Sunday, 27 December 2015

2) OSOREZAN 恐山 – Mount Fear

A Voyage to Aomori, Part 2 of 5

Eight mountains surround a lake at the centre of the Shimokita axe-blade. The wind ripples its surface, creating gentle waves which caress its sandy shore. It is a serene and separate space, suspended from the mortal realm. The top of the world. A paradise. A place of peace.

And a place of dread. There are no other sounds, because the lake has a pH of about 3.5, too acidic to support much animal life. Beyond the shore unfolds a charred and rugged hellscape of blasted rock piles, steaming fumaroles and brooks of bubbling yellow water. The earth looks either soon to crumble or freshly made anew, and the scent of sulphur hangs everywhere. Listen close and stranger sounds emerge: from below there wells the gurgle of the underworld, so close to the surface, and the caws of crows pierce the wind. A thousand pinwheels spin, their whirls converging into a singular neverending rattle. It is eerie – like you stand between the realms of the living and the dead but cannot tell which way is which.

This is Osorezan (恐山), an ancient volcanic caldera. Its landscape and soundscape is like no other, and the feelings it evokes defy description. 

Osore (恐れ) in Japanese translates broadly as 'fear', 'dread', 'horror', 'concern', or 'unease'. This gives the place's name various renderings in English, complicated by it being actually more than one mountain. My choice of 'Mount Fear' here reflects my first encounter with it – many ages ago, before I even knew it existed, in the days of the now rather venerable Nintendo 64 games console.

In the video game Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, the heroic party must ascend this Mount Fear late in the story. It is presented as a desolate if tranquil mountain wasteland, buried in snow and haunted by papery ghosts. At the top lives a witch who can summon the spirits of the dead. The party seeks her in order to consult with the spirit of a certain Wise Old Man, whom they believe to have died when his house was blown up by the bad guys, and who, being the Wise Old Man, is the only one who can tell them what to do next.

The witch was an itako – a traditional shaman, usually blind and female, now closely associated with Osorezan and one of the main things for which the place is known. During festivals in July and October people come and pay for the itako to summon the spirits of their deceased relatives or ancestors for conversation. It is a declining practice: today only a few very elderly itako remain, and their work has been called a sham and met with official disapproval. We may note in this connection that in Mystical Ninja, the party later run into the wise old man whose “spirit” they had got the itako to summon; he had not been at home when his house was destroyed and was still in fact quite alive. 

As I was there outside the festival season I did not come across any itako, and so have no more to say on that subject. I sought this place for reasons of my own. Amidst this hub of the heavens and hells stands Bodai-ji temple (菩提寺), one of the three most sacred sites in Japan and a place of respite, reflection and spiritual training for over one thousand years. It is one of the principal seats of the Bodhisattva Jizō (地蔵) whose red-garbed likeness is familiar all over Japan, especially where he watches over travellers on the country's mountain trails.

Bodai-ji (菩提寺).

I am not a religious person. Nonetheless, Osorezan beckoned as a place of natural and spiritual power that deeply precedes, and transcends, the frustrating politics and dogmas of human religion. Nor does the realm of the dead perturb me – I have approached its boundary before, and found nothing to fear in what I saw across it. And so I, too, decided to make the journey to the burning mountain, in hope of surfacing from the nightmare bubble-worlds our societies have become and their soul-devouring broken frameworks of thought and practice. It was my intent to pass a night in the temple, cleanse my spirit in ancient sulphur, and perhaps, just perhaps, like Goemon's party, to find a way to go.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

For Now I Stand Upon the Threshold

The rhythms of a broken mind
A poem

23rd October 2015

Many were the dreams
Dreams of the world this could have been
The world this should have been.
Dreams of love.

How much of what I did was good?

We are humans. We love. Upon our love we build society. Social animals. Interdependent. We need one another. We build one another. Love sustains us.
All of us can know this. You too.
People matter.
But the failures of love – wars, atrocities, exploitations, the nasty:
Those were mistakes.
Mistakes to put right.

A better world. A world that left no-one behind.
A world where the joy of love reached everyone.
A world with no place for oppression, coercion, exclusion, reduction and arrogance.
Not a perfect world – what is perfection when all are unique, diversity good in itself?
But at least, a decent world. A respectable world.
A world that cares.
Was that too much to ask?
Such were the dreams.

