Anthropology big screen, little screen, ipod The Floating Kingdom West of the Pacific Ocean


It’s never easy to become old. Whether one is looking for a job at Walmart to supplement social security in the USA or attempting to define one’s self within a new social context in another society, the process of aging is one that comes with a slew of changes, discomforts, and fears. This is as true in Japan as it is in every other human nation. The process of aging and becoming old in Japan is a cultural experience that exerts pressure upon the individual social constructs which seniors have spent a lifetime building. Aging in Japan is a process in which social pressures upon the elderly manifest as a fear of becoming obsolete and being discarded. This fear and social pressure are visibly represented as the attempts to stave off boke, a condition similar to dementia, and within the trepidation the elderly in Japan feel while living “in the shadow of Obasuteyama.”
The film Narayama Bushiko is a film adaptation of a legend that has been told for many generations in Japan. In the film, a village woman ages and in the process forces family members to deal with issues of responsibility, fear, and changing social status. The protagonist, Orin, is a woman who has reached the age where villagers either die or are taken to the mountain of the Gods, Obasuteyama, where they are abandoned. The problem is that Orin is too healthy to die on her own and her son is not enthusiastic about abandoning his useful and healthy mother in the wilderness. In this situation, a healthy woman is forced into a societal role that doesn’t really fit her and in the process a caring son is forced to come to terms not only with the life of his mother, but also with his own inevitable aging.
Among the more interesting facets of this rich film are the attempts that healthy Orin makes to fit with the societal standard surrounding a woman of her age. Villagers, among them her own grandson, mock her for her healthy teeth and so she brutally knocks her teeth out so that she can fit within the societal expectation of an old person having bad teeth. One could easily point to gateball, a leisure pastime reserved for the elderly in Japan, as another societal expectation. Gateball, like bad teeth, is something that the elderly are expected to have in their lives.

…most people who participate in gateball are over the age of sixty-five.
(Traphagan. 2000 pp. 125)

In fact, like having bad teeth, those under the age of sixty-five often express embarrassment at playing a game that is for the elderly. The obverse of this is also true in that the elderly in Japan are embarrassed at not fitting within the expected societal roles that have been culturally laid down for them.
In the film Aging in Japan: When Traditional Mechanisms Fail there is an old woman that reminded me of Orin. This woman is healthy and probably performs a variety of functions for her children and their families at home, but since she has become old, she feels that she is more of a burden than an asset. As a result of this feeling of loss of social position, the woman removes herself from her home life and essentially moves into a 24-hour bath house. This action is roughly comparable to Orin forcing her son to carry her to the mountain because of her fear of being physically alive but socially dead. Orin is insistent that she be taken at the proper time because of the shame that she was forced to bear when her husband refused to take his own mother to the mountain. This fear of being elderly and obsolete in Japan seems to be pervasive within the society and thus in his book Taming Oblivion, John Traphagan refers to older people who are devalued for becoming aged as if it is the result of a personal failure. Traphagan’s work is primarily aimed at the active attempts that modern day seniors make at remaining engaged within the adult framework through using activities such as gateball to maintain social roles and thus retain the right to social and economic support from their children as a legitimate reciprocal relationship.
The process of becoming disengaged from this framework involves ‘taming oblivion’, in this case the oblivion referred to is boke. Boke is similar to other mental and/or physical dementia but is seen to be within the control of the individual suffering from it, at least to some degree. By being active, one can stave off its effects.
The moral content of boke is tied to an individual’s social responsibility to bea n active, contributing member of society by taking care of one’s physical and mental health, to avoid situations that burden others, and to return the obligations one incurs through relationships of interdependence with others. (Trapahagan 2000. pp 4)
It would seem that the mental and physical elements of boke are thus to stay busy and active both socially and physically. Traphagan says that those suffering from boke are “ a liminal being who has lost control over the values that make one a moral person.” (Traphagan 2000. pp 5)
Of course, there would seem to be some very real differences between the senior citizens that Traphagan is describing and Orin in Narayma Bushiko. Orin is anxious to be taken to the mountain so that she can leave all of her societal roles and responsiblilities behind. Orin has been through the female life changes, she has been married, had children, and become an old woman. She has experienced the kounenki, or female life changes associated with aging (Yano. Classnotes. 11/08). And now, she is trying to convince her son and her village that she has become an obsolete old person, just as she has presumably seen other old people become. This is very different from the old people whom Traphagan talks to and about who seem, for the most part, to be afraid of being taken to the mountain, i.e. they are afraid that they are becoming old and obsolete. While Traphagan’s people all seemed to have a dignity that came with their senior age, they would seem to be more in the role of a villager’s father in Narayama Bushiko than of Orin. The father has become old and bothersome to his family so he is kept locked up in a back room and then finally taken to the mountain where his son throws him off a cliff. I think that the distinction between Orin and the father is important to make. Orin approaches her destiny and insists on leaving before she can become a burden while the father insists on staying and being a burden. Thus, Narayama Bushiko functions as a morality tale in which people in Japan are encouraged to ‘go to the mountain’ willingly. Thus, they really are ‘living in the shadow’ of the mountain.
Taming Oblivion, Narayama Bushiko, and Aging in Japan: When Traditional Mechanisms Fail are all three about fear of losing one’s place and esteem within society. Older people in Japan don’t want to be abandoned and rather than placing an expectation upon those around them to take care of them, they have an understanding of the legend of Obasuteyama that when they are unable to contribute in a positive and productive way, they are no longer necessary and in fact are likely to become a burden to those they most value. They do not want this. Instead, they strive to stay active, productive, useful, and fully embodied.
To become boke is to have failed in one’s responsibility to care for oneself and thus, to remain a member of the social world. (Traphangan 2000. pp182)
In a culture which places such a heavy stress on social relationships, it must be unbearable to think of becoming a burden and a failure.
…one should always be making efforts to be a good individual and, thus, contribute to the social whole, and the fatalistic reality that decline and entrance into the oblivion of senility may rob one of the agency needed to do so. (Traphagan 2000.pp 184)
Rather than allowing such a thing to happen, seniors in Japan are more likely to make a trip to the mountain whether it is in the form of gateball, 24-hour bathhouses, or the modern day equivalent of going to the mountain, senior suicide.

