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Consolidating Culture


In such creations one finds evidence of the Japanese people's 'innate propensity toward shrinking things'.

"Akay omay".

When I first heard it I did a double take. Said "huh?" Never heard such sounds before. It was a phrase between acquaintences spoken in greeting of the New Year.

So on my first day back at work last month, when a colleague passed me in the corridor and uttered "ake ome", then smiled without so much as a grovel, grimace or bow, I was perplexed. Sure, I've only lived here for twelve years, but I've come to feel a certain confidence that I may actually have mastered this one aspect of Japanese life: the moment when acquaintances rise with an air of consequence, genuflect vigorously, and enthusiastically bleat, "akemashite ohmedetou gozaimasu" (congratulations on entering the New Year). Then in unison we offer the standard comeback, "kotoshi mou yoroshiku onegaishimasu" (this coming year, also, please be good to me).

And though it makes little sense in translation, such sounds are meaningful to folks over here. These phrases are symbolic as well as spiritually cleansing. Not to mention good for team morale. And so, I've taken great pains to practice those long chains of gotta-say-its. A lot. Not insignificantly, because it's a mouthful, and, being a mouthful, it's just the kind of fictitious carriage we culturally challenged foreigners clamber into, foolishly believing it will actually deliver us somewhere of substance in what is otherwise a rather insuperable obstacle course: this cipher society known as Japan.

Until all at once, the certitude combusts. The cultural conundrum expands. In place of one's hard-purchased belief in mastery, a new puzzle sidles forth. Akay-ohmay, I thought, What the hell is THAT?

Well, okay. Yeah, I get it. I just had to think about it a bit. I just had to look around and ask myself, why should discourse about the New Year be any different than talk of, say, Brad Pitt, obsession for pre-pubescent girls, Mister Donuts, and cell phone e-mail? That is, Bu ra pee, Loli-kon, Me su dou and yubi komi (respectively) in local parlance. Suggesting that just like the famous Hollywood star, the teenage sex trade, chain donut shops, and digitized interaction, this business about ake ome might very well stroll along my beat � the realm of ReDotPop � where we can read cultural values and societal structure through contemporary ways of doing. Or, in the case of ake ome, ways of saying.

ReDotPop is rife with fads. Over here, it seems, the wheels of commerce are kept spinning by the seasonal appearance of the new, next thing; from quirky gadgets to pet phrases to alternative lifestyles to revolutionary mindsets. Over the past few decades, for instance, ReDotPop has played host to (and cashed in on) the birth and popular adoption of the "jogging boom", the "tennis boom", the "golfing boom", the "my car boom", the "my home" boom, the "Juliana's (or disco) boom", the "brand (or designer goods) boom", the "tour (or foreign vacation) boom", the "hip-hop boom", the "loose socks boom", the "ko-gyal (high school girl) boom", the "ganguro (impossible to define) boom", the "Internet boom" and the "keitai (or cell phone) boom". Some of these fashions have endured, while most have proven as ephemeral as the April cherry blossoms: sprouting all at once, sparkling gloriously in the public eye, then all too quickly fading, withering, plopping to the ground only to be trampled beneath the feet of a peripatetic people, bustling onward to the next-new-thing.

So, much like a passing fad wherein teenage girls painted their faces chocolate brown, then accented their eye sockets with seemingly ten-centimeter swaths of ghostly white (so that they conjured up the image of raccoons who mistakenly wandered out of the woods, suddenly caught in the glare of a car's headlights), don't bet on ake ome being around this time next year. On the other hand, despite the inevitable demise it will experience in popular consciousness, as a phenomenon, ake ome is still well worth pondering. Why? Because it can provide insight into what ReDotPop is really all about � its motive force, its internal design, its raison d'etre.

Aside from the resolute profit motive, the commonality lurking within most of ReDotPop's creations is the irreverent, licentious, laissez-faire impulse coursing through Japan's youth and, inevitably, percolating into the middle to upper echelons of Japanese society. As with other youthful productions, in ake ome one encounters the recent predilection for a toned-down past and preference for a tuned-out present. Ake ome is hip � it's "cazh". Ake ome is the linguistic equivalent of these kids' favorite recent public behavior: sitting on their butts in front of stations or along sidewalks, just for the sake of hanging. Smoking, jiving, baiting, then laughing at the disapproving elders who pass by. For a Japan erected upon a foundation of rank, respect and routine, we're talking pretty heady � even revolutionary � behavior, here. In ake ome we spy the current mood incarnate: the weltanshauung wherein traditions are tossed to the wind, conventions are conflagrated, formalities are fricasseed. All that in four simple syllables; in two shortened words. My goodness, what a potent thing this ake ome is.

Or maybe not.