How to make it better?
How to help people?
Start a revolution in China. A peaceful one – but no, I see, the problems are deeper.
A world revolution, change the governance, the ideologies, the institutions – no, no! The problems are deeper by far: here, they are right here, the blades, the blades!
Why? Why! Not love!
They don't want my love! They just want me to be Normal!
Not Normal! Not Normal!
Torture, torture, torture. Torture, torture, torture.
Stop, no, stop, no, why, please stop –
The voices.
The voices judge. Always judge, all times, all places, new mouths but the same voices:
Tough. Shit happens. Life's unfair. We all have problems. Stop complaining.
You're making it bigger than anyone wants it to be.
You hurt if you let yourself get hurt. Your strength is determined by you.
Not trying! It's because you're not trying!
Pain because you choose to focus on the pain.
Get over it. Move on.
Pretending. Exaggerating. Melodramatic.
Drama queen.
Taking without giving, always taking without giving.
It WAS your fault. It WAS your fault. It WAS your fault.
Oh, will you just LISTEN!

The drums of hell, they timed the thrusts and twists of their blades to their beat
Till blood itself bled, tears wept tears, life itself extinguished.

And so I fled, sought exile in the land where all are equal.
I reached its border – the Thames. There I shook hands with Death. He is not so bad.
He did not call me an economic migrant.
Freedom in his realm. My claim accepted. An end to the madness. An end to the pain at last.
I could have gone in. A home, at last, a home.
And yet my task was not yet done.
Ripped a thousand ways by pain, still I loved. Still human. Still human?
So I turned. Came back to the world that was wrong.

The world was wrong.
How could we do it? How was it possible? For are we not humans? Do we not love?
Some things should not exist. Cannot exist.
(Gender, for one.)
They existed.
And then we called them reality.
We liked them.
We wanted them.
Human nature, we said. The way life is, we said.
The real world, we said.
Accept it.
Otherwise you are going to find life very difficult.

It was wrong. The world had all gone wrong.
It could not go on the way it was. It had to be fixed. We had to be humans again.

For years I wandered. Sought to learn, to understand:
What was wrong? To know the meaning of sanity in a world gone mad;
To find a cure for the madness of humankind.

How much of what I did was good?

Over the years, it ate away within:
The pain that gnashed the heart, that gnawed the nerves.
Social with no society:
A stranger. Strange everywhere.
Dreams of love. Dreams, dreams, dreams. Cold and dark were the nights, darker the days.
A world where all are aliens to all
Where love is only for those who change their thoughts to accept that this is good;
To be happy with it – no love for those not happy.
(Though then, was that love at all?)

At last I left the Western Hell for the Eastern Hell.
Maybe it would not be hell.
The mountains, the forests, the fuzzy bears, the trains that worked;
A place of rest.
Recover, improve, find a way to do good again.
Alien among aliens and thus no longer alien, for when all are aliens all belong.

No. Still alien.
Still the world was mad. No, all our worlds were mad.
Still that world's rewards were for participants in madness;
For those who questioned, coldness and contempt.
Accept it. Life's unfair. Shit happens. No-one cares.
What is, is right – there is no should. Say “should” and you are weak.
Do what others do, think like others think
Be strong in the ways we want, not the ways you want
Be a nationalist. Make money. Be masculine or feminine.
Dance the gender dance
Strange that you can't
Well then, love is not for you.

[Gaman], they call it here.
Endure. Endure. For I could not love; I could not love; my love brings disaster.
Endure the unendurable. The rift grew ever wider, a hole inside that nothing else would fill
Not the mountains, not the forests, not the trains that worked, not even the fuzzy bears
And which, so long as it was there, made nothing happy, nothing fun.
How are you? they ask. How are you?
Suppress the pain: “Fine,” you say. It is a lie. So is your smile. They believe it.
Or, “Actually, not so fine. You see....”
Burning eyes of laser judgement. What? they gasp. You're not supposed to say that!
Nobody's actually fine, you know that, we know that, but if you say it out loud we might have to think about it!
Shun. Shun.

Too painful to live – but then, why live?
To spare distress in those who wished I live.
To change the world, that none need know this pain again
For did you think death is the worst that happens in this world?
He is not so bad. Some of you are worse.
Too painful to live. I never wanted to live.
Lucky, they say. Lucky. Lucky. You do not see how lucky you are.
I wished those words were bullets through the head.
Yet still I lived.
Everyone goes through it, they say.

