It happens every time. Every extended holiday, although I am here in Japan, physically, in other ways, I am not. I enter my own, specifically, edited version of it, where I keep it outside of me and observe its cold beauty, its out-of-reachness (a foreigner, ultimately, can never, never become part of this place; and perversely, much as I find that detestable as a concept, part of me likes that fact. I came here impulsively for no reason other than escape and a desire to discover something different, both within and without, am no Japanophile despite my deep-seated, always ambivalent addiction.) The country – gleaming, dream-like, with a level of safety unattainable anywhere else that lets you just glide through it like a fish in water, is my playground. I immerse myself in it like neon in a pool of rain. I breathe in the sacred air of Nikko, feel the history enter me; the ice green breath of the avenue of ancient trees (it was literally snow falling on cedars when we were there), the spiced, heliotrope camphor of the Rinnoji temple’s self-crafted incense.
And yet whenever I go back to work after the break, I feel that I can’t breathe. When I am free ( and I do really feel free at these times, and there is nothing more important to me in this world than that ), atmospherically, aesthetically, intellectually, Nippon fascinates me, rarely leaving me indifferent to its annihilatingly frustrating contradictions. Yet I can pick and choose, work within it. And then come back to the nest, our cinematheque, the New York Times, endless films and conversations in English, novels in the same, the far more expressed and uninhibited and selfishly me me me of western culture, in which we put ourselves first and our idiosyncracies and wants and needs and individualism, screaming to be heard over the hordes in our desire to be ‘someone’ (always my most despised aspect of American culture, that one; the separations into somebodies and nobodies, of people who have managed to ‘live the dream’ and the rest who have been fucked over by it).
In, Japan nobody is a nobody. There is a fundamental sense, here, that people should be afforded respect on some level. A cleaning lady here has a different aura to one back home, not at the bottom of the trash heap, just doing her job, and I like this. But it all comes at a cost, one I know full well and have accepted at the conceptual level, but still find utterly suffocating. Coming back to the office after a month of being off (I know, I know, hideously spoilt – why do you think I took the job in the first place? Paid holidays are like mirages here now for foreign workers in the current clime of exploitation), after spending time with Duncan’s parents and slouching into the warm, Christmas and New Year spirit, I got used to being myself, of saying what I wanted whenever I wanted (sometimes too much; my self-repression valve wore out decades ago) but that is the point: I CAN’T BEAR REPRESSION. And I have chosen to live in the most self-repressed country on earth.
And at the moment I just can’t stand it, as if my diaphragm were being pressed down by unseen forces. But in actual fact they are seen, because Japan is a country of eyes. Eyes that look, all the time, but don’t register that they are doing so: infinitesimally quick glimpses that there is a foreigner, then invisibly render them void, not there. Or in the workplace, where unlike in offices chez nous (wherever that is) there is a wall, or a divider, or a private space you can call your own, here you are constantly within the gaze of others, facing people (who often ignore you) in work spaces that are designed to be communal, cooperative, working together, no secrets (yet always secrets, because no one actually says anything they really feel), never being able to extricate yourself from your dog-worn, exhausted colleagues because you are constantly facing them. The desks are positioned that way.
But it is so exhausting for me, spiritually, even after all these years, to be positioned in such a space: my foreignness an extra barrier, my innate ‘weirdness’ yet another. When you arrive in the teachers’ room, no one ever asks how you are, how your weekend was, or anything else, because that is not the time nor the place (conversation of a more personal level can happen while you are cleaning the classrooms later on, or at work parties, under the influence of sake). You come in, utter the required aisatsu, or greeting, like a robot, and get a robot greeting in return, and then you get down to your lesson preparation with the atmosphere as heavy as a fishtank filled with mould and bitter algae, desperately trying to breathe.
It is not always like this, by any means. As the term progresses, and when spring comes, it will be different. But right now is the ‘exam hell’ season (for more on the unbelievable, slave-like conditions during this time, read my ‘Narcissus You Stink’ piece – I lack the energy to reiterate it all here), and the teachers, not having any days off for two months, or they won’t have by the time the exams are finished anyway, are understandably not exactly feeling communicative. They have to get through it. And I understand that. But it doesn’t make the daily fact of being trapped in such an environment any easier.
