Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers – Not So Schizophrenic in Japan

I consider Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers a good friend, even though I have never met him. He is the author of a quite marvelous new book, Schizophrenic in Japan: An American Ex-Pat's Guide to Japanese and American Society/Politics & Humor. I have seen photographs of Mike, including some pretty droll ones (he is both a funster and a dead-serious man).

So I have not had the pleasure of shaking Mike's hand, although I have done so in spirit. After all, we live perhaps 8,000 miles apart, he in Tokyo, I in West Texas. We are both convinced LRC-ers of course: I met him and began a correspondence with him when I read some of his early posts to this great site.

Now I am especially in his debt for an exceedingly kind review of my little novel, Lost in the Texas Desert. I want to try to return the favor and tell of my reaction to his much more substantial new book (288 pages to my 132).

As I recall, I wrote him the first time a couple of years ago to say how much I had liked – and remembered – my brief stay in Japan. I hope you will forgive me for a digression here into my own recollections of Japan in 1945 and 1946.

I reported to a ship there in December 1945 and left for Korea aboard it in early spring 1946. The ship was stationed in Yokohama, a short drive from Tokyo. I'm in Yokohama in the photo, trying to be what is now called cool, assisted by the weather.

I inherited from the previous commanding officer of this LSM (Landing Ship Medium) a Jeep in reasonably good condition (long story there – it had been "requisitioned" at some point from some Marines on some Pacific island), so I suddenly became mobile in Japan, and set out on modest explorations.

I went often to Tokyo, of course, which was mostly winter-drab and in the middle of a vigorous and rapid clean-up and starting reconstruction; but what I particularly remember after all these years is some visits to Kamakura, home of a huge 13th century Buddha. The town, full of attractive, traditional Japanese homes was, in pre-war times, and is again now, so Mike tells me, a resort for quite well-off Japanese. Kamakura is in fact an ancient capital of Japan – in the Kamakura Shogunate that began about 800 years ago.

A detail: we military people were forbidden to eat anywhere but in U.S. messes. The Japanese were starving and could not feed us from their limited stocks of food. One of MacArthur's first orders was to build fishing boats, which had virtually all been destroyed in the war. There were no civilian restaurants to go to.

When I arrived the crew and officers of my new ship had going a modest currency racket, which was probably occupation-wide, whereby we would sell (I think this is how it worked) cigarettes to individual Japanese for large amounts of devalued yen. We could buy the cigarettes at our supply stores for American dollars. A carton of tax-free cigs was 50 cents, I think. A nickel a pack is all we ever paid. But the Japanese would pay heroic amounts of yen for cigarettes, hunger busters as well as – so says Tolstoy – anxiety soothers.

I recall being somewhat horrified by this business, which may have had another wrinkle or two in it that I have forgotten, and I attempted to stop it on my ship; but I think it only got stopped by our leaving Japan. I then had no theories adequate to the case, and it did not occur to me that in a situation with crazy money, the desire of the Japanese to have cigarettes and the willingness of American sailors to sell their excess to them made at least some sense. My fellow officers remonstrated with me, making the point that even Navy admirals were moving pearls out of Japan by the boatload using the same tactics. May have been.

On one visit to Kamakura I parked my Jeep and strolled along the streets and came to a house with a spread of goods on a blanket or sheet in front of the house. The senior gentleman, wearing a sober kimono, who was selling the things, spoke some English in a friendly way, and I looked over what he was offering. I think he deliberately called my attention to a small bud vase of silver, with an incised chrysanthemum design. I seem to recall that he brought it out from some undisplayed stock. I bought it, I hope with honest yen or dollars.

I think the seller told me it was an 18th century sterling silver piece. It's the only thing I brought home as a souvenir of Japan. I gave it to my mother when I got home in the fall of 1946; she had it until she died at 96 in 1991. A while later I got it back when my sister went through our mother's things. I have it now and treasure it as a souvenir of those long ago times in Japan and also as a memento of my mother. It got bunged up while my mother had it. In her last years a cleaning woman came in who was a bit rough on the décor. It was in perfect condition when I bought it.