That is not life. NONE should go through it. WE created it.
If we are to call ourselves human, we must unmake it.

Too wide the rift became. It seethed and burned, the centre could not hold.
Year after year, seeing, all around, always seeing, always hearing
Never touching
Never touched.
Walls and walls, walls and walls, always walls
Walls I watched them enter, leave at will
Across the walls came laughter
But I never could find the doors.

Oh, the laughter
The laughter through the walls
Aahh, aahh,
Too much
Now traumatic
Every laugh, a corkscrew through the heart.

How much of what I did was good?

Never enough. Never enough.
Human – a social animal. Alone. Alone. A robot. Part of the scenery.
No affection for scenery. No interest. No time. Hello. How are you? See you later.
No hugs for scenery.
Except from fuzzy bears.
Bears by the pillow. Bears at the table. Bears like hugs. Bears go rawr rawr.
But humans: cold, hard walls. Walls so high they do not even see them.
Never a respite. The pain never leaves. No such thing as rest.
Life is tough, they say. Don't complain. You aren't trying hard enough. Sacrifice. Life is about sacrifice. I sacrifice. You do not. You: luxury. Easy life. So lucky.
Everyone goes through it. Think of those who have it worse.
But that was because we did that to them. We did it so we could tell each other: others have it worse, your pain is nothing, so go on, just endure like everyone else.
And when those who have it worse because of the IMF protest in turn, we tell them the same thing.
Your pain does not matter. If you fall, it is because you are weak.
You. You. You.
No-one cares. Why should they?
They world is fine. We are fine. Do not even mention us. Mention you.
The problem is You. You are wrong. You are ill. You are mad. You are weak. You. You. You.
You. You. You. You – look at you! Only thinking about yourself, everything you say is you you you!
And then I knew that these trains, these working trains, had bones for rails
The bones of ten thousand souls we tortured, tortured till they shrieked for release, nowhere to go but down, to splatter to freedom beneath our rattling coffins of progress and prosperity.

In the bleak mid-summer, a miracle
A hug.
Neither greeting nor commodity – unsolicited, unexpected.
At last, at long long last, a glimpse of warmth, a break from the endless void. The first.
Had the world begun to change at last?
The first.
The only.

For then was the unravelling.
Too much seeing. Too much hearing. All around, so close, so near – yet only walls. No doors.
The laughter through the walls.
I could not love. My love brings disaster.
The laughter through the walls.
The laughter through the walls.
So close. So near.
The laughter through the walls.

I loved.

No. Love is not for you. Only the laughter through the walls is for you.

Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain!
Nerves fry to ashes, blood explodes, scream, scream, but no-one hears –
The anguish of the Western Hell – but this was the Eastern Hell!
Nothing left inside but the rift, total now, pain pain pain pain pain pain pain –
Is that all? they scoffed. Everyone goes through it.
Endurance fails, help, somebody help
Something kind, something compassionate, something, anything-
No. Everybody goes through it.
No. I don't have time. I have to work, you know?
No. It's all in your head. Why do you choose to think that way? Be more positive!
No. You just need to change the way you think. Just change!
No. Be flexible. Strong people are flexible!
What? “Integrity”? What is that? No. Wrong. Shun. Shun.
All around, the laughter through the walls.
You are responsible. Choose to be happy. Choose to be happy. Happy happy happy!
Why aren't you listening? You don't listen! I'm trying to help you but you just don't listen!

Blasted, battered, bombed, besieged for thirty years
An invisible fortress disintegrated to dust
Towers and turrets razed too fast to repair.
Remoreseless the artillery upon the bourgeois hill, fanatical its reinforcements;
From hopelessness, life, hope, one world's canals, another's golden plains, glimpses, such glimpses – annihilated by the malice of a Dutchman;
Rebuild, rebuild, year on year, stone on stone,
Till all fell down once more as silence filled the blue forest.
And all the while, the voices, the voices, corrosive rains, rains which seep between the cracks –
Everyone goes through it
Don't complain.
Forever fall the rains.

Something kind, something, anything –
No. Why are you always so negative?
Rejection. Indifference. Condemnation. Sudden attacks. Happy happy happy – I make my own happiness! You can't? Shun. Shun. No nice things for you.
The scroll of years unfurled, the struggles, the trials, the horrors, the endurance to get to this day – Nothing. Worthless. Not useful. Unwanted.
Hurtling for the abyss, sanity flaking off, combusting in the darkness
There, the abyss, it is there, can't stop
Help! Please, help!
Even a hug, for goodness's sake
A hug, a hug, my kingdom for a hug!
No. Not for you. Nice things are not for you.
You are outside the walls.

