Sunday, 28 June 2015

Reviews and Rakugo

The Times Literary Supplement last week re-ran their 2005 review of my book about Soseki in Britain, 'The Tower of London'. Interesting to read this again - click on link below - and hard to believe it's 10 years since they first ran this...

My thanks also to Dr Matthew Shores of University of Cambridge for his review in the Bulletin of SOAS of my latest book, 'Yukio Mishima'. To read the second page of the review, click on 'next abstract' at top right of link page:

On Monday I ventured forth to Durham and was delighted to watch the fascinating Diane Kimono perform at Teikyo University in Durham her unique rakugo comedy show. There was a very nice buffet afterwards and I was pleased to meet (pictured below left to right) General Manager Shigeto Imai, Consul General Hajime Kitaoka and Principal Masao Imaseki.

I'm already very much looking forward to returning to Durham and participating in a forum on Lafcadio Hearn at the end of September. More details to follow.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Corporate Publishing and the Japanese Classics

You can read my article for Japan Today, 'How Corporate Publishing Often Ruins the Japanese Classics', by clicking the link below:

The unfortunate practices of some of the major publishing houses has been noted before on this blog. See also my 2007 blog: The March of the Penguin.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Chopsticks and World History

You can read my review of Q. Edward Wang's new book, 'Chopsticks, a Cultural and Culinary History' in today's Japan Times by clicking the link below:

Here's a few more of my musings on the subject...

One thing that leapt to my mind reading Wang's book was a curious insight into Natsume Soseki's 1910 novel The Gate, a novel I feel have exhaustively analyzed in the past (See my blog: Visions of the Gate). The novel is a masterpiece of subtle psychological insight, full of incredibly important details. In one key scene the timorous, neurotic protagonist Sosuke inspects a Mongolian sword (example below) with a holder in its handle for a pair of chopsticks. What is the precise meaning of this detail? Certainly the symbolic combination of savagery (sword) and sophistication (chopsticks) - indeed the accenting of primeval brutality with the accoutrements of civilization - is a key factor in tipping the novelist's protagonist into complete spiritual turmoil.

Reading Wang's book, I finally saw just how perceptive Soseki was: knives it turns out were always the unspoken 'other' of chopsticks. Indeed it was precisely because the aristocracy of ancient China were not required to kill animals or cut up their meat - it being neatly prepared for them in bitesize morsels - that chopsticks found their way out of the kitchen and into a diner's hands. Why after all have forks when there was no need to prong and cut meat?

I was fascinated to discover too that for millennia in ancient China, chopsticks were neither the chief means of eating one's food, nor indeed was rice the chief staple of the people. Right up until the tenth century, millet was the chief grain eaten throughout northern China and the most important dining utensil was a spoon. Chopsticks were a mere accessory if indeed one used anything at all: Confucius and his followers mostly used their fingers.

Several factors powered the unstoppable rise of chopsticks. Around the first century CE, the Chinese started milling wheat flour and gorging on noodles and dumplings, best picked up with chopsticks rather than spoons. Then, the large movements of people between north and south and the government's encouragement of the cultivation of new strains of rice - always the main staple in the warmer, wetter south - pushed millet and spoons out of the way and opened up a new millennium of rice and chopsticks.

Wang persuasively argues in the book that the diversification of chopsticks use is affected not just by the food we are eating, but by the surrounding cultures. Koreans have stuck to the traditional combination of spoon and chopsticks, and prefer their chopsticks to be metal, both because of a fine metalwork tradition and because they are eating the meat-rich foods bequeathed to them by the Mongol invasions. The Vietnamese, for long centuries under Chinese cultural dominance, eat all their foods with chopsticks, but the more culturally removed Thais use them mainly for noodles while often eating rice with their fingers.