big screen, little screen, ipod The Floating Kingdom West of the Pacific Ocean

Film Review: The Family Game (Kazoku Geemu)

Shattering the Rules: Deconstructing the The Family Game (Kazoku Geemu)

The Family Game (Kazoku Geemu), a film by Yoshimitsu Morita, is, on the surface, the story of a contemporary Japanese family who hires a tutor to help the youngest son raise his grades so that he can get into a better high school. Beneath the surface of the film, however, there is considerably more happening. This is not just the story of Shigeyuki, but also the story of his family, his tutor, and more importantly, it is the story of the society that he lives in and the rigid expectations that are placed upon the roles that each person inhabits. The Family Game examines the roles played by each member in a contemporary Japanese family and then proceeds to deconstruct each of these roles down to their cores; using this framework, Yoshimitsu Morita deconstructs Japanese society ,the roles individuals are expected to play, and whether such a hierarchical system is working within the Japanese family or nation.
To understand each of the roles that individuals in The Family Game inhabit, one must look beyond the structure of the Japanese family to the structure of Japanese society. Embedded within Japanese culture is the concept of wareware or we-ness that permeates all levels of society (Yano class notes 09/02/08). Japan is a country that has a very distinct interpretation of who and what it is. These theories of being Japanese or nihonjinron, are the result of Japan’s history, geography, and the unique cultural evolution which arose from these circumstances. Japanese culture is arranged in a vertical structure with a strong emphasis on the rights and responsibilities of each individual at each point on a metaphorical ladder of society. The Japanese refer to this as tate-shakai. At the same time that the individual is defined through tate-shikai, they are also expected to engage in shudan-shugi, or groupism. Shudan-shugi is not only expected among those sharing a particular ladder rung in society, but also for all of those who are in the society, regardless of the social or class position. This holds true in the relationships that are macro such as the individual to the government and in those that are micro such as parent to child relations or teacher to student relations. There is a rigid hierarchy in tate-shakai that is expected to be met in order to affirm the greater discoursive construct of wareware within Japanese society. (Yano classnotes 09/02/08.)
The fundamental unit in Japanese society is the family unit. The family unit is, to some extent a model of the nation in a smaller form. This concept is referred to as kazuka kokka (Yano classnotes 09/04/08). At its root this system is more concerned with positions and obligations rather than emotional bonds and as such it is easy to recognize the critique of the larger Japanese society that exists within the framework of Morita’s film. The Family Game looks at the roles and obligations of each member of the family and raises questions about the validity of those roles. In doing so, the film questions the basic tenets of Japanese society through couching of the specific roles into the format of a game in which each member of the family has rules to which their behavior is supposed to adhere.
The mother in the film and within Japanese society is expected to be the source of comfort and dependency. She acts as a shield from the outside world and makes sure that her family has everything they want, even if she may be aware that it is not what they need. When Shigeyuki pretends to be sick, his mother rolls out his futon and allows him to skip class, even though she knows that he is probably avoiding a test. Her role is to comfort not to confront. Even when Shigeyuki comes home early and interrupts her conversation with a neighbor, she drops what she is doing and focuses all of her energy on meeting his demands. In one scene, she laments having children because of all the things that she wanted to do with her life before she became a mother. The implication is that because of the roles she had to fill as a mother, these other options were no longer available to her.
The father on the other hand is distant. While his presence is perhaps felt more strongly felt than that of a tanshin funin, or stranger father, he is still an outsider in the lives of his children. (Yano class notes 09/04/08.) He is a workman that drinks too much and is unable to have a strong impact on his family in any way other than through being the provider. Rather than having the time to force Shigeyuki to study, stop malingering, or even defend himself from bullies, the father is relegated to the role of hiring a tutor and using his savings to bribe the tutor into raising Shigeyuki’s exam scores. Within his own home, the father is actually an outsider, thus fulfilling the role of the tanshin funin. When he wants to have a private moment or conversation with his wife or with the tutor, he invites them to sit in his car with him. One could easily reason that his home is actually within the vehicle.
Within the Japanese family there are expectations on the children as well. The older brother, Shinichi, is expected to act as a role model to Shigeyuki. From the father’s point of view, it is Shinichi that has performed his role well as an older brother by achieving high enough grades to attend a good high school. In the early parts of the film, the father uses Shinichi as an example to his brother and holds him up as a superior model that should be emulated. This is at the stage before the tutor has started to make an impact. Prior to this impact Shigeyuki is a coddled child that is indulged in his every whim by his mother. He is bullied and beat up on at school with no apparent effort to defend himself. He allows his grades to slide despite possessing an intellect that allows him to create complex roller coasters in his spare time.
