The Raglan Road of Tokyo

On Gaien Higashi Dori

Life from the Raglan Road of Tokyo

Thursday, August 7

aka shingo minna watareba kowakunai
(if everybody crosses at the red light it isn't scary)
buta mo odaretereba ki ni noboru
(If you flatter even a pig it will climb a tree)
ina mo arukeba bo ni ataru
(If even a dog walks it will hit a pole)
jigoku no sata mo kane shidai
(even hell's judgement depends on money)
deru kui wa utareru
(the stake that sticks out will be driven down)

I love Japanese proverbs like the ones above. Like all proverbs, they can be deconstructed, taken in opposing ways, or plain ridiculed. Is it good for the dog to hit the pole, or will he hurt his head? Hell's judgement is not actually whether you go to hell or not, but rather which of the 136 (?) hells you go to. So, money or not, you're still going to hell. It doesn't matter how many of the others are crossing at the red light with you, if you get hit by a car you get hit by a car.

Like all proverbs, they tend to point to the more sinister and weak aspects of a culture's nature, and human nature itself. In Japan's case, but not only Japan, the messages here are conform the easy way or you'll have to do it the hard way. Deru kui wa utareru would make a perfect prison motto. When you are flattered incessantly, is your flatterer considering you as a pig and laughing silently at you when you climb the tree for them? Buta ni odaretereba ki ni noboru is the only half-heartedly hidden motto of the world of sales in Japan and everywhere else. The sad thing is, it works. And we can't deny its wisdom. Aka shingo minna watareba kowakunai is the kind of "I wasn't the only one" justification we practice when confronted with wrongdoing. Why are you picking on me for breaking a promise when you know that everyone else is bad too? The injustice! Relativism is a great tactic for getting out of a situation where we are clearly in the wrong, and one we all perfect at the youngest of ages. I remember being a master of it by the time I was four. "Any one of three of us could have thrown the stone that smashed the light on your truck, mister, and I assure you it wasn't me." At four! Okay, maybe I didn't say "I assure you," but you get the gist.

Proverbs map out the worldly world view, as opposed to the spiritual. Scriptures like the New Testament give ways to pretend to live your life, proverbs the real way. Or do they? Can we take them at face value? Do we know what the intended face value is? Half the time we don't. Like horoscopes, their vagueness and ambiguity often holds their appeal. They are rhythmic ink blots for us to interpret, their solidity of meter confusing us to believe that their meaning is also sound. We are the pigs climbing the trees to their flattering sounds. No doubt they had a clear meaning once, and that meaning changed according to the times and the interpreter. Were they made vague or has time and the urge to deconstruct made them so?

As we get older, they become ways to avoid thinking. Pull one out of the proverb bag and that is the situation wrapped up and explained away, in a nutshell, like a retroactive horoscope. As kids we used to play games with the old folks in the family, having competitions to see who could make someone say a particular proverb once. Our distrust was as intuitive as our elders' trust, and neither side completely wrong.

Proverbs, moreso than horoscopes, are the chameleons of the language world, because they blend with their background so much better. Their beauty, however, is in their instability, not their advice.

posted by setsunai 2:53 PM Comments
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Gaien Higashi Dori means Outer Gardens (of the Meiji Shrine) Ave. East. It is one of the beautiful big leafy avenues that winds through the center of Tokyo.

Raglan Road is a poem and song about love and loss by one of the finest Irish poets of the twentieth century, Patrick Kavanagh.