Cherry Blossoms

Friday, April 09, 2004
One of the ways you know it’s spring is when the cherry blossoms start to bloom. For a period of about 2 weeks in late march and early april (depending on where you live) the entirety of Japan is awash in brilliant pink cherry blossom flowers – big bushy masses of sakura on trees, petals blowing about the street, gentle winds sweeping massive arcs of velvety pink curls into all manner of turbulent, flitting shapes.
Cherry blossoms covering a concrete embankment
The average Japanese person will go on and on at great length about how beautiful, escoteric and awe-inspiring the sakura blossoms are – more than a few books have been written about how they exemplify the “japanese perspective of life”, the “fleeting, transitory nature of existence” and are “an embodiement of the japanese soul”. While I may be near-sacrilegious in saying so, I think that such pithy utterances are, like many of the various mantras you hear bandied about these parts, somewhat over-rated. Don’t get me wrong – rows and rows of cherry blossoms in full bloom are quite beautiful, but if you walk around the swirling, falling ballads of seductive petals expecting to gain some tremendous insight into life, the universe and everything else in existence, you will be sorely disappointed. A trillion sakura blossoms would not be enough to hide the gaping, ugly scars of modern day industrial japan that lurk just outside the designated “cherry blossom viewing areas”, creeping up in the background, popping around corners, sticking up over arching tree branches, forcing revelers to step around heaping piles of litter, camera men to frame their shots ever so carefully to avoid ruining the illusions of fleeting beauty with jutting cell towers, rusty metal building and overstretched power lines every which way. Thousands and thousands of tons of stained, rotting concrete, thick heavy pollution and ravaged landscapes speak more about the true modern day Japanese take on “the fleeting transitory nature of existence” than a few cherry blossoms ever will.
I rag on the cherry blossoms, again, not because they aren’t beautiful – they are – but rather because i’m going through a certain phase.
Cherry trees line a path alongside an older part of town.
It’s my theory (shared by many people) that foreigners in Japan tend to go through a certain set of stages before finally arriving at one of two possible conclusions. While I’m sure we’d all love to hear panda pontificate on and on for another three or four paragraphs on this subject, for now, let’s just go with this very abbreviated summary taken from Luis Poza’s website:
“There are usually several stages of adjustment when you live in Japan, and they vary according to whom you speak to. First is the enjoyment of a novel place, second is disillusionment when you start bumping into negative aspects, and third is either acceptance or dislike. Some people decide to stay for life, some people get fed up and can’t stand it any more.”
I couldn’t have said it more succinctly myself. When someone first comes over to the “mysterious and exotic” land of the rising sun (and bean paste), usually they have one of two immediate reactions:
1) wow! this place is totally and completely awesome and fascinating…!
2) wtf is wrong with this place? take me home now…!
Traffic slows as drivers appreciate the petals around them.
Now while these two extremes are present in other foreign countries, few of them inspire so heavily polarized a reaction in visitors as japan. For those that choose to stay, next comes the “honeymoon stage” – all the new and strange sensations and experiences, the seductive illusions and whispered pleasantries have served to beguile many a foreigner into an artificial sense of peace.
Japan is a country built on illusions and sleight of hand tricks around every corner designed to perpetually hide the truth from you – smiles cover disgust, polite manners cover deep seated xenophobia, decievingly casual drinks produce billion dollar political decisions and seemingly submissive housewives wield staggering levels of power unthinkable in the west. But as the great emancipator so aptly put it “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time” and at some point, the deck of cards upon which the honne of the Japanese illusion is predicated begins to crumble, and with it, the seduction and enticement of the honeymoon stage. At this point, there are again, generally two reactions:
1) the about face – confronted with the many gaping flaws in the seductive illusion Japan likes to paint, rather than sitting down and thinking on things, some foreigners begin rabidly and illogically defend all things “japanese”, trotting out one tired nihonjinron theory after another, swearing up and down that Japan is the greatest nation ever to have graced the planet and that foreigners (ignoring the obvious fact that they are also foreigners, no matter how badly they wish upon a star to have been born one of the master race) just “don’t/can’t understand” the infinite depths and mysteries of japanese “culture” and “soul” which makes them so very unique in the history of the universe.