Chopsticks soon became important cultural artifacts. As symbols of inseparability, they are bestowed in Japan as husband and wife sets of differing lengths and colours. They are sometimes a symbol of life itself. A shogun who inauspiciously broken his chopsticks while eating, fell off his horse and died ten days later. A Chinese emperor continued to hold his chopsticks to allow his favoured minister to talk and eat at his leisure (though later had him killed).

My favourite, laugh-out-loud anecdote in this fascinating, handsome book concerned Nixon and his advisers practising with chopsticks ahead of their momentous state visit to China in 1972. It's somehow infinitely gratifying to know that Henry Kissinger was completely hopeless with them.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

On a Different Plane

The other day I was sitting in a cafe reading a newspaper when a woman whom I vaguely recognized made eye contact from a distant table. Middle aged with fair, curly hair, full-bodied and friendly. The next minute, she was stood over me and asked if she could join me.

'By all means', I said, abandoning my paper.

She settled into her chair and looked sweetly into my eyes. 'I dreamt about you the other night', she began.


'We were travelling on a space ship together. I could tell it was your first time. You were very nervous and trying to escape out of the window...'

'That sounds like me.'

'We weren't travelling over Earth, it was a distant planet. The landscape completely different. I've done so many of these journeys before, but I could see you were worried. I wanted to calm you down. When I saw you just now I wanted to come over and tell you that it's OK.'

'Thanks, that's very kind of you.'

'You'd entered another frequency of existence. Most people just don't realize how many frequencies there are, that what we see around us is just one tiny wavelength. Of course we didn't really come from this planet in the first place, we were brought here from a different world. Once you connect to the different frequencies of your existence, you can begin to understand who you really are and where you came from...'

'Yes, there's so much about life we don't understand...'

'So just to say, it's alright: Don't worry.'

'I won't, and thanks again for looking after me up there...'

Regular readers of this blog will know that although I have little time for mainstream religions, I am constantly fascinated by individualistic belief systems (see my blog: 'Penetrating the Occult'). If you are going to have 'faith' in something, you might as well go the whole hog and believe in something of Ridley Scott-esque, thrilling, technicolour proportions. Setting off in a spaceship every night to revisit distant planets? Why not indeed. In the early 1960s, the great Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima was supposed to have spent some nights on his balcony keeping an eye out for UFOs and in a nearer pop universe Robbie Williams apparently threatens to abandon his showbiz career in favour of full-time UFO-logy.

In my abandoned newspaper I had just read a review of a new biography of Sir Thomas Browne, the great 17th century essayist, by the reliably good David Aaronovitch in The Times. Browne was a man of quite extraordinary breadth of interests and inexhaustible curiosity. The books he produced are some of the most uniquely fascinating in the English language. Aaronovitch slightly criticizes him for not quite being able to deny the existence of witches: Browne apparently didn't actually believe in witches, he was just reluctant to categorically state they didn't exist. But in fact Browne's indefatigable curiosity resides in this very open-mindedness, in this ability to find fascination in the mental borderlands of fact and fantasy.

The spaceship-lady rather drifted out of my mind and then a few weeks later while seated in another cafe (when the stars align, I can wangle a decent amount of time sitting in cafes), she joined me again, this time while I was sitting with someone else. Truth to tell, I had completely forgotten about our dark secret, that we had spent a night together on a spaceship with me trying to escape out the window. The lady began relating how she had attended a meeting that morning in a hotel conference room of a 'mystic master' from India, whose very presence had changed the energy of the room and connected everyone to their hidden 'frequencies of existence'.

My companion unfortunately gave it all short shrift, bursting into snorting laughter and uttering sardonic, mocking remarks. I reprimanded him for his rudeness and then suddenly recalled the 'spaceship dream'. The moment became strangely Freudian, as if tapping into a hidden world of dreams.

So I wonder: will I be heading off tonight again in spaceship travels while I sleep? Will I feel confident enough this time to sit down, opening myself to the experience and not try to scramble out the emergency exit?

