Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The body in death and dance:

While searching for something to be a logo image for "Deathslab Records", to use on a soon-to-be opened website where you, gentle readers, will be able to listen to the soon to be released (hee!) Oft the Loner recording, I found a very interesting speech, titled "the sacredness of things", concerning how concepts of the body differ with culture:

"It was 58 years ago to the day that Japan and Great Britain were thrown together as enemies in the Pacific War. It is all the more significant, therefore, that we should be gathered here today at this inaugural conference to discuss issues of death in contemporary Japan.

On November 12th this year, I was prompted to put pen to paper for my presentation by an extraordinary item on the evening news. The news reported that a man had been taken into custody by the police after it was discovered she and her son had been living in a hotel room, not far from Narita airport, for the past four months, with the mummified corpse of her husband. The woman and her son belonged to a 'cult' - they actually refer to themselves as a 'self-enlightenment seminar' - called ironically enough 'Life Space'. My purpose here is not an analysis of religious cults in contemporary Japan, so I shall make no further reference to this particular incident, but I mention it at the outset because the family's attachment to the mummified corpse of the deceased offers some valuable pointers to the Japanese attitude towards the corpse.

All of us who inhabit this contemporary world, whether we like it or not, learn through the media daily of all manner of incidents that produce corpses in their thousands: wars, terrorist incidents, accidents, natural disasters, and so on. There are, of course, many other occasions, too, when we encounter death in a more 'traditional' sense; I refer to the deaths of friends or family from sickness or old age. Moreover, the striking progress of genetic engineering and medical technology means that we also come face to face with death issues in a third, 'man-made' sense: I refer to the issues of cloning, brain death and organ transplant. All of this is of great interest and relevance, but here I should like to direct my focus particularly toward Japanese views of the corpse.

Over the past few months, the earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan have between them produced well over ten thousand victims. Something disturbed me about the media reports I saw on television about the rescue endeavors and the restoration work that followed in its wake. It is natural that, for the first few score hours, rescue squads raced to the scene from around the world and got stuck into their rescue activities, searching for possible survivors beneath the ruins: after all who would dispute that saving human lives is the top priority? All countries in the world would wish that the saving of lives comes before all else. From this point on, however, it strikes me that patterns of behavior begin to diverge on cultural grounds. What is different is the nature of the restoration work that generally begins two weeks after the earthquake or disaster has hit, and when it is clear there is no longer any possibility of uncovering survivors.

Let us assume an earthquake where 5000 people are reported missing, and where subsequently 4000 bodies are retrieved. This should mean, in simple mathematical terms, that 1000 bodies are still buried in the ruins. However, once the 'flow' is redirected from rescue work to restoration work, the authorities order in the power shovels and other heavy-weight machinery, and start to clear away the collapsed buildings. Surely, I ask myself as I watch the TV screen, there must be many abandoned corpses lying under those heavy machines. I have no doubt that the many Japanese who watched those scenes of restoration work after the Turkish earthquake were glued to their TV screens with exactly the same emotions as mine.


2) In search of 'crash corpses'

Let me give you an example that for me typifies the Japanese attitude towards the corpse. The event took place after the crash of the Japan Airlines jumbo jet in August 1985. There were 520 victims in this crash, the worst air disaster involving a single aircraft in aviation history. Among the victims was Sakamoto Kyu (坂本九) who sang a very famous song called 'Let us walk with our heads in the air (the Sukiyaki song)'; this was an additional reason why the crash was given such coverage throughout Europe and the US and why some of you here might remember the disaster today. Flight JL123 was packed with people returning home for the O-Bon (お盆) holidays encountered the unthinkable as it headed for Osaka from Tokyo. In flight, the pressure wall at the rear end of the plane and the vertical tail simply blew off. Owing to the superhuman efforts of the crew to control the doomed craft, it flew for a further 30 minutes around the skies of the Kanto region (that is, the passengers on JL123 were subjected to thirty minutes of unimaginable terror) and then it plunged in to Mt. Osutaka (御巣鷹山) in Gunma Prefecture. 520 out of the 524 passengers and crew on board perished in this tragic incident. It was reported that some of those on board calmly amid the terror scribbled notes to their loved ones. 22 of the victims were foreigners.

