Problematic damashii

When I was last in Japan I wrote a series of blog posts on foreign reporting about this country. (1, 2, 3) At the time I was interested in the rather mundane matter of how individual reporters or their sources might spin a real problem and selectively exclude inconvenient facts. But after I left Japan in mid-2013, the problem of spin very abruptly ceased to matter.

I don’t really mean that it ceased to matter to me. Certainly, I’m still annoyed with one-sided reporting. But there is now a much larger problem at hand. The daily petty crimes against journalism on the streets of Öffentlichkeitburg have rather lost their relevance as the city is being actively destroyed by Godzilla. Or, to be really precise in my metaphor, a kind of katamari thing that keeps getting bigger and bigger and rolling everything else into itself. The poor people it sweeps up may try as hard as they can to put both feet on the ground, but it is no longer possible. They are not putting a spin on the world; they are the ones being spun.

With that rather ambitious prelude, I have a new Japan reporting story to tell. I don’t know how many of my readers have heard about the Japanese guy who spent over a year living entirely off contest winnings, so if you aren’t familiar, check out the story of Nasubi. This was an interesting story when I first read it around 2004, but 2014 has a very different take.

To be specific, he was made the subject of an episode of This American Life. Act One. I Am the Eggplant.

This post is not about This American Life, nor is it about Ms. Stephanie Foo, the reporter behind the episode. As I said above, I am no longer out to call “gotcha” on individual mishaps, and anyway I do not see any dishonesty in the reporting done here. The story is legitimate, Ms. Foo gave her honest responses to what she saw and heard, and it sounds like she and her interpreter worked hard to present people’s actual words and get all sides of the story.

What disturbs me is that “all sides of the story” means a different thing to Americans now than it did in 2004 when I read that “quirky Japan” page linked above. Ten years ago, the take home message was “Japan has unusual tastes in television.” Now that difference has acquired some urgency: “Japan has unusual tastes, and this is problematic.” Take note of the way this is framed. We are no longer asking, as we might have in the past, what the origin of our cultural differences is. The question that it is now trendy to ask is, “why are other people so wrong about everything?”

The word problematic sits in my mental post office with an enormous banner around it screaming “Wanted, Dead or Alive.” It is without a doubt the worst word in the English language. It looks like it’s talking about something that can be resolved through rational thought and discussion, but it’s actually asserting that a way of thought will inevitably cause problems–specifically, the wrong kind of problems. (If the master–slave dialectic is furthered, it’s causing the right kind of problems. If it’s impeded or ignored, it’s causing the wrong kind of problems. Only the latter is “problematic”.) In our actual lives, differences of opinions can be overcome through mutual amity or battles of wits, but when a thought becomes “problematic”, the only solution available is the final one. Problemo delenda est.

Anyway, Nasubi. This adheres remarkably to 2014’s favorite story about why Japanese culture is “problematic.” Some guy in this morally retarded culture was tortured and starved by his television producer for over a year. Everyone in the whole country laughed at him, a clear demonstration of their inhumanity. Ms. Foo laughs but immediately feels guilty for doing so and astonished that such a program as Nasubi’s was broadcast and well-received. The clincher for Ms. Foo is what she sees as the producer’s lack of apologetic attitude over his program. Nasubi says the producer apologized, but the producer said he didn’t.

Extended inhumane treatment, irreverent reactions from the Japanese populace, belated and insincere apologies: the story of Nasubi is precisely how Japan’s history issues are portrayed to the West by China and Korea. Ms. Foo is a responsible reporter and did not at all spin it this way. Rather, the narrative as heard by an intelligent American spun itself that way. What did this telling of the story miss? It missed that this television show aired in Japan and not America.

