“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.”
Three 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
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.
More a tendency than a genre in its own right, Poetic Realism was a highly influential yet short-lived movement in French cinema of the 1930s, a brief outbreak of lyricism sandwiched between the bludgeoning horrors of two world wars. Unlike Soviet montage or French impressionism, poetic realism was never a unified movement or ideology, rather a loosely conceived feeling and evocation: poetic, otherworldly at times, yet committed to showing reality “as it was”—a cinema of life and of heart.
Despite the fact that he only lived to make four films, director Jean Vigo is credited with founding poetic realism, first with Zéro de conduite (1933), an unusually realistic evocation of an unhappy childhood that was banned by censors, and his masterpiece, L’Atalante (1934).
Namesake of a Greek Goddess, L’Atalante was originally a simplistic story assigned to the director by distributors Gaumont, but Vigo transformed it completely, employing the dreamlike cinematography of Russian-born Boris Kaufman—who would later work in Hollywood—and a surreal, poetic style never before seen in cinema.
On the surface a straightforward romantic tale—two newly weds on a river barge cruise who fight, separate and then are reunited—L’Atalante is a masterpiece, for as New Wave director François Truffaut describes, in filming prosaic words and acts, Vigo effortlessly achieved poetry.
Separated from his wife, the distraught husband imagines her reflected in the water. Simultaneously, departed wife encounters horror after horror on the streets of Depression-era Paris; beggars and thieves are everywhere, men make unwanted approaches and her handbag is stolen—persons and actions all evocative of a broken and unhappy inner state. In deep regret she forlornly but fruitlessly searches for husband and barge—shots of her longing for him in silence. By chance a crew member discovers her and the couple are reunited.
Although highly poetic, L’Atalante is also grounded in reality, the director alternating the bitter-sweet narrative of separation and reconciliation with unflinching images of the grit and ugliness of everyday life, a practise never before seen in contemporary cinema—usually located in the artificial and fantastic—and rare even today. The film is evocative of the Japanese conception of beauty, mono no aware (a sensitivity to things), in which beauty is said to exist even in its opposite; that which is ugly as reminder of beauty absent.
Critic Hal Hinson goes so far as to suggest Vigo’s poetic realism is other-world inspired:
“There’s such innocence and invention in Vigo's style here that the film seems less a consciously constructed work of art than an emanation.”
He continues: “The mood Vigo creates here is a kind of enchanted melancholy, and we feel submerged in it... The effect is almost narcotic. The picture seems to drift, and though almost nothing appears to be happening, our senses are set at a heightened level, as if we were asleep and fully awake at the same time. Vigo moves the story forward by poetic association; there's a logic to the way in which it's ordered, but the links are imperceptible. They're organised by feeling, not intellect.”
While making L’Atalante Vigo was so ill that he constantly risked collapse, and even directed some scenes from a stretcher. Remarking on the director's state of mind during this period, Truffaut suggests that “It is easy to conclude that he was in a kind of fever while he worked,” and when a friend advised Vigo to guard his health, the director replied that “he lacked the time and had to give everything right away.”
Due to the high degree of realism employed in his films—often to unflattering effect—Jean Vigo was accused of being unpatriotic, his work heavily censored by the French Government. L’Atalante has never been fully restored from the butchering it received from distributors, who attempted to increase its popularity by reducing the running time and changing the title to Le Chaland Qui Passe (The Passing Barge)—the name of a popular song inserted like an axe into the film. L'Atalante was advertised as “a film inspired by the celebrated sung so admirably song by Lys Gauty.”
Jean Vigo died of complications from tuberculosis in 1934 aged just 29, only a few days after the first disappointing cinematic run of L’Atalante. His beloved wife Lydou, lying beside him as he died, got up from the bed and ran down a long corridor to a room at the end. Friends caught her as she was about to jump out a window.
Vigo has been described as the epitome of the radical, passionate film-maker who fights every step of the way against lesser imagination and sensibility, and he is perhaps lucky not to have lived to see his masterpiece so barbarically hacked to pieces. History has viewed Vigo’s work more favourably, with L’Atalante being ranked as the 10th greatest film of all time in a 1962 Sight & Sound poll, rising to 6th best in 1992.
L’Atalante, together with similar works of poetic realism by contemporaries Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné, significantly changed the course of French and world cinema, leading directly to the Italian Neorealist movement of the late 1940s, and the French New Wave (la Nouvelle Vague) of the 1950s and 60s, which in turn inspired an increasing sense of realism in Hollywood cinema. Many of the Neorealist and Nouvelle Vague directors worked upon the sets of poetic realist films before beginning their own careers, and allusions to Jean Vigo and L'Atalante can be found in many of their works.
