Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Cultural Contradictions.

“Does Japan have any contradictions?”
My brother asked me this a while ago. I shrugged in reply, not sure where he was going with this.
“You know like how America is obsessed with freedom but has more people in jail than China.”
Ah yes. Cultural contradictions. Like how Americans spend time and money on their front lawns and then hide inside their homes.  Japan has them in spades. They love nature here, and also everything being individually wrapped (and I mean EVERYTHING. I've opened a bag of peanuts to find bags of peanuts inside.) But the most obvious contradiction is their relationship with gambling.
Ask a Japanese person about gambling and they all say the same thing “Gambling is illegal in Japan.”

What about pachinko? 

“Eh… that’s different.” My boss told me gambling with pachinko works something like the electoral college system does in America, its participation by proxy. If you win at pachinko, all you can do with your tub of ball bearings is trade them in for a Pikachu doll or a tea set. You leave with your doll, confused by the whole experience. Why was it so stressful? Why were there people chain smoking at eleven am? What just happened to your money? But on you way out a man from the small store next door calls you over and offers you a nice stack of cash for your doll. You hand it over and thus, gambled by proxy.
Contradictions are everywhere, and not just perpetrated by the Japanese. Most of the ex-pats here pine for the home they’ll never return to. I'm guilty of this as well. I spent last Saturday with a man from Holland complaining about how lousy the beer is in Japan while we drank delicious shochu- Japanese moonshine- that his wife had infused with sour plums. We always want what we can't have. Maybe that's the contradiction of desire.
Safety is a contradiction in Japan. Japan is a very safe place, but never have I felt more consistently in a state of danger. Takayama is supposed to be very safe, it's not near any fault lines or in danger of being hit by a tsunami, yet they use emergency broadcast speakers every day, a safety feature that would do little to save my English speaking ass. And yet, when Mt. Ontake erupted, less than 30 kilometers away, all my Japanese friends told me not worry, we were upwind from the deadly plumes of ash. Finally, a genuine threat, and for once I felt safe.
There’s even a religious cult (hey that’s what the locals call it) that is centered in Takayama because its perceived safety. They picked a city an island plagued with tsunamis, typhoons, earthquakes and volcanoes, for safety. Maybe they worship the contradiction.  
One of my students, an incredibly gifted girl explained it to me.
“Do you know this place?” she asked, and drew its recognizable roof and the peach atop it. I nodded. It was hard not to know it. The temple is huge and is visible from almost everywhere in the city.
“They believe it is like the story of Noah, do you know it?”
I feigned ignorance and sat in amazement as a Japanese high school student told me a parable from my own culture.
“Noah got two of every animal and put them in his boat . It rained, and everyone died, but Noah and the animals were safe.”
I got chills. I’m not religious, not in the least, but it was amazing to hear a story I'm familiar with told to me by someone who didn’t grow up knowing it. It gave it a certain magic that fairy tales possess. 
“They believe their temple is the boat.”
Wow. Bravo. A perfect parable. Made magical to me because it was told in a foreign land. Contradictions abound.
But what do you think? I asked her.
“Well, Takayama is very safe.”
“Yes, yes, yes but do you believe these people were chosen by god to be safe in their ark?” Hey, its not often you get to talk about metaphysics with a high schooler. She smiled devilishly. This is what she had been waiting for. 
“No. I think they’re just the animals.”

I just set her up for the punchline. This enchanting story of religion and survival was just a rouse, another brilliant contradiction,  made sweeter for involving a familiar ancient religion and the fools that believe it.

Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Japan with his darling wife. If you liked this, why not read more about foreigners or the floods he barely survived?

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