Saturday, 31 December 2011

Back to Vietnam

Our airplane arrives at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in the late afternoon. The journey has been happily uneventful. Istanbul has a modern, well-designed airport, so the transit went smoothly. Turkish Airlines serves some of the best airplane food I have ever had (the eggplant and chicken in tomato sauce was absolutely delicious), and the flight attendants did their best to keep the passengers hydrated. The plane made a brief stop in Bangkok before moving on to Ho Chi Minh City, which was somewhat annoying, but as we were allowed to stay and wait on the plane it was not a big problem. Throughout the journey, we could enjoy movies of our own choice. A completely different experience from Air China, which I took last week, despite the fact that both airline companies belong to the same international alliance.

Like most Europeans, I need a visa in order to visit Vietnam. There are two ways of getting a Vietnamese visa: one can either get one at a Vietnamese embassy or consulate abroad (and pay around 50 or 60 euros), or one can apply for a ‘visa on arrival’ online. Basically, you sign up for a visa at the site of a Vietnamese travel agency, who will then get the required permission from the immigration department, and send you a scanned copy of the official approval letter. This usually costs about 25 US dollars, but I found an agency that charged only 11 - I assume they have a ‘special connection’ within the immigration department. You print out the letter, which you hand in (together with a passport picture and a filled out visa application form) upon arrival at one of Vietnam’s international airports, after which you have to pay an additional 25 dollars ‘stamping fee’. In total, I paid 36 dollars.

Getting a visa on arrival is an excellent way to experience authentic Vietnamese efficiency. In stead of passing through immigration immediately, you have to go to a small office in a corner of the immigration hall. You are not the only one: several dozens of foreigners are standing and sitting around the office window, waiting for their visas. Some look completely alienated, others indifferent, others frustrated. If you are lucky, a queue has emerged spontaneously; if not, survival of the fittest. I was lucky. While queuing, however, I realised that I had not filled out the second visa application form, and I did not see any lying around. My wife went to a nearby desk and asked if she could get a copy of the form, which the young official behind the desk kindly gave her. In addition, he informed her that if we did not feel like waiting for a long time, it would of course be possible to get the visa faster – the ‘priority treatment’, so to speak. Everything can be arranged, after all, for everything has its price. Welcome back to Vietnam.

We did not pay him. We have had plenty of experience with Vietnamese corruption in the past, and I consider it a sick system that I do not wish to support if I do not have to. So I filled out the form, and waited for my turn. As I approached the office window, the queue dissolved into chaos. Some people were making applications, while others were paying their fees, while others got back their passports, while others were impatiently asking why they had to wait so long, while others were simply standing there, blocking the way for new applicants, naively believing that unlike everybody else they would get their visa within five minutes – all in front of the same desk.

Eventually, I handed in the letter, application form, a picture and my passport. We waited. As I had not bribed the officials, I did not receive ‘priority treatment’, so we had no choice but to be patient. After approximately forty uneasy minutes, during which several people received their passports and many more arrived and applied, I heard a lady say ‘Mitta Aika Piita Rót’. I assumed that she was referring to me, and my assumption turned out to be correct - so after paying the official fee I received my passport, together with its newest Vietnamese visa. The seventh, I counted.

Tan Son Nhat Airport is located inside the city. As we had a connecting flight the next day and did not feel like spending our first night in the city centre, we simply walked out of the airport, and stayed at a nearby hotel. Saigon triggered my senses. If you do not experience it for a while, you forget what tropical air feels like, only to be forcefully reminded when you return. It was not very hot, but the moist, warm air engulfed me like a bath, and the myriad strange yet familiar smells made me feel both dizzy and excited. But the most impressive feature of Saigon is the incredible amount of noise it constantly produces. No other city in the world has such a density of motorcycles, and they all produce a fair amount of sound. Add to that the noise of construction work, street vendors and shops vomiting loud dance music, and you get the cacophony that is called Ho Chi Minh City. 

We found a hotel not too far from the airport, with clean sheets, a bathtub and a minibar. We enjoyed a delicious first dinner of grilled fish, water spinach with garlic and fresh green herbs. My wife treated herself to her favourite food, the most disgusting fruit Creation has ever seen: durian. Everything was fine. We slept very well, until the noise of construction work downstairs woke us up at 7am - a lovely way to get over a double jetlag. Any first-time traveller to this country, be warned: earplugs are an absolute necessity. 

We somehow managed to catch some more sleep before we got up and checked out. We enjoyed delicious bún noodle soup and Vietnamese ice coffee with condensed milk. Afterwards, we walked back to the airport for our connecting flight, which would bring us to Hoi An where we were going to spend the holidays.

It is good to be back.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Japanese autumn

If a novel is recommended by both Mr. DuPont and Mr. Engelen (independently, as they have not yet made each other’s acquaintance), it must be a good novel. Hence, I decided to purchase a copy of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and bring it with me on the airplane. No lack of airplane journeys, this week, so it did not take me very long to finish it. And I concur: this is an extraordinarily rich historical novel, full of memorable characters and events. Set against the background of the Dutch trading post Dejima (Nagasaki) at the turn of the nineteenth century, Mitchell’s latest novel is an intriguing story of hope, betrayal, prejudice, corruption, religion, imperialism, science and, inevitably, impossible love; at times sarcastic yet in the end naively romantic. The author beautifully describes sounds, smells, city life, random thoughts and other small details that may not be directly relevant to the plot, but contribute greatly to the overall reading experience. Thus, he succeeds in bringing to life his characters and the world in which they live. Frankly, I doubt the historical probability of some of the events; in particular, the morbid cult of Mount Shiranui does not seem very convincing. Nevertheless, I highly enjoyed reading this book, not in the least because it evoked nostalgia by reminding me of my own initial fascination with Japan, my first exotic Other.

