[19 November 2003]

By tjmHolden

The Japanese call it amakudari—descent from heaven. It is a technical term referring to the practice in which senior officials in the public sector retire to cushy jobs in the private sector, reap huge rewards for themselves, and secure points of connection between companies and government. This often leads to bid rigging, bribery, inappropriate ministerial influence, and unnecessary public works projects. Amakudari explains why the bureaucracy is able to retain control over the political-economic nervous system of the country. Such cozy connections also account for why amakudari has been fingered as a major obstacle to reforming Japan.

Amakudari is a term Japanese recognize and write about. It exists so it is. But ask a Japanese the name for its opposite—the ascent from hell—and they quickly fall silent. There is no word for this concept, they confess. And why? My Japanese friends tell me it is because they can’t recall any such case in the real world. It doesn’t exist, so it is not. But that is all about to change. Because the ascent from hell is cropping up all around us, primarily in the fertile fields of ReDotPop, threatening to send stalks soaring into the heavens. Which is why we’ll soon have to locate a name for this, just as soon as everyone sifts through the indicators, recognizes the pattern, catches onto the concept. That’s something we’re going to start doing today.

The first example of the ascent from hell can be found where we left off last time. Recall the image embedded in the previous column: wherein a middle-aged man in pinstripes was being tossed in the air by a mob of joyous baseballers? If you concluded, as many familiar with Japan certainly might, that this was the ritual act of celebration attendant to successful completion of a sporting campaign, you would have been, shall we say, way off-base. Because, in fact, what you were witnessing was a man in the act of flying away. One human’s attempt to escape a force no less absolute, inexorable—nay compelling and all-consuming—than the gravity that insistently binds subjects to earth: the iron cage of Japanese social organization. The ReDot equivalent of mortal hell.

For, no more than a month after going airborne, this man—“Hoshino” is the name stenciled on the back of his shirt—literally took flight: resigning his position as kantoku (manager) of Japan’s longest-suffering, second most popular baseball team. Having delivered pennant-starved Osaka its first title in nearly two decades, the second-year skipper decided to yank himself from the game he loved and served passionately for nearly 50 years. Sure, he had reasons aplenty: his wife succumbed to cancer a couple of seasons before, and his mom passed two days before his team clinched. And there were episodes of his own ill-health over the past year; an irregular pulse and high blood pressure; perhaps an imperfect kidney, to complement his diabetes. But that was all front stage posturing, par-for-the-course in a public façade culture. There was more at work here than mere burnout or the need to catch up on unrequited grief, for Mr. Hoshino.

As it always is in life—but particularly in Japanese life where chimes rustling in the wind speak as loud as canon balls streaking overhead—the tip-offs lay in the little things hovering around the edges, tinkling in the background. For instance, the fact that while Hoshino was being tossed skyward, an assistant coach held a photo of the manager’s late wife, Misako, within view. Or the fact that on the day of his mother’s funeral, Hoshino was sitting in a dugout, dutifully filling out line-up cards and counting balls and strikes; obediently serving his company, endeavoring to deliver that long-elusive pennant to his short-sighted employers. All of which might account for why the news of his resignation surprisingly “leaked” the day before his Tigers began the next leg in their quest for a championship: “The Nihon Series”.

Further signs could be located in the reaction of the top brass, the bosses who sat above (and apparently smothered) Hoshino in the hierarchy. First they took the unusual step (for Japan) of loosing a fusillade, where a soothing chime would have sufficed. The public displeasure they expressed about the timing was no less distracting to team concentration and a threat to collective morale than Hoshino’s admission of imminent exit that they so decried. Rather than reserve reprimands for the backroom and play out the “front stage” act that accords with a centuries-old formula (that is, to spout sentiments of sympathy and even appreciation for the man who had sacrificed physical and emotional well-being to deliver them their title), the Gods above saw fit to issue thunderbolts. And in the face of this conflagration Hoshino promptly lost the first two games of the series.

