Well, I’ve made my little hop across the Pacific, and am once again in hot, humid, kawaii Japan. When people hear that the flight to Japan is around ten hours they usually offer me their condolences, but I don’t mind it at all: it’s much better than flying inside the U.S. at least, with extra-cramped seats, $5 drinks and multiple connections to your destination. In this wonderful age of MacBooks and iPods that we live in, there’s always plenty to do to amuse yourself inside the plane. Now that I’ve been back for twenty-four hours, have gotten through my “shocked at the smallness of the drinks and of the buttocks on Japanese woman walking in front of me” culture shock phase, and have gotten up at 5 am thanks to jet lag, I’m ready for a J-List update.
Besides being hot as hell, August is a solemn month in Japan. In addition to the anniversaries of the two atomic bombings, August 15 marks Japan’s official defeat in World War II, and like every August in recent years, the issue of Yasukuni Shrine is in the news. Will Prime Minister Koizumi make an official visit, or won’t he? How will China and Korea react? It’s really a sticky wicket for Japan: there is no Arlington National Cemetery, no Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, no place that citizens to pay respects those who died for their country other than Yasukuni Shrine, a beautiful traditional Shinto shrine located in Tokyo. Since the ashes of fourteen Class-A war criminals including Hideki Tojo are interred at the shrine, there’s always controversy when the Prime Minister makes a visit. The situation seems not unlike the occasional uproar over the Confederate flag flying over state capitals in the American South (to put it in some kind of context), and there’s plenty of pride and history on both sides, making it a difficult problem to solve. Except for a very tiny portion of the country that drives around in trucks blasting right-wing World War II songs and making fools of themselves, I’ve never known the Japanese to defend anything they did during World War II, or say it was okay at all. It’s true that South Korea and China both use the Yasukuni visits partially for political reasons, since calling attention to the mote in Japan’s eye diverts it from the beams in their own. It’s a shame there can’t be more understanding on both sides, and less politics.
August is also time for one of the major Japanese Buddhist holidays, Obon, essentially a three-day holiday during which the souls of the dead are thought to come home for a visit. Obon is a time when Japanese head to their “real home” (the house where their family’s Buddhist altar is located, usually their parents’ home), spend time with everyone, and do haka-mairi, visiting the graves of dead family members to say hello, leave flowers, wash dirt off the gravestones, and so on. Japanese Buddhism, more than Buddhism practiced in other countries, is all about remembering your ancestors, since (as my wife has told me passionately), “without your ancestors, you wouldn’t be here at all.” Obon season is also a time for festivals, including a famous style of dance Bon-odori (as seen in Karate Kid II, if you’ll forgive the reference). Since millions of city-dwellers take advantage of the Obon holidays to return home, cities like Tokyo are transformed into relative ghost towns during this season.