Saturday, June 12, 2004
I READ THE NEWS TODAY, OH BOY
Persons disposed to Japan know all too well what the headlines in this country have read since yesterday [NOTE: I STARTED THIS ONE ONE JUNE 3, BUT HAVE BEEN SLOW IN FINISHING IT UP DUE TO SOME OTHER PRESSING DEADLINES], and what they still read today:
12-year-old girl dies after classmate slashes her neck at school
Below the liberty has been taken of quoting in full the story from the Kyodo News as reported in Japan Today. The original page is worth a passing glance, since it's peppered with the kind of comments that hurt more than help. But then again, what will be said here may run the risk doing just the same. In any event, the quote:
"A 12-year-old girl died Tuesday after a female classmate allegedly slashed her neck with a paper cutter in a classroom at a Nagasaki elementary school. Satomi Mitarai died of massive blood loss shortly after the attack in a study room at Okubo Elementary School in Sasebo.
The police took the 11-year-old suspect into custody and questioned her on a voluntary basis, adding they are gathering information about the incident from teachers and pupils at the school. Mitarai, daughter of Kyoji Mitarai, head of the Mainichi Shimbun's Sasebo bureau, had been called to the study room by the suspect during lunch time, the police said."
Whether one is fluent in Japanese or just starting out, this link to the video of an NHK follow-up broadcast to this story is revealing on both semantic and sheer sensational levels. Comments are given by the news anchor to the effect that the shot was called well in advance on an internet BBS by the perp. By the way, in case you need a name to go along with the body...the young girl who died was Satomi Mitarai.
Oh, about one year ago, a very similar incident occured in the very same city of Nagasaki. Curious. Perhaps it's just the sweltering Japanese summer heat that does strange things to people. Yes, that must be it.
On a personal level, as an American in Japan, I am often questioned by my Japanese acquaintances on the nature of 'American violence' and the kind of psychology of the groups of individuals that cause it. The fact that I was raised in one of the heartlands of the gun lobby, itself teeming with acolytes of the Second Amendment it worth mentioning.
I did everything that I was expected to do as a child, and yet still somehow I turned out...well, OK. Of course, my parents did everything they were supposed to do as well, which is why I've no blame to place.
Regarding my youth and guns, I think I must have been given a BB gun by the time I turned 10, 22 calibre rifles followed. After them, there were more powerful calibres (I can't remember the names), pistols, and shotguns. I was made to hunt all manner of game many times, but was never good at it. Oh, I never wound up actually killing anything, by the way. Although I was quite a marksman when it came to target practice, I would often just watch my prey - usually a deer or fowl - through the scope, crosshairs trained on its breast as I was trained to do, but instead of shooting, simply admiring its grace.
Of course I did kill from time to time. Eventually, I grew bored with the whole thing, and eventually dear father got the picture, basically giving up on having the huntsman son. Thank goodness for both of us! When I got to public high school a few years later, I saw the guns being leveled at a entirely different animal, the human animal, me. I wonder if I was ever beheld for my beauty...but that's another story, and Mr. Moore has addressed this in full in his writing and his work.
Nevertheless, when I recount my less than quaint story of 'firearms and me' to my friends here, jaws quickly drop, mouths are soon agape, and my Japanese listeners stand amazed. "See! America IS the most violent country in the world!", they often say. In the beginning, I could do little but agree with them. For one thing, I myself held very much the same opinion. Another thing that lead me to an accord with my naysaying friends was that strangest of things: the population of American citizens/expats in Japan.
IT TAKES ALL KINDS...
There are basically only ultra-conservative members of the Right (i.e. the military or business population) here, and ultra-radical members of the Left (i.e. students, artists, misfits). 'The middle' if it even indeed exists anymore in American politics anymore, is conspicuously absent. Naturally I fall into somewhat Left-leaning group, which I think occupies politically a somewhat 'higher ground' abroad, although the former group is more visiable and more vocal it seems. The point to this tangent is to elucidate the fact that Japanese people, when given such extreme examples of representatives of diametrically opposed groups, tend themselves to develop hyperbolic opionions: Indeed, surrounded by media and real-life images of military America (i.e. recent overzealous efforts to bring the luminous gift of Democracy to the dark continents...if they need it or not, and the numerous bases of the various military branches to be found here in Japan) America is INDEED the most violent country in the world!
