13 AUGUST 1988, Page 26



KYOTO is the only large Japanese city entirely to have escaped bombing during the war. It was scarcely a suitable target, since it was of no strategic importance and had little industry. It is, of course, the cultural capital of Japan, containing 3,000 shrines and temples, as well as the old the transfer to Tokyo after 1868. It was never- theless first on the list of targets for the atomic bomb, partly because it was considered that the hills which surround the city would concentrate the blast wonderfully.

There was also the in- teresting argument that since Kyoto is the intel- lectual centre of Japan, the inhabitants would be particularly impressed by the bomb. By chance the American Secretary of War, Mr Henry Stim- son, had visited the city with his wife for a cou- ple of days before the war, and rather liked it. He persuaded Truman to take 'my pet city' off the list. Hiroshima was bombed instead. So in Kyoto one can still get a sense of old Japan, with narrow streets and wooden houses and little shops, some of which have been untouched for over a hundred years.

Kyoto has not entirely escaped the developers. At present there is a dispute between that section of the citizenry which is conversation-minded, and businessmen who want to relax the height restrictions on new building, and take the first steps to transform Kyoto into a concrete jungle more like other Japanese cities. Some businessmen and politicians are also prom- oting the idea that the capital, or at least some of its functions — and the Emperor — should move back to Kyoto, which would of course ruin the town in the twinkling of an eye.

The idea of moving some government offices out of Tokyo is quite popular. A professor at Tokyo University advocates `intelligent cities' where (apparently) the lesser functions of government could be carried on by robots. These cities will consist entirely of high-tech buildings, in which all the functions will be automated so as to respond to climatic conditions, time of day and so on. The cities would be connected by trains running on magnets at 250 m.p.h. This exciting proposal is re- ported in the newspapers with some solemnity, and no one seems to find it funny.

Japan's preoccupation with being fully Western always seems to lead to the Japanese being slightly out of date (except in technology). 'Modern' and 'large' are used quite unironically to commend new buildings, and even to explain why they should be built. So a story in an English language newspaper explains that some 'cheap department stores' in front of Hiroshima railway station are to be re- placed by 'large modern buildings'. The headline of the article is: 'Hiroshima gears for 21st century with blueprint for revamp, upgrade.'

The Japanese have been persuaded that they should 'internationalise'. Of course there is some reason to wish that the Japanese would acquire a more accurate knowledge of the rest of the world. There was recently the case of a very large wall-map (twelve feet by six) put up by the Tsu city government in the municipal library. It contains some trifling errors: the capital of Spain appears as Lisbon (and Portugal is not included at all). East Germany has dis- appeared and become part of Czechoslovakia. West Germany features as 'Germany', and appears to include Den- mark. Bulgaria is shown as part of Ruma- nia. The names of 37 countries are omitted entirely. These errors were not spotted until a retired map designer happened to visit the lib- rary.

BARTHES has de- scribed Japan as an `empire of signs' and it is true that much Japanese behaviour has to be understood symbolical- ly. This applies to their remarkable addiction to ball-games. I live over- looking a tennis court. It is invariably crowded, and quite often people seem to queue up just for a hit at the ball without taking part in a game at all. On the official first day of summer people all change into summer clothes regardless of the weather. And on the day summer ends the beaches are entirely deserted, even if there is glorious sunshine. Yet I do not think that all this ritual excludes genuine feeling. I was going into the centre of Kyoto on the local train (a delightfully low-tech, wood and brass affair) when I heard all the old ladies in the carriage exclaim 'Ooh!' simul- taneously. I looked up and saw that a grove of cherries had come into blossom that day — the first of the season.

