Does fire burn where you are too, Siona? In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle observes that "nature is unchangeable and has everywhere the same force (as fire burns both here and in Persia)." This is one of those things that might seem too obvious to say, except that when Aristotle says it the obviousness is charged with genius. And it's not even always so obvious; it needs pointing out. Before coming to Japan a few days ago, I had trouble believing, I mean really believing, that the laws of physics held here too. I assumed that if I were to get on an airplane and fly to the Congo, say, upon getting off I would find gravity pulling me down toward the earth as usual, time flowing ever forward like a river, and, yes, fire burning. But Japan? I found I couldn't imagine it as bound by any laws at all, because until I arrived it had been for me entirely a place of the imagination, and the imagination has no bounds.
But then I got here, and I saw that not only does fire burn, and gravity pull downward, and time flow forward, but they have 7-Eleven, and Coco's. The written language continues to violate the laws of semiotics in a way even more grievous than, say, disrespect of the pull of gravity or the flow of time would violate the laws of physics, but this is mostly the legacy of Chinese influence, and we will get to that soon enough. Anyhow as I was saying there is much that is familiar: the light and the hills and the vegetation and the above-ground telephone poles and wires, all offer an immediate familiarity to a native Californian that Europe or the American northeast never could.
But the people... Aristotle had meant to remind us that Persians and Greeks cannot be all too different, since both nations are grounded by a nature that is everywhere the same, and so that forces the different nations it grounds to be themselves the same, or at least to lead their lives within the parameters nature sets down. And yet it is hard to believe I am experiencing nature in the same way as the people around me. To be honest, nature wears me down. It's taken its toll on me. I slouch in response to gravity; I dither in the face of time. The Japanese all seem to be dancing. I mean they seem to be performing a scene choreographed in advance, filled with vital motion, precise use of time. The way they hand you your receipt at the cash register, the way the train agent bows at each end of the train car, the way the parking-lot attendant signals with his white gloves, as if the fate of the world depended on your following in the direction his finger points.
I have been in three cities and have seen many thousands of people. Not one of them has seemed even remotely antisocial or disinclined in the slightest to play his or her part in the dance. I think about all the feral people where I come from, in the American West, the people who exist on the margin of a great empire, who wear Joe Camel t-shirts from Mormon thrift shops and construct their whole lives as an anti-dance, a fuck-you-back dance on the edge of a society that has done nothing for them.
In the Tokyo metro all 100 or so people in the car I am in are dressed like civilized adults, in blacks and greys. There are no lumpen louts, no oversexed products of broken homes. The crime rate in Japan is almost entirely accounted for by building code violations-- the shame of broken trust, rather than the guilt of transgression. The speed trains have caused no deaths by derailment or accidental collision in their 40-year history, but this figure leaves out the suicides. In fact, there are suicide nets in every public building, and suicide fences on elevated public walkways. I first noticed this on my way into a university building to give a lecture, in Kyoto. It made me very sad, and it made the dance I'd been noticing since my arrival seem not perfect but perverted, a species of the same genus that gives us the mass gymnastics of Pyongyang. A dance of emptiness.
Anyhow I didn't jump, but tore through my lecture, as I do, slouching and extemporising and enthusing. And then the next day I flew to Taipei, and there I found a species I could recognize: also slouching, stubby, poorly dressed. They wear t-shirts that say absolutely whatever on them, that say what the French call n'importe quoi. They go to the Longshan Temple and they enthuse like evangelicals. They sell roasted headless frogs as street snacks, and if they feel like it they'll stand there at their frog stands in their bare feet. I know this is my Orientalist gaze talking, except that gazes can't really talk, and except that these are the features that jump out at me as evidence of a certain kindredness, not of otherness.
But Taiwan is not one thing (and in this too it differs from Japan). It is Hakka and Aboriginal; it was long oriented more towards Japan then China; it began to be properly Sinified only with the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalists, and even then it became Chinese only in the most hybrid and imperfect way. The Kuomintang set themselves up as the true government of the Chinese people, in exile on a foreign island. Until recently they had deputies from Xinjiang and Tibet representing their distant Central Asian provinces within the Taiwanese government. They carried off treasures from the imperial palace in Beijing, and displayed them as part of the national wealth: a jade cabbage with a grasshopper carved into it, snuff boxes and other frivolous tokens of royalty; but also Shang dynasty bronzes, a cauldron from the Zhou dynasty with over 500 proto-Chinese idiographs etched into it, where you can still see the human and animal figures, the suns and moons and rain and flames, that would become the abstract symbols of modern East Asian writing; horse tack and weapons from the Gobi Desert, where Han Chinese met Mongols who for their part maintained Khanates across all Siberia-- and all this on display on a verdant palm-strewn Austronesian island in the Pacific Ocean.
You are not to remind the tour guide who has been assigned to you that she is not, in fact, in China. Well not, you know, in China China. They're letting in tour groups from the People's Republic now, and they all swarm together to catch a glimpse of the emperor's meat-stone, like some holy relic, thus leaving the stunning old bronzes and manuscripts mostly unobstructed and open for long study and contemplation. The Chinese who grew up under the communists are happy to visit the nationalists in order to catch a glimpse of their shared imperial past. The nationalists have mostly given up the strained insistence that they are the true Chinese government in exile, and have now taken to claiming with pride that they share more Aboriginal blood than they possibly could, just as every true-blooded American patriot is now a 'Cherokee'. This, I suppose, means that they are in Taiwan to stay.
It is said that until the era of Japanese imperial administration, Taiwanese Aborigenes excelled in the art of headhunting. It took a proper crackdown in order to bring this tradition to an end, and the Japanese no doubt congratulated themselves on the civilizing effects of empire. Meanwhile in Manchuria, in the Manchukuo puppet state, great Japanese engineers were hard at work building a railway-- as the British in India and the Americans in Texas and points further west had already shown, nothing consolidates an empire like railroad tracks. After the bombs and the unconditional surrender and the contraction of empire they came right back to the island and began work on what would later become the bullet trains, where the white-gloved agents bow with perfection and where people like me can now whip around in the night, from Narita to Shinjuku, pretending we are in the future (which technically we always are).
I do not know you, Siona, but when I was little, before there was an Internet, I would write letters to post offices in places like St. Petersburg, Florida, and there was some sort of system that made it possible for the letters to be delivered to random people in a given ZIP code; and I would write n'importe quoi-- mais vraiment n'importe quoi. I suppose it was good practice for something.
--Tokyo, November 15, 2013