Letters from Japan

“No man is an island entire of himself,” wrote the English poet John Donne. Not only individuals but even island nations emerge in history and arrive at an understanding of their own identity through a conversation and exchange that must include other places and other people. That national histories are often represented as autochthonous, sealed off and unmixed with any external elements, is not only a missed opportunity but an error that has led to violence, exclusion, and massacre.

Japan has many ways of discussing its own uniqueness. Philosophers of the Heian court contrasted Yamato-damashii (“Japanese spirit”) with the values and qualities of other nations on the periphery of Tang China. The complicated word kokutai (“national body”), meaning both the sovereign state and the national essence of its people, centered political discourse in the wake of the 1868 revolution, acquired a mystical power through its association with the Emperor and the imperial cult, and became a germ for nationalist sloganeering under the regime that endured until 1945. The genre of Nihonjinron (“Japanese people theories”) has continued to extrapolate the originality of the country’s language, psychology, social structures, cultural forms, and economic success as a result of its isolated development.

We don’t have to dismiss the claims made by Japanese people to a unique identity rooted in the history of a place in order to argue that, given the complexity of such an identity, the story of its interconnectedness with broadly human history is more important in the present moment. “All dividing horizons have been shattered,” said Joseph Campbell: “We can no longer hold our loves at home and project our aggressions elsewhere; for on this spaceship Earth there is no ‘elsewhere’ any more. And no mythology that continues to speak or to teach of ‘elsewheres’ and ‘outsiders’ meets the requirements of this hour.”

There is no time to maintain that absurd conception of identity as a singular allegiance. Identity is too often used as a bludgeon when it can also be a bridge that allows us to connect with others through those facets we hold in common. With that in mind, here are nine points of contact between what is commonly regarded as Japanese culture and what is often distinguished as foreign—nine reasons to regard Japan as more than an island of itself, written when I was living in and traveling and remembering my home for four brief years.

孤雲无定處 A lone cloud has no place to settle.
本自愛高峯 From the beginning I cherished the high peaks;
不知人里日 not knowing the secular life.
觀月臥青松 I watch the moon and lay in the green pines.
—Kūkai (774-835)

Japan’s Buddhist tradition emerged out of a rich cultural exchange with China. The Emperor organized regular delegations of monks to study the sutras overseas, including that which brought Kūkai to Chang’an, the Tang capital, in 804. Kūkai became a legend: mastering esoteric Buddhism in just two years, he returned to found one of Japan’s most sacred temples and its most famous pilgrimage. He was awarded the posthumous title Kōbō-Daishi, “Grand Master who Spread the Dharma.”

Though popularly believed the inventor of the kana syllabary in which Japanese is written today, Kūkai and the nobility of his day wrote in Chinese. His mastery of the language is evident in the intertextuality of his poetry, with references to classic texts like the Book of Rights, the Book of Changes, and the Huainanzi. The allusive nature of Chinese-language poetry makes its flourishes inaccessible to modern readers, but they would have been familiar to literate contemporaries.

The mountain Kūkai cherishes and from which he descends “to save the fools” in the poem above might be Kōyasan, south of the newly-established capital at Kyoto, where he built the temple complex that remains the stronghold of his syncretic Shingon sect. It might be one of many peaks along the 1200 kilometer pilgrim trail which Kūkai began near the place of his birth in Shikoku.

Today 300,000 pilgrims travel the island every year, told by the white shirt, conical sedge hat, wooden staff, prayer beads, and the book in which they receive stamps from each of the eighty-eight temples associated with the Grand Master. While many pilgrims choose a tour bus, some still spend six to twelve weeks hiking the mountain paths on foot.

Kūkai’s role as a cultural bridge between two often adversarial nations continues twelve centuries after his death, with a 2017 fantasy film, Legend of the Demon Cat, directed by Chen Kaige from a novel by Yoneyama Mineo and starring a cast of Chinese and Japanese actors.

Truly a good horse, good ground to gallop on, and sunshine, make up the sum of enjoyable travelling.
—Isabella Bird (1831-1904)

Among the many books on Japan to captivate European audiences in the late nineteenth century, Isabella Bird’s 1880 travelogue Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is one of the few which are still read and admired today. The inveterate English explorer, naturalist, and photographer, who once voted “civilization a nuisance, society a humbug and all conventionality a crime,” was also the first woman to join the Royal Geographical Society. In this book, Bird explored the wild roads of Tohoku and Hokkaido. (Others relate her forays into Korea, Tibet, the Rocky Mountains, and the Hawaiian archipelago.)

