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What Is It with Japan?

January 3, 2010

Japan is the weirdest country on the planet Earth. Skeptical? Wikipedia it. Don’t bother arguing with me about whether “Wikipedia” is a verb – there’s no time, man, no time!!!! Look at the photographs. There is a giant Hello Kitty in almost every one. That’s because Hello Kitty was recently appointed Japan’s Ambassador of Tourism. I italicized that because it is so ridiculous. And if you have cause to hire a prostitute in Japan, you will be pleased to discover that the country is full of hotels that rent out rooms by the hour. Economical, right? Why pay for a whole night when you only need 30 minutes? There are public shower cubicles all over the place, and grown women dressed like baby vampires, and vending machines that sell canned hot coffee and thong underwear and you name it. You can and will get a pizza topped with squid ink and mayonnaise.

Pornography-wise, there is no sexual scenario that was invented anywhere other than Japan. If it’s physically impossible, no problem – that’s what anime is for. A million North American perverts fantasizing for a million years could never come up with the scenes Japan was filming/drawing 20 years ago, and what the Japanese are doing now is so filthily innovative that there are not even words to describe it. If you tried to download it, your computer would explode. The Japanese can watch it because the computers in use in Japan today are the computers of what the rest of the world calls the future. Not until 2057 will Canada possess the technology required to watch the Japanese porn of 1982.

Having read a substantial amount of Japanese literature and been forwarded a wide variety of wacky BBC news articles about Japanese science (glow-in-the-dark cats, transparent frogs, square watermelons, fascinatingly lifelike robot porn stars, etc.), it is apparent to me that something is up with that country. On the surface, Japan is utterly committed to social formality, scrupulous politeness, an off-the-charts work ethic, and straight-lacedness in all of its other forms. I’ve never been so amazed and confused by human psychology as I was when I read Haruki Murakami’s nonfiction account of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack. First of all, when the gas was released, tons of people noticed that something was wrong, but no one said anything. They just stood/sat there, coughing discreetly and quietly waiting to get to their stops. When people began to get seriously ill, it became necessary to stop the train, and a station operator describes feeling immense guilt about disrupting the subway schedule and inconveniencing people. Soon enough there are critically ill poison victims emerging from the subway car. Many of those interviewed describe their determination to get to work as close to on time as possible despite having no idea what they’ve inhaled and being virtually blind, unable to stand upright, barely capable of breathing, etc. They hope their bosses will forgive their lateness and their coworkers won’t be too put out by the delay. Some of these people actually managed to drag themselves to work.

As I read their accounts of the attack I’m sitting there freaking out, like, Are you fucking kidding me? Fuck work! Fuck your coworkers! Call 911 right now! You could die!!! Go to the fucking hospital!! The whole thing is just fascinating. If the exact same attack happened in North America, or anywhere else in the world, it would be a totally different scene. People would be shouting and pounding on the doors within seconds of noticing that something wasn’t right. No one would think twice about stopping the train. I can’t even remember the last time I caught a train or bus that was exactly on schedule. And you’ve got this poor guy in Tokyo ten years later still beating himself up over having had to stop a train because it was attacked with deadly poison, and office employees still feeling guilty that they were late for work or had to take a week off because they were attacked with deadly poison. Find me one person in Canada who hasn’t called in sick over a headache or a hangover or a bad cold. Bonus points if that person ever felt anything remotely resembling regret for burdening his/her coworkers.

Murakami’s Tokyo subway attack book is even more mystifying and surreal than his fiction, which is saying a lot, because his books are fucked up in every direction. When you read interviews or his autobiographical stuff you get the impression that he’s pretty much the most normal guy out there. Goes jogging, listens to jazz, hangs out with his cats, teaches at universities. Boring. You almost can’t believe that this reserved middle-aged man wrote Kafka on the Shore. Remember the cat flaying scene? The rock that gets increasingly heavy as it’s carried from here to there? The whole side plot with the transgender guy and the weird poetry and the library and the forest? The casual Colonel Sanders references? What the hell? No other country in the world produces people who are so ordinary on the outside and so incredibly strange on the inside. If Murakami isn’t weird enough for you, by all means check out Kobo Abe, whose protagonists often face common everyday problems like having lettuce sprouts growing all over their bodies and subsequently having to make a trip to the underworld while strapped to a hospital bed. Or if crime fiction is more up your alley, Natsuo Kirino’s Out is a thought-provoking feminist romp in which four women are alternately driven together and pulled apart (no pun intended – wink!) by their decision to start a home business: a home corpse dismemberment business, that is! Girl power!

And what is it with Japan and cats? There’s the Hello Kitty ambassador of the country thing, but they don’t stop there. They so rarely stop anywhere. It seems like every Japanese novel I’ve read contains some strange reference to cats – either the torture of cats symbolizing ultimate evil (both Murakami and Kirino use that concept), or magical cats appearing and disappearing around the neighbourhood. Then there’s Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat, a trilogy of novels whose narrator is a cat. I bought it years ago because I love cats and I go through periods of Japanese novel infatuation, but I never finished it – I just couldn’t deal with the weirdness. At Christmas I saw “The Cat Returns,” an animated film conceived by Hayao Miyazaki, all of whose films make one wonder whether one might have accidentally consumed a large quantity of hallucinogens before pressing “play.” “The Cat Returns” features all sorts of cats – regular cats, talking cats, talking cats in clothes, regular-looking cats who all of a sudden start standing and walking like Rory Calhoun. It’s like someone took one of the short stories I wrote when I was six and turned it into a feature-length animated film. There must be some cat-related ancient mythology in that country. I’m going to look into it. I bet there are at least three Japanese lit scholars working on articles about this. It’s so freaking pervasive. Or should that be “purrvasive”? No, “pervasive” is definitely the correct spelling.

I bought a Japanese textbook last year with the intention of teaching myself the language, or at least getting a feel for the grammar and the characters. The book features cute wide-eyed cartoon characters saying polite things to one another and bowing profusely. Sumimasen! Sore wa watashi no pen desu! Arigato gozaimasu! But it’s volume one of two, so maybe the second book introduces the student to the Japanese psyche and is where one learns culturally relevant expressions like “Shake that bear” or “Gas poisoning does not excuse tardiness” or “The naked woman is doing a perfect handstand despite her severe gastrointestinal ailment.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Amber permalink
    January 14, 2010 9:10 pm

    I was intrigued to learn that there are “cat cafes” in Japan in which domestic kitties run around and you pay for the pleasure of petting and playing with them. There’s even an “all-you-can-pet” option. Sounds a bit more like a cat brothel to me, but who am I to judge… I love Japan.

    • Kate permalink*
      January 15, 2010 6:33 pm

      I think it’s a fascinating place, plus I’m completely down with the cat worship, but I don’t think I could be there for more than a few hours; all the people and lights and noise and seafood would probably cause me to pass out. I’m definitely going to try to do some ad-hoc lay-person Google-based research on the cats in Japanese literature thing, though.

      Cat cafes? That’s the kind of crazybrilliant idea only Japan would come up with. I like being in a room full of cats, but I don’t think I’d pay much for the privilege–you can go to an animal shelter or certain people’s houses and have that experience for free…

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