What's so great about Japan?  

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

When I travel back to Europe and I meet with someone who finds out that I live in Japan, the inevitable first question is along the lines of "What do you like about Japan?" It's a question I have fielded hundreds of times, and to be honest I tend now to try and just skip over it as quickly as possible. It's not that I don't want to answer, or that I find it tedious to trot out the same basic response each time. It's more to do with the fact that I find it such a difficult question to answer honestly. What's so great about Japan?

Everyone has their own ideas, of course. For me, it has always been a problem to articulate my particular viewpoint. I have loved the country since the very first moment my foot touched Japanese soil. I have visited and worked in many countries, and I've enjoyed them all. But I have never felt such an instant connection with any of them in the way I did with Japan. I have never been able to adequately explain why.  Until now.

Prompted by our own recent trip to Japan's Inland Sea for our 10th Anniversary, I bought a book of the same name by - as it turns out - a truly wonderful writer by the name of Donald Richie. Richie, originally from Ohio, came to Japan as a young man and like me fell in love with the country. However unlike me, he is able to express his own affinity to Japan eloquently and elegantly. He wrote in response to the question why he liked Japan:

I think the most honest answer is: I like myself here. There are places—Calcutta is one—where you can come to loathe yourself. I never knew I would be ready to kick children from my path, to strike out at cripples, to compose a face apparently contemptuous at the sight of misery so great it seemed almost theatrical. And all because of sheer terror. I, along with most of my richer Western brothers, had believed that such qualities as disinterested politeness, trust, friendship, even love are necessities. It had never occurred to me that they are luxuries until India showed me that this is so. Such attributes—the pride of Western man—are but accoutrements, like well-cut clothes. They are removable. One can go naked and miserable.

For me, that's it in a nutshell. I like myself here. In Japan, you can be kind, polite and gentle, and nobody mistakes this for a weakness to be exploited. In fact, quite the opposite -  to be strong, yet quiet and benevolent are considered the ultimate manly attributes. As the great Dan Inosanto (shameless namedropping: Malc, Lewis and myself had the honour of training with Guru Dan many years ago) is fond of saying "Don't mistake kindness for weakness". The inference is that the truly strong man has the capacity to be kind and gentle, not because he is weak but precisely because he is strong. But in the UK, wherever you go, there is always some entity that tries to challenge this and impose its "Might is right" view of the world on others. Either personally through loutish anti-social behaviour, or indirectly through faceless unaccountable corporations or useless government bodies. I got so tired of having to fight endlessly with these people on a daily basis. I got tired of having to stand my ground, react forcefully to a threat or waste time and energy fighting with idiots. All of that stopped the moment I arrived here.

But even that's not the whole answer. The wonderful Donald Richie goes on to write thus:

Japan, then—to answer this perennial question—allows me to like myself because it agrees with me and I with it. Moreover, it allows me to keep my freedom. It makes very few demands on me—I am considered too much the outsider for that, a distinction I owe to the color of my skin, eyes, and hair—and, consequently, I become free. I become a one-member society, consistent only to myself and forever different from those who surround me. Our basic agreement permits an amount of approval, some of it mutual; our basic differences allow me to apprehend finally that the only true responsibility a man has is toward himself.

In Japan, not only am I free of the jobsworths, louts and gobshites, I am free to be exactly who I want to be; to hold my own standards and to set new ones of my choosing based on the things I have learned here. In other words, Truly free.

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Hair today...  

Thursday, 2 July 2015

One of the great things about the internet is the way that it has democratised writing. Once upon a time, getting your work into print was the hard-won privilege of the favoured few - at least, those who didn't want to stump up the cost of vanity publishing. Now we have Amazon, and anyone with a computer and a story to tell can have a go.

cueball-sm Predictably, this has generated an awful lot of tosh. I spend a lot of time looking for authors worth reading on my Kindle, and a lot of the time it's like searching for a Wispa bar in a sea of turds. Just occasionally I stumble across someone really worth the effort, like the excellent Carrot Quinn (see my links). But more often than not I find myself getting to the end of a slim volume and thinking "What the bloody hell was the point of that"?

One such example was the book on "Over 50's Fitness" I previewed last night. Among the earth-shattering insights offered by the author was the fact that you slow down as you get older and you probably shouldn't try to go from coach potato to marathon runner in one month. But the one thing that really tickled me was the author's authoritative run-down on medical conditions likely to afflict the over 50's. Number 1 was stiff joints. Well, OK we all feel a bit stiff in the mornings. Number 2 was hair loss.

Now, I had never considered hair loss due to natural ageing to be a medical condition. But our font-of-all-knowledge solemnly assures us that the psychological impact of male hair loss can be catastrophic. Really?

Let's face it, most of us blokes are going to go a bit threadbare up top as we get older. For the vast majority of us, it's going to occur in our thirties, and for the vast majority of us, we're over lamenting the loss of our youthful mane in a very short space of time. Just have it cut short and get on with life. There are always going to be some that just can't handle it, finding solace in the syrup or hair transplant or comb-over for the stingy ones. Incidentally, the comb-over is known as "the bar code" in Japan - which always makes me laugh.

I feel sorry for anyone that struggles to come to terms with approaching slap-headedness. But at the same time, I can't help thinking that their grasp on their masculinity must be a bit flimsy at best if they allow it to be defined by their lack of spam. It's a well-known fact that male pattern baldness is in fact dictated by the amount of testosterone flowing through your veins. Therefore baldness surely should be celebrated as a badge of honour rather than covered up and cited as a cause of psychological trauma. Mr "Fit Fifty" is talking out of his arse.

And anyway, as any bloke over fifty knows, your hair doesn't disappear - it merely migrates from the sunlight uplands of your bonce to the shaded groves of nostril and ear lobe!

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