Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New year‘s revel

It's about to be new year's! I'm not prepared...! What to say?
Luckily one of my friends has shown a way. As described in her occasional blog (painstakingly and haltingly translated by yours truly), she was looking for a way to formulate her good wishes to her friends at new year's when our old friend 缘分 yuanfen (at one point she even calls it heaven-sent 天意缘分 yuanfen) stepped in. Visiting her daughter in Hong Kong she'd just stepped out to get some breakfast when she happened to see an old friend. Happy coincidence! Since it was just a fleeting visit she hadn't told him she was going to be there, and he was just on his way out of town, too! But they were able to have a quick chat in which who should come up but yours truly (the friend was my host for the HKU talk) and his enthusiasm for the concept of yuanfen in particular and how, enchanted by his study of Chinese, he changed his WeChat name to luo suiyuan 罗随缘?

I guess I forgot to report that here! Luo 罗's been part of my Chinese name through all its permutations, a standard phonetic rendering of la/ra/lo/ro, but the other part's new. I told you about how suiyuan 随缘 found me about a month ago but not how I decided to incorporate it in my WeChat nickname. (That actually only happened two weeks ago.) Well, it's come to seem that - in this year, if not more generally - I really am doing a sort of participant observation of the world of yuan, going where 缘/karma/fate/chance leads (随缘). So luo suiyuan it is!

These yuan 缘 terms have a busy cluster of meanings, from the metaphysical to the colloquial, earnest to ironic, and none more than suiyuan. When I put my friend's text into google translate (don't think it was just me and my Pleco dictionary!) it translated 罗随缘 back as Luo revel. May all have much to revel in in the new year! 祝咱们新年快乐!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

There's only make

Remember the "10 Rules for Students and Teachers" credited everywhere to John Cage? It seems their story is more complicated, and richer. I've just learned that they're really the work of the fantastic
Sister Corita Kent in 1967-68, though they were popularized by Cage (who is quoted in rule #10) and his partner Merce Cunningham. The only real difference - Sister Corita's winking last line!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Burn 'em wood

And now for something completely different!
Our Japanese friends have two hatake 畑, vegetable patch/fields for their 100 kinds of fruits/ vegetables, and today we went to the farther flung one where lazy Mark was put to work gathering a year's worth of cut branches (some as big as small trees)
as well as lots of dried leaves... and incinerating them! It was several hours' worth of schlepping and stacking, squinting through smoke and brushing off the ash-wraiths of leaves, but, of course, fun! But I was a little creeped out that all those magnificent things had been reduced to a pile of ash...

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Tokyo religion walk

A few scenes of religion in Tokyo, from a stroll from Sendagi's temples through a cemetery to Ueno Park, passing 80,000 forlorn-looking 地蔵 Jizo statues and a Hiroshima-Nagasaki memorial along the way, ending my tour at 浅草寺 Sensoji, a popular new year's place in Asakusa.



Friday, December 26, 2014


Had a delightful reunion with an old professor friend this evening. It was with his help that I was able to wangle a visit to Tokyo University's 倫理学研究室 Ethics Department half a lifetime ago (well, in 1992-93). That year, with the questions and intellectual friendships it opened up for me in the ensuing years, is the template for this year's Shanghai expedition.

T is one of the leading ethicists in Japan (author of a half-dozen books and editor of the Japanese Encyclopedia of Ethics), and deeply committed to educating people in all walks of life about ethics. He gave me a copy of an introductory text for popular readers which he recently published. Its main chapter headings are breathtaking:



I can loosely translate some, but not all of them: "Better not to have been born," "Living, something nobody can do for you," "Is my life my own?" "Sympathy for suffering," "The trap of 'privatization'," "The decline of sharing," "In the interconnectedness of life"... What a great way into ethics! (Makes me want to return to Japanese for a bit.)

Ever the mentor he brought along a bright young philosopher (took me a while to remember what 形而上学 is: metaphysics!) who's thinking of studying abroad for my advice. I don't really know anything about what it would be like to study at St. Andrews, but I suppose I did read philosophy in the UK (and St Andrews is still UK!). And I'm a reliable cheerleader for study abroad in all its forms. And this young man seems interested in questions somewhat like those I was interested in at his age: the religious contexts and frameworks and resonances of philosophical arguments.

