Japan

Sakura

1.
As Far as East from West

Sparse
Sprinkle:
Bloom.

Moonlight
Alighting
On branch,

Butterflies
Wobbling on breeze,
Stemmed to bark.

All careless ease,
The windless siftings,
Petals in grass.

The first unfurlings
On the world’s eastern cheek—
Then blades dig for roots.

A boat, flower-freighted,
Is a clipper ship to snare
The gusts of spring in sails.

A secret labyrinth roots,
Survives the monsters at its heart,
Thrusts up a castle of flags.

The years corkscrew against the sky.
Once more buds yield and the blossoms break,
Helpless to halt another spring.

 

2.
Self-portrait as Dryad, no. 9

The waters are a mirror showing my face,
Dimly on ice, ruffled in breeze, plain
For those passers who have the eyes to see.
Arthritic, jointed, my tree is a castle
Where I sink in rings on rings of years,
An old woman’s sleep—fetal, contorted.
When moonlight wakes me in the spring and all
My crookedness is lured to flowering,
I lift the urns of buds, the petal bowls
That catch moonshine and overflow with light—
And I am ringing with the melody
Of light, as if my bowls were singing bowls,
And all my years of rings were lifted up
To greet the brightening moon’s face, and all
My hours of rootedness and sleep transformed.
And now I catch the rainy flood of moon,
Reflect my spirit face into the sky,
And now at once in dark I am the sun
And stars and moon, I am a galaxy.
Lay down your sword, set down your ink-charged pen,
And dress in sky-blue robes and draw near me.
In brokenness I bow to flowering,
All of me yearning to be seen and known.
Waterfalls of God pour through me, blossom
In my bones and hair: now for one instant
I grant your newborn wish, bless and forgive.

 

3.
East to West to East

Arakawa River’s
Three thousand cherry trees
Are floated East to West.

If two countries’ quivers
Stored wands of leafy green,
Their people would be blessed.

But peace can prove a lie,
War bow us to our knees
Though flowers ride the breeze.

A hundred springs go by,
And bones of Western trees
Are lopped and grafted East.

 

4.
The Dryad in Cherry-Blossom Time

And you, old man, come here and orbit me,
Itō Jakuchū, with your pack of brush
And silk and ink: yes, it is as I knew.

You see through bloom the brightness of my face.

 

5.
Riddle

Am I the dreamer
Who dreams of the fluttering
From the branch to grass?

Or am I petal,
Dreaming the tumble to earth,
Wakening to dreams?

 

6.
Tree Spirit Song
Diminuendo

Kodama,
Echo-words.

Kodama,
Ghost-of-tree.

Kodama,
Sings-with-birds.

Kodama,
Mystery.

 

 

 

Occasionally, we enjoy having contributors curate an entire of issue of the magazine. Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement (publisher), commissioned three colleagues to collaborate on this special final March issue.  As you’ll gather, the emphasis is on Japan.

Waiting for Blooms

These photos were taken at Hiyoriyama Park in Ishinomaki City.

Hiyoriyama is a large hill near the coast from where you can clearly view the damage and destruction of the Minamihama and Kadowaki districts. The hill got its name because it was used as a vantage point by fishermen to check the weather before voyages. Many people evacuated to this location on the fateful day in March, witnessing the tsunami washing their city away.

Historically, Hiyoriyama has been famous for its many cherry blossoms and its Shinto shrine which was first built on the hill in the 12th century.

The many bridges that can be viewed from Hiyoriyama are a big part of Ishinomaki’s identity. The original bridges were built with personal funding from a local entrepreneur and other citizens. These bridges have contributed to the city’s growth and transportation for more than a century. Currently (as you can see in the one photo), there is a mountain of cars that went through sea water being stacked on one side of the bridge, and a mountain of rubble close to 100 feet high being stacked on the other.

The boy’s grandparents’ house and family business used to be located in the vacant lot shown in the first photo. Both were completely swept away by the tsunami.

