While I certainly remember being so bored at High School that the imaginary was a sole relief, and really did once see a student running on the roof, convinced she was a cat and chased by teachers, students in Barnegat, New Jersey went completely off the page recently, confined to class after reporting a ninja running through the woods. With all public schools in the area locked down, and presumably guarded by clueless B-movie henchmen, the ninja was within half an hour revealed, mask torn climatically off, to be something else: a camp counselor dressed in karate uniform, carrying a plastic sword. Which is only marginally less disturbing than an actual ninja in the woods. By way of explanation, the counselor, apparently late to a costume day at a nearby middle school, entered fully into the spirit of a shinobi assassin and took a stealthy, speedy shortcut through the trees. It seems crying “crazy man dressed all in black!” really can get you off class. But don’t forget to mention that he ate your homework.With quite a lot to do with the previous story—ninjas, swords and being completely lost in the trees—Godfrey Ho’s seminally bad Ninja Dragon (1986) features a final fight scene somebody should have called the police on—twenty-three somersaults, two moustaches, a quite disturbing use of eyeliner and the following script:
Bruce Stallion (Paulo Tocha): You're so stupid—you killed Fox and my men Gordon the Ninja (Richard Harrison): And you, you started the war. Bruce: You were the winner, but I'm not going to give you that chance, this time. Gordon: You're on. You don't know an important Chinese principle. Bruce: My principle is to chop you down! Gordon: Hmm. You must use the Chinese against the Chinese. You're playing the game of death! Bruce: Nonsense! You're going to give me back every piece that you took. Gordon: Unless you die a ninja. Bruce: Ok...
Population approximately 33,000, importance approximately not much—a sleepy seaside town on the other side of nowhere is now the centre of world attention, and all because of its namesake: President Elect Barack Obama. Meaning “little beach” and literally located on one, the Japanese Obama lies due north of Kyoto and five hours by train from Tokyo, and until the junior Senator from Illinois entered national politics, was better known for not much at all—fishing and lacquered chopsticks in between. But Obama the President has changed everything for Obama the town, and the change is—to appropriate the campaign slogan—“change you can believe.” Change began in February when resident and president of the Obama for Obama Support Group Seiji Fujihara asked a friend and occasional graphic designer to draw an image of the then Senator. Sketched in ten minutes and only a partial likeness, the presidential seal style logo was none the less immediately liked, and soon appeared city-wide on t-shirts, chop-sticks and even steamed cakes—Obama’s head grilled onto the back of sweet adzuki bean cakes. Thousands of citizens have signed up for membership. Caught in the spirit of the moment, and possibly something even stronger, Support Group members have recorded a theme song truly hard to believe: Obama is Beautiful World—a catchy sing along part Village People, part Casiotone preset melody; every part uniquely Japanese (music video at bottom):
Obama is Beautiful World The sea spreading far out and the bright sunshine reflect the future of your country, America... La-la-la-la-la Obama! Obama is beautiful world! Obama is No. 1!What's next for the town that would be President and could be without precedent? With the Obama Girls hula troup still dancing in the streets, Obama Mayor Kouji Matsuzaki has announced a statue of the President Elect for City Hall—“a token of the great historical moment for the name Obama,” while November 4th will henceforth be an annual city holiday—presumably named “Obama Day.”
Obama Is Beautiful WorldThe Obama for Obama song, as performed by the Anyone Brothers Band. Yes, there actually is an album too...
