Wednesday, June 29, 2005

a few more

Last Sunday I was reminded of a universe of Japanese gestures that I'd forgotten to put into my last post. Got all wrapped up in unsconscious bows and squatting postures. In anycase, spent last Sunday at a country barbecue. Picked up by a friend of mine, this country boy with a scruffly face whose main past times are fishing and making techo-pop on his laptop. Spent the afternoon pulling cold beers out of the river and grilling salmon steaks and mushrooms in tin foil wraps over the grill. Mostly new to me, country boys and girls. In anycase, they reminded me of a lot of the hand motions I'd forgotten about.

Extended arm, index finger hooking as if pulling a trigger: Purloining, pinching, nicking, pilfering. (Cued by Tori trying to make off with one of the expensive beers Kaneko had brought.)

Index and thumb curled in an upside-down "OK" sign: Cash, bread, wampum, yen.

Raised eyebrows plus an extended pinky: "Single?"

Thumb tucked between your index and middle finger: Getting it on.

Tapping your left shoulder with your right hand then your right with your left: Swings both ways, bi.

Extended middle finger: Absolutely nothing. Friends will scratch their nose with it while they talk to you, old men point the way to the nearest train station with it, and motorists will use it to wave you into a lane.

Monday, June 20, 2005

bows, handshakes, come hithers

kinesthetics: (subset of linguistics) a new academic field I just made up which explores and lists the physical language specific to a culture. So far research has been confined to Japan and the US, with brief expeditions to Taiwan, the UK and Canada. I should travel more.

One of my favorite modern Japanese artists is the painter and illustrator Akira Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi works in many styles, but his most well known works are his massive ink and oil paintings depicting fluid meshes of modern and feudal Japanese life in broad “Where’s Waldo?” style paintings. While at first glance identical to 17th and 18th century Japanese paintings where swathes of quickly detailed little figures were depicted parading around urban landscapes, with a closer look Yamaguchi has riddled his paintings with modern Japanese details, from electric water heaters tacked onto the sides of feudal houses to small congresses of armored samurai and suit-and-tyed businessmen. The one time-irrelevant aspect of Yamaguchi’s paintings are the postures and expressions of his little figures, which all seem so quintessentially Japanese. I occasionally have to swallow my astonishment and gulp when squinting at the details in his work – the slightly tilted head and closed eyes of a stoic looking fellow in a public bath is the distilled image of a guy I saw in the local hot springs last week: right down to the carefully folded square of a washcloth resting on his head. His paintings are a little bit overwhelming at times, crammed as they are with miniscule moments of Japanese life. His work has made him famous domestically; his fantasy illustrations of the Mitsukoshi department store were plastered on trains all over Tokyo last year as an ad for their 100th anniversary, and a recent book collection of his paintings has been prominently displayed in just about every bookstore I’ve walked into. Yamaguchi’s work has shaped my photographic expeditions around Tokyo, keeping my eye out for a flip of the wrist or a scratch of the neck that wanders from mother to son from playmate to playmate.

One of the first gestures I noticed is the way you shake hands here: stiffly, but with gusto, back arched slightly in the unconscious ghost of a bow. Though it still has faint foreign quotation marks around it, the handshake has become just another addition to the broad range of Japanese gestures.

Though probably a Chinese import, the domestic equivalent of the bow is probably the most well known gesture in the Japanese physical vocabulary. On a short trip to Taiwan last year I was surprised to note the radically different quality in bowing. It is used far less frequently and goes far less deep than Japanese bowing. I recall slow casual nods at the waist in tea-houses and restaurants which seemed worlds away from the clean and occasionally frantic twitching that goes on in Japan. There is a universe of bows and nods in Japan that exist purely in the kinesthetic memory, coming out of both conscious practice and unconscious absorption. On my walk home I frequently pass a neighborhood bar where the sliding glass walls have been opened up and tables spill out into the street. Men and women at the long tables squint, smile and nod their heads in a fashion that is universal but somehow coming out distinctly Japanese.

Certain forms of bowing are drilled into students from elementary school onwards, and sometimes earlier. It is quite an experience to introduce yourself before several hundred kindergarteners lined in exquisite rows in identical little jumpers, then to have them all bow to you in unison, collapsing into giggles afterwards. From there on bowing is worked into daily rituals. While practices vary depending on class and teachers, the more traditional start out with a barked “Kiritsu!” (Stand!), and “Rei!” (Bow!), where the entire class and the teacher will bow to one another, then begin the lesson. The practice continues up through adulthood, the beginning of just about any meeting consecrated with the entire room bowing in unison. Just about every store has a different bowing policy to its customers, from the faint nods and warm smiles from the corner produce store to the closed-eye, exquisitely angled tilts-from-the-waist at your finer restaurants.

There are of course certain gestures that are universal to the human animal, from the raising of eyebrows and contraction of cheek muscles that make up a welcoming smile to the closed hand which seems to indicate violence and strength across the board. But there are so many other twitches and flaps that are culturally specific, picked up and passed around like new words and phrases. It isn’t easy to master the subtly graded formalities of polite Japanese, but learning when and how to bow is something you pick up without thinking about. I’m pretty sure the waitstaff at US restaurants always give me a little more room as an involuntarily nod and twitch whenever they bring something to the table.

There are almost too many too list. (But hey, that’s why I’m writing this.) When heading the wrong way through a thick crowd you hold up your flat hand like a sharks fin cutting through the water. Some particularly enthusiastic old guys add a steady up-and-down chopping motion, as if cutting their way through a jungle. The hand gesture for “come here” isn’t the circular arm swing we use in the states, but kind of like a reverse of the “shoo!” gesture, hand flapping down from the wrist, pulling the person in. It is standard etiquette to hold up a flat open palm like a signal flag when you’re crossing the street. Embarrassment or shyness comes out both in a flushed face and a conspicuous scratching of the back of your neck. And while it’s a bit embarrassing to note this, schoolgirls and professional women in skirts often press their open hands to their mid thigh when walking up stairs, pressing the fabric against themselves to prevent any peeking from below. Not that I ever photographed that. The girls and the cops probably wouldn’t understand my purely anthropological interests in the subject.

Women tucking in their skirts walking up the stairs is as much a product of the physical reality of Tokyo as the cultural makeup of Japan, but there’s no real separating of the two. Short skirts and stairs in train stations are pretty common in Japan, and modesty is a natural human instinct: throw all three together and you get the cultural meme of hands tucking in skirts. These reactions to the manmade landscape are a whole subdivision of kinesthetics.

I’m always been interested in the variety of postures that emerge from sitting on flat tatami matting. While many Japanese homes feature a dinner table with chairs, venture out into the country and you’ll find homes where there isn’t a high backed chair in sight, the entire rhythm of the room lowered to the floor. With nothing to lean back on you tend to alternate between hunching forward and leaning back on your arms. My hosts will often tell me to relax and cross my legs since I’ll naturally plop down into seiza, the formal position with your legs tucked underneath yourself, tops of your feet stretched flat onto the mats. Without shifting or moving it can paralyze your legs, leaving you with a nasty case of pins and needles, but I find it’s the easiest way to go about it, all things being equal.

Tatami and pretty much all indoor flooring are a psychologically clean space, kids are free to roll around and grandma can conk out in front of the TV. Stepping outside the ground suddenly becomes dirty. With no lawn chairs or cushions on hand a plastic bag will come out to shield you from the grass. Construction workers on their coffee breaks squat low, knees bent and heads up, sipping can coffee and sharing cigarettes.

What with Tokyo’s infamously crowded trains, “train etiquette” is pursued rigorously, and the pleas to keep your bag on your lap and not sprawl around the seats are actually taken seriously here. Even during off peak hours it’s not unusual to see two young women at opposite ends of a deserted subway car, each sitting up straight as a ruler, bags neatly on their laps. I have been a little bit annoyed by a recent ad campaign by the Tokyo Metro system where characters from Sesame Street remind you to follow train manners (in Japanese and English.) I have a hard time believing Ernie really gives a shit if I fold my newspaper to create six inches more standing room.

Of course I’m generalizing here. These are rules of thumb, variations bouncing off of different ages and personalities. In the country they still take off their shoes before coming inside, but not everyone is so prissy about plopping down in a field for a snack. Teenagers sipping at rebellion will conspicuously sprawl their bodies around street vending machines and grubby subway platforms.

It’s tempting to draw big social theories out of these throwaway mannerisms, toss around big words and reduce everything to “culture”, that tired academic plow horse that has shouldered a good seventy years of half baked ideas. Which is why I would rather peek around an Akira Yamaguchi painting than read another “Chrysanthemum and the Sword”. There is one painting that constantly comes back to my mind that distills so many truths about how modern Japan thinks of itself. Titled “People Making Things” (2001), dozens of little figures are scrambling over the frames of a few inexplicable mechanical projects. Modern constructions workers and feudal laborers hoist up wooden poles, foremen sneer, engineers pore over electronic panels, wealthy financiers grin self contentedly and pat each other on the back. A man loosens his tie while walking into to an open air bar, salarymen and feudal laborers quaffing sake out of a large barrel. There is no apparent direction or purpose to the project. What are important are the social webs locked around the effort, the universal scowl of the supervisor, the ridiculous grin of a shirking worker. Yamaguchi just swims in these emotions and gestures, each emerging from their humble roles in this social matrix. It’s not what they’re doing that’s important; it’s how they do it.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


The air at work is stale and lifeless, seared through the heaters or frost-burned through the air-conditioning. For weeks my boss insisted that opening the windows would let in clouds of exhaust, dust and car horns, but I’ve finally peeled off those excuses to her real answer: evil spirits. I had never noticed half dozen wards wrapped in thin white cloth and scotch-taped along the walls before that, they sat unobtrusively among the world maps and alphabet posters.


The Indian restaurant on the first floor has been dark since last Tuesday. I thought they might be on vacation, but the sign says thank you for your business, we have closed. I can hear them in the apartment next door, the front door open, tugging to the end of the safety chain, thick smells of cooking and voices drifting out. I’ve been trying to guess out the emotional shape underneath the unfamiliar words, but they talk flatly and everyday to each other. I don’t know if they’ve failed or just reached the end of something. We haven’t seen each other in the hall.

The karaoke bar has moved their pamphlet racks and daily-special chalkboards out in front of the Indian restaurant. Someone has started parking a cherry red Akira style motorcycle across the front door.

Yesterday an older woman with tight skin and a painted face had set out racks of used clothes and little bins of old plastic toys in front of the empty Indian restaurant. Behind her little display the front door of the restaurant was open, inside it was piled high with chairs and table cloths. She smiled and told me to look around the stuff she was selling, but I didn’t have time to stop and ask what it was all about.


The crows know that burnable garbage goes out on Tuesdays and Fridays, they tear the bags apart for fish bones and pork gristle. Last Monday night after I’d piled my bag with the others the alley across the street, I squinted at the black shape dangling over the garbage heap. I breathed easy the next day: it wasn’t a real, it was an inflatable crow carcass. Same squishy plastic as a beach ball, even has one of those clear chewy nozzles that tucks inside.

Friday, June 17, 2005

urawa city blues

Ikebukuro has the largest retail space in a single building in all of Japan, but I would like to dispel any ideas of a cavern-like Wal-Mart planted in north-west Tokyo. Like so much retail in Japan, this is an outgrowth of the train station. Ikebukuro is sliced in half by it's gargantuan train station, which is still only the second largest in Tokyo. It is the meeting point for a tangle of national and private railways, the two most prominent being the Seibu and Tobu railways.

The ideographs that spell out Seibu and Tobu refer to east and west sections of Musashino, an old name for the large plain region that is now thick with humanity and concrete. The railways are rival feudal networks of department stores and trains to move people to the department stores. They are literally the product of a sibling rivalry, carving up Tokyo real estate in a business epic of Shakesperean size. The owners of the companies are half-brothers, their father making a fortune in the immediate aftermath of the war. For unclear reasons the legitimate son was disinherited from his father's fortune, and the illegitimate son was given control of the Tobu empire. Left with his breeding and business connections the legitimate son founded Seibu, creating a network of train lines that webs across northwest Tokyo into Saitama. Seibu had the largest deparment store in Japan for years until Tobu built an annex to their Ikebukuro branch to surpass it. These twin giants perch on either end of Ikebukuro station only a few hudnred yards from each other. In their competition to stay ahead of one another the buildings are crammed with retail stores crammed with just about every product under the sun.

