Wednesday, March 23, 2005

reset button

This time of year is pretty unremarkable in America, the liminal days of late winter when everyone would be hoping for spring if the freezing rain and gray winds weren't crushing their spirits. Here in Japan however, everything here is coordinated to reset exactly on April 1st: the financial year, the school year, employee transfers, hirings, firings, moving house, and probably more than a few marraiges. Companies debut all their latest talking toilet seats, GPS cell phones and dancing robots in April. In March every internet service provider and home furnishing maker is bending over backwards to grab up all the students and company employees who are moving into apartments still smelling of fresh concrete. When told that the financial year, the school year and company schedules are all different in the US, people look at you with glazed eyes. This is the world's great super power? You may have built the atomic bomb (with European scientists), but you can't get the damn trains to run on time.

I'm not clear on the origins of all this. Most of modern Japanese government was created under the American occupation; the Japanese constitution was drafted by an American committe, so maybe some joker at GHQ decided the most important day of the year should be April 1st. I'm pretty sure it's not continental in origin, Japan wouldn't be caught dead celebrating New Year with those Chinese barbarians, they slurp their longevity soba noodles and quaff their sake at the local shrine with the rest of the civilized world: midnight twelve thirty-one.

I suspect it may have something to do with that most celebrated and hackneyed of Japanese icons: the cherry blossoms. At the exact moment my plane leaves Japanese soil for the US the entire Kanto plain will burst into a riot of pink petals perched on exquisitely twisted cherry branches. Ten days later, the very last petal will touch the ground at the same instant my return plane does.

The fine, delicate, and frankly wussy sakura's short blooming period has inspired Japanese lyricists from across the ages to compose a lot of very bad poetry, most of it dealing with things like the fragility of beauty, the fleeting nature of happiness and the necessity for young Japanese men to suppress natural survival instincts and common sense and die for their country. Last year saw yet another hit J-Pop ballad called Sakura, here's my translation of the chorus.

"I am right here by your side/ to make you laugh./ The dance of the sakura paints the season./Let's go walking together."

Barf. Sigh. I much prefer the 18th century haiku poet Buson's take on the little pink guys.

With no underrobes
bare butt suddenly exposed
a gust of spring wind
(trans. Sam Hamill, from The Sound of Water)

But much more typical is this 8th or 9th century poem by our good friend anonymous monk, who is to sakura poetry what Joni Mitchell is to that generation of lacklustre female singer songwriters.

Their colors are bright but still they fall
who lasts forever in our world?
Today I cross the far peak of Transience:
no more shallow dreams, no drunkenness.
(trans. Janine Beichman, from Oriori no uta)

As often as these are remarked upon around this season, I get the feeling the whole country is rather fed up with these cliches. When I saw the fantasy, err, ahem "historical" epic The Last Samurai here last year, I swear to god the entire theater groaned in unison when "the last samurai" Ken Watanabe committed hara-kiri on the battlefield, watching the cherry blossoms fall to the ground and whispering "perfect..." in English. Most modern Japanese jidaigeki (period dramas) have dropped the hagiography and portray the samurai as they were: a spoiled and useless military class that exploited peasants so they could have enough money to drink, gamble and whoop it up with the geisha. Preferably under the cherry blossoms.

While the sakura inspire a lot of saccharine lyrics, for the most part they are a great excuse to get outside after the long winter and greet the warm weather under the falling petals with copious amounts of grog, grub and good cheer. This is one of my favorite Japanese customs; people of all ages coming by the hundreds to completely cover the grass of the local park with acres of picnic blankets, blossoms hurricaning into beer cups, perms, and discarded shoes. After you have brushed off your clothes, collected the bottles and cans, rolled up the blankets, at some point on the way home you realize your internal clock has clicked to zero, the slate is clean, emotional debts have all been paid. The world is blooming and so are we.

Cherry blossoms
having shed their flower-bodies
are folded in
among the fine gravel
where people walk

(Kanoko Okamoto, 1940.
trans. Janine Beichman, from Oriori no uta)

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