The reader will, I hope, forgive my pensive mood. I figured I had to answer the ubiquitous question (“Why Japan?”) sooner or later, & it felt like the proper time.
The blog has been neglected, I know. I just wrote this elsewhere (and quoting myself feels weird!) but the thing is, due to various unforeseen circumstances, it so happened that in four days I’ll be taking the literally single most important Japanese language exam I’ve ever had; success or failure in this will decide the shape of my life for the next 2.5 years. The endless hoops of academia have a way of getting to you; even if one doesn’t quite spend all the time studying, one does find himself worrying all the time about the impending doom; it drains energy in a bad way.
(At least my skill has been improving noticeably. I can now read Kawabata, with effort.)
I don’t want to tell how many years have been since I purchased my first “learn kana with manga” magazine, during one of the various Brazilian anime booms. I’ve been toeing the cold water for a long time; but one still breathes deeply before taking the plunge. Right now I feel like the protagonist of a künstlerroman right before the turning point (at 29…); after this, I’ll hopefully get to play with the adults. So, without noticing it, I became wistful; I found myself reminiscing of the first time I decided to forgo computer science for real and dedicate myself entirely to the belles-lettres (a category that, in Brazil, can still include all three of linguistics, literature, and cultural studies—luckily for me). Back then, I quickly found out that the world divided neatly into two kinds of people: those who understood instantly what I was trying to do, and those that never would, no matter how much I explained—the latter including my extended family (working-class relatives who still think I must be crazy to give up a lucrative identity) and also most of my (then) professional acquantainces.
I recall digging through the entrance-admission statistics, and finding that our “Letters” course had a very noticeable spike in the number of quitters—candidates who had already tried something in higher learning, either dropouts or graduates. A year earlier I had scored second-place in a short-story contest, and chatted a bit with the winner, a beautiful woman who was in her fifth bachelor’s degree; she told me, “this is the course for flops”. In the same year, I attended half of a creative-writing course with writer Marília Kubota; one week she introduced us to a debate about whether literature was an “art of reality” or an “art of sublimeness”, whether we should seek Truth or Beauty; at the very end of the discussion, she let her face be suddenly tinged by a somber shadow and said: “As for me, I believe literature is the art of failure.” Then she changed the topic. That was good delivery; the idea has stayed with me. During all this I was trying to get rid of the suffocating “computer guy” identity. Many programmers I knew reacted with hostility, stalking me on the Internet to troll aggressively; not making an effort to get rich meant I was being too selfish.
She no more swept the house,
Tended the fowls or cows,
Fetched honey, kneaded cakes of wheat,
Brought water from the brook:
But sat down listless in the chimney-nook
And would not eat…
But once I managed to move to São Paulo and get in, there was plenty of emotional support in the other side; all the flops and failures… “I wanted… something more, you know?”, an ex-engineer told me. I knew. I gave up trying to define this “more”; I think it’s best to leave it undisturbed as a je-ne-sais-quoi. It was not only literature, of course; I met a lady who gave up design for the arts, one who exchanged psychology for confectionery, even a fellow programmer (from the same Linux milieu) who went to the theatre, specifically pantomime. The quarter-life crisis was a distincly 00’s phenomenon and we twentysomethings were squarely inside it; Inio Asano was my mangaka then, in the same way that Jump! manga were the song of my adolescence and tokusatsu of my childhood. I talked with mime guy; we gave each other the understanding, reassuring nods that I had come to expect from “creative” types (I took the easy way out, really, running to Theory instead of creation, siding with the critics rather than facing criticism). But when I told Mr Mime of my chosen field, he was taken aback—“Japan? But why? Why do you want to deal with such a sexist, xenophobic, racist, classist, conservative, closed society? Aren’t we getting away from technocrats just so as to avoid this kind of closed-mindedness?” I smiled awkwardly and muttered something about the good parts—poetry and tea ceremony and whatnot. “That Japan does not exist anymore”, he said bluntly. Now I believe he was more right than he could know; that Japan in fact has never even existed—at least not in the same sense that, say, the Japan of WWII did.
Once, when my daughter was three, she asked me whether Santa Claus was real. I said no, he doesn’t exist. “Then”, she said, “how come I saw him on the street”? I was about to reply in that condescending parental tone when I realized she had gotten me. Things you can see and hear are real; therefore Santa is, by incontrovertible evidence.
What I realized is that the concept of “existence” is overloaded—it means different things. We say Catwoman doesn’t exist right after seeing her on cinema. But compare Catwoman to the red flamingo from the center of the Earth who plays the sax—well, the flamingo is the same as Catwoman now, but until five minutes ago when I came up with this example, it didn’t-exist in a deeper way—not even as fiction or idea or lie. And there are infinitely many more non-existing ideas not existing more than Catwoman doesn’t exist.
