JAPAN, PERFUME

 

 

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The delighted and envious uproar over my cache of vintage perfume finds the other day (at a run down underground Tokyo arcade),  led more than one reader to ask the obvious question : why? HOW?!  Why is it that a country famed for its attraction to subtlety; barely perceptible scents, and soft, smudged ambiguity in general, should turn up such treasure troves of unwanted, pungent, classic French scent? How did it get there?

 

 

It gave me food for thought….

 

 

 

I am no social anthropologist, nor Japanologist. I can speak the language passably (though that is debatable), but cannot read or write it all, and thus do not have the abilities to bore my way properly into the country’s own literature and current thought, to turn up answers from the inside (without this ability, I don’t think you can ever really get to know a society inside out). I am not in a position, therefore, theoretically, to make great, general and sweeping generalizations about a country that is famous for its impenetrability.

 

 

Except that I am. I live here. And I personally reject the idea of PC enforced, ‘balanced’ objectivity: the idea that you can’t make any convincing analyses or value judgements on another culture because you are biased from your own entrenched, cultural perspective, much as I understand and admire that way of looking at the world (the world would surely be more peaceful if more people took their stance…)

 

Personally, however, I can’t be so cerebral and removed, because otherwise the sensory and mental overload I have been constantly infused with over the last seventeen years would, for me, have no meaning. To make sense of living in Japan, I have never been able to merely passively accept the ‘cultural differences’ (such a tired expression). Instead, when I am not just simply having fun somewhere, I have had to analyze, constantly, as that is my nature: wonder, mull, accept, reject, admire, detest, whatever aspect of Japanese culture happens to be stimulating, thrilling, bugging or appalling me on any given day, at any given moment. For the outsider, as many a long-term foreigner will tell you, this country is in many ways a very easy place to live in indeed, practically a ‘dream playground’, yet to one who is extremely sensitive to his surroundings, to the Japanese and their lives themselves, the depths of all the contradictions: truth/lie; face/heart; private/public; strict, oppressive conservatism/vast, liberal permissiveness, the tenderness but also the cruelty, Japan can feel sometimes like an ever-shifting quicksand of stubborn, deliberate vagueness which can be quite excruciating for the supposedly more ‘grounded’, and logical, western mind.

 

 

 

In short, Japan is complicated. Which is probably why I have lived here so long: ultimately it still remains a mystery, its depths seemingly endless, like a taunting, vertical hall of mirrors (and I am innately drawn to the mysterious). Which isn’t to say that it cannot be prised apart nor understood (they’re not that clever, though many people here I am sure would beg to differ). No, I think I have a fairly good handle, basically, on the whys and wherefores of ol’ Nippon: its stark neuroses, its pride and its prejudices, and have in fact long been planning to write a book on the subject, tentatively titled ‘ Death and Love in Japan’. It has been gestating within me for some years, following several shocking events that I have witnessed or been part of personally : the earthquake and the tsunami, of course, but also the suicide I saw at the my local train station one cold, freezing November morning; the leaping of one the students at my school to her death from her sixth floor balcony; the burning down of the house two doors down from ours by a man who was so obviously severely in need of psychological help but was totally ignored: this soul-jolting conflagration, the flames roaring, a life incinerated down to the ground, with people standing in the street, tears in their eyes as the ambulances took his mother and him away for to some unknown place for good.

 

 

These events, and other incidents –  so many more – with their personal effect on my life, but more interestingly, their ramifications for Japan as a whole, most definitely provide enough material for a book. Yes, the death parts might be shocking, and disturbing. But the love parts, trust me, will be more overwhelming.

 

 

 

Which brings me to perfume.

 

 

 

Something as supposedly superfluous as personal scent might seem unconnected to what I have begun to discuss above, but in fact it forms the main body of an article that I have written, ‘Perfume Haters’, which is soon to be published in the upcoming inaugural issue of ODOU, a publication devoted to the olfactory, curated and edited by Liam Moore. It’s something of a polemic, actually, and I’m slightly apprehensive about some people’s possible reactions to it (do my presumptuous ‘observations’ on the olfactive cultural preferences of different cultures, their phobias, their taboos – Japanese, American, German – constitute nationalized stereotypes? Are people going to possibly take offense? I’m not sure). But if it is true that there are some seeds of reality sewn into the lining of every cliché, then the olfactory stereotypes – the animalic, dirty musks of the French, the (overbearingly) polite flowers of the English, the sweet, floral confectioneries of the Italians, and the dirt-phobic cleaner-than-thou laundry musk perfumes of the Americans, must have cultural precedents and affinities. Why do people, actually, like the smells that they do?

 

 

 

So, to the Japanese, and what I see as their typically complicated attitude to smell and the wearing of perfume. As I have written elsewhere, this country, essentially, is not a perfume country, if by perfume country you mean somewhere, like the Arab countries, or France, Italy, Spain, places where a bottle of scent is sold somewhere every few seconds or so and is seen as something enjoyable, natural, a part of one’s public, and private, identity. Something to be enjoyed. Splashed on, used up, and bought again when you run out, with abandon. A bottle to be drained. This is emphatically not how it is seen in Japan. There are no perfume shops, the ‘profumeria’, like there are on practically every street corner in Rome or Barcelona:  just a limited selection sold in particularly designated department stores. And even these are not frequented with anyway near as much enthusiasm as the clothes floors, accessories, and particularly make up concessions like Kanebo and Shiseido (Japanese women do love their skin care). Perfume, here, is very much an afterthought.

 

 

 

That huge 28ml bottle of Chanel Gardénia parfum I found the other day, now mauled and in rabid, delighted, regular use by this messy western perfume maniac, could possibly, and probably, have sat wrapped; unused; contained for god knows how long before I happened upon it. Probably passed from owner to owner with golden tongs, a commodity, or else, I would conjecture, a gift to the owner’s friend of friend, someone moneyed, who had been staying, or maybe working, in Paris, London, New York, and brought it back with them as an expensive omiyage, or souvenir. I don’t know where, of course, or even if this is in any way true. But I do know that in almost any other country the perfume would have been used, at least opened! (wasn’t this person even the tiniest bit curious as to how the contents of this bottle might have smelled?!)

 

 

 

Probably not. Because on the whole, the wearing of perfume, in this country, is simply not something commonplace or even ‘natural’. It is sold; it is worn; there are customers milling about the perfume stands at the department stores as you would expect, but even here there are crucial distinctions between the pleasurable act of perfume shopping in Berlin or Los Angeles and the museum-like, hygienic perfection of the testing out a high-end scent at at top level deparment store such as Isetan, Shinjuku – the busiest, biggest, and most gleaming fashion emporium in all of Tokyo.  Unlike Liberty, or even Harrods, where you can plonk your bags down, pick up some testers and spray and sniff to your heart’s content with the friendly and often humourous assistance of one of the frequently very knowledgeable staff, you would certainly not feel comfortable doing so in the immaculately frigid new perfume floor at Isetan, or Ginza’s Matsuzakaya (don’t even get me started on the Hermès boutique in Marounouchi…I can feel my blood boiling again just thinking about the time I stormed out shouting in fury, slamming the door and terrifying the staff, after an altercation with a snooty faced bitch who had behaved so condescendingly towards me that I could quite easily have strung her up on the spot from a coatstand; the look on her face one of dismay that I would even be in the shop, as I was clearly not one of the usual customers in their extravagantly expensive attire (even if I knew aeons more about the perfumes she was selling than she did..)  was enough to truly turn a florid perfumista into a violent murderer.

