roguture, part 2: other than japanese
read time: appx. 15 minutes
in part 1 we explored how the wa reveals an apparent paradox inherent to the human condition– that we are free within a prison of our own making. and prisons– architectural, mental, symbolic, or otherwise– function to discipline and set limits to what bodies can do and how they can express themselves.
the wa determines the limits of japanesehood– between inclusion and exclusion– and ultimately what expressions are permissible within japanese society. it feels eerily manichean, echoing a cosmic rift between good and evil, or between harmony and disharmony– between what is japanese, and what is not. the wa is a concept that is so deeply engrained in japanese society that it is indistinguishable with being-japanese.
LIVING ACCORDING TO THE WA: WORKING FOR DEATH
it comes at no surprise then what davy answers when i ask him if japanese people are racist. “they are, they are” he sighs in a tone that oozes mixed feelings erring on the side of disappointment. “you just can’t be different from other people. that’s why its been so hard for foreigners to live in japan… its like committing suicide if you’re different.”
if one disrupts, or is unable to incorporate oneself into the wa, it is tantamount to death. among the many things that are distorted by the wa, people’s concept of death seems the most affected. within a context where karoshi and kodukoshi are part of everyday reality, suicide seems almost trivial. but that’s the dark irony– death has become banal. and as a direct consequence of this, so has life. we’ve now ventured even further into the black hole.
“so karoshi is this crazy thing that happens to mainly younger people than us, ages 25-30; it’s death by overwork. people work so much and are so stressed out that doctors can’t find anything wrong with the dead body so they conclude that, ‘this guy died by overwork.’ and there’s thousands examples of this. thousands of people die from working too much. and the other one is kodukoshi and this refers mainly to older elderly people. here in japan there’s so many old people dying by themselves with no family. our friend is in this business where he makes a lot of money cleaning up dead bodies. how they find out is the smell, from upstairs or downstairs someone calls the apt manager and they say ‘we haven’t seen so and so and it stinks’, and my friend’s company goes and takes care of the dead body and cleans everything up. he likes it because he gets to keep stuff those people owned. but that’s a thing. people are dying by themselves and no one knows about it for weeks, and it’s so much so that some psychologists are using that word to talk about it.”
there’s a dark irony to all this. the desire to conform is so deeply engrained in the japanese psyche that to be different, as davy explained earlier, “is like committing suicide.” to avoid this social death, one must assimilate in accordance with the wa– as much as one can. but doing so also leads to death, and in bizarre cases: karoshi. as we explored in part 1, it’s not uncommon for “your company [to become] your god.” karoshi then, can be interpreted as the ultimate sacrifice a person makes to one’s god– literally giving one’s life for one’s company/god.
the wa’s logical conclusion results in a zero sum game scenario that exemplifies a binary paradox where the only outcome is some variation of death. and that’s the dark irony in all societies that orbit around an organizing principle like the wa– everyone’s working towards death. so busy with accumulating capital (social, economic, or otherwise), they never truly live. but people aren’t just working towards death, they’re working for death– as its employee. working for death– as a reward. all for the sake of a distorted version of ‘life’ and ‘harmony’.
AN INHUMAN IDEA: LIFE THAT IS PROGRAMMED TO DIE
one wonders if adherence to the wa drives people to unconsciously want to die. the movie annihilation so deftly alludes to and illustrates this phenomenon on the cellular level:
this programmed self-destruction of cells refers to, in biology-speak, apoptosis. it’s not that a cell dies because it is no longer able to replicate or divide to create new cells; rather, with apoptosis, a cell is ‘programmed’ to die. and this is a ‘conscious’ decision. yes, cells are intelligent and ‘decide’ when to die. but this decision to die isn’t arbitrary, there’a reason for this self-destruction. without apoptosis, one could argue there could not be life. apoptosis is the reason why our human form is as it is, why we have separate fingers and not webbed toes. some things die, so others can live, or simply function. this principle is encoded into the very fiber of our being.
then why is it that humans have such a hard time coming to terms with death? we work at all costs to avoid it, but are working to accelerate it's arrival nonetheless (karoshi). just as bad as we are at dying, we are no better at living.
it’s simultaneously fascinating and disconcerting to consider– that our cells are intelligent and communicate with one another to ensure the survival of a larger and more complex structure: the human body. that our cells choose to die is even more incredible. this isn’t sacrifice, since sacrifice implies moral agency; rather, it’s immanence, or what spinoza referred to as the ‘third kind of knowledge’, where the illusory distinction between self and nature is dissolved. it involves understanding that if some things continue on at the expense of new life, that those things should come to an end, lest they intend to hold the future hostage (as we explored in part1 ). what about cells that refuse to die? cells that are immortal? those are called cancer cells.
one wonders if cancer is just nature’s way of doing for us what we can’t do ourselves– die.
CANCER: LIFE THAT SEEKS TO BE FREE OF THAT WHICH SUSTAINS IT
humans consider death a cancer. we associate cancer with death. but cancer is an example of unrelenting life that stops at nothing to prolong its own existence, at the cost of its host body. are humans not similar? draining the earth’s resources to prolong their existence while doing irreparable damage to the very earth that sustains human life?
humans destroy that which gives them life, perhaps because they desire so much to be free– absolutely so. to be free of everything, including life itself. indeed, perhaps at our most unconscious and primal level, we crave death; we’re prone to self-destruction, precisely because above all else, we desire to be absolutely free (e.g. we create myths, religions, and grand narratives that promise after-lives appropriate to our desires for absolute freedom). such is the hubris of life that becomes cancerous; it requires neither nature, nor a body to exist – it believes it can live on it’s own, free from life itself.
life that is unregulated, life which refuses to die, outlives its designation and is no longer life, but a cancer.