The role of the tutor is a break from these traditional roles. Unlike the teacher at the school, the tutor does not limit himself to the roles that his society sets for him. On page 37 of Preschool in Three Cultures, Tanaka-Sensei says that the teacher should maintain a little more distance from students than a parent or a relative. By maintaining this distance the teacher facilitates the child considering them as someone who teaches them the lessons instead of someone to turn to with their problems. It would seem that the Japanese largely consider school and the socializing process to be a time when students learn how to solve problems themselves or with their peers. A parent relationship on the other hand would seem to be something that the child is able to fall back onto or depend upon to help them with the problems that are beyond their ability to solve. Thus the home is a place that the child is able to feel a sense of security and protection while this may be absent from the school. The tutor in The Family Game blurs these distinctions. Within the home he uses violence to ‘knock some sense’ into Shigeyuki, thus violating the safe confines of the home. In an academic sense, rather than being a distant and unattached presence, the tutor shows concern for not only Shigeyuki’s grades but also for his emotional well being. Thus, he ends up creating a new role that is lacking from the lives of the family. In the process, he creates a sense of uncertainty about the roles that the family have been fulfilling up to this point. The father, the mother, the sons, and even the teacher at the high school are uncomfortable as the tutor forces them to look at their roles and ask themselves, “What am I supposed to be?”
The mother is uncomfortable with the tutor’s use of violence within the sanctuary of the home, however because of the effectiveness in improving Shigeyuki’s grades, she is left to wonder at the effectiveness of her own methods. The father attempts to maintain the illusion that he is the lord and master of this family, but in the final scene, he is revealed to be the hot air filled simulacra of an imaginary role that he has always been. His physical absence or presence make no difference in the lives of his family. Shinichi is, in some ways, the most interesting member of the family since it is he that seems to be questioning the roles they exist in without the aid of the tutor. At home he is observing without comment and outside of the home, he is exploring the fulfillment of his own role in society as a creature with emotions, expectations, and a mind that doesn’t seem to fit into the mold that has been prepared for it. His interactions with the tutor seem to be almost that of an equal. This is confirmed in the last supper scene when the father suggests that the tutor should next work with Shinichi. The tutor responds that it would not be an appropriate situation.
The relationship between the tutor and Shigeyuki is the most complex of the film. The tutor takes on the role of father by teaching Shigeyuki to defend himself, he takes on the role of teacher through making the boy learn, he takes on the role of mother through visiting the school, and he takes on the role of friend and sibling through the sharing of typically inhibited sexuality and desire.
The Family Game provides a thoughtful and critical commentary on Japanese Society by deconstructing the roles and expectations that exist within the family by highlighting what could be some of the major shortcomings within Japanese Society. The Family Game forces viewers to confront the concepts of rigid hierarchy and the needs that such a system leave unfulfilled. Morita uses the last scene in which the tutor upsets the meal, beats up the family members, and finally spills all the contents of the meal upon the floor to show that the vertical society is not working and that the roles (family members), the cultural mores (the food and drink), and even the platform upon which the society rests (the table) need to be upset and completely destroyed. To some extent, it can be argued that Morita is the real life version of the Tutor and that it is the Japanese people who are playing The Family Game.

Environment The Floating Kingdom The Life Aloha West of the Pacific Ocean

Another Junk coming to Hawaii

This time it’s an actual junk not a raft called Junk made of junk. I think this is pretty cool. What do you think? Maybe I can get a ride to Asia with them.

“We built the boat and sailed it to prove it could be done,” said barefooted skipper Liu Ning Sheng. Ning Sheng says the journey might lend some credence to a controversial theory that the Chinese arrived in America about 70 years before Christopher Columbus.
The trip also has another purpose, he says. Weather-permitting, stops were scheduled in Hong Kong, Vancouver, Seattle, Eureka, Long Beach, Hawaii, Japan and Taiwan as part of a cultural exchange. And with crew members hailing from Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China –- far-flung regions of a vast nation that, to put it mildly, haven’t always seen eye to eye –- the journey been has a cultural experiment of its own, says Ning Sheng. In extremely tight sleeping quarters, on the open sea the crew must rotate their head-to-foot sleeping shifts. “We are closer than husband and wife,” Ning Sheng said with a chuckle.

Link to The Snitch