Sunday, December 13, 1998

Cultivation of the Absurd

Back in 1972, I had a kind of epiphany. Actually it was a kick in the pants, but it felt like an epiphany. I was suffering mightily from the shock of living in a country which was driving me nuts (I’ll give you a hint: It begins with J and ends with N and people scuff their feet and eat raw fish a lot) when I thought I could be, instead, in the South of France, the Hills of Tuscany, the fleshpots of Pago Pago or even back in my beloved pre-Manhattanization San Francisco.

I was never one to hide my feelings. One day, after my third or fourth sigh of the morning, I said something in the faculty room like “I think they should take this country out into the middle of the Pacific and sink it.” Not one of my finer moments.

I had a good friend in those days named Ben Reed. He seemed to like me well enough to want me not to go too far with this grumpy Japan bashing (before it was called Japan bashing), so he pulled me aside. This is nearly thirty years ago, so forgive me if I embellish my recall, but I think he whispered in my ear. In any case, he said something that changed my life. “You know what your trouble is?” he said, “You’ve never cultivated your appreciation of the absurd.”

It was the right suggestion at the right moment and it has served me well since. The very next day I started a whole new regimen. I left the house in the morning actually looking for examples of the absurd. They were everywhere, of course. Doctors blowing smoke in their patients’ faces, people signing up for classes on a Tuesday and never going because they “had other things to do on Tuesdays.” Then why sign up? “Because I wanted to improve my English.” People throwing perfectly good television sets in the trash because they had just bought a new one and had no place to put the old one.

Over the years some of the absurdities have changed as the Japanese economy and its response to the world have changed. But one absurdity that is still in force is the style of political campaigning. The first thing that strikes you is the almost total absence of issues. Once in a while somebody will stick a flyer in my door complaining about something or promising to do everything right that was done wrong before, but those times are the exception. Most politicians wait till just before the election, and then hop into a sound truck and drive around and around the streets of their district bellowing out their names.

That’s it. Just their names. And the words “thank you” and yoroshiku onegai shimasu, something that you say, like “how do you do” when you meet someone. Literally, it means “please be kind.” Be gentle with me, indeed. It is far more likely to bring out in me the reaction I have toward these damn car alarms that go off in the night. Over and over again. At ear-splitting decibel levels.

In Oiso, where the streets are small and so’s the town, they are on top of each other, so the “Arigato gozaimasu”’s often come at you in echos. The most peculiar aspect of the whole thing is that these thank you’s and yoroshiku onegai shimasu’s are ear-splitting not just because of the loudspeakers. They are actually bellowed out that way into the microphones. In female voices, it sounds devastatingly hysterical. The first time I heard it a chill ran down my spine and I braced myself for a heart attack. I couldn’t understand the words and the tone suggested we were thirty seconds from a fifty foot tidal wave. In male voices it sounds threatening. It is rapid fire, repetitive, and totally without content. It has the obvious purpose of name identification, although why people wouldn’t vote against somebody who shouts at you like that is beyond me. But it has another purpose as well, no less important. That is to suggest earnestness.

If Japan were a medieval castle, form would be king and function merely a kitchen wench, so things like this happen all the time. You could also see it as a kind of counterforce to the American fascination with intelligence quotients. Americans think you can measure whether people are smart or dumb. Japanese know that’s both unlikely and unkind, so they don’t do it. Instead, they measure people by the amount of effort they put into something. Students regularly come to me after not getting something and apologize for not working hard enough. It’s lovely when they take the blame like that and relieve me of the responsibility. And it’s much healthier to have a kid think of himself as lazy than as dumb. Maybe that explains why I see this focus on effort in such a favorable light.

But then, maybe there’s a third reason. It occurs to me that the bellowing may stem not just from some research on the effect of name recognition, or the importance of being earnest, but because it seems to be about all there is to do. They can’t, after all, get down to what they might say and do if elected. Japanese aren’t much on principle anyway; they’d rather deal with each case “depending on the situation.” How could they expect a politician to tell you what his principles are? It would certainly make things easier to have it work as it does in the rest of the modern world where, at least in theory, you vote for someone whose principles are like yours and then kick the bum out when you discover he has lied. But here I don’t know how that would work. There are few principles to uphold and no promises to make except the all-purpose “I’ll do my best.” Ask an athlete what he thinks of the upcoming game and you’re almost certain to get: “I’ll do my best.” Ask a schoolboy how he feels on his first day of school? “I’ll do my best.” And ask a politician about his view on Japan’s relations with Russia? “I’ll do my best.”