Once the Tigers fell four games to three, more sparks were generated by the head guys. They “magnanimously” declared that they would hire their stricken savior as consultant for a justly earned tenure of . . . twelve months. Uh, twelve months? Hell, any simpleton versed in the Japanese Culture 101 can crack that code. Twelve months of wedging yourself into a suit and tie and schlepping your bones to a musty desk in the mildewed corner of a dilapidated practice facility amounts to a leering slap in the face; a cynical public dissing of King Ghidorah proportions. Twelve months is a canon shot streaking straight for the bulls’ eye painted on the collective Japanese crania.

So, mildly interesting story, but the world is full of petty people and evil employers, right? Why is it worthy of discussion in a column on ReDotPop? Because of what happened next, and then next again, and then again—all in the span of a single week. What, in fact, appears to be percolating all around us ReDotPopsters like lava burbling up through the fissures that have opened up in the ground beneath our feet. All over Japanese society, you see, are rafts of Hoshinos seeking flight. That’s right: legions of Hoshinos fleeing on rafts, seeking to hijack the crafts into the free and open seas. And what makes this flight so fascinating is that those commandeering the ships are the winners. These are the guys who shouldn’t have to escape because they’ve got it all. After all these years of toil, they’ve scaled the heights. But theirs is not like the pattern displayed in amakudari—not at all. For these winners have made the long climb from hell. And as they reach the pinnacle, they have then taken the “abnormal” step of continuing their trek. Rather than inhabiting the lofty realm of the Gods, they are bailing; in droves.

And why would that be? The case of Akebono is illuminating in this regard. The man’s real name is Chad Rowen. American-born, a sumo grand champion—the first foreigner to ever reach the highest rank in that most traditional of Japanese martial arts. He’s received a few words in this space before. At the time he merited mention because he served as signifier of a globalizing Japan: the foreign import who had ascended to the highest ranks of this country’s most traditional sport. Now Rowen attracts pixels because he is seeking release, and therefore angering the fat old guys who sit above him in the venerable sumo federation. These guys are most distressed that their poster boy for an internationalized sport order convened a press conference to announce his intention to rejoin the world of the living. And it wasn’t just that Rowen announced his intention to sever his association with the association. Why, fellow Hawaiian “Konishiki” did that in order to pursue a career in rap and TV, and fellow grand champion, “Wakanohana” did likewise so that he could try his hand at being a popcult talento. The ever-popular Mainoumi, a diminutive dynamo, who won more hearts with his fighting spirit than he did bouts through fighting skills, did the same, too, by donning a suit and joining in all the rollicking inanity on TV quiz, food and talk shows.

Where the former Mr. Rowan, of Oahu, Hawaii, went afoul of the hierarchy was in declaring that he would fight American Bob Sapp on New Year’s Eve. Oh, and, not in sumo, mind you; but in K-1. That’s right, the man who once represented Japan at the Nagano Olympics and performed his sport’s centuries-old purification ritual in front of the Emperor was now going to pack his frame into spandex shorts and don boxing gloves and a multi-colored mouthpiece and drink out of a Gatorade bottle and raise his heels as a means of assaulting his equally indecorous opponent.

For those of you who don’t know K-1, it is a martial art that is (slightly) less campy than pro wrestling, but still built around strong personalities and heavy doses of testosterone. Billed on its official website as “the planet’s premier fighting sport!”, K-1 is basically a blend of kickboxing and boxing. There are weight classes (unlike sumo), with the heavyweights easily topping 100 kilograms and approaching two meters. Although its combatants come from places across the globe—Holland, Brazil, Tonga, South Africa, Croatia, Switzerland, Algeria and France, among them—the sport’s fan base resides mainly in the US and Japan. Which goes a ways toward explaining why an American-born, sumo wrestler, 34 years of age and three years retired, would consider subjecting his decrepit knees and flabby six foot, nine inch frame to a succession of punches, jabs, hooks, uppercuts, backspin blows, front kicks, side kicks, knee kicks, inner thigh kicks, jump kicks and spin kicks. Of course, masochism might explain part of it.

