Sunday, December 09, 2012

A Time For Puppets

Shan gao huang-di yuan.
The mountains are high; the emperor is far away.

was the aphorism that came to mind in response to the joke. It is the same sentiment—that those who would disapprove are not around to stop us from doing what we want—that had the Beatles singing, “No one will be watching us/Why don't we do it in the road?”

Looking up the origins of the above proverb, I learn that it has a bleaker twin: "Heaven is high; the emperor is far away" – i.e., the sources of moral order are nowhere near, so you are at the mercy of the local authority.

* * *

The Bunraku puppet theater of Osaka is in residence in Tokyo until December 16, performing at the National Theater. The program is one of education, introducing the art form to adults. It starts with a kyogen adaptation, followed by a pair of brief explanatory lectures by representatives of three principal classes of performers, and then a long (one hour) tragedy.

Although the bunraku is one of the treasures of Japanese art and culture, the it has fallen on hard times. Audiences and private patronage are dwindling. Its stars, being less than one and a half meters tall and made of wood, have a hard time moonlighting in modern theater, television and cinema, as kabuki performers are able to do.

Part of the reason behind the decline is that the bunraku is based in Osaka. Once a rival center of influence and affluence to Edo/Tokyo (the country's major news media groups have their origins in Osaka, for example), Osaka is now a decidedly second tier city, beloved of its citizens but otherwise seen as scruffy, unattractive and in chronic economic decline.

For any classical art form to survive in Osaka would be difficult. For one as labor intensive as the bunraku, survival depends on the government subsidies.

Enter Hashimoto Toru, the boisterous and impatient mayor of Osaka and true leader of the Japan Restoration Association (Link). A crusader against waste and featherbedding in his hometown, Hashimoto has taken the axe to expenditures and Osaka-style governance to the cheers of an exhausted Osaka citizenry.

Among the targets of his axe have been Osaka City subsidies of the bunraku. Hashimoto has argued that the citizens of the city should not be forced to provide financial support an activity enjoyed by only a few. He has, under duress, seen the bunraku twice, hating it both times, finding the art form and the association that controls it hide-bound, fusty and inappropriate for the times.

For background on the Hashimoto-bunraku war, consult this and this
and this and this and this.

While Hashimoto strikes a populist pose, his views are not widely shared. The bunraku's tour in Tokyo is indeed supported by:

The Tokyo Metropolitan District
Chiba Prefecture
The Kanagawa Prefecture Board of Education
The Saitama Prefecture Board of Education
The All Japan Federation of Boards of Education
The Nippon Keidanren
The Keizai Doyukai
The Tokyo Chamber of Commerce

Business organizations, professional organizations and corporations have bought blocks of seats for the cultural advancement of their members and employees.

The performers have worked in a little bit on their struggles with Osaka's mayor into the explanatory lecture in between the two plays. It has the tayu, the chanter of the joruri text, trying to give a modern equivalent for one rough and tumble character in a story:

"He's a sort of an Antonio Inoki* figure."

At which point the shamisen player derisively butts in:

"Oh, come on. How can you use such an old example? If you use that kind of relic as your illustration, you will make Hashimoto-san upset."

The audience cracks up. The tayu, smirking to the audience, replies:

"It is not an old-fashioned example...and who is this Hashimoto of whom you are speaking, anyway?

To which the shamisen player, his face also in a smirk, chirps:

"Why...Hashimoto Shinya**, of course."

At which the audience roars in approval.

It is unlikely that the bunraku, begging as it is at Hashimoto Toru's doorstep, would dare include this bit of cheek in a performance in Osaka. But the puppets and their masters are in Tokyo, where no one (except, of course, the occasional decidedly odd Japan politics blogger) will make a big deal out of a brief stab at Osaka's uncouth and self-adoring leader***.

Hence my reflexive thought of the Chinese proverb at the head of this post.

* * *

Hashimoto Toru's war with the bunraku and the theater's bit of fun illuminates some darker facets of this election.