RYOAN-JI temple contains the most famous Zen rock garden in Japan. The 15 rocks set in sand are variously said to symbolise mountains above clouds, rocks in a stormy sea, a mother tiger and her cubs fording a river, or the human soul rising above suffering. Indeed, one is permitted to see whatever meaning one wishes. But it is generally agreed that the garden expresses and induces peace of mind. Ryoan-ji is always inundated with tourists who talk very loudly and photo- graph each other rather than the garden. The temple authorities make their own contribution to the peace of the place with loudspeakers on which a recorded voice explains the history and symbolism of the garden. I have three times arrived at Ryoan-ji in a serene mood and left in a vile temper. I cannot help suspecting that the monks are encouraging all this as an example of Zen paradox.

There is another famous Kyoto garden . at Daitoku-ji temple. The Japanese are renowned for incorporating the accidents of nature into their aesthetics. Here the garden is designed around a stone which belonged to a shogun. One is encouraged to see the stone as a ship, the sand as sea and river, and the various rocks as the sea-coast. A friend with whom I visited the garden, who works as a stockbroker for an English bank in Tokyo, was very successful in seeing all this, determining which was the ship, which the river and sea, the distant mountains and so on. Later we discovered that the garden we thought we were looking at was in fact closed that day. But I do not know that our interpretation was any more fanciful than it would have been in the real garden, or than the official interpretations of Ryoan-ji.

THE Japanese never ate beef until the Meiji restoration. It is extremely expen- sive, and will remain so until the Amer- icans finally force Japan to accept cheap American and Australian imports. Beef is certainly a potent 'sign' in Japan. I was in a small local restaurant, eating a purely fish dinner, like any priggish foreigner, when the cook unwrapped a very large joint of Kobe beef, to serve slices to a family of three. As soon as the wrapping came off they all went 'Ooh!' in awe and reverence. I thought this funny, and was telling the story to a student at a party. When I got to the bit describing the cook unwrapping the beef, she said 'Ooh!' with such reverence that I was quite unable to finish the story.

TO BE unable to speak Japanese except Primitively is certainly an inconvenience. If one asks the way and pronounces the name of the place one wants to get to even slightly wrong, people have no idea what one is talking about. And at the spectacle of foreigners comically mispronouncing the language old ladies forget their habitual politeness and dissolve into hilarity. I visited the barber and said (or thought I said) in Japanese 'not short'. I got the syntax backwards, and was given a haircut that would not disgrace a Buddhist monk. The lady-barber giggled uncontrollably when I paid her — I hope in embarrass- ment at having had to carry out my eccentric request, rather than malice.

I went to a Noh play in Nishi-Honganji temple — one of the grandest temples in Kyoto, and the headquarters of the largest Buddhist sect in Japan. The play was being staged to celebrate the birthday of the founder of the sect. In Kyoto, unlike Tokyo, translations are not usually avail- able at Noh and Kabuki performances. However, a Buddhist priest took me under his wing, and offered to explain what was going on. It turned out that his grasp of Noh roughly equalled his command of English. Fifteen minutes into the play he offered his first comment, pointing to a warrior figure: 'He is heroine.' Ten mi- nutes later, pointing to the only other warrior figure: 'No, he is heroine.' Ten minutes later again: `No, he is heroine after all.' A decidedly static half hour followed, before he ventured: 'He is son of Shogun.' `No, he is grandson of Shogun.' Then after half an hour of recitative by a female character: 'She have prayed Amida Bud- dha, so will have Laney.' She will have a baby?"No. It will rainy!' Forty more minutes of recitative passed: 'Her husband invite her to social banquet.' I'm sorry, I don't understand.' You understand "so- cial"?' Yes."And "banquet"?' Yes.' `Well, "social banquet".' Another 20 mi- nutes passed without comment. Then: 'She go home now by Buddha. How many children you have? You will visit my temple?' He and a parishioner, also up from the country in honour of the founder, then kindly pressed me to eat with them. It is well known that the Buddhist tradition in Japan abhors and strictly forbids the killing of animals for their flesh — which perhaps explains why the priest and his parishioner each ate an enormous bowl of beef noo- dles, helped by generous quantities of beer.