We are so used to the scientific, objective point of view that we forget it’s only one point of view. This is related to what Ortega calls “life”, and to what the existentialists call “existence”—the sum of all the things we meet in life, which are not just really-existing things like rocks. We find ourselves alive, thrown in this world (“like a dog without a bone…”) in which we find adults, teachers, books; eventually we learn abstract maps with predictive power and how to be objective, to separate the wheat from the subjective chaff; but it’s not like the chaff doesn’t matter, has no gravity… Catwoman “doesn’t exist” but she’s much more important than rocks for this fellow. Neuroscience tells us past memories are just like stories, and most of us have some fake or embellished memories—it’s only exceptionally that our memories can be backed by evidence; under Popper’s criteria most of them would be unfalsifiable and irrelevant. But perhaps the time a girl first kissed me in that one summer vacation is the most important thing for me right now, despite being just a mental notch indistinguishable from fiction. Life includes facts but also lies; illusions exist as illusions, which is different from not-existing.
I told her that yes, Santa exists as a social institution and as a ludic, pastiche seasonal folkloric practice. That is, I told her that Santa is “just a story”, but it’s a story that lots of people find beautiful, so during Christmas adults like to play at pretending they’re Santa and giving presents. This answer seemed to satisfy her.
In many folkloric stories there are two worlds—not three, with heaven and hell, and not seven or nine or ten thousand, but two: this, and the Other. The Otherworld has some clear border: it’s below the ground, or under the water, or up there in the mountains (a “vertical cosmology”); or else far away in a distant island, or in a remote country beyond the forests, or in a magical desert the entrance of which is never to be found (a “horizontal cosmology”—incidentally, Blacker notices Japan has legends both vertical and horizontal, which she attributes to different cultural influxes).
The Otherworld cannot be accessed under normal conditions: one needs song, drums, wine, ritual, strange drugs to even have a chance of seeing it. Beings of the Otherworld (gods, spirits, tengu, whatever) have distinguishing characteristics: they’re invisible; they transcend space, and can be anywhere; they’re immortal, the same beings surviving for generations of humans; they have power over us, and can whisper things in our minds, tempting or inspiring or manipulating; on the other hand, they can be tamed with the correct words, gestures, crafts; they also like tribute and recognition; they might want their followers to fight the subscribers of rival beings; they condense human values and emotions in a concentrated note, as if someone had extracted a single pure tone from our cacophony of being.
I submit that the Otherworld is Innerworld, the Platonic reality where reside art, fiction, dream, illusion, math and other such lies; and, looking at their attributes one by one, I also submit that the ethereal beings are just what we now call “ideas”. Therefore I agree with Alan Moore that “art” is just a newer word for what was previously called “magic”: techniques for causing intentional effects in Innerworld.
Sometimes I’d skip classes and take the bus from the Polytechnic Centre to the Central Campus, where the Humanities library lied—a threshold. They had a fairly complete Blyth collection; I’d take notes feverishly (I had never taken notes from a book before):
The essence of all nature poetry is animism (more exactly, animatism), the experience that each thing is “alive”, not merely animate or inanimate. […] Animism is thus the essence of divinity and therefore of humanity. Further, we are most human when we realise that not only stones and trees and gods are alive, but even human beings are. The highest point a man can reach is to know that he himself is not merely alive, but ‘alive’.
“Are ye not of greater value than many sparrows?” The answer is “no”.
If this is so, it might seem that science can be our only salvation from unreality. This is true up to point. It can indeed save us from what is unreal, but cannot give us more than a mechanically correct universe in place of fantasy. It cannot tell us what life is, nor can it give it to us more abundantly. This is the function of poetry, but as in the passage from the “Inferno” above-quoted, we have to look for poetry, that is, for reality, in the most unlikely places also, in the mere sounds of the lines, in the perverse denial of truth, and in the impossible desires of human beings, in the tremendous castles of intellectual air that they have erected, in the lies and sophistries which are only inverted truths.
