Recently I seem to have signed my weekends over to what was supposed to be my hobby, but is quickly becoming my second job. Albeit one that doesn’t pay me any money.
On my way to my second job early this Sunday morning, I looked around the train to see the people around me spending their Sunday mornings asleep on a train. One in every three was a schoolkid in uniform, on their way to their second jobs.
Which is strange, because if you ask schoolkids what their hobbies are, the number 1 answer is always “sleeping”. Push them to give an answer that isn’t essential to their continued existence (breathing is not a hobby either, in my book), and they may sullenly admit that they have been playing violin since they were old enough to support their own necks and are auditioning for the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra on the weekend. Perhaps where we’re going wrong is in assuming that extracurricular interests are necessarily fun things that one does to relax.
My students’ recollections of high school are rich with tales of their club activities, the friends they made and the skills they learned, not only relating to that hobby but also the skills of teamwork, the socialisation into the world of seniors and juniors (senpai/ kohai) that will be so important in their future lives. But their stories are also surprisingly full of regret, obligation and sleeplessness. If they genuinely got out as much as much as they seem to put in, Japan would be a world leader in everything. It’s no wonder they look so surprised when I say that I did music, journalism, film andJapanese society at university, in addition to being a founder member of the Comatose Club. In Japan, there is no dabbling.
Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy taiko. It’s been raising the hairs on the back of my neck since I first heard these guys, Kodo of Sado Island, back when Japan was still a semi-mythical country for me. Coincidentally, they’re a pretty good example of the kind of dedication I’m talking about, the apprentices living together in communal buildings for two years before the initial selection to the group, and probably going for runs and cold showers in the mountains at 5am. Forget it if you just like hitting stuff.
Needless to say, our group is nowhere near as serious. But we do have four performances on four weekends this November. And there’s nothing more painful than getting up on a day without work earlier than you would get up on a day with work.
Still, I bet you’re thinking it must be pretty rock and roll, huh? Well, let me walk you through today’s performance. We opened the festival with a rousing performance of Yoake, then pushed all the drums out the way and went and stood in the cold in our traditional tiny shorts for another 45 minutes while some important business was taken care of. One of those cookie-cutter patronising-polite women with the squeaky voices introduced the twenty important-looking men and one woman sat in a circle up on stage, along with their impossibly complicated positions in the local hierarchy. One after the other, they stood up to make speeches, each less engaging than the last. The head of something or other division boasted that Funabashi’s nashi pears are more delicious than Ichikawa’s, the next town over. A smaller fellow, who’s fittingly only a vice-head, earned a smattering of applause for arguing that Funabashi’s carrots are second only to Hokkaido’s. A third man riffs on eggs, and then it’s time for all the children to come forward. Carefully please, it is easy to fall on flat, obstacle-free ground.
The suited men and woman all stand up, and start throwing rice cakes at children, not in anger but in festivity. Well-mannered chaos ensues. Remarkably, the children are actually leaving the scrum once they’ve caught a prize. Perhaps they don’t like rice cakes? Or maybe they’re ill? Next up in the fun is a 120kg tuna, which is convincingly dead and flopping around wetly on stage. It’s sliced open expertly by a town official with a samurai blade, before being sold off, raw of course, price depending on cut. By the time we finish our performance, only the head is left. The kids are lining up to have their photo taken with it.
Now that anticipation has had time to mount, Shibaroku taiko take to the stage. And we rock, and I do my best not to mess up too badly, and it’s all going so very well until I hear that annoying squeaky voice cutting through the drum I’m perfectly happily hiding behind. She’s scented fresh foreigner blood.
There are three things I hate about the inevitable gaijin interview, and they’re no longer that I stick out like a sore thumb or that I can’t answer the questions. The first is that I am usually the last person to have entered the group, and hence absolutely the worst person to call up for interview. Ask the sensei– he can tell you useful things about who we are and what we’re doing; my main focus is on not getting too much in the way. The second is that we play kumi-daiko, which means ensemble drumming: each member is as important as any other.
The third brings us neatly back to what I was whingeing about just the other month: bloody stupid questions. Here’s one I didn’t include in that particular rant: “What was your first impression when you came to Japan?” Like the others I listed at such vitriolic length in those earlier posts, honest yet prosaic answers will get you nowhere. “It was really hot”, or “You don’t bury electrical wires like we do in England” cause nothing but a chill in the air and one more stamp on the deportation point card. Well, if you won’t play the game…
It also doesn’t take into account the fact that I first came to Japan twelve years ago. Twelve years. That’s a long time in which to both forget and to learn. I can tell you a lot more interesting things from the perspective of a longer-term resident who speaks the language than any wide-eyed newbie could ever dream of. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. But then that would be rocking the boat.
I was half-tempted to say something either really stupid or really offensive. Surprised that everyone here has two arms, two legs and a head? Surprised that nobody carries swords any more, that you can’t see men in skirts with shaved heads lopping limbs off insolent peasants during your morning commute? Surprised by how ignorant people here are about other cultures, hmm? But loyalty to the group won out and I said nothing. Literally nothing, which was probably a little awkward for Squeaky-chan. But then not saying is the flower, ne?
From here on November 11th 2012.