The Sociology of Hanami (flower-watching)

Every year about this time of the year Japanese _ it seems every Japanese brings out big blue sheets of plastic to sit beneath cherry trees.
The practice of planting cheery trees in rows dates back to the Edo Period, where “hanami,” or flower-watching, started and is depicted in ukiyoe scrolls.
The springtime party was a big equalizer for a culture dominated by the bustling “iki” merchant class _ so different from the stuck-up somber divisive nobility of the previous eras.
Beneath the trees exploding with blossoms, people sit flat on the ground as equals, eating, singing, talking in big voices, drinking, reveling in their equality, practicality and vulgarity.
The branches are foaming with pale pink blossoms, some petals wafting with their sweet scent likes pieces of chiffon.
In contrast, the food smells bad, poorly made sushi, fried chicken and noodles.
Canned beer is guzzled, and the talking is loud.
Only in a strictly hierarchical society would the symbolic equalizer of hanami be so highly valued.
Japanese thrive on the democratic myth of hanami.
Although the purpose of these gatherings is to look at flowers, no one bothers to ask if anyone is really looking.
It is unclear whether people are just pretending to have a good time or they are really having a good time.
Everyone knows there is no such thing as equality in Japan _ a nation where the dumbest man is superior to the most qualified woman, and status is won by seniority and inheritance and personal ties _ not performance or productivity _ and language and mannerisms are defined by where one stands in strictly defined rankings.
In fact, the lowliest one, like a woman or the newly hired recruit at a company, has to go early and mark out the hanami spot beneath a tree with the blue plastic to make sure no other group takes that spot.
Some equality.
The picnic continues into the night.
Too drunk, some people are barely able to stand.
Lovers of group behavior to the max, Japanese come out in hordes during hanami season, the two weeks or so when the cherry trees are in bloom.
No matter that the crowds sitting, in some parks, right next to each other like a commuter train, are nothing but a blight to the scenic landscape.
If you question hanami, if you are not having the ball of your life, you are not a true Japanese.

Transcending age, sex and race

When we get old, very very old, so old we are covered with wrinkles and our skin is pale and our breasts shrivel and droop and an old man looks and smells no different from an old woman, do we finally and once and for all transcend the barriers of sex and race?
By succumbing to the all-unifying power of age and soon-to-come death, do we victoriously overcome the hurt of sex and the murder of race and the divisions we must inherit as legacy of mankind like the taint of original sin?
When we get up in morning and look at what looks back at us in the mirror, will we no longer fear society’s taunts for how we look and for the petty but definitive prisons of groupings for which we stand and must represent?
Will we at last have the choice of being nothing and so be someone who will not be defined by sex and race, and it will no longer matter whether you are man or woman, black, white or yellow?

Miwa Yanagi is one of my favorite artists because she addresses those very inner thoughts that have always tormented me. She has young women enact how they see themselves as old ladies and takes their portraits. Elevator girls and Amazonian women are other images she evokes for her powerful message. Yanagi never loses her delicate sensitivity and raw energy. She faces those fears head-on while the rest of us cower in shame and self-destruction.

hating weddings

I’ve never liked weddings. I find them frightening.
Weddings are a very expensive performance designed to present an image of a social category called “married couple” that is proper and desirable and safe.
People spend a lot of time planning this performance, putting together slide shows of their childhood, picking out a package of gifts of porcelain and other knickknacks no one wants (though some couples have gotten smarter and instead give a catalogue so guests can pick out what they want but there is really nothing in the catalogue you want either), lining up a list of people to give speeches (the boring ones by bosses and former teachers, the teary goofy ones by friends) or put on horrible amateur acts (that should stay in the karaoke box where they belong).
It is a transition into adulthood _ the straight life.
It is a capitulation to the social definitions of Husband, Wife, Marriage, Man, Woman, Life, Career, Success.
It is often an opportunity for a woman to be the star for once, defined by an alleged beauty in absurd formulaic outfits (white dress, red kimono, etc.) so people can sigh and say oooh, how pretty she is, with the understanding that as she ages she can never quite be as nice-to-look at (i.e., socially valuable) as she is on that blessed day.
To negate or even question any of these definitions of what happens at a wedding so carefully orchestrated at considerable costs would be totally un-Japanese.
Love or whatever it is that happens that culminates in marriage is highly individualistic, private and spiritual.
But you’d never know it from watching the couple descend from a gondola covered with fumes and walk around lighting candles at tables decked with weird flowers and funny food.
Weddings usually show where people are really at _ in the end _ even if they have claimed for years to be more liberated.
They may say they are doing it for their parents.
It is frightening because it means that in the end we can never win against all these definitions not only because they are so powerful as dictated by society, but because they are so close to people’s deepest emotions and values (which what doing it for your parents means).
They are growing up.
They are getting married.
They are leaving me behind.

An apology in Japan

“I want an apology from the police and prosecutors,” was what Toshikazu Sugaya, 62, said after winning freedom from what DNA tests proved had been an unjustified 17-year imprisonment in a murder he did not commit.
Slim and soft-spoken, Sugaya looks more like a gentle grandfather than any stereotype of a murderer of a 4-year-old girl.
He is drawing an outburst of public empathy in Japan, a nation where nearly 100 percent of criminal trials end in convictions but Sugaya is just the first retrial case in 22 years.
Since 1992, more than 215 people in the U.S. have been exonerated, including 16 who were at one time serving death sentences, according to the Innocence Project.
For federal cases, the wrongfully convicted can seek compensation of $100,000 a year for each year of incarceration for those on death row, and $50,000 a year for each year in prison for those not on death row, the non-profit legal clinic says.
But for state cases, half of the states have no compensation statutes.
In Japan, Sugaya, for now, wants an apology _ at least one clear vindication in this culture where a heartfelt apology can get bigger than life.
To make it even more profoundly Japanese, he also demanded the authorities apologize to the dead.
His parents died while he was in prison.
He will visit their grave, and he would like the police and prosecutors to also go and offer their apologies, he said on nationally televised news.
Sugaya, a kindergarten bus driver, had been sentenced to life in prison in 1993.
What struck him the most about the city landscape after he got out were all those stores, Sugaya said, while not being sure exactly what they were.
“This shouldn’t be dismissed as a mistake,” he said. “I want my life back.”

