December 2010

Christopher Merkel


Let the Past Die: Walking with Sensei in Zōshigaya Cemetery

During a recent visit to Vancouver, British Columbia, I was told that a friend of a friend, a sometimes writer for one of Vancouver's weeklies, if I remember correctly, was available for guiding psychogeographic tours of the city. Per my friend's explanation, the psychogeography of Vancouver involved our guide, based on the credential of his mother being some kind of municipal historian, showing up late to an arbitrary meeting point, half drunk and with a beer in hand, to conduct participants on a narrated -- but not predesignated -- walk of the city. I wondered what narration could really add to what I'd already been doing for three days.

Of course, wandering adrift for the sake of intellectual stimulation is nothing new, and its categorization as a fixture of modern literary production is at least as old as the flâneur epitomized by the likes of Baudelaire and Flaubert. And although the gentlemanly character of the urban wanderer that characterized those two romantics may be lost on my particular milieu (I think it's safe to come out as a hipster now that the term doesn't really designate anything but young and urban), it's no surprise that the act of aimlessly engaging a city outside of the constrictions of planning and public transportation has struck a chord with a generation that came of age amidst the surreality of the world's re-urbanization.

I didn't avail the Vancouver tourmaster of his services. But I did return to Portland with a certain preoccupation that resisted all my best attempts to subdue it. I returned also to a copy of Lee Rourke's short story collection Everyday, the first story of which, "The Geography of a Psychopath," proved to be too much for mere coincidence. Rourke's protagonist is encouraged at the outset of the story by a work on psychogeography by Robert MacFarlane to, "unfold a streetmap of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw around its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle..." He does so, and meets a woman, a woman who has made it her mission to walk every street in London. The two of them… they do their thing. If the title of the story wasn't already enough of an indication, their thing gets heavy. But read it yourself. I'm writing about Tokyo. It just so happened that my reading of that story turned out to be the impetus behind planning what I was going to write.

In a way. At the same time as I read that story of Lee Rourke's, I also happened to be given a copy of the new English translation of Kokoro by Japanese author Natsume Sōseki (the book's by him, that's not who gave it to me). I'll confess, in the beginning, it was all very contrived. In other words, knowing that I'd soon be in Tokyo, I contrived to place my own glass, rim down, on a map of the city and walk. My glass, however, would not be placed anywhere, but rather somewhere specific. You'd never have known; I wouldn't have made it so obvious. Granted, I would never have tackled the task of learning every street within my circle (Tokyo is a tangle, planned in such a way as to make it as difficult as possible to mount an attack on the Shogun's castle, now the site of the Imperial Palace). It was, however, nearly irresistible to plan my walk around Kagurazaka, the area in north-central Tokyo where Sōseki once lived and which, incidentally, is also the center of Tokyo's publishing and printing industries. For better or worse, I gave up on the plan. Just walking seemed easier anyway, not that the theme mandated any rules to follow. You'll have to be the judge.

This, my most recent reading of Kokoro, was my third and a half. I first encountered the book as a high school exchange student. The Japanese, of course, are obliged to study their own language like we study English in the States, and so I was obliged along with my classmates to read an excerpt of Kokoro in second year "national language" class (for whatever reason, they don't call it "Japanese"). From that reading, I remember learning almost nothing but the name of the character "K." The high school I attended required that every student pass every class he took to proceed to the next year's studies, but, lucky for me, students were only required to average better than half of the class average on their midterm and final exams to pass any section. (I passed the second year of "national language" with a staggering average of 33.) I read Kokoro in its entirety for the first time as a college student as part of an introduction to modern Japanese literature, and for the second time in Japanese, for the sake of my credibility among my artistically-minded peers, during my second year studying abroad in Japan.

That I should have felt that necessity at all is testament to the importance of the book among the literary works of post-feudal Japan. Its merit as a piece of literature is often challenged: Kokoro is intensely naturalistic, and suffers from being cast as the quintessential example of the Japanese "I novel." Japanese modernists of the twenties and thirties wanted nothing if not to defy Sōseki's example in that, his most famous book. But that its title remains in the original Japanese through two translations testifies to the enduring salience of its central theme. The word kokoro means something like a fluid conglomeration of "heart," "soul" and "mind," and the aggravatingly impenetrable nuance of that idea and its attendant sentiments is spirit of the book.

In short, its characters are four: the protagonist (the ever present "I"); Sensei; Okusan, Sensei's wife; and K. The protagonist is a college student, still a very privileged position in Japanese society when Kokoro was written in 1914, and engages Sensei in a life tutorial relationship outside of his studies. Sensei is of means enough to live without working, and the details of his situation are only elucidated in the final section of the book, his confession, in which his relationship with K and -- it doesn't require much speculation -- their shared experience with Okusan, are related to the protagonist in the form of a farewell letter. The serialization of Kokoro in the Asahi newspaper happened on the heels of the death of the Meiji Emperor, the ruler who presided over Japan's foray into Western styled modernization after the Japan's imperial restoration in the late 1860s. Inasmuch, Kokoro is a plain narrative of the trials of early globalization and the speed with which cultural narratives like itself become outdated in the modern world. Sensei constantly denies his fitness as a teacher to someone of the protagonist's generation. He is, in his own words, an anachronism.