"And though the holes were rather mall,
They had to count them all"
The Beatles, A Day in the Life
America is not the most violent country in the world. I propose that it is rather simply the MOST FREQUENTLY VIOLENT country in the world. Yes, I'll grant that in a heartbeat: the absolute, unquestionable nature of the sheer QUANTITY of American violence, both domestic and international. We do not discriminate. As for the QUALITY of the violence (some would prefer the term its nature), I would venture to say that Japan in fact as been, and is still latently a much more violent country by nature IF judged in terms of quality. Just one rough, sweeping stroke into the underbelly of the history of this country, and a over a thousand years of feudal conflict by sword and arrow, the psychological embers still smouldering in the modern Japanese mind, come spilling out.
Then there are the atrocities of the Japanese military in Asia and the Pacific during the 20th century, which have still not been forgotten let alone forgiven buy the neighboring countries. The Japanese people are the most beloved nation in the world when it comes to the sentiments of Americans and Europeans - who herald them mostly as the victims of the atomic bomb and the last prophets of aestheticism and beauty. They are both. They are neither. They are something much more, and Europe cannot...does not desire to see this. The Japanese people are the most hated in the world when it comes to the vendettas of other Asians - who view them as fallen conquerors now risen again. They are both. They are neither. The Japanese are something less than this. Asia refuses to integrate as the EU has done because it cannot bear the thought of the return of its Prodigal Son. Why? How can we explain away this paradox? And furthermore, how do the Japanese feel about it and themselves? If I were forced to choose, I'd say that they probably suffer from a huge inferiority complex, as do Americans, but for totally different perhaps diametrically opposed reasons.
THE MOST VIOLENT COUNTRY IN THE WORLD: JAPAN
One often hears of shooting and violence in America, true. However, before the verdict is delivered as to which the MOST violent country, a moment has to be taken to really consider the essence of death - of killling - using a guns (the M.O. of American death) compared and contrasted with short, bladed weapon at close range (the M.O. of Japanese death). The actions and what they imply are altogether different levels of violence.
The blade? Here a violence of intimacy may be beheld. This is opposed to the utter detachment of killing using a gun. The gun is easy, too easy, and this explains a lot of the death and misuse surrounding it. Ready, Aim, Fire! In the 'heat of the moment' the ERGONOMICS OF DEATH boil down to nothing more than just a squint of the eye and the squeeze of the index finger. In an instant the teenager, become Angel of Death, has done his work, and without even splattering red blood on his Air Jordans, Le Coq Sportif, or whatever. He is detached, emotionally, physically, existentially, and in almost every other way.
I have killed animals that were my prey with a gun. It was easy. There's a little hole going in, and a big hole going out, and if you get it fixed, you can hang the fallen animal on your wall without too much morbidity. The same thing has been going on in Iraq and Afghanistan for years. Just one push of a button. Anyone can do it, even WOMEN can do it. And it's much easier to sleep at night afterwards. Bang, bang.
The blade? It becomes part of my body, and extension of it. I must insert it into my victim - and sometimes even with honor, love, fealty, etc. in the case of seppuku in the case of the Samurai - and if I am not well trained, I must do it again and again, repeatedly, until the act is complete. The distance must be closed. Where is the detachement of the firearm? I can see his face, I can feel his breath, and I can see the crimson come pumping out of him, onto my blade, onto my clothing. I must finish the act, and so I do with a dozen strokes, slashes and slices. I am physically spent. This is a visceral death as much as it is a visceral way of killing. To extinguish the flame of life of another being by the mode, I must join with it, burn with it for a moment, and then rob it of its source of fuel in terms of blood or oxygen or both.
I have killed animals with only a knife before; It wasn't easy. I can still remember how long it took for them to die...and for me to forget.
Intimacy with death is not always a bad thing, but it is often misunderstood. In fact, often it can invoke an extreme respect for the creature that is to die. Case in point: Many non-Japanese claim to enjoy the taste of fresh Japanese seafood...until they actually visit an eatery here in Japan at which they can be treated to the sight of having their food, still living, seperated from its own constituent parts, itself, its own life, and and the process, from the would-be diner's desire to ingest it. That is, only if they fail to realize the love and intimacy of the act...not of killing itself, it's something else that's occuring here, isn't it? This is beauty-in-death-in-beauty over and over, and not the morbid kind that the Romantic/Decadents of the 19th century would have longed for. This is because there is a kind of love here for the material and its exposition. We all know that Roland Barthes has addressed this expertly in more than one place. Do not hesitate to re-read him.
And yet...Years ago, I spent countless restless nights with a bayonet resting on my chest listening to the sounds around me, in case it needed to be quickly drawn and used to seperate an assailant from his life - and not out of love. But that is another story, and one with which Barthes couldn't offer me much help. It will never be told in these pages.
