It’s the Most Wonderful Day of the Year – errr, It’s the Most Culturally Significant Day of My Year

I’ve just had over a week off from work for Obon (go read the Wikipedia page, I’m not going to explain what it is…) and did some intense travelling on local trains during that time. In my travels I was asked by a New York family if I could explain a cultural phenomenon in Japan. To which I responded immediately, “Whaaat?” They wanted to know why so many Japanese people wear masks. I offered up the explanations I had been given and had read, that the reason could be due to concern for others’ health in a very close-quartered society (see Tokyo trains), a prevalence of hay fever, and finally, that it is also used as a fashion choice by some. They were a bit aghast at these reasons and I needed to explain each point, which made me forget to even mention the other reasons I’d heard – that some wear masks because they are mortally shy, or because they neither want to put on make-up nor be seen without it…
I believe it was at the point when I mentioned people wearing masks as a fashion choice that the conversation somehow swung to the power of the media. This is basically how it went:
Them: Why would anyone wear a mask for fashion?
Me: Well, why would anyone choose to wear school uniforms for fun? (I didn’t bother to explain that many of the poor suckers have to attend school or cram school on the weekends/in the evenings, so just because it’s after school hours is no guarantee they chose to wear their uniforms…I meant the women and girls who actually choose to wear them as fashion.)
Them: Ah, yes. Why is that…
So yes, I was the one who brought up school uniforms. From there the conversation quickly went to questions about why Japanese people seem to be so “uniformly” group-orientated. (Let’s take a moment away from these crazily biased, sweeping statements and laugh at how ridiculous it is to ask someone who’s barely been in the country five months these kinds of delicate questions. BWAHAHAHAA!! Okay, back to the broad assertions…)
In the midst of our discussion about the narrow focus and power that media is able to exert, I mentioned how when AKB48 – the enormously, outrageously popular Japanese ultra-group (I think super-groups generally have less than 20 members, right?) – held its election (that’s right folks, when your group has 48 members originally and 140 members currently, you hold elections to choose who to keep, in order to keep the fans both tantalized by the drama and as emotionally invested as possible in your grand fiscal scheme, errr I mean artistic vision), many students skipped their classes in order to watch the results. Before I even had time to consider whether it would be wise to unload the Japanese proverb “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” upon these poor tourists, the train filled with a surge of other tourists (none wearing masks, I might add) and I was swept away from our dangerously ignorant conversation.
But wait! That was only the prologue! I haven’t gotten to today yet!
I had a day at home. Then came today, Monday – the first day I had to revisit the Immigration Bureau and receive my shiny new Residence Card with the length of stay and visa status upgraded. Essentially, today was the day I was acknowledged as a resident – not just a visiting resident who could be gone in a few months. That was just the start of the day. Bear with me here, this all does have a unified theme.
I have ridiculously crazy hair – it’s curly and wavy and after it’s been wet it becomes a hundred cowlicks all vying for space on my head. I love my hair except that I love to have bangs (a fringe to you Brits), and they must be flat-ironed every morning in order to remain presentable. This has been my method forever – but now I’m in Japan, where I’m sure the humidity hasn’t dropped below 50% since summer started. Combined with the high heat, my flat-ironing is essentially rendered useless after one hour’s exposure to the elements (yes, I’ve timed it), and if I go for a swim or get rained on – too bad. Craaazy bangs – unintentional barbed wire pretzels all over my forehead. So I realized two days ago, while looking at hair salon signs, that every one had a section reading “Straight” or “Straight Perm”. What else does one do, but google Japanese Straight Perm?
Eureka. That’s why 75% of my female students’ hairdos look the same* – they’ve had their hair, or at least their bangs straightened. Bloody brilliant. Part of me was throwing up inwardly at the uniformity this kind of chemical-individuality-crushing created, but the rest of me was just rejoicing at the kind of freedom this might grant me. Why was this not a thing in my tiny rural Manitoban town?
I walked past three salons I’d found on Google Maps. All were closed, some of them closed Mondays, some still closed for Obon. I shopped my way up a Tenmaya department store, ordered a pair of shoes all the way from Tokyo and then found an open hair salon only to be told they were booked up. Back to the train station – I know train stations are magical, so I thought there was a slight chance I could find another hair salon…and so I did. Tucked away in the farthest corner, on the second floor, was a small hair salon that had one time slot left – in five hours. Five. Hours.
