Well, the end of the year came and went, but what I found fascinating as I trekked from the ReDot here to the Red, White and Blue there is how similar the closing of one year and the opening of another can be in these two great nations bracketing the Pacific. Not, of course, insofar as they share the same silly rites. After all, over here, people don’t congregate in a confetti-strewn, skyscraped center, to count down the seconds as an iconic dot descends whatever that is supposed to signify. Nor is there a Rose Parade where folks (generally teens disconnected from sane cogitation) camp out on concrete streets, tucked into sleeping bags for days, warmed only by Coleman lanterns, and nourished in an approximate sort of way by lukewarm TV dinners blasted on butane stoves. Over here you won’t find any ReDotPopper chucking spongy marshmallows at passing cars (another indecipherable signification), singing snippets from “Mama Mia” and “The Eyes of Texas” (off-key), then awakening bleary-eyed on January One to snap angled pictures of passing baton twirlers and motorized floats sporting B Movie idols or fading-Family TV icons, smiling through clenched teeth against the bone-numbing morning chill.
No, we have nothing like that over here.
Instead, we have televised songfests in which over a hundred singers be they of the enka or pop, hip-hop or rock persuasion don a team color and duke it out for red or white group supremacy. Such a mega-TV event goes a long way toward reproducing national culture (while reinforcing national solidarity). Then, as that show ends, and the gong at the local temple tolls midnight, we in ReDotPopland begin feverishly slurping buckwheat noodles don’t ask me why, probably because they’ve done it that way since Goddess Izanami said to God Izanagi: “I have a hole, and you have a pole, so let’s join them” (and the Japanese Islands were born) and the simultaneous ingestion causes a din great enough to ensure that no one on the block will fall asleep before the collective eat is complete.
And then, after we slumber, we again awake to more in the way of ritual intake. Come New Year’s morning we gobble gooey, unmasticatable rice cake (omochi) that floats in a brownish bath of chicken broth. And if we successfully negotiate that rite, there are January second newspapers to be read, reporting the number of “mochi fatalities”: death due to those gooey globs clogging the windpipes of the elderly, the brazen, the foolish, or the simply unfortunate. For the following week, we Japanese will repeat the tales of “asphyxiates by reason of rice cake” with a mix of disbelief, relief, and glee acting as if we’d mooned the devil and lived to tell the tale.
Meanwhile, back on January first: for those who survived the sundry rituals and are not inclined to snooze the day away, there are nationally-televised team marathons just in case one might be craving some sports-related diversion. The runners are decked out in shorts, flimsy tank tops, and thick woolen gloves; their breath escaping in thick clouds of frost every second stride. The spectacle giving those of us ensconced in the warmth of our homes another reason to feel that we’ve managed to moon the devil.
No, the US (or anywhere else you may have been closing down 2004) has nothing like this in the way of New Year’s fete.
But what you almost certainly have in the wherever-you-are over there, that we also happen to have in the ReDot over here, is the end-of-the-year “Couldn’t-Be-Missed-List” you know, the annual roll that ticks off (but generally counts down) the top 5-or-7-or-10 something-or-other of the past year. It can be anything from (take your pick): newsworthy persons to essential events to most unusual or influential or bizarre or otherwise fascinating chunks of life. Note for the curious: Japan doesn’t yet have a list of top 10 reality shows (despite the fact that ReDotPop is drowning in TVerite every show filthy with hidden mics and furtive cameras and paid stooges and staged reenactments). Despite our great fortune in being able to tap into this voyeuristic windfall, we in ReDotPopdom are probably nine to 18 months from catching up to the more culturally advanced nations of the west. For now, then, we must content ourselves with concatenations such as the 10 most talked about stories swimming through the circulatory soup of ReDotPop, circa 2004.
Counted down from less to best, the gist list would go something like this . . .
10. Dirty Politics Well, this is no biggy . . . what’s another year (anywhere in the world, but certainly in Japan) without another political scandal come to light? Over here, these things generally revolve around money-for-favors (although there is an occasional mistress or embezzlement scheme thrown in for variety’s sake); and, in the main, these iniquities almost always flow from the party in perpetual power, the Jimintou (or, the “Liberal Democratic Party”). And, inordinately, the miscreants reside in one particular faction: what is now called the “Hashimoto ha” a sect whose lineage can be traced back to prime ministers-slash-criminals Kakuei Tanaka (“Lockheed scandal”) and Noboru Takeshita (“Recruit scandal”). This time, former PM and chief backstage broker, Ryutaro Hashimoto got ticketed. Although some claim that pork-barrel politics are in line for imminent demise, there are still some interest groups, apparently, who are hedging their bets. In exchange for future consideration, the Dental Association offered Hashimoto the equivalent of one million dollars, cash. Sad to say this is pretty much SOP in Japanese politics such things truly come down the pike every other Christmas but on the entertainment side of the ledger, it did spawn one quote of note, when Hashimoto declared: “I am not saying I didn’t receive the money they may actually have given it to me. I just don’t remember.” Okay so these politicians really DO live a rarified kind of life. After all, let me ask you: would you have trouble recalling whether you‘d pocketed one million smackeroos? Happens every day, right? Or perhaps these pols are the beneficiaries of so many slush giveaways that it’s hard to keep track of them all. A million dollars? Hell, happens all the time.