And in those dreams, what will I encounter? All my fears and longings? And of the recognizable humans I meet up there, will I be brave enough to go up and tell them when I spot them the next day on the other side of my cafe?

I began to think I really rather admired the self-confidence of the spaceship-lady, though recalled hearing she had also made attempts to pay for local services in 'moon therapy' rather than cash. One local merchant took her up on it and found himself seated in a chair for an hour staring up at the moon, wondering why he had not asked for payment by bank transfer instead.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Japanese Universities: Among the Best in the World?

You can read my most recent article for the Asahi Shinbun, 'Why are Japanese universities not regarded as among the best in the world?' here: 

As a footnote, a little anecdote: an editor inserted the subheading, 'The Criteria is Suspect' leading me to email him that 'The Criteria are Suspect' was actually grammatically correct...but looking into this I saw that the use of criteria as a group singular is now one of the great battlefronts - the Ypres salient - of the English language. Apparently the old guard cling to criterion/ criteria as the last redoubt, despairing that it will ever go the way of datum/ data or agendum/ agenda. 

As a little test, I thought I would wait and see if any complaints came in, but none so I decided to high five with the kids and let 'criteria' hang loose as a group singular too...

A Short History of Terror

Throughout the Charlie Hebdo outrage and its aftermath earlier in the year, pundits in their desire to defend Islam often pointed our attention to the depredations of Christianity over the ages: the Crusades; the Inquisition; the 30 Years War; the conquest of the Americas. When it came to savagery, they bewailed, few religions could hold a candle to your fervent Christian, who would slash, burn and massacre everything in his path.

Ah, came the counter-response, these are all matters of the remote historical past. Christianity has now moved on, matured, lost its bloody zeal, acquired sense, tranquillity and good order. Most British Christians hardly believe half of it all anyway, they are only in it for the carols, and tea and cake at the vicarage on a Sunday. Show me today the militant Christians ready to inflict terror on the world like the extremists of Islam?

There is something to these arguments. Yet in the end for me it's not really a question of whether historically Christianity has been more or less bloody-thirsty than Islam. What people in the West tend to forget is that a reinterpretation of the Christian narrative is central to the very genesis of Islam.

Terror is I think intrinsic to the historical legacy of Judaism and Christianity, impinging on the psyche of people in the West from a very early age. Yet I am also intrigued at how a re-interpretation of that 'terror' has manifested itself in the Islamic world.

Let me start off with my own small universe. As a little Catholic boy in England, the figure of Jesus writhing in agony on a crucifix was the dominating image of my childhood, an image I was subjected to constantly in my primary school classrooms and in weekly masses at church. Before I could hardly form sentences, this intense horror was my constant companion. I was soon informed that it was all my fault: I was guilty and Our Lord had died to redeem my sins...

This terror was forever planted in my psyche, such that no amount of rationalizing could ever quite wash it away. I'm keen however that my own children will not be exposed to the same abuse. Even in today's secular age however, it's surprisingly difficult to keep an impressionable young mind away from a sudden avalanche of religious terror.

Let me give you an example. The other day my 6-year-old son happened upon a mounted reproduction of Leonardo's 'Last Supper' given to me as a gift by my grandmother for my first Holy Communion when I was 7.

'I know this picture, Daddy' he said. 'We learnt about it at school. It was made by someone whose name begins with a L...'

'That's right', I marvelled. 'Leonardo! Like one of the turtles.' (6-year-olds see the world refracted through a lens held up by Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles.)

'My friend T says that he cut off his ear and shot himself.'

'No, no, darling. That was Van Gogh.'

(Looking at the picture) 'And one of them did something quite naughty to Jesus...'

'Oh, that was Judas...'

'And what happened to him?'

'He hung, he got quite sad and died.'

'And what happened to Jesus?'

'Er, he was cru....he died too.'

