Category: Japan

Ways of Seeing Japan: Roland Barthes’s Tokyo, 50 Years Later

Colin Marshall writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books

In the LA Review of Books, Colin Marshall travels to Tokyo to revisit the city 50 years after Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs:

ROLAND BARTHES FIRST VISITED Japan in 1966, not long after the defeated and reconstructed country announced its return to the international community with the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Japan would have hosted its first Olympic Games there in 1940, had World War II not caused the duty to pass to Helsinki. Now, half a century after the semiotician from Cherbourg walked its streets, the Japanese capital prepares for its second Summer Olympics in 2020, in hopes of signaling another reemergence: not from wartime devastation by the most advanced weapons known to man, but from the long hangover of the postwar economic bubble, burst in the 1990s, and the subsequent “lost decade” now turning into a lost quarter century.

By most economic and demographic indicators, Japan has long looked like a country in trouble, even though a foreign visitor sees signs of robust health everywhere: a refined and efficient service culture; reliable infrastructure; conspicuous displays of high technology; shops filled with an astonishing amount and variety of carefully designed products; lively packs of uniformed schoolchildren, the smallest of whom ride on the back seats of their mothers’ bicycles. The aftermath of 2011’s Tōhoku earthquake may have exposed deep and previously unsuspected societal frailties, and yet, on every one of my trips to Japan I marvel at all those well-put-together moms calmly biking their kids to school. Surely they indicate an achievement of which the rest of the developed world, no matter its wealth, can only dream — even if on paper the country itself looks about to lie down and die.

As a pioneer in the study of signs and symbols, Barthes would have enjoyed grappling with all the conflicting signals sent out by 21st-century Japan. He lived through most of the postwar years when the Japanese economy grew at an unprecedented rate, but he missed the downright grotesque inflation of Japanese asset prices in the decade after his death in 1980. By then the West, and especially the United States, nervously fixated on images of flush Japanese tourists landing in Hawaii and buying mansions in cash, sharp-suited Japanese businessmen lavishly entertaining on sinisterly vast expense accounts, and Croesan Japanese conglomerates snapping up Los Angeles’s movie studios and downtown high-rises.

Japan gave off few such signs in 1966, when Barthes accepted an invitation from his friend Maurice Pinguet, Director of the Franco-Japanese Institute in Tokyo, to teach a seminar there on the structural analysis of narrative. That stay in Japan, followed by two more that year and the next, provided Barthes with the material for 1970’s slim but rich monograph L’Empire des signes, which came out a dozen years later in Richard Howard’s English translation as Empire of Signs. “I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence,” Barthes, rooted in a monoculture of his own, assures us early in the book. “[T]o me the Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of features whose manipulation — whose invented interplay — allows me to ‘entertain’ the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own.”

Barthes traveled throughout his professional life, but not all his travels — Oriental, Occidental, or otherwise — suggested equally fruitful premises for writing. His Carnets du voyage en Chine, finally published in English just four years ago as Travels in China, records little more than disappointment with a culture “not at all exotic, not at all disorientating,” in which he finds next to nothing “to note down, to enumerate, to classify.” In Japan, by contrast, he finds a seemingly inexhaustible trove of exotic and disorienting material to note down, enumerate, and classify.


Ghosts of the Tsunami

Richard Lloyd Parry in the London Review of Books

An extraordinary piece by Richard Lloyd Parry on loss and mourning in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami: 

I met a priest in the north of Japan who exorcised the spirits of people who had drowned in the tsunami. The ghosts did not appear in large numbers until later in the year, but Reverend Kaneda’s first case of possession came to him after less than a fortnight. He was chief priest at a Zen temple in the inland town of Kurihara. The earthquake on 11 March 2011 was the most violent that he, or anyone he knew, had ever experienced. The great wooden beams of the temple’s halls had flexed and groaned with the strain. Power, water and telephone lines were fractured for days; deprived of electricity, people in Kurihara, thirty miles from the coast, had a dimmer idea of what was going on there than television viewers on the other side of the world. But it became clear enough, when first a handful of families, and then a mass of them, began arriving at Kaneda’s temple with corpses to bury.

Nearly twenty thousand people had died at a stroke. In the space of a month, Kaneda performed funeral services for two hundred of them. More appalling than the scale of death was the spectacle of the bereaved survivors. ‘They didn’t cry,’ Kaneda said to me a year later. ‘There was no emotion at all. The loss was so profound and death had come so suddenly. They understood the facts of their situation individually – that they had lost their homes, lost their livelihoods and lost their families. They understood each piece, but they couldn’t see it as a whole, and they couldn’t understand what they should do, or sometimes even where they were. I couldn’t really talk to them, to be honest. All I could do was stay with them, and read the sutras and conduct the ceremonies. That was the thing I could do.’

