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The trip inside - click opera
February 2010
 
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Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 12:00 am
The trip inside

I'm iChatting with Hisae. She's in Osaka. "Japan is nice to visit," she says, "but when you're here for a while it can get a bit boring. Food is good, though. And going to the sento." We decide the thing to do is live and work in Germany, but visit Japan each year. For the food. And the bathing.



Here's Richard Lloyd Parry in the LRB, reviewing Donald Richie's Japan Journals: "Greater Tokyo contains thirty million people; it is far and away the largest city that has ever existed. And yet to the Westerner with intellectual aspirations it is a small pond. The Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo compared Japan to a tropical mud swamp: when living flowers are transplanted from elsewhere they grow vigorously for a while, put out lurid blooms, but eventually wither in the strange minerals of the new soil. In 150 years, foreigners in Japan have produced important works of history, political science, anthropology and journalism, but no lasting work of literature."

Here's Roddy Schrock on his blog, talking about the same LRB piece: "Why is this? What are the limitations placed on foreign minds? Why are people living as gaijin not electrified and inspired to write on a daily basis?"

Parry in the LRB: "Japan has never attracted the attention of a Chatwin or a Naipaul, let alone fostered a Kipling, a Somerset Maugham, a Hemingway or a Paul Bowles."

Bowles and Barthes come up in my Metropolis magazine piece about "the pleasures of staying foreign". One of the things I did in my Tokyo apartment was listen to a CD someone had left lying around, a Talking Book of Paul Bowles short stories.

I'm talking to some interviewer about Tokyo. "Of course, the art world there is very small," I say. "There's nowhere like New York's Chelsea or the East End of London for galleries. There are just a few commercial galleries. People in Japan don't really buy art. It's a bit like Berlin in that way." The art world, too, is a small pond.

The Tokyo Chronicles details my first impressions when I went to live in Tokyo in 2001. "Grey, anxious, neat and tidy, hyper-industrialised, Japan has a different atmosphere," I write. I can't quite decide if it's Athens or Mars.

Here's David Bowie, in a radio interview in the late 70s. "I go to Japan a lot, but I'm a bit afraid that if I settle there I'll get very Zen about things and my writing will dry up." The idea is that you need conflict and strife to create, and Japan just doesn't have it.

Here's my Design Zen piece from May 2001. I'm settling into Tokyo, getting comfortable with the alienation. "Tokyo is a city trapped under the iron thumb of 'aesthetic correctness'," I write. "It's the greatest good fortune, and the greatest misfortune. I'm still trying to decide if it's heaven or hell." At the end I quote Cornelius saying that the recession or an earthquake could erase Japan's drama-less-ness at one fell swoop. This lack of tension is itself tense.



I manage to make an album in Japan. It's not literature, but it's literary. Stuff about Scottish vaudeville, Jacques Tati, Modernism, slapstick, Beowulf. Because I feel rather outside things in Tokyo, I retreat in my writing to my core self, my past, my dreams, my language.

Richard Lloyd Parry again: "Densely hierarchical, structured by invisible networks of deference, obligation and taboo, conventional Japanese society offers no formal place to the ‘outside person’. But this alienation is so absolute that it is experienced as something close to liberation, a stimulus to observation and analysis. ‘Japan has afforded him’ – the author – ‘a situation of writing,’ Roland Barthes wrote in Empire of Signs. This situation is ‘one in which a certain disturbance of the person occurs, a subversion of earlier readings, a shock of meaning lacerated, extenuated to the point of its irreplaceable void.’ Japan, to put it in drastically un-French terms, puts you on your mettle."

Donald Richie: "In Japan I interpret, assess an action, infer a meaning. Every day, every hour, every minute. Life here means never taking life for granted, never not noticing. For me alone I wonder? I do not see how a foreigner can live here and construct that shroud of inattention, which in the land from whence he came is his natural right and his natural tomb . . . it is with this live connection that the alert foreigner here lives. The electric current is turned on during all the waking hours: he or she is always occupied in noticing, evaluating, discovering and concluding . . . It is the difference between just going to a movie and living it for a few hours, and going to the same film as a reviewer, taking notes, standing apart, criticising, knowing that I must make an accounting of it. The former is more comfortable; the latter is better... Being at home means taking for granted going blind and deaf, eventually not even thinking. It means only comfort. I would hate to be at home."



Parry: "As he grows older [he's in his 80s] Richie begins to panic about the cost of having no home, not for its human comforts, but its intellectual stimulations. At his most optimistic, he takes pride in his outsideness (‘undisturbed by vagaries, I can regard what I think of as eternal’). But he sees that New York friends ‘live in an element I do not. Theirs is the current of contemporary thought, and they swim – mostly against it – and grow sleek. I have no intellectual climate at all. I have no one with whom to speak of these concerns, no one to learn from, no one to teach. For fifty years I have lived alone in the library of my skull."