 

 

 

I have never experienced quite the same level of coldness anywhere else in Japan, but there is, on the whole, this unbearable sense of seriousness about the entire enterprise – that we are in the awesome presence of expensive foreign goods and should therefore behave accordingly. Japan is of course world-famous for its level of service. But this can work both ways. I personally find it ingratiating, overpolite,  and often false by and large, and in this regard, Isetan (which has most of the niche brands you could desire) is in a world of its own, with a sales staff to customer ratio that feels like something approaching 3 or 2:1, though on slow, quiet weekday afternoons this can almost be inverted. The sales ladies  outnumber you. And as a customer, a potential taker of of these holier-than-thou imported products, you therefore immediately stand out, and thus,  before you know it, some impeccably made-up, immaculately turned out beauty will hover her way towards you; eyes a pinned butterfly;  the level of high-voltage politesse turned up to a nerve jangling 110%.

 

 

 

Gloved, she will reach so elegantly for the bottle in question (in Europe, after living in Japan, no one seems to have this elegance of movement – we are like orang utans in comparison; lumpen, ungainly); mutter some words about its merits, its ‘citrus’, its ‘freshness’ , as the customer, nodding in deference to the ‘expert,’ looks interestedly (but often slightly worriedly), on.

 

 

 

A spot of this precious product will then be sprayed, oh so delicately, onto a test card, and the unwitting recipient will sample it cautiously, head tilted questioningly, unconfidently (always put your trust in someone more knowledgable than you…)

 

 

 

 

Will she walk away with this perfume after not even having tried it on her skin?

 

 

 

 

 

Probably.

 

 

 

 

Possibly.

 

 

 

 

 

There are exceptions, naturally: pluckier Shinjuku madams, high class Tokyo gentlemen who are more exacting, knowing precisely what they are after in terms of perfume, but, on the whole, from what I have been seeing over the years, this is the pattern of contemporary perfume shopping in Japan. The perfumes have been sprayed, diligently, onto the tester card with their names written on them in tiny, hand-written script, but these are not to be moved; you are to lift them, inquisitively smelling, gently (although dipping one’s nose into the scent is seen as rather coarse, uncouth, so the perfume is usually experienced more by beckoning the hand over it towards you, hoping that it will in this way gently reach your nostrils, and you can make your (totally ill-formed) decision, probably made in advance in any case, based on some magazine or online article ‘introducing’ the perfume to you.) Taking the bottle up personally, and spraying it on liberally ( because, er,well, don’t you actually want to know what the bloody thing smells like, how it develops on your skin? Are you not going to wander about with it for a while to make sure it doesn’t suddenly develop some horror basenotes or stages you just weren’t expecting?) No no no, you don’t spray on liberally the way I do – most definitely frowned upon –  and as for getting samples, you know where you can go. Even when you have spent a fortune on one of their perfumes, you will be very lucky to get one of these frigid wenches to procure a sample from one of the carefully guarded sample drawers (even when you know full well that they are there…..I was  v  e  r   y  persistent about this point at Hermès, I can tell you!). No. Even these, these tiny samples, are viewed with such  reverence: as preciousness, as vials of luxe to be retained, that you can damn right be sure that they are not just going to hand them out like candies to a roomful of sweet-toothed children at Halloween.

 

 

 

 

And herein lies the crux of the matter. Ultimately, like non-Japanese or gaijin (the derogatory-tinged word that is applied to all foreigners, white ones in particular), perfume, of the expensive, western variety, is seen, I think as The Other. And The Other is basically something you don’t (want to) understand, you fear, or conversely have an untoward level of respect, even deference, for, but, for me, the fact remains that ‘the other’ is a huge and integral part of the general Japanese psyche, and I would personally place perfume within its unloving, distancing, and paranoid frame.

 

 

 

The true proportions of the Japanese Inferiority/Superiority complex towards westerners, bound up viscerally within most Japanese in my view, is something I will never be able to fully fathom. But trust me, I do know that both sides of this neurotic equation are very strong, and that they surface, alarmingly, at different times. This is far too complex for me to elaborate properly on right now, suffice it to say that while many Japanese seem to profoundly (if silently) believe their exquisite culture to be superior to any other that has ever existed on this earth (as do most cultures, I suppose) there is a strange double standard – foreign influences can be adopted, adapted, and mastered (the Japanese do master other countries’ cuisines to the extent that they are sometimes superior to the originals; western classical music is something seen as perfectly natural , as is Shakespearean acting: even the Sound Of Music was on recently in a Tokyo theatre with an all Japanese cast (a bit weird, if you ask me, an oriental Maria), but westerners trying to ape Japanese culture will always be seen as crude buffoons: attempting to make sushi, play the koto, or even participatein sport: the  ex-mayor of Tokyo, that monstrous fascist Ishihara, not that long ago described the karate matches between foreign competitors at one of the Olympic Games as watching ‘beasts’.

 

 

 

I remember when Duncan took part in a ‘kimono competition’ at Kawasaki city Hall a few years ago at the urging of a woman he had met who wanted to ‘teach him kimono’ (how to assemble each garment, the order in which to do it, and how to perfect the eventual ensemble). The contest was divided into different categories: men, married women, children, unmarried women and so on and so forth, the object of the contest being to see who could put on their kimono the fastest, with the most natural, elegant, precision. Once the clock was started, the participants would hurriedly assemble their elaborate kimono, from inner, to outer garment, to obi, and make their way, briskly, to the front of the stage. When it came to the ‘gaijin’ section, ‘Kimono are not just for theJapanese!  Let’s watch the foreigners try!’ commented the presenters, unconvincingly (this was also being presented on TV, apparently). I felt such embarrassment, and yet strange tenderness for the motley, overweight, bunch of multi-ethnic foreigners, who looked like such bumbling, well-meaning fools (you see how I have internalized the racism? ), despite the lavish compliments of the adjudicators (oh why did they have to select such inelegant, garish designs? I felt as if I could read the minds of the collective hall, mocking them secretly in private). And I wondered, if this was, in fact, the point, just some cruel joke….

 

(for the record, Duncan handled himself admirably; true, his black, men’s kimono was a little too ‘up’ at the back when he did his spin for the judges, but with his slender frame and natural poise, I have to say he carried it off rather well.)

 

 

 

 

 

The point of all this is to say that in my (absolutely not even vaguely) humble opinion, Japan, in a myriad of different ways, from food, to manners, to service, to discipline, to ‘love of nature’, considers itself vastly superior to the rest of the world ( ” I love Japan because we have four seasons ” is a frequent refrain that you hear, to which I always respond by asking them if they have ever heard of Vivaldi ).

 

 

 

And this is a beautiful, ancient, highly sophisticated, extraordinarily sensitive and distinctive (yet very sadomasochistic, and monstrously xenophobic) culture, so in many ways, who can blame them?

 

 

 

But, concurrently – and this brings, us finally, to Chanel, and Guerlain –  a strange combination of hierarchy and snobbery (the desire to purchase expensive, branded foreign goods; the fierce, ubiquitous impulse to have the latest fashion – Japan is fad/craze/boom central par excellence –the seemingly almost genetic impulse to copy and follow other people so as not to stand out, plus the very deeply entrenched inferiority complex (Western colonization of Asia; the Atomic bomb, American post-war occupation of the country? jealousy of the non-Japanese person to be able to express himself so much more easily? ), all of it creating, in the package of stylish, expensive, and particularly French, designer perfume, a very potent and covetable status symbol.

 

 

 

Like the ubiquitous (and deeply detested by me, I have to say) ‘classic’ Louis Vuitton handbag (which fortunately seems to be finally falling out of fashion; such dreadful and mindlessly empty conspicuous consumption!) I believe that perfume, particularly extraits, or ‘kosui’ in Japanese, for that extra money-flashing, look-what-I’ve-brought-home’ je ne sais quoi, was, for a long time in the boom years of the sixties, seventies and eighties before the bubble (supposedly) burst, merely that: a status symbol; an object. In the same way that those snooty, ice-hearted fucks at Hermès Marounouchi approach the perfumes under their tutelage with literal kid gloves (no, literally: actual Hermès kid leather gloves: you’d think each bottle of bloody Jour D’Hermès (vile, by the way), were a one-off edition, museum piece by Lalique): that perfume, in that box, baby, is there to be admired.

 

 

 

 I OWN you, you fancy, little, French imported, kokyu (‘high level’) objet.

 

 

 

 

And though it is possible that I may, one day, open you, to wear, perhaps, to the opera, or a classical concert, a play, or an afternoon tea party in Ginza with some of my old friends, you know, on second thought, I think that I probably won’t.

 

Who knows how strong this concentrated perfume will actually be?

 

 

What if in some way I were to offend others?

 

 

What if the foreign smell makes me stand out too much, and look ridiculous? No, no. I don’t think I will wear you actually. I’ll put you just in this drawer, here by the bedside. Fourth drawer down. There you go….

 

 

 

 

If you have never been to Japan (and it seems that almost none of you have), you can’t properly imagine, despite the inherent Japaneseness of everything that surrounds you here in terms of behaviour, atmosphere, regulation, smell, architecture, and of course food (the absolute national obsession), how extraordinarily Europhile so much of this country is. Naturally, there are burger bars, and TGI Fridays, and Sizzlers, and KFC, and all the usual American imports as well as the standard luxury Americana as well: Coach, Lauren, Calvin Klein et al, but in terms of snobbish value and cachet, Europe very clearly wins the day. The soaring, gleaming edifices of Ginza, Tokyo’s most prestigious, exorbitant business, shopping and entertainment zone (the very name, Ginza, alludes to streets of silver) is packed with diamond-cut, beautifully designed new buildings commissioned by the fashion giants: Dior: Armani: Chanel: Hermès….the neon may be Japanese (and it can be just so damn beautiful at night there, especially in the rain), but the brands all those fashionable things gliding along its spotless, reflected streets are dreaming of, and saving up for, are all European. There are simply no Japanese equivalents (Yohji Yamamoto, Comme Des Garçons included) in terms of prestige.

 

 

 

And this extreme sensation of luxury, those well known logos and symbols that singe themselves into the minds and fashion conscious retina of the Japanese, extends, to a smaller extent, to perfume, too. Japan is as appearance-conscious as you can get, and to be honest, while philosophically and ethically this might be suspect, aesthetically it is a great part of the appeal of the country. ‘Wabisabi’, or the Japanese sense of beauty (naturally there is an ethnocentric, self-congratulatory special term for it) – is indeed extremely beautiful and immediately apparent from any visit to Kyoto, or Kamakura (where I live); in the temples and shrines, the teahouses, tended gardens, and traditional arts. But it is also very present in the fashion sense and style of much of the population, particularly in the more trend-setting, fast-forward and futuristic areas of Tokyo such as Omotesando, Daikanyama and Shibuya. It is this contrast, of the old and the sparklingly, techno-new, that makes Japan so utterly stimulating. It is wonderful to just spend a day watching people, taking it all in: the buzz, the energy, the wackiness, the fierceness of their fashion, which makes people in the cities of Europe or America just seem like walking sacks of pudgy, lumpen,  potatoes.

 

 

 

 

At the same time, this sense of quasi-veneration that Les Grands Européens –  Gucci, Prada, Cartier – generates, is for me, on the bare moral and ethical level, in its brain-washed unquestioning, acceptance of the capitalist dogma, quite sickening. It is again, in a peculiarly deferential way, a case of The Other. Something Foreign. Expensive. Beautiful, yes, maybe, but to be viewed from a distance: encased in glass.

 

 

 

 

 

I was in in Ginza the other night to watch De Palma’s Passion. And after getting my ticket, I fortunately had some time to kill, which I did by wandering the streets of Hibiya, as usual, with a casual stroll into Hankyu Mens’, thought, now, to be one of the most aspirational addresses for High Fashion and also perfumes. But I found it, like most of these places, to be  like a mausoleum. Dead. Cold. Chilled. And hushed, with that feeling, again, of profound respect for these bloody ‘BRANDS’ that seem to symbolize something unreachable and striveworthy for many Japanese, but which for me have me thirsting for the more light-hearted irony of the shop assistants I met everywhere in California ( so much more fun: more silly, more multi-layered….must this ultimately vacuous bullshit (cause it is all bullshit, in the end) really be taken so seriously? ) I miss the campness of London’s Harvey Nichols, the wonderful generous, genuine appreciation of fragrances of the perfumeries I have visited in Paris, where the assistants will ply you will samples and enthuse and become truly impassioned about their favourites. Not this gut-clenching, pole-up-arse stiffness that you get from these dolls, who seem to be thinking they are handling holy reliquaries.

 

 

 

No.

 

 

 

 

 

Because it has THE NAME. And that, in the end, is always what counts here. I am told, though I can see, perfectly well for myself, at the fleamarkets, that it’s ‘a’ Chanel, ‘a’ Saint Laurent. ‘A’ Dior (Dior Forever edt? I don’t think so, darlin’), as though that name in itself should be what makes me part with my hard earned cash. It doesn’t matter what Dior, or god forbid what it actually smells like. It’s the fact that it’s a Dior. And it is this lack of genuine discernment, name before smell, cachet before genuine scent- love, that led to that delirious vintage extrait find that I found myself rhapsodizing so excitedly about the other day.

 

 

 

You know why all those glorious perfumed treasures were there, waiting for me, in that old, locked up glass cabinet? Because nobody, basically, wanted them. For the vast majority of the people here they would be nothing but a signifier, something that the majority of this perfume-hating nation basically never wants to understand, because, in end, wearing perfume is a foreign custom – it is not Japanese.

 

 

 

Yes, I know you do of course smell perfume in Japan. Young kids love their trashy, pink and blue perfumes, young women smell of their boring, fashionably safe  roses (the execrable L’Eau Des Quatres Reines by L’Occitane is practically a de rigeur scented uniform for young mothers in their early thirties everywhere you go); glitzy, dolled up middle aged women will occasionally rock the streets of the city with their Poison, their Coco or their Dune, and men, on the pull, dressed up in their finest, will suddenly reek, glaringly, of a lady-pulling, classically masculine cologne, such as Aramis or Platinum Egoïste. But these are always noticeable because they are the exception; suddenly olfactory explosions that stand out in a generally unscented, unperfumed, cityscape.

 

 

 

As the years go by, and these unwanted gifts or souvenirs from yesteryear sit, unusued, and neglected in some bedroom, they find their way, eventually, to the antique ‘recycle’ emporia I love to frequent; to the fleamarkets, making a bit of extra money for the relatives of the deceased who have inherited them, or else by the little old lady herself who decides, one day, that surely there must be someone out there, someone who can make much better use of this cherished (in its way), but unwanted, unused; old and expensive, chic but not really me; French, boxed, unopened, perfume.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

68 Comments

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68 responses to “JAPAN, PERFUME

  1. Don’t worry, you’ve nothing to be apprehensive about! Your article is a breath of fresh air 🙂 I also loved this article too, but have to get back to work so will pick up the rest later today. PS, a few days to go now for the launch 😉

  2. Thank you for so much food for thought. I had an inkling that perfume might not be used in the same way, and that a bottle of Chanel is seen as a cherishable object but not much, if at all used. There are many other things you mention which I find very interesting and probably disturbing, especially the ambivalent look on European culture. I also wonder how this specific Japanese view differs from other Asian cultures, the Chinese in particular.
    Really love your expression quicksand of stubborn, deliberate vagueness and I hope I will be able to see and experience some of that first hand.

  3. L.

    I’ve been meaning to comment on your blog for a while now – many of your posts on Japan make me somewhat uncomfortable, but are nevertheless very thought-provoking. Having grown up in a former british colony, my feelings about the institution of the White Man constitute a mixed bag of fear, distrust, resentment, and (shameful) deference. I have a knee-jerk distaste for westerners who feel they are able to neatly pigeonhole or summarize whole other cultures, when many of those same westerners are unable to deal with non-whites moving into/assimilating into their territory (Where are you from? No, where are you /really/ from?) And, after the events of the past century or so, doesn’t the Japanese ‘inferiority complex’, and their distrust of foreigners, seem understandable (although, of course, I don’t advocate their attitude)? And yes, Japan perhaps takes their nationalism/xenophobia to an extreme, but is there any country – with as long and colourful a history as Japan’s – that isn’t similarly proud of their history and culture?

    That said, I find your attitude refreshing in contrast to the many Japanophiles who seem to think that Japan is this rainbow land of weirdly flavoured candy, Hello Kitty and anime … I spent a few research summers in Japan for my PhD work, and I agree that Japan can be a very stifling environment for outsiders. Certainly I encountered more than a few cases of discrimination against my Southeast asian colouring (although no more than I have in western countries). I had probably felt more lonely in Japan than I have anywhere else… and also about 10 pounds heavier and much less attractive, because most people were so immaculately dressed, so perfectly coiffed, with their elegant curls and LV handbags. It really is a very insular environment and I do agree with many of the points you made; and I do enjoy your blog in general – you are an incredibly gifted writer and the images in your perfume posts are always fascinating and beautiful – so thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks for this intuitive and incisive response to what I know is a somewhat hysterical, and underthought out piece ( I just wrote in manically yesterday, giving myself a bad headache in the process, and never really had the time or the chance to go through it properly and edit…)

      Even I myself find what I have written here uncomfortable, and you are right, of course about the whole White Man thing, and the possibility of my ‘pigeonholing’ a whole culture (though I hope I present a more multifaceted picture).

      I also know FULL WELL that the whole use of the words ‘bitch’ and so on in relation to women is EXTREMELY dodgy territory indeed. But unfortunately, this is the only word that I can use, personally, for some of these creatures whose attitude I find, on so many levels, utterly unacceptable.

      I like your comments on the whole Hello Kitty thing as well. I have had friends who have come to stay and walk around reverently as though there were nothing at all that one could ever criticize about this country (god there is so MUCH, and as I am surrounded by Japanese people who don’t seem to want to acknowledge any of this country’s faults, it just makes my desire to bitch about it even stronger.

      Your feeling more lonely than you ever had before doesn’t surprise me in the least. And the attitude, as you say, towards non-whites is even more disgusting. I have seen it at immigration: there is no doubt that a white man in a suit and tie gets a better treatment than someone from the Phillippines. But I have been here for seventeen years, and I can tell you that the weird, rabid superiority/inferiority thing towards caucasians is extremely disturbing in its own way. It is racism, nevertheless.

      Thanks for your honesty.

      • L.

        Hi Ginza (if I may call you that), I definitely did not mean to say that you were one of the pigeon-holing westerners, or mean to imply that your experiences are/were not legitimate in any way. I guess it would be more accurate to say that I become on my guard when Caucasian people describe their experiences in, or feelings about, the East (or any other “exotic” locale), because so often their “insights” become the pigeonholing I describe. Then again, perhaps my cynicism colours my view of what they have to say from the start, because I certainly have my own issues to deal with on the race/racism front, and I’m very glad for this post because it helps me confront them.

        With regard to the b-word: I try not to use it myself but I do not object to others using it when the situation seems to call for it, as it does in your case(s). And I can definitely sympathize with the humiliating experiences you described.

        In Japan I was living near Tsukuba, site of a giant physics lab with a sizeable international community, so it was not as bad as it could have been. Even so I have had my share of weird stares, nose-wrinkling and painful experiences in shops, restaurants, etc (and on the flip side, have met many warm and wonderful people). No place on earth is perfect. I’m glad that despite its faults you have found Japan a compelling enough place to linger. (Sorry for lack of coherency – lack of sleep does that to you!)

      • Sounds extremely coherent to me, and I am enjoying this stimulating dialogue.

        Regarding the B word, I perhaps mistakenly assume that it is less effective than if it were a heterosexual man that were using it ( after all, it’s practically a term of endearment among many of my brethren) . Also, I love the sound of the word itself: so short, harsh and shrift, so… apt in certain situations, especially pertaining to the horrendous issue of brand reverence, which I consider to be one of the most insidious and intelligence- devoid forms of societal brainwashing there is. Basically, I think that most human behaviour is based on fear, and this puny conviction that having an expensive status symbol will somehow elevate the person in question above those that surround them, thereby making them ‘superior’ to that other person, is, to, me, humanity at its most pitiable.

        When some person then deigns to treat me like shit, as though I were below them, simply because I have the intelligence and sense to resist such evil, it provokes my most aggressive, and indignant side to lash out in a rage.

        As I do to any form of patronizing behaviour, which, as you have experienced Japan yourself, is handed out in spades here to the foreigner. I have met SO MANY unbearably arrogant Japanese old men especially, who deserve, basically, to be ground up into spicy Chinese dumplings.

        That said, what you wrote about ALL civilizations with a long history being equally proud and ‘superior’ about their own culture is undoubtedly true, and really resonated with me.

        It is not just Japan.

      • ninakane1

        Fantastic post, and interesting musings on your experiences of Japan. I wonder, do you think being in a place where people don’t wear perfume much helps you smell more clearly or does it have the opposite effect and leave you overwhelmed with too much ‘body’ smell/ information? Keep being ‘other’ and embrace that status. Get that book written anyway! Write and be damned, always.

  4. Lilybelle

    I LOVE this post, Mr. Ginza. I’ve never visited Japan, but I would love to – hopefully someday (soon) before the economy in America is complete toast. I took a required undergraduate course in Asian Studies, which was a survey course of Indian, Chinese, and Japanese cultures all crammed into one term (imagine?), and the professor explained that in Japan it is the collective that is inherently expressed, rather than the individual, which is extremely difficult for an American, in particular, to really grasp. It makes sense that The Other is something foreign and mysterious. On the other hand, we all have our collective “Others”. I have always been fascinated by Japanese culture…ever since I was a little girl 7 years old (long, long ago), and my mother took me to Saito Restaurant, where you dined on the floor on tatami mats and there were private dining rooms with shoji screens, and beautiful ladies in kimono served. It was so elegant and so exotic to me. It was my favorite place to dine and I used to beg to go there for special occasions. How could I not admire a culture whose every nuance of life is raised (ritualized) to an exquisite grace and aesthetic of presentation? I could immerse myself in that world like a happy western orangutan, like Ferdinand the bull…but then there is the flip side. We didn’t mention those restaurant visits to my mother’s father. He had fought in the Pacific in WWII and had spent some time in Asia immediately following the end of the war. He would have nothing whatsoever to do with anything or anybody Japanese. Nada. It was a sticking point. He wasn’t a bitter man, but there was no talking about it, and we didn’t choose to argue. I am absolutely fascinated by your stories of living in Japan. Are bottles of fine aged liquor like Scotch also treated with the same reverence, as desirable objects to *have* rather than enjoy? I thought I had read that. I do hope you write that book. I will be first in line to have my copy autographed. I know it will be a GREAT read. I am enjoying reading your blog so much.

    • Thanks so much for saying so.

      About the whiskey, NO: as the Japanese themselves, with their Nikko and Suntory brands, are winning the world’s best whiskey competitions! (though yes, I reckon true whiskeyphiles would be….)

      Love your stories of that restaurant as a child. Those traditional Japnese interiors really are inspiring and beautiful, even now.

      • I’m a bit of a whiskeyphile as well, infact I think spirits and perfumes have a lot in common, and the Japanese produces some excellent whiskeys. We still have to wait for the first Japanese fragrance house, or have I missed something?

  5. Dearest Ginza
    Fascinating reading.
    So many paradoxes and it strikes me so much pain, often masquerading as discomfort, embarrassment or even laughter.
    I remain, however, jealous, and a fan of the ‘vile’ Jour d’Hermes.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    • And yet if you come to this scintillating isle I don’t doubt they your impressions would be overwhelmingly positive. Everyone who comes here wants to come back. It feels like a happy dream….

      As for Jour, it quite upset me to be honest with you because it made me seriously doubt my own olfactory prowess.

      So many writers whose opinions I respect gave it laudatory reviews, to the extent that I was considering BUYING it, based on their recommendations.

      Then I smelled it and could only
      perceive a synthetic, and creamy, repugnancy.

      • Dearest Ginza
        But to live somewhere is so very different than visiting!
        I have visited Morocco countless times and travelled the fascinating country widely… would I want to spend a portion of my life there? Not likely! I should probably end up despairing of the beautiful place and that would be a little tragedy.
        As to Jour, your comments are truly intriguing, for the general consensus seems to range from nice but anodyne to genius, yours is the lone comment I have read that actually hates it, I’m curious to know why. There’s always much to learn from the outlier.. especially such an eminent one.
        My curiosity is further piqued by the fact that I detect no creaminess at all!
        This odd diversity of misery and joy
        Yours ever
        The Perfumed Dandy

  6. Victoria Routhier

    Neil, we think a lot alike. It is good to read someone’s thoughts which so mirror my own. I would have Loved to have been with you at the Hermes boutique in Marounouchi. We could have slammed the doors in an EPIC tandem of disdain. You have been in Japan 17 years? Well, this gaijin would last 2 seconds. My 6 foot tall frame of hulking impetuous sillyness would have me thrown out on my ear. Good thing I got you there to feed me the good stories. Carry On!

    Here is a picture of me today with Francis Kurkdjian at our local Nieman Marcus. And He signed my Absolute Pour Le Soir after giving a one hour class about his perfume house and how he creates his perfumes. On top of that, he is ridiculously adorable.

    • I would happily have had your door slamming assistance, Madame.

      But you know, it is precisely because there ARE so many good aspects of living in this country that I have been living here so long. There are things I despise, but that would be the case absolutely anywhere ( it was in England, Italy, it would be in the U.S). I hope that, although there is plenty of ( warranted) angry negativity in this piece of blabbering, hyperbolic rubbish, there is enough joy and positivity elsewhere in this blog to counteract it.

      Sometimes these things, these unexpressed frustrations, just rise up in me, but in some ways, though it sounds weird, I am glad to have had the experience of being on the receiving end of racism ( every day : people always try to avoid sitting next to you on the bus, a horrible sensation that I can never get used to), because it has opened my eyes to what goes on where I, and you, are from. Disturbing, but also fascinating.

  7. Tora

    I am not sure if this worked Neil, but since I wanted to send you some photos, I clicked on ‘reply’ instead of ‘comment’. We’ll see.

    • What didn’t work, your sending the photos or my unsated, volcanic article?

      I have been in a lather this morning thinking about all these things, and whether I should have phrased things in a different way.

      Ultimately, though, I stand by it all because it is all true, from my frothing, victim mentality perspective.

      • Tora

        Your writing always works for me, Neil! No, I was referring to my ability to send the photos…..did you get them?

  8. Absolutely fascinating, both your writing and the comments. I have never been to Japan, but would love to visit.

    So the real question in my mind is this: What would it take for you to export some of that No.19 Extrait to Minnesota?? 😉 I’d take some Gardenia too!! You lucky ducky, you!