At the edge, the abyss stared back
And I fell.

Not wanted. Not needed. Not by the nations. Not by the systems. Not by the humans.
Not by you humans.
Wanting things. Expecting things. Never enough. Never enough. And in return: Walls. Walls. Walls.
The laughter through the walls – the screaming blades;
You took from me. Everything, you took.
How much of what I did was good? Perhaps, one day, something
Some contribution, if only for that ounce of warmth my engine needs to run
(For it could not run on illusions, like yours)
Because I could not change my engine to be like yours
Because I could not always laugh in a world which abandons its weak
Because I could not dance the gender dance
Because I could not just shut up and accept
Because I insisted on being human: flawed, just as you are flawed, but not at ease with a broken reality. Was that so wrong?
It was to you.
Worthless. Weird. Weak. Obsessive. Taking without giving. Mentally ill.
Ill, yes, now, ill – but that is the symptom, not the cause.
The cause is clear now. Everything is clear now.
You are the cause.

You, humanity, were of love. Yet now you are of greed for things and more things, interdependent people for whom people mattered now reduced to faceles atoms, viruses, each alone, a war of all against all. It always was and always will be, you said.
You built a fantasy and called it reality.
Your world was, and is, of abundance. Even now, abundance. Yet you made up this thing called scarcity, because you wanted not the best for each other but infinite things for yourselves. There's not enough! you tell those you leave behind.
You built a fantasy and called it reality.
And then you turned on love itself, a bringer of joy to all it touches. You violate, trivialise, withhold, reject, forsake, that instead you might bend each other nine ways in agony – and then you changed the meaning of love to denote your failure at love, and so you feared it, laughed at it, believed it was weak, and denied its very existence.
You chose this.
No. It was not the world around you. It was the way you think.
No, you chose.
No, not nature.
You chose.
You chose to break reality. And on its ruins, you built a prison of nothing and nastiness – a reality that never, never could have been.

The path is clear now. Everything is clear now.

You cannot go on the way you are.
You, the human race, are enemies of love.
It was your nature to be a race of love. You chose to not be. You, yes you, are responsible.
You, who made a good world unfair then called it life, and did so with a smile.
You, who had it in you to care, but made a world which does not care then called it reality.
No: you broke reality.
You shame the caring.
You massacre kindness.
You call compassion a crime.
Industrially efficient, artistically cruel, you leave your vulnerable and unfortunate behind in their millions.
You cut up one race, with love in common, into meaningless categories, you rip out each other's guts because you fit in those categories or not.
And then you insist that they suffer because they are weak, they are bad or they do not understand reality – but it is not reality, it is your illusion. You, yes you, are the breakers of reality.
You, you human, you have abolished love.
You, for whom arrogance and ignorance are virtues, but you do not even know it, for you know nothing while convinced you know everything.
You, who ruin all that you touch.
You, betrayer of all you could and ought to have been.
You, a mockery of the universe.
For a world of love, one path remains.
The human race must burn.

There is no love so long as there is you.
Your socities have failed, are not societies at all
And you at last shall know the price.
That smile you said you so enjoyed
Is gone. You will never see it again.
Gifts, great intellect, you said I had (you said, not I);
Now their power shall feed destruction.

How much of what I did was good?
At least I can do this.
Deliver you all.
Never again your lies, your sanctimonious ideological lectures on how misery is a choice, how you are experienced so your way is right and all alternative thoughts are immature
Never again shall you leave your people behind, laugh while they cry, then throw them to the rails and shame them as they fall beneath the trains
Social cleansing: extermination of those your world left out
Everyone goes through it, you say. Everyone manages, you say.
No, they do not.
Their ghosts shall rise from the tracks
They shall soar from the field of blue trees
They remember well your indifference, your disdain.
And so shall their anguish be yours sevenfold: you,
Who sent them to their deaths then sullied their names in bile
By their pain and rage, your cities in dust
Not even your bones shall remain.

