A Touch of Madness

“True literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics.”-Yevgeny Zamyatin, “I Am Afraid”

It seems that to build something unique and lasting in this world, you need to be a bit mad. Such is the conclusion I came to upon reading this article about Scarecrow Video founder George Latsios.

If Latsios had used his earnings to pay his taxes and been more fiscally conservative in his approach to buying movies (he’d travel to Japan just to buy rare laserdiscs), Scarecrow would’ve looked more like Blockbuster — and been the poorer for it. Financial ruin is never a good business strategy, but Latsios’s unwillingness to be practical is what allowed for the rarity of Scarecrow’s collection. As his ex-wife Rebecca Soriano put it, “He wasn’t afraid to do whatever he felt, and that’s the reason Scarecrow exists. If he didn’t have the nerve to do it, Scarecrow wouldn’t be there.”

One wishes he’d had someone else run the financial side of things (people with vision tend to be awful at the practicalities of life), but despite bad financial decisions in the past and an economy that no longer supports video rental stores in the present, Scarecrow remains, while other stores have closed. And it wouldn’t have existed at all without George Latsios.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” -George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman


A Japanese Wedding, Western Style

A year ago today (March 18 in Japan), I was in Tokyo, attending a friend’s wedding.  This was only the second wedding I attended outside of my family, and the second outside the country.  Though much delayed, here are my observations on that ceremony.

Japanese people get married one of two ways: Japanese style or Western style.  A Japanese style wedding includes a traditional Shinto ceremony, where the groom wears a kimono and the bride is dressed all in white.  In a Western style wedding, the bride wears a white dress and the groom wears a white tuxedo.  Oh, and they are married by a white dude.

My friend (who I will call “K”) decided to get married Western style.  The wedding took place at Meguro Gajoen, which is a hotel in the same way that Monticello is a house.  Here are some pictures of the lobby (click to enlarge):

Before the wedding, many of the women changed into kimonos, while K and the groom (who I will call “M”) changed in a separate room upstairs.  On one floor were rooms set aside for family and friends of the bride and groom.  Normally, I would have stayed in one of the friend rooms, but since I had come with K’s family, I stayed in their room, and drank this:

K went around to visit the rooms at one point with M, and then later visited her family’s room by herself, where a chair was placed in the middle of the room and we took photos of her.

When it was time for the ceremony to begin (a little before noon), hotel attendants came and had us form two lines.  Normally, I would have lined up with other friends of the bride, but the attendants said it was okay for me to come in with the family.  We headed out to a small chapel that was in the middle of the building, but outside.  Like American weddings, the bride’s side sat on the left side of the chapel, while the groom’s side sat on the right.  I’m not sure if this is common or not, but besides a choir made up of two men and two women, there was a violin player and a trumpeter there, the former playing as people streamed in, the latter as people left.  Once the bride’s side was seated, the groom’s side came in, and then the friends of the bride.

The priest (see photo above) came in with M.  He stood at the front of the church, while M stood at the front of the aisle.  Five-candled candelabras flanked the priest.  Then the doors opened at the back, and K entered with her father, she on the left (bride’s side), he on the right.  They bowed, then she walked over to her mother, who was standing behind the pews, and kneeled in front of her.  Her mother lowered the veil over K’s face, K rose, and then she and her father walked down the aisle, in time to the first and third beat of every measure of “Here Comes the Bride.”  About halfway down the aisle, M met them, the father and M bowed, the father put the bride’s arm on the groom’s, and K and M continued the rest of the way to the front of the chapel, while K’s parents made their way to the front row.

After the processional, the crowd sang a hymn together in Japanese, whose words (with helpful furigana) were printed in the program (Hymn 312).  Then there was a Bible reading (don’t ask me which one), a prayer, a message, the wedding vows (groom first, then bride), the exchanging of rings (ring on bride, then on groom), another prayer (this one in English), the declaration of marriage, the signing of the marriage certificate, the benediction, the recessional, and the audience recessional.  This took all of 15 minutes.  The kiss occurred after the signing of the marriage certificate and before the benediction, accompanied by a climactic crescendo in the choir.  Despite that buildup, Japanese kisses at weddings are so short that, if you blink, you’ll miss it.  Maybe that’s why they have musical accompaniment, so that you’ll know when the kiss will occur.

The recessional happened in reverse order from the processional, so the bride and groom left the chapel first, followed by their friends.  Once outside, we all posed for a photo on the lawn with K and M.  We were then given flower petals and lined up in two rows on either side of the path that led from the chapel back inside the hotel.  Once the family had exited and had also been given flowers, K and M walked down the aisle, and we threw the petals at them as they walked past us.

