in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Say onara Santa clips: scenes from stunts (Bonsai Christmas)

And 'cos I'm going away for a few weeks, and 'cos I'm going back to J-land, here's a vintage article... I wonder if this has aged well...

Like most traditional Japanese art forms, bonsai is Chinese. But in embracing it, Japanese culture submitted it to a radical transformation. Whereas in China bonsai were grown in the shape of rare animals (as an appetite stimulant), early adoptees the Japanese nobility refined their creations. First, this manifested itself in the painstaking search for the ‘perfect tree.’ The smaller and stranger the better. Oh, and of course, only native species. Then, after taking pains to find the perfect tree they the took pain to the trees. They trained them to within an inch of their stunted lives, cutting and binding them until they revealed their bare essence. Get the idea? Bonsai is bondage for trees. Pain builds strength of character – and besides, anything else would feel strange and un-natural. Check this translation of an explanation of the pleasures of bonsai from the Kamakura period:

“To appreciate and find pleasure in curiously curved potted trees is to love deformity."

Some older Japanese people have tied themselves in knots explaining to me the unique appreciation the Japanese people have for nature. But not just nature as is. Yuck. Disgusting. No, where the local heart beats is in a life with the messy randomess brought to heel, with steel. Just like a robot has always been the vision of a perfected person, Aibo the perfected dog. The way of trees, rather than just trees the way they are. It’s better than a tree, it’s treedom transcended.

At least bonsai live a long life. Westerners on the other hand, now we like our nature sawn off at the hilt. Chainsawed. What childhood Christmas memory is complete without a nostril full of pine sap? Ah, the lifeblood of nature draining away in my living room! Doesn’t it remind you of...Jesus? Who? You know, our saviour, the lord Jesus Christ. Apparently, the ‘Christmas tree’ began in Germany, as long as a thousand years ago. As you can imagine, it was no laughing matter. The chosen tree was hung upside down from the roof as a symbol of the trinity, and sometimes in shop windows as an example to other tree species to keep quiet and mind their own business. This habit of hanging trees upside down continued until the nineteenth century, when a group of Germans who’d spent some time abroad (the English royal family) took to sticking trees tip-side-up in a pot and festooning them with baubles and tinsel (also German inventions). Trendy Bostonians thought Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s stump decorating was a hoot, and before long Americans modernised, streamlined, manufactured, and electrified them (the trees, not QV&PA). Come to think of it though , doesn’t that horrible picture of the hooded man in Abu Ghraib look a bit like a Christmas tree? ‘Me and Cleatus was jus’ decoratin’. Wasn’t gonna hurt ‘im none.’ Christmas is hazing for fir and pine trees. Stress and duress, Merry Christmas.

I can’t draw a perfect triangle without coming to the inevitable, but google it – there is no such thing as a Bonsai Christmas tree as far as I could find. Just a lot of American gardeners who keep talking about wanting to make one, and this is important – the Japanese would never take to making real native bonsai into Christmas trees (this is where you find and show me one to invalidate my whole self-serving rant). In Japan, style is substance, and conflating the two images would ripple that stagnant fish pond called purity. Japanese culture is pure, remember? No, there are no bonsai Christmas trees, not that I’ve seen. But I have just been through a bonsai-ed Christmas.

What the fuck am I talking about, you ask? Japan has drained and chained and chopped and bound Christmas. It’s kurisumasu, boys and girls. What does it mean? A student once asked his teacher:
“Sensei, what’s the true essence of Kurisumasu?”
“Be silent, watch the flashing lights and I’ll explain. Okay, first, Western religion gives people very difficult feelings and large noses. so we should prune that back to Kurisumasu carols - preferably those of George Michael.”
“Sensei, what about Jesus?”
“Jesus? – he was an Arab and a Jew. No no no.”
“Sensei, what about Santa Claus?”
“Santa – well, he looks jolly and I do like the Germans, but I’m sure he eats and drinks too much, and besides, what if he comes on to my daughter – we should just keep the hat. Now that’s cute!”
“Sensei what about gifts?”
Presents – well, we can market and sell those, and they create an uncomfortable obligation to reciprocate. We should keep that.”
“Sensei, What about KFC?”
“Yes, that’s a nice Kurisumasu tradition...okay, we keep that too. Kurisumasu is one of the most beautiful and romantic festivals for couples. What better way to show our love than by sharing a delicacy such as she Colonel’s finest? By the way, did you know the Colonel and Mr Claus were related?”
“No I did not. Oh sensei, how did you come to know so much?”
“Look at their faces – they’re exactly the same. Anyway, there you have it – beautiful!”