  9. Gaijin vs kwai lo, I don’t know what’s worse as each is usually tinged with or even overtly peppered with distrust and “what are you doing here, you don’t belong.” I enjoyed reading your passionate, heartfelt AND cerebral dissertation. You are very much an INSIDER despite your looks.

    One of the things you didn’t mention (unless I simply missed it), but I would dearly love to get your thoughts on, is the cultural reluctance to retain possessions of dead relatives for fear of bad luck, hence the market being saturated with these treasured objets.

    Regarding certain brands being status symbols for Asians, it was very much in evidence in some places I visited over the summer. Venice, for example, was overrun with multi-generational Chinese tourists in August. The Chanel store near St. Marks Square was literally mobbed by the Chinese…guards were posted outside the store and they were only letting in as many shoppers as the number that exited the store AND they came out weighed down by packages. At Louis Vuitton, there were a good number of browsers (me, included, as I was trying to cool off) and the ones buying were, you guessed it, the Chinese tourists. Finally, at Bottega Venetta, I was amused to see an obviously Italian-looking SA conversing in what sounded like perfect Mandarin while ringing up purchases.

    • The horror of Louis Vuitton!
      I seriously feel nothing but contempt.

      Interesting about the dead and their possessions: I hadn’t thought about that as a possibility, as in the superstitious attachment to these objects ( shit my Guerlains seem suddenly spooky! ), but the Japanese are certainly more superstitious than one might expect.

      • Lilybelle

        I wonder why LV never put out a fragrance. The bottle would be surrounded by a little leatherette jacket with LVs all over it. >:)

      • Eeek, I didn’t mean to creep you out with the dead and their possession comments. “Superstitious” escaped me at past midnight when I finished my comments — you gave me a lot to think about!

  10. Sandra

    Truly enjoyed reading your post! I loved my vacation in Japan and look forward to the day when I can return. Your article brought up memories of the good and the strange experiences we encountered in Kyoto. I searched high and low for Shiseido perfumes and had the mist difficult time finding any perfumes. I found it educational to be the object of racism with my white skin and my son’s dark skin. A weird reaction (which was not negative like other incidents) was that we were subjected to having our picture taken everywhere we went. However, this made me much more sensitive to what foreigners feel in my country – including what my son will feel here. Thank you for the enlightening read.

    • I think what you say is interesting: the weird treatment (foreigners cannot, ultimately, ever be accepted or truly assimilated), the deep xenophobia ( as on the original meaning of the word – a fear of foreigners – which I think is sometimes actually more apt for Japan than the far more loaded ‘racism’ , though that also definitely exists… )… all of it enables you to begin to understand so much more profoundly the racism ( usually far more overt, threatening and violent) in our own societies.

      The collective national identity in Japan is HUGE.

  11. Cath

    Another great post. We think and feel alike on many subjects. I WILL come to Tokyo and visit you, and we’ll have endless talks about all the quirky little things that annoy us here. And if you want to go to Hermes, I’ll take you there: I feel no hesitation whatsoever going in there and asking about perfumes, no sir. I’m a potential customer like any other.
    A anecdote of perfume shopping in Hankyu Umeda last year: I was looking at the L’Artisan perfumes, and I started smelling all the nozzles, like I always do to get an idea of the base notes. As I put the bottle of Seville à l’Aube back on the shelf, the shop girl hurried over and started chatting, but I guess she just wanted to watch over me closely. So, I commented on the lovely neroli note, and the silly little uneducated thing picked up the bottle, looked at the sticker that has the notes written on it and says: there’s no neroli in this perfume. The notes are orange blossom, …
    That was enough for me. I vouched NEVER to buy perfume there, not from someone who doesn’t know the first thing about what she’s selling.
    And I also hate the way they refuse to hand out samples. No matter how often I tell them that a sample is a sample, not a gift with purchase, and that there is no purpose in receiving a sample of a perfume you have just bought, that a sample is a marketing tool meant to persuade people to purchase the bottle, that there is no way I will buy a bottle unless I get to try it on my skin several times, on different days at different hours, they won’t budge. Stingy little b**ches.
    Just give me the parfumeries in France or Belgium where they shower you with all kinds of samples. Hurray!

    • Oh, and don’t get me wrong: I am not intimidated by these stuck up arseholes, merely inFURIATED by them. I have enough natural haughtiness and verve to carry myself in these stupid ‘rarified’ environments: I just expect these dimwitted scum queens to have a touch of class: ie, treating all their customers with respect, and knowing WHAT THEY ARE FCKNg selling!

  12. It has taken some time for me to be able to comment on this fascinating post, because I want to choose my words carefully and not blunder about like a great clumsy gaijin water buffalo (which, however, is exactly what I am, other than being quite small.) Throughout my life I’ve always had some country in mind that I fantasized about, read about, wanted to visit, learned to cook the cuisine of, etc. And somehow, that country has never been Japan. I can admire the art and beauty and order and cleanliness, while somehow being reminded of the Germanic fiancée in Young Frankenstein: touch her anywhere and you destroy the composition, you great brute you. Japan has never seemed quite real to me. When I hear people who travel there or live there talk about Japanese society, I seem to perceive that common social interactions contain so many layers of elaborate, composed pretense that it sounds unbearable. I think the summation in my unconscious is that everything in this society conduces to and rewards passive aggression, and I think passive aggression is every bit as soul-numbing as real aggression. Of course this is an exaggeration and one person’s opinion, but is my basic premise about a passive-aggressive society incorrect?

    • Yes.

      But there is SO MUCH MORE

    • The strange thing is that I myself had no interest in living in Japan (here we go: Neil’s life story….)

      I majored in Italian and French.

      I was all set to go and live in BRAZIL (my fantasy since childhood, but couldn’t bear to leave Duncan for two and a half years)

      I had a lot of Japanese students at the International Language School I was working at.

      They said I would love Japan.

      I said there was no way I would ( the rules, the regulations, and blahdy blahdy blah), and yet I was so intrigued by all of their body language, and movement, more than any other nationality at that school.

      I was depressed. I had no future. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

      I saw an advert in a newspaper asking if people wanted to go and teach in Japan (apartment organized, fund the flight over there yourself)

      I came.

      I hated it. I was SO alone, and it was so damn ugly.

      I moved to Kitakamakura, where I still live.

      Everything started to fall into place.

      The country started to seep into me……

      and here we are seventeen years later.

      It can be extraordinarily down to earth; hilarious; sweet; unpretentious, people speaking their minds (as long as it is in the proper scenario); it is not at all the rigorous hell that I am possibly making it out to be or people are possibly misinterpreting it as….

      After being here, almost every other place on earth seems dull. It is so lovely in so many ways that I can’t entirely describe, and when we leave, in a few more years perhaps, I can only begin to imagine the grief that I will experience. Yes, it will definitely be like grief, because deep in my soul I am very addicted to so many aspects of this society.

