Madame’s Performance

So I’ve been twenty-seven for a good three months now, and yesterday while I was on the train to Osaka for a lesson I realized that I’ve hit a pretty comfortable stride. I know what I want, I know how to get there, and I know how to handle the distractions that have been getting in the way of my goals.

I’d like to say it’s a superpower and I got it from a talking space cat (I may or may not be watching Sailor Moon for the first time), but it’s probably closer to the truth to say that I just had to take a lot of wrong turns and feel generally off-balance and miserable for a while before I figured it out. And I owe it even more to the people around me who’ve given me nothing but encouragement and support, which is all kinds of beautiful. ♡

A while back, through some lucky unfortunate circumstances, I quit a job that was easy and fun but leading nowhere. In the free time that followed, I created a new schedule that wasn’t as rigid, and I mapped out some writing projects. Over the next year, I made a little money off of it, and I thought, “Huh, so this is a thing I can do after all. BOOYAH!” I sent small pieces to friends and they asked for more, and I had little celebrations that involved bouncing and dancing (it takes very little to make me happy). Even though I wasn’t making large leaps of progress, I was taking more steps toward becoming a writer than I had been taking in the other line of work, and that was enough to encourage me.

Now, I have a semi-regular schedule, I’m juggling multiple writing projects at once, and while I’m nowhere near my dream of swimming in a vault of books I’ve published, I’m closer to that than I’ve ever been. (I’m going to do that, mark my words.)

And tomorrow I’m joining a gym, because the two years I’ve gone without working out regularly have probably made me crankier than I ever was when I was working out regularly, and also there bound to be be sexy folk in the gym.

All in all, life is fantastic, and I love everything, but especially the peaches that are in season now and the air conditioned coolness all around me making the room splendidly chilly. The only thing I hate is summer and global warming because one summer is rather quite more than enough. (u__u)♡

SO! Change in topic!

On Sunday, I went with Madame (my classy neighbor) to her dance performance in Nara. She’s been studying traditional Japanese dance with a teacher in Ashiya over the past year, and she’s gotten quite good.

I woke up at 7:00 and met Madame outside the house where she was waiting in her car. We drove to Hankyu Ashiyagawa, the small train station nearby that services one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Kansai, and met up with the rest of Madame’s dancing peers and their teacher.

I’d met Madame’s teacher once before back in May when she invited me to her house to try on one of her nicest and most expensive kimono. She and Madame helped me dress in a lovely red and pink kimono, did my hair in an elegant style, and took a bunch of photos. Madame’s teacher has been a dancer since she was a teenager, and while Madame took her lesson in the living room, I sat in the dining room with a cup of tea and some cookies, watching the lesson and perusing a black and white photo book that covered much of her teacher’s history in dance. Photo after photo of kabuki and noh stages, of elaborate costumes and painstakingly flawless makeup. It’s easy to see that the elegance in her movements today were crafted decades ago through rigorous study and training.

Madame stopped her car in front of the station and soon afterward, we spotted her teacher’s car pulling up behind us. Her teacher took three students in her car, and Madame invited another to ride with us. At first, Madame and her friend eased into the drive by exchanging pleasantries, but as we pulled onto the highway, Madame brought me into the conversation as well.

She told her friend about my favorite music groups and her friend perked up. “Really?” she asked, delighted. “My daughter is friends with one of them.”

Conversation topic signed, sealed, and stamped, we talked about the entertainment industry until we arrived in Nara. The theatre, gorgeous and stately and made entirely of polished stone, had me staring in awe.

We pulled into the underground garage and unloaded the car, following her teacher to the elevator. Since Madame had two bags with her, I offered to carry the heavy cloth bundle that held her kimono. She smiled and handed it over, and that small action brought the rest of the students’ attention to me.

Madame is in her sixties, and it seems that both her teacher and her fellow students are all around the same age. They were all wearing kimono for the occasion, and I felt more than somewhat underdressed as they all smiled at me. Madame introduced me as her neighbor and friend, and I smiled and bowed my head. They were all extremely friendly and I felt a little like everyone’s daughter as we navigated the theater to the dressing rooms.

