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.


Putting Baby in a corner

Because of its emphasis on formality and social obligation, Japanese culture is seldom thought of as permissive. And yet, the relationship between the Japanese and their vices is a complicated one.

A perfect example of this can be found in any neighborhood kombini, where a vast assortment of porn magazines share shelf-space with less lurid material, accessible to anyone (of any age) shameless enough to peruse them in public. Famously, though, Japanese pornography often turns a bashful eye on itself, blurring out certain acts as if protecting the identities of participants’ private parts.

Prostitution is illegal in Japan, but the law allows milder, non-penetrative services to be commercially dispensed. In big cities, signs in nightlife districts often advertise gentleman’s clubs and spas (called “soaps”) where these and other services are available. (Not that I know from experience. By reputation, most of these places are considered “Japanese-only,” so no matter how lonely I get, I’ll probably never be tempted to find out.)

So, while it may not be a hedonistic paradise, Japan isn’t as straight-laced and uptight as it sometimes seems. And yet, of late, these same nightlife districts have come under the scourge of a most unusual restriction: no dancing allowed.

Kevin Bacon references aside, the bizarre movement to clamp down on dance clubs has gained traction in Japan over the last two years. According to an article in the Japan Times published last year, the crackdown on dancing has been made possible by a 1984 addition to a law dating back to 1948, which was aimed at regulating hostess bars and cabaret clubs, and was never intended to apply to ordinary dancers.

“There was a time for this law, but not anymore.”

Still, the result is that nightspots need eight different activity licenses for patrons to eat, drink, and dance as they please in accordance with the law. One license in particular is apparently limited to clubs with more than 66 square meters of floor space, which arbitrarily excludes a huge number of music venues in cramped Japanese cities.

For years before I arrived here, these laws remained on the books, but an understanding between club owners and police officers kept them from being enforced. Recently, though, a rash of noise complaints in certain cities and neighborhoods has led to more aggressive policing. Contributing to this is the fact that certain segments of the Japanese populace see the dance clubs as havens of suspect behavior, including drug use and underage drinking.

Now, by and large, none of this affects me, because I don’t live anywhere near a city large enough to have a real dance club. Evidently, though, the newly imposed restrictions are having a real impact on midsized Japanese cities like Fukuoka and Kumamoto, where the closing of certain clubs has put others on notice. A year ago, I went to a dance club in Fukuoka on New Year’s Eve, the only time I’ve had such an opportunity since being in Japan. Strangely, it’s possible that experience may now be a thing of the past.

If this wasn’t ridiculous enough, what makes this movement even more absurd is the fact that Japan’s economy is struggling as it is. While unemployment is relatively low here, the economy has been growing slowly in Japan for almost two decades, and crippling an entire industry for moral reasons is not going to help any.

The biggest city, Tokyo, has enough of these venues to soldier on, because you just can’t close them all. But crackdowns in second-tier cities are only give young people another reason to flock to Tokyo, as if there weren’t enough already. Given how much hand-wringing goes on over the urbanization of Japan, it seems like sweating a couple of dudes kicking it old school is hardly worth the effort.

To me, though, the strangest thing of all is this: dancing is a very real part of Japanese culture. At every undokai, the students perform a handful of elaborately choreographed dances, including the very traditional soran bushi. At the festival I attended in Kazusa last week, the courtyard beside the centuries-old hot spring shrine was the scene of half-a-dozen traditional dances, complete with masks and period outfits. Dancing is one of the many skills of a geisha, and in traditional Japanese theater, both Noh and Kabuki, dancing is a prominent performance element.

Now, the club kids may not be performing a fan dance, but hell, this is the country that invented Dance Dance Revolution! That was a simpler, more idealistic time, the aughts. Today, though, the revolution seems to have run out of steam, its arrowed-based Reign of Terror having faded meekly into a Thermidorian moratorium on all shaking, rattling, and rolling.

In Japan, sadly, it may be too late to bump and jive.

Sitting here in limbo

One of the principal differences between the education systems in America and Japan is the way the two view continuity.