After all, what is so particularly Japanese about concocting code? We all engage in shorthand, right? "Nine-Eleven" has become part of our lexicon, rather than the seemingly unendurable phrase "September Eleventh", or else the more accurate "World Trade Towers' catastrophe". Too long to say, perhaps; more likely, too close to a concrete reality to spell out. Before that tragic day, 9-11 meant something else: "nine-one-one", the symbol of all emergencies. On the lighter side, people on the go stop and shop at "7-Eleven"; some gamblers favor "lucky seven"; gluttons of all sorts go at it, "twenty-four seven". And it's not confined to numbers, of course. Alfred Hitchcock resorted to the image of a train penetrating the black hole of a tunnel to punctuate Cary Grant's embrace of Eva Marie Saint in the denouement of North by Northwest. Visit MTV or view TV commercials for more than 30 seconds and one is bound to encounter a euphemism, an inter-textual reference, a code, a metaphor, a connotation. What such tags reveal is that humans of all stripes are adept at parsimony. It isn't only the Japanese who compact and reduce, distill to essence, delve into signification, martial euphemism, conjure symbols, create signs to stand for larger things. This impulse, these ploys, exist irrespective of national boundaries, precisely because we humans are, well, human. It is part and parcel of the thing that we've created and exist within-society--that we, its constituents, will grow along with and through our continually mutating languages.

The standard line on Japan, though, has been that external imperatives-exigencies-have prevailed, thus providing greater impetus for the contraction impulse. Historically short on resources, eternally bereft of space, yet ever long on people per square hectare, Japan's need for transmogrification, simplification, rationalization, reduction, has extended well beyond language. In all aspects of human life, alteration has been unavoidable. Without careful attention to detail, or so the argument goes, without constant monitoring of the environment, absent concern for feelings, sans contemplation of consequences, we Japanese would step on each other's toes, and quite soon be at one another's throats. Repacking and refinement are essential skills in such a milieu, for without it there'd be civil war.

The Japanese obviously read their Hobbes and, as a result, chose to nurture what O-Young Lee has dubbed "The Compact Culture". Hence, Lee argues, the compact cars, origami Buddhas or sumptuous seven "course" feasts housed within six by eight (inch) boxes. In such creations one finds evidence of the Japanese people's "innate propensity toward shrinking things". Leading me to wonder: should we not place ake ome among the items on Mr. Lee's list? Hey, and while we're at it, why not add Dontosai?

Don't what?

For those of you who may not know, dontosai is an annual local ritual that began as a "fire festival". The spirits invited into one's home during "ancestors day" and then again on the dawning of the new year, are channeled into objects such as arrows, and bells, and gold lamé placards with sprigs of pine, then tossed on a pyre at the local shrine, thereby driving the wayward spirits home.

Exactly how is this a compacting ritual? Well, dontosai may have begun as a fire ritual, but the way it is now understood and practiced it is an occasion for participants to atone for the failures of the past while also indemnifying themselves for the year to come. Two birds with one stone. How's that for consolidating culture? Pretty convenient, right?

Of course, this being Japan, none of this can be purchased without some strain. First of all, there's the minor matter of dealing with a second compression. You see, over time dontosai has become embellished by the overlay of a "hadaka matsuri"-a so-called "bare skin festival", which is a common form of worship throughout Japan. As one can intuit, depending on the time of year, such a rite can easily serve as a powerful act of renunciation and expiation. In a word, it's a sadistic imposition and masochistic acceptance of punishment; a predicament that most every Japanese is familiar with.

Which is why, during dontosai, participants are made to strip down to a loin cloth and then walk or jog about 10 kilometers to the local shrine. This is January, in the north country, so we're talking about three degree weather here. Sometimes there's snow to slog your bare feet through, sometimes just frozen concrete to slap your bare feet across. In short, there's no getting off scot-free here. And if that weren't enough, participants are supposed to run in a team, so that generally means exposing parts of one's flesh that co-workers had only heretofore imagined and henceforth will spend the next year of daily encounters remembering. Every freckle, blemish, dimple, wayward hair, love handle, hint of cleavage (front and back), and excess roll that jiggles the entire 10 kilometers is what will be on the tip of their cerebella until the next ritualistic run. This will be up AND back to corporate headquarters, so, there is some cost involved. Social and psychological.

And then, of course, there's running past the hundreds of cars and thousands of pedestrians making their way toward the shrine, all of them waving and clapping and pointing and commenting and, above all, noticing � every freckle, blemish, dimple, wayward hair, love handle, hint of cleavage (front and back), and excess roll that jiggles. So, there you have even more cost involved.

Next, have I mentioned that it's COLD? Cold nough so that one can witness his or her breath vaporize in his or her wake. Of course, heavy breathing isn't supposed to happen, since there's a slip of white paper planted firmly between one's lips � the better to ensure that he and she refrain from conversation. Silence is a symbol of abstinence, hence, of sacrifice. This slip of paper between the lips is compacting incarnate. Consolidation takes flesh in the ritual of renunciation.