      It is, strangely, extraordinarily unjudgemental and liberating in so many ways, while in others being totally castrating and suffocating. This, in itself, makes it really very fascinating.

      I hate it.

      I love it.

      • I’m even more fascinated than I was before.

      • Well, the whole coming seemed to go against my entire nature: all my friends told me so (EVEN THOUGH MY JAPANESE STUDENTS HAD SEEN SOMETHING IN ME, KNOWN IN ADVANCE I WOULD LOVE IT: SUCH WEIRD PRESCIENCE)

        I actually had NO interest in coming, even right up until the day of departure; totally blocked it from my consciousness, and the whole thing was just a mindfuck of the most unbelievable stature. i knew not a soul; had no reason for being here; was leaving duncan behind; and just thought that i would have a nervous breakdown, be carried back on a stretcher, go to a sanatorium, and that would be the end of it.

        instead, here i am on the black narcissus, which i love deeply, and i have rebuilt my life, here with duncan, and have precious vintage perfumes right at my fingertips whenever i want them. it has all been enormously stimulating (excuse the lack of capital letters, it just suddenly feels somehow right), and

  13. Marsha Smith

    I have read your blog many times but never commented. Today, I will.
    Okay, now tell us how you really feel. 😉
    I would not do well in Japan. I could not handle the layers of sublety. You have to hit me over the head with a baseball bat.

    • But the subtlety here is astounding. I can’t tell if you are having a go at me in ironic anger, or are being serious.

      Brava!

      • Marsha Smith

        Thank you Mr. Ginza. Your writing is a thing of beauty.

      • Marsha, I too am an ardent fan of Ginza’s writing, and wanted to add that wonderful writing shows up in his comment section too (see some past exquisite comments by Nina and others), so please don’t hesitate to throw in your thoughts. In many ways, TBN is more like a salon than a blog, and I will look forward to the addition of your voice.

    • Marsha, so delighted to have you join the conversation. Many interesting things get discussed on The Black Narcissus, only one of which is perfume.

  14. Lilybelle

    I don’t think you are trashing Japanese culture. You are expressing your feelings about living there as a westerner, and it’s very interesting, and of course there will be the negatives along with the positives. You’re shining a light (through your individual lens, granted) on the real people of Japan, rather than stereotypes. Me, I think I would probably like Japan, clumsy gaijin that I’m sure I’d make of myself. I find complex layers of subtlety very intriguing. I love observing patterns of human interaction (I admit I would be intimated by those SAs). Plus I am a nature lover. I actually understand that remark about the four seasons. Your Vivaldi response made me lol.

    • Well, some people here seem to think that Japan is the only country that has them!

      And if you like complexity, Madame Belle, this sho’ is the place I can tell you. Sometimes, and I am not entirely without acuity or perception, you literally have NO IDEA what someone is thinking, as they have perfected the Noh mask of perfect concealment.

      And you stare into their face, and you think, wow. I that I could never do that. My feelings are just too readable, on the surface.

      • Lilybelle

        I can’t hide my feelings either. I’m very easy to read, and I wouldn’t even try to tell a lie. If my life depended upon it I would be in trouble. It must take enormous discipline to show nothing at all.

  15. Rafael

    Ah, Neil…visions of me descending the plane in an absolute miasma of Jolie Madame, Cabochard or Yatagan loudly yelping “Bourbon, Codeine…” These postings are fascinating, if all too serious. We must remember that it’s because of an irritant that the pearl forms in the oyster.

  16. Dubaiscents

    Sorry, I am very behind on my blog reading hence, the late comment. But, I couldn’t not say how wonderful this post is! I have been to Japan several times for work so, I definitely understand the basis of what you are saying although I couldn’t possibly have as much insight after spending just a few weeks there. I appreciate your candor and I am right there with you about your reaction to the Hermes sales people!
    One thing I love to do here in the Middle East is watch how the locals buy fragrance. They have absolutely no problem spraying themselves with a $300+ fragrance and then immediately buying it. I am told that often they don’t even sniff it first, they just know the brand and want it for the status. Roja Dove is doing fantastic here for just that reason. There is also no hesitation for the sales people to offer to spray you with the scent, in fact, I usually have to jump back and almost yell “on a strip first please” when trying something new.
    One thing that is similar here and in Japan is the hoarding of the samples as if they were made of pure gold! I have to practically beg for them even when I have just made a purchase and even then I usually end up with 10 Petite Robe Noires and nothing else (mix it up a little! If I wanted that much of a scent I would have bought a bottle!). Fortunately, Amouage seems to be the exception to this. They are wonderful about samples if you ask and always include tons with a purchase.
    And I will gladly keep our unknowlegeable, yet very friendly, sales people over the prim and proper ones in Japan (with their gloves!).
    Thanks again for sharing. I so wish I was still traveling to Japan so I could see it through your eyes….one day!

    • If you come here again, let’s please meet up!

      I can just imagine the hilarity of having to dodge the perfume assistants spraying perfume everywhere. A hilarious idea and utterly inconceivable in Nihon.

  17. Looking forward to your book. Sounds like you are living in a vintage perfume treasure trove with many unopened ‘objects’ yet to find their way to market.

  18. Justin

    Hi Neil
    Just saw your post on FB about being nominated for a Jasmine Award. Congratulations! Just a quick question about if the “perfume haters’ article will be available for all to read, or will it require a subscription to ODOU?

    • Not sure. But it’s a good magazine in any case: you can just buy one physical copy I think without having to subscribe. Quite an interesting new publication!

      And thanks for the congrats. I have been frothing at the gills all day.

  19. David

    If you notice hits from Brazil, it’s probably me as I randomly go through your archives. I quite enjoy your entries about Japan. Until last June, I was a long- timer in Tokyo, living there with my Brazilian-Japanese partner of 20 years. I have moments when I almost weep because I miss Japan so much. I know June will be hard because I loved the rainy season so much. I won’t be able to make umeboshi this year or see the ajisai in your neck of the woods. But I snap out it when I remember how much I hated working there (working….. NOT living). My Brazilian friends wonder how I could have lived there all those years. With the largest Japanese population outside of Tokyo, Brazilians have ideas about Japanese. Many say they are a cold, cold race. There was a documentary on TV here that showed how Japanese don’t hug or kiss their loved ones at airports. As a teacher I spout out things like its cultural and we shouldn’t say one culture is better than another one; they are just different…..but now that I have been living here in Brazil, I wonder. I think it is ALWAYS better to hug and kiss and hold onto your loved ones for dear life. I suppose this is another way to reign in my longing for Japan…. If you ever do leave Japan, I think you will have to remember things like that sales woman at Hermes in Maranouchi to keep yourself from getting on the next plane to Narita.
    By the way, if you are curious about the place you once dreamed about and if you have vacation time, please be my guest in São Paulo. Duncan, too, of course. I have the most fun wearing perfume here. Although I personally love my leathers and think they suit gritty São Paulo quite well, it’s also a joy to wear something like Bombay Bling or Bahiana.