So here we are, almost thirty years after I first came to Japan and one of the few absolute consistencies is the bellowing at election time. Well, “absolute” is overstated. There is still an on-going development of the absurd. Today I saw what must have been an 80 year old man sitting in the back seat of his mini sound truck and waving. In front was a younger man, not a day over 70, with a microphone in hand doing the bellowing for him. So now we have carried the absurd to its next level of abstraction. In place of getting the job done, we had promising to get the job done. And in place of promising to get the job done, implying that the job will get done by being earnest. And in place of being earnest, we have appearing to be earnest. And now? Now we have having somebody appearing to be earnest for you.
Anybody want to guess where we go from here?

* * *

I just bought a second kerosene heater because I’m afraid my first one, which is as earnest as any politician at campaigning time, may nonetheless still not perform any better. In fact, I suspect the politician may generate more heat. And the three electric heaters I have, even if they were powerful enough to do the job, would no doubt not only pop all my fuses, but run me into the poor house, if I made them try. So I went out and bought the best. A big, powerful, macho bronco of a kerosene heater named Corona (no relation to the Toyota family, as far as I know), first name “Big Inverter.”

Problem is, I can’t get it started. First thing I did was fill the tank, as they directed, being careful to put the battery in right that beeps when the tank is empty or tilts too much to one side (earthquake warning, you see). Then I plugged it in so the fan would work and I could then set the clock and the timer. I set the clock. I don’t want the timer because I know one thing about kerosene heaters. They are apt to murder you in your bed if you don’t open your windows with great regularity. Why anyone would prime one of these carbon monoxide dispensers to click on whilst you go about your deepest rem sleep is beyond me.

What are you supposed to do? Get up when it goes off and open a window? Then why the timer? Won’t your alarm do the trick? Of course, you could leave the window open all night, but then wouldn’t you still have to get up to close it to heat the room? I know there are answers out there to my questions, if I could just get over my pride and admit I just don’t get it. But I keep thinking if I just try harder, maybe grunt a bit, the answer will come to me.

But that’s not all. There’s more. I made sure the childproof button was not turned on and the five-second speed turn-on button was deactivated, (the “instant start” reminds me too much of those electric charges for when your heart stops – it’s just got to take its toll on the system!) But that was only the beginning. There are still several more buttons on the control panel to go, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what they do.

I knew this was going to happen, so I actually took the trouble to get the man who sold it to me to explain how to use it. But he had as much trouble with the manual as I would have, and it was closing time, so I let him off the hook. A mistake, I know, because I don’t get angry when other people struggle with Japanese appliance manuals, only when I do. And then, when you finally give up and ask for help, inevitably somebody will read to you things like “First put in the plug. Make sure the power to your house is turned on,” and there goes your concentration. Besides, dealing with such basic stuff with a total stranger is embarrassing. It’s like asking somebody to help you on with your underwear.

OK. Time to cut to the chase here. I finally did get the sucker started. I called good friend Doris, who is a masseuse, so she’s already seen me in my underwear, and she figured it out. It was my impatience (how did she know that?) that had gotten me into trouble. I hit the power button, but it just sat there blinking at me, so I hit it again. Which, of course, I now understand, simply turned it off again.

Now with my old kerosene heater, which you light with a match, I know you are supposed to wait three to five minutes before you put the match to the wick, so the wick can get wet with kerosene first. But for some reason all this gadgetry made me overlook the obvious fact that this Ferrari of kerosene heaters is still only a Model T with a fancy chassis, and it, too, still needs time to get in the mood before the automatic electronic ignition device sets it ablaze.

Some days you’re a Newton or an Einstein. Other days you’re no competition for a rock. I can’t believe it. I’ve just been outwitted by a goddam kerosene heater.

My friend Luis once put things in perspective when he described Japan as “a country with some of the world’s best microsystems. Which it uses to deal with some the world’s worst macrosystems.”

Ain’t it the truth.

December 13, 1998