Monday, April 30, 2007

Cherries Blossom In Japan

On the train into Tokyo from Haneda airport, I learned my first Japanese words. It was early morning, and a low, moisture-heavy fog sheltered from a struggling sun, hunkering down in the reclaimed coastal dike-squares like pillows floating on ponds. Green shoots spiked up here and there, as would garnishes out of many bento boxes. Pointing to the fields passing by on either side of the train, I asked my handler, a young woman whose sole purpose was to convey my ignorant body safely to the agency, "How do you say, in Japanese?" After a long hesitation, she answered "ko-may." Then, even more contemplatively, she added: "Go-han."

As a child, I had vowed to go to Japan, not just to visit, but to live there and learn the language and the culture of a great people. Knowing the words made me happy. Of all the words you could start off with knowing, they were probably the best. At this point, I should admit my experiences in Japan are mismatched with my powers of description. What I would wish to express in fulgence can't be done, there are only selected stark and subtle contrasts to call upon.

So here is the central one, in fundamental form. In the country where I and millions of my age were born, we were, by comparison to our fellows in Japan, born alone. We were left to cry ourselves collectively to sleep in scientifically superior cribs, to fortify our Dr. Spock-approved minds and gain a leg up on our independent thinking. Yet most places in the world had not heard of Dr. Spock, did not circumcise their male children, their geneologies were not convoluted mysteries worthy of research, but simply venerated as ancestral bloodlines tracing back in time. That's what babies in Japan were born into. And I was not.

We're all born alone, emerging from the same traumatic tunnels, and those of us who ascend successfully writhe and squall as equal bastards. If we live in older cultures, it's tremendously important that we're covered right away with blankets, and for a longer time, with a mother's breasts and kisses. In modern cultures the mind is encouraged to forget what the body still misses. Axioms state that people are the same everywhere, and like Wittgenstein said, that's "true enough," but here is where I run up against my powers of description. The social systems of head-hunters in Palau are probably more open, flexible, and more recent than those a student, a businessman, a tourist or a diplomat can experience in the highs and lows of cosmopolitan Tokyo.

"Kome" and "gohan" are the Romanized spellings of the words I heard on the train. Both mean rice. Kome is the word for rice growing in a field. Gohan is the word for cooked rice on the table, but more commonly, gohan means food, harvest, meal, tribute...the closest translation we would have for it on our side of the world would be "daily bread," as in when Jesus said, "Give us this day..." In Japan, everything, everything goes back to rice. The pictogram for "field" which rice comes from, the pictogram for it is pervasive and embedded in their character-based writing. For a long time, the ancestors of everyone I met, from beggars at the bottom to businessmen at the pinnacles of their professions paid homage to rice, bowing over it in the same reflexive gestures of thanks. As would I.
Later, I would learn that eating rice was once an act of worship, and some children were still told the soul of a deity inhabited each grain. There was not as much respect accorded to fields, except when it came to golf, and the rituals for that are very different. The field means toil in quadrillage for eons, just like those I first saw on the train from Haneda. The West is fond of calling Japan "The Land of the Rising Sun." A more accurate translation would be "The Owners of the Sun." Rice was blessed by a sun which, reasonably enough, rose first on the Japanese.

Lord Wife invited me to a lecture at the school of public health the other week about the puzzle of longevity in Japan, which usually tops the old folks expectancy list. She is taking a course being given by a deft scientist named Dr. Steven Brezuska. She invited me to the particular lecture because its subject was, translated into my non-epidemiological terminology, "Why Do Japanese Live So Damned Long?" The Doctor's thesis is that people there live long because they have a low income inequality rating, or inversely, a high equitable society rating, and that this rating had much to do with the administration of Douglas A. MacArthur, who set out to institute a more equitable society, one which would endure and serve as a socialist bulwark against very large, very near, very Communist neighbors. As the hero in the Princess Bride said, "Drink a little poison every day, so it can never hurt you." Only I've never drunk a little Japanese poison. The lecture was fascinating and thought-provoking. It bothered me, dragged up many memories, and I've been thinking about it ever since. Why Do They Live So Damned Long? I've been there, and they have absolutely no right to. And I can tell you, they're not trying to outlive anybody.

Abstracted from the special case of my owners of the sun, the equity thesis is this: systemic inequality begets insecurity, insecurity begets stress, stress secretes hormones which engender deleterious health effects. and over time, the accumulated secretions and the social isolations which form them lead to early death, not to mention unhappiness, sickness, mistrust, crime, and violence along the way. I'll pick up where the theories leave off. Being poor sucks, and if you're constantly confronted by rich people who think they're intrinsically better than you, it starts to piss you off. If you're an 85-year old widower and your grandchildren don't visit, the barrel of the .45 in your basement starts to call you. The man who taught me to mow lawns faced that fate and took it, and I have a share in it. This isn't maudlin, or unreasonable. This is how social cohesion works everywhere, it's just that in America our minds have begun to forget what our bodies miss. Some come right out and say that the path to becoming fully human has always started out with a mother's kisses. There are still places not long removed from tribes, which, despite having taken on the full neon armor of modernity, haven't yet forgotten. Japanese mothers breast-feed their children, on average, until they are 4 years old.

Trying to describe it is a vainglorious task. I was so foreign to it, and it was so foreign to me, that I should give up, but this exercise forces me not to, and anyway, there are no shortage of recollections. I walked alone through the park of the Imperial Gardens in Tokyo, and the first words I comprehended were spoken by a 2-year old. He was riding serenely in a seat on the back of his mother's bicycle, and after nonchalantly turning toward me like he owned those Gardens, he spotted me, burst into tears while pointing at me and screaming, "Mommy, mommy, no, what is it!?" His terror was unfeigned, but his mother paid no outward attention, and rode stoically on. Days later, the I had met on the plane from L.A would wait for me aand It was nearly impossible to be a gaijin male in public and not smoke there. At one point I smoked a pack a day of "Mild Seven Lights."

The philosophy of social Darwinism to which our society currently subscribes has built-in anti-tribal downsides, and while winning the rat-race lottery bears big rewards, it pits us against our neighbors, friends, and families. Then it is temporarily dispersed. Eventually a knowing regent on a deathbed says, "Apres mois les Deluge," his or her children are killed, and the system is reset. Throughout history, wealth is like salt water being drawn in and then expressed out by the body of a jellyfish swimming through time, a process of flexing systole and diastole, a means of propulsion. It is how humans and their social systems seem to operate on wherever our novelty-seeking journey takes us.

I'm not a card-carrying Sartre-trained communist who wants to tear the contact lenses out of rich people's eyes. I don't want to make a Disney ride of the simulated Cambodian Killing Fields of Dith Pranh and scare the bejeesus out of everyone holding a 401k, progressively taxing them all the way. Be that as it may, if a society figures out how to spread the bounty halfway evenly without destroying the motivation to get it in the first place, I figure that's a good thing. Admittedly, that's a difficult balancing act, but it happens sometimes, as 8 out of 10 historians agree.

(systole and diastole)

Which brings me back to Japan. The longevity data are impressive. But they don't show anything much, really. Just that the Japanese top the heap in that department. If you lived there, though, it's more impressive, because then you'd know they're not actually trying to outlive anybody. For example, sixty years into the past century these people were sending young men with two hours of flight training off to the rather sporty task of diving planes into American warships. How could that be? Almost everything Westerners believe about Japan is wrong. When I lived there, I routinely walked by men in suits puking their drunken guts out by night, and there was no shame in that. It was seen as blowing off stress. As a male, it was rude and nearly impossible not to smoke cigarettes in public, as they were proffered instantly; only a claim like, "It's regrettable, my dear man, but I have lung cancer and my doctor has ordered me to take a temporary break from tobacco" would fend off repeated generosities. And at first, the language barrier was too high for that task.


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