We toed off our shoes, stepped up onto the polished wood floor, and walked to our assigned tatami dressing room. Immediately the women went to work on their costumes. Madame was performing second in the program, so her costume went on first. She stripped out of her white kimono and I opened the cloth bundle holding her performance kimono.

In general, I tend to love colorful kimono best, unless it’s a kimono in black and gold, and this one was a riot of gorgeous color. It was purple and gold and pink and red and orange, and each accent and pattern wove together in a perfect balance. The other students called it the princess kimono, and I whistled low.

(As it turns out, I have an obi in my closet that looks just like it. I bought it at a fair in Kyoto a few years ago, and someday I’d like to find a kimono that matches it.)

Anyway! As everyone got ready, we checked out the stage.

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There were a number of dance schools represented at the performance that day, with students anywhere between the ages of three to eighty. There were 59 dance numbers in total, which ended up taking about six hours, which would seem horrifying, but audience members were allowed (and probably encouraged) to leave the theater every now and then and take a break from all the culture.

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The stage was absolutely gorgeous.

I recorded Madame’s performance, which is why I don’t have any photos of her. I loved seeing her in a completely different element than the one in which I usually see her. Every week we meet in her house and we talk about various things, and we had that one day with the kimono-fitting, and another time at a small house party at my landlady’s, but this was the first time I’d seen her as a performer. I was very proud of her – it’s clear she’s worked very hard over the past year.

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These two were, no question, the cutest thing I saw that day. They couldn’t have been any older than four, and they were very, very good! The girl in blue remembered everything perfectly and performed the entire dance with an almost serene expression. The girl in pink was a step or two behind her, glancing at her every now and then to see if she was doing something right. Sometimes the girl in blue would glance back with a fleeting, “Come on now,” look. It was brutally adorable.

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Lunch! …Literally no other reason to post this except to prove that Japan has made me into someone who photographs food all the time.

After lunch, I watched another hour or so of dancing and then Madame came and found me and asked me if I’d take a walk with her. We took a small stroll outside and then she went back in to join her fellow students backstage as they prepared for their upcoming numbers. When I went to follow her in, she waved me off.

“Enjoy the sun while it’s out,” she said.

I noticed a group of deer by the stream next to the theater and headed in their direction.

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A majestic deer of Nara.

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Gnawing on her foot.

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The heat had driven most of the deer into the river for some refreshment, and the moment I walked up they all looked at me accusingly. I guess if someone walked in on me standing in my drinking water, I’d be affronted too.

Nearby, there was a woman selling senbei crackers to feed the deer, so I bought a small package and passed out pieces one by one. I tried to, anyway. One kept biting me to get seconds, but I kept her under control by petting her head, which drove her nuts and repelled her for a grand total of four seconds at a time.

By the way, Louis CK is totally right. Deer do make a noise, and it is “HGUUUUGCHHH.” There was one deer standing away from the rest belching out this horrible noise nonstop for no apparent reason apart from wanting to hear her own demonic heartsong.

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This one was cute, though.

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As I was heading back inside the theater, the sky clouded over and thunder rolled in. The first raindrops poured down just as I took my last few running strides under the cover of the roof.

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This boy, I’m sad to say, was a performer that I didn’t get to see. I must have been out with Madame or feeding deer during his number. I know he was a performer because I saw him in formal hakama backstage and in the audience with his mom.

When I took cover from the rain, Madame found me again and she asked if I wanted to join her for some ice cream in the cafe. The place was just magnificent – white tile floor, mirrors on all the walls, and floor-to-ceiling glass doors all along the wall facing a gorgeous Japanese garden. The chef was Italian, and he made us a selection of small desserts of his choice.

The rain and the thunder continued, and Madame and I bonded over our love for thunderstorms. Every time a boom of thunder rattled the building, we grinned at each other in pure delight.

We started to talk about Japanese dance, and Japanese culture on a wider scale. I wondered if traditional Japanese dance could be adapted slightly for a more modern audience, and Madame smiled. “It would be nice if our culture could evolve and live on,” she said. We agreed that culture survives through evolving and absorbing new aspects and features over time, and I started to think about how I could incorporate that into a story.

