Thursday, January 20, 2011

My First Aomori

Japan’s new Bullet Train (Shinkansen) service to the northern city of Aomori opened on December 4th. To alert the public to this momentous event, the walls of every JR Railway station were plastered with advertisements featuring well-groomed railway employees standing stiffly at attention and smiling tourists happily exploring the sights of Aomori prefecture. Their TV commercial (EDIT: now removed from Youtube....) sums it up pretty well.

I find this campaign hilarious for two reasons. The first is the name: My First Aomori. It sounds pretty normal at first, but the more you hear it, the more ridiculous it sounds. My First Aomori. Not “My First Trip to Aomori” or “My First Aomori Experience,” but just “My First Aomori.” It’s like there’s a subject missing. Are we to assume that the consumer is taking control of Aomori prefecture for the first time? Or does Aomori refer to some type of consumer goods that can be purchased and kept as a memento?

The second reason is the truth that, despite JR’s attempts to convince the public of the contrary, there’s not a whole lot to do in Aomori. There’s a little castle there, a handful of museums in the capital city, and some natural scenery in the rural northeast area where the Shinkansen doesn’t go. And in December, when Aomori is blanketed by a foot of snow, there’s even less to do. Despite northern Japan’s tendency towards inclement weather, I didn’t see a trace of snow in any of the posters or TV commercials. I like to think that some foolhardy tourists traveled all the way to Aomori only to be surprised that it wasn’t some sort of magical summer wonderland where the sun always shone and the grass was always green.

The one part that JR got right was the apples. Aomori is known for its apples, which are actually really good. I didn’t, however, think they were good enough to merit an entire trip to Aomori just to eat them, nor were they good enough to feature as prominently as they do in the shop windows, souvenir snack treats, character advertising, and yes, even the mailboxes.

Everything in Aomori was either about apples or the Shinkansen, which shouted its existence to the public on enormous banners hung from buildings and signs posted along the streets on Aomori city. The whole thing reeked of an elaborate attempt to make this otherwise ordinary section of Japan’s northeast region stand out. The Japanese government spent a lot of public works money on the new Shinkansen service, and I sensed a desperate need to get some of that investment back. Though, in Japan, construction is a way of life, as even the most rural roads are constantly paved with fresh concrete, its rivers dammed, its mountainside roads shielded by high retaining walls, and its tiny islands strung together with expensive new bridges. Perhaps the new bullet train is just another way for a nation heavily invested in the construction industry to spend its money. Or maybe Japan has a deep-seated need to prove to the rest of the world that it’s powerful enough to thrust its mighty Shinkansen as deep into the unspoiled countryside as physically possible.

Because, really, what does this remind you of?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Censorship, Maturity, and the N-Word

As you may have heard, an Alabama publisher will soon be a releasing an edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the n-word (which, just so everyone’s on the same page, is “nigger”) with the more reader-friendly “slave.” Amidst cries of censoring what is arguably the most important work of American literature, editor Alan Gribben maintains that he changed the word to appeal both to a more general reader and to schools who wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching the book in the 21st century. I feel his intentions are honorable, certainly, as anyone who tries to make literature more accessible to the public usually gets a thumbs up from me. However, in this case the politically-correct edition is merely a way of avoiding the problem by limiting the scope of Twain’s vision.

I’m no expert on Twain, and I’m slightly ashamed of how few of his works I’ve read (especially when this blog has least one regular and one occasional reader that could comment on Twain’s character far more completely than I could), but I do know about using words in context. When 1930s editions of the Hardy Boys series use outdated stereotypes of Asians, African-Americans, or Jewish people as part of their narrative structure, those stereotypes are like a time capsule showing how the author embraced those stereotypes during that time period. In Goldfinger, when Ian Fleming has Bond go off on a tangent about how the abundance of “pansies” in modern society is the result of increased equality between the sexes, it does a lot to show Fleming’s individual opinions of homosexuality and women’s rights. And, if some blogger refers to an African-American as a “nigger” in a derogatory fashion, it means that blogger is just being racist.

However, racist language can also be used consciously in fiction and nonfiction to help readers understand the attitudes of both society and individuals. Skilled writers can put racial slurs into the mouths of their characters without having those words embody their own ideals, using the language as part of a vivid world in which racism is an inherent part. In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, for example, he is not shy about having his racist white characters use racist language because he wants the reader to see them as racist. Simple, yes? Were he to hold back for fear of offending people, readers would not have a complete sense of how the controlling white minority in South America treated Mandela and the other blacks.

Shelly Fisher Fishkin summarizes this point far more coherently than I in a New York times article about the removal of the n-word from Huck Finn:

To understand how racism works in America, it is necessary to understand how this word has been used to inflict pain on black people, challenge their humanity, and undercut their achievements…to criticize racism effectively you have to make your reader hear how racists sound in all their offensive ugliness.

In literature, you simply can’t portray racist attitudes effectively without using racist language. Of course you could capture racism through another medium like sculpture or interpretive dance, but in writing the words have to carry the feeling. To shy away from that language is to create a weaker picture of racism on the printed page.