The rest of it certainly lies in money. Mullah. Lucre. Dough. Dollars. And Akebono’s yen for the stuff. In a word, the grand champion is broke. And, more importantly from the perspective of this telling, he blames the venerable sumo association for his financial situation. Of course, whether or not that is true depends on who you listen to—ReDotPop tabloids have enjoyed dissecting these point of views this week. But the bottom line is that, for Chad Rowan, it was rules, rules, too much structure and too many damn rules. Or else it was too many other people getting theirs and keeping him from getting his.

Consider this: sumo is a considerably lucrative business . . . for someone. And although it is all rather murky—much like everything else in uchi/soto (back stage/front stage) Japan—this much is clear: sumo is decidedly more lucrative for the elders who run the show than the rank and file who are their show. To give you a for instance: during sumo bouts sponsors tuck up to 600 bucks in an envelope as a courtesy fee in exchange for their banners being displayed in the ring. Of this 600, half is snapped up by the winning grappler—in full public view, as part of a post-bout ceremony. The wrestler squats, thanks the gods for his victory, makes a succession of hand chops signifying north, south, east and west, then in no uncertain terms scoops the cash off of the referee’s paddle, bows, and departs from the ring.

But not fast enough can those quaking calves spirit him away: by the time he’s settled in front of his locker, half of those winnings will be siphoned off by the sumo association—for taxes and maintenance fees, you understand. In the complex math of the sumo world, fighters in the lower divisions (who receive very little monthly salary and win only occasionally), score close to nothing. For the yokozuna—the “grand champions” like Akebono—on the other hand, it is conceivable to pocket $25,000 from these sponsor handouts over the course of a 15-day tourney. Not bad for two weeks of shoving littler guys around a small circle for the duration, on average, of, say, one point three seconds.

So, seeing as how Akebono—winner of 11 titles overall and 432 (out of 554) bouts—presumably pawed a large number of these winner’s certificates over his 13 years of sumo, why is he so disgruntled? Especially since, as a retired yokozuna, he received a million dollar severance and is entitled to draw a monthly salary of about $12,000 from the sumo association for five years. What could there possibly be to complain about? Well, we might start with the amount of money necessary for any Mr. Rowan to hang out a shingle and begin applying all of his hard-earned sumo knowledge in pursuit of a living.

Rules, you see. For, in order for a former grappler to ply his trade as “stable master”—that is, recruit and train new meat and reap profits from their toils—he must first purchase a name in the sumo “world”. The name can’t be any name, mind you; for instance the ring name the wrestler retired with. That must remain in the realm of fighters. Nor can the name just be fingered from a phone book. No, rules stipulate that it must be a name that once belonged to a former (retired or retiring) stable-master. And why do those rules so stipulate? To ensure the next thing: that there be a payment of money for the acquisition of the name. Today the going rate is $2 million.

Okay, so for illustrative purposes, let’s assume you’re the retired sumo wrestler. You still want to be a manager, even though you know it’s gonna cost you a fortune. You have scraped together enough capital for the name. Done yet? Dream on. Now you’ve got to factor in the cost of securing a piece of land in Tokyo or thereabouts, where all of sumo’s 53 stables are located. After that, one has to build (or buy) a physical plant large enough to house, train (and, not inconsequentially, feed) ten to 30 growing grapplers (every day of the year, except, perhaps for ancestors’ day when Japanese typically return to their home towns; so, too, for when sumo takes to the road for its seasonal tourneys. Although, of course, on tourneys you have to pay for lodging and meals for your budding boys). All told, these costs can approach an additional $3 million.

Apparently, these were not sums Akebono came close to accumulating from any or all of those envelopes handed to him by the referee. So, what’s a workaday stiff supposed to do? Well, apparently, one must do K-1. There’s an exit route spied and damned if the grand champion didn’t scurry for that unfurling chute and take the flying leap when the flying was good. (See: no word for it yet, so it takes quite a while to say!)

