancy horseshit, since I was out there for two hours and was surely more a burden than a help. Still, if I needed another reason to respect the people I see wading through the fields on my walk to school, I got it.

But as much as I applaud the Japanese for teaching their children about where their food comes from, maybe it’s having some unintended consequences. After all, Japanese farmers are aging even faster than the rest of the population, with fewer and fewer young people stepping up to replace them. Perhaps there’s a reason: they learn very early that it is not an easy way to make a living.

No-Post November

This has been both a very busy and a very quiet month, and the lack of activity here is a reflection of that. I’ve been quite busy at work, and as a result, my free time has been devoted mostly to relaxing and catching up on mundane tasks, neither of which lends itself well to breathless documentation.

Incidentally, my internet situation has recently slowed from a leisurely stroll to an interminable grind, where basic websites take multiple tries to load and streaming video is Sisyphean.

In spite of my dial-up era data rate, I am vowing an end to this protracted silence, and have three full-length posts which I’m hoping to finish before the end of the month.

Thanks for being patient.