You, for whom people don't matter
Destroy people, destroy them for profit, for power, for growth, for the deficit, for the gods, for the national penis – anything matters but people
Your nations, all your nations, shall be drowned in the loathsome pus of their national egos
For where did you find your preposterous folly? How dare you believe that millions you never met are superior to other millions you never met? How dare you believe in such a thing as race?
Now look up, and see your armies melt to piles of blood and bone: yes, your troops, your brave lads, yours, support our lads you say, yours you believe are heroic and glorious but everyone else's nameless murderous thugs – yes, those piles of smoking flesh are yours.
(But I hold a Master's degree in Peace, you know?)
Your lads, their lads, all screamed the same.
But your economies, those will not need destroying, for when all else is in flames you will finally realize economies do not exist, and remember at last what humans, social animals, value.
You, who made life unfair, the assholes through whom shit happens: I shall skewer you, drive a drill through your hearts and wring out the callous mass that remains
For what right have you to a heart if you are not going to use it?
What? Are you begging me to care?
But you said no-one cares. You said we couldn't, we shouldn't. You sounded so certain.
Surely I can't deny you the right to die by your own principles.

Everyone goes through it, you say. Everyone manages, you say.
No, they do not.
All your oppressors: you made them, didn't you?
Your tyrants, butchers, fanatics, warmongers, bigots and gender monsters
They did not spawn from the void as you claim in your history textbooks.
They were not born evil, did not complete their bloody work alone.
You made them.
They were humans once
Then you broke them, as you break us all – no, do not bother objecting, you already confessed:
All people go through it, don't they? You said so.
They go through it because you put them through it, or leave them in it shrieking for release
You soak them in pain till it rips apart their hearts, their nerves, their brains
Till in their madness they loose their hate on you in turn
And bring with them your cursed majorities, who also know the pain.
You accept a world like that
You are happy to be happy in a world like that
“Everyone goes through it. Stop complaining.”
It is how you want it
So you are responsible.
All the wars, all the genocides, all the suicides, all the tortured souls who only wanted love whom you tore to chunks in nameless herds in your prisons, your so-called hospitals, your schools, your businesses, your torture centres
While you looked the other way, pretended they did not exist, because if you looked you might remember you were human, and that would make it harder to be happy happy happy
Becaue if you looked, you might remember it wasn't your nature
You chose it
It was your fault, and you are in denial.
There. You see? Always in denial. You'll never learn.

And so as the last of you writhe in the ruins
I shall stand upon you, raise my blade to finish you, and to your pitiful wails for mercy, kindness, something gentle, something good, I shall reply:
No. You chose it. You are suffering because you want to suffer.
No. It is all in your head. Just change the way you think.
No. I do not have time. I have to work, you know? I have to finish killing you all for love's return.
No. You all go through it. Everyone else manages. Stop thinking only about you you you. Stop being so selfish.
No.Think how much worse other people have it. There was someone in that country there who died slowly and horribly because my equipment there is not so good. You, however, will merely be impaled. Where is your gratitude? Don't you understand how lucky you are?
But I will give you a hug if you really need it.

It is so clear now.

The pain. The pain.
The voices: it is choice. It's all in your head.
I am the flaming annihilator of a thousand worlds. Creation is flawed, it must be undone.
I am the count with the cape of stars who calls the void. A world where love is forbidden must end.
I am the monstrous caterpillar lords of the green armada. Enslave all life, and never be slaves again.
I am the seething slime, the colony of a thousand souls. You corrupted our homes, you all must die.
For you, too, your evils defy the universe.
For you, too, are enemies of love.
For you, too, roar with laughter at the cries of those whose faces you grind beneath your boots.
For you, too, poison the very fount of life on which you stand, and close your ears to the cries of a world in pain, though they implore you to get that you cannot stand on nothing.
For now I stand upon the threshold. I turn and look upon you and see only pain, pain triumphant. You would not change it, so you must end.
The cosmos must be spared the threat you have become.

May this yet go as your stories go?
At the edge of oblivion, the very end
A touch
Pulled back from the edge
At last, at long long last, a touch.
Not words on a screen. Not “we're worried” or “are you alright?”
Words, words, words. No more words.
(Tears; only tears.)
A voice from behind the wall:
It is okay
It will all be okay
And then falls the wall
At long long last falls the wall
And in its place
A tenderness
It melts the madness before it
It will all be okay
Yes, the world is wrong
Yes, it cannot go on as it is
But yes: we can change it.
Let us rest now
And then we ride together and change it
Change the world
Make reality real again
And so the world becomes a good place, where love spreads joy to all who love and none are left behind.
A decent world. A respectable world.
A world that cares.