But Kokoro endures because of the ineluctability of kokoro. No one gets a final say on matters of the heart (mind or soul), and that Kokoro is a novel about that very impossibility is why the Japanese and anyone desirous of engaging them will continue to read (or be forced to read) the book. Without a copy of the first English translation, I can't pass judgment on the quality of the new one. (In all fairness, to make my load lighter, I didn't bring a copy of either.) But that has nothing to do with my walk. More important is that, unfortunately, regardless of how irresistibly readable it might have been, a contrivance simply wouldn't do. You get to the end of a book like Kokoro and the last thing you want to do is gamble on insincerity. The irony of the juxtaposition might have been interesting… but, anyway. I'll raise my glass to Kagurazaka, but that glass wouldn't, for the time being, define my course. (Get there if you can, though. It's really very charming.)

The protagonist of Kokoro and Sensei often walk, psychogeographers of a medieval city become new with streetcars and concrete. Sensei doesn't have much else to do, and our protagonist seems generally more interested in matters of the heart (mind and soul) than in his studies. On one occasion, Sensei allows his disciple along with him on a trip to Zōshigaya Cemetery, a site he visits regularly every month. It's a bit of a spoiler, I suppose, but having been just been given a complete cast of characters you've no doubt got some inkling as to why Sensei makes the trip. At the time, Zōshigaya was still outside the boundary of Tokyo's urban development, but seeing the place now it's almost impossible to imagine there having been open space there in the past one hundred years. Today, the cemetery is an easy walk from Ikebukuro station, the northwest transit hub of the Yamanote train line that runs an oblong loop through central Tokyo and beyond which the city and its suburbs now sprawl for tens of miles.

Sensei and the protagonist (I almost feel like just including myself in the story at this point and using the first person pronoun) share an awkward silence at Zōshigaya that goes unexplained until Sensei writes his confession, a personal narrative that is more or less an attempt by Sensei to justify himself on one important point: "Perhaps it is the pressure of my past, and not my own perverse mind, that has made me into this contradictory being. I am all too well aware of this fault in myself. You must forgive me." Really, who hasn't wondered, and what's there really to do but ask for forgiveness? Kokoro is touted as a representative work on the interplay of the often juxtaposed Japanese concepts of giri (duty/social responsibility) and ninjō (human emotion). What with just the protagonist and Sensei and Okusan and K it gets pretty complicated, and that's to say nothing of the relationships between the book's secondary characters and any of those four.

I start to wonder if I've set myself an impossible task. Is it possible to read the Japanese? Three and a half times through this book and I've gotten us as far as a basic understanding of terms. But what am I supposed to do with naturalist subjectivity? Let the moderns rail against Sōseki. I'm sure that among their works I can find some bit of more comprehensible absurdism -- maybe something inspired by the French. Then again, with more time than money, I could think about it all on my walk. Having given up on the contrivance of Kagurazaka, I set out for Zōshigaya instead.

First, though, a detour. I'd heard about an interesting piece of architecture in Kōenji, a public theater inside a large perforated box. Kōenji is about three miles west of the Yamanote hub at Shinjuku near where I'd taken a one room apartment for the duration of my stay in the city. I set out just before noon, and three miles seemed enough to occupy me for the early afternoon. It turns out Tokyo is smaller than I thought. A quick search tells me that the 23 wards of the city proper rank 45th in the world as far as physical area. I walked north beyond the train line that connects Shinjuku with Kōenji directly, figuring that I could just head southwest-ish when whatever time came and pay attention to the neighborhood address markers posted on electrical poles from there. I overshot Kōenji by about a half mile and ended up at Asagaya station instead. But who wants a map? Backtracking is most of the fun.

The woman at the entrance of the public theater looked excited that some foreigner had seemingly stumbled upon the place by chance; and yes, you can just go inside. For that moment, I was delighted to be as inscrutable to that woman as the Japanese sometimes seem to want to make themselves to the world. "By all means take pictures. But if you could please do so from the second floor." That's where the cafe is, and you're there and your natural inclination is just to sit down. Lunch was alright, but the light from the holes in the walls and the ceiling was beautiful. That woman and I were happily charmed by each other on my way out.

I didn't exactly know the way from Kōenji to Zōshigaya. Not exactly, anyway. You can take one of two trains to the Yamanote line and ride from there to Ikebukuro. But what a waste of good weather and 300 yen, and still to figure out something to write. Maybe I should have just sat at some restaurant in Kagurazaka. My college apartment, though, wasn't far: just north of Nakano, which is just east of Kōenji, and Ikebukuro and Zōshigaya should be just (more or less?) northeast of there. I committed myself to faith in a kind of commutative property of spatial orientation. The pressure of my past or my own perverse mind? I couldn't decide, so I kept walking.