Here is what the aftermath looked like:

K’s and M’s friends were then brought down a level into a waiting room, where we stayed until it was time for us to head to the reception, which was on the same floor.  Here, we were served water and tea.  Though I had brought (and eaten) some snacks ahead of time, I was quite hungry, and all I had had to drink since arriving was the sakura tea.

We also had to wait until two friends of the groom and two friends of the bride were ready to accept wedding gifts at a table just outside the waiting room.  Unlike American weddings, there is only one kind of wedding gift in Japan: money put into a special envelope.  Also unlike American weddings, the amount is important, not due to its value (though that factors into it), but due to the number of bills, which should not be evenly divisible by two (here’s why).  In most cases, the amount is 30,000 yen (roughly $300).

Once the gift has been accepted, the person giving the gift signs his or her name in the gift registry.  Because I was American and the signing tool is a brush (not a pen, though it looks like one), I signed my name in English, since using the Japanese alphabet would require using katakana, which doesn’t look quite as nice as kanji.  Plus, signing it in cursive impressed the two people taking gifts, one of whom is another friend of mine (who I will call “N”).  In return, I received the seating chart for the reception, which included a cute picture of the bride and one of the groom as children, as well as answers to questions like, “How many children would you like to have?”

Once it was time for the reception, I entered the reception room, where name tags were on the table for us and gift bags were at our seats.

The reception itself is very stylized, which is why even some Japanese people think American weddings are more exciting.  Two things that American weddings don’t have, however, are nine-course French cuisine meals (I got full around the fourth course) and beautiful women dressed in kimonos.  Also, instead of a DJ, there is a female MC.  In addition, the tables are grouped so that bosses and coworkers are seated closest to the married couple, followed by friends, then family.  Because of my limited Japanese abilities, K sat N next to me, as her English is quite good, despite her protestations to the contrary.

The first course was spread out before us when we got there, but the MC soon announced the arrival of the bride and groom.  The lights went out, the spotlight went up, and the bride and groom arrived through the double doors, bowing after the doors opened.  They traveled around the room, then sat down at a table near the front of the dining area, next to the MC.

088. So Happy!

The groom then gave a speech, thanking everyone for coming, followed by the bride giving a speech.  M’s boss spoke before the cutting of the cake, which K fed to M (and while there was none of that playfulness that usually attends this part of the ceremony in American weddings, she practically shoved the whole piece in his mouth).

Open Wide!

After the cutting of the cake, K’s boss spoke. Then, each table was invited up to the bride and groom’s table to take a photo with them.

One thing I learned at a Japanese wedding which occurred soon after the second and subsequent courses were handed out, is not to ask for beer unless you want it to be constantly refilled by the father of the groom and the mother and father of the bride.  I was able to wave off most of the requests with N’s help, but I acquiesced to K’s father.  Originally, I had asked for water, but either the server didn’t understand my Japanese, or he thought it a strange request (though I changed to water later).

After the second course, K was whisked away by two of her friends to help her change into her kimono.  After the third course, M was whisked away by one of his friends for the same purpose.  After the fifth course, we were treated to a slideshow of K and M growing up, which included pictures of everyone who was at the wedding.

M and K returned after the eighth course: he in a lily white kimono, she in a gorgeous orange, gold, and white one (all of these changes and reappearances utilizing the MC and the spotlight).  After bowing, they went around to each table, from the back of the room to the front, in order to pose for photos with everyone.


After the wedding cake was handed out, we were told that eight slices included sour plums in them.  The people who found the sour plums got to go up to the front of the room, where there were eight presents, and drew straws to see who would pick first.  Gifts included a digital camera and a Starbucks gift certificate.

The ceremony ended with M and K giving presents to their parents.  M’s father spoke, then M, after which both sets of parents and the bride and groom left the room.  Once the centerpieces and bags of flowers were given out to people, the MC announce that the reception was over.  It had started at 1 pm and had finished around 3:30.

Still, there were a couple more traditional aspects to complete before the event was over.  Outside the reception room, M and K greeted the guests, along with their parents, and gave out sweets: M to his guests, K to hers.  In the case of K’s sweets, they were made by her mother, so I can only assume that M’s mom made his.  Then, once numerous photos of the bride and groom were taken at different locations around the hotel, we all gathered on the large staircase in the lobby for one final group photo.  After that, the bride and groom headed off with their families to have dinner (both families ate together), while I headed to the station with N and another of K’s friends, who were still dressed in their kimonos.