Okay, say you've succeeded in surviving the ten kilometers of frozen feet, jiggling flesh, jagged breath and complete silence. You've negotiated the 72 steps up to the temple grounds. You make your way toward the humongous bonfire at the southwest corner of the compound and suddenly you are no longer cold, because all at once it is extremely HOT. We're talking summertime flame, equatorial swelter, a pyre five meters high, twenty meters long, and seven meters across. A crackling heap consisting of, to quote U2, "all that you can't leave behind". Or, at least, that's the concept. Stick all the good stuff in a bag (a bag which at one time was a lightening rod for the spirits, but now represents aspects of your past life that you don't really want to part with, but which you are hoping to improve),then approach the pit, wind up and toss it far up into the flame. Destroy it to better it. You know, the old Japanese one-two punch: conjure the contradictions, then live with the irreconcilable differences. That seems to be one of the key ideas behind dontosai: consolidation at its most refined.

What do folks part with? Some people jettison the wreath ornament that ushered in the New Year; others send up a year's worth of calligraphy. I contemplated chucking my ReDotPop columns, but my laptop's a bit bulky to be lugged ten kilometers. Which is another way of saying: don't expect much in the way of improvement in this quarter over the next twelve months.

But for those who've made some sort of offering, that is, once atonement is complete, it's on to purification. And, oh how Zen this ritual is: performing the next act right there in the same spot without batting an eye or bothering to take a new breath or bite into a wafer or don a special garment. The one philosophy effortlessly yields to its opposite; the two ideas are contained in a singular act. Call it the consolidation of ritual.

The throng ringing the flame pinches as close to the incineration point as is physically tolerable, seeking fortification for the coming year in licks of billowing smoke. Kind of like Achilles being dipped in the sacred waters of the River Styx. Only these chemical agents are much more pungent. As the flames buffet the bundles and the resulting soot descends from high above, flakes settle on the hair, clothes and skin. More clothes than skin, it turns out, since most of those in attendance aren't foolish enough to come swathed in loincloths. They haven't been that foolish, in fact, for decades. Yeah, a few � the real hardcore cases � still come to the shrine in skimpy strips of white bedding, but most of us who inhabit the real world long ago eschewed cotton for wool, flimsy sheets for coats and jeans, jute slippers for boots. The overwhelming majority of attendees have come bundled in caps, mufflers, heavy socks and thick sweaters. Cutting corners, that is � as has become the signature of the Japanese middle generations � most dontosai-goers have arrived in utilitarian wear. Sure, the youngest of the female crew have taken pains to don the uniform of the day: micro-mini skirts and ultra-V-neck blouses that end short of the waist, thereby exposing as much cleavage, belly button and booty as socially permissible. Other than that crowd, though, there is little sign of forbearance in the fashion of the massing horde.

There's little time to contemplate all the semiotic scenarios played out in this frenzied festival. Physical fortification is only the first step. Spiritual benediction is still required. So, from the bonfire it's a collective push up a loooooong flight of stone stairs, past bustling stalls serving up chicken and squid on a stick, fried octopus, chocolate covered bananas, and cotton candy in plastic bags adorned with the images of the current female bubblegum idols (Morning Musume, Speed and Hamasaki Ayumi), past vendors hawking glistening icons for tossing on the fire, past tents with blow-heaters and picnic tables stocked with sake on a burner and beer in a tub. It's all so ReDotPop, this blending of commercial and ritual culture, old and new culinary tastes, young and old lifesyles.

Once the crowd delivers each participant to the threshold of the shrine, there are but a few remaining acts to engage in. There's the thick multi-colored jute to shake, the motion of which elicits a rattling protest from the huge brass bell suspended near the top. There's the silver coin (and occasionally paper note) to chuck into the large cantilevered wooden receptacle below. There's the hand claps � two which will deliver one to a moment of silent prayer � eyes pressed shut, foreheads bent toward steepled fingers, lips discernibly ambulating. And what does one pray for? Sound health, stellar exam results, a prosperous business year, a satisfying romance. Trivial things, in the main. Corporal things. Practical things. Very few utterances in the name of world peace or a better social milieu. Ah well, such is contemporary Japan. It's the way it is. Nothing more or less. Zen again.

And with that, with atonement and purification and prayers taken care of, the compacting is complete. Two years worth of human activity � one year completed, one to come � all reduced to twenty short minutes. Give or take.

Witnessing dontosai, then, we can recognize shrinkage. We can marvel at its facile ability to reduce, to channel, consolidate and clarify. But we can also see a kind of pregnant capacity. The thickness of tradition. The bloatedness of centuries of worship. The complexity of everyday practices co-mingled with the commercial and religious and popular. All very much a part of TODAY, dontosai is something more than just otherworldly spirits that under gird, guide and influence daily life. Like ake ome, dontosai is about social practice, popular culture, and continuity coupled with change.

Indeed, dontosai and ake ome are really one and the same: different dress cut from identical cloth. One rule-regarding, the other rule-breaking, sure, but both consolidations. And both about ritual. When we look at dontosai we can see that in Japan, ritual is often predicated on consolidation; but when we encounter phrases like ake ome, we can see that in the world of ReDotPop, consolidation is, itself, a widespread ritual.

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