Friday, December 22, 2006
As implied in the previous post and the sake one a while before that, Japan is undergoing deep and profound changes, changes that will accelerate as the roots of tradition are perceived less like sources of ancient nourishment and more like stone anchors to a hydrogen lifestyle.
It was in that frame of transience that I gazed from the train window this morning while it was stopped at a small station up the line - this is out in the country, mind you, where the pace of change is factored somewhat by distance from the big city - and there beheld an attractive young woman seated alone on a bench on the platform, waiting for her train and scarfing a large and messy pastry.
When I say 'scarfing' I mean it in the Western sense-- the only sense there is, really. Japan has never really had a native form of scarfing, perhaps the closest thing being the always astonishing inhalation of searing-hot ramen noodles by truck drivers in a hurry to get back on the road, but that's more like econo-utility vacuuming than consumptive lust.
When I first came to Japan in 1972, nobody in Tokyo scarfed on the street but me, for a while, and maybe a couple other foreigners. After I'd been here quite a while and no longer scarfed in public I would occasionally be offended upon seeing some recently arrived foreigner walking down the street nakedly devouring food, right out there in the open, in plain view of all those offended natives walking by and standing around who were not eating in public and would never do so-- it was an egregious public offense and embarrassing to me, a foreigner who might thereby be lumped together with this lascivious consumer, this public masticator, this gustatorial miscreant.
But now, a mere 25 years later, there before my veteran eyes sat a stylish young Japanese woman (formerly the class of individual least likely to scarf even in private, let alone in public), right there out in the open - before an audience train packed with bored commuters - scarfing like there never had been any feminine delicacy toward public sensibilities in all this country's long and extremely polite history. I had a ringside window seat, so I enjoyed the show.
The pert young lady didn't scarf in a tentative, ladylike, experimental, culturally uncertain sampling sort of way: she went for the gold, she scarfed like a pro. The kind of scarfing I mean was best depicted - in my recent reference - in that superb movie The Commitments, in the scene where the loutish but golden-voiced lead singer is scarfing what looks like a generous potato salad sandwich on a large hot dog roll, practically jamming it into his mouth in consumptive eagerness, getting stuff all over his nose and face in the process, while the backup singers (the long dark-haired one is a special heart-throb) watch in disgust. So what was offensive even in formerly third-world Dublin was occurring - slightly more fastidiously, it should be noted for the record - right there on a Japanese countryside train platform in this very Heisei era.
Folks out there in the elsewheres of the world may not immediately perceive what this means. This is the end of Japan as it was once known! A stylish young woman, member of the social group that only yesterday was the eternal repository of Japanese decorum, was unself-consciously scarfing at the Olympic level in front of hundreds of non-eating, mostly male watchers-- unthinkable!
In terms of the changes it portends, imagine traditional Japan as a scrumptious pastry about to be jammed into a wide-open mouth...