Back at K and M’s apartment, I opened my gifts while waiting for them to return from dinner.  One of them was this cake.

It's Cake!

While I stayed a few more days in Tokyo and had several more memorable experiences, so ended my experience at a Japanese wedding.

Impressions of Japan, Four Years Later

The view outside my friend's place in Japan.

Recently I visited Tokyo for the first time in four years.  What was striking was not how much had changed, but how little.  The same music played in the train stations, the same celebrities were on TV, the same man kept the lines moving through immigration (I kid you not).  Even the green phones outside of Shinjuku East Exit were in the same place, which was fortunate for someone like me who did not have a workable cell phone there.

What also hasn’t changed is the Japanese mentality, which I sometimes think is better than the American mentality in regards to civility.  Over there, people think of others before themselves and of how what they say will affect other people before they say it.  Because of this, there can be some passive-aggressive nonsense when someone is called out on not following the rules (and for children, shame is too often used as a  means of controlling behavior), and you have to really pay attention to discover when someone is angry at you, but it also means that there’s less open conflict between people, at least in public.  With all the stress of planning for my trip and juggling several different tasks the week before, just being in Japan again put me at ease, and not only because I was on vacation.  Japan just feels more relaxed.  Even rush hour didn’t faze me, as rush hour is busy, but not rushed.  Working there is a slightly different story, but visiting Japan is one of the most relaxing things that one can do.

Still, things are changing.  Japan is slowly becoming more international, and more friendly towards foreign residents.  Alien registration cards will soon include less information on it for people outside of immigration or law enforcement, preventing discrimination based on soon-to-expire visas.  In the airport and on trains, announcements in Chinese have joined the ones currently spoken in Japanese and English.

As for the Japanese people, the sluggish economy means that lifetime employment is becoming less of a reality for the younger generation, and permanent work is becoming harder to find.  One of my friends thinks that Japan is losing its fighting spirit because young people in Japan are giving up on finding any sort of employment, while my Japanese friends under 25 years old are spending most of their time sending out applications and going to interviews.  For my friends over the age of 30, it’s even tougher to find work.  This, despite the fact that the yen is doing very well (82 yen to the dollar, as opposed to its average rate of 115 yen when I was last there, housing crisis excluded).  With that kind of money, I almost wish I were teaching over there now.

And what of the tsunami and its aftermath?  Tokyo is far enough away from Sendai to have not shared in its loss of life, and far enough away from Fukushima to be safe from radiation (despite alarmist reports in the first few months of the nuclear crisis), yet it felt the earthquake when it hit, and residents agreed to voluntary blackouts to conserve electricity when most of the reactors were shut down.  One of my friends in Japan, who is American, said that during the reactor crisis, he and some other foreign teachers spent a night drinking sake, deciding whether or not they should leave Tokyo for another Japanese city, farther away from Fukushima.  After their third bottle, they decided to stay.  There was no reason not to.  Japan is a functional country, possibly more functional than any other country out there, and Tokyo was in minimal danger.  Its federal government may be incompetent, but its people are not.  Or, as one newscaster put it (regarding Prime Minister Kan, who was prime minister during the disaster), “The brain is dead, but the body is still functioning.”  Surprisingly, he’s still on the air.

Not surprisingly, news of the disaster was treated differently in Japan than it was abroad.  In fact, foreign teachers who could understand Japanese stayed in Tokyo during the Fukushima disaster, while those who only understood English left the country.  This is because Western media sensationalized the disaster, while Japanese media downplayed it, with the truth lying somewhere in between.  In fact, I probably was exposed to more radiation on the plane ride over there than I was in Tokyo, so if you want to visit Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Sapporo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukuoka, or any other city farther than 30 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, feel free to do so.

Since I did not travel outside of Tokyo, I did not visit other parts of Japan, even places that I didn’t get around to visiting the first time.  And while I did sing at karaoke, I didn’t go to any hot springs.  That will be rectified on my next visit.  Something else I might do on my next trip is visit the places where I lived and worked.  I felt it would be too bittersweet to stop in Musashi-Koganei and Kodaira on this visit (one doesn’t want to be melancholy for a wedding, after all), but just seeing Musashi-Koganei listed as a stop was enough for me to remember the emotions associated with living there.

As I end this entry, I realize I forgot to mention one other thing that hasn’t changed in regards to Japan: my friendships.  Some of my friends may speak less English than they did when I knew them, some more, but all of them who could met with me and wondered, as I did, how four years went by so fast.

Cherry blossoms in Koganei Park. April 4, 2006. Tokyo, Japan.