Sunday, August 30, 2009

4. The Secret of the "Perfect Village"

Children are vulnerable. They come to this world in a completely helpless state, where they have to rely on capable adults to provide food, and a place to be safe and warm. 

Once they become self-aware, they need mental support, in addition to the essentials for staying alive.  They depend on adults around them for their emotional comfort, sense of security, and guidance in moral. 

I occasionally hear someone say, probably out of desperation, that children don’t need parents to grow-up.  True, children may not need uncaring abusive parents to grow.  If adults are not available to care for them, some children are capable of survival by learning to be street smart.  But we all know that growing up without love and support of caretaker is hardly a foundation to become a mentally healthy and happy adult.  When children are not provided a safe place to be, with someone who loves and accepts them for who they are, they can become susceptible to a life-long depression.  Because a child without security, love or acceptance by someone, would not have a positive image of himself or the world he lives in.  He will not be able to hope for a brighter future for himself, because he is not capable of imagining one.

Unfortunately, the strong parental support children need to grow up to be truly happy functional adults, are not always available in our world, and my little hometown is no exception. 

I was born in a small city of 50 thousand people, situated near a beautiful coastline of a small peninsula on the Pacific side, in central Japan.  It seemed like strong support of adults for their children would be available in a section of the city I grew up in, an innocent sleepy community.  Why wouldn’t there be?  Grown-ups of the town seemed to say nice things to one another.  They cared for the elderly.  Each family line was carried on to by the younger generation.  People stayed within the boundary of how they should conduct.  In doing all those things, no one complained outwardly.  Everyone even did a lot of volunteer work for the community.  Such “ideal community” would surely be an environment where people can keep their children healthy, mentally and physically, wouldn’t it? 

What I discovered after a year of counseling was in contrary to the superficial image of what this community provided.  I learned that I had never really felt protected or accepted as a child.  The child inside me, who’d been locked up for a long time until recently, still weeps today, because she couldn’t comprehend what was going on with adults around her.  When she felt hurt and sad, she couldn’t express it to anyone.  She couldn’t trust adults who were supposed to be showing her how to live.  When I made this realization, I looked into more of what had happened in my childhood. 

No continuous physical abuse was inflicted on me to my recollection.  So I ruled it out as a main factor. -

This is a slight derailment from what I would like to focus in this article, but it may give a clearer picture of social mentality that was present back in those days. There was less caution against physical punishment then. There were a few unrelated incidents I experienced that may have contributed in my repellence against my hometown. 

One time when I lied to my mother about skipping a piano lesson during my grade school years, she slapped me across my face.  (Looking back, It’s interesting how she told me never to lie again, but didn’t encourage me to tell her why I didn’t go to the lesson or suggest that I quit if I don’t want to play piano.) What became more prominent in my recollection of my past is the abuse that took place in schools.  Teachers were notorious back then for choosing physical punishments on students, whatever offence students committed.  The offence usually was missed homework or violating a dress code covering things like length of a skirt or style of your hair.  I recall being pinched and struck for a missed homework when I was in third grade, and being struck with a hardcover book when I missed an after-school club meeting in middle school.  I remember the feeling of humiliation.  Personally, these incidents lead me to believe that it’s not the physical hurt that lingers and affect a person’s life.  It’s the mental hurt that is more powerful and damaging.  

Physical punishments are now considered inappropriate in Japan today as is in many societies.  Yet I know for a fact that a portion of adult population in Japan still believes in physical punishment as an effective and necessary tool to mold children.  

- So what was so wrong that I couldn’t trust adults? 

To summarize, it was the way adults, including my parents, who are supposed to be looked up upon by me as a child, didn’t make efforts to do the right thing.  They didn’t seem to see any point in correcting the wrongs and making them right.  This apparent disregard to moral and the indifference in adults, left me confused, untrusting, and feeling unprotected.

Another reason why I, as a child, felt exposed could have been because I thought I had to be a mental protector to my mother and my younger sister.  I know now there are limits to what a small child can do, and it’s not possible for a child to care for an adult mentally. But I didn’t know that at the time.

I mentioned in my previous article, that I was ordered by my mother never to discuss anything that has to do with family publically.  When she said family, she meant my father’s entire family, which included not only his wife and children, but also all his relatives who bore the family name.    Why?  There were two reasons for this.  One is because my father’s family was very well known in the community and highly regarded, at least superficially anyway.  So no member of this great family could afford to tarnish the family’s prestige by revealing that we are also imperfect humans, just like anyone else.  My mother was especially paranoid about this, which explains the second reason, the effect of Village Conscious.  She was just another victim of social polarization.

