Saturday 4 February 2012: Things Japanese
is the title of a book in the family library. It's a compendium of facts about Japanese life and culture compiled by a journalist who for 50 years contributed these 700 or so nuggets of information to the Japan Times. I remember, as a child, my father acquiring the tome because the author's name - Mock Joya - appealed to me and we would read the entries to each other. But I never asked him how he came by this item. It was always known as the Japanese fox mask (although it's not the sort you can wear) and it was just one of the many unusual things I grew up with and took for granted.
I've been having Japanese thoughts this week because my reading group met to discuss our latest read, a short novel called When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka. It deals with the internment of the Japanese-Americans in World War 2, through the eyes of a single family who have to leave their San Francisco home and spend 3 years in a compound in the Utah desert. The story is well-written, succinct and memorable. I'd recommend it highly. Of course, although the subject is specific to that point in time it is also a universal one, a fact of which the author cleverly reminds us by giving her main characters no personal names. Throughout the world, and history, there have been groups who have been identified within the societies in which they live as unwelcome, reviled or feared and very often they have been rounded up and excluded, expelled or destroyed. The internment of the Japanese Americans was by no means the worst example - they were able to rebuild their lives again and have more or less been assimilated.
Mock Joya tells me that the fox has been more deeply woven into the traditional and superstitious beliefs of Japan than any other animal. It is thought to possess the power to bewitch and to transform itself into human and other shapes. As Kitsune it is the messenger of the Shinto rice god, Inari, and its image is often to be seen at those shrines. People were once thought to be possessed of foxes when they acted strangely and they would be put into a closed room with burning pine needles to smoke out their fox demons - a very particular sort of internment.
It wasn't until after our meeting to discuss the book and the subjects it raised that I recalled that Japan has had its own outcasts, the Burukumin, a group of people, who by virtue of their livelihoods, were treated as untouchables. Just as in India, these were people who were involved in polluting occupations as butchers, leather-workers, grave-diggers and executioners, anything to do with bloodshed. For centuries they were reviled and discriminated against - indeed the antipathy towards those of Burukumin descent persists today. As with Romany gypsies and travellers in Britain, they have for the most part been forced to scrape a living on the margins of society, and like foxes, to exist in a twilight zone as if interned within their own stereotype.