Shin Godzilla: A question of approach

Today I went to see the movie Shin Godzilla.  It’s actually the first Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen, and was more thought-provoking than I expected.  Specifically, I think the movie is a nuanced critique of Japanese and Western decision-making processes.

The first part of the movie is a scathing–and hilarious–commentary on the frustrating ineffectuality of Japanese bureaucracy.  Godzilla wreaks destruction on the capital while the government squabbles over which department’s jurisdiction the monster falls under.  Entire neighborhoods are flattened while higher-ups bemoan their names being tied to the whole affair.  And of course, all decisions have to be approved by the Prime Minister via a maddeningly long chain of subordinates.  As someone who’s worked for the Japanese government, I’ll say . . . it was funny because it was familiar.

The hero is a young bureaucrat who’s frustrated with the system.  He warns his colleagues that wishful thinking policies are what lost the last war for Japan, and they need to stay rooted in reality.  He longs for a more results-oriented approach–something that’s generally seen as more Western.

But the movie doesn’t blindly sympathize with the West, as we see when, inevitably, the rest of the world gets involved in the Godzilla situation.  When the UN decides that it must drop an atomic bomb on Tokyo in order to defeat the monster, the characters struggle for the space to come up with a less destructive solution, complaining, “What do they care if a bunch of people in Asia lose their homes?”  Contrast this to the scene earlier in the movie when the Prime Minister calls off the first attack on Godzilla when it might endanger the safety of even one or two citizens.  One can see both the Japanese stereotype that foreigners tend to overuse the brute-force approach, and the strength of belief in the benevolence of the Japanese government toward its citizens.

What’s very foreign to the Western mind are the glimpses we get of Japan’s nature-worship when characters muse that perhaps Godzilla is a kami (roughly, god) and ought to be left alone, and again when the hero states that “humans and Godzilla will have to learn to coexist.”

But this is, in the end, an American-style action movie, and just when I was bracing myself for some contrived scene in which the (Japanese) hero gets the (American) girl, I was surprised when instead, she says that maybe he will become Prime Minister around the same time she becomes President, and he remarks in disgust that that would make him her puppet.

Well, wow.  At least we know how you feel now, Japan.


Breezes and pigeonholes

In The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Father James Martin explains that the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are characterized by their practicality.  When it comes to finding God, they turn first to experience, rather than lofty theology.  The fact that God chose to be incarnated into this world, Father Martin says, proves that He wants to communicate with us in our everyday lives through the things of this world.

Here’s an example of one of Father Martin’s spiritual experiences in the everyday world:

Fat grasshoppers jumped among the daisies and black-eyed Susans.  Crickets hid in the grasses and among old leaves.  Bees hummed above the Queen Anne’s lace and the tall purple and pink snapdragons.  Cardinals and robins darted from branch to branch.  The air was fresh, and the field was alive with creation . . . I felt an overwhelming happiness.  I felt so happy to be alive.  And I felt a fantastic longing:  to both possess and be a part of what was around me.

This longing after the mysterious and beautiful, Father Martin says, is ultimately a longing for God.  But, he points out, the idea that God communicates with us through our experiences in this world is antithetical to the mindset of the modern West, which denies spiritual experiences altogether, instead lumping them in with “emotions”:

So you disregard that longing you feel when the first breath of a spring breeze caresses your face after a long dark winter, because you tell yourself (or others tell you) that you were simply being emotional . . . It’s a natural reaction:  much in Western culture tries to tamp down or even deny these naturally spiritual experiences and explain them away in purely rational terms.

I love his wording here:  “Western culture tries to damp down or even deny . . ..”  Isn’t that just the case?  We all have these experiences–we just don’t talk about them.  After all, the great project of the Enlightenment was to explain the entire world with no reference to the spiritual.  This necessitates lumping a whole lot of things, from spiritual experiences like the above, to inspirations, movements of the will, nudgings of the conscience–into the laughably inadequate category of “emotions.”

Guess what:  Japanese people talk about their spiritual experiences.  They’re not embarrassed to get poetic about, for example, the ways they feel inspired by the sky.  And it’s refreshing.  It makes more sense to simply admit to these things than to write a thesis trying to explain them away.  It’s more freeing–more human.

Reading Father Martin’s book, I was reminded that encouraging me to acknowledge reality–including its mysterious, beautiful and poetic aspects–was a major way in which Japan coaxed me out of atheism and prepared me to return to the Catholic Church.

Anatomy of a Japanese barbecue

Recently I had the chance to work at a Japanese barbecue.  I’ve been to plenty such cookouts before, but this time it struck me afresh just how unique they are–spiritual, even.  And I knew I had to sort out these impressions and write them down, because as strange as it sounds, the Japanese barbecue was surely part of my journey from atheism to the Catholic Church.