 

 

 

 

 

Occasionally, we enjoy having contributors curate an entire of issue of the magazine. Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement (publisher), commissioned three colleagues to collaborate on this special final March issue.  As you’ll gather, the emphasis is on Japan.

Why the Japanese Keep Winning World Championships

Despite being born in Boston, I spent my grade school years in Kamakura, Japan. My third grade teacher, Mr. S, was a catcher in an amateur baseball league. He used to throw chalk at students not paying attention, and I remember being hit by one in the head.

Mr. S was feared by his students, and he taught as if all of his students were baseball players. He emphasized team play, sacrificing of oneʼs desires for the sake of the whole. He taught us that paying attention was the best way to survive a class. Call it pre-Koshien training. Koshien is the famous high school baseball tournament held every spring and summer. It is where a good pitcher is discovered and then asked to throw over five games in a row in a span of a week. Think of Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox. He threw nearly 400 pitches in two days at Koshien, winning the championship after 17 innings in a tight game for Yokohama High School, and became a national hero. If you ever wonder why he is so ineffective now as a 36 year-old, you can rewind the tape of their high school championship to see the inevitable: no pitcherʼs arm can withstand that kind of abuse as a teen.

Japan, a country the size of California, has won a remarkable array of championships in recent times. Nadeshiko teamʼs surprise victory in the Womenʼs World Cup reinforced the notion that being outsized, out-powered and largely ignored does not mean that a country cannot win championships. Japan is a perennial power in the Little League Baseball World Series (though they lost a close one this year to a team from California). They won both World Baseball Classics. But there was a time not too long ago that the Japanese would contend for, but never win a championship.

If Mr. S is an example of what is pervasive in Japanese education, you can expect that many actually see education as overlapping with sports. For the Japanese, playing and excelling in sports is just part of culture. But Japanese teams always seemed to be literally dwarfed by the world. Though they contend in world stages, it was rare for Japan to win championships. That is, until 2004. At the 2004 World Baseball Classic, I saw something I had not seen before in a Japanese team. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Sadaharu Oh, the national hero of Japan, with his idiosyncratic balancing on one leg like a stork, as he timed his many home runs, was the manager of the first ever World Baseball team. Matsuzaka was on the mound for many of their key games, including their championship game against the formidable Cuban team. But it was in their game against the sure-to-be-in-the-finals Americans that I noticed something.

The US powered in some runs, and I was expecting the Japanese team, as they have done in the past, to look very stoic in the inevitability of a loss. Japan had always felt inferior to the US since WWII. The post-war sentiment was that the Japanese would work very, very hard to recover from the war, but when it came to leadership, it would always be deferred to others, especially the Americans. Even if you come close to winning something, you almost let that possibility go. I expected to see a face of resignation.

But the 25 year-old starting shortstop for the Japanese team, Munenori Kawasaki, looked out from the dugout during the next inning, watching his teammates come to bat. Kawasaki had dyed his hair with chestnut-blonde highlights and looked more like a Japanimation character than a stoic baseball player. But, I saw in his face something I had never seen in a Japanese athlete. He was actually having fun.

Up to this point, competing in a championship was a kind of duty, a bland effort toward a stated goal. Kawasakiʼs face said, “Isnʼt this cool that we are playing against the US and we are only down by one run? My counterpart is Derek Jeter and we can actually hold our own!” This was a new face of someone without the baggage of the post-war atomic debilitation or industrial work ethic as the only answer in a grey vision for restoration. This face said, “Heck, this is only a game, but we can match with anyone and we might win this whole thing.” And they did, celebrating on Petco Field in San Diego with Matsuzaka on the mound against a team that should have defeated them.

Japan’s women’s soccer team is called by a nickname “Nadeshiko Japan”, named after yamato nadeshiko, a pink plant, but also a figure of speech for the beauty of Japanese women who are modest but have inner fortitude.