The title of the novel contains the name of the main character, a devout VOC clerk from Zeeland, who resists the temptation of corruption but hopelessly falls for the temptation of female beauty. It also refers to one of Japan's nicknames: the land of the thousand autumns. Of course, the Japanese isles have four different seasons, each with their distinctive beauty – as any tourist pamphlet or kitschy ‘Zen’ book reminds us of. And of course, spring brings the annual extravagance of white and pink cherry blossoms, giving the nation an excuse for two weeks of jouissance. However, as any expert or resident will confirm, Japan is at its most beautiful in autumn, when the summer heat is gone but the winter cold has not yet arrived, when nature is at its most dynamic. In autumn, the maple trees in temples and parks turn red as fire, the ginkgo trees yellow as gold. Flocks of tourists come to the old capital to visit famous temples (and queue for hours to take pictures of themselves in front of famous sightseeing spots covered with red leaves), but the forested mountains around the city have plenty of quiet hiking trails. Throughout the country, towns and temples are covered in colourful dresses of red, yellow, green and orange. The air is fresh, but not too cold; the sky is usually clear, except for the occasional shower. Long periods of grey skies and never-ending rain, so common in the Netherlands or the UK during this season, are very rare. Autumn is also the time of many great festivals, religious ceremonies and cultural events. In sum, autumn is probably the best time to be in Japan.

Some pictures of the past few months. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

CA 911

The plane is crossing the Sayan mountains, near Achinsk, approaching Novosibirsk, not too far from Barnaul, Kansk and Ust Kamenogorsk. Geographical names as empty signifiers. I know that the names refer to real places, with real houses, where real people are born and work and love and suffer and die, but I find it hard to imagine what the places look like. Siberia, Mongolia, Central Asia: vast terra incognita, whose exotic names have long ago come to represent the liminal space between my beloved Japan, and whatever European country I call home. But the physical realities behind the names remain a mystery.

The sky is turning bright orange. It will be dark before I have finished writing the next paragraph. As my reading light is not working, I anxiously anticipate a long and dark evening, without the solace of a novel. I do not expect my laptop’s battery to last until our destination, and the amenities that make long-distance air travel bearable these days – so-called ‘in-flight entertainment systems’ – are sadly absent from this plane. So I enjoy the view as long as I can. The sky changes every minute: shades of lilac and violet are now absorbing the orange, but behind it is a long line of yellowish green, giving way to dark grey and, higher up, intense blue.

For some reason, I ended up on an Air China flight. Unfortunately, the airline company turns out to be inferior to most other companies I have flown with – as bad as Air France and Aeroflot, or even worse. I can survive without an entertainment system, but I would be grateful if the flight attendants were so kind as to smile, and use the simple phrases ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘here you are’. I would also appreciate edible food, in stead of the old, tasteless ‘chicken’ and non-descript jelly we were served for lunch. And I would appreciate a bathroom with a garbage bin that closes properly, so I could use the toilet without having to look at used sanitary napkins. Or, for that matter, a bathroom with a tap that could be turned off. I would have also appreciated a kind word of thanks from the flight attendants, when I notified them of the fact that the toilet was about to get flooded.

That said, it is a sad but undeniable fact that toilets are not among China’s greatest contributions to human civilisation, as previous experiences have taught me – so perhaps I should have been prepared, and not expected so much. But Japan has spoiled me. Its toilets are arguably the most comfortable in the world, not only because many of them are equipped with heated toilet seats, but also because they often have a great variety of options for rinsing, cleaning and drying those parts of the body that tend to get dirty during toilet activities. A proper, well-aimed, warm ‘shower’ is more efficient and pleasant than dry toilet paper, trust me. You can even adjust the water strength.

It is perhaps not very surprising that such fancy toilets have been developed in Japan, and not in China. While Japanese culture is strongly influenced by Chinese civilisation in many ways – ranging from language to religion, from architecture to political ideology – there are also some significant differences between the two countries. One of those is the importance attached to cleanliness and purity in Japanese culture. This interesting Japanese cultural preoccupation applies to physical cleanliness as much as ritual purity, which are two sides of the same coin.

For instance, bathing is a favourite Japanese pastime, and most people do it every day. Despite the fact that nearly everybody has a bath at home, public baths and hot springs are everywhere, for bathing can also be a social activity. As they spend a lot of time and money on grooming and washing, Japanese people are usually clean, and few smell, even on hot summer days – a nice cultural trait for such a densely populated country, one has to admit. As the outside world is considered dirty, it is important to regularly clean (we might use the word ‘purify’) oneself. Likewise, the prohibition on wearing shoes indoors is enforced universally. Wearing shoes at home is considered a mortal sin, and one of the few faux pas that even ignorant foreigners cannot get away with.

The same principles of cleanliness apply to practices of a more symbolic nature. For instance, before one enters a sacred place such as a Shinto shrine, one is supposed to wash one’s hands and rinse one’s mouth with water. In addition, in order to enter the worship wall (which is only allowed for certain rituals and on special occasions), one has to be ritually purified by a priest. He (or she) does so by chanting prayers and waving a special ritual purification wand over the participants’ heads. Approaching the deities in an impure state may insult them, make them angry and, ultimately, cause misfortune. While today taboos and prescriptions regarding pollution and purity are not taken as seriously by most ordinary people as they used to be in the past, these notions and practices remain an integral aspect of Japanese society and culture.

Sunset takes much longer than usual. The sky has turned a beautiful deep orange and indigo, but it still is not dark yet. I assume this is because we are flying westwards. But I also assume that we cannot escape the darkness forever. By the time we have reached our destination, it will be completely dark. But, fortunately, there will be little lights burning everywhere, telling me that Christmas is on its way. I will also see my first snow of the year. Most importantly, I will be reunited with my dear wife, after three long months of living and studying on opposite sides of the planet. The plane goes way too slowly.

The three months have been successful, though. I have managed to collect a great amount of relevant books and other useful materials. I have met a number of interesting people, and conducted interviews with priests, scholars, activists and leading ideologues. I have visited several shrines, temples and sacred forests. I have learned new things – not only about Shinto history and ideology, but also about forestry practices and spatial design. And I have experienced life in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, especially beautiful when wearing her colourful autumn dress. It was, in sum, a great period.

Although I greatly enjoyed spending the past three months in Japan, I am not very sad about leaving. Three months is not a very long period for fieldwork research, but it has worked out well, for it has forced me to focus and plan as well as I could. Hence, it was an intense period, and I have had little time to read, write or reflect. I was particularly busy in November and early December, during which I visited shrines, academic events and people not only in Kyoto, but also in Kumano, Awajishima, Nagoya, Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Ise and Nara. In between trips, I managed to present a paper on Shinto environmentalism at a research seminar. While I have undeniably missed some opportunities – people and projects I did not get in touch with, because I simply did not have time for more appointments – I do believe that I have made the most of the limited time I had.