I tried to visit a castle even though the last thing I wanted to do was visit another one. It was closed. I walked around for an hour and then shopped my way all the way up another department store, RimF, and ate lunch at an Indian restaurant at the top. As I left, the Indo-Japanese waiter asked me if I was Japanese. Hmmm…
I went back to the station, intending to get a city map, find a movie theatre, and sit my butt down in cushy seat with glorious air-conditioning to while away the last 2.75 hours before my makeover. I asked the nice lady at the counter for a city map. And she asked me if I was Korean. I don’t know what it was today… She gave me what can only be described as a tourist brochure, not a map. Was she that thrown off that I’m not Korean? I clearly said “city map” and she clearly repeated it to me…anyways, thankfully when I asked her where a nearby movie theatre was, she was on the ball. I was at the theatre in 2 minutes flat, ready to watch some great crazy Japanese comedy or drama – I really didn’t care what it was. Just get me in there baby.
14:00. One movie only. AKB48 – The Documentary.
You’ve got to be kidding me. Really, this can’t be true. Even the nice guy selling tickets feels bad for me. “This is a samurai movie,” he tells me, pointing to the one that starts later on. I consider it. Really, if there was anywhere I could have sat in the theatre without a ticket for that half-hour, it would be a done deal…but I didn’t have anywhere to be. I was so stuffed I couldn’t even get a coffee down my gullet. My feet were still sore from my Obon over-excursions and I honestly wanted to be home napping.
“It’s okay,” I hear myself saying to the man. Like an out-of-body experience, I watch myself handing over money, 1800 yen of it, to support something I consider part of a social disease destroying the likelihood of genuinely creative musicians ever earning a proper income for their work. I try to tell myself that watching the documentary will be a cultural experience, and that I will be able to find out a little more about this AKB48 band. Maybe they are famous due to their talent, not just the media that solidifies their empire, and I’m just being a cynical, calloused individual. Because honestly, I knew very little about AKB48 besides their gaggingly-kawaii-ness, precisely automatoned dance moves and autotune sounding songs (sorry if they don’t use auto-tune, maybe because there’s up to 48 girls singing together it just sounds that way…).
I watched it, the whole thing. There was a lot of crying and a lot of footage up the skirts and focusing on the décolletage, and slow fuzzy moments dragging180820147131[1] out whenever there was any slight chance of anything that could be construed as girl-love – AKB48 members are supposedly banned from dating. Imagine the scandal – those two members are holding hands! Aaaaahhh, better put that in the documentary.
This girl’s weeping because she misses her family. Yep, tape it, zoom right in on her face, and for good measure, record her personal conversation with her father. Jeeez. I thought the point of the doc would be to present this band as something great and happy and smiling like all the stupid posters and songs and music videos they produce. Nope.
The entire farcety of this group is laid bare (or is it because that’s only what I saw?) in this documentary. The lives of these teen girls are swallowed up by dance choreography, singing and dancing and make-up and costumes. Then they have their shallow existences as media puppets threatened on live TV. There were three serious nervous breakdowns that I noticed during this documentary. I nearly walked out, after one girl completely broke down, hyperventilating and clearly beside herself for about five minutes before any of the “support” team came over to help her backstage and give her some medical attention.
Let’s recap: you have 140 members of a group, some of whom are young teenage girls. Let’s exhaust them, make them famous, shove cameras in their faces at any moment, demand perfection of them, and then put them all in front of cameras to wait for their names to be called – will they stay members of the group, superfamous, with their surrogate-family friends, or be kicked out of AKB48 as the nail that stuck up from the group? How old are they exactly? Medical attention be damned – how about some treatment for the mental issues this is going to cause?
Well, that was my take of the documentary. I’m sure I’ve stomped on a good many toes with this post and I do apologize if you’ve been offended. It’s only my personal opinion.
I was greatly relieved that in no way, shape or form did the Frozen song “Let it Go” make it into this documentary (it’s been everywhere else I go). I was also greatly surprised to hear a song that I genuinely liked, and I wish I could find you the name of it, but a quick YouTube search revealed nothing. (I already had two hours of this today, gimme a break.) If someone happens to know it, please tell me! It starts out as a great danceable electronica tune, a real banger, and then they start singing over it. That’s really all I know. Sorry.
So, today, completely consciously, I set about hammering this nail down, one grotesque experiment at a time. I changed my legal status. I changed my appearance. I even changed my entertainment.
Don’t worry, it didn’t happen. But when I get complaints about my foreign strangeness, I can tell people that I did try to fit in, one day in August. And if you ask one Indo-Japanese man, I didn’t even have to try.
*I may or may not be exaggerating.

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