As the thunder pounded closer, I stood up to take photos of the garden and the lashing rain and I saw the boy performer standing just out its reach with the same happy smile I’d seen on Madame’s face.

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We were now several hours into the show, and this man was the first male performer I’d seen. Adorably, the boy in the photo above hurried into the theater just before he started to dance. I watched the performer, impressed by his precise movements and constant expression, but I was more moved by the boy.

The theater only had about forty people in it at the time, and the boy and his mother were the only ones in the second row. Throughout the man’s performance, the boy hung on to the back of the empty chair in front of him and watched it all with complete fascination.

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The next performer was this man. He must have been a professional and not a student, because his skill level was insane. When he first walked onto the stage, I thought he would be one of the slower performers, but in a heartbeat his steps quickened and he moved so gracefully into a faster pace that I didn’t notice the change happening at all.

He was the only performer of the day that I saw actually change his expression to match his actions. He made the audience laugh, something I hadn’t heard all day, purely by his reactions and his actions. He absolutely captivated me.

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The second-to-last dancer was Madame’s teacher, and I loved watching her dance. I’d never seen her dance before, only seen movements captured in photos (which, ironically, is what I’m perpetuating here by not having a video). She was understandably confident, and the song she chose was faster-tempo than many of the other numbers, and actually sounded a bit French rather than traditionally Japanese. I loved the whole number, and I felt very privileged to see such an experienced dancer displaying her craft like that.

After the show, Madame drove us back to Kobe. I climbed up my stairs to my apartment around six o’clock and sprawled out on my bed with a deep yawn. From 7:30 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening, I’d spoken almost entirely in Japanese, and taken in so much culture and skill and beauty, it felt like the day had gone on for hours longer than it had.

At numerous points in the day, I had marveled over the atmosphere created through the combination of the elegance from the dancers and the quiet respect from the audience. I decided to write a story using elements of what I’d seen and experienced that day, and I opened my computer to start researching.

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life in the women only car

Every week I meet with a private student in his sixties. He’s very nice, and very well-educated, and his English level is high enough that our conversation topics range from Japanese history to Japanese literature and, recently, gender equality.

I went into the subject a little spoiled from conversations with another one of my students who’s a lawyer, also in his sixties. With him, I’ve had some fascinating insights into why the gender gap is so wide in Japan. As a lawyer, he’s seen the legal side of things, like a law that says daycares must have a lawn for the children to play in, which makes it very difficult to have daycares in space-lacking cities for mothers to leave their children in while they go to work.

Today, though, I saw my student’s expression shut down a little while we talked about gender equality.

We had been discussing a famous Japanese play, and then we segued into Japanese language, and then to society. At one point he said, “We never expected a problem with low birth rate. I don’t know the reason it’s so low, but…women just don’t seem to want families.” He shook his head, and I could almost see his focus shifting to another topic as he pursed his lips.

I said, “I’ve thought about it a lot. I think the problem isn’t that they don’t want families. I think many women see becoming a mother in Japan as the end of their lives as individuals, especially in the workforce. Maybe once Japan starts treating men and women more equally, more women will want to have families. Once having that family doesn’t ruin a woman’s job aspirations, for example.”

As I talked, I felt the urge to add “but I’m not Japanese, so what do I know?” Even though I’ve lived here for four years and I’ve had a good number of conversations about gender equality here, I’m not as well-versed in it as I will be with a few more years of experience and studying on the subject. But I couldn’t let the blame fall on young women.

The moment I finished talking, my student averted his eyes and folded his hands in front of his mouth, chuckling. It seemed he disagreed, but I made myself wait. I have a constant impulse to talk when I’m making a point, and it’s only in the last few years I’ve started to grow a sense of when to let the point speak for itself. If you’ve made the point, you won’t have to do it again.

We talked a bit more, and through hearing his side of things I realized he had a perspective I’d never heard before from someone in Japan.

“You say feminism is equality between men and women,” he said. “But feminism…for example, women have it better in Japan than men. Less stress, not as much expectation on them from their parents than boys have. They have freedom.”

I opened my mouth, thought better of what I wanted to say, and decided instead to say, “So, the trains in Japan have a ‘women only’ car, right?”