Bird gives some of the earliest English-language descriptions of Hokkaido’s indigenous people, the Ainu. Unfortunately, she described them as “complete savages” and “a harmless people without the instinct of progress, descending to that vast tomb of conquered and unknown races which has opened to receive so many before them.” Her Japanese interpreter scoffed at the idea of learning their manners. “ ‘Treat Ainos politely!’ he says; ‘they’re just dogs, not men.’ ” (Her own descriptions of Japanese culture were not much better.)

Yet she was surprised at the cleanness, hospitality, and courtesy she found in the north. She stayed with an Ainu family in Biratori, where she asked about their language, culture, spiritual traditions, and way of life. “Before they told me anything they begged and prayed that I would not inform the Japanese Government that they had told me of their customs, or harm might come to them!”

The Ainu called that northern island Aynu Mosir, “The Land Where the People Live.”* The Japanese called it Ezo or Yezo, from a word meaning “foreigner” or “savage.” Today its inclusion in Japan is taken for granted, but Japan initially developed its own identity in relation to it. Shihei’s Sangoku Tsūran Zusetsu (1785) considers the northern island, along with Okinawa and Korea, as separate countries whose cultural traits are decidedly not Japanese.

The Meiji government changed the northern island’s name to Hokkaido in 1867, distributed Ainu land to Japanese colonists, and forced cultural assimilation and intermarriage on the “former aborigines” (kyuudojin). Japan's government did not acknowledge the Ainu as a distinct indigenous people with rights equal to other Japanese until 2008. The official number of Ainu people in Japan today is 25,000, compared to a total population in Hokkaido alone of 5.4 million.

* Many pre-modern people described themselves as “the people” or “human” in relation to the “inhuman” groups with which they competed for resources.

It’s a fairy story, that a quiet Philadelphia Quaker should have been picked up and carried halfway across the world and dropped in the middle of the oldest and most mysterious court...
—Elizabeth Gray Vining (1902-1999)

When Crown Prince Akihito first met his English tutor (yes that's them above), he forgot the instructions of his chamberlains, forgot the lines he had memorized, recalled only the gift she had sent him, and blurted out, “Thank you for the candy.” His tutor smiled. “I knew right then that we would get along very well.”

Elizabeth Gray Vining was a Quaker, a professional librarian, and a children’s author from an old Philadelphia family. She was the first foreigner to enter the living quarters of the Imperial Palace, when the Shōwa Emperor, Hirohito himself, selected her to tutor his son and heir in English. Their relationship was marked by candor and friendship in the midst of oppressive etiquette.

Once a week she invited Akihito and his classmates to her Western-style home and arranged informal conversations between the Prince and four Western teenagers (including one from Portland, OR). Though closely monitored by the Imperial Household Agency, she intended to “set him free—to teach him how to have fun.” She was not always successful. When she attempted the lamentable practice of using English names in English class, giving Akihito the name Jimmy, the future Emperor said, “No, I am the Prince.”

Vining conveyed her Quaker beliefs through lessons on Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi, nonviolence and world peace. Quakers see war as opposed to God’s plan in principle and to conflict resolution in practice, and they live out their beliefs through strict pacifism, to the point of ostracism and incarceration in times of war. A decade after Akihito’s graduation, Vining’s arrest on the steps of the US Capitol during an anti-Vietnam War protest in Washington shocked Japan, where she had become something of a celebrity.

The tutor and the Prince, who became the Heisei Emperor in 1989, remained friends until her death. She was the only foreign guest at his wedding in 1959, a love match with a woman of commoner status. Whether this teacher’s influence or the self-evident tragedy of war led to Akihito’s emphasis on reconciliation and peace, both deserve remembrance today, when the same nationalist myths and glorification of struggle, the source of all our twentieth century atrocities, threaten to return like a dormant plague.

“Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated,” said Vining's student in August 2018, expressing sentiments that the conservative political leaders struggle to suppress. “Together with all of our people, I now pay my heartfelt tribute to all those who lost their lives in the war, both on the battlefield and elsewhere, and pray for world peace and for the continuing development of our country.”


In the beginning,
woman was truly the sun.
An authentic person.
Now she is the moon,
a wan and sickly moon,
dependent on another,
reflecting another’s brilliance.
—Hiratsuka Raichō (1886-1971)

The idea that all feminist criticism is inherently Western was instrumentalized in twentieth century Japan to dismiss progressive views on gender, even when the origins were local. Hiratsuka Raichō referenced Japanese mythology in the introduction of her literary journal Seitō (“Bluestocking,” 1911), turning the sun goddess Amaterasu, central to the imperial cult, into a metaphor for the spiritual freedom which women had lost. Her egalitarianism took as much inspiration from Zen Buddhism as from Henrik Ibsen or Ellen Key.