There’s a funny saying about things that go around coming around. Usually it’s karma, an eye for an eye and a sow for a reap—the great spiritual law of the universe that dictates bad things for things done badly, good for that done gladly. But inspiration goes around as well, and more like a fire than the predictable arc of an arrow—leaping, dancing, taking light as it spreads; a force that creates and multiplies rather than destroys. A blog comment by a reader inspired me to write an entire post in return, a list of childhood memories which beget and became My First Meme, a charming, illumining anecdote on age, meditation and self-transcendence at Sumangali.org:
Age does not matter. Until his passing at age 76, Sri Chinmoy proved that to me. Through his life of meditation and self-transcendence he showed me that perhaps I am not as limited as I think. I hope to continue forgetting how old I really am. I hope to feel amused, rather than bound, if I do happen to remember, and grateful to Sri Chinmoy, especially if others find it funny too.
The torch is passed, the wheel turned. And so it goes...
What Matter Age?
I can relate to the sentiments above in so many ways. At age thirteen, and in my first year in High School, I would at times be mistaken for sixteen or older, not because of my size, but my attitude and demeanour. I was overly serious and “adult,” something of an grown up trapped in a child’s body, and for the most part related to my elders better than my peers. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless it is making you miserable. It was and then some. Now twenty years on and thirty-three, I find age to be a bit of a joke. I have reached a kind of dim, twilight zone, like a purgatory between youth and senility, where I have to stop and think to remember my age. I still can not believe I am in my thirties, and for that matter during my twenties I could not believe I was not a teen. This is only because of meditation. With the regular practise of meditation—in which I am certainly no expert, but hopefully an advertisement for: a poster-child for meditation’s slow-dawning felicitation to experience life in the ever present, ever lasting now—I again feel as I did before those forgettable, teen-aged years. Like a child. Like myself once more. Musing upon the inevitable forward march of age, I am reminded of learning to drive recently—several years ago in fact—in which getting over the insistent feeling that I was an impostor acting as a grown-up—driving seeming like such a grown-up thing to be doing—was far harder than getting a handle on the rules, firm grip of the wheel. Likewise my career. After years striding the streets as a postman—a card-carrying job for loners, introverts and others who wish to drop out of the ‘nine to five,’ or in my case, approximate a wandering, meditating monk, composing poetry while roaming up to thirteen kilometres a day, I exchanged hair shirt for one starched, press-ganged into a pre-press job with a design company, and rejoined my last seen at university, career-making peers on the cusp of their thirties, threshold or over of marriage, mortgages and children. What a joke it all was. Feeling like a child trapped in a far too big body I had to get head around idea of being an “adult,” or at least its outer appearance; joining serious colleagues in serious decisions about heavy responsibilities and pressing problems—not to mention getting in line for performance appraisals and promotion, a necessary evil when regular, expensive overseas trips to supply my meditation habit—or self-enlightenment sanity excursions as I subtitle them—were a necessity. Throughout my extended tour of the five-days-a-week world of adult duty, I was always keenly conscious of the illusory nature of it all, of its secondary status to the pursuit of my ageless, real identity. Funnily enough, and this is a very real letter of recommendation for meditation, I find that people value a person who can bring a child’s touch to a serious situation, a person able to laugh and to joke, remain good-natured and even-tempered when others do not. I was genuinely moved by the extent my colleagues showed their appreciation when it was time to move on from that job—their sincere, heart-felt sentiment running to pages on hand-made leaving card. Not to mention all of the hugs I had to dodge. In feeling like a child still, I in truth should be grateful to my mother, whose raising of me was anything but conventional—I am “old” enough, or at least wise enough to appreciate this now. Now sixty-five and looking barely fifty, she is a guileless, child-like woman, and as far away from adult politics and game-playing as is possible; it is I her child who has to point out the alternative interpretation of occasional, unintentional faux pas. Her youth-like, light of heart qualities I once mistakenly sought to uproot in myself, leave behind in a wrong-headed, head-strong rush to “grow up”—early, regrettable attempts at self-transformation with a labourer’s pitchfork, rather than the meditation’s gentle pruning. But most of all, I can relate to Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy of self-transcendence—transcendence of mind, belief, achievement and of age. In this respect alone I have so much to be grateful to my meditation teacher for. Initially self-taught in meditation—I am something of an autodidact in most things; a good quality when one remembers to be humble, or the much that one does not know—I have come to learn that meditation is so much more than a moment of peace, or a silent mind only in a silent room. Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy of the child-like heart, of living as a child rather than living childishly, has re-invented my life in the most remarkable ways, transformed me in a fashion I once could not imagine. Compared to my former self, you could say I am re-born. Photo Credits
Six facts about me as a child, with due respect to Pavitrata.
1. No fast fried pleasures, please
I 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 popular
I 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 life
Football 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 Japanese
I 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 states
I 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 clime
I 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 Meme
Write up your own list of childhood facts and I’ll mention you here:
“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, 1867
When 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.”