And so in every tunnel, in every department store, in every flea bag office, Christmas is piped through as musak and advertising. It’s no coincidence that the kanji for control and manage means ‘to pipe’. Piped Christmas is a happy, hygienic, obedient Christmas. That, and the shop clerks all wear Santa hats (they get the sack if they don’t) but with the brands of their respective company emblazoned across the front, just to the left. But no pants. All Santa hat, no Santa pants. Not til you’ve got yer bras fastened, lads. But more of that later...
The whole archipelago is a network of pipes pumping - shit through the sewers and Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ through the speakers. In one (r)ear and out ‘the other.’ Everyone knows the lyrics. But nobody knows what they mean. The other day I saw a woman on TV crooning a ballad (‘cos Christmas is for couples, right?). The chorus was bold and it was full of the pain and beauty of love and she sang with tears in her eye, and she sang:

Holy holy Kurisumasu
Hold me hold me Kurisumasu

Sound and vision...and flashing lights - it’s called illumination. At this time of year shopping areas and department stores (the only ones who can afford trees) light up our lives. Whole avenues full of leafless Tim-Burtonesque trees, topiaries and slow-moving salary men blazed blue and red in flashing LED. People travel the length of train lines for a look at the best illumination. Look, but don’t touch. No, it’s nothing you could put presence under though, don’t linger (there isn’t anywhere to sit anyway) just oooh and ahh and point ‘Ah, kirei desu ne.’ Ne. Okay, now let’s go to KFC. Ah look, there’s Rudolph the Robot Reindeer. Oh, kawaii!’ Ne. Did you know he was related to Adolph the Rightwing Reindeer? Shh, which textbook did you read that in? Give me that!

But it’s not all frigid consumerism. Christmas does come in from the cold. If there’s one place Rudolph lets his hairpiece down (even if he leaves his hat on), it’s the office Christmas party...

Preparations began at my English school in earnest one sunny January afternoon. One of the staff asked me,
“Peter, we’re trying to get some input from the natives (that’s what we’re called) about the Christmas party.”
“The natives are restless are they?”
“I’m sorry?”
“You mean, what did I think of the last one?”
“No, for this year.” Oh, silly me.
“Do you really want my ideas?”
“Of course.”
“Well, last year, everything was...”


I’m standing in the sweaty corner of a basement in Shinjuku. The walls are covered in rock’n’roll memorabilia filched from the closing-down sale of the Hard Rock Cafe in Riyadh. A clock with swingin’ Elvis feet is plastered to the walls, and I’m just plain ol’ fashion plastered. On stage, a fully costumed Rocker twists his boney hips and shouts a skinny shout, five feet of Fender, nylon suits and coiffure. It’s two thirty in the afternoon on a Sunday. And the halls are decked with students, desperate to practice their English but horribly scared I might say something they won’t like or understand.
“I want to go to America.” One says.
“Me too.” I say. On stage they’re crooning Blue Moon. I’m ready to scream blue murder. I drain another glass of beer. It’s working.
“Do you like Christmas parties?”
“Yeah. I’m being paid by the hour.” Blink. Pause.
“Are you American?” He asks.
“No.” I smile.
Fear. Loathing. Discomfort. “I went to Las Vegas.” Says a second student, trying to save the moment.
”Oh really?” I say, “He’s from Las Vegas. That guy over there.” I point to the far corner across a sea of thick black and high brown hair. They just nod.
“And to Disneyland! Do you like Disneyland?” the second guy asks.
“Oh yeah!” I say. “And did you know Walt Disney was a Nazi?” I’m such an arse.
“Sorry?” He asks.
“A bit Mickey Mouse.” I say.
“Can you speak Japanese?” He asks. It’s the fifth time I’ve been asked that day.
“Ma, chotto hanasemasu.” I reply.
“Wow! That’s amazing! Your Japanese is great.” It’s the fourth time I got that reply. The other girl just blinked, with a face that said ‘ooh, it speaks.’ At that point, a ‘native’ co-worker approached me. I jabbed the student.
“You should talk to this guy. He’s as American as porking mum’s apple pie.”
“Really?” He exclaims, with what seems to be deep and genuine amazement. My co-worker is standing there looking at me and shaking his head.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“Peter C, Peter C. You won’t believe this. Un believable. Un (pause) believable.”
“What? What happened?”
“Osaki made me take the presents back from the students.”
“She fucking what?”
“I gave them out before it was time. She went and got them back from the students and gave them to me and told me off. She said I couldn’t give them out until present time.”
“Minnnnnnnnnnasan!” Screams a little man from the stage. He’s wearing a long blond wig, a Santa hat and red lipstick. “Itsu presento time!!!!!!!”
“That’s my cue.” My co-worker sighed, knocked back his beer and shouldered his sack.