As you have noticed, during this period, I only updated my weblog once. I apologise for this negligence, for which I blame my busy schedule. There is a great number of stories in my mind that have not been written down; a great number of experiences and conversations that have not yet been reflected upon properly. I hope to be able to write down some of those stories in the next couple of months. The ones that will not be published elsewhere will appear at this place. In addition, I have taken a great number of pictures, some of which I will upload here soon.

The colours have almost disappeared from the sky. Apart from the occasional laptop screen and the ‘no smoking’ signs, the inside of the plane is now pitch black. I am hungry, and I fail the understand the rationale of airline companies trying to create an artificial nighttime experience during the afternoon. I also fail to understand why the Swedish hooligans behind me are so noisy, and keep on moving the back of my chair. Perhaps they forgot to take their ritalin this morning. But then, I remember from previous stays in Japan that the culture shock usually did not occur until after I had left the country and returned home – so perhaps I should not really be surprised about the fact that, as soon as one leaves Japan, suddenly a great number of people seem rude and insensitive, at least in public.

As we approach the Ural mountains, we also approach the symbolic boundary between Asia and Europe; between those two mythical entities, ‘East’ and ‘West’. In the south, not very high above the horizon, a single star is shining brightly. It reminds me of the fact that it is almost Christmas.

No white Christmas for us, this year – except for the white sand of the Vietnamese beach where we will be spending our holidays. That is, in just a couple of days, I will board another plane, and return to Asia in order to visit my family-in-law and enjoy a nice vacation. Fortunately, I will not have to travel alone then. And fortunately, we will not be using Air China. In stead of the Ural mountains, we will cross that other East-West boundary: the Bosporus. I am looking forward.

More stories are on their way. Please stay tuned.

Monday, 14 November 2011

New notes from Japan (7): Football priests

In the past decades, church membership rates in the Netherlands have decreased steadily. A majority of the population no longer attends church services, except for special occasions. This applies to Catholic churches as much as to Protestant ones. Whereas many people are interested in diffuse types of 'spirituality', they no longer feel attracted to traditional Christian beliefs and/or church services. Churches have tried to come up with new ways of attracting visitors, but most of these attempts have failed.

In the summer of 2010, Catholic priest Paul Vlaar came up with a creative strategy to attract people to his mass. It was the summer of the Vuvuzela World Cup, in which the Dutch national team made it to the final (where, sadly, it lost in the last minute of extra time because of a capital mistake of the incapable British referee). Capitalising on the football hype, the priest decided to organise an 'orange mass', in which he used football and petty nationalism as a way to get people interested in Christianity. He was very successful: his church was filled completely, which usually only happens on Christmas Eve, and his parish loved the service. The bishop, however, was not amused, and the popular priest was suspended.

I will refrain from criticising the Catholic Church now. Let me just say that I do not really understand why people would follow a religion in which some faraway, powerful yet all-too-human authority prescribes them what to do and what to believe. I guess I am a child of the Reformation, after all. Much more interesting, however, is the question as to why the orange mass seemed to appeal to the participants, and even attracted new visitors. Some of them may have come out of curiosity, no doubt, but there is a little bit more to it. Most of us have experienced feelings of excitement and passion when watching sport games, especially when watching in a group of people. During the most exciting moments, watching sports can arouse feelings that seem almost religious: heartfelt wishes, devotion and even ecstasy, if only temporarily. Hence, the association of religion and sport seems quite natural.

And why would it not? After all, 'sport' is a 19th century modern, secular, European category. Before the invention of 'sport', however, there were all sorts of competitions, celebrations, displays of physical strength and so on. 'Sport' existed long before it was categorised as such. So did, incidentally, 'religion' and 'theatre'. But for most of history, the three were not clearly separated, institutionally nor conceptually. The separation of religious ceremonies, performing arts and spectator sports is a fairly recent historical phenomenon.

"But there were already Olympic Games in ancient Greece," you may argue, suggesting that sport is not a modern invention at all. True, but those Olympic Games were not classified as sport in the modern sense of the word. They were, first and foremost, religious worship. That is, they were entertainment: primarily for the gods, secondarily for the people. They were also useful for preserving and improving relations with rival city-states, of course, or prepare for the next war - but their main significance was religious. Hence the name, for the Olympus is the mountain where the Greek gods used to live.

Likewise, there are plenty of examples of ritualised physical competitions - wrestling, running, horse-riding, fighting, swimming, archery and so on - with strong religious significance, all over the world. Even in modern times, sport often incorporates religious practices and beliefs. In Latin America and Africa, for instance, football is full of magical and ritual elements. And such practices are not limited to 'non-Western' cultures, as illustrated by the fact that Catholic priests often bless cyclists in the Giro d'Italia and other cycling competitions. The separation of sport and religion is an odd historical anomaly, their intertwinement the rule.

This fact is beautifully illustrated in Shinto shrine practices. Did you think football was invented by the British? Think again. Shrine priests have been performing a kind of ritualised football for centuries. Likewise, Sumo (the quintessentially Japanese sport that used to be broadcast live by Eurosport but in recent years has suffered from corruption and other scandals - perhaps due to its secularisation, who knows), originates in local shrine festivals, which had the dual purpose of entertaining the deities and contributing to social relations. And recently, I was invited by a shrine priest to attend the annual yabusame festival at Kamigamo shrine: a fascinating combination of high-level horseriding, archery, Shinto ceremony and popular entertainment. I greatly enjoyed it. But I would not know whether I should classify it as sport, as religion or as performing arts.

Last week, I went to Kumano. Kumano is an ancient pilgrimage centre, located in the Kii peninsula, an area in the far south of the Kansai region. It is one of the most beautiful places in Japan: high forested mountains, dramatic cliffs, ancient pilgrim trails and romantic hot springs. It is also one of the most interesting places in terms of religious history. The natural landscape evokes feelings of awe. Accordingly, it has been associated with Yomi, the underworld, as well as with Buddhist mandalas. Kumano is a traditional centre of Shugendō, ascetic mountain worship, and shinbutsu shūgō, the combined worship of Japanese deities and Buddhas, and the belief that the former are incarnations of the latter. It is also a place that has been associated with nature worship, which is quite understandable, considering its impressive physical features and centuries-old symbolic significance. It comes as no surprise, then, that Kumano is often mentioned in contemporary discourse on Shinto and the environment.

