On occasion I get a late start and so am forced to ride in the duty van to the consulate rather than take the train. This was the case the other day. All piled in the van together, my colleagues began to do something that I feel happens far too often: making fun of the japanese guard who helps guide the van from its customary spot by the compound wall out into the street. This bothers me a great deal. Besides being, I think, rather mean spirited, it underscores what little interest we have in each other; once the subject of which American Idol singer is going to make it big is exhausted, there really is not much left to talk about -- taking out our stress and awkwardness on some hapless security guard is apparently the only bond we can share. It's one of the reasons I try and avoid the van.
Too be sure, the guard's level of enthusiasm is excessive. He motions vigorously, jumps about the van seemingly needlessly, and wards off generally imagined oncoming traffic. I figure at least he seems to gain real satisfaction from his job, which is perhaps more than most of us can say. And as he was the only guard who told me how much he enjoyed the oatmeal cookies I made for our security contingent after my partial HHE arrived (I was quite touched by this -- I didn't realize he even knew my name), I know he has genuine concern for us as well. His job is to keep us safe, and it's a task he undertakes wholeheartedly. Given that we've recently had threats directed at us, you'd think we'd be more appreciative than not. But sadly, no.
One officer made the comment that a person could only achieve such a state -- and by this, he presumably meant the naivety it would require to not think of your actions as lacking real value -- by "living a life free of irony." I've found myself going back to that comment over and over again as I slog through the same visa-related quasi-conversation 150 times a day and do my best to keep from giving in to utter apathy. Truthfully, I wish that I could effect a similarly guileless state. One of the things I enjoy about the Japanese is the general sense that you should make the best of any situation, no matter how barren. One has only to see the tents of the homeless, with the occupants' shoes studiously removed and left outside the door, to understand how deep this current runs in Japanese society. There is something heartbreaking about seeing shoes placed neatly and carefully outside of a cardboard hovel -- and something very dignified in it, as well.
I was also thinking about this comment over the weekend, when I had a chance to see the Choujuu Jinbutsu Giga, generally translated in English either as 'Caricatures of Animals and Humans' or 'Scroll of Frolicking Animals'. This work is a long, horizontally read picture scroll drawn in the 12th century, one of the three oldest such scrolls still extant, and is regarded as being the root of japanese manga. Being able to finally see it for myself brought about a moment of pure joy which I would be hard pressed to explain -- it was something like seeing the Gutenberg Bible for the first time, only perhaps more fulfilling because you can actually pour over the entire scroll, and the meaning is clear even outside of its cultural context. The pictures of the animals are touchingly funny and gently self-mocking, yet lack the bitterness or hopelessness that a western (or, to be fair, a post-war japanese) perspective might bring to such images. Our lives might be silly and lack deep meaning, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy them and make the most of them; I suppose that's what it means to live a life free of irony. I don't think one can consider it naive when it's the result of conscious choice. I don't begrudge the guard his enthusiasm in the least.
To see the Choujuu Jinbutsu Giga in its entirety, please click here. The scroll is read from right to left; click on the numbers  through  at the top of the page to progress from one section to the next.