The only escape is sex. Parry tells us Richie seeks it in parks, clubs, saunas, with boys who will "stand for Japan". He recorded it all in his diary, but cut it out. It may appear in a separate book, a Vita Sexualis. But it's key. It's why foreigners end up staying in a place with "no intellectual climate at all". It's an escape from alienation that only adds to it. Sex: the punishing reward. Salty water that only makes you thirstier. The outsider's only permitted trip inside.

48CommentReplyShare

saidai
saidai
:// 最大
Wed, Sep. 13th, 2006 09:43 pm (UTC)

Oh là là...
I really want to go to TOKYO... I want it so bad! Since so long~
KYOTO and OSAKA sounds great too!

(yes, another useless comment, désolé!)


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niemandsrose
niemandsrose
Niemandsrose
Wed, Sep. 13th, 2006 10:28 pm (UTC)

This says something to me about a friend of mine, a lesbian I knew in college, who is now living a permanent-expat life in Japan, and living there as a gay man. I especially appreciate the bit in the LRB piece about how one can subsume one's isolation and feeling of difference in the friction and unending fascination of being foreign.

As for me, I was an adolescent in Japan, and it all came to much the same thing, feeling "different" and being "different". The question there is, Have I grown out of it? Is that why I wouldn't go back there to live now without a really good reason, a job I really loved, a hobby that paid my way, a function? Did I get tired of a 2D role I could only be (gaijin student of Japanese) and give it up for a 4D role with action and verbs in it, a role to do (my current career)?

I wonder if, had I been sexually active when I was in Japan, I would have enjoyed myself more in the line of doing.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Sep. 13th, 2006 10:29 pm (UTC)
but does it have to be that way?

It just seems that someone with Richie's life experiences should be turning it into some serious art, not just mediocre memoirs. His tone, at least as recounted in the LRB, seems glum and cranky. Old people who are dissatisfied with the way they've lived their lives are some of the most irritating creatures on the planet. -Roddy


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alphacomp
alphacomp
Digital Video Camera
Wed, Sep. 13th, 2006 11:04 pm (UTC)

Your piece on making Oskar Tennis Champion is seriously one of my favorites. I find Part 2 to be particularly inspiring, and wonder if, in the wake of your last non-Click Opera entry involving your doubts regarding your own musical abilities, you still work in that fashion(albeit in Germany, with reproducers).


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cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Wed, Sep. 13th, 2006 11:55 pm (UTC)

I am never more creative than when I am in Japan.

I believe that the Japanese aesthetic of Zen has nothing to do with the lack of creativity. Rather, it's the idea that there is a sort of feeling of surviving in a large city that makes the attention shift from frivolous creation to daily living. When the reward of daily life is so great (sex, good food, neon lights, TV and so on), the need to create to fill the void is somewhat lessened. Artists are inherently insecure and hungry inside for some sort of fulfillment. It's easy to get a base level of fulfillment in Japan by just working hard...so why bother painting masterpieces when lesser works can do the same thing?


Maybe if you lived with 15 other Brazilians in a tiny apartment and only had two pairs of pants that you all had to take turns wearing you could bring about that sort of sharp feeling of need that creative art satisfies.


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dmt81
dmt81
Lorenzo
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 12:32 am (UTC)

"The idea is that you need conflict and strife to create, and Japan just doesn't have it."

This is simply too true. Yearly pilgrimages to Mexico are what keep my mirror polished enough to feel "awake" in life. I have always felt limitations to my energy and freedom of mind while here. I figured it would be a process of adaptation and "culture shock" of a sort, but it has taken almost 2 years to even begin to push through it. Japan is amazing, and I have learned and changed so much. I am referring to the free movement of my energy in this space.

Enormous population density seems to have led this superbly civilized populace to withdraw from public space with an almost surreal effectiveness, demanding you to do the same. It is effective to the point that no matter what manifestation of "dark Japan" you stumble into, in a doesn't make you feel danger, or rage, or anything in particular because you are almot completely disconnected from it. Not only for being a foreigner, but thanks to a refined version of the "modernizing" process that isolates neighbor from neighbor, and man from gut-reality.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 01:09 am (UTC)

Parry in the LRB: "Japan has never attracted the attention of a Chatwin or a Naipaul, let alone fostered a Kipling, a Somerset Maugham, a Hemingway or a Paul Bowles."

