Monday, February 26, 2007

Thoughts on Death

Naohito Watanabe, a taiko drummer in his 20s with Amanojaku, shared his thoughts on Death with me the other day.
I was telling him how experiencing the deaths of my parents made me realize what an astounding experience Death is in human life.
We all know how important birth can be, or sex (reproduction), but we tend to think of death as an ending, a denouement for what went before.
But Death _ no matter how it comes _ isn't an afterthought.
It is probably the biggest experience a person has in life.
Yes, I know all that, Nao said to me with his clear eyes, looking at me directly.
He "mitotta" (stayed by their bedsides at the moments of) the deaths of his grandfather and then his grandmother, he told me.
And the way people die expresses everything about that person, he said.
His grandfather came back to life from death a couple of times until he was able to see his prodigal son, the wayward one that was always the problem kid in the family but the one that always held a special place in his heart.
When that son was finally contacted and was able to come to him, when that son arrived, Nao recalls, the grandfather died shortly after.
His grandmother was the kind of person who always "gaman" (endured).
Ridden with cancer, she was excreting and throwing up blood, but she was taking only a fraction of the pain-killers most people would have asked for, shocking her doctors by her preserverance.
She told Nao to keep talking to her even if she fell unconscious, so Nao was constantly whispering in her ear to just go whenever she felt it was right.
But she was gaman to her last moment, and Nao only saw her choking back the blood that was gushing from her throat.
That face of gaman was the last thing he saw. He never saw her give up.
When he turned around _ after that flash of a moment when he wasn't looking _ she was dead.
He will not mind that I am writing in such a public place as a blog these stories about Death that are so personal.
He says he tries to tell as many people as he can.
Nao says he will treasure these stories in his heart as he lives, striving for Greatness, he says matter of fact with an unpretentiousness that's almost a shrug.
His grandmother told him how lucky she was to be loved by Nao.
I told him how lucky he was to have the grandparents that he did, and to have learned so much by their deaths.
Click here to view Amanojaku video clip.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Aging Beauty

Japan honors its artists as National Treasures the same way other nations would designate architecture, forests and artifacts "world heritage." Artists don't become National Treasures until they are old _ I mean, very old.
This goes against the Western idea of beauty as nice to look at _ usually young, sometimes very young.
Bunraku puppeteer Kanjuro Kiritake, at 52 not yet a National Treasure, surprisingly expressed reservations with the Japanese system of idolizing 80 year old Beauty Queens at the Foreign Correspondents Club, in answer to my question.
He stopped short of debunking the Japanese idea of aging beauty but said he was more concerned about performance opportunities for younger and middle-aged Bunraku artists than he was impressed with the idea that he would be growing ever grander and more beautiful with age and some day become a Treasure himself.
"I think I'm the best," he said with a smile, in refreshingly typical ecocentric and individualistic (as in stereotype Western) artist fashion.
He is always looking for where the Treasures are doing things wrong, he said. They have rough spots, and the mission is to always improve on those who went before you, he said.
What's amazing in all this is that Kanjuro is considered practically a novice next to the aging Treasures in the world of Bunraku, and the same holds for the many categories of Japanese art, including music, pottery, sword-making, etc. that has a National Treasure system.
Maybe it's a bit frustrating to be treated like a kid at 50 but it's also a blessing and probably beats being treated like a has-been.
It's a different kind of view on life with a long-term perspective, not as a record of career achievements in an individual life but a march toward death that is about a process that goes beyond death _ about developing an art that goes beyond just your own life, but connects with all the generations that went before you, as well as your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.
That kind of view on life is so much closer to what is really going on in the natural world (preservation of the species), and Darwin would likely agree.
That is also reflected in the kind of art that represents Japanese culture that some Westerners (ignorant) have brushed off as boring, uncreative and regurgitative.
A Japanese artist must first master form/technique/vision.
The repertoire is often massive and demanding, and it takes years and years just to master that, let alone come up with anything original.
The opportunity for self-expression must be earned.
Bunraku artists younger than Kanjuro must spend years doing the right arm, and years before that (by years, read: decade) doing just the legs, often wearing a black hood so the audience can't even see their face. (Those in charge of the hand and the legs aren't even listed in the program credits.)
It is obvious being entrusted as omozugaki, or manipulating the head and left arm, no matter how minor the part, is a big deal.
I went to Bunraku this weekend, and Kanjuro's wife invited a few reporters backstage, where the giant clogs worn by omozukai are stacked up in shelves, each with the puppeteer's name.
Minoichiro Kiritake, 49, who also studies with Kanjuro under National Treasure Minosuke Yoshida (My 2002 feature story about Minsouke ), showed us up close how the puppeteer yanks on strings on the bottom of a male puppet's head to arch its eyebrows or roll its eyeballs.
The puppet heads, costumes and other stage items are property of the National Theater , he said. The only personal belongings of the puppeteer are the clogs and the doll's torso.
Each puppeteer adds padding of dried gourd and stiches kimono on to the torso, an important part of creating the character and interpretation for the artist, he said.
How do you feel toward the puppet? I asked him, as he held up a princess puppet, tintsel hair ornaments glittering above a demure white face.
Are you a woman when you are holding the puppet, or a male artist manipulating the puppet?
You must enter the character of the puppet, he said, feel her feelings, but you must also be detached as an artist, be aware of the techniques you are using at every moment.  
Do you think the puppet is beautiful ("kawaii")?
I wish I could see her from the front, but I'm always looking at her from behind, he said.
Are performances always moving experiences for you, each and every time?
Oh, you mean, do I get a "high?" he says, using the English word.
I try not to get high too often, because when there's a high, there's always a low, he explains, using his hand to show feelings going up to euphoria and then dipping to depression.
He is not allowed to choose roles. No way can he say things like I am interested in doing female roles, as opposed to samurai roles.
Watching old Japanese artists _ be it that 70 year old Kabuki actor playing a virginal maiden, or that Bunraku shamisen player banging out those same notes that herald an opening of a key dramatic act _ we are moved because we are witnessing not only all the years that went before today for that artist (the actor when he was 20 and just learning that role, the shamisen player when he was on the corner of the stage just keeping up in a chorus with the masters) but all the past generations (the great-grandfather masters) and the promise of the future.
It is that link to eternity we witness, and how small we are next to that but how also grand and how totally, totally beautiful life is.
Never mind the actor is covered with wrinkles beneath that pasty white makeup, never mind the shamisen player's fingers aren't quite as dextrous as they once were, the essence is there.
And the past _ and the future _ are there in that magical moment.
Sure, we love to see aging Western artists, too, say, Stevie Wonder, who played to a cheering, sing-along crowd of nearly 20,000 people at Saitama Arena, including myself, the other day.
It's awesome to see so many Japanese love a blind man from Detroit.
Stevie Wonder has left the world all his songs and a Treasure-class legacy that will influence music for decades to come.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Chushingura Revisited

