December 2011

Christopher Merkel


The Times In Which We Live

A popular axiom about Japanese culture -- used even by the Japanese to talk about themselves -- attempts to describe Japan's laissez faire approach to religion by stating that the Japanese are born Shinto, married Christian and die Buddhist. Along the way the Japanese may also attend a variety of functions at Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples as deemed sufficient for the relief of their anxieties over safety, success in school, promotion at work, or general prosperity (although, granted, they'll probably only ever find themselves in a church for a wedding).

It would be a sweeping generalization to say that the Japanese don't have much use for codified morality other than for, say, the pretty picture that a given system might help them to paint of a bride in her white dress next to her husband-to-be in his tuxedo, both of them standing at an altar under the vaulted ceiling of a building that probably hasn't ever been used for a mass. But it isn't as if the Japanese hide their motivations, because the newlyweds will probably (and proudly) show up to their reception in traditional Japanese costumes -- and then to the after party (or parties) in entirely different sets of eveningwear. No. They make no mistakes, and they have no qualms (and their costumes are flawless to boot).

It would be a sweeping generalization, but it wouldn't be unjustified, because, in fact, it's descriptive of the Japanese, well, in general. It's hazardous, however, because, even if the Japanese don't have much use for, say, Christian dogma outside of their nuptial rites, it isn't that they're unfamiliar. Not at all. For as much as the rigidity of the Japanese education system might be criticized, ethics courses are a compulsory part of secondary education, and the Japanese are broadly and admirably acquainted with a wide range of belief systems. Unfortunately, saying so doesn't go so far as to make a statement on Japanese morality itself, to say what the Japanese actually believe.

So thank God, or give alms at your local temple, or pray to whichever animistic Shinto deity you deem worthily responsible, for the appearance in translation of a book like The Shadow of a Blue Cat by Naoyuki Ii.

It would be a sweeping generalization to say that Yuki Yajima, the narrator and protagonist of The Shadow of a Blue Cat is indelibly Japanese, but his story and his mode of storytelling seem hardly possible outside of the touted complications (or, perhaps, total obscurity for the non-Japanese observer) of modern Japanese ethics. And although Yuki's ponderings of his and his family's social and economic situations don't exactly constitute a cultural theory of Japan in the latter half of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first, they do offer an incredibly straightforward picture of the complications that have always excited and confounded those cultural theorists who have attempted to explain modern Japan. Circularity? Sure. But at least here the horse's mouth is the one chasing its tail.

The Shadow of a Blue Cat is the story of a man. A man in his fifties with a family. A man who has experienced the apex and the degeneration of the Japanese economic "miracle" both from within the confines of the Japanese corporate establishment and from the uncertain world beyond its auspices. This man was once tangentially involved with the student protests of the late sixties (that last hurrah of baby boomers around the world before they braced themselves for the oil shocks and resigned themselves to the accumulation of wealth), but now faces the upheaval of the traditional social unit within his own family. After reestablishing his foothold in the middle class after a forced resignation from his former employer, his bright teenage daughter is on the brink of delinquency. He never gives in to the invitations he gets from the women trying to pull customers into the hostess clubs along the road he walks from the offices of his small company to the bustling transportation hub of Shibuya station in Tokyo, but he also draws back from physical displays of affection with his wife in front of his daughter. In addition to its intimate connection with the bubble economy of the late eighties and early nineties, his story touches on events like the Kobe earthquake and the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. In fact, the story might almost save anyone interested in Japanese social issues from the last three decades the trouble of having to identify what those issues were. The slice of life presented in The Shadow of a Blue Cat is a veritable catalog of the troubles that the collective of Japanese society encountered as it struggled to realize its rhetoric of a universal middle class.

And therein lies the sticking point. We have the picture, but what of the picture that Naoyuki Ii paints of Yuki Yajima within it? Fifty-one-year-old Yuki announces that he's giving his testimony as if he were delivering it to his uncle, the man who was responsible through his influence for his nephew's intellectual and sexual awakenings, an adventurer who died -- perhaps intentionally -- in a car accident at the age of thirty-nine. "I've gotten into the habit," Yuki says in retrospect near the end of his story, "of putting questions to this man who's no longer with me. I don't ask out loud -- nor, of course does he ever answer." "It was through him," he says, "that I learned about the Marquis de Sade and Norman Mailer... But when I brought up authors like J.D. Salinger or Kaoru Shoji, he showed no interest. And he never knew that Gabriel Garcia Márquez or Haruki Murakami even existed." But we do. And Yuki does. And Yuki wonders if his uncle wasn't lucky to have been spared, "living in a fifty-year-old body with a fifty-year-old-mind and having fifty-year-old sex... the IT revolution... obsessively faddish teenage girls... Japan's economic bubble... the religious cults in the news." But his ultimate conclusion? "None of us can overtake those who have proceeded us in death."