Mike has said he might be able to tell something about my vase from a photo. Here it is.

I bopped all around the Tokyo-Yokohama area in that Jeep, always alone. (I assigned officer-of-the-deck duty to my second officer, and the engineer, the only other officer, didn't like to leave the ship and his engines for long.) I never felt in the least danger, daytime or nighttime. The Jeep had a cracked radiator and needed frequent infusions of water. I'd stop at fire stations and trade a few cigarettes for water (mizu, as I recall), and we'd exchange cheery looks.

The Emperor had said, "No more war," and the citizens took that seriously. May they ever do so.

I recall that one day in Kamakura when I got back to the Jeep a young fellow, perhaps 14 or 15, was doing a pencil sketch of the door hinge of the Jeep. We struck up a conversation in English; his was quite good; my Japanese of course non-existent. The young man was planning to be an engineer, he said. Would I come home and meet his mother? I did. She was a matronly and pleasant woman without much English, but she did the honors of her house, which included a "western" or "European" room, of which she was clearly proud. It had a record player, I remember, and some Beethoven recordings. (I've suddenly realized that young man would be in his 70s now.)

This special room was filled with overstuffed "western" furniture, not the most elegant, whereas the Japanese rooms were immaculate, visual knockouts: superb unstained woodwork, no furniture at all, tatami mats making up the floor (no shoes, please), a charcoal brazier for heat in the middle of the main room, translucent, sliding screens instead of windows, fine paintings of Japanese landscapes including, of course, a marvelous one of Mt. Fujiyama, and a few beautiful ceramics.

I had been an architecture and engineering student in college and was a devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright, so I was ready to take in the Japanese version of "less is more," the slogan architect Mies van der Rohe had loosed on the world.

I made a pilgrimage to have dinner one day in Wright's Imperial Hotel ( in Tokyo, still splendid, and taken over by the U.S. Army. Somehow we had not destroyed that, although in 1968 it went under the wrecker's ball, I guess because of the rise in land values in downtown Tokyo.

I could go on, but won't. The fact is that my time in Japan was a high point of my years in the Navy; it furnished many pleasant and indelible memories of a great land and a great people.

Mike's book is a wide-open window on modern Japan, not at all the Japan I remember from the late 1940s, although old Japan lies there behind everything new. It is also a truly American work; Mike still views himself as an American – "my own country" (page 267). He is telling the truth about his adopted country, Japan, the warts all visible, and also about his native America today – an enormous disappointment to the people who really love it – and about the uneasy relationship of the two nations and two cultures, an unease – a highly creative unease – that goes to the bottom of his soul, because he is a U.S. citizen, born and raised here, the son of a Japanese mother and an American father (a former U.S. Marine), but a resident of Japan since 1984, married to a Japanese woman, and with four children who are 75% Japanese.

Mike was born in the mid-1950s. I was in my 30s then. I found myself wondering back then, as we moved into the 60s and the Hippie Era and then into the '70s, what the dickens was going on. Mike wasn't having to wonder much at all. He and his generational cohort were what was going on. He cut his show business eyeteeth in 1978 making a hit record (that still sells) with himself as lead vocalist and group of punk rockers called The Rotters (page 137).

By his own admission he has been in show business 30 years, and in Japanese show business since 1984, where he is a star American performer and impresario (although he doesn't say that; I deduce it from various evidences, rather the way Sherlock Holmes does). Showbiz anywhere is not a dewey-eyed environment that coddles the naïve. Mike is a sharp observer of the current scene, American and Japanese, and he is fast on the draw. Yet he has ended up, as of now and as his book reveals, a profoundly philosophical and (I should say) religious man.

A true child of two cultures – in him East and West do meet – one of Mike's themes reiterates an ancient theme of genuine sages of both cultures. Confucius held that "there are no righteous wars." So did Tolstoy. So did Gandhi. So did Jesus. The Christian theory of the Just War that allows for a defense against invasion (something the Iraqis are up to at the moment) does not mean the war itself is righteous: an invasion is illegal and immoral; therefore, even though a war is defensive and justified for one party, it is not a "righteous" war, however necessary for the defender.

The way I see it, Mike is a true American patriot even though now an expatriate. (Why is it that expatriates are so often the real patriots? Perhaps it's because they become exquisitely sensitive to our national failures as seen from overseas and want us, in love, to be and do better?)

Mike has decided to stay in Japan and be buried there in his wife's ancient family burial plot. He is only 49, so burial may be a long way off. But Mike is determined to make a difference in the meantime.

What difference? He aims, with the utmost reasonableness and geniality, and with plenty of his trade-mark droll humor and mild irony, but with great precision and effectiveness, to explain Japan to Americans and America to Japanese, and along the way – I cheer him in this because I would like to do it too – to prick the Great American Illusion.

What, pray, is that? It is the damned notion of our special wonderfulness as a people, as a nation, which I guess is a derivative of the Puritan notion of making America a "City on a Hill," a sort of shining city of biblical righteousness. That notion in turn comes from the Protestant Reformation, and behind that is the Bible's story of the old Jews, as a chosen, a special, a great, unique and favored-by-God nation, in no great need of deferring much to "the lesser breeds without the Law." It's the same notion that fueled the British Empire that got deflated in the WW I, only to be picked up and reinflated by the U.S. with disastrous results as at present. And the same "special" notion definitely fueled Hitler. I repeat: a damnable notion, the worst imaginable hangover from archaic times.

Here now is Mike, a new Kipling but with an even broader view of the tiny world we all share, to tell us that our notion of being so special ought to get permanently deflated, and that then we could return to being plain, ordinary humanity, if God be so pleased, something the Japanese have attempted to do since we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and dropped the curtain on their last set of warmongers. What makes us think we will do any better at warmongering than did Tojo & Co.?

Schizophrenic in Japan is a superbly readable book – short chapters, vigorous, idiomatic language, a fantastic range of topics drawn from his knowledge and experiences of America and especially Japan, and fresh, often startling angles of view.

I think Schizophrenic in Japan could be read with profit by every high school student in America, and adults, too. It can't be part of any sort of required course because that would kill it, the way Shakespeare or Keats or Whitman or any other superior writer gets killed in government schools. And you better believe that said schools aren't about to take up a book full of challenges to "received opinion" and Establishment BS.

But maybe it could be at the core of something on the Internet. Call it "Bootleg Instruction: What You Need to Know to Survive in the 21st century," and make it as attractive to a 15- or 16-year-old as a stick of boo, or whatever Mary Jane is called in the schoolyard nowadays. Because it is the 15- or 16-year-old we need to reach with the message Tolstoy thought was the only way to stop wars: to have Johnny refuse to go for a soldier. When the Governmental siren sings, "Come to Glory," the kid will know enough to say, "Not on my life."

Be, if you will, a soldier for God, a soldier for Truth; but do not be a soldier in one of the internationalist plutocrats' unending wars. As to these, be (a good word out of the Israeli connection) a refusenik, a no-show.

I have always loved these lines, since I first read them in Ezra Pound's Bollingen Prize-winning Pisan Cantos 55 years ago:

To study with the white wings of time passing is that not our delight

to have friends come from far countries is that not pleasure

nor to care that we are untrumpeted? filial, fraternal affection is the root of humaneness

the root of the process nor are elaborate speeches and slick alacrity.

For the Internet Age, perhaps we can change that third line to read:

". . . to write to and hear from (in mere seconds) friends in far countries. . . ."

I think it was only some years after I first read Pound's lines that I found out that they are the opening lines of the Analects of Confucius, given lasting life in English by Pound. They summarize what seems to me the truth and charm of the best East Asian sensibility. And they state cultural and behavioral truths anyone with basic good sense will acknowledge. Just as we acknowledge the universality of Lord Acton's famous dictum to the opposite effect: "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The world is watching as we stamp around, pounding our chests, murdering at sight, saying how wonderful we are, and announcing how willing we are to tell other nations how to mind their business so as to get our approval. The world doesn't much like this act; it is horrified by it when not laughing at our ridiculous pretensions. But we have been mostly careful not to let that great groan of disapproval – coming from the four corners of the round world – penetrate our national consciousness. Perhaps Mike, the ultimate insider-outsider, will help make it happen by giving us a new look at ourselves.

Mike has given my novel the most extraordinary praise, suggesting that it might be "a modern-day Zen masterpiece." Let me, then, not pull my punches on what I think is the essential excellence of Schizophrenic in Japan: it is a human-scale proof and witness that the people we fought bitterly 50-odd years ago are, when at home, happy among their families, peace-loving at heart, quirky in their own peculiar and often funny ways, sometimes miserable and sometimes happy, but at bottom the very same kind of beings we are – human beings, and we have no quarrel with them or they with us.

We and they can only be set at war with one another by violent men in search of loot and domination, who use all the well-known tricks of their war-mongering trade to stir up herd-like war fever. The Japanese – and ourselves – God knows, have been there and done that.

So Mike – and I – and I think all the writers and most of the regular readers of this site join hands in opposing all moves by the power élites to set our peoples, our nations, against one another. Let us trade all with all, share music and poems with all, and take out our violent streak in the gym or in dancing and in singing, and running, fencing, boxing, shooting, whatever; but let us deny the munitions makers their fodder.

I suppose this is really an old man's summing up of experience to pass on to young people: Glory does not come out of a gun barrel. Do not, young men and young women, go for a soldier, a sailor, or a marine. Thus, and thus only, end war. The people of the world have no cause to kill each other in profitable wars.

I am happy to know that Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers, only two years older than my own son, is of the same view, as, in fact, is my own son. So it begins.

Mike is not strident, and delivers no lectures or sermons, but he is profoundly concerned with major questions. In a beautiful chapter of Schizophrenic, "Impressions of a Quiet City," (page 6) he writes of an ordinary city, not named, one that could exist almost anywhere in the world along any coast line, and then he asks us quietly to imagine the sudden explosion of the kind of bomb that dropped on Hiroshima.

He doesn't say it, but I will. The dropping of atom bombs on two defenseless cities when the war was already won, as our own military testified afterwards, was the single greatest crime we committed in WWII; we have still not apologized for it in any way; it still lies there to be expiated. But Mike Rogers at least is not fanning any flames of hatred but asking merely that we pause to think about it. Would our present set of rulers do so before launching yet another horror?

At one point Mike calls himself a cynic, but he is not one. He is an idealist with a sound footing in reality who has decided not to buy the shibboleths and demagogueries that pass for received opinion and appropriate views for far too many people, He speaks plainly about the search for truth as the only worthy goal.

Schizophrenic is in three sections, each followed by a brief summation chapter. The Summations (pages 58, 95, and 267) are short, virtual meditations, and well worth reading more than once.

From the Summation, "View of America from Japan": "As an American I see what the US mass media keeps telling the American public about what is going on, and I am appalled at the brazen lies that are being openly touted on American TV and radio today."

From the Summation, "How the Japanese View the War": "The Japanese have learned their lesson. What will it take for Americans to learn theirs?"

And from the Summation of what Mike calls "the fun [and largest] part of this book" (page 96): "u2018Everyday is an adventure.' Every day can teach you something if you can only keep an open mind." It strikes me the same thing can be said about virtually every page of Schizophrenic in Japan.

July 20, 2005