With Nadeshikoʼs win in the Womenʼs World Cup, we will remember, of course, one of the most thrilling matches ever played, by men or women. The Japanese team broke through unprecedented categories. The US team has the best goalkeeper in the world, Hope Solo, and has never lost in a Penalty Kick shootout or even missed a penalty kick in the whole tournament. No team has ever come back from a deficit in the last ten minutes of a regular game, and in the finals, no team has ever come back from a deficit in the last ten minutes of overtime. When Abby Wombach scored in her typical dominating fashion in the last minutes of overtime, no one expected the Japanese women to come back. But this team, stricken with the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, decided that they had nothing to lose, but everything to gain. This was not just a stoic, hard-working team; this was a miracle team that created something out of nothing.

I saw the same creative energy, a quick strike that flowed out of Kawasakiʼs face, on the Nadeshiko team. And that outlook was evident much earlier in the tournament as they shocked the host and expected champion, Germany, in the the final seconds. It was a “nothing to lose” attitude combined with the trademark Japanese determination that brought the victory. Not only were they playing against the heavily favored Germans, or Americans later, they were thinking of the people who lost their lives in the tsunami and earthquake and the people who lost desire to live in the uncertain shadows of the Fukushima power plant. (One of the players actually plays for Fukushima, a team that has not practiced since March 2011.) All of the training that came from practicing on the grassless, hardened grounds of a Japanese soccer field, or from enduring chalk-throwing teachers, came to play. They were determined to be wholly present every second of the game, to make every move count. They found a resilience in focused attention rarely seen on the world stage. They moved as one, collectively inviting a whole nation to come on the field with them. A quick strike is all you need and the Japanese disadvantage of having small bodies became an huge advantage in those last minutes of play.

We saw Homare Sawa, who would steal away the MVP from Abby Wombach and win the Golden Goal award for most goals in the tournament, score with a simple flick of her right foot off a corner kick. But what the viewers may not have realized is that for that play to work, you have to convince the defender who has been guarding you for the entire game that you are going to head the ball. The other players on your team also have to set themselves so that one precious run toward the front of the goal will not be blocked. This corner kick was a set play, but it takes the entire front team to set themselves up so their captain has a shot of making that diagonal, counter-intuitive, run. If you are a small, but quick, finessed player, that, at the last minutes of the game, is the only play you have.

The execution was flawless and the game was tied. Then I saw something that echoed Kawasakiʼs face seven years ago. Norio Sasaki, the Japanese coach, faced his team before the penalty kicks to determine the winner. Squatting down to speak to the exhausted team, he was smiling. I have never seen a Japanese coach smile before, especially in such a crucial moment. This was a proud father-like face releasing children to also be proud of what they already accomplished. Whatever happened next was irrelevant. This smile transgressed the stoic Japanese norms, while the Americans wore steely faces. Destiny already decided the outcome: Japan dominated in the penalty kicks, even with their diminutive goalkeeper, and Homare Sawa became a national hero, holding high the golden trophy. Jumping up and down on the stage, the whole team looked like Smurfettes with a World Cup.

In Japanese, the name Homare means “to praise.” My mother, an avid sports fan reading the Japanese newspapers, noticed that her Chinese ideograms are unique. Sawaʼs parents did not use the usual ideograms of “to praise.” Homare is made up of two ideograms instead. “Ho,” meaning the husk of wheat or rice, and “Mare,” meaning extraordinary or a miracle. Imagine that: an ordinary substance to be discarded causing a miracle. Did her parents ever anticipate that their daughterʼs right foot would redefine greatness?

So the next time you see the Japanese play on the world stage, do not count them out. If youʼve been hit by a piece of chalk many times, you are not likely to forget to pay attention. And if your country needs inspiration, you are likely to provide one. You may even smile as you do so.