The history of the innumerable 'first person SHOOTER' games goes back almost to the very beginnings of gaming culture. However the 'first person STABBER' game is a little harder to come by. I would like to say that I've never heard of one, but actually, it would be a lie. The only time that I've encountered such a game was - surprise - here in Japan. I saw a game in Yokohama in which the player, in the role of a Samurai, took up a Nihon-To (Japanese sword) shaped interactive object, wired into the game console, and proceeded to slice away at his foes, with the very realistic sounds of bodies being impaled upon the blade, and vast quantaties of blood spraying the screen (not the player...they haven't tried that kind of thing since Smell-O-Vision. The queue for the game wound around the corner, from where I stood peeking, transfixed at the vast absence of honor, love, fealty...these three.
Anytown, U.S. of A. Time: Why not right now? American kid freaks-out, loses it, and goes on a killing rampage. The death-toll tends to fun as high as the detachment from the act of killing, which in turn is only possible to the extent that the acculturated weapon - a gun - allows. Unfortunately, this choice allows for quite a bit of detachment indeed. Yes, we often do hear about stabbings in American schools, but they seem to be in the minority, and are infrequently fatal or at least less sensational.
Dokodemo arisouna machi...blah, blah, blah.
When a Japanese kid runs headfirst into the brickwall of their own sanity - as they are tending do to at an alarmingly increasing frequency here - the implement of death, a knife/cutter, yeilds a low bodycount, but a high level of absolute violence. Imagine the sheer volume of blood that must have been present at the scene of the recent homocide in Nagasaki; There were numerous and repeated cuts to the throat and limbs of the body. I'm simply not convinced that an American pre-pubescent child would be as predisposed to choose this method of violence as opposed to their Japanese counterpart.
Simply a matter of the relative ease of acquisition? Perhaps. But aren't they both just dead in the end? Why does the method of killing matter? Well...I pose to you the following: Execution with add-on options. Why not? If YOU were given a choice beteen being shot to death in an instant or knifed to death over a few minutes, which would you select? What does that tell us about the level of violence? Given this, how can we say that the Japanese in this case isn't MORE violent?
Also a quick work about the pressures that Japanese kids feel at school. It seems to me, mostly based on the voices of a dozen or so school-age kids that I've met here, and also on the discussion that are held on 'SHABERI-BA', a no-holds barred talk show for teens to voice their problems, that the whole system of 'senior/inferior' (the senpai/kouhai thing) that's in place can cause a lot of pressure to build up. They are expected to take being hazed in stride. In an obligatory fashion. In Japan this can lead to a lot of strange ways of being bullied and teased. It might seem like a bad parody of a movie about 1950s American high-school life, that is if it weren't real...well...anyway it is real, and also way off the scale, at least from a non-Japanese point of view.
I remembered that one teen was literally broken down in tears when talking about having a 'kanchou' performed on him, and the indelible psychological damage that followed. This word translates to 'enema, or injection' in English, but the literal translation doesn't even come close to the cultural implications of the act. It is grotesque, but something that still happens from time to time in Japan in middle/high-school. Basically what happens is that boys (it's usually boys, but I've heard talk of tomboys doing the same things) in a 'senpai/kouhai' relationship are horsing around and one of them gets the bright idea to jam both of his index fingers up the rear of his friend. The pose is something like holding a pistol with a double-handed grip. Here's a pic...brace yourselves.
Please note that this usually occurs with the victim fully clothed, for example in class or in the hallway, but I've heard that it sometimes happens in the locker room while a change of clothing is taking place, and in that case, the scale of the act is dramatically escalated. This is somewhat tangential, but I've heard from my Koren-born friends that in fact, this practice is MUCH more widespread and harsh in Korea, and that in fact, ever so often, school children actually die from it, or are hospitalized because of it.
Anyway, the point here is that literally, these kids are being asked to 'grin and bear it' along with a lot of other forms of hazing that have probably died out in America and England. (I'm not sure about Europe.) At least in America, the social situation doesn't seem to dictate to the child that they are responsible for actually playing along with this kind of maltreatment, and so they are most likely, through the immediacy of their reprisal, to at least communicate fully their desire not to be treated in this way. The pressure is thus reduced, and that critial point, the meltdown, probably is reached much less frequently that it might otherwise. As for the Japanese kids, I can only assume that each passing day pushed them one step closer to the edge.
Oh, just in case you think this whole 'kanchou' thing is just hyperbole, here are a few pics to illustrate the level of socal permeation.
Japanese Pro Wrestler 'kanchou'ing his opponent. Naturally, this happens all the time in American Pro Wrestling, right?
A wholesome Father and Son 'kanchou' session during a family car trip. Didn't Norman Rockwell portray this scene once?
