The Warning _ a poem by Yuri Kageyama
Those Who keep
To see Who’s
With Sexual favors,
The idea of “reading the air” sounds absurd.
But Japanese talk about it and do it all the time _ the art of staying so in tune to social expectations that one fits in perfectly without ever being told anything at all.
It’s all in the air, to be detected, if you are a proper Japanese.
There is no need for blatant threats, punishment, policing, even instructions.
The person who starts laughing when everyone is solemn, the person who says the wrong kind of joke, the person who doesn’t get the joke, the person who is wearing the wrong shoes, the person who doesn’t get it, the person who thinks the party is happening when everyone else wants it to end _ those are people who fail to read the air.
They are out of it, no way a proper Japanese, possibly criminally insane, surely a loser because he or she hasn’t learned the art of reading the air _ what’s invisible but everywhere and so so so necessary if one wants to survive, what’s so plainly obvious to those who are aware of that waft, that scent, that billow in the air around us, but otherwise goes over the unknowing’s heads like a gust of a thoughtless clueless wind.
Reading the air is crucial in this society that thrives on conformity and is ruthlessly cruel in setting boundaries on who is “in” and “out,” seeking to protect its comfortable insularity from the challenges of individualism, assessment by performance and self-expression.
Its rules are so thorough, governing every detail of everyday life, the psyche of its participants, so subtle in its nuances, like a tea-ceremony dance, that no one can really create a manual comprehensible to the humble outsider.
So read the air, my friend, read the air.
There is even a sociological/demographic twist.
Japan is one of the most rapidly aging societies in the world, meaning that the birth rate has been so low here (partly because of the role of women, partly because child-care services are inadequate, partly because education costs are so high) for so long the numbers of old people are massive compared to the dwindling numbers of children and young adults.
This has reinforced air-reading.
A kid born in Japan finds him/herself in a world dominated by lots of adults well versed in air-reading.
This is a society where children by definition are a minority, possibly an endangered species.
They are outnumbered.
Pressures on them to read the air are enormous.
And they learn fast.
They figure out how to get over with the more numerous and more powerful elderly.
The young as defiant, carefree, dangerous _ not so in Japan.
Instead, they focus their energies on reading the air, on not doing the weird wrong wild thing, to win their untroubled place in the Adult Establishment.
Air-reading is so crucial chastising people for their inability to read the air is part of the modern Japanese colloquial lexicon.
Being labeled “kooki yomenai (unable to read the air),” like “nerd” or “wimp,” is utterly uncool.
As in most such sweeping social trends, there’s a backlash, even in Japan.
Those who refuse to read the air are now being seen as brave achievers _ but only if they are true undeniable winners like Kosuke Kitajima, the Gold Medal Olympian swimmer.
“Kooki nanka yomuna!” he declares in an ad for a burger chain.
Don’t you go around reading the air!
Having the privilege of not having to run around reading airs, and not having to worry about the consequences, is the ultimate that proves you have truly risen to the top in Japan.
I did a story about whistleblowers in Japan.
Someone who has the courage to speak up against the Establishment is special in any culture.
But they are extraordinary in Japan because of the tremendous pressures to enforce corporate loyalty.
I faxed a copy of the article to Mr. Semba, a whistleblower in my story.
I guess he didn’t know the article was going to be in English.
He wanted it translated into Japanese.
It would be impossible to get anything else done if I had to translate every article I did.
But I knew he couldn’t understand the story that was about his three-decade battle, and I had to do it for him.
He was very sweet: “You wrote all that? You are a genius!”
But in translating I realized the Japanese word for “conformity” was “wa,” which means harmony, something totally positive.
Did you know that the word for “individualism,” “kojinshugi,” sounds really negative in Japanese?
How all this relates to the idea of crime was what I was getting to.
The individual courage and integrity of the whistleblower are such contrasts to the criminal.
The whistleblower speaks up, saying “No.”
Most of us look the other way, shrugging it off as someone else’s problem.
The criminal doesn’t merely pretend not to know.
The criminal carries out the act.
I try to find time once a year or so to visit Sengakuji, the Tokyo temple where the 47 samurai of the Chushingura saga are buried.
It’s a 300-year-old story that holds a special place in the hearts of all Japanese.
I’ve often heard the comment on how odd Japan must be for admiring such brutality.
You can still see at the temple the well where the ronin washed off the chopped off head of their target Kira.
You can also see the big rock still stained with the blood of Asano Takuminokami, who was forced to disembowel himself in the ritual of harakiri as punishment for his assault on Kira.
But the appeal of Chushingura isn’t about violence for revenge.
It is about the fight for justice.
The ronin withstood ridicule and ostracism, and took great risks as individuals sticking to what they thought was right, to say, “No,” to the abuse of power.
That is so different from the stereotype of Japanese as conformists who bend to the hierachy.
When the samurai march through the streets of Tokyo, Kira’s head dangling from a spear, the crowd comes out to cheer them on as heroes, even though they are outlaws.
I love this scene.
And I love that hyperactive Edo-era reporter with his notebook and brush-pen yelling out his “Extra” about the ronin’s surprise attack on Kira’s estate.
Everytime I go to Sengakuji, I am amazed at how there is a constant trail of visitors.
The incense is burning _ always _ before the stone graves of the ronin, lined up next to each other, as though their death was just yesterday.
The visitors aren’t all old as you’d expect.
One time, I saw a young woman, perhaps a teen-ager, putting a bouquet in front of one of the graves, and I could be mistaken but she wore a cap to hide her loss of hair for chemotherapy.
The visitors always comment on how young the ronin were when they committed harakiri, their punishment for revenge-murder, a violation of Edo law.
The carvings on stone give their names and ages _ Chikara, the son of leader Oishi Kuranosuke, was 16.
But I’m also struck by how some of the warriors were in their 50s, even 60s.
Told again and again in Kabuki and Bunraku plays, countless remakes of movies and TV shows, the characters and their sidebar anecdotes are as real to us as stories about our relatives.
The Chushingura story speaks to us today because it’s not merely about an outdated repressive samurai code or worship of madness-like loyalty as some would have us believe.
It’s a more universal story about individual choice: How to live _ and especially how to die.
It’s a testament to how modern and merchant-dominated Edo society had already evolved.
And so its values were more about human choice, not feudalistic fate.
Precisely because Japan is such a conformity-driven hiearchical political society, even today, the brave men who took a stand will be remembered for having shown individualistic honor and the courage of conscience in a sadly group-minded world.