Saturday, September 30

Inconvenient impressions


I have been accused by a friend of being "anti-American" and even disowned for the same. When I consider the charge, a chuckle murmurs within me at the thought that I could sweepingly reject or oppose all that is American or, worse still, hate something simply because it is American. Still, spending several weeks in the United States this summer gave me the occasion to note certain things that do displease me about my experiences there, without thinking directly of the nation's political character or policies (of which there would be too much to say). That is not to say that I accept the charge, which is truly preposterous and I think motivated by personal issues that have nothing to do with my reputed views on America; but I don't mind making known a short list I jotted down while flying home to Japan of things that I find disagreeable about life in the United States:

1. The preference for frigid air conditioning in public spaces.
2. The national obsession with ice cubes and sugared water in its various manifestations (from "sports drinks" to soda pop).
3. The 58 grams of sugar in my 6 oz. serving of "juice."
4. The tyranny of corn syrup, which is found in everything from "coffee creamer" to wheat bread.
5. The uniformly horrendous films consumed by the public.
6. The contrary, slow, tactless, distracted, self-entitled, chatty, and often clumsy service employees.
7. The omnipresent though unavowed credo, "Greed makes the world go 'round."
8. The near total indifference toward the global responsibility of recycling. (In the U.S., it pretty much all goes in the same damn bin!)
9. The near total failure of the nation to develop adequate and responsible public transportation.
10. And, most generally put, the default mode of American society: passively consuming the world's energy and resources at as high a rate as individually and collectively possible.

Several items on the list were clearly influenced by the scene in which I created it, but the important thing is that, on returning from the country, I felt a sense of relief that was as physical as much as psychological at not having to fight against extreme energy consumption and waste in my daily life.

Incidentally: Al Gore's film about the climate crisis, "An Inconvenient Truth," was one of four on the in-flight menu. As I walked to the bathroom, I looked around to see how many screens were tuned to Al Gore's film. Of the several hundred screens I saw lighted up, only one was tuned to "An Inconvenient Truth," and the person before it was sound asleep. I guess that Gore has a long way to go to rival the likes of Tom Cruise, whose face flashed all about the cabin. Whatever the case, I noted that, as important as this film's message is, Gore seems not to have noted the irony of his repeatedly being filmed taking international flights. It is as if Gore were totally unaware of the environmental damage his own relentless global trekking causes.

Wednesday, September 20

Pleasures of travel

Vilnius, Lithuania, New Year's Day

I still recall the difficulty I had in trying to get out of Lithuania during the trip on which I took the above photo. The Gulf War was about to be engaged by the coalition forces, and the Soviet leadership was preparing to use the conflict as cover for their violent suppression of political dissidence in Lithuania. The parliament building in Vilnius was surrounded by barricades. The retail and grocery stores were nearly barren. As of January 1st, a new law would severely restrict movement out of the country by requiring a hefty sum -- something in the neighborhood of three months' wages for the average worker, as I recall -- for permission to travel abroad. Little did it help that I had a US passport. The trouble I faced came from the crowds that swarmed around the train ticketing agency and, later, at the train station platform. At the former, enraged crowds literally pushed their way through glass doors to demand tickets be sold to them before the end of the year; and several people, including myself, were nearly crushed or smothered in the surge of bodies over shattered glass. Days later, at the station platform, the mass of hopeful travelers clung magnet-like to the sides of the approaching train, with many people swinging arms into open windows and hoisting themselves inside before the train had come to rest. If it were not for the quick-wittedness of my host mother, who, with bottles or Orangina, bribed three overweight men into saving a seat for me among them, I would not have been able to use the ticket I had risked my life in acquiring.

Friday, September 8


Kamakura Daibutsu

In 1252, a more than 100-ton statue of the prominent Buddhist divinity Amida (orig., Amitābhā in Sanskrit) was cast by the sculptor Ono Goroemon within the grounds of Kotokuin Temple in the then capital city of Kamakura, 32 miles from present-day Tokyo. The large building that housed the figure was destroyed by storm in 1369, but the Giant Buddha survives today.

On vacation in the Ohio town where I grew up, I think about my first full year in Japan. There are so many things that I haven't quite figured out there and that leave me pondering that, for now, I think I should write about something else. I would write directly about the U.S., but I am losing the stamina required of those who wish to keep abreast competing American politico-media corporations, whose broadcast presence is often equated loosely with "politics," a word that not long ago--before the corporate take-over of mass media began nearing completion--had a very different meaning in American public life. My frequency with them is down. "Politics" used to mean canvassing, talking to other human beings, striving to be aware of one's environment and to nurture it as a commonwealth. This recalls that, increasingly, political participation in the United States means things such as striking postures over details of entertainment programs masquerading as open and fair debates and news.

Getting back to my sheep: I was listening to a French radio station tonight and, to wind up a long dialogue with a sinologist, the host put a final, resounding question: "And," he said, "returning to the matter of urban ghettos being created in China, of the massive exploitation of uprooted agrarians unfit for city life or its need for specialization, of fluent crime creation in the streets and corruption in government, new invitations to the spread of disease both among the population at large and in the industries that serve it... as a respected specialist, what do you see that is particular or unique in the way that globalization is progressing today in Chinese culture and society, as opposed to in the U.S. or E.U.?"

The otherwise eloquent interviewee, after a thought, responded, "nothing!" And with that, the interview was ended.

Wednesday, September 6

Our National Poverty

I saw the Green Party candidate for the governorship of New York State spoken at on a program whose name sounds like a hybrid between an aggressive sport and a presumably seductive personality: "Hardball with Chris Matthews." This is a regularly televised crass money-winning campaign that exploits formats and styles formally unique to news. The genre now proliferates CABLE-TV-LAND. In response to a question that Matthews, in form, seemed to have moved beyond even as he asked it, the candidate said that he was running for office to combat poverty. If Chris Matthews did not laugh (my recollection is not clear), he so hastened away from the guest's response that, as a consequence, the idea of combatting poverty seemed a small, faint, fanciful thing. It at least deserved a chuckle, especially as it came from a man of his age. In a proud land, where men have always stood tall, the little Green guest could not be serious in assuming that politicians go to work for only dim targets and minor gains. Especially not in a time of war! And terror! And Iran! And Arabs that hate us! And nuke-you-lar threats!

For this widespread dismissal of the idea of fighting poverty, should I blame Matthews or the many similar production teams and corporate-executives-in-chief? I suspect that even if Matthews had for once discovered how to enter into dialogue with a guest, for instance to ask today's guest how exactly he proposed to combat poverty, most customer-citizens in TV-LAND would scorn the candidate in their hearts to hear him speaking like some Christian demagogue of old or incurable flower child. But then such has been their media-conditioning, and we are left to ponder the chicken or the egg.

Monday, September 4

Sad Eyes

I praise President Bush for the remarkable business savvy he
has applied over the years to the single word 'freedom.'
Fault him for his intelligence; as an entrepreneur of the English language, the President has no equal.