The classroom is an entirely different proposition altogether. There, it is my world and theirs; fantastically upbeat – this year – and positive, funny, intelligent students who I love teaching, where I can ‘perform’, if you like (and teaching is definitely a performance: every day I wake up thinking nooo like an actor before a nightly play, yet once I get going I am in my element, usually, though it always takes time for me to gradually get my spirit tamed enough to actually give a shit about what I am doing, and I am still very much in that defiant, hate this, can’t be arsed stage at present, recalcitrant, unwilling, and unable. At some point something clicks and the other more conservative and ‘proper’ side of myself kicks in and I start to get into it but oh! the lazy Sagittarian just doesn’t want to be there at all at the moment (and this piece might have to be a limited edition, come to think of it – I don’t want anyone there reading it: good jobs are much harder to find these days in Japan, especially in a place so bloody ageist (and sexist, and racist, but don’t get me started; wow, this really is a Japan-basher this one isn’t it)
This world I am working in is so colourless, so odourless; (so colorless, so odorless). The greys and beiges of the halls and the classroom, plastic walls. The ban on perfume. The drab, black, fraying suits. The surgical masks that most of the students wear to protect themselves from colds (now they really are not odourless but don’t let me go there). It all brings a chill to my soul. The pointlessness of it all. The arbitrariness of any given culture, and how the people mindlessly stick to it.
And the same thing happens every year. I begin, at first, by heeding the rules. I don’t wear perfume. I don’t wear scent. Yes, I am shampooed and fresh: yes there are lip-balms and hand creams, ah so we are already circumventing those fascistic fragrance rules aren’t we, but in essence (and I can tell from the smell of the classroom if I leave it and come back), the overall vibe is sweet and pleasant, at least I hope so; salutary and amiable, if damn boring, but then, after a couple of weeks or so something within me starts to ache, terribly, for some colour, be it visual or olfactory. I bought a new pink DVD player to use with one class, and it is quite pitiful really how much pleasure it now gives me. Against the black of the TV screen we now have some colour, for christ’s sakes, and it’s like a chink of light for a prisoner in solitary confinement. A decant spray of La Traversee du Bosphore, L’Artisan Parfumeur’s sweet, Turkish delight scent of almonds and roses, and leather and apples, has also somehow found its way into my coat pockets, this week, and the other night after work, I found myself thinking fuck it, fuck this, and spray, spray, spray, went I as I walked along the platform coming back into Kitakamakura, in my coat pockets, on my scarves, all things that can be removed once I get back to work and hung up on the malingering coat rack but which nevertheless, this week, have been wafting nonetheless (“ I smell some exotic aroma coming from you” said my right-wing, Russian literature major colleague yesterday evening, a person as averse to perfume as I am to his nationalism, whose pallor and nervous palpitations are definitely affected quite badly by this stinking queen from England but “too right, baby” thought I, and thank the heavens for it). It’s like colouring in a colouring book; reaccentuating the monochrome, the constant repression of the self that a Japanese person is forced to perform in order to fit into the society.
On Wednesday night I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Even in the classroom. And with two, lovely, sweet, unusually innocent seventeen year old students, a boy and girl, as we were doing an entrance exam reading comprehension on the spice trade, and the history of cinnamon, and cloves, and cardamon and black pepper, I asked them, as I had just bought an essential blend from Muji, Winter Spice, if they would like to smell the real thing. Yes! they said, enthusiastically, and genuinely, and so out came the tissue paper onto which I shed copious drops of the oil, the aforementioned blended with orange and benzoin, and handed it to each of them quite happily as they inhaled the smells and the classroom suddenly came to life, taking on a richness, and three dimensionality and realness that it had previously been lacking. The oils will also help to keep colds at bay I told them, they kill bacteria: and would you by any chance – I know it is our last lesson before the exams (and these exams, in this strictly hierarchial society, really do determine how the rest of their lives will pan out) – would you like me to bring in some perfumes next week? We can do it in the break time, it might be fun, I can bring a selection (in truth, when the boy was absent one time I had already starting talking about scent with Manami, and given her a perfume by Ex Idolo). YES, they said emphatically, visibly excited. And so next week, we are doing perfume. Big time. I am going to take in a whole selection, and possibly give them some, though it is totally against the rules, as well. Because they need to know that these strictures within which they find themselves, these stiff, societal pressures, are not the only way forward. Yes, I know that Japan is the master of imaginative escape and curious invention (why do you think they create such brilliant animation?), but they need to also realize the sensuality and sensuousness of existence as well; that pleasure can come in the inwardly, bodily form of scent, the sheer physicality and joy it can bring. And to learn that smell is a connector, and a language all of its own, quite apart from the cutaneous mie of Japanese society, where everything is done for appearances, and to maintain, and not fuck with, the precious wa, or societal harmony that is always the goal, and the reason, practically, for existence here and what makes the country, in many ways, so superlative. But there are limits. And sometimes you just have to let go, or attack, even, to free yourself from the asphyxiating insularity, inwardness, and monstrous obedience to all the rules and the regulations. To just burst through that membrane of cold respectability and meaningless societal approval with a spray; an inhalation; that hot, sensual shiver of appreciation that marks the pleasure of true olfactory retribution.