Internationally, Japan is often depicted as a country rooted in tradition, devoted to its culture heritage and slow to embrace change. Of course, this is a gross simplification, as modern Japanese have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to pursue fundamental changes that remake their society, first during the Meiji period, then after World War II, and most recently, in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake. Still, Japan is, and will likely always be, a country where ancient customs and rituals have their place.

Conversely, America’s reputation–much of it self-cultivated–is of a country constantly changing, adapting, and updating, always tearing itself down in order to build anew. Although our political rhetoric sometimes runs counter, I think most Americans see their country and themselves as forward-thinking and future-conscious, in the vanguard of change rather than back amid the peloton.

Yet, as far as public education is concerned, it is America that embraces the status quo, while Japan encourages–nay, demands–a cycle of constant change.

The tenure system has been a hallmark of American education for almost a century now. It is widespread (though not ubiquitous) in both public and private institutions, at universities and secondary schools throughout the country. And while the tenure system has been hotly debated and somewhat diminished in recent years, it remains a part of the American teaching landscape at all levels.

The basis of the tenure system–(he wrote, without doing any research)–is, at least partly, that continuity is an educational virtue. I believe that most Americans would subscribe to the idea that teachers and students both benefit from a measure of security and stability, that it allows trust and rapport to develop in a meaningful way. As evidence of this, I submit that, in my experience, many of the best and best-loved teachers I have known spent a decade or more plying their trade at a single school.

In Japan, this pretty much never happens. Why? Because, usually every three years or so, teachers in Japan are subject to transfers.

Let me explain. Teachers here are contracted, not by individual schools, but by the Board of Education. (I’m not sure if this is the same in America.) The BOE operates on two levels, municipally and prefecturally. Every year, the BOE selects a group of teachers, though how they do this is not known to me. Those teachers are then reassigned to a new school, typically somewhere else in the municipality, though sometimes elsewhere in the prefecture.

Why do they do this? Well, as with many things in Japan, I don’t know exactly what the official rationale is. But it’s clear that the process is designed to do two things: encourage egalitarianism and ward off complacency. The Japanese want to ensure that the best teachers get spread around evenly and that no school be mired indefinitely with second-rate staff. In theory, this also gives teachers a chance to learn new skills, by forcing them to interact with an entirely new set of colleagues every few years. And, since teachers are constantly adjusting to new schools and having to prove themselves anew, there’s really no room for presumption.

The teachers themselves have no control over their fate in all this. They cannot dictate where they transfer. They cannot decline a transfer without resigning their position. They don’t even know, until the selections are announced, whether they are up for a transfer or not. They are, more or less, helpless at the hands of the BOE.

As you can imagine, this is a source of stress for many teachers in Japan. They’re basically never given a chance to get comfortable in a school, since the prospect of a transfer looms at the end of any given year. For the lucky ones, a transfer will send them to another school nearby, meaning a different commute but no drastic measures. For the less fortunate, a transfer can mean uprooting their entire life, or even their family.

Today, with graduation in the rear-view mirror, transfers were announced. This year, my supervisor–a lovely woman and gifted English teacher–was among the less fortunate. She and her husband–a teacher at another school–were transferred together to Tsushima, an island in the Korea Strait, hours away from mainland Japan and accessible primarily by ferry. (Tsushima’s most famous native son is Tsuyoshi Shinjo, the former San Francisco Giants outfielder and noted armband-enthusiast.)

This was a surprise to me, and probably to her, too. Just six months ago, she returned from maternity leave. She and her husband have two children, both under 5-years-old. She has never set foot on Tsushima Island, but between now and mid-April, when the new school year begins, her entire family will relocate there.

To me, such a sudden change would feel devastating, but she seems to be taking it with typical Japanese equanimity. Both her children are too young to have started school, so perhaps the change will be easier now than it would be in a few years. (I don’t know what the rules are for transferring teachers with school-aged children, if there are any.)

She will be missed dearly here in Kazusa, but Tsushima is supposed to be beautiful, so perhaps the island life will agree with her. And if not, there’s always next transfer.