The Shinto Net and The Jewpanese Future of Japan

The Shinto Net and The Jewpanese Future of Japan

Jammers Records is a Tokyo treasure — chock full of serious Jamaican vinyl from early mento to the dancehall hits of now. The owner is Hopeton aka Double H, a Jamaican who has been living in Japan for about 23 years.  The last time I was in the store,  he was telling me about a friend from Ghana who was dying of cancer, broke and alone, in a Tokyo hospital room.  His friend, Hopeton told me, was not scared of dying, he was in a panic about dying outside of Ghana.  He feared his ghost would be lost, his spirit drifting, searching always for his ancestral home.

Last year I came to Tokyo for some shows with my friend Screechy Dan — who, by the way, is one of the greatest artists and humans to ever come down the pike.  It was Screechy’s first time to Japan, and after a long flight, an interminable drive from Narita, many glasses of welcoming beer and shochu from my in-laws, we were sleepy, drunk and ready for bed.  As I set up futons, Screechy pointed out the family shrine at the center of the tatami room: “What’s that?”  He asked.  I explained about the shrine, the living presence of the ancestors contained there and started telling him about getting married in Japan.  How I had to go to the Nerima City Hall and have my name entered into the Sakamoto family register — a register containing entries for the Sakamoto line going back some 500 years of Nerima residency. Screechy’s eyes misted up and he said “That’s what you and I got stolen from us.”  Its true. As a Jew and a Black Jamaican our family histories were pretty much erased through slavery, through pogroms, through the diaspora; wiped away in the smoldering ovens of Auschwitz and hastily dug pits of Belorussia.  Buried in the suffocating holds of the brutal Middle Passage.  I can barely trace 2 generations back.  Screechy the same. A lot of wandering ghosts, a lot of uprooted spirits.

My homeland might as well be the well-worn, briny interior of Russ and Daughters on Delancey Street.

My kids are in that family register.  They are tied via blood to that living narrative winding back centuries.  They are, whether they realize it now or not, Japanese…or Jewpanse — whichever, they are tied to this country.  Their ancestors are living.  They won’t be wandering ghosts.

In our first week here, there was a neighborhood  festival and I was invited by the…let’s say…the “Block Captain” to join in the carrying of the local Mikoshi. The Mikoshi is the portable version of a shrine. I was given some traditional clothes to wear and soon me and a bunch of guys lifted the Mikoshi to our shoulders.  I thought…I imagined…that this was going to be some kind of fun custom, a laughing, joking sort of thing where we ran around for a bit with the shrine.  Wrong.  The Mikoshi is HEAVY.  Like really heavy and for the enjoyment of the deity contained within, the Mikoshi is kept in constant motion, bouncing up and down — which means two hundred pound cedar timbers smashing down on my shoulder for the hour or so we toured the neighborhood (with rest periods along the way for beer!). My shoulder was a gigantic, swollen bruise for weeks after.   For me, this was a quaint (and painful) custom and an extremely generous way of welcoming me as a new part of the neighborhood.  But, for my Mikoshi bredrin — underneath the beer and the laughing — this was real and serious; because, underneath all the modernity of Tokyo, the modernity of the Japanese, there beats the very real animist heart of Shinto.  I never expected the importance of Shinto here, the reality of it, because Japanese people never spoke of it.  In a profound way it just is and you would be a fool if you lived here and didn’t notice it.  It is the very thing that will tie my children to the actual soil, air and water of Japan while my spirit will wander in search of a bagel with scallion cream cheese and belly lox.

Not that I mind wandering.  That lack of history is the genius of America. For my grandparents and all the immigrants that piled onto its shores, there was nothing but relief in shoving the past aside and improvising a new future. It was the promise of a new beginning, the glimmering possibility of reinvention — it allowed for all those Mendls and Schmelke’s to be become Gershwin’s and Rothko’s and create something powerfully new.  It allowed Lazr Meir to become Louis B. Meyer and develop, through film, the very myths and story-lines we now consider to be stereotypically American. Did I just say that America is possibly the creation of a Russian Jew?  Oh yes I did.

That immigrant choice, that promise of optimism was sadly not given to the millions of African slaves and their descendants as they were forced onto American soil against their will and who have, despite all odds and the desperate racism they continue to face, become CEOs of every major U.S. industry and the vanguard of America’s cultural identity from music to dance to art and poetry.

America has never been about the soil, the air, the water.  America is an idea. Not so Japan.  Japan has half the population of the United States packed into an area about the size of California. It has almost no natural resources. In first part of the 20th century Japan was a crucible of tumult.  The after-shock of World War 1, the global depression, post-feudalism, accelerated modernization, the effects of Western colonialism and the ideological clash between capitalism and communism all came together in an ugly, dangerous Nipponese mess.  Japan was drenched in militarism, fanaticism and chauvinism. It unleashed unspeakable brutality on its neighbors and came out of the end of World War 2  in a sea of ashes and mass suicide. The country was destroyed – almost wiped out of existence — even the Emperor, worshipped as a deity, announced, to a population that had never heard his voice, that he was, in fact, not a God at all.  In the rubble, those old animist forces which tied the people to the land, to their ancestors and to each other was all that was left — and family-by-family, community-by-community they began to rebuild and finally created  modern Japan – one of the top economies and cultural capitals of this earth. The result is a heterogenous society that has an absolute reluctance to allow immigration. There is a real fear (or knowledge, take your pick) that the lines between chaos and order in such a crowded landscape are extremely delicate and the only things that can hold it all together are those Japanese principles, that Shinto net that weaves together people and place.

Perversely, White Supremacist scumbags like Richard Spencer have hitched onto this reality, praising Japan for its Mono-Cultural status and suggesting that America should follow its example. These ignorant fucks, or rather I should say, these fucks that preach ignorance avoid history, avoid context and avoid reality at every turn. First off, the idea of a white “race” was laughable even to Hitler. The reality is that America would be nothing, would probably have not gained its independence if it weren’t for slaves and immigrants — just take a look at the illuminating book The Barbarous Years to have a sense of what a wretched shit-hole the country was at the beginning. For those descendants of the Mayflower who think their presence on that ship gives them some sort of special privilege in relation to the US — your friend’s Italian grandmother from Palermo has a cast iron frying pan older than the amount of time you have been here.

From my vantage point, America is at a critical point and will destroy itself if it cannot separate the myths it tells itself from the reality of what it is. If it doesn’t, the ghosts of genocide, racism, of slavery and the incredible greed of corporate capitalism will rip the country apart in ways that can’t be repaired.  Japan too is in danger. The birthrate plummets every year, the population ages and with it the soul of the country hangs in delicate balance.  By 2050, it is estimated that Japan will only have 96 million people and no way to keep industrial production in line with its public debts. My children, my little half-breed Jewpanese earned us a couple thousand from the Japanese government as an incentive to have more kids.  Their mixed bloodline made no difference to the government because they are imperative to the future of Japan.  And if those Japanese principals, if that Shinto net can wrap itself around them and their mixed blood there is hope.  There is hope because those two Nepalese guys who own the curry place on Kitamachi Shotengai seem to have imbibed that Japanese spirit and run their restaurant with all the graciousness and politeness of their Japanese neighbors.  So, maybe that Shinto spirit grows and adapts and its most positive aspects can be shared and who knows, maybe in fifty years when I pass, my spirit won’t wander in search of lox but instead be welcomed into that very shrine that once caused my shoulders to swell with the bruises of connecting to a new home.

4 Replies to “The Shinto Net and The Jewpanese Future of Japan”

  1. It could have been twice as long and I would have devoured it just as eagerly. I’m so happy that the purview of the blog spans widely enough to include fascinating pieces like this, and not just the food ones that cause my stomach to start calling the airline.

Leave a Reply to karen Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *