I find myself this morning, after over two weeks of ‘hibernation’ doused in rich perfume, waking up. It is a bright, cold, sunny morning, and we might head into the big city this afternoon to get some needed things now that the work term approaches and we need to slough off this sleepy languor (it is strange up here without neon; our neighbourhood is quite dark at night, which I love; in many ways cut off…..if you stay here long enough being back in the unstoppable electric vein of the metropolis comes as a jarring shock). Perhaps I will peruse some of the new fragrances in Isetan or Nose Shop.
As I briefly wrote the other night as the decade ended (although I thought the pictures told the story better), we went to Engakuji Shrine, a few minutes down the hill by bike for hatsumode, the traditional ceremony of good luck that a large percentage of Japanese people participate in every year. The monks made no differentiation between the few foreigners present and the others; all were welcome. It felt sanctified, serene. Genuine. You felt the ancient tradition and precinct surroundings in your cells. Part of something.
An hour before this we had been expecting to go to what we thought was the only place open near the station, Wabisuke, an atmospheric dive bar where well to do locals sip whisky and smoke, and they play jazz but also unexpected music too, and where the somewhat sullen proprietor has somewhat gotten used to the presence of non-Japanese over the years with our infrequent drop-ins; there is always a ripple of cognisance whenever a non-Japanese person enters a place – as there is anywhere here – but it is muted.
It was closed. But it was too cold for us to stand outside at the temple waiting for midnight, no matter how beautiful and diamond cut the constellations above in the indigo black sky. We wanted a drink. So in vain, we thought, we cycled along a bit aimlessly thinking we would just kill some time before returning to Engakuji but then came across a place that was open – you could tell it was one of those really ‘local’ local places where the mama-san hosts regulars who practically live there; no airs and graces; no attempts at beautification; almost like someone’s living room, a place for salarymen to crash after work to avoid their grateful wives; or for the single to work up a bar tally in order to escape from their daily loneliness; or else just a gathering of people come together to watch the Kohaku yearly music show which is a staple of O-Shogatsu, unchanging New Year celebrations.
This tale has no dramatic denouement in case you were expecting one from my build up. But the fifty minutes or so we spent in there – gingerly opening the door, as I rolled my eyes in anticipation of the kerfuffle and psychological mayhem our entrance as Europeans would cause; so predictable, so tedious, if somewhat amusing – are quite emblematic of many of the fundaments of the heart and soul of this country we live in, the profound lack of internationalism despite the fact that Tokyo is to be hosting the Olympic Games in 2020: an absolute segregation, at the marrow level, of the Us, and The Other.
I have to clench myself in these situations. I become defensive inwardly, which probably exacerbates the tensions in advance: a vicious circle. D is always more sweet and personable and likeable: he always says I put up barriers. But what I would like, ideally, is just to be able to walk into a place and be welcomed just like any other customer – I would expect some curiosity perhaps, but not the fucked up Muppet Show that was the result instead on New Year’s Eve (loose translations coming up….)’ What?!’ ‘WOW!’ (said in English); enforced high fives (YEAHHHH!) – some customers openly panicking about not being able to speak English to us; what were they going to do?!) I felt like Ringo Starr coming to Japan for the first time and being surrounded by Beatlemaniac fans screaming and reaching out….all we wanted was to sit down, and yes, it was all super ‘friendly’ in a hysterical sort of way (about 10 middle aged people sat around the bar acting as though they had a mental age of about 6), reduced to gestures and a bastardised mix of Japanese and English (though one more laconic person on the end said ‘they speak Japanese, you don’t need to keep talking to them like that…)
As I say, at least it is ‘welcoming’, and not overtly aggressive – you are not being thrown out or attacked, as you might be in other countries as the whole world gets steadily more xenophobic- no; this is an entirely different and more complicated kettle of fish that I don’t have the time to go into right now in detail; to do with wanting to be kind and welcoming but panicking about not speaking the language (even though we are in Japan), but not being able to at all because the entire English education system is structured in order to make students understand labyrinthine reading passages that a large percentage of British or American high school students would not be able to answer (honestly), and yet not be able to string a sentence together or answer a question like ‘Where do you live?’ because they don’t have any speaking practice but don’t let me go there because there is a whole book in this and I am already writing it : I know that I am right about this point though as I am bang in the middle of the education system here but THIS; this childish stupidity, is the direct result of it.
Essentially, what it boils down to, even though they calmed down after a bit and we drank some beers and I gave my opinions about some of the pop stars on the TV screen (“What?! You know Sheena Ringo? You recognise Seiko Matusda and Arashi?!!!!!!!” Can your green Caucasian eyes distinguish between Japanese differing faces?!!!!! (They didn’t say that last part but that was the inference………of course they knew all the UK pop bands and the drunken man sitting closest to us, very sweet actually and well meaning, was a drummer in a rock band that covered the Beatles and other songs, but they also presumed that we would know nothing about the artists in this country, even though we live here…)
But anyway. I can feel myself getting roiled up just thinking about it: thank god, as the minutes passed by on the clock on the wall, we knew we had a good excuse to get out of there and amusing though it was in a way – the energy was ultimately positive and interested and the woman who ran the place was quite friendly – the sense of being ‘Othered’ to the point of cartoon dehumanisation was so strong that it was a great relief indeed to be away from such laughably low levels of sophistication and be plunged into the profound austerity of the temple grounds and the chanting monks who were seemingly – but who knows – beyond such risible nonsense.
The next day we saw in the newspaper that Carlos Ghosn, the disgraced former executive of Nissan who had been arrested on charges of embezzlement and been detained for long periods of time and was currently under house arrest before his trial, had escaped in a musical instrument case after a Christmas concert at his residence and somehow been smuggled to Istanbul and then to Beirut, where he triumphantly told the world that he would not be held hostage by the intrinsically unfair Japanese justice system with its notorious 99% conviction rate that has been condemned by human rights groups worldwide, and though from the very first time I saw his face I instinctively knew I didn’t like him and suspect that he probably might be guilty as charged, I also don’t think for a moment that he is the only person high up in the Japanese establishment guilty of corruption; in fact such scandals appear with yawn worthy frequency (I find ‘scandals’ like that extraordinarily dull; I can’t even follow the Trump Ukraine details; ultimately I just don’t give a shit); for me it is a given that power corrupts and that people abuse it: call me cynical, but that is just how it is.
What is different though is that I felt sure that Ghosn was being made a scapegoat. A real whipping boy. The levels of vitriol and intense fascination with his case – misusing his funds – reek of racism to me; of nationalistic outrage focused on one person. I don’t believe for one second that if this had been a Japanese man he would have received the bilious fury that Ghosn has. And I don’t believe that he would have had a fair trial, and so I, like many other people, were secretly – no openly – delighted that he had the audacity to plan an escape that would seem farfetched in a film script and get away with it and I will tell you why.
What I am about to tell you is a true story. I will corroborate with the friend in question when I come to write about it in more detail as I want every fact to be precise before I do so, but three years ago, when we were filming Girl Goned, one day our German cameraman didn’t turn up to the location for the shoot; unfathomable, as he is an extremely reliable and trustworthy person who would never do that. Working for Reuters, he is a great photographer who has travelled the world in all kinds of dangerous places for reportage with a rebellious spirit and sense of humour now living and working in Beijing, and he had done some really good work with certain scenes that we were very pleased with. But on the day in question he wasn’t there. We couldn’t contact him, and we didn’t hear from him for a couple of weeks. We were very worried.
About thirteen days later, while on the train back from Tokyo, D suddenly got an email. ‘Sorry guys, but I have been in jail’. Astounded,we soon met up with him a few days later once he had begun to recover and listened incredulously as he told us the tale of being thrown in prison for two weeks in heinous conditions with unrelenting fluorescent light together with yakuza gangsters, unable to take a shower (which in itself, when he finally was put in front of some kind of legal panel, was so debasing to his sense of self that he could hardly speak – it was in summer time here which is extremely hot); fighting to get his ‘case heard’ and hiring a lawyer used up all of his savings, and shortly after this he decided to leave the country – unsurprisingly.
So what had he done? NOTHING. Coming home after work one night, ladened down with camera equipment as all such people are, dressed in black, coming down the street where he lived and having a cigarette on the street, he had been approached by a drunk old man who, when seeing his bulky back pack and all his equipment, assumed – ridiculously – that he was a ‘terrorist’ and accused him as such. T is a very world-savvy person with a great sense of humour so didn’t pay this idiot much attention but he kept being harangued by him, trying to get away until they had some kind of altercation during which the bigot called the police and my friend was subjugated to a claustrophobic hell hole that any lesser person would find traumatic and which could affect their whole life terribly.
T was able to laugh it off: it will make great anecdotes, and a good chapter in my book, as an example of how little most foreigners here trust the justice system. In his case, because there was literally no foundation for the charges, although the police here routinely confine people for up to 26 days I think it is (without allowing you to call anyone – you just disappear) and under lightbulb interrogation force a confession out of you – there are many famous cases like this here, even those on death row – T was released, but he was one of the very lucky 1%. I was enraged to hear his story, though, so you will see why, even if Ghosn was involved in some financial wrongdoing, I would be quite delighted for him escaping in a cello case and sticking his middle finger up to a red-faced country that accuses him of being ‘cowardly’ (what? you are joking! this is a Steve Mcqueen like escape that is quite brilliant, I am sorry – he would not have been entitled to a fair trial and would have been convicted no matter what so of course he had to jump bail and be received like a hero by the people of Lebanon): in many ways he is the ultimate symbol of Othering right now and I am glad that he has had a way to highlight that to the world.
The purpose of this post, which I just had to get out of my system, is not to vilify Japan. Whichever country you are living in reading this, look at your own institutionalised racism, your own prison populations and unfairnesses. This is a problem at the basic human level: we are terrified of people different from ourselves. At the same time, though, while Japan may be famous for and touting its beloved omotenashi, or selfless kindness and impeccable service, I just hope that, when the hordes of foreign visitors that will be invading the shores this coming July and August are hosted in restaurants, hotels, eateries, inns, that they are not treated as though they were aliens from outer space – unfathomable, bizarre – as we were the other night at the bar near the station: but just like regular, normal, human beings.