Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Japantagonist

There was a traffic sign in Edinburgh I shall always remember.

There's probably hundreds of them all over the British isles but this is the one that always floats up to the top of my brainpan when I'm traveling. It was on Princes Street in the shadow of the Scott Memorial and it said "Changed Priorities Ahead."

A day on the San Francisco Bay with Lol Levy and Nancy Gold hit the spot.

I now find myself, after a couple of weeks back in San Francisco sleeping in the comfort of my own bed and sailing Valhalla with friends and re-haunting my old haunts, in Japan for my next campaign as the King in Kooza.
And though I haven't actually seen it, I feel a new sign flashing in the private Shinjuku behind my eyelids:
"Changed Expectations Ahead."

I used to have 2 horses. Now I have this pair of shoes. Call it even.

Here's what I expected.
I expected to find wonderful similarities, universal truths revealed.
I expected to stumble across fascinating bridges between East and West.
I expected common grounds and shared proclivities.

What I found was differences.
What I found was the inscrutable at its most inscrutiest.
What I found was all the keen contrasts to everything I've become used to.

The virtues of one culture, completely absent in the other culture become the virtues of that culture.

Teamwork Under The Fuji Dome

The 3000 Person Metronome

Where we have individuality, they have teamwork.
Of course a member of the audience at Kooza would never laugh at a fart joke because it may single them out as someone who laughs at fart jokes.

Meanwhile our bandleader Jim Lutz reports that when Japanese audiences clap along with the band during the teeterboard section of our show they clap in perfect time.
In North America and Canada for that matter he would have to warn the band "Stay with the click track, these people will lead you off."

In Japan 3,000 people keep perfect time.

Human Pachinko

Turn Signals

We drive/walk on the right. They drive/walk on the left.
This adjustment, especially when walking in the crowded subways of Tokyo has been particularly challenging.

And I should know better.
It is the sword, after all, that created this difference.

Didn't use his turn signal.

It seems that during the Tokugawa era the prevalence of duels was getting to be epidemic. The reason was that the inadvertent bumping of swords (worn on the left for quick drawing since there was no such thing as a left handed person) was grounds for an immediate challenge. The Daimyo royalty was killing themselves off because they had to negotiate the narrow byways of old Edo and kept knocking the delicate honoki wood sayas (scabbards) of their swords and this was grounds for an immediate duel, the results of which the offended samurai could only hope for a one in three survival rate. The opponent either drew faster than you- you're dead, or slower than you- you live, or you draw at the same speed in which case you both die.

So the Shogun decreed that walking to the left was mandatory to avoid all that accidental banging of hardware.

The practice exists to this day.

So I have to keep remembering to default to the left when negotiating the hallways and escalators of the Tokyo underground.

Of course there are always exceptions and mastering the slight shoulder turn/dip that works as a kind of body turn signal is one of the many skills one attains just getting to work everyday.

Ultimately, this is an island culture.
And each person seems to be a little master of detail.

Our Dog Dresser's Notes and Set-Up.
Genius is in the details.

The Burnished Mirror

And at work we learn of more differences.
The Japanese culture thrives on responsibility.
The Shinto roots show clearest when you notice that people won't respond to racy material (that has been the stock and trade of we clowns in Kooza) depending on who they came to the big top with.
You're not going to laugh at a scrotum scrunching ball hit if you are sitting next to your dad.
But if you came to the show with a gaggle of your best girlfriends, you may.

Speaking of Shinto: I have loved learning more about this non-religion religion that has no scriptures, reveres both nature and previous generations avidly, relies heavily on the imbibing of gallons of sake and the principal item in the shrine (we have one at Esaka dojo) is a burnished brass mirror.

So instead of a cross, which, let's face it, is a torture device or a book as you might find in the gilded alcove of a Moslem mosque or a Jewish temple, the thing you find yourself bowing to is a simple round mirror.
And of course it must be regularly polished to keep it's reflective property. Reminding us to forever keep polishing ourselves as we tread the path of life.

How's my hair?

There is also woven into the Shinto ethos the concept of purification and renewal.
The 108 "hindrances" one develops in a year may be erased- I guess to make room for fresh new ones- with the simple ritual of a few claps and the ringing of a bell.

Mind you, Shinto is not without it's uglinesses. The Japanese soldiers at Nanking were Shinto too but what religion is without it's perversions?

Our big top was even blessed by lavishly costumed Shinto priests in a ceremony that included all of us and featured the breaking/drinking of a giant wooden cask of delicious sake poured into those square wooden cups that are impossible to drink from without “purifying” all down the front of your shirt as well.

Nothing helps
the religion go down like a slug of sake.

Playing Koi

Another major difference is the reticence to show any outward emotion.
Again a virtue that is hard to appreciate at first.
Especially if you're a clown.

But the virtue of restraint is woven into the daily routine.
The most obvious manifestation of this is that eye contact is at a very high premium here.

And I have come to realize that I thrive on eye contact.

For me it's one of the few perks of being a stranger in a strange land.
Being able to look out at the unfamiliar- and the facial recognition software in my brain has yet to calibrate for all these Asian faces so everybody looks unfamiliar- even those I've seen around a lot at the tent- helps me connect to the strangers that swirl around me and not feel so alone.
But these people are masters of eye contact avoidance.

I find myself seeking it on the subway like a drowning man looking for a life preserver.

I finally give up and cast my eyes downward only to glance up to find someone staring at me with such intense concentration that it feels as if they are trying to memorize my face for a future test.

But when I return their gaze the eyes dart away like koi from a rock thrown into a pond.

The Four Ages of Man on the Maranouchi Line

Blame and Blammo!

Onstage we've noticed another difference. The laughs that stem from bodily functions and sexual innuendo have not crossed the time zones well. Here the laughs are born out of the sudden shift of responsibility; blame gets big yucks. Causing embarrassment to someone else is funnier here than doing something embarrassing.
It seems emblematic of a cultural difference that now instead of having our female "involunteer" nail fellow clown Colin Heath in the cajones with a steak, I do the honors and then hand the offending T-bone to her as clown prince Sean Kempton and I hit a gesture that says "She did it!"

To be Here is to be a Witness to the Weirdness.

Still, I'm thankful for all of these various differences.
They have served to wake me up.
To rattle the cage of my own complacency of confirmed expectations and really see things.
To rewire my mind's eye and freshen my perspective.
To sharpen my awareness and seek the deeper clues of behavior hidden in the restraint.
To avoid antagonizing and begin to accept the fact that yes, I am (big) in Japan.

Where I Am.


Anonymous said...

R2, this is just lovely. Perceptive and potent.
Good stuff. D2

Anonymous said...

You are in fact big in Japan- but in your always fresh outlook, it's like you get younger and younger, as a seer and doer... great post, great post.. so interesting about how laughs come at different angles there..thanks for helping me see more

Anonymous said...

thank you