The main deities enshrined here are the mythical ancestral deities of the Japanese imperial family and, ultimately, the nation, whose stories are told in the Kojiki: Izanagi and Izanami, the primordial brother and sister whose sexual intercourse produced the islands of Japan; Amaterasu, the sun goddess and symbol of imperial power; and Susanoo, god of the underworld. The three main shrines are Hongū Taisha, located in a valley surrounded by mountains and a famous pilgrimage destination; Nachi Taisha, where a beautiful tall waterfall is worshipped; and Hayatama Taisha, located near the place where the river meets the sea. Needless to say, when I received an invitation to join some people from NGOs trying to promote traditional culture on a trip to these three shrines, which would give me the opportunity to meet the head priests, I did not have to think very long.

However, last September, the area was hit severely by a typhoon and floods. The world did not notice, as mass media internationally had got bored of natural disasters in Japan and were busy reporting other hypes. But the damage was severe, and dozens of people were killed. Embarrasingly oblivious, I was shocked to see entire parts of mountains washed away, hundreds of trees uprooted, completely destroyed houses and deforested river islands. But reconstruction work was going on everywhere. Banners and people proudly declared that the rebuilding of the entire nation would start here, in Kumano. Shock had given way to optimism. Kumano will overcome the difficulties.

In Japan, Kumano is not only famous for its ancient pilgrimage trails and recent natural disaster, but also for football. In particular, it has come to be associated with the national football teams (M/F). The gods of Kumano have become the protective deities of these teams. The reason is prosaic: the man who introduced modern football to Japan in the early twentieth century was originally from Kumano. Looking for a symbol of the national football association, he opted for a famous symbol from his native region: the yatagarasu, or three-legged crow. Thus, the crow of Kumano was appropriated by modern sports, or vice versa. Today, at any of the Kumano shrines one can buy amulets, talismans and other religious souvenirs with the logo of the national football team printed on them. Few people seem to perceive this as problematic. Shinto traditions are pragmatic, after all, and subject to change and reinvention - one of the reasons they have survived the storms of history.

Last summer, the Japanese national team became world champion women's football. The Dutch did not notice, as they are a bunch of sexists who collectively ignore women's football, but the Japanese did, as they are a bunch of proud nationalists who like any sport in which a compatriot excels. Nobody had expected the Japanese team to win, so it was a great surprise, which was celebrated widely in their home country. Upon return, the players visited Kumano, where they met with the head priests and donated some signed shirts and footballs, carefully monitored by accompanying journalists.

The relics of this visit are kept well. In a prominent place in the middle of the visitors' room of one of the shrines hangs a large picture of the football captain and head priest - signed by the former, of course. More problematic, from a secularist point of view, might be the fact that the worship hall is full of signed footballs and shirts. It is a somewhat alienating experience - sitting on your knees in the worship hall (a place ordinary visitors are not allowed to enter, as it requires official ritual purification) attending a ritual ceremony with centuries-old prayers and spirit-arousing percussion, while looking at football paraphernalia. The sacred is a category that is open to reinterpretation, let's put it that way.

The most interesting experience, however, was the conversation we had with the head priest of one of the other shrines. An old man, he must have lived and worked there for decades, but few moments in his long career were as interesting as the visit of the female football players, last summer. He excitedly recounts (I paraphrase, based on my notes):

"I couldn't watch the game, really. I was too nervous. Boom-boom-boom, my heart went. Next morning, they told me we had won. I knew it. You know why? Because I had prayed and performed a ritual to Amaterasu-no-Oomikami. Really, a special ritual! That's why they became champion, thanks to me. And then they visited me here! The team captain talked to me and thanked me for my support. She said she wants to get the gold medal at the Olympic Games, too. I will pray for them. I am sure they will get it. The TV journalist was here, too. It was broadcast on national TV, did you see it? But you know, I knew they would become champion. They are the best. They have the true Japanese spirit, the spirit of our great nation, Nippon. No country in the world can defeat Nippon. We are number one. We are the best in the world."

I felt somewhat alienated. But I did manage to resist the temptation to remind him of the fact that at the 'real' world cup football, last year, my country defeated his by 1-0. Perhaps, at the time, Paul Vlaar's prayers were more effective than his. Perhaps the Holy Virgin is more football-minded than the Sun Goddess.

How I love studying religion.

Friday, 21 October 2011

De tiensprong

Kent u Lola Rennt?  Het is een Duitse film uit 1998, geregisseerd door Tom Tykwer. De hoofdrol wordt gespeeld door Franka Potente. Het is een bijzondere film, die bestaat uit drie delen. Elk deel is gebaseerd op hetzelfde gegeven: meisje heeft een vriendje dat heel snel 100.000 DM nodig heeft om zijn hachje te redden. Zij heeft twintig minuten om hem te redden. In elk deel gebeurt er vervolgens iets anders; kleine verschillen, die grote gevolgen hebben. Het leven hangt van toevalligheden aan elkaar, zo is de boodschap. Ogenschijnlijk onbelangrijke beslissingen kunnen leiden tot onverwachte gebeurtenissen, die een mensenleven kunnen veranderen.

Het leven is natuurlijk geen film. We zullen nooit weten wat er gebeurd zou zijn als we op bepaalde momenten andere keuzes hadden gemaakt. Maar toch, de film zet aan het denken. Een aanrader.

Het is lang geleden dat ik de film zag, maar ik moest er aan denken toen ik onlangs een dagboek van tien jaar geleden tegenkwam. Daarin las ik het volgende verhaal. Het raakte me, want het ging over mezelf; over mijn toekomst, zoals ik die toen voor me zag. Ik kon veel verschillende kanten op, en ik moest keuzes maken die bepalend zouden zijn voor de rest van mijn leven. Maar de toekomst van toen is het heden geworden, en ik kijk nu terug op toekomstdromen uit het verleden. Ik kijk naar wie ik had kunnen zijn als het net even anders was gegaan. Ik vond het zo bijzonder dit verhaal in een oud dagboek te lezen, dat ik het graag met u wil delen.

