I Love Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers
by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
"You know, I've had a lot of jobs: boxer, mascot, astronaut, imitation Krusty, baby proofer, trucker, hippy, plow driver, food critic, conceptual artist, grease salesman, carnie, mayor, grifter, bodyguard for the mayor, country western manager, garbage commissioner, mountain climber, farmer, inventor, Smithers, Poochy, celebrity assistant, power plant worker, fortune cookie writer, beer baron, Kwik-E-Mart clerk, homophobe, and missionary, but protecting Springfield — that gives me the best feeling of all."
~ Homer Simpson
He may not have had as many occupations as my favorite television character of all time, but Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers has led one interesting life. How many people do you know who have been an author, the lead singer of a rock band, and a professional wrestling announcer?
I didn't realize I wanted to learn more about Japan until Mike, with whom I've had occasional email correspondence, sent me his book. (Having read his book, I can't imagine he'd want to be referred to as Rogers.) In 1994 I read Steve Wardell's Rising Sons and Daughters: Life Among Japan's New Young. Steve had spent a summer in Japan as part of a foreign-exchange program and collected his thoughts in that book. I read it mainly because Steve lived across the hall from me during my senior year in college, the year of his book's release. (All of us tried really hard to suppress our envy at someone who was still in college and had already written a book.)
I was as interested in learning more about Steve as I was in learning about Japan. He would walk into our room without a word, lie down on our floor for a little while, and then leave again. Or he'd come in and say, "Tom, the Wall Street Journal has a great article on health care today," and turn around and leave before I could utter a word in reply. I'll never forget when he called and told me he was on a "brilliant Scots" kick, and wanted to know if I could think of some brilliant Scots other than Adam Smith and David Hume he could go and study. At brunch one day one of my old friends, now Sam Brownback's chief of staff, grabbed a whole pineapple and plopped it onto his plate to see if he could elicit some kind of response from Steve. He didn't bat an eye, of course.
Likewise, I was curious about this Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers, who's eccentric in his own way. For one thing, there's the fact that he calls himself Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers. When I first noticed his name on LRC, I thought it meant that he was spending some time in Japan, perhaps a year or two, and was letting everyone know that. To the contrary, Mike has lived in Japan for over 20 years. He is the son of a Japanese mother, who came to the United States in 1955, and an American father. As an adult, Mike later moved to Japan.
But it's not just his name that's unusual. As he tells us in one of his chapters, Mike convinced himself that it would be some sort of coup to get an insane-looking photo of himself on his driver's license. Not the run-of-the-mill kind that most of us manage to get without trying, but a really crazy photo. Now if he just made a funny face at picture-taking time, they'd never let him get away with it. So he decided that the thing to do was to look crazy during his entire visit to the motor vehicles office so his pose for the picture would seem like his normal behavior. (If you're curious, the photo is in the book.)
The wonderful thing about this book, though, is that although it's very funny (especially, in my opinion, the final third), it's much more than that. Some of the essays are sweet and poignant, from the surprisingly moving story of the wallet Mike's mother made for him when he was young to Mike's reflections on the city and people of Hiroshima.
Mike speaks from the point of view of an American expatriate watching his home country from a distance, and horrified at the crazed foreign policy being pursued by neoconservative ideologues. Readers who treat American foreign policy as self-evidently good and righteous, appalled at some of Mike's observations, will indignantly toss the book aside. Mike has understandably made little effort to appease the "right-wing" screechers — they know who they are — who have transformed a once-venerable and dignified conservatism into a dumb-guy sloganeering contest, and who consider criticism of any American war to be merely the product of "liberals" who "hate America."
But by no means is this primarily a political book. You probably didn't think you wanted to know about Tokyo taxi drivers, for instance, but it turns out you do. Consider:
I have been in taxis many times when the driver in another car cut in front of us. Being an American and used to the ways Americans drive, that would anger me for a moment, but I have been very surprised at the reaction of the Japanese taxi drivers. The other driver would cut us off and I'd think, "Jerk! Speed up and get in front of him and cut him off!" But the Japanese taxi driver would just chuckle and say something like, "Oh! He must be in a hurry!" And that would be the end of that.
I guess that kind of attitude is necessary for anyone to be a professional car driver in the most crowded city in the world. Kind of like a Zen Buddhist taxi driver attitude.
Toward the end of the book, Mike discusses Seijin no Hi, a kind of coming-of-age day that occurs every January 10. "It is the day that all 20-year-olds in Japan become adults. At 20 years old, all Japanese young people have the right to vote, drink, and smoke cigarettes." Mike's own daughter recently celebrated it. "Almost all 20-year-olds must, on this day, go to a proper hair stylist and fashion stylist to have their hair and kimono set by a professional. This usually will set back the parents of such a ceremony at least $500 to $1,000. Add to that a professional photography session and the ceremony that is held at the local government ward office at another $500 or so. After these ceremonies are held, the parents will usually take their son or daughter to lunch or dinner at the finest restaurant in the area. This is held exclusively for immediate family only."
The young person then visits family members and anyone else who has acted as any kind of benefactor to him and, after a solemn bow, says, "Thank you for all you have done for me. I'm sorry to have been such a burden." (Can you imagine the narcissistic slobs you see at American shopping malls and who consider themselves the center of the universe being required to say such a thing?) They bring a substantial gift to every such person as a show of thanks. Again Mike:
Of course the people who receive the young adults are kind and extremely happy, to the point of years, to receive this visit and to know that their little child or grandchild, or child that they supported, has finally become an adult. This also instills a sense of responsibility in the new adult that they must succeed in life as to make their Seiwa ni nata kata (people who took care of them) proud of them and to give those elders pride that they succeeded in making those young ones that they cared for into responsible, useful adults….
