Kado: The Right Answer (apparently, they found it in the Catechism)

I don’t watch much anime anymore, but when I heard there was a recent series about the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I had to give it a try.  I’ve known a few diplomats in my time, and I was curious whether I could learn anything about the way they think.  After finishing the series, I can’t say whether I’ve levelled up in diplomatic mind-reading skills, but I did find a surprising Catholic connection that I wanted to write about here.  Beware:  spoilers ahead!

The series is called 正解するカド, or Kado:  The Right Answer, and the basic premise is that MOFA has to negotiate with aliens.  Specifically, an ‘anisotropic being,’ Yaha-kui zaShunina, lands his giant cube in Tokyo and begins offering mankind fantastic devices from beyond the universe with the ability to alter time and space.

As the series goes on, it becomes clear that zaShunina’s motive is, more or less, boredom–he feels that he knows it all, and resents this.  Through his contact with humans, however, he begins to develop more of an emotional side to balance out his intellectual side.  He falls in love, his love is not reciprocated, and he gets irritable and tries to impose his will by force.

Opposite zaShunina is Shindo Kojiro, a former MOFA diplomat who quits his job to become a negotiator for ‘the anisotropic.’  Shindo projects an aura of invincibility, displaying almost no emotion, which causes the codependent characters in the story (of which there are more than a few) to desperately seek his validation in the form of romantic attention.  Shindo identifies strongly with his mission as a negotiator, following the basic rule of “both sides getting something they want.”  As the series goes on and it becomes clear that zaShunina’s motives are not altruistic, Shindo considers the best outcome for humanity, while still trying to give each side something it wants.

And this is where things get Catholic.  After unsatisfying attempts to clone Shindo, zaShunina realizes that human beings are more than just ‘information’–they have a soul which can’t be copied or replaced.  What zaShunina really wants is for Shindo to ‘come back to the anisotropic’ with him, but Shindo refuses, and zaShunina realizes that to interfere with a human being’s free will is to make him something less than he is.  In other words, he cannot obtain love through force.  Frustrated, he decides if he can’t win Shindo’s love, he will kill him instead.

Shindo, who for all his lack of emotion shows a surprising capacity for self-sacrifice, first risks his life to protect Saraka Tsukai, the MOFA diplomat in charge of negotiations with the anisotropic.  Faced with the opportunity to destroy zaShunina, Shindo chooses instead–much to Tsukai’s consternation–to give zaShunina something he wants.  Not to return to the anisotropic with him, but to solve his real problem–his existential boredom–by knocking him off his high horse, solving his God complex, and proving to him there are a lot of things in the universe he doesn’t understand and can’t control.  In the end, zaShunina kills Shindo, who dies in his arms, both seeming to accept with sadness that Shindo’s ultimate motive was love and the growth of zaShunina’s soul (and by the end, it certainly appears that he has one).

I’ve necessarily left a lot of threads in the story untouched, but it seems to me that the ultimate message was that humanity will not be saved by technology or by merely human love.  It must be saved by God–by a selfless love that seeks the good of the other.  That good is to be drawn out of the myopic, mistaken little worlds we have trapped ourselves in, into the freedom of truth.  The truth is that none of us are God, and the humility to recognize that is the first step toward happiness.

And that, my friends, is about as Catholic as you can get.

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When fitting in is a sign that you’re crazy

In Japan, it’s called “culture.”  Staying at work until late at night (or early in the morning) without overtime pay.  Maintaining perfect deference to your superiors even as they bully and abuse you.  Basically perfecting the art of denying yourself a lot–even healthy things.

So why are some foreigners so eager to fit into this culture?

“We’re full of self-loathing,” an American colleague once remarked at the lunch table.  I had come to suspect the same thing.  Maybe there was something about Japanese culture that appealed to us codependent types.

Only, as I had discovered, it was difficult for someone from a Christian background to sink to the depths of self-abandonment the Japanese were capable of.  My self-loathing had limits, and when I reached them, I would direct my anger outward at whoever it was who was currently making my life difficult.

Perhaps only the Japanese could have pushed me to my breaking point, and perhaps that needed to be done in order to wake me up to my own expectations of how people should treat me.

Interestingly, I think it was beginning to realize this–that there was some part of me, deep inside, that would not accept the erasure of my healthy sense of self-assertion–that cured me of my desire to assimilate into Japanese culture.  As the Church would say, I became aware that I believed in my own dignity as a human being.

After returning to the Church, though, I would eventually learn that anger–whether directed inward or outward–was not something to aspire to.  And so, after praying many novenas to Mary, Untier of Knots, and slowly becoming aware of my issues, I’ve embarked on a journey of learning to be assertive–changing the things I can and accepting the things I can’t, as the prayer goes.

 

Holiness, healthiness, and feeling the feels

Recently I have been reading The Tao of Fully Feeling by Pete Walker.  In this book, Mr. Walker argues that in order to be fully human, we have to allow ourselves to feel and express the full range of human emotions.  We can’t, for example, decide that we are above feeling or expressing sadness or anger.  Repressing these emotions only causes psychological dysfunction.

Reading this and Mr. Walker’s newer book on CPTSD, I realized that anxiety is an almost constant state of being with me, and has been for about as long as I can remember.  I finally had a breakthrough when I realized that my anxiety is not actually warning me about danger in the world around me–it’s my repressed childhood emotions leaking out sideways, so to speak.  Dismissing this anxiety as something unreal and not productive gives me an astonishing–and unfamiliar–sense of clarity.  I guess that’s what normal feels like.