So here’s what I feel is unique about them:

  1.  Emphasis on the team.  First of all, when you have a Japanese barbecue, you do it en masse.  In this case, it was my employer putting on the BBQ, so dozens of my coworkers and I left the office and donned matching happi (traditional jackets).  Papers were distributed in advance dividing us into teams and each person was given a specific job to do.  Every procedure, from washing our hands at the outset to carrying the empty pans back to the kitchen at the end, was carefully choreographed.  I find that there is a lot of satisfaction in working this way–it seems to make honoring the dignity of the human person and of work as much of a goal as eating delicious grilled squid.
  2. A Japanese barbecue is lo-tech.  The men fetched bags of charcoal and poured them into a metal trough, then covered it with a metal grate.  Voila–the grill.  They then carried large styrofoam crates of fresh whole fish and squid from the kitchen, presumably just the way they were received from the fish market that morning.  Everything is reduced to its bare essentials–one could feel that it was the effort of our team that converted a grassy spot into civilization–which I find gives a satisfying feeling of connection to the earth, your team, and existence itself.  You haven’t felt the soul of a grill until you’ve seen one assembled from the minimal required elements.
  3. A Japanese barbecue is gendered.  We were given no particular directions regarding the happi, but most of the women chose red and most of the men chose blue–the traditional colors for the genders.  The men were directed to carry the heavy items out into the yard, and my very gracious partner offered to do any tasks that involved running up and down a hill.  My manager saw to it that I wouldn’t be assigned to the grill, lest I burn my hands.  And it was a delight to watch the women slicing the grilled squid respectfully flatter the men on their grilling skills (it seemed to me the men’s hearts were singing at the opportunity to grill!).  Some people’s worst nightmare, perhaps, but I find that approaching gender with such reverence is like water to my parched soul.

There are other aspects of the Japanese barbecue that I struggle to describe–one would be the childlike “scripted comments” that give many Japanese gatherings their uniquely innocent character–but perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

For now, I think I can conclude that, once again, it is the Japanese art of listening–to what a human being is, to what a team is, to what work, a man, a woman, a grill, and a fish are–it is their sensitivity to and reverence for the essences of these things that makes a Japanese barbecue such a satisfying and spiritual experience.

And I think that learning to listen to these things was one of the experiences that gently led me out of atheism.

Thank you, Japan!

If beauty makes you sad, what makes you happy?

A Japanese coworker once told me that he wasn’t happy.  He didn’t want more money or a better position.  He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.

“You need a vacation,” I told him.  It was an objective fact–I’d never actually witnessed the man leave the office.

Knowing that he liked camping, I added, “Why don’t you go camping and think about the meaning of life or something?”

“No, then I would get depressed,” he said.

That broke my heart.  I’d always thought of spending time relaxing in nature as an uplifting and spiritual pursuit.

Then I remembered a T.V. show I’d caught a snippet of once in a Japanese dentist’s office.  On this show, a group visited different tourist attractions and restaurants in Japan, and gave a witty running commentary.  One joke, in particular, made an impression on me.

After a particular experience that everyone was raving about, one man quipped mournfully, “But this will fade into oblivion too someday!”  I felt it was a particularly revealing joke, as the sincere emotion that he was making fun of was that Japanese wistfulness at the transience of things.

And I wondered if sometimes Japanese people look at beautiful things and feel sad.

Fast-forward to today, when I visited a particularly beautiful garden.  It was one of those gardens that somehow feels like a map of the heart.  It felt like a place I’d longed for–remembered or dreamed about long ago–and I couldn’t believe it was real.  It occurred to me that maybe such a place is a spiritual symbol for Heaven.

Then my mind wandered back to that coworker, and I wondered if it would do him good to spend some time in such a garden.

Or would it make him sad?

The pagan art of listening

First of all, I apologize for the long silence on this blog.  I was, well, moving back to America!  But I still have plenty more thoughts about Japan, so I hope to continue writing here.  Now, on to the topic at hand!

Some Protestants accuse Catholics of being too pagan.  Actually, as a Catholic who’s lived with both Protestants and pagans, I have to say I think they’re on to something with that.  Catholics do have something in common with pagans.  Only, it might not be what the Protestants think.

Let me explain the pagan culture I know best:  Japan.

The Japanese are good listeners.  They don’t interrupt; they don’t form hasty judgments; they ask questions rather than turning the topic back to themselves.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that I learned how to hold a conversation in Japan.

In fact, the Japanese are even good at listening to inanimate objects.  Remember how the Iron Chefs always talked about eschewing heavy sauces and letting the natural flavor of the ingredients shine through?  I find there’s a willingness in Japan to be very quiet and look and listen and see what something is, to appreciate its nature.