I HAVE the impression that left-wing politics in Japan are puerile. The general secretary of the Japanese Socialist Party was reported, for instance, as saying that the Japanese and American governments are conspiring to wage war on the Soviet Union. The reason that the Japanese gov- ernment is bringing in a consumption tax (more or less the equivalent of VAT) is to finance this war. I doubt that even the looniest member of the Labour Left would make such a suggestion. The Socialists have very good relations with North Korea, but refuse to 'recognise' the South because they do not consider it to be a democracy. The editor-in-chief of the most important Socialist magazine had to be dismissed recently because he ran a story saying that the suspected shooting down of a KAL airliner was carried out by the Americans and the South Korean govern- ment, acting to ensure a government vic- tory in the Korean presidential election. He based the story on an entirely fabri- cated 'statement' by a former Korean cabinet minister, with whom he had not bothered to check.

Japan seems to lack intelligent tradi- tionalists. Instead there are foolish young men — some of them gangsters — who drive around in trucks with loudspeakers blaring out marching songs. What in most European countries would be seen, as normal patriotism is here suspected of being militarism. It is not even possible to commemorate the war dead without con- troversy, since the Yasakuni shrine, where they are 'enshrined', is tained with militar- ism. (And it contains a modest military museum.) The leftist union of school- teachers objects strongly to schoolchildren having to learn the Japanese national anthem — the Kimigayo. They argue that it could be used to support militaristic sentiment. I looked up the words: `May the reign of the Emperor continue for 1,000, nay 8,000 generations and for the eternity it takes for small pebbles to grow into a great rock and become covered with moss.' That is it. These hardly seem like fighting words. It is interesting to learn that the ancient Japanese thought that rocks were formed by the slow aggregation of pebbles and sand.

THE Japanese see the carp as a symbol of vitality and courage. On 'Boys' Day' — a national holiday — flags in the shape of carp are flown, to indicate that a boy needs in life the spirit and courage of a creature that swims up rivers against the current. Kyoto has many famous carp ponds. (And there is a charming little tea-house with a tiny stream in which swim some of the most gloriously coloured carp in Japan. One of them, which reproduces the Japanese flag on its forehead almost perfectly, is said to be insured for ten million yen.) SHINTO is the indigenous, pagan religion of Japan. I have never heard any religion so vilified as Shinto is by Japanese intellec- tuals. (One described it to me as 'a monkey religion'.) To me it seems a gentlemanly religion, with a great respect for place, elegance of vestments and ritual, and no attempt to boss people about. Shinto seems to have suffered from the oppressive tolerance of Buddhism until the Meiji restoration, when it came into its own as the religion of emperor worship. It then flourished as 'State Shinto' and managed a certain amount of oppressive intolerance of Buddhism. Since the war it has fallen on hard times, and everyone is ready to vilify State Shinto. I do not really see why. It sounds rather attractive — like Anglican- ism without Series Three, or a social conscience, or the Archbishop of York, but with a healthy respect for the monarch. As I looked up at the colossal, indeed megalomaniac gate of the Heian shrine, decorated with imperial chrysanthemums in gold — the very epitome of State Shinto — I thought that whatever else can be said against emperor worship, it at least had grandeur — which cannot be said about anything in post-war Japan.

TO AN Englishman, used to confronta- tional politics, the Japanese emphasis on consensus is startling. The redoubtable 'Chairperson' of the Japanese Socialist Party, a Miss Doi, told the Prime Minister, Mr Takeshita, that the Socialists would use their contacts with the North Koreans to persuade them to take part in the Olym- pics. (The sub-text is: 'persuade them not to commit terrorist outrages against the Olympics'.) In Britain such an offer would be regarded as an impertinent usurpation of the prerogatives of government. But Mr Takeshita simply thanked her very much. And the other day Miss Doi made a speech to students of the university of which both she and Takeshita are graduates. In re- sponse to questions she said that the Prime Minister was working very hard and doing a good job, but that some of his statements were difficult to understand. All this con- sensus is stifling. Why couldn't she say that he looks like a monkey — which he does?