This JL 123 incident was no exception to the rule that the scene of any plane crash is gruesome. Fragments of the jumbo jet and bodies were scattered across the side of the mountain in a radius of several kilometers. There were bodies so badly burned that it was impossible to identify them; somebody's left arm was found caught in the branches of a tree; the lower halves of peoples torsos were to be found in the valley below. Naturally, the police authorities quickly embarked upon the task of identifying the corpses. There were some corpses easily identified by their families, but there were many more whose identity was only confirmed after dental records were checked or after families assumed a corpse was that of a loved one because of the clothing, or jewelry worn. Some extreme cases were reported where all that remained was a victim's finger, an ear. Iizuka Satoru (飯塚訓) who was the doctor in charge of identifying corpses at the scene of the disaster wrote in his book, Tsuiraku Itai (墜落遺体), that it took 127 days to confirm the identity of all the dismembered corpses. It is clear that the authorities were more intent on the pursuit of corpses than they were in their pursuit of the technical causes of the crash.

There is much of interest in Iizuka's book. Iizuka reports, for example, how different the attitude of the bereaved Japanese families was to the corpses they had come to collect when compared to the attitude of the bereaved from, say, Britain, the US, Australia and Korea. As the foreign families stood before the gruesome scene of the accident - so gruesome it was impossible to think of survivors; locating a corpse in one piece was nigh on impossible - a Japanese policeman explained how diligently they were conducting their searching for the remains. To which the puzzled response was 'Why do you go so far as to identify every hand and foot?' As reported by Iizuka, the foreign bereaved went on to protest that their loved ones were dead; their sprits has left them; hands and feet were mere objects. 'Why don't you simply gather the remains and cremate them? We want to turn to discussions of compensation.' The identity of the dismembered corpse of a 20-year-old foreign woman was confirmed by birth marks on her two legs and the finger prints on her left hand. The bereaved family said that these were without doubt the remains of their daughter, and they thanked the police. When asked what they would like to do with the girl's remains, the said 'Our daughter is happy because she is with God. Please bury her remains alongside those who died with her.'

The attitude of the Japanese bereaved was quite strikingly different. They were obsessed with the idea of a body with all limbs present. In cases where the identity of the victim was easily confirmed by the face, but there was, say, a leg missing, the family would insist that the authorities carried out a thorough search for that missing limb. Where the body had not been recovered, or where identity was impossible, they would request at least some object that the deceased had been carrying with them: a watch or a pair of shoes. To this day, in August, 14 years after the disaster, TV transmits pictures of hundreds of the bereaved climbing Mt. Osutaka. The families can be seen carrying out rites to comfort the souls of the deceased, gathering soil form the mountain-side to bring home with them and sprinkling on the mountain side wine or some other food or drink that the deceased was especially fond of. How many men have been president of Japan Airlines in the last 14 years I do not know, but none has failed to climb Mt. Osutaka on the 12th day of August and make offerings to the spirits of the deceased.


3) The i (遺) in itai (遺体)

In writing what I have so far written, I have become aware of terminological issues.  I have had no choice but to use, in the Japanese version of this paper, the word itai (遺体) for a corpse.  I have used many other words too which, in Japanese, employ the same i or yui (遺)character that features in itai.  Idenshi Kogaku (遺伝子工学) is the Japanese for genetic engineering; yuigon (遺言) for a final message; iki (遺棄) for abandoned (corpse); iryuhin (遺留品) for articles belonging to the deceased, izoku (遺族) for the bereaved.  There is I think here a clue as to the Japanese view of the corpse. Check the meaning of the i character in the Kojien dictionary and you will find the following:
1) to forget; to leave behind;
2) to remain behind; to leave behind one after death;
3) to fail to complete;

The entry for itai, the Japanese word for a corpse, gives:
1) one's own body;
2) the corpse of another;

It is easy enough to see how the critical i character in the word for 'a last statement' might be the same as the i in itai meaning a corpse, but odd perhaps that it should also be found in the word for genetic engineering. How might this be? Who was responsible for attaching the idenshi to the English gene I do not know, but it was quite some achievement. The Book of Filial Piety (孝経 in Chinese), is a record by a disciple of Songtzu of his master's dialogue with Confucius, and in that well known book, there is this passage: A man receives his body, his hair and his skin from his mother and father. That a man does not presume to harm these gifts is the beginning of filial piety.