To be fair, all the way around, sumo is facing a rather hard period. Declining attendance, due to a loss of interest in this most regimented and traditional of Japanese sports, has meant a less in profits. And so the association is in need of infusions of cash. Akebono, for his part, has made some bad business decisions: the restaurant he opened in his wife’s name in a posh part of Tokyo last year has gone bust, and he bought a pricey apartment in a upscale urban quarter. Consequently, there likely is nothing more left of the retirement package he received from the sumo elders three years ago.

Okay, so, another passably intriguing story, and our flight folder grows thicker. But, what of it? Well, let’s take it a bit deeper—into the structure of Japanese society, itself. As you now know, sumo has been beset by more than simple Akebono blues. It was unable to retain three of its other top warriors in the past five years—glamour boys all—and now rumors abound that Akebono’s buddy, Asashoryu, the reigning yokozuna (and resident bad boy) from Mongolia, is thinking of taking flight, too. Not only has Asashoryu refused to take out papers for Japanese citizenship (a requirement of all grand champions), it is rumored that he made a recent trip to the US to meet with agents, has sparred with members of the New Japan Professional Wrestling association, and also has met with officials from the TV network that runs the fight sport “Pride”.

While Japanese media grouse that foreigners possess a different value system and, thus, are incapable of “understand(ing) the traditions, loyalty and empathy that are involved in sumo” (Shunkan Post, 21 November 2003), the fact is that this is not simply a foreigner problem. Rather, it is a sniff-the-breeze, taste-the-frisky-freshness-of-freedom problem that has no Japanese word to describe it. It is the kind of matter that academics have debated about (especially with regard to Japan, but also vis-à-vis China and the Soviet Bloc) for decades. Does freedom corrupt? Does it make societal members unduly self-centered, individually-regarding, personally-attuned, pathologically selfish? That’s a toughie, empirically speaking: difficult to isolate from other factors, like shifting economies, political corruption, high consumption lifestyle, CNN and MTV.

Does it mean that a freer Japan is becoming more complicated? Empirically speaking, that’s a bit easier to answer. For if you look around, all the signs are present. Beyond the Akebonos and Asashoryus, there’s a Hoshino here, an Ichiro and Matsui Hideki there. All these guys—and almost all of them are guys—who seemed forever locked into long-term corporate servitude and unending “do thises” and “don’t do that’s” and then suddenly: a loophole spied, a contract expunged, an exit route exploited . . . and they’re gone! They purchase that ticket out, but quick. Who needs sumo’s strict training regimen: up at 5a.m., three practices a day, monitored feeding, communal living, I>yukata (kimonos) and geta (wooden shoes) in public? Who needs baseball’s “1,000 ball drill” and practices on game days and shaved heads and no facial hair regulations? There comes a time in a man’s life when he wishes to simply shout: “Enough!” If he can.

Abe Kobo, in his famous novel The Ruined Map, describes a detective in search of a missing man who, in the course of his quest, becomes lost, himself. In the final scene he locates a narrow alleyway in which he hides, spying on the woman he now suspects in the man’s disappearance: the man’s wife, the detective’s client. Aware that she cannot see him, he observes: “What I needed now was a world I myself had chosen. It had to be my own world, which I had chosen by my own free will.”

To the detective it becomes all too clear: it is not he who has been surveilling all along; rather it is he who has been surveilled. The detective manages to slip away from his mark, unnoticed from the world, into a new world, a different space, ruled by a new, altogether different map. As he effects his escape the detective notices a flattened cat lying spent in the road. He notes how the heavy trucks rolling by avoid its carcass. The detective seeks to affix a name to the cat’s corpse. “For the first time in a long time,” he confesses, “an extravagant smile melted my cheeks and spread over my face.”

