Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Global Circus, Part II: Caine

Japan’s a strange place! Pick-up any old travel brochure for the tiny country and there seems to be a major emphasis on formality; it’s all Geisha’s serving tea and the carefully manicured gardens in temples on Mt Fuji. Likewise, pictures of Tokyo all feature men in dark suits rushing for trains, and elegantly dressed, beautifully manicured women in sparkling jewellery and evening gowns. It’s as if the whole country is marketed as a place to go for perfect lines, order and neatness.

The traditional aspect of Japan gets a real pounding, too. Back in the ‘80s, when the Yen was going gang-busters and Australians had decided that “the Japs” were OK now, especially seeing as though they’d developed a love-affair with our coastlines and were willing to throw their hearty wallets into the experience, every kid with near-sighted, socially-climbing parents was forced to learn Japanese at school and pushed into a career in tourism. Consequently, literature and movies about Japan began to emerge, and in each one of them we were exposed to a culture characterised by formality and unquestioning respect for one’s elders (especially for one’s father). We learned that Japanese families were held together by tradition, and that honour and order were qualities to be highly prized.

As Japanese Corporations continued to rise and dominate international business, we also came to learn about a corporate culture in which young Japanese would compete for graduate positions, and once established in a corporation, would remain there, wearing there neatly-pressed, plain business suits, working 20 hour days with only a fortnight’s holidays each year, for the rest of their working life. Loyalty and respect to the Corporation was highly valued, as was anonymity and conformity, and it all contributed to the economic super power that was 1980s Japan.

Consequently, as outsiders, we came to recognise the Japanese as being a well- and sensibly-dressed, perfectly groomed, impeccably mannered and … well … stuffy race of people, and indeed that was my idea of them when I landed on the shores of Samoa in the late ‘90s; a volunteer with a limited world view and looking for adventure.

I found it in the bosom of the large, and eclectic volunteer community which comprised we seven, fairly young Australians, all out looking for a good time; three ancient, cantankerous, life-bitter Kiwis; about fifty small-town, ultra-right Christian, US Peace Corps; a handful of stand-offish, well heeled, superior UN volunteers; and twenty of the most whacked-out, extreme, 24-hour party-people from Japan.

It wasn’t long before I discovered where the Japanese hung-out by day; a squat, three-story fibro apartment block in the centre of town which looked more like an American College frat house than a Corporation office (the Japanese volunteer program refers to itself as a corporation). Any day of the week, hard-core metal would be blaring from the massive speakers mounted on the balcony (Sony, of course), and young Japanese would be lounging around in various states of undress on ripped sofas that had been ejected from the building onto the front lawn. A thick, pall of cigarette smoke would surround the seedy-looking, chain-smoking youngsters, no doubt recovering from the massive party they’d thrown on Monday night.

But despite the loud, relaxed, celebratory scene at Corporation Headquarters on any given day, it was at night that these young, hipsters really went nuts. It wasn’t difficult to get to know the Japanese volunteers; they’d be present, en masse, at any party going, on any given night. And there was certainly no missing them. Far from dressing in the staid, pressed, formal suits I’d been led to expect of the most formally attired race in the world, the Japanese volunteers generally wore some pretty out-there threads; for the guys it was generally ripped, studded, graffitied denim, tatty, fraying t-shirts and thongs, while the girls sported tartan micro-minis with decoration safety pins, garish, slashed stockings and provocatively ripped, cropped t-shirts.

Punk certainly wasn’t dead amongst the Japanese volunteers, as attested not only by their clothes, but also by their avante guarde approach to grooming. Gone were the neatly parted, short backs-and-sides, and clean-shaven mugs of the Corporate gents; these lads had dirty, matted hair reaching three quarters of the way down their backs, and long, scruffy beards that any 1970s martial arts movie grand master’d be proud of. And the girls had forsaken the shiny, long, black, straight hair of the office for bright pinks, blues, greens, oranges and beaded braids. And amongst the whole ensemble, whether male or female, was a collection of metal the likes of which could sink an ocean liner – these guys had piercings on just about every appendage and orifice going. How they managed international air travel is beyond me – I am just glad I never got stuck behind one of them at the metal detectors.

And it wasn’t just their appearance which distinguished our Japanese colleagues from the rest of the volunteers, it was they way they partied! It wouldn’t matter how long the party had been going for, the Japanese volunteers would always be completely wired on booze and fags, and going nuts on the dance floor to the heavy beats. They’d be yelling, screaming, laughing and smiling – they really knew how to have a great time.

So how could I have been so wrong about Japan and its people? How could I have thought it was all conformity, commitment and commerce, when I had these … animals in front of me, partying like it was their last night on earth?