I was thankful he didn't ask me what happened to all the other apostles: crucified, beheaded, crucified upside down (image by Michelangelo below) ...Is there any religion in the history of the world that is as brutal in its iconography as Christianity? In Britain, I rarely take my children into churches but while on holiday in Spain recently, I frequently entered churches only to be confronted with ghastly images of nails being hammered into Christ's feet, blood dripping from his crown of thorns, a soldier plunging a lance into his side. My children wanted to know why poor Jesus was constantly being savagely tortured in this way (Flagellation scene by Cranach the Elder below). At the time the best secular response I could muster was, 'He was a man of ideas, darling, and people didn't like that', but a more accurate response would be, 'Because the Church wishes to terrorize your imagination and fill it with horrors'.

I had always thought that the one advantage I had over those people such as my partner who had a completely religious-less education ('Who was this King James who wrote the Bible?', she once asked) was that at least I could make sense of the history of Western art. How could you navigate your way round the Italian quattrocento and quintocento without a solid Catholic education?

But now, I've moved on. Who after all would want to look at any of these pictures anyway? Endless gallery rooms filled with excruciating Grunewald-esque crucifixions, occasionally enlivened with a St. Sebastian studded with arrows, or a scene of flagellation or flaying. And don't forget the Massacre of the Innocents (early version by Giotto below) and the beheading of John the Baptist (below, 19th century version by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes). Sudden exposure to the brutal iconography of Christianity can be almost as shocking as watching the obscene images of torture produced by Islamic State - and for good reason because they are both inspired by similar sources.

There is however a key difference. In the post-Jesus, Christian version of terror, it is the victim - the Imitation of Christ - who is the stoical, indomitable hero, looking forward after unspeakable suffering to the rewards of virtue in the after life. This is what Nietzsche referred to as 'ressentiment', the canny ability of turning seeming defeat into transcendent moral victory.

But for the Moslems, the Christians were just kidding themselves: Jesus, despite being a great prophet, was not 'resurrected' at all, he was simply murdered by his Roman oppressors. To bring justice to the world, they argued, force had to be met with force. To watch the obscene torture images of the IS fanatics is like strangely reliving the medieval images of Christianity but with the torturers now cast in their own minds as heroes.

But Christianity too was only glorying in self-sacrifice in its post-Jesus aspect; it, like Islam, also drew on the cultural legacy of Judaism. Concurrent with the New Testament version of 'transcendence through torture and sacrifice', in utter contradiction Christian art also turned for inspiration to the Old Testament. Here, it was always the purveyors of divine terror who were the heroes: Abraham sacrificing his son Issac (below); Judith cutting off Holofernes' head (below); David slaying Goliath (at top, all three versions by Caravaggio).

Catholic churches have always teemed with this type of ultra-violent imagery. Confusingly some images are a straight-forward glorification of violence, while others are supposed to offer a critique - though in truth the artists were mostly just interested in a juicy subject matter. It's hardly surprising if the Christian observer missed any supposed subtleties: the brutal images were transposed to a corner of the psyche, waiting to be awakened and re-enacted, often, ironically, in the defence of the faith and particularly when encountering so-called 'heretics'.

My flippant self has to laugh when I hear priests opine that Christian values don't approve of all the sex and violence in the movies and on the internet. Huh, I groan, it's all utterly amateurish in comparison to the extraordinary pornography of violence and sadism available at many churches and art galleries.

It's too late for my brutalized soul, but I do wish my young children to avoid looking at and contemplating these grotesqueries.

If we search for the cause of the appalling atrocities currently being committed by Islamic State, then the brutality of the US-UK Coalition's bungling and unnecessary invasion of Iraq is certainly a contributory cause. But the way in which those atrocities manifest themselves with Old Testament-style beheadings shows that far from this being a 'clash of civilizations', IS is actually an abhorrent aberration of a religious culture with which we are in our own not-too-distant historical past all too familiar.

If you want to get inside the mindset of an IS fanatic, you don't need to travel to Syria, just try wandering through the Medieval and Renaissance Europe section of your local art gallery...