Sunday, January 28, 2001

A Letter from Snow Country

I went to work yesterday in a kind of mini-blizzard. Had to invigilate. That's what my British colleagues call it, anyway. You folks in the American colonies call it exam proctoring. Funny how to American ears invigilation sounds like something you do when you expect the ninja to climb the walls at any moment, and proctoring to British ears must sound like rummaging around in the nether regions looking for uninvited growths. When asked to post a notice to foreign faculty about the whole process I suggested we give both the Brits and the Yanks their due and use both terms and announce "Invigilation/Proctoring" Duties, but that sounded too much like staying keenly tuned at the ramparts waiting for somebody to come give you a ride to remember. One of those times to just use the Japanese word "Kantoku" and let everybody do their own translation.

As it turned out, it was the fourth snowfall of the season. Big heavy snowflakes that piled up on the road, accompanied by a swirling wind that slashed through your bones and made you squint. The trains were on time, but the busses, with chains, crawled from bus stop to bus stop, sliding in and not quite stopping and sliding out again. It took an hour to get to school from Tsujido, a trip that normally takes twenty minutes. Exams were delayed, of course. And because of the low showing, we've got to go back and repeat the whole process next week for those who didn't show. The joys of living in Snow Country.

It precipitated all day, and about noon the snow turned to rain, so by 5 o'clock all the foot or more of snow on the ground had been washed away. And today, the temperature warmed to almost no-jacket weather, and I was out hiking around after a week of huddling near the stove wrapped in Scottish woollen blankies.

I was hoping to capture the moment yesterday morning when it all started. The snow, I mean. My brother-in-law had called at 2 a.m. to tell me my father had finally passed away, and I didn't sleep the rest of the night. At 6, at first light, I was sitting (huddled by the fire) in my study looking at the snow piling up on the palm trees outside my window. Nobody was stirring yet, and I felt like Mother Nature had decided to give me a precious moment of her time, this one just for me. The snow looked almost violent, swirling as it did, but in the end it hit the ground in a way that not only demonstrated silence, but commanded it. I don't do well here in Japan with all these "communing with nature" claims, the haiku on the single plum blossom of spring, the chime and the cicada in summer. Always comes over as false, somehow. All too contrived for my taste. But this morning I sat and watched the snow fall and felt myself calming effortlessly. Instead of having to talk myself down from stress or from too much busyness, I had a hand from Mother Nature this time and just observed it happen, as if I were watching myself from outside.

If I could only capture that moment and make it last. I had it for no more than an hour and it was gone for good. I was hoping the snow would stay a couple days till I could get to the onsen. Last week, I went down with friend Mark to the rock garden retreat with three steaming hot pools, one comfortably warm and one cold one. It was icy cold outside, but if you sit in one of the hot pools for a long time, you can move from one to another with absolutely no discomfort. I know of no other place where people are so good at creating spaces like this, or so comfortable with public nudity. Perhaps I'm closer to nature than I realize. Sitting in the hot water, splashing your face against the icy wind, gives you a sense of both the potential of nature to freeze you to death and the reality that it is protecting you from itself. There is no hurry. You can sit there forever, watching the curvacious muscular lines of the human body silhouetted against the dusk with steam rising from backs and arms when the men rise up out of the water and sit on the edge of the pool for awhile. The only thing that could improve on that picture would be a snowstorm like the one outside my window yesterday.

My father died, finally, after months of pain and discomfort, one of those deaths that make caretakers and loved ones sigh with relief. A good death, in the end, one that came in its time. There will be time to miss him, to remember the goodness I knew in him, and to regret the connections we never made. Not just now, though. Now, I just want to enjoy this gift Mother Nature just gave me, like a kid with a first bicycle or a first party dress.

I remember the discovery, one time some ten years ago or so, when a broken heart seemed like it was going to kill me, that a soujourn in Hades has its own peculiar reward. I was in tune with others' suffering, for example, and with the small pleasures that spelled relief from the monotone misery. I don't stay depressed long, fortunately, and that time I found myself fighting it as I began to rise up and get back to normal. I wanted to stay there and milk the moment. But life wouldn't let me.

This time is similar. A moment of exquisite peace, and I want to make connections with other moments and tie them all together and make a net I can put all around me, a hammock to swing in, maybe. But it isn't working. It's back to normal today already. Shopping and taking out the garbage, final semester grades, rude knocks at the door when the vegetable man, who forgets this is 2001 and nobody enters without knocking anymore like they used to when I lived here 30 years ago, suddenly is inside my house informing me the daikon are cheap this week. Friends calling about year-end parties. Reminders of the lousy stock market, the power blackouts, the mugging. Time to pay the rent.

Am I asking too much? Must somebody else die for that beautiful moment to repeat? Is that all we get? Just a moment once in an age that we're supposed to remember, but don't get to relive?

It was a lovely moment, though. I e-mailed the immediate folk in my life and they all responded by e-mail or by phone, and that, actually, extended the moment, come to think of it. The blanket of affection, like the blanket of snow, come to tell you the world can be a warm, calm and peaceful place from time to time.