2) “wtf is wrong with this place? oh my god KILL KILL BURN KILL THEM ALL AND ALL THEIR EVIL HELLO KITTY SOCIETY………!!!!!!!!!!”
Dilapidated buildings in the distance.
Now for foreigners that fall squarely into the first category, (the japan apologetists), there is, like for all apologetists the world over, really no hope. These gaijin (more often than not infatuated more with their own white-faced, blond-haired cult of celebrity than with any meaningful dissection of the japanese psyche) go on to spread the myth of japan far and wide to any and all who will listen. Under the banner of “culture” and “tradition”, they blithely dismiss all arguments and criticisms that could possibly threaten the delicate paradigm of self-delusion they have built for themselves causing other foreigners toinevitably refer to them as “pet gaijin” (think sort of like “house slave”, if you will).
I don’t know how people like this turn out. I often think that at some point reality and self-delusion has to collide and they must all one day have a tremendous breakdown when they realize the staggering fallacy of all which they have predicated their lives upon, and the fact that the society which they so desperately wish to defend to their deaths actually think of them as nothing more than curiousities – white faced monkey accessories to prance about and show off to their friends with. Then again, maybe not – the power of self-delusion is not to be underestimated, and I guess that a lot of them must in the end meet somewhat less supernova a fate as a total breakdown – maybe they eventually mellow in the end, or come around to more rational ways of thought, I dunno. It remains a big mystery to me.
Those foreigners who land in the second category are more interesting to me, however, since that’s where most of us end up. Since initial seduction is so sweet the fall into disillusionment is a hard one – feelings of resentment and long simmering sense of malcontent manifest themselves in a variety of ways – prolonged bitch-fests and commiseration with other foreigners (by far the most popular choice), suddenly deciding to return home (also very popular), or any of the other countless methods in which human beings display their anger – passive aggressiveness, rudeness, beligerance, refusing to follow “the rules”, etc.
For myself, I seem to be expressing my displeasure by accosting what I see as the underlying fallacies upon which the deceptive myths of Japan is predicated. Flowery language not withstanding, I guess it’s “calling a spade a spade” and calling people on (what I see as) their BS whenever I can.
The approach to the garden is lined with trees arcing overhead.
Now patience and discretion are virtues to be treasured everywhere in the world, but nowhere as much so as here, which means that my particular method of expressing my disillusionment is probably not the most subtle. Then again, it wouldn’t be much of a way of expressing discontent if no one knew I was displeased, right?
So when a drunk salariman decides to take it upon himself to pontifacte to the foreigner about how beautiful japanese cherry blossoms are and how they exemplify how much “love japanese people have for nature and the enviroment” (implication: vis-a-vis america who didn’t sign kyoto treaty) and I point out that if Japanese really cared about the environment they wouldn’t have dammed all the rivers in the country (except one), nor would rusting bloated factories and pork barrel public works projects designed to cover the entire landscape in concrete be clearly visible in the background, belching smog and pollutants into the air with every gasp, then this does not go over well.
And when delicate waifes of young women clad head to toe in designer garments and carrying $8000 handbags tell me to my face that women in Japan are deeply oppressed and long suffering and I point out that their disposable incomes and quality of life are the highest in the entirety of the world (and the history of the human race, come to think of it) and that they wield tremendous amounts of soft power most outsiders are never aware of (but which they use for their own purposes to tremendous effect), then this too, does not go over well.
Petals falling in a very Japanese scene.
or even when my co-workers, upon hearing that I’m taking a trip to Osaka start giving me advice about what I should see and do (despite the fact that I have lived there before and many of them have never even been) and cap it off by suggesting I visit Osaka castle or such-and-such temple as they are rich symbols of Japan’s feudal past and I point out that they are shabby concrete mock-ups built less than 40 years ago (the castle) or designed more to steal my admission fee and sell me souveniers than convey any real knowledge of Japan’s past (many temples in this country) then this goes a great way towards causing discomfort in the workplace.
Sometimes confronting these fallacies is a good thing, as it lets me vent and gives others cause to pause and reflect on another perspectives. Sometimes I go too far and border on burning my bridges or nearly cut off my nose to spite my face. Trying to find a proper balance between these two extremes is one of the biggest challenges for me at this point in my life, and I know that my future success, not only in this country, but in life in general, depends on how how appropriately I can deal with this problem. Navigating this stage of the “Japan Adjustment Phases” is by far the most challenging obstacle most foreigners in Japan will face.