“The New Woman brings down a curse on ‘yesterday,’” she wrote in a fiery 1914 manifesto. “The New Woman will not endure to be someone who silently walks the path of the oppressed, old-fashioned woman. The New Woman is not satisfied with a feminine existence reduced to ignorance, to slavery, to being a mere slab of meat for the sake of male egoism. The New Woman hopes to destroy the old morals and laws created for the sake of male convenience.”

Raichō declared her independence through a scandalous love life, cohabiting with a younger artist for 27 years. Her fierce rejection of the conventional template for Japanese women as ryosai kenbo, good wife and wise mother—“Is there to be no other business for women than the business of procreation?”—earned her the enmity of the state and led to the censorship of women’s magazines which “disturbed public order.”

In 1920 she co-founded the New Women’s Association, alongside Ichikawa Fusae and Mumeo Oku. In 1922 their group secured women the right to join political organizations and participate in public meetings, denied since 1900 under the Police Security Regulations. Ichikawa continued to push for women's political rights, and it is partly to her credit that the franchise was extended to women in November 1945.

In the 1950s and 60s (contemporary with Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath, and Gloria Steinem), a new generation of female writers attempted to analyze the position of women in a society governed by outdated and often contradictory norms. Enchi Fumiko, Tsushima Yūko (Dazai Osamu’s daughter), and Kono Taeko relied on their own experience and introspection, but their critics treated them as infected by foreign individualism.

Unfortunately, the simplistic conservative view—that feminism is for the West and patriarchy is for the East—became entrenched. Japan consistently ranks as having the worst gender equality of developed economies, and the writers above are all but forgotten.

All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.
—Article 14 of the Constitution of Japan (1947)

Beate Sirota Gordon, a 22-year-old daughter of Russian Jews, wrote women’s rights into Japan’s postwar Constitution. Articles 14 and 24, which she drafted, “gave women a set of legal rights pertaining to marriage, divorce, property and inheritance that they had long been without in Japan’s feudal society” and “set a basis for a better, a more equal society.”

Beate’s father was a classical pianist from Vienna, and at the age of five she moved with him to Tokyo. She lived there for over a decade and learned Japanese before attending university in California. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she joined the American war effort as an interpreter, fluent in six languages including English and Japanese. She arrived in Tokyo alongside General MacArthur.

MacArthur rejected the constitution drafted by a Japanese commission, finding it too similar to the Meiji Constitution of 1890, and he assembled a committee of around two dozen scholars to start an entirely new document. As the only woman on this constitutional committee, Beate was assigned to write the section on women’s rights. It was an issue she keenly felt. “Japanese women were historically treated like chattel; they were property to be bought and sold on a whim,” she told the Dallas Morning News in 1999. “Women had no rights whatsoever.”

In addition to the two articles which made it into the final document, she wrote seven others establishing social welfare programs for mothers and children. These were rejected by her American superiors as too radical.

Beate remained silent about her role for decades. She did not want her youth, her foreignness, or her sex to bolster revanchist criticism of the progressive Constitution she helped to shape. She finally opened up about her achievements in the 1980s, and her 1995 memoir, The Only Woman in the Room, made her an icon in Japan.

That was the good war, the war we won
As if there was no death, for goodness's sake.
With the help of the losers we left out there
In the air, in the empty air.
—Howard Nemerov (1920-1991)

When Ohara Fusao signed up with the British Army, the Irish officer told him that “Ohara” was an unfit name for a soldier of King George and changed it to “O’Hara.” He served on the Western Front with the 34th Sikh Pioneers until Earl Roberts, noticing how much shorter he was than the Punjabis, had him transferred to another unit. Despite these setbacks, he eventually became the first and only Japanese pilot in the history of the Royal Air Force.

An injury brought Ohara from the front to London, where he became a mechanic. He qualified as a pilot in 1917 and flew for the Royal Air Force in France and Flanders until grounded by a severe injury a few months before the armistice. He was wounded almost 70 times altogether and received multiple medals for bravery. Nonetheless, his racial background kept him from earning a commission—the RAF included men from across the British Empire and its allies but barred anyone of “non-European heritage” from becoming an officer.

After the war, Ohara married a British woman, settled in London, and had three children. Though he loved England and never returned to Japan, he retained many of his Japanese customs and bowed to those he met in the street. He was interned as an “enemy alien” at the beginning of World War II, along with his wife who, under British law, held her husband’s nationality.

Nausicaä was a beautiful and fanciful girl,
quick on her feet. She loved playing the harp
and singing more than the attentions of her suitors
or pursuing earthly comforts. She took delight
in nature and had an especially sensitive personality.
Today she wouldn’t be perceived as eccentric.
Even though she might be considered a little
peculiar, she would be able to fit into society
easily, accepted as a nature lover,
or just as someone with individualistic interests. . . .