For those are fantasies, you say. Reality does not work like that, you say.
Reality is nasty, you say. Isn't that fun?
Everybody struggles. Yes! We are fine with that! you say. Let it stay as it is!
Why do you want to change it? What is wrong with you?
For miracles do not happen in your reality
You have made sure of that
Why even hope? What is hope but pain pain pain when brutally crushed by you?
However loud their screams, their wretched cries, none shall hear. I get that now.
No hearts, no arms, shall open to console them.
The corridor is silent. The knights of love shall never ride – you poisoned them at birth.
In your world of illusions and falsehoods, to care is weakness, to be broken by pain is criminal.
Punish the criminals! They chose to be miserable! Leave them to die!
Oh, but you had your chance.
I shall not die now – that freedom was not to be mine.
Instead the world shall be free of you
So to become a world of love again
(For when you are gone, the fuzzy bears remain).

This world will burn.

How much of what I did was good?
Ten thousand days and ten thousand nights: that each should be filled with the hard and the cold, not one the soft and the warm?
They did not want my ears, for they said they did not listen
They did not want my love, for it only made them hurt because it was not Normal
So I gave with my hand, and wrote: words, words and more words, the only thing my writer's bones could give
Something, surely, somewhere, somehow something
Deep in the mountains of text
Words too long, too deep, too furious, too flawed – but nothing? Nothing at all?
The corridor is silent.

The laughter through the walls
Aahh, aahh

This world will burn

This world will burn.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

1) THE SHIMOKITA PENINSULA 下北半島 – A Bridge Between Worlds

A Voyage to Aomori, Part 1 of 5

It beckoned. Cold, remote and foreboding at the edge of Japan, an axe-shaped wildnerness unknown in the English-speaking world and far from everything.

The Shimokita Peninsula (下北半島) marks the northernmost frontier of Japan proper. It was one of the final territories to be reached and incorporated into the Japanese nation (apart from Hokkaido in the north and the Ryukyu Islands in the south, which are in essence different countries, though that is another story.) 

Long had I felt the call to explore these reaches. However, four years into my residence in Japan an impossible set of circumstances emerged in the face of which a retreat was the only option. Shimokita become the inevitable destination.

North, just as before – as on that voyage to that other world, Hokkaido, and those explorations of Tohoku around that time or since. But this time was different. This was a necessary flight to the fringes of this land, in search of a crossing to a very different kind of realm. 

Osorezan (恐山). The so-called mountains of fear, a mysterious beacon at the centre of Shimokita. Its name is well-known throughout Japan, for Buddhist mythology has it that it is the entrance to hell, and a place through which everyone must transit after they die. Its landscape is volcanic, sulphurous, bizarre, and charged with a strange spiritual energy: a place of dread to some, of peace to others, for it seems all react to it differently. This was the place I sought, though I cannot entirely say why. 

On the way I found there is more to Shimokita than its image suggests. Like most places considered remote, peripheral and empty, it seems Shimokita has long been exactly the opposite. For it guards the Tsugaru Strait (津軽海峡), a crossroads of history which has brought together people, information, cultures and goods from different lands over hundreds of years. Cold it certainly is, and out of the way to most of us it may be, but Shimokita reaches out for the worlds of the northern seas, on top of connecting those of the living and the dead, and has a beauty of its own that is one of a kind yet varied, subtle yet full of character.

Aomori Prefecture, in red, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Shimokita is its eastern peninsula. Together with the Tsugaru Peninsula (the western one) it encloses Mutsu Bay. To their north the deep Tsugaru Strait separates Japan's main island of Honshu from Hokkaido.


It is here that we shall open this five-article series. It covers a journey that would continue on to Aomori city (bottom-left on the map above), and from there into the mountains and forests that stretch down this prefecture's centre. But let us start where that journey began: on a train that rocketed out of Tokyo one bleak end-of-summer morning. By the afternoon it had reached Aomori Prefecture, where I changed at Hachinohe then Noheji onto ever smaller trains, which finally trundled, as evening fell, up the windswept axe-handle of the Shimokita Peninsula.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Problems (a short story)

This story is dedicated to the millions of people, past and present, broken by the madnesses of their societies then blamed for their own suffering – especially to those who did not make it.

The Problems
A short story by Ai Chaobang, 13th September 2015

They never listen. They never listen.