Reading the air

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.

More Haiku Again


rice paddies
you can see it
a desert horizon


At Hamanako
forgetting burying
beatings by my father


In the shadows
I am here! says

Recently, I was riding the bullet train and I noticed once again how so much of Japan was farmland encased by tree-covered mountains, village after village of rice paddies, places where you would expect the Fox to come out and enchant travelers like Japanese fairy tales.
This made me think about how you can’t really see very far into the distance in Japan as you can in the US, where the horizon stretches a la “Easy Rider.”
And I thought about how that creates a village mentality in Japan, both in the good sense and the bad, how Japanese must learn to cope with everyone-knowing-everyone’s business like the rush-hour train and how that builds team work and common identity while discouraging meaningless ego trips, though sometimes at a cost to individualism.
So I was working on haiku about how you can’t see the horizon in Japan.
But then I realized you should be able to see the invisible _ if you are a poet.
The poem refers to the contrast of East vs. West, and uses that to make a statement on how seeing beyond what is there is the redeeming value of art.
My second haiku came when I passed by Hamanako, a lake that connects with the Pacific Ocean in Shizuoka Prefecture.
My father grew up around this lake, and he knew its ins and outs for going fishing on rented boats, catching crab with nets, digging for clams.
My sister and I often spent our childhood around this lake.
The lake works as a symbol of my father who was very Japanese yet also very international _ like an inland lake or bay where you could sense in the sometimes quiet and other times powerful tide its deep connection with the expansive Pacific.
The poem is about how you want to forget parental abuse because all a child wants is love, and you realize as you get older that the abuse was not about hate but more about the mental problems the parent was undergoing as an adult.
But it is never possible to forget _ or totally forgive.
So I wrote that line to purposely fudge between forgetting to bury or forgetting and burying (especially in Japanese) because it’s both.
My last poem is simple.
I noticed how flowers don’t care if anyone is looking or not.
They bloom wherever they are, merely being true to their purpose of being.
And they are always beautiful, whether anyone is looking or not.
I’m not sure if I fully communicate that nuance in that poem. It’s rather plain like a first-grader wrote it.
But that’s what I like about that one.

The process as an end

Photo by Ryan Bruss.

Japanese culture values process _ not just results.
It is not a pragmatic culture.
And so how you do something is as important as what gets done.
Art forms like tea ceremony are a good example of this way of thinking.
Appearance is all. Doing becomes dance.
The special envelope you use in Japan to mail cash to people has an envelope inside an envelope and you must fold it in three ways like origami almost and stamp it from the top with your seal where the top fold meets the bottom fold to show that it hasn’t been tampered with.
Then you write down on a piece of paper the amount of money that you have placed in the envelope.
No one checks whether this amount is factual.
In any other country, people would be writing whatever they want and complaining to the Post Office that their money got stolen.
I don’t know if Japan ever has this problem or why they seem to assume that this elaborate folding ritual ensures money won’t get ripped off.
Wearing a kimono feels a bit like this envelope process.
The way a kimono is a painful folding-wrapping-binding process is an eye-opener on how ascetic Japanese culture historically was.
It is such restrictive clothing not only to put on _ but also just to wear.
Moving around in it, even sitting in it, are challenging tasks that kill your back.
And I was sitting in a Western-style chair.
To imagine what it might have been like to sit for hours in that thing on a tatami floor with your knees folded underneath yourself is astounding.
The demands kimono makes on the human body applied to men as well as to women _ like samurai we see in Kurosawa movies.
Kimono requires the wearer to be really strong and have controlled posture like a Musashi.
Kimono to me shows the importance of process in Japanese culture.

Free overtime

An interesting story I did today is about how Toyota will start paying workers for what had previously been free overtime.
Called QC Circle, they are meetings that Toyota auto workers attend to talk about how they can improve production methods.
The issue is significant because “kaizen,” efficiency ideas from workers on the line and empowering workers, are all part of the Toyota Way.
Kaizen is crucial to the legendary manufacturing philosophy that make up the automaker’s sterling image.
But the story of the individual worker sometimes can be far more tragic.
Last year, the Nagoya District Court ruled in a lawsuit filed by the widow that the death of a 30-year-old Toyota employee was work-related, or karoshi _ death from overwork.
I looked at the court documents, and the glimpse they offered into this man’s life _ and death _ was heart-breaking.
He was doing more than 100 hours of overtime, sometimes working weekdays and holidays.
He was stressed out because his job was checking the car body for any defects, and pressures were high to catch them all.
This man had two young children, and in the beginning he was trying to also be the good father, and was giving them baths and playing with them.
Toward the end of his life, he no longer had the energy to do that, the court documents say, quoting his wife.
He was the team leader of one of these QC Circles, and the court ruled that such so-called voluntary work was part of the work (yes, real work) that contributed to his death.
One day, as he was filling in the records for defects, he collapsed from his chair.
He was rushed to the hospital but later died of heart failure.

Whistleblowers (Criminals Part Two)

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!”
Not really.
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.