    • I think we could talk about Japan for eternity and the cultural differences etc etc: I don’t know what I think about the airport thing, actually – I think the Japanese are no less passionate than other people, I think it is just sublimated.

      I personally find the American habit of saying ‘I love you’ every five minutes a bit nauseating, for example.

  20. I feel whatever I say will be insufficient to adequately describe the PLETHORA of feelings after read your superb piece and the equally fascinating responses it has generated. I don’t even know how to describe what I’m thinking, which ranges from fascination to amusement to understanding and so much more.

    I’ve written quite a bit about the Japanese state of mind at the political bureaucratic level, the cultural mores that certain actions by the Imperial Household Agency (IHA) demonstrate with regard to Japan’s past, the past (and present) ultra-nationalistic ideology, the superiority complex you mention, and Japan’s views about its own culture.

    Your piece talks about some of those things in a wholly different context than the poor, miserable captivity of the Imperial family at the hands of the jailers, the IHA. The Japan you describe is one that I have gotten to know — in a tiny, small way — from a distance, but you’re living it.

    None of this actually conveys the full ….. I don’t know. I feel befuddled by all the different angles and aspects of things, all the different points raised in the piece and the comments, and by the implications of all of it.

    In essence, there is much food for thought here, presented in the most fascinating terms possible, and I loved reading every bit of it. Thank you for the glimpse into your world, Neil, even if it is not truly and fully *your* world.

    • Thank you. I am now desperate to read your own writing on the Imperial Family. Can I find it easily within Kafkaesque?

      I think the beauty of ‘blogging’ ( I hate that word ) is the absolute freedom of speech, the unfettered and liberating aspect of being able to express whatever you want to express in whichever way you want to, even when the un-PCness might possibly irritate others.

      I always thought the whole anthropology approach to everything, while scientifically sound, is so limiting. I WILL say what I have seen, and how I see it, but I also love being able to interact with others on the subject as well.

      Japan is a mindfuck of the highest, most exquisite order. I absolutely adore it. I hate it. I can’t leave!

      • The Japanese writings are in the history section, and I know how much you dislike history. LOL. They are very different from my perfume articles, as they are much more academic and were for a different audience in a different sort of venue. (The formatting is all off too, alas, especially for a lot of the quotes, because I had to transfer things over. That’s one reason why I haven’t uploaded more of the Japanese series. There are only about 6 or so on the blog, but I wrote much more, and was actually considered a small expert in my own way on the Imperial Household agency.)

        The plight of Crown Princess Masako started all this, and then the situation with the Yasukuni Shrine, the Imperial Household Agency’s medieval, almost Spanish Inquisition-like zealotry, and the gender-succession crisis made the whole thing into rather a full-blown obsession for a while.

        While you hate history, you may enjoy the more human interest side of a few of the pieces. Like the plight of Masako, for example, and what it says about the undercurrents of ultra-nationalism in Japan today:
        http://www.kafkaesqueblog.com/2012/12/08/the-chrysanthemum-throne-part-iv-the-princess-and-the-grey-men-2004/

        Or, speaking of women for whom the b-word is really the only possible thing you can say, you may prefer to go old-school and read about Japan’s most vicious dragon, the late Dowager Empress Nagako:
        http://www.kafkaesqueblog.com/2013/04/29/history-nagako-japans-ferocious-dowager-empress-2004/

        Talk about a total piece of work. I mean, seriously! Both those pieces are a little more gossipy than some of the others which are more hardcore history. One of these days, I’ll upload the follow-up piece on the poor Crown Princess, which may make your blood boil at just what the little grey men in the IHA have done to her.

      • I am aware of her plight, and it DOES make my blood boil. I will definitely investigate further!

        The whole situation of women full stop makes me angry in Japan.

      • I replied with some links to help you weed through the Japan stuff in the archives of Kafkaesque, but the post has probably hit your Spam section, as there are 2 links embedded within. I will reply to the rest of the comments in another reply. 🙂

    • Your last sentence is also very interesting.
      That is also a lot of food for thought…..

      I sometimes think that by being in the foreigner situation you are actually more alive, more attuned, more analytical of everything, and that in many ways you have a lot more freedom of spirit. And yet at the same time you belong nowhere, you become paranoid, and when the culture you are in feels like it is poisoning you, like it did last night – but thank god for some like-minded japanese colleagues who i went out with after work – the intensity of fury and rejection can be quite destructive.

      the thing about criticizing the country though: when you live here and are surrounded by such japanophilia by the people themselves, and all the shocking misconceptions they have about the west, and the brainwashing intensity of the INCREDIBLY repressive culture (which is also intensely libertarian – and it is here that the fascinating contradictions lie; japan is actually very decadent, artistic, sensuous, sick, even while its public face is always efficient, smiling, controlled….); those boring, endless cliches spouted by the people here make me feel almost as if it is my moral DUTY to criticize it.

      when people come to japan they walk around in hushed tones of awe and respect. i most certainly do not.

      • I actually know what you mean perhaps better than you realise, for I have lived my whole life in some of the situations you have described. I’m trying to decide how to phrase my comments tactfully. I have always been the foreigner in almost every country I have lived in, and I have lived in many. Even after years now in America, I’m still not considered as part of the landscape. Part of it is deliberate on my part in terms of … er… remaining who I am and not succumbing to a culture that is… um… not really mind. But a greater part of it is that I have always been an outsider wherever I have lived. Always.

        Even within groups from my own social circles and even my own countrymen — my actual country, or those countries I have adopted — I don’t fit in. There are a variety of reasons at play, but, yes, you’re right, it does lead you to being more finely attuned at times, to feeling paranoid in your alienness, to being detached and, frankly, lonely at times. As if one can never be understood.

        With regard the issue of criticism, well, I face that situation here too. It’s different in America, though. There are some places where only the term “jingoistic” really applies. But one can’t really say anything in some groups or areas because this country is so polarized and split. It’s like two Americas at war with each other at times. I don’t want to get into politics, so I’ll skip specific details, but the whole thing becomes even more complicated when ….. oh never mind. It’s too thorny, delicate, or complicated a subject.

        The bottom line is that, where I live presently, I live in a constant state of self-censorship. Over my thoughts, my feelings, and my total alienation from those around me. They regard me as an alien oddity, too. But I have rather been that my entire life. The life of exiled nomad, in many ways.

        I’m rambling, forgive me. It’s just that you seem to understand better that most. Or perhaps, it’s that for once I’ve found someone who understand a little of what it has been like for me. The difference between us, however, is that you DO have a place where you fit in, even if it’s not in Japan. I rather envy that. 🙂

  21. Grateful you write these pieces, Neil. I always feel enlightened.
    I can imagine thinking and feeling everything you do from the perspective of living in Japan as a Westerner with your particular sensibilities. If I were ever to visit Japan it would give me a “way in” to understand what I’m experiencing, and to see under the surfaces: to get a fuller picture.

    Too bad you will have snatched up every bottle of vintage perfume there, leaving me bereft.

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