I think this an unfair thing to judge Japan on seeing that 1) it was not a colony (Kipling) 2) not the center of civilization (like Paris for the lost generation) 3) not the site of a civil war that brought the civilized world into help (Spain) 4) not a resort/vacation area with piece of mind (like Maughm in Capri) 5) nor a place where foreigners can just up and move to without either taking on an awful colonialist job teaching english or joining up with a local employment prison that fundamentally goes against a large number of Western ideals.

Japan attracts both the delusional and the pre-alienated, and until recently, brought in almost nobody except for pervs, regional scholars, mercantilistic entrepreneurs and the washed-up. The cultural explosion has brought a lot more interesting people these days, but it's still not exactly easy to live in Tokyo - for anybody, including the Japanese.

I find it interesting that you are now admitting that "you cannot live in Japan" after a decade of defending it to the death. I guess you want it preserved the way it is for when you go back - and to hell with all those who live their permanently. I am guessing your advice is for everyone in Japan to move to Germany for the low prices and cultural stimulation for 10 months of the year and move back to Japan when they become in need of hot baths and healthy food.

Marxy


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myemobook
myemobook
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 04:01 am (UTC)

ZINGU!


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grzeg
grzeg
grzeg
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 04:25 am (UTC)

The reactionary love/hate trend for the general populace of gaijin seems to follow the cliché meme of a chapter from Ian Buruma's The Missionary and the Libertine, where the constant reminder of being the “other” either induces blissful self-contentment, bitter alienation, or acceptance of the consignment. Richie seems to meander through the applicability of these descriptions, though that may be unfair… blanket assumptions are inherently stereotypical and misleading.

To comment on the numbing of one’s creativity in Japan or anywhere for that matter, I am sure it is the lack of excitement that dulls one’s artistry (“…once your life is too stable, your creativity dies” - Yoshitaka Amano), not over-stimulation or the pressures of survival.

The underlying motif of Japan being a barren vacuum for foreign creativity seems to me… odd. The tradition of sending the most-promising youth out into Japan in order to return a report to the townsfolk who funded his endeavor still holds true today (at least, metaphorically… its for Europe and America… not only for these days, but for the last 200 years). However, now, there is reciprocal interest coming from the West in Japan, not just from the wash-ups or the pre-inundated.

If there are any gaijin that can retain their creativity in Japan, let alone have jobs not involving teaching English as a second language, all within the tamagoyaki pan that is Tokyo, I am sure the architects, Mark Klein and Astrid Dytham of Klein Dytham Architecture (http://www.klein-dytham.com/), count as the few. I hear their Leaf Chapel is a pretty popular place to get hitched...


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

zzberlin
zzberlin
hh
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 05:03 am (UTC)

<< Here's David Bowie, in a radio interview in the late 70s >>

Momus, you so want to be David Bowie@! and who could blame you? I wish I could be David Bowie. He is a supersmart American intellectual. I think!


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bikerbar
bikerbar
bikerbar
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 06:50 am (UTC)

The only name for foreign writers that springs to mind is Lafcadio Hearn (Koizumi Yakumo), and he predates all the writers Parry mentions. His influence was felt most strongly in Japan...

I think you reveal a key to your argument here:

"There's nowhere like New York's Chelsea or the East End of London for galleries. There are just a few commercial galleries. People in Japan don't really buy art. It's a bit like Berlin in that way." The art world, too, is a small pond.

Do people buy art anywhere? Regardless, isn't the literary world also a small pond ... as publishing and film have given themselves over to the blockbuster/megahit, very few are interested in the musings of an expat in Japan. Perhaps the internet is part of this shift as well: Blogging replaces the book. Expatriate culture has the observant position of outsider, yet the weakness of a small minority position.

When I first delved into the biography of Lafcadio Hearn I thought it would make a great film, but I realized the bulge-eyed wanderer would be hard to sell in these days of Tom Cruise ...

BTW I watched Howls Moving Castle and was struck by the folk Baroque architecture they lifted directly from Czech towns. The visit to the palace with the steps is the museum at the top of Vaclavske Namesti.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 08:19 am (UTC)

That's an interesting idea -- that perhaps Keene is the last of a kind of literary intellectual who doesn't even exist in the West any more. And so it's unfair to say "Where are the Western men of letters in Japan?" when there aren't really any in the West either.

I'm not sure I buy that, though. Art does get collected in the West, in massive events like Art Basel Miami. There are still literary events, like Pinter's Nobel Prize speech, that rock the literary world, or what's left of it.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 07:17 am (UTC)

He says right in the first paragraph: "The most interesting writing has been in sketches by those who have passed by and peered in without ever achieving intimacy with the culture."

It's not that no good literature has been made about Japan. It's that Japan is not a place where literary ex-pats thrive and do great work.