desire, when unchecked, becomes uncontrollably destructive– karoshi. but desire, when checked, becomes repression, and ultimately isolation– kodukoshi. as apoptosis shows us, there are better ways to die.
we know a great many things. we’ve come a long way as a species. but we still don’t know how to die. that people work towards their death is not a suicidal notion; rather, it expresses the desire for life to be free from the wa. to be clear, the wa itself is not an evil phenomenon. as an idea it's well intentioned; but as davy said “the way it works is so bad.” it produces a societal context in which working towards death is somehow connected with working towards one’s freedom. as if death brings with it the hope of a new life. this doesn’t have to be a depressing notion. it’s the death that has to occur in order for there to be life– cells must divide, a star goes supernova and explodes to birth new galaxy. all this is peachy. what’s disconcerting is that japanese society provides no other way to die, but to die by the wa. that all life is aimed towards death is no profound statement– the moment we are born, we are in the process of dying. the question is, how to live and die on one’s own terms? how to be freed of the wa’s hold on you before you die, so that you can actually live before you die?
BEING MIXED IN JAPAN
with the ubiquity of death in mind, davy scoffs at thin-skinned minorities in the u.s. who complain about being stereotyped, and likening it to racism:
“sometimes when asian american friends of mine are on social media they complain ‘i ran into somebody at like taco bell and they were racist towards me and they said you have slanty eyes or you’re short, whatever…’ i’m just kinda like, who cares about that! who cares if they said you’re short, most asians are short! most do have thin eyes, y’know?”
he continues, providing context for his perspective:
“even like in the 2000s when we would visit our friends up north, there people would point at us and laugh just because we didn’t look like them. i believe that for most educated people in america, america is a creed, you become american by what you believe in and not by what you look like. not everybody believes that because people are stupid. but in japan racism is so strong right? last time i went to visit joey and my sister in-law they were telling me that mesa, my niece, gets picked on because she’s a foreigner.”
i’m genuinely shocked to hear this. to me, mesa looks a hundred percent japanese, her features don’t appear european at all; there’d be no reason for me to doubt for a second she was japanese. davy explains it to me this way:
“its like this. there’s 300 kids and in japan every once a week everybody goes to the gym for an all-school meeting. there’s 99% japanese there, and out of that 1% there’s a lot of chinese and koreans, they’re indistinguishable right? so there’s a bunch of kids, but if there’s one girl with a little bit light-tinted hair, she just stand outs. another thing is, mesa’s last name is millard and that’s very distinct too. but that’s just how homogenous it is! in japan, chinese and korean kids are so afraid of being bullied that a lot of them, when they’re adults, change their names and pretend to be japanese.
so anyways we saw these kids yelling at mesa. she gets picked on for being foreigner, same crap [minorities] get in america. but mesa’s so strong she’ll just say ‘talk to the hand’ and walk away. everyday before she leaves for school joey and ai make her say ‘i am blessed, i am strong” before she goes to school.”
mesa is a hero. to think she stares down the wa and death everyday makes me feel simultaneously sad and proud. kids can be little demons, lord knows what kinds of bullying happens everyday. the affects of the wa begin at such a young age. the cycle of violence starts early. teddy perkins lamented how some things never grow out of their adolescence. maybe so in the u.s., but in japan, you’re lucky to just survive early childhood.
the wa is no joke. as davy is explaining all this to me i think to myself, as an outsider i can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to feel that much pressure. or such a tremendous gravitational pull to conform. growing up in it, one learns to adapt to this weight of gravity– so how light one must feel to be somewhere else! while that may be the case for most people who are mono-ethnic, when you’re mixed there’s nowhere on earth one can go to be rid of this binary weight.
“it was shocking cause for 15 years i was only treated like a white person. and then i go to america to university everybody treated me like an asian. i didn’t care cause i feel like i’m above these people who look at color and treat people for what they look like instead of what kinda characteristics, what kinda personality traits they have. so i never cared. but if i were weaker, if i was more fragile, i think i would’ve had a huge identity crisis. like who the heck am i? in japan i’m a foreigner, but when i go to america i’m asian.”
at this point davy has WTF plastered all over his face. i ask davy if he identifies as being japanese. after a cautionary pause of about as long as it takes for me to take another bite from my unagi-don, “no. because japanese people’s idea and definition of japanese is very ethnic.”
davy doesn’t see color. but some people scoff at the notion of being ‘color-blind’, as if being color-blind somehow also means not being able to see diversity or what makes people different and unique. such a perspective couldn’t be more self-contradicting or myopic. as if all there is to a face is color. no, people who only see color remain blind to everything else that makes a face a face. bone structure. eyes. bags, wrinkles, and scars. density of hair. the bridge of a nose. all these features tell a separate story. faces are complex. to reduce the complexity of a face down to a color is racist, because doing so, one buys into the concept of race as a real (biological) thing. those like davy who don’t see color are truly above everyone else who do. but being above the binary masses tends to be a lonely place to be (lone wolf).
in japan, the equivalent to the N-bomb is gaijin; when translated literally, it means foreigner or outsider. it is a word that has meaning to those who only see ‘color’. it is a term of exclusion, designated for those who are ‘other’, those who are counted as among the dead. this makes sense given what we now know about the wa. but davy and noah are not only multi-ethnic outsiders in the eyes of the japanese, they’re trouble-makers. they’re disrupters of the wa not because of what they look like per se but ultimately because of what they do and how they do it. what they do is teach english and roast coffee, but how they go about it expresses a non-binary energy that is inclusive and empowering.
in the next and final part of this series, we will finally leave behind all the negative energy surrounding the wa and death, and learn how the millards have navigated the spaces between binaries to create roguture.