I HAVE travelled several times between Kyoto and Tokyo on the Shinkansen. (I was pleased to discover that 'bullet train' is simply a Western vulgarity — the Japanese word means 'new trunk line'.) It is as good as its reputation suggests, except that the telephones are useless since it is virtually impossible to get a line.

On one journey I was sitting alone in an unreserved row of three seats. A mother was seeing off her 12-year-old daughter, who was travelling unaccompanied, and placed her at the end of the row. She filled the seat between us with parcels, obviously (or so I thought) because she preferred her daughter not to sit with a stranger, and a foreigner at that. However, just before we left Tokyo a very respectable-looking middle-aged businessman got on the train and claimed the seat, displacing all the parcels. During the journey he opened his briefcase and took out a comic. I looked over his shoulder, as did the girl. The text was in Japanese, but the pictures were all explicit sadistic pornography, concentrat- ing on the rape of a very young girl on a golf course. The man made no attempt to conceal what he was reading, and I assume it must be socially acceptable.

CAN indoctrination begin too early? The Japanese like to wear tee-shirts with slo- gans on them. Today I saw a little boy of three with a tee-shirt bearing the words: `Tinkerbell Club: Industry, Healthy, Free- dom.'

THE American Japanophile, Lafcadio Hearn, wrote an essay, 'The Japanese Smile', in which he suggested that we cannot understand the smile of the Japanese according to Western notions of physiognomical expression. The Japanese are much more ready than we are to smile with 'pain, shame and disappointment'. The smile is frequently represented in Buddhism, but hardly at all in Christianity Murillo has some insipidly smiling Virgins, and there may or may not be a sort of smile on the face of Bernini's `St Theresa in Ecstasy'. But in general Christian saints do not smile. I have often wondered whether, if we had the single biblical verse 'Jesus smiled', instead of 'Jesus wept', it would make a difference to our theology. Any- way, I visited Chugu-ji temple in Nara, and saw its famous 'Hanka Shiyui', which means 'Meditation in half cross-legged position'. The statue represents a Buddhist Goddess of Mercy sitting with her legs half crossed, her finger resting meditatively against her cheek, smiling. In fact the famous smile is not very obvious from the front, but if one goes round behind the statue and comes out on its left, a boyish, secret and altogether charming smile appears, as though she is pleased at just having thought of something extremely clever. And indeed she has. The guide informs us that she is 'thinking calmly how human beings can be saved from suffering'. Well might she smile!

I WAS giving a lecture on aesthetics to fourth-year undergraduates at a disting- uished Kyoto university, and I said this: 'And so the legislative tradition in aesthe- tics which was dominant in Europe until the 18th century, and which was criticised (as we have seen) by Hume and by Kant, and also by the Romantics and by Hegel, is now dead. It is in this context that we have to understand the attempt by I. A. Richards to set aesthetics on a "scientific" — which for him meant a psychological — foundation. . . . Would someone please shut the door?' No one stirred. I repeated, `Would someone please shut the door?' Several dozen dark eyes looked at me questioningly. So then I did a vigorous mime of someone pulling shut an imagin- ary door. Recognition dawned on the face of a girl furthest from the door, and with a clatter of falling pencils she jumped up and ran to shut it. I hesitate to draw conclu- sions.

IN BRITAIN people seem to be in- creasingly categorised as either teetotallers or alcoholics. The Japanese still have the idea of a good drinker, and they admire him. (In The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki the suitor for the hand of a young girl is favoured by the family precisely because he proves himself to be a good drinker at the miai or formal first meeting with the prospective bride.) When they drink they like, first, to get drunk and, secondly, to sing. They go to karaoke bars where they can sing popular songs to a (recorded) orchestral accompaniment. They sing ex- tremely well. And the song that every Japanese male in his cups likes to end the evening with is 'I Did it my Way' — which, in this highly regulated society, none of them, alas, ever did.