Every New Year’s, a selection of Japanese comedians willingly submit themselves to 24 hours of hell, as they are placed in hilariously funny situations and beaten remorselessly whenever they laugh. This program, called Gaki no Tsukai, is tremendously popular in both Japan and Korea and has been going on since 2003. Gaki no Tsukai only lasts a single day, but the actors are clearly sleep-deprived at the end of it and are generally whacked in the butt or other places more than 100 times each. I doubt the comedians involved are being exploited or are in it for the money, as they have enough fame from this series to keep going for the rest of their lives. Rather, the very concept of what a television performer ought to be is different in Japan. A Japanese TV performer voluntarily undergoes suffering and gives up control over his life in return for the chance to present himself on the screen. He sees his job as akin to Buddhist shugyō, ascetic training.

Japanese children engage in shugyō from a young age. From first grade on, they go to schools with no heating or air conditioning, make their own lunches, and clean the school halls and toilets every day. They race around tracks in the blistering sun, and recognize that many have undergone far greater suffering than them. By the time a Japanese adult graduates high school, he is probably familiar with the amount of self-sacrifice required by various careers.

Nasubi’s case is certainly extreme, but nevertheless he clearly sees himself within that framework. He offered his body as material for a comedy sketch and was prepared to push through to the end, through all hardships. The following transcript shows that Ms. Foo is totally unaware of this:

Foo. In talking to him, it felt like he’s really worked hard to turn that traumatic experience into a positive story he tells himself. He even says he’s thankful for the experience.

Nasubi. It was– I don’t want to overstate it, but it was kind of meditative in a way. I had a lot of time to think about my life and a lot of time to think about a lot of stuff.

Foo. That certainly is a very zen way to look at it.

Nasubi. Well, I mean, it’s 10-some years since I finished, since I did that project. And after that, everything has been much easier and much better.

The heart of the cultural misunderstanding is clearly visible in this exchange. The American “pursuit of happiness” requires telling a “story” to oneself in which unhappiness is identified through psychological discovery and excluded by a change in life habits, not sublimated and conquered. Ms. Foo expects to hear the former type of narrative construction, and the surprising appearance of the latter strikes her as “very zen”. I’d guess that when she says “zen” she does not imagine actual Zen monks waking up at 3AM or chanting under a waterfall, but merely someone like The Big Lebowski‘s Dude trying to act cool and shrug off his past suffering.

Similarly, Nasubi’s producer Toshio Tsuchiya is the scheming Big Lebowski ruining the life of the poor, clueless Dude for his own profit. Here’s Nasubi on accepting Tsuchiya’s apology:

Nasubi. I welcome the opportunity to work with him again, certainly.

Foo. Wow. You would work with him again? That’s really– that’s shocking. And what was his reason for putting you through what he did?

Nasubi. He wanted something that would move people, and you don’t get that out of just sort of somebody playing around. He wanted to see something real. He wanted to pull miracles out of people. And he wanted to– it was done for the purpose of getting a miracle on film.

Foo. And that seemed to me like– well, I’ll be honest, it sounds like something an evil puppet master would say.

I wish Ms. Foo had presented a bit more analysis behind this amazing statement. Did she consider other options besides the master-slave dialectic and rule them out? Or do other options literally not exist for her, despite Nasubi’s insistence that he would work with Tsuchiya again? I can easily imagine Tsuchiya as the stern head abbot demanding the impossible of his disciples. Because that’s what it takes to earn your keep at a Japanese Buddhist monastery, or corporation, or indeed baseball team:

Tsuchiya. I put him through a lot. I’m not– if you say that you have a sports team and you have a coach who runs his players through very difficult maneuvers, at the end of the day, he may pat him on the back and say, sorry for putting you through such a rough struggle. It wasn’t me expressing that I shouldn’t have done the project.

This is completely comprehensible in the Japanese context, where sports players regularly overwork themselves. The role of the manager is not to apologize for bringing them onto the team. It is, though, possible, for the manager to recognize he has pushed his team to the breaking point of the human body. Although This American Life‘s reporting overlooked this, the overweight host of Nasubi’s TV show, Kunihiro Matsumura, later reached a breaking point himself in 2010, when he had a heart attack while running a marathon for TV. He toned down his future performances accordingly.

