Thursday, April 21, 2005

bread of the faithful, opiate of the masses, cocaine of the fanatics

“Hey, if you can read Japanese that well, are you interested in performing a wedding? You just dress up like a priest, read some greetings and congratulations then do the ceremony in English. Hundred dollars for one hours work. You’re tall and white, so you look the part. If you ever interested in subbing for me, just call the number on my card.”

At the time I was fresh off the boat, barely a week or two under my belt and a rudimentary grasp of Japanese, and here was this short Hawaiian guy in a nasal voice offering me a faux-priest gig. I wish I’d followed up on that, at least just for the story.

Spirituality is a slippery issue in Japan, one that I don’t fully understand. Like most Americans, I came here with my categories of religion as a yes-no question. You are Baptist or Buddhist or Agnostic or Wicca: something that makes a nice box on the religion category of a questionnaire. But in Japan, the question is basically moot. You’re Japanese. Sunday walks and funerals take place at the local Buddhist temple. New Years Eve drunkenness, local festivals and coming of age days happen at the Shinto shrines. And weddings are in massive ugly banquet halls with an overworked staff, a fake foreign priest and massive cake.

The one thing I have always liked about the local Shinto faith is that you don’t ask what you can do for the gods, you ask what they can do for you. For the price of a few coins dropped before the altar and a few seconds of prayer you can buy a more fertile womb, better marriage prospects for your son or protection for your automobile. In the kitchenette at my workplace there is a small altar to ward off fires laid out in the top cabinet above the coffee machine and tea bags. Last year I visited a shrine in southern Yamagata famed for bringing luck to students taking exams. Although I wasn’t stripped down to traditional swaddling cloth and headbands emblazoned with the characters from my school, the god must have liked my five yen and bowing style; two months later I passed the national Japanese proficiency exam.

While this general absence of a metaphysical framework doesn’t seem to bother most people I know here, the country has seen a disturbing rise in cult groups lately. Probably the most internationally well known is Aum, a now officially defunct group that had a disturbing number of Phd’s and other highly successful and educated people among it’s members. They came to international attention when they launched an inexplicable terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing twelve and injuring thousands of passengers, many suffering permanent brain damage. The leader of the cult was sentenced to death last year. The author Haruki Murakami puts this as one of the turning points in modern Japanese history, a massive sign that something was seriously very wrong with the country. His non-fiction work Underground is an incredible series of interviews with survivors of the attacks, as well as several members of the Aum cult, and is one of my favorite pieces of writing about modern Japan.

On the milder end of the spectrum is Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist centered cult which started in the 1920's. They claim to have around 10 million members (one-in-twelve Japanese), have spread internationally, run a major political party and even got that pointy eared heartthrob Orlando Blume! The cult mostly consists of paying small dues, praying, leafletting and suppressing creative or independant thought, which I suppose is mild compared to launching massive terrorist attacks designed to bring about the end of the world.

One of the most long running, widespread and firmly entrenched cults in Japan was brought from Europe. Originally concentrated in southern Japan, it currently has chapters all over Japan, conducting weekly rituals that mimic cannibalism and preach of doomsday. The other day as I sat reading a hard-boiled detective novel in a coffee shop, the couple that sat down next to me looked really excited. “Excuse me,” the man said, somewhat flustered. “Sorry to bother you out of the blue, but I couldn’t help but notice that you can read Japanese.” “Well, yeah, I…” “If that’s the case, there is a book I would really like you to read. Here, I’ll give it to you!” Before I could protest he pulled a sparkling new hardcover book, the cover printed with something about “If you commit to Christ you will achieve everlasting life…” I waved my hand. “I’m OK, thanks.” “What you mean you already have it!” he said with a kind of fevered hope. “No. I have no interest in reading it.” “Oh, well, umm...” He and his female companion went back to drinking their coffee in silence.

They seem to be everywhere recently. All of the different doorways I have had in this country have been visited by evangelicals, bringing the word of god as expressed in dramatically illustrated pamphlets. One of them gave me this cool poster where a green pastured heaven populated by people and sheep of all races and cultures gradually faded to a fiery sea of burning souls. I even had a pair of Mormons at my door once, freshly scrubbed, all barbered hair, suits and mountain bikes. Those damned Americans wouldn’t shoo off as easily as the coffee shop man.

Same coffee shop, different day. A young white American with dead and opaque eyes, maybe just out of college, was sitting with a Japanese woman of the same age. He spoke in a long unbroken stream on faith versus good deeds, the Holy Trinity, Romans, the King James translation, the Matrix, joy, leaving no pauses for his companion, only stopping occasionally to sip from a sugary whipped-cream and coffee confection. She just sat and nodded, giving little affirmations when appropriate. I doubt she caught more than half of what was coming out of his mouth. Maybe she was turning over the mystery of the Trinity, the call of the faithful. Or maybe she was thinking how great those Christian weddings looked in the movies. But I suppose we’ll never know, will we. She never got a chance to speak.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jamie: I love this one. One of your best.