The pollyanna tour of Japan continues…

Let me just say, cause it really can’t be said enough: Japan has HUGE problems. There are many angles from which you can just take this society apart.

Akiko and I went to “Jusco” to do some shopping today. Much of the expeirience is pretty straight forward but at a certain point, I notice that the music that is playing at the normal, almost ignorable, muzak level is all hard-rock versions of Christmas carols. I leave it to others to decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Here’s something I think is pretty great: NHK, Japan’s national broadcast company has a lot of the kind of educational programing that one would expect from what is essentially Japan’s BBC. However, I’m noticing that there are a lot of contests and other shows in which, for example, people are asked to send in photos they’ve taken with an accompanying haiku or other short poem. There is no prize. They just show selections on a future broadcast. I saw a show in which people had sent in videos that they had shot. These were not “Japan’s Funniest home Videos” or “Jackass” episodes. It’s painfully tasteful shots of waterfalls and mountains in the mist. There are also little shows about how to use your cell phone, aimed at the middle aged, and an in depth tutorial on taking pictures with your phone. As we’re approaching the end of the year people are beginning to make plans for their “nengajo” (a new year greeting post card). These cards are based on an image rather than information, so creativity is a key thing and the need to make cool ones has always been an important driver of desktop publishing and home printing technology. People send out literally hundreds of these thing. Anyway I must have seen at least four different shows on NHK that touched on ideas for making this year’s card. There are of course, cooking shows, but on NHK they take the time to tell you how to tell the difference between an egg that is fresh enough to eat raw (no salmonella in Japan) and which ones you need to cook. None of this happens with reference to brand names or in a way that promotes any corporation. The rules that require brand anonymity on NHK lead to all kinds of hilarious pieces of masking covering up the makers name on camera’s, phones and cars.

What I think is interesting about all of this is that NHK clearly has as it’s purpose the enriching of people’s lives. Giving people a place to send their videos and haiku-photos, while simultaneously offering advice on how to use the technology concerned, gets people out and active. Yes, of course there’s an aspect of this that is saying “Go buy a camera” but the emphasis is on the availability of aesthetic participation. Much of the advise for the nengajo cards was to make them by hand (a traditional calligrapher gave the advise: “Don’t bother taking a calligraphy class. You’re not going to get good at it before the end of the year. Just explore what you can do within the skill level you already have.”)

The word “Bunka” in Japanese translates to “Culture”. But it is used in the broadest sense of the word culture. In the states when we say that PBS celebrates “culture” we tend to mean that it deals with art, literature, performance and so-called “high” culture. But when NHK deals with culture it deals with that which we would refer to as “life-style”. We are quick to say things like “In Japanese culture people take their shoes off when they enter a house.” but we’re not likely to have a sense of participation in our own culture in this sense. We do tend to identify with things like holidays as forms of cultural participation, but not the way we eat, bathe or sleep. In Japan there is a palpable sense of participation in these things. It is perhaps the result of the culture’s roots, or the people’s awareness of those roots, or it could be the synthesis of Buddhism, Confucianism and Animism. But there is a deep sense in Japan that the fabric of daly life itself is a subject worthy of attention. And NHK is the broadcast forum for this attention.

Can you tell that I’ve been watching TV? Akiko’s mother’s house is a very traditional Japanese house that sprawls all over the place with long hallways connecting cozy little rooms. During the rather cold winters here in Akita, only one room in the house is heated. This becomes dining room and living room depending on the time of day. I’ve spent most of my time here, watching TV and working on my computer. There’s a mysterious WiFi network that I can catch from time to time. Resulting in odd moments like when I was video-chatting with my brother in Tokyo and my Mother in Minnesota at the same time.

I remember one time, a long time ago in Toga. We were up there working on something in the winter and I complained about the fact that we didn’t heat the dorm more aggressively. One of the company members looked right at me and said, it’s that kind of attitude that keeps getting you guys into wars. Geeze! No kidding! I think about that every time I have to step outside this warm little room. Our place in NY is steam heated with an oil furnace. We’re on the 5th floor of 6. During the winter, we have to open window cause it gets too hot. Like many homes in Japan, and that dorm in Toga, this place doesn’t have running hot water. If you want hot water you have to heat it. Yet, it has a bath that heats and reheats it’s own water. It is impossible to not participate in the season here. It is winter. You taste it in the food and you feel it on your skin. And not that there aren’t places in the States where this is all true, I would argue that it is more prevalent here.

This sense of participation in daily life leads to some interesting things. For example: when I was growing up, people would often ask me if I ate bread or rice for breakfast. This was a clear marker at the time of whether or not you lived a Japanese life-style or not. The fact that I usually had corn-flakes tended to skew the equation, but the idea was that this behavior was tied to cultural identity. People were, to some degree, willing to confer on me, Japanese status if I ate a Japanese breakfast. Even now, the fact that I eat, and actually like, natto is taken as one of the most significant facts in support of my being an inner Japanese. And there’s something going on here that is actually deeply comforting. Japanese society tends to breed attitudes that are racist and xenophobic. This is a huge problem and I don’t want to imply for one second that this is not a horrible, ugly part of people’s attitudes that must be educated out of existence. But there is some kind of mechanism that is put into play when someone looks at me differently because I eat natto. Tolerance for fermented beans is not, to my knowledge, genetic. So when someone has to question their assumption that only Japanese people can stand to eat natto they also have to question other assumptions that are related to that one about the nature of their identity as “Japanese”. They have to begin to look at “Japanese” as something that anybody can participate in. And if these barbarians can be Japanese, maybe…

Told you it was pollyanna.

In other news: It looks like, with the help of Joel, the comments functionality on this blog is up and running again, so post comments and talk amongst yourselves.

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