Breakthroughwriting: week of 5/23/2022: Thank you, James Carpenter

I recently invited you, my readers, to send in your takes on breaking through into your writing. James Carpenter responded.

While Japan is known, in part, for its shrines and temples, these ancient places are emblematic of only one aspect of the culture; others can be gleaned from how the Japanese buy and sell land. If you purchase a house in Japan, for example, the house begins to depreciate the moment you take formal ownership of it. Like a car, the house will be essentially worthless in 30 years’ time. For this reason, not only houses but also commercial real estate of all kinds are constantly demolished and then replaced; the majority of people who buy and refurbish old houses in places like Kyoto are foreigners.

And this: A couple of years ago, an environmental group in Japan paid to install carbon emissions detectors alongside some major intersections. As cars passed, the detector would display how much carbon was emitted, and add it to the total emissions for that day. Much to the researchers’ dismay, this information evoked few reactions among local people. A consistent pattern in their responses ran like this: Humans are animals. Therefore, we are part of nature. Humans also pollute by nature. Therefore, human pollution is part of nature.

You wrote: “I’m too observant and cynical to write the standard Old Woman Talks About the Losses of Age and then has an Epiphany story” I fear that this essay is already lapsing into the well-worn cliché of an American ex-patriot “looking back;” yet, I can’t help but think that a unique feature of the USA is the belief that history has a telos. Especially for my progressive friends, the obvious fact that society is no longer improving in so many aspects of our civic life has been heart-breaking. The subtle aspect of Japanese culture I just tried to illustrate—that such features of our experience as destructiveness, waste, desire, etc., may be flaws but are also fixed in us—would strike these same friends as offensive and wrong.

I do think, however, that living with an acknowledgement of what is immutable in human nature has advantages. For example, the Confucian belief that if everyone acts in accordance with what they are—where a teacher strives to conform to an ideal of a teacher, a politician, an ideal politician, a janitor, an ideal janitor, etc., offers a foretaste of the “Asian work ethic,” and a very ancient recipe for social harmony. That Americans fundamentally do not seem to want harmony might be my final “American ex-pat” observation for the day.

When I first came to Japan I became obsessed—narcissistically, but unsurprisingly—with a documentary about a young man coming to Japan for the first time. I now think that that documentary was fundamentally about detoxification…from fear. The young man left his job to live in Okinawa and study Karate. Poor performance in the dojo motivated his instructor to invite the young man to perform manual labor in his yard. In the film, the instructor says, “Sometimes such training is necessarily.”

At the end of the documentary, the young man smiles dreamily at the camera and says (I’m paraphrasing): “I realized that I don’t have to standout; that I don’t have to be the best. I realized that I can just live.” People gushed in the comments section about the ancient wisdom he received. The simple fact that the young man had really, quite simply, learned to act more Japanese was apparently lost in translation. I think this documentary is about detoxification from fear: A particular, western kind of fear; a fear that I recognized, first and foremost, in myself.

I’m not afraid that the telos of American history is an illusion, I’m afraid that it is very real but that I have failed to step into its flow. I’m afraid that while I could be more in this life, any chance to become so will inevitably be denied me by unseen forces with real power. Like that young man, I still want to stand out and be recognized—to act like I’ll live forever.  Can I learn to be more Japanese?





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