This disposition even extends to the perception of reality.  For all their meekness, the Japanese are surprisingly resistant to spin and rhetoric.  They are very adept at seeing past the surface to the substance of the thing.  Everything is tested against the bedrock of experience; what doesn’t resonate, doesn’t stick.

I think this idea of listening–of being in touch with what is, rather than trying to superimpose our own thoughts on it–is both profoundly Japanese and profoundly Catholic, perhaps for different reasons. The Japanese worship nature, while Catholics read in it a message from its Creator.

What they have in common is that neither side is afraid of what it might hear.  The Japanese, because it is the basis of their religion; Catholics, because they know it can never contradict their religion–creation will never contradict the truth, since both were created by God.

So if what some Protestants mean by calling Catholics “too pagan” is that we’re uncommonly comfortable with reality, all I can say is, “Why, thank you–I think so too!”

Masochism, or sustainable living?

The author of a blog that I unfortunately can’t seem to locate once quipped that living in Japan is like taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  I had to laugh because I once had a Skype conversation with the Mother Superior of a convent that went something like this:

Mother:  “Wow, so I’m seeing Japan!  Show me around your apartment!”

Me:  “Actually, you can see the whole thing right now.”

Mother:  “Really?  Where’s your bed?”

Me:  “It’s a futon, and I’m sitting on it right now.  There’s no room for any other furniture, really.”

Mother:  “What are you, training to be a nun or something?”

So yes, I live in a 100-square-foot apartment, and I don’t own a table.  But that’s not considered asceticism in Japan–just par for the course.  My coworkers actually think I’m a total pansy for not bicycling to work.  I mean, it’s only 7km.

Many people are surprised to find out how “low-tech” everyday life in Japan actually is.  The Japanese generally use heating and air conditioning very sparingly, which is all the more punishing since insulation never caught on here.  But I find there’s a certain willingness to suffer.

(Not on my part, I mean.  I crank the heat all the way up in the winter and I don’t care if it makes my gas bill $200.)

So I had to smile when I read paragraph 55 of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si:

People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning.

If I’d never lived in Japan, I probably would’ve scratched my head at the use of air conditioning as an example.  I mean, that’s just a necessity of life, right?  Surely no one would sit in a sweltering room next to a button that could relieve their suffering and just not press it, right?

Well, maybe they would.

In the beginning, there was the creation story

In his book The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton writes that there are two vantage points from which one can see the Church as she really is. One is from inside the Church, and the other is from completely outside it.  At the time he wrote, he perceived that many Westerners were stuck in the “penumbra” of the Church, neither close enough to it nor far enough from it to see it clearly. I think there was a time when I was in the same position.  I claimed to be rejecting Christianity without realizing how many Christian ideas I took for granted without identifying them as such.

One of the interesting things about moving to Japan was the opportunity to see the Church from that second vantage point–completely outside it.  We’re talking about a culture in which worshiping fox statues is considered conservative.  Let me give you a recent example of a time that the difference between Eastern and Western thought was brought into sharp relief for me.

At work, I’m part of a four-member translation team consisting of two native English speakers and two native Japanese speakers.  This is a great way to translate because if I ever need to clarify the meaning of a Japanese phrase, I can ask the native Japanese speaker sitting next to me, and if I want to run a couple English phrases by another native English speaker to see which one sounds better, I can do that, too.  It also led to the following interesting situation.

One day at the office, a coworker came up to the translation team with a question.  She showed us a translation that included a phrase that said something like “harmony between nature and people.”  In the English, the word order had been reversed to be “harmony between people and nature,” and she wanted to know if this wasn’t an error.

One of the Japanese members of the translation team suggested that the first word order was more natural in Japanese–nature comes first because it is considered greater than people (and therefore worshiped).  I added that the second word order was more natural in English–people come first because they are the masterpiece of God’s creation.

At this point I actually had to summarize the creation story, because it was a novel concept.  “On the first five days God created the sun and moon, land and water, plants and animals.  On the sixth day He created man, and that was His masterpiece.  After that He stopped creating things. And He put man in charge of all the other things, to take care of them. So man is the most important.”  You could see the wheels turning as she tried to imagine this.

I, on the other hand, realized how much those of us who grew up with the creation story take for granted. How would I think and act differently if, like my Japanese coworker, I had never imagined that man was in any way superior to a rock or a tree?

I might handle inanimate objects as gently as if they were babies.  I might be strikingly humble and reluctant to make waves, thinking of myself as one element of an ecosystem, whose purpose was to harmonize with the other parts.  I might even design infuriating tourist pamphlets in which each page contained a million pictures, each of which required a magnifying glass to see (okay, sorry, had to get that out!).

In short, I might think and act like a Japanese person.