Westerners baptized in the enlightened tradition of the modern world regard their bodies, as long as they live, as their own, theirs to do with as they please. But an interpretation more typical of East Asian animism holds that even the living body is a gift left to one (itai) by one's parents; the fact of death does not mean that one is freed to do with the body what one wishes. Indeed, the body is something entrusted to descendants by the ancestors. If I may be permitted to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins, 'The body (one's character) is a vehicle for genes.' The body in this sense is not a corpse, a cadaver.

The Japanese do not adhere to a Western a Christian perspective on human life which thinks in terms of a spirit-flesh dualism, according to which the spirit is 'noble, imparted to the living by God' while the flesh is 'of little consequence, being simply one variety of created matter'. Rather, the Japanese find themselves in a world where the animistic sense prevails and where distinguishing clearly between the spirit and the flesh is not possible. In Japanese the word shitai (死体) denotes not simply a 'dead body' but a body left one by one's parents over generations from ancestor to descendant. This is not a position that legitimates the distinguishing of humans from other living forms as something 'uniquely noble'; rather it is a world which finds spirit in all things, or rather it believes that it is above all in 'things' that spirit resides. This is the world in which, literally, 'mountains, rivers, grass, trees, may all achieve Buddhahood'."

Yoshinobu Miyake

Working, as I am in You'll Always Come Back, with material concerning the ancestors, involves some examination this sort, and that is one reason that I'm also studying (so far only from documents) the kind of Japanese dance called Butoh. Butoh is a form of dance which has reference to what precedes us, in the sense of physical memories which go so far back, in our imagining, that they fuse (seamlessly - or is there always some sort of rupture lurking somewhere in the line? - perhaps, even, everywhere....?) - into what we might describe as primordial time. Consider this:

"We shake hands with the dead, who send us encouragement from beyond our body; this is the unlimited power of Butoh... Something is hiding in our subconscious, collected in our unconscious body, which will appear in each detail of our expression. Here, we can rediscover time with an elasticity, sent by the dead. We can find Butoh in the same way we can touch our hidden reality. Something can be born, can appear, living and dying in a moment.

This cast-off skin is our land and home, which our body has forcibly ripped away. This cast-off skin is totally different from that other skin that our body has lost. They are divided in two. One skin is that of the body approved by society. The other skin is that which has lost its identity. So, they need to be sewn together, but this sewing together only forms a shadow.

I admire our ancestors who took good care of the feelings in the soles of their feet."

Tatsumi Hijikata

Those of you who may have heard me bewailing the potential problems of sewing couture for You'll Always Come Back now have real reasons to pity the one who must sew shadows. Such will be my tribute to the ancestors who took good care of the feelings in the soles of their feet.

(Note to any readers who may have arrived at this blog from the smiley face conspiracy website - as alas, some have - consider well what you devote yourselves to. If you exploit the body of the dead for your entertainment, where, indeed, will your own spirit find rest?)

1 comment:

Mary Beth said...

"Shaking hands with the dead who give us encouragement from outside our bodies"... couldn't that be the definition of genealogy?

I've been walking hand and hand with my ggf for years, it comforts me. It heals.

There are stories of lovers who gave each other braclets hair to wear to the grave thus insuring that they would find each other at Christ's coming. They believe that they must account for every part of their body.

So maybe everthing old is new again. Body, unbody, energy seen, energy not seen. Only poets could explain:

I’M going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

Gotta love Frost.