The name we can affix to the cat is the abused workaday stiff; used up, tossed aside, left behind. The name we can affix to the detective slipping away is the new breed of corporate drone: the Hoshinos and Akebonos, Ichiros and Matsuis: grown men who dare to sever their ties with the official world of hierarchical, conformity-based society and flee as far and fast as they can. This is the antonym of amakudari. The name for the new concept that will send conventional Japanese society tottering.

Or . . . .perhaps not. Because, as in almost every social phenomenon, there stands a rival hypothesis. Sure, the door opens wider each year. Last week another, smaller, Matsui declared he was opting to become a free agent and, hopefully, play American baseball. To follow his dream, as he said in his press conference; to challenge himself and see what results. But for the most part these folks seeking release are only entertainers. And, at the most, they represent but a miniscule percentage of the Japanese population. What of the rest? Well, they don’t have the luxury of flight—pinned as they are under the immense weight of the organizational structures in which they toil; trapped in the iron jaws of duty and performance norms and social expectations. It is only victory, it seems, that can purchase the “get out of jail free” card. Absent a public witness, some special pass, the corporate schmuck is caught in the confines of a dank chamber, without protection against further privately-administered indignity. Victory is the ultimate weapon; the winner is the only soul with clout sufficient to extricate himself from the corporate quagmire and take flight.

The rest of us, sadly, are rather well locked in: bound and, therefore, losers; losers and, therefore, incapable of escape. For us, then—the majority of Japanese—we can but regard our ReDotPop idols longingly, as they affect their own escape; we can but dream. A vector of flight—so perfect in its trajectory, so luminous in its arc, so brilliant in its execution—experienced vicariously.

And then again . . . none of this is a closed conversation. It is not certitude that my next-door neighbor or subway seatmate is wracked by fantasies of corporate escape. Because as Hoshino and then Akebono and then Matsui were busy declaring free agency last week, a couple of major sporting events were blanketing the evening airwaves and plastering the daily printed press that spoke in a diametrically opposite voice. The world volleyball championships, hosted by Japan, drew a first week rating of 20 percent (representative of 20 million households), and led to rousing public calls of “Ganbarre Nippon!” (Fight hard, Japan) by announcers and journalists, alike. Their pleas for national success transformed a team of pixie-faced, 18- to 25-year-olds into overnight icons. By the final day—when America had excruciatingly edged out Italy and Japan for the final automatic Olympic berth—an entire nation was hooked. Everyone understood and appreciated that these young women were sweating blood and skidding across the hardwood and soaring above the net and, ultimately, shedding tears in service of one nation’s quest for geo-political validation.

All of this drama having followed fast on the heels of another tourney in which a hand-picked squad of baseball professionals fought to reclaim national pride by qualifying for the Olympics 2004. After the Sydney debacle—where Japan was shut out of a baseball medal for the first time since the introduction of the games in 1984—the Olympic organizing committee imposed on professional baseball. The committee asked its most famous sporting legend to manage a team composed of its most accomplished domestic players. The media dubbed the composition Japan’s “dream team”. The mission of the dream team, according to the manager, was to win the tourney “For the Flag”. How could the owners of the professional clubs possibly refuse?

And while America’s team of Triple A players was astonishingly being dispatched by winless Mexico, Japan’s lads cut up their Asian neighbors no less thoroughly than Jason slashing his way through a set of neatly aligned pup tents. America’s demise was attributed to a lack of love for nation; Japan’s smashing success—encapsulated in the new pet slogan “For the Flag”—was attributed to its love for it. True or not, the fact is that in the media of ReDotPop there was as much discussion about serving structure as fleeing it.

In a word, in contemporary Japan, for every Hoshino soaring skyward of his own accord, there is an event, a medium, a set of obedient servants to remind us ReDotPoppers of just what the dominant reality is: escape belongs to Gods in heaven. Amakudari has no equivalent for the workaday Japanese. At least today. There is no word for escape from hell. Possibly there will be tomorrow.

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