9. Olympics Depending on where you live, the Olympics can be like a free flu shot: inoculation against all of the dangerous jingoism that feeds on itself and threatens to induce the kind of delirium in a host that can then produce life-threatening frenzy if not breaches in reasoned, restrained action that, in turn, might well be regretted for a generation or more. Unless of course, the inoculation does the reverse: empowering one to engage in egregious acts of licentious ego-centric chortling and self-aggrandizement. In which case what one gets is the kind of breaches in reasoned, restrained action that might be regretted for a generation or more. The critical variable in which way the drug drives one, of course, is environment. Or, better, location. Where one lives. For instance, it is not likely that those from the Madives or Guam or Trinidad and Tobago have much to shout about during the Olympic games much less, thump their chests and lord it over their global neighbors.
But for a nation like Japan, which invests so much time and money in training performers to provide booster shots to the collective ego, this summer provided one hell of an emotional kick. Proving that the national coffers were legitimately depleted; that tax revenues were well spent. For, this year’s Games well, aside from the slight embarrassment of ceding the gold (and silver) medals in baseball to, respectively, the Cubans and AUSTRALIANS (of all people!) was an Olympics worth crowing about. Sixth place overall and, with 37 medals, the highest tally for this ReDot nation ever; more than double the total for the Sydney games, four years before. Also, the nation garnered the most gold medals of any previous summer games. In upping its gold tally from five to sixteen, Japan logged the biggest increase of any nation between the Sydney and Athens competitions. The eight medals claimed in the pool were the most since the 1936 games in Berlin. And, important for national pride, in the one sport this nation has contributed to the games (judo), Japanese captured gold in eight weight categories its best performance ever. This included the men’s super heavyweight class, in which a Japanese hadn’t prevailed for 16 years.
Prior to the games it appeared as if the big story would be the women. The simple fact was that while male athletes had displayed individual excellence in the pool or on the mats, it was the female teams in field hockey, soccer, softball, basketball, and volleyball who qualified en masse for the games. Thus the media was abuzz with tales of “female supremacy” or, at the very least, Japanese women capable of co-existing at the world level (which, save for baseball and possibly soccer, the men couldn’t). Then came the Games. And despite the plethora of female entries, not one of the squads could match expectations. While the soccer team barely lost in a semi-final pairing with the eventual champion, the US, this wasn’t horseshoes; so the bottom line was “no medal, nothing to crow about”. And, as in the previous two Olympiads, the softball team had its gold medal hopes dashed this time by the Aussies. The bronze they secured produced contorted expressions on the podium, almost as if the players were tasting the precious metal that was wrapped around their necks.
Into this emotional void strode the male gymnasts. And, with little advanced warning, and much to the surprise of the pundits and their fellow competitors, the tumblers managed to claim team gold their first in 28 years. This was a stunning, Phoenix-like return for a once dominant national side, one that had claimed five consecutive titles from 1960 to 1976, but then, over a span of three decades, had repeatedly, almost spectacularly faltered. The effect was to galvanize a nation. And for days thereafter, all that ran 24-7 on TV, in the press, and over the Internet was chatter about those thrilling, triumphant, tumblers.
Of course, viewed by other statistics, Japan’s medal haul seemed rather underwhelming: out of 202 national entries, Japan was 42nd when population is factored in; 71st if GDP was taken into account. But this is arm-chair nit-picking. Among chest-thumpers, who bothers with numerical details? In a brave new world made safe by gun-packing “democrats”, all that matters is performance, right? And by that measure, Japanese could pat themselves on the back. “Mission accomplished” they could proclaim. Along with China which finished second in golds and third in total medals Japan was singled out by Olympic watchers as the nation to keep an eye on in summer 2008. Of course, talk is cheap (especially in a world full of gun-packing ideologues). So what will actually be achieved in four years is something that the JOC will worry about for the next three years; after that we can have this discussion all over again. As for 2004, all anyone cared about in ReDotPopdom was that Japan had ascended to a place among the elite; they were to be respected, if not feared, on the global stages of athletic performance.
8. Tama-chan It serves as a commentary on a society and derivatively, its culture to note what it is that its media most takes note of. The content presented for consumption speaks volumes not only about what is in public consciousness, but also what has been excluded or ignored. Thus is it that the story of the wayward Arctic seal helps capture what it means to be Japanese in the nascent years of the 21st century. “Tama-chan” was a scruffy, if not cuddly, sea mammal who happened into a channel abutting a town just off the Pacific Ocean. The animal’s name is a composite comprised of the location (the Tama River) into which the seal swam (no more than 1,000 miles from its normal swimming route) and the diminutive “chan” (which is employed as a Japanese term of endearment). Thanks to the constant stream of well-wishers, star-gazers and cultists who alternately fed, worshipped, and sought to have pictures taken with her, Tama-chan decided to remain in the area. Her refusal to return to the sea rated on-going news coverage, as well as engendering much public debate as to whether a cold-water beast could hack it in the rather steamy (not to mention, polluted) waters of Tokyo. It also prompted one group of would-be Tama liberators to attempt netting her and dragging her (forcibly, if need be) out to sea. To the public’s delight, Tama proved too elusive for her captors, thereby enhancing her mythical status.