“How oddly situated a man is apt to find himself at the age of thirty-eight! His youth belongs to the distant past. Yet the period of memory beginning with the end of youth and extending to the present has left him not a single vivid impression. And therefore he persists in feeling that nothing more than a fragile barrier separates him from his youth. He is forever hearing with the utmost clarity the sounds of this neighboring domain, but there is no way to penetrate the barrier.” –Yukio MishimaThree times nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Yukio Mishima is considered the most important Japanese novelist of the twentieth century, and until the arrival in more recent times of Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana, was the writer with the largest readership outside Japan. Extremely prolific despite a comparatively short life, he produced forty novels, at least twenty books of essays, poetry, eighteen plays—including modern Kabuki and Noh dramas, some of which he also acted in—and one libretto. He was an astute critic—his talent rated higher by some than his fiction—and appeared in four films as an actor of some ability, one of which he also directed and produced. Mishima was considered to be the only author of his time talented enough to write Kabuki plays in the traditional manner; a professor from Kyoto University described him as a man of “frightening talent.” Born Kimitaké Hiraoka, he was seized from his parents and raised by his Grandmother, the only one of the family of samurai descent, who both instilled in her grandson a love of literature, and according to some biographers, sickness and neuroses. Many trace his literary themes and later actions to these early, difficult beginnings. At sixteen he assumed the pen name Yukio Mishima, a move alternatively explained as hiding his writing from an anti-literary father and hiding his true age. Yukio comes from the word yuki, which means snow, and Mishima is a town known for its view of the snowy peaks of Mt. Fuji. Mishima avoided being conscripted by the army during World War II after being falsely diagnosed with pleurisy. While a student of law at Tokyo Imperial University he published his first collection of short stories, and the following year in 1944 published his first major work, The Forest in Full Bloom, a great achievement for any Japanese writer as few books were being published during the war. The first edition of 4000 copies sold out within a week. All of his novels contain paradoxes: beauty contrasted with violence and death; the yearning for love and its rejection when offered; the dichotomy between traditional Japanese values and the spiritual barrenness of contemporary life; paradoxes he himself embodied—his writing was in all cases semi-autobigraphical, sometimes fully. Mishima's best known works include the autobiographical Confessions of a Mask, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and the tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, regarded by many as his most lasting achievement—he sent the final volume to his publisher on the day of his suicide. At the end of The Decay of the Angel, the last volume of The Sea of Fertility, Mishima turned the entire series upside down, a single, blinding burst of prose undermining the very foundation of all that has gone before, a stunning plot-twist that the author pulled off brilliantly. Some reviewers suggest that committing seppuku immediately following writing such a passage is understandable—how could one continue living after writing something so brilliant? The ending to The Decay of the Angel has been called possibly the most shocking ending in all of literature; it was followed by one of the most shocking endings of all real life—an author who vehemently didn't want grow old or decline bowed out at the very top of his game, aged 45; following an elaborately planned yet guaranteed to fail coup attempt aimed at restoring traditional values to a Japanese society he deigned bereft of them, he committed ritual suicide, 25 November 1970.
“The whole of Japan was under a curse. Everyone ran after money. The old spiritual tradition had vanished: materialism was the order of the day. Modern Japan is ugly.”Toshiro Mayuzumi, close friend of Mishima's for twenty years, explained: “He was a man of action. His suicide death was an attempt to change the world, at least to spur it by alerting the sensible population to the inconsistencies surrounding postwar Japan, the Constitution, the Self-Defense Forces, education, moral decay.” Friend, former follower and fellow novelist Yasunari Kawabata honored Mishima with the statement “a writer of [Mishima's] calibre appears only once every 200 to 300 years.” Ironically Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature two years earlier in 1968, the first Japanese to receive an award long expected to be Mishima’s. His funeral was attended by 10,000, the largest of its kind ever held in Japan, and his commentary on the Hagakure—the moral code taught to samurai—immediately became a best-seller. Mishima wrote in his diary “All I desire is beauty.” A dedicated body-builder, practitioner of karate and kendo master, he sought throughout his life to make himself more beautiful, and strong. He saw beauty as a form of purity which could also be realised through noble action, and death.
“If we value so highly the dignity of life, how can we not also value the dignity of death? No death may be called futile."