21 oktober 2001

Ik heb het gevoel dat de wereld op een kruispunt staat. Vorige maand waren de aanslagen in de Verenigde Staten. Nu bombarderen ze Afghanistan, en wie weet wat ze hierna gaan doen. Het lijkt soms wel alsof er een nieuwe grote oorlog gaat uitbreken... Steeds meer mensen hebben het over een 'botsing der beschavingen'. Gevaarlijke flauwekul, maar men gelooft het wel. Ook in Nederland wordt steeds vaker discriminerend gesproken over de islam, maar ik hoop dat we hier een beetje verstandig blijven.

Niet alleen de wereld staat op een kruispunt. Ik zelf ook. Ik ben een paar weken geleden achttien geworden. Voor de zomer heb ik mijn eindexamen VWO gehaald, en daarna ben ik met mijn vader op reis geweest naar Japan. Dat was geweldig. Ik ben net het huis uit, en woon nu in de stad Groningen. Ik speel fulltime toneel in een gezelschap voor jongeren. Een soort stagejaar, ter voorbereiding op een eventuele beroepsopleiding. We zijn bezig met de repetities voor een toneelstuk over scheidingen en moderne familiebanden, en dat is erg leuk om te doen. Ik weet alleen nog niet of ik hierna auditie ga doen bij een toneelschool. Ik heb altijd acteur willen worden, maar de laatste tijd weet ik niet meer zo goed wat ik wil. Ik hou van theater, maar ik heb ook het gevoel dat ik nog meer wil leren. En ik wil iets goeds doen; een bijdrage leveren aan een betere wereld. Maar hoe?

Vannacht had ik een droom. Ik kreeg bezoek van mezelf. Mijn toekomstige ik was achtentwintig; precies tien jaar ouder dan ik nu ben. Hij begroette me, en vertelde iets over zijn leven. Een paar minuutjes, niet meer, toen ging hij weer weg. Daarna kwam er een nieuwe toekomstige ik, even oud als de eerste. Hij zag er ongeveer hetzelfde uit, maar had andere kleren aan, en langer haar. Ook hij vertelde mij kort iets over zijn leven, dat totaal anders was dan het leven van de eerste ik. Nadat hij weg was, kwam er een derde. Enzovoorts. In totaal kreeg ik bezoek van tien verschillende toekomstige ikken. Ieder had een ander verhaal. Ze waren dezelfde, en toch waren ze verschillend - niet alleen omdat sommige een baard hadden en andere niet, maar ook omdat ze allemaal net iets anders spraken. Ook leek het wel alsof ze niet allemaal dezelfde persoonlijkheid hadden, maar dat is moeilijk te zeggen na zulke korte gesprekjes. Het was hoe dan ook heel bijzonder om ze even te mogen spreken. Maar ik weet nog niet welke ik wil worden.

Dit waren ze:

1. De acteur

"Ik ben mijn jongensdroom trouw gebleven, en daar heb ik geen spijt van. In het voorjaar van 2002 heb ik auditie gedaan bij twee toneelscholen. In Arnhem werd ik helaas afgewezen, maar in Maastricht werd ik aangenomen dus daar ben ik toen heengegaan. Ik heb vier jaar met veel plezier in Maastricht gewoond. Na mijn afstuderen ben ik naar Amsterdam verhuisd. Ik heb in de afgelopen jaren voor verschillende toneelgezelschappen gespeeld. Niet alle rollen waren even bijzonder, maar ik heb wel het gevoel dat ik vooruitgegaan ben. De eerste tijd was het wel eens moeilijk om werk te vinden, en moest ik wel eens op een houtje bijten, maar de laatste tijd gaat het een stuk beter. Ik heb ook in een paar tv-series en films gestaan. Laatst had ik mijn eerste grote rol in een film. De film werd geen groot succes, helaas, maar ik mocht wel aanschuiven bij De Wereld Draait Door, en word nu af en toe herkend in de supermarkt. Maar ik sta toch liever op de planken dan voor de camera. Ik hoop in de toekomst in Engeland te kunnen gaan wonen en werken, maar daarvoor moet ik wellicht nog wat meer ervaring op doen, en beter leren netwerken."

2. De backpacker

"Ik ben in 2002 Japans en Wereldgodsdiensten gaan studeren in Leiden. Dat ging me op zich goed af, maar ik miste toch iets. Het probleem van de wetenschap is dat de focus vooral ligt op woorden, boeken en theorieën - maar de echte menselijke ervaringen worden vaak vergeten. Tijdens mijn studie heb ik wel een jaar in Japan gestudeerd, en een aantal studiereizen gemaakt in het Midden-Oosten. Dat vond ik fantastisch. Toen ik mijn bachelordiploma's binnen had heb ik een tijdje gewerkt in een café. Daarna ben ik met de Trans-Siberië Express naar Mongolië en China geweest. Fantastisch! Vervolgens heb ik lange tijd in Zuidoost-Azië gereisd, en daarna in India. Toen mijn geld opraakte, heb ik mijn Engelse lesbevoegdheid gehaald in Chiang Mai en ben les gaan geven in Bangkok. Later verhuisde ik naar het zuiden van China, en gaf ook daar Engelse les. Ik wist aardig wat geld te sparen. Maar na een kleine twee jaar in China begon het toch weer te kriebelen. Ik ben toen via de oude zijderoute naar het Midden-Oosten gereisd, en vervolgens Afrika in. Veel mooie ervaringen en een paar minder mooie, maar daarover vertel ik een andere keer wel eens. Ik zit nu in Mozambique, prachtig land, ongerepte stranden. Ben van plan om hier met mijn huidige vriendin een guesthouse met restaurant op te zetten, we zijn al druk aan het plannen! Alleen het geld nog..."

3. De journalist

"Toen ik jouw leeftijd had was ik al veel bezig met politiek. Ik vond het belangrijk om iets bij te dragen aan een betere wereld, en ik had het gevoel dat het theater voor mij niet de beste manier was. Ik ben daarna filosofie gaan studeren aan de RUG, maar dat viel me tegen; het was veel te etnocentrisch, en er was te weinig aandacht voor ongelijkheden in de wereld. Ik ben vervolgens overgestapt naar sociologie, en dat beviel beter. Als tweede studie deed ik journalistiek. Na mijn afstuderen heb ik een tijdje door Azië gereisd, waar een aantal reportages van gepubliceerd zijn in kranten en tijdschriften. Tegenwoordig schrijf ik vooral over het buitenlandbeleid van de Nederlandse regering. Ik werk als freelancer, maar heb al stukken gepubliceerd in Trouw, De Groene Amsterdammer en Vrij Nederland. Binnenkort begin ik bovendien aan een wekelijkse column voor NRC Next. Ik ben inmiddels van Groningen naar Amsterdam verhuisd. Wellicht dat ik in de toekomst nog een keertje voor langere tijd in het buitenland ga wonen."