Happiness is a choice! I choose to be HAPPY!

...all in your head, you just need to sort yourself out...get over it...move on...

Life's unfair. Shit happens. No-one cares.

...making it far bigger than anyone wants it to be....

Happy happy happy...happy happy happy.... get hurt if you let yourself get hurt...

Oh, will you just LISTEN!

Like most people, Kenichi had heard of the organisation known as The Problems. From time to time he came across the rumours of their savage attacks on people, perhaps referred to by a colleague, hesitantly of course, or hidden in the depths of the morning newspapers.

But that was as far as his knowledge went. After all, The Problems only made trouble for those who went looking for it, so people said, and trouble was something Kenichi did his best to avoid. His was a stable life: a secure job, a sound mind, steady friends, and certainly no enemies. He was the sort who watered his pot plants before leaving for work each morning, gave up his seat on the train to those in need, and never ignored messages no matter how busy he might be. What could dubious types like The Problems ever want with him?

But the moment he stepped out of the station that morning, there they were, materialising from the commuters and fellow citizenry, and in an instant Kenichi was surrounded. In the blur of beating and thrashing that followed, he glimpsed the faces of some of the network's most notorious members. Of course though they all went by codenames – Injustice, or Heartbreak, or Prejudice, or Cuts, or Corruption – their true identities were a mystery, and for all he knew they could have been anyone.

In moments they had forced him to the ground, whereupon one of them – which one is not recorded – drew a horrific blade, long and sharp like a massive needle, and plunged it through Kenichi's heart with such force that it burst out through his back. With professional efficiency the assailant thrust the blade back and forth some six or seven times, then shook it and sliced it around before finally yanking it free, at which point The Problems dispersed into the crowds, leaving Kenichi, his blood erupting two ways, to collapse to the pavement with a disagreeable thud.

Dazed and in quite extraordinary pain, Kenichi struggled for his life. “Help!” he just about succeeded in crying out, though the dozens around him continued on their way, only a handful pausing to spare him an irritated glare. A few stopped and watched him with concern, though could not arrive at any straightforward answer to the question of whether they should do anything. “Help!” Kenichi gurgled again, blood now welling in his throat.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

On Pain - or, No, Happiness is Not a Choice

In the video game Planescape: Torment, the following question (in potent iambic pentameter) emerges.

What can change the nature of a man?

(For “man”, read “human”.)

It is the work's central question, and the story unfolds in such a way as to imply there is no single correct answer; it is different for everybody.

Take a moment to think about this question for yourself. If you can answer it in one word, all the more elegant.

As for me, right now I can only give one answer.


* * * * *

The following may be hard to stomach, but treat it as a learning exercise and it might well make a great difference to somebody you meet someday. Perhaps even the difference between life and death.

Think back to all the times you tried to help somebody who was deeply depressed or consumed by suffering, especially the sufferings of the mind or heart that cannot be physically seen. What did you say to them?

Did you tell them that everyone goes through it?
Shame. Most types of pain today come from power abuses or hurtful social arrangements: things we have created. They are pains that nobody should have to go through.

Did you tell them that you've been there, so you know how it feels?
Shame. You have not been there as them. You have only been there as you. So you do not know how it feels.

Did you tell them to stop being dramatic?
Shame. Pain is different for everyone, and without strong evidence to the contrary, expressions of pain are to be taken as proportionate to the pain itself. Maybe the same problem would not cause you that much pain if it were you, but it is not you. It's a different person.

Did you tell them to think about how lucky they are? Or that they should be more grateful?
Shame. You are in no position to judge that, nor to read how much gratitude they do or do not feel. In a certain amount of pain you can hardly express gratitude, or much else for that matter.

Did you tell them it's all in their head?
Shame. Money, law, and most of everything that modern society is built on are also all in our heads. That doesn't make them any less real.

Did you tell them they should think about those who are in worse positions?
Shame. How does that address the causes of their pain? And what kind of person is it who feels better, rather than worse, by thinking of other people's misfortune?

Did you tell them that they do not listen?
Shame. Maybe they have good reasons for being unwilling or unable to follow your advice. Maybe what you are telling them is simply wrong.

Worst of all: did you get frustrated, and conclude that they simply do not want to be happy? That they are choosing to suffer?

Shame and degradation. These words are villainy.

Because pain removes choice. We have had so many occasions to learn this.

