Letter from Japan #9


Dear Bob,

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The season of epic thunderstorms, community events, vacations for all. This plus my impending change to part-time has revealed stores of energy and ideas heretofore buried in the monotony of full time (which I really can’t do for long unless it’s my calling). I think my students have noticed too as some of the younger ones have started addressing me with the“-chan” honorific (which according to Wikipedia is used toward children, close friends, and youthful women!), and the older ones have asked me which of the high school boys I would date, which is weird and I refuse to answer, but I’ll take it. I can’t wait to see their faces when I tell them I’m 30 this month!

For my week vacation I drove to Hiroshima prefecture and city. I’ll call it a field trip since it was an educational and immersive experience and not enjoyable in the traditional sense. It happened to coincide with that missile-measuring between Trump and Kim Jong Un, so now I feel like knowing how to best survive a nuclear fallout is something I should maybe know a bit about. My most reasonable friend back home said I shouldn’t worry, but then a few days later I wake up to a message by this friend that said now I can start, because NK missile had just launched a missile over Japan. I don’t know how seriously to take all this. All I know is that being the only one to leave out of fear feels unconscionable.


Visiting Hiroshima was pretty surreal as there is no indication that it was ever a nuclear wasteland in many of the survivors’ lifetimes, other than the preserved A-bomb dome and the surrounding area which has been turned into a Peace Park Memorial. Besides that it’s just like any other modern (even moreso), thriving, green city in Japan. That’s on the surface anyhow. My friend from Hiroshima says that locals have a quite twisted sense of humour and an unusual fascination with death and violence.  It made me think back to my kids in Korea who were also obsessed with death and violence and would joke about it constantly. I wonder if this is how the pain manifests generations later after a singular trauma like that, like a coping mechanism to address what is close to home without having to confront it directly. Or maybe I’m just projecting my preferred coping mechanism.


This friend happened to be in Hiroshima visiting his family at the same time. He’d come back home for Obon, which is the annual Buddhist tradition of welcoming back the spirits of deceased relatives. Japan makes a huge deal of their dearly departed. In addition to a wake and a funeral, there is a memorial service every 7 days after the death until the 49th, and one more on the 100th day. Then there is the communal anniversary during Obon on which there is a memorial service on the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th year after a family member dies. My friend had come back for the first Obon since his father’s death, which I didn’t know when he responded to me request to hang until we were at his father’s grave with his family and he was hugging his father’s gravestone (not traditional Japanese custom).

Later he asked me something I’ve tried to avoid thinking about, at least in this way:

“You know, you’re a superstar in Japan. How do you feel about that?”

Well, I am aware my presence is a novelty but I prefer to think of it more like with Western culture being as pervasive as it is while actual Westerners being so rare, that the sight of one is like seeing an animal in a zoo for the first time, but the cages are open and you are also an animal and… and eventually they’ll all mingle….and I’m bad at metaphors. It’s something you get used to is what I’m saying. But ever since he asked that I started thinking of it through this filter of reverse racism (can I call it that?). Am I being treated differently, even once the novelty has worn off, and cared for and about like an exotic and/or endangered animal? It made a bit paranoid. I started noticing things like how when I have an awkward language barrier-related encounter, it’s the Japanese person who apologizes profusely and seems so embarrassed, like I’m not the one in their country not speaking their language.

I’ve considered staying longer for what I am afraid now is the reason that’s life is easy (on the surface). If I do, maybe I have to accept that the way people treat me is not necessarily standard and that being here will always and forever be a privilege in that sense. Staying might only ever amount to a pale imitation of belonging, and a deep undetectable loneliness might be the sacrifice I’d have to make. Maybe not though. Maybe I just have to find my people, as is the case wherever I am.


Anyway, I came back to Sasayama in time for the yearly Dekansho festival. My students had been asking me months before if I was going like it was a big deal, and it was so much more impressive than what I had imagined, for anywhere let alone a town half the size of Nanaimo. There was song and dance, all of Japan’s most famous food (not a sushi in sight), games, fireworks, and what felt like the half the city in attendance. And it’s even famous in the region, with politicians from Osaka and Kyoto coming out for it. And it’s not really FOR anything. Actually no one really knows for sure how it started, but I have it on good authority (one of my students is the Mayor’s secretary) that it originated as a party on the beach by a small group of students from Sasayama who were studying philosophy at the University of Tokyo. The word itself  – Dekansho – is said to be a portmanteau of three famous philosophers (Guess!). So there’s your relevant cherry on top of this month’s letter.


Russell’s Teapot (repost from 2006)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Russell’s teapot was an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, to refute the idea that the onus lies somehow upon the sceptic to disprove the unfalsifiable claims of religion. In an article entitled Is There a God?, commissioned (but never published) by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Russell said the following:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

In his book A Devil’s Chaplain, Richard Dawkins developed the teapot theme a little further:

The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.

Similar concepts to Russell’s teapot are the Invisible Pink Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

See also