4. De monnik

"Ik ging in 2002 Japans en Wereldgodsdiensten studeren in Leiden, en ben me vervolgens gaan specialiseren in het boeddhisme. Ik heb colleges Sanskriet en klassiek Chinees gevolgd, en ben daarna een jaar in Japan gaan studeren. Daar kwam ik in contact met een aantal ingewijde zenmonniken, en via hen ben ik terecht gekomen bij een tempel in Kyoto, waar ik in de zomer van 2005 twee maanden training ondergaan heb. Ik heb vervolgens in Leiden mijn BA Japans gehaald, maar zodra ik klaar was ben ik teruggegaan naar Japan. Ik ben in de leer gegaan bij de Eihei-ji in Fukui, waar de grote meester Dogen onderwees. Hij is de stichter van de Soto Zen school, waar ik inmiddels ingewijd ben. Na een paar jaar in Japan ben ik nu weer terug in Nederland. Ik wil hier op termijn een nieuw centrum oprichten voor de studie en training van zen. Voor het zover is geef ik meditatieles en lezingen. Ik heb niet zoveel geld, dus ik woon tijdelijk bij mijn ouders. Maar ach, geld is uiteindelijk toch maar een illusie die mensen afleidt. Ik doe mijn best celibatair door het leven te gaan, maar ik ben wel eens in de fout gegaan. De weg naar verlichting is lang en bochtig."

5. De ontwikkelingswerker

"Ik was bezorgd over de grote armoede en ongelijkheid in de wereld, en wist niet wat ik het beste kon studeren. Ik was geïnteresseerd in Japan, maar Japans leek me niet de meest nuttige studie. Datzelfde gold voor filosofie. Daarom heb ik uiteindelijk gekozen voor culturele antropologie. Omdat ze dat in Groningen niet hadden ben ik naar Amsterdam gegaan, waar ik ook vakken politicologie heb gevolgd. Ik heb veldwerk gedaan in Indonesië, naar de gevolgen van ontbossing op Borneo. Daarna heb ik een MA in development studies gehaald aan SOAS, een universiteit in Londen. Na mijn afstuderen kreeg ik een baan bij een bekende internationale ontwikkelingsorganisatie. Na twee jaar in Londen, waarbij ik regelmatig de kans kreeg naar verschillende landen te reizen en projecten te bezoeken, werk ik nu bij een onderwijsproject in Cambodja. Ik heb een mooi appartement in Phnom Penh, en ga vaak uit eten - dat is hier erg goedkoop, en ik heb het zo druk dat ik geen tijd heb om zelf te koken. Ik voel me wel eens schuldig over het feit dat ik zoveel meer verdien dan de mensen hier, maar we doen belangrijk werk voor dit land, en daar mag best een redelijke vergoeding tegenover staan. Als ik de kinderen zie studeren in de school die we voor ze gebouwd hebben ben ik wel een beetje trots. Maar ik realiseer me ook dat er nog veel moet gebeuren."

6. De politicus

"Ik heb lang getwijfeld. Ik heb uiteindelijk auditie gedaan bij twee toneelscholen, maar werd niet aangenomen. Ik besloot toen een oude liefde op te pakken, en ben filosofie gaan studeren in Groningen. Daarnaast werd ik actief voor de lokale afdeling van GroenLinks, en voor de werkgroep duurzaamheid. Bij de gemeenteraadsverkiezingen van 2006 stond ik op de lijst. Aanvankelijk niet hoog genoeg, maar omdat de fractievoorzitter wethouder werd kreeg ik een plaats in de gemeenteraad, als jongste. Mijn studie liep vertraging op, maar ik heb uiteindelijk toch mijn BA (in 2007) en MPhil (in 2010) weten te halen. In 2010 werd ik ook herkozen in de gemeenteraad van Groningen, en mijn vriendin en ik hebben een huisje gekocht in Helpman. Ik schrijf af en toe artikelen voor het wetenschappelijke tijdschrift van GroenLinks, en heb contact met een aantal mensen in Den Haag. Ik hoop in de toekomst lid van de Tweede Kamer te kunnen worden. Politiek is mooi werk, maar soms is het ook wel eens frustrerend omdat de besluitvorming zo traag gaat, en het soms moeilijk is concreet dingen te veranderen. Ik denk dat Nederland behoefte heeft aan een fris links geluid; niet ouderwets socialistisch, maar progressief, groen en internationaal georiënteerd. "

7. De predikant

"Ik begon in 2002 aan mijn studie Japans in Leiden. Ik wilde er aanvankelijk filosofie naast doen, maar koos uiteindelijk voor de meer veelzijdige studie wereldgodsdiensten. In mijn eerste jaar volgde ik een aantal vakken met theologiestudenten, met wie ik soms interessante gesprekken had over geloof. Aan het einde van dat jaar ging ik op studiereis naar Libanon, en ik zag hoezeer religie verweven kan zijn met politiek. In de zomer maakte ik een voettocht door Frankrijk, waar ik een religieuze ervaring kreeg. Ik ontmoette God. Ik realiseerde me dat Hij veel gezichten heeft, dat Hij op veel manieren werkt, en dat Hij ons keuzevrijheid gegeven heeft opdat wij kunnen leren ons leven vorm te geven op zo'n manier dat wij kunnen bijdragen aan heelwording van de Schepping. Ik besloot de overstap te maken naar theologie, en liet Japans vallen om genoeg tijd te hebben voor Hebreews, Grieks en Latijn. Ook liet ik me dopen, in de kerk van mijn toenmalige vriendin. Na mijn BA deed ik de MA aan de PThU (Protestantse Universiteit). Inmiddels werk ik als predikant van de PKN gemeente in Uithuizen, in Noord-Groningen. Mijn gemeente is vrij klein, en de meeste leden zijn al vrij oud. Het is best moeilijk om iemand van tachtig advies te geven als je zo jong bent, maar ik doe mijn best. Ik hoop op deze manier mijn steentje te kunnen bijdragen. Ik hoop ook snel een lieve vrouw te vinden - mijn vriendin wilde niet mee verhuizen naar het noorden, en toen hebben we het uitgemaakt. God stelt ons soms op de proef."