My mother was from another part of the country, and was the subject of rejection and subtle group abuse by people in the neighborhood as well as my father's family.  She tried her best to protect her image and prevent any severe harm to come to her or her children.  She attempted this by trying her darnedest to appear to be perfect and fit into the community.  And one of her strategies was to keep everything that might be construed with the slightest negative connotation, secret. Hence, her strict order to a toddler, who couldn’t selectively keep things secret, to “Keep her mouth shut”.  She also unloaded her frustration and pain on me, a very young child.  Sharing with me the sordid details of her relationship with my father, as well as her struggles relating to my father’s family and those who made up this community we lived in.  I suspect my mother didn't have anyone to confide in.  This caused many ill effects on my life, that I will be discussing it in another article.  

It didn’t help that in this environment my late father was an absent one who was emotionally unavailable to everyone including my mother, my sister and I.  No, I’m sure he didn’t intend to abandon us.  He was actually regarded as one of the more respectable members in the community.  After all he was his father’s son, graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in Tokyo, and made something of himself in the society’s view.  He just was never there, because he was at work all over Japan as a consultant most of his life.  

He was a workaholic who put everything he had into becoming a success in the company he worked for.  His hard work provided for his family well financially.  I remember my mother repeatedly reassured my sister and me, that our father loved us.  She said that’s why he worked so hard and we didn’t see him very much. 

I empathized with his struggle and respected him, especially when I turned old enough to understand the harshness of the working environment in Japan.

Eventually though, I believe this “working hard for the family” and “brutal working environment of Japan” became an excuse for him to stay away from things that made him uncomfortable about his personal life.  I am certain that he was also plagued by his environment where he grew up, regardless whether he was conscious of it or not.  I fail to see now why he had to submerge himself into the world of work the way he did.  I wonder if he didn’t have a severe emotional impairment he needed to run away from everyday.  There were suggestions that his personal life was very dysfunctional.  One of the things I noticed was that he appeared not to have any close friends, but was well received by people who didn‘t really know him.  I also noticed that the company he had dedicated his life to, showed very little sympathy when he passed away of cancer.  I often felt that he didn’t even know his own parents and siblings.  More sadly, I, his own first born, never really knew who he really was.

Where I stand now, I feel my personal growth was stunted because of the way my parents related to me in an environment that seemed very puzzling to me for many reasons.  My parents probably were not able to see what was going on with me.   They couldn’t have seen what was going on with me, because they were too busy coping with everyday life themselves.  They had no time to address their own issues. And I feel for them for their own struggles.

On the other hand, through my childhood experiences, I seemed to have developed a persona of a protector or a warrior.  There was a constant urge in me to try to protect someone who may have been misunderstood or mistreated.  I often assisted my classmates who were ridiculed just because they had a disability or difference.  I fended for new students who moved into our community and were being ostracized.  I remember taking pride in doing those things, although I was labeled odd.  It’d lead me to believe I was someone special because I had the natural urge to do what seemed to be good deeds.  So there were some positive that came out of my upbringing.   

Recently my younger sister informed me that she thought of herself as “Big Sis’s Girl”, as in “Daddy’s Girl” or “Mommy’s Boy”.  It was a relief for me to hear this in a way.  I realized now that I did try to protect my sister.  Now that I’m older, I can’t help feeling a twinge of anger... anger toward the way my parents chose to live, in a place where my sister needed to be protected by the older sibling, just another child herself… I sill love my parents, for I understand that they did the best they could.  Still I wonder today, if my parents were ever concerned about the environment we were in.  If they were, I wonder if they tried to address it openly.  I eventually left my sister there, and the regret of doing so would haunt me for years. 

As one of my mentors pointed out to me recently, I can’t ignore the possibility that my reaction to how things were in my hometown could have had something to do with my own mental “wiring” or make up.  I’ve been told more than once that I am more sensitive than others, so it makes sense that my experiences may have been magnified through my own processing.  I was probably prone to more hurt because of it.  Ironically, I believe my sensitivity aided me to notice things around me, perhaps with more depth.  