I didn’t change careers lightly, of course. I had spent many a stolen afternoon in Curitiba’s Public Library delving into Japanese literature; I started practicing the tea; I had a number of inspirations and flirtations, chiefly a certain fascinating someone, but also books and historical personages (Blyth, Keene, Hearn, Barthes, even de Moraes), and websites—coming from otaku circles and Liberal Arts for Engineers, I was fascinated and envious of the level of discourse present in the Language Log, in Languagehat’s blog, in Matt’s, Momus’ and its antipode, Néojaponisme. The latter in particular made me feel uneasy. My idea of Japan involved anime, martial arts, calligraphy, Heian poetry, Noh theatre and Edo nanshoku; but the Japan they discussed was always about economy, politics, the manufacture of fashion trends and ties to organized crime, about investigating behind the scenes of consumerist society and finding out what their sausages are made of; it was a kind of unromantical analysis that didn’t shy away from the fact that this is a sexist, xenophobic, racist, classist, conservative, closed society. I felt like my Japan was at “Fujiyama geisha level”, and that to be a real scholar of Japan meant dirtying one’s hands in rightwing NEETs and wartime apologists and shady jimusho. It took a long time for me to understand that I was thinking of a subject that, though related, was very much distinct, and had its own problems. It was Wilde who (characteristically) threw it in my face—
Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate self-conscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people. One of our most charming painters went recently to the Land of the Chrysanthemum in the foolish hope of seeing the Japanese. All he saw, all he had the chance of painting, were a few lanterns and some fans. He was quit unable to discover the inhabitants, as his delightful exhibition at Messrs. Dowdeswell’s Gallery showed only too well. He did not know that the Japanese people are, as I have said, simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art. And so, if you desire to see a Japanese effect, you will not behave like a tourist and go to Tokio. On the contrary, you will stay at home, and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists, and then, when you have absorbed the spirit of their style, and caught their imaginative manner of vision, you will go some afternoon and sit in the Park or stroll down Piccadilly, and if you cannot see an absolutely Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere.
And Barthes too had been quite open about it—
Si je veux imaginer un peuple fictif, je puis lui donner un nom inventé, le traiter déclarativement comme un objet romanesque, fonder une nouvelle Garabagne, de façon à ne compromettre aucun pays réel dans ma fantaisie (mais alors c’est cette fantaisie même que je compromets dans les signes de la littérature). Je puis ainsi, sans prétendre en rien représenter ou analyser la moindre réalité (ce sont les gestes majeurs du discours occidental), prélever quelque part dans le monde (là-bas) un certain nombre de traits (mot graphique et linguistique), et de ces traits former délibérément un système. C’est ce système que j’appellerai le Japon.
L’Orient et l’Occident ne peuvent donc être pris ici comme des « réalités », que l’on essaierait d’approcher et d’opposer historiquement, philosophiquement, culturellement, politiquement.
If I want to imagine a fictive nation, I can give it an invented name, treat it declaratively as a novelistic object, create a new Garabagne, so as to compromise no real country by my fantasy (though it is then that fantasy itself I compromise by the signs of literature). I can also—though in no way claiming to represent or to analyze reality itself (these being the major gestures of Western discourse)—isolate somewhere in the world (faraway) a certain number of features (a term employed in linguistics), and out of these features deliberately form a system. It is this system which I shall call: Japan.
Hence Orient and Occident cannot be taken here as “realities” to be compared and constrasted historically, philosophically, culturally, politically.
In the coming years, I learned about the problems of Orientalism, and then I found it had some virtues after all—foremost among them the charm (Matt once said: “first you love Waley, then you hate Waley, then you love Waley again”). I learned with historians that History and Nation are also in the realm of constructed narratives, and with anthropologists that traditions are always, necessarily, a constant reinvention (given that the past is a story). I learned to stop resenting the real Japanese people for not living up to my fantasies of Japaneseness, for being as “extremely commonplace” as myself; I’ve experienced firsthand the way that “Japaneseness” is deliberately and artfully created in places like the tearoom or kendô dôjô, even by—especially by—the Japanese themselves; I understood how, say, Hearn became so loved by the Japanese precisely because he came up with such a charming version of “Japaneseness” for them to borrow; I learned with philologists that an altered version of a text, or a misattributed text, or a text with a “nonexistent” author like Lǎozi, can be infinitely more culturally important than the “real” text just uncovered last year. Don’t take me wrong; it’s not that I don’t believe in reality, or that I think the quest for reality is pointless (archeologists are utterly cool!); it’s just that I think there’s also space for studying the topologies of those tremendous castles of intellectual air; one can study the U.S. as it is, but one can also study Americana. And it’s Nipponica, it’s the Other Japan that has always attracted me, and the one that I knew first: since after all I’ve never even been to Real Japan, and for all these people I knew—otaku, lit students, Japanese immigrants and their sons and daughters—Japan meant Holyland; it meant the mystical topsy-turvy land where everything is inverted and everything is better and adults have to learn everything again; it was Shangri-la and Terra Incognita and, well, Cipangu.
So, as I wait for the hoops to come, they start to feel like initiation rites, and I dive for the Dragon King palace,
past the edge
beyond the veil.