A visit to the barber in Turkey: flaming swabs, cut-throat razors and a little too much gel.“Please sir, you sit down.” My new best friend motions to something resembling a cabinet covered with a bed-sheet, and impersonating a couch. “Yes, you sit there.” I am in a Turkish laundromat, without a single washing appliance in sight, and a large curtain separating tiny front of shop from what sounds like an entire family washing clothes by hand. It may well be by hand, for Turkish Laundry Man tells me that my weighed and charged by the kilo clothing has a turn around time of thirty-six hours. “My friend, your room number at hotel?” “666” I reply, and not for the first time here in Antalya, Turkey, am wistfully disappointed that no-one gets the joke in this predominantly non-Christian country. On the wall behind the counter is a poster for a concert by Sri Chinmoy. An auspicious sign? Turkish Laundry Man certainly thinks so, pointing to the face on one of my t-shirts and then same face on poster. “You... him... same!” he smiles, genuine enthusiasm undaunted by only rudimentary knowledge of the Queen’s English. I decline tea—served extra black with lemon in this part of the world—ever present foil to actually getting anything done. In Turkey, were you to actually accept every courteous offer of tea, made with every business transaction completed or just proffered, you would be not only over caffeinated but permanently delayed. “Can you recommend a barber?” I inquire as I leave, mirror in corner revealing a haircut past fashionably messy and just messy. “Oh yes,” grins laundry man, “come, my cousin is barber!” Taking me by the hand, a custom which would be extremely uncomfortable back home but absolutely kosher here, he leads me diagonally across the road to a barber shop I somehow hadn't noticed, where a man with an intimidating stare is holding a cut-throat razor, giving a local the closest shave I have ever seen. There is absolutely no family resemblance. They converse briefly in Turkish, Laundry Man enthusiastic, Intimidating Barber seemingly disinterested, and a price is confirmed of TKL8, a fare more than fair. His job not only done but exceeded far beyond call, Laundry Man clasps my hand firmly and then departs, imploring me to join him for tea at haircut's close. Unlike the laundromat, the barber shop is state of the art, if such a description can be applied to the timeless tradition of men's hairdressing. European football plays on the satellite channel of a wall-mounted TV set, watched by the coiffed to be from ergonomic, custom built blue barber chairs. A million types of hair product of infinite textures, fragrances and purport line shelves inside sleek plastic tubes and containers, while beside me Turkish language magazines sit in piles for my non-reading, temporary distraction as I await my appointment with master of male grooming. As with haircuts everywhere, the first order of business is communicating the type of cut desired. Except without use of language, as “short back and sides” produces not a glimmer of understanding. Yet to utter a single word, but thankfully his cut-throat now holstered, Intimidating Barber motions to the top of my head and then the sides with thumb and fore-finger held apart, distance presumably indicating length desired. Resisting the temptation to point to the cover of “Türkiye Man” and say “Same please,” I emulate the gesture, except with a measurement several millimetres less, successfully communicating a clippers cut by narrowing my fingers to just a pinch. Shoved from behind face into a water filled basin, I relax in the knowledge that I am probably going to get a haircut at the very least vaguely approximating what I am used to. After a minute having my hair washed, Intimidating Barber places a towel covered hand tightly over mouth, nose and eyes, pulling me by face up out of the sink, an act intended to keep water off my face, but also temporarily suffocating me. I wonder at what point breathlessness would overcome polite surrender, should I be unable to draw air for much longer. Possibly not until after I pass out. While his perpetual frown is a little off-putting, especially when wielding the cut-throat razor—a not so subtle encouragement for prompt payment I am sure—he does appear to be proficient at his trade, employing facets of this art which I was hitherto unaware. Flaming stick to the side of the head is a personal favourite, steel rod wrapped in cotton wool lit and applied in measured daubs around the ears, burning off fine hairs or evil spirits I am not completely sure. Like me he is not a fan of the “side-burn”—also known as the “mutton-chop” or just plain personal grooming mistake—and, in another excuse to wave cut-throat alarmingly close to vital arteries, skillfully dispatches any hint of such with a few swift strokes. A confirmation of desired shortness—“no, this short” I signal with my fingers—and we are just about done, a few final adjustments required with comb and scissors. Did I say done? Maestro appears to have other ideas, and, inspired by a fist-full of styling gel and a look last seen in best forgotten 1980s music videos, twists and then teases my hair into points and spikes, bottle of jelly-like product fast disappearing. I have to desperately restrain myself from laughing at what is taking shape in the mirror, for he regards his craftsmanship most seriously, and expects an approval I would fear not giving. Barbershop experience is completed with a TKL10 note exchanged, price raised above that quoted but I mind not—the sickly sweet all over perfume applied at close more than justifying this age-old version of “bait and switch.” For the next ten minutes I am a reluctant Turkish pop star, now rock hard gelled haircut attracting nods of approval from schoolboys passed as I return to my hotel. Cringing, I take the out of sight back entrance up to my room, detachment from care for my personal appearance growing about as fast as recently cut hair.