“Any ideas?”
“Well, I dunno. Why don’t we have something more casual this year? Like – no games, no timetable, no cross-dressing, no dance?”
“Uh huh.” She says, and crosses off something on the clipboard she’s holding to her chest with a thick black marker. By early November, the official NCB timetable was posted on the staff room noticeboard, with the following information:


Teacher’s Information
When: Sunday, December 19th, 2004
The party goes from 1400-1600
Where: Alife (the building is covered with pale-blue tiles)
Nishi Azabu Roppongi

12:15 Staff Arrive
12:30 Teachers due to arrive at this time
12:45 Pre-party meeting

13:15 Doors Open
14:00 Opening (Katabe san & Patrick AA)
14:15 Team Forming Game (Ameta MGR and Tokuoka san)
14:30 Fun Time! (Kitagawa san & Patrick AA)
14:50 Impersonation Contest (Wakao san & Matsushima san)
15:15 NCB Staff Dance (Wakao san & Matsushima san)
15:20 Dance Time
16:15 Christmas Carols/Drawing/Best Xmas Spirit (Tokuoka san & Patrick AA)
16:40 Closing (Ameta MGR & Patrick AA)”

The staff members had formed groups and action comittees and were regularly training for the Christmas party, doing unpaid overtime, staying in the office until the wee smalls writing scripts and choreographing dances. Meanwhile the teaching staff and non-Japanese staff were rigorously and systematically excluded from the whole process. The only way I could tell things were coming along nicely was the occasional piece of glitter stuck to an in-office eyelid or the shy end of a feather bower protruding from a LV handbag in the staff room. That and another Luis Vuitton shop back filled with Santa hats. One day in November I had the temerity to ask,
“How are the preparations going for the Christmas party?”
“Good.” the staffer told me, with a look that said in no uncertain terms, ‘I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.’

Tickets went on sale around mid-November. 5000 yen a pop, or 5,500 at the door (over sixty bucks AUD). That’s no guest list, no exceptions. I tried ‘Donna and Blitzen plus one on Rudolph’s list’ last year to not avail. The door-elf just rolled his eyes. I even offered him ice and snow and sung him a Slayer song, but he just looked at me with beady little eyes and cold pointy ears. I can still hear horrid tinkling of the bell on his hat as he shook his head.

Even though the party started ‘officially’ at 1315, you can see by looking at the schedule that we were expected to arrive at 1230 (presumably that was considered sufficient to mentally prepare ourselves for ‘fun time’ from 1430 to 1450). I deliberately arrived half an hour late and was greeted by my manager wearing a pear of antlers telling me earnestly, “You missed the meeting. Are you okay?” Am I okay? Osaki (the one who took back the pressies last year) looked at me darkly from under her Santa hat with an expression filled with the loveliness and softness of a noh mask, and tapped the glass face of her watch.