Amid this numbness and horror, Kaneda received a visit from a man he knew, a local builder whom I will call Takeshi Ono. Ono was ashamed of what had happened, and didn’t want his real name to be published. ‘He’s such an innocent person,’ Kaneda said to me. ‘He takes everything at face value. You’re from England, aren’t you? He’s like your Mr Bean.’ I wouldn’t have gone so far, because there was nothing ridiculous about Ono. He was a strong, stocky man in his late thirties, the kind of man most comfortable in blue overalls. But he had a dreamy ingenuousness that made the story he told all the more believable.

He had been at work on a house when the earthquake struck. He clung to the ground for as long as it lasted; even his lorry shook as if it was about to topple over. The drive home, along roads without traffic lights, was alarming, but the physical damage was remarkably slight: a few telegraph poles lolling at an angle, toppled garden walls. As the owner of a small building firm, no one was better equipped to deal with the practical inconveniences inflicted by an earthquake. Ono spent the next few days busying himself with camping stoves, generators and jerry cans, and paying little attention to the news.

But once television was restored it was impossible to be unaware of what had happened. Ono watched the endlessly replayed image of the explosive plume above the nuclear reactor, and the mobile phone films of the black wave crunching up ports, houses, shopping centres, cars and human figures. These were places he had known all his life, fishing towns and beaches just over the hills, an hour’s drive away. And watching their destruction produced in Ono a feeling common at that time, even among those most directly affected by displacement and bereavement. Although what had happened was undeniable – the destruction of entire towns and villages, the extinction of a multitude – it was also impossible. Impossible and, in fact, absurd. Insupportable, soul-crushing, unfathomable – but also just silly.

‘My life had returned to normal,’ he told me. ‘I had petrol, I had an electricity generator, no one I knew was dead or hurt. I hadn’t seen the tsunami myself, not with my own eyes. So I felt as if I was in a kind of dream.’

Ten days after the disaster, Ono, his wife and his widowed mother drove over the mountains to see for themselves. They left in the morning in good spirits, stopped on the way to go shopping, and reached the coast in time for lunch. For most of the journey, the scene was familiar: brown rice fields, villages of wood and tile, bridges over wide slow rivers. Once they had climbed into the hills, they passed more and more emergency vehicles, not only those of the police and fire services, but military trucks of the Japan Self-Defence Forces. As the road descended towards the coast, their jaunty mood began to evaporate. Suddenly, before they understood where they were, they had entered the tsunami zone.

There was no advance warning, no marginal area of incremental damage. The wave had come in with full force, spent itself and stopped at a point as clearly defined as the reach of a high tide. Above it, nothing had been touched; below it, everything was changed.

No still photograph was capable of describing it. Even television images failed to encompass the panoramic quality of the disaster, the sense within the plain of destruction, of being surrounded by it on all sides. In describing the landscapes of war, we often speak of ‘total’ devastation. But even the most intense aerial bombing leaves walls and foundations of burned-out buildings, as well as parks and woods, roads and tracks, fields and cemeteries. The tsunami spared nothing, and achieved feats of surreal juxtaposition that no mere explosion could match. It plucked forests up by their roots and scattered them miles inland. It peeled the macadam off the roads and cast it hither and thither in buckled ribbons. It stripped houses to their foundations, and lifted cars, lorries, ships and corpses onto the tops of tall buildings.

At this point in Ono’s narrative, he became reluctant to describe in detail what he did or where he went. ‘I saw the rubble, I saw the sea,’ he said. ‘I saw buildings damaged by the tsunami. It wasn’t just the things themselves, but the atmosphere. It was a place I used to go so often. It was such a shock to see it. And all the police and soldiers there. It’s difficult to describe. It felt dangerous. My first feeling was that this is terrible. My next thought was: “Is it real?”’

Ono, his wife and his mother sat down for dinner as usual that evening. He remembered that he drank two small cans of beer with the meal. Afterwards, and for no obvious reason, he began calling friends on his mobile phone. ‘I’d just ring and say, “Hi, how are you?” – that kind of thing,’ he told me. ‘It wasn’t that I had much to say. I don’t know why, but I was starting to feel very lonely.’

His wife had already left the house when he woke the next morning. Ono had no particular work of his own, and passed an idle day at home. His mother bustled in and out, but she seemed mysteriously upset, even angry. When his wife got back from her office, she was similarly tense. ‘Is something wrong?’ Ono asked.

