When it rains here, it rains. It falls heavy and straight down, and does not apologise for the inconvenience. Rain falls here like it has a right to. It comes and goes on time. Just like the trains.

I am waiting for a colleague in the station of a small university town. He is not late. It’s just that I am very early. From the dry safety of the station I stand watching hundreds of umbrellas pouring out into the street. Most people exiting the station are students. Of their umbrellas, there are full yellows, bold reds and bright oranges. Some are decorated with flowers or patterns. I stand waiting, and watch this vibrant multi-coloured stream flow away towards its campus and think about colours.

Were I to be several stops away at this time of the morning, at Ikebukuro or Shinjuku, it would be a different sort of sight I would see. The umbrellas there are either black or transparent, and amalgamate into grey. A river of grey, moving in straight lines. More of a canal, whose movements have been dictated by the will of man. It does not curve. It does not waste time. Those streets, at this hour, look like they have been clicked and dragged over.

My colleague and I will be doing student orientation. Students attend lectures on career guidance on their first day of first year. They are often very unsure of themselves and very nervous. Understandably so. Even those who display an outwardly appearance of extroversion can be painfully, sometimes debilitatingly, shy.  Character is much harder to read here. Another train stops, and lets off its passengers. They pass in a flurry, giggling and chattering, exit the gate, and open their umbrellas. They are mishmashes of colours and fashions: the students. They have waves and curls and highlights in their hair. Some could belong to the cyber-punk generation of the future, while others would not be out of place in the nineteenth century. I have seen students wearing the oddest things. They pass without pretension and are un-laughed-at. A few young people I have seen on campuses come to mind: a male student in high-heels, a student who dons a large bright-red dickie-bow as his everyday attire, a girl who dresses like a rabbit.  These are not cos-play girls nor emo kids. Just normal guys and girls with different tastes in clothes. One student I know regularly wears such odd clothes that on Halloween, no one was certain whether he had dressed up or not. In Japan, you are allowed to be as different as you like. At least for a while. Till they start to rein you in.

When students arrive at university, they look colourful and are endlessly varied. When they leave, they are all dressed in black. Black suits with black shoes and straight black hair. A large part of third and fourth years are taken up with job-hunting seminars, interviews, and company open days. When looking for work, no variation is acceptable. No marks of individualism are permitted.

My colleague arrives. We follow the stream towards the campus. The rain stops. Today we are in Gakushuin University. This is where the emperors of Japan are educated. Our presentations are in a building which used to be the dormitory for the royal students. The dorms are classrooms now. It is still a working university, but accepts regular students as well as the elite these days.  I wonder which room Emperor Hirohito stayed in while he studied here. He had a keen interest in marine biology. I imagine him sitting here at night studying sketches of skeletons and illustrated jellyfish, unconcerned with what the future might expect of him. Unaware of whom he would become, or of what that might mean.

I was born in the 55th year of the Showa reign. Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 and the calendar began again at year one of the present reign. Emperors have no surname. At birth they receive one name. When they are crowned, it is discarded and they take a new one. As a mark of respect, however, Japanese people never refer to the emperor by name, but simply refer to them as ‘Tennou’, meaning ‘heavenly sovereign’. In death, they are renamed once more, after their era. So, the Showa Emperor of Japan was formerly Emperor Hirohito, who was formerly Prince Michinomiya. In a similar way, most Japanese are born Shinto, marry in Christian churches, and die Buddhist, and nobody considers this to be strange. Nor is it considered conflicting that when asked, almost all Japanese answer that they do not believe in any god. Nor is this seen to be at odds with the fact that temples and shrines are sacred places, revered by the Japanese, at which people regularly attend, pray, and give offerings.

Emperor Hirohito was born a god but died a man. His expansionist dreams undid his godliness. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led him to renounce his divinity and perhaps concede that man has more destructive power than any god. The name Showa, which was conferred on Emperor Hirohito after his death, means “enlightened peace”. The Second World War brought about the deaths of one hundred thousand Americans, roughly three million Japanese people, and the deaths and brutal torture of ten to twenty million Chinese. No charges of war crimes were ever brought against him. They say he was misled into imperialism. That his generals deceived him. That he was kept in ignorance. The militarists held the power, not him. But he was not so completely blinded or blameless. He was not so unaware. Nor so passive or so pacifist. His pacifism was inspired more by looming defeat than by compassion. But we were offered a version of history that was more palatable, and it was readily accepted. General McArthur, who oversaw the rebuilding of post-war Japan, felt the country would be more easily run if the emperor remained as its figurehead. So blame was removed from him. The responsibility for his part in the war and its atrocities was taken away, and re-written. The reins of history are held tightly here too. The unseemly truth of the past is kept at arm’s length. Tamed and subordinate.

I am shown around this old dormitory building by my colleague. He points out old features which, though no longer used, still remain. Between our recruitment presentations I look out the windows of a second floor corridor. There is a kindergarten next door. I can see the children playing in the yard. The emperors also attended there. The kids are being taken through their exercises. They jump and squat and stretch and march. They are bursting with energy. By the partition is a cherry blossom tree in full bloom. Cherry blossoms inspire awe in Japan. What astonishes me is just how astonished the Japanese are by these sakura. They watch them appear as though they had never seen them before, and gasp in wonder as if they had not expected this to happen. Apparently it is their transience which makes them sublime. They bloom. They explode into life; pink and white. They are beautiful. The nation rejoices. Then, almost as quickly, the wind strips the trees of them. They float down and land on the ground and in the rivers, and soon they are gone. They are fleeting. Therein lies their beauty.