Here's a link to an important guy in Japan saying some very controversial things about the current state of the mentality of Japanese kids, and then retracting his statement...
"You'll die as you lived
In a flash of the blade,
In a corner forgotten by no one.
You llived for the touch
For the feel of the steel
One man, and his honour."
Iron Maiden, Flash of the Blade
Now we have to talk for a moment about the usefulness/uselessness of the concept of 'Bunbu Ryodo' in Yukio Mishima's explanation of Japan. Although Mishima himself had somewhat mixed feelings about the term - which might be translated in rough terms as 'the way of the pen and the sword' - it basically implies that Japan has been given the mandate that its identity is best defined a duality that is as literary as it is militaristic. This he saw as a kind of Japanese spiritual manifest destiny: To fully occupy both realms of possibilities, against all odds and regardless of the costs incurred.
CHOTTO MATTE, PUREBAKKU!
This often nebulous concept is given the typical 'Tinseltown-treatment' (i.e. token 'Happy Ending' w/main character shown returing to the arms of his waiting love, thus fleeing the ebb and flow of history) in the recent film 'The Last Samurai'. Starring Tom Cruise with Ken Watanabe and the radient Koyuki in tow, and of course, being a Hollywood creation, the measure of its success has already be judged by its creators in inverse proportion to the way in which i judge it: how plump a cash cow it is or is not.
Thus, as a work of art, it falls flat, since the 'message' is all too safely encapsulated in a historical bubble, freeing the audience from the responsibility of response. The fact the this film was serendipitously, extremely relevant as a metaphor to explain recent unfolding events involving newly (U.S.) defined Japanese position in Iraq and the very constitutionality role of the SDF (Self Defense Forces, or 'Jieitai' in Japanese') itself seems to have gone unnoticed by the general populace of this country, let alone the starlets of Hollywood. Pity. All of this recalls with a startling feeling of deja vu the events that took place in 1970 with the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, and the surrounding controversy.
This is one reason some claim that Mishima felt like a stranger in a strange land in post-WWII Japan. He is viewed by some as maintaining his deathwish even as early as the time of his 'failed' (or was it faked?) physical examination for the ongoing if not futile Japanese draft near the end of WWII. Perhaps he couldn't bear being in a country in which, from a national level downward, each and every citizen, were forbidden their 'martial natures' in one form or another. Even some public displays of physical exertion that had ties with antebellum Japanese politics and/or Emperial references such as Sumo or Kendo were, for at least a while, more or less taboo. Silence and not a dignified one, reigns.
Naturally (over)compensation for this, what Mishima held to be the deficiencies of postbellum Japanese culture led him to seek some pretty radically misconceived counter-balences in the late 60's, his over-the-top fashion, a disproportionate physique (he tended to focus only on upper-body building. Not to mention his now infamous 'Shield Society', his failed coup d' etat and his subsequent suicide for instance.
Some would explain away a lot of this as a kind of extended, abstruse way of dealing with a harsh childhood at the hands of his grandmother, and rightly so. But the residue of his ideas that can't be dispelled with such ease perhaps is in fact a genuine effort to strike a new balance between that which had only been sundered fifteen years earlier. The denouement of the comicotragic character of antebellum Japanese literary culture took place in the flash of a blade, but it need not have been that way, and there was perhaps an element of truth to the whole thing.
Granted, the outcome was perhaps for the best, as there was in fact a very concrete undercurrent of authentic, Right-Wing thought constantly present in such events which threatened to sweep across the young plain of emerging, young Japanese political thought with and old fashioned hellfire that would have been as damning at that time as it would be now. (NOTE: At the time of this writing Right-Wing political thought is actually resurgent in its new 'Neo-Con' guise here in Tokyo.) But a kind of total prohibition, the denial of even the possibility of the use of war on the national level and traditional forms of martialism was a direct denial of the reality the the Japanese had known up until that time.
Can it be said that the repercussions of this total ban are not being felt at this time, albeit in a very indirect way? The logic behind the rhetoric of this inflammatory question, which draws a questionable parallel between the relationship of the national policy of a country and a kind of 'trickle-down' effect on the psyche of the general populace may not be as perilous as it actually seems; there are extant precedents. All of the persons old enough to remember pre=war Japan agreed that this kind of incident would have been unthinkable anytime when they were growing up.
After all, Mr. Moore does bring up the formidable coincidence in his film Bowling for Columbine that the town of Littleton, where the lamentable high-school shootings occured, is also the site of some pretty serious weapons manufacturing for the U.S. Government by the private company Lockheed. Here's an excerpt from the relevant article on his webpage:
BRILLIANT PEBBELS, JUST BRILLIANT!