‘I’m divorcing you!’ she replied.

‘Divorce? But why? Why?’

And so his wife and mother described the events of the night before, after the round of needy phone calls. How he had jumped down on all fours and begun licking the tatami mats and futon, and squirmed on them like a beast. How at first they had nervously laughed at his tomfoolery, but then been silenced when he began snarling: ‘You must die. You must die. Everyone must die. Everything must die and be lost.’ In front of the house was an unsown field, and Ono had run out into it and rolled over and over in the mud, as if he was being tumbled by a wave, shouting: ‘There, over there! They’re all over there – look!’ Then he had stood up and walked out into the field, calling, ‘I’m coming to you. I’m coming over to that side,’ before his wife physically wrestled him back into the house. The writhing and bellowing went on all night until, around five in the morning, Ono cried out, ‘There’s something on top of me,’ collapsed, and fell asleep.

‘My wife and my mother were so anxious and upset,’ he said. ‘Of course I told them how sorry I was. But I had no memory of what I did or why.’

It went on for three nights. The next evening, as darkness fell, he saw figures walking past the house: parents and children, a group of young friends, a grandfather and a child. ‘They were covered in mud,’ he said. ‘They were no more than twenty feet away, and they stared at me, but I wasn’t afraid. I just thought, “Why are they in those muddy things? Why don’t they change their clothes? Perhaps their washing machine’s broken.” They were like people I might have known once, or seen before somewhere. The scene was flickering, like a film. But I felt perfectly normal, and I thought that they were just ordinary people.’

The next day, Ono was lethargic and inert. At night, he would lie down, sleep heavily for ten minutes, then wake up as lively and refreshed as if eight hours had passed. He staggered when he walked, glared at his wife and mother and even waved a knife. ‘Drop dead!’ he would snarl. ‘Everyone else is dead, so die!’

After three days of pleading by his family, he went to Reverend Kaneda at the temple. ‘His eyes were dull,’ Kaneda said. ‘Like a person with depression after taking their medication. I knew at a glance that something was wrong.’ Ono recounted the visit to the coast, and his wife and mother described his behaviour in the days since. ‘The Reverend was looking hard at me as I spoke,’ Ono said, ‘and in part of my mind I was saying, “Don’t look at me like that, you bastard. I hate your guts! Why are you looking at me?”’

Kaneda took Ono by the hand and led him into the main hall of the temple. ‘He told me to sit down. I was not myself. I still remember that strong feeling of resistance. But part of me was also relieved – I wanted to be helped, and to believe in the priest. The part of me that was still me wanted to be saved.’

Kaneda beat the temple drum as he chanted the Heart Sutra:

There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue,
no body, mind; no colour, sound, or smell;
no taste, no touch, no thing; no realm of sight,
no realm of thoughts; no ignorance, no end
to ignorance; no old age and no death;
no end to age and death; no suffering,
nor any cause of suffering, nor end
to suffering, no path, no wisdom and no fulfilment.

Ono’s wife told him that he pressed his hands together in prayer and that as the priest’s recitation continued, they rose high above his head as if being pulled from above. The priest splashed him with holy water, and then suddenly he returned to his senses and found himself with wet hair and shirt, filled with a sensation of tranquillity and release. ‘My head was light,’ he said. ‘In a moment, the thing that had been there had gone. I felt fine physically, but my nose was blocked, as if I’d come down with a heavy cold.’

Kaneda spoke to him sternly; they both understood what had happened. ‘Ono told me that he’d walked along the beach in that devastated area, eating an ice cream,’ the priest said. ‘He even put up a sign in the car in the windscreen saying ‘disaster relief’, so that no one would stop him. He went there flippantly, without giving it any thought at all. I told him: “You fool. If you go to a place where many people have died, you must go with a feeling of respect. That’s common sense. You have suffered a kind of punishment for what you did. Something got hold of you, perhaps the dead who cannot accept yet that they are dead. They have been trying to express their regret and their resentment through you.”’ Kaneda smiled as he remembered it. ‘Mr Bean!’ he said. ‘He’s so innocent and open. That’s another reason they were able to possess him.’

Ono recognised all this, and more. It wasn’t just the spirits of men and women that had possessed him, he saw now, but also animals – cats and dogs and other beasts which had drowned with their masters.

He thanked the priest, and drove home. His nose was streaming as if with catarrh, but what came out was not mucus, but a bright pink jelly like nothing he had seen before.


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