Suppose I can't justify comparing myself to Oliver, I guess. Saying to God, "Please, Sir, may I have some more?" What would that be, anyway? Would I know it if I saw it? I've seen sunsets and snowfalls before and paid them no mind. Watched the ocean for a while and got impatient for lunch. Maybe there is no way of knowing joy without the awareness of pain or loss. Or maybe I'm now too cynical for unadulterated joy and have to take my pleasure in melancholy.
Now I know the moment is over. I'm tearing it apart to see how it worked. Time to go back to the rectum jokes. Or the Republican jokes. Time to get angry that Ashcroft hasn't been ridden out of town yet on a rail.

So much to do. So little time.

January 28, 2001

Thursday, January 11, 2001

Japanese Racism

Not all racisms are alike. Here in Japan racism is of a kinder gentler sort, in keeping with a culture world-renowned for its subtlety. In fact, the local take on racism is that it isn’t even happening at all.

Japan and Korea are unusual places in the world in that race, language, culture and ethnicity are isomorphic categories. That is, the lines around these categories are the same, as opposed to multicultural nations like the U.S. (and most other modern nations) where a citizen can belong to any number of constellations of categories and still be fully American. Or so it seems to the Japanese.

In truth, Japan’s islands are home to thousands born and raised here who speak Japanese but cannot claim Japanese national identity because their parents are from elsewhere. This includes the descendants of Koreans brought here by force, many of whom now have Japanese names, speak only Japanese, but do not have the civic rights of Japanese citizens. When you add to that the refugees that have managed to enter the country, the thousands of workers the country needs to survive, and the thousands of others, like myself, that have made Japan their home, you come to realize Japan, too, is a multicultural nation. But the racists are holding on to the insider/outsider distinction for dear life. And the racists are often the gentlest and kindest of people.

Japan is also a wealthy nation, and like most wealthy nations, its citizens have realized that to take advantage of that wealth you need to not burden yourself with lots of children. People are marrying late so they can get their careers started, women are gradually being freed from banishment to the kitchen, and the birth rate is disastrously low. By 2007, for example, there will be more university positions available than students to fill them, and this means universities will begin to close and standards of admission will fall drastically. The alternative of letting faculty go being, of course, unthinkable. More importantly, the number of persons in the workforce available to support the aged dependent will drop from four to two, and there is no way that is going to work economically.

So the situation is desperate. The solution is either to completely gear down the economy so that we survive with a smaller population—a suggestion absolutely nobody takes seriously—or to bring in more immigrants, or to up the birth rate. Of the last two options, everywhere you see people opting for more “Japanese” (i.e., racially Japanese) babies, as in the Japan Times and Sankei Shimbun editorials to which I responded below.

What is stunning is the near total blindness on the part of most people to the fact that this is racism and that racism has sinister implications. They get away with it by arguing the furtherance of Japanese culture, the implication being that you have to be racially Japanese to carry this off. What everybody seems to be missing is the fact that the (so-called racially pure) Japanese themselves are fostering the evolution of their culture, as everybody everywhere always does, and that outsiders who come in to stay tend to get in the swing and help that evolution in much that same way as insiders do. There will always be an England, despite (or possibly because of!) the Caribbeans and Indians who live there, and there will always be a Japan. And there is no stopping the changes.

But for now, they are giving it a hell of a fight.

If any of you would like the original article to which I responded, let me know and I’ll forward it to you. For now, I’ll just include this letter to the editor. They chose not to publish it, by the way, as I anticipated. It’s simply too far out of line by current thinking.

Readers in Council
The Japan Times
5-4 Shibaura 4-chome
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023

Dear Editor:

You and the Sankei Shimbun suggest (your opinion page, 1/10/01) the solution to Japan's declining population problem is to keep women in the workforce, on some curious illogical assumption that if women are allowed to work more they will make more babies. The Sankei worries that if we don't turn things around Japan's population in 3001 will be a mere 83 Japanese people. Both of you convey a sense of panic about the fact that the only alternative to having women up their baby-production is to allow more foreigners in.

What causes this race panic? Is there a tunnel-vision virus? Is it something in the water? Do reasonable people really believe that the distinction between Japanese and gaijin can and should be maintained another thousand years? How much longer must we view women as economy-fueling machines?

We give citizenship to some two-bit Latin American dictator on the basis of race and deny it to Japan-born Japanese-speaking "Koreans," we deny non-Asian Japanese citizens entry to onsen and other establishments, and you in the press go on about race preservation. If the Sankei Shimbun is genuinely concerned about these islands a thousand years from now (and not just dramatizing statistics to stir up racial fears), it needs to stop fussing over class, race, linguistic and other ephemeral distinctions and devote itself to something more worthy, like justice, creativity, or an orderly immigration policy.

The foreigners are coming to stay, and they will become us. Some of "them" already are "us." The political leadership is dead in the water, but you don't need to join them. The proper response is welcome, not panic. Where is your moral imagination? Help the police see that not all Chinese are criminals, and help Japanese citizens with names like Suzuki and Tanaka see that their fellow-Japanese with names like Brown, Kim, Singh and Lopez are already at work helping to turn the economy around and keep it strong. And leave the women alone!

Alan J. McCornick
1007-8 Higashi Koiso
Oiso, Kanagawa 255-0004

phone/fax (0463) 61-9248


January 11, 2001