December 14th, 2009


Overwhelmed by milk

Japan is -- continues to be -- the most different society I know. While it may superficially look like any number of other advanced modern cultures, this place has something very, very strange going on just below the surface. I've been fishing about for a word or phrase to describe one important dimension of this strangeness, a thing I pick up here as I move around. The first word that occurs to me is "motherlove". But perhaps a better term would be "ambient impersonal tenderness". Japan is a society shockingly full of ambient impersonal tenderness, overlapping with tender-mindedness, shading into tweeness.

I catch glimpses of this in the difference between what my defensive reflexes tell me reality is like, and what the Japanese reality often turns out to be. For instance, yesterday I caught sight of what looked like a plate of smashed glass in the wall beside me. Reflexively, my brain made a little story, a story that would be plausible in Berlin but not here: "Anti-globalism protesters have smashed the glass to show their resentment against a world system they feel excludes and alienates them." In Berlin it's very common to see smashed glass in bank or office windows, and anarchist or anti-globalist slogans left as a sort of signature.

But on second glance I see that the "smashed" pane is actually covered by a protective plastic sheet, wrinkled in such a way that it makes the glass look shattered. This is Tokyo, not Berlin. My thoughts drift to an exhibition by Yoko Ono of holes shot in sheets of glass, a show called A Hole I saw the other day at Gallery 360. Ono invites viewers to look through the violent hole in the glass (which recalls Lennon's smashed, bloody glasses on the cover of her Season of Glass album) and use it as a way to frame a new view of the world. One reading of this show, seen in Tokyo, is that a Japanese woman is saying to Japanese people: "The society I have adopted as my home is a much more violent one than the one we're used to; look, someone shot my husband. Violence can easily become a way of framing our view of the world."

But daily life in Japan is the opposite of violent. Take the panel discussion I attended at Vacant the other night. The last panel discussion I attended in Berlin turned into a weird attack, by all the other panelists, on a man who goes regularly to Africa to collect ethnic music for his record label. This man -- meek and nervous in manner -- was attacked (subtly, in a devil's-advocatey way) for certain post-colonial contradictions in his stance, for a certain low-level "hypocrisy" or inconsistency, for turning non-property into property, and for participating in the music industry's obsessive "archive fever". The poor man became a symbol of everything we hate about our own system!

Now, I was one of the subtle attackers, and I can only say we did it because we thought the conversation would be boring without some element of conflict, and without the kind of "criticality" we've been taught is good, or at least good form. But the other night at Vacant the dynamic between the panelists was completely different. There was indeed something "vacant" about the conversation, but also something kind, even tender. Two women photographers were questioned by a male photographer, Masafumi Sanai. I was struck by the casually caressing way Sanai asked his questions and the tenderness with which he interjected his "yes I am listening, oh, that's interesting" noises. I'm sure linguists have a name for these sounds -- they're much more important in Japan than in the West, where you'd just tend to listen silently (possibly critically) then respond. Here you interject "uh... oh... ah... so..." syllables in a rhythm and a tone which, to me, makes the conversation sound so empathetic that it's almost like a minor act of lovemaking.

So while Sanai coaxed his guests permissively, caressingly with these rhythmic interjections, the women photographers themselves had a similar relationship with the audience: one, essentially, of coquetry; of casual, relaxed, intimate flirtation. The BBC's Hard Talk -- conversational fisticuffs, or a theatrical approximation of it -- this very much was not. It was more like a very, very light form of group sex. It rode on a clear empathy between clearly-differentiated men and women; the gender element was much more structurally central than it would ever be allowed to be in the West, where the questioner would (in the name of enlightened gender politics) be doing his best to relate to the women "as if they were men" (and of course this careful "non-misogyny" is precisely where I think the West carelessly encodes its misogyny).

Wearing my "Western eyes" I'm perpetually shocked by the sexy shortness of skirt and bareness of leg I see on Tokyo public transport, because of course through Western eyes this betokens a "sexualisation" which will surely lead young women "duped by a male-dominated society" into dangerous situations where they'll be taken advantage of, abused, even raped (though of course associating skirt length too explicitly with rape becomes a reactionary argument). We Westerners extrapolate from short skirts out into a whole series of awkward or dangerous scenarios played out in a low-empathy, low-trust, Western-style environment, a Resident Evil sort of environment where you never know what alienated person or flesh-eating zombie you're going to meet next. But these projections don't match the Japanese context, a situation of almost-twee security, cleanliness, low crime, low-to-no anomie, and familial tenderness between strangers (with occasional disturbing gropings into the territory of incest).

On my travels I've been taking pictures (or sound recordings) of representations of authority figures, and without exception they're ludicrously cute and empathetic. Policemen and construction workers on warning signs look like cute children, they bow and smile and intervene with friendliness. Even when they frown they look like pouty, sulky children. Now, as a British person I'm used to a certain idea of a construction worker, or white van man; he will, I know, leer openly at women who pass his site, make loud judgmental comments about me because I look weird or effeminate, and probably not hold back long if I'm crossing the road in front of his vehicle. But in Japan not only is the illustrated construction worker solicitous and tender in the signs that warn me that work is going on, the real thing is just as respectful, ushering me past with a bow and a shining guidance wand. I actually want to weep with gratitude, because my Western training has led me to expect vitriol, vague menace, and imputations against my masculinity from security staff, police, and construction workers.

There's an extraordinary infantilisation or feminisation of the figures of construction, logistics and policing. A white van (or, more likely, a tiny white truck) rushes past, and certainly a man is driving. But when he signals left, a female voice emits from the truck asking us, tenderly, to take care. Escalators, trains and elevators too come equipped with female voices, solicitous authority figures, and soon the entire city seems to be an automated female authority figure, robotic, gentle and maternal. It's not too far-fetched, I think, to connect this to suggestions that Japan was once a matriarchy. Certainly, the whole society seems to have a mother complex, and a diffuse feminine atmosphere of tenderness mixed with a certain nannying authoritarianism pervades the land.

Yesterday I went with friends to see a studio theatre version of Shuji Terayama's autobiographical 1974 film Den'en ni Shisu. We, the audience, were treated -- kindly but firmly -- like children as we were "boarded" into the tiny Shimokitazawa theatre. We were called up the narrow steps by ticket number, then ushered through into the theatre, where a belted, braced, flat-capped actress on the stage shouted affable instructions and ushers made sure we found seats. To be "mothered" in this way is odd -- the female authority figure is a collective mother, not one you have a personal connection to -- and yet becomes more and more familiar when you're in Japan. Possibly Japanese -- herded around by this primal mother the whole time, treated like children, indulged and spoiled, suckling from the social oppai -- become mollycoddled milksops, the most idiotically sheltered consumer society ever known to man. But possibly it's also massively wise, the secret of their social success, and a huge saving of psychic energy. Why be manly? Why be individualistic? Why struggle, why fight, why criticize? Any revolution here would have to be a revolution against the ambient tenderness of this great primal social mother, but revolution against mother is not in the nature of mammals. We need the milk.