Making it through Seijin no Hi is a very troublesome and tiring experience for all involved. It is extremely expensive, and for modern Japan a relic left over from hundreds, perhaps thousands of years gone by.
But Japan is a country that respects tradition and culture. It is also a reason that young people feel a social bond and a social responsibility, and I believe, just another reason that crime — compared to the West — is still unheard of in this ancient country. It is also another reason why people respect their elders and their neighbors and even people they don't even know.
Although he loves Japan, Mike is not blind to its faults. As a libertarian, Mike can be withering on the Japanese government, though I'll save the best examples for you to discover for yourself. When young people began refusing to contribute to the national pension system (analogous to our Social Security system), the government took $3.6 million out of the pension fund and spent it on a media blitz to encourage participation. They persuaded Makiko Esumi, a well-known and attractive Japanese actress, to implore young people to contribute to the pension system. "If you pay now, you'll be paid later," she said on posters and TV. "Do you want to end up crying in the future?"
Participation in the pension program did increase in the wake of the campaign. Except the Japanese government had overlooked one teensy little detail: Makiko Esumi hadn't been paying into the system, either. Nice going.
Or consider this. NHK is Japan's nationally run broadcasting station. It gets its money not through taxation, but by dispatching people to visit every single Japanese household "to make ‘collections.'"
When they get to the home of a certain Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers, the recalcitrant fellow refuses to pay. "For my TV? Why?" asks Mike.
Because, he is told, everyone in Japan must pay a monthly fee.
The two then go back and forth for at least several minutes, Mike arguing that he doesn't even watch NHK, the man replying that that doesn't matter; the man arguing that NHK needs the money because it has no commercials, and Mike replying that no one ever consulted him on that strange policy, and that he'd give his permission for NHK to start featuring commercials.
It turns out that what most concerned the NHK people wasn't so much Mike's refusal to pay as it was that word might get around about Mike's refusal to pay. The best-kept secret about NHK is that they can't do anything to you if you simply won't pay.
In the course of relating some of Mike's experiences and observations, Schizophrenic in Japan is filled with interesting and surprising tidbits like this one:
Many of the trains are run by private companies. For example, the Toyoko Line, which runs from Tokyo to Yokohama (hence the name To-yoko), is owned and operated by the Tokyu department store chain. The trains are clean, safe, fast, and very efficient.
How could a department store run a train system and make money? Easy. The train runs from underneath its Shibuya store (in Tokyo) to directly under its Yokohama store. It stops at 35 or so stations along the way. That makes it easy for people living in the outlying areas to go straight to the department stores and spend money, and it doesn't cost the taxpayer anything. In fact, the train fare for the Toyoko Line is cheaper than the government-run train lines — and the trains are nicer. But that's no surprise there, is it?
And that's just one of Mike's asides.
Mike also makes note of areas in which American society possesses advantages and virtues of its own that Japan would do well to emulate. "Americans have a big heart when it comes to sports," he writes, noting (among other examples) American enthusiasm for the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki, who broke the single-season hit record set by George Sisler in 1920. But, he says, in many ways the Japanese do not.
The thinking is completely different. If there were a foreigner in Japan, that player would probably not be allowed to break the record. In America, the pitcher who throws the pitch that Ichiro hits to break an 84-year-old record will forever have his name added to the history books. In fact, a big league pitcher would probably want to be the one to throw that pitch.
What does Mike mean when he says a foreigner in Japan would not be allowed to break a record? Consider the case of Sadaharu Oh, who hit a record 55 home runs in 1964. In 1985, Randy Bass, who had played for several major league teams in the U.S. before moving to Japan, had hit 54 home runs with four games left in the season. The last games of the season saw Bass' Hanshin Tigers matched up with the Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants. In those three games, Randy Bass was intentionally walked every time he came up to bat — even, on one occasion, when he came to the plate holding the bat at the wrong end! And who was the Giants' manager that season? Sadaharu Oh, the record-holder himself. That's what Mike means.
Despite having lived there for two decades, Mike still discovers aspects of Japanese culture and civilization he doesn't fully grasp; his depiction of his wife's impatience with him for not getting what seems perfectly clear to her is endearing and true to life. In spite of his own Japanese ancestry and his desire to learn about his countrymen he'll always be at least a little bit of an outsider. But he doesn't resent that. Mike enjoys being consistently fascinated and surprised by his adopted home.
Schizophrenic in Japan is not perfect, certainly, but it is an eminently worthwhile book by a person I think it would be great fun to know, and who I hope will show me around if I ever make it to Japan. It is a pleasant break from all the academic reading many of us are always doing — yet, again, it's much more than that. While it entertains and delights, it also gives us a genuine and indeed tantalizing glimpse into Japanese life and culture.
It's very hard to write a review of a book of essays, and this one is no exception; no matter how many points I cover I fear I'm not doing it justice. Let me conclude with this: in his introduction, Mike invites his reader, "In these few pages, let me share with you that which I have learned from the most beautiful and wise people on this earth." Take him up on it, and enjoy this delightful book.
August 18, 2005
Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds a bachelor's degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. He is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His books include How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, and the New York Times (and LRC) bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.