In another interview I found online, Tsuchiya compares his own efforts to those of American reality TV.

Actually, TBS broadcast Survivor in Japan as a late night show, and when I watched it I really realized how different America and Japan are. The national character, or sense of values or something, are completely different. Even though they are both the same uninhabited island idea, right? So when TBS bought the rights to the format to broadcast Survivor here, with exactly the same system, I knew it wasn’t going to to be that simple. And as I thought, it bombed. They were tied into their contract and even though they knew it wasn’t working, they had to continue for a year. [Laughs]

The reason it didn’t work is, in Survivor a group of people go to an uninhabited island, and at the end of each episode they vote to get rid of one member. The person with the most votes has to leave. And so you watch till the last show to see who is voted out, and who will be the last one on the island. What I did with 15 Girls was, they are on the island [he kidnapped them and took them there unawares, similar to Nasubi], they’re given nothing and it’s really tough, and they have to survive. But once a week we would go to the island and ask who wanted to retire that week. If someone put their hand up, they would come with us and be out of the show. But, we would go to the island the night before, and film each of them saying things like “It’s really tough, I think I’ll retire.” And then the others would say things to them like, “I’m finding it really hard too, but let’s stick at it together a bit longer,” and so on.

So you’d watch, and you’re left wondering what she will do. That’s more the Japanese mentality. Will she stick it out with the others, or will she retire? That’s where it gets exciting. With Survivor it’s “We don’t want this person around so let’s vote her out”, that’s where the excitement is. So even with the same uninhabited island plot, the mentality of the Americans and the Japanese is completely different.

For Americans, the disturbing thing is the idea that an performer might be risking too much on success, although great American actors have often risked far too much–Heath Ledger, for example. In Japan, although there’s an obvious desire to avoid tragedy, the really heartless thing would be if people started backstabbing each other. This would be a betrayal of our better instincts and makes for ugly television; Tsuchiya seems to imply that Survivor was a money-losing affair for TBS. The inspiring thing about Tsuchiya’s adaption is that some among the 15 girls fought for each other to the bitter end.

In other words, when you’re placed in a game where you fight for survival, Americans dream of destroying the other players until they are the only ones left surviving. The Japanese, on the other hand, dream of risking their lives to save their friends. You can see it in fascinating life-and-death stories that come out Japanese pop culture, like Battle Royale and ÅŒsama Game, and most American reality shows speak volumes about the American spirit. Gordon Ramsay has hosted two shows called Kitchen Nightmares: a British show about how a restaurant works and the need for teamwork, and an American show where people yell at each other. I see a valid cultural difference here.

Unfortunately the reporting on NPR did not go this far. Ms. Foo, who I have absolutely nothing against, listened to this story and the “problematic” alarm bell started going off in her head. It cut short all logic and desire to really probe into this.

What is it that made this thing so problematic? Well, here’s what Nasubi has to say in NPR’s official transcript:

Nasubi The only thing I really have to say is that I said I’d do it, and I do what I say.

Foo That was it? The only reason? I kept asking him, but wait, really, why?

Nasubi There’s a phrase, [SPEAKING JAPANESE], the Japanese spirit, which is just that you sort of stick through. You endure things. When you’re given something, whether it’s easier or whether it’s hard, you just really do– you’re obliged to follow it through.

The Japanese phrase omitted from the transcript is “Yamato damashii“–indeed, a key way of thinking about Japanese culture even today. Ms. Foo offers no comment on this, where one would seem to be sorely needed, but I think it’s obvious that this damashii necessarily needs to get rolled up into the problematic katamari ball so that the Japanese might achieve their historical destiny to become Americans.

At the end of a game of the original version of Katamari Damashii, you’re rolling up entire islands into your ball. Although it disturbs me to think that the American instinct might extend this far, I am interested to see if Americans can roll up Russia, China, etc. I would bet against it, since unlike magic video game magnets (and pace Hegel), actual human thoughts have cultural limits.

Posted: September 8th, 2015 | Res pueriles