I invited him for coffee after my friend returned home, and learned that he's particularly interested in "relative identity," P. T. Geach's "solution" to the "problem of the Trinity." Why on earth is he interested in this? I didn't get a clear answer. But I insisted that the Trinity is a lot weirder and its implications farther-reaching than some might think, an excellent "problem." Still: channeling my own British philosopher teachers I asked how he knew it was a real problem at all ("since it's not in the Bible"), and suggested that an Augustinian phenomenology might provide a good answer. Might it be that everything, properly understood, has a trinitarian structure, is incompletely described in any other terms- starting with out quest for understanding?

After discussing a few other things - why the "new atheists" care what religious people think, and whether the problem of suffering includes the dead, what western folks think "Buddhism" is - he had me reminiscing about my time at Todai, and especially my discovery of Watsuji Tetsuro there. (This fit the larger theme of the benefits of study abroad, since Watsuji's thinking was decisively shaped by his responses to his journey to Europe.) What fun to be talking about 間柄 and 人と人との間 again after all these years, and reflecting on the ways in which Watsuji's larger project still fits my understanding of what I'm doing in/as religious studies: how to live in the spaces defined by and constituting our relationships with manifold others, including culture and nature. I'm not sure I've made the connection between virtue ethics' recovery of rich moral vocabularies and Watsuji's attention to Japanese language as disclosing a distinctive understanding of ethics which I found myself making before, but it makes sense, too.

I've let my relationship with Japanese academia slide these last few years. Nice to reconnect to it, however cursorily. Thanks, T!

Thursday, December 25, 2014


I usually spend Christmas with my parents back in California. This year I had to make do with FaceTime - and Japanese family filled in the rest! Until the near-midnight service at St. Albans I spent Christmas Eve
with friends and their eight-year-old daughter (presents! cake!), and on Christmas headed out of the city to Japanese family friends I've known so long they are family! Hard to imagine a better Christmas feast
than this cavalcade of tempura, much of it vegetables grown in our friends' two gardens (they raise a hundred different kinds of vegetables, fruits and herbs in a year!)! Warmest wishes of the season to all!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Holiday of lights

Went with a new friend to look at the holiday lights in Roppongi - at Tokyo Midtown and nearby Roppongi Hills. The former's space agey "illuminations" are a destination, and we were lucky to spend only 20 minutes queuing: it can take over an hour, and definitely isn't worth it. A street full of luxury brand stores at the Hills has pleasantly garlanded trees, and the Tokyo Tower in the distance joined the festivities, too. But nothing looked like Christmas until we found the lights around the little pond next to Roppongi Hills. Like a big wreath. Merry merry!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Woodblock print views


No, not Hiroshige, just the view as the sun was setting on another brilliantly clear Tokyo day, from the 45th story observation floor of the Tokyo City Hall. Here's said building, earlier in the day. Pretty pretty!


Beluga caviar on roasted eel in a sushi bar? Why not! An old classmate from Hong Kong who's made it rich invited me to join his family at a favorite sushi place in Ginza. (They come to Japan frequently to eat and shop.) They reckon it's just the right combination of traditional and experimental, supplementing splendid sushi with things like steamed abalone, grilled lobster, millisecond-seared fish - and caviar. I'm convinced! (Michelin has given them a star four years in a row, I see.)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent 4

How long it's been since I've been to an Episcopal church service! At the 10:30 Eucharist at St. Albans Anglican-Episcopal Church here in Tokyo I was dewy-eyed with the delight of rediscovery. i was back later in the day for Lessons and Carols, which included some magnificent music, including the haunting "Watchman, tell us of the night." I feel like I've made up for/caught up a largely churchless Advent, and just in time! Turns out they have a Christmas vigil, too... I'm going! Merry merry!

Friday, December 19, 2014


A delicious surprise: a few of the momiji Japanese maples in Toyohashi's municipal park are still holding out! Some of the Fall colors I sought in Shanghai - whee! But there was also a tree whose roots, melting viscously into each other like cookie dough, put in mind of La Nausée.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

けなげ組 of the world, unite!