You can't go home again, it's true. Even if home was just a shabby one room plus loft in residential west Tokyo, it looks shabbier and less welcoming after seven years' distance. I remembered friends coming over to celebrate my move into that nearly unfurnished hole and was embarrassed for myself to the point of laughing at what must have been a painfully boring evening for my guests. You laugh it off, but there's something lonely about the waning afternoon light in late November, and wow, I should try to get to Zōshigaya before dark.

I confused my route again, the second time failing to head far enough east. Luckily, I walked past a beer and wine store on a larger commercial street outside of… Mejiro, maybe?… that was flying a sign advertising Coedo beer. It took me a while to find it in the refrigerator case after going inside, but my questions about the differences between the two varieties for sale launched me into a conversation on craft beer with the seventy-something owner of the store. (Thanks, microbreweries of Portland.) She didn't need to go into as much detail as she did -- I was going to buy of can of both anyway. She was right, however: I wasn't going to find it in any of the other stores around the area. A happy surprise. She was just as surprised to learn that I went to high school not far from where Coedo is brewed in Kawagoe. And now I had beer. I could have been guiding a tour of my own.

After walking essentially parallel to and then over north of my goal, I would have been nearly lost if I hadn't come across a train line and recognized the color of a passing train. I confirmed my assumption with a construction worker: yes, I could follow it into Ikebukuro. "But the closest station is in the other direction." "No, that's OK. I'm walking." At any rate, it was probably better that I made that second detour, because the neighborhood I'd fallen upon was something much more like the streets they walked in Kokoro than the ones at my destination. Despite darkness having already fallen, and Zōshigaya being at least another hour away, I let myself enjoy the narrow quietude of the neighborhood as I made my way roundabout (the roads don't let you follow the tracks even if you want to) onto a wider thoroughfare from which the view opened up to the highrises at Ikebukuro.

I made it to the cemetery. My sense of it "being just about around there" took me through the campus of the Tokyo College of Music, the main building of which was architecturally magnificent enough to make me regret having started my day in Kōenji. I'd had no idea it was there. The twisting streets of Tokyo have a way of just putting you where you might like to be. I must have looked a mess to all of those students in the building where I started snapping photos. Truth be told, I hoped it wouldn't be long before I could drink those beers. It wasn't, thankfully, as the cemetery was only five minutes from the college; but before I made my camp and wrote my notes I made sure to ask one of the employees outside the cemetery office if there were any restrictions against walking through the graves at night. You know, duty, and social responsibility and everything. No, he told me. "But if I saw you out there in the dark I'd definitely wonder." So I wondered how many people had wondered about me today, and I thanked him.

Zōshigaya Cemetery is something, even at night, and maybe even especially. The trees are old and large, and it's a matter of fact that they're the same trees that Natsume Sōseki walked under whenever he visited. The fields around the cemetery may have been consumed by the Japanese economic miracle, but the space occupied by the graves remains stoically intact. A placard by the side of of one of the drivable roads through the cemetery lets you know that the pine tree there hints at what the area looked like when it was the site of the Shogun's falconry. I sat and drank one of my Coedos, the lighter one, on one of the sloping residential streets just outside the cemetery grounds before heading onto one of the footpaths between the graves.

It was terrifying. I don't know if I was looking there for anything besides a look back, but I'd found that without having to go rustling around the quarters of the dead. Sensei would have had no qualms about pointing out the futile pretension of that final leg of my walk. Let the past die and be done with it. Or, in other words, die with it or move on. The fundamentals of living and of interpersonal complications aren't going to be solved by a dredging up of history. The best that an older generation can do is simply point that out. In addition to the loneliness that came with that realization, all of a sudden I believed in ghosts, and was completely overcome by the question of whether turning to one side or continuing ahead would take me most quickly back to a lighted street.

I don't think I've ever been happier to get a phone call. Is it rude to answer in a graveyard? I only wonder now. In the moment, I picked up right away. "Ooh. Holy shit. I'm so glad you called. You're really helping me out." "What the hell are you doing in the cemetery in the dark?" "Um. Reportage, I guess. I'm trying to write something on Zōshigaya and Kokoro and walking the city." "Right. But what the hell are you doing in the cemetery? If we're still on for later I can get on the train now. Just let me know where you are and I'll have the staff show me to where the strange American is sitting when I get there." Well, I could use another drink -- or a few. I should have just gone with Kagurazaka. Apparently, I didn't get the real quality of sincerity anyway, which in the moment meant abandoning the flâneur and making good on a promise.

So much for trying. But I swear, my heart was in the right place. And mind and soul? I was way too tired.