Taking aim at an art form, one which puts Osaka on the map of world culture, shows Hashimoto's populism to be unfocused. Indeed, it is not populism at all. It is philistinism—a proud, even arrogant ignorance of culture and aesthetics.

Such ignorance would be acceptable if it were not coupled with a will to power—a will that Hashimoto has in spades.

The mating of the two elements results in Hashimoto's lashing out at everything he does not understand, no matter the actual significance of a particular item,. In action unbecoming, he uses the power of his tongue and office to crush whatever it is that has earned his ire on a particular day (tattoos on public workers, teachers who are not patriotic, public employees unions).

Hashimoto's inability to sort enemies from annoyances—and react to each according to its rank of importance—marks him as unworthy of higher office. The great populist Koizumi Jun'ichiro, whose family origins are almost as rough as Hashimoto's, made sure to take on powerful entrenched interests. Hashimoto's tendency to go after butterflies with sledgehammers should disturb those who might otherwise be lulled into inattention by his mastery of the quip, the riposte and details of policy.

* * *

That Hashimoto is a philistine is unremarkable. He is, after all, a self-made man of rough circumstances. He may ask, "What does traditional high culture have to do with me?" without transgression. One could go over with him the humble, outcast origins of great artistic traditions like the No theater...but one would first have to find a way around his defensiveness about his origins.

What is remarkable in this campaign is that the main party leaders, with the bold exception of Ishihara Shintaro, all seem to be philistines. Ishihara has literature, Koizumi had Elvis Presley (and XJapan). However, for the majority of the political leaders currently clogging our airways and textual news, one would be hard-pressed to identify a single art either practiced or enjoyed by any them. The only art that interests them seems to be the art of politics, which either paradoxically or inevitably, considering their fastidious concentration on it, not one of them practices with any finesse.

Expanding upon the paradox Okumura Jun noted in his exegesis on my post about the calligraphy of the leaders of the parties—that among those who profess to want to lead Japan back to its traditions are persons who are ignorant of them (Link)—the current crop of party leaders seem to want to be leaders of the Japanese people without taking joy in either being Japanese or people.

It is possible that it is not so much Noda Yoshihiko's duplicity, Abe Shinzo's radical reactionary beliefs, Kada Yukiko's willingness to hold Ozawa Ichiro's hand, Fukushima Mizuho's girlishness, Yamaguchi Natsuo's Gumby hair, Watanabe Yoshimi's accepting of public money only to use it to support his habit of yelling of insults from the sidelines, Shii Kazuo's aggressive anti-fashion or the sheer preposterousness of the micro-party leaders that is driving the voters away. It is the absorption of the political leaders into the job of being political leaders, where earnestness masquerades as determination, which makes it so hard for the public to take a shine to any of the leaders or their parties. Hobbies and interests alone cannot save one, as Aso Taro's and Tanigaki Sadakazu's stints as Liberal Democratic Party president demonstrated. However, a lack of identifiable trivial pursuits shows a disrespect for the human—an unnatural woodenness, as it were.

And no, Noda's noted fondness for alcohol does make the grade.

* Born in 1943.
** Born in 1965
*** That Osaka is seen as an uncultured pit of a city, particularly by Tokyo denizens, is another reason the joke can be inserted into the Tokyo performances.


Avery said...

Examples of Hashimoto's proud ignorance are too many to number, but one that recently warmed my heart was when he helpfully explained to Twitter users that English is not as hard as it's made out to be, because in America, even children can speak it.

sigma1 said...

"Hashimoto's inability to sort enemies from annoyances" - well put - this is exactly his problem.

Anonymous said...

Kasuo Shii is a classical pianist of some renown, FWIW.

MTC said...

Anonymous -

1) Thank goodness that Shii plays the piano.

2) "Some renown" means hearing his playing or see representations of it -- neither of which is true.

#) Why does he not bring aethetics into his politics? Doing so would drag the Communists out of their marginal status. Is it because the playing of the piano is frivolous?