And maybe presenting that fateful conclusion without a more detailed backstory is getting too far ahead too quickly and doesn't do justice to Yuki's experience over the course of his story. But he seems to have laid out the same determinism from page one:

Now if a reader were to say that it's unsettling to have someone who's passed the half-century mark presenting himself as the narrator of a novel styled after the young writers of a generation ago, I'd have to agree he has a point. But however much I may agree, I expect to press ahead in exactly such a style, for as I struggle to come to terms with my fifty-something self, it has become all too uncomfortably clear to me that a style more suited to a man my age simply doesn't exist.

To which authors' style Naoyuki Ii is referring through that testimony of his character's is a point of supposition. Inasmuch then, it shouldn't be too awful to suppose that The Shadow of a Blue Cat might have taken some influence from a generation of writers that came even before the one specified by the narrator. Or, suppose even that it's purely supposition, but The Shadow of a Blue Cat does seem to bear certain similarities, both tonally and thematically, with the naturalism of Japan's early modern tradition.

Or perhaps just with one book specifically. And maybe it's only that Natsume Soseki's Kokoro is too canonical to escape easy reference, but Yuki's retrospective tale of a nation experiencing the growing pains of changing times is strongly reminiscent of the story that Soseki tells through the unconventional mentorship of his "I" character under his "Sensei" during the time when Japan was making its final integration into the modern world in concurrence with the extinction of its transitional generation. Not only do both Kokoro and The Shadow of a Blue Cat prominently feature the testimonies of their protagonists' mentors as elements of their plots, but both are also highly conscious of the passing of one era to the next with the passing of Japan's emperors. As in Kokoro the mentor of the protagonist is a symbol concurrent with the mores of the Meiji Emperor (its first since its nineteenth-century modernization), in The Shadow of a Blue Cat Yuki's uncle represents an era entirely distinct from the one in which Yuki experiences most of his dilemmas: "My uncle never knew the 1980s. My father died on New Year's Day of 1989 -- the year Emperor Hirohito died only one week later. You don't normally get to choose when you're going to die, but I figure these two did pretty well."

Then again, maybe that supposition would be more rightly called a stretch. So what if both books happen to have similar elements of plot and both realistically narrate the conditions of two Japan's in uncomfortable social transition? The title of The Shadow of a Blue Cat in its English translation by Wayne P. Lammers is taken from a poem by Japanese poet Sakutaro Hagiwara, a line of which figures into the story of Yuki's attempts to connect with his daughter. That Sakutaro Hagiwara was a modern poet who went on to spearhead the so called "return to Japan" movement that not so coincidentally coalesced with the Japanese ultranationalist government's program to have Japanese literature glorify the expansionist state of the 1930s probably bears no significance to Ii's novel either. That we should grab at straws to try to make meaningful connections or shore up the significance of an experience based on a system of belief or an established tradition probably doesn't usually make much sense, but when things don't make sense within the scheme that we've been given, it's an easy thing to do. In Yuki's words: "Like so many other things, I could blame it on the times in which we live, but I suppose that would only sound like a lame excuse."

And although Yuki delivers that caveat early in his narrative, it's given at the head of his story to introduce the attitude to which he's ultimately resigned at its end. He'd love for things to make sense like the rest of us. For things to be fair. He searches himself for a rationale and engages his family and his colleagues in a discourse on the conflicts between individual and universal love, eros versus agape. But in the end, for him, its resignation -- to the best that he can do for himself and his family. (The middle class is dead... long live the middle class!) When his teenage daughter gets pregnant by another minor, despite the desires of the father's family for a marriage with a ceremony, Yuki is content so long as the couple understands the social significance of having the child they've decided to keep. Although Yuki does reminisce about the days when the new year seemed to mean something more, on the New Year's Day that transpires during the present day action of the book, his family doesn't go together to make its annual first of the year visit to a shrine. And getting over his obsession with fairness might make him rich.

Is Yuki Yajima moral? Is there a moral to his story? Maybe it's that we should thank God -- or give alms at our local temples, or pray to whichever animistic Shinto deity we deem worthily responsible -- that he hasn't proselytized to us and we've simply been left to our lots. Which might not be fair. And saying that a refusal of universal ethics (a refusal based on a thorough consideration of the possibility of the same) is the ethic of the Japanese probably isn't fair either. But maybe it wasn't fair to begin with to confine Yuki Yajima's story to Japan -- although we wouldn't have had his story without it. And without that, we might never have had to consider that, believe it or not, the shadow of that blue cat might stalk us all. But you could have your wedding wherever you want.

Asleep in the night of this sprawling city
is the shadow of a lone blue cat.
The shadow of a cat telling the sad story of humanity.
The blue shadow of the happiness we never cease to pursue.
What shadow is it that I seek
in longing for Tokyo even on days of sleet,
huddled cold against a backstreet wall?
What is he dreaming of -- this beggar of a man?