Well as it happens, another great quality of the Japanese volunteers was that they were very open and friendly, so before long I came to understand a bit more about them. Each and every one of them did, in fact, belong to a corporation in Japan, having joined after college and having put in the long hours, day after day, wearing the pressed suits and parting their hair in order to be promoted up the ladder to a level at which the Corporation agreed to sponsor them for one or two years as a volunteer in a developing country. Many of them saw the opportunity as their last great “hoorah”, before returning to Japan, and really knuckling-down to work, marriage, family, a mortgage, crowded trains and dark suits … and they were all committed to giving the experience an almighty nudge while they still could.

As the years went by, I came to recognise these traits in many young Japanese abroad, not only volunteers. Out on The Trail, I met many Japanese back-packers who had decided to take a year off from the corporate grind in order to see the world, and almost always, the girls wore bright, funky clothes and smoked like chimneys, and the guys grew their hair and beards long. While the girls often travelled in twos and threes, and could generally be found dancing in bars to loud music, I noticed that the guys would often travel alone, and would assume an air of quiet dignity. I eventually came to recognise this persona in many of these young men, with their matted hair, long beards and John Lennon glasses, as they attempted to pass themselves off as wizened, travelling sages on some kind of wandering, spiritual journey in search of the truth of life.

At first I was sucked-in by the stories of these higher-planed enigmas, such as the young man who, in order to save money on entry permits, risked imprisonment in a Chinese labour camp by hiding in the woods to skirt around border crossings, or the guy who shaved his head and face to pass himself off as a Tibetan monk as he spent three years studying in a mountain monastery (I now know this to be a centuries old story of the first foreigner to study Buddhism in Tibet). But eventually, I came to understand a little more about Japan; about the safe, privileged family environment, and the rigid corporate culture that these young men had come from, and I came to realise that, far from being the spiritually enlightened and centred souls that they portrayed, they were just as insecure and out-to-impress as the rest of us.

Over the years, I met many of these young Japanese men who claimed to be wandering the world on a spiritual quest for the answers to life’s mysteries, but there was one that I met which really hit home to me just how ridiculous this invented persona really is, and I would like to introduce you to him as the main attraction in the Global Circus Big Top today.

It was the 29th December, 1999. I was holidaying in a budget, beach-side resort with the future Mrs Donkey, and a fluffy-haired friend of mine, and we were naturally gearing-up for the big party that would herald the meltdown of all the machines and computers in the world. For three days we’d joined about fifteen other, like-minded young people in a beer- and music-fuelled binge which was definitely gaining momentum.

During this time, through all the raucous laughter, dancing and singing, I’d noticed a young, wild-haired, bearded Japanese man sitting cross-legged in the corner of the room. He had not spoken to another soul in three days, but instead simply watched-on as we got louder and drunker, and from time to time, nodded knowingly to himself.

So by this day, I was suitably drunk enough to have few remaining inhibitions, so I staggered over to engage with this young fellow. He spoke and answered my questions haltingly, with short, three word statements, annoyingly punctuated with pauses which I assume he felt added weight and mystery to his persona.

After a while, my fluffy-haired friend staggered over to join us, just as this enigma was telling me about himself,

“I have been travelling [pause] for many months”, he informed us.

“Cool”, says I, “I love travelling”.

Ignoring me, he continues, “I travel [pause] alone”.

Fluffy drunkenly pipes-up, “You’re like Caine, that guy from the TV show, Kung Fu. He wanders the world alone … can you do Kung Fu?”, and with that, Fluffy leaps into a flying kick before hitting the deck in a drunken crash to hoots of laughter from everyone present … except Caine.

“I do not [pause] approve of violence”, he replies, “I am searching for [pause] truths”.

“Huh?”, Fluffy and I grunt in unison.

“I am writing [pause] a story”, he says.

“Oh yeah? Cool”, says I, “What kind of story?”.

Caine fixes me in his weighty gaze “I am writing [pause] a Millennium story”.

Just then, the future Mrs Donkey sends out a sharp, high-pitched scream as Fluffy, having been in the act of taking a sip of beer, suddenly sprays her in a golden mist of laughter, “Well you’d better get on with it, Mate, you’ve only got two days”, and then turns to me, “What a twat!”.

Caine says nothing. He rises, and wanders off into the trees.

To this day, we are none the wiser as to whether Caine’s Millennium [pause] story was ever written, but no doubt the long hours of data entry in a poorly-lit, open-plan office alongside an army of well groomed, dark-suited, fellow data entry clerks on his return home to Japan may have proved an insurmountable barrier to the development of this truly remarkable breakthrough in modern literature.


Given a scowl, some odd garments an air of self assuredness, any insecure youngster can travel the world pretending to find the truth to life’s mysteries, just like Kwai Chang Caine. Pic: http://media.monstersandcritics.com

1 comment:

sabrina said...

Merry Christmas darling!