He laughed sheepishly. “Ahh, yes, that.”

“Why?”

“Because they get assaulted.” He looked out the window with an embarrassed smile. “Have you heard in Osaka, the announcements?”

I smiled a bit. “The ‘don’t touch women, please’ bit?”

He nodded, still chuckling. “It’s a very embarrassing thing.”

“So even if what you’re saying about women is true, and they have freedom from expectation, they don’t have safety. They don’t have the freedom to stand on a train car and not get sexually assaulted. They don’t have freedom from objectification.”

He took that in with a considering nod, then added, “Women also have a longer life expectancy than men.”

I nodded, puzzled. “Well, why do you think that is?”

“Lower stress,” he said. “I think they’re happier than men.”

I didn’t have enough education on that to agree or disagree, so I said, “If that’s true, that’s not fair.”

He blinked. “Fair?”

“I mean, if women have less stress from staying home while men work for most of the day and sometimes into the night, that’s not equal treatment on the men’s side of things.”

He frowned. “But housework is very important. When I worked, my wife and I split the housework.”

“Then why don’t more men act as house husbands in Japan?”

“They are, things are changing recently,” he said.

Again, I had no real information on that, so I nodded.

“Women have more influence than men,” he continued, and I frowned.

“Really?” I asked, trying to keep the skepticism out of my voice and almost certainly failing.

He nodded. “Yes. The woman doesn’t only do housework. She also educates her children, and her children grow up to be the leaders of the future. A woman has far, far more influence than a man.”

I thought about that for a moment and said, “But why can’t she have a voice of her own, when her husband can speak for himself? Why does she mainly get to speak through her children? And why doesn’t the father have more of a role in educating his children? Why is it only the woman? And if that’s true, and women educate their children equally, why do mainly men go into politics in Japan? I rarely hear of women politicians in Japan, and the most recent one I heard of was in the news for being heckled by her fellow, all-male municipal assembly.”

He gave a smiling grimace and sighed. “Ahh, that was…very shameful for Japan.”

“It was!” I agreed. “And they should be ashamed. An assemblyman in Aichi recently joked or seriously suggested selling punctured condoms to up the birth rate. Either way, whether he was joking or being serious, that’s a politician who thinks so little of women that he would joke about rape and unwanted pregnancies. Too many men in this country only think of women as incubators, and they need to change that.”

He smiled at the table, and I realized I’d probably done the “making your point too much” bit. I’m still working on it. But I’ve also learned not to apologize for arguing for something I believe in. I see so much good in Japan, and I see so much kindness and patience in the people – I love this country ridiculously, and I also embrace its flaws. But I believe in constantly seeking improvement in all things, and I think Japan could definitely benefit from lessening their canyon between the genders.

In the end, he looked up at me and his smile changed to something a little kinder. “I think we need fresh blood,” he said. “New opinions like yours. Maybe we’ve thought the same way too long.”

I smiled, and we ended our conversation on a different subject that we saw eye-to-eye on.

As I walked to the grocery store afterward, I played the conversation through my head over and over. The lesson had ended peacefully, and even though I don’t think his opinions have changed very much, I think it’s important that conversations like that end on a peaceful note. Neither of us got angry, although I had moments where I had too much information I wanted to add to my points and had to reel myself in, and I think that lack of anger made a huge difference in the outcome.

As long as you have respect for the person you’re talking to, I think you can discuss anything. Once before on this blog, I brought up my friend who’s Christian. I grew up Catholic, but I don’t follow any religion now, so when we brought up religion, we were at opposite ends of the table, conversationally speaking.

And yet, I still count my very first conversation with her about religion to be one of the best conversations I’ve ever had. I didn’t leave the conversation Christian and she didn’t leave non-religious, but we understood each other’s side because we’d handled the entire conversation calmly and let each other give her side of things. That conversation happened way back in 2011, and she’s been one of my closest and dearest friends ever since.

It might even be because of her that I want to try harder to communicate with people with whom I don’t share opinions or beliefs. Sometimes, one can learn a lot from the other side of a coin.

And I think the more my student and I talk about this, the more I can learn from him, and the more he can understand from me.