Video of Yukio Mishima conducting the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra
Recommended books about Yukio Mishima
- Mishima: A Biography by John Nathan
- Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend by Christopher Ross
- Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan by Donald Keene
Meaning literally “a sensitivity to things,” mono no aware is a concept coined by Japanese literary and linguistic scholar Motoori Norinaga in the eighteenth century to describe the essence of Japanese culture, and it remains the central artistic imperative in Japan to this day. The phrase is derived from the word aware, which in Heian Japan meant sensitivity or sadness, and the word mono, meaning things, and describes beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things, and a gentle sadness at their passing. It can also be translated as the “ah-ness” of things, life and love. Mono no aware gave name to an aesthetic that already existed in Japanese art, music and poetry, the source of which can be traced directly to the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the twelfth century, a spiritual philosophy and practise which profoundly influenced all aspects of Japanese culture, but especially art and religion. The fleeting nature of beauty described by mono no aware derives from the three states of existence in Buddhist philosophy: unsatisfactoriness, impersonality, and most importantly in this context, impermanence. According to mono no aware, a falling or wilting autumn flower is more beautiful than one in full bloom; a fading sound more beautiful than one clearly heard. The sakura or cherry blossom tree is the epitome of this conception of beauty; the flowers of the most famous variety, somei yoshino, nearly pure white tinged with a subtle pale pink, bloom and then fall within a single week. The subject of a thousand poems and a national icon, the cherry blossom tree embodies for Japan beauty as a transient experience. Mono no aware states that beauty is a subjective rather than objective experience, a state of being ultimately internal rather than external. Based largely upon classical Greek ideals, beauty in the West is sought in the ultimate perfection of an external object: a sublime painting, perfect sculpture or intricate musical composition; a beauty that could be said to be only skin deep. The Japanese ideal sees beauty instead as an experience of the heart and soul, a feeling for and appreciation of objects or artwork—most commonly nature or the depiction of—in a pristine, untouched state. An appreciation of beauty as a state which does not last and cannot be grasped is not the same as nihilism, and can better be understood in relation to Zen Buddhism's philosophy of earthly transcendence: a spiritual longing for that which is infinite and eternal—the ultimate source of all worldly beauty. As the monk Sotoba wrote in Zenrin Kushu (Poetry of the Zenrin Temple), Zen does not regard nothingness as a state of absence, but rather the affirmation of that which is unseen, existing behind empty space: “Everything exists in emptiness: flowers, the moon in the sky, beautiful scenery.” With its roots in Zen Buddhism, mono no aware bears some relation to the non-dualism of Indian philosophy, as related in the following story about Swami Vivekananda by Sri Chinmoy:
“Beauty,” says [Vivekananda], “is not external, but already in the mind.” Here we are reminded of what his spiritual daughter Nivedita wrote about her Master. “It was dark when we approached Sicily, and against the sunset sky, Etna was in slight eruption. As we entered the straits of Messina, the moon rose, and I walked up and down the deck beside the Swami, while he dwelt on the fact that beauty is not external, but already in the mind. On one side frowned the dark crags of the Italian coast, on the other, the island was touched with silver light. ‘Messina must thank me,’ he said; ‘it is I who give her all her beauty.’” Truly, in the absence of appreciation, beauty is not beauty at all. And beauty is worthy of its name only when it has been appreciated. Excerpt from Vivekananda: An Ancient Silence-Heart And A Modern Dynamism-Life by Sri Chinmoy.The founder of mono no aware, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), was the pre-eminent scholar of the Kokugakushu movement, a nationalist movement which sought to remove all outside influences from Japanese culture. Kokugakushu was enormously influential in art, poetry, music and philosophy, and responsible for the revival during the Tokugawa period of the Shinto religion. Contradictorily, the influence of Buddhist ideas and practises upon art and even Shintoism itself was so great that, although Buddhism is technically an outside influence, it was by this point unable to be extricated.
Six facts about me as a child, with due respect to Pavitrata.
1. No fast fried pleasures, pleaseI never spent my pocket money on junk food as a child. Which is not to say that I didn't like junk food, or to suggest merely a lack of money, but rather that spending hard earned, all too easily lost riches on something lasting but a fleeting moment—the temporary sense pleasure of food—made no sense to me at all. I remember my early bewilderment clearly, not really understanding my peers as they downed sodas and crisps wantonly, their pocket money flagrantly, and I am not an adult who remembers not his childhood—to a large extent, no small thanks to meditation, it lives and breathes in me still. It is a great shame this innate childhood common sense became less than innate as the years passed by, a growing worldliness, wisdom of the “ways of men” passing me not.
2. Pop music not so popularI couldn’t bear popular music as a child. I listened to and owned nothing but classical music until the age of nine, and according to my mother used to cry in my early years if anything less refined was played. I taught myself to play the piano, memorising more by ear than note pieces by the great composers, and used literally to shudder at the sound and sight of punk bands then at their height. That all changed with the advent of synth-pop—I skipped screaming electric guitar anthems, safety pins in your nose, furious drum solos, and went directly from Mozart to Madonna; Cyndi Lauper, Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw in between. I was pretty normal from that point on. As a teenager I dreamed of haircuts and concerts, rather than wigs and concertos, and gave up the piano for the guitar after an intense battle of wills with a piano teacher, who told me on the morning of my Grade 3 exam that, lest my results harm her reputation, she was disowning me. I did fail, by all of four marks, but more due to the fact that I didn't feel inspired to practise, than any glee sought in tarnishing a disagreeable piano teacher’s name. I had refused to learn music theory; she had refused to teach me as accustomed “by heart.” I may not have been vindicated by my grade, but they have schools today devoted to the instincts I was following.