The first emperor, Emperor Jimmu, was a descendant of the goddess of the sun on his father’s side and the god of the sea on his mother’s. Those gods also had lineage. After the god Izanagi had returned from the underworld, he washed himself in the sea and shook them into existence off himself. Izanagi and the goddess Izanami had fallen in love and given birth to the eight main islands of ancient Japan. She died giving birth to yet another child. Heartbroken, Izanagi went down into the shadowy land of the dead to find her, but she had eaten of their food and now belonged to that world. Izanagi longed for her to return with him, but when he realised her flesh was rotten and was infested with maggots, he turned and fled. Izanami gave chase and was joined by the foul creatures of the underworld. Izanagi ran, casting aside anything he could think of in an effort to distract them and slow them down. He threw off his headdress, which transformed into grapes when it touched the ground. Out of his comb; bamboo. His hideous pursuers fell upon and devoured these. He urinated against a tree, producing a great river. This delayed them even more. Eventually he reached the entrance of the dark land of the dead and locked them all in with a great boulder. But Izanami, in her rage, swore vengeance on her former husband, and vowed to kill a thousand people a day as punishment for his abandoning of her. This is how Death was brought into existence. Even the gods are mortal.

When our class presentations are finally finished, my colleague and I pack up our stuff, and take our respective trains. I take the Yamanote and Chiyoda lines to Kita-Senju and change to the Isesaki line and head home. I study the other passengers.  They look at their phones. Their iPods. Their gaming devices. They read their books. Their newspapers. Their comics. Or they sleep. Nobody looks at anyone else.  It is considered untoward.

I watch the people across from me in the carriage and imagine their lives. There is a salaryman opposite me with shopping bags of designer products. He is balding and exhausted. His heavy eyes fall out from his head and are too tired to close. He wears a black suit into which he seems to have shrunk. I imagine this same man working as a fry cook, in a hot steaming kitchen, in a stained apron, with a smile on his face. But it would not do for him to be a cook. So he is an ill-suited businessman. Always falling short of what is needed. Passed over for promotion. He endures his role for his family, his in-laws, his pride. He perseveres to save face. He is unhappy, disappointed, and disappointing.

I look down the row at the passengers sitting beside him. Read, sleep, phone, phone, sleep, read, sleep, phone, read. All eyes are averted. Trains in Japan are strangely private places. People lock themselves into their own worlds. These are the only three activities which take place here. Speaking on the train is frowned upon. To speak on your phone is considered a crime. Everyone pretends to be alone. It is part of their national sense of community. Their solidarity. Even in carriages where passengers are crushed in so tightly that you can lift both your feet off the ground and not fall down, people remain locked away in their own personal bubbles as though nothing were happening. Their faces give away no sign of discomfort or annoyance.

Some characters in Noh theatre are identified by their masks. Those of the gods are fearsome and monstrous. Human masks are more subtle in their design. In full light, the masks appear to betray no emotion. Just a blank motionless stare. But they were crafted so that an actor can hold his head at different angles, and the lighting will portray a range of emotions – fear, anticipation, joy, sadness – depending on how the light reflects upon the masks. People here are like that too. Their expressions may not change, yet neither can they be concealed. They are revealed by the changes in the light.

At the end of the row by the door sits a businesswoman. She is petite, demure, and beautiful. Her suit: jet black. She is perfectly symmetrical, reading two books. One in each hand, both resting on her briefcase. She reads them at the same time. A page each. Changing from one to the other in rhythm. Beside her sits a girl who hides away in herself. She does not wish to be seen. Her feet point inwards. Her elbows; drawn across her. Her iPhone; held to her chin, headphones drowning out the world. She longs to disappear. She keeps her head down, but she is not sleeping. Merely avoiding being awake.

Kabuki theatre does not use masks, but the actors are heavily made up with white powdered faces and elaborate dress. The stagehands, who move props around in the background and change the scenery during the play, are known as kuroko. They dress in black robes with their faces hidden. The colour of their clothes signifies that they are not to be considered part of the play. It is their skill to be noticed as little as possible. Ninjas, too, are renowned for their ability to evade detection. We imagine them also as being dressed in black. They were not. They were covert assassins and needed to be inconspicuous, so as not to draw attention to themselves. They wore whatever the people around their intended victim were wearing in order to get as close as possible without being noticed. Occasionally in kabuki theatre, a stagehand would jump out from the background and murder one of the characters in the play. The twist in the tale being that the ninja had disguised himself as a kukoro and leapt out of the non-play into the action. Our modern image of the ninja dressed all in black, their faces concealed, comes from this. Their outfits are those of kabuki stagehands.

I reach my stop and get off. The rain has started again. I have no umbrella of any colour. We emerge from the station into the darkening evening and disperse. Japan is a strange place. It disguises itself with itself.  Beneath the make-up, there is pain and pride and passion. Within the contours of the masks lie hidden expressions. There are ninjas lurking in the shadows, waiting to be written. Appearance is everything and it is nothing. Truth and untruth exist simultaneously. Belief and unbelief blur into each other. Fact and fiction, history and myth, the real and the unreal: they co-exist here without contradiction. All the colours run and it is impossible to find the line where one becomes the other. Everything is permeable here. Everything is fleeting.


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3 Responses to “Reins”

  1. Hannah Says:

    What a beautiful read for a rainy day like today.

  2. Nadia Says:

    Great post, Colm – beautifully written and really interesting… I hope you don’t stop at this. I’m fascinated by Japan but don’t see myself going anytime soon, so please keep writing!

  3. linlinsong Says:

    Beautifully written. That is exactly how I feel about Japanese people.

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