Today she would be able to find someone
who would understand and love her. . . .
Now I just want this girl to attain freedom and happiness.
—Miyazaki Hayao (b. 1941)

Ah, here is my knight in shining armor! A world divided, and she stands for peace, tolerance, and patience. Her scenario is not so far removed from ours; men still question her right, as a young woman, to hold an opinion or a sword.

When she meets her potential love interest, she talks effusively about her passion for insects. She assertively defies gender norms, and she seeks an end to the cycle of violence and exploitation which has brought her society to the brink of self-destruction, with courage, gentleness, and a willingness to sacrifice herself.

There is a quote of Miyazaki’s which is hard to source but so true it gives me goosebumps: “Many of my movies have strong female leads—brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe with all their heart. They’ll need a friend, or a supporter, but never a savior. Any woman is just as capable of being a hero as any man.”

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was released in 1984, when Disney was still stuck on princess-types like Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989), Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991), Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992), and Sally (The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993), distressed damsels to the men who were the primary narrative agents. This environment helps explain the US release of Nausicaä in 1985: The name was changed to Warriors of the Wind, and posters featured three assertively masculine characters (who never appear in the film) with a small rendition of Nausicaä baring her legs in the upper-right corner.

Drawing is virtual.
Drawing is sentiment.
Drawing is resistance.
Drawing is bizarre.
Drawing is pathos.
Drawing is destruction.
Drawing is arrogance.
Drawing is love.
Drawing is kitsch.
Drawing is sense of wonder.
Drawing is . . . there is no conclusion yet.
—Tezuka Osamu (1928-1989)

“Anime was a mistake,” is a quote sometimes attributed to Miyazaki Hayao. He never actually said those words, although he did remark that Japanese animation “is produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans.” What could Miyazaki, the perennial genius of Japanese animation, have meant by these words? What is anime?

Anime is a blurry category to begin with, a series of artistic movements within animation (as well as cartoons, comics, and graphic novels), which include (1) a serialized story, (2) over-the-top action, (3) a big-eyed aesthetic, (4) mature themes, and (5) overt sexuality. Much of this is the result of cost-cutting measures; the rest is convention.

While it is often assumed, it would be a mistake to view this combination of elements as either autochthonous or exclusive to Japan. Tezuka Osamu, whose work both defined the genre and was itself heavily influenced by Steamboat Willie, Snow White, Bambi, and other American productions of the early twentieth century, especially comics, wrote in his autobiography, “Here before you is a man whose life was determined by Disney,” and it will surprise no one familiar with Ghibli’s filmography that of the 50 children’s books recommended by Miyazaki only two are from Japan.

This conversation goes both ways, and as Western studios come to adapt conventions established in Japan, their work is not described as “anime” but as “anime-influenced animation,” as if the genre itself is unable to circumnavigate the Pacific Rim.

Art does not recognize national or geographic boundaries. The production of Japanese animation is increasingly outsourced, with “key frames” drawn in Japan while studios in China and South Korea perform the vital task of “inbetweening.” Many Japanese studios began by playing a similar sibling role to American studios like Disney. Today, Chinese and Korean artists are beginning to stand on their own creative work, including their own anime, and the world is richer for it.

Goin’ home, goin’ home, I’m a-goin’ home;
Quiet-like, some still day, I’m jes’ goin’ home.
It’s not far, jes’ close by,
Through an open door;
Work all done, care laid by,
Goin’ to fear no more.
Mother’s there ‘spectin’ me,
Father’s waitin’ too;
Lots o’ folk gather’d there,
All the friends I knew,
All the friends I knew.
Home, I'm goin’ home!
—William Arms Fisher (1861-1948)

Every day at around 5 pm, streets across Japan ring with the largo from the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony—the slowly swelling moods ripe with yearning for the fields and hills of Bohemia.

The chime is both a signal for playing children to return home and a daily test of the emergency broadcast system. Since their introduction in the 1950s, more than 90 percent of Japan’s cities, towns, and villages have built such systems, composed of wireless speakers mounted on telephone poles. Some local governments also use the speakers to bombard citizens with regular announcements, such as reminders to vote on election days, dispose of garbage properly, and speak kindly to children.

The particular melody varies, from the Japanese folk song “Yuyake koyake” to the American one “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” but one of the most common is Dvořák’s. In Japan the tune is known as “Ieji,” meaning “The Way Home,” adapting the name from a faux spiritual called “Goin’ Home” which one of Dvořák’s American pupils wrote to accompany it.

“The Largo,” wrote Fisher, “is the outpouring of Dvorak’s own home-longing, with something of the loneliness of far-off prairie horizons.... Deeper still it is a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel. That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words ‘Goin’ home, goin’ home’ is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a negro spiritual accords with the genesis of the symphony.”


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