8. De schrijver

"Ik heb in 2002 besloten om geen auditie te doen voor een toneelschool, maar Japans te studeren. Ik verhuisde naar Leiden, en werd actief in het studentenleven. Daarnaast speelde ik in een amateurtoneelgezelschap in Amsterdam. In 2004 ging ik naar Japan, om daar een jaar te gaan studeren. Ik hield die tijd vrij actief een weblog bij, Torii Times. Veel mensen die het lazen raadden me aan die verhalen te publiceren. Als Joris Luyendijk een boek kan schrijven over een studieverblijf in Egypte, dan zou ik toch een boek moeten kunnen schrijven over mijn verblijf in Japan, dacht ik. Na terugkeer naar Nederland bundelde ik mijn blogposts. Ik stuurde ze op naar een uitgever. Die was wel positief, maar vond dat er een rode lijn ontbrak. Ook vond hij dat ik de politieke en filosofische teksten moest verwijderen, en meer schrijven over mijn ervaringen, want 'er is al genoeg politiek geouwehoer op de markt', zoals hij me schreef. Ik besteedde veel tijd aan mijn aanpassingen, en liet mijn tweede studie versloffen - maar in 2007 was mijn eerste boek, Karaoke voor de goden, een feit. Hij verkocht aardig, en vorig jaar publiceerde ik een tweede boek, Boeddha business, met reisverhalen van reizen door andere Aziatische landen. Daarnaast heb ik inmiddels een monoloog en twee toneelstukken geschreven voor mijn gezelschap in Amsterdam. Ik ben nu bezig met mijn eerste roman, die hopelijk volgend jaar uitkomt. Mijn BA Japans heb ik inmiddels gehaald, maar ik denk niet dat ik nog een MA ga doen; ik wil me nu fulltime op schrijven richten. Overigens woon ik momenteel in Gent, omdat mijn vrouw - een Vietnamese, die ik op reis ontmoet heb - niet met mij naar Nederland mocht verhuizen omdat ik daar geen vaste baan heb. Maar België bevalt ons prima."

9. De vertaler

"Ik wilde graag terug naar Japan. Ik overwoog om Japans te gaan studeren in Leiden, maar ik realiseerde me dat mijn Japans vermoedelijk beter zou worden als ik daar zou gaan wonen. Dus dat heb ik gedaan. Ik schreef me in bij een talenschool in Tokyo, en verhuisde daar in het najaar van 2002 naar toe. Na anderhalf jaar intensieve studie kon ik mij inschrijven bij een Japanse universiteit. Ik ging Japanse literatuur studeren aan Kyushu University in Fukuoka. Ik las veel boeken, en was ook actief in de kabuki studentenclub. Het liefste zou ik professioneel kabuki spelen, maar die wereld is erg gesloten, en daar kom je als buitenlander niet zomaar in. Na mijn studie verdiende ik mijn brood met vertaalwerk. Vooral saaie juridische documenten, maar ook boeken, gelukkig. Ik ben net gevraagd om de nieuwste roman van Murakami naar het Nederlands te vertalen, daar zie ik erg naar uit. Af en toe werk ik ook als tolk, en ik geef wat taalles. Ik woon inmiddels met mijn Japanse vrouw en twee kleine kinderen in de buurt van Osaka, waar zij vandaan komt."

10. De wetenschapper

"Ik ben toch naar de universiteit gegaan, niet naar de toneelacademie. Ik volgde mijn gevoel en koos voor de studie Japans in Leiden. Ik wilde er filosofie naast doen, maar omdat daar nauwelijks aandacht was voor Aziatische tradities koos ik voor wereldgodsdiensten. Dat bleek een goede keuze, en al snel besteedde ik meer tijd aan mijn tweede studie dan aan mijn eerste. In 2004 studeerde ik een jaar in Japan; ik deed voor het eerst zelfstandig onderzoek, gaf Nederlandse les, en begon een wetenschappelijke carrière te overwegen. In 2007 haalde ik mijn BA diploma's, allebei cum laude. Daarna vertrok ik naar Londen, waar ik een MA Japanse religies volgde, erg interessant. Ik wilde daarna een PhD doen, maar omdat ik niet aangenomen werd besloot ik eerst op reis te gaan in Zuidoost-Azië. Ik kwam uiteindelijk terecht in Vietnam, waar ik werk vond als taaldocent, en mijn huidige vrouw ontmoette. Maar ik wilde toch graag terug naar de universiteit. Ik deed mee aan twee congressen en schreef mijn eerste artikelen op basis van mijn masterscriptie. Vorig jaar werd ik aangenomen voor een promotieplaats aan de universiteit van Oslo, waar mijn vrouw en ik vervolgens heen verhuisden. Mijn promotieonderzoek richt zich op de Japanse religie shinto, en ik ben nu een paar maanden voor veldwerk in Kyoto. En, terzijde, ik zou mijn tijd moeten besteden aan mijn onderzoek, in plaats van aan zinloze gedachte-experimenten."

Toen werd ik wakker. Wat een droom zeg. Ik ben benieuwd welke toekomstige ik de echte zal zijn. De keuze is aan mij, geloof ik...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

New notes from Japan (6): Research summary

In a previous post, I mentioned the weblog Green Shinto as an example of the current environmentalist trend in Shinto. The author of the weblog asked me to write a short piece about my research, which he posted here. As I have not posted any summary of my research recently (the last one dating from October), I thought it might be a good idea to post it here as well. This is what I wrote:
In my PhD research I am trying to ‘map’ the variety of definitions and conceptualisations of Shinto that exist, and analyse the contemporary discourse on Shinto and ecology. (...) ‘Shinto’ is, I believe, an abstraction – an ideological construction, projected upon actual places and practices. That does not make it less real, of course – concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘society’ are also abstract categories, yet they are very real as they structure our thought and policies. It does mean, however, that abstract notions considering the essence of Shinto do not necessarily correspond to the concrete concerns, beliefs and practices of local priests and practitioners. Accordingly, rather than trying to come up with an alternative definition myself, I will try to give an overview of the various existing definitions, and analyse ways in which they relate.