I don't suppose you remember my post about the existential humor of the kakipi four years ago? I thought the けなげ組 kenagegumi series of hardworking but underappreciated objects (kombu, straw wrappers, plastic leaves in bento lunches, bread crusts, unused belt holes and erasers, fish tails, kickstands, wine bottles, baseball mits, earlobes, etc.) had been discontinued; in fact I was quite crestfallen about it, as there's a tragicomic brilliance about it. Well, at the K convenience store near my friend's apartment here in Toyohashi, I've found more! 
Not only did this give me a chance to find out what kenagegumi means: the team of 健気, defined here as brave; gallant; courage; manly; heroic; praiseworthy; industrious; pure; lovable. I've found what might be the true closer of the series: kenagegumi members ##1-2 as well as ##99-100. #1, it turns out, are the kakipi themselves, detritus of the sloppiness of senbei makers. And #100? Why it's you and me, keeping on keeping on, marching toward our dreams with a smile despite the sadness of the past and a difficult present. "That you is the #1 kenage"!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

ロミオ, ロミオ, wherefore art thou ロミオ

Attended a talk my friend H gave this evening which took me back. Once upon a time in Tokyo she got me tickets to all sorts of Japanese Shakespeare productions (she herself ran a Shakespearian company called Rhyming); I'd read the play in English in the afternoon and then think I was understanding every word in the evening production! Today the subject was "Romeo and Juliet" and I tried to follow along as the students read aloud a few scenes. Perhaps because the modern Japanese translation is in parts easier to understand than Shakespeare's English, I felt like I was following along. (At one point it seemed I would have to read "Romeo" so I noted the words I didn't know how to pronounce and tried to jot the pronunciations down as others' read them, until it was clear it was just too many.) My contribution to the evening was a presentation on the musical settings by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, with a nod also to Bernstein. I didn't exactly offer to give this presentation - speaking on something you don't know in a language you barely know any more isn't exactly fun - but she thought it would be interesting for the students, so how could I say no? Beyond contrasting the nearly silent start of Tchaikovsky's "Fantasy Overture" and the wailing, nearly howling, start of Prokofiev's ballet, I didn't have much to say - or the words to say it. Oh well, I suppose it had novelty value for a native English-speaker to stammer in Japanese about Shakespeare without words!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Poetic view

I may be in Japan but that doesn't mean my Mandarin lessons have stopped! Through the wonder of Skype I've had lessons from non-Mandarin-speaking Hong Kong, Macau and now the Land of the Rising Sun! Today my teacher, who knows I like poetry, brought me two famous Tang dynasty poems. She says everyone in China learns them by heart, the first in elementary school, the rather darker one in high school. Here's the first one, by 李白 Li Bai (whom we've met before).






My teacher let me puzzle my way through it - I know most of the words, it turns out, and there were notes to abbreviated place names, etc. Each line opened up like a delicious walnut. With her help, here's what it seems to me to say:

Seeing a waterfall from Mount Lu

On Xianglu's sunlit peak rises purple smoke
In the distance I see a waterfall hanging down toward Shan River
Flying-flowing straight down three thousand zhi (1 km)
Could it be the Milky Way falling from highest heaven

Not a great translation by any means, but a start! Only just checked online for proper translations, and there are all sorts. Here's Burton Watson's:

Viewing the Waterfall at Mount Lu

Sunlight streaming on Incense Stone kindles violet smoke;
far off I watch the waterfall plunge to the long river,
flying waters descending straight three thousand feet,
till I think the Milky Way has tumbled from the ninth height of Heaven

Monday, December 15, 2014


Some scenes from quiet days in a provincial Japanese city, including the remarkable instant soup from a famous tofu house in Kanazawa, worn sign of a seedy coffee shop/bar, drip coffee for one, a grim bubble-era
arts center with colored concrete balls on rebar stalks instead of flowers, a deliciously sour lemon extract called "adult's first love"... and the Louis Vuitton-loving frog mascot of a comic/coffee shop.