Monday, February 26, 2007

Multicultural Japan

Though my euphoric high has begun to mellow to a more reasonable 'Ah, won't that be nice...' sort of pleased contentment, I'm still concerned with becoming too focused on where I'm going, as opposed to where I actually am. My one year anniversary of arrival to post (and thus my one year countdown until departure) is just next month; it's easy to forget, but my time here is limited. And there's still a lot I want to see in Japan.

Like the Kobe Lion Dance.

The Lion Dance -- perhaps more correctly a dragon dance, called 獅子舞 shishimai in Japanese -- takes place in Kobe's Chinatown, an area referred to as 南京町 Nankinmachi or 'Nanking Village'*. The dance is considered one of Japan's 'Intangible Cultural Treasures', an official label bestowed by the government. I had thought it was brought with the original chinese immigrants, passed down from generation to generation... Turns out it only just started in 1987. But still, it's one of the area's biggest events. With my 'Must enjoy this post while I can' determination firmly in hand, I woke up early on Sunday morning to catch the train into town.

Part of my interest in the Lion Dance is the government's official recognition of an ostensibly chinese tradition as being a cultural asset of Japan. Japan's homogeneity is a subject widely commented on; I'm a bit of a skeptic on this point. In addition to vast regional differences (try telling people from Osaka that they're just like the people in Tokyo), I think there is actually a fair deal of genetic and ethnic diversity here as well. Even Emperor Akihito recognizes this, and you'd think he'd be in a position to know. So I was curious to see how this particular event would be treated in relation to the 我々日本人 Wareware Nihonjin 'We Japanese...' mindset.

I arrived to crowds of onlookers... carefully roped off with yellow cord. The police had formed blockades and created detailed pathways and routes around the stage, a tiny pagoda in the center of Nankinmachi. And to make sure that no one in the crowd misunderstood EXACTLY where to stand and EXACTLY which way to go, they all had giant signs and bullhorns to make things even clearer. I estimate there were at least 15 policemen in the pagoda square; there were maybe 100 people roped into the official viewing zone. Those of us on the wrong side of the ropeline (maybe an extra 100 people) were repeatedly yelled at for blocking the walkway and storefronts, and asked to 'keep moving'. I'm not sure when I last saw such a ridiculous display of martinetism. Were they expecting riots? I stood quietly with a small group of Japanese tourists, trying to take pictures from afar.

After 10 minutes of blocked views and ear-piercing "TACHITOMARANAI DE!" megaphone-powered aural bludgeonings, I finally wandered off to get some ramen and dumplings...

So it turns out that even multiculturalism is a pretty controlled affair in Japan. I don't guess this should surprise me. Police, at any rate, seem pretty much the same anywhere you go.

*I'm not sure if the is a purposeful reference to the infamous massacre or not. Apparently the Chinese immigration to Kobe began in 1868, so likely no. It still gives me a bit of the creeps whenever I read the name on signs, though.


Geraldine said...

Just like many events...there's food at the end! 8^) Thanks for sharing.


javi said...

Hey Katie, I just wanted to say that your blog is so insightful and very cool. I'm moving up to DC in the summer to take the FSWE I know that not too many ppl make it the first try but I rly want to work as a FSO. Anyways good luck on your journey. Bye!