While taking into account historical factors, my research has a strong contemporary focus. Until recently, most research on Shinto and kami worship focused on their development in Japanese history. The postwar period, however, received little scholarly attention. This seems to be gradually changing. In fact, in the past sixty-five years shrine Shinto has gone through some significant changes. One of these is the reinvention of Shinto as an ancient, primordial tradition of nature worship and animism – and, accordingly, the assertion that Shinto worldviews and practices are fundamentally ecologically friendly, and may even be employed as a blueprint for new environmental ethics. Some critics have argued that such ideas are little more than PR, and pointed to the lack of any significant attention to environmental problems on the part of the Shinto establishment. Their critique is certainly justified, yet it is an undeniable fact that in recent years more and more attention is paid to Shinto, nature and environmental preservation – if only in academic discourse.

In Japan, the ‘Shinto environmentalist paradigm’ has been developed by scholars from a variety of disciplines. They include Shinto scholars Sonoda Minoru and Ueda Masaaki, philosopher Umehara Takeshi, ecologist Miyawaki Akira, architect Ueda Atsushi and religious studies scholar Yamaori Tetsuo, among others. These men argue that ancient Japanese society developed ways to live in harmony with nature, which have been largely forgotten in the modern period; thus, much of their work is characterised by a nostalgic longing for this ancient past. Central to their ideas is the notion of chinju no mori: sacred shrine forests, which supposedly have been preserved for many centuries. Accordingly, rather than engaging with abstract issues such as pollution, climate change or deforestation in foreign countries, most environmentalist practices by shrine priests and organisations focus on the preservation of local chinju no mori. Several projects have been developed to protect these, and contribute to environmental awareness among visitors. High-profile examples include Tadasu no Mori Zaidan, affiliated with Shimogamo Jinja in Kyoto, and NPO Hibiki, affiliated with Meiji Jingū in Tokyo. Meanwhile, much necessary expertise on forest preservation and ecology is shared by the umbrella organisation Shasō Gakkai, by means of forestry trainings and symposiums.

In the coming two months, I hope to be able to collect more data by interviewing shrine priests, visit chinju no mori, and learn about shrine projects. I am sure there are many more local initiatives, with which I am not yet familiar. I welcome any comments or suggestions.

Friday, 14 October 2011

New notes from Japan (5): Inari

There are several gods I like. I like Shiva, a great god, who unites opposites; who is simultaneously a fertile creator and a powerful destroyer, an ascetic and a family man. I like Guanyin, a sweet goddess, whose compassion knows no bounds, who consoles and forgives. I like Jesus Christ, a wise god, who taught us to love our enemies and overcome death by accepting it. I like Budai, a mysterious and benevolent god, a happy travelling vagabond yet a future saviour. I like Hermes, messenger of the gods, who guides and protects travellers that have to cross borders, and gave his name to the academic tradition called hermeneutics. And I like Inari.

Inari is a strange god. First of all, it is not clear whether Inari is a he or a she. Perhaps both, at the same time, as s/he comprises five different deities that at some point decided to become one. Inari is famous for his/her association with foxes. That is, foxes are considered the god's messengers - but they also represent him/her. Thus, not only is Inari androgynous; s/he is also less anthropomorphic than most other gods. If I were an animal rights activist, I would ask Inari to be my patron deity.

Gods change, of course, as they are human creations - at least partly - and take shape in particular cultural and historical contexts. Avalokiteshvara became a woman as he travelled from India to China. Contemporary interpretations of JHWH or Allah are different from medieval ones. Jesus and Gautama Buddha did not become gods until many years after they had died. And so on. Likewise, Inari is not the same as s/he used to be. For a long time, s/he was primarily associated with rice, and worshipped as the deity responsible for plentiful rice harvests. In modern times, however, s/he has come to be associated with success in business. Many Japanese companies have rituals performed for Inari, and let their employees pray to him/her. Accordingly, s/he is one of the most popular deities of the country, if not the most. I like gods who are flexible and pragmatic.

Thus, Inari is the main deity associated with success and material wealth. However, that does not mean Inari worship is merely materialistic, and devoid of spiritual elements. Quite the contrary, I would say, for Inari worship tends to be highly idiosyncratic, personal and devotional.

Last Sunday, I went to the most important Inari shrine in the country: the Fushimi Inari Taisha, located in the south of Kyoto. The main shrine is composed of several large, fairly new red-white buildings. The road from the train station to the entrance is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants, and there are small shops on the shrine precincts as well. Inari shrines are easily recognisable because of two defining characteristics: large numbers of red torii gates, big and small; and pairs of fox statues in front of some of the gates. Usually, one of them has a key in its mouth, the other a jewel.

The Fushimi Inari Taisha probably has more torii than any other shrine complex in the country, for the entire mountain behind the main shrine building is full of them. One can climb the mountain - a two-hour walk - while continuously walking through tunnels of red torii, all of them offered and paid for by companies and individuals asking for Inari's blessing. In addition, the mountain is full of small subshrines and altars, representing a variety of religious practices and beliefs. Further away, one can find small shrines and temples belonging to a variety of new religious movements, small waterfalls for mountain ascetic practices, a Taoist temple and places where shamanic rituals are performed. In sum, this is a place that challenges ordinary classification models. For those who are interested in reading more, I recommend this article.

Last weekend, Fushimi Inari Taisha was extremely crowded, as the shrine complex celebrated its 1300th anniversary. Thousands of visitors offered gifts (money, food or alcoholic beverages), attended ritual meetings, bought amulets and prayed. They attended free concerts, stand-up comedy, sword fighting exhibitions and traditional theatre performances, which all took place at the shrine precincts. And they climbed the mountain. In the evening, because of this special occasion, the torii tunnels and subshrines on top of the mountain were all illuminated by electric lanterns. It was a wonderful sight; a waste of energy, perhaps, but beautiful and mysterious. I climbed the mountain in the evening, in the semi-dark, surrounded by lanterns, red torii and fox statues. It was a unique experience. The god did not seem very far away.

Some pictures: