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.

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