The resolution of this stage leads to the final outcome in the acclimation process (goodness, I sound like I’m writing another marxist manifesto here…! *laughs*):
1) Fail to acclimate, and return home in varying stages of disillusionment ranging from mild disappointment balanced by a level understanding of the issues to pervasive bitterness and all encompassing disdain for everything “Japanese”
2) Eventually moving past the disillusionment and resolving the disjunction between reality and pretense in a healthy fashion. Foreigners who reach this plateau usually come to appreciate Japan for what it is, and have found a way to reconcile themselves and their roles in life with and within Japanese society. They usually go on to lead well adjusted lives, are likely settle here, and have presumably found an appropriate response to the never ending cliched squeals of “ohashii tsukaemasuka?” (can you use chopsticks?) and “nihongo jyoozu desu ne!” (your japanese is so good!).
Throngs gathering on blue tarps by the castle to enjoy prime cherry blossom viewing.
Much of this occured to me the other day as I was walking under the endless rows of cherry petals cascading down from countless branches arcing high above into the soaring blue sky, one foot in front of the other sending up a puff of curling pink with every step, the smell of fresh morning rain still lingering in the air and the incessant sounds of car horns and blaring shop announcements receding slightly in the background to create a bearable, if not almost soothing, rythem line for the chorus of children’s laughter and mothers’ idle chatter on park benches along the river.
For me, the honeymoon phase ended a few years ago after my third time in the country. Nonetheless, I came back once again for a very specific purpose – a purpose which kept the disillusionment bearable and the resentment at bay. I don’t think it’s an accident that the JET program runs in one year contracts and is capped at a maximum of three years – for most of us, one year is still comfortably within that honeymoon phase – two years begins to reveal the cracks in the foundation and by three, I think most participants have stopped accepting the “company line” and have achieved a deeper personal understanding of many of the issues in Japanese society (both positive and negative) than I think the government would like. So our visas conveniently invalid, we get shipped off back home before we can stay and stir up any trouble.
Sometimes I wish I was still in that honeymoon phase – I still remember the wide eyed wonder I felt the moment I stepped off the plane in Tokyo my sophmore year in university – the leaping, mysterious sensation of amazement and awe that swirled about me at every turn through winding streets and soaring skyscrapers – temples tucked between buildings, women in kimonos, salarymen in identical suits, strange foods and even stranger desserts – all the standard cliched images that Japan brings to mind. Ignorance, as the saying goes, truely is bliss.
And now, as of a few weeks ago, my purpose for being – being here, I guess I should say, is gone. And in its place is….?
Picture edited to protect the innocent…
I’m not empty – but neither am I filled with direction. Petals falling everywhere occlude my vision until my eyes are filled with swirling, sifting, shuffling kaleidoscopes of pink rotoscoping against a dewey mess of blue skies and gray and brown buildings, smattered blossoms on wet gravel streets and my feet swing my course in a deviation from the preset path. I don’t have a purpose for being here in Japan, and I am disillusioned, but at the same time, walking through a littered park and kicking aside empty plastic boxes and crushed cans of beer interspersed between pink-flocked blades of grass, I think to myself that neither of these is fatal. Maybe I’m getting older – growing up, getting more mature – or maybe I’ve just stopped worrying as incessantly as I used to – but this lack of purpose and course for my life doesn’t fill me with the same dread and paralysis that it used to. I’m not happy – not most of the time I guess, at least not recently – but neither am I sad. I’m just…. I don’t know. I’m just walking aimlessly through my life at this point as I cut across the park and head back towards the river, with its concrete dam and rusting metal sluice gates, and for the first time after sprinting my way through university and slingshotting into the “real world”, with my eye always, always on that purpose which has oriented for the past three and half years and informed my decision until a few weeks ago – for the first time, I feel almost relieved that such a burden has been lifted off my shoulders.
It’s a hole, to be certain, a sort of emptiness to be wandering around this country without a purpose – but it sort of seems to me that it can also be a sort of beginning as well. A fresh slate, a chance to start over, turning over a new leaf… in a way, my own personal spring.
Petals fall on my face and it’s almost like I can smell the sun beams filtering down through the trees.
Now listening to: “Nil Lara – Fighting for my Love”

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