Spikes of pain can deprive you of choice momentarily. Perpetual pain can suppress it for hours, days, months or years. Perpetual, agonising pain can destroy it completely and never give it back – that is, madness. Pain can change the nature of a (hu)man.

It can change you dramatically. It can make you do things you would never in your right mind do. It can drive you to do things you categorically believe are wrong. That does not make them any less wrong. But it means if we want to stop them from happening, we must stop the pretence that they are nothing but the individual's choice, choice, choice.

Maya ritual blood-letting. The woman on the right is drawing a rope with thorns through her tongue. This pain appears to be chosen. Most pain today is not.

Our societies today, sad to say, are awful when it comes to matters of pain. The salts in the wounds we just looked at are words spoken repeatedly over many years both to myself and to people I have known in deplorable circumstances. For the humankind of today, these are no longer opinions. They are an atmosphere.

An atmosphere that could be called many things, but at its core is but one. Arrogance. We come to believe that we, and our societies, are right, and thus that people are wrong to suffer and suffer because they are wrong. We forget what actually matters.

We forget, for instance, that we are all flawed. None of us are in total control of all of our actions all of the time. We are all breakable. So we are each responsible for making a society that does not break people.

We forget we have created societies which do break people. Oppression, coercion, exclusion, reduction and arrogance: we have raised these engines of pain as the pillars of our communities and nations. We serve gender, which creates incredible pain. We encourage each other to not care about people, and take pride in it. Most pain today, and most of the above reactions to it, are a structural consequence of a social order that inflicts and normalises pain then buries people who suffer it under shame, guilt and stigma.

We forget that we are social creatures, and so for most of us our happiness and well-being are bound to our interdependence with others and the world around us. Happiness is not a choice. It is not something that relies only on factors inside you as an individual. We saturate the internet with a thousand photoshopped quotations and statements each day to drive it through our hearts that if a person is not happy, it is his or her own fault. This is an error and a delusion.

We forget that in a decent world, people matter. Not the egos of our nations. Not the commands of our authorities. Not the selfish accumulation of material stuff. People.

No one of us can change these huge social forces overnight. But you can still make a difference. When faced with those who suffer, resist the urge to judge, to trivialise, and to offer impossible advice. However frustrating it gets, however painful for you as well – remember you are human. Remember it is human to love.

So listen to them. Be there for them. Respect them for who they are. Respect their values for what they are, even if you cannot understand or relate to them; we are all different. Give them words and deeds of warmth and compassion. Hug them, if they let you. Maybe you cannot take their pain away, or solve their problems, or make them happy, but you can prove to them that at least some part of the world – that part that is you – does care. At the very least you will not make it more painful or alienating. In the depths of pain they may not be able to well show appreciation, but believe it: they will remember your kindness for the rest of their lives. And as for you, you will have set an example, improved the condition of humanity, added care to this world and so made it a better place. You will be heroic.

'Evil is just a word. Under the skin, it's simple pain.' This was the conclusion reached by Eleanor Lamb in Bioshock 2.

Perhaps not all evil. From time to time there may be the inherently monstrous Saurons or Gul'dans or Ganondorfs. But most villains in our world do not spawn that way. Rather they are people who have been broken – changed – by pain, or by its close allies: fear, or rage, or loneliness, or despair.

Video games provide many good studies in how this can happen. Consider for example the stories of Count Blumiere (Super Paper Mario); the Ur-Quan (Star Control); Sargeras (World of Warcraft); or Erubetie (Monster Girl Quest). Note that in each of these cases their pain was inflicted by society, be it their own or others. Pain can crush the love from the kindest and strongest of hearts, and in its place raise the will to do what each of these individuals either did or got very close to doing: annihilating worlds or killing millions of people.

Yes. It seems plausible that each of us, if subjected to a specific type and amount of pain, could be turned into an omnicidal maniac.

Dare we deny it? Looking at the history of our world, we can probably add many of our very worst tyrants and criminals to this category. This does not mean their cruelties were any less horrible. What it means is that we might want to stop comforting ourselves with the delusion they were just devils from birth and 100% to blame, and instead, start critiquing and changing the conditions that drove them down those paths. Because otherwise new devils will never stop coming.

To refuse to understand the causes and consequences of pain, thus to condemn so many and leave so many behind: that, now, is a choice our societies seem happy to make. They just haven't yet realised what it will cost them.