It seemed like a good place to look for tortillas.

I had just finished paying for two plastic wrapped packs of tortillas and a pound of kidney beans when my cell phone began to chime with the melody of the emerging spirits from "Spirited Away." The Seibu food section was exploding with after-work shoppers and blue print uniformed employees hawking French wines, pickled eggplants and grilled eel. I while scurrying with my groceries, looking for a quiet corner in the middle of this riot.

"It's about your working visa Jamie!" the voice on the other end was struggling to get to me amid the row of butchers screaming the quality of their pork cuts.

I found a staircase where my cellphone hovered between one and two bars. "My visa?" I cradled the tortillas.

It was my boss, calling about my visa renewal. "It's not as simple as I thought. You see, the law has changed..."

When I first entered Japan I was given a three year working visa with "instructor" status. Everyone who has employed me in Japan, from the lanky American owner of the vegetarian restaurant to the central Tokyo tour guide company, understood the old law. A visa's a visa, I'm free to gut fish in Hokkaido or edit textbooks in Osaka. But at some point when no one was paying attention the categories got shifted and suddenly an instructor visa was just that: I could teach in schools, but only public schools.

I've been blissfully working here illegally for two years and now I have to write it all out for the immigration officer in a neat little form, with a little letter saying, "gee, sorry, won't happen again."

I had dreams last night tangled with large dark cities and creatures of science fiction. Before I woke up I was riding in an elevator with two men, and one calmly turned to the other, opened a mouth the size of a basketball, and sunk his teeth into the other's man's neck, right where it meets the shoulder.

After I got the call I had to get home to cook the beans and throw together some guacamole and salsa. I had twelve dinner guests coming over, and I was supposed to have appetizers ready by six. We were cramming into my studio apartment, which is roughly the size of a humvee. Hiro was making sukiyaki for our main dish: pots of vegetables and beef bubbling away in a sweetened broth. Kayo had worked for a few years in a bakery and was bringing cakes and puddings. Takeo and Michi were bringing a bottle of a thick Mexican liquour. Everyone else brought chips or beers or a few dollars and a grin.

We tucked into my place tight but comfortable, thirteen of us tucked around two tables scrambled with a dozen plates, two pots of sukiyaki, a tray of fresh sauces, kidney beans cooked in rum, a plate of warmed tortillas, and a rainbow of drinks. Takeo played bartender in the corner, his day off starting to look a lot like the nights at his bar. Hiro and I cut each other up in our mock Iron Chef competition. He kicked my ass, but I wowed on exoticism: no one had ever had proper burritos or fresh salsa before.

When it got dark and stuffy in my place we went out to the roof with folding chairs and jugs of wine. We took photos against the spread of Urawa. Carlo Rossi is also the cheapest wine in Japan, and I showed them how to hook it in your thumb and drink it from over your shoulder, just like I learned in that dorm room freshman year.

Hiro was lying down apart from the group, his face pale. "You alright?" I asked.

"Think I just ate to much. but thanks for those... burritos? They were great." He smiled wanly. "You know I don't drink much, those two kinda ruffled me up to. Be alright in a little while."

"Actually," I said, looking over my shoulder as Kayo trying to get everybody to dance against the chilly night air. "I have this problem with my visa. I think it'll be okay, but... I might have to leave in six weeks." I explained the details.

"You're kidding! Do you think it'll work out?"

"I dunno, I have no idea how strict it is."

"But you'll be able to work it out somehow right?"

"Think so." No one had budged from their chairs behind us so Kayo was dancing by herself in the circle of chairs, her face poised in faux contentment, studiously ignoring the wine drinkers who refused to get up. "You wanna be alone, for a bit, right, get over all that food?"

He nodded, and I went back to this circle of folks, none of whom I'd known longer than six months, the fixtures of my life here. I had wandered years in Japan to finally find myself with a circle of friends who seemed barely aware I was an American, who had taken me plainly as I was, never uttered a false praise of my Japanese or plied me for free English lessons, never asked me silly questions about my ability to eat raw fish or if rice exists in America. Just a group of folks I could share a beer with, get together a Sunday afternoon soccer game.

Felt like they were already all just a snapshots, laughing and gummy bodies stiffened to thin, frozen faces on a photograph.