To use one of my favorite literary characters as a final example, Jason Compson, the paranoid, self-righteous, misogynistic, racist narrator from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, not only refers to all of the novels black characters as “niggers,” he treats women like trash. The latter opinion is summarized perfectly in his opening line of Part III: “Once a bitch, always a bitch, what I say.” Jason goes on to say and do terrible things to women, and as part of his overall character, of course he would use the term “bitch” to refer to the opposite sex. To remove this line because someone was offended by the word “bitch” is to destroy an integral part of Jason Compson, just like cutting out “nigger” tones down the realistic intensity of Twain’s racist characters.

Instead of worrying about offending students or the general public, responsible teachers and parents should show how these words are used in context, and responsible readers should make every attempt to understand the difference between Twain’s language and that of the Hardy Boys. Learning about how to control language is part of becoming a better reader and writer, and understanding which attitudes are worth considering and which aren’t is an important part of growing up.

Fortunately there’s still some hope. In order to preserve the author’s original tone, the Japanese translator of The Sound and the Fury chose outdated, racist Japanese to match the English that Faulkner so carefully chose. At least some editors are still aware of the power of language.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Picture Essay of My Tohoku Trip

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For this New Years vacation, I decided to take one last great trip in Japan to the Tohoku (northeast) region, made possible through a JR bargain rail ticket but complicated by rural Japan’s infrequent local train schedules. Why would I embark on a trip to a bitingly cold part of Japan with little to offer tourists on a schedule that had me riding the trains almost as often as I was seeing the sights? I hadn’t been there before, I needed to think things over, and I wanted to see snow.

My first stop was Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region and a place devoid of museums or historical sights. A friend recommended I visit the Sendai Mediateque, an architecturally interesting building containing a few art galleries (closed for New Years), a large art library (all in Japanese) and an open exhibit of snow falling against a shadowed background. Along the street outside was the (apparently) famous Sendai Christmas illumination, which, though beautiful, would have been better with snow.

This is the Japanese ryokan hostel where I stayed in Sendai, complete with tatami floors, traditional Japanese breakfast, and flat-screen television.

This is Aomori prefecture at the northern tip of Japan, where I saw my first real snowfall. There was something remarkably peaceful about it. Last winter Yamanashi only received a few light dustings of snow, and I’d forgotten how the snow can make the landscape come alive by hiding the brown dullness of late autumn. Here you can see the Bay Bridge, an interesting landmark that connects two small pieces of land that could easily be crossed by driving around the block.

The Tyrell Corporation has also set up a branch office in Aomori city.

This is the Aomori Contemporary Art Center, an open art facility with a gallery and studios for working artists designed by Tadao Ando. The larger, half-circle portion on the left contains a gallery (free admission) filled with entrants for a recent print competition. You may remember Ando as the architect behind the Naoshima island museums I visited back in July, and I mention him again because his work has given me a new appreciation for architecture. This building, set against the snowy landscape of a northern forest, reminded me even more of a certain building from my college years.

This is the coolest izakiya I’ve ever seen. The shower scene cinches it.

The port city of Hakodate, on the northern island of Hokkaido, was one of the first Japanese cities open to Western trade, and was largely spared during World War II. As a result, many of the 19th century European-style buildings and churches still remain, including this one, the old Public Hall at the top of the hill.

For 10,000 yen, you can buy monstrous crab legs bigger than my hand. And I have big hands.

My travel pamphlet proudly boasted that the view from Mt. Hakodate at night is the greatest in the entire world. I’m hesitant to agree with such a grandiose statement, but it is pretty nice.

Hirosaki Castle in Aomori prefecture. Like most castles in Japan, the original burned down long ago, and this corner fortification is all that remains.

One of the temples of Chuson-ji in Iwate prefecture. The temple grounds were unbelievably peaceful in the freshly fallen snow, with a minimum of distraction from tourists.

Boat tour through the majestic Geibikei Gorge, also in Iwate. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in Japan, and, astoundingly, features a rock profile eerily similar to New Hampshire’s dearly departed Old Man of the Mountain. Our tour was lead by an old man in an umbrella hat who sang us a song on the ride back.

More Geibikei Gorge.

Matsushima, my final stop, and a site the tourist information board proudly labeled “Matsushima 3 Best View!” Matsushima is a group of about two hundred-sixty tiny islands rising out of the sea near Sendai, and was a fitting place for my New Years contemplations. It’s time to return to the States to face the future with courage in the new year. No more confused wandering or obsessive deliberation. As long as you keep moving in one direction, you’ll always get somewhere.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

First Post of 2011

Today, after much deliberating and procrastination, in fulfillment of the New Years Resolution I'd conceived after a week's wandering in the Tohoku region, I began writing the opening paragraphs of what, with a little luck, will ultimately become a novel. Am I crazy? Perhaps. Or, maybe just determined to capture something that's been kicking around my head for a long time, and I've finally realized that it's better to be actively working on it than dreaming about it.

More on this later.