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sarmoung
sarmoung
The Empire Never Ended
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 07:38 am (UTC)

Interesting how Endo (Princess Masako as Western-educated...) is without fail tagged as Catholic novelist.

Having catalogued a library significantly comprised of Western travel writing about Japan, there's no doubting the volume of it. But the quality? Give it a hundred years and Chatwin's work might not seem any less dated than Isabella Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1878). Kipling wrote at length about his Japan visit in From Sea To Sea (1899) even if the country didn't "foster" him. As to Japanese writers in the UK? Err, Soseki was miserable in Clapham for two years and Mishima thought the Brighton seafront depressing.

None of these people became permanent residents and I doubt that this is really an issue to do with Japan at all. Rather, almost the entirety of literary types who head off in search of the new place that will give birth to a new life and new work fail. Writers like Bowles (Paul or Jane) are rare enough in any location. Japan is not really a special exception in this regard.

Keene's isolation sounds very miserable. Are we to believe that after living there for fifty years that this loneliness of the skull is the product of unassailable forces in Japanese society? Did he never consider analysis or a whack around the head from Azile? Or do the songs of single old men sound the same in all countries? Where does ostranenie end and autism begin?

(Sorry, that's rather a lot of questions! I've got a lip like Pete Burns from a damaged tooth and something of that irritation might be coming through. Now they're open, to the dentist...)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 08:11 am (UTC)

Well, I'm projecting here. But I think Keene's probably suffering from something I recognize all too well. He rejects his own culture and his own peers, and hangs out with people younger than him and from a different culture, partly for sexual reasons, partly because their otherness gives him every reason to celebrate "the good difference".

And yet it's only with those hated and abandoned people, his own peers from his own culture, that he can share his intellectual life. Since he's a writer, he's always making reports back to those people when he writes. He's internalized their perspective, because he writes in the English language, for English readers. He can shun them socially and sexually, but he can never escape them, however long he stays in self-imposed exile from their capital cities, London and New York.

And finally, he is judged as a writer by those capitals, not by Tokyo. As a lover... well, generations of gay young Japanese men know how he stands in that regard. I'm sure they won't be publishing their diaries in any language.


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 08:08 am (UTC)
literary expat in Japan

Well, one writer to check is the Booker-nominated David Mitchell - he lived and wrote in Japan for ages (but may have gone to Irish tax exile by now).


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sparkligbeatnic
sparkligbeatnic
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 08:25 am (UTC)
Re: literary expat in Japan


He's mentioned in the article.

Mitchell is the friend of an acquaintence in Hiroshima. Apparently he made very good use of his time in Japan to develop himself as a writer.

There are still many young aspiring writers who take advantage of the relatively good conditions for English teaching to jumpstart a career.


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hadleyburg
hadleyburg
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 10:58 am (UTC)
Donald Richie

I've just finished reading both The Japan Journals and The Inland Sea.

The Japan Journals covers over 50 years of the life of this American in Japan. It's a fascinating read, but probably not a lasting work of literature. The art is perhaps in the life itself and the country, rather than in the recording of it.

I wonder that perhaps a foreign artist who might produce a "lasting work" in New York finds that in Japan a more interesting work already exists - and he is living it.

Foreign writers in Japan tend to write about Japan. It's often non-fiction, and even when it is fiction the Japan aspect of the story that is centre stage. Does Japan itself trump art made by foreigners in Japan?

The Inland Sea is considered a classic in travel writing. Among books on Japan written by foreigners, I'd put it up there with Alan Booth's Looking for the Lost.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 11:47 am (UTC)
Re: Donald Richie

Yay for someone who's actually read the books we're discussing based on third-hand accounts of them! Always a good move...


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 12:17 pm (UTC)

This entry has clarified things a little. It's not that you want to live in Japan but can't afford to. You actually don't want to live there, only visit once a year. Just like people who live in England but who like to visit France once a year, to eat nice cheese and practise their rusty French. And on top of that, you actually find the intellectual climate there frustrating, and anything but invigorating. No dick-waving, no dialectical argument, it's all a banal show of mutual respect. That puts a lot of your japanophilia into perspective: after all, the things one wants from a country one visits for a few weeks every year (the exoticism of easily identified otherness) are not the same things one wants from a country one lives in. From this perspective, the ultra-conformism of Japan is refreshingly different, and nice to experience from a distance (the distance of not having to deal with it in a personal way at all).


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Sep. 14th, 2006 12:38 pm (UTC)

It's not quite like "people who live in England but who like to visit France once a year". I'd say it's more like preferring "the Japanese diaspora" to Japan itself. The Japanese diaspora is multi-culti, and contains many of the most creative Japanese people as well as those foreigners who love Japan. It contains the best of both worlds, and leaves all that's provincial and stifling in both the West and Japan behind.


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