"The Truth: Lockheed Martin is the largest weapons-maker in the world. The Littleton facility has been manufacturing missiles, missile components, and other weapons systems for almost half a century. In the 50s, workers at the Littleton facility constructed the first Titan intercontinental ballistic missile, designed to unleash a nuclear warhead on the Soviet Union; in the mid-80s, they were partially assembling MX missiles, instruments for the minuteman ICBM, a space laser weapon called Zenith Star, and a Star Wars program known as Brilliant Pebbles."
The reflexive, radiative effect of such a background of violence outlined here by Moore is frankly pitiable. The voice of authority (i.e. the American Government) does not observe the Golden Rule, at least not on an international level, so why should the citizens of such a country be expected to NOT treat the lives of their own countrymen with the same kind of contempt?
TO LIVE AND DIE IN JAPAN
Thus read another recent headline from a video report on the NHK website. I could find no English translation of the brief Japanese paragraph available, so I made my own, given directly below.
EDUCATION REGARDING THE VALUE OF LIFE TO BE RE-EXAMINED
"At a conference of the heads of the various administrative divisions of the areas of Tokyo-to, Hokkai-do, Osaka-fu, Kyoto-fu, and remaining prefectures of the Japanese Monbusho (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) regarding the [recent stabbing] incident on the 2nd, it was resolved to undergo a nationwide school re-examination into whether or not the value of life was being sufficiently communicated, and that the children would be accurately counseled regarding their individual problems."
Translated from the NHK News Homepage
Here, I'll take the liberty of saving the Monbusho the effort, what will amount to a lot of wasted time, trouble and money. From the looks of things, I'll wager that Japanese children have an increasingly myopic view of the actual value, and the fragile nature of life itself. Of course I do live in a glass house, and so I've gone ahead and thrown the first volley of stones right through my own window smashing it into a million shards and slivers. It's only after such a feat that I would ever take aim at this country that I have such affection for.
Welcome to the jungle
We take it day by day
If you want it you're gonna bleed
But it's the price you pay
- Guns N Roses, Welcome to the Jungle
The simple fact is that modern Japanese kids have just as little respect for life as their American counterparts, and although they are less frequently prone to physical outbursts, they are nonetheless capable of exceedingly brutish levels of violence when it comes down to it...but the reason for this somewhat elusive: American kids kill other American kids because they are totally immersed in the law of the jungle, from cradle to grave. And why not bring along a gun if you're trying to come out on top in a mutual big game hunt? Bang, bang.
PAX IN VITRO
Japanese kids, on the other hand, enjoy a glut of what amounts to a kind of vacuous, incubated peace. Observed locally, the effects of this might seem somewhat trival, if not harmless: As their American teenage counterparts sit at full attention on the NYC subway, wait on pins and needles for whatever violent end (real or imagined) might await them, their wallets, or both. On the Yamanote line, however, folks nod off, purses and mouths agape, manbags left unguarded, dreaming of...what I'm not sure.
Last year I saw something that I won't soon forget. I was in Shinjuku (one of the busiest stations in Tokyo, kind of like Grand Central in NYC if you need a point of reference) and of course there was a little elementary school kid, school uniform neatly in place, train pass suspended from his rucksack by a cute bungie cord, making his way across the platform by himself...that is, until he basically accosted by a couple of well-meaning tourists. See, they were newly arrived for the U.S.A., and were apparently dumbfounded at the sight of this tyke making his way across a platform teeming with people all by his lonesome. So assuring themselves that he MUST be lost or seperated from his mother, they took it upon themselves to 'help' him by trying to take him by the hand and trying to lead him to a train station worker. Naturally, he was resisting with all his might, and protesting loudly. Finally, a Japanese woman had to tell the tourists in broken English that "In Japan, boy can go by alone on train to school." They finally got the picture, and so did I and I stood looking on, wondering how long it would take before this little guy got a bite taken out of him by The Big Apple, or how long it would take this tourist couple fresh of the boat to ease up a little. Hummm...Wasn't there something in the middle of these two postures that would be a little more healthy, a little more...universal? Still not so sure.
But when projected onto the international level, what then? Notably, this little anecdote also sadly mirrors the current Japanese international political position. Who will be so assumptivly caring as to take Japan's hand and lead it to a new safety? And from what will it be protected?
Spinoza once said that 'Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.' and I firmly believe it. Now of course this is not a call to let slip the dogs of war...At the most just to give that 'puppy of naivete' a loving smack on the nose in the hopes that he'll learn one day.