An interesting thing happened when I went to church in this state.  I felt that God wanted me to be free of anxiety because it was crippling my ability to live as a healthy human being.  I was surprised by the thought that being holy includes maintaining one’s mental health, since this is one part of pursuing what is good, rather than what is disordered, in all areas of life.

Interestingly, Mr. Walker’s words, “fully human,” have a deep significance in Catholicism–it’s been said that to become a saint means to become fully human.

But I didn’t realize this when I first returned to the Church at the age of 29.  When I wanted to know how to be a good Catholic, I looked back to my childhood and its distorted idea of what holiness meant–basically I thought that the more I denied myself, the holier I would become.  However, I came to realize that thwarting myself was not actually producing the fruits of the Spirit.  It seemed to me that I’d been living a healthier life before I returned to the Church, but I couldn’t justify returning to that way of living without any intellectual basis for it.  Finally, with Mr. Walker’s books, I realized that my concept of holiness was lacking in humanity.

Mr. Walker himself touches on religion and points out that my issues are not uncommon in the West–we seem to have lost some of our groundedness in the reality of what it means to be human, especially in terms of accepting our negative emotions.

In fact, it seems that sometimes we can’t even understand our own spiritual heritage because of this.  How many people have, like me, been perplexed by all the “complaining” in the Psalms?  Isn’t complaining a sin?  Reading the book, I had an “Aha!” moment where it finally made sense–they’re not complaining (which is non-productive), they’re engaging in healthy emoting (processing feelings)!  Mr. Walker even points out that Jesus’ words on the Cross–“My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”–are also an example of this healthy expression of negative feelings.  Remember that the Church teaches us that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine!

One of the tools Mr. Walker suggests to rectify issues with healthy emotional expression is “reparenting.”  I think this is essentially what happened to me the first time I went to Japan.  Being a somewhat helpless foreigner encouraged grandmotherly types to dote on me anyway, and sitting in on the assemblies in the elementary schools where I worked was probably as educational for me as it was for the kids!  I can’t speak for the cities, but at least where I was, in the countryside, I feel there was still very much a holistic sense of what it means to be a healthy human being that included our emotional nature.  I often saw adults help children put words to what they were feeling, and gently suggest a healthy response.  Even adult society seemed to have more consideration for our emotional nature as human beings, lending it a charming, old-fashioned, pre-industrial feel.  I think absorbing these lessons helped me to heal from the truncation of my emotions.

It fascinates me how my experiences living in Japan, of all places, helped me to understand what Catholicism is really about.  Becoming a better Catholic requires embracing reality–something that the humble Japanese are very good at teaching.

 

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!

There, there, child

I had an interesting conversation with my sister today about a certain politician.

“I agree that he says things that are unacceptable,” I said.  “But I don’t want to attack him personally.  I just think of what the Japanese would do.”

“What would the Japanese do?” she asked.

“Well, in Japan, when someone says something that demonstrates emotional immaturity, people don’t attack that person.  They treat him like a child.  I mean, like a child that they love.  They just say, ‘Okay, this is the level of emotional maturity that this person is at.  Let’s help him get to the next level.'”

In fact, the Japanese will often indulge a person who is demonstrating emotional immaturity by agreeing with them, giving them what they want, or at least sympathizing with them.  This can have the effect of embarrassing the person into acting their age when they realize they’re being condescended to.

Of course, sometimes the only result is a pampered adult.  Ultimately, change has to come from within; the most other people can do is encourage it.

But in the end, I don’t think the Japanese would vote for someone they viewed as childish.

In my opinion, it’s actually a brilliant system that combines compassion with prudence.  Help the child grow, but leave adult society to the adults.

A country with a dream

In his book Return to Order, John Horvat II argues that what motivates human beings is a desire for the sublime.

“The sublime consists of those things of transcendent excellence that cause souls to be overawed by their magnificence,” he explains.  We don’t merely appreciate the beauty of the sublime, he says, but also “read” a spiritual meaning in it.

This brought to mind my tour of the Rococo architectural masterpieces of Europe during my atheist/New Age phase, which was motivated precisely by a desire for the sublime.  Indeed, Mr. Horvat cites the building of the cathedrals of Europe as an example of a civilization being moved to express, in the form of architecture, the magnificent spiritual order it perceived to exist.

A civilization can collectively pursue the sublime, Mr. Horvat explains, when it is united under a single dream, or a myth* that explains the origins and destiny of a people and gives them a goal towards which they can direct their labors.

And that made me think of my recent musings on the Kojiki.

I realized:  Japan still has a dream.  Vestigial though it may be, the Japanese are still culturally united in their purpose to serve the Emperor.

At least, I feel such a thing in Japan that I don’t feel in America.  Mr. Horvat describes it as the “metaphysical joy of being linked with an order of being that completes our own.”

So am I suggesting that the world should unite in the service of the Emperor of Japan after all?  No, of course not.  The Japanese themselves would be the first to point out that the West has its own dream, and that when we were true to that dream, it outshone anything else the world had ever seen.

Nowadays we embarrass the name of Christianity with our tepid commitment to its ideals.

It’s time to get back to our dream.

*Used in the broad sense of the term