Tama-chan also created controversy though not through any fault of her own when she was granted residency status by a local government This prompted long-term foreign residents to paint whiskers on their faces and march down to city hall demanding that they, too, be granted similar favorable treatment. In the words of the leader of this protest: “as you no doubt know, other mammals living in Japan particularly humans cannot receive a residency certificate.” Despite the inspired public relations stunt, special consideration did not prove forthcoming. More evidence to add to that thick file concerning cold-hearted, discriminatory, insensitive Japanese behavior toward their foreign guests.
Meanwhile, back in the bay, the “liberation incident” revealed the seal’s impressive capacity for ratiocination (if not simple survival smarts), as she then proceeded to disappear for two months. Her resurfacing might have been expected to elicit joy from her legion of fans, yet, surprisingly it was shock and dismay that came to be expressed. For Tama-chan now sported a fishhook accoutrement about the size of a cigarette extruding from the flesh alongside her right eye. After days of public hand-wringing on wideshows and in newspapers about whether and how best to treat this injury, the seal emerged from the watery depths one morning with the hook magically removed. Speculation then turned to whether this wound would become infected and what would then happen to her. In time, though, these obsequious concerns petered out. Tama-chan proved tough, reminding us all of what the country’s creation myths declare: nature is powerful, mystical and determinative; and its occupants are resilient in the face of even the most oppressive forces.
Beyond the creation myth, Tama’s tale is, in many ways, a reflection of the Japanese people’s intimate connection with if not fixation on nature. There is, at every turn in ReDotPop, but certainly in the case of Tama-chan, an anthropomorphizing inclination; the temptation to transform creatures such as animals (or trees, rocks, rivers and the like) into something more human. This can be seen in hundreds of everyday details: from the signs on bridges in which raging rivers rise up with fangs, talons and vengeful eyes warning people against wading, to campaigns by the airline and train companies displaying, for instance, an ostrich moguling down a sheer mountain face to the caption “We Want Snow”.
7. Psycho Neighbors It’s not necessary to watch Comedy Central or read the daily cartoon strips when one has North Korea as a next door neighbor feeding you their straight lines. These are guys so wacky, you never quite know what they’re going to do or say, which makes them a fascinating lot to regard, but also a bit scary seeing as how they now possess nuclear technology and a rudimentary intercontinental delivery system. Last year they were good for this humorous offering: after having infiltrated Japan on dozens of occasions over the past 30 years and kidnapped scores of Japanese citizens under cover of darkness, they then fessed up, but then had the temerity to inform the Japanese government: “if you want ‘em back, we’ll sell ‘em to you. Cheap. In fact, we might even be disposed to give y’all a group discount.”
So, when it came time to negotiate proof of death for one particular kidnappee, wouldn’t you know that those crazy clowns to the North had one more hilarious routine remaining up their sleeve. Not to be flip about this since this does involve human life and has been a very public, heart-rending ordeal for the parents of those still missing. In the case of one particular family, the Yokotas, it has been extremely excruciating: not only have they witnessed a stream of happy reunions for other abductees, but absent proof of death, they have been battered between poles of unsubstantiated hope that their daughter, Megumi, is still alive, and the bitter recognition that she is more than likely gone forever. The North Korean government, of course, being the heartless pigs that they continually prove themselves to be, did nothing to bring an end to the Yokota’s pain. For, in providing her bones for analysis, it was determined, that not only were the bones not Megumi’s, they belonged to two different people. This callous act was reminiscent of the time the Northerners submitted the remains of Kaoru Matsuki, a male abducted at the age of 26. Those bones turned out to be that of a 60-year-old woman. Moreover, the artifacts had endured multiple cremations. One question that naturally arises is: “under what circumstances would bones need to be burned more than once?” Compounding the North Korean embarrassment (although one suspects they don’t quite view it that way), the bones were shown to belong to four different people none of whom were Matsuki!
Back to the matter of Megumi Yokota: the coup de grace had to be when the Japanese government finally (after all these years) mustered the resolve to call those batty bullies to the North on their riff of malarkey; the North Koreans responded (with a straight face and adopting a victimized tone) that Yokota’s husband ‘‘is showing anger’’ at Japan’s conclusion that the remains were not Megumi’s. Then they hissed: ‘‘As long as the Japanese ultraright conservative forces say (the remains) are fake, we will demand their return, together with the results of the tests, in line with a request by her husband.’’ In effect, give us our toys, we’re going home, and we ain’t talkin’ to y’all no mo!” The political equivalent of: you’ve caught us messing with you so all that’s left for us is to stalk out of the room and slam the door on the way out. You see, you never know what comedic routine they’re going to rehearse on the world stage next. Which means that while it may be a Brown-Uniform-No-Pop world over there, their act sure does fit well through the ReDotPop aperture over here.