A Passion for the Possible

I spend a lot of time listening to music and reading at the same time. I’m not proud of this behavior—I end up giving neither music nor book the attention it deserves—but I have an excuse: my downstairs neighbors are beginning violin students. Given the choice between being distracted by a squeaky rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or Mark O’Connor’s “Appalachia Waltz,” I choose the professional. Sometimes, however, this desperation tactic pays off, as it did recently when I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to the accompaniment of Jakob Dylan’s album Women + Country.

I didn’t give much thought to my music selection as I started into the novel, though the spare, rootsy album felt superficially appropriate to McCarthy’s depiction of the postapocalyptic American West. I paid only occasional attention to Dylan’s lyrics as I read, but I could nonetheless sense a deeper convergence between novel and album. McCarthy’s father character, struggling to protect his son in a desolate and dangerous land, was reflected in the opening track of the album: “I give my tears and I give my blood / I’d give nothing but the whole wide world for one.” Songs like “Down on Our Own Shield,” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Everybody’s Hurting,” with their themes of struggle against desolation, resonated with the narrative of the book. Novel and album share remarkable similarities: each draws on the culture of the American West; each takes place in a desolate, postapocalyptic world; and each depicts the quest for hope in the midst of destruction. Yet despite the two works’ convergences, the signs of hope they uncover are strikingly different.

As befits McCarthy’s more intimate narrative, the sign of hope in his novel is smaller, more tenuous than Dylan’s. McCarthy’s nameless father and son are “carrying the fire,” the light of civilization, in their own bodies alone. Given the challenges they face, that fire is often a flickering candle at best. When the boy encounters another family, he asks: “Are you carrying the fire?” Joining the others, the boy himself becomes a sign of hope, carrying the fire forward into another tiny community. Two other children are members of this group, and so the fire seems to grow, ever so slightly.

The sign of hope after McCarthy’s apocalypse is closely to tied to the fragile human bodies of the novel’s protagonists. As the novel concludes, McCarthy gives us this depiction of the boy’s faith:

The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father… The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

The boy thus begins to treat his father as a kind of saint, an intermediary between himself and God. And yet not precisely an intermediary, for there is no suggestion that the boy’s goal is to reach God through his father—indeed, the reverse might be more true. Yet this does not make the boy’s faith precisely idolatrous or sacriligious. In Christianity, arguably the primary background of both the novel and the album, God is understood as both immanent, wholly involved in the world, and transcendent, wholly other from it. Though his suffering could have driven him away from an immanent divinity—how can God be near us if he’s letting us suffer like this?—McCarthy’s boy clings to a hopeful vision of an immanent divinity. Despite his grief, for the boy the face of God remains the benevolent and intimate face of his father, and the boy’s own body remains the sign of divine hope. The Road thus allows to boy to retain hope in a loving God despite the destruction of his world.

The larger cast of characters in Dylan’s album allows Women + Country to present a more transcendent, mystical sign of hope. God is often only a distant presence, as when the farm laborers of “Everybody’s Hurting” ask “My eyes are open Lord / Where did you go, have we just left you bored?” Nonetheless, on the centerpiece of the album, “Holy Rollers for Love,” Dylan presents a vision of hope-beyond-hope, a wild and even irrational spirit discovered in a world “Filled with canteens and tear gas / From this last voyage of us.” The song’s verses are grim: “Hereafter’s bringing more funerals than fairs / And it’s a book of blank maps / That we’re using to get us there.” Directionless, humanity has brought itself to the verge of destruction, and there seems to be little hope until Dylan’s voice lifts in the gospel-tinged bridge and final chorus:

Glory glory hallelujah be warned

God is still marching, still raising his sword

Board these windows and guard your stretch of floor

Something sinister’s got you the minute you open the door.