I made my way into the main room. It was one of those Saturday Night Fever jobs – all black vinyl booths lining the walls, a square underlit dance floor in the middle, pink neon behind the booze racks at the bar and cocktail chairs with candles inside whiskey glasses up the back. Lined against a padded rail like the poon gallery in a Bangkok brothel were all the teachers, smoking and sighing. It was now ten to. Nobody was allowed any booze yet. “Why were we brought there fourty five minutes before the start? And no booze!” One na(t)ive boy exclaimed. It was his first Kurisumasu. But up the end of the room – Hubbub! Commotion! Wailing! Gnashing of Teeth!The staff were assembling and telling in-jokes. One of the guys was adjusting the straps of a bra he was putting on outside his Santa costume while another helper was stuffing the cups with oranges. Ichi ni san shi and the music starts, and suddenly they’re all dancing in time. For the first time all year they’re smiling. Sure it’s the waterproof smile of synchronised swimmers, but it’s a start. It all looks like it was a real pain in the ass to learn, but it’s no fun to watch. Perfect! No wonder they’re enjoying themselves so much. Boozeless minutes pass like wounded snails as I lean on the rail. Then (synchronised watches) Ameta MGR – who is cheating on his wife and two young kids with one of the staff- informs us that we may now wet our whistles. He pushes everyone into a nice neat queue. I’ve just got my shaking hand round the paper cup o’ beer when the first students make it through the door. The clip-clopping of high heels fills the room. Stampede!

But joy of joys! Unlike last year where both the rockers and the staff had a raised stage from which to inflict their acts on us, this time they’ve only got a six inch rise on the sea of students now mingling in their way. And when you’ve been bonsaied since birth, that’s not enough. Everything gets hazier, and through the tunnel of my mind I can see bright flashes. I can hear ‘Minnnnnnnnasan!’ but I can’t see anything but the protruding incisors of the girl I think I’m talking to about playing snowboard. She tells me, “Your nametag is upside down!” Bad sensei.
“Indeed it is. My father was a white Russian.”
“Are you American?”
“Yes, I’m from Disneyland. My father was Walt Disney’s robot.”
I remember getting to the front of the stage, and the oddest thing happening – all the students were totally ignoring the staff, who continued to dance. “Gosh, that’s so humiliating.” I thought aloud. But the staff couldn’t have given a toss if anyone was watching. It was absolutely fascinating. Now two men dressed in blonde wigs with bras outside their Santa suits were on stage. They’re impersonating someone. Maybe me. And the audience were all there, the one that matters - the staff hover behind the spotlit duo, totally immersed in their perfectly trimmed, trained and pained performance. Ameta and the other male staff were about to split his sides with laughter. Another man with underpants outside his Santa suit jumped screaming ‘ahhhhhhhhh’ in to the scene ninja style, knocking the other to the floor. The staff explode with laughter.

I’m really drunk by four pm. Using my one good eye and my best squint, I can just make out Ameta (MGR) in his bowtie and cumberbund pushing students out of the way- he’s making an exit that nobody’s following. It’s all for the students. Yeah right, just like the dance and drag show. NO, it’s so that students can exit quickly and hygienically, silly. I stand in his way. ‘Move out of the way.’ He tells me with a smile that melts like a stuffed suppository when I don’t comply. He goes up to the next person to push them out of the way. ‘Why don’t you get the fuck out of the way?’ I ask, but luckily he won’t understand unless I turn everything to katakana. I should have said, ‘Wai donto yuu getto za fakku outo of za uei?’ Maybe I did. As I said I can’t remember too clearly.

Five minutes later the students are starting to file out. I’ve been given a stack of Christmas cards to hand out to the students. NCB is too cheap to afford Hallmark, so these are folded red card with shitty photocopies on the front. Inside, stuck in with Uhu by the lowest ranking staff as part of their rotating roster of menial tasks is the paper I’d been ‘asked’ (read told) to fill in ‘for the students’. On the left side is a bunch of promotional material selling reading courses and seminars to the students in the New Year. ‘For the students.’ But the right side is my side. I leaf through the pile until I find the ones I’d written. I picked out my favourite, and handed it to one of my best students, Eri. Four feet tall and a face full of sharklike teeth. She opens it and attempts my handwriting.
‘Are you dreaming of a white Christmas? If so, I hope your dreams come true! Cheers, P’
“What’s pee?” She asks.
“It’s a traditional blessing.” I say. “Golden showers. It’s a family thing. ”
“Oh.” She says. I point at the cover. The photocopy is so degraded that the image of a Christmas tree has been deformed.
“Oh look. Looks like a bonsai.” I smile, “Bonsai Christmas tree.”
Eri giggles. “No. It is Christmas tree.”
“Mm, yeah, bonsai Christmas tree.”
“Bye bye Peter.” She says, and is gone.

© Peter Chambers 2004


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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PC is an animal of the antipodes believed to be related to a gibbon.