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Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010


Japanese quotes cast country's life and culture in disparate lights

SECOND IN A THREE-PART SERIES — In its current issue, the popular monthly magazine Bungei Shunju has a long feature titled "Tekichushita yogen 50," meaning "50 predictions that hit the mark."

Most of the selections were made by famous Japanese people about the future of their country, and in this column last week I looked at some that were prescient of subsequent political developments. Now it's time to get a bit cultural.

"I'd have to say that radio and television, the most advanced media of mass communications, have given rise to the evolution of a movement that can only be called 'The idiotization of 100 million Japanese.' "

So declared nonfiction author and critic Soichi Oya (1900-70), a man who coined a number of phrases that went into household usage in this country. Among them are ekiben daigaku (tinpot university), kyosaika (apron-string husband) and kuchikomi (word-of- mouth). In the above declaration made in 1957, Oya was of course referring to the numbing effect that Japanese radio and TV have on the nation's listeners and viewers. And indeed, though it is said the concept of zero was created in India, looking at its mass media, this country has surely plumbed numbers to invent an even lower common denominator.

"The media cling to anything that might tickle the public's fancy," said Oya. "They've got no decision-making values. It's all quantity and no quality." And he had no less unflattering words for his fellow intellectuals. "The intellectuals of Japan are like children standing in front of department-store cafeterias," he opined.

Full marks to Oya for seeing into a future now dominated by a digital wizardry he could not have imagined. Yet the effect then as now is the same: of quantity over quality and the intellectual dumbing-down of a nation.

"From this day I am no longer a child. I will never trust adults again." Such were the feelings of actress and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Keiko Kishi, she later recalled, as her native Yokohama was being pounded by American B-29s on the night of May 29, 1945. Then aged 12, she had climbed a pine tree in a park overlooking the city, from where she watched the city being engulfed in fire.

Kishi's statement closely resembles those I have heard from many artists of her generation who were inoculated by their parents and teachers with the needle of a fanatic nationalism.

When that medicine proved to be a poison and Japan's dream of conquest evolved into a nightmare of misery, it dawned on the children that they had been forced to live a lie. Many naturally turned against the older generation and forged their own creative style, giving rise to a renaissance of culture in the 1950s and '60s rivaling that seen in the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Kishi, who has spent much of her life in France, is prophetic in her succinct condemnation of the generation that misled an entire nation. If you attempt to fool your children for a day, you end up incurring their wrath for a lifetime.

"Even if you have barrel-organ legs, you can still win!" I love this saying by champion figure skater Midori Ito. (The phrase she uses to describe her legs is a common one: daikon ashi, literally "Chinese-radish legs.")

This pithy statement is indicative of her drive and her commitment to her sport. It doesn't matter what you look like, it's what you accomplish in life through effort and inspired artistry that counts. Ito's words can go a long way in giving encouragement to a nation of young people who are quick to denigrate themselves and forfeit their confidence. Ito was the World Champion in 1989, when she was 20. She was also the first woman to accomplish seven triple jumps in a free-skating program. Her brilliance on the ice combines with her modesty off it, to form a picture of an ideal winner.

"I don't care how short my life is. I want to do what I want." There is a tragic message lurking behind the words of Yukiko Okada, the singer idol who was affectionately dubbed "Yukko" by her adoring fans. She took her own life before her 19th birthday and shocked an entire nation. Her death prompted some copycat suicides among young people.

Okada had become an overnight star at age 15. From that time she was forced by media and fan pressure to adopt a punishing schedule that often left her with only three or fours hours of sleep a night. From the beginning, her parents opposed her becoming an entertainer, but Yukko — as her own words suggest — was a very strong-willed young person. And here lies the prophetic nature of her words: When you give yourself to the public, your life — and your death — are no longer solely your own.

This brings me to a statement from the Bungei Shunju feature made by an actress who has lived a very long life.

"Whether one likes it or not, once one's name and face have become known to people, one has a responsibility toward society," said 86-year-old Hideko Takamine, who began her career aged 5. She has appeared in many classic films, and has worked with such masters as Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. Her role in Keisuke Kinoshita's 1954 film "Nijushi no Hitomi" ("Twenty-four Eyes") turned her into one of the greatest stars of postwar Japanese cinema.

With this saying, Takamine is telling us that public figures are not permitted the wanton freedom that ordinary people may have. The trade-off of adulation is a restriction on freewheeling, and Japanese society has near-zero tolerance for obstreperous behavior in its public figures. This, to me, is a good thing, so long as all is eventually forgiven — which it generally is — once the freewheeler has sufficiently repented. Takamine's saying teaches us a lot not only about Japan but also about elements in its society that we might well emulate. (Take note, Mel Gibson.)

Finally, I love Rosanjin Kitaoji's statement about Japan. Rosanjin (as he is known, by his given name, in Japan) was one of the most elegant and brilliant artists and cultural figures of his generation. Ceramicist, calligrapher and chef of genius, Rosanjin (1883-1959) is the father of modern kaiseki (multi-course high-class) cuisine. He said in 1958: "The Japanese sweetened everything from curry to stew and sauces."

Ah, truer words about this country may never have been spoken.

Rosanjin, who believed that great cooking depended on bringing out the natural flavors of superior ingredients, was dismayed at the tendency, particularly after the war, to add sugar and chemical seasoning to dishes. He bemoaned the practice of buying fresh ingredients and then storing them away in a refrigerator, making it necessary to sweeten and boost their taste for the table. He deplored the phrase mada daijobu (they're still OK) for stored ingredients. The only use-by date for Japanese cuisine is "now."

Today, when we are becoming properly obsessed with the local sourcing and freshness of foods, Rosanjin's words can act as a stimulus for raising the standards in our choice of ingredients.

Next week, more predictive statements about Japan — including a few thrusts into the dark of my own.

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