I knew there was something very unhealthy there where I grew up.  More than likely it still is.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

3. Beautiful Nation in the Shadow of Noble Principles

In the previous article, I mentioned that many people viewed me as brave, because I left my home country at 17. I also said that I’ve never felt I was actually brave. Well, if there is a time to test my bravery, now is the time.

I realized not so long ago, that I have unconsciously spent a great portion of my emotional life protecting the image of my hometown to others, as well as to myself. This old pattern of behavior is about to be broken. I am about to reveal an honest, negative view of my own hometown in Japan, in front of an international audience. In this audience there are people of Japan, and it makes speaking out a little more difficult. I'll tell you why. In my pre-school years, I was firmly “ordered” by my mother never to talk about our family business with anyone. I took it as an absolute rule and from then on I faithfully obeyed the rule until, well… now. So I hope you see, that a great deal of courage needs to be conjured up in me to do this, as it feels like I am betraying my own family. To make matters worse, the apparent betrayal extends against my home country, and its well respected principles.

In this article, I will bring up some points on dysfunctional elements I observed in Japanese society. While my views expressed here may not be original, they are views that slowly developed and took shape in my mind over a few decades. This process was aided by semi-conscious digestion of my experiences in 17 years of living there. The 17 years that profoundly affected my life. The purpose of publishing this article is not to disgrace my birthplace. It is in hopes of helping myself heal, and the possibility that it may help young people who are suffering now.

Japan has been a proud country, humble with its mannerism but confident of its will and ability to do what it takes to reach a goal as a nation. It’s a nation that has a history of challenging the US to a war and losing. The loss, of course, forced the nation to face the pain and humiliation of being beaten, and its ideals to be crushed. At the same time the loss enabled the nation to realize it’s massive power to rise from the rubble, and become one of the strongest economies in the world in a very short period of time. This piece of history has been, and still is, a strong testimony to the resilience and intelligence Japanese people possess.

Personally, I cherish Japan for its unique quality and beauty in landscape, lifestyle with less emphasis on religion and more adaptation of Zen philosophy, serene sense of Wabi/Sabi, high standard in work ethic, and the food culture that I believe to be one of the best if not the best in the world. Yet behind the scenes of the capable and beautiful Japan, I see clusters of small communities that are suffering.

These small communities, or micro-societies, mostly exist within the boundaries of certain sets of unspoken rules. These sets of rules are known to derive from two distinctive origins. One of the two origins is “Bushi-do”: The Way of Samurai Warriors. It's a code of conduct for samurai warriors who served their shogun masters, developed in the 1600s. Principles of this code of conduct were loyalty, courtesy, bravery, faithfulness, and modesty. Its original intentions were noble and it is still regarded highly today. At one point the most emphasized principle was unyielding loyalty. You would think it sounds very respectable. However the unyielding loyalty meant back in those days of shoguns, that the samurai warriors followed their shogun master’s command precisely, which sometimes included, not only lying and cheating, but also committing suicide to protect the master’s position. I see something wrong here.

The problem is that these principles were eventually adopted as moral guidelines for the nation in the 1800s. It penetrated different sectors of the country through the efforts put forth by Nationalists of the time, such as Tetsujirou Inoue.

I always felt as I looked at the history of Japan, as with the history of many other nations, that there seemed to be an element of romantic fantasy, a false heroism attached to an extreme self-sacrifice in the name of serving a person or a group. It’s almost as if severe suffering in the name of serving a common master or a group deserves the highest honor in the society, even if following this code meant forcing the individual to give up his core values if not his life. Imagine how grave your life would be if you had to give up the core values you hold so dear to your heart… the rules that you strive to live by… the very core that defines who you are.

I am not suggesting one shouldn't sacrifice in defending his country against a force that are out to destroy it. I am addressing the unethical and immoral expectations certain groups harbor when the groups lack the breath of fresh air that brings “change” for the better.

To my dismay, there are people of older generation in Japan who cry out the need to bring back the samurai warriors’ way of living. It’s as if they believe this code has been lost. They seem to believe that revitalizing the code of conduct created 400 years ago, for warriors under a completely different set of circumstances, will “fix” today’s Japan, the country that's begun to show the severe symptoms of dysfunction. Two examples of the symptoms are, the increased numbers in people in their thirties who suffer from debilitating depression in recent years, and people in a state of “Hikikomori”: it’s a Japanese word that describes a portion of younger generation who appears to be emotionally paralyzed to the point, where they can’t function outside of their parents’ home, that they confine themselves in their own rooms well beyond their adolescent years into their adulthood.