 

With battle songs filling their lungs

Move them out down under the sun

Give them tears for cherry red blood

Stack them old, we cradle them young

World is crazy or maybe just holy rollers for love

World is crazy or maybe she’s holy rollers for love

World is crazy and making us holy rollers for love

In Dylan’s world, hope continues despite the terror and sheer unreason of divine glory. Hope is grounded in the mystery of the sufferings of the world, “making us holy rollers for love.” Divine hope is inexplicable, shining through violence and destruction to bring blessedness. Though God may be distant and inexplicable—even dangerous—hope endures not just in the flickering flame of human survival, but as a certainty that somehow, “God is still marching.” Dylan’s God is the Lord of Hosts—perhaps not as approachable as McCarthy’s father God, but a source of comfort in his power and eternal justice. Hope thus arises from the power and majesty, not the closeness, of the divine.

***

I had intended to end the essay around here. I had a nice conclusion about needing both McCarthy’s immanent and Dylan’s transcendent hope for a full picture of spirituality—true enough, as far as it goes. But having drafted the piece earlier, I intended to write my conclusion on March 10, 2011, the day massive earthquakes and tsunamis hit Japan. My wife spent two summers in Japan and we have many friends there, so we spent much of the day anxiously watching CNN and Facebook for updates. At the end of the evening, with most of our friends safely accounted for, I sat down at my computer as planned to work on the piece. As I tried to write my conclusion, writing about hope in literature and music began to feel increasingly strange. Can Cormac McCarthy really say anything to the suffering in Haiti, New Zealand, or Japan? Why bother with amusements like these? What hope can Jakob Dylan really give?

With these questions haunting me, I went rummaging through some old readings from a class on spirituality, and found an excerpt from Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. Moltmann takes Kierkegaard’s phrase “a passion for the possible” to refer to a hope that is grounded in something real—a coming Kingdom which makes all our hopes possible. And for Moltmann, “the man [sic] who thus hopes will never be able to reconcile himself with the laws and constraints of this earth.” One who hopes cannot rest easy, because that person possesses a desire to see hope realized, and a belief that it can be. What profit, then, a passion for the impossible worlds of literature and music?

Again, it’s hard to see the relevance of McCarthy’s nameless fugitives or Dylan’s marching God to a situation that seems to call rather for the Red Cross. And yet “a passion for the possible” could also suggest that what we are tempted in our despair to call impossible—carrying the flame, justice rolling down—may in fact be possible after all: embracing the seeming-impossible, we hope for hope. We embrace what I might call a “prevenient hope,” riffing on a term originally used for grace. A prevenient hope would allow us to shake free of a despair which has closed off even the possibility of hope, limiting our imaginations to the realm of the actual. By enlarging the hopeful imagination, perhaps art can help in bringing us to the point from which we can begin to hope. Though prevenient hope is hardly the final virtue, neither is it merely trivial. McCarthy and Dylan, with their contrasting but hopeful visions, help keep that prevenient hope alive in me.

A Fight, a Flight,
and a New Fan Contrite

Who is your archnemesis – the one who stands opposed to everything you believe is good in the world? The antithesis to your thesis? The north to your south? The counter to your argument? The “One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” to your “Boy-Who-Lived“?

Two months ago, I could have told you who mine was. It might have taken a few moments to sort through my mental list of candidates for such a designation I inadvertently keep. (If there’s anything I learned from not having been in the Boy Scouts, it’s that one must be prepared with hyperbolic and uncorroboratable opinions at any moment. That is what they mean by “be prepared,” right?)

Anyway, it was a little difficult to shuffle through the crowd of names jostling to be my chief antagonist – especially with names like Kenny G and Shia LaBeouf on the list.

But one name stood head and shoulders above them all. In fact, I remember the moment when He-Who-Will-Be-Named-In-A-Few-Moments first summitted my mountain of Moriartys. I was forced, by a poster plastered onto Manhattan’s Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in its most unavoidable sight line, into confrontation about which my sister (a fan of He-Who-Will-Be-Named-In-Even-Fewer-Moments) still has nightmares.