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.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Social Networking

MySpace faces stiff competition in Japan
Kenji Kasahara the founder of Mixi, Fumi Yamazaki at Technorati Japan, consultant Ko Orita, researcher Michiko Yoshida and SNS user Jun Yamagishi are among the people interviewed in my story on the cultural differences playing out in social networking services in Japan vs. the U.S.
Cultural differences make for an old story but how they emerge in new kinds of services are new _ and, what's fascinating, confirm old ideas we may otherwise be tempted to dismiss as stereotypes.
Of course, there are similarities.
And how the various services that develop in each culture may take advantage of that cultural characteristic to strengthen technology and services that cater to that characteristic may even allow a service to translate into other cultures in the future.
Technorati's Yamazaki says the key to getting a successful SNS going (in either country) is to attract young people and get them "addicted," that is, get the kids to keep coming back.
She told me about a booming Mixi community that's called "Mattaku wake ga wakarimasen," or "This makes absolutely no sense at all," where people write in absurd situations they've run across.
Maybe part of the reason why Yoshida at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo keeps calling much of what's on Mixi "gomi" or "garbage."
But she says there are interesting SNS communities, too, like the one by ANA mileage card holders who exchange travel information. That sprang up as a consumer, rather than ANA, initiative.
Yoshida thinks SNS will diversify and develop more business uses _ and become with time perhaps less gomi.

Story on Washington Post online.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Cinderella Syndrome

Women are often afraid of their own success and want to undermine their own potential ("enryo").
In a society that has linked success with masculinity, women subconsciously feel they may be punished for their success.
They feel success somehow makes them unlikable, less than complete, so it's better to stay dark and hidden in the cinders.
Perhaps men will say this is self-imposed.
Perhaps today working women of color no longer feel they have to be 10 times, 100 times, better than the white male, and "go for broke" like the Japanese-American 442 of World War II, to get a chance at being seen as an equal.
I want to think my work and my example will help contribute in some way to leaving my work place, industry and even the world a better place for women of color, and to make it easier for women, especially women of color, to achieve the opportunities and success that we deserve.