The other origin of unspoken rules in small communities is Mura-Ishiki: what I would like to call Villagers Conscious. It is a sort of awareness that enables communities to maintain the order and security, by accepting the members as long as they behave within the village’s boundaries of consciousness, and punish those who stray by ostracizing. It usually leads to lifelong shame carried by the individual ostracized, and the shame is often carried over to next generation. Besides the ripple effect this causes, another one of the problems with this kind of control, is that it is not uncommon for the entire village to become what US calls the “good old boy’s club”. Good old boy's club is another system of keeping order within a closed door, where secrecy, discrimination, and blatant acts of injustice are it's common practices.

The small town I was born in was such a place where this government by Villagers Conscious that bordered “the good old boy’s club mentality” seemed extremely prominent. The town operated in a deeply co-dependent way. I witnessed puzzling behaviors and unethical manipulations by adults there. If you and your family were rooted in the town, you can get away with a lot. But if you’re from outside of town, like my mother was, you are a target of “Ijime”, childish and cruel group abuse by the people of the neighborhood. This dark personal impression of my hometown probably will be in stark contrast to the impression you are likely to have when you visit there as a tourist. For tourists, my town probably seems homey, kind, gentle, slow-paced and innocent.

The situation is slightly reminiscent of the movie village called Sandford in Britain that appeared in a 2007 British comedy action film “Hot Fuzz”. In the movie, Sandford kept the appearance of a problem free, welcoming country village. There were extreme circumstances in the movie that lead to the humor, but the feeling I was left with reminded me of the feeling I had about my hometown. (Technically my hometown is a city of more than 50 thousand people, so it’s hardly a village.) I won’t divulge the details of the story in consideration to those who are planning to see the movie. If you've ever experienced the type of village life I described above, I recommend you see it, since it will help you de-stress with its hilarity and sense of justice. I, for one, can’t help loving this silly and ridiculously off-the-main-stream story and the characters, because there are so many elements in it that are close to home.

I know that the co-dependent control of the Villagers Conscious is not unique to my little hometown or country of origin, and there are people around the world that suffer from the control by similar social conscious that I once lived under. And it is not to be lightly regarded or dismissed. I feel it needs to be examined and discussed, for its effect has devastating consequences in individuals who live under it, as the quote below beautifully depicts.

"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. " -Jiddu Krishnamurti

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

2. "Unconscious" the Protector

In life, there is a time when you look back and be astonished how you as a human are capable of figuring out how to survive without knowing that’s what you do. One way is to avoid facing detrimental factors in your life and put them away so that you can survive. We do this all at a very unconscious level. I view this as a testimony to intuition and the reason why the conclusions intuition draws usually are correct.

I left my birthplace to live in the US when I was 17. Back then not many young girls left home before getting married let alone to another country right after high school. I remember the excitement and focus I had on this adventure.

Throughout the years of my living in the US, people often commented how brave I must have been to leave my family and friends, and come live in a foreign country by myself at such a young age. Each time I heard the comment I thought to myself, “I don’t feel like I’m brave… I’m just having a greatest time of my life feeling reborn and free to be myself. Being brave doesn’t seem to have anything to do with my life here.“

People also used to ask why I came to US. For a long time I made myself and others believe that I came here to be exposed to a new culture and study abroad. After all, that’s what most foreign students did. It seemed like a very sound reason. I felt pretty good about that. But it wasn’t long before a vague irritation that whispered something unsettling began poking it's head at me. It seemed there was something unknown about my feeling toward my own background, and there might be a lie in the story I was telling. But it didn’t prompt me to explore to find out if there is anything to that irritation. I was choosing not to explore so I don’t have to find the answer. I chose to ignore the whisper and look away.

I loved where I lived as a foreign student, Berkeley, California, a well-known liberal college town where free thinkers of the time actively spoke up in public and did what they preached. I consider this town the adopted hometown of my heart to this day. Yes it was very obvious I loved it there, but there was something wrong. I was asked to visit my family back home from time to time, and it was difficult for me to be happy about it. I actually dreaded it each time. Why would I dread going home for just a few weeks when I knew I would head back to US after that? I still remember one year, tearing up on the airplane leaving to Haneda International Airport near Tokyo as it lifted off and I saw that my familiar San Francisco was getting further away down below. Why?

At times I tried to resign to the possibility that I was just one of those people Japanese society calls “a deserter”, who rather love a foreign culture than her own. At the same time I used to cringe and feel a bit of anger when I heard a Japanese phrase like "A-me-ri-ca Ka-bu-re". It’s a phrase used to describe someone who is blindly passionate about America, and it’s often tinted by disgust felt by people who called someone that. The disgust may come from the fact that America once dropped an atomic bomb on Japan which lead to horrific suffering of innocent people and Japan’s surrender, or the perception of how US oppresses less powerful nations, or it may just come from an objection to looking away from your roots. I’m not sure. I was also saddened as I heard other words of rejection by Japanese people directed toward someone like myself who left the country.

I was never directly told anything of that nature personally, but I felt very selfish and rejected for what I was doing all the same. I didn’t mean to disrespect my country and culture of origin let alone my family. Yet strangely there was this strong negative feeling deep inside me when it comes to how and where I grew up. And it entangled itself with those words of rejection by total strangers that had nothing to do with me and seemed to create a bigger hurt in me.

Years passed by, and a lot happened. After school I got married to a man from New Jersey and moved to a large city in southeastern part of US where his parents were running a business. I worked as graphic designer in a design studio and eventually had children. I had no doubt that I was living a very normal life then. But years later I realized that my life married to this man was another good evidence that I didn’t know myself very well back then.

Eventually we moved from southeast US to northwest. The marriage failed few years after the move across the country. I went through a very difficult divorce on my own and began a new life living as a single mother of two.

It was then that I slowly began to wonder more consciously about the real reason behind my leaving Japan at such an early stage of my life, because it was rather clear to me that I didn't want to go back to my hometown even as a single mother who had no family around.

My urge to know grew stronger by months, and eventually by days. Why do I feel sick to my stomach every time I think about going back? Why didn’t I try harder to teach my children Japanese? Why don’t I miss my parents, relatives, or friends? It seemed only person I missed was my younger sister. Am I such a cold person that I don’t care? Am I a horrible person?

But all that wondering ended recently. I had a revelation that clarified what actually happened, that shed lights on the reasons why I left Japan when I did.

It was not bravery, or disrespect to my culture and family, that propelled me to fly clear across the Pacific Ocean. It was a desperate attempt to preserve myself, and my chance for true happiness in life I only have once to live. It was my unconscious trying to save me from further harm.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

1. Foreword

Most of us in our adult years would like to think that we know ourselves.  But have you ever wondered if you actually know the TRUTH about yourself?

Recently I have made a new discovery in a series of many, about my now middle-aged self.  It is painful at this age, to discover something completely new as you may imagine. It is humbling as well as mind expanding to put it mildly.

I used to think I was strong and indestructible, capable of pushing through my life no matter what obstacle I faced.  But after several revelations, I've come to the conclusion that I only had an impression that I was strong because I did not allow myself to feel. 

Although I am just beginning to tap into the core of myself, it took me a very long time to get to this stage in my inner journey. The process of honest self-examination was made possible only because I arrived at the right place at the right time, psychologically.

I believe there must be people out there who haven’t even touched the surface of who they really are.  And I am guessing that those who open their inner-self for scrutiny may be many but not the majority.

In my view it takes three essential components that must come together for the process to take place. First component we need which would act as a catalyst for this self- progression is an opportunity for an event that warrants such close examination of self. The second is the will to recognize the need to do so, and the third is the courage to see it through. It is often frightening to look into a part of yourself that is unknown. It’s so frightening when it gets closer to the core, that some of us refuse to acknowledge there is anything more to look into at all.  It would be ideal, if support of a well-educated and experienced counselor is available to help you better understand the context of what you are seeing.

They say most people are not truly “awake” as an adult until they are in their mid 30s. They work their way toward the core of themselves and get closer to the truth in the mid to late 40s. I am just about on schedule. My process of awakening began slowly a little more than10 years ago and it hasn’t stopped. It has accelerated in the last few years. It may slow down at times but I don’t expect it to ever end because I don’t intend to let it end.

This blog is about my personal growth and discoveries, as an ordinary woman of Japanese decent who moved to US over 30 years ago. I have taken some detours which helped develop empathy and respect for people in struggle, for their resilience and their personal success. I am yet to dig out more of what I’m actually made of, and in order to facilitate myself as well as others like me to further self-explore, I would like to leave a record of what I have discovered so far, along with some memorable incidents that shaped the person that I am today.

If you would like to come along with me, or drop in from time to time, you are most welcome.