Thursday, October 21, 2004

Just couldn't let this pass without some commentary. I blogged about this article, "Living and Dying in Tokyo," the other day, mentioning that it was an overly romanticized, out of date characterization of Japan, the likes of which went out of style in the 1930's when Japan was making its bid to convince its people and the rest of the world of its racial purity as it set off on its misbegotten colonial excursions. This kind of commentary was revived again in the 1960's as people ventured out of America to discover the Orient, at least the non-communist variety. It is incomplete, incorrect, and panders to stereotype builders.

Today, I would like to write in my corrections, just as a way of putting the story straight. I will just go through it the way it is written, using Mr. Sparks' organization. My guess is that Mr. Sparks took leave to attend his mother-in-law's funeral and to support his wife. I predict that he was in a hurry to meet a deadline for an article for this publication, and he came up with this. I can empathise with his situation, but I think some corrections are necessary.

First, Mr. Sparks says that his mother-in-law was at her family home in the tatami room, and that tatami is straw matting. It is actually reed matting, most of which is grown in Kumamoto Prefecture. The rest is imported from China, which causes much grief to farmers in Kumamoto.

Incense was burning, and the deep, droning pattern of the prayers the mourners offered made them sound like Gregorian chants. Relatives, friends, neighbors and the local Buddhist monk all made a pilgrimage to pay their respects.

First, who is "them."? Made who sound like Gregorian chants? And why do they have to sound like Gregorian chants when they are Buddhist Sutras that the people are intoning? A little background investigation here would have been appropriate. Relatives, friends and neighbors traditionally all come to a funeral, in fact in some places where they still do it the old fashioned way, the neighborhood takes part actively, opening their houses for distant relatives to stay in, cooking and serving food, and supporting the bereaved family members. The Buddhist monk was asked to come and pray for the deceased and the family, and unless he was a family friend, he received a handsome some of cash.

Groups of mourners silently waited behind glass doors for their turn to have their loved ones incinerated. Each group looked as though they were waiting for St. Peter to open heaven's gate for them. The scene was surreal.

After the deceased is cremated (I believe is the English word for burning a body) family and friends wait for the remains to be removed from the oven. At which time they collect the ashes, unburned bone, and teeth and put it all in an urn, which is then placed in a wooden box. These remains are usually placed in a family grave or graves. It is far from surreal. It is very real. My guess is that the surreal feeling that Mr. Sparks experienced was the result of never having experienced this event before. Like looking at a sunset and saying, "It looks like a picture." We experience nature so rarely any more that when we do we compare it to our concept of nature, which comes from pictures, movies, television, and art. With death and the ceremonies that surround it, we experience it so rarely anymore that we approach experiences like these through dramatizations.

The antiquity of the Japanese funeral ritual is strong part of the culture. The Japanese, despite their renown for high tech, are themselves a living, ancient culture. They're one of the few civilizations in Asia that have never been colonized. They can trace their roots back some 3,000 years, compared to a mere 230 years for us cowboy Americans. And longevity matters: When a culture has stewed and simmered for that long, it tends to evolve into a very fine broth.

Japanese are no more living ancient culture than Americans are. We all evolved from the same mother in Africa. The idea that they can somehow, "trace their roots back 3,000 years," is ridiculous. Trace them back to what? The arrival of the Sun God, Amaterasu, born from the left eye of the primeval being Izanagi? This kind of portrayal of a nation state, whose boundaries have expanded and contracted greatly in just the past 100 years, and its citizens as one monolithic group is unfounded in reality. It was the Meiji Era racial purity rhetoric like this that fostered colonization and abuses in the name of racial superiority.

Many of the police ride around on bicycles and don't carry guns. Why bother? The crime rate is among the lowest in the civilized world. The few criminals the Japanese do have often turn themselves in within a week; they simply feel too guilty, and honor dictates that they face the music of justice rather than hide.

Yes, the crime rate is low in Japan when compared to America, but most of the police officers that I see do indeed carry guns, and I may have seen a cop on a bicycle, but I don't know when or where. Criminals do turn themselves in, but most of them are captured after a thorough investigation and hard work. "Honor dictates" what? I'm sure there are codes of conduct among various criminal groups, but people are no more indoctrinated that criminals should turn themselves in here than they are in the US.

There is a strong samurai-like fidelity of the Japanese to both their family and their work. It's normal for an employee to be loyal to his first company from the time of his college graduation to his retirement. Loyalty and honor still matter. Ritual suicides for those who gravely dishonor family or company still occur: Now, that's accountability.

If only there was fidelity to family, and if only samurai were some kind of pure super race. Samurai were a social class during the Edo Period, the soldier class. This isn't Hollywood. Soldiers obey their superiors' orders. Nothing special there. Divorce rates climb despite the raw deal that women get in the society. Japanese are no more devoted to their spouses or children than Americans. "Ritual suicides" sadly occur in every society. It is nothing to be romaticised as particularly noble or peculiar to the Japanese.

There is no graffiti on school walls. That's due in large part because there are no janitors. The schoolchildren do all the custodial work. They clean their classroom, the hallways and the bathrooms. Children are unlikely to vandalize that which they must repair the next day.

There is a growing amount of graffiti all around. Schools do have janitors, and sometimes they live on the school grounds, more like a custodian, really. School children do some cleaning work, reluctantly, but they do not repair anything. The favorite target for children at schools isn't walls but windows. There was a spate of window breakings in the Chubu Area reported on Tuesday. They were reportedly connected because of the "way the windows were broken."

Why does this social structure matter? It helps explain why there are virtually no homeless people on the streets.

Interesting, but not true. There are plenty of homeless people, and even in Tokyo. I have served meals at soup kitchens, and I have seen their tent villages in parks and under bridges. For a more complete explanation of the problem, try this site.

Environmentally, too, the Japanese are far ahead of us. Household recycling is mandatory: There's not enough landfill.

Environmentally advanced would mean a justice system that delivers in under 40 years. The Japanese Supreme Court has finally ruled that the Kumamoto Prefectural Government was responsible for the spread of Minamata Disease. That means that the Kumamoto Prefectural Government was instrumental in the deaths and incapacitation of the victims of the environmental disaster. There has been no criminal trial yet, but I would suggest no less than premeditated murder. As for recycling, the author was correct. There is no space to dump their waste, so it is financially expedient to recycle. Unlike the US where it is still more financially feasible to squander our children's birthright, their heritage, for dumping our excrement.

Which brings us back to Kumamoto. I am out of time for this. I gave myself two hours and that is all I have time for. There is more in the article to correct, but it is a time thing. Japan is as complex as any other society in the world with a richly varied ethnic background and social system. To portray the country as some kind of science fiction other world, inhabited by humans that aren't quite like "us" is a disservice to the people here and to the readership of SFGate.

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