“I hate, hate, hate, hate him! He’s my ARCHNEMESIS!!” I screamed, much to the dismay of wealthy tourists stuffing their Gucci bags with Coach clutches and declaring that they came to this “mall” to avoid all the New York “weirdos.” (A statement that I took not as an insult, but rather as a sincere honor, considering the source.)

The-Movie-Star-Who-Will-Be-Named-Shortly was top bill and, literally, poster boy for a new film about to hit the overpriced movie houses of my fair city, besmirching them with that impish grin and perfectly coiffed hair. Seeing this movie quickly became last on my “mop list” – a list of things that I will never, ever do before I die.

So, imagine my utter despair one fateful day when I found He-Will-Be-Named-Soon-Enough-Just-Keep-Your-Trousers-On’s face occupying one of the crucial “films you will be forced to watch on this uncomfortable 13-hour flight to Tokyo” slots. I almost got off the plane. Really. But I quickly realized that this “quote-unquote” film would be on every flight, since it was about to be released to DVD and wasn’t boring holes into people’s souls at the theater any longer.

After watching every flick on the flight roster, I was faced with the inevitable. The high noon, or maybe midnight (I’d completely lost track of time and space at that point during the endless flight), collision between me and him: The-Guy-Who-Doesn’t-Have-A-Name-Yet-But-Will-Right-Now.

Zachary David Alexander “Zac” Efron.

I stared at the in-flight movie guide, clenching my fist around the poorly designed remote control that never fits back into the holder, often causing an accidental change of channel or crank of volume. I returned my seat and tray table to their upright and locked positions and spoke:

Oh, Zac Efron. Zac, Zac, Zac, Zac, Zac. Here we are. Just me and you… and the other 200 other people on this plane. I daresay you never thought we’d meet. Nor did I. You with your millions of dollars and screaming tweenybopper fans, your filmography and successful career. Me with my crappy airplane remote, my puffy, dehydrated eyes and my inflated and unsupported opinion of my views on art and culture. It’s time to end this once and for all, ojos a película.

I pressed Play. 17 Again began.

For nearly two hours I sat, upright and locked, eyes fixed on the manchild I had despised for at least several months based solely on the “facts” that he was young and popular, and that the tweenyboppers liked him, assuming that anyone they would like could surely be nothing more than eye candy who can barely use the English language, let alone act. Just another talentless, studio-backed tool. The type worthy of derision from those with such high-minded taste as mine. (That should be funny for those familiar with my work.)

As the high school yearbook-styled credit pages turned, one word emerged from my mind, a phoenix from the ashes of that small part of me that hasn’t yet been consumed by post-post-postmodern cynicism: delightful.

The film was delightful. Zac Efron was delightful. Truly, truly I tell you, I would have shed tears if there had been any water left in my body as we soared high, and dry, above the Pacific Ocean, or the Yukon, or wherever we were.

Of course, 17 Again is, on the surface, a tired retread of the same old “I don’t like my current life. Can I go back to H.S. and relive my ‘glory days,’ then learn my life lessons and come back and fix my current life?” story. But that didn’t matter. It was a charming movie, entertaining and heartwarming. I watched it twice on the flight, and have since seen it here on the ground, while hydrated, and still loved it.

Without the mesmerizing Zac Efron, it would’ve stunk. Not that Matthew Perry is the next thin Marlon Brando, but Efron upstages him with a surprisingly complex portrayal of the 17-year-old version of a 40ish man pretending he’s the 17-year-old version of himself. No small task, especially when that 40ish version played by Matthew Perry, an actor with a hyper-stylized delivery and a known quantity to Gen-Xers like me.

Zac nails it. He saves the day. He won me over.

Zac Efron’s onscreen for 90% of 17 Again, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. His performance is funny. It’s serious. It’s genuine. It’s as timeless as a performance can be in our age of immemorability.

Congratulations Kenny G: you’re back on top.