3. Football was my lifeFootball was my life for a number of years. Growing up in rugby mad “God’s Own” I rose at ungodly hours to watch “that other game,” fleetingly available when broadcast from the other side of the world, then spent morning, lunch and evening playing same with friends; otherwise just kicking a ball alone. I was told by a coach at age fourteen that I had the talent to go to the highest level, if I could but “get the right attitude as well,” but it was meditation rather than football that coached me in the power of self-belief; trained out of me, ten minutes practise a day, my nagging, dribbling sense of self-doubt.
4. Turning JapaneseI was fascinated with Japan from an earliest age. When offered the chance by my mother to buy a book on a special occasion, I chose a children’s guide to this implicitly intriguing land of kimonos, karate and kabuki. Soon afterward I demanded lessons in karate, and attempted several times to learn the language—with more enthusiasm than steel or resolve. Upon adulthood my fascination has waxed rather than waned; a more than decade-long marriage to the practise of meditation just one example of my un-struck appetite for things Nihon.
“Japan is a country filled with infinite beauty. It has an image of a beautiful flower garden. This beauty is expressed through inner peace. Man has seen many things, but of these things peace is new. Japan is offering this new treasure to the world. “Japan has some other very special capacities to offer. Japan produces such small, beautiful things. God is infinite and finite-larger than the largest and smaller than the smallest. He is both the ocean and the drop. He is inside me as a human being and, again, He is inside the vast sky and ocean. In Japan I see God the Creator in His small aspect, but at the same time, so beautiful and powerful. Here I see the finite expressing the Beauty and Divinity of God in such a powerful way, and I am deeply impressed. It is like the difference between seeing a child do something and a grown-up do it. When the child does it, I get much more joy. In Japan's case, the child is Japan's childlike flower-consciousness-a beautiful flower is reaching the highest in terms of beauty and purity. As soon as I think of Japan, my mind feels beauty, my heart feels purity and my life feels humility. I could write hundreds and hundreds of poems about Japan. In fact, I have already written them in the depths of my gratitude-heart.” Sri Chinmoy, Excerpt from Japan: Soul-Beauty's Heart-Garden
5. Altar-ed statesI was raised a Christian. Not that I actually enjoyed going to Church, or Sunday School—in fact I would beg my mother every Sunday to leave me at home to watch “Big League Soccer, yet I studied and memorised the stories of faith, courage and heroism in my Picture Bible unbidden, and would pray most evenings without prompting.My last visit to church was around age thirteen, a time when my local congregation, almost completely absent of fellow teenagers, was split pew and rafters over the siting the altar—two metres this way or that I kid you not. I don't claim to be high and mighty but I do have a good eye for low and petty, and my hunger for spirituality and inner truth would from this point seek a different nama-rupa—name and form.
6. Interest in a mythical, mid-Atlantic climeI have always been fascinated by tales of the lost continent of Atlantis. A childhood cartoon, of futuristic cities and technology existing beneath the surface of ocean, caught for only several episodes before sadly it went off-air, evoked hazy, strangely familiar memories that could not be placed; dreams that felt more like memories and that found another flame in stories my mother would tell of her mother, how she spoke cryptically of the existence a long forgotten, long ago buried land—to me a tantalising suggestion that there might still exist a living, breathing link through memories passed to an ancient, mythical mid-Atlantic clime.
Make me a MemeWrite up your own list of childhood facts and I’ll mention you here:
- Pavitrata: Six Childhood Facts—Pavitrata, the “cheerful fellow” who got the ball rolling
- Sumangali: My First Meme—Mummy, mummies, cheese and the reading of minds make for a quite outstanding list of childhood facts
- Sharani.org: The 6 Childhood Facts Meme—Tutus, patent leather shoes and the forbidden fruit of chocolate feature in Sharani’s walk down childhood’s memory lane.
“No one subject is of more importance to people than a knowledge of the rules, usages and ceremonies of good society. To acquire a thorough knowledge of these matters and to put that knowledge into practice with perfect ease and self-complacency is what people call good breeding. To display an ignorance of them is to subject the offender to the opprobrium of being ill-bred.” —John H. Young, Our Deportment, 1882.I'm quite clearly an anachronism. I feel offended at the smallest breach of protocol or manner where others feel none, shaking my fist, invisibly of course, at people on the sidewalk who walk obliviously, more subtlety people in conversation who talk obliviously. It might be that I'm thin-skinned, kept in-doors or in cotton-wool too long as a child. Or it might be that others are thick-hearted, hardened to feelings and fineries too subtle to be perceived. We’ve come a long way in recent years, and, too easily caught up in pounding tables, berating empty air over the ills of the now, one forgets that much of what was once commonplace now has no place. Racism, sexism, name your ’ism, all are absolutely excluded from polite conversation, more or less marginalised from marginal conversation as well. Our grandfathers may not have got along, but we their grandchildren work along side each other, and in doing so, more than likely get on. On the surface, polite face of it we have levelled the playing field, opened the team sheet to all who want to play, but equal opportunities do not niceties equal, and in shaving manners of their beard and moustache, jettisoning ugly and prickly anachronisms at door like hat and cane, we’ve lost the art of consideration and of grace. To my thin-skinned way of thinking—perhaps over-thinking—we're just not so nice about being nice. Rosanne J. Thomas, founder of etiquette training company Protocol Advisors, and dubbed “Miss Manners on Wall Street,” pins the modern decline in manners firmly on the 1960s donkey, and while our long-haired, long-trousered parents are to blame, it’s not just because of their fondness for twenty minute guitar solos:
“Prior to that, families ate together at the dinner table. Manners were reinforced all the time—conversation, listening skills, dining skills, basic considerations, and even electronic manners in that you didn't take telephone calls during the meal. But then people began not to eat together as much, and that's when the basics were no longer taught.”Manners may be dead in this modern age, but Japan at least is refusing to put a fork—or chop-stick—in their deceased carcass, forming a “manners police” to re-heat the fast cooling standards of public etiquette. In a country where courtesy was once second nature—the learning of a multitude of mores literally a life-long apprenticeship; their breach a possible loss of life consequence—the elderly and pregnant are increasingly being left to stand on trains; a failure of manners perhaps commonplace elsewhere, but in Japan unimaginable until recently.
“It is impossible to mark the even and peaceable tenor of Japanese life, the politeness, industry, respect for superiors, and general air of cheerfulness and content, that pervades all classes, without admiration of the wise regulations which preserve such order amongst them as a people. Quarrels and blows are almost unknown in families; the husband is gentle, the wife exemplary and affectionate, and the children singularly obedient and reverent to their parents: yet ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child' is a precept totally disregarded. The children are never beaten, nor do the parents allow themselves to lose their tempers in rebuking them, however great the provocation may be—one remarkable result of the complete self-abnegation inculcated by their social system.” —J. M. W. Silver, Sketches of Japanese Manners and Customs, 1867When I was school-aged—a time depressingly distant and fast becoming more so—giving up your seat for your elders was mandatory on public transport, but, occasional cranky pensioner aside, it was a practise of another age, seldom actually enforced. Japan however expects respect and awareness of any age, in this very age, and to this end the Yokohama “Smile-Manner-Squadron” has been charged with bringing back the standards of “old Japan”—politely encouraging the young to give up their seats to those more needy on the city’s overcrowded trains. While squadron members, the majority past their sixtieth birthday, have no legal powers, Yokohama hopes their high visibility—bright green uniforms de rigueur—will encourage a rising politeness. If not, the big stick of public shaming will be wielded, humiliation in hypersensitive Japan the recourse if seats are not voluntarily raised. Should politeness provoke a reaction less than polite, older team members will be accompanied by a younger bodyguard, the Smile-Manner-Squadron operating in pairs and paying about US$15 a day. And unlimited train rides. Why don’t Japanese young people give their seats to the aged? Nobuhiko Obayashi, 70 year-old author of “Why don't young people give their seats to the aged?” has already asked the question, and answered it too—just like in the West parents are to blame, responsible for a generation in his words “too afraid to talk to one another.” Not afraid to talk to another, Obayashi opined "Young people do not feel the need of having manners in their hearts," and expressed a wish that the Smile-Manner-Squadron “will give people who are too shy a chance to communicate." And